Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Consensus and Quackery

Often we hear words like "consensus," "majority," etc., thrown around, without stopping to think about them. What exactly do we mean by the words. They of course are purely heuristic, ways of describing the current state of play in the discipline. For whomever is interested, I thought I'd put out there what I mean when I such words.

Consensus: virtually all scholars in the field affirm a given proposition, to the point that the statement "Person X is a scholar in field Y" is virtually synonymous with the statement "Person X believes that Z is the case." In other words, the percentage of persons in the field holding this opinion is virtually 100%, statistically negligible numbers rejecting the opinion notwithstanding (in other words, the fact that two NT scholars have said they think Jesus did not exist does not obviate the fact that this is a consensus). That Jesus existed and was Jewish is an example of such a consensus, as is the supposition that the Synoptic Gospels are genetically related to one another in some fashion.

Majority: more than 50% of scholars in the field would affirm a given proposition. That Mark's Gospel was the first written and was used by both Matthew and Luke no doubt falls into this category.

Minority: less than 50% of scholars would affirm a given proposition. That Matthew and Luke also used a second text, designated Q, probably now falls into this category (cf. the recent poll on The Historical Jesus Blog), as does the leading contender, that Luke used Matthew's Gospel and both used Mark's.

Dominant: more scholars would affirm this proposition than any mutually exclusive proposition. By the above definition this would be the case with any majority opinion, such that when I use the word "majority" I necessarily imply "dominant." This category becomes important when considering positions wherein there is no majority but rather only minority positions. The poll to which I referred above suggested that 45% of scholars still hold to Two-Document Hypothesis, or Markan Priority with Q. Let's suggest that of the 55% who reported that they did not 35% hold to the leading contender, Markan Priority without Q, and the other 20% to a variety of other solutions to the Synoptic Problem. We would then say that whilst Q is the dominant view, but not a majority one.

Marginal: a proposition affirmed by a handful of scholars, but which is nonetheless within the realm of respectable scholarship. An example from the study of the Synoptic Problem might be the Augustinian Hypothesis. It has been advocated by a number of scholars who are certainly not cranks, but at any given time the number of proponents probably barely breaks 1% of scholars, if even that many.

Idiosyncratic but respectable: a proposition affirmed by just one, or at most a statistically negligible number of scholars, yet which is sufficiently warranted by the data that it cannot be simply dismissed as quackery. An example might be the arguments in J.A.T. Robinson's Redating the New Testament. For those unfamiliar with his work, Robinson (by no means a conservative) argued that the entirety of the New Testament dates to before 70 C.E. Few have followed him on this. Yet Robinson advances sufficiently robust argument that one who disagrees must bring equally robust counter-arguments.

Quackery: a proposition affirmed by no or at most a statistically negligible number of scholars, and which is so inadequately warranted by the data that it can be dismissed. Jesus's non-existence solidly falls into this category, as does creationism in biology. This has to do ultimately with the robusticity of the argumentation. Whereas idiosyncratic but respectable propositions are supported by robust arguments that fail to persuade many qualified experts, quackery is supported by utterly non-robust arguments. As such the one critiquing quackery need only bring non-robust counter-arguments to bear. Put more colloquially, the idiosyncratic but respectable position requires the critic to bring her or his A-game, whereas the same critic can bring the D-game and still prevail over quackery.

The above are just heuristics, of course, and can be played with as necessary. I simply put them out there for anyone who might find such things helpful.


  1. Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks for a very informative post. However, you seem to have a habit of commenting on topics outside of your area of expertise. In this case, "creationism in biology." I assume that you are including Intelligent Design proponents under this category (correct me if I'm mistaken). I've examined both arguments for and against ID by the experts. I would not refer to some ID arguments as "quakery." I think "idiosyncratic" a better designation.

    1. Only ID arguments put forward by Quakers would be quakery.

      But that said, when I say "creationism" I mean "Young Earth Creationism." And whilst I am not a biologist I do not think I am incorrect in stating that Young Earth Creationism would be a quack theory in relation to that field. But if a biologist feels that I am mistaken then of course she or he is welcome to correct me.

      Perhaps what really distinguishes the idiosyncratic from the quack is precisely the attitude demonstrated in that last line. The idiosyncratic is open to correction, either by peers (if she or he has expertise in the field) or by experts (if she or he does not). The quack supposes that she or he simply cannot be mistaken on whatever matter is under discussion. Thus expert correction is situated within a narrative of conspiracy or incompetence. But as long as one is willing to say "I think this is the case about matter X but will alter my thinking if corrected by those more knowledgeable than I" then there is really no problem.

  2. How many people with expertise in NT history follow J.A.T. Robinson in his dating of the NT texts, and how many people with expertise in NT history believe that Jesus did not exist?

    Also, do you think agnosticism about Jesus's existence is quackery or idiosyncratic-but-respectable?

    1. Thank you for your questions, Kris. What I was trying to do with those last two categories was suggest that it's just about numbers. I was trying to think of a way to do this that doesn't have to do with the truth of the argument, as I'm trying to talk about how to think about the nature of agreement rather than the nature of truth.

      Maybe a better way to come at it would be to say that what distinguishes an idiosyncratic position from quackery is adherence to the rules of the game. On this Robinson passes. He was a consummate scholar. He knew the language and discourse of NT studies as it stood in the 1970s. He published with a press respected in the field (SCM Press: you can't find a much more respected press in biblical studies in the UK, and that was definitely the case forty years ago). He used the procedures appropriate to the field, and simply argued that those procedures should lead to different conclusions than is generally thought.

      So in principle a mythicist or Jesus-denier could do likewise. But in point of fact most of them aren't. Rather, they insist on setting the rules. One has to meet the burden of proof that *they* set, using only the texts that *they* permit, answering only the questions that *they* pose and in the way that *they* pose them. And when they find people reluctant to play by their rules they create their own networks, independent of the academy. That's what makes their work quackery.

      The problem is that the data is such that, if mythicists played by the same rules as the rest of us, they wouldn't get very far. And they must know it, or else they wouldn't insist on setting the rules. So that would be my suggestion: if mythicists are so sure that they are right then let them follow the procedures followed by the discipline as a whole and show that this is the case. Until then, I'll assume that they can only advance their case through sophistry.

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