Elizabeth Scalia is leery of experts.

The Obama DoJ filed a brief in the the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry in opposition the California’s ban on gay marriage.  Part of their brief rebutted the idea that straight marriages are the ideal place to raise children.  This is a superfluous point.  It wouldn’t matter if gay marriages were less optimal for raising children, not every gay couple wants children.  Also, single parenting may not be an optimal situation, but we don’t take their kids away.  This is all about keeping the Christian idea for marriage as the one that everybody, even non-Christians must abide by legally, and nothing else.

Anyway, in the DoJ’s brief, in response to the raising children argument, they cite the most perspicacious battery of minds in the field of psychology – the American Psychological Association.

To support this argument, one of the documents the administration cites is a “policy statement” by the American Psychological Association. This statement claims that some studies indicate same-sex parents might be “superior” to mother-and-father families, but then concedes there is little actual data on the results of raising children in two-father households.

Elizabeth Scalia did not care for that.

All I have to say is this: the DOJ should be leery of basing too much of its arguments on a policy statement by the APA. Once upon a time, that same body of “experts” advised Catholic bishops that if they just gave youth-molesting priests some therapy, the priests would be okay for ministry, even around kids. The “expert truth” of a day often does not extend to decades.

Yes, sometimes the experts are wrong.  You know who discovers when the experts are wrong?  The fucking experts, and then the experts arrive at a new consensus.

If you’re argument is that the psychological experts are wrong, not because you have data or an argument to the contrary, but only because they’re wrong in the past, then you have no idea how ideas are refined.  Imagine you had two children, one insisting that Santa was real and one saying he changed his mind and now didn’t think Santa was real.  Do we go with the kid who has never changed his mind on the subject of Santa?  No!  We go with the one who integrates new discoveries into his conclusions.  That’s what the experts do.  Sure, in the future we’ll realize that we’re wrong about some thing, but that doesn’t change the fact that the consensus of the experts represent the best claims to knowledge that are presently available, and that’s exactly what we want when determining policy.

And if you’re going to make a decision that requires the input of sociology and psychology, who are you going to lean on if not for the people who devoted their lives to the study of that field?  Should Elizabeth Scalia’s opinion trump theirs?  Of course not.

That’s the thing about hard and social sciences; they evolve, just like everything and everybody. The things we “know for certain” at one moment in time, we are less certain of a few decades later. Things we believed could never be seen or measured, suddenly can be; “facts” we thought we knew for certain, are suddenly being reassessed; an over-reliance on “expertise” — as with the church scandals — too often sways us away from our own common-sense and gut instincts.

Yes, they evolve.  Scalia seems to think the fact that our understanding of the social sciences evolving is a reason to distrust them, rather than the other way around.  Hey Elizabeth, physicists have been wrong in the past, and our understanding of physics constantly evolves, so why don’t you submit some of your own common-sense opinions and gut instincts on physics to peer review and see how serious they take you.  Or try building a smart phone with your gut instincts.

Common-sense and gut instincts are the same qualities that tell us the world is flat.

And I can’t really believe I have to rebut the argument of “experts are sometimes wrong, so the gut instinct of non-experts should be just as credible on psychology as the psychological experts.”  If that’s the case, why even have experts in any subject?  Is it so hard to believe that the people who dedicate their lives to the study of a subject might have more knowledge or better insights than people who might have taken an intro level course in college (but probably not)?

Try this, Elizabeth: I have an undergraduate education in music (read: I’m not even an expert).  Give me your gut instincts on the usefulness of octatonic scales for achieving tonality.  Give me your insights because, after all, our understanding of music theory has evolved over the ages.

Which is why, when you think about it, even “educated secularists” take an awful lot on faith, and put a lot of trust in their chosen princes. Perhaps that is why the notion of “truth” to them, seems like such a changeable thing, yet is to be followed almost slavishly in the “dictatorship of relativism”, with each new pronouncement quickly embraced — even if it directly contradicts the received wisdom of five years ago. It’s a truth that serves the day.

