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.

On the Doherty-McGrath-Godfrey Exchange

Perhaps the title of this post should read ‘Why we need to watch our terminology’, but I thought that might have been too vague.  Still, I must wonder why I am seeing so much aggression on both sides.  In my attempt to remain impartial, it seems I have alienated myself from Godfrey.  I’d like to address his criticisms and use this as a tool to highlight the problem with the current position Godfrey takes.  He writes:

Tom Verenna has written (naively, in my view, but that is forgivable) that he equates the scientific method itself with the academic publishing processes. But less forgivable is that, without even having read Rene Salm’s book, he has web-posted the very same sorts of ignorant falsehoods and insults as McGrath has leveled at Doherty and others, also without reading their works or being able to outline their arguments in anything but their own straw man versions.

I’m not sure I’ve equated the scientific method with academic publishing, but I do agree with McGrath, as well as Carrier, that publishing academically is one way in which competency can be judged and tested.  With peer review (especially blind peer review), what you write is subjected to an process whereby other legitimate academics who are certified in the field examine your arguments, your use of the language, the translations you provide, and determine if they meet a level of competency  necessary to publish.  It is not infallible and has at times failed.  I can name a few peer reviewed papers that are quite atrocious, which have the most bizarre arguments, that still make it through.  But doesn’t that make an interesting point?

Doherty and Godfrey have argued that peer review, in an academic setting, is a trend for those who belong to the ‘elite club’ of the white tower of ivory, where those with dissenting perspectives against the status quo of the academy cannot gain access.  Yet many dissenting perspectives not only get through, and published, they get reviewed and they get discussed.  Again, the process isn’t perfect, and at times studies get missed that shouldn’t (like Michael Vines’ great work on the genre of the Gospel of Mark), but overall with continued publishing they will get noticed by the community eventually.  And if the study is good enough, compelling enough, and argued thoroughly enough, the study will prove to change, at least a portion, of the academic community.  And sometimes that is most for which you can ask.  After all, just as any group of people, the community is made up of all sorts from a variety of social backgrounds, with differing opinions, and different politics, and different religious convictions.  You cannot hope to convince everyone, and you’re lucky if you convince anyone.

However, when one resigns themselves to publish without going through this process, they deserve what they get from the community.  Its a part of paying your dues.  You don’t sell a lot of books, but that isn’t the point.  If Doherty had sought an academic publisher for his book, or even if he had sought publication for a chapter or two, in a peer reviewed journal, his ideas and views would be read directly by the academic community.  He would be subjected to their reviews, both good and bad. McGrath would be forced to interact with these reviews, as they come from the community, and he wouldn’t be able to (or at least, he couldn’t be accused of) gloss over points or misrepresent, or ignore certain aspects of Doherty’s thesis.  There would always be another academic review, whether by RBL or some other reviewing house, which countered him, or which held a more impartial perspective.  But since Doherty has chosen instead to throw stones from his glass house, well outside of the academy, why should McGrath, or anyone else, take him seriously?  It is only by luck that I have the friends I do, where sometimes I am taken seriously (and I have an academic publication forthcoming!).

As for Salm, that is an interesting critique.  Salm sent me six tracts (no bigger than small pamphlets) ‘for scholars’ which I felt not only fell short of what was needed to prove his case, but that he neglected to address the criticisms against his position.  I feel his position, that Nazareth didn’t exist when it is said to have existed, is patently ridiculous as he currently argues for it and we have more than sufficient reason to accept its place in the first century landscape.  If Salm wants to prove his case, he should seek to publish his finds in ASOR, present a paper at a conference for ASOR or some other society (and there are more than a few that would find Salm’s position interesting).  I never said there was no way he could be right, but as he has presented it in the past, and his reluctance to present it in an academic setting now, suggests to me that even he realizes he has no case.  If he did he would join ASOR or some other society and present it.  The change he seeks will not come overnight, but it will be heard, examined, and the academic discussion on the subject can happen.  And when it happens, it will either validate or invalidate his position.

The past and youth are forgivable, but quite some time ago I asked Tom if he still holds these views or wishes to retract them and I am still waiting to receive a reply to that particular query.

Well, Neil, there is your answer.

