Monday, May 11, 2009

Appeals to "the majority of scholars"

I am just finishing work on a comprehensive bibliography of Michael Goulder and came across this enjoyable footnote in an essay on the resurrection (“The Explanatory Power of Conversion-Visions”. In Paul Copan, and Ronald K. Tacelli (eds.), Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment? : a Debate between William Lane Craig & Gerd L├╝demann (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 2000): 102).  where, in context, he is discussing the views of William Craig, who appeals to "the majority of scholars":
One should always be wary when appeal is made to "the majority of scholars," for it tends to exclude any new idea.  Where would Galileo or Darwin have got to if they had bowed to it?
And I suppose too that the point should be extended to the reception of new ideas, not just the instigation of those new ideas.  Lots of new ideas turn out to be horribly wrong, but it is rarely a good argument against them to appeal to what the majority thinks.

I wonder if it is one of those areas where we allow ourselves to be unduly influenced in our research and writing by the constraints of pedagogy.  When we teach, we naturally have to paint a picture of the majority view, even where we disagree with that view.  Perhaps our attempts to understand where the majority view is can inadvertently cause us to give value to that view and so to argue as if good scholarship is about counting heads.


Bob MacDonald said...

Goulder is very creative in his reconstruction of the time of the psalms of the children of Korah - (Goulder. Michael, The Psalms of the sons Korah JSOT 1982) his appeal is greater for the imaginative use of flowing water than the dour inferences about liturgical usage of psalms. The old liturgies have passed but the mountain streams still flow.

Majorities win votes - but the gate is narrow and few find it.

James F. McGrath said...

I think this is an important point - provided one also notes that "the majority of scholars" have come to accept the key insights of Darwin and Galileo, while also improving on them further still.

"The majority of scholars" surely has its place as a not inappropriate way of pointing out a widespread consensus. And if we either allow that to stifle new ideas, or we encourage crackpots to think that the rejection of their ideas by "the majority of scholars" is a sign of their genius, then we've left out something important.

At least, that's what "the majority of scholars" thinks about this subject. :)

Michael Barber said...

Scot McKnight has a good line: "... scholarship can rarely appeal to a consensus for anything other than moral support" ("Jesus of Nazareth," in The Face of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Recent Research [eds. S. McKnight and G. R. Osborne; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004], 170).

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Yes, the phrase "majority of scholars" often signals a shutting down of the discussion to a new idea.

Interestingly, on the other hand, the phrase "the scholarly consensus" signals that the writer is about to challenge the status quo.

mwhitenton said...

Yes. I have seen the "majority of scholars" line pulled quite often too. Usually, when I come across it, it is used as a substitute for actual evidence.

As James has pointed out, it can serve to show a consensus. Of course, the majority may be wrong...