Consensus and Comfort: How Scholarship Works

One characteristic that conservative Christians and mythicists share is that those who espouse these views seem prone to taking comfort in finding some lone scholar who agrees with them. Since I have focused quite a bit on mythicists lately, in the interest of fairness I will focus here on conservative Christians. For instance, in recent months I have regularly come across mentions of Richard Bauckham’s book claiming that eyewitnesses wrote or in some other way stand directly behind New Testament Gospels, as though the mere fact that a scholar has made a case for this viewpoint justifies their ignoring the challenges offered by mainstream scholarship on the question of the authorship of the Gospels and their reliability.
This phenomenon is repeated in other fields, for instance the natural sciences, when skeptics of global warming find and quote some study’s result that seems to favor their view, or creationists latch onto some breaking news questioning some generally accepted interpretation of evidence, ignoring existing consensuses.

Doing this is based on a misunderstanding of how scholarship works. Research represents an attempt to offer a new interpretation of data that makes better sense of it, of to uncover new data, or in some other way improve our knowledge and understanding in a given field. As such, the researcher tries to accomplish something distinctive, to offer something new. What the public at large often seems to overlook is that not all of these new proposals, new interpretations and new paradigms will stand up to the careful scrutiny to which they will be subjected by other scholars once they are published. Not all of them will be worth remembering, much less become part of the consensus of experts. Consensus is hard won and not readily relinquished, and this is for good reason.

What I advise my students to do is the following: First, don’t just seek out viewpoints that confirm your assumptions. If there is a consensus in a field, find out what it is, and more importantly, figure out why it is the consensus. If you don’t understand why a viewpoint has become widely accepted, then you probably don’t know the field, its methods and its data sufficiently well. For scholarship works by challenging consensus, and so if there is nevertheless a consensus, it will always be for good reason. That doesn’t mean that a consensus cannot be overturned. It means that there is strong reason for a particular conclusion or paradigm, and to change the consensus will require significant new evidence, improved methods, or better theories. Of course, we are all inclined to believe that our own theories and interpretations are correct and “better” – but that’s precisely what the scholarly community is there for: to deflate our false impressions of self importance by poking holes in our weak arguments and faulty logic. And however much it may hurt at times, we benefit from it, and so does the state of human knowledge and understanding.

If scholarly opinion is significantly divided, that is probably an indication that the available evidence is compatible with more than one conclusion. But the fact that you can find some individual or group somewhere that agrees with you should not provide comfort. They may have tried to make a case for a new interpretation, but failed to persuade anyone because of serious problems with their argument – problems that they may not tell you about. Or they may have allowed their prior convictions to predetermine their “conclusions.”

Let me make a provocative statement related to this last point. As someone pointed out to me recently, it seems that having a statement of faith is incompatible with doing genuine critical research. How can an institution such as a university claim to be promoting research if there are restrictions on the conclusions which those associated with that institution are permitted to draw? Presumably the answer is “it can’t.”

A friend of mine once said that research encourages heresy, since it pushes you to disagree with what others have said before you. Those of us who engage in research do indeed hope to provide a convincing (maybe even definitive!) solution to a problem or an exciting, game-changing new interpretation of evidence. But once we offer our arguments, they are then subjected to critical examination by our peers, and only those that are worthwhile will stand the test and be found persuasive. And so it can be argued that this approach to research and critical inquiry is a far better way of getting closer to the truth than those which seek to maintain orthodoxy or avoid heresy.

And so I encourage readers of every viewpoint not to delight in finding a lone person with academic credentials who seems to confirm what you really want to be true, but instead focus on finding out whether there is a consensus, and understanding why agreement exists or does not exist among the experts. That’s the only way to get a true grasp of a field of knowledge. When you’ve done so, you’ll be better poised as well to evaluate whether the new arguments put forward and new ideas presented by this or that scholar are persuasive and likely to become widely accepted. And that is a far better approach to finding the truth than cherry-picking scholars who agree with you.

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