Monday, January 9, 2017

Intellectual Laziness: The Sad Case Of Michael Paulkovich And Myself

The two first posts I wrote concerning Michael Paulkovich's claim to have studied 126 ancient historians, looking for evidence of Jesus' existence, which I posted here back in September 2014, continue to be the two most-discussed, most-viewed, most-linked things I have written. They both continue to generate pageviews on my blog. And that's great. I was about to describe them as "most-read" along with "most-discussed" and "most-linked" and so forth, but the thing is, I don't know how carefully-read those posts have been. And not reading written works or just skimming them, and then acting as if you familiar with their contents, is the theme of this post.

First, there's Paulkovich: he claims to have studied 126 ancient historians, looking for evidence of Jesus' existence, but he hasn't: he has listed 126 names. But of those 126 people, few are actually historians. There are writers of fiction, physicians, lyric poets, people who died before Jesus was born, 4 writers who actually do mention Jesus, and more than 40 of whose writing nothing has survived, so much for Paulkovich's claim of having studied it. That's a particularly spectacular case of intellectual laziness, as is Free Inquiry's having published Paulkovich's piece and their continuing to defend it to this day.

Then there are the many people, other than the editors of Free Inquiry, who have taken Paulkovich's word when he says that he has studied historical texts written by these 126 people. And those who take his word when he describes himself as an historian and Biblical scholar. All of those people who assume that Paulkovich's assertions are sound, who haven't gone to the trouble of checking them. And sweet Lord Vushnu, you don't have to check Paulkovich's list of 126 names very extensively before you start to notice that something is wrong. (If Paulkovich is an historian, I'm a freakin' unicorn.)

Among the people who have described Paulkovich as having done devastating damage to the case for Jesus' historicity is Jerry Coyne, one of the world's most highly-respected biologists, but when it comes to his rep as an authority on ancient history, not so highly-respected anymore, along with fellow big-time, no foolin' biologists like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers. Besides being some of the world's leading biologists, Coyne, Dawkins and Myers are also New Atheists, which among other things means they don't know much about ancient history and seem determined to stay that way. They would never accept any statement about biology whatsoever, made by anyone whatsoever, by an unknown or a Nobel Prize-winning biologist, as uncritically as Coyne accepted Paulkovich's claims about ancient historians.

Coyne may now know better about Paulkovich, someone may have been able in the meantime to explain to him what's up there, but if so, I haven't heard about it yet.

Besides Coyne, many others have assumed that Paulkovich knows what he's talking about when it comes to ancient historians. I hope that not many of them are also academics, but I have no idea how many of them may be.

All of the above has been perfectly clear to me all along.

So. Then comes me, with my blog posts concerning that list of 126 names, and a lot of people have praised those two posts of mine and linked them and so forth.

But how many of the people who have been so enthusiastic about my blog posts have checked my work? I'm complaining because people have uncritically accepted what Paulkovich says, but how many people who accept what I say about Paulkovich are just as uncritical?

Before we even get to the question of whether readers have checked my facts, it's been clear all along that many people have commented on my posts without having read them carefully at all: for instance, because they describe me as convinced that Jesus existed and/or a believing monotheist, although I state in those posts that I am an atheist and that I'm not sure whether or not Jesus existed. These are mostly people who defend Paulkovich, and apparently assume that pious Christian belief is the only reason anyone could have for having any problem with him.

Those are obvious cases. But today it suddenly hit me that most of the people who take my side against Paulkovich probably haven't checked my work any more thoroughly than those who take Paulkovich's side have checked his. If they had checked my work at all, then they would've given an indication of it in their comments underneath those countless online articles and blog posts. They would've given an indication by saying: Bollinger is right, person X -- fill in the blank: has no writing which survives, or, wrote only fiction, or wrote only about medicine, or actuallly does mention Jesus, etc.

And a few people have made such comments, and I've had some very rewarding online discussions with them. But for the most part it's people saying: look here, Paulkovich has made a great case that Jesus never existed, against people saying, look here, Bollinger has made a compelling case that Paulkovich doesn't know what he's talking about.

And all sides are choosing their authority -- Paulkovich, or me, or someone else -- for no sounder reason than because that authority is saying what they want to believe is true.

It just dawned on me very recently how rare it has been, in this entire controversy over Jesus' historicity, for someone to actually go to any trouble at all of actually digging into the source texts and doing a little research for themselves. Hearing arguments about who wrote this or that text, and when, and whether or not it may have been altered, by mistake or on purpose. Actually attempting to figure out how reliable this or that modern or ancient authority might be. Weighing the non-literary evidence. Considering opposing points of view while attempting to keep an open mind. And then reaching their own conclusions rather than just accepting someone else's, and actually basing those conclusions on ancient evidence rather than contemporary politics.

Well, it's a shame when people don't do all of that, because that's the fun stuff in the study of ancient history.

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