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:
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.