Jewish People and Israel

From David Bernstein at The Volokh Conspiracy:

"OUTRAGEOUS, IF TRUE: According to the Columbia Spectator, Barnard religion professor Alan Segal was asked by the university to provide a list of archeology experts to comment on the controversial tenure case of Nadia Abu El-Haj’s tenure–archeologists who ‘preferably’ were not Jewish. Segal quite properly refused, noting that religion ‘has nothing to do with what you say as a professional."

"El-Haj’s ‘scholarly’ work is premised on the idea that Jewish Israeli archeologists invented evidence of ancient Jewish settlement of the Land of Israel to justify Zionist claims to the land. Besides the issue of discrimination, which would be unthinkable in any other context related to any other group, the request to Segal seems like an implicit endorsement of her thesis, that Jewish archeologists cannot be trusted to be objective in their work related to Israel (which makes one wonder why the university would trust El-Haj, of Palestinian Arab origin, to be objective)."

If I were Nadia Abu El-Haj I would prefer, all else being equal, that Jewish people not be among those evaluating my scholarship for tenure.  So as not to be accused of anti-Semitism let me say that my mother and wife (although not my father or myself) are Jewish.  But based on my experience, Jewish people on average have a far more positive view towards Israel than non-Jewish people do.  El-Haj’s scholarship directly attacks Israel and so on average I would suspect that her scholarship would get a more favorable review from non-Jewish than Jewish archeologists.

In a world without bias the religion of El-Haj’s reviewers wouldn’t matter.  But we don’t live in such a world.  Given that this bias exists, it is rational to try to minimize the harm it might cause El-Haj.

Imagine that El-Haj’s research consisted of archeological evidence that she tried to use to disprove the historical accuracy of parts of the Koran.  Wouldn’t it be reasonable to try to avoid Islamic reviewers for her tenure case?

Religious beliefs often cause people to be bias towards those who attack such beliefs.  To deny this, or to assume that college professors are too professional to allow such bias to influence them, is silly.

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  • joelsk44039

    If the body of work of a professor seeking tenure consisted of works of Holocaust denial, would you also want to be certain that no Holocaust survivors were among those considering their tenure? Your supposition is preposterous.

  • http://tiedemies.blogspot.com Tiedemies

    Bias is bias is bias. I have observed that personal experience, in any matter whatsoever, tends to be biased. “None of my relatives have died of cancer and most of them smoke, hence, smoking does not contribute to cancer.”

    Even if it is a gruesome example, Holocaust and revisionism thereof are no exception.
    And, I have to add, that I do believe that the Holocaust took place, but this is due to the body of evidence that I believe exists for it. This includes the vast number of (possibly biased) first-hand accounts of it.

  • J Thomas

    James Miller, your proposal makes sense.

    However, it denies common sense. If an arab is doing scholarly work that is anti-israeli, why would we want it to be evaluated in an unbaised way? Why would we allow such a person tenure in any US institution other than a prison? Why would we grant them residence in the USA (unless they happen to be a US citizen and not subject to deportation)?

    It is absurd to expect such things to be viewed without bias. People who treat their friends and their enemies the same don’t deserve to have friends.

    Given that this bias exists, it is rational to try to minimize the harm it might cause El-Haj.

    The obvious way to minimise the harm to El-Haj is to encourage her to apply for tenure at an arab university.

    I somewhat remember an anecdote about a mormon researcher who did his research on a mormon topic, and it wasn’t at a mormon university. One of his reviewers asked if he thought he could give unbiased attention to such a topic, given his religion. He replied that he could, and asked whether the reviewer could do so not being mormon. All very civil and polite and he passed. But mormons are our friends.

    Suppose this person got all nonjewish reviewers. Any reviewer who approved her work would prove he was no friend to israel and he could reasonably expect consequences. We can be all hypocritical and pretend we’re unbiased, but the simple truth is that israel is our friend and arabs are our enemies. What more is there to say?

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    J Thomas, what you say appears to me to be simply beneath contempt if you are advancing it seriously rather than engaging in some sort of parody or reductio ad absurdum.

    As to the original question, I’d have thought asking for “preferably not Jewish” reviewers would make much more sense if replaced by “preferably neither Jewish nor Arab”. Unfortunately, as J Thomas has reminded us, there’s plenty of unashamed extreme bias on both sides of any Israel-related question even among people who are not Jewish or Muslim or Israeli or Arab.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    Incidentally, in case “beneath contempt” is too vague, here’s the answer to your key question:

    “If an arab is doing scholarly work that is anti-Israeli, why would we want it to be evaluated in an unbiased way?” Because we put truth above tribal loyalty and political allegiance. If you don’t, maybe you should go and start embracingbias.com. (But I still hope you don’t actually believe what you wrote.)

