Jesus’s Wife: A Depressing Example Of Why American Institutions Are Not Trusted And Don’t Deserve To Be

Who do you trust 3

Most people younger than me don’t know (or care) that before he was the king of late night TV on “The Tonight Show,” Johnny Carson was the young, engaging host of a pseudo-quiz show called “Who Do You Trust?” I think of that show’s title when, as is increasingly the case, I encounter stories like this one, which is described in excruciating detail in a plaintive article in the Chronicle of Hight Education.. The main facts are these:

—A 2014 Harvard Theological Review article by Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King purported to have uncovered an ancient papyrus fragment in which Jesus refers to “my wife.” This, coming after the sensational best-selling novel “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown and its subsequent film version starring Tom Hanks, both of which were based on a fanciful conspiracy theory regarding Mary Magdalene’s alleged relationship with Jesus Christ, understandably caused quite a stir in academia, theological circles, and the popular press.

–King’s article was deemed unlikely to the point of absurdity by many scholars from the moment it was published. “Almost everything we know,” one expert wrote, “about the nature of historical evidence points to forgery.”

—King had failed to take basic steps to vet the manuscript, which she’d provocatively named “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” Worse, two of the journal’s three peer reviewers had decided the papyrus was a fake. Only one had not: an acclaimed papyrologist named Roger Bagnall. Bagnall, however, had helped King draft the very paper the journal asked him to review. This is called a conflict of interest, indeed a screaming conflict of interest. Not only had King identified him in the paper as her primary adviser, but Bagnall had been filmed declaring the papyrus’s authenticity for a forthcoming Smithsonian Channel documentary.

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The Good Hoax

Frequent readers here know how much I detest hoaxes, even ones just designed to be funny. News hoaxes are especially vile, as they are often designed to fool people and news outlets. These cause false rumors to spread, and send disinformation through the web and into brains, especially mushy brains. Hoaxes that consist of sufficiently ridiculous components that anyone should know they are not to be believed aren’t really hoaxes at all; they are more akin to satire. They are benign and often illuminating.

What does one make of a hoax that is simultaneously ridiculous and designed to fool people who need to be fooled in the public’s interest? I regard that as an ethical hoax. NYU physicist Alan Sokal designed and pulled off  just such two decades ago, as he described here:

For some years I’ve been troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities. But I’m a mere physicist: if I find myself unable to make head or tail of jouissance and différance, perhaps that just reflects my own inadequacy.

So, to test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies… publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?

The answer, sadly, was yes. Despite being salted with copious Authentic Frontier Gibberish like “catastrophe theory, with its dialectical emphases on smoothness/discontinuity and metamorphosis/unfolding, will indubitably play a major role in the future mathematics; but much theoretical work remains to be done before this approach can become a concrete tool of progressive political praxis,”  his article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was peer reviewed and published in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text.

Later, Sokal explained his motives:

“While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance….In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths — the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.”

Sokal’s exposé of the sloppiness and lack of rigor in scholarship has spawned followers, as well it should. Using academic studies and papers is the ultimate appeal to authority in social and scientific policy disputes. If the journals that publish them are lazy and biased gate-keepers, they are untrustworthy authorities, which means that they aren’t authorities at all. That makes a Sokal-style hoax, properly and fairly executed, that rarity of rarities, The Good Hoax.

As they explained in the magazine Skeptic, Dr. Peter Bogghosian, a full time faculty member in the Department of Philosophy at Portland State University,  and James Lindsay,  a Phd in mathematics and the author of four books, wrote and submitted the most ridiculous paper they could think of. The title: “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.” Here’s the abstract:

You read that right: the paper argues that penises affect climate change. Behold: Continue reading

Provocative Links for Ethical Weekend Reading

Here is a diverse selection of five ethics-related posts from cyberspace for your weekend reading pleasure:

  • Christopher Hitchens analyzes, critiques and updates the Ten Commandments—and does an excellent job of all three, here.
  • Finally, a former Bush Justice Department official takes aim at the Republican attacks on the so-called “Al Qaeda Seven,” a despicable moniker apparently invented by Mary Cheney. There really is no debate here: the suggestion that attorneys who previously represented accused terrorists cannot be trusted to work in Justice is legally, ethically and logically ignorant. Still, it is good to have a Republican lawyer say so.