Sunday, September 14, 2014

So what about that “Apparently Non-Existent” Honorary Master’s Degree?

Shortly after the premier of our show America Unearthed in December of 2012, an internet “debunker” wrote a blog intimating that I was falsely claiming I had received an Honorary Master’s Degree in Geology in 1987.  The blog was cleverly written so as to not outright assert I was misrepresenting my qualifications, but it certainly did give readers the impression I was somehow claiming to be somebody I wasn’t.

Unfortunately, this misleading post has made its way to the top position on Google when people search for my name looking for information about me.  Even though I responded to the post explaining how and why I received the degree, my response was at first left up on blog, but has since been removed thereby furthering the myth the blogger created.  Because I often receive sometimes nasty criticism generated by this particular blog post, I felt I should re-address the issue head-on in a blog post of my own.  While the debunker’s post falls just short of the bar necessary to initiate legal action, future events could change the current situation.

Another reason I felt compelled to address this subject, is that the person whose idea it was to recognize me way back then recently passed away.  Professor Emeritus, Charles L. “Charlie” Matsch, died suddenly on April 20th of this year at the age of 83.  I owe much of whatever success I’ve had in my career to Charlie who steered me toward geology when I was clueless freshman at the University of Minnesota at Duluth (UMD).

The late Professor Emeritus Dr. Charles L. Matsch and I pose for a photo after my lecture on Lake Superior agates at the University of Minnesota-Duluth in the spring of 1987.  Charlie and my other former professors gave me a “sympathy” Honorary Master’s for my 1986 book, The Lake Superior Agate.

In August of 1983, I completed my 6-week geology field camp classwork and was ready to begin my job search.  Charlie contacted me about interviewing for a position as a field geologist with a Mapco Minerals.  Due in part to Charlie’s recommendation I was hired.  It turned out the first project was in Northern Minnesota where I was hired to traverse and map the glacially scoured bedrock.   The job also required that I slog my way into a seemingly endless number of swamps to hand drill through the floating bogs up 30 feet down to the underlying bedrock to collect basal clay samples looking for gold.  It was a physically demanding job, but I was in good shape after four years of playing college football and I really enjoyed being in the woods.  After three months the Minnesota project ended and I was offered a full-time position that was to begin in January in Nevada.  I was excited to get my professional career going as were my parents, Barbara and Fred.

Upon returning home to the Twin Cities in November, my father, a pilot with Northwest Airlines for the past 25 years said, “You’re no longer a dependent, so you get one more pass to fly anywhere in the world so you better make it good.  Where do you want to go?”  With over a month before I started the next field assignment in Nevada; I was excited to take the trip of a lifetime.  One of my favorite hobbies was scuba diving and decided I wanted to go the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  Being close to my father, I asked if he wanted to go with me.

Our plan was to be gone for three weeks and over the first eight days we were in Hawaii, Japan, and China before arriving in Cairns, Australia.  After hustling our way onto a boat and camping out the night before, we arrived on the dock the next morning for the three-hour trip to the Great Barrier Reef.  This was the moment we were waiting for and after the boat was anchored in a tidal channel on the reef, 25 or so snorkelers jumped into the water for a spear-fishing contest.  Once the snorkelers were clear, my father and I excitedly jumped in with our scuba tanks.  Within minutes of entering the water we became separated in the murky, sediment-filled water flowing out to sea with the tide.  After searching for several minutes, I grew annoyed wondering where he was and headed back to the boat.  As I climbed onto the boat, a few of the snorkelers were just setting him down after pulling him from the water.  I knew instantly that he was gone.  Exactly why my father, who was an experienced diver, died from saltwater drowning that day is still a mystery.

