A Bayesian Brief on Comments at TAM

I was asked about remarks made by Chris Guest (President of the Australian Skeptics, Victorian Branch) at this year’s TAM. He gave a quick twenty minute talk on Bayesian reasoning and its abuses, with which I entirely concur. (This talk begins with Guest’s introduction at timestamp 48:30.) He criticizes my work briefly at the end, but understanding his remarks there require understanding his remarks throughout the talk. His only mistake is that when he gets to my work, he makes one crucial mathematical error that invalidates his entire critique…
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Knitting Fans, Behold Some Awesome Ancient Roman Tech!

There’s this guy, you see, who knitted his way to a solution to an infamous problem in Roman history. This might be a bit premature (since academic journals haven’t weighed in yet), but I am persuaded that the mystery of the ancient Roman dodecahedrons has been solved. And why I’m persuaded affords a handy example for teaching how Bayesian reasoning works in making good historical inferences. [Update: This case likewise shows how Bayesian reasoning can incorporate new facts so as to change what’s likely: experts in the comments to this article subsequently persuaded me that a full accounting of the facts in my Bayesian model does not get as positive a result for this thesis as I had initially thought.]

A What?

Photograph of a bronze dodecahedron recovered from the ancient Roman Empire, described in the text.I suppose I should begin by explaining what a “mysterious ancient Roman dodecahedron” is. It’s not just any dodecahedron from ancient Rome (I’ll show you an unrelated example shortly), but a very peculiarly consistent oddity that no one has been able to explain (mainly because no writing survives mentioning it). It’s a common object. Some hundred or so have been found, originating in the 2nd century A.D. and spanning a couple of centuries afterward. But only in France and northern and eastern Europe. It’s weird looking. And has peculiar features. Some are of stone manufacture, but most are cast bronze.

Another example like the one above, this one lacks the grooves mentioned in the text.Some typical examples (one from Wikipedia, another from the Birmingham Musem) are shown to the right. Each is a twelve-sided hollow object, the sides generally symmetrical (an isohedron, so it looks a little like a twelve-sided die, something old-school role-playing-gamers will recognize), but every side has a circular hole in it, and the holes are different sizes, but the pattern of sizes (the sequence and arrangement) is the same on every object, even though the size of the object (and thus size of the holes) varies considerably, from kind of tiny (one and a half inches total diameter) to about the size of what would have then been a large adult fist (a little over four inches). The holes also sometimes have a sequence of parallel carved rings around them (sort of like gutters or guidelines in the face of the object), but many do not, so these appear to be a decorative flourish (a typical accent found in Roman tech of the time, where common utilitarian objects can be prettied up with some artsy flourishes like that).

But importantly, every corner of these objects has a solid knob sticking out of it, a bollard narrower at its base than at its tip (many of these just look like attached spheres), for twenty knobs in all. This most of all prevents the twelve-sided die analogy from quite being right, that plus the fact that the holes being of different size means each face has a different weight. They also aren’t inscribed with anything…a fact that is far more crucial to determining their purpose than you might at first think.

Just search “Roman dedocahedron” in Google Images and you’ll find dozens of examples. And yet…

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Offering Classes on Historical Method and the Historicity of Jesus

I am still teaching the science and philosophy of free will this June (that class starts next week; you can register here). But now my courses for July and August are also open for early registration (and there is a limit on how many students I take on per class, so they might fill up; I will offer them again next year).

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For July (and this in preparation for August) I will be teaching a course on historical methods: Thinking Like a Historian: Historical Methods, Practice and Theory (details and registration here). Description:

Cover of Richard Carrier's book Proving History. Illuminated stained glass Jesus in darkened room as peered at through a cross cut-out in an iron cathedral door. Title and author name below.Learn how to question and investigate claims about history. Study not only the logic of historical reasoning and argument, but also a lot of the practical tips and tricks real historians employ to test and check claims. Learn the particular skills of skeptical and critical thinking about history. Primary topics: Best practices among historians; historical methods as modes of reasoning (both criteria-based and Bayesian); examples of flawed reasoning and bad arguments in peer reviewed history journals and monographs (and how to spot them as a layperson); and what to do to critically examine a claim using both immediate heuristics and procedures for more labor-intensive inquiry.

The required course text we will be working through chapter by chapter is Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus, but I will be providing additional readings and discussion across several fields and subjects in history (the focus won’t be wholly or even mostly on Jesus; that will just be a working example).

