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Skeptical Humanities

I’ve found several websites dedicated to applying the principles of rational and evidence-based skepticism to subjects in the humanities. I’m looking for more. I’d like to expand the following list with any website that is worth bookmarking in this area, so everyone, please feel free to make recommendations in comments. I’m only looking for sites that regularly do this, and meet roughly the same criteria of utility and standards as those in the following list, and that are broader than single-issue sites.

Of course everyone knows Snopes.com. You might not think of it as a skeptical humanities site, but what Barbara and David Mikkelson do there is address journalism and urban folklore and history, which are solidly in the humanities.

And everyone knows FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com.They apply skepticism to journalism and advertising and propaganda, which is again skepticism in the humanities, yet often overlooked because we tend to compartmentalize politics as its own animal.

But fewer know about BadArchaeology.com. Run by archaeologists Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews and James Doeser, they also have an affiliated blog. I don’t consider this a single-issue site, since archaeology is broad enough in scope to make bookmarking the site in general worthwhile.

Similar to that is PaleoBabble, a prolific blog by Mike Heiser (a doctor of Hebrew and Semitic Studies) addressing bogus claims in archaeology and ancient history, mostly in relation to ancient aliens and other conspiracy theories about antiquity, but it ranges widely in that area. [Be aware that Heiser's position on traditional biblical religion might be less skeptical, though he does write skeptically about such fringe subjects as bible codes and apocalypticism.]

And in a different vein is Jourdemayne, by Skeptic magazine UK’s current editor Deborah Hyde, which applies skeptical analysis to folklore and legends (from vampires and werewolves to witches and whatnot).

But even broader is SkepticalHumanities.com. This ranges all over the humanities, from linguistics to art, philosophy, history, literature, rhetoric, aesthetics, literary criticism, pop culture, folklore, and cultural studies. Its many contributors (currently Bob Blaskiewicz, Eve Siebert, Mark Newbrook, and Jenna Marie Griffith) are doctors in English, Linguistics, and Visual Arts (or almost a doctor in that last case).

Are there more out there like this that I’m missing? Let me know!

Since my original post, here are my favorite additions from commenter recommendations:

Slate Star Codex. Applies skepticism to claims in and about “cognitive science, psychology, history, politics, medicine, religion, statistics, transhumanism” but also subjects like feminism and sociology. Which reminds me to also add our own…

Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men. Applies skepticism to both feminist and anti-feminist claims and rhetoric, and to claims about sociology, economics, and other related subjects in the study of gender, culture and justice.

Evidence Based EFL. Applies skepticism to all kinds of claims about language, education and the use of words. (See a recent post there about the reason for the blog. The author remains anonymous, but is clearly an expert in language instruction, and if I were to guess, they are an English teacher in Japan.)

JasonColavito. Applies skepticism to claims in history and folklore, from ancient aliens to psychic history to other fringe claims about the bible (like “Was Noah a Merman?” which is a really good example of the depth of historical context Colavito provides in his analysis of these fringe claims). Colavito is an author and a distinguished double-major in anthropology and journalism, and uses this background expertly to explore “the connections between science, pseudoscience, and speculative fiction.”

The Renaissance Mathematicus. Applies skepticism to claims in the history of science and mathematics (mainly 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, but occasionally ranging more widely). This blog is full of great skeptical writing on a large range of subjects and claims within its purview.

New at LacusCurius & Livius. Applies skepticism to claims about ancient history (principally Western, sometimes biblical). Has a handy list of common errors well worth exploring. But everything there should be used with caution. I found problems with some of the entries I looked at, generally key information is omitted that would qualify what is claimed. For example, on the flat earth myth, it’s true most educated elites in antiquity knew the earth was a sphere, but the masses often did not or even rejected the idea, and some of the most highly educated elites, like Lactantius, outright opposed the idea, calling it ridiculous (and Lactantius was and remained a revered Christian author throughout the Middle Ages). Accordingly, it’s entirely plausible that the illiterate crew of Columbus thought the earth was flat, but not likely that his financial backers did. This is the kind of information this site should be including. But as long as you are aware that its entries might not be complete, they have a lot of useful discussion and sourcing.

