On Using Terms Like ‘Incompetent’ to Describe Others in Academia

You all know the drill.  Someone disagrees with an argument made by someone else and they decide this person must be ‘incompetent’ because their argument is different.

This. Has. Got. To. Stop.

This tactic helps exactly zero people.  Unless someone is just plain wrong (i.e., they place the fall of Jerusalem in 40 CE, or something comparable which is completely bonkers, and they defend this point without any evidence), this polemical attack does nothing but alienate sides farther from each other without any real benefit to the audience.  Case in point:

“I will write a complete response to McGrath’s entire review in a future post. However, for now I am incensed enough at his outright incompetence (or is it plain old intellectual dishonesty?) and failure to write a straight and truthful account of Brodie’s Memoir that I will address just one of his remarks.”

Now whether or not James McGrath is missing something, or he is not reading Brodie sympathetically, or he is merely interpreting Brodie differently, is obviously an important part of a discussion.  But this does not ipso facto implicate James as ‘incompetent’ (he isn’t) or ‘dishonest’ (simply because he disagrees with something).  James holds advanced degrees which he could not have earned had he been incompetent (incompetence is when someone barely passes or fails a course–these people don’t generally find work in academia and I doubt many could write a successful dissertation) and he would never have received his Bachelors had he been dishonest (dishonest people are the sort who copy-verbatim-Wikipedia articles and turn them in as assignments; this is something I’ve witnessed happening in my own classes).

So let’s be clear.  James is not incompetent and he is not dishonest.  Is James perhaps guilty of not fully reading the material on which he writes?  Perhaps.  He has been called on this before–but this doesn’t make him incompetent.  It doesn’t make him dishonest.  And if one were to simply direct James to the information responsibly–you know, like civil human beings will do–then James can then correct or amend his claims based upon information he may have missed.  As an academic, James has many responsibilities–responsibilities that an amateur like Mr. Godfrey cannot understand fully (as he does not have these same responsibilities–nor would he likely want them).  But this is why so little is ever fruitful in conversations with Mr. Godfrey.  Every response James gives, regardless of its tone, is understood by Mr. Godfrey as an attack or assault upon some cherished belief.  He will likely interpret this very post as some aggressive move against him, rather than the constructive criticism it is.

So maybe we can start treating each other with a little more respect here?  Maybe we can do away with all the polemical name calling?  It is intolerable and I find that I have a hard time reading through all the vitriol to find the point that is being made.

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16 Responses

  1. When I saw the title of your post, I thought maybe it was going to be about Carrier v. Fischer.

  2. Hear, hear.

  3. ‘And if one were to simply direct James to the information responsibly–you know, like civil human beings will do–then James can then correct or amend his claims based upon information he may have missed.’

    Yes, that happens all the time. McGrath is forever correcting his blog posts when it is pointed out to him what he has missed.

  4. When things are pointed out in a manner becoming a respectful conversation, he absolutely apologizes and admits his error.

  5. Can you explain please to interested readers which of James’s blog posts you consider the most instructive, worthwhile and valuable?

  6. Sorry, but I am not going to go through thousands of blog posts to answer your sarcastic and useless question.

  7. Is it possible for someone to be a “competent” phrenologist? It seems to me that no matter how rigorous the course of study one undertook, one couldn’t overcome the fact that those little bumps don’t actually contain the information that phrenologists are supposed to find. On the other hand, I don’t know that you could call someone who had mastered the techniques an “incompetent” phrenologist.

    I tend to think that the information that historical Jesus scholars are looking for isn’t actually contained in our sources and that the techniques that they have developed are seriously flawed no matter how proficiently they might be applied. Nevertheless, I do think that it is more properly treated as a problem with the general methodology of the field rather than the competency of individual scholars.

  8. Out of interest, can you take a degree in phrenology at Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard? Are degrees in phrenology accepted by graduate employers? Are there PhDs in phrenology?

    Do modern phrenologists collaborate with other psychologists or would you find a phrenologists editing a mainstream psychology publication? Do phrenologists become fellows of the British Academy?

  9. My best guess would be “no” to all your questions Paul, but I really don’t think that historical Jesus studies and phrenology are equivalent fields. That was just an illustration to make a point.

  10. There seems to be a great deal of Neil Godfrey calling people in academia ‘dishonest’ in the past week.

    I wonder why.

  11. Because like you he is a conspiracy theorist and views all criticism as a personal attack.

  12. Oh, I was under the impression that people had been swearing that they were not committing perjury, and then changing the system date on their machine, forging emails to Godfrey and then producing a screenshot of the their system – with the change date/time application clearly visible as open!

    In Britain, falsifying instruments is a serious legal offence, especially when you have sworn that you have not committed perjury.

    In the States, perhaps they take a more lenient view.

  13. And that is what makes you wrong.

  14. Some time ago, McGrath offered an analogy between mythicists and Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists. When I pointed out that this was shamefully offensive, McGrath played coy, as though he was mystified that anyone could take it this way. This went from coy to feigning his own offence that I would read him this way.

    I generally (legitimately) avoid the polemic, and have always enjoyed courteous dialogue even on the most polemical of blogs dealing with the most polemical of issues, because 99% of the time I ignore the rhetoric. For the most part, I agree with your appraisal here. I’ve long maintained that Neil and James are both prone to polemic, and the conversation is likely to go nowhere between them (though they also both seem to enjoy it, so to each their own, I suppose).

    But in the discussion I speak of, McGrath *was* being dishonest. I know this because I share your conviction that he isn’t incompetent, and one would have to be to fail to realize that such drivel is anything other than inflammatory nonsense.

    He dug his heels in somewhat, and we’ve all been in the unfortunate position where we’ve dug our own hole too deep, and I make allowances for that. But I’ll never read anything he says the same, and I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

    I have to read everything he writes with a keener eye to rhetorical sleight of hand than I might for most (I feel the same way about Neil, for different reasons, lest you think I’m only aiming one way, but you and I seem to be in agreement that Neil is too much the polemicist), because past experience has taught me that he will use them and swear up and down that it’s nothing more than reasonable conversation.

    Do I think he’s incompetent? Certainly not. Do I think we should describe him as “dishonest?” No. And in the huge majority of cases he isn’t. But do I think he *will* be dishonest if it allows him to make a point, or cling to a point he’s failed to make? Well, I know he has. I have to anticipate that he may again.

  15. Very well said Tom

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