The Laziness and Incompetence of Yet Another Biblical Scholar

Filed under: Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 2:00 pm

In the past I have posted on biblical scholars I have caught out promoting and citing Wikipedia articles, books, journal articles, archaeological finds in support of their views that in fact directly contradicted their arguments and claims. Mercifully the names of these scholars have been relatively few. I have posted far more on many excellent biblical scholars who produce informative and interesting work.

But there is one more published biblical scholar who has come to my attention as another charlatan. I would hope that this post will embarrass him enough to pull him up and lead him to mend his ways. I really would much rather argue with a competent and honest scholar than an incompetent charlatan.

Recently Joel Watts referred to “the science of history” in a blog article. My blogging colleague queried the meaning of that phrase, and someone tweeted Joel to protest, so Joel Watts has come back like a steam-roller to squash any suggestion that history is not a science.

Normally this sort of ignorance can be overlooked. But Watts is a PhD student and a published scholar so he has attained the status of being a “public intellectual”. As a public intellectual he deserves to be held accountable for what he publicly writes.

Joel Watts has no specialty in historical studies that I am aware of. I suspect few New Testament scholars have any idea of landmark names in the history and philosophy of historiography like von Ranke, Collingwood, Carr, Elton, White or the various schools of history. Yet he is quite prepared to publish on something he knows nothing about and insult others who do know what they are talking about.

Joel, if there’s one lesson I’d like you to take from this post, it is this: Don’t treat your reading public as fools. They really are smarter than you think. You even explicitly call us stupid, imbeciles, etc. yet you produce blatant charlatanry like the following.

Here is his post:

(I have shortened some of the longer urls)

June 25th, 2013 by Joel L. Watts

On the “science of history”

there are times you just can’t help stupidity… mythicism falls into this category, but…

So Bahumuth, one blessed with a special kind of mythicism, tweeted this regarding my use of the phrase “science of history.”

The “science of history”? I don’t know about you, but I studied history when I got my M.A., not my B.S.

Well.. ha ha… boy, that’s really got me there. Whew-who. Man do I have egg on my face.


Guess he does have a special sort of b.s. as well.

Remember, what is here are links with a variety of resources, including some responses against the idea. If you can’t understand the use of a multitude of sources… oh wait… some do not even get the idea of sources.

Joel’s method?

So what is Joel’s method here? How does he prove his point that history is a science? It appears he Googles the phrase “history is a science” or similar, collects a quick grab-bag of URLs that pop up, and posts them as a “There! Gotcha!” But he can’t help but notice a few at least don’t support the idea, so he mentions that too.

What he doesn’t grasp is that the whole collection is nothing but a testimony to the fact that history is not today considered a science — the main exceptions being some Marxists. The days when many historians thought of it as a science are now over a century gone.

This is the very method that his good friend and Associate Professor at Butler University has been caught out doing repeatedly — and unrepentantly — with Wikipedia articles on historical method and with citations from historians. How is it possible that such “scholars” continue to do this sort of thing? I can only presume they assume everyone else is as lazy and incompetent as they are and no-one will bother to check their citations.

Unfortunately for Joel Watts I have checked every one of those links and not a single one of them demonstrates that history is a science. Many/most (not “some”) of them actually argue the very opposite! Many plead that they would like it to be a science, and most of these are from the nineteenth century or modern Marxists.

Checking each link

Let’s look at each of those sites and ask what we learn about this scholarly fraud in the process:

This article begins:

Auxiliary (or ancillary) sciences of history are scholarly disciplines which help evaluate and use historical sources and are seen as auxiliary for historical research.

Examples: archaeology, paleography, epigraphy, . . .

Epigraphy is not history. A paleographer is not an historian.

This is an article that acknowledges that it is arguing against the prevailing resistance to the idea that history can be called a science, and it concludes in part:

Historical processes, like any other kind, are deterministic when viewed in their total context. History, insofar as it produces explanations, is a science; insofar as its explanations don’t contain statements of process laws, it is an imperfect science. If its descriptive content is definable in terms of, say , psychological concepts, and its laws are reducible to psychological laws, then history is not a distinct science but is defined at best only by its selective interest in certain individuals of the past.

