Because!

What would have been an otherwise unremarkable and unremarked interview on American television has, thanks to the plague physics of the interwebs, come to my attention. I confess I have not actually sat through said interview but I don’t really need to (yes, that’s unfair of me but I have a tiny reserve of ‘care’ and it has prior commitments). The gist is this: An academic wrote a book about the historical Jesus of Nazareth and dutifully made the rounds deemed necessary by his colossal publisher (the new Penguin-House, or Random Penguin which now owns about 25% of the entire publishing world). One of his interviewers was hung up on an apparent contradiction in that a Muslim was writing about a Christian figure. The author, who displayed the patience of a saint (and I am aware of the humour in that), was accused of defending his ‘right’ to write on this topic by arguing from authority. This is a common counter when someone exhibits their credentials as a specialist or because they have some formal qualification in the field. Of course this is one of those times when an argument sounds like a fallacy but isn’t.

 

It’s also a nice example of how the news is rarely about ‘news’ and tells us more about the economic or political basis of any media source. It is also a case-study in controversy selling things, even when some of the buyers are those most offended by the product. The author’s book came out in mid-July and while it has only 2 reviews on the Canadian Amazon site it has over 200 on the American one and it is already at the #1 spot on several non-fiction bestseller lists. That is never a mark of quality but it is proof of an investment well made by the publisher (and publicist).

The argument from authority is one of the first logical fallacies we ever hear. As children we plead with out guardians ‘why?’ to which we are given the only reasonable explanation: ‘because I said so.’ There may have been eminently sensible reasons why you were forbidden from playing with the machine lathe or splashing around in the industrial solvents, but these would not satisfy the infantile capacity for rational thought of the semi-sociopath that is the 4 year-old. ‘Because I said so’ was reason enough. Other appeals to force or emotion worked just as well and worked with greater efficiency than a careful enumeration of premises that justified the moratorium on in-door firearms use or spontaneous application of combustion agents to the ottoman. Apparently, my parents discouraged the fire-bug and encouraged the vocabulary.

At a certain level, some academic writing appears at first glance as one long appeal to authority. Usually the authority of the author and this is particularly the case with non-fiction works written for the general public. Readers are expected to trust that the author, his publisher, editor, agent, publicist, and employer (since few authors of non-fiction are writers by profession) know what they are doing and will not perpetrate any fraud or deliberate dishonesty with the facts. We hope readers can approach things with this trust. What the aforementioned interview implied was that said author was concealing an agenda, one determined by his religious faith, and concealed by a veneer of academic privilege. The suggestion that his informed opinion was better than anyone less informed seemed an affront to decency.

And such a concern is not without grounds. There are several well publicized examples of otherwise respectable seeming writers cranking out sensational books that, when scrutinized, are revealed as weakly concealed political propaganda. Writers on controversial topics (and the historical reality of Jesus is one such topic that has forever been controversial) rightly attract minute attention, at least when their work is of sufficient quality to warrant the time.

That is not, however, the reason why this particular writer received this treatment. Who has the authority to write about Jesus? That was, apparently, the unasked question at the core of the interview. The answer, implied by the interviewer, was that only believers in Christ, as the manifest son of God, had any authority to do so. Of course there was no discussion of which believers of Christ were allowed to expound on his historical roots. We could easily dismiss any Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, and non-judeo-christian believers. But can Lutherans write about the historical Jesus? Do you need to believe in trans-substantiation to write about Christ or would such belief preclude a historical treatment? We could go on like this and I am already trying my own patience.

The author’s argument was that he (and anyone else with the same credentials) was free to write about a historical Jesus because he knew how to do historical research, construct arguments, support those arguments with evidence, and he could articulate to readers where he was making claims, suppositions, generalizations, or interpretations in a way that was unambiguously based on evidence, or derived from interpretations. He knew historical method and whatever he wrote that conformed to those methods was, within limits, academically sound. History does not produce right or wrong answers to questions. It produces potential answers that are ‘more right’ or ‘less-wrong’ than other ones. I simplify but this is a blog after all and simplification is the only advantage of this medium, that and relative anonymity.

This is not—so far as logical fallacies are concerned—an appeal to authority. If someone asks me how I can write about 15th c. English elites, and their world view, when I am not English, or descended from elite stock, and do not in the slightest, believe in any of the religious, social, hierarchical or legal foundations of that world, it is no appeal to authority when I say that I can do all this, and do it with a clear conscience, because I have the training. That is the easy way of saying that I can do this because I have spent (up to now) 7 years learning about the historical method and more than that, I have learned to conform to that method with the same zealous devotion as any true believer. If the method tells me that my conclusions are wrong, or weak, or unsupportable, then I discard those conclusions. The method, however tedious, variable, unsatisfying, frustrating, and occasionally defeating, is the only way by which we can relate to our collective past. I may believe all sorts of strange things about the world, about deities, about hierarchies and ideas of justice, and that will in small ways, influence my academic work but it will not (could not) control it. If it did I would have been run out of academe years ago. I can, on my own time, say all the crazy things I want but I would have to work very hard to find a doctoral supervisor, thesis readers, editors, appointment committees, faculty chairs, and students who would tolerate all that and get me all the way through to a book contract with Penguin just so I could write some screed attacking the foundational figure of the Christian church. If readers of this guy’s book see such an attack, it is because of their own insecurity or a tendency to perceive persecution in anything that is not entirely supportive of their particular world-view. Yes, I am calling Fox News viewers paranoid conspiracy nuts. I do so knowing that I have substantial documentation for it.

It is an irony lost on most of the critics of this author that their own religious persuasions are founded on the most elementary appeal to authority. This is a fallacy written into its founding documents that gives it authority of unparalleled scale and makes it immune to criticism. This is the greatest dodge of reason possible: god says so, and it’s wrong to expect a rational reason from god, so just do what he says. If that’s at the basis of your world view, it is easy to accuse everyone who isn’t appealing to god, of this same fallacy.

And on that note, I will contemplate the wisdom if writing something that is at once topical, and controversial, for a blog that I have always kept under the radar.

 

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2 thoughts on “Because!

  1. There’s plenty of examples of the other side of this “authority” coin instantly springing to mind– that twit that stirred up all the noise about vaccination perils and astronomers who support creationism are the first two that struck me– and the test appears to be either questionable funding or applying authority from a different field to the one being spouted about. In the latter, “I”m a scientist” stops being sufficient at a certain level of detail, and the particular flavour of scientist becomes more important. In the case at hand, “I’m a historian” is probably sufficient, and “I’m a historian who studies religions” rather trumps.

    It took a long time to get through this entry, as I clicked on the link to the interview, and under the browser tab reading “Fox News interviews Reza Aslan” was a full width banner ad declaring FINALLY! 100% PURE WOLF URINE! Sometimes the zen of internet juxtaposition is funny enough to knock a guy off his chair.

    • This is true, particularly in the sciences or where the credentials are used in a way to deliberately conceal problems in method. The vacination study example is an unfortunate example of the system failing itself. And there are a great many PhDs that work outside their diciplines amongst the conspiricists and that undermines the function of the academic proof of ability.

      Oh, and sorry about the banners. I have addblock and that site, while a good way to keep up with internet oddities, does have its own ideocyncratic add targeting. Most of the adds are intentionally satirical (for example, the vinegar vs. chem-trails one).

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