Experts: The Aftermath

A recent Biologos post by Karl Giberson covered much the same ground as my post about experts.  We shared the thesis that experts should generally be trusted and that it’s inane and silly that, in realms like global warming and evolution, people who know nothing about a topic feel that their opinions should be equally valid with those who have studied the topic extensively.  It was later linked to on Jesus Creed and replied to on Uncommon Descent.  Reactions to Giberson’s article on the two forums have been edifying.  Unfortunately, they haven’t given me ideas about how to refine this approach so much as they’ve bolstered my creeping suspicion that this demographic is completely incommunicable and that the best approach really might be just to ignore them altogether, a fate that is richly deserved by anyone who has an opinion that stands completely separate of any facts or arguments.*

I’m being harsh here mainly because this is a meta-discussion:  It’s not for creationists, but rather about creationists based on the observation that it’s nearly impossible to have an on-topic discussion of this sort with them, and that being polite doesn’t help.**  Therefore, punches will not be pulled.  If you are a creationist, bear in mind that this is a discussion about how to hold a discussion.  I’m more than happy to reopen the experts question, but I’m not interested in entertaining your idea about vestigial bones in whales.  Besides, I’m not a biologist.  You should go talk to–you guessed it–an expert.

The creationists in question can be divided into two groups.  The first are the off-topics.  Plenty of these, of all opinions, tend to surround any topical discussion: they observe the general category into which the discussion falls (evolution, immigration, healthcare, or what have you) and then regurgitate their stock opinions on the topic, oblivious that the specific topic of that particular conversation.  For instance, there are the Al Gore deprecators who turn up in every global warming discussion to point out that Gore has a private jet or whatever, even though that’s irrelevant to any discussion that isn’t specifically about Al Gore’s lifestyle.  Yes, one of them turned up on Jesus Creed (#11).

The off-topics popped up at Biologos before the metaphorical print was dry in the form of a frequent commenter named pds, who has an intelligent design blog with an entire category dedicated to criticizing Biologos, and who dropped in with this comment:

Can ordinary people understand the problems posed by the Cambrian Explosion?  Can they understand why Dawkins embraces the artifact theory as the best way of explaining it?  Can they understand why Gould disagrees with the artifact theory and thinks punctuated equilibrium is the better solution?  Can ordinary people think about which solution is the best explanation?…Is Darrel Falk a “trained specialist” in fossils and the methodology of the historical sciences?  (Biologos #13084)

This sounds somewhat on-topic, because it’s phrased in terms of “Can ordinary people understand x?”, but pds doesn’t want to talk about what ordinary people can understand.  He or she wants to discuss Gould, Dawkins, and the Cambrian Explosion.  Nobody bit, but he followed up with a quote from Gould anyway (Biologos #13107).  Again, it appears to be on-topic because Gould is talking about laypeople’s understanding of science, but it isn’t, because we aren’t discussing Gould’s opinion.  He can’t be invoking Gould as an authority, because he’s rejecting the authority of authorities; Gould’s opinion is no more meaningful than any random person on the blog.  He also brought up Darrel Falk, who I’d never heard of but pds seems to think is important:

Is Darrel Falk qualified to write a book with 2 chapters and 86 pages about the fossil record?  If I know of relevant facts he is leaving out, am I qualified to point that out, even if I am not a scientist?  For example, he makes no mention of the Ediacara fossils and the problem they pose for one of his suggested explanations of the Cambrian Explosion.  (Biologos #13130 and Jesus Creed #1)

Notice how the veneer is gradually dropping away.  pds just wants to discuss Cambrian fossils, his favorite topic, and is trying to lead the discussion in that direction. In answer to your questions, yes, he posted identical comments on both blogs, and no, I don’t know why the page count of Falk’s book is relevant.

