Bias in scholarship: Greek grammar edition

In a previous post I gave some excerpts of Jason BeDuhn’s excellent book Truth in Translation. I’ve continued to think about one of the sections. In his discussion of why John 1:1c is usually translated incorrectly (e.g. in every example here) BeDuhn refers to a common defense of the traditional rendering, an appeal to “Colwell’s Rule” about article use and definiteness. He writes:

Yet another argument made in defense of the traditional English translation of John 1:1 is based on something called “Colwell’s Rule.” This is a supposed rule of Greek grammar discovered by the great biblical scholar E.C. Colwell. Colwell introduced his rule in the article “A Definite Rule of the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament.” Based on a sampling of New Testament passages, Colwell formulated his rule as follows: “A definite predicate nominative has the article when it follows the verb; it does not have the article when it precedes the verb” (Colwell, page 13). There are two problems with using “Colwell’s Rule” to argue for the traditional translation of John 1:1. The first problem is that the rule does nothing to establish the definiteness of a noun. The second problem is that the rule is wrong.

. . .

Colwell’s mistake, as so often is the case in research, is rooted in a misguided method. He began by collecting all of the predicate nouns in the New Testament that he considered to be definite in meaning, and then, when some of them turned out to look indefinite in Greek, he refused to reconsider his view that they were definite, but instead made up a rule to explain why his subjective understanding of them remained true, even though the known rules of Greek grammar suggested otherwise. Notice that he had already decided that the predicate nouns he was looking at were definite, based on his interpretation of their meaning rather than on the presence or absence of the one sure marker of definiteness in Greek: the article. His predetermination of definiteness made his whole study circular from the start.

Colwell decided that the nouns he was looking at were definite before he even started his research. He was not prepared to change his mind about that. So when nouns he thought were definite showed up without the definite article, he assumed some rule of grammar must case the article to be dropped. He never even considered the possibility that the article wasn’t there because the noun was not definite. It seems that Colwell was misled by how we might say something in English. If a certain expression is definite in English, he assumed it was definite in Greek, regardless of what the grammer suggested. Of course, Colwell know perfectly well that Greek communicates meaning in different ways than English does. It was an unconscious habit of mind that interfered with this usual capable scholarship in this instance. It was a bias derived from his everyday use of English.

As flawed as the original “Colwell’s Rule” is, it has been made worse by misrepresentation down through the years. Notice that, according to Colwell, his “rule” allows him to explain why a noun that you already know (somehow) to be definite turns up sometimes without the definite article. The “rule” does nothing to allow you to determine that a noun is, or is not, definite. Even if “Colwell’s Rule” were true, it would at most allow the possibility that an article-less predicate nominative before a verb is definite. It could never prove that the word is definite. But since the rule leaves no way to distinguish between a definite and indefinite predicate nominative before a verb, many have mistaken it as making all pre-verb predicate nominatives definite.

Most people couldn’t be less interested in the minutiae of Greek grammar and its implications for Christian theology, and frankly I’m not terribly enthused about it either. But if BeDuhn and others are correct—which I don’t know for certain, not being expert in Koine Greek, though he continues after the excerpt to make a good case—it illustrates a point about scholarship: many intelligent, conscientious scholars in a field can be wrong because of bias. If they all share the same perspective, they don’t check each other. In this example, at least several hundred thousand people have read the original Greek passage countless numbers of times, and most have failed to see it correctly.

I think about this a lot when I see articles from Heterodox Academy. I think this is less of a problem in economics than in other social science fields, although that too could be bias. But it ought to be keeping scholars awake at night, at least for a little while.

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Koyama on Roman Empire economics

Mark Koyama has just written a great piece about Roman Empire historiography. Specifically, about how historians misunderstand the economic aspects of the Roman Empire, leading them to make erroneous conclusions about the cause of its decline. You can find his piece here.

One of Bryan Caplan’s points in The Myth of the Rational Voter is that what voters think about economics is important because so many questions in politics are or affect economic issues. A similar theme holds here, mutatis mutandis. I also see it in anthropology/archaeology. There are a great many fields of study where economics has explanatory power, but more often than not the people in these fields simply aren’t prepared to use it properly. For example I enjoyed Georges Lefebvre’s French Revolution books for the wealth of historical information, but his Marxist interpretation seemed close, but no cigar.