FiveThirtyEight. Nate Silver’s column for the New York Times online, which has many contributors besides himself, a decent example of explaining mathematical results to humanities folk, often applying fact-based “mathematical” skepticism to topics in politics, journalism, and economics, with a touch of history. Good one for dissecting opinion polls and their use and abuse.

 

Comments

  1. aaronadair says

    I would recommend Jason Colavito’s website/blog, which focuses largely on ancient aliens and related pseudo-history/archaeology. There has also been plenty of skepticism of more recent pseudo-history on the “History” Channel there. Jason’s also done the work to show the root of ancient alien theory comes from HP Lovecraft.

    Start here .

    • says

      That definitely looks like a worthy add (though it comes close to traditional pseudoscience skepticism, it covers a lot that’s also in the history, folklore and humanities box).

  2. Jimbo123 says

    I’m iffy on Paleobabble. Heiser seems to have a creedal (even Evangelical) view of Christian Scripture, which is bunk. He also tries to argue against anyone even remotely suggesting that ancient hebrews were polytheistic/henotheistic. Except when they were, and he conveniently suggests that it’s cause of Christian Trinitarianism.

    • says

      Those are good observations and worth noting.

      Which occasions me to ask:

      I’d welcome top recommendations of sites that answer that flaw with their own skeptical treatment of biblical history from an expert perspective. I have some of that in my bookmark list, but nothing comprehensive and I have no idea if I’m missing some of the best out there.

  3. says

    I realize you’ve asked for websites, but I think there are a few books people may be interested in of a similar flavour:

    Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live, by Marlene Zuk

    The Halo Effect …and Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers, by Phil Rosenzweig

    The latter also maintains a website with articles and links about various business delusions:

    http://www.the-halo-effect.com/links/index.html

    • commenthere says

      It’s quite charitable of you to promote a blog whose owner claims (though he seems to misunderstand/miss some of the nuances of your position-s) your own work on the history of science and Christianity is “total rubbish.” :-)

    • says

      I am not aware of that being said on RN. Maybe the author of RN (handle Thony C) has said that somewhere else. But I suspect you aren’t confusing something else he said: in his debate with Ken Perrot of Open Parachute (see Ken’s discussion here), begun over Ken’s discussion of my talks on ancient science (here), Thony C said (comment here):

      I could go on for pages about the errors in Carrier’s presentations but I will close with just one comment. In the opening to one of the videos embedded above he says, and I’m paraphrasing, that science in antiquity consisted of a mixture of good science and complete rubbish; this is of course true viewed from our standpoint.

      The word “rubbish” there wasn’t in reference to me.

      Nevertheless, it is true Thony C does criticize me there to a degree that warrants concluding he regards my work as rubbish. For instance, he calls some of my claims “inaccurate generalisations and propaganda” without specifying what claims he means or providing any evidence against them (he cites some books without explaining what claims of mine they supposedly correct), and when he got specific (he had only one objection to me, and that’s my claim that Christianity impaired scientific progress for a thousand years), he was forced to drop or retract what he said (see Ken’s comments here and here and here, for example…the last is particularly interesting as Thony C’s response to it dropped every argument he made against me and only argues against things Ken said). As you note, he either got me wrong, or made claims that were demonstrably false (Ken gives a rundown here).

      Hence in any event, this is a good opportunity to note that a good skeptic wouldn’t trust any of the sites I list implicitly. They can all be wrong from time to time, and some more than others (the most problematic I annotated as such, but even the rest cannot be presumed infallible).

