Curriculum on early Islam

Kim asked:

Dear Jessica,

I hope you are still taking questions on this site. I am an aspiring Religion teacher (high school level) who want to ask about early Muslim history. To summarize, there is a lot of fear, hate and outright contempt of Islam and Muslims today which I find disturbing, while at the same time I find it difficult to provide refreshing viewpoints of this religion. Inevitably the question that comes up is regarding Jihad – since the early Muslims were warriors and conquerors, this makes people suspicious of the whole religion. I want to be able to present the early history of Islam to students while helping them avoid the “essentialist” pitfall, but this seems easier said than done. My main question is as follows:

– What were the primary motivations for the Arab (Rashidun/Umayyad) conquests? Is it possible to say whether there was a theological component to this or not? Was it a holy war to expand the realm of submission to God or were the conquests “merely political” (as Karen Armstrong among others has claimed)? Personally I find the “merely political” argument weak because there was not yet any separation of “politics” and “religion” in the modern sense. Yet for a long period of time the Umayyad caliphs apparently did not care to convert anyone.

– Secondly, there is a video series which I consider using in future classes. It has the merit of giving a feeling for what the early ummah might have been like, and depicting the early Muslims as noble and upright and easy to emphasise with, something I believe is needed in today’s climate. What I find most interesting here is how the author narrates an evolution of Islamic doctrine during the Rashidun caliphate. He claims that Abu Bakr created the doctrine for apostasy (first link) and that Umar created the doctrine of dar al-Islam/dar al-Harb (second link) in order to justify the invasion of Persia. I believe this could serve as an “essentialist anti-dote” for students, yet I am not sure if it is correct. The author offers no sources and I find surprisingly little about the Rashidun caliphate online and in libraries. Which brings me back to the first question… (9:00-10:15) (4:00-7:30)

Kind regards,


Hi, Kim!  Thanks for the question – I am still taking questions, although I’m also still rubbish at updating regularly.  Sorry about that!

Before I get started, a quick bit of housekeeping – I’ve also started writing as a contributor for Huffington Post.  I may re-post the odd HuffPo article here, but for the most part, my column for them is more educated opinions, and this site will continue to be more of the nitty-gritty detail (not least because HuffPo posts are supposed to be 1000 words or less, and I think I’ve established on this site that I am not brief).  So yeah, check it out, reblog stuff, guess how to pronounce my unusual, Germanic surname – go wild.  Hopefully this will not result in my small but dedicated community of haters tracking me down and murdering me.  If they do, someone please feed my cat.  And scratch his ears.  He gets very itchy ears.  Thanks.

Onwards to curriculum on early Islam!  You are quite correct, Kim, there is not a lot out there, especially for works not aimed at a specialist audience.  In fact, that lack is a big part of how I ended up in this field – I really enjoyed history, but didn’t think I wanted to study it as a major in college because it had always been presented to me that “history” meant US or European history, and I felt like I’d done both to death.  I started studying Arabic, and discovered that there was a whole part of the world that I knew nothing about except for the occasional mention on the news, and just sort of got sucked in.

As you also seem to be aware, even for the specialist, Islamic and Middle Eastern studies is an area with a lot of debate and contradiction, so I’m afraid I can’t really say what the ‘correct’ stuff to teach is.  Instead, I’m going to recommend three veins that might be helpful to your students.  (Also, one further caveat: my preferred reading in high school were translations of Plato and Machiavelli because I am a huge nerd, so I have no idea what a high school reading level is.  I’ve tried to focus on works intended for a lay audience or the handful of academics that I know write well, but you’ll definitely want to vet the reading level to see if I’m even in the right ballpark.)

