The wonderful Bad Science blog has made a foray into the archaeological rather than medical aspects of quackery. Reporting on the work of Tom Brooks, an independent ‘researcher’ (for which, read pseudoscientist), who claims to have identified a network of aligned ancient sites that was reported in the press – even the so-called “quality press” – as evidence for a crude prehistoric Sat Nav, Ben Goldacre mentions an even more astounding discovery. Mathematician Matt Parker has revealed details of his independent research into the location of the ancient sites known to archaeologists as Woolworths (for those unfamiliar with the complex and arcane technical language of archaeology, these were once quasi-religious sites best known for the provision of a mystical substance called ‘broken biscuits’ but which has now taken on a virtual existence eschewing said biscuits).
Plotting the distribution of sites based around an equilateral triangle formed by the Wolverhampton, Lichfield and Birmingham stores, he has demonstrated that twelve stores are related to these three by a complex of isosceles triangles and straight lines. He doesn’t calculate the odds against this pattern occurring by chance, unlike ley hunters, who are inordinately fond of telling us that the odds against a particular alignment being a result of chance are astronomical. Of course, the ley hunters are wrong.
As is Matt Parker, except that in his case, he’s deliberately wrong. He uses the Woolworths stores as an example of how seemingly meaningful patterns can be picked out from a large sample of data. He used 800 sites as his sample, so it is unsurprising that twelve could be made to fit an apparently deliberate design. He has arrived at his pattern by ignoring the majority of the data. This is exactly how Tom Brooks made his pattern and, as Matt Parker points out, Tom Brooks’s data set consisted of 1500 sites, almost twice as many.
It’s also worth noting that Tom Brooks’s ‘network’ and the ley lines of others don’t use a data set comprising just one type of site or monument: they draw in all manner of places on the grounds that they are somehow ‘ancient’. Never mind that they belong to different classes of site (habitations, crossroads, tombs, ponds, standing stones, prehistoric ditches, medieval churches and so on), but they don’t even belong to a single period in the past. To the ley hunter, it’s as if the past was an undifferentiated lengthy period in which nothing changed for millennia: medieval churches were always located on sites venerated thousands of years earlier, roads in the countryside have always meandered along the same traditional paths, Bronze Age peoples were constrained to locate barrows for their wealthy dead according to rules laid down centuries before… The whole enterprise is built on such shaky foundations that it’s almost impossible to argue against it.
And who was responsible for Tom Brooks’s system? He hints that the people of ancient Britain might not have been sufficiently sophisticated to create it on their own and perhaps “received some form of external guidance”, although he won’t say whether this was from the wise members of a Lost Civilisation or visitors from outer space…