  • ARB

    Why not look at the bias in El-Haj’s work, instead of saying Jews shouldn’t review it because they may be biased? Here are two reviews of her scholarship which show that El-Haj ignores facts, reality, leading scientific evidence, and the truth. It’s a good thing some Jews are reviewing her work, because if they didn’t then her specious scholarship would pass without valid criticism because people like you are too lazy to look at it.

    http://antiracistblog.blogspot.com/2007/09/bad-genetics-of-nadia-abu-el-haj.html

    http://antiracistblog.blogspot.com/2007/09/nadia-abu-el-haj-and-junk-dna.html

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    Because the question at issue here isn’t that of whether this particular person’s work is good, but that of how work that triggers lots of people’s biases (not by any means all in the same direction) should be assessed. If it turns out that El-Haj’s work is so awful that only the most biased of investigators could think it has any merit, all that means is that El-Haj wasn’t a great choice of example.

    I don’t know what’s meant by “people like you”. I’d have thought the reason why, e.g., James Miller hasn’t reviewed El-Haj’s work is that he isn’t (I’m guessing here) an archaeologist.

  • Benny Peiser

    I would be more convinced about James Miller’s line of argument if his recommendation were common academic practise that is universally applied.

    Have creationist scholars the right to exclude Darwinian or atheist peer reviewers because they are biased? Should Islamists have the right to exclude Christian or Hindu scholars from assessing their work because of bias? Have black Americans the right to exclude white American from evaluating their scholarship?

    Is that what Mr Miller has in mind?

    Oh, and by the way, some of my best friends are Jewish.

  • J Thomas

    G, I’m glad you put truth above tribal loyalty and political allegiance. It’s a very good thing for us to have people like you around. There aren’t nearly enough americans like that. Thank you for making the personal sacrifices this entails.

    It’s encouraging to see an academic who is ready to give up his career to make an unpopular stand. If only there were a lot of people like you — the world would be a better place.

  • http://www.stafforini.com Pablo Stafforini

    I also have the impression that Jewish people have on average a far more positive view towards Israel than non-Jewish people do. And I, too, agree that Jews tend to be biased towards Israel. Unlike James, however, I do not think that our impressions, even if veridical, would be sufficient to establish the existence of such bias. A view is not biased merely because it deviates from the statistical norm. (Cf. Robin Hanson’s remarks about academic political bias: “these facts do not imply academics are biased; perhaps their political tendencies mainly result from their expert knowledge.”) Nadia Abu El-Haj may be rationally or morally permitted to prefer that Jewish people not be among those evaluating his tenure case. But whether this is or isn’t the case cannot be determined simply by conducting a poll on Jewish attitudes towards Israel.

  • J Thomas

    Benny Peiser, you have an interesting point. Creation science guys have the reputation of doing bad science, as do afro-american studies scholars. I haven’t checked that for myself, but I’ve heard generalised slurs against both sets of practitioners.

    This isn’t just a question of mormons, arabs, creation-science and such. I’ve also heard various stories about researchers who came up with something revolutionary, an improved way to look at a whole body of work, and all of the experts who were available to review the new work were the people whose own work would be made obsolete by it. As I understand it the usual way to avoid this problem is to present the new work in a related field. Groundbreaking work in biochemistry might get approved in molecular biology or vice versa. (Although it’s hard to imagine work so fundamental it would require that big a distance.) Then the disciplines compete, and if one of them can’t compete then over a generation or so it will tend to die back.

    And so we do get creation science studies that don’t need review by traditional biologists. I haven’t seen that they’ve produced anything valuable yet. We have afro-american studies that don’t need review by traditional anthropologists or sociologists. We have feminist studies. We have Jungian studies, and there’s no particular reason for someone trained in Jung’s tradition to be reviewed by a Freudian. Etc.

    On the other hand, neoclassical physics did not thrive at all. They came up with ways to do physics without quantum mechanics that still got most of the same results as QM. They looked for places where their results would be different from QM results to encourage experiments to test the competing predictions. Speaking as a layman my lit searches never turned up substantive criticism of what they were doing — most of the criticism I saw was of the form “It isn’t QM so it has to be wrong because QM is right.”. But they didn’t establish fiefdoms in university physics departments, so there were no jobs for their graduates. So it pretty much died out.

    If holy-land archeology is mostly jewish/scientific plus christian/fundamentalist, anyone who wants a third alternative would need to start establishing departments with a new name. Get some chairs funded. And let the academic competition proceed on all the levels that competition happens. Probably it would be easiest to establish those chairs in muslim universities.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    J Thomas @ 2007-09-27 11:35: Please excuse me for being dim, but while I can tell that you’re being sarcastic and think I’m stupid or naive or evil or something I can’t work out what your actual point is. Would you care to make it more explicitly?