A later commenter, Rich, makes a masterful segue from the authority of experts to the infamous irreducible complexity theory:

…But when asked to provide even a hypothetical chain of steps leading to the eye or sonar, Darwinians back off and make excuses…The non-biologist *is* qualified to notice that physicists give details and evolutionary biologists *don’t*.  And the non-biologist is quite right to ask why he should accept, on sheer authority, a theory that won’t provide details.  (Rich, Biologos #13271)

Your complaints are about the unknowns in the mechanism of macroevolution. All fields of science have areas of uncertainty. But unknowns about the mechanism don’t mean there is reason to doubt the fact that macroevolution has occurred.  (Chris Massey, Biologos #13290)

SOME mechanisms are unknown or debated?  Virtually ALL of the DETAILED changes are unknown, for any given major transition (new body plan, new organ, new system, etc.).  No science known to me (except maybe cosmology) relies on speculation, questionable assumptions, etc. as much as evolutionary biology.   (Rich, Biologos #13292)

…And there we are, having to prove macroevolution to Rich’s satisfaction, regardless of the fact that scientists have already proved it to their own satisfaction.  Alas, the off-topics eventually won the Biologos thread as it devolved into quibbles about Lazarus and who had or hadn’t misrepresented someone else’s point.

Another version of off-topic comment I’ll call the diverted on-topic; they split off to talk about a different but related topic that has possible applications to the original discussion.  In this case, they were talking about whether laypeople can have equally valid opinions on theology.  It isn’t directly applicable because, even if laypeople are equally qualified to talk about theology with experts, that doesn’t make them equally qualified to talk about science, but there are analogies to be made and it’s an interesting question in its own right, so I’ll leave them be.

The second type we’ll call the adamants.  These people chose to respect the fact that the discussion was about expertise, not about trilobites, but to a man (or woman), would not entertain the possibility that someone who has studied science might know more about it than someone who hasn’t: “This idea that you need to have achieved a certain level of expertise in a given field to engage and—God forbid—criticize it, is absolutely absurd” (Timothy Kaselitz, Biologos #13165).  This type can be further subdivided.  There are the strawman builders, who constantly exaggerate and misrepresent their opponents’ points.  I’m aware that “discussion including strawmen” is practically tautological, but these ones are marked for their quantity and willfulness.  They almost seem to be intentionally distorting their opponents’ arguments; if not, they certainly resist attempts to correct and explain.  Some of them don’t exactly misstate their opponents’ points, but restate them in the most unfavorable possible light.  Since their objective is the same–to discredit an argument without addressing it–I’ll treat them as part of this group.  They are also frequently punctuationally challenged.

Here are some examples:

You are basically saying that layman basically have to just trust you, that it is all far too complicated for their little brains to figure out. Maybe so. But how do I differentiate between the claims of legitimate science and pseudo-science. After all a homeopath or a young earth creationist can also say that their fields are too complicated for mere mortals to understand and we just need to trust them.  (Larry, Biologos #13154)

Heaven forbid that we question “science” because it’s never been wrong before!  It’s been wrong over and over again (aside from the solidified laws of nature, i.e. The Laws of Thermodynamics) and will be wrong over and over again now and in the future.  Keep your child’s science textbook that they use right now, save it, open it up 45 years from now, compare it to a new textbook, and see if the scientists were 100% right today.  Would it really shock anybody, given the track record, if are believes in the fossil record aren’t completely turned upside down 40 years from now???  I guess I’ll just read National Geographic from now, take it as the Gospel, and stop thinking for myself.  (Justin Poe, Biologos #13175)

Sounds very much like, “Shut up and believe what you’re told, you ignorant laypeople! Don’t question, don’t argue and certainly don’t believe any scientists who disagree with us. Just shut up and sit down.”  (Jeff Doles, Jesus Creed #8)

He accuses critics of orthodoxy of attempting to short-circuit the scientific process, by putting the data carefully gathered by scientists into the hands of vulgar laymen who are totally unqualified to interpret it.  (Thomas Cudworth, Uncommon Descent)

