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.