This is important because our framework for understanding the past reflects our framework for understanding the present. The worse we do with one, the worse we’ll do with the other.

Oberlin, the canary in the coal mine?

The Atlantic has a fascinating piece I wish I’d seen before writing the previous post. It describes the dissatisfaction of left-wing student activists with Oberlin College and the confusion of their faculty members in response. The irony, of course, is that Oberlin is probably the most left-wing higher education setting in the country. Reading this piece one gets the impression that Ayn Rand was pulling punches in her caricatures. It’s hard to get the essence of the piece from any small excerpt. You should read the whole thing.

For our purposes we can jump ahead to a provisional diagnosis:

In “The Old Regime and the Revolution,” a study of political ferment in late-eighteenth-century France, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, in the decades leading up to the Revolution, France had been notably prosperous and progressive. We hear a lot about the hunger and the song of angry men, and yet the truth is that, objectively, the French at the start of the seventeen-eighties had less cause for anger than they’d had in years. Tocqueville thought it wasn’t a coincidence. “Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable, become intolerable when once the idea of escape from them is suggested,” he wrote. His claim helped give rise to the idea of the revolution of rising expectations: an observation that radical movements appear not when expectations are low but when they’re high, and vulnerable to disappointment.

The second wave campus activist phase of history is still relatively new and hasn’t been subject to much real sociological investigation and explanation. (In another bit of irony the people who should be first in line to do so would be part of the subject of study, so don’t hold your breath.) But anybody who is interested in the academy should be paying very close attention. Oberlin is ahead of the curve, but not very far ahead. The trend towards letting activists dictate terms to professors, deans, and fellow students has been discouraging. If Oberlin is representative, it gets even worse.

Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”, pt. 2: useful conversation

There’s a lot to like in Harry Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit”. Briefly, for background, a lie depends on the truth, as the speaker of a lie intends to misrepresent something that is not true as something that is. In contrast, bullshit isn’t the misrepresentation of something false as something true. Truth and falsity don’t really enter into the equation. We usually, probably correctly, think of bullshit as an overall bad thing, but it isn’t necessarily always so. Frankfurt writes about a related phenomenon, the “bull session”:

The characteristic topics of a bull session have to do with very personal and emotion-laden aspects of life—for instance, religion, politics, or sex. People are generally reluctant to speak altogether openly about these topics if they expect that they might be taken too seriously. What tends to go on in a bull session is that the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without it being assumed that they are committed to what they say: It is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or how they really feel. The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion. Therefore provision is made for enjoying a certain irresponsibility, so that people will be encouraged to convey what is on their minds without too much anxiety that they will be held to it.

Each of the contributors to a bull session relies, in other words, upon a general recognition that what he expresses or says is not to be understood as being what he means wholeheartedly or believes unequivocally to be true. The purpose of the conversation is not to communicate beliefs. Accordingly, the usual assumptions about the connection between what people say and what they believe are suspended. The statements made in a bull session differ from bullshit in that there is no pretense that this connection is being sustained. They are like bullshit by virtue of the fact that they are in some degree unconstrained by a concern with truth. …

He later writes about a “fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false.”

Not all speech outside of the truth-falsity spectrum is undesirable, as the passage makes clear. Things get figured out that way in a low-pressure way, and even if they don’t it’s a fun way to pass the time. There’s something to be said for social cohesion, too.

Extending this, quite a lot of undergraduate life outside of the classroom is an extended bull session. I recall many speakers, films, flyers, protests, etc. competing for my attention and how these stimuli were important in helping me and my friends flesh out what we thought about the world and why. The current push to sanitize all aspects of campus life shuts people off from viewpoints they haven’t heard and should grapple with because it paints everything as part of a grand cultural battle. When every thought is part of a battle for the soul of humanity, the future of the planet, etc., we get a lot of stunted intellectual development. Often the ones who take the struggle most seriously suffer activist burnout. (Also, see The Onion’s take.)

Remember Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld giving up on performing for college audiences? From The Atlantic:

Two of the most respected American comedians, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, have discussed the unique problems that comics face on college campuses. In November, Rock told Frank Rich in an interview for New York magazine that he no longer plays colleges, because they’re “too conservative.” He didn’t necessarily mean that the students were Republican; he meant that they were far too eager “not to offend anybody.” In college gigs, he said, “you can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.” Then, in June, Seinfeld reopened the debate—and set off a frenzied round of op-eds—when he said in a radio interview that comics warn him not to “go near colleges—they’re so PC.”

