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Expertise and How to Detect It

July 15, 2013

Last week a friend pointed me to a web site where a guy, claiming expertise in something else (cryptography, I think, but it  doesn’t matter) also claimed to have established beyond dispute and for the first time in modern scholarly studies the “true” meaning of a particular Greek word used by Paul.  Moreover, on this basis the guy claims a radically different understanding of what Paul had to say on the topic with which this Greek word is associated.  So, what did I think?

Well, I have to say that it’s curious that someone with no training in a given field, lacking in at least some of the linguistic competence required (both relevant classical language and key modern scholarly languages), thinks himself able to find something that has eluded the entire body of scholars in that field who labor year-upon-year to try to discover anything new and interesting.  It’s also curious that, as is typical, the guy doesn’t submit his findings to scholarly review for publication in peer-reviewed journals or with a peer-reviewed publisher, but flogs his thinking straight out on his web site, complete with bold claims about its unique validity.  We mere scholars in the field, by contrast, do submit our work for critique by others competent in the subject.  We present at symposia and conferences where other scholars can engage our views.   We strive to get published in peer-reviewed journals and with respected publishers.  Even after publication, we hope for critical engagement by other scholars. 

Now, of course, I believe in freedom of speech and thought, and I wouldn’t press for a gag on the sort of dubious stuff that I criticize here.  But in scholarly life the peer-testing of claims/results is absolutely crucial, and it’s really considered rather unscholarly (and so of little credibility) to present as valid/established claims that haven’t gone through such testing.  People (specifically those not clearly qualified in a field) have always been able to make bold claims about a subject of course, asserting their idiosyncratic “take” over against whatever view(s) is/are dominant in the subject.  But before the World Wide Web I guess it was much more difficult to get such unqualified opinion circulated.  Now, however, “the Web” and the “Blogosphere” make it so easy. 

But, frankly, when I’m shown something that hasn’t been through the rigorous scholarly review process (often, it appears, peer-review deliberately avoided), and comes from someone with no prior reputation for valid contributions in the subject, I’m more than a bit skeptical.  If the work is really soundly based, then why not present it for competent critique before making such claims?

I can hear the responding claim that scholars in the field are uninterested in new discoveries and/or even that they conspire to keep new ideas from gaining acceptance.  But any such claim only further reveals the lack of familiarity with scholarly processes.  The field of NT/Christian Origins, for example, is now more diverse, with more approaches, more perspectives, than ever; and probably most scholars dream of being able to correct or refute some established view, or successfully lodge some new view, or publish some hitherto unknown or insuffficiently noted datum.  There’s no conspiracy to suppress novel work or findings that go against previous views. 

Peer-review typically doesn’t mean quashing any new view.  Instead, it means that a submitted piece of work is studied to see if any relevant evidence or important other analysis is overlooked, or if there is something quirky and apparently wrong in method or assumptions.  I’ve certainly had articles accepted for publication in cases where the reviewers weren’t necessarily convinced but did agree that my argument couldn’t be faulted on data or method, and so my article deserved to get publication and thus a wider “hearing” by scholars.

So, how does some innocent peruser of the Web who isn’t an expert in a given field judge a claim about something in that field?  Well, is it being made by someone who appears to have the requisite training for that subject?  Is it from someone with an established reputation in that subject?  (And the Web now makes it fairly simple to check up on people.)  Or, if it’s from an emergent scholar, is the claim published in a peer-reviewed journal or from a respected publisher (who uses peer-review)?  If not, then I’d advise you not to bet more than a tuppence on it.

Think of the Web/Internet as something like a postal service.  You can send all sorts of things through the post (and much more via the Internet that wouldn’t easily or legally get into the post!).  So, simply because something is “published” on the Web doesn’t mean anything by itself.  The key questions concern the qualifications of the person authoring the material, and whether it’s been adequately reviewed and had critique by those competent in the field.