Tom on his blog has more recently given the same excuse as Stephanie Fisher has given for the likes of McGrath and West: that is, in effect, that these are really very nice chaps when you get to know them personally. I am sure they are. So this excuses their public discarding of basic human respect and scholarly standards when targeging those who hold views they detest? And those who just happen to judge them at their public word are at fault for failing to realize that behind those ad hominems and misrepresentions is really a very nice chap?

No, Neil, you are quite wrong.  I am not ‘giving an excuse’ for their behavior.  Nor am I sanctioning McGraths’ misrepresentations.  Had you bothered to read my blog, you would note I have often gone out of my way to check McGraths’ more hyperbolic comments and have, on more than one occasion, warned him about the fallacious distinctions he sometimes makes.  However, you have not helped yourself, Neil.  You’ve become an isolationist and as a result have caused yourself to have spiteful comments directed towards you.  I will give you the same advice I gave John Loftus.  If you want to parlay with the academic community, you need to grow some thicker skin–especially if you’re arguing against consensus.  I know for a fact that the biggest criticism against my forthcoming book is that I am not certified; and it is a valid criticism.  My hope is that many will look past it, and some might find the arguments more worthwhile than my status

My comments towards McGraths’ personality are quite irrelevant and I’m not sure how you came to associate them with my opinion towards James’ position on historicity of the figure of Jesus and his remarks towards those with opposing views.

And Tom’s reply above pointing to certain mythicists (e.g. Zeitgeists) demonstrates my point about his using the same tactic of politician-speak in his response to me earlier. When I spoke about McGrath’s unprofessional attacks on Doherty’s book and even on Doherty personally, Tom avoids (and thereby implicitly excuses) the issue by replying that “mythicists” have given “historicists” as hard a time as they have received themselves.

They are, and they have.  I fail to see how one as smart as you might fail to see the problems associated with your own arguments and the rhetoric you use in your own posts.  You seem to ignore the fact that your argument is really not academic.  It isn’t even credible.  This is a very serious charge in the academic community.  Doherty is in the same position.  Sans his degree, which is noteworthy, he is not published and he is arguing a point which is strongly unsupported in the community.  There are ways of doing things, as there are in any field, and you have both, as well as others, ignored the rules of engagement.  If you have a case, publish it.  It will either stand for itself or crumble under the weight of scholarly examination.  But you can’t expect McGrath, nor anyone, to presume to take you seriously when you don’t event take your own arguments seriously enough to seek to present them in an academic manner.

And this is where McGraths’ point is solidified.  When he compares you to creationists, he isn’t speaking about the idea that Jesus might not have existed historically.  He would not levy such a criticism against those who are agnostic about the historicity of such a figure.  No, he is lobbying against your unrealistic approach.  You complain that scholars don’t take you seriously, but you don’t do anything ‘scholarly’.  You don’t publish, you don’t use caution in your conclusions (you and Doherty state that affirmative that Jesus never existed rather than the more agnostic approach), you don’t appreciate the scholarly process, and then you wonder why scholars ignore you.  McGrath is absolutely correct: this is just the same approach that creationists take.

This is what I meant by remaining silent in the face of clear, demonstrable and unequivocal abuse of one’s status as a public intellectual.

Being a public intellectual doesn’t mean you’re right, or that you automatically deserve respect.  Respect is something to be earned, not given freely.

Tom’s silence when faced directly with this question implies complicity. His apparent failure to renounce his own irresponsible and ignorant attacks on Salm’s book without even having read it is as reprehensible as anything we see from McGrath himself. (Sorry, no it is not as bad as McGrath’s standards. McGrath is a fully qualified academic and professor.)