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    But here’s one possibility: Maybe you mean “It doesn’t matter in practice what the best way is to avoid bias in the evaluation of politically sensitive research, because the evaluations are going to be terribly biased no matter what”. In which case I take it your original comment *was* intended as a parody of sorts. Well, certainly it might be true that there’s no prospect of genuinely independent review of El-Haj’s research — for all I know it may be literally impossible because key evidence is only available by talking to people with very strong biases one way or another — but I don’t see what objection there is to trying to figure out how, ideally, one ought to try to minimize this sort of bias.

    Although attempting to have a rational discussion of, or related to, anything to do with Israel and Palestine on a public forum is possibly asking for trouble. I’m surprised it hasn’t got worse faster…

  • J Thomas

    G, first, I claim that trying to reduce bias in this sensitive topic is very difficult because the majority of the people you’d usually depend on to help you, in this case do not want to reduce bias. They might want to hurt you if you express too strong an interest in reducing bias.

    Second, I claim that the usual way we do that is to bypass the question. Establish a new department with new rules and new biases. Let the departments battle it out over time. This may not ever give us an unbiased correct understanding, but at least it promotes diversity.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    My parents attempted to raise me as an Orthodox Jew. I can only speak of Orthodox Jews (possibly only Orthodox Jews in Chicago), but in my experience, yes, they do tend to be biased about Israel. Very biased. And if they could set aside their emotional attachments to cleanly evaluate a balance of evidence, they wouldn’t conclude that the Old Testament was the word of God, now would they?

    I would seriously wonder if Chicagoan Orthodox Jews should be evaluating the tenure case of any person of Islamic religion or Arabic descent, regardless of their work. Or vice versa. The hatred runs deep.

    The only time I saw an Israeli and a Palestinian talk to each other without a trace of spite, they were both Singularitarians.

    If I were trying to have El-Haj’s case for tenure evaluated in an unbiased way, I wouldn’t have any Jews or Muslims on the review panel. I would instruct the reviewers to check the factual quality of her work, ignore politics, and remind them that the truth is not always a compromise between two political sides. Then the reviewers can toss her work out of court if it needs tossing.

  • y

    Unfortunately, in this case those who are most likely to be “biased” against the work (Christians and Jews) are also the ones who probably know the most about the books subject material. The problem of course is that El-Haj is being deliberately misleading, which she is accused of being, it is difficult for an unbiased party to review her work…

    More broadly, the fact that Jews tend to have a more positive view of Israel doesn’t by itself imply that they are more biased. The question is, do they tend to have a more accurate view? Most people who tend to hate Israel believe things that are factually incorrect about it, while most supporters of Israel consistently score better in polls about the knowledge of Israel. Given that the official philosophy of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and of then the Catholic Church was anti-Israel/Jew, it should be no surprise that all too many non-Jews are still influenced by their propaganda.

  • y

    Unfortunately, in this case those who are most likely to be “biased” against the work (Christians and Jews) are also the ones who probably know the most about the books subject material. The problem of course is that El-Haj is being deliberately misleading, which she is accused of being, it is difficult for an unbiased party to review her work…

    More broadly, the fact that Jews tend to have a more positive view of Israel doesn’t by itself imply that they are more biased. The question is, do they tend to have a more accurate view? Most people who tend to hate Israel believe things that are factually incorrect about it, while most supporters of Israel consistently score better in polls about the knowledge of Israel. Given that the official philosophy of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and of then the Catholic Church was anti-Israel/Jew, it should be no surprise that all too many non-Jews are still influenced by their propaganda.

  • y

    Unfortunately, in this case those who are most likely to be “biased” against the work (Christians and Jews) are also the ones who probably know the most about the books subject material. The problem of course is that El-Haj is being deliberately misleading, which she is accused of being, it is difficult for an unbiased party to review her work…

    More broadly, the fact that Jews tend to have a more positive view of Israel doesn’t by itself imply that they are more biased. The question is, do they tend to have a more accurate view? Most people who tend to hate Israel believe things that are factually incorrect about it, while most supporters of Israel consistently score better in polls about the knowledge of Israel. Given that the official philosophy of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and of then the Catholic Church was anti-Israel/Jew, it should be no surprise that all too many non-Jews are still influenced by their propaganda.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/BennyPeiser/ Benny Peiser

    “If I were trying to have El-Haj’s case for tenure evaluated in an unbiased way, I wouldn’t have any Jews or Muslims on the review panel.”

