Will the Correct Bible Translation Please Stand Up?

If you’ve read my piece “It’s Good to Get Gobsmacked” either on my blog or on the Street Epistemology blog, or if you’ve listened to the corresponding recording of that piece on the SE Podcast, then you already know that I grew up going to a Southern Baptist church.

While I do not ever recall it being explicitly stated at church, and while my memories are admittedly quite distant as the years have rolled past, I’m quite sure it was implied that the King James Version (KJV) was the expected translation of the Bible that we were to use during our services and our Bible studies.

For many years my assumption was that there was no better translation.

With all of the “thees and thous and shalts and shalt nots,” the KJV was the first mass-produced English translation of the Bible. And being first has some serious sticking power! Not to mention that 16th century English just sounds more exotic. As if that somehow makes the words more believable. It’s sort of like how Hollywood has almost every character of antiquity – Greek, Roman, Middle Eastern, etc. – speak English with a British accent. It makes no sense, but it somehow is more believable than an ancient character speaking English with an American accent.

But does being first, or does being the most widespread, mean it’s the most correct?

In this case, not even close.

According to most Biblical scholars (the academic experts who spend their lives reading and studying Latin and Greek languages, Greco-Roman history, etc., and who build evidence-based cases for this sort of thing) the King James translation of the New Testament is based on the Textus Receptus.  The Textus Receptus is nearly universally accepted by those same scholars as a fairly poor and unreliable translation built on Erasmus’ cobbled together 12th century manuscripts.

Even shortly after Erasmus published his translation, other more “reliable” Greek translations began to trickle out. Whether it was Erasmus or someone else, the bottom line is all translations are based on copies of copies of copies of the original manuscripts. And there are no original manuscripts. None. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Because there are no original manuscripts of any of the New Testament writings, and because these thousands upon thousands of copies of manuscripts were scattered across what was the former Roman Empire, and because none of these copies of copies agree precisely with each other in terms of content, and because these copies of copies were written by many different people over the course of centuries, and because the KJV was published before the academic field of “Textual Criticism” had ever been dreamed up, I always find it peculiar when people suggest the KJV translation is somehow the “best.”

If we are defining “best” as the translation most likely to be closest to what the original authors wrote, then most scholars agree the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV), first published in 1989, the best. Yet people still say things like:

In summary, in 1516 Erasmus completed a rushed Greek translation based on a dozen or so copies of the New Testament that he was able to get his hands on in Europe. William Tyndale translated that copy in to “modern” English in 1526 (an act for which he was charged with heresy and executed), and the King James Version while also “translated” from the Greek, relied heavily on Tyndale’s translation. Alas, the KJV stuck and to this day, despite hundreds if not thousands of additional textual discoveries since the KJV and despite an entire academic discipline devoted to understanding how the Bible came to be the Bible, people still believe the KJV is somehow the best.

Thou shalt think critically about such things!

Happy critical thinking!

Beware of Common Sense

People place a lot of value on their “common sense.” And while common sense is great for many things, at a certain level of complexity, it begins to break down. In fact, common sense can sometimes trick us in to being wrong when by all appearances, it looks like we’re exactly right!

My favorite example of this is relativity.

Our common sense tells us we are stationary and the moon, sun, and stars are forever swirling around us, but through greater analysis, we know that is completely incorrect. By trusting reason and evidence as opposed to trusting our common sense, we know we are on a planet that is spinning at 1,040 miles per hour. We are orbiting the sun at about 67,000 miles per hour. We also know that our entire solar system is orbiting the center of the Milky Way Galaxy at about 514,000 miles per hour! In fact, we are never in the same place from one moment to the next!

Our common sense is not to be trusted and good critical thinkers know this.

I was having one of the most bizarre Facebook chats I’ve ever had, with a woman who is a conspiracy theorist and who of course does not believe vaccines are effective. She keep citing her “common sense.”

