Friday, April 15, 2011

How history is like a Scooby Doo mystery

In any given episode of Scooby Doo (and most classic crime mysteries), the formula remains remarkably consistent:
  • A crime has been committed.
  • The authorities have a theory, often suspecting an obvious person that nobody in the town liked or trusted to begin with (perhaps a cranky old hermit).
  • The gang arrives in the Mystery Machine and begins to stumble across clues that point in a different direction.
  • The real culprit engages in extensive misdirection to try to scare them away from pursuing the mystery any further, so that they won't discover the truth. This usually involves dressing up as a monster, ghost, mummy, witch doctor, or other malevolent creature.
  • The gang splits up and Shaggy and Scooby accidentally trap the culprit through a combination of clumsiness and a search for snacks.
  • The culprit is revealed to be a pillar of the community, someone the authorities would never have suspected.
  • The authorities thank Scooby and the gang, and the culprit grumbles that he would have gotten away with it if it hadn't been for "you kids."
It doesn't seem like a very realistic scenario, and you wouldn't think it happens that way in real life, but when it comes to the mystery of mankind's ancient origins, you might be surprised at how "life imitates art," so to speak.

In this case, the "authorities" are those who are supposed to represent learning and inquiry, the academic community, museums, and official historians holding government positions, all of whom tend to adhere to a set of foundational assumptions.

The "gang of kids and their stupid dog" are the alternative theorists who have been uncovering clues that something isn't quite right with the conventional narrative, and who are poking around in annoying fashion in areas that the authorities would rather they stay out of.

To dissuade them and try to get them to butt out, all kinds of scare tactics are employed, in this case consisting of academic censure, ridicule, name-calling (see for instance this previous post), and other means of intellectual bullying and intimidation. If you doubt that this takes place, ask someone who works in academia what would happen to them if they published a paper that points to evidence that challenges the conventional narrative of mankind's ancient past -- or better yet, talk to someone from the academic community who has actually experienced the loss of their career and credibility because they dared to go against the status quo.

We don't know how this story will finally turn out, but we do know that in the Scooby series, the truth eventually comes to the surface. We know that if Shaggy and Scooby sniff around in the right area long enough, they will eventually bumble across the truth, even if largely by accident.

All it takes is persistence, the refusal to be scared off, and an insatiable desire to find out what there is in the fridge of the old castle.