Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Not Done in a Corner

From the scientific perspective, peer review is the litmus test of reliability.

The idea is this: that in order for a newly published academic theory to have any credibility with either the scientific community or the general public, it is necessary for independent parties to test it: to carefully read through the documentation that supports it; to re-calculate the mathematical formulas that lie behind it; to examine the steps by which the theory was constructed and certify that its conclusions were arrived at in accordance with normal scientific procedures; in some cases even to re-perform whatever experiments are alleged to prove it and examine their results for consistency.

You cannot do science off in some dark corner and then refuse to allow anybody to see what you have been up to. If you do, nobody will believe you at all.

Self-Regulation as Quality Control

Peer review is a process of self-regulation that functions to maintain public confidence in what scientists currently allege to be the way the world works. It is what we call quality control. When someone argues “That can’t be right!”, the author of the manuscript in question can simply point to its publication in a reputable journal and say, “In order to get this scientific discovery out to the world, it had to be peer reviewed. Other trustworthy people have gone down the same road and have reached the same conclusions.”

This is useful, because we laymen do not usually perform scientific experiments to get at truth; nor, if we’re honest, do we even read the papers written about them. If and when I am ever injected with a vaccine against COVID-19, it will not be because I have examined for myself the science behind the new serum and have concluded it is safe and effective. I will be taking someone else’s word for that; somebody I do not know and have never met. But because I am assured reputable people have done the necessary due diligence, I may be willing to take the risk of having a personally-unverified substance injected into my own veins.

I will be relying on peer review, and the manufacturers of the vaccine will be relying on the general public’s belief in the trustworthiness of the peer review process to market their product successfully.

A Necessary Caution

Incidentally and unfortunately, it is probably worth noting that present day peer review is not actually all that trustworthy. If I am smart, I will hold off on that inoculation. Bloomberg recently called the peer review process “science’s wheel of misfortune”, and alleged the quality of modern peer review is so wretched that its pronouncements are accurate less than fifty percent of the time. You may actually be better off flipping a coin to decide what is true.

That is not a problem with the concept of peer review in principle so much as it is a problem with the integrity of the people currently engaged in it and the intense political, social and financial pressure put on them to reach preconceived and culturally-acceptable conclusions. In short, we have nothing better to offer. But there was almost certainly a period of time in the West when a greater number of our “experts” did their jobs ethically and honestly, and when peer review was much more reliable that it is today. If this were not the case, we would probably still be wearing loincloths and rubbing sticks together to get warm at night. The evidence around us is that, at some point in times past, statements alleged to be true about our world were subjected to much more rigorous examination, and that a few of them at least proved to be correct.

The Transmission of Scripture

Likewise, from a distance of two, three or four thousand years, it is sometimes hard to be sure of the things we have been told. When we come to scripture, our information is not second or third hand; rather, the transmission of the word of God to us has involved hundreds and sometimes thousands of “transactions” over time, in which one believer passed a manuscript to another, and that person to another, and so on.

To be fair, this is true of every historical document. Seen purely from the perspective of secular scholarship, there is little reason to argue the Bible should be regarded as any more or less reliable than other documents of a similar age. Our conviction about the basic trustworthiness of our Bibles does not come from an informed study of ancient manuscripts but from other things entirely. Perhaps we have put its principles to the test in our own lives and found out they work. Perhaps it is the witness of God’s Spirit in our hearts. Perhaps it is a comparison of the teachings of the word of God with other famous religious systems, in which the latter were found wanting. Perhaps we have observed the lives of Christians we know and found that their faith has made them people of character we wish to emulate.

In choosing to believe the Bible is the word of God, and reliable in what it tells us, we are not depending on science per se. Other sources of evidence are in play. Still, the writers of scripture repeatedly inform us that the message they are passing on to us has been subjected to something very much like the process of peer review. They point to their own willingness to expose themselves to the scrutiny of their peers as proof of the Bible’s truth.

Mordecai, Peer Reviewed

The tenth and final chapter of Esther appeals to the peer review process:
“And all the acts of his power and might, and the full account of the high honor of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia?”
What the writer of Esther is effectively saying is this: I did not make this stuff up. It actually happened, and one of the ways you can be sure it happened is that it was written up independently by other people; in this case, a bunch of well-educated, very non-Jehovah-worshiping Medes and Persians, people with a very different religious agenda. The story of Mordecai and Esther is not some neat-sounding Jewish myth. It is genuine history. If you have any argument with the way I have recorded the tale for you, go look at the archives in Susa and you will see for yourself that these things are true.

