Academia has problems. This is an obvious statement, since it is an institution in a fallen world. It is worth looking at these problems in some depth, however, because they affect the various academic disciplines to varying degrees, and I think that History may be hit the hardest.
This occurred to me as I was reading the book A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament by Brant Pitre and John Bergsma. (It’s a massive tome that could be used to bludgeon a waterbuffalo to death, and I’m still in the introductory materials.) In the prefatory materials is an overview of biblical scholarship over the last two centuries, and this includes some theories which went from being novel, to being dominant, to mostly in the rubbish bin in recent times. And this got me thinking about the problems of academia and how they affect history.
The big problem of academia is that its currency is novelty. You can see this in the economic angle of publish or perish, to be sure, but even if publication didn’t affect people’s job prospects and salaries, it would still affect their reputations and standing as scholars. This selective pressure has a selective effect on scholars, very akin to what the same pressure has on scientists. Those who come up with novelty, for whatever reason, will tend to publish more, and will thus receive more academic status. This has generational effects, since new scholars learn from and have to work with old scholars. (For more on that, see Who Works for Bad Scientists?.)
While true and important, and as I say no one takes evolution seriously enough, it’s not what I want to focus on today. Rather, I want to focus on what limits there are inherent in the field to protect against novelty which is novel by being purely fictitious.
The prototypical example of a system which corrects against novelty-through-pure-fiction is science, but this is painting with an overly broad brush. It is not all sciences that do this, but rather experimental sciences. Theoretical physicists can spin theories about 11-dimensional string vibrations until the cows come home, and no one will ever notice that they don’t work because no one can run an experiment on the things.
The fiction-detecting aspect of experimental science only really works the way it’s advertised to in crowded fields of science. That is, it only works in fields of science where people will be doing the same experiments many times, or at least experiments who results depend upon previous results. This is quite true of experimental physics, especially of basic physics such as newtonian mechanics. It gets less true the less crowded the field is. The more low-hanging fruit there is to pick, the more people will spend their time picking it than looking in each other’s baskets.
Biology, and to the degree that it is a sub-field of that, medicine, are good examples of non-dense fields. There are far more questions to ask than there are researchers with funding to try to find answers. There are exceptions for particularly hot topics where at least several researchers will try to ask the same question, but you just don’t find much in the way of people duplicating each other’s experiments to find out if they get the same results.
Worse, in medicine certain types of answers become can make experiments unethical to try to replicate. If a drug shows a statistically significant result in a clinical trial, running such a clinical trial with a placebo group becomes unethical. All is not lost, since new drugs get run against “standard care” (i.e. the already approved drug) as a control group, so if the original drug is really just a placebo that got lucky, a real drug that comes along will prove better than it. There isn’t much of an ethical way of discovering that the drug is actually just a placebo (with side effects), though.
Chemistry may be the best field simply because chemistry is so closely tied to engineering, and the purpose of engineering is to replicate the heck out of whatever experiment was run. That is, engineering replicates findings by putting things into production on industrial scales, and a million LED lights shipped to Home Depot and Lowes and other such stores replicate the findings that Indiium, Gallium, and Nitrogen, when mixed correctly and an electric current is run through them, emit blue light. (Indium Nitride and Gallium Nitride are the semiconductors used in the blue LED.) But this is far and away the best case, and since it is industrial, it is definitionally not academic.
So what is it about the sciences, where there is some limit on fictitious novelty, that provides this limit? It’s that the test is not whether or not it seems plausible to another human being, but whether or not it actually works when one tries it.
This is, largely, not available in history. It is not entirely absent, as there are historical theories which can be disproved or confirmed by subsequent archaeological finds. These are, however, fairly rare. They are extremely rare in ancient history, such as biblical studies.
The particular theory which got me thinking about this was the Documentary Hypothesis, which more-or-less was a theory created by a liberal protestant in the 1800s that the traditional attribution of the Pentateuch to Moses was ahistorical.
What amazing new archaeological evidence was unearthed that gave rise to this theory? Why, none at all. The guy who came up with it looked at the text and spun his theory out of air. He decided to categorize the various lines and paragraphs and stories in the Pentateuch on the basis of which he thought similar and which he thought different, then took these groupings he thought similar and different from other groupings and attributed them to different authors, at different times.
Of course, being a liberal protestant, he decided that the religion started pure and simple and later got corrupted by law and liturgy. This appealed to his prejudices, and also gave him an interpretive framework to pull out of thin air approximate dates for the various authors he also pulled out of thin air.
And this was a huge hit in academia? Why? There are many threads which went into it, of course, but a significant one is that it was novel. It was new, and fresh, and exciting. It produced an enormous amount of work for scholars to do—someone had to go through the Pentateuch line by line and classify every line according to which theoretical author wrote it.
I think even more than being novel, this produced low-hanging fruit. That is, it made for relatively easy work.
One of the problems that a modern Christian who wants to write about scripture is up against is that he’s implicitly competing with twenty centuries of the most brilliant people in the world, because the brilliant people who had interesting things to say about scripture wrote them down, and Christians valued those writings and kept them and passed them on. There is, at present, an astonishing amount of excellent reading material, if one wants it, available from the saints and doctors of the church. What can one say, today, that has not already been said, and better?
Here, a new theory which overturns everything is the savior of the man in the bottom 99.99% of humanity (i.e. one who is not in the top 0.01%) by genius or talent, or whatever metric one wants to use. With everything overturned, there is new, fresh work to be done that most anyone can do, but not one has done before because no one could have done it before.
And who will bite the hand that feeds him? Certainly, the academic is not known for this counter-productive activity any more than any of his fellow men are.
So we get a century of people arguing over imaginary authors that they have not a shred of evidence for, mostly because it’s easier and more fun than real work.
From what I understand, a similar thing happened with Plato. At some point someone decided that most of the Socratic dialogues weren’t written by Plato because… they didn’t sound the same to him. Skip forward by about a century, and scholarly consensus once again becomes that Plato wrote the stuff commonly attributed to him. What did the intervening century have to show for it? A lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Oh, and a lot of employed academics.