Bandwagon arguments in academia

One of my pet peeves when reading academic arguments is the persistent and lazy use of the bandwagon fallacy – i.e. “many people think X, so X is right.” Although, in this particular version, it is more along the lines of “The vast majority of qualified scholars in this subfield think X, so X is right.”

Where should I begin my critique, I wonder? That popularity is no guarantee of validity? That popular ideas deserve to be interrogated just as much as unpopular ones? That the unprofessional arrogance displayed by using this fallacy is only trumped by its stupidity? That taking such a position attempts to cut off future productive scholarship at the knees? And, perhaps finally, that using it is a sure sign of the weakness of one’s position?

Yes, this is a target-rich environment, to be sure. Let’s try some examples.

Exhibit A: “Best Practices”

If I had a nickel for everytime someone appealed to “best practices” in my semi-home field of rhetoric and composition and its sister technical communication, I would be able to take my family out to a series of nice dinners.

Behind the concept of “best practices,” it turns out, is a crude bandwagon argument. To follow “best practices” in teaching in tech comm, for example, is to use the techniques that are well attested in the scholarship, supported by “name” academics whose “names” can be dropped liberally in conversation, and that are ultimately safe and uncontroversial.

Screw that.

I don’t care if 99.9% of the members of NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English, BTW) support a given mode of instruction. I only care about whether or not it works. Show me whether or not it works – not how popular it is, or what academics happen to endorse it. Give me evidence, not sponsorship.

I have known very few real top-flight scholars in my career thus far. If they have something in common, though, it would be that none of them follow trends or take a poll before they plant a flag. The pursuit of knowledge eschews such petty and empty considerations – and so does logic. Someone dedicated to such an ideal would never use popularity as evidence of anything except popularity. Academic arguments are to be evaluated on their own merits, not on whether or not they are in season.

So, in short, while “best practices” might have once had a more innocent connotation, now it just makes me irritable. It represents the worst of academia, when it is at its pettiest – when it is political.

Exhibit B – A Historical Jesus

I’m gearing up to teach the Synoptic Problem in “Studies in Religious Texts” again, so this has been on my mind of late. One of the subtopics that naturally comes up with the SP is how much of the gospel materials are based on any historical Jesus – which then leads to whether there was a historical Jesus, and if so, what can we say about him?

“Mythicist” arguments, arguing that Jesus has no historical basis and instead is a kind of assembled myth, are as old as the hills, dating back to the first pagan critics of Christianity. I’m agnostic on the issue due to what I see as a failure of everyone writing or speaking on the matter to make a decisive case (due to the paucity of evidence in any direction) but I am frankly peeved at the standard position – that mythicism is nonsense because no mainstream biblical studies or religious studies academic thinks there wasn’t a historical Jesus.

Now, I hardly need to point out at this point in my post that such an “argument” is one big bandwagon fallacy (as well as an argument to authority, but I’ll leave that one for some other day). It is telling a questioning undergraduate to sit down and shut up, pulling rank, asserting the primacy of one’s subdiscipline, and being an arrogant twerp, all at once. These are all things I despise and oppose.

So I have a certain sympathy for the mythicists as underdogs. That doesn’t mean they are right – they still have to make a case, and so far no smoking gun has appeared – but they have a decent case that is just as strong as the default one.

So why do they get such a hostile reception? Why the flippant and repeated use of the bandwagon fallacy in response (occasionally laced with a choice insult about one’s employment prospects, educational background, and sanity)?

Well, let’s return to rhetcomp for a moment. The most telling and long-lived idea in rhetcomp is process pedagogy – the belief that writing is a “process” rather than a “product” and should be taught accordingly as a series of repeating and mutally informing steps instead of emphasizing the text that results. Now, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of a single instance of a “process” compositionist slapping down anyone who challenged or questioned process by saying, “The vast majority of composition academics support process theory. Therefore, your argument is a fringe belief and  not worthy of a full treatment.” If such a pretentious mandarin exists, please send me a citation, but I don’t think one does.

Now, at the same time, there is that old chestnut mentioned before – “best practices” – that is used instead to enforce consistency. But as it turns out, “best practices” is mostly political cover, because it can mean whatever the instructor wants it to. Composition is a field full of rugged individualists. Some are old-school grammar mavens, some are process fanatics, some are post-process theorists, and others are expressivists, and others (really most) defy easy categorization. We know how to selectively cite. Some of us resist this, of course, but not all – not even most.

Back to the historical Jesus. There is a great wiki page that has collected countless putdowns of mythicists:

https://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/Christ_myth_theory

(they are all down near the bottom).

