Experts

XKCD by Randall Munroe

I’ve been mulling over how to best approach that strange and yet ever-so-common species known as the young-earther. Views that are obviously wrong and yet firmly held are difficult to handle. This isn’t to say that young-earthers are stupid or even irrational, because in my experience they aren’t*. For context, I’ll let any visitors know that I’m a Christian and a scientist (not a biologist) who believes in evolution.

The wrong strategy is to argue a posteriori, or based on evidence. This isn’t because there’s a lack of evidence for evolution–indeed, there’s a vast preponderance–but because it’s accepting the defensive position, which is in itself a passive admission that evolution needs defending. You’re being forced to explain everything. The creationist only has to point out one thing that you personally don’t know the reason for and he or she “wins.” It’s like living in a Chick tract. It’s impossible to argue a posteriori on the offensive, because that would constitute asking the creationist to explain things, and regardless of what you’re presenting, he or she can just say “God made it that way.”

The correct strategy, therefore, has to be arguing a priori, or from beliefs. You have to talk about what different views say about the nature of God and His relationship with man and the rest of creation. For instance, if God created a world that appears to be millions of years old but isn’t, doesn’t that make God deceptive? Bryce over at Theological Musings from an Amateur has done such a thorough job with this strategy that I find there’s little left for me to contribute. His series is here, here, and here, and there’s more on the topic elsewhere on his blog.

A priori arguments are intended to get to the root of the problem. They do for the most part, but I think there’s a deeper issue in this case that they don’t address: Intelligent Design relies on the premise that experts are not trustworthy.  As we heard on the Daily Show from the head of the Texas State Board of Education, “Somebody’s got to stand up to the experts.”

This is a necessary element of ID. After all, anyone who gets a proper biology degree (and, really, anyone who studies any science for any length of time) comes to the conclusion that evolution is real. Anyone who has studied geology, astronomy, or any related topic comes to the conclusion that the earth is old. That’s because the sum total of the assembled knowledge of all human history clearly supports the theory.

In order for ID to be correct, someone with a BA in Divinity who read Of Pandas and People has to understand the subject–in fact, all the subjects–better than the consensus of research scientists who have devoted their lives to the field. The scientists have to not only be wrong about the theories, but also about the way one goes about proving or disproving them. The experts cannot be trusted.

If the leading authorities about biology, astronomy, and geology are wrong not only about their conclusions, but even about the correct way to reach a conclusion, this should apply to other fields as well. If a dilettante knows as much as a research scientist about evolution, a patient should be able to diagnose himself as well as a doctor can. Builders and assemblers shouldn’t have to follow the blueprints when constructing a skyscraper or building an airplane, because they should know how one is designed as well as an architect or engineer. General relativity is done for, because someone saying “That’s a load of nonsense” should be just as authoritative as Stephen Hawking.

ID proponents will object to the comparison on one of two grounds. The first is to say that the scientific method applies to fields like chemistry and physics, but can’t be used to study evolution, because it can’t be observed in real time. There’s an element of truth to this, although the sciences are deeply interconnected such that one can’t simply excise evolution without denying plenty of things that can be investigated in real time with the scientific method, such as radiocarbon dating. However, the real problem is that, once again, an amateur is asserting that his or her opinion is more valid than that of the experts. Scientists and especially philosophers of science have discussed at great length what can and cannot be determined by the scientific method. Yes, the boundaries are fuzzy. Yes, there is disagreement at the fringes as hard science bleeds into social science. Yes, the scientific method does get abused and applied in places it has no business being–say, atheists trying to use it to disprove God’s existence. But they don’t publish papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Evolutionary biologists do, and evolution isn’t at the fringes. It falls solidly within the area that everyone agrees about. Evolution is legitimate science.

The second grounds for objection is the route of Ben Stein’s Expelled: alleging that there is a conspiracy surrounding evolution. If there’s a conspiracy, then one can claim that evolution is false because its believers don’t follow the scientific method, instead choosing to manipulate the data to make a false theory seem true. Generally it’s pegged as an atheist conspiracy to discredit Christianity. I grant that listening to Daniel Dennett and his ilk can make one think that evolutionary scientists have a vendetta against religion, are oblivious to the limits of the scientific method, and don’t know how to trim their beards, but those types are a tiny minority not representative of the whole field, and their anti-religious beliefs are not part of evolutionary science any more than their favored sports teams. If Expelled demonstrated anything, it’s that it’s impossible to even give the impression of a conspiracy existing without quote mining, misleading interviewees about the purpose of the interview, filling a college lecture hall with paid extras, and misrepresenting a whole lot of data. The whole scoop is here. Crying conspiracy is never a good debate tactic, especially when it’s completely unsupported.

In order for civilization to advance, or even to exist, we need to be able to trust experts to report conclusions, so that each of us doesn’t have to investigate every topic by ourselves. This is the only way that it is possible to maintain a canon of knowledge larger than one person can consume. Sometimes an expert will prove to be untrustworthy and sometimes someone who is not an expert will pass himself off as one and mislead people, but most of the time, people who study a field in great depth have enough respect for their field to try to report true information as accurately as possible.  The sciences, in particular, have a high standard of integrity.  Falsifying and misrepresenting data are career-ending actions in the scientific world.  The experts, as a whole, are trustworthy, and we have to trust them.  Otherwise, we have no choice but to reject all knowledge that we did not personally observe.

This is, I think, how one should approach an ID supporter, even before one gets to the a priori arguments.  I have no doubt that he or she would respond by saying that experts are trustworthy except in this case, and the conversation would end in a stalemate.  Still, it’s a valid point, and it’s a faulty idea at the foundation of Intelligent Design.

The worst part about the tendency to write off experts, though, is that it isn’t limited to Intelligent Design.  Topics like global warming have real results, and real ecosystems and communities suffer real damage from the wrongheaded refusal to believe what’s happening to them.  That’s why it’s so important that we ground the discourse in the basic fact that experts should be trusted.

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*Except for those on Yahoo! Answers. But that has nothing to do with Intelligent Design and everything to do with Yahoo! Answers.

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