On Scholars and Kooks: A Few Simple Guidelines for Journalists in Popular Media

There seems to be some great confusion in the public media about the definition of ‘scholar’ and what it means, how it is actually used, and to whom it applies.  When it comes to defining ‘scholars’, journalists seem to have the hardest time actually determining who fits the bill; those that actually have earned that title are confused, for instance, with scientists (and are sometimes labeled as such), whereas those with no credibility whatsoever are given the esteemed honor of being a ‘scholar’ or ‘historian’ or ‘expert’.

This became clear ages ago, but over the last few years this phenomenon has really picked up with some frightening speed.  Clearly so is the example of how the Elkington’s (and their fake lead codices) were labeled as ‘Egyptologists’ (a title given to someone with a graduate or PhD degree in the field of Egyptology), ‘Biblical Scholars’, and ‘experts’. More recently this has been the case with Mr. Joe Atwill (who incidentally calls himself a ‘Biblical Scholar’).  In the hope of clarifying this issue for the press and laypeople out there who may not know what words mean, I’ve devised this post.

First, a layperson who self-publishes a book on something isn’t an ‘expert’.  They may be considered an enthusiast, an amateur, a hobbyist, a thrill-seeker.  These are polite titles.  More often than not, however, people who only self-publish do so because they do not want to have their ideas vetted by pesky things like editors, peers, or actual experts.  So less polite, but certainly more accurate, titles for many of these sorts of individuals might be ‘conspiracy theorist’, ‘loon’, or ‘Indiana Jones Wanna-be’ (actually this isn’t a complement).

Second, let us stop calling the self-published tomes of these sorts of people, who have zero credibility, ‘theses’.  This isn’t a thesis. To a layperson, with no background in the relevant field, any claim or argument that is new to them will appear to be ground-breaking.  That doesn’t mean that it is actually new, or useful, or even correct.

The purpose of peer review, of academic vetting, is to determine how well an argument or hypothesis can withstand criticism.  If the author of this book does not bother to go through this process, even unofficially, by having his book examined by experts prior to publication, then s/he does not have any grounds to claim that it is anything spectacular. That isn’t to say that an uncredentialed person cannot produce a solid book on a subject.  It may actually be ground-breaking, it may be earth-shattering, but if it hasn’t been vetted by other people with credentials then there is no means by which one can claim that it is.

Third, if you are ever unsure about whether or not someone has produced a new theory, and you are curious if this individual is trustworthy, as a journalist you have several options: (1) Google their CV—if they have a CV, check to see if they have some credibility (are academically published, have formal education or training in the relevant fields, etc…), (2) if you don’t trust Google, ask other scholars (your local University has them; they are underpaid—but they will help you), (3) engage with the material yourself (instead of, you know, just republishing the PR Web article or press release without any critical thoughts about it), (4) provide a basic caveat emptor that you are (presumably, as a journalist) not qualified to judge the arguments in the book and request your readers investigate the issue on their own critically, (5) don’t automatically label them as a Scholar, but look for signs (do they have a graduate degree or doctorate? Have they at least been published academically? Have they some engagement with scholars in a critical way? Are other scholars—not laypeople—praising their work? Aim for at least two of these three things before giving an individual press time).

What is perhaps most important to remember is that what you write will resonate with laypeople—your work, as journalists for professional news outlets, gives legitimacy to an idea.  So choose wisely and carefully.  It is your responsibility to examine the individual and the sources and their theories before you write on them.  If you fail to do so, you fail your audience.  The second you publish that article, it will be shared one-hundred, one-thousand, perhaps tens-of-thousands of times during its lifespan (before being dumped into a pay-wall archive).  So please, for the love of Pete, take the time needed to make sure that you are not putting a crank and their crazy conspiracy theory on a pedestal before you publish.  There is nothing more embarrassing for a journalist, I imagine, than highlighting a concept that is absolutely beyond credible.  And it drives people like me, who take history seriously, to drink.

(Author’s Note: I think it is important to state here that I have been diligent, over the past few years, to correct people about my credentials–those who confuse me for a scholar or an expert, I am quick to point out to them that, while I am a student, and I am in the guild, and I am academically published, that does not ipso facto make me an expert, a scholar, or professional historian.  When I publish, I vet my scholarship against other qualified, credible people so I know that what I put out to the guild is interesting and useful.  I haven’t always been so careful; in my past, I have made mistakes–quite similar to those made by Atwill, Ellis, Elkington, Jacobovici, and others–and I have worked hard to correct them.  So this all comes from experience; experience in the guild and outside the guild.  I think that this is vital: even though I could, by all means, consider myself a historian–as both a member of the guild and as a published academic–I refuse to do so until I have the laurels and the degrees to back that up.  This is the difference between who I was, and who I am; it is the difference also between Atwill and me.)
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12 Responses

  1. ‘If the author of this book does not bother to go through this process, even unofficially, by having his book examined by experts prior to publication, then s/he does not have any grounds to claim that it is anything spectacular.’

    There is a self-published book called ‘The Burial of Jesus’ by James McGrath.

