The fallacy of the prevalent proof

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by Neil Godfrey

David Hackett Fischer back in 1970 in his Historian’s Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, discussed this fallacy one sometimes encounters in discussions of the history of early Christian origins and biblical studies.

It refers to using widespread opinion as a method of verification. Often I’ve noticed this coupled with an argument “from authority” where well known historians’ names will be called on as examples of some who have expressed or assumed a widely accepted opinion or “fact” as if that adds empirical weight to something that has never been methodically investigated.

Fischer notes that cultural anthropologists have found this practice among certain tribes such as the Kuba. History, for them, is whatever their majority declares to be true. But Fischer’s point is that anthropologists would also find the same practice among some quarters in our history departments.

The best known example of something very close to this among biblical students and scholars is the Jesus Seminar with its method of voting in order to issue colour rankings to indicate how many or how few believed certain passages in the gospels were authentic sayings, or deeds, of Jesus. While the Seminar scholars may have explained the nature and real significance of their voting and colour coding scheme, the simple fact of voting to and grading passages accordingly is curious. Why not simply leave the various arguments themselves to speak for themselves? A ranking system based on counting votes obviously will only serve to perpetuate the laziness, and fallacy, of relying on a majority opinion for verification. And if a few prominent names can be linked to some of the votes (not the reasonings and assumptions) then all the “more certainly factual” one can misguidedly feel one’s argument is.

But one encounters this fallacy in many more areas than those discussions that call on the findings of the Jesus Seminar.

Few scholars have failed to bend, in some degree, before the collective conceits of their colleagues. Many have established a doubtful question by a phrase such as “most historians agree . . .” or “it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .” or “in the judgment of all serious students of this problem. . . .” (p.52)

Fischer cites one example where a historian wrote in relation to the role of dope in early industrial England, “every historian of the period knows that it was common practice at the time for working mothers to start the habit in the cradle by dosing their hungry babies on laudanum . . .” Yet although this statement was often made and widely believed it had apparently never at the time been established by empirical evidence.

When an historian asserts that “X has not been extensively investigated,” he sometimes means, “I have not investigated X at all.”

When leaving my erstwhile faith I asked questions, and kept asking further questions about any answers I got to the first questions. This was not from nihilistic scepticism but from a determination not to be bitten again. I hated it when I asked on an academic discussion group the evidence for, say, that a particular passage in Josephus not being a completely 100% forgery, and being directed to a text that listed numbered points claiming to be reasons — no argument, nothing new at all that I had not already studied and found based on questionable logic or in defiance of stronger counter-arguments. It soon became apparent that many scholars themselves who gave such answers had never checked for themselves with due methodical enquiry the many “facts” on which they based their hypotheses and arguments.

Not that that particular point was a major one in the grand scheme of things, but it sticks in my mind since it was the answer I was given by a widely respected academic repeatedly, and in a context of arrogant dismissal if anyone found cause to “quibble” with such a list of dot points on a page of a text by such “an authority”.

But this fallacy is found across the spectrum. Fundamentalists may laugh at the Jesus Seminar with its voting, but one also regularly encounters their appeals to “majority opinion” among scholars who are from the same theological camp.

A fact which every historian knows is not inherently more accurate than a fact which every schoolboy knows. Nevertheless, the fallacy of the prevalent proof commonly takes this form — deference to the historiographical majority. It rarely appears in the form of an explicit deference to popular opinion. But implicitly, popular opinion exerts its power too. A book much bigger than this one could be crowded with examples.  

Fischer gives one popular example: the notion that Mussolini made the trains run on time. Fischer cites a work by Montagu and Darling testifying to the mythical nature of this “widely known fact”. In biblical studies one might in many cases substitute popular theology or religious beliefs for popular opinion.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “The fallacy of the prevalent proof”

  1. You say: “A ranking system based on counting votes obviously will only serve to perpetuate the laziness, and fallacy, of relying on a majority opinion for verification.” On whose part? I would suggest that in fact the opposite happened when the Jesus Seminar published their votes. It spurred a frenzy of new scholarship on all sides of the issue of “the real Jesus.” And it hasn’t stopped.

    From what I can gather, the purpose of the vote was to force the scholars to actually take a stand, which involves some risk, and then presumably further and better scholarship to defend or rethink positions.

  2. I meant on the part of many readers and users of the colour ranks. I was relying here on what I have seen in informal discussions in online public and academic groups over the years.

    But I also accept your suggestion that the voting system was partly responsible for a more widespread debate — I did not mean to imply that the response to the JS has been exclusively fallacious. I would love to get the time to discuss some of those other historical Jesus studies you remind us have been spawned by the JS efforts.

    As for the rationale of the original voting system, The Five Gospels published by the JS says:

    Voting was adopted, after extended debate, as the most efficient way of ascertaining whether a scholarly consensus existed on a given point. . . . Voting does not, of course, determine the truth; voting only indicates what the best judgment is of a significant number of scholars sitting around the table. It was deemed entirely consonant with the mission of the Jesus Seminar to decide whether, after careful review of the evidence, a particular saying or parable did or did not fairly represent the voice of the historical Jesus.” (pp35-6)

    So on the one hand they say voting does not determine truth, but on the other hand they indicate that voting will convey — “after careful review of the evidence” — whether some words “fairly represent the voice of the historical Jesus”.

    That strongly appears to conclude that voting does, despite the truism of the caveat, indeed give a “fair representation” of the truth. That may not have been the intended message but it does appear to read that way.

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