This is an article discussing and rejecting the nineteenth century hope among many that history could be scientific. It concludes:

For this reason the attempt to construct a discipline which would stand to concrete history as pure to applied, no matter how successful the human sciences may grow to be – even if, as all but obscurantists must hope, they discover genuine, empirically confirmed, laws of individual and collective behaviour – seems an attempt to square the circle. It is not a vain hope for an ideal goal beyond human powers, but a chimera, born of lack of understanding of the nature of natural science, or of history, or of both.

This is a publisher’s advertisement for a book about the way many historians of the Victorian era had hoped history could become a real science, but that there were also many who argued against this at the time.

This is another page from the same publisher for the same advertisement.

This is another advertisement for the same book, this time on the author’s (Hesketh’s) own page. The same page contains this description:

Hesketh challenges accepted notions of a single scientific approach to history. Instead, he draws on a variety of sources – monographs, lectures, correspondence – from eminent Victorian historians to uncover numerous competing discourses.

This is a review of a book that does argue history should be thought of as a science, and explains that its author takes inspiration from Marxist historians Bloch and Carr. (The premise of the book is that history is not generally considered a science today — except perhaps for some Marxists. Is Joel Watts a closet Marxist?)


Turchin — pioneer of cliodynamics

This is a science article about cliodynamics. It’s opening line includes:

Advocates of ‘cliodynamics’ say that they can use scientific methods to illuminate the past. But historians are not so sure.

This is another article about cliodynamics. The opening paragraph concedes that most historians will not agree with its argument. It’s second paragraph:

It’s a big claim, and one that is bound to generate little enthusiasm among scientists and positive distrust among historians. For the first group, history is the quintessential mine field, where contingency and human agency rule the day, unlike the tidy behavior of subatomic particles, always the same under easily imposed identical conditions. As for historians, this will be seen as yet another arrogant attempt by a scientist to colonize their field and push aside the humanities (despite Turchin’s claim of potential unification of science and the humanities).

This 1983 article is titled “Toward a Science of History” and that’s exactly what it argues. If history were recognized as a science it would not have been written.

This is an article titled “The Concept of Time in the Science of History” and is a complicated physics paper that was published in 1916. It concludes with a hope that a refined understanding of time will be a proper basis for grounding history theoretically as a science. I don’t think the idea argued here has taken off. It got buried along with the other hopes for history back in 1916.

This is a response to the 1983 article above.

This is an article about a nineteenth century museum that displays documents and artefacts from nineteenth century scholars who hoped that history could become a scientific explanation for human behaviour.

This is an article titled “The Science of History”. It is a lecture dated to February 7, 1864. (McGrath has falsely claimed I have backed Rankean historical approaches on the grounds that I have quoted von Ranke approvingly in two respects: his famous description of history as an art, and his emphasis on a methodical approach to primary and secondary sources. Those two aspects of history are still with all historians today. What we have left behind, long ago, is von Ranke’s and other nineteenth century views that history can give high degrees of Certainty and Truth about a certain world-view.)

This is a “project by students for students”. It’s a nice discussion starter page. It is not a description of how historians view their craft today.

Title of this article: “Lecture four: Marxism, history and the science of perspective”. It is a discussion article from the World Socialist Web asking if a science of history is possible, as Marx suggested. Again, is Watts a Marxist?

Benedetto Croce

This article is by Benedetto Croce, titled “History Brought Under the General Concept of Art”. It is a lecture read out in Naples, March 5, 1893. It was part of the nineteenth century debate over whether history should be seen as a science or an art. concludes:

And when it is proved that narrative is not science but art, how is any harm done, may we ask, to the seriousness of history?

This is a short article posted by “Matthew” arguing that history really is a science. Who’s Matthew?  The Evangelist? Why did he feel the need to argue this?

This is another article about cliodynamics.

This is an article in a history journal, titled “The Desirability of Treating History as a Science of Origins”. It is an argument for a case, not a description of a general belief or state of affairs. It was published in 1891.

This is an advertisement for a book titled “The German Historicist Tradition”. It is a history book about the history of historiography — about the nineteenth century era when many tried to make history a science.