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For August (and this will benefit from having taken the preceding course in July) I will be teaching a course on the historicity of Jesus: Questioning or Defending the Historicity of Jesus (details and registration here). Description:

Cover of Richard Carrier's book On the Historicity of Jesus. Medieval icon image of Jesus holding a codex, on a plain brown background, title above in white text, author below in white text.This course discusses the best arguments for and against the historical existence of Jesus (as the putative founder of Christianity), and we will proceed step-by-step through ways to approach them and evaluate them. Working from the first peer reviewed academic book arguing Jesus might not have existed, taught by the author himself, you will learn how to distinguish good arguments from bad, and about the background and context of the origins of Christianity as a whole. This is the best opportunity to ask Dr. Carrier, who holds a PhD in ancient history from Columbia University, all your questions about his controversial research and the historical(?) figure of Jesus. Main issues to cover: understanding the complex background to the origins of Christianity (unit 1, OHJ chs. 4, 5, & 7); comparing the competing theories of how and why Christianity began (unit 2, OHJ chs. 1, 2, & 3); understanding the Gospels and Acts as mythology and whether historical facts about Jesus can be extracted from them (unit 3, OHJ chs. 6, 9, & 10); and exploring the arguments for and against evidence for a historical Jesus in the authentic Epistles of Paul and literature outside the New Testament (unit 4, OHJ chs. 8, 11, & 12).

The required course text we will be working through chapter by chapter is On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, although I will be providing additional readings (such as from defenders of historicity). That is expected to be available by the end of June, and you might want to order it as soon as that, so as to be assured of having it in time for the course (I will announce on this blog as soon as the book can be ordered or pre-ordered). Unfortunately there will not be an electronic copy in time for August, but I have an option for the visually impaired (so if you can’t read a print book, just write to me once you register, to inquire about an alternative).

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I should note that technically mine is not “the first peer reviewed academic book arguing Jesus might not have existed” if you include Thomas Brodie’s recent book from the same press, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, although that is actually a memoir of how he came to that conclusion, and not an organized argument for it (e.g. he does little to address defenses of historicity or offer an alternative theory of the origin of Christianity). See my review.

 

On Evaluating Arguments from Consensus

I have often been asked how we should evaluate arguments from consensus. That’s where someone says “the consensus of experts is that P, therefore we should agree P is true.” On the one hand, this looks like an Argument from Authority, a recognized fallacy. On the other hand, we commonly think it should add weight to a conclusion that the relevant experts endorse it. Science itself is based on this assumption. As is religion, lest a religionist think they can defeat science by rejecting all appeals to authority–because such a tack would defeat all religion as well, even your own judgment, since if all appeals to authority are invalid, so is every appeal to yourself as an authority (on your religion, or even on your own life and experience).

And yet, it is often enough the case that a consensus of experts is wrong (as proved even by the fact that the scientific consensus has frequently changed, as has the consensus in any other domain of expertise, from history to motorboat repair). And our brains are cognitively biased to over-trust those we accept as authorities (the Asch effect), putting us at significant risk of false belief if we are not sufficiently critical of our relying on an expert. It’s only more complicated when we have warring experts and have to choose between them, even though we are not experts ourselves.

So what do we do?

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Secular Organizations Can Get Free Course Admission

Are you part of a secular, atheist, humanist, or other organization? Or know someone who is? Let that org’s leadership know that before this July they can get a deal for access to any course this year we are gradually building to teach online at SecularActivism.org. “An organization, large or small, gets a certificate for one of its leaders to take a free course during 2014, if 30 members join the email list before July 1st. Just mention the organization name when asked how you heard about us.” They just need to contact John Shook to inquire.

Go to SecularActivism.org to see the current course offerings. Many more will be developed and taught before the end of the year (possibly dozens). For example, besides my Naturalism 101 course that I’m teaching now, I will also be teaching courses this year on the science and philosophy of free will, on historical methods (theory and practice), on the historicity of Jesus, and more (I’m considering offering courses on ancient science, economics, and technology, on Bayes’ Theorem and counter-apologetics, and others; feel free to make requests in comments here for courses you’d take if I taught them). And I am not the only instructor on board. We are contracting more and more teachers of skill or renown, to teach far more diverse offerings.

If You Learn Nothing Else about Bayes’ Theorem, Let It Be This

There are two things one learns from Bayes’ Theorem that are the windows to everything else Bayesian reasoning can ever teach you. And there is a lot it can teach you besides these two things. But here I’m cutting to the chase of the two that are most essential: theories cannot be argued in isolation, and prior assumptions matter.

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Hitler Homer Bible Christ: A Surprise New Book by Richard Carrier

While waiting for Sheffield to finish and release On the Historicity of Jesus (the book everyone is waiting for, presently projected for late March or early April), I decided to produce my own anthology of all my published papers on history. That volume, Hitler Homer Bible Christ: The Historical Papers of Richard Carrier 1995-2013, is now available, in print and kindle.

The publication description reads as follows (emphasis added):

Richard Carrier, Ph.D., philosopher, historian, blogger, has published a number of papers in the field of ancient history and biblical studies. He has also written several books and chapters on diverse subjects, and has been blogging and speaking since 2006. He is known the world over for all the above. But here, together for the first time, are all of Dr. Carrier’s peer reviewed academic journal articles in history through the year 2013, collected with his best magazine articles, research papers and blog posts on the same subjects. Many have been uniquely revised for this publication. Others are inaccessible except through libraries or paywalls. Twenty chapters include his seminal papers on the scandal of Hitler’s Table Talk, the Jerry Vardaman microletter farce, and the testimonies to Christ in Josephus, Tacitus, and Thallus, as well as Carrier’s journalistic foray into ancient pyramid quackery, his work on the historical & textual errancy of the bible, and more.

