Who Can You Believe?

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It’s too good not to be true.

It’s easy to feel that way when you come across a news article, Facebook post, speech, or seminar that coincides nicely with your strongest convictions. Unfortunately, what psychologists call “confirmation bias” inclines us to pay attention to such information and immediately credit it with veracity while we brush aside whatever does not prove the point we want proven.

Recently, the academic world was set a-twitter (so to speak) by the work of three scholars who embarrassed several major journals. In a rather complicated hoax—or, perhaps better, “sting” operation—they jointly composed articles including what they felt were abhorrent or nonsensical ideas and tried to get them accepted for publication in leading organs of what they darkly called “grievance scholarship.” (Look up “Sokal Squared” for more.)

They did so because they were concerned that in too many instances, bad scholarship was being validated by publication in good journals—including some of these. The bad scholarship had the virtue, so to speak, of confirming the bias of the journal’s editorial slant, and it was thus slipping by the normal “quality control” of properly rigorous peer review.

Bad scholarship doesn’t help even the noblest cause. In fact, it discredits it. So these self-proclaimed left-leaning scholars aimed to warn people with whose views they were largely sympathetic that just because a study comes to a convenient conclusion and is couched in language true believers find congenial doesn’t mean it’s actually telling the truth and contributing to knowledge.

A few decades ago, a group of African-American scholars, led by the likes of Leonard Jeffries of New York, suggested that most or all of the great accomplishments of ancient western civilizations—from Egypt to Mesopotamia to Greece—originated among black Africans. In fact, to blur the historical picture even more, the “Afrocentrists” claimed that ancient Egypt itself was dominated by black Africans.

This patently preposterous view was defended not so much on its accuracy as on its usefulness. It would be “empowering” for African Americans to believe this idea, and many, for at least a while, did. It became popular enough, in fact, to show up in Michael Jackson’s video, “Remember the Time.” I even had to deal with a couple of students defending it in my world religions classes at the University of Manitoba in the mid-1990s.

What was supposed to be empowering, however, fairly quickly became an occasion for ridicule, and the cause of black dignity took an unnecessary hit. And a similar dynamic is at stake in this hoax. There is important research and reflection being conducted in departments of women’s studies, black studies, native studies, and the like. But such work will have bite, it will gain traction with those not already convinced, only if the work is of a consistently compelling quality.

Likewise, of course, for any argument on behalf of religion. In Christian circles, yes, but also in Islamic, native Canadian, atheistic, and other fervent circles as well, far too many people are getting away with telling tall tales based on slender evidence to audiences eager to believe. So what should the prudent person do?

Check the credentials. On academic matters, a PhD from a reputable university is not a sign of mastery, but of minimal professional familiarity with the field. Less than a doctorate? Unless his name is “C. S. Lewis,” you’re not likely dealing with an expert.

Check the work. Has the person published serious scholarship on the issue at hand? Don’t be dazzled by an engineer or physician or psychologist, no matter how eminent in his or her profession, who decides to cross over to declaim about evolution, or postmodernism, or the nature of the divine. Would you trust a theologian or philosopher to teach you about bridge-building, or thoracic surgery, or bipolar disorder?

Check the opponents. Too many pundits just move serenely from one adoring crowd to another. Has your source interacted seriously with the best critics of his or her position? Are those critics treated respectfully or contemptuously? And what do those critics say about your source?

Lots of people are trying to sell us lots of things these days. Just because it looks good and because you badly want it to be good doesn’t mean you should grab it, buy it, and drink it.

Check the label carefully. Snake oil in your favourite flavour looks and sounds good, too…

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).