long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Peer Review in FARMS

I started this blog as a sort of peer review of articles on Book of Mormon historicity. As I've explained, one thing that prompted this was a comment made by a BYU history professor that he didn't see how the Maxwell Institute publication we were discussion could possibly have been peer-reviewed. The more FARMS/Maxwell Institute material I've read, the more I've come to wonder who could possibly have peer reviewed it. Hence my own peer reviews.

Now I've come across an explanation. William Hamblin has discussed peer review in his blog on Patheos here.

He starts out with a good definition/explanation:

What is peer review?  It is a process by which recognized scholars in a field evaluate books or articles to determine if they meet academic standards for publication.  When a journal or a university press receives a manuscript, the editor will generally make an initial evaluation, and then pass it on to two or three other scholars for their judgment.  If everyone agrees that a paper should or should not be published, that evaluation is generally accepted by the editor.  If, however, a paper receives mixed reviews, an additional reviewer is sometimes requested.  In the end, the board of editors make the final decision about publication.  In a sense publication in a peer-reviewed journal means that a paper has achieved a minimum standard of academic rigor.  
Peer reviewers will sometimes accept a paper even when they disagree with its conclusions, if the paper is well researched, reasoned, and written.  That a paper is rejected by peer reviewers does not necessarily mean its thesis is incorrect.  Likewise, that a paper is accepted by peer reviewers it doesn’t necessarily mean its thesis is correct.  This can be demonstrated by studying the phenomena of paradigm shifts that occasionally occur as once accepted academic dogmas are overthrown by new ideas.

But then he gets defensive about Jenkins' criticism and, IMO, loses sight of the purpose of peer review:

The reality is that until secular Mesoamericanists are willing to seriously study (not just superficially read) the Book of Mormon, and respectfully engage LDS scholarship on the Book of Mormon, their opinions are uninformed.  It is a prejudice rather than a critical judgment.  I don’t think its too much to ask for them to not make dogmatic uninformed assertions about the historicity of the Book of Mormon if they haven’t even read the book or engaged LDS scholarship on the matter.  
Which brings us to peer review.  The peer review of manuscripts in ancient Book of Mormon studies cannot be undertaken by scholars who: 1- have not read the Book of Mormon at all, 2- are not familiar with the scholarly literature on the topic, and 3- do not have a publication track record in the field.  These are the standard minimal academic requirements when selecting a scholar to do a peer review.  No one would ever dream of asking a scholar who doesn’t know Italian and has never read Dante and to peer review an article on Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Imagine if someone claimed that only people who have never read Dante should be the gatekeepers of what is authentic Dante scholarship.  The academy would view such a position as utterly preposterous.  Yet this is exactly what Jenkins (and his supporters) are asking us to do in ancient Book of Mormon studies.  The vast majority of Mesoamericanists are not qualified to peer review papers field of ancient Book of Mormon studies.

There are several problems with Hamblin's analysis. First, he already admitted that some Mesoamericanists have read the Book of Mormon. Second, the only "scholarly literature on the topic" is that which Hamblin accepts; i.e., what he refers to as "classic FARMS." Third, the only "publication track record" is also "classic FARMS." So Hamblin would only accept peer reviews by those who have published in FARMS--which is exactly what happens!

His analogy to a paper on Dante's Divine Comedy is revealing. The "know Italian" requirement is equivalent to "know English" for the Book of Mormon, a criterion most scholars can satisfy. A prospective peer reviewer of the Dante paper would be highly qualified if that reviewer was expert in classical literature and the historical allusions Dante uses, even if he/she were not an expert on the Divine Comedy. So why couldn't a Mesoamericanist do a peer review of a paper claiming connections between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerica? Such an expert would be effective in assessing whether the paper's claimed links are valid in the context of what is known about Mesoamerica.

But of course, there are no Mesoamericanists (other than LDS) who agree that anything in Mesoamerica lines up with or supports the Book of Mormon claims.

Hamblin writes:

Paradoxically, the only journals in the field of ancient Book of Mormon studies which actually do authentic and rigorous peer review were published by classic FARMS: The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, the Review of Books on the Book of Mormon.  To them can now be added Interpreter.  I know this because I have occasionally served as editor and peer reviewer for those publications.  They use precisely the same process used by any other academic journal.  

I don't characterize this as a paradox, nor do I characterize the peer review in these journals as "authentic and rigorous." As I've shown in every article I've peer reviewed myself, these journals are incestuous and engage primarily in confirmation bias. They resist alternative viewpoints, even when offered by believers in the Book of Mormon. They overlook logical and factual errors. They focus exclusively on linking the Book of Mormon to Mesoamerica. So I have to agree with Jenkins' approach, to the extent he is referring to Mesoamerica:

1.My basic concern is this. You speak of a discipline called Ancient Book of Mormon Studies, which for the sake of convenience I will abbreviate to ABMS. In my view, no scholars outside that area (eg Mesoamericanists) need to know anything about it, because it is not a genuine discipline.
If it is Book of Mormon, it is not ancient.
If it is Ancient, it is not Book of Mormon.
Therefore, there is no such thing as Ancient Book of Mormon Studies.
Is that view wrong and dismissive? Very well then – it is up to you to prove it.
2. I will make a statement, and if I am wrong, you can easily disprove it. You say that ABMS is a real and significant discipline, that demands the attention of other scholars, who need to be qualified in that area in order to evaluate publications. So where is this discipline taught or practiced in universities or colleges? The impact of the Book of Mormon itself in modern literature and history certainly is taught and researched in many schools, in departments of English, History, Religious Studies etc, as it demands to be. I would love to teach a course like that myself. But what about what the supposed ancient aspects?
He also writes:
You write “The vast majority of Mesoamericanists are not qualified to peer review papers field of ancient Book of Mormon studies.” This is baffling, and somewhat circuitous. (I mean to say “wrong” but I am being polite). The whole question is whether such an animal as “ancient Book of Mormon studies” exists. If I thought it did, I wouldn't be raising the basic issues of historicity.
You remark that “Mesoamericanists are not qualified to pass a scholarly judgment on the Book of Mormon.” That is unfair. Virtually all scholars who deal with pre-Columbian American history believe that the Book of Mormon was written around 1830, so that therefore it is irrelevant to their disciplines. They believe that not out of prejudice, but because they have never seen or encountered a report of an object or piece of evidence that gives them the slightest grounds for belief to the contrary. If such an object or fact or site exists, then it is your responsibility (or that of other experts) to say what it is, and publicize it, that its credentials can be examined. Then, we can speak of issues of scholarly judgment.
I say again - the burden of proof is on the claimants, and the apologists, not the critics.
However, Jenkins makes a major blunder, which I'll address in my next post.

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