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Critical Thinking and the Attack on Judge Jones

In my Bible Translations FAQ, I respond to a common question about Bible translation and about the NIV in particular. Let me quote my basic response first, and then I’ll discuss why I’m bringing this up now. No, this is not a post about Bible translation, though I’m going to use a translation issue as an illustration.

Let me conclude by discussing what is actually the most common question I hear about the NIV: Were homosexuals involved in translating it? Now Kenneth Barker of the NIV Translation Center has responded to this one, but I am as disturbed by his response as I am by the original accusation. I am working from a quotation by Barker in James White’s “The King James Only Controversy.” If I have misunderstood Barker’s explanation I hope someone will correct me.

Barker notes that “Virginia Mollenkott was consulted briefly and only in a minor way on matters of English style. At the time she had the reputation of being a committed evangelical Christian with expertise in contemporary English idiom and usage. Nothing was known of her lesbian views. Those did not begin to surface until years later in some of her writings. If we had known in the sixties what became public knowledge only years later, we would not have consulted her at all. But it must be stressed that she did not influence the NIV translators and editors in any of their final decisions.”

From this it appears to me that 1) Mollenkott’s credentials were adequate to the task, 2) If her work was unsatisfactory, nobody noticed, yet 3) she would not have been hired had her “lesbian views” been known. (I am uncertain as to what “lesbian views” are. I was under the impression that the word “lesbian” denoted a sexual orientation, not a viewpoint.) This whole argument and procedure seems to me to be blatant discrimination, since Barker establishes that Mollenkott’s skills were adequate, he in no way criticizes her work, yet if he had known her sexual orientation she would not have been consulted at all. I guess it is OK to use persons whose sexual orientation is unknown, but not those whose orientation is known. — (From Question 21 of my Bible Translations FAQ)

Now the interesting thing about this particular question is that those who ask it simply cannot point to any way in which the NIV is more favorable to homosexuality than any other Bible translation. (Note that arguments such as those presented here are fallacious on linguistic grounds, irrespective of a translator’s sexual orientation, obviously.)

The process of thinking used here by the KJV Only advocates is simply that there are gays or lesbians involved in the production of a translation, so it must be weak on homosexuality from their point of view. Whether they find valid instances of changes or not, they make the assumption that impurity must infect the work of those they disapprove of, and thust the translation must be bad. Barker’s response is good in one sense–it points out the limited function of the person accused, and that would seem to point to the translation. But Barker is not quite willing to back off completely and look at the product alone, even though it’s partially his product. When the original accusation is followed up by an accusation against the chairman of the Old Testament committee for the NIV, then where do you go?

Well, for me the answer is simple: You look at the product. For example, Leviticus 18:22 from the NIV reads: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” The question is just precisely what did any of the translators change? There are a number of interpretations of this verse, and plenty of debate that surrounds it, but the translators here really didn’t prejudice those interpretations in any significant way. No amount of linguistic discussion is going to sway these people’s opinion.

It’s not just on this one issue. People have a very dangerous tendency to ask who did something rather than to ask how it was done, or even to look at the work product itself.

I’ve encountered this attitude in the debate about evolution. Christians use authority figures to debate with me. “Surely Dr. So-and-so knows what he’s talking about. He has a PhD in Dog Catching, and he says that evolution is impossible.” When I point out numerous scientists in relevant fields who support evolutionary theory, I am immediately asked if they’re Christians. If they are Christians, the next question is whether they’re evangelical, charismatic, conservative, or whatever other flavor the questioner desires. Our human tendency, and I expect this was evolved into us as family groups struggled for survival, is to trust the results produced by people like us, “good” people, and to distrust the results of those unlike us.

Thus we come to the recent flap about the Kitzmiller decision. Here we have a written decision which everyone is quite free to peruse, debate, criticize, dissect, and ritually burn or enshrine depending on one’s reaction to it. Such debate has taken place. In general, however, the intelligent design crowd have gotten the worst of that discussion, and there is no appeal because the voters in Dover decided they didn’t need this kind of problem and voted out the school board members who caused it. So what do they do to accomplish their goals? Do they educate the public in critical thinking, as they so often claim as their aim? Well, no. We start to argue that Judge Jones isn’t nearly the hero that the pro-evolution folks have made him out to be. (As far as I can see, this hero worship thing is in the eyes only of people who desperately want to see it.) He’s not an original thinker. He’s a plagiarist.

What’s going on here is that these particular advocates are taking advantage of human nature, and encouraging people engage in sloppy thinking. A great deal of their own thinking looks sloppy to me, but for the sake of argument I’ll assume that they really do want to improve education, as they claim. Do you improve public education by engaging in an extended ad hominem campaign?

Judge Jones needed only two qualifications to hear this case. He needed to be a federal judge, and he needed to get assigned the case. That’s it. His decision is now law in his district. He’s getting some speaking engagements, and he is getting a bit of fame as one might expect from deciding a much publicized case. Nothing he does now changes anything. There was no expectation that he should be an original thinker. In fact, original thinking is not indicated in deciding most cases, and certainly was not called for in this one. There wasn’t any original thinking to do.

So this entire thing is not only a tempest in a tea-pot, it’s in the wrong tea-pot. The Discovery Institute has one thing to do if they want ID to succeed scientifically–produce science. I’m quite skeptical that they can, but I’m not a scientist, and I’m perfectly willing to be proven wrong on the point. Instead, however, as I looked at it just now, their entire front page is dedicated to political entries with a slight nod to popularizations. I have nothing against popularizations–in fact, I see popularizing as one of my major activities. I have nothing against people getting active in politics–that’s a good thing. But if you want to push a scientific theory, you need to do science, and that means getting down to facts. More importantly, if you want to educate the public about science and about critical thinking, you need to apply that kind of critical thinking in your own presentation.

That’s why I do not believe the ID movement’s claimed goals. If their goal is to improve science education and to teach more critical thinking, then their recent flap about Judge Jones set them back. They encouraged a bunch of their followers to engage in sloppy thinking. But if their goal was political, then they seem to have made some points, simply because people tend toward sloppy thinking and particular toward the “good person – good thoughts, bad person – bad thoughts” approach. Politics says feed them what they want so you can win an election. Science says discover what is.

It appears to me that the Discovery Institute and its pro-ID buddies is most anxious to discover the best way to stir up the voters without regard for the facts. I base that on their actions.

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One Comment

  1. I find it highly ironic that KJV only supporters criticise NIV for possibly having a homosexual playing a very minor part in the translation process, when the translation they promote was in fact sponsored and promoted by someone, King James, who is widely thought to have been homosexual. If that didn’t spoil KJV, a point on which I would agree with the KJV only people, then how can the much lesser involvement of Mollenkott spoil NIV?

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