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36 Comments
  1. What distinguishes scholarship from pseudo-scholarship is that real scholars are always looking to criticise their methodology, while cranks who post on the Web never do that.

    Take for example, the book ‘Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity ‘ by Chris Keith and Anthony LeDonne.

    This book shows that Biblical scholars are critiquing, revising and revisiting their methodologies – the almost perfect paradigm of healthy scholarship.

    • Well, we all hope that what we’re doing is sound, and the initial response is often to defend our methods and results against criticism. But good scholarship means recognizing when criticism requires a modification or even abandonment of a given assumption, approach or set of results. But the key thing is that proper/true scholars submit their work to others in their field, with the expertise to give critique. (Or, if they adapt an approach from another field, they should run it by experts in that field.) Also, from an early stage in my own career, if I engage another scholar in an extended critique, I’ve tried to follow the practice of sending my critique to her/him before it’s published, to invite correction(s) of any place(s) where I may have misconstrued or misrepresented him/her.

  2. Howard permalink

    I would like to say something regarding the issue with Richard Fellows. I think you (Fellows) have missed one of the key points here. If your paper has been accepted, you have achieved your goal. I don’t think the goal of a peer-reviewed paper is to have reviewers debate back and fourth about its contents. I would think the goal is, now that you have been accepted, your paper can be cited as a legitimate peer-reviewed expert source. It’s not your fault that only maybe two people reviewed your paper. Now it is up to you to promote your paper and get it recognized and used by others. Then if other experts in your field have a problem with it, then it will receive the attention you want. But in the meantime, no one can be faulted by citing your paper according to the guidelines laid out in Professor Hurtado’s post.

    • Howard: The two key objectives in submitting to peer-reviewed journals/publishers are these: (1) one can seek the judgment of other competent scholars about one’s work, as to whether it passes initial muster and is sufficiently cogent to receive publication, and (2) it will then be indexed and one can direct others to it for engagement and critique or use/reference by others thereafter.
      Blogging, by contrast, seems mainly for the purpose of airing/dissemination of views/information more widely to a general public. (And in some cases it is a means of avoiding peer review and critical engagement). So, if you’re not an expert in the subject, learn to assess what you read on the blogosphere. In particular, whether the view being aired has any scholarly basis. Be especially suspicious when someone says that they’ve uniquely discovered something that all scholars in the field have missed! Maybe. But the greater the claim, the greater the burden of proof.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Howard. You wrote, “If your paper has been accepted, you have achieved your goal.” No, my goal is not to publish, but to have my work engaged with, particularly by experts in the field.

      You wrote, “Now it is up to you to promote your paper and get it recognized and used by others. Then if other experts in your field have a problem with it, then it will receive the attention you want.” Similarly, Larry wrote “it will then be indexed and one can direct others to it for engagement and critique or use/reference by others thereafter.” The problem here is that the non-professional has rather limited opportunities for promoting his/her work and directing others to it. Secondly, one can direct others to blog posts just as easily as to paper reviewed journals.

      A disadvantage of peer reviewed publications is the time lag. It is not uncommon that by the time an article appears in print the author has moved on to other things and the opportunity for fruitful interaction is lost. Blog posts, on the other hand allow the potential for almost real-time interaction while the issues are fresh in the author’s mind.

      I do see the importance of peer review as a screening tool, but the blog format has important advantages. Is anyone working on a process/technology that will give us the best of both worlds?

      • Richard, You’re not addressing the concern in my posting, which wasn’t the desire of people to get their work out there, but how non-experts in a given field could assess what they find on blog sites. Especially when some posting is presented as authoritative, sometimes purporting to present some new idea that has escaped others, how should “lay” readers assess it? My advice is to check that the blog-writer is a real expert/scholar in the field. If not, then any such claim should be treated with considerably caution/suspicion. And one of the earmarks of the genuine scholars is that they aim to get their work before other scholars, and they don’t treat even their own pet theories as authoritative unless/until other scholars treat them so. And this means peer-review. Yes, it takes time, typically months. And then the publication-cue, which can be months more. But that’s another issue. (And I’ve addressed that some decades ago in efforts promoting online peer-refereed journals, such as TC.)
        So, Richard, if all you want to do is disseminate widely supported scholarly views, then blogging is fine. But if you want to get formal scholarly engagement and critique, then the time-tested measures of scholarly conferences/symposia, peer-reviewed journals and publishers, and post-publication engagement/review are the way to do so. I think everyone has now had a say, so let’s tie up this thread here.

