Thursday, April 21, 2016

Bullwinkle is a dope

Once again, I'm going to explore the question of what makes a claim historically accurate. Bart Ehrman constantly impugns the historical accuracy of the Gospels, but rarely says much about what makes a claim historically reliable or accurate. 

Sometimes he says we should judge the Gospels by modern standards of historical accuracy rather than ancient standards, but that assumes, among other things, that modern standards are indeed more accurate or reliable. It's true that we can measure space and time with greater precision. Down to multiple decimal places. But unless you're an engineer, that's pedantic. 

Let's run through some examples:

#1 A newsworthy event happened on August 8, 1974. 

#2 On August 8, 1974, Nixon tenured his resignation.

#3 In a televised address, Nixon tenured his resignation on August 8, 1974. 

#4 In a televised address from the White House, Nixon tenured his resignation on August 8, 1974. 

#5 In a televised address from the Oval office, Nixon tenured his resignation on August 8, 1974. 

#6 In a televised address from the Oval office, President Nixon tenured his resignation on August 8, 1974. 

#7 In a televised address from the Oval office, President Richard Milhous Nixon tenured his resignation on August 8, 1974. 

#8 In a televised address from the Oval office, President Richard Milhous Nixon tenured his resignation on August 8, 1974, effective noon the next day. 

#9 In a televised address from the Oval office, President Richard Milhous Nixon tenured his resignation on August 8, 1974, effective noon the next day, EST. 

These successive descriptions are increasingly specific. Each is a bit more detailed than the previous description. 

In that respect, you might say #9 is more accurate than #8, #8 is more accurate than #7, and so forth. Conversely, #1 is less accurate than #2, #2 is less accurate than #3, and so forth.

However, to be less accurate is not to be inaccurate. Each description is completely accurate. 

Put another way: if a description mentions some detail, then to be accurate, the description must match the detail. However, including that detail is not a prerequisite for accuracy. Failure to mention that detail doesn't render the description inaccurate. Mere omission is not an inaccuracy. Rather, if it mentions some detail, and the description fails to match the detail, then that's an inaccuracy.

Compare three statements:

#1 Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. 

#2 Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.

#3 Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Rocky Squirrel will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.

Both #1 & #2 are accurate. The fact that #2 omits some details doesn't make it inaccurate. It just makes it less informative. 

#3 is inaccurate because it contains a false identification. In a sense, #3 is inaccurate because it says too much, unlike #1. Omission is not a falsehood–although it can sometimes be deceptive. 

Let's take another example: 

Rocky J. Squirrel is Bullwinkle J. Moose's best friend. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. 

That's an accurate statement. And it contains more information than a bare statement about Nixon's resignation. But that doesn't make it more historically accurate in reference to his resignation. Rather, it combines two entirely unrelated claims. Each claim is extraneous to the other. 

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