    OK. Here is the next question: who would you accept on the review panel? A left-wing atheist? Christian believer? An American patriot? A British anti-Semite? etc., etc. Or do you need to be a paid-up member of the Singularitarian movement?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Benny, yes to all of those except the British anti-Semite.

    I know that in ordinary circumstances, people will be biased, but the hatred of Middle East conflicts has to be seen to be believed.

  • http://mangans.blogspot.com Dennis Mangan

    One problem I see here is that El-Haj’s thesis seems absurd on its face. It’s a conspiracy theory which says that hundreds (thousands?) of Jewish archaeologists have conspired to tell a lie. Are we to give equal consideration to every crackpot theory that comes along? If we are, then perhaps we have “open-mind bias”.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/BennyPeiser/ Benny Peiser

    Eliezer. Why should we accept peer reviewers that are anti-Zionist left-wing activists but not British anti-Semites? Why accept Christian fundamentalists but not Jewish atheists? What about Jewish and German scholars who research Nazi Germany and the Holocaust? Should they also be excluded from peer review on related matters because of their biases?

    Sorry, but your criteria look arbitrary and naive. I’m afraid, once you start this game of looking at the ethnicity of researchers rather than their scientific track record and expertise, you can forget science as a whole.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I’m afraid, once you start this game of looking at the ethnicity of researchers rather than their scientific track record and expertise, you can forget science as a whole.

    You’re right, I concede.

  • J Thomas

    Unfortunately, in this case those who are most likely to be “biased” against the work (Christians and Jews) are also the ones who probably know the most about the books subject material.

    This is the problem faced by everybody who wants to challenge accepted ideas. If they claim that the current experts have accepted a point of view that isn’t strictly supported by the evidence, it’s the experts they are challenging who are in fact the experts who would normally review the work.

    That’s true for neoclassical physics. Supporters of QM claimed that classical physics had inherently failed and there was no way to fix it, that the only possible alternative was QM which gives correct results to 20 decimal places. The neoclassicals came up with simple changes to classical physics that fixed the problems, but most of the experts available to review their work were only trained in QM and had been taught it was the only possible choice.

    So how do you tell the difference between innovative research that doesn’t fit into an existing framework because it’s new and better, versus something that’s badly done? Consider that a brand-new approach is likely to have some flaws. So for one of the standard old chestnuts, a ptolemaic astronomy that’s had lots of time to correct errors is likely to give some results that are somewhat better than a brand-new copernican astronomy before every last detail has been worked out. And a ptolemaic reviewer is likely to jump on those to show the new idea is wrong.

    On the other hand, it’s some ways easier to make up a fake scientific revolution than do it for real.

  • J Thomas

    One problem I see here is that El-Haj’s thesis seems absurd on its face. It’s a conspiracy theory which says that hundreds (thousands?) of Jewish archaeologists have conspired to tell a lie.

    I haven’t looked at what El-Haj has written, so I can’t say with any certainty what she’s claiming.

    But it isn’t unheard-of or even unusual for a whole lot of researchers to start with common assumptions and interpret their data in light of those assumptions. It doesn’t require any conspiracy to tell lies, only a certain blindness to their assumptions, which we all share in general though not always about the same assumptions.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    J Thomas: Could you tell us a little more about this neoclassical physics that fixes all the problems QM deals with but involves only simple changes to classical physics, and how (e.g.) it deals with experimental observations such as violations of the Bell inequalities? A link or two would be especially helpful.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/tschoegl/ Adrian Tschoegl

    There is a practical consideration here. If, as seems likely from what little I know of the case, El Haj is denied tenure, she will sue, arguing that the review panel was biased. If the panel does indeed number several Jews, the University will settle with her rather than go to court, said settlement to include giving her tenure.

    The University has to maintain a process that is as neutral as possible, including asking leading scholars in the field to specify which are the top journals in the field without specifying that it is El Haj’s record that is being scrutinized. If, as I suspect, she has not published in the leading journals, that will tell against her.

    I believe that there are, by the way, some highly qualified scholars in Japan. The University could, then pick a set of reviewers evenly balanced between referees she nominated and referees generally acknowledged as leading scholars in the field (journal editors and the like), adding three Japanese (presumably of a “pox upon both your houses” frame of mind), to break any tie.

  • http://cabalamat.wordpress.com/2007/09/29/religion-and-academia/ Amused Cynicism

    Religion andacademia

    From David Bernstein:
    Outrageous, If True: According to the Columbia Spectator, Barnard religion professor Alan Segal was asked by the university to provide a list of archeology experts to comment on the controversial tenure case of Nadia Abu El-Haj&#…

  • http://cabalamat.wordpress.com/ Philip Hunt

    Adrian’s proposal of Japanese reviewers strikes me as a sensible one, since they don’t have a hand in this argument.

