‘Finding Atlantis’ again

I crossed paths with a remarkable teaser on the cover of a magazine this week. The lost city/continent of Atlantis has been discovered!

Wow, that’s big news!

But wait, come to think of it, haven’t I been to this party before? This claim of discovering Atlantis has been put forth so many times that it has become comical.

The fact remains that we still don’t know where it is or if it even existed.

It should not be a surprise, however, that such details have not deterred millions from believing it’s out there beneath the waves somewhere.

Even more extraordinary, most Atlantis believers describe the mythical place as a unique culture that was based on magical powers, extraterrestrials, or at the very least a high level of technological sophistication that matched or surpassed ours today.

One popular belief associated with Atlantis, for example, is that the culture was wiped out by a nuclear war 11,000 years ago.

Many people also believe that Atlantis is the cause of mysterious disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle, another unproven claim.

Atlantis is also an active subsea landing strip for alien spaceships, some say.

I sympathize to a degree with people who don’t have time to pay attention well enough to prevent misleading headlines from invading and corrupting their consciousness.

Given the fast-paced times we live in, it’s common for many people to rapidly skim newspapers and news Web sites.

For this reason, headlines matter now perhaps more than ever.

Therefore it’s no wonder that so many people believe the Atlantis myth when reports of its discovery keep popping up, year after year.

Here is a very brief sampling of headlines that the BBC, arguably the world’s most reputable news source, saw fit to inflict on their trusting audience: “Satellite images ‘show Atlantis’”, “Atlantis ‘obviously near Gibraltar”, and “Tsunami clue to Atlantis found”.

These were stunning headlines followed by hollow stories. None of them came to anything, as usual.

The BBC is pretty good when it comes to doing journalism. They cover wars, coups, revolutions, and natural disasters as well or better than anyone.

But what happens when it comes to Atlantis? Why does the BBC continue to listen to and report on people who claim to have found Atlantis?

After years of repeated news stories that excite initially but never deliver, one would think the BBC would raise the bar a bit and demand to see some evidence before encouraging this irrational belief.

To be fair, the BBC journalists and editors make sure to word the actual stories in a way that makes them technically accurate.

For example, they quote the people making the claims rather than make the claims as factual statements and always place quotes around key words in headlines.

This deflects responsibility and allows an editor so say, “He said it, not us”.

But these headlines still are not acceptable because people are undoubtedly misled into thinking there must be something to the Atlantis myth.

American news media reflexively reports on virtually any wild-eyed explorer with a boat who sends out a press release claiming to have found the fabled continent.

And the public eats it up.

A 2006 Baylor study found that 41.2 percent of Americans believe in “ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis”.

Perhaps even more disturbing, a study on pseudoscientific beliefs in America’s classrooms revealed that 16 per cent of high school biology and life science teachers believe the Lost Continent of Atlantis is real.

This is amazing.

Hundreds of millions of people around the world believe that an entire continent, or at least a substantial city, thrived 11,000 years ago until a disaster of some kind sent it sinking into the sea.

Where does such a story come from and why does it continue to convince so many people that it’s true?

Plato, the great philosopher of ancient Greece, wrote about Atlantis more than 2,000 years ago.

He dated Atlantis to some 9,000 years before his time, so it was a very old story even to him.

A key, however, is the absence of any other sources that mention Atlantis.

Plato is the only person known to have written about it in ancient times.

This leads most scholars to conclude that it was probably a made-up story he included in his work only as a way to provide illustrations for his ideas.

There is also the problem of actual evidence.

No underwater archaeologist or explorer has ever found ruins or even a single artefact good enough to make a compelling case for Atlantis being real.

This is an incredible fact given the string of news reports claiming breakthroughs on Atlantis that one sees rolled out each year.

What is ironic is that there really are amazing mysteries awaiting discovery in the oceans.

Anyone who is excited by the mystery of the oceans and the potential for new knowledge would be best served to aim that energy and attention in the direction of science.

After all, it is science that delivers amazing discoveries on land, sea and in space, year after year–unlike all those routine reports of finding Atlantis that always come up empty.