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.

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