  1. Understanding the controversy.

So as you’ve already realized, there’s a lot of contradiction among scholars as to how we should study Middle Eastern sources, and unfortunately, I don’t think you’ll be able to find any modern secondary sources that don’t fall somewhere within these debates, and which make assumptions that they assume you, as the audience, will understand, based on their particular school of thought.  You could read only the old, pre-controversy works (which, to be fair, Oxford actually does – our students read the works of Montgomery Watts, first published in 1953), or you can teach the controversy itself.  There’s a good breakdown of the various schools of thought in the first chapter of Fred Donner’s Narratives of Islamic Origins (full disclosure: Donner himself is considered a far-left scholar, in that he broadly accepts nearly the entire Muslim corpus, but he does a good job presenting the various schools objectively).  There’s also a more recent, but also denser account of the field in the introduction of Gabriel Said Reynold’s The Qur’an.  These introductions are not only a good way to set up further study on early Islam, but also a good primer on historiography, and introducing the idea the historians shape narrative by deciding which sources to use and how.

2. The world of Late Antiquity

As for the issue of jihad and the Muslims as conquerors, as well as whether Islam was a religious movement, a political movement, or both, I think the most useful way to approach these questions is by placing Islam within the broader context of the Late Antique world, and comparing the early Muslim governments to their nearest neighbors, the Byzantines and the Persians.  Unfortunately, again, there’s not a lot of non-specialist writing, but there are some decent writers among Late Antiquarians that might suit.  Byzantium Matters by Averil Cameron is a short work directly addressing the idea that “byzantine” is a synonym of “outdated” or “unnecessary,” but also does a good job giving a broad overview of life in the Byzantine world.  John Haldon’s The Byzantine Wars is a nice counter to the idea that the Islamic caliphate was uniquely violent, illustrating instead that both Byzantine economy and society were deeply invested in warfare, and that the entire empire, including the hierarchy of the Greek church, were all pretty on board to go to war with basically anyone over basically anything.

Iranian studies is far more specialized, and the Sassanians tend to appear as footnotes in most histories – even on Amazon, we get into technical works on the first page of search results (and I assume you don’t want to force your students into the mind-numbingly dull realm of reading about coins).  The Cambridge Ancient History series has some good, if dry articles, and has the advantage of being available online for free.  There’s also some good material in the Khuzistani chronicle, available in part in the slightly obscure Andrew Palmer work, The Seventh Century in West Syrian Chronicles that you might be able to cut into digestible pieces.  The major takeaway is that the Sassanians were similarly fond of war (and also seemed to harbor a particular fondness for crucifixion and for dragging people by horse around the city walls).

Thus, by comparison, many of the rules in the Qur’an would have seemed lenient – cutting off someone’s hand is heinous by our standards, but at least it’s survivable, and definitely preferable to crucifixion.

3. Life in the Caliphate

The final vein is to talk about life in the caliphate, which also gets to your point about why didn’t the caliphs require conversion and does this mean there was no religion of Islam for the first two centuries.  Again, there’s no real scholarly agreement about this, but one possible interpretation for co-existence comes from Fred Donner’s Muhammad and the Believers.  It’s a short work, and again, very readable, and offers a compelling (although by no means universally accepted) argument for how Christians and Jews might have been integrated not only into a society under Muslim rule, but into the early Islamic religion, due to their shared status as believers in the God of Abraham.  Hugh Kennedy’s slightly older The Court of Caliphs is a sort of “day in the life” attempt to understand what life was like under the Abbasid caliphate, including why conversion might have started so late after the rise of Islamic rule.  Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests is, in my opinion, the best lay-audience work on the early expansion – it’s very readable (it is, admittedly, very long), and yet doesn’t sacrifice solid scholarship in order to simply the narrative, but doesn’t really delve into any of these deeper issues of what “Islam” was at that stage.