It is a challenge to the original reader’s generation and those immediately following it to go do their own due diligence.

How Much Help is That?

Now, I will agree with you that there is a sense in which that doesn’t help us much. We can’t go look at the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia for ourselves, can we? We are two and a half thousand years further down the line, and almost any document cited in support of an Old Testament historical record is no longer to be found. The corroborating evidence for the book of Esther is buried deep in the sand somewhere in the Middle East, if in fact it still exists at all.

Nor, for that matter, can we verify similar statements made in the books of Kings and Chronicles, though they appear numerous times:
“Now the rest of the acts of Solomon, and all that he did, and his wisdom, are they not written in the Book of the Acts of Solomon?”

“Now the rest of the acts of Jeroboam, how he warred and how he reigned, behold, they are written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel.”

“Now the rest of the acts of Rehoboam and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah?”
In all, throughout the books of Kings and Chronicles, there are a total of 50 references to either ten or eleven different extra-biblical historical documents, depending on how you read it. The writers of these books are appealing to something like the peer review process as evidence for the veracity of their own versions of events. They are telling us that the things they wrote are true, and that the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original readers could easily have looked them up and challenged the biblical accounts if they were in any way portraying the events they wrote about inaccurately. Still, to the best of my knowledge, we do not have any of these extra-biblical versions of events left to use as a metric by which to judge the authenticity of the stories we find in our Bibles.

Five Hundred Peer Reviewers Can’t Be Wrong

Likewise, Paul appeals to his peers concerning the evidence for the resurrection of Christ, saying:
“He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.”
The resurrection of Jesus was ... er ... peer-reviewed. It passed muster according to the reasonable man’s evidentiary standards of the first century. Again, Paul had something like this in mind when he says concerning King Agrippa:
“The king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner.”
That’s an appeal to peer review. Festus can be assured that the things Paul is saying are perfectly familiar to the powerful man sitting beside him. Paul is not talking crazy talk.

Helpful, or Not So Much?

As I say, there is a sense in which none of this helps us much. We don’t have the Book of the Chronicles of Media and Persia, or the Book of the Acts of Solomon, or the Books of the Kings of Israel and Judah, or the Book of Nathan the Prophet, or the “sayings of the seers” ... though we probably do have the passage referred to in the “vision of Isaiah the prophet” in 2 Chronicles 32:32, and perhaps some of the material referred to is preserved here and there within scripture’s other historical accounts. We don’t have those 500+ witnesses to the resurrection with us anymore, and we don’t even have King Agrippa around to concede, “Yeah, actually, I had heard about that ...”

And yet there is a sense in which all these appeals to written authority and available oral testimony are very helpful indeed, in that they were absolutely accessible to the original readers — if not, perhaps, to the man on the street having these written accounts read to them, then certainly to the scribes and scholars and historians of the day. Whole generations of students living thousands of years closer to these events have scrutinized them continuously. The evidence that they were believed and not dismissed out of hand is this: they remain with us today.

And, in fact, this is exactly the same sort of testimony we rely on when we authenticate secular histories, letters and genealogies. So what if I cannot independently verify the authenticity of 3,000-year-old manuscripts today? I am in the same position with almost every factoid I accept as truthful from every other source, whether it is the “science” of the day, the news I watch on CNN, the historical analysis of the American Civil War, or anything else at all.

The Evidence Before Us

As I have said before, the real evidence for the word of God comes from elsewhere entirely: from the evidence of our eyes; from the testimony of changed lives; from the conviction of the Holy Spirit of God in our hearts; from common sense and rationality; from comparing the teachings of the Bible to the teachings of lesser lights; and even from the rather horrible things that happen to us when we try to live without regard for the words of God. But it should not surprise us that the writers of scripture repeatedly commend to us their truthfulness, and that they offered to their original readers multiple ways of testing it.

These things were not done in a corner, and we have no reason to fear what we will find when we examine them with every tool at the disposal of scholarship.

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