    • commenthere says

      Thanks for the response. I was referring to an old tweet of his where he wrote “Carrier spouts total rubbish about the history of science and Christianity, then his disciples say he must be right he’s got a PhD.” (it’s actually more recent than the blog posts you link to but I forget which of your views – if not all – he was specifically insulting)

      Reading his comments in the links you provided, there’s no doubt he misreads (at least some of) your arguments. In fact, he makes the *same arguments* you make, then critiques a strawman (while being exceedingly verbose and peppering his ehm answers – he doesn’t seem to engage directly – with trivia). It kinda reminds me of some spats you had with religious apologists re this subject on your old blog.

      Sorry for dragging this out, anyway. :)

    • says

      Ah, I do suspect that was still referring solely to the one single claim I made that annoyed him, that Christianity impaired the progress of science for a thousand years. Because he has never identified any other claim of mine that he objects to. A claim that he intemperately and hyperbolically responded to by maligning my entire education and all my scholarship, without evidence or basis. And if that tweet does follow the exchange with Ken, then it shows he has decided to rest in his delusion rather than correct himself in light of the evidence.

      I’m not surprised, since in his debate with Ken over this (which he resoundingly lost) he showed a marvelous intemperance and a complete failure to back up any of his claims against me with evidence.

      I think your analysis is correct.

  4. Sean M says

    I can think of two sites by people who, to my knowledge, are not associated with the skeptical movement.

    What about Jona Lendering’s and Bill Thayer’s Rambambashi blog? Jona’s “common errors about antiquity” series plus a number of posts on misattributed quotes, flawed transcriptions, and dubious Mithras scholarship add up to a reasonably skeptical content http://rambambashi.wordpress.com/

    I would also suggest Marc MacYoung’s website http://www.nononsenseselfdefense.com/ with its discussions of issues around safety, violent crime, and human behaviour under stress. MacYoung uses some psychology and sociology, but his basic methods are observation, thinking about definitions, considering social context, and following a train of thought to its conclusion … classic humanities ones!

  5. Giuseppe says

    Hi Dr. Carrier,
    I recently read this article by an academic.

    http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/2013/ber378008.shtml

    I find it very interesting, to the point of thinking that IF Jesus had existed, it was probably a seditionist anti-Roman. I want to know if it is right to apply the criterion of embarrassment in the presence of the pattern of ”zealot” clues in the Gospels and Book of Revelation. After all, the author of article shares with you the rejection of apologetic excuses!
    In your research, what are the errors and/or fallacies of Zealot Hypothesis for Historical Jesus, as expounded in the article?

    Thank you very much for your reply.

    • says

      That’s one theory of historicity that may be true. The evidence is insufficient to know. But it’s not ridiculous. That it can be made compatible with the more popular theory that he was a slightly deranged apocalyptic prophet supports its plausibility.

      However, the “Gospel clues” hypothesis doesn’t work, for the reasons I lay out in my critique of the Argument from Embarrassment in Proving History, pp. 124-69. It is not plausible that such clues would be included by the Gospel authors. They would have no motive. It presumes they were just blind collectors and regurgitators of random traditions, and the literary evidence is decisively against any such notion. They were very conscious and deliberate crafters of their stories and chose everything they included for a reason. Meanwhile, evidence for the zealot hypothesis is missing from earlier materials, like the Epistles (it’s not to be found even in Hebrews or 1 Clement), apart from the barest of data (like that Jesus was crucified).

      The Bermejo-Rubio thesis is really problematized by an excessive trust in the literalism of the Gospels (e.g. he assumes we should believe an armed force was actually sent to arrest Jesus as the Gospels claim, rather than that being a literary invention to elevate Jesus and make a moral statement about the Jewish elite; but from where I sit, that’s 50/50 at best; he also thinks we should take literally that he was crucified between two robbers and that his cross had the title atop it “King of the Jews” and so on, and I find all of this very unlikely, it looks far too much like fiction and fable).

      But I’ll grant that the article you link to is among the best non-book-length defenses of the thesis, and is certainly worth bookmarking to that end. It works especially in arguments with anyone who wants to take the Gospels as history and not fable. If we grant that assumption, then Bermejo-Rubio’s four arguments carry substantial weight, IMO.