  3. Wise words, thank you Dr. Hurtado.

  4. Larry, you say: “If the work is really soundly based, then why not present it for competent critique before making such claims?”

    There are many peculiarities (call them ‘conventions’ if you wish) to which a formal paper must conform. This is not easy for an amateur, especially when a convention seems quite superfluous (e.g. for Greek words, insisting on accents which were absent from the originals). It is made more difficult by some editors, who refuse to read a submission unless a very specific set of conventions is followed – what a waste of time if the paper is then rejected, for each journal seems to have its own conventions. Furthermore, submissions are often rejected with no reason given, which is not very helpful.

    Recently I saw advertised a course designed to help biblical students with these peculiarities. On enquiring, I found that the minimum requirement was a 2.1 degree in a relevant subject. The powers that be were not prepared to take into account my relevant pass degree plus the detailed NT work I had already done as demonstrated on my web site.

    You accept that anyone should be free to make a case on a web site. By the same token, you are free to criticize that case. If this is deemed inappropriate, get a student to do a critical review. My ‘synoptic gospel sources’ was reviewed by a student in Canada as part of an advanced New Testament course. That student seemed quite impressed with the argument. Perhaps it is time for a second opinion!

    • Sorry, Ron. Your comment sounds like a lot of special pleading. Really. How much trouble is it to put in Greek accents if an editor requires them? Any of us who publish for various journals and book publishers know that they each have their own protocols. But with computers it’s not that difficult to adjust.
      The key question is whether one is committed to making a contribution to the world of scholarly learning and opinion. If so, then one commits to addressing that scholarly world, and if done successfully then one’s work can be taken more seriously by others.

  5. I have to agree with the post for the most part, although I am guilty of doing the same. For starters, what does peer-reviewed mean. It simply means that a proposal is submitted for review to see if it meets the standard of quality regarding the data and methods used to reach its conclusions, not that the conclusions themselves are right or wrong. If it is accepted by a peer-review journal, it simply means the proposal seems plausible. The degree of its plausibility depends on the reviews, for example, it can end up being implausible to extremely plausible, based on the knowledge and experience of the reviewers. So this all boils down to whether you used a method of dealing with the data that is accepted by your peers in the field. Whether they agree with your conclusion is another matter.

    If I understand correctly, forming a conclusion would include the following. This is obviously a simplified list.

    1. Taking previously accepted evidence, and using it in an acceptable manner.

    2. Add associations, either previously accepted or not.

    3. Possibly add assumptions, either previously accepted or not.

    You need to at least pass number 1 for it to be accepted into a peer-review journal. Like the example in this post, you can not take a previously accepted definition for a Greek word and give it a completely different meaning. That would be violating step 1. In fact, a proposal would probably have to be submitted just for the adjustment of this Greek word in question first, before you submit the rest of the proposal. Now if a proposal has been accepted, then scholars may agree or disagree with steps 2 and 3 based on their own knowledge and experience.

    Now I say all this because of some of the comments. All theories and conclusions are based on piecing evidence together to form a coherent idea. And these pieces of evidence come from scholarly peer-reviewed publications. The holy spirit does not tell you how to read Greek, or how families lived in the first century CE, or which of the variant readings belong to the original text. The two ideas build on and complement each other, we can only read the Bible today with greater clarity because of peer-review.

