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I know that’s a provocative title and might sound extreme. However, it’s actually less extreme than the quotation I ran across today by 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote in his diary in 1850:

Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion — and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion … while Truth again reverts to a new minority.

[Source: Soren Kierkegaard, The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard, pt. 5, sct. 3, no 128 (1850)]

Søren Kirkegaard statue Copenhagen, Denmark

Søren Kirkegaard statue, Copenhagen, Denmark. Via Wikimedia Commons.

That’s a profound idea, and it makes me think about controversies today that center around the “consensus” opinion on questions of science and scholarship. Consensus is a tricky idea, because consensus occurs within a population, and how the consensus emerges depends on how big you draw the circle of people who are allowed to participate.

The problem of consensus comes up these days around the question of evolution. If you drew the circle of participants around the population of biology professors at major American universities, you might conclude that belief in evolution is the consensus opinion, and therefore the majority. But if you drew the circle around the entire adult population, you would get a more mixed result, because many lay people believe in creation. And me? These days, when someone asks me whether I believe in evolution, my usual response is, ‘Well that’s kind of complicated to answer, because I find that people don’t always mean the same thing when they talk about evolution. What does that word mean to you?’

Another magnet for the idea of consensus these days is climate change. One important narrative is that the consensus among climate scientists is that the heat balance of the earth system is increasing because of the greenhouse effect. Another narrative basically says, ‘No, that’s wrong,’ and keeps itself busy by poking holes in the consensus climate science. I’ve decided that where you stand on this issue says more about your ideological leanings than about your science literacy. But it emphasizes again that the idea of consensus is tricky and contingent.

I ran into the problem of consensus again recently, when a Jewish friend opened a Facebook discussion by claiming that the consensus among archaeologists now is that the Hebrew nation was never in slavery in Egypt and didn’t wander in Sinai for 40 years. Therefore, the suggestion was, Jews should stop claiming that the Passover is based on historical events and admit that the whole story is a fiction. My friend linked to an article with kind of thin reasoning, written by an undergraduate in Middle East studies — see “Were Jews ever really slaves in Egypt, or is Passover a myth?” He also linked to “Were the Jews Slaves in Egypt?,” a more thoughtful piece by an actual professor, who writes more authoritatively (but who works in Bible studies, not archaeology, and seems really more interested in promoting his pet theories about the Hebrew Scriptures).

The question of the Hebrew exodus is an interesting topic, and I’m putting it on my to-do list to go into the topic more in depth in a future blog entry here. But it relates to this same issue of consensus and majority opinion. If the majority of archaeologists who are directly involved in Egypt and Sinai claim there is no evidence that a large nation of Hebrews lived in the area in the mid-second millennium BCE, what is their claim based on? What should we lay people think about it? Should we just assume they know what they’re talking about and accept it as gospel? Is there a minority opinion that questions the consensus? What are the minority’s arguments?

Anyway, I was struck by that Kierkegaard quote and wanted to pin it to the wall for future reference, because it’s a useful idea. The majority opinion can sometimes be intimidating and often works to get itself established as “The Official Version of the Truth.” Yet, majority and consensus are messy concepts, because whether an opinion is the majority depends on the population you are looking at, whether a narrow population of supposed experts or the larger population of everybody. In any case, all of us should be wary of accepting ideas credulously and taking the easy path of following the crowd.

Here are some previous pieces I’ve written about the question who gets to say what’s true:

“How Much Does Archaeology Really Reveal?”

“How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?”

Also applicable is this piece by a ‘colleague’: “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True”

Also, if you want to keep informed about future articles on this blog, and especially about my historical fiction series set in the ancient world, please sign up for my email newsletter here: http://eepurl.com/2U3Uf

ARK — 25 December 2014

 

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