Anecdotal Evidence Isn’t Really Evidence

It appears that Simcha, or those with him, really wants this completely CGI’d image of an actual amphora/unguentarium ossuary iconography–wrongly oriented even in their header below–to be a fish:

The iconography in this image is oriented incorrectly, making it appear as though the amphora is a swimming fish.

I mean they really, really want this to be a fish.  Some members of the ‘Christian fish cohort’ (descriptors fail me today) have gone so far as to produce anecdotal statements like ‘almost all nonexperts agree this is a fish!’  Well, okay, maybe it has something to do with how the image is oriented, as Bob Cargill rightly points out using images like this:

But maybe it doesn’t.  Maybe it is just the sort of person you ask.  After all, nonexperts are not able to critically analyze or compare ossuary iconography.  Not everyone owns a copy of Rahmani’s catalog, nor of Figueras’s excellent volume on ossuary iconography, and while they could go to the library to research these images I doubt many will or even have the background to give them context once they do locate the motifs.  So really what a nonexpert ‘sees’ in the iconography is really dependent upon their own bias, their own contexts–like a Rorschach test.  You can give the test to ten people and ten people will tell you ten different interpretations.  Also, it doesn’t help that nonexperts are going to base their judgement of an image upon what they’ve read from media sources like the BBC–if they are that critically minded–or Fox News or CNN or even their local paper (inevitably, since chances are they don’t have access to the thousands of monographs, journals, and peer-reviewed articles on the subject).  So I’m not at all impressed by the anecdotal notion that ‘its a fish because nonexperts agree it is'; it depends on the nonexperts you ask.

As an experiment, I took a copy of the image with me to my monthly freethought group–about a dozen or so members attended with varied ages and different backgrounds–and posed the picture to them.  None of them had read about the ‘new discovery’ so when I shoped them the image in the orientation above (sideways), I got all sorts of conclusions.  They ranged from a woman’s womb to exotic animals but nobody said ‘fish.’  When I oriented the image correctly (‘nose’ down), everyone said it was an ancient vessel of some sort.  And these are nonexperts, none with any background in the field of archaeology or Biblical Studies.  I was shocked that they had figuired it out so quickly.  And I mean everyone said vessel.  Not a single interpretation of ‘fish’ was given.  So does this mean that my anecdotal evidence undermines the ‘Christian fish cohort’s’ anecdotal evidence?

This is why this iconography needs to be examined by people with experience and an understanding of the social-cultural constructs (this includes prevailing motifs in literature and iconography) of the time from whence this ossuary came.   But more important than this is the vital truth here: all unpaid or unassociated scholars (those who have the understanding of these motifs and constructs) who have looked at the iconography agree that it is not a fish.  That says something.  Some in the ‘Christian fish cohort’ argue that this implies a universal bias against the ‘cohort’ but that is simply insulting.  Every scholar wishes for the opportunity to write on a new amazing discovery, to publish something unique and interesting about a new find that changes the way we view the past.  That the academic community, so full of this mentality, isn’t rushing forth to snatch up this discovery in open arms says a lot about the quality of the arguments made by those proposing specious origins (i.e., that it belongs to an early follower of Jesus).

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4 Responses

  1. Interesting experiment — like your own version of the “Mishi test”!

  2. […] that the rotated image looks like a fish to her.Mike Heiser posted on the state of the question. Tom Verenna warned of the danger of using anecdotal evidence.Remnant of Giants offered satirical posts suggesting the image on the ossuary might be a zeppelin […]

  3. I really enjoyed your views on the ossuary and your website generally.–I happen to agree with your conclusions that it isn’t a fish and made similar observations to Bob Cargill earlier this week and then on the ASOR blog yesterday as well (great minds and all…)

    On the layman issue, I also generally agree, but with this caveat (for not the least reason, I am a laymen when it comes to archaeology and biblical studies): laymen can bring a new perspective, just as can experts, so long as their opinions are recognized as being just that and given only the weight they deserve. I have experienced the value of lay opinion as a practicing lawyer for over 20 years. Indeed, there are many subjects that the courts have decided a lay person, as opposed to or concurrently with, experts may opine upon. For example, while experts may be useful identifying handwriting, lay persons who are familiar with an individual’s handwriting, may testify as to that fact. This is also true for a host of surprisingly complex issues, including sobriety, ownership, mood/state of mind, health, etc. And we’ve all heard of the “battle of the experts,” in which two or more ostensible experts reach vastly different conclusions.

    The important point, as you make, is to recognize that each of us, layman and expert, comes to the subject with one or more biases–whether contextual, experiential, cultural, religious, fiscal, or whatever. The challenge is how to best recognize one’s own biases, as well as those in others. In the scientific community, this is often addressed (albeit imperfectly) by peer review. In the law, we rely on the combination of judges and lay juries to sift through the biases (also an imperfect system). Nevertheless, the critical aspect is to continue to be generally skeptical and be willing to subject your claims, particularly extraordinary claims, to the critical scrutiny of others.

    Thanks for keeping it interesting.

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