This is a discussion of R. G. Collingwood’s arguments about the nature or philosophy of history. Collingwood argued that history and science are essentially the same kinds of knowledge in a 1922 article. Soon afterwards, also in 1922, he published another article arguing for the clear distinction between history and science. Collingwood was thinking his arguments through as he wrote. He changed his mind about history and science within a very short time.

The Science of History (Part 4) — Praxis. This is another article on a page of “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist Reflections“. Is Joel Watts a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist?

This is a page of quotes on the philosophy or theory of history.

The first of these is about the history of science, not history as science.

Some extracts from the others:

History details the differences among events, whereas the sciences focus on similarities. History lacks the sciences’ ideal models, whose usefulness varies inversely with the number of characteristics to which they apply. As an external observer the scientist willingly distorts the individual to make it an instance of the general, but the historian, himself an actor, renounces interest in the general in order to understand the past through the projection of his own experience upon it. It is the scientist’s business to fit the facts to the theory, the historian’s responsibility to place his confidence in facts over theories. (Isaiah Berlin)

Volney anticipates Comte in his comparison of science with history, rigorous standards for validation of historical facts, and sketch of the history of human development. (Jean Gaulmier discussing eighteenth century thinkers.)


White — pioneer of postmodernist history

History is not a science permitting extrapolation from selected data and recurring similarities in the past. It is a science in the Rankean sense only-the objective and factual study of the unique, unlimited in diversity and detail. (Gerhard Ritter)

Claims by historians that history is both an art and a science are used to avoid the rigor appropriate to the sciences and to remain blind to the imaginative innovations characteristic of modern art. (Hayden White)

This is an article arguing that teaching methods of history should be changed. Lessons are drawn from the way science is taught.


If history is going to approach something of a scientific certainty then it may well be through something akin to Bayesian principles — at least according to Aviezer Tucker. See Carrier’s review of one of his works.


Aviezer Tucker


  1. Dear Neil Godfrey:

    I don’t want to get in the middle of an egg-throwing contest, but I think post-modern scholars tend to view history as a field of science that methodically interprets and describes/records the chronology of events, both natural and human, which lay out the existential path taken by humans since the beginning of history; or, what Christians know as the exile from Paradise. Early history comes from biblical and similar fields of human belief, whether monotheistic or pagan; and mythology is a subset of those fields that accounts for non- or a-historical beliefs, but still falls within the historical record as to place and time. In this post-modern context, one’s spiritual faith, though it has a place in the historical record, is a matter of how one worships a higher creative force and destiny; and that is certainly not a science, though it may be a field of theological study with its own history.

    The critic in this debate has to be careful not to see fault in his opponent’s eye due to the gleam in his own. I would recommend keeping one’s faith and its way of worship entirely free and transcendent of history and its record of entropic decay  to decline and chaos. 

    Best regards,

    Bob Hougland

    bobhougland [AT] comcast.net   

    Comment by BOBHOUGLAND@comcast.net — 2013/06/26 @ 4:29 pm

  2. Neil, can you give us definitions of “history” and “science” such that the two are clearly distinct, rather than both being enterprises where one does ones best to use evidence and reason to arrive at knowledge, and thus merely useful labels for different regions of the sphere of knowledge?

    Or, to ask another way, if one were to accept that the study of our ancestors 5 million years ago is “science”, and that the study of our ancestors 200 years ago is “history”, on what date comes the transition?

    Comment by Coel — 2013/06/26 @ 5:31 pm

  3. The only post-modern historian in any of the links Joel threw up was Hayden White and I quoted his words about the link between science and history.

    Comment by Neil Godfrey — 2013/06/26 @ 6:23 pm

  4. The science that grew out of nineteenth century’s hopes to find historical science was anthropology.

    If you are serious about wanting to understand what history is then I advise you to read historians explaining their craft. You can get a pretty good sweep by reading post-modernist Jenkins’ “What Is History?”

    But if you are just wanting to cavil with me personally, no, I’m not interested in getting into yet another bout of word-games with you that go nowhere. If you read Gerhard Ritter’s words that I quoted in the post you will see that in a general sense we can call history a science but by doing so we are effectively rendering any definition of science to be so meaningless it can apply to almost any rational human endeavour. Maybe this was Joel Watts’ subtly nuanced use of the phrase.