It’s not a “truth that serves the day”, it’s a truth that reflects new discoveries.

And we don’t take an awful lot on faith at all.  That’s why we have experiments, perform research, and are constantly trying to augment our knowledge.  Where there is knowledge, there is no faith.  Where there is ignorance, there should not be pretensions to knowledge.  Faith simply has no place in academics.

Now, non-experts need to trust the experts.  Even Elizabeth Scalia trusts the experts in physics when she hops on an airplane or the experts about bacteria every time she bites into a cheeseburger.  Elizabeth Scalia, or any other human, simply could not exist in the 21st century if not for a reliance on the experts.  Of course, that goes right out the window when the opinions of those experts conflict with what a bunch of people from an ignorant part of the first-century world wrote.

In reality, it’s the people who never change their minds, who have asserted one opinion from the get go and never once altered it, whose opinions should be soundly ignored.  These people do not have opinions that evolve, and should be left behind.  However, call them religion, and all of a sudden people like Elizabeth Scalia will go to embarrassing lengths to hang onto them.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Glodson

    That’s just it. Science evolves. Science self-corrects.

    There are many ideas and hypothesis and theories that are discarded when we find them lacking in the light of new evidence.

    In many ways, science doesn’t say that such and such theory is the truth. It is just the most likely explanation we have at the moment. It might be the truth, or it might be a bump on the way to the truth. We eliminate ideas more than we actually confirm them.

    And the whole common sense thing kills me. Start digging into a science and you’ll find ideas that are counter-intuitive. But we use them because the fit with the evidence.

    In the end, that is what it should be about. What does the evidence say? Right now, this is what our evidence says. I trust the evidence. If an expert says something that doesn’t fit with the evidence, I reject what the expert says. Appeals to authority don’t work for me.

    But that seems to be her understanding of it.

  • Rain

    The things we “know for certain” at one moment in time, we are less certain of a few decades later.

    I never understood this line of counterargument. It undermines everything it its path, to the point of being a completely irrelevant counterargument. So everything goes back to square one again, right where we all started. Example:

    … an over-reliance on “expertise” — as with the church scandals — too often sways us away from our own common-sense and gut instincts.

    She sounds pretty certain about that. But if we know that for certain, then we don’t know that for certain. Back to square one again.

    • kagekiri

      It’s a truly ridiculous response to science-based answers, beliefs, or studies, and one I hear on a near constant basis due to my mother shilling shady supplements AND her being a particularly “faith is better than science” kind of Christian.

      “Science was wrong in the past, it might be wrong again!” Oh, I guess that makes the self-contradictory Bible or this profit-hungry pyramid scheme of a company and its personal studies WAY more trustworthy, right? Because such institutions have NEVER, EVER been wrong or tried to fuck people over, OBVIOUSLY.

      And THEN they follow up this attack on certainty with an un-shakeable and absolute faith in things that have been wrong or failed even more spectacularly in the past, and are even more certainly wrong now, like herbal supplements with no proven or demonstrated benefits, intuition, or “alternative” medicines and vitamins, or faith-based healing.

      Incoherent doesn’t begin to describe this kind of thinking. It’s like an almost deliberate attempt to make people facepalm.

      “Science doesn’t know everything and can be changed depending on evidence, so faith, ignores counter-evidence in deliberate selection-bias, is superior! Your move, science.”

  • baal

    “Once upon a time, that same body of “experts” advised Catholic bishops that if they just gave youth-molesting priests some therapy, the priests would be okay for ministry, even around kids. ”
    Did the priests get secular modern therapy or was it internal counseling? Did this even happen at all? What then about the whole ‘crime’ part? Oversight & monitoring? Assistance to victims?
    Even if the RCC relied at some point in time on experts, failure of those experts (granted for the sake of argument) doesn’t address these other moral and legal failings of the church. Even if they fixed future offenses (they didn’t) that doesn’t address how the RCC failed to adequately handle the past.