    Surely this self-published book can’t be the work of a crank?

  2. You are clearly incapable of reading the whole post; McGrath has published academically and is credentialed. Ergo he doesn’t fit with my example. I’ve specifically laid out points throughout the post that suggests that I’m speaking about someone that only self-publishes a book, without credentials, etc… Context is something you don’t do very well, Mr. Carr.

  3. While I share your antipathy towards self-proclaimed experts and sloppy journalists, I find a number of points in your post problematic.

    (1) There are and always have been self-taught experts and scholars. The odds of finding genuine scholarship in a self-published work may be small, but I doubt that they are zero.

    (2) While it may be true that a thesis does not actually break any ground or shatter any earth until it is vetted, it is not the vetting that makes the idea groundbreaking or earth-shattering. A tree that falls in a forest makes a sound even if no one is there to hear it.

    (3) In the field of New Testament studies, I wouldn’t count on consulting with recognized scholars as a guide. Many of the credentialed scholars who might alert a journalist to the problems with Atwill’s work would offer an equally critical assessment of Carrier and Price, while at the same time lauding the historiography of blatantly apologetic works.

  4. So McGrath had the book examined by experts prior to publication?

    Why couldn’t he get this book through a peer-reviewed process? Did the process of peer-review fail him?

  5. Vinny,

    Thanks for commenting. Sorry it took so long to approve; I’ve been very busy. Let me address your concerns point by point:

    (1) I never said that the number was zero; in fact I was clear to state that, indeed, a self-published book by an uncredentialed person could in fact be ground breaking! I specifically mentioned that point because of course it could happen (and has happened in the past). The issue isn’t with whether or not it is a new or unique point, but whether it makes it to the right people–other academics who ARE qualified to review it. If it remains self-published, contra academia, then guess who won’t read it? Keep in mind, scholars have classes to teach, papers to grade, research of their own to do–they have specializations that require meticulous study within that area–and most will not find the time to be able to read what they want to read, let alone make the time for a self-published book by a nonexpert which they will view, according to probability, as something most likely waste their time. It is not up to the academic to read a self-published book by a nonexpert–it is up to the nonexpert to prove he knows enough to publish through academia or peer review. When s/he does that, the expert will be more inclined to take their claims seriously (because it shows that the nonexpert is serious enough about their scholarship to seek out peer reviews of it!).

    (2) Your point is interesting but unhelpful. Isn’t the point of a thesis something to be read or vetted? Isn’t the point of a ground breaking work to break ground? A tree may make a sound if no one sees it fall, but still no one will know the tree fell!

    (3) Perhaps you’re right, but I for one am not yet ready to throw up my arms in defeat and just give up; resigning myself to a life of amateurism because ‘whaaaa, scholars aren’t listening to me’ may appease some, but I’m not that fatalistic. ;-) If I put in the work and the time, earn my laurels, it may take a while, but I’ll be heard. And there are hundreds of examples of that in academia. It takes a lot of time for ideas to be vetted in academia–sometimes years–though with technological advancements and less rigid feelings towards academic online publishing that may decrease. We just have to wait and see.

  6. Carr, you think you’re being clever but really you’re falling short. How do you know he hasn’t published peer reviewed bits of his full work? Have you gone on JSTOR to see? Have you asked James if he has published smaller samplings of his arguments in SBL? I know many scholars who publish small articles in journals that they later turn into chapters in their books.

  7. Stephen Carr,

    Out of curiosity, I took a look at the McGrath book you mentioned on Amazon and the description was as follows:

    “In The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith, Dr. James F. McGrath seeks to introduce a general audience to the methods historians apply to the study of the life of Jesus. Topics addressed include: how historical study work (and why historians regularly explore possibilities that religious believers find shocking); why Jesus’ disciples would have wanted to steal his body from the tomb; why later Gospel authors changed elements in Mark’s earlier version; and why Christian faith in the resurrection cannot be about what happened to a body almost 2,000 years ago.”

    This is obviously a general book for a popular audience and there is no thesis to be had. Bart Ehrman also writes academic books and popular books; the books Ehrman is most famous for were also popular books that did not go through a peer-review process; there is no point in doing so for such a book.

    On the other hand, another book by McGrath that did have a thesis (The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context) was published by University of Illinois Press

  8. […] published under peer review) recently wrote a piece related to that very subject entitled, “On Scholars and Kooks: A Few Simple Guidelines for Journalists in Popular Media.” It’s well worth the time. Here’s a […]

  9. Would Carrier, then, calling himself a scholar of Christian origins without training in biblical scholarship make him a scholar or a kook?

  10. He has the credentials in a relevant field. So, not sure I understand your question.

  11. What makes your comment even stranger is that you haven’t seemed to read my article entirely; Carrier meets all the requirements: academically-published, PhD in the relevant fields (read up on his degrees before claiming they aren’t), peer reviewed, proficient in ancient languages (studied under Bagnall at Columbia)…so not sure what you are doing besides trying to make waves at this point.

  12. Why do you think he has no training in Christian origins?

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