    (By the way, when Ritter speaks of science in the Rankean sense keep in mind Ranke was responsible for the famous aphorism, ‘History is an art’.)

    There are several clear explanations of the differences between history and science in the quotations I have presented in the post.

    There are different kinds of history. What most people think of as history is essentially a narrative explanation of past events. Science is about devising hypotheses and testing them to establish predictive laws of nature.

    In another sense a historian attempts to uncover details of what once happened in a particular scenario by researching the archives. But that is a meaningless exercise in and of itself. It only takes on meaning when those facts that are brought to light are brought into a larger explanatory narrative that has some relevance for us today.

    But a full explanation of the differences is the subject of books.

    Comment by Neil Godfrey — 2013/06/26 @ 7:23 pm

  5. in a general sense we can call history a science but by doing so we are effectively rendering any definition of science to be so meaningless it can apply to almost any rational human endeavour.

    Not “meaningless” since there are plenty of non-rational human endeavours. It seems to me that understanding the universe around us, how it operates, how we came to be here, is an enterprise that encompasses both “science” and “history” in a unified sphere of knowledge that doesn’t have rigid, uncrossable demarkation lines. Different words (history, humanities, physics, biology) are useful for different regions of this sphere, but it doesn’t make sense to insist on clear-cut differences between the different regions — they all have seamless boundaries.

    history is essentially a narrative explanation of past events … [and] takes on meaning when facts … are brought into a larger explanatory narrative that has some relevance for us today.

    OK, but there is a lot of that “narrative explanation of past events” in science. Examples would be the origin of the universe in Big Bang cosmology, and the origin of humans though our evolutionary heritage.

    Comment by Coel — 2013/06/26 @ 7:59 pm

  6. So you would embrace a classical Marxist view of history or one of the other nineteenth century schools of history that was borne of an optimism from the sciences pointing to biological and geophysical evolution. You are welcome to your view. (Though it’s ironic that against a post on laziness you would appear to be too lazy to read what historians themselves say.)

    Joel Watts seems to be stuck in one of the popular nineteenth century views of history, too. What’s gone wrong with education today?

    Comment by Neil Godfrey — 2013/06/26 @ 8:37 pm

  7. So you would embrace a classical Marxist view of history …

    No, I’d embrace the “scientism” view that human knowledge and rational, evidence-based enquiry leading to that knowledge, is a seamless whole with the same basic rules of evidence everywhere, and I’d reject the view that there are clear demarkations and divides between disciplines, as sometimes claimed by advocates of “non-overlapping magisteria” or “other ways of knowing”.

    Comment by Coel — 2013/06/26 @ 9:50 pm

  8. That’s nice. However historians generally left what in essence is the “scientism” view of history behind in the debates of the nineteenth century.

    Comment by Neil Godfrey — 2013/06/26 @ 10:59 pm

  9. They might have done, but historians don’t get the final say on this topic, and anyhow the issue isn’t so much the understanding of what history is (I don’t disagree with your characterisation of it that I quoted from your first reply) as about what science is.

    Comment by Coel — 2013/06/26 @ 11:11 pm

  10. This is not an egg-throwing contest, nor is it simply a matter of semantics. That is to say, I want readers to understand that we are not engaged in some esoteric war of words.

    Historians today have good reasons for shying away from the term “science of history.” That’s why I included a link to the Yale Press Blog in my earlier post.

    Not only are some of today’s NT scholars ignorant of the methods of history, but they are ignorant of the history of history. And it’s worse than that. As I continue my studies of earlier biblical scholars, I am constantly reminded that NT scholarship is ignorant even of its own past.

    The days when one person could know everything are long gone. We’ve reached a point at which it is impossible to know everything (even in a superficial way) within one’s own discipline. We need to be aware of what we don’t know and be humbled by our lack of knowledge. Unfortunately, what we’ve been seeing lately in this new crop of incompetent scholars is arrogance combined with belligerent ignorance.

