Who Can You Believe?

It’s too good not to be true.

It’s easy to feel that way when you come across a news article, Facebook post, speech, or seminar that coincides nicely with your strongest convictions. Unfortunately, what psychologists call “confirmation bias” inclines us to pay attention to such information and immediately credit it with veracity while we brush aside whatever does not prove the point we want proven.

Recently, the academic world was set a-twitter (so to speak) by the work of three scholars who embarrassed several major journals. In a rather complicated hoax—or, perhaps better, “sting” operation—they jointly composed articles including what they felt were abhorrent or nonsensical ideas and tried to get them accepted for publication in leading organs of what they darkly called “grievance scholarship.” (Look up “Sokal Squared” for more.)

They did so because they were concerned that in too many instances, bad scholarship was being validated by publication in good journals—including some of these. The bad scholarship had the virtue, so to speak, of confirming the bias of the journal’s editorial slant, and it was thus slipping by the normal “quality control” of properly rigorous peer review.

Bad scholarship doesn’t help even the noblest cause. In fact, it discredits it. So these self-proclaimed left-leaning scholars aimed to warn people with whose views they were largely sympathetic that just because a study comes to a convenient conclusion and is couched in language true believers find congenial doesn’t mean it’s actually telling the truth and contributing to knowledge.

A few decades ago, a group of African-American scholars, led by the likes of Leonard Jeffries of New York, suggested that most or all of the great accomplishments of ancient western civilizations—from Egypt to Mesopotamia to Greece—originated among black Africans. In fact, to blur the historical picture even more, the “Afrocentrists” claimed that ancient Egypt itself was dominated by black Africans.

This patently preposterous view was defended not so much on its accuracy as on its usefulness. It would be “empowering” for African Americans to believe this idea, and many, for at least a while, did. It became popular enough, in fact, to show up in Michael Jackson’s video, “Remember the Time.” I even had to deal with a couple of students defending it in my world religions classes at the University of Manitoba in the mid-1990s.

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