His [Giberson’s] whole point was that there should be no conversation, scientists have settled the debate and we must now dictate the answers to the sheeple kids in the schools. (Robin, Jesus Creed #22)

I think that prostration before a self-selecting clique of experts is repugnant to good science, to good philosophy, to the ideal of the university, and to the ideal of an open, free and democratic society.  (Thomas Cudworth, Uncommon Descent)

A subset of the straw builders are those who constantly conflate evolution and Darwinism:

What I said was that the average proponent of ID knows more about Darwinism than the average high school graduate. ID proponents understand Darwinism, and can explain the theory sufficiently to point out its flaws.  (kevin s., Jesus Creed #47)

Given that the distinction has probably been explained by every scientist in the past 50 years and that the latter is really a construct that, as a whole, never really existed, and as subsets (such as social Darwinism) has been discredited for generations, it’s hard to believe that they are doing this out of simple ignorance.  Thomas Cudworth’s post at Uncommon Descent repeatedly refers to evolutionary theory as “neo-Darwinism;” the pejorative overtones are impossible to ignore.

Finally, we come to the second type of adamant, the people who, however strongly they hold their opinions, are willing to engage the topic at hand and address their opponents’ actual arguments, rather than wanton misrepresentations of them.  You might think it would be possible to make some progress with them, but alas, their lack of knowledge about science–not the details of a particular field, but basic understanding of what science is, the principles that guide it, the difference between science and policy based on science, and when it is being used properly or misused–makes communication break down.  These are, sad to say, the people who inevitably invoke Godwin’s Law.  These misconceptions cannot simply be corrected, because the rejection of experts means that your understanding of what science is and how it operates is just an opinion and that theirs is just as valid.

For instance, Rich argues that fields sometimes consolidate around a popular idea and squelch unpopular ones because the members of the field want to please the tenure and grant system:

The tenure, promotion and research grant system in the sciences, especially where power and funding is concentrated in very few hands (as in the case in some fields), tends to allow the ruling paradigm in a field to bully people into line.  I have seen this in my own field.  Holistic, narratological readings of the Bible were held up for many years by the old guard of historical/critical scholars who wanted no part of it; young scholars were denied jobs and tenure, and the field was greatly retarded.  Now narratological reading is standard, but it was “the experts” who tried to strangle it in its crib.  (Biologos #13247)

But Rich is speaking as though science were like theology, and it isn’t.  There’s no provably right (or even provably better) way to read the Bible, so the door is open for trends and pop theories.  Science, as I explained earlier, operates in the opposite fashion: it’s the person who comes up with the new theory who gets the grants and the one who adheres unquestioningly to old ideas without contributing any innovations who fails to get tenure.  “Publish or perish,” as they say.

Rich also thinks that it’s wrong of biologists to always look for explanations that don’t involve divine intervention:

By what right does evolutionary biology *assume* that he didn’t [intervene]?  It seems to be merely because modern people would prefer that everything in nature be explicable without reference to special actions of God.  What philosophical and theological arguments support this modern preference?  (Biologos #13327)

But science works based on assumptions.  They’re called hypotheses.  You assume something is true and perform a bunch of experiments based on that assumption.  If they don’t do what the hypothesis predicts, the hypothesis is wrong and you move on to another one.  Evolution without divine intervention has held up to 150 years of such scrutiny.  Just as importantly, there’s no way to test divine intervention: if it were happening, we’d have no way to know.