    Comment by Tim Widowfield — 2013/06/27 @ 12:30 am

  11. Reblogged this on The Road and commented:
    I subscribe to Vridar and regularly repost his work

    Comment by uglicoyote — 2013/06/27 @ 12:39 am

  12. It’s always interesting to note that the more ignorant one is the more insulting their characterization of those who disagree with their opinions. I think this is called ‘being a blowhard’ – somehow the audience is expected to be intimidated. Oh noes!

    It rather reminds me of the character ‘George Castanza’ on the series ‘Seinfeld’ who found that if he just acted angry, people would assume he was working really hard.

    Comment by proudfootz — 2013/06/27 @ 10:15 am

  13. The super long links, the google books and religiousstudies.stanford are causing the iPad display to be really small. Delete those two and you should be fine.

    Comment by Mark Erickson — 2013/06/27 @ 12:14 pm

  14. I should have said not just this post but the main page too.

    Comment by Mark Erickson — 2013/06/27 @ 12:15 pm

  15. Ah, the things we do for our readers! Check again now . . . .

    Comment by Neil Godfrey — 2013/06/27 @ 12:38 pm

  16. Hi Tim, perhaps you could point out explicitly what characteristics of history (when done well) make it “not a science”. In my opinion people saying that are taking too narrow an interpretation of “science”. (To be fully clear, this is more a discussion of what “science” means than what “history” means.) To quote from the blog post you link to.

    Lukacs argues that it is not a science at all, because history is almost never definitive. …

    Science is never “definitive” either, it is provisional and open to update given new information.

    When history tries to describe how a group of people lived (rather than simply listing facts about a state) …

    Science is never a matter of “simply listing facts”, it is also a matter of interpreting them.

    it is a literary rather than scientific endeavor, because the historian is trying to reconstruct why they lived the way they did.

    And science is always about trying to reconstruct why things are/were the way they are/were.

    Comment by Coel — 2013/06/27 @ 7:47 pm

  17. Hi Coel — I won’t answer your questions directed at Tim. But I would like to ask why you don’t appear to be interested in reading what mainstream historians (from any of the current main streams) themselves have had to say about the nature of history? Is it enough, do you think, to have read a few history books and to believe you understand, therefore, what history is from the perspective of historians?

    Comment by Neil Godfrey — 2013/06/27 @ 8:24 pm

  18. Hi Neil,

    But I would like to ask why you don’t appear to be interested in reading what mainstream historians (from any of the current main streams) themselves have had to say about the nature of history?

    As I have explicitly stated, my question is mostly about the nature of *science* not about the nature of history. I fully accept the statements made about how history operates and what it is aiming to achieve. I am then asking why this clearly demarks it from science, and suggesting that those saying it does are taking too narrow an interpretation of what *science* is. Reading historians about history does not address this question about what *science* covers.

    Comment by Coel — 2013/06/27 @ 9:05 pm

  19. If you read my comment carefully, you will notice that I mentioned a lack of knowledge concerning the “history of history.” When we use the term “science of history,” we also dredge up the memories of “scientific history” — and of Hegel and Marx. Yes, technically speaking (at least within the U.S. paradigm), history can be thought of as either part of the humanities or one of the social “sciences.”

    But in the past, promoters of “scientific history” weren’t just referring to the social sciences, but to the “hard” sciences — what we today might call the “experimental sciences.” Scientific history promised a definitive answer with respect to the philosophy of history. It claimed, in effect, to be able to describe the past, explain the present, and predict the future.

    Most historians today, I think, would tend to emphasize the facets of history that correspond to the arts and humanities, namely: source criticism, construction of narrative, interpretation of literature, logic, etc. More than that, they would admit that all writers of history have a point of view and that their perspective (their own history) shapes their interpretations of the past.

    So while von Ranke talked about writing history “wie es eigentlich gewesen,” we know that that isn’t really possible, or even desirable.

    I see in your comments that you aren’t all that interested in history, but the nature of science, so maybe I’ve already written too much.

    Comment by Tim Widowfield — 2013/06/27 @ 10:59 pm

  20. You seem to miss the obvious. If you don’t know what historians say they are trying to do or what the nature of history is to them, then how can you make declarative statements about the nature of history?

    Comment by Neil Godfrey — 2013/06/28 @ 6:04 am

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