Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Open Studies, Peer Review, and Kuhnian Paradigms

I see that my initial question about "open studies" has spawned a number of discussions, most notably concerning the role of peer review in open scholarship. I want to say a few words about peer review and its role in our field, especially since Jim West has denounced peer review and its defenders in a vitriolic post, which has prompted a blunt (and in my view wholly justified) response from Jim Davila.

A few years ago Richard Schedinger published "Kuhnian Paradigms and Biblical Scholarship: Is Biblical Studies a Science?" in JBL. In it he argued that Biblical studies was not a science, and therefore loose appeals for "paradigm shifts" in the Kuhnian sense were out of court. He averred that Kuhn's description of paradigms applied only to the natural sciences such as physics and biology; since Biblical studies, as one of the humanities, was not ruled by research-determining paradigms, it had, essentially, no "big" paradigms to shift, only groups of more or less equal competing paradigms. He concluded:

Biblical studies, as a discipline situated squarely within the humanities, must embrace diversity, a multiplicity of paradigms, and the living conversation between scholars that this diversity makes possible.

I think the most charitable interpretation of Jim West's post is that he sees Biblical studies as Schedinger does, only more so. But Jim (West) also implies that there are no standards by which to judge a good or bad idea (other than the "test of time," whatever that is — error is just as persistent as truth), and that any attempt to do so (via peer review) is a "popularity contest" or an illegitimate exercise of power by those who "control" the discipline. (The bitterness of West's post makes me wonder if there is some kind of unpleasant personal experience behind it.)

But I think that Schedinger (and by extension, West) are wrong; or, at least, not completely right. It is true that Biblical studies is not a science judged by the model of the physical sciences, or by the model of Kuhnian research-determining paradigms. Nevertheless, it is a science, like at least some of the other humanities, in that it is, or should be, based on disciplined, rational, and systematic enquiry and established and accepted canons of research. Actually the German word for "science," Wissenschaft, encompasses this meaning, and Biblical studies really is scientific (wissenschaftlich) in this sense.

And in fact Biblical studies (which I will not abbreviate by its initials) also has its "big" paradigms. Schedinger cites the case of biology vs. creationism to illustrate the difference between paradigmatic biology and non-biology. He says, "If one is a creationist, one cannot, by definition, be a biologist. There is no inter-paradigm debate within the bounds of the biological community." (Some may not like this illustration; but let it go, OK? It's Schedinger's, not mine.) But then he implies that the humanities don't have these kinds of boundary line cases. They do, however. In modern history, Holocaust revisionists are not considered real historians at all. In ancient history, a Velikovskian catastrophist or someone who believes in a literal Atlantis is also not considered a historian at all, but a crackpot. In the English department, anyone who argued that someone besides Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's plays would not be considered a real scholar.

In the same way, Biblical archaeology or Biblical studies has cases of "junk scholarship." I submit that the case of the Temple is one. As I argued in an earlier post, those who argue that there simply was no First Temple are perpetrating "junk history." And that is what peer review and other scholarly gate-keeping conventions are for: to keep out the junk and the nonsense. When I open JBL, I may read many things I disagree with, even some things that I think are jargon-ridden, shallow, trendy, and ill-written. But I know I'm not going to read anything that suggests that the Ezekiel held converse with space aliens, or that Adam and Eve spoke Latin, or that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalen and later went to Tibet. (For that I have the Internet.)

I believe that Jim Davila, in his original post discussing this issue, was saying the same thing: that First-Temple-deniers are not perpetrating scholarship at all. It is not that they have failed to produce evidence powerful enough to overturn a scholarly consensus, but they have failed to be scientific (wissenschaftlich) at all in providing sustained, disciplined, and rational engagement with the field as a whole or the historical understandings that make the field possible.

The question of how this all relates to open scholarship (or whatever it's called) is difficult. If "open" means "anybody can play," then it's not going to be worth much. Therefore I submit that a worthwhile collaborative "open studies" initiative has to come up with some way of maintaining a level of scientific scholarship. And that's going to mean some kind of gatekeeping or peer review.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Robert Shedinger, "Kuhnian Paradigms and Biblical Scholarship: Is Biblical Studies a Science?" Journal of Biblical Literature 119 (2000) 453-471.


Anonymous said...

I'm with you 100% on this post.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for this excellent clarification of the whole discussion. Your emphasis on the function of wissenschaftlich paradigms is particularly valulable.

I remember Michael Polanyi saying somewhere that it is never simply a question of "evidence" when proposals are made that fall wholly outside the basic scientific paradigm. He mentions a guy who had demonstrated (with masses of compelling evidence) that the breeding pattern of rabbits is an integer of Pi; and Polanyi notes that in such a case the amount of evidence is simply irrelvant, since the proposal is entirely meaningless within the scientific paradigm.

Tim Bulkeley said...

Surely the logic of what you say is that "anyone can play" as long as they play by the rules. Which is where peer review, or some reasonable substitute is needed...

But let's never say that this is not a game that anyone (reasonably intelligent and willing to learn) can play, and only allow in the people we share smoke-filled rooms with! I'm with Jim to the extent that he hates the idea of the "guild" becoming/acting like a clique or a gang!

Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...


You are absolutely correct in your assessment of the situation! I tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to articulate my points concerning the “gate keeping” function of the peer review process. I think that if we did not have this process then “meaningful” scholarship as we know it would cease to exist! I could not imagine trying to read a professional journal without the articles somehow being vetted. This is the standard in the physical sciences (e.g. chemistry, physics, biology) and even other humanities (e.g. history). I can sense the struggle that Prof. West and others are feeling at this time. However, to embrace scholasticism without guidelines, checks, balances, and peer review would be descent into chaos.


Wayne Leman said...

Thank you for continuing the important discussion on open scholarship and quality control, peer review, etc. I have tagged your post for the BATSIS tagging system.