Venturing Outside One’s Area of Expertise

Everyone is talking about Neil de Grasse Tyson’s problematic tweets – see the recent blog posts by Jerry Coyne, Hemant Mehta, and P. Z. Myers.

But I think the most important post on the topic is that by Jonathan Bernier. He points out that, once someone moves outside of their field of expertise, no matter how smart they are or how well informed about other topics, they are liable to make blunders. Here is an excerpt:

A number of interesting analogies can be drawn. I am a New Testament scholar and as such have the competence to speak with authority about the state of New Testament studies. The further one moves from that field the more reticent I become to do so. I have some but considerably less competence to speak about immediately adjacent fields, such as Hebrew Bible, Rabbinic, or Patristic scholarship. I have a degree in anthropology, and as such have more competence to speak to matters anthropological than most people, but significantly less than any working anthropologist. Get beyond areas of the human sciences, and beyond the human sciences itself, and my competence begins to drop off significantly. Sure, I can teach a first-year course in World Religions or a second-year course in New Religious Movements, but if someone asked me to teach a graduate seminar in Buddhism I’d laugh out loud. And that’s still within Religious Studies, the official title of my doctorate. Even within NT studies I’ve much greater competence to speak to historical Jesus or Johannine studies than to, say, Pauline studies. That’s because knowledge is specialized: one can learn a great deal about a very narrow amount of material, or very little about a lot, but one cannot learn a great deal about a lot.
Now, let’s think about many of the extremes of the new atheism. If Dr. Tyson, astrophysicist, is liable to error whilst speaking outside his area of specialization but still within the physical sciences how much more might a Dr. Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, be liable to error when he crosses into the social sciences or humanities? I’m sure that Dr. Dawkins could have been a fantastic scholar of religion, had he pursued such a specialization. But he didn’t, and he is no more competent to pronounce upon matters related to the study of religion than I am on matters related to the study of biological evolution. That’s why I won’t be writing any books on evolution any time soon. In fairness to Dawkins, fundamentalists opened the door by engaging in evolution denialism, but the fact that they have overstepped their competence does not give him grounds to overstep his own. The very fact that he and his followers seem unable to recognize theological diversity but instead think it adequate to critique a generic “theism” (by which they seem almost invariably to mean fundamentalist Protestant theology) speaks to the fact that such persons are very far out of their area of expertise. What you end up with is a whole bunch of people saying a whole lot of stuff about a whole lot of things that they simply do not understand.

Can you guess where the blog post goes next? Which topic, discussed frequently on this blog, he thinks this relates to rather directly? Click through to see if you were right. If you want another clue before you click through, here is another snippet:

Bernier Denialism Quote

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  • Erp

    I mostly agree with one caveat, it is possible for someone who specialized in one area to move to a related area and become a specialist in that fairly fast and possibly bring good new ideas because of their previous area (a slightly different look). I would also note that Carrier’s PhD was on “Natural Philosopher in the Early Roman Empire” which indicates a much closer area to New Testament/Historic Jesus than the Byzantine Studies that Bernier stated was Carrier’s area. His committee was (guessing from the first initials in Carrier’s cv, all history department unless otherwise stated)

    William V. Harris, ancient world
    Richard Billows, (whose period seems more Hellenistic)
    Matthew L. Jones, early modern history, science and technology history
    Gareth Williams, classical Latin poetry (Classics dept)

    Katja Maria Vogt, ancient philosophy (Philosophy and affiliated with Classics)

    I suspect Carrier would be a lot more out of the water in Byzantine studies than New Testament studies. This doesn’t mean Carrier actually does know enough to do serious work in early Christian history.

    • KRS

      The thing is, Carrier’s attack on the historicity of Jesus is based on techniques for determining the historicity of ancient individuals in general, not on anything specific to New Testament studies. Now, since I haven’t done any academic study of religion at all, it’s quite possible there is some information I don’t know about relevant to New Testament studies that throws doubt on Carrier’s assumptions or methods, but Bernier never alluded to any such information. Contrast this with P.Z. Meyers’ rebuttal of Tyson’s claims about biology, which is filled with counterexamples from his area of study. Bernier’s critique of Carrier comes off as an ad hominem (circumstantial) argument devoid of substance, at least in that blog post.

      • James F. McGrath

        What has given you the impression that Carrier’s approach is based on what other historians do? He claims that his Bayesian approach is just a mathematically more precise way of calculating the probabilities in an approach that otherwise reflects what historians normally do. But throughout his book on the historicity of Jesus, he time and again makes claims or interprets evidence in ways that historians and other scholars in relevant fields do not find convincing. And so I sometimes suspect that the math is there to serve as the distraction in the magic trick, hoping that people will pay attention to the mathematical method, and in so doing not notice that what he is actually claiming about the evidence does not provide a sound basis for the numbers he inputs. And if the numbers are not sound, the result will not be sound.