Watch how I steered the conversation toward her “method” for determining what is true, rather than devolving in to the pissing contest of whose evidence was better. It was exhausting and upon reflection, I began to really worry about her mental state, given the depths of her conspiratorial beliefs. Here are some of the highlights of the chat with names redacted of course:

Here she did a deep dive in to an anti-vaxxer on YouTube – a nutter who believes you can drink bleach to cure cancer (among other things). Again I was trying to pull the conversation out of specific claims and get it back to epistemology.She never responded to my final question. Whenever someone tells you that giving them evidence would change their minds, make sure to ask them to give you a specific example. My guess is you’ll get what I got…silence.

Happy critical thinking!

What do I mean by “probabilistically” true?

What do I mean by “probabilistically” true?

I was once again drawn in to a “discussion” on Facebook about global warming with one of my science-denying friends (why do I have so many?!) and while I made some progress – I think – I used the exchange as an opportunity to reflect on the word “true.”

A claim in science has either been proven false, or it has yet to be proven false. This sets up a strange dynamic for the contrarian looking to exploit that space between what we claim to be true and what has yet to be proven false.

You see, science by definition and by the very nature of hypothesis testing is “probabilistically” true. Meaning that there is always a chance that a claim could be proven false. In other words, science always leaves a window open, even if the crack is infinitesimally small, for the potential that new evidence will change our understanding.

For the climate change denier (or evolution denier or vaccine denier etc.), to deny the evidence for human caused global warming, or evolution, or vaccine efficacy at this stage of the research, is simply contrarianism. Therefore, while statistically speaking there is an extraordinarily small probability that any of those hypotheses might be proven false, the practical reality is that there is no factual basis for denying any of them.

The lesson: Do not let contrarians exploit your intellectual honesty.

Happy critical thinking!

Facebook conversation with a preacher

I wanted to share a Facebook conversation about faith that I was having with a “rising star” local preacher on his public page. I’m not sure if he was busy or what, but I found his responses to be remarkably ambiguous and vague. I didn’t expect to change his mind on anything, but hopefully his 4300 followers will read this exchange and maybe it will cause some of them to scratch their heads regarding their confidence in the methods they are using to determine what they believe is true.

Also, I used my public Facebook page in the hopes that people may ask me questions. Even though this was a public conversation, I blurred the names and pictures to maintain a level of respectful discourse. This is an example of what I call, Facebook Street Epistemology.

As expected, I did not get a response to my final question.

Happy critical thinking!


Don’t argue science with someone who doesn’t understand science

I was giving someone some advice who asked the following:

“I don’t really know much about cosmology. But there seems to be lots of these arguments that there was a place and time before the big bang, or a place and time beyond space time, etc., where a potential deity could exist (I sense huge false probability from believers [sic] part on this, as I cannot prove them not existing). Any good responses to this kinda stuff?”

My response has two parts.

First, learn science for the sake of science. Learn about cosmology because it’s freaking amazing to think about. In other words, read science books because you want to know how things actually work. For cosmology, I recommend the following popular science books: A Brief History of Time (Hawking), A Universe from Nothing (Krauss) and Why Does E=MC2 (Cox/Forshaw).

Second, don’t let Young Earth Creationists and other anti-science apologists suck you in to arguments about science. While these discussions are often fun, they also often result in the backfire effect. If your interlocutor valued the scientific evidence, then they wouldn’t believe as they do in the first place. The goal should be to highlight the deficiency in their epistemology.  Most of these people started out being told a belief is true, believed it using “faith,” and just now are trying to back fill the belief support with some semblance of scientific evidence.

They are not weighing all of the evidence and forming a belief, rather they are selecting for the fragments of evidence, little slivers here and there, that might support the belief they already have. The only successful intervention here is to help them see the hollowness of their starting epistemology (i.e., faith) as a way of knowing.

What I do find interesting as that many of the theists (and others) who want to argue design, Big Bang, evolution, etc., are implicitly agreeing that evidence is a more convincing device by which to support a truth claim. So with these folks, my questions are usually around, “How could you know that your belief is incorrect?” and “Have you ever considered what evidence it would take for you to change your mind on the belief that your God is real?” – those kinds of questions.

If they can’t think of anything, then I ask them, “Since there is no evidence that would change your mind, is evidence really that important to you? Let’s talk about what you’re really using to support the belief: faith. Is faith a reliable method for determining what’s true?”

Happy critical thinking!