2011-09-29

Keeping (Biblical) Scholars Honest

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by Neil Godfrey

In a recent post I drew attention to Mark Goodacre’s remark that the work of the mythicists helps keeps “scholars like him honest”. It is always good, he said, to go back and see how we really do know that Jesus existed. But is that what they are doing? Why are New Testament scholars failing to cope with the new potentials and challenges of the internet in the same way that scholars from certain other disciplines are?

One of the best things that has happened to challenge scholars in recent years is the internet and the internet’s potential to democratize knowledge as well as challenges to established conventional wisdoms.

One still sees a few scholars complaining about the internet’s ability to pollute, dilute, dispute, disrepute, confute and prostitute all that is holy and good in their field of research.

Some woolly mammoths are even still caught out poo-poohing Wikipedia on principle simply because it started out as a democratically created encyclopedia. Even when they do mention it favourably they betray their guilt by adding some scoffing remark like a mantra. (See http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html and related links for comparison of Wikipedia with Encyclopedia Britannica)

I have not done a study of who the main culprits of all this esoteric anti-democratic fear-mongering are, but I do wonder if most of them belong to the non-science fields.

When it comes to the sciences there is clearly an accelerating trend to welcome the openness of the internet as a space for knowledge exploration and production — including publication of peer-review research and articles.

Communities of scientists and sceptics can use the internet to further advance true knowledge and reason by meeting the bizarre side of human thought with well-expressed knowledge and reason.

Are you a conspiracy theorist? Or have you been wondering how non-conspiracy theorists answer conspiracy arguments? Then it is almost impossible not to find answers — couched in sane, well-written and reasonable language — explaining the weaknesses of conspiracy theories over other explanations.

Are you a creationist? A climate-change denier? Into the paranormal? Noah’s ark? Atlantis? You are facing competition from rational and evidence-based replies on the internet.

From Future Tense: Opening Up Science:

Antony Funnell: Is there a risk though, that more sharing, more openness, the more data getting out there, actually just confuses the issue, and that as we’ve seen with the climate change debate, the people can then cherry pick that information that’s out there, to suit their political or personal points of view.

Julian Cribb: Well what’s the alternative? Keep the public in the dark and feed them on bullshit? I mean you know, that’s the old bureaucratic solution. Unfortunately, those bureaucratic solutions don’t work because the bureaucracy is always behind the science. People need the new knowledge as soon as possible. I don’t mind if it leads to a big social arguments or a big social discussion, and that’s democracy. Democracy is not a very efficient process, but it is effective in the end, that society makes up its mind on the basis of the discussion that’s going on what it wants to do about climate change, or water scarcity or something like that, and then it goes forward. You can’t have rational democratic decision-making if you withhold knowledge, so we’re talking about the underpinnings of democracy here.

Advances in Open Source computing systems are made democratically through involvement of anyone who wishes to contribute. Mathematicians and scientists are increasingly using blogs and wikis to share and communicate their research inquiries.

How the wheel has turned. Here’s another interesting snippet from the Opening Up Science interview:

Antony Funnell: I’ve heard from many journalists that they just don’t have time to fully utilise social media tools, they’re too busy doing their traditional work. Is that a perception that’s out there in terms of the scientific community? I mean do you find scientists who feel almost as though using social media, almost as that’s a burden, an added burden to the work that they’ve already been ascribed?

Michael Neilsen: Sure. And certainly many of them think that, only if you go back to the origins of the gold standard for a scientist, to publish in a peer reviewed scientific journal. If you go back to the middle of the 17th century which is when the scientific journals actually started, a lot of scientists were very reluctant to publish in them, viewing that as a distraction from the real work of doing science. So there’s kind of a parallel today. I think in many cases it’s just born of ignorance, people are used to doing their thing and they don’t want to change. It’s very interesting to talk to people in their 20s, a lot of those people are alive to that possibility that new media forms, and are very interested in exploring their use, although they’re not always necessarily sure exactly how they should go about doing that.

So what’s the great thing about the internet for studies of Christian origins?