  • arcseconds

    I’m sure it would be perfectly possible for someone as smart as Dawkins to take up religious studies as a hobby, and as a result of this on-the-side study say sensible and even insightful things about it.

    The problem is a matter of mistaking one’s competence, not so much having an area that one is ill-advised to step outside. Does anyone think Bill Nye shouldn’t talk about evolution, even though he is not an evolutionary biologist?

    I don’t think so: the point is rather that he takes an appropriate attitude towards the discipline. He doesn’t assume he must be awesome at it, he assumes that the evolutionary biologists are the awesome ones, and he has to follow what they say and find ways of communicating that to the public.

    And as a result he has some level of competence in evolutionary biology. You’d be much better off asking Nye a question about evolution than you would be asking some random person on the street.

    • The Eh’theist

      I would agree with this, and also state that Jonathan Bernier would be better at preparing to teach an introductory course on Buddhism than Dawkins because he knows the questions and knowledge structures used within a Religious Studies faculty. He has a framework that Dawkins lacks, upon which he can hang information. Will it be as thorough or free-flowing as a course taught by Pema Chödrön? Not likely, but it should be rigourous enough to meet the institutions standards.

      It reminds me of an experience I had years ago, teaching Adobe Photoshop to 3 graphic designers, one of whom is one of the greatest designers in Canada (stamps, banknotes, iconic brands, etc). They were brilliant, and incredibly skilled with manual tools, but saw the future coming and wanted to be ready to meet it.

      Every week I took them through a lesson on certain techniques and functions of Photoshop, and they would come back the next with masterpieces that utterly demolished our in-class examples. They became proficient, and I understood the difference between software aptitude and design ability. :)

      The one fun result is that on occasion we’ve been at an event, and I’ll tell a young designer that I taught these fellows. After giving me a skeptical scowl, one of the designers will confirm it, producing a look of pure confusion on the young designer’s face, as they try to square the expertise issue in their mind.

      • arcseconds

        That’s a cool story.

        I’ve got a photoshop-related one that’s only semi-related, but I’m going to relate anyway.

        Donald Knuth, the doyen of computer science, was once working on a book (about the Bible! so it is on topic after all…) which had frontispieces for each chapter done by skilled calligraphers (whom he had met when preparing the typesetting system TeX).

        For various reasons these needed some alterations before publishing, but he happened to be doing some work at Adobe, where they had an early version of Photoshop running in a maclab. So he decided to use that to touch up the images.

        Of course, the macintoshes of the time were not very fast, so he ended up using several of them, setting up each operation to run, and by the time he got back to the first one it would have finished, so he could proceed with the next operation…

        An early example of a rendering farm!

        • The Eh’theist

          That is a very neat story. Reminds me of a co-worker with a copy of Strata, and a Radius clone with (trigger warning for the youngsters : minuscule amounts of RAM) 32MB of RAM who would do his design work by day and render 5 sec of 3D animation per night leaving the machine on for 12 hours unbothered. He ended up teaching at a design college because his 3D portfolio was very strong, but each piece was put together weeks or a month at a time. I would never have had the patience, and thought he would have made a great monk doing illuminated manuscripts.

  • Andrew Schefe

    Well it would seem that until Mr Bernier completes his Phd in denialism, he isn’t qualified to be speaking on the subject?

  • Beau Quilter

    Bernier claims that Dawkins (and his “followers”, whatever that means) “seem unable to recognize theological diversity but instead think it adequate to critique a generic “theism” (by which they seem almost invariably to mean fundamentalist Protestant theology)”, but Dawkins makes it very clear that he is addressing a fundamentalist view of religion.

    In The God Delusion, Dawkins actually quotes people who make the accusation Bernier does: “You go after crude rabble-rousing characters like Ted Haggard, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, rather than sophisticated theologians like Tillich or Bonhoeffer who teach the sort of religion I believe in.”

    And Dawkins replies:

    “If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place, and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential, and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them.” (I would add Ted Cruz to Dawkins’ list).

    Now we can disagree with Dawkins and say that nuanced religious followers are not “negligible”, but we can’t say that Dawkins doesn’t distinguish between them. And the religion he does argue against is clearly not a straw man.

    So speaking of examination, did Bernier actually bother to read Dawkins? Because he seems to be only criticizing Dawkins’ credentials, not what Dawkins’ actually wrote.