What is bad scholarship?

I’ve just carried out a Google search asking, “What is bad scholarship”?  I got a total of ten results, most duplicating one blog entry that really is about something else.

That surprises me, I must say.  In view of the silence, I thought that I, in my amateur way, would make an effort to give a personal answer to the question.  My focus is on ancient history, of course; different sections of the humanities will doubtless have slightly different perspectives.

There’s one big (but vague) generalisation we can make.  First, let’s ask just why we are doing ancient history at all.  The answer surely is as follows:

We study ancient history in order to find out what we would have seen, at a given date at a given place, had we been there; insofar as we can recover this information from the remains left behind from that time and place, which themselves may be damaged, partial, corrupt, biased or non-existent.

That gives us our first criterion of bad scholarship:

1.  Bad scholarship doesn’t care what happened in the past (although it pretends it does).  Bad scholarship is determined to convince the present of something about the past, whether it happened or not.

Curiously there are “scholars” willing to say that they don’t believe that they can ever find out what happened in the past.  If so, they have nothing to contribute.  Such people need a spell flipping burgers at MacDonalds, rather than state-funded tenure.

But of course this criterion, although true, is not very useful to us in detecting bad scholarship.  It’s more like a conclusion from a process of investigation, than a way to reach a conclusion.

Sometimes you get people say things like, “A PhD thesis must have a thesis!”  This is true — you’re supposed to be producing a piece of research that tells us something that we did not know before.  But it sometimes seems as if it is understood to mean “You must invent some novel statement about what happened in the past and then see how far you can get with it by whatever tricks you can find.”   The latter is bad scholarship.

Our first criterion does give us our next question: How do we find out what happened in the  past?  The answer is that, either whatever happened left some traces somewhere that inform us, or else we know nothing about it.  The second point leads us to our second criterion.

2.  Bad scholarship loves a void.  If we know nothing about something, it is bad scholarship to pretend that we do, or to argue that “absence of evidence is evidence of absence”.

There is, unhappily, a further stage to this particular piece of bad scholarship.  It is a standard feature of polemic that it finds evidence an inconvenience, to be got over by accusations of bias, ad hominem arguments against the sources — “they only say that because they are Catholics!” — and the like.  Of course the evidence does need evaluation before anything much can be built on it.  But:

3.  Any scholarship that consists of debunking all the evidence and then arguing that the manufactured absence of evidence is evidence of absence is not merely bad scholarship but dishonest scholarship.

Every piece of useful scholarship starts by documenting all the relevant evidence on the point at issue.  If you are publishing data, publish it.  If you are asserting that the totality of the ancient data tells us a certain story, gather all that data together and let the reader see what it says.  The more discursive the book is, the more likely that some subterfuge is involved.  Why should the reader trawl through my book to find out what the corpus of data is?

4.  Any study that is alludes to the data rather than presenting it systematically, or discusses it discursively, or otherwise intentionally makes it difficult for the reader to see what all the relevant data is, is either very badly written and structured, or, more commonly, is bad scholarship.

Of course references and context are important.

5.  If the sources do not support the argument, when examined in context, if the references are wrong or misleading or partial, that is bad scholarship.

In a way, some of the best guides to bad scholarship are books like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, or Chariots of the Gods, and such like.  Not that these are festooned with references and written in the sober prose that scholars affect.  But the failures are in some ways more obvious.

6.  Bad scholarship likes to take a possibility as a certainty.  When a writer suggests that the evidence might support an idea, and some pages later has taken it for granted that his hypothesis is true and certain and at least equal to any statement made by someone there at the time, that is bad scholarship.

An indelible footprint of bad scholarship is to appeal to authority in non-technical matters.  We may believe, with reasonable certainty, that, if all the scholars who study Coptic paleography of 4th century documentary texts date a tax return to the year 345 AD, then that authority is reasonable.  But if a scholar writes something about what “all scholars” think, proposing that we should accept their authority as grounds to believe that (e.g.) Marxist economics is not true; the earth is flat (or not); Roman Catholicism is true (or false); or any statement which has no practical difference from the above, then we must immediately be on our guard.  The consensus of scholars in every discipline in every period of history and every country in the world on every controversial subject bears an uncanny resemblance to the opinions of those non-scholars who control university appointments.  So:

7.  Bad scholarship upholds the controversial political or religious views congenial to the funding authorities of the state in the time and place when the scholarship is written.

And of course:

8.  Bad scholarship controverts the controversial political or religious views unwelcome to the funding authorities of the state in the time and place when the scholarship is written.

Because good scholarship allows for these urgencies and relies on some structured methodology, rather than on the “clamour of the age”.

Note that if you publish at a secular university and agree with its agenda, that does not automatically make your work bad scholarship; nor at a Catholic university and are a practising Catholic; nor any other variant thereof.

Likewise another sign of undue credulity is a tendency to treat a theory as equivalent to data.  Data is always data, even when we decide that it does not seem to be reliable (from examining other data, of course; not from speculation on our part).

9.  Bad scholarship treats the conclusions of modern speculation as at least equivalent to the statements of ancient writers.

I do not suppose that I have exhausted the possible signs of bad scholarship, of course.  But I thought that I would offer these as a first cut at the problem.  If you are writing an article, I hope that they will help you avoid some crass pitfalls.


6 thoughts on “What is bad scholarship?

  1. I would try to define good scholarship first, i.e. use a positive definition rather than a negative one. I am not so sure about this definition of history either; “We study ancient history in order to find out what we would have seen” … for a start, I think history is about answering the question, “why and how did that happen?” for whatever version of “that” you are studying (which sometimes also involves the question of “what happened”, especially in ancient history). In general I think we seek reasons, not reconstructions.

  2. Sounds like the basis for a blog article at your blog!

    I don’t think we’re at the stage where we can talk about “reasons why Caesar kissed Cleopatra”. That will always be subjective. It’s also far easier to write such articles; and they have a definite tendency to tell us more about the article writer than the supposed subject. But who knows? Although these do not appeal to me, perhaps they have a role.

    Rather the problem that I see is that the raw statements of fact — “Caesar kissed Cleopatra” — are being controverted by bad scholarship (I’m using the word “scholarship” loosely, to include pseudo-scholarship). As I see it, we could use a whole load more effort on making this side of things much more objective, and setting into place some barriers to common failures. We shouldn’t be having some of the “debates” that we are.

    Just my tuppence of course.

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