If you can get access to them, it might also be helpful to integrate some primary sources in order to illustrate the fantastic range of indigenous responses to Muslim rule, as it’s this range that has spurred the continued division among modern scholars. Robert Hoyland’s Seeing Islam as Others Saw It is literally just translations of every non-Muslim reference to Islam from the first two and a half centuries.  It also has some limited commentary on the various genres of works and what we know about their authors.  Palmer’s Seventh Century includes a reconstruction of the Chronicle of Dionysus of Tel Mahre, a non-extant, ninth century chronicle that was heavily relied on by the later chronicles of Michael the Syrian, 1234, and Bar Hebraeus, which together make up the core of what we know about the Medieval Middle East (sidenote to any other Late Antiquarians or Medievalists reading this – does everyone call it “the chronicle of 1-2-3-4” in their head, or is that just me?).  Although the accuracy of Palmer’s reconstruction has recently been questioned by Robert Hoyland in his reconstruction of the even older and more non-extant Theophilus of Edessa, supposed source for Dionysus (yes, this is the sort of thing we Late Antiquarians fight over – my non-extant source can beat up your non-extant source), I think Palmer’s version of Dionysus is still useful, not least because it portrays the Muslims as basically the best rulers ever whom everyone loves.  Palmer’s work also has a translation of the Maronite chronicle, a seventh-century source that is interesting because the Maronites, despite being Christians, were not loyal to the Byzantines, and just sort of hated everyone at this point, and so a lot of the descriptions are “our enemies are all killing each other – this is awesome!”

Finally, as for your question about videos, and Caspian Report specifically – unfortunately no, I don’t know of any videos about early Islamic  history.  If I didn’t hate being filmed, I’d offer to make some myself, as this seems like it’d be a great thing to have.  Possible collab with someone more photogenic than me?  As for the Caspian Report, I’ve only watched a bit of his videos, but they do seem broadly accurate – actually, I’d guess for the historical chronology, he’s paraphrasing from Fred Donner’s very detailed, but very boring (sorry, Fred!) Age of the Caliphates, which is basically a blow-by-blow of everything that happened during the Islamic expansion.  I’d definitely say that Caspian Report (who, according to the internet, is an Azerbaijani researcher) would fall on the liberal end of source analysis – he clearly accepts the Muslim cannon and assumes that Muslim sources date from approximately the period they claim to and were not heavily redacted after the fact, and so his work would not be accepted by the source-skeptical school of Islamic studies, but at least from what I’ve watched, everything he’s saying could be verified somewhere, even if parts of the field would not accept the source as authentically dating from early Islam.  Again, I think it’s only fair to teach your students about this ongoing debate, but so long as they’re aware, I don’t see any problem with using his videos in class.

I hope that helps!  I’m happy to help you track down these materials if they’re not available to you, or to review course material – I promise I’m more reliable by email than I am good at posting blog posts (askanislamicist at gmail dot com).

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AAR-SBL 2016

Just a quick post to say that I’ll be at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Antonio this Friday through Tuesday.  If anyone would like to meet up there, let me know!

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On bringing both sides together.

In news that I’m sure will come as a surprise to no one, I’m really disappointing and terrified by the outcome of this election.  At the moment, I’m mostly just a twisted knot of emotion and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to blog anything insightful, but there’s one thing that keeps coming up in people’s responses that gives me pause – that we as a nation are more divided than ever, and we need to bring the two sides together.

So the first part is undeniable true – Pew has reported it, Colbert has done a monologue about it, and Adam Ruins Everything has confirmed it, and that’s basically how reality is formed now.  However, I would really like to argue the second part of the claim, that both sides are equally at fault for creating this division, and both sides need to take steps forward until we all meet in the middle.  In fact, I would argue that that claim, which is itself a plea for liberalism and the free and open exchange of ideas, is part of how we ended up here.

Last night, we elected a man whose only major media endorsement was the national paper of the Klu Klux Klan.  Whatever you may think of Hillary, media groups around the country, the people who live and breath current events, who routinely report on stories in cities and in rural communities and everywhere in between, looked at these two candidates, and the only one who said “this one is the best option for our nation” is the one published by the leading purveyors of racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Catholicism for the last 150 years (and are now branching out into Islamophobia).  Even media organizations that didn’t endorse Hillary still made a point of publicly not endorsing Donald Trump.

Now, the media is by no means an exact representation of the distributions of ideologies in this country, but at least up until the last decade, it was generally seen as a decent parallel, and in this particular case, I think it’s as good a model as we need.  The only support Trump had was the extreme far right.  That’s who the rest of us are being told we need to embrace.  Not Conservatives.  Not traditionalists.  The Klan.  The actual, real-life, motherf*cking, white-sheet wearing, cross burning, human-being-lynching KKK.

