Monday, November 28, 2016


I reprint here an email I recently sent to a radio show.  It is highly unlikely they will use it.  It simply repeats points I have made all along here, but perhaps I do it more succinctly in this email, so it's worth presenting:

You will probably think this is going beyond the question you asked, but the problem you identified—products that are suboptimal but are ubiquitous—is really part of a larger problem of tradition or ideology preventing us from seeing an obvious solution to something.  It happens all the time in historical studies, and in a way, history is a product that is used every day, often to ill effect.

My example concerns Judas.  His name is a synonym for traitor. We use it that way all the time. It is frequently so used to great harm. It is an understatement to say this is a suboptimal solution to the evidence we have. Almost all the evidence we have concerning Judas is ambiguous. (Only one piece is unequivocally negative which is the allegation that he stole from the poor; the Gospels do not even use the Greek word for betray to describe his action.) By ambiguous, I mean that the evidence is equally consistent with a hypothesis and the opposite, or nearly opposite, hypothesis. In Judas’s case, all the evidence is consistent both with the hypothesis that he betrayed Jesus and the hypothesis that he was an innocent man falsely accused of betraying Jesus. Actually, some of it tips ever so slightly towards the second hypothesis, none of it tips towards the first.

I won’t go through the evidence here. I will just say this: Too many scholars think that 3 pieces of ambiguous evidence may not make a good case, but 20 pieces is much better. That is false.  The more ambiguous evidence you have, the worse your case is because it is a good sign that there is no unambiguous evidence for your theory. The rational question to ask is: Why is the story of Judas told with so much ambiguity? There is a rational, optimal answer to that.

I know I have gone beyond what you asked, but history as a practical product is a huge issue.

That was the end of the email. I will just add that it is a strange sort of life, when the only people who understand what you are doing are fictional. I am referring to the detectives we see on TV cop shows. They are brilliant at understanding not only how to solve a homicide, but also at understanding how preconceptions get in the way of solving the case.  I could sit down with any of these detectives and they would immediately get what I was doing.

But doesn't that mean that the writers who created these detectives get it?  Not necessarily.  The writers are only human. I imagine that in their personal lives they don't have the single-minded devotion to truth that their creations have. Real human beings are good at using reason selectively. They might solve a crime, but be very bad at solving controversial historical problems. Emotions get in the way. Preconceptions get in the way.  People are reluctant to give up an attachment to ideas that have been around for a long time and make them feel good. Hardly anyone feels good about the pure search for truth. I am always struck at how so many people find an intellectual adventure unexciting. Life is strange. Fiction is pleasant.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

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