    I totally agree with step one above, you have to have a really good and convincing reason for changing any previously accepted evidence. I agree pretty much with step two, but there can be some flexibility here if there is not much collaborating evidence. Step three can be wide open for debate since it is mostly conjecture. Based on this, I believe some things can be published without peer-review. Its not a bad thing to share ideas, but some sort of ethical methodology should be followed in such cases.

    • Howard,
      I specifically indicated no aim to gag unqualified people from venting their views. I simply offered advice to those not expert in a field as to how to assess claims, whether by those with expertise or without it. For emphasis: The key question is whether those with expertise have even been consulted or involved in assessing the claim, and what their judgment is about it.

  6. Nick Brett permalink

    Dear Professor Hurtado,

    Thank you for your comments on this subject. You make the necessary point that to obtain recognition, a peer review process of publication is normally required. It is, of course, obvious that there are people around who try to sell their own theory to an unsuspecting public. (Echoes of The Da Vinci Code)

    On the other hand, I think there can be a reaction for academics to dismiss approaches from “non standard” sources without due consideration. Where a new theory is put forward, academics tend to be skeptical, and rightly so; but this approach is magnified if it means that they have to give up the “conventional” wisdom they have been teaching and subscribing to for thirty years or more.

    Although there is resistance to the outsider in the arts, the sciences has examples of the enthusiastic amateur making breakthroughs without going through the standard academic career path. Ramanujan wrote to many mathematics professors in the UK and was, in the main, ignored until he was taken up by G H Hardy at Cambridge – Ramanujan became an FRS before he was thirty (he also did not pass his middle school certificate). Oliver Heaviside whose work led to electricity generation and the theoretical basis for radio was completely self taught but suffered abusive attacks from some academics. Finally, we have the very recent case of Jack Andraka, who at 16 has discovered a nearly 100 efficient test for pancreatic cancer. – but he had to approach nearly 200 professors before one (Dr Anirban Maitra) listened to him.

    Intuitively, one would expect that it would be more difficult to make such breakthroughs in a scientific discipline rather than an arts subject, so I would suggest that a dismissive approach may, for some reason, be more the norm in arts subjects.

    I also do have to add that sometimes the response from biblical scholars can be less than adequate and lacks rigour. I have approached a number of scholars recently asking why there are no extant examples of Idumean script. A perfectly reasonable question to which one would have thought that there was a correspondingly reasonable explanation, but all I have received are very vague answers, with one University Lecturer stating that “it is was because Herod loved the Jews so much that he (Herod) had all Idumea change to Hebrew (an by inference also destroyed all Idumean documents and ostraca etc). This, I would suggest, has echoes of your example of the internet discoverer of the secret code of Paul.

    • Nick,
      Sure there can be a genius out there in this or that subject who never took degrees or whatever. And you can get hit by a meteorite on your way home on your bike too. Anything is possible, but fewer things are likely.
      The examples you cite of such genius all involved (Note Bene) the emergent genius seeking to gain assessment from qualified scholars in the relevant field. That’s “peer review”: It isn’t the work of angels but of humans, so it’s not perfect; but it’s all we have. Otherwise, it’s some free-for-all where we have no way of discriminating (and that’s not always a bad word) between valid and invalid claims, those cogent and other cockeyed.
      As to the Idumean script, why go to biblical scholars? Why not try historians of the ancient near east?

  7. I understand the need for “guarding the gates” in academic circles, I guess, but what about in the larger arena of the church as a body of believers. What kind of reception would the expertise claimed by Jesus have had if the criteria you set forward to evaluate claims of new insight had been operable during his ministry? Oh, that’s right, it was, and the “experts” rejected his claims. Nevertheless, his claims were heard and believed by the unlearned, for which Jesus himself thanked God, saying “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight” (Luke 10:21).

    • Dan, You get it wrong on both counts. I’m not “guarding the gates”, but was simply offering some advice (often asked for) about how to assess the various untested claims that one sees on various web sites from people who claim much but lack any basis for the claim. Scholars in the field have expertise to deal with such claims, but the general public may not. Hence my advice.
      Second, Jesus didn’t lay claims to historical investigation of, e.g., the OT, ancient Israel, etc. He proclaimed a theological/religious message like a prophet, as the Gospels say “not as the scribes”. So your reference to him is irrelevant to the issue under discussion.
      That issue = putative claims to some new discovery of historical/exegetical information by people who avoid normal scholarly scrutiny.

