Be It Unto You According to Your Faith…In What You’ve Read On the Web

I’m trying to make it an aim of my introductory Bible class not only to give students an opportunity to think for themselves, but also to help them learn how to grasp what the scholarly consensus on an issue is, if in fact there is one. In a time when the information that appears at the top of the list after a Google search is not necessarily the most reliable, and students seem to have trouble discovering those academic article databases our university libraries pay so much to put at their disposal, I am coming to the conclusion that we cannot simply send people forth to do their own “research” and expect them to come back with a balanced sense of the best understanding available through the work of experts in the field in question.

One will often hear people appeal to scholarship in support of their viewpoint. Just a few examples from around the web:

The historical evidence is overwhelming—the Jesus of the Bible never existed

Science disproves evolution

Egyptian chariot wheels found in the Red Sea [prove the Exodus account in the Bible accurate]”

None of those statements reflects the actual state of our knowledge. Each of them can be found well-represented on the web, and one can surely find someone with a PhD who will affirm the point of view in question. But checking mainstream scholarship on the historical Jesus, biological evolution, or the origins of the Israelites will give a very different impression. Sure there are disagreements on some issues – but it is important to understand who disagrees with whom, and why.

It is important for all those who teach, whether in the liberal arts, the natural sciences, or other fields, to help students not only learn to investigate for themselves, but also to learn how to identify reputable sources, how to get a sense of the scholarly consensus (if there is one), and how to distinguish between scholars disagreeing in large numbers (which usually suggests the available evidence is not entirely conclusive) from situations in which all but a few fringe individuals agree.

Of course, it is fair to point out that sometimes what was once fringe has become mainstream. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for a non-expert simply picking a fringe view because they happen to like it. The only way a fringe view should become mainstream is because of persuasive arguments and/or new evidence – not because of their increased “wikiality” or because they win a popularity contest among the inadequately informed.

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  • Drew

    This is a huge challenge. Part of what I do in my senior capstone course is have students consult with librarians in order to make a conscious effort to use library databases. I also stress peer reviewed journals and grade them on how well they integrate these sources. I also tell them that if they present one argument, they must present a challenge presented to that argument in the research. We actually developed a lengthy rubric for this course to assess students’ skills on these and many other variables.Now they are seniors, but cultivating these skills early on is one of the things that makes this a liberal arts higher education.

  • James F. McGrath

    I’d be interested if there’s anything you’ve developed for evaluating students’ identification of useful source materials that you can share – it might save me reinventing the wheel! :)

  • Eamon Knight

    What you said. When I first encountered the Evo/Cre debate, I had enough science background to be able fairly quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. I now even have a moderately good layman’s understanding of the intra-evolution debates (never mind the bogus controversies invented by the ID/Cists).When it comes to things like eg. the historicity of Jesus…not so much. Not only do not I not have an informed opinion, I don’t even know how to inform myself: which views are mainstream and which fringe; what modes of argument are considered valid, and which fallacious; how to evaluate the evidence; etc. There’s a whole background of domain knowledge that I lack.

  • Peter Milloy

    Try asking your students to google Minnesota Coconut Growers. They’ll get a website which purports to tell all about growing coconuts in Minnesota. Fact is, coconuts are not grown in Minnesota, as common sense told you in the first place. The website was made up by a college librarian to show students that anybody at all can post anything on the web and make it look authoritative.

  • James F. McGrath

    I had to post something on the Minnesota Coconut Growers. Brilliant!As for mainstream scholarship on the historical figure of Jesus, I think E. P. Sanders it probably pretty mainstream. But there is significant disagreement, and books like Mark A. Powell’s Jesus as a Figure in History gives a nice survey of the different streams of thought and where there are significant differences of opinion.

  • Anonymous

    Drew, that is a really good strategy. I think that for discovering the current state of affairs on a topic, the most important thing is having a desire to search for all sides, and then, just like you wrote, to figure out the arguments and proponents for each side.James, it is important not to simply pick a fringe view because one happens to like it, but it is also important not to dismiss it or ignore it just because it is fringe.

  • James F. McGrath

    That’s a good point. In fact, I tend to like investigating, and at times even trying to defend, underdog positions in my field. The key thing some people miss is that this is akin to getting a lawyer for the defendant. Although the lawyer’s aim may indeed be to get the defendant off by any means necessary, he has to be able to persuade the jury. If, having made the best case I can for the fringe viewpoint, I cannot swing opinions, then presumably my argument is not entirely persuasive.Of course, I’m free to do that my whole life, and may eventually make some progress. But there is a sense in which consensus is hard won, and so it shouldn’t be very easy to change!In other areas, like my love of underdog composers, it is a somewhat different case, since there it is just an issue of popularity and enjoyment. There is no evidence anyone can present to anyone else to persuade them that music they don’t like is music they do like. But music can grow on you. I’ll bet most people reading this, if they have never listened to 20th century orchestral music before, would not like Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony. I didn’t at first (although it certainly intrigued me!), but it has grown on me.To complicate matters further, those with expertise in any area are a small number compared to the total number of human beings. So isn’t all our work fringe, in at least some sense? :)

  • Quixie

    Hi James, I was moved to comment on this post on my own blog. I agree with you but see some problems here. Drew:Very good idea.In trying to make my point, I hope I don’t come off as anti-academic.It’s not my intention at all.peaceÓ