Comedy works because it’s obvious you’re not supposed to take everything so seriously; stand-up comedy is essentially a bull monologue. It’s no surprise colleges are the specific audiences Rock and Seinfeld avoid now. It’s not just colleges, of course, that’s just what most of the discussion in this vein focuses on. Our broader cultural conversation doesn’t let anybody try out a thought without having to be bound to it. (In politics this is desirable, but not elsewhere.)

What would make this post complete if it existed, counterfactually, is the actionable takeaway. But I see the problem more clearly now.

Contra Hayek, Maybe: The Intellectuals and Christianity

In The Intellectuals and Socialism Hayek attributes the success of socialist thought to its penetration among intellectuals, defined as “second-hand dealers in ideas” such as writers, editors, and pillars of the community, who were not theorists but relayed the ideas of theorists to the people at large. Students of Hayek to the present day have tended to accept this hypothesis, but I think it is incomplete.

Consider a narrower case. The traditional accounts of who wrote the Bible haven’t held up to scrutiny very well. Scholars of the New Testament almost universally agree that the fourteen books of the New Testament traditionally attributed to Paul were not all written by him.* David Aune writes in the Blackwell Companion to the New Testament:

While seven of the letters attributed to Paul are almost universally accepted as authentic (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon), four are just as widely judged to be pseudepigraphical, i.e. written by unknown authors under Paul’s name: Ephesians and the Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus).

Some scholars go lower than seven. F.C. Baur went as low as four (Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans), and Bruno Bauer went all the way to zero. Regardless of the actual number or the possible biases of individual scholars, the fact is the consensus is lower than fourteen (or thirteen, removing the anonymous and long-debated Epistle to the Hebrews). Included in the consensus are the reasoned opinions of many self-professed Christians, who make up a majority of Biblical scholars. Even the Vatican, as official an organization as can be, acknowledges that this is the consensus, although it appears to lend greater weight to other theories.

There is a clear intellectual link between these Christian academics and the Christian faithful: church leaders and Christian writers. Yet it is far from common knowledge that even most scholars who are Christians deny Pauline authorship of a substantial number of the Pauline epistles, or that this is a topic of debate at all. The second-hand dealers in ideas have failed to relay what seems to be a very important piece of high academic theory to their non-specialist audiences. It is not as though these ideas are new; for example, Schleiermacher challenged the authenticity of 1 Timothy in 1807.

The question, then, is why the process by which socialist ideas were transmitted from theorists to the public is not repeated for scholarly takes on the Bible. I can think of a few possible reasons:

  1. Most Christians already have stronger opinions about the Bible than citizens in general have about forms of social organization. The people who were influenced by socialist ideas adopted a position where they didn’t have one before. Changing minds is a bigger task than making them up.
  2. Socialism is a clearer articulation of a perspective people already had; social creationism is and has always been popular. They were already ripe for it in a way that Christians as a whole aren’t ripe for accepting the scholarly consensus or they were in effect already socialists, just waiting for a creed.
  3. The essential aspect of these beliefs is the psychological desire for purpose. Socialism as a new ideology provided it and the current product in Christianity provides it, not the “newer” scholarly version. In the minds of the consumers of the Christian message there’s nothing to improve. You don’t consistently give sermons nobody wants to hear or you end up talking to an empty room.
  4. There are more intellectual rōnin in this arena who end up dominating the narrative. The second-hand dealers in ideas are disconnected from the theorists in the realm of Christianity in ways they are not disconnected in other areas. This is probably the least credible. It may have some small explanatory power for popular Christian books, but for church leaders the situation is probably the reverse; seminaries are full of stubborn apologists, of course, but they often teach critical scholarship and employ critical scholars, and the boundary between the two groups is not firm.
  5. The information isn’t relevant. I think this one is, if not self-evidently false, at least highly unlikely. Apologist theorists have spilled a lot of ink dealing with this issue. Even those who don’t think it leads to significant changes think it’s relevant.

This only recently occurred to me so I am not confident in ranking these options. I suspect some mix of 2 and 3.