Perusing them will reveal that they are basically all variants of the same technique: bandwagon fallacy + insult to education, occupation, or sanity + optional ridiculous comparison to Holocaust denial.

Why are they all the same? Why so prevelant?

First, there is no downside. Picking on mythicists is a risk-free power projection. It’s functionally no different than a bunch of jocks stuffing a nerdy kid into a locker. I have more power than you, so in the locker you go. There is no penalty.

Second, more fundamentally, the nerdy kid is a existential threat. He represents a counterargument to the jocks’ primacy – that logic and curiosity might trump their relative powerlessness outside of the artificial world of the school. Similiarly, the biblical studies folks know their authority is severely limited outside of academia. Outside of it, free thought reigns. Can’t have that. The existing pecking order must be maintained, at least temporarily. In the locker you go.

In a perfect world, biblical studies academics would lay open the question of a historical Jesus. But in order to do that they would have to open their minds. And if you think the average person has trouble with that little task… well. It’s not a question of a threat to existence of the discipline. Opening up the question would doubtlessly lead to an explosion of relevant literature. It would be good for the field, showcasing at last a bit of historical respectability.

But the possibility is a clear a threat to individual egos – which is why I think the jock-bully comparison is apt. There is nothing more fragile than a bully’s ego. It has to be constantly fluffed and pampered like Donald Trump’s psuedo-hair, otherwise it falls apart. Why? Because, ultimately, there isn’t much under the combover. There is no defense for a historical Jesus that doesn’t special plead Christian sources – which brings me to my favorite example.

Exhibit #3 – The Book of Mormon

The non-Mormon academic consensus is that Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was a fraud. The Book of Mormon was not written from golden plates handed over by the angel
Moroni, but cobbled together from 19th century mythicism and the KJV. The jocks are very clear about this.

However, there is another body of academics that call themselves experts on the Book of Mormon – and they are all Mormons. They have all kinds of arguments supporting the authentic nature of the text, including sworn eyewitness statements – the famous “Three” and “Eight” – to the existence of the golden plates, literary analysis showing its originality (check out Orson Scott Card’s defense sometime – it’s fascinatingly doltish).

So there is a problem here, namely that there is more historical evidence for the inspired composition of the Book of Mormon than there is for Jesus – despite the fact that the form of the offered evidence – multiple “eyewitnesses” – is basically the same. And yet the mainstream historicans make quick sport of Smith, and defend Jesus’s historicity to the death.

How, do you wonder, can they expose as a fraud the recent formation of a religion so easily, but secure certain historicity for someone supposedly dead for nearly two thousand years for which we have no reliable non-Christian attestation?

The reason the dice keep coming up seven and eleven is not the incredible luck of biblical studies. It’s because the dice are loaded. And if you point this out? Well, the majority of academics support X. Back in the locker, you.

One more thing.

Another quality I have noticed in quality scholars, as opposed to average academics, is that they almost never defend anything. Instead, they assault. It might be an unexplored area, or an old position or subject has been neglected, or a trend that has spiraled out of control – but they are always aggressive, constantly stalking and pouncing like half-starved tigers, relentlessly seeking improved understanding.

Playing defense is, after all, the slow death of anything resembling intellectualism. You trade a life of seeking new ideas and understanding in for the apologetic goal of preserving the beliefs of the past, usually in exchange for minor power of some sort – employment, tenure,  social respectibility, money – the usual earthly rewards. Maybe you get paid in spirtual coin, but either way, sounds like a devil’s bargain for me.

But what do I know? I’m just an English professor, of questionable sanity, and probably deny the Holocaust in my spare time. My arguments couldn’t possibly have any merit. I’m a member of the lunatic fringe – a crackpot, a vertifable crank, a babbling child talking of adult things he couldn’t possibly comprehend.

And that is how the bandwagon fallacy is essentially the ad hominem fallacy in another guise; by elevating the group, it savages the individual. This is why it deserves the fiercest opposition we can muster.

On Fire

It is March 6 and I have sent out two articles for review this semester already. I have another draft nearly ready, due to send out April 2, and another April 15. With December’s piece still out, I will likely have five articles under review by April. That is a new record. My plan to front-load the writing this year in anticipation of Baby #2 is working very well.

Trying to get in as much Kingdom Come: Deliverance as possible after L goes to bed – it’s a great game.

