Monday, July 18, 2005

Less of a Consensus on Consensus

The general thread on Consensus, triggered by my post on Tom Wright on the Da Vinci Code and developed by Michael Pahl, then with further comments from Jim Davila, Jim West, Michael Pahl again and then me, is developing into a biblioblogging classic, now also with contributions from Ken Ristau, Ed Cook, Jim Davila again and Christopher Heard. The latter offers a "mild defense" (American sp.) of Jim West's comments:
. . . . While I can't endorse Jim's "definition" completely, Jim has hit on a tendency that is one of my own pet peeves. In my opinion, academics should immediately abandon the practice of using phrases like "It is generally agreed ..." as if those were arguments in favor of what follows. Sentences in the form "It is generally accepted that P," if they are true, serve at best as useful "tag lines" to a summary description of the state of scholarship on a particular topic (or public opinion, or whatever is under discussion). However, sentences like "It is generally accepted that P" can never prove the truth of P, because the number of people who agree that P is true is actually irrelevant to the question of whether or not P is true. Besides that, it seems to me that statements like "It is generally accepted that P" are quite often not true as they stand—by which I mean that P is often not as "generally accepted" as the statement claims.
Christopher is here bringing up some useful questions on the rhetoric of appeals to consensus, and I share some of Christopher's concern. As someone standing outside the consensus on one major issue (the Synoptic Problem), I have found it frustrating to see appeals to consensus used as an excuse for a refusal to think. Indeed, I have argued that the repetition of the consensus view simply because it is the consensus view is one of the things that has contributed to the dominance of that view. (As an aside, I have been happy to see on several occasions in recent years new students and new books speaking of the lack of consensus now on the Synoptic Problem; I sometimes hope that the tide might be turning). I'd like to add a couple of further comments on the way that appeals to consensus work:

(1) The kind of statement Christopher points to, "It is generally accepted that . . . " are as often, perhaps even more often, used in counter-consensus discussions. Have a look at the SBL Abstracts of a given year. Each time you get an abstract beginning with "It is generally accepted that . . ."; "it is axiomatic that . . ."; "the consensus on such and such is . . . .", you can be sure that it is the preface to someone who is about to disagree with that consensus, to attempt to break new ground in that area. This is one of the striking things about the use of this kind of language in scholarship -- sometimes you only begin to see that a consensus exists on a given issue when someone is smart enough or bold enough to question it. We've all experienced that thrill of being present at a paper that makes us seriously question a view which to that point we had taken for granted. An illustration: the existence of Gospel communities. It was the Bauckham edited book, The Gospels for All Christians that revealed the existence of a consensus so prevalent that no one up to this point was even bothering to argue for the existence of the thing this book was challenging. One of the things I love about the whole business of academia is the excitement of experiencing a convincing challenge to consensus.

(2) Appeals to consensus as an excuse for not thinking about the issue, or of bolstering an argument on something else, are indeed pretty lazy but I think that they are also quite vulnerable. I like to ask my students, if they do use one of those appeals, "But what is it about that consensus that you find persuasive?" I like to challenge people to try to think of fresh reasons for supporting a given consensus if they are persuaded by that consensus. And, as Christopher's remarks make clear, there is a danger in appealing to consensus when you may have someone respond with, "I disagree; I don't think the consensus lies there." And this is where this thread began, with my own remarks on where Tom Wright was placing the consensus, I thought incorrectly.

Update: Here's an article that looks worth reading on the general topic, John Poirier, “On the Use of Consensus in Historical Jesus Studies,” Theologische Zeitschrift 56 (2000): 97-107.

Update (20.33): Jim West comments.

Update (20.35): Joe Weaks comments:
. . . . Frankly, we can not decide for our own on every issue within Biblical scholarship--not even the most senior scholars can do that. One simply does not move from extensive study to the necessary intensive study of every single topic. We depend upon others' dating of material, generic conclusions, authorial speculations, etc. This is why we must be careful in these discussions to not suggest scholars, commentary writers, etc. should not appeal to consensus.

In the absence of it, we are empowerd to say nothing.
That's a useful corrective, but I don't feel so negative. Our field is not that huge. It only feels that way because of the increasing specialisation. And this is all a good reason for post graduate students to become minor experts in as many topics as possible. After all, one has to teach across a range of subjects; some intensive course work on a given topic can persuade one of how to approach a consensus well. Joe continues:
Having said that, a real downside is that the senior scholar is innately resistant to being convinced by an argument that overturns a consensus assertion when it would seem to render her/his past publications that assume that opinion outdated and hardly worth reading anymore. (The exception might be, of course, if the challenge to consensus is the work of their own scholarship.)
Again, I would not be quite so pessimistic. There are plenty of examples of scholars changing their mind on issues they've published on because they are persuaded by the evidence / the new presentation of the evidence. In the end, it is the ultimate test of a scholar's integrity and humility. Are you prepared to change your mind in the face of strong evidence and good argument to the contrary? Speaking for myself, I love getting a chance to change my mind on something when someone persuades me -- that's one of the great excitements of scholarship.

Update (Tuesday, 21.00): Jim Davila comments further and usefully on Paleojudaica, in particular to nuance one my points above:
. . . . We've even reached the point of specializations within specializations. It used to be that Qumran studies was a subfield of biblical studies. Now it is not only an independent field, it's one that itself contains various subfields. I can't form an expert opinion on every question in Qumran studies even though it's one of my areas of specialization . . . . When I teach -- even honours seminars on Qumran, let alone introductory Bible classes -- I rely very frequently on consensus positions rather than my own intensive research. I expect Mark does the same. If not, my hat is off to him.
Actually, I research everything I teach on in infinite detail and that's why I never sleep. No, of course. But I suppose that I like to encourage post graduate students to pursue the goal (fiction?) that it's possible to keep one's ear to the ground in such a way that one has a good feel for the lie of the land (sorry for the mixed metaphors). It's why attendance at conferences is so valuable, and attendance there at a range of presentations, if possible. It's why attendance at as many seminars at your own institution as you can make is valuable -- I always think it a mistake to cherry pick to the extent that you are preferring that extra hour and a half reading yet another article in the library vaguely related to your topic over going to hear a good speaker in the general area. And add to that that being a post-graduate can be a very lonely business -- it's always worth taking the opportunity to mix with people at seminars; goodness, you might even make some new friends! I am keeping the focus on post-graduate students because I think it is so easy there to get so very specialized on account of the need to get one's thesis finished, when the longer term goals of keeping a good bird's eye view are what will help, including with the thesis.


steph fisher said...

is John Poirier's article available on-line? Best, Steph

Poirier said...

Thanks for your interest. I'm not sure my article stands up to the quality of the recent interblog discussion, but I'd be happy to send you a copy. Contact me at -- John C. Poirier