There are two sides in this country, and they are afraid of the other being in power, but those fears are not equal.  The far right is afraid of creeping Sharia, that Democrats will open our borders and make the whole country Communist, and put an end to the white race, things that no one on the left has actually talked about doing.  Meanwhile, the rest of us are afraid that our President-elect will deport everyone of Latino heritage or who practices Islam, that he’ll encourage the expansion of the world-wide nuclear arsenal, and that he’ll encourage violence against minorities within the US, all things he’s already said and done.  

The reality is that we can’t find middle ground because to do so, we (as the left) would need to be able to agree to negotiate and compromise, but we can’t compromise on things we were never doing in the first place.  I can promise until I’m blue in the face (and have tried) that I’m not trying to force Americans to convert to Islam or help a secret jihadist mission in the US by writing and speaking out against Islamophobia, but I can never give evidence to show how much less of that I’m doing now because I was never doing it in the first place (in the words of the Mad Hatter, “‘You mean you can’t take less. It’s very easy to take more than nothing.”)

I’ve talked before about how terrorism is essentially abuse, but against a community rather than an individual, and it’s hard not to be afraid that that’s what we have to expect from the next four years.  An ideology that cycles between threatening people with violence for imagined faults and claiming to want to work together if only we (the victims) would get off our high horses and compromise sounds a lot like an abuse cycle.

And yet, even I still have a voice in my head saying, “but these people are your countrymen – no matter how much you disagree with them, you should try to work with them.”  But then I remember something Tony McAleer from Life After Hate said at RNA in September, about how he used to write propaganda for the extreme far right.  He described his job as tugging on the end of a string – if you just pull and pull and pull, the other side will pull back, and everything stays where it is.  Instead, his job was to get the other side to come closer, even if just by inches, by framing extreme far right arguments in ways that sounded sort of okay.  As he put it, each time he could get the other side to inch closer, he moved the center mark slightly more to the right, and with enough inches forward, what was the right becomes the center, and suddenly he and his people could pull even farther to the right without seeming that extreme, because for all appearances, they’re as far from center as they ever were.

That’s the cost of saying we all have to come together, and treating the fears on each side as the same.  The division in this country isn’t about differences in opinion – one side of the divide is afraid of imagined outcomes, the other is afraid of violence that has actively and continually been threatened against them.  There’s no equality there, and without equality, we can’t have a fair compromise.

Unfortunately, I have no other ideas on how to address the problem.  I’ve been working for years to try to educate Americans about non-Christian religions, Islam in particular, and to fight against Islamophobia, and it feels like I just got thrown back to where we were a decade ago.  And if I’m being honest, right now, I just feel so tired and so worn down, it’s hard to want to get up again.  Maybe it’s time for more coffee… Anyone for a Dunk’s run?

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There is no such thing as a protest vote.

Naturally, I say I have a bunch of ideas for posts, and then I get really busy and go AWOL.  Sorry about that!  I’m also not going to write today about any of the things I talked about from RNA.  Instead, I want to talk about the election.

[Pause for groaning]

Listen, no, me, too.  I don’t really want to talk about the election.  Like most Americans, I really just want it to be over.  I haven’t been writing about any of the crazy stuff that’s come out of this campaign cycle, mostly because I felt like anyone who honestly believes that the US government should deport all Muslims probably wouldn’t be swayed by anything I could say.  But there is something coming up from my side of the culture wars that I feel like I can address, so with one day to go, I want to make the case that in the US system, there is no such thing as a protest vote.

Let’s break it down.  Protesting is a form of political action, usually used to call attention to failures in the existing system.  It’s also a pretty ineffective form of political action, it’s worth pointing out, because by its nature, it doesn’t create anything within the system.  So the most effective protests often call attention to a lack of access to other forms of political action – the classic example is the Civil Rights Movement, when people protested to highlight that they were being denied their right to vote or hold public office.  Similarly, #blacklivesmatter, probably the most effective recent protest movement, has garnered a great deal of attention, but has created only moderate political change, mostly in the form of federal investigations into local governments, which will need to be followed up by votes to replace those officials with ones who actually care about serving their entire population.

Protest voting, either refusing to vote or intentionally voting for a candidate who has no chance (or doesn’t exist) only makes sense if what the protest is calling attention to is that the voting system is a sham.  People in North Korea could protest vote – only the sitting Leader can run in elections and he wins with 100% of the vote.  Everyone in North Korea could vote for Mickey Mouse in the next election, and the outcome would stay the same, thus evidencing that the elections themselves don’t do what that claim to do (although this also highlights the fruitlessness of protest voting, as I doubt either the government of North Korea or the international community is unaware that North Korean elections are a sham).  Here in the US, though, we have a functioning, albeit imperfect, system, in which an open election that tracks a rough parallel to the popular vote elects one of two candidates, who bring with them two very different legislative platforms.  There’s nothing to protest because the people ‘protesting’ already have the thing they wanted.

Still don’t believe me?  Here’s responses to some of the standard reasons why people don’t vote.

1. I’m not voting because my guy didn’t win the nomination.  Okay, I wanted to get this one out of the way first because that’s not a complaint about the system, that’s being a sore loser.  There will always be a number of candidates for any open position, and for the Presidency, the shortlist will always be more like a dozen.  So unless you love the incumbent, your guy won’t be the nominee a lot of the time.  However, your guy had a platform, and there will always be a nominee who has a similar platform.  Vote for that guy. That way, the stuff you want to see changed may still happen.  Bonus, if they’re in the same party, your guy may get a cabinet position and get to enact change that way.

2. The whole system is rigged/everyone is corrupt.  Okay, so true fact, gerrymandering is a huge, unaddressed problem in this country, so who wins in the House or your state legislature may be the result of a rigged system.  However, you know who rigs that system? The House and state legislatures.  You want it to change, you have to elect people who will change it.  Second, let’s talk about the Electoral College.  The Electoral College isn’t corruption.  It isn’t even corrupted.  It’s a law, it’s public knowledge, and it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing (no, seriously, it is – even in the super-close Bush v Gore election, the Electoral College was eventually proved to have accurately preserved the outcome of the popular vote).  If people really thought the Electoral College was bad, we could change it.  It would take a Constitutional Amendment, but we could do that – we already did it once to change how the Senate is elected.  Again, the first step is to elect someone willing to introduce a Constitutional Amendment to abolish the Electoral College. Email people’s offices, figure out who that would be, and vote for those people.

3. I’m voting for a third party candidate – they only don’t win because people think they shouldn’t vote for them!  Sorry, but it’s not the general population’s fault that third party candidates are never successful.  It’s the Senate’s.  Third parties develop in systems that have a single legislative house that is elected through proportional representation, like in the UK.  Thus, the Liberal Democrats can become of third major part in UK politics by strategically winning seats in Parliament, building a voting bloc, using that voting bloc to build coalitions, and then using the notoriety from those coalitions to expand their base and raise money.  However, in the US, this process doesn’t work.  Third parties could maybe win some seats in Congress – both parties work hard to control the most useful seats on committees, but with a lot of strategy, a third party could win a few.  But Senate seats open up one at a time, and to win one, you have to carry an entire state, which a third party is never going to do, and unfortunately, the Senate is where the really money is.  Trying straight for the Presidency is like running for CEO of Google after opening up a lemonade stand.  Presidential runs cost billions and go on for years, at this point, so no third party is going to have the stamina to make it.  Hell, even a hundred years ago, Teddy Roosevelt couldn’t make a successful Presidential bid as a third-party candidate, and he had incumbency working for him, arguably the most useful thing you can have in an election!  I’d actually argue that third party candidates know all of this, and the reason they go straight for the Presidency rather than building up the party in Congress is because they’re just in it for the free publicity, essentially milking the radical fringes of their own party for their own benefit while also, however unintentionally, weakening their side’s ability to win, but I can’t prove this.  Support the platform of a third party?  When it comes to the President, again vote for the major candidate whose platform is the closest to your party’s, and then vote for (or run as) a third-party candidate farther down the ticket in local and state positions where they can actually get something done.

4. But I don’t support either candidate!  So I think this is the most common claim right now for why people aren’t voting this year.  Colbert nailed it months ago by saying that in this election, everyone is just voting against a candidate, not for one, and I feel like a lot of people don’t feel strongly about either candidate.  If you’re in this boat, first, go check out this breakdown by Seth Meyers.  If that still hasn’t swayed you, then remember that the weird fact of American politics is, unless you’re in the armed forces and you’re voting for who will be your next Commander in Chief, who holds the Presidency doesn’t actually affect you all that much.  The legislative platform they bring with them can, but that has to be filtered through Congress and state legislatures.  But the chances are that there are state and local elections farther down the ticket that do affect you directly.  Do you have a uterus and want to keep your right to an abortion?  Most laws limiting abortion are being made by state legislatures, so check those out.  Do you have student debt?  The Democrats are within range to win back the Senate, and if they do, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have all but said that they’ll burn the entire outstanding US student loan debt.  Like smoking pot but hate getting arrested for it?  Legalizing marijuana is a ballot measure in several states, including here in Massachusetts.  The fact is that tomorrow, we vote to decide a whole lot more than just who becomes President.  But while you’re there – vote for the person running for President from the same party as the down-ticket candidates you’re supporting.  Why?  Because winning the Presidency makes winning local and in state elections way easier.  Whichever party wins the Presidency tomorrow will have a powerful, ready-made surrogate to campaign in two years, which is particularly important because people generally don’t care about off-year elections.  And in four years, that party can spend less on the Presidential race and more on state and local races because they have incumbency working in their favor.  So even if you don’t like the specific party candidate, help your local party out by electing an hugely successful, money-making surrogate to work for them for the next four years.

So that’s it.  There are no good reasons to protest vote in a US election.  That’s not to say there are no good reasons not to vote.  If you’re not voting tomorrow because you’re afraid of the repercussions of taking time off work (which legally you are absolutely allowed to do!), that’s worth talking about.  If you’re not voting because you can’t reach your polling place or you don’t have anyone to watch your kids or you aren’t physically able to wait in line for an hour or more, that’s worth talking about. If you’re not voting tomorrow because you’re afraid of intimidation from members of the extreme far right calling themselves ‘poll watchers,’ that’s worth talking about (also if you are, go here, find your local Hillary office, and call them and ask to be added to a Get out the Vote route – someone will take you to the polling place and make sure you’re safe while you’re there!).  But if you’re not going to vote tomorrow because you just can’t be bothered, please remember that someone fought and died for you to have that vote.  Maybe it was the Founding Fathers, giving up their connection to the British crown for a political experiment that no one thought would work.  Maybe it was the Suffragettes, chaining themselves to buildings and being beaten in the streets to demand votes for women.  Maybe it was the Civil Rights leaders who risked lynchings to see their voting rights honored.  Maybe it was the generations of activists who fought and continue to fight to protect immigrants and refugees who come to this country looking for a better life.  But someone somewhere died so you can have a spot at the table.  There is no good reason to simply walk away from that.

And hey, if you get stuck in line, Facetime your mom, and then call and make a dentist appointment, and that will be all of your adulting done for, like, months.

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RNA 2016

The Religion News Association annual meeting was fantastic – I’m very glad I got the opportunity to participate.  I have a whole bunch of things I want to talk about, but to start with, I figured I’d just do a nice, big post of some of the cool stuff and interesting facts I was introduced to by the various panels, participants, and exhibitors:

  1. The “nones” – that is, atheists, agnostics, and the unaffiliated – now make up 25% of the US population, making them the largest single ‘denomination’ in the US (if all denominations of Christians are counted together, they’re still a larger portion).
  2. Pastors and religious leaders have started using social media’s livestreaming options (such as periscope or facebook’s new facebook live) to host live ‘pray-ins,’ where people can text or message them requesting intervention.
  3. A group in Kentucky has constructed a full-size ark, based on the Genesis account, which is now open for public viewing.  The site also includes a zoo and a zipline park.
  4. There’s an awesome website called, which tells the story of immigration and immigrants’ contributions through the lens of Scripture.
  5. Life After Hate is an excellent organization that helps rehabilitate people from lives of violence, in particular those associated with the extreme far right.
  6. Next year will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protest against the Catholic Church,  and Germany will be celebrating with all sorts of cool events (and by giving all of us who attended RNA little toy Luthers!).
  7. Not strictly about religion, but one of the sessions was sponsored by the new film Hidden Figures, which looks absolutely amazing.

Further posts to come on combating violent extremism, women’s evolving roles in religious communities, and a new Qur’anic translation with notes on the Christian Bible!

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Religion News Association

Just a quick post to say that I’m at the Religion News Association annual meeting in Silver Springs, MD this week – if anyone else is here and wants to meet me IRL, please leave a comment or email me at askanislamicist at gmail dot com.

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On flossing

So I want to talk about flossing, not because I have very strong feelings about dental hygiene, but because there’s been some interesting developments in what we know about flossing in the last few weeks that I think serve as a good model for one of the biggest challenges in talking about scientific and scholarly knowledge.

I’ve talked before about how powerful conventional wisdom is – as humans, and especially as scholars, we like to believe that we approach each new question with fresh eyes, weighing up the evidence on both sides to come to a conclusion, but in reality, we measure new knowledge against what we already know.  It’s a particularly flawed system because the information we’re given when we’re younger is often oversimplified, if not flat-out false, and obviously the more we study a question, the more we should find out, so future information should always be better than past information.

Which brings me to flossing – we’ve been told for decades that flossing is ‘good for you,’ by which is generally meant that it reduces long-term plaque buildup on our teeth better than just brushing and regular dental screenings and cleanings.  A few weeks back, an Associated Press journalist ‘took down flossing’ (as Poynter puts it), publishing a lengthy review of available studies and a freedom of information request which revealed that the DHHS had actually quietly removed flossing from its recommendations.  The article even implies that the decision to remove flossing may have actually been the result of the FOIA (which the AP reported had submitted the previous year, citing that all DHHS guidelines need to be based on scientific evidence and requesting the evidence base for the flossing recommendation).  As news agencies tend to do, the story blew up in newspapers, talkshows, and online, with headlines bordering on just announcing, “EXTRA! EXTRA!  EVERYONE STOP FLOSSING IMMEDIATELY!”

The people who actually work in dental health then started responding, pointing out that clinical studies on flossing are difficult to execute because they rely on self-reporting and at-home treatments, which are always the weakest options for getting consistent results, and that any long-term study might actually violate the rules for human testing because if, after 20 years of telling a control group not to floss, it turns out that it did cause them to develop periodontitis, the study itself would be liable for their condition.  They also noted that there’s still sound logic for flossing, that it breaks up plaque formation on parts of the tooth not reached by brushing, and that the description of available evidence as “weak” and “very unreliable” by the Cochrane Library (the group that reviews scientific studies, whose analysis started this whole discussion) are precise, hierarchical categories used to describe and rank scientific studies, and that the repetition of these terms in news reporting about the Cochrane Library’s report are unrepresentative because the general public takes these terms to mean something different.

Now, to start with, there are a ton of things wrong with the current system for funding and reporting scientific studies, and a ton more in how the media reports scientific reports.  There’s a great primer on this from John Oliver’s show, and some more info specifically on how the media reports healthcare/nutritional information from Adam Ruins Everything.  But these issues don’t really explain why we believed in flossing or what we should do about it because, as any good scientist will tell you, science is incremental, and scientific studies only focus on one or a few specific aspects of a much bigger issue or question.

As someone who works in research administration, one of my jobs is writing and copy-editing scientific grants, and every grants I’ve ever worked on opened with something to the effect of, “____ is a huge public health threat in the US today,” often without even a citation at the end (insert the general topic under which this grant falls – obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc.).  I’m sure most studies on flossing read the same way – I’d bet most of them opened with the statement “regular flossing seriously reduces the risk of periodontist” and then went on to discuss some particular aspect of flossing that that study would test.  The big issue gets treated as an axiom – something assumed to be true for the sake of the argument which follows – but without anyone admitting that it’s axiomatically true, not evidentially true.

It’s important the general public understand the serious problems with the state of scientific research today, but I’d argue it’s just as important – if not more so – that we all understand just how limited we are in addressing these axioms.  Again, the debate about flossing hits most of the high points – on the one hand, we can use literature studies to highlight gaps in significant evidence, and on the other hand, we can use logic and anecdotal evidence to try to explain deductively why the axioms might be true, but both options are hindered by our natural predisposition towards conventional wisdom.

Literature studies are often rejected by the very fields they investigate because even scholars and scientists have problems overcoming the sway of conventional wisdom.  In the case of flossing, the Cochrane Library report dates from 2011, but obviously wasn’t widely circulated or reported on until this one journalist highlighted it five years later.  The responses to the AP article by dentists and other oral health experts all have more or less the same tone – the Cochrane Library findings are interesting, but not interesting enough to overcome my feeling (as an expert) that flossing works, and besides, the risk of us being wrong is too severe for us to even consider behaving differently.  But that’s not the scientific method – that’s intuition and habit, albeit intuition based on relevant personal experiences.

A similar debate has (very quietly) taken place across the last several decades about the efficacy of dieting and weight loss.  Literature studies dating back to the 1990s have suggested that long-term weight loss is just not possible, and these findings get revived every 5 to 10 years (like from UCLA and Melborne), and yet nothing could be farther from the message most of us hear about weight loss and health, not only from the media, but from the medical establishment, as well.  Why? Well, the six billion dollar dieting industry probably has something to do with it, but in responding to these studies, scientists often take the same tone as with flossing – this doesn’t feel true, and besides, the risk is too real if we change things.

The reliance on logic to bolster axioms goes hand-in-hand with the power of conventional wisdom.  Again, as humans, we often think of logic as an objective, self-regulating *thing* – that if something is logical, that means something about its realness that extends beyond our own perception.  However, logic is a system that we invented to try to systematize understanding things that aren’t easily perceived, like abstract concepts.  It’s still grounded in our perception, and it can vary greatly from person to person.  Indeed, if you listen to people argue, often the argument will boil down to both people stating their logic, and then getting angry that the other person doesn’t accept it or continues to believe their logic is a better fit.  That’s because logic isn’t abstract or objective – it’s based on what axioms we presume at the outset, what laws we lay out to work within.  If these axioms aren’t specified, or if we want to question the axioms themselves, the whole system breaks down.

To take the example of flossing, it may sound logical to say rubbing a piece of waxed filament between your teeth breaks up plaque formations, but it’s also logical to argue that since plaque forms first on a molecular level, using floss to break it up would be like using the side of a skyscraper to push a balled up piece of paper across a street.  Being able to formulate an argument that sounds logical to support an idea doesn’t make the idea true – that’s the very definition of a justification.

Unfortunately, there’s no real solution here, but at the very least, these issues about testing or understanding axioms demonstrate that how desperately we need new and better language for discussing scientific and scholarly findings.  We often talk about scientific findings as if they were the very definition of facts – indisputable, consistent, not open to interpretation or variation by perception, but that’s just not true.  All scientific ‘facts’ are based on some axiomatically thinking, and like with any logical proof, we need a way to go back to the start, lay out exactly what those axioms are, and discuss whether they are still sound and reasonable assumptions.  At the very least, we need a way to be able to identify them as assumptions.  In the short term, it’s probably fine to carry on flossing, but not if it means we all stop asking why exactly we’re doing it.

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