      • But were not the scribes and their knowledge essentially irrelevant as Jesus explained how he was fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies about himself? … which, in that case, seems to undermine your point about having everything filtered through experts. I’m not trying to devalue scholarship, it certainly has its place, but relying only on scholarly peer review seems to limit the edifying work of the Holy Spirit to only the well-educated, and that is not what the New Testament teaches, is it?

      • Dan, I’m not talking about sermonizing or devotional reading of the scriptures. I’m talking about claims involving the sort of exegetical and historical issues typically addressed by scholars. The “edifying work of the Holy Spirit” doesn’t come into view in my posting.

  8. Am I the only one reminded of Richard Carrier and Bayesian history?

  9. egwpisteuw permalink

    Just because somthing is in a peer-reviewed publication certainly does not mean it is correct or even logical. It just means that blatant errors and fallacies are probably not to be found.

    For example, the obvious exegetical fallacy that Luke 10:18 “I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning” proves that Barak Obama is the Antichrist because in Hebrew “lighting” is Baraq (ברק) and “high place” is Bamah (במה) so if you connect them with a vav, you have Barak Ubamah.

    • But this ISN’T scholarly exegesis, and only proves my point that one needs to know the difference between horseradish and horsemanure.

  10. Perhaps he has other duties and is therefore unable to present at conferences. As for publishing in top peer reviewed journals, I have done so and have mixed feelings about the experience. There has been virtually no “critical engagement” with my published papers. The feedback that I have received on my blog posts has been more useful so I have published much of my work there. Please remember, Larry, that you are a big name in NT studies and for that reason people tend to quote you and engage with your work. It would be an interesting experiment for you to publish a journal article under a pseudonym and see how much critical engagement you get.

    • Richard,
      How do you think someone gets to be “a bit name” in a given field? By publishing stuff that passes peer review, and even wins assent from the critical world of fellow scholars. When I or anyone commences publishing, they’re unknown, and if they get published it’s totally nothing to do with their name. And articles are submitted “douible-blind” typically, which means that reviewers likely won’t know who wrote them. You see what I mean by needing to get informed about the process before you criticize it?

      • Larry, you don’t seem to have understood my comment. I agree with everything you say in your response. I am well aware of the double-blind process having gone through it myself. Please reply to the points that I made in my comment.

        To clarify, I think there can be good reasons for NOT submitting material to peer reviewed publications. In my experience, by publishing material on a blog I can often get better quality and quantity of critical feedback than by publishing in peer reviewed journals. The danger of publishing in a journal is that one’s work will never be either affirmed or rebutted, and then one has handed over copyright without gaining anything in return. Is my experience atypical?

      • I did understand your comments, Richard, and responded the one(s) I though were most relevant to my post. But I’ll address what you press: There is NO good reason for avoiding submitting genuinely scholarly work to peer-review. NONE. (I can’t tell from your own blog site what efforts you have made along these lines, so don’t know how to take your statement.)
        Second I fail to see how you can take assorted comments on your blog site (or any blog site) as equivalent to what conscientious reviewers of articles submitted for publication are expected to do. I both do it, and have numerous experiences of having it done to my work. Sometimes it’s frustrating, when the reviewer appears not to have understood my point. But I take that as my fault for not making myself sufficiently clear, and try again. Sometimes it takes two or more attempts. But that reflects the demands placed on scholarly publication and why it’s different from self-published stuff.