      P.S. IMO, Fernando Bermejo-Rubio is someone to watch. As I remarked in a note in my book Proving History, his article “The Fiction of the ‘Three Quests’: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Historiographical Paradigm” in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 7.3 (2009): 211–53 should become required reading on the practice of the usual dividing out of the “quests for the historical Jesus” into three (he pretty much refutes the notion and calls attention to the Christian agenda that sustains it). He’s a paradigm buster with impressive knowledge and skills.

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    Off-topic: How Can You Tell a Fake Jesus?

    “We have the historical Jesus vs. the portrayal in the Gospels, and we can reconstruct some reliable things about Jesus,” associate professor of religious studies at Grinnell College Henry Rietz said.

    • says

      Note sure what the relevance is of the quoted remark. Are we supposed to be surprised that mainstream scholars still think “some reliable things about Jesus” can still be extracted from the Gospels? That’s not really news.

  7. Giuseppe says

    I agree with you about the character exclusively literary of the Gospels, but what is very strange for me in this schema is not the Temple Episode or the Triumphal Entrance in Jerusalem or the Getsemani Episode et similia: all things derived from an ancestral literary tradition of ANE tropes (I have in mind the big arsenal of evidence as expounded in Messiah Myth of Thomas Thompson). What is very strange howewer is the Barabbas Episode and especially the fact that some earliest manuscripts of Mark reported ‘‘Jesus Barabbas”, what means ”Jesus Son of Father”. It is all literary and not remembered history, OK, but WHY to call the ”bed” loved by ”perfidis judaeis” with exactly that name (which is all a program) ? What is the (literary) reason for Mark in doing so, in this case?

    I know that for zealot hypothesis the Barabbas Episode is a very strong clue, but it is a clue for a ”gnostic” interpretation of Mark, too: the true Jesus ”Son the Father” (Barabbas) flees just in time for escape the death (being a docetic Christ), while the false Jesus ”called Christ” died for him. But I like more the zealot hypothetis :)

    How do you explain the Barabbas Episode without need of zealot hypothesis? I am very curious…

    Thanks again for the reply.

    • says

      The Barabbas story is a parable. It is obviously false (for a number of well-documented reasons). It mimics Leviticus 16 and communicates a message about rejecting military messiahs and accepting spiritual messiahs, and those who embrace the former will die and those who embrace the latter will live. I have discussed this in several venues. But it is laid out in detail, with citations of scholarship, in my next book On the Historicity of Jesus Christ. For a precis (only containing some of the evidence and without bibliography) see The Christian Delusion, p. 303.

  8. Giuseppe says

    I realize more and more that everything fits together, everything is purely literary.

    But it is laid out in detail, with citations of scholarship, in my next book On the Historicity of Jesus Christ.

    I can not wait to read it! :)

    good continuation

  9. says

    …and, via Alex Gabriel, i just found SkeptiClawyer. I’m new to it, and based on the content i’ve seen so far i probably won’t be subscribing, but there it is if it fits the bill.

    It also surprises me that no one, including myself, has suggested FiveThirtyEight. While perhaps better categorized under “quantitative humanities”, much of its content aims to evaluate popular political and media claims rigorously, most recently whether the party in the White House alternates like a metronome.

    • says

      SkepticLawyer doesn’t seem very useful. I checked one test example (posts tagged “feminism”) and found routine overgeneralization and error (unsubstantiated claims about feminists and frequently getting feminist ideas and arguments wrong). Beyond that the blog doesn’t really write much in actual skepticism that is well informed. Indeed, it’s mostly just armchair opinion editorializing rather than actual fact-checking. The lead author is a stock Libertarian (which means: ideology stands in for actual science or facts, pretty much the opposite of a real skeptic).

      But 538 is worth noting. That’s Nate Silver’s column for the New York Times online (which several authors contribute to). Lots of good math-applied-to-real-world stuff there, good fact-based skepticism, and so on. I definitely think it counts (in the sphere of politics/journalism/economics). I’m adding it.

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