Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A healthy dose of scepticism

It's an interesting week for the news.

I'm listening to Simon Jenkins on Radio 4 telling us how the media were all swept along by climate change hype that is now being exposed as less credible than we all thought. Does that mean we should all be climate change skeptics now?

At the Church of England Synod, a Ugandan bishop has confirmed his support for legislation in his country outlawing homosexual behaviour with the death penalty being proposed for repeat offenders. Are we all going to sign up for the government's proposed equality laws in revulsion at such a view?

I guess what this tells me is that what the media increasingly leads us by the nose into how we should feel about things. Jenkins, not a man I always agree with, has just said that the media should always be sceptical. And I agree wholeheartedly with that.

Scepticism is essential for evaluating the truth of anything. It's how science works and in many ways it's how faith works too. The trouble is that we seem to want to be told what to think, so if the media changes its mind, so do we!

I'm currently writing about the economic location of the early Christians for my book. One of the distractions historians need to be aware of is the tendency of Roman writers to speak of a binary economy in the Roman empire - a few very rich people at the top and everyone bumping along the bottom, one missed crust away from penury.

Such a view is reproduced by some historians and NT scholars. But the evidence of it is slim indeed. They appear to have fallen of the hype of the empire's reporters. Reality is always much more nuanced and interesting.

When I was being trained as a historian, I was always taught to run a sceptical eye over the evidence looking for those nuances, the bumps on an otherwise flat sheet that lets the light fall on the era under study so that we see it as well as we possibly can.

Then when I was being trained as a reporter, I was told to ask the how, what, where, when and why questions always backed by the prove it riposte. Would that our media did that more often.

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