  • http://cabalamat.wordpress.com/ Philip Hunt

    joelsk44039: If the body of work of a professor seeking tenure consisted of works of Holocaust denial…
    Benny Peiser: Have creationist scholars the right to exclude Darwinian or atheist peer reviewers because they are biased?

    I would say that a history professor who is a holocaust denier, and a biology professor who is a creationist are alike in that both of them should be denied tenure, because in both cases their views are so far from the truth that they are absurd.

  • Constant

    Dibs on embracingbias.com if not taken already.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Logically, the opposite of Overcoming Bias should be Undergoing Bias.

  • J Thomas

    G, if you google “neoclassical physics” you’ll get only about 500,000 hits. It never caught on that well.

    The (small) movement was founded by ET Jaynes, and so looking for links to his work would be a good way to see the patterns to it. Here is a link to a eulogy of him that includes links to much of his work.

    jaynes link

    … that fixes all the problems QM deals with but involves only simple changes to classical physics, …

    I wouldn’t go that far. The group that did the work got a lot of good results and then mostly quit; I believe the main reason they didn’t continue is that they failed to establish physics departments that would be sympathetic to their approach. I don’t think Bell’s Theorem was a hot topic when they were active but I haven’t studied them in depth. Here’s a review that mentions them and gives more links, as well as considering various alternatives.

    review link

  • J Thomas

    I would say that a history professor who is a holocaust denier, and a biology professor who is a creationist are alike in that both of them should be denied tenure, because in both cases their views are so far from the truth that they are absurd.

    I would think the creationist’s work should be examined rather than simply assuming he’s wrong. I haven’t actually seen any good science come from creationists but it isn’t impossible. A creationist who found a niche where he could do good work despite his untested assumptions might be valuable.

    It would be absurd to give tenure to a holocaust-denier. They’d be a constant source of problems until they were somehow removed, and would result in the university losing funding and prestige.

  • CG

    First, by your theory El-Haj, of Palestinian descent, must be biased as well. If she’s a Muslim, she’s even more biased.

    Second, most Jewish people are not “religious” to the extent they would have any stake in the basic subject of the research, whether the Jewish kingdoms described in the Bible really existed.

    Third, if Barnard didn’t want biased reviewers, they should have asked for “no Palestinians, no Israelis, no Orthodox Jews, and no Christians who believe in biblical accuracy”, not “no Jews.” Barnard wanted “no Jews” so anti-Semites couldn’t say, “well of course ‘the Jews’ are out to get her,” and, unfortunately, your post encourages the idea that a professional Jewish archeologist is going to be “out to get” an academic colleague, instead of reviewing her work from a professional standpoint.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/tschoegl/ Adrian Tschoegl

    CG: I disagree. If El Haj is denied tenure she may sue, demanding to know if there were Jews among her referees. If there are, she can (and perhaps will) make a case that given her writings Jews must be biased against her. That would be a logical stand for her to take, even if she privately agreed that they were unbiased and that her work was crap. Barnard is not trying to be unbiased – they are simply trying to evite a lawsuit.

  • CG

    No court in the US is going to allow a plaintiff to use the fact that reviewers were Jewish in a discrimination or breach of contract claim. They MAY allow her to use a claim that Barnard purposely chose biased reviewers, but that would have to be because they were known to be precommitted to an ideology hostile to hers, not because they were Jewish per se. For example, a fundamentalist Christian who has staked his career on the idea that archeology supports Biblical accounts of ancient Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land is going to be biased against someone who argues that the biblical stories are entirely made up. A leftist, atheistic, Jewish peer reviewer who belongs to a group supporting Palestinian rights, by contrast, is actually likely to be biased in her favor.

  • Mike Rappaport

    “If I were Nadia Abu El-Haj I would prefer, all else being equal, that Jewish people not be among those evaluating my scholarship for tenure. Based on my experience, Jewish people on average have a far more positive view towards Israel than non-Jewish people do.”

    This is a very curious post. Do Jewish people on average tend to support Israel? Of course. Might they be biased towards Israel? Sure. Should Nadia Abu El-Haj prefer that they not review his work for tenure? Perhaps, if he wants a positive review. Does any of that justify not including Jews in the tenure review? By itself, OF COURSE NOT!

    Might Jews be biased against Arab critics of Israel? Probably. But Arabs may be biased against Israel and in favor of Arab critics of Israel. Are liberals biased against conservatives? Probably. Are liberals baised in favor of liberals? Probably. And so on. Biases and especially potential biases are pervasive, particularly when considered at this level of analysis.