People can see when New Testament scholars eventually reach the  point where they fail to answer public questions and challenges with reasoned argument and knowledge. They can see when those scholars are cornered and resort to ad hominem by finding fault with the mindset of the ones asking the questions. They can see when the scholars and approved amateurs take their social media and bracket off and exclude blogs like this one from their community. They can recognize  intellectual snobbery and bullying when it savages authors and works that have not even been read because they failed to appear in the “correct media”. They can see when scholars fall back on sarcasm and ridicule and even blatant falsehoods in order to defend their positions.

Everything is out in the open. New Testament scholars have lots of popular support on the web since they do represent a large cultural constituency that has been around a few centuries.

But critics can also be heard more easily, too. And responses to challenges can be witnessed by all who are interested.

I would be surprised if the world of biblical scholarship and their supporters will forever be able to finger-block the dyke with their ad hominem responses and appeals to authority against the challenges of reason, evidence and logic.

 

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Keeping (Biblical) Scholars Honest”

  1. A slight tangent, but this post might be interesting:

    Science’s publication frenzy

    In the sciences there seems to be a push to publish papers even though the papers might not be up to par. The solution might be to self-publish on a blog or webpage; this would create even more availability of the latest science than what we see with something like Wikipedia (I’m guessing a way to rate paper’s value in this new paradigm would be by web hits, with the number of web hits being the draw for advertisers).

    Tom Verenna posted a somewhat similar possibility going on in biblical studies.

  2. Thanks for the Jerry Coyne link. The comments there are interesting as well as the post. The issue is not as black and white (science and non-science as I painted it in my own post.)

    I’d prefer a wikipedia funding model where support comes from the voluntary community of users. Raw web hits would have problems as an indicator of scholarly merit, but using logarithms algorithms or such similar to those used by Google to weight the hits according to their sources might be closer to the mark — not that this is a solution without problems, either, of course.

    Perhaps as the open access journals gain more traction and the current publishing model begins to crack, then out of the advancing open access movement new models might hopefully emerge.

    1. “but using logarithms or such similar to those used by Google to weight the hits…”
      I thought that Google was using algorithms rather than logarithms to weigh hits. Amusing confusion.

  3. It is an interesting question how a scholar should deal with radical fringe theories. Of course there are so many fringe theories out there (especially on the internet where all the hobbyists like to hang out) that one cannot deal with all of them. Maybe Goodacre’s perspective that some of them can be used to keep a scholar honest and I think he means that sometimes it could ve helpful to re-examine why a consensus position has been reached. Perhaps this is one positive that could come out of this specific fringe theory.

    1. Scientists have “reached a consensus” on evolution as a result of pursuing that question.

      Biblical scholars have not “reached a consensus” on the historical Jesus. Jesus has always been assumed historical as part and parcel of our cultural heritage — the way it was for long assumed the gods existed. Ad hoc rationalizations and proof-texting responses when challenged on the historicity of Jesus are clearly inadequate — hence the regular resort to ad hominem or blatant misrepresentation. (Sometimes the ad hominem is not malicious — contrast the tones of McGrath and Goodacre — but it is an attempt to deflect the argument from normal rational discourse onto a focus on some sort of unhealthy psychology of the one asking the question: compare the way the Soviet Union sent some of its critics to mental institutions.)

      Scientists do not need to resort to such tactics to rebut creationists. It is the biblical scholars who are using the same tactics as creationists when faced with questions pertaining to logic and evidence.

      The only argument against this scenario I am presenting is the argument from authority.

  4. Fear is the primary reason why ‘us’ and ‘them’ thinking exists in the first place. The best one can ever hope for in this life is a reasonable approach to belief. Demonizing serious scholars in an attempt to force people to recognize scholars who have been panhandling debunked theories for centuries in an attempt to bolster one’s own skepticism is hardly a worthwhile activity. (even if one does happen to have a free blog at Word Press 🙂 )

    1. Who has been demonized? Where have they been demonized?

      Instead of making wild sweeping accusations why not support your claims (and imputation of motives) with evidence?

      A reasonable approach to belief is something I like, too.

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