Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Having an Appearance of Scholarship

Over a year ago I thought about those that have an appearance of scholarship but deny the power thereof. Its a variation on 1 Tim 3:5, and since that time my interactions have only reinforced that idea, so I thought it is time explain the concept in more detail. The essential point is that some people like to use footnotes, talk about thesis statements, release books, and talk a great deal about having “all of the facts and information on the table,” but when challenged about the accuracy and strength of their arguments, they cloak their assertions in revelation, common sense, special pleading and other extremely un academic defenses.

There are many variations of the theme, but it boils down to people wanting to have their cake and eat it too. In the realm of ideas, scholarship matters. Arguments are powerful because of the work done in reading, summarizing, and assessing other people’s arguments, combined with synthesis and analysis of data and primary sources to create your own. Then those arguments must be presented in cogent and logical fashion.

But its much easier to appear like a scholar than to be one. Appearing scholarly can help often help an argument, so people publish books instead of blog posts, include footnotes, talk about thesis statements, and generally try to sound and look academic. But when challenged about their interpretation of primary sources, grasp of historiography, and their generally poor and shoddy arguments, the same people who try to appear scholarly without having provided a strong foundation for their attempts, fall back on several methods. They rely on testimony (or anti testimonies as the case may be) to support their claims. They argue that they aren’t a scholar and shouldn’t be held to those standards. They make claims about academic conspiracies or elitism. Or they just attack while saying the other person is attacking. (I’ve seen this so much that arguing about who is committing the ad homenim fallacy is an immediate deal breaker for me.)

Here are several from around the Mormon world (with annotations in brackets and bold to highlight the tendencies):

Irvin Hill: Mr. Deane is a highly credentialed–as far as the state is concerned [gratuitous anti government sentiment that recalls the Bundy protest against the government, implying that I’m not credentialed in the things of God which would make me wrong and him correct without actually presenting reasons why]–teacher at BYU-I, and former Marine.

Maruice Hawker,p. 195: If you are a serious scholar [guilt trip putting the reader on the defensive and implying if you actually want sources then you aren’t a serious scholar] who would like to know where the concepts come from, please start by doing your own, thorough exploration of both scientific literature and eternal principles as taught in the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.[The “do your own research” defense would have gotten me thrown out of my PhD program, and my editor would have literally thrown a book at me.] There are hundreds if not thousands of pages of information I could include to be more convincing, [but I won’t provide one or two of them] this book is not for the scholar but for the layman who wants to learn in a language they can understand easily. [I just wrote a book on ancient Chinese history that was scholarly and accessible to the layman, they aren’t exclusive categories and certainly not an excuse to avoid showing your research.] As with all progressing in fields of science, a skilled professional will seek to improve upon the ideas of those who came before him or her. You will find ideas and concepts in this book that are beyond anything you will read in existing literature. [Then you should definitely include the sources you’ve built upon.] My findings are based on thousands of interviews and interventions along with many inspirations. [This is the key to the whole paragraph. He bases his findings on what he calls personal inspiration. That’s great, but I’m not sure revelation really needs a footnote, and it definitely doesn’t support your point like a footnote should.] Successful results have been measured in both quantitative and qualitative measurements.[I would love to see the data myself if you don’t mind. Maybe you could write a book about it?]

Rock Waterman: Deane spends more time engaging in ad hominem attacks [He never provided an example when asked, a critical review isn’t ad hominem, fallacy cop] and comparing his own academic credentials [Academic credentials often matter a great deal, see the several examples I provide below]to Anderson than he does informing the reader as to what is actually contained in Anderson’s book, as though the honors of men are pertinent in any discussion of the Lord’s rules of engagement.[Using the scriptures to condemn me and provide support for him while not specifying how any particular arguments are wrong.]
Jeremey Runnells: [I am] not a scholar. And I never claimed to be one. Mormon apologists – desperate in discrediting me and the CES Letter – have created strawmen by elevating me and the letter to academia standards [How dare apologists have standards!? I’d be more concerned if they didn’t. Apologists only hold him to a standard because his website and endorsements, like the one below, make his work sound definitive and authoritative when they are deeply flawed.] and then attacking me and the letter from there. I’m not a scholar. I’m just a regular dude…I am very knowledgeable on this topic.[In the same breath he avoids the claim of being a scholar, attacks those that have standards, but still claims to know a great deal about the topic. That is trying to have it both ways.]

