on being wrong as a scholar

I mentioned this in an earlier post, but I’m promoting it to a post of its own because I believe it’s important.

It is important for scholars to admit when they are wrong.

Whether it is a mistake in their data collection, or a misreading of the data in their analysis, or a conclusion that is later refuted by stronger evidence or more recent discoveries, or a claim regarding evidence that is better explained by another scholar’s theory – it is important for scholars to concede when they come to believe the evidence has led to some other conclusion.

This can serve as a quick lesson to students both in the sciences and in the humanities, but I’m especially thinking about students in religious studies. The beauty of science and the scientific method is that scholars are free to admit they were wrong when better evidence and arguments come along. In fact, we are encouraged to do so. Rather than dig in our heels and argue until our dying breath for interpretations that have long been disproved by new evidence, critical scholars celebrate peer-review and the discussion of ideas among learned individuals, who offer new proposals and bring knowledge and familiarity with evidence from their respective specialized fields to the discussion.

Through the scientific process, a consensus is often reached that is based upon a consideration of all of the latest evidence, and not just the claims of those who made them first or the loudest, or worse yet, who bypassed the scholarly process altogether to take their sensational claim directly to the public for the purposes of selling a popular book.

This is difficult to do for the proud, or for those who have invested much time and money in arguing for one interpretation. But when new data comes along, a scholar must be willing to set aside what he or she previously held to be true and interpret the data according to the new evidence.

Now, I fully acknowledge that this is particularly difficult for those in religious studies, especially for those who hold to a personal religious belief. However, it is essential that critical scholars be objective enough to follow the evidence where it leads, and if that evidence leads to a conflict with one’s personal faith claims, the scholar must have the courage to amend his or her personal beliefs, that is, if one wants to remain a critical scholar.

The field of religious studies is full of apologists who claim to operate within the critical method of science, but who are quick to abandon a critical method when it conflicts with their personal religious beliefs. These individuals are constantly seeking ways to explain away evidence that contradicts their claims, or to attempt to reconcile what they believe with the facts and evidence before them, however twisted that outcome might be. A true scholar must have the humility and the courage to admit that new evidence has caused the scholar to rethink his or her position, concede that the old interpretation was wrong, and move forward in the pursuit of truth.

As a scholar, I am humbled, and yet pleased when I can admit when an interpretation I previously held was wrong, because it means I am still learning from my colleagues and peers, who have taken the time to engage me in academic debate.

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