Needless-to-say both my family and my world changed forever.  After my return I was in no condition to take the job with Mapco and over the next two years I struggled trying to find my career and my confidence.  To help work through the grief and guilt, I spend countless hours in local gravel pits collecting agates, and my thoughts, trying to understand what had happened.  I immersed myself in everything agates and at one point was inspired to write a book about agates by my agate mentor, George Flaim of Duluth, Minnesota.  Thanks to George’s prodding I embraced the project and with the input of many people along way, including Charlie and my other UMD professors who reviewed my geological research on the various types, modes of formation, microscopic features, glacial distribution, and history of collecting Lake Superior agates, the book was published in the fall of 1986.

My agate mentor, George Flaim, and I posed for a photo while negotiating a deal in his basement in Duluth, Minnesota, sometime around 1990.

It was a proud and defining moment in my life which helped me move on emotionally from the tragedy with my pride and confidence restored.  The following spring, I was invited by the University to give a lecture at UMD about my agate research.  Janet joined me for the lecture and afterward my former professors peppered me with technical questions that I answered.  After the lecture they invited me to the professor’s lounge where Charlie announced the honorary degree complete with a whipped-cream topped cup of coffee.

The degree was certainly not officially recognized by the University, nor was it ever portrayed to be.  It was simply an acknowledgement that my professors were proud of me for fighting through a tough experience, producing something scholarly, while getting my life back on track.  I have always portrayed it as an honorary “sympathy” degree.  However, it was an honor I was proud of back then and am still proud of today.  The misleading blog post put my now elderly retired professors in an awkward position at being questioned about their kind gesture so many years ago.  To have this important moment portrayed as somehow dishonest to try and discredit me and my research, only serves as further motivation.

In the future I’m sure we will all look back and recall these “Wild West” days of the Internet.  I was prepared for the personal attacks and attempts to marginalize and dismiss my work on the controversial subject matter we investigate on the show and in real life.  People like this aren’t really interested in the truth; they are interested in turning the attention onto themselves so they can espouse their own personal “beliefs.”  In my view, the worst offender of bias and miss-information on the Internet is Wikipedia.  This on-line resource that so many people in the world rely upon simply cannot be trusted; especially when it comes to topics about archaeology and the controversial artifacts I had researched extensively, such as the Kensington Rune Stone, the Tucson Lead Artifacts, and that Bat Creek Stone.  They are portrayed as fakes in spite of the obvious and overwhelming factual evidence consistent with authenticity.  The world is being manipulated by “Wiki” on these topics and it needs to be stopped.

Shortly after the show premiered, bogus references casting my research in an unfounded negative light began to appear on my Wiki bio page.   I tried unsuccessfully to remove it only to have it reappear.  Eventually, I demanded they remove the bogus information or delete my bio completely.   I’d rather people not have a Wiki bio than to have one sentence in it that was false.  An infuriating and condescending week-long debate ensued among the Wiki reviewers and only after threatening legal action did they finally remove my bio completely.

The same situation is currently happening to a brilliant researcher and friend, Charles Pellegrino.  Charlie has also had his academic credentials questioned by Internet hackers who have posted false information on his Wiki bio page.  Charlie lost his cousin on 9-11 and along with other families who lost loved ones that day has endured harassment and threats by 9-11 “Truthers” whose motives are despicable, and who are openly in charge of his Wikipedia biography.   Charlie has also had research on the Titanic and the Talpiot Tomb unjustly criticized by those whose “beliefs” on these subjects are contrary to the factual evidence he and his colleagues have worked hard to document.  He has also reached the point of frustration and disgust that he has demanded to have his Wiki bio page removed permanently.

At the end of day, all this banter about scholarly degrees, peer review, academic journals, and fraudulent Wikipedia articles are nothing more than a smokescreen by skeptics and debunkers who offer no meaningful contributions, and try to control and cloud the discussion with misleading and mean-spirited deception and nonsense.  The bottom line is the soft-science academic “consensus of opinion” approach to history where there is little to no accountability has failed to find the truth.  It’s long past time we put aside the “Myth of Columbus” and defer to the facts.  Instead of the court of academic opinion, the factual evidence concerning our history should be considered in a court of law under oath by professionals who understand proper scientific method, ethical practices, and most importantly, accountability.