Six projects

Yesterday I straightened out the mess on my desk and wrote a short document that lists the status of my various research projects. There are six of them currently:

1) A co-authored piece on tech comm textbooks with a graduate student that is nearly done – perhaps a month of revisions left. Let’s say March 1 to submit.

2) A co-authored piece on a curious example of WWII rhetoric. Again, perhaps a month’s work left. Again, let’s say March 1 to submit.

3) A single-author piece on a certain Attic Greek speech. This one is very ambitious, even a little daunting. I just started it, but I’m hot, so it should be done by April 2.

4) A tentatively accepted chapter in a collection on style, focusing on authorship. This one is not yet started, but I can cannibalize an existing draft for most of the content. This will require a trip to Rice’s library, though. I suspect this will take me all of two weeks, so April 16 feels safe.

5) A huge revision to a R&R to a big journal that is due June 14. I am setting aside most of two months for this as I will be drafting it from scratch with essentially a new thesis.

6) Reediting my old book manuscript and sending it out again to some new leads. I have not touched it in nearly four years, so the scholarship needs to be updated. This shouldn’t take more than a few weeks to get moving.

Now, I do work at a teaching university, so I have been thinking, “Mike, this is a little overkill this semester. Baby #2 is on the way in May.”  And it’s true. But frankly, scholarship takes years in advance to bear any fruit, and once Baby #2 gets here, I can probably wave goodbye to starting new projects in the fall. It will probably be all H and I can do to just keep our teaching going then.

Most repair work done – further thoughts

I have restored most of the past content after the hack. I have also done a few more things under the hood, such as turning comments back on again. I feel a lot more talkative than I did last year, so I think I’ll be posting far more often! Registering is still required to keep spam at bay.

My About page is still missing, as are some minor associated pages. I will fix this in the comng days.

So, updates.

My son L is almost three. He’s great. Another, M, is on the way, due in May. So that is all wonderful. H is still very sick, but hanging in there.

In a post from last July I expressed a lot of depression about my career. Most of that problem is addressed, and I feel much better about the status of my research agenda now. It really helps to switch between projects when one stalls out.

Trump remains odious. If he fires Mueller, I wonder if the university would frown upon me joining a march on Washington. That would seem the only appropriate response.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a beautiful game. If you don’t have a PS4, it is worth the whole console for just that one game.

I have starting reading Greek again, this time boning up on Attic to prep for what should be a strong article. It is like visiting an old friend one hasn’t seen in awhile.

Some of my graduate students are starting to produce some impressive work that is headed toward publication. That has me excited and engaged.

I have some medical problems that are drastically improved after a long period of reduced productivity. Mostly fatigue and blood sugar stuff. As it turns out, if you get regular sleep and don’t eat tons of sugar, those problems largely resolve! It is incredible how dense I am.

That is all for now.

Brief Rant

I have been feeling depressed lately about my research and publishing prospects. I’ve accomplished a fair amount since I finished my Ph.D., but I don’t feel professionally or emotionally fulfilled by any of it.

I haven’t published anything since early 2016. Much of my time in between has been taken up by two articles, one which has been rejected three times by good journals despite interest, and the second of which is promising, but slow to develop.  I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong, but whatever it is, I’ve slowed down.

It would be easy to attribute this decline in production to my son Luke, who turned 2 last April. But I don’t. I generally gain strength from him. He makes me laugh.

It would also be easy to attribute this decline to the fact that I have started to write more edgy stuff in articles than in my previous pieces.

My dissertation (aside from the first chapter, which appeared in Rhetorica) remains unpublished, I have found, due to that its conclusions don’t align with contemporary Christianity or conservative biblical criticism.  I have shopped it everywhere and found no takers. I consider this a massive failure on my part, even though I know it isn’t. It’s a people problem.

To sum it up, my diss argues that pretty much the entire ‘life of Jesus’ part of the Gospel of Mark (everything beside the Passion narrative – the arrest and the crucifixion) is a work of rhetorical fiction. This means Judas is a fictional character inserted for drama, John the Baptist (while a real person!)  never had anything to do with Jesus, and all of the post-resurrection appearances are late additions. Those three observations are chapters. Ultimately, I hold the gospels are not four buttressed eyewitness accounts, but competing fictional narratives as they openly plagarize each other in a quest to control the Jesus narrative – which was created by the author of Mark in the first place!

In retrospect I should have seen the problem, though – it threatens too many people. Even if I point to all the form criticism that basically spells it all out, it doesn’t matter. It’s too edgy, even though I find it to be remarkably commonsensical.  I wonder, though, if I should try to build up to it through a series of smaller articles. I have only toyed with sending out the individual chapters. Chapter 1 found a home, but only after many years.

