Data Omniscience Hubris and the Bible

Data Omniscience Hubris and the Bible July 25, 2013

I remember reading a few years ago that archeologists had found a shard of pottery with mention of King David on it.

Evidently, this was the first material evidence of King David’s existence. According to the articles I read, lots of learned folk had, up until then, been preaching and teaching that King David never existed, was a myth, a legend, a made-up fictional character from a preliterate era.

I remember reading that, and thinking, Huh? Then shaking my head.

What these so-called learned folk had fallen into was the hubris of believing that what they knew was all there was to know. It happens all the time with learned folk, and much misery for us less learned folks ensues.

Here’s a small example: I have rheumatoid arthritis. It first reared its head when I was 16. I once had a doc tell me that I had the highest ra titer in my blood she’d ever seen. Despite that, it’s well controlled. I know how to handle it, and God has been generous with me about it. I never go a day without aches and pains, but I’m not debilitated and my joints aren’t deformed.

However, one thing I can count on is knowing when bad weather is in the offing. The day of the May 20 tornado, I woke up aching literally from head to toe. The foot I broke last fall, my leg, and every other joint I had including the little ones, ached from the moment I got out of bed with that oh-no-something’s-coming indescribable ache. My husband says he’ll trust my joints over the weather man, every time.

How this applies to the discussion at hand is simply that for years scientists and other learned folk insisted that this aching before a storm stuff was, in their scientific opinion, “all in your head.” They may have changed their pointy little minds about this by now. I haven’t kept up. But that is for sure what I read back in the day when I first noticed that my body was a powerfully accurate weather vane.

My point?

Just this: Learned folk think more of their data than they do reality. In fact, they believe that their data is reality, and that reality is a figment of everybody else’s imagination. To top it off (and this is where King David comes in) they believe that if they can’t prove something, then it doesn’t exist. This is kinda like me deciding that, if I can’t find my car keys, that I just imagined I ever had car keys and they don’t really exist.

I understand that scientists can’t and shouldn’t corroborate claims that they can’t prove. What I don’t understand is this mighty leap off the side of the hubris cliff to bold assertions that everything they can’t prove is either a myth, a confabulation, or some sort of delusion. They carry this, especially in questions of religious faith, to the point that, if you believe them, you’ve also got to believe that everybody on the planet is hallucinating about something.

I used the words “teaching and preaching” advisedly when I said that they had been preaching and teaching that King David never existed, because what they were claiming was not science. It was a matter of faith. The faith was their addlepated and totally unscientific belief that their data was omniscient.

What they should have been saying is We don’t have any proof that King David ever existed. That would have been a fact. But bold assertions that he, in fact, actually never existed, were just — dare I say it? — myth.

I am not writing this to make you doubt science or to encourage you to start believing that everything that cannot be proven must, by derivation, be true. Not at all. What I am saying is that you should look at the claims that learned folk make by asking yourself how solid the basis is for what they are saying. Sometimes people falsify data. But it is far more common for them to come up with bogus applications of the data they have. Data omniscience hubris is a common and widespread learned person error when dealing with anything that appends to matters of faith, in particular and specifically, Christianity.

What I am saying is that they are biased. And they allow their bias to interpret their data for them.

Zaius 1

The good thing — and it is a very good thing — is that when the data changed, they didn’t deny it. They didn’t toss that pottery shard into the sea and pretend they hadn’t seen it. This was not a Doctor Zaius from The Planet of the Apes moment.

They not only acknowledged the pottery shard, they also acknowledged its implications, which were that there probably was a historical King David.

Now, archeologists have uncovered what they think may have been a palace that belonged to King David. And they’re talking about it and filing it away in their data trove.

Davids palace

When they found something material that conflicted with their earlier interpretation of their data, they changed the interpretation. That says one simple thing: They aren’t liars.

So we have a scientific community, some members of which seem to be suffering from data omniscience hubris. But they are essentially honest folk who will change their too far-reaching conclusions when the data changes. They’re arrogant, but they’re not liars.

This is important for us to know when dealing with their conclusions. Unfortunately, it puts us in the position of often having to interpret their data for ourselves, since their interpretations are subject to their biases.

What they are leaving out of their considerations is that while the data may not be human, they are. And they are subject to all the vagaries and venalities of humankind, including, and especially, since they are intelligent, gifted people who get a lot of respect, hubris. Anybody can make a mistake. But data interpretation according to hubris will be mistaken as often as not.

As for me, I’d forgo this dubious gift of being able to predict the weather if it would get me out of the pain that goes with it. However, time has shown that, despite the claims of those suffering from data omniscience hubris, my husband is right: My arthritis is just about as accurate as the weather man.


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13 responses to “Data Omniscience Hubris and the Bible”

  1. When people swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, they often did it with a hand placed on the Bible. I don’t know if they do that anymore. But, at the time, the Bible was a symbol of truth and people believed everything written in it. That has changed and now archeologists are searching for evidence to verify anything they can. My opinion is that the writers of the Bible just sat and wrote as the spirit moved them. They were not historians or investigative reporters gathering all the facts and telling exact accounts. They were more like novelists than historians.

    • That shows that you have never actually started reflecting on the nature of biblical writing – beginning with the fact that hardly any two books of the Bible have the same approach or the same view of evidence. The only sane way to treat the books of the Bible, especially of the Old Testament, as grounds for historical research, is to deal with them one by one. How anyone may hope to understand in the same way the Book of Deuteronomy, the Books of the Maccabees, and the Book of Isaiah, is more than I can imagine.

  2. I’m not really sure what the bias is you’re speaking of. In the absence of strong priors, a lack of supporting evidence for something rationally leads to tentative acceptance of the null hypothesis. That’s a pretty basic way of approaching learning things about the world; as long as one doesn’t overstate their confidence in the null hypothesis, that seems fine.

    In the keys example, you’d be justified in having very strong priors about your keys, as you can say beyond any reasonable doubt that you’ve driven and unlocked a car with them in the past. The alternative to the existence of those keys is that you imagined the whole thing; that seems far more unlikely than having misplaced something.

    In stark contrast, there are quite a few historical figures that turn out to be either myths, amalgamations, exaggerations, half-truths, or some other interesting thing that’s not quite accurate. When there’s a paucity of physical evidence, I think it makes good sense to tentatively settle on something along the lines of, “This man is of questionable historicity and may not have existed at all”.

    • Brandon, I don’t think the null hypothesis is quite the same as categoric statements that something does not exist or that someone never existed, or in the case of me and my arthritis/weather thingy that it’s “all in my head” are the same.

    • This is grotesque. Your absurd inability to see the difference between the existence of a text and your own personal imaginings would make any kind of historical research impossible. Your ridiculous criteria would make it impossible to be certain that Garibaldi, Lincoln or Bismarck existed. Isn’t it interesting how, in the hope of talking the historical evidence of events you don’t like, you agnostics are willing to destroy all the bases of rational debate and leave everyone alone in a horrible,aphasic state of solipsistic denial?

  3. As a classicist, I have always been struck by the fact that the documentation for the existence of Socrates, or of Alexander the Great, is no greater than, and arguably not as good as, the documentation for the existence of Jesus. Yet I am not aware of anyone who has seriously suggested that Socrates and Alexander might not actually have existed.

    • Fact. You will of course know that until 1967 there was no physical evidence of the existence of Tacitus’ Agricola; and one thing I have had reason to notice is, how much better documented is the history of Palestine than that of almost every other Roman province. You cannot write a connected history of Britannia or Mauretania or Illyria, but most anyone can with Palestine – to the point where Palestinian evidence is used to reconstruct Roman practise across the rest of the empire.

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