With kiddies editing Wikipedia to reflect what they wish was true, and other kiddies believing what they read is authoritative, universities are starting to try to get students to think more critically. This can only be a good thing.
Unfortunately, in the humanities, critical thinking comes a long way second to herd-instinct. This process was beautifully documented by Holzberg in his paper Lucian and the Germans, which showed that the academic consensus on Lucian between 1890 and 1945 — that it was second rate literature written by a Jew — was derived from a single important paper — nothing wrong with that — and that this was verbally identical with an article by non-academic Houston Stewart Chamberlain appearing in a popular anti-semitic rag some months earlier. We could discuss how New Testament Studies always seems to reflect the views of those who control academic appointments in a similar vein. The problem, then, is with the humanities as a whole, with the nature of the disciplines, rather than any one discipline.
This paper (via here) is one of the attempts to encourage people to think. Unfortunately it repeats a bit of atheist polemic without thinking about it, and I think it introduces a pitfall for the unwary.
Finally, the librarian should stress the skeptic’s rule: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
They do, do they? And how do we decide whether a claim is “extraordinary”? Well, “it’s obvious” isn’t it? Whatever is not considered “normal” in our society, of course!
Is there any practical difference between this and demanding “extraordinary evidence” for whatever we prefer not to believe? If not, surely this is merely an engine for introducing prejudice?
Perhaps I am influenced here by seeing how this supposed rule is actually used online. It is used routinely by atheists online to demand that Christians produce far more evidence for anything the atheist wishes to deny than would be the case in any parallel investigation. The atheists themselves, when questioned about their own beliefs, invariably duck the examination with stock excuses — evidence for their own claims is not something they wish to produce! It’s just a way to make things difficult for people you know you disagree with. This should warn us that the “rule” is ill-formulated, and productive of prejudice rather than information.
Suppose that we are investigating a claim that Barack Obama is a shape-shifting alien. Surely it is of no relevance to demand that a different standard of evidence should be used to that used for other purposes? We have no idea whether there are shape-shifting aliens — being in politics seems to make people behave oddly without the need for alien intervention! But I suggest that to dismiss the allegation on this ground would be improper. Never mind our prejudgements — let the evidence appear; or not. Let Occam’s Razor prune the unnecessary hypothesis, in favour of the simplest possible explanation of whatever facts there are. We need no “extraordinary evidence” — we simply need evidence, of a kind that we would consider adequate for any proposition. Or are we really saying that we don’t believe we have enough evidence for most of our propositions…?
So I would suggest that the correct basis for investigation is to demand to see all the evidence, without prejudging it. Once we have all the data, we can see whether or not the claim naturally arises from it, or is a wild story imposed upon it. But not before. Surely we need rules that promote balanced thinking, that descope our own prejudices, not reinforce and institutionalise them.
UPDATE 19/2/11: A typo fixed, and an explanatory parenthesis to Holzberg added.
UPDATE 30/11/11: Another typo fixed, and an couple of explanatory words added to the parenthesis in response to comment.