I sign off for now with Colossians 1:24-26:

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints.

…wherever it came from.


* I use this case as an example but it extends far beyond the New Testament, and indeed beyond Christianity.

Wednesday nexus

1. R.I.P. Douglass North, 1993 Economics Nobel laureate, 1920–2015. Bio here; New York Times obituary here.

2. Alex Tabarrok tackles a persistent meme about refugees.

3. Don Boudreaux on trusting political leaders:

In short, when the subject of discussion or the object of action is the economy, politicians and their deputies typically sound and act as if they are imbeciles (or as if the audiences they aim to please are made up largely of imbeciles). So why should I trust that these same politicians and their deputies, when they discuss and act on matters about which I know far less than economics, are not imbeciles? Why should I suppose them to be any more informed, reasonable, and wise – and less politically motivated – than they are when they discuss economics?

4. Two can play this game: How Democrats Suppress the Vote. I’m kicking myself for never having thought or read about this before, though in fairness I suppose very few people have.

Scheduling local elections at odd times appears to be a deliberate strategy aimed at keeping turnout low, which gives more influence to groups like teachers unions that have a direct stake in the election’s outcome.

The article draws largely from a book by political scientist Sarah Anzia that I guess I’ll have to read now.

5. And some levity: The 12 coaches rumored for every college football job opening ever. Teaser:

1. The Back The Truck Up dream coach you deserve: This is [your university], dammit. Before you even think of calling any of these other candidates, you get out that dang checkbook, you sit down in front of the most accomplished and least interested NFL or college head coach, and you make him say no.

Bias in social psychology

Via Twitter, a new study suggesting a large body of social psychology research may be seriously biased. The abstract, with my emphasis:

Prior research suggests that liberals are more complex than conservatives. However, it may be that liberals are not more complex in general, but rather only more complex on certain topic domains (while conservatives are more complex in other domains). Four studies (comprised of over 2,500 participants) evaluated this idea. Study 1 involves the domain specificity of a self-report questionnaire related to complexity (dogmatism). By making only small adjustments to a popularly used dogmatism scale, results show that liberals can be significantly more dogmatic if a liberal domain is made salient. Studies 2–4 involve the domain specificity of integrative complexity. A large number of open-ended responses from college students (Studies 2 and 3) and candidates in the 2004 Presidential election (Study 4) across an array of topic domains reveals little or no main effect of political ideology on integrative complexity, but rather topic domain by ideology interactions. Liberals are higher in complexity on some topics, but conservatives are higher on others. Overall, this large dataset calls into question the typical interpretation that conservatives are less complex than liberals in a domain-general way.

This immediately made me think of another recent paper about the lack of political diversity in social psychology [summarized by one of the authors here]. The abstract of that paper, with my emphasis:

Psychologists have demonstrated the value of diversity – particularly diversity of viewpoints – for enhancing creativity, discovery, and problem solving. But one key type of viewpoint diversity is lacking in academic psychology in general and social psychology in particular: political diversity. This article reviews the available evidence and finds support for four claims: (1) Academic psychology once had considerable political diversity, but has lost nearly all of it in the last 50 years. (2) This lack of political diversity can undermine the validity of social psychological science via mechanisms such as the embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods, steering researchers away from important but politically unpalatable research topics, and producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike. (3) Increased political diversity would improve social psychological science by reducing the impact of bias mechanisms such as confirmation bias, and by empowering dissenting minorities to improve the quality of the majority’s thinking. (4) The underrepresentation of non-liberals in social psychology is most likely due to a combination of self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination. We close with recommendations for increasing political diversity in social psychology.

For what little it’s worth, this fits with my subjective impressions about the current intellectual climate. In my experience the thought leaders on the left typically cannot even characterize libertarian ideas properly, much less understand them on a deeper level, and, perhaps secure in their dominance, are extremely dismissive of them and the people who hold them. We could hardly expect it to be be much better for people who don’t earn a living by research and instruction, and a quick perusal of just about any corner of the internet will confirm this pessimism. To a lesser extent the same thing seems to happen with conservative ideas, although I admit I pay less attention to these.

The problem, of course, is that the marketplace of ideas only works if it’s competitive. If the academic climate is dogmatic and hostile to minority positions, refusing to engage with them, how could we expect the ideas that emerge to be the strongest?

