Monday, December 22, 2008

Amateur Hour

With 'It's a Wonderful Life' showing nonstop on some cable channel or the other, reruns of every single Santa clay-mation show, and whole channels of choirs and carols -- it's easy to track the countdown to Christmas.

Easy, too, to identify the season by the variety of "documentaries" that show up on the various history and science channels. Most are interesting, if a bit predictable, and I won't go off on a tangent here on the false basic premise of most of them*. No, My ire here is directed at one specific show: "The Naked Archeologist', with Simcha Jacobovici traveling around the middle east in search of evidence that supports the bible.

Well, not quite. What he's doing is accepting the basic truth of the biblical stories without question and adding a dollop of politics and his opinion that "regular archaeology" is populated by fascists and anti-semites, and that he is fighting the good fight for "biblical archaeology". Archeologists in general treat the bible as fiction, not fact. This is the view supported by the evidence, and represents the view of most scholars. If evidence arises that supports specific stories, then archeologists incorporate that into their theory. But they do not accept the bible as historical fact, preferring to apply actual facts to their work.

No, Jacobovici says, that is just fascism and anti-semitism, and a political attempt to denigrate Judaism and the truth. He compares archeologists who view the bible as literature, not history, as akin to holocaust deniers. "Biblical archeologists", he says, are entirely wrong -- ignoring, of course, that his definition of "biblical archaeology" is completely backwards. He still classifies modern archaeologists who don't accept the historicity of the bible as "biblical archeologists" (a definition that fits his agenda). Wrong. That term belongs to the people who go digging "with the bible in one hand and a spade in the other". i.e., his own approach.
"From a historical aspect, I take the Bible as history, unless someone demonstrates it's not. I have no reason to believe the stories in the Bible didn't happen. He paused, asserting, If you don't think it's true, prove it!"

He argues that some biblical archeologists are motivated by crass politics and a dislike of Jews.
And so he sets off to the primary archaeological sites in the middle east, cheerfully explaining how it all fits together with his somewhat oddball theories. He has further filmed a multi-part show on the Exodus (wherein he argues that it wasn't the Red sea that was parted, but the Reed sea, in a particularly egregious mangling of interpretation, to make his "theory" fit). Scientific findings often challenge religious dogma. He doesn't seem to understand that it's the role of the scientist, the role of the archeologist, to view with a critical eye any claims and view the evidence *before* generating the conclusions. An honest scientist gathers the evidence and sees what the evidence says, a dishonest one interprets the evidence to fit their conclusion. Presenting the latter as equivalent to the actual practice of archeology is simply wrong.

How completely backwards - the goal of archeology is not to "prove false" the bible any more than it is to "prove true" the stories. The two are really unrelated, no matter how much the television shows try to link them this time of year. If the evidence shows that a particular story is plausible or true, so be it. But cherry picking and misusing evidence is the purview of bad science.

I am frustrated that the history channel airs such a show, which is based firmly on the unchallenged premise that the bible is historically accurate and every further assertion simply accepts this as true.

I am further frustrated to realize that Jacobovici is NOT a biblical scholar, he is NOT a historian, he is NOT even an archaeologist. He's a filmmaker.

If it wasn't so ridiculous and dangerous, it would be funny - he's the sort who starts off his "exploration" by saying that the bible is true, and seems to be one of those people who is determined to believe that this is so, just because the bible says it. His methodology is a joke, even if he is personable and seems credible enough to the uninformed. Therein lies the danger - this man has a specific agenda that is at odds with science and history, and yet his theories are presented as if they are supported and generally valid. They are not.

This is not an issue of religious vs non-religious, of belief vs non-belief. It doesn't matter which side of those issues you are on: you should demand basic adherence to the proper methodology from anyone proposing to know "the truth". Accepting an idea because we want to believe it, quickly undermines any scientific inquiry (regardless of which conclusion you support). Archeologists are, understandably, frustrated.. This is amateur hour, and it is deeply flawed, no matter how attractive.

The ideas might be interesting, they might even have some kernel of real evidence, and Jacobovici's obvious enthusiasm and charm make for a good show, but that's all it is: a show by a filmmaker with a specific message to get across. Each show starts off with his conclusion, which is heavily biased to his own political and religious views (and I find it quite interesting that many Christian sites are equally critical about his show as I am). He has weighed in on recent finds (the Ossuary of Josephus, Jesus' tomb, etc) as if he actually has the qualifications to do so, as if the bald assertion that "this is true" suddenly makes it so.

The show is sensationalist, makes unsupported claims, ignores current scholarly research, and yet it airs without any explanation that the producer of the show is presenting his own opinions as fact without any real support or evidence. It's entertainment presented as truth, and as we all know, a plausible "explanation" is often better accepted than the truth, because it is simpler and doesn't require much thought.

It would be an interesting show if he actually approached the topic with some sense of impartial and unprejudiced curiosity. Since he can't, the honest thing to do is to be up front about your biases and explain how he comes to his opinions and views. If any show requires a disclaimer, this one does.

* Ok, one tiny tangent - how can you have a show on the possibility that Jesus had a brother, if you haven't proven (even slightly) that the Jesus you are talking about existed? Or that God punished the builders of the Tower of Babel, if you haven't a shred of evidence that the god you are describing existed, or the tower itself? Sigh.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Inversely, some archeological finds can be Obfuscated and marginalized following a 'politically correct" agenda.