      • Larry, you are still not answering my point, so I continue to believe that you have not understood me. I’ll try one more time. When I submitted my papers for publication in peer reviewed journals I received very little feedback from the reviewers, including from those who recommended the papers for publication. More importantly, the papers, since publication, have not been engaged with. What is the point of publishing something if it just sits in the library collecting dust? Once something is published, the onus is on the academic community to either rebut it or accept its conclusions, but neither of these seem to be happening. Presenting material on a blog exposes my work to peer review by anyone, not just one or two readers. I now regret having endorsed partition of 2 Cor in a journal article and in the 12 years since publication I have found important arguments that would have strengthened this article, but I cannot change that now since it is in print. With blog posts, on the other hand, I can make corrections and add further evidence at a later date. This is an important advantage of posting material on a blog instead of in journals, isn’t it?

      • Richard, you play off peer-review publishing and blog publishing against each other simplistically. I understand perfectly your point and have responded to it now a couple of times. Blog-posting isn’t the place for original research that you want some firm and informed feedback on from other experts. Blogs are fine for disseminating research that has already been tested and passed some muster. Or blog posting is fine for untested ideas, rovided that they’re labeled as such as there is a “health warning” to uninformed readers that it is a kite being flown and not some firm findings accepted by others.
        If you’ve found something further to say about 2 Cor and you think it stand up to critical analysis, then submit it to a proper journal.
        Journal articles are indexed and so can be found readily by researchers. Serious researchers don’t go trawling blog sites when doing their research. If you want to shape the field, blog-posting won’t do it.
        I think we’ve now heard your view and we DO understand it.

  11. Karl watts permalink

    It seems that there is more of this in your field than any other.

    • Karl, I’ve somethimes thought the same thing. If so, what is it about biblical-related studies that makes people think that they can jump in and set the scholarly world right, and that the scholarly guild comprises some deep conspiracy against discovering things? I wonder if people assume that biblical scholars are all bound in some one confessional hold and so unable to exercise their own judgment. It’s surely not that way today!

  12. samtsang98 permalink

    I’ll share this with all my readers and students. I’m often asked this question, “How do you figure out which source is valid?” Your post summarizes a lot of what I wanted to say. Thank you.

  13. Thanks for an interesting read. I’ve been mulling over a few arguments that I’ve seen being expressed fairly consistently in debates about fringe theories (some biblical, some not) and I wondered how you would respond to these points?:

    1) It doesn’t matter whether the person putting forward the argument is qualified or not, you should simply consider the arguments on their merits.

    2) Bible scholars aren’t “real” historians. The person producing whichever radical new idea is under discussion is able to do so because they have a better understanding of how history works, aren’t biased, aren’t part of the “guild” etc.

    3) Similarly, to decide whether a fringe claim about the Bible is true, it might seem logical to consult an authority on the Bible, e.g. a professor of Biblical Studies at a distinguished university. However, (proponents of fringe claims argue) such a person isn’t really an authority, since they aren’t real historians, are biased, part of the guild, etc.

    I should add that I’m not advocating any particular fringe claim about the Bible. However, when you have fringe theories that challenge the consensus view, it can be hard for the general public to understand why they should take it “on authority” that a particular fringe theory is wrong. I also think it can be difficult to evaluate fringe and mainstream views, particularly when they might be outside your area of expertise.

    • Paul, I’ll reply as requested briefly to your itemized points:
      1) This argument works in principle if you’re expertise is appropriate for the data and arguments being considered (i.e., if you’re a scholar in that field). But my post was addressed to the general readers who aren’t equipped to make such judgments. Further, the way arguments get assessed in scholarly circles is precisely by doing what I noted: presenting them to other scholars in venues (e.g., symposia, conferences) where there are people present able to engage them critically/knowledgably, and submitting them to peer-reviewed journals where they can be assessed. If someone dodges these processes, then chances are that’s because the arguments can’t withstand critical review.
      2) This is an ad hominem argument, which goes flatly against the first one! Also it’s simplistic. Some biblical scholars do more theological work, and others more historical inquiry. The latter are fully as trained in historical method and critical reasoning (and better trained in the necessary languages and data). Moreover, again, their work is assessed by other scholars of various orientations, and come to acceptance only if they pass this critical muster.
      3) This argument is simply repeating #2, a similar ad hominem and ignorant claim. I haven’t advocated a blind submission to “authorities”, but instead urged that readers take account of the expertise and reputation of the person presenting a view (wouldn’t you assess things in selecting a surgeon or plumber?), and also assess whether the view has been presented to and survived critical scrutiny by other qualified scholars.
      I hardly see that there can be any objection to this . . . except by/from those who know that their views can’t pass muster, and so circumvent critical scrutiny to get a hearing from the general public who can be taken advantage of.

