August 04, 2004

Amateurs and professionals

In response to my post on "Blog cultures, academic and otherwise", Jason Streed of Finches' Wings sent email about an area in which there's a long tradition of amateur commentary, and an equally long tradition of controversy about the relations between amateurs and various sorts of professionals.

Here's Jason's note:

I enjoyed your remarks about nonexpert comments in expert-driven forums. They reminded me of a remarkable review by Richard Elliott Friedman of Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg's "The Book of J." It was originally published in Bible Review; I found it in The Iowa Review, which reprinted it with other articles attacking Bloom's misdeeds in that book.

I couldn't find the text online, so here's a transcription of the first page or so from a copy long dormant in my basement:

"It is a strange fact that we biblical scholars always seem to meet people who are surprised to hear that we really know things about the bible. They assume that the study of the Bible is a matter of opinions and interpretations, with few verifiable facts one way or another. Even though the archeological revolution is a century old, even though the advances in language, text, artistry, and history are reported in thousands of books of introduction, history, and commentary, people do not just conceive of biblical scholars as having the same kind of expertise that professionals in medicine or law--or even other scholars in the humanities--have.

"And so oddball theories make the front pages of respectable newspapers and magazines. Archeological discoveries are misinterpreted or blown out of proportion. Absurd computer programs are received as legitimate analyses. One view is as good--meaning as unprovable--as another. There is also Exodus Fever, a term used in the field for the phenomenon of persons from a variety of field who are attracted to explain the events of the exodus and Sinai stories with what they believe to be new insights from their own areas of knowledge: geologists, astronomers, Egyptologists, oceanographers, psychologists, historians of other periods and places. The temptation to explain the splitting of the Red Sea, the plagues, and the fiery mountain is irresistible. Everyone explains the Bible--and not hesitantly, or modestly, but like an expert. They are going to show us what the real experts have been missing.

"This must happen to some extent in most every other field as well. I suppose that medical doctors have to endure being told about amazing cures for diseases that the medical profession has failed to recognize. Probably almost everyone has been told how he or she could do his or her job better--that is, told by someone who has never done that job. But I think there is a qualitative difference when it comes to professional scholars of the Bible. I cannot think of any other area that so many persons from so many other fields try to practice. From Freud to Velikovsky to Isaac Asimov to Mary Douglas to Northrop Frye, and most recently Harold Bloom: when it comes to doing a subject in which one is not trained, the study of the Bible is in the first place (and the study of Freud probably second). . . .

"Do all of these people have the right to their opinions about the Bible? Sure. They have a right to opinions about law and medicine, too; but if you have chest pains I suggest you see a cardiologist, not Harold Bloom; and, as they say, anyone who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client."

Friedman, Richard Elliott. "Scholar, Heal Thyself; Or How Everybody Got to be an Expert on the Bible." The Iowa Review 21.3 (1991): 33-47.

From this point on, Friedman puts on a clinic in showing pseudo-experts their place.

I can tell you that my father, an epidemiologist, has to put up with all kinds of crazy ideas from people who've scanned a few headlines and cooked up a shocking insights--evil government geniuses who cook up HIV in secret labs, etc.

For my part, I like reading LL and related weblogs for the same reason I like watching master carpenters, electricians, etc--to see people who are good at something I know only a little about. I can't follow everything, but every time I peek over their shoulder, I learn something, and every now and again, I'll ask a question. That's good enough for me.

I do like comparing rational inquiry in an established discipline to the work of a master carpenter or a knowledgeable electrician. This reminds me of something Morris Halle once said to me when I was a graduate student, making the same sort of comparison for a different reason. Morris had just returned from giving a lecture in Paris, and he was still ruminating about the reaction he got in the question period. "Nobody wanted to talk about phonology", he complained. "They asked me what my ideology is. What ideology? Does a shoemaker need ideology to repair a shoe? 'I'm a shoemaker,' I told them. 'You worry about the ideology, I'm busy with the shoes.'"

But there's another perspective on this. The master of a craft is sometimes limited as well as empowered by the craft's body of traditional knowledge and techniques. And one of my favorite things about American culture is the tradition of amateur tinkering, in which any teenager feels authorized to start taking things apart and putting them back together again better -- or at least differently -- without the license of a formal course or apprenticeship. Of course, the laws of nature impose their own harsh and inflexible discipline on these activities. A kid messing around with a motorcycle engine or a computer program gets a kind of feedback that's denied to Harold Bloom messing around with the Bible -- when he's done, the thing either runs or it doesn't.


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 4, 2004 08:17 AM