Anyway.

There is also my half-secret hobby as a novelist. I have written three larger works of fiction. The first was about 60,000 words and what I would call today fan fiction. Practice. The second was 190,000 words, much better, had an agent, nothing happened. Self-published, which was a mistake, back in 2003. Very few readers. Bummed me out for over a decade. I’ve read far worse, so that’s another disappointment.

Two years ago, though, I wrote another, about 80,000 words. Thought I had a winner. Sent query letters to over 100 agents. No bites. Abandoned the project. Then I started writing a sequel, which was odd behavior, even for me. I felt like the characters could have another go. This has made me think that I should approach publishers directly. But I feel frozen by the likely outcome.

I think I’ve been burned too much. There is only so much negativity that I can bear and it’s starting to wear. I need a win occasionally to justify continued effort. I just don’t know right now where I’m going to get one.  I have a lot of germinal article ideas, but there are so many that it’s hard to pick just one and bang it out.

This feeling will probably pass. I just have to find a way around it.

Wow

I’d almost forgotten about this site.  I’ve been busy dealing with the new house, a rapidly growing baby (now almost ten months!), and work, to the point that some things have started to slide off of the radar.

I have a lot to say about the presidential race, and very little of it pleasant, so I’ll spare the reader that and instead talk about what I find positive. Namely, I favor Bernie Sanders this time around. Finally, a promising candidate that is almost as far left as I am! He just narrowly missed beating Hillary in Iowa, so he’s off to a pretty good start that would have seemed impossible six months ago. He’ll probably win New Hampshire, but South Carolina looks dicey. Time will tell.

I have started preliminary work on a new collaborative article that involves translation from the Japanese. It’s excited and new (actually, exciting and old) and that is all I will share for now.

 

 

 

 

Checking in

I haven’t written much here lately. I’ve been busy, what with L now four months old and  H and I having returned to work.

We are in the process of buying a house for the first time. Like with the baby, this is occurring a little later in life for us than most folks, but it’s happening. We’re moving back to an area of Houston that we’ve lived in before, fairly far out – we’ve more or less given up on living closer in. Fortunately, we can afford a bigger house that way.

So three of my four goals for the year – baby, tenure, house, new car – are checked off. The car will have to wait a while longer, perhaps several years, while we get adjusted to home ownership.

I am running into some difficulty publishing my latest article. It may be too unabashedly argumentative in its current form to be palatable. We’ll see.

 

200 days

Recently earned the 200 days of survival achievement in The Long Dark.  I have enough rifle ammo hoarded to go for 300. Perhaps the makers of the game will add more achievements in a future build. In the meantime, I have bloody mastered your game.

Luke is growing and strong. He cries when he’s hungry and sleeps when he’s tired. These things constitute his job.

I’m settling up the grades for the spring right now. I think I did a great job in two courses and a good job in one other.

Got a promising R&R on a recent article, which is a very good sign. I may have some time to work on it later this month. June is going to busy with family activities, though. Max, my soon-to-be nephew, is imminent. I may have to do the lion’s share of the work in July, which is cutting it close.

Tenure

I have my tenure letter in hand.  It is a yes.

In one sense, receiving it was somewhat anti-climatic, as it is the end result of a very long process that involved a considerable amount of hard work. So, the actual moment is not as transformative or exciting as some might think it, at least for me; rather, it is merely a bright point on a continuing line.

But it’s very nice to have in hand, I have to say, especially with Luke almost here.

Ferguson speech

The prosecutor in the Ferguson case, Robert McCulloch, gave a very interesting speech last night while announcing the grand jury’s decision. I am particularly interested in it because of the extensive use of moderating language, given that I have published a piece recently on moderation.

Over and over again, McCulloch stressed that the grand jury had worked extremely hard and that every piece of possible evidence had been extensively weighed and considered, and that the process was fair and impartial and had considered every angle. This must have been 90% of his prepared remarks and much of it predicated the actual announcement of the grand jury’s decision. The other 10% was criticizing the media. The announcement of the decision was almost anticlimactic given the amount of apology that preceded it.

Needless to say, all this moderating language as an apology for the decision could not have possibly succeeded. Ultimately the speech could do little more than reinforce the beliefs those who believed the shooting was justified, and anger those that thought the incident was some form of murder. In short, McCulloch was in a no-win situation, rhetorically – there is literally nothing he could have said that would change anyone’s reaction to the news. About the only way he could have done worse is to not give the speech at all.