And then there are those, like Robin, who take issue with Giberson’s suggestion that 17-year-olds are not, perhaps, best taught by being presented with evidence for multiple sides and allowed to make up their own minds, and that high school may not be the correct venue for discussion on some topics:

When I read Giberson it doesn’t seem like he is pushing for that at all. He basically says that teenagers are too stupid to be presented with both sides of the argument, and that his side has clearly been picked as the winner in scientific circles, so kids should just be spoon fed his understanding and never given a clue that there are people who disagree with him.  (Robin, Jesus Creed #26)

How can any teacher hope to encourage students to develop critical intellects, if the student are cowed into accepting that the main outlines of the truth have already been fixed in stone by the experts and no dissent or even honest questioning is permitted?  (Thomas Cudworth, Uncommon Descent)

Such an alluring argument, especially since there are topics like politics upon which 17-year-olds are plenty well equipped to discuss and decide for themselves.  Science, however, is not one of them, and does not benefit from a democratic approach where eloquence and charisma are as important as factual accuracy.

All the arguments in favor of letting people look at the facts and decide for themselves are, I think, made particularly groundless because it appears that not a single person who made that argument has actually looked at the facts: the primary publications in peer-reviewed journals like the Journal of Paleobiology (relevant to pds’ Cambrian fossils) or Evolution.  For instance, Thomas Cudworth seems convinced that biologists don’t have a mechanism to present for how evolution could occur, even if they have a pathway.  But if he isn’t keeping abreast of the original research in Evolution, how does he know?  He only knows what has trickled down into publications for the lay audience.  These, by their very nature, will always pick and choose which facts to present and use metaphorical, non-rigorous language, since their primary objective is to explain something already assumed to be true, rather than to prove why it is true.

The death knell to the arguments against experts is that no one can really divorce him- or herself from the appeal to authority.  It’s far too ingrained.  Cudworth’s article is full of the name-dropping (Ken Ham, Michael Behe) common among creationists.  When people want to be listened to, they appeal to their education and credentials:

I did graduate work in biblical studies, including Greek exegesis with top scholars, so you may want to drop a bit of your condescension.  (pds, Biologos #13200)

It’s not really a question of whether I can handle your equations or not (and compared to some I worked with in my graduate engineering program the one you are so proud of looks pretty simple).  (Larry, Biologos #13246)

I’m interested in a serious, postgraduate-level conversation about religion and science, not in constantly correcting people who don’t listen to what I say before they retort.  (Rich, Biologos #13396)

Every specialist must respect every other specialist’s “territory”, and no external criticism, even by other Ph.D.s, let alone laymen, is appropriate or even reasonable.  (Thomas Cudworth, Uncommon Descent)

What to do?  A belief as absurd as that experts don’t know more about their field of study than anyone else can’t be confronted, directly or by analogy, because its absurdity is so self-evident that anyone who does not recognize it immediately can’t be made to recognize it at all.  It’s in vain to point out that we might as well abolish all education if all opinions are equally sound to begin with; it’s useless to appeal to the tragic results of parents ignoring doctors’ advice about vaccination and disease treatment; it’s pointless to appeal to the complexity of science and how its results are sometimes counterintuitive.  Nor is the absurdity grounds to simply shelf the view with the Expanding Earth people***, because a widespread theory must be addressed, even if it’s immune to logic.  I’m out of ideas.  How about you?  How do you talk to someone who denies the authority of experts?

—-

*Roughly speaking, I’m talking about an opinion that could never be changed in any circumstances, given any amount of evidence.  You can still hold this sort of opinion, but by definition it will never add anything to any discussion, because whatever arguments or evidence you use are not the reason you hold that belief–they are mere trappings covering a preexisting belief that is held based on nothing except the belief that it has to be true.  My previous forays into this topic were based on the assumption that creationists as a whole were not like this, but these recent threads show a strong current of this type of thought.

**On creation-related topics.  The ability to be completely reasonable and communicative on every other topic is a common phenomenon among people who believe strange things.

***Expanding Earth is my favorite conspiracy theory.  It’s just coherent enough to be maximally hilarious.  And its reasoning–particularly the rejection of continental drift–overlaps a great deal with young-earth creationism.

The picture was linked to in an earlier Biologos discussion where pds again harped on the Cambrian trilobites and someone finally provided an absurdly comprehensive and detailed account of how exactly they formed.  I have, however, lost the link.

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