Outliers and Iconoclasts

I have been writing about mainstream and fringe scholarship, and defending the sometimes unpopular idea of mainstream orthodoxy, or the scholarly consensus.

Blogging on any religious topic invites wacky comments and responses. As one example of many, I had a commenter not long ago who asserted that most of what Christians believed about their origins was utterly wrong. Way back in the third century BC, he said, the cult of the Egyptian god Serapis prefigured most features of Christianity, including the name: even at that very early date, his followers were allegedly called “Christians.” Christianity, in fact, was a myth built on that older Egyptian religion. That whole Serapis/Christ nonsense is widespread around the Internet, with quite a few Youtube contributions. Just Google “Christos Ptolemy Serapis” and see how many rabbit holes you vanish into. In some manifestations, not all, it gets into weird Afrocentric and anti-Jewish mythologies.

I challenged the original poster by asking how many real books or sources he could cite to support this idea, not counting self-published stuff, and answer came there none. These days, you can find that information quite easily from Amazon, besides library catalogues and journal databases. My argument was simple. An idea or theory does not deserve to be taken seriously unless and until it acquires at least some coverage by accredited experts in the field. That might take the form of published books with major presses, whether trade or academic, or in reputable academic journals.

Scholarship is what scholars do, and if they don’t do it, it’s not scholarship.

I am stealing  that phrase from the maxim that “Science is what scientists do,” which courts have used to separate junk science from the real McCoy. As a trial judge declared in the important 1982 case of McLean v Arkansas, “Their [scientists’] work is published and subject to review and testing by their peers. The journals for publication are both numerous and varied.” If something claiming to be science appears in none of these outlets, then, that tells you it is an impostor. Exactly the same principles apply to social science disciplines such as history, although there, books from major presses count as much or more as do journal articles.

Federal courts have also wrestled for years to decide what does or does not constitute legitimate scientific evidence. The current measure is the so-called Daubert Standard, which includes these criteria:

1.Empirical testing: whether the theory or technique is falsifiable, refutable, and/or testable

2.Whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication.

3.The known or potential error rate.

4.The existence and maintenance of standards and controls concerning its operation.

5.The degree to which the theory and technique is generally accepted by a relevant scientific community.

Some of those items apply more than others to the topics I am discussing, but here again we see the stress on scholarly consensus and general acceptance. The “mainstream” matters!

You can easily think of many examples of popular theories that are utterly at odds with any kind of scholarly consensus, both within the general area of religion and outside. I might mention the works of Graham Hancock in this regard, and his theories about ancient lost civilizations that dominated the planet long before what virtually all academic historians would regard as vaguely plausible dates. As with the Serapis stuff, you would look long and hard for a mainstream academic book or article that would cite Hancock’s ideas even to refute him, never mind viewing him as a credible source.

At this point, you might be objecting that this represents an “argument from authority,” which in certain circumstances can lead to a kind of logical fallacy. But in most instances, basing yourself in scholarly authority and consensus is emphatically not a fallacy. Whenever I hear that objection, the other person is commonly deploying what I call the “argument from lack of authority,” namely that something is likely to be true precisely because it breaches the consensus. If someone presents a wildly unorthodox idea (Serapis was the first Christ; the Sphinx is twelve thousand years old), they scorn scholarly assaults. Did not the scholars of the day mock at iconoclastic pioneers like Copernicus and Galileo, who would be triumphantly vindicated?

From this perspective in fact, what gives a work credibility is its distance from consensus thought, which proves that the writer in question is daring, innovative, bold, iconoclastic… the standard repertoire of descriptors. Even better, the more harshly scholars condemn a fringe idea, the more it seems to validate it in the public mind. Who today respects such boring words as “orthodoxy” or consensus? Isn’t it much better to be a heretic, an iconoclast?

So you don’t believe that Christ was invented to conceal the Serapis cult? Well, that shows you are struggling to maintain the academic/religious conspiracy of silence, not willing to risk your career to defend what you secretly know to be true!

Once again, though, we might turn to the decision in McLean v Arkansas, which properly scoffed at claims that science suppresses dissidence. As the judge concluded, “Perhaps some members of the scientific community are resistant to new ideas. It is, however, inconceivable that such a loose knit group of independent thinkers in all the varied fields of science could, or would, so effectively censor new scientific thought.” Again, ditto for history and the social sciences.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course there are pressures to conform, and individual “outlier” studies might be silenced. But that suppression can never be total, particularly when prestigious academic journals can be found in multiple countries and diverse academic cultures.

What I am not saying is that “If professors say it, it must be true, because they have doctorates.” God forbid. Rather, the image of a stuffy ivory tower world rejecting any ideas that are vaguely bold or creative is utterly at odds with reality. As I will show in my next post, academic ideas do change, frequently, to respond to new evidence and insights, but they do so following well-understood principles and (dare I say) garbage filters.

Have I ever said this before? Scholarship is what scholars do, and if they don’t do it, it’s not scholarship.



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  • MesKalamDug

    There are problems. Referencing “a” book is not adequate. These days anyone
    with patience enough to write a book can publish it – not just as an e-book but even on paper, for a trivial cost. And this has happened.

    Equally anyone can created a journal and call it scholarly. In every case I know of
    the alleged peer reviewers are not named. And this has happened.

    I fear we are left with “I know it when I see it.”

    This is not as dismissive as it seems. What really matters is not the formal things like books and journals but the content. Scholarly thinking can be recognized but
    I don’t know how to give it a definition.

  • philipjenkins

    You are exactly right. However, please note that I did limit the category to “published books with major presses, whether trade or academic, or in reputable academic journals.” That word “reputable” carries a lot of meaning, as I am referring to journals that show up on reputational lists of publications that are valued and esteemed, not just “pay to publish” trash.

    And before you say it, I do know that really major presses have turned out some absolute turkeys.