      • Thanks for the detailed response.

        Just to be clear – I’m not disagreeing with you on the value of peer review, or in preferring the views of established authors in a given field over those of self-published and self-proclaimed experts. But I think the issue is a bit more complicated in terms of how the general public can tell the difference.

        I agree that points two and three are ad-hominem (or perhaps better, question-begging), but it’s also easy to see how they could still be persuasive as an appeal to emotion. Similarly I completely agree, that nobody alive is competent to evaluate every possible answer every question in the world – but equally, such a view can be (and regularly is) spun as a form of elitism or appeal to dogma.

        I don’t consider myself to be an expert, but with a degree in Religious Studies, it’s not that hard for me see where a claim is out of whack with the mainstream view or to suspect that an author might be ignoring or over-relying on something. Even so, tracking down how and why a view is wrong is usually time consuming and inherently unrewarding.

        I think it would be a lot harder for – say – one of my A level students, or somebody with a different educational background to identify claims that are out of line with mainstream thinking, or to spot mistakes and falsehoods. The internet is a good place to start checking up on people, but it’s also a place where it can be a lot easier to access fringe theories than (paywalled) articles by mainstream scholars. The waters also get muddied when fringe theorists claim academic titles (Simcha Jacabovici is a professor of Religious Studies somewhere or other), or ape the conventions of mainstream academia (as with the Journal for Historical Review)

        Again, I’m not disagreeing your views on the superiority of mainstream scholarship vs non-scholarly works, I just think that the difference is not always easy for everyone to spot. Perhaps the answer is to teach school / university students more about the processes behind the production of knowledge and better critical thinking skills in general?

      • Oh, certainly, schools/universities can and should equip their students to think critically, and now how to assess the oceanic amount of information & claims on the Web. But, yet again, my posting was intended particularly for the “general” reader who doesn’t have time to take courses, etc., but would appreciate some basic criteria by which to assess stuff. What I offered was pretty basic, but pretty important.

  14. Cassandra permalink

    This is a helpful post, Larry, thank you. In working for an academic publisher, I certainly see our authors struggle with this distinction. The books we get genuinely excited about consist of innovation built upon a good foundation. Authors seem to drop of the edge of one or the other all too often.

  15. I’d rather see the web as being fairly similar to a conference, except that one gets to see much rougher drafts, and that one isn’t paying through the nose to relive the experience of dreadful undergraduate accommodation. Yes, one does get one’s share of unusual people wandering onto fringe stages, but they’re part of what makes it exciting, even though they’re almost invariably wrong. And when they bore on and on and on, one can walk out without seeming rude,

    I am very much reminded of an argument a professor (in the British sense) once expressed to me, that attending a particular learned society related to his discipline’s conference would be a waste of his time (all whilst encouraging me to go!).

    • Someone au fait with the subject can smile and ignore the erroneous (but confident) sorts that I mention. I wrote my blog posting for those who wonder how to assess things on the Web.
      The difference between scholarly presentations at conferences and the sort of ill-founded web-sites/postings that I referred to is this: At conferences, you’re presenting to others with some critical ability in the field, and you’re very much aware that you can take fire for anything that you say. On the sort of sites I mentioned, the purpose is to bypass all such critique. So, caveat lector (“reader take care”, esp. if you’re not in the field yourself), and lean more on those statements that arise from and reflect robust scholarly critique.

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