Monday, April 27, 2015


[My post this month exactly parallels the current post on my other blog, http://darwinsracism.blogspot.com. Same title and the same first six paragraphs. Each post then gives examples appropriate to each field of how scholars blind themselves to the evidence.]
When I was a kid, sometime in high school, I think, I bought a paperback book called “30 Days To A More Powerful Vocabulary”, or maybe it was a better vocabulary. I think I still have it, buried in a box somewhere. I got my money’s worth with that book. It did its job and I did feel my word power grow. It made learning an entertaining exercise. I remember it had single-panel cartoons throughout the book. The one that stuck with me was of a young boy who had just returned home from school and says to his mother, “I learned a new word in school today, Mom. Try and surmise what it is.” It still gets a laugh out of me.
A couple of weeks ago, I learned a new term from a journalist on NPR: Epistemic closure. He described it as a condition in which a person is so sure of his own position that he will not hear any evidence to the contrary. I have been talking about that for years and never knew there was an expression for it. I was kind of delighted that there is now a name for it, but then I immediately had doubts about its usefulness. Is it good to have a name for something, and a fancy one at that? Sometimes naming something can help bring attention to a problem, but with something like this, the condition has been described for a long time and where has it gotten us?
And would a simpler term or description be more useful?
For a very long time now, I have frequently quoted Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haitian historian among other things, who wrote, “Worldview wins over the facts.” (I recently checked on Amazon and found that his incredibly enlightening book Silencing the Past has recently been reissued in an anniversary edition.) Trouillot’s simple sentence is a more powerful description of what epistemic closure points to. You could also say ideology wins over the facts. He used it to describe how Europeans could not accept that there was a slave rebellion going on in Haiti which was defeating European armies. So they explained the facts away to fit their worldview that, on the one hand, slaves were too docile to desire much less fight for freedom, and on the other hand, they were not skilled enough to defeat European might.
If “Worldview wins over the facts” does not hit your over the head like a ton of bricks, I don’t see why epistemic closure would be any more instructive. In True Jew, I described the same condition this way: The less we see, the more we know. That captures what scholars in many fields do. All these expressions do. Usually what happens is that tradition has handed them a certain point of view, and while scholars are fond of spinning it in ways that sound like something new is being said, nothing new happens at all. The same tale gets told over and over again, and everybody is convinced, “We don’t need no stinking evidence” because our worldview or ideology tells us everything we need to know. Our knowledge is closed down. It closed a long time ago. It would be too much trouble to open it up now.
Let’s face it: It’s all about telling lies and getting away with it. Lying is its own reward. What is shocking is that the lies can be bold-faced and still they get away with it. You know it’s a closed discussion when everybody is content with the lies that are being told.
Look at what happens in historical Jesus scholarship. We are repeatedly told that it was one of the duties of high priests to work with Romans to identify, arrest, and prosecute Jewish troublemakers. Supposedly, they shared a common concern. It does not trouble any scholar that there is not one stitch of evidence to justify this and that there are several pieces of evidence to contradict it. Their worldview tells them all they need to know about Jewish leadership, or ancient Jewish culture for that matter, and that makes evidence completely beside the point.
What historical Jesus scholar does not love to sum up ancient Judaism as being about Temple, rituals, and purity concerns, or some such combination? A highly inaccurate description of Jewish culture in Jesus’ time. Closer to the mark would be this: the fight for constitutional government, justice, and peace. But no scholar will tell you that because it will make ancient Jews look too good and they will no longer be able to serve as a foil for an idealistic Jesus. But whatever ideals Jesus had came directly from his own culture. That’s a secret, don’t tell anyone, or the wrath of scholars will come down on you.
These days, New Testament scholars shy away from declaring that Jesus was subjected to a hostile trial by Jewish leaders (for one thing, everyone knows that the details in the Gospels do not fit what ancient Jewish trials looked like), so they try to spin it in a softer way by calling it a hearing. It does not trouble them that there is no evidence that ancient Judaism knew anything about hearings. The truth is that ancient Jews held a judicial procedure to determine guilt or innocence on some matter, or not. The evidence in the Gospels says they held no such judicial procedure for Jesus. But scholars cannot face that simple conclusion, so they try to spin it in ways that will maintain the traditional story, while they only appear to say something different.
You can plead and plead with scholars until you are blue in the face that it is possible to reach a better understanding of ancient Jewish culture and Jesus’ happy place within it, that ancient Jewish leaders did not persecute him or help Rome to execute him, because neither the evidence in the Gospels or from other sources on ancient Judaism support such a misguided hypothesis, and all that will happen is that scholars will sneer at you and say, We don’t need any more evidence, thank you very much, we have all our knowledge wrapped up with a bow, and the evidence can take a hike. We have our epistemic closure. Hasn’t anyone ever told you that the less we see, the more we know? How dare anyone dispute that! What more is there to research?
Research is for discovering facts and shaking up our worldviews. Historical Jesus scholars will have none of that. Those who are not busy being shook up everyday are busy dying (that’s what epistemic closure means), and that’s just the way most scholars want it. Spinning in a circle, never going anywhere, never moving from that fixed spot, that center that never changes, spinning the evidence until it says nothing we do not want to hear. Whatever you call it, it is the end of learning anything.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer

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