Cover of Hitler Homer Bible Christ. Olive or brown with dark greek falling leaves is the only graphic. The rest is just the title, subtitle at the top, and author at the bottom all in white lettering.The biggest attraction will be the fact that my peer reviewed paper showing that the reference to Christ in Tacitus is an interpolation, which is slated to appear in the academic journal Vigiliae Christianae later this year, is included in this volume, as well as my two other peer reviewed, academically published papers on the historicity question, the one on Thallus not having mentioned Jesus, and the other on the two references to Jesus in Josephus being interpolations (the one deliberate, the other accidental), published in the Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism and the Journal of Early Christian Studies, respectively.

Also included is my brief but now hard-to-find article for The History Teacher published years ago, and all the articles I published in The Skeptical Inquirer (on the FOX special promoting pyramidiocy, and the two articles on the Jerry Vardaman microletters debacle), and most interestingly for some, my game-changing, peer-reviewed article in the academic journal German Studies Review, exposing the dubious nature of the still-only English translation of Hitler’s Table Talk, largely bogus quotes from which make Hitler look more atheistic than he was. Of particular value to anyone who keeps seeing those quotes repeated and wants ready access to the definitive take-down. I have also included a new afterword on the impact that paper had on Hitler studies, and expanding the analysis to include all the passages you’ll find cited from the Table Talk (and even some quotations elsewhere) to argue Hitler was godless.

All of the above are hard to find or get. I only have the rights to publish them in an anthology of my own works. So I did.

I have also included several online articles, from my blog and elsewhere, many revised for this volume, to produce a handy collection of my best and most useful work in the field of history. The table of contents reads as follows:

– Doing History –

1 :: The Function of the Historian in Society

2 :: History Before 1950

3 :: Experimental History

4 :: B.C.A.D.C.E.B.C.E.

– History Done –

5 :: Heroic Values in Classical Literary Depictions of the Soul: Heroes and Ghosts in Virgil, Homer, and Tso Ch’iu-ming

6 :: Herod the Procurator and Christian Apologetics

7 :: Herod the Procurator: Was Herod the Great a Roman Governor of Syria?

8 :: On the Dual Office of Procurator and Prefect

– Debunking the Bogus –

9 :: Flash! Fox News Reports that Aliens May Have Built the Pyramids of Egypt!

10 :: Pseudohistory in Jerry Vardaman’s Magic Coins: The Nonsense of Micrographic Letters

11 :: More on Vardaman’s Microletters

12 :: Hitler’s Table Talk: Troubling Finds

– The Vexed Bible –

13 :: Ignatian Vexation

14 :: Pauline Interpolations

15 :: Luke vs. Matthew on the Year of Christ’s Birth

16 :: Mark 16:9-20 as Forgery or Fabrication

– The Troublesome Evidence for Jesus –

17 :: The Nazareth Inscription

18 :: Thallus and the Darkness at Christ’s Death

19 :: Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200

20 :: The Prospect of a Christian Interpolation in Tacitus, Annals 15.44

In all, Hitler Homer clocks in at 395 pages.

I already have a contract to produce an audio version of Hitler Homer. Recording will likely begin in a month or so. The audiobook will thus be available probably mid-year. (Meanwhile, I spent most of last week in the studio finishing the recording of Proving History, which you can expect to be released on audio in just a few months. Sheffield wants to do an audio edition of On the Historicity of Jesus but so far hasn’t discussed arrangements with me, so alas, I have no idea when that will be available.)

Forgotten Books

I’ve just been given membership to an online research site that you might want to join, too. It’s called Forgotten Books, an online warehouse of over a million books dating back to the 1500s, and all the way up to the 1940s, all image-over-text editions, fully searchable and readable and downloadable in numerous formats. It’s not free, but it is affordable, and superior to Google Books in several respects.

I was given a free lifetime membership if I blogged about the site (no matter what I said, good or bad). But that benefit wouldn’t be worth anything if the site wasn’t worth using. And it definitely is of some use. And that’s worth knowing about. It has some defects that need fixing (and its management is working on those). But it has uses as well. I’ll summarize my thoughts on both counts. [Read more…]

Atwill’s Cranked-up Jesus

Joseph Atwill is one of those crank mythers I often get conflated with. Mythicists like him make the job of serious scholars like me so much harder, because people see, hear, or read them and think their nonsense is what mythicism is. They make mythicism look ridiculous. So I have to waste time (oh by the gods, so much time) explaining how I am not arguing anything like their theories or using anything like their terrible methods, and unlike them I actually know what I am talking about, and have an actual Ph.D. in a relevant subject from a real university.

Note that I have divided this article into two parts, the second (titled “Our Long Conversation”) is something you can easily skip (see the intro there for whether reading it will be of any interest to you). So although this post looks extraordinarily long, it’s really that second part that gives it such length. You can just read up to the beginning of that section though. You don’t have to continue beyond that to get the overall point. [Read more…]