    The curious thing is why James Miller thinks this is significant or worth pointing out. When someone points out a general truth and then applies it to one group, THAT IS STRONG EVIDENCE OF BIAS. If one says Jews tend to be self interested, when all people tend to be, that is evidence of bias against Jews. Mr. Miller gives us background evidence suggesting he has no ill will towards Jews. I shall accept that. But if ill will does not explain the weakness of this post, then what does?

  • J Thomas

    This doesn’t have to be directly about judaism. To get away from the particular case, imagine that back in the days before plate tectonics was fully accepted in geology, you did work that depended on plate tectonics. And imagine that at that time french geologists particularly ridiculed plate tectonics. If you preferred not to have your work judged by frenchmen it wouldn’t be because of anything about the Vichy government or algeria, it would be because you wanted your work judged by people who had the background to judge it, not by people who would reject it for its plate tectonics.

    So, in any particular case of something new and controversial, how would we tell whether it’s more like plate tectonics or more like cold fusion? Wouldn’t we have to actually look at the research and hope we had sufficient background to follow it?

    We could depend on experts, but if the work in question isn’t something we can understand and the experts don’t present their own work in ways we can understand — then we’re lost. And what good are any of them?

    Dr. El-Haj has written a book that presents her major research, and it might be possible to understand her claims by reading the book. I haven’t done that.

    book

    The criticism of the book may tell something but it probably misrepresents it. Criticism I’ve seen of it seems to imply that she claims there were no ancient israelites living in palestine, ever. To me this is implausible. Somebody lived there, and presumably some of the people living there had various religions, and one of those religions presumably had temples that kept a Torah prototype. You can’t tell much from the critics.

    Without looking at it yourself, you can decide which experts to trust.

    NYT link

    “The Middle East Studies Association, an organization of scholars who focus on the region, chose her book in 2002 as one of the year?s two best books in English about the Middle East.”

    “Dr. Abu El-Haj also has many supporters, particularly in her field, who say her book is solid, even brilliant, and part of an innovative trend of looking at how disciplines function.”

    But others disagree, notably Jacob Lassner, a professor of history and religion, Paula Stern, a settler in the West Bank, and Alan F. Segal, a professor of religion and Jewish studies. She is accused of misunderstanding the biblical tradition, of doing shoddy work, and of lacking the stature to criticise established authorities. “It’s insulting. Brain surgeons would be offended if a medical technician criticized their work. That’s what’s happened here. The problem, of course, is that she is politically driven.”

    There’s a claim that she doesn’t know hebrew and depends on mistranslated passages. That sounds like a serious problem to me. Trying to deal with biblical archeology without a sound knowledge of all the northwest semitic languages would seem risky. On the other hand, a colorblind man can often see past camouflage.

    At any rate, a university spokesman has denied that they required Segal to give them names of nonjewish experts, as he announced.

    If some experts say a body of work is shoddy while others say it’s great, how do you decide without looking at it yourself? (And why would your opinion even matter when you aren’t an expert on that topic?) It looks to me like two different fields have different standards — jewish studies versus middle-east studies. Can someone reasonably arbitrate which of them is right and which wrong? (Of course they could both be wrong.) Could they both be right?

  • Benny Peiser

    50 years ago or so, almost every geologist (not just French ones) ridiculed plate tectonics. They also ridiculed the idea that asteroidal and cometary impacts can cause global disasters and mass extinctions. Today, the vast majority of climatologists are convinced that global warming is due to anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.

    J Thomas suggests that the work of researchers who are sceptical of the dominant paradigm of the day should not be assessed and judged “by people who would reject it.” I guess he would also exclude anyone who sympathises with such anti-establishment scepticism.

    It goes without saying that this would be the end of the conventional process of scientific peer review. It would be undermined and eventually destroyed as a direct result of boundless claims of academic, ethnic, national, religious, ideological, racial, gender, sexual, etc biases.

    Scientific and academic controversies would almost inevitably have to be dealt with by law courts. Contentious cases (such as the El-Haj one) may have to be treated in a way not unsimilar to the trial of Holocaust denier David Irwin
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Irving

    But wouldn’t El-Haj than demand that no Jewish or Christian judges should be accepted? Or better still, that the science trial should be held in Iran or Saudi Arabia because American and Western courts are biased against Muslims and their theories?

    As I said before, once you accept El-Haj’s argument and demand, you can basically forget science and the trust in institutional fairness that lies at the heart of an open society.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    J Thomas on neoclassical physics: I already googled for “neoclassical physics” but the results all seemed to be about something other than what you described; “neoclassical” seems to be a term of art in plasma physics, presumably (I haven’t actually read any of the papers) being some kind of modified classical physics used merely for expedience. I did find a couple of other links: one is a paper by J P Gordon from 1974, which does seem to be talking about alternatives to QM; he claims to have found “two independently untenable conclusions”. And I found a few other obviously cranky-looking things.