Social creationism

One of the many, many great contributions Friedrich Hayek made to civilization was his decades-long attack on constructivism, a.k.a. constructivist rationalism, “a conception which assumes that all social institutions are, and ought to be, the product of deliberate design.” [source] He wrote about it in book after book but outside of a fairly narrow scholarly circle the idea is not very popular. One of the reasons is that few people have the time or inclination to wade through the sources. Another reason is that the name isn’t very catchy.

I’ve been using another term for it for a few years in private conversation: social creationism. The metaphor is apt, I think, and more likely to be understood. Creationism as a theory about the natural world is scoffed at (correctly) by most people, at least most people whose trade is ideas, but paradoxically many of these people think the world of human institutions is “the product of deliberate design” and push to remake it in their own images. It’s a rare thinker who consistently acknowledges the evolutionary development of social institutions and the exceedingly complex interplay between them.

The error comes partly from people observing that some institutions, e.g. legislation or university policies, are deliberately designed, and assuming that the same kind of telos operates on a wider scale. First, there is no one intelligence behind all institutions. Not even The Protocols of the Elders of Zion attributed that much power to its supervillains. Second, even if it were true that each institution were deliberately designed, the complex web of interactions, reactions, adjustments, etc. in a world with free will would make the overall final product different from what was intended. Just as biological entities develop and change and weren’t created in one pass, the final product of human interaction, society, is beyond anybody’s capacity to bring about.

Free speech hero: the raving campus street preacher

Even though universities take a lot of heat for their growing tendency to censor legally protected speech, there’s one free speech fixture that still seems to be going strong: the raving, half homeless-looking, evangelical street preacher. If you haven’t been on a campus in a while, it’s just like you remember. There are many of them, and they are sometimes women, but I think reducing it down to a single representative man will get the point across just fine. As readers of this blog probably know, I agree with basically none of what this man ever says. I have this in common with most of his target audience, I think.

What he says, especially about sexuality—yesterday I walked past one raving about “homos”—is much more frank than what you normally hear from others, and less and less palatable over time to college students. Yet he always has a crowd around him, and the crowd always seems to know the proper response is either to ignore him or to laugh and heckle, not to get upset.

I know the problem of the offensive but unsanctioned street preacher is not the same as (potentially?) offensive agents who either implicitly or explicitly have the university’s sanction, whether instructors, guest speakers, or fellow students. But the value of college is not just in the officially sanctioned activities. This guy does a great service on campus. What is the danger of ideas, again? People might believe them? It’s good to have a constant fixture on campuses with very unpopular ideas who amuses rather than harms. The raving campus street preacher shows people can be exposed to disagreeable ideas without being transformed by them.

I hope he isn’t banned at Yale.

How not to reason on common political issues

In the essay Political Bias in Philosophy and Why it Matters, Spencer Case enumerates several examples of perceived political bias in philosophy including a doozy which follows shortly. I don’t have the original text in front of me and therefore can’t judge if the quote is somehow taken out of context, but assuming Case is fairly summarizing, get a load of this:

Later, without pausing to consider any anti-abortion arguments, Wood asserts that “It is an affront to human intelligence to pretend that [pro-life] views are anything but an attempt to confine women, as far as possible, to their traditional sexual subordination as less than free persons.

At least Woods has the virtue of frankness.

I suppose women who hold pro-life views and don’t agree that they should be “confined” “to their traditional sexual subordination as less than free persons” can be dismissed out of hand; their consciousness must be false. Again, I don’t want to slam somebody for something taken out of context, but I will run with it here because I find this attitude disturbingly common among pro-choice people. (It’s disturbingly common but not, I think, a majority view on that side.) If the mark of an educated person is being able to entertain a thought without accepting it, this subgroup sets a very poor example for people aspiring to education. Watch some of these and see if there’s any conceivable reason—that is, other than raging misogyny—why a person might be opposed to this procedure. Any reason at all.

Since it apparently matters for these kinds of discussions, I am pro-choice. Just because we ought to keep the option open for making the best of a bad situation doesn’t mean it isn’t unsettling. It’s dishonest to deny the best available option might have pros and cons. And it’s both dishonest and lazy to think your opponents cannot possibly be motivated by anything other than evil.