Logical Fallacies of Historians — Appeal to “Just Knowing”

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by Neil Godfrey

I’m sidestepping Fischer and Newall for a moment to focus on one instance of a fallacy that both of them seem to have overlooked. It as one type of an “appeal to authority”.

[M]ost people do not have a sufficient background in the subject to properly evaluate the evidence. Anti-Stratfordians [those questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays] tend to be amateurs who have not read enough on Elizabethan theatre to see just how wildly implausible their ideas are. Let me give you an analogy. I can recognise the difference between a Yorkshire and Lancashire accent without very much trouble because I am English. I would never mistake an Irishman for a Scotsman. On the other hand, when I was living in New Jersey, I was frequently assumed to be Irish and had no idea that Californians sound different to Texans. Distinguishing accents isn’t something you tend to be taught. Rather you learn it by experience and by being immersed in a particular culture. It’s the same with history. If you have been studying a period for long enough, ideas like the anti-Stratfordians’ are as obviously incongruous as a baseball bat on a cricket pitch. (Hannam, xii)

The Latin label of that fallacy of appealing to authority is argumentum ad verecundiam. Verecundiam means shame or modesty; the idea being that an appeal to authority is an acknowledgement that the one making the argument lacks the expertise but modestly defers to another who is an expert. There is nothing modest about the above appeal, however. Yet it does demand modesty on the part of anyone who disagrees.

I found the following online explanation the most apt description where it is called Appeal to Confidence:

The arguer supports a position by appealing to himself as knowledgeable or trustworthy on the given subject, while at the same time declining to explain the actual reasons for a position. . . . 

The argument appeals to confidence-building phrases, such as “trust me,” or “take it from me,” or makes an explicit claim to authority, such as “I know what I’m talking about.” 

The historian who wrote that passage claiming that a historian “just knows” by being immersed in the field what is a valid argument and what is not is James Hannam (also author of God’s Philosophers). The difference between a valid and invalid idea cannot always be taught? That’s what he is saying there and it is perhaps relevant that he is not speaking of those who question whether Shakespeare wrote his plays but whether Jesus existed or not. The passage is from James Patrick Holding’s Shattering the Christ Myth. Hannam is the only professional historian contributing to that volume.

Hannam speaks of “experience” and “immersion in a particular culture”. That is indeed the critical factor. It is that sort of background that makes unquestioned assumptions so hard to identify and pull out for serious examination.

As for “cultural immersion” being a solid basis for identifying an anomalous argument, Hannam is clearly unaware of a growing number of biblical scholars (still a minority, of course) who do not consider the Jesus myth idea so “incongruous” as he suggests.

“Appeal to Confidence.” 2019. Bruce Thompson’s Fallacy Page. September 2019. https://www2.palomar.edu/users/bthompson/Appeal%20to%20Confidence.html.

Hannam, James. 2008. “A Historical Introduction to the Myth That Jesus Never Existed.” In Shattering the Christ Myth, edited by James Patrick Holding, xi–xvii. Xulon Press.

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Logical Fallacies of Historians — Appeal to “Just Knowing””

  1. I am disappointed that Dr. Hannam smears anti-Stratfordians with a straw-man argument: they “tend to be amateurs who have not read enough on Elizabethan theatre to see just how wildly implausible their ideas are.” “Tend to be amateurs”? The “Notables” who have signed a petition affirming their doubt that the man from Stratford wrote Shakespeare’s plays (Shakespeare Authorship Coalition http://www.doubtaboutwill.org) include such amateurs as Jeremy Irons, Sir Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance, and Michael York. And a number of theater professionals, academics and writers who work on the Elizabethan era.

    A historian who prefers a straw-man approach to acknowledging the existence of an alternative school, shows that he cannot be trusted. On anything, even in his specialty.

    1. Indeed. Certainly some scholars do scoff at the doubters but among those doubters are a significant number of professional specialists in that very field of literature. Within a few hours of reading Hannam’s statement I was able to collect a list of 48 articles and books by scholars who would disagree with Hannam’s portrayal. Even God’s Philosophers, while interesting in many respects, holds a somewhat odd tone. I have since learned that Hannam is an up-front apologist for the Roman Catholic Church: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/oct/22/religion-catholicism

      1. Thanks for this little gem. I had vaguely heard about this controversy, but never explored it. Dr Hannam has indeed stumbled on an analogue for the Jesus Myth debate, but perhaps not in the way he hoped.

        Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance are two of the most respected Shakespearean actors of our age, with the latter having had a 10-year artistic director of the Globe Theatre. It’s like the Archbishop of Canterbury coming out as a supporter of Earl Doherty.

        And it seems that it is another case where thin evidence is accompanied by unfounded certainty.

  2. Appeal to Confidence and X “isn’t something you tend to be taught. Rather you learn it by experience and by being immersed in a particular culture” are also versions or examples of ad personum ie. appeal to personal interest – appealing to personal likes (preferences, prejudices, predisposition) and/or appeals to feelings, sense of honor, pride, reputation, habits, or even fears.

    1. Probably. Fischer lists several other forms of this fallacy (p. 285):

      More common and more subtle forms of argument ad verecundiam appear in appeals to all the paraphernalia of pedantry. Among them are :

      1 . Appeals to pedantic words and phrases
      2. Appeals to references
      3 . Appeals to quotations
      4. Appeals to length
      5. Appeals to detail and specificity
      6. Appeals to mathematical symbols

  3. The argument against Shakespeare is that the author of the plays just seems to know too much about classical learning, history, not to have been a great scholar.

    The argument FOR him though is attractive, in this way, for educators and others: 1) even a “little guy” can be smart, and make it big, beat the experts. 2) Through native intelligence. 3) And say, a good public education.

    I don’t like Hassan generally; his argument against mythicism. And his appeal to authority seems all too papist.

    The argument for Shakespeare though, could be seen as attractively equalitarian, I propose.

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