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Find Your Own Elephants!

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Philip Jenkins - published on 06/02/15

Some arguments are just not worth the time and trouble it would take to (easily) refute them

Recently, I have been thinking a great deal about ethics and elephants.

Responsible academics regularly face a serious ethical dilemma, which arises every time the media present a crackpot theory about history or religion. I am thinking for instance about books presenting weird new theories about Jesus, or hidden gospels, or Mary Magdalene, but also strange historical conspiracy theories. Issues of Christian heresy and orthodoxy are usually richly productive of speculative nonsense. When faced with outrageous fringe theories, whether a new Jesus theory or a piece of pseudo-archaeology, academics must decide whether or not they will confront those ideas. That might sound like an easy question: surely, scholars have a public duty to challenge pernicious nonsense, instead of just waiting for them to dissolve over time. In practice, though, severe difficulties lie in the way, and the coming of the Internet has gravely aggravated these difficulties.

If scholars simply ignore bizarre theories, then curious people searching the Internet on a particular topic or theory will find only the works of the eccentrics, with no counterblasts from real authorities. There are some fine debunkers out there. Check out for instance the readable collection of essays edited by Garrett G. Fagan,Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology Misrepresents The Past and Misleads the Public. If you do engage in debate, though, you run the risk of giving credibility to the junk scientists and conspiracy theorists. In recent years, for instance, more and more scientists simply refuse to engage in debate with extreme Creationists, because the fact of debating suggests that the topic of evolution is somehow controversial, or that the opposing viewpoints might have equal merit.

Issues of methodology should also give responsible scholars pause. Fringe scholars are very good indeed about deploying obscure and irrelevant sources as debating points, presenting so many in such a short time that opponents struggle to counter each and every one. “So you don’t believe that dinosaurs and human beings coexisted in ancient America? Well, what about Absalom Smith’s article in the East Wyoming Archaeological Newsletter for 1973, which clearly proved that they did!” (I don’t believe there is any such journal of that name, and I apologize if there ever was or is. Ditto for my imaginary paleontologist). In a public debate, the opponent can only admit to ignorance of that weird and wonderful source, suggesting to the audience that he is an ignoramus, or that he is concealing the inconvenient truth. Tracking down each and every of these alleged sources is a difficult chore, and ultimately a waste of time.

This tactic of overwhelming a debate partner has a technical name, derived from fundamentalist Duane Gish: it is the Gish Gallop, (aka the Gish Gush), and you might usefully follow up that link for details. It is defined as “the debating technique of drowning the opponent in such a torrent of small arguments that their opponent cannot possibly answer or address each one in real time.” In the military context, we call it “swarming.”

As sociologists warn, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.”

Book of Mormon apologists produce a lot of such examples, of which I will offer just one here. It is not critically important in its own right, but it illustrates the kind of problems that you might run into. Such apologists, by the way, are both numerous and very active, and have a huge presence on the Internet.

The Book of Mormon contains one reference to elephants in ancient America, apparently giving critics a prize example of Joseph Smith’s anachronisms. Members of the elephant family had lived in America in the distant past, but were extinct long before the alleged time of the events portrayed in the Book of Mormon.

If you check many apologist websites, though, you will see an argument that runs as follows. The scholarly timetable for the extinction of ancient elephants is broadly right, they say, but archaeological finds in specific areas point to the survival of local populations right up to the first century AD, long enough to encounter the peoples described in the Book of Mormon. Several of those articles, by various authors, include citations that look like a proper scholarly apparatus. Hence, science vindicates the Book of Mormon. It is apparent, by the way, that the apologist writers in question are honest in presenting their evidence, which they cite accurately. My concern is that they simply do not understand what they are dealing with.

Even if you have the ability to examine and evaluate those technical arguments, it is not easy to locate and check all those citations. I have access to two major university libraries with excellent inter-library loan facilities, and even for me, it took some weeks to track them all down. Most readers are assuredly not going to take that trouble. When you follow up these references though, you find that all the alleged accounts of late elephant survival can be placed into one of three categories: (a) Old articles dating from times in the 1960s and early 1970s when even highly reputable scholars lacked the expertise in Carbon-14 and other dating techniques that they have today, and before they had learned the appropriate correction factors; (b) More recent articles where it is obvious that the samples had been contaminated by much later materials; or (c) Baffling and cryptic references where it is far from clear what the findings discussed actually are worth. None of these should decently be presented today, and certainly not with the suggestion that they violate the scholarly consensus.

No credible recent article in a responsible scholarly journal vaguely supports claims for elephant-relatives surviving in continental North America into the last five thousand years or so. A small group of dwarf mammoths survived on an island in the Bering Sea, way off the Alaskan coast, up to around 3,500 BC. That is still way too early for the Book of Mormon. Also, the only reason those beasts survived is that they were cut off from any contact with humans. The scholarly consensus on this extinction question is overwhelming, and there is no reason to correct it.

If you Google references to these supposed late survivals, you will only see apologist claims, rather than counterblasts by scholars and professional archaeologists. That does not mean that the scholars are accepting the claims, but rather that they are ignoring things they see as unworthy of their attention. But the unwary web searcher will see only a sizable number of sites presenting just one side of the argument.

So here’s my point. Imagine that you have to engage in so much time and effort to challenge each and every claim from the fringe. It could seriously take up much of your life, in a quest that is ultimately time-wasting.

And no, I am not going to engage in debate on these points. I have a life.

Find your own elephants.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

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