Judging a Theory – The Great Pyramid of Giza
There are many people that claim to have solved centuries old mysteries, or to have overturned well established scientific theories. Most often, these people are just plain wrong and are not worth anyone’s time. But what if they’re not wrong? How can we tell if someone’s proposed new theory is worth believing, or should be ignored?
Many critics of science accuse it of being an ‘old boys club’ where there is a set of established facts that cannot be questioned, and especially not by an ‘outsider’, someone who is not a scientist. This is of course just not true. It is a common accusation made by cranks that can’t get the attention they crave not because of an old boys club, but because their theories are implausible, without evidence, or both. How can I make this claim though? Can I point to anyone that was an outsider, had a radical new theory, and had any success in convincing the scientific establishment?
On a recent trip to Egypt for my honeymoon I was struck by the awesome scale and magnificence of the Great Pyramid of Giza. I was even lucky enough to be able to go inside of it and witness the amazing Grand Gallery leading up to the King’s Chamber. I left Egypt with more questions than I had before I arrived. Our tour guide, who seemed knowledgeable, said that the pyramids were built with a spiral ramp around the outside of the pyramid. To me that sounded pretty unfeasible, but what did I know? I’m no expert. So as soon as I got home I did a bit of research into what the scientific consensus was surrounding the suggested methods for the building of the Great Pyramid.
What I found were three traditional theories: one big ramp, the spiral outer ramp, and a system of levers/cranes. All three of these theories had their relative strengths and weaknesses. One thing they all had in common was that they were impossible. It’s amazing that 4500 years ago, a primitive (by our standards) society was able to construct a structure that lasted until today, remains unrivalled in its scale, and yet no one had any idea how it was done! No wonder various cranks like Eric Von Daniken suggested it was done with the help of aliens.
I was pretty disappointed. It was nice to take pictures of the pyramid, and to even walk inside of it, but what I really wanted to do was understand it. I wanted to get a picture of what it was like 4500 years ago on the Giza plateau while they were making it. Luckily, I stumbled across a rather recent theory proposed by a French architect, Jean-Pierre Houdin. He left his lucrative architecture job, downgraded to a smaller apartment and spent 9 (!) years dedicating himself to solving this exact problem. Immediately my skeptical red flags shot up. This is a common story of the type of underdog I described above. Many a person has quit their job to pursue hopeless crusades like inventing a perpetual motion machine, or to find Einstein’s fabled unified field theory, almost always to disappointment. But as a good skeptic, and out of sheer curiosity, I decided to hear out the theory. Turns out, despite not being a scientist, he has produced the best theory for how the pyramid was built. Why is it the ‘best’? Why should we listen to someone without a degree in Egyptology about how the pyramid was built? Because his theory has two things going for it: evidence and plausibility. I won’t go into the details of the theory here since it is best explained in the National Geographic documentary about which can be freely viewed online here. Hopefully that video won’t be taken down and will work for you. If it does not work for you, you can read up on the theory in the book published about it, or buy the documentary on DVD.
I was personally impressed with the narrator of the documentary. He clearly had an affection for Houdin’s theory, yet he still demanded the evidence that the theory deserved. I personally don’t know if the theory is correct, but I do find it extremely exciting and hope that more evidence is uncovered.
What do you think about this radical theory? Are egyptologists being ‘too skeptical’ of it? Or perhaps not skeptical enough?