I’ll ignore the subtle ad hom, but I will not excuse your abuse of my integrity.  I have indeed read Salm’s tracts on Nazareth, which he sent me.  I will gladly upload pictures of the tracts I have.  I remain unconvinced because he refuses to engage scholarship directly.  I can’t accept his conclusions at face value without knowing the other arguments, but I can’t know them since most archaeologists are unaware or simply don’t care because he hasn’t published them where they can read them and examine them as a community.   My criticism of Salm remains the same now as it did when I first pointed a finger at him, which is surprisingly the only argument I still feel compelled to agree with myself on from that period in time.  “I consider … Salm’s book on par with that of Joe Atwill’s book, Caesar’s Messiah. It’s the same sort of poor scholarship and ridiculous misuse of the evidence. Both present extreme theories with little regard for the authorities. Both make claims that are really unbacked by scholarship. Both, to my knowledge, never went through peer review. Both have been confronted by scholars and both refuse to revise their arguments based on those criticisms that cannot be countered.  As I said – they could be right, and … Nazareth [may] never have existed [after all]…. Even worse is that scholarship is against them in almost every regard,… the evidence is stacked in opposition. And it’s not because their position is an impossibility, but simply because there is no good reason to accept their position based on probability. Bluntly, the only conclusion one can draw from the evidence is that Nazareth existed.”  I don’t think I was unclear (even though I believe I write better now than I did then).  I don’t think I’m being unclear now.

I am quite sure Tom, James et al are all very nice people to have a drink and discuss the weather with, and that they are the most congenial of folks at conferences and, by and large, hold themselves to the right professional dealings with one another. But when faced with outside critiques — like people who have one respectable persona in their public lives but have “issues” when back at home — outright intellectual dishonesty and malicious slander are, well, not unknown.

Intellectually dishonest?  Slander?  I haven’t slandered anyone, nor have I been intellectually dishonest.  If you feel that way, Neil, I have to believe you are deluding yourself.

I understand that if one wants to get ahead in a guild one must play the game. Hoffmann has acknowledged that the reason the question of the nonhistoricity of Jesus is not more on the agenda among scholars has more to do with concern for security of academic appointments than “common sense”.

This is quite incorrect.  The reason why the historicity of Jesus is not considered in modern scholarship has nothing to do with ‘playing it safe’ but, rather, has everything to do with there not being a study published which raises the question.  And yes, there is a game to be played.  It’s called the game of method and exposure.  You follow the methods and show them through exposure to the community.  If you are that insecure about your conclusions, then I can’t help you and nobody else can either.

So I understand that to be accepted into the club one must learn to think a certain way.

How naive and ignorant.  Nobody is forced to think a certain way; if that were the case, we would still be uttering church law and dogma at all academic conferences and at the beginning of every paper.  And rather than discussing the intricacies of intertextuality in the Gospels we would be singing hymns and praises towards the miracles of Jesus.  This is a completely fallacious and slanderous statement about the status of current scholarship, and speaks volumes about ones own understanding and misgivings about the academic process.  The whole PhD process is bent around producing a new and unique work in the field.  Quoting the so-called ‘status quo’ is not going to get one anywhere.  It won’t even get them by a PhD board.  They’ll probably be cited for plagiarism.  The ‘status quo’ argument is nothing more than a myth, idealized by those who refuse to do what is necessary to earn respect.

And the only thing one must do to ‘join the club’ is to be realistic.  You’re being ‘anything but realistic’ in your analysis.

But that club is only showing its tribal side when some of its members can crucify certain targeted incorrect outsiders while the rest of its members find excuses to remain silent.

Again, if you believe I’ve been silent, Neil, you’re delusional or just not paying attention.

I do Love Espresso…

…and mild roast suits me just fine, indeed.  Otagosh has a humorous overview of the ongoing dialogue between James McGrath and Neil Godfrey over at his blog.  He writes:

I view the ongoing dialogue (or perhaps “exchange of fire”) between Neil Godfrey and James McGrath as a sideline spectator who really doesn’t know who to cheer for. My heart pulls me one way, my head the other. Neil takes a hardline mythicist position while James cautions “just hold on there cobber.” James has a nuanced position, but such niceties are often lost in this sort of debate. So when someone like Thomas Verenna enters the discussion, it’s helpful to see the issues from a third-party perspective.

If James chooses decaff and Neil takes his dark roast with an extra shot, I suspect Thomas prefers his espresso mild roast, double shot. I enjoyed his book Of Men and Muses very much (hopefully the second edition will purge the distracting typos.) Over on his Musings blog he responds to some of James’ reservations with (what seems to me) some well made points.

via Otagosh: Jesus Mythicism – decaff or extra shot?.

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