John Dehlin on Runnells and the CES Letter: Meticulously researched [For being ‘just a regular dude’ Runnells sure likes to provide academic sounding bonafides. I would think a regular dude might want to avoid attacking more accomplished scholars as fake amateurs ], this book represents Jeremy’s sincere, heartfelt, and herculean effort to gather and discern the basic evidence regarding LDS church origins.[This makes it sound like his PhD thesis and original contribution to the field. These two quotes show how Runnells wants to sound like an academic when it helps him, such as hyping his work, but also sound like a normal guy that shouldn’t be held accountable when people point out his shoddy work. See a piece by Mary Ann example of some of that shoddy work.]
Now that you’ve seen the principles and examples of wanting it both ways, here are a few allegories that I’ve used over the years to describe this tendency along with a personal example to wrap it up.

Driver’s License:

Academic degrees are like a driver’s license. They guarantee a basic quality, experience, and training for people who are on the road. There are plenty of people, at least in theory because my insurance premiums doubled when I moved to Las Vegas, who can drive without a license. And there are plenty of bad drivers, who have hit my car three times here in Las Vegas, who aren’t very good driver’s even with a license. Degrees are a good indicator of academic merit, but only to a limited extent. People can do good academic research without a degree, but there are plenty of people who claim to be “very knowledgeable” and claim to present all of the facts and information without needing a degree, yet they commit so many mistakes and basic errors that they look like that beat up, rusted truck going 35 on the highway. One of the people I linked to above for example, misidentified a thesis statement from my argument and failed to identify basic resources that would have informed his argument. Hmmm, are you sure you might not benefit from getting a license?


Knowledge is like bullets and we are all in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. (Insert gratuitous comment about the age of Trump.) There are people who are pretty good at finding bullets. They might find a ton of them but they are in limited supply. These kinds of scavengers feel powerful when using their ammunition against those armed with bows, knifed and sticks. They might even fight a good place where they can ambush unsuspecting victims and win a quick shoot out.

But there are some people who can make their own bullets. They don’t scavenge and rely on other people to load their guns for them. Because of this, they can ensure the quality and supply of their ammunition. In short, they have much more power and control over their environment because they know how bullets are made.

The people who can make bullets are those that understand how to contribute academically. As I said in my PhD applications, I wanted to become a provider of knowledge and not just a consumer. There are many people in (and out) of the church who have their bullets filled by others. For example, Hugh Nibley seems to be a go to source for many church members, with some quoting him chapter and verse. While he was great, his scholarship is fairly outdated and should be engaged, yet, few members have the skills or inclination to do so. The scholars who can read, assess, check sources, and do their own research have their own bullets to fire back at Nibley’s bullets, and recognize the duds in places like the CES Letter. There are many others that simply scavenge whatever points they find from google, reddit, and wikipedia, and then conclude that the work is done. The saunter and strut their way through discussions but are little more than poor shadows of who they claim to be.

Personal Application and Conclusion:

Many people have mistaken assumptions about Mao’s theories and leadership and I’m one of the few scholars in the world that is studying the early insurgency of Mao Zedong to help adjust that understanding. If I were arguing with people who had a form of scholarship but denied the power thereof, (or didn’t know how to drive, or scavenge for bullets) they would be really good at quoting Mao’s writings. They might even have read a few biographies of him, and they can drop quotes pretty well on discussion boards, in between their insults, posturing, and bullying of course. Somebody who knows the power of scholarship has harnessed it because they are familiar with the secondary literature, Mao’s words, studied the archived resources about his leadership, local newspapers, the journals of his associates, and have an extensive background in military thought and theory- particularly insurgencies, and so much more to produce a nuanced and fine understanding of the subject. In short, when I make an argument, I have entire cases of ammunition that I’ve made, while many opponents have little more than a scavenged six shooter.

The same principles apply to church topics. As I wrote last week, complicated subjects require discipline and dedication to master equal to the effort put forth by Olympic gymnasts. There are those out there that want the glory or influence that comes from being academic without putting in the effort or realizing its true power, and that is why they only have an appearance of scholarship.

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