    I have Jaynes’s book, in which he says *that* he expects some sort of neoclassical physics to be right, but (reasonably, given that that isn’t what the book’s about) he doesn’t actually present a theory that might do the job. (And surely all Jaynes’s stuff postdates, e.g., the Aspect experiments?)

    Davidson’s survey says right at the start that there’s no good candidate for a neoclassical theory that could actually replace QM. It seems to me that the observational facts we have are weird enough (to us whose intuitions are largely formed from crude observation of medium-sized macroscopic objects moving slowly in flattish regions of spacetime, etc.) that the real idea underlying the search for a neoclassical physics (to avoid the weirdness) is a non-starter.

  • J Thomas

    G, Jaynes et al proposed a theory in which electromagnetic radiation was not quantised, but mass was. They got by the old-timey objections to such theories and got many QM results. It was a fairly small number of people doing it, compared to a much larger number doing QM, and they didn’t much continue after Jaynes. Some of them kept using their approach in particular circumstances where it had obvious advantages.

    It’s too soon to say whether quantised EM is necessary. It isn’t clear how intuitive an approach like Jaynes’s could be. The neoclassical guys made a good start, and my point was that they appeared to give up not because they weren’t making good progress, but because they didn’t establish specific physics departments sympathetic to them and so didn’t create jobs for their students.

  • J Thomas

    _J Thomas suggests that the work of researchers who are sceptical of the dominant paradigm of the day should not be assessed and judged “by people who would reject it.”_

    I certainly don’t say that. I say that this is a dilemma, that we need a way to distinguish new ideas like plate tectonics from new ideas like cold fusion. I have no idea where you got the above stupid idea.

    _As I said before, once you accept El-Haj’s argument and demand, you can basically forget science and the trust in institutional fairness that lies at the heart of an open society._

    I want to point out that El-Haj did not make this demand. Segal, a professor of jewish studies at Barnard, told the media that an unnamed Barnard official made this demand. A named Barnard official has publicly denied it.

    So, if her field is middle-east studies, should she be evaluated by experts in middle-east studies, or by experts in Jewish studies, or what? From what I’ve seen it looks very very likely that if she’s evaluated only by middle-east studies experts she’ll probably pass, and if she’s evaluated by experts in Jewish studies she’ll probably fail. Should we decide that this is because of bias in one field or the other or both? Or could it be that they’re just two different fields?

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    Contentious cases (such as the El-Haj one) may have to be treated in a way not unsimilar to the trial of Holocaust denier David Irwin
    Are you seriously suggesting that El-Haj be imprisoned for her writings?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/BennyPeiser/ Benny Peiser

    Are you seriously suggesting that El-Haj be imprisoned for her writings?

    Far from it. What I am saying is that if the world’s leading archaeologists whose expertise on Israel’s ancient history is widely regarded as world-class by the scientific community are excluded from peer review on grounds of their ethnic, national or religious background, you are opening Pandora’s box: you kill science as we know it and get science trials instead. Which is more or less what you have in many Islamic countries that are based on Sharia or Sharia-like laws.

  • J Thomas

    Benny, you can read the first 6 pages of her book on Amazon.

    She isn’t doing archeology. She’s doing history of archeology. She’s studying israeli archeology in terms of what it means to israelis, how it affects their politics and self-image and such.

    Jewish archeologists wouldn’t be competent to judge that, any more than being a new guinea tribesman studied by anthropologists makes new guinea tribesmen into anthropology experts.

    Clearly she should be judged by her peers, experts in middle east studies. Not by the subjects of her research.

    On the other hand, if she was doing research that tended to bring her the contempt of middle-east studies experts, then maybe it would make sense for her work to be judged by the experts of a neighboring discipline — perhaps israeli anthropologists or whoever. Someone whose work is similar enough that they’d understand the methods and materials, but who wouldn’t be particularly biased due to the subject material.

  • CG

    “She isn’t doing archeology. She’s doing history of archeology. She’s studying israeli archeology in terms of what it means to israelis, how it affects their politics and self-image and such.

    Jewish archeologists wouldn’t be competent to judge that, any more than being a new guinea tribesman studied by anthropologists makes new guinea tribesmen into anthropology experts.”

    Even accepting the premises of your argument, how does it logically follow to not let non-Israeli Jews judge her work?

  • J Thomas

    CG, at this point I see no credible evidence that there was ever a demand not to let non-israelis jews judge her work.

    That story came from a colleague in the religion and jewish studies department who was determined that she not get tenure. The university has denied it.

    But I haven’t looked at everything published on the topic; I could easily have missed something.

