[My post this month exactly parallels the current post on my other blog, http://historicaljesusghost.blogspot.com. Same title and the same first six paragraphs. Each post then gives examples appropriate to each field of how scholars blind themselves to the evidence.]
When I was a kid, sometime in high school, I think, I bought a paperback book called “30 Days To A More Powerful Vocabulary”, or maybe it was a better vocabulary. I think I still have it, buried in a box somewhere. I got my money’s worth with that book. It did its job and I did feel my word power grow. It made learning an entertaining exercise. I remember it had single-panel cartoons throughout the book. The one that stuck with me was of a young boy who had just returned home from school and says to his mother, “I learned a new word in school today, Mom. Try and surmise what it is.” It still gets a laugh out of me.
A couple of weeks ago, I learned a new term from a journalist on NPR: Epistemic closure. He described it as a condition in which a person is so sure of his own position that he will not hear any evidence to the contrary. I have been talking about that for years and never knew there was an expression for it. I was kind of delighted that there is now a name for it, but then I immediately had doubts about its usefulness. Is it good to have a name for something, and a fancy one at that? Sometimes naming something can help bring attention to a problem, but with something like this, the condition has been described for a long time and where has it gotten us?
And would a simpler term or description be more useful?
For a very long time now, I have frequently quoted Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haitian historian among other things, who wrote, “Worldview wins over the facts.” (I recently checked on Amazon and found that his incredibly enlightening book Silencing the Past has recently been reissued in an anniversary edition.) Trouillot’s simple sentence is a more powerful description of what epistemic closure points to. You could also say ideology wins over the facts. He used it to describe how Europeans could not accept that there was a slave rebellion going on in Haiti which was defeating European armies. So they explained the facts away to fit their worldview that, on the one hand, slaves were too docile to desire much less fight for freedom, and on the other hand, they were not skilled enough to defeat European might.
If “Worldview wins over the facts” does not hit your over the head like a ton of bricks, I don’t see why epistemic closure would be any more instructive. In True Jew, I described the same condition this way: The less we see, the more we know. That captures what scholars in many fields do. All these expressions do. Usually what happens is that tradition has handed them a certain point of view, and while scholars are fond of spinning it in ways that sound like something new is being said, nothing new happens at all. The same tale gets told over and over again, and everybody is convinced, “We don’t need no stinking evidence” because our worldview or ideology tells us everything we need to know. Our knowledge is closed down. It closed a long time ago. It would be too much trouble to open it up now.
Let’s face it: It’s all about telling lies and getting away with it. Lying is its own reward. What is shocking is that the lies can be bold-faced and still they get away with it. You know it’s a closed discussion when everybody is content with the lies that are being told.
Look at what happens in Darwin scholarship. If you read a thousand books on Darwin or evolution, you will be told a thousand times, or more likely two thousand, that Darwin was a revolutionary. They claim he gave us the theory that man and all life forms are descended from lower life forms. Sometimes, they also mean he gave us a more humble understanding of man’s place in nature. But Darwin gave us neither of these ideas. They were a gift from previous evolutionists and they rarely get any credit for their accomplishments.
It was scientists like Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Constantine Rafinesque, and Robert Chambers who enthusiastically spread the news that a theory of the development of species made more sense of the evidence. All admitted that no one quite understood how it was happening, but they all saw important pieces of evidence that demonstrated that organisms were related to each other and to previous species. Erasmus Darwin compared the generation of species to the generation of individuals; so did his grandson in his early Notebooks.
Charles Darwin was the first to offer an explanation (natural selection) as to the mechanism of species development, but he was definitely not the first to suggest or even prove the greater probability that evolution was indeed occurring. So if there is a revolution in the very idea of the gradual change of life forms on this planet, it was brought to us by several investigators who came before Charles Darwin. Darwin was a latecomer to the field, through no fault of his own as he was born later. But why should the last to enter the field get the credit for the revolution?
As for the lesson of humility for mankind, credit for that really belongs to those who pushed that into the consciousness of the public, and again that was not Charles Darwin. Erasmus Darwin and Robert Chambers did so much to stress that all forms of life were related to each other. Chambers more than anyone else drew the conclusion that this should make us incredibly humble. He even argued that we should respect the rights and feelings of animals, something Charles Darwin would never say. What Chambers, E. Darwin, Rafinesque, and Lamarck argued was that all life is netted into one great whole which is more important than any one part, including humankind.
Scholars have taken this teaching and claim it is one of the essential lessons of evolutionary theory, and further claim that it comes from Charles Darwin, but he never declared this as much as the others did. He rather gave himself to almost the opposite idea. What Darwin saw was a hierarchy of life, an order and ranking, not an interconnectedness into a whole. Over and over in The Origin of Species, he told his readers that life gives us groups subordinate to groups, yielding dominant groups that beat feebler groups in the struggle for life. What is revolutionary about “let the strongest live and the weakest die”, the last words of Chapter VII of Origin?
Charles Darwin was far more a medieval thinker than the preceding evolutionists who all had a holistic approach to nature. In theory, Darwin should have been as holistic as his predecessors, but in practice, he stressed the subordination of groups and ranked groups from lowest to highest. He made the dominant more worthy of life than the weak and small. I cannot see a revolution in any of this. He applied medieval theology to biology and gave comfort to the ruling classes. Considering the accomplishments of the others who came before him, Darwin was more of a counter-revolutionary.
That’s not the way most scholars tell it. The point is not just that they are exaggerating what Charles Darwin did, they are erasing the important work of the first evolutionists who were taking the theory in a more holistic and humbling direction than Darwin ever would. I suppose they need a heroic Charles Darwin in their ideological combat with religion, but whatever their reasons, it is a dishonorable way to study history. They are embracing the same motto historical Jesus scholars follow: The less we see, the more we know.
They are spinning the evidence, and erasing portions of it, until it says nothing we do not want to hear. Whatever you call that—epistemic closure, worldview winning over the facts, or anything else—it is the end of learning anything.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer