How to lose credibility

Rembrandt van Rijn, "The writing on the wall" (detail): weighed and found wanting

The world changes and sometimes the consequences are not as we like them to be. Not everyone at the Oxford Faculty of Theology likes a recent proposal to give the department a new name (“religious studies”). Although I can understand this, I immediately lost sympathy when I read the following claim:

For more than 800 years, the University of Oxford has led the world in the study of the divine.

Academics must not exaggerate. They are paid for two things:

  1. Establish the truth;
  2. Speak the truth.

I am aware that there are all kinds of very reasonable theories about the difficulty to establish the truth, but in this case, they are irrelevant. If you believe that a tradition of scholarship is a guarantee of quality (which seems to be why the age of the university is mentioned) it would have been sufficient to write something like:

The University of Oxford has for several centuries been an important place to study theology.

The exaggerated statement is in fact counterproductive. Anyone who is capable of reading a newspaper, will immediately put the claim that Oxford is the world’s leader in the study of the divine into the same category as political slogans, reassuring messages by bankers, forecasts of future profits of big companies, and so on.

Academics have started to talk like marketeers and people making commercials (example, example). As a result, our universities – which are still fortresses of sound knowledge – are rapidly losing credibility. At the moment, 28% of the citizens in the Western world are sceptical about science and scholarship – a figure that ought to scare the hell out of our academics. If this exaggeration is typical of the quality standards of the Oxford Faculty of Theology, they will be found wanting when weighed.

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