  • Benny Peiser

    “She isn’t doing archeology. She’s doing history of archeology. Jewish archeologists wouldn’t be competent to judge that.”

    Do you suggest to exclude only Jewish archaeologists from the review panel or any scientist of Jewish descent? What if you have a Jewish grandmother – would that be acceptable? And which science organisation do you think should check and scutinise the reviewers’ ethnic, religious and ideological background?

    Are you also advocating that American researchers should no longer assess controversial work on American history, or that atheists should no longer review research on the history of religion?

    I’m beginning to wonder whether “overcoming bias” may turn out to be a cure that is even worse then the maladie.

  • J Thomas

    Benny Peiser, did I say something that reminded you of the proposals you’re rejecting?

    At this point my suggestion is in general that work should be judged by experts in the same field, and when the work is particularly controversial in that field it might instead be judged by people in a closely-related field where it is not so controversial.

    By that standard it should be fine for El-Haj’s work to be judged by middle-east studies experts, but not by religious-and-jewish-studies experts. Because that’s her field, where her peers are. But if she was doing something that was controversial in middle-east studies but not so controversial in jewish-studies, a closely related field, then perhaps it might be judged by them instead.

    In each case we’d want experts who can properly judge the material but who can be expected not to be too biased.

  • Matija

    Amazing, holocaust is mentioned 25+ times in this article, But USSR lost more than 20,000,000+ people in the war and I don’t see it mentioned.

  • J Thomas

    Matija, at the Cretaceous extinction more than 50% of *species* went extinct, and well over 90% of species of large animals. I don’t see that mentioned either.

    And I think the reason is that it isn’t something that people can use as an emotional trump card.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    Matija, the word “Holocaust” occurs a total of 11 times, in 7 comments (not counting yours in either case). If you’re going to be quantitative, you should take the few seconds required to get it right. The reason why it’s mentioned here and the fact that the USSR lost a lot of people in WW2 would presumably be not only that (as J Thomas says) that it’s an “emotional trump card” but that (1) a discussion of Zionism and the Jews tends for obvious reasons to remind people of the Holocaust more than of other incidents in which lots of people died, and (2) the Holocaust, unlike the death of 20 million citizens of the USSR in WW2, resembles Middle Eastern politics by being a subject that attracts overheated controversy; it’s therefore a possibly useful analogy here.

    I’m guessing that you have some other explanation in mind, but the only candidates I can think of seem to be clearly worse explanations than these. Would you like to enlighten us?

  • http://profile.typepad.com/sentience Eliezer Yudkowsky

    In Jewish elementary school, I learned that “6 million Jews died in the Holocaust”. The “6 million” figure was repeated over and over; for example, there was a computer counting up to 6 million as a way of emphasizing how many people died. You really didn’t hear many figures like “11 million” (the number of *human beings* who died in the Holocaust) or “50-100 million” (estimated casualties of WWII).

    (I’m sure it’s far worse in the madrassas.)

  • http://profile.typepad.com/BennyPeiser Benny Peiser

    “In each case we’d want experts who can properly judge the material but who can be expected not to be too biased.”

    OK. So let’s agreed that James Miller’s ethnic cleansing of the peer review process is not such a good idea after all. Assessing the work in the controversial but extremely well documented field of Israel’s archaeology and ancient history should be done by those leading and internationally acknowledged experts “who can be expected not to be too biased” – regardless of their ethnic background or religious belief.

  • J Thomas

    _Assessing the work in the controversial but extremely well documented field of Israel’s archaeology and ancient history should be done by those leading and internationally acknowledged experts “who can be expected not to be too biased” – regardless of their ethnic background or religious belief._

    It should be done by the worker’s peers, unless there’s reason to think they would be biased.

    Once again, in this particular case it is not a work of israeli archeology but a work about the influence of israel’s archeology on israeli society and vice versa. A work about the biases of israeli archeologists should not necessarily be judged by israeli archeologists who are not necessarily experts about their own bias.

  • Matija

    I really shouldn’t be more precise, in this case it is a great waste of time, no academic will ever get a tenure arguing against Israel, except of course in Iran. Secondly who the hell knows what that book was about, and I am pretty sure nobody on this blog read it. And this posting of your is beautiful example of bias: “I’m guessing that you have some other explanation in mind, but the only candidates I can think of seem to be clearly worse explanations than these. Would you like to enlighten us?”

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    Matija, what evidence of bias do you find in my question? And why should I take any notice, given your declaration that getting facts right rather than wrong is a waste of your time?

  • Matija

    Do as you please, This is my last post

  • J Thomas

    This was a remarkably polite discussion, for a thread about support for israel. I’d like to think it’s a sign of good things to come.