Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Historians And Scientists Shouldn't Be In Conflict

Some languages don't even make a distinction between the two. In German, for example, history is one of the Wissenschaften, one of the sciences. But back here in the English-speaking world, there is this tension between the sciences and the humanities. I don't know whether this tension flares up and then cools down again from time to time, or whether I've just been more aware of it at some times than at others.

The tension which is making me tense at the moment is between some New Atheists who are also scientists on the one hand, and anyone with a passing familiarity with ancient history on the other. The main bone of contention is Jesus and his historicity, and a prime example of the problem has popped up in the work of Michael Paulkovich, which I have discussed in 2 previous blog posts, here and here. Paulkovich is presenting a thesis which wouldn't get a passing grade from any competent high-school history teacher: that 126 ancient writers, who should've been expected to mention Jesus if he existed, do not mention him. More than 1/3 of those 126 people actually left no writing behind. Although Aulus Gellius and Dio Cassius are often very useful to historians in that they quote or mention so many other writers whose works have vanished, if a chapter in Gellius quotes 10 writers, a serious writer counts that as the writing of 1 writer, Gellius, not 11, 10 plus Gellius.

And I'm giving Paulkovich the benefit of the doubt in assuming he knows Gellius or Dio from a hole in the ground, because, although more than a few of the 126 names are known to us today only via those two authors, most of the 126 who are known to us as authors would've had no reason whatsoever to mention Jesus: they're physicians or geographers or poets whose subject matter happened centuries BC or epigrammatists or grammarians, or what remains of their writing is a few lines with no connection to anything east of Athens... In short, the list of 126 names is a really spectacular mess, and you don't have to be an expert in ancient history to suspect that it is.

If the 126 names were in a random reader's comment on the Internet, it'd be bad enough, but too common to warrant my going on about it for several blog posts. But Paulkovich published this mess in Free Inquiry, where prominent scientists like Richard Dawkins -- who's absolutely brilliant when the subject is biology, in case you hadn't heard -- have been published lately, but not, one suspects, respectable historians. "Free" here apparently means "free from fact-checking" on historical subjects, although the New Atheists are always, quite rightly, pointing out the benefits of things like peer review in the natural sciences.

Are they aware that peer review is also in place in disciplines such as history, even when the historical subject is Jeebus? If they're aware that such historiographical peer-review exists, they're sure not acting like it. They're definitely not interested in benefiting from it.

They don't want to learn about ancient history. And yet they feel perfectly well-qualified to discuss it. And so we get things like this list of 126 names, and Dawkins' description of the authors of the Old Testament as "Bronze-age goat herders" (they're referred to as "goatherds," Richard, you simp), and Dawkins making all sorts of ignorant statements about 1 billion Muslims as if all 1 billion were the same in any way, without having felt any need to have read the Koran first, and apparently without feeling any embarrassment over saying publicly that he has no plans either to read the Koran or to stop making blanket condemnations of billions of individuals.

I don't know how widespread this gulf of historical ignorance is. I can only hope that the ignorance on historical topics of New Atheists like these is so obvious that most of the general public who hear Dawkins & Co shooting their mouths off will be able to spot it without my help, and draw appropriate conclusions about New Atheism, and rags like Free Inquiry..

If they're not able, well then, that's what I'm here for. And you, too, if you've been able to follow me this far.

1 comment:

  1. Again, thanks for taking the time on this. Science is not a philosophy, it's a discipline. The data is the's only when we seek to interpret the data in a meaningful way that we should possibly disagree, because that's when our philosophical leanings are employed. We shouldn't be arguing about data, but discussing our conclusions with logic and, where possible, respect. I appreciate your desire to unravel stupidity for those of us with less knowledge of ancient documents.