    • Glodson

      Did the same experts say that the priests should be paid off and not brought to the proper authorities so that an investigation could be undertaken?

      Because that did feel like an attempt to deflect blame for the untold number of victims of child rape at the hand of those priests.

    • iknklast

      The other question is this: were these secular experts who were called in to assist the church in dealing with the scandals? Or were they internal experts who were more interested in protecting the church? The answer to that question could make a lot of difference.

  • tubi

    What IS it about that last name…?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    You know who else are wrong sometimes? Non-experts.
    You know what else are wrong sometimes? Religions. One day they’re perfectly accepting of slavery, the next they’re admitting its immoral.
    Why is Elizabeth Scalia so selective in discounting some opinions and not others?

  • Steve

    That scientific consensus changes isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.

  • Andrew Kohler

    Wait–did she just imply that the APA’s position on homosexuality now is comparable to its former position (btw, citation needed, Elizabeth) that pedophiles weren’t a threat to children if they were given “some therapy”? Is not this a circuitous way to link homosexuality to pedophilia?

    “Give me your gut instincts on the usefulness of octatonic scales for achieving tonality. ”

    I love octatonicism!! :-D And that’s actually quite an interesting question; please do be sure to share Elizabeth’s response with us. I’d offer to give her my thoughts, but given that I’m a doctoral student in musicology (focusing on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the octatonic scale first started to be used in Western classical music) with a pedagogy certificate in music theory, I may be getting too close to expert territory for her to take seriously.

    As to the underlying “we can’t trust experts”– I would say that when there is consensus among experts, it is reasonable to assume that their position is correct without reason (not prejudice) to think otherwise. But at the same time, arguments from authority are not a good thing, and I agree that we shouldn’t take everything experts say at face value. It’s important to see if there is consensus among experts on any given topic, if the experts in question may have conflicts of interest, if they seem to be operating under sound ethical principles, et cetera. For example, one can find a few “experts,” like the people at NARTH and Exodus International, who say that homosexuality is not a healthy sexual orientation. Their position is presently marginalized by the vast majority of practicing psychiatrists, and I think a close examination would reveal that they are operating under a set of cultural and religious biases. Just today I came across something (which I commented on over at the “Help make my life miserable” post) saying that homosexuality IS TOO a sin, and quoted a New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary with degrees from Dartmouth, Harvard, and Princeton called Robert A. J. Gagnon, who according to a comment on another blog “is the foremost expert on this subject and has written extensively on it.” Here is an example in which the “expert” is, in fact, basing his findings on books which many people do not hold to be true. I don’t trust his moral values or his methodology; therefore I give no credence to his findings. Can Elizabeth Scalia give us her reasons for distrusting the APA, even a cursory summary like I just provided?

    It’s funny Elizabeth didn’t mention (at least in what you quoted) that the APA’s position on homosexuality is indeed changeable: it removed homosexuality as a disorder from its Diagnostic and Statistics Manual in 1973, despite the protest of people like Charles Socarides (whose son is a gay rights activist). The organization has moved forward in its thinking, in other words. Does Elizabeth think they just change their positions on a whim or something, and that they may decide to revert back to their position from 1956?

    • Kenneth

      “Can Elizabeth Scalia give us her reasons for distrusting the APA?…..”

      Yes, the reason is that the APA’s position and the consensus of the rest of mainstream medical science is bloody inconvenient to her agenda. Despite their sometimes resorting to NARTH and the ginned-up Regnerus study of late, the Christian anti-SSM crowd has NO real science on its side. They know they have no science on their side and they know that everybody else knows that. The only way out of that box, then, is to claim that mainstream science was also compromised by an agenda.

      Their narrative, unsupported by any facts, says that the APA only changed its mind because the gay mafia got to them. According to that narrative, none of the millions of highly paid, influential, contrary members of the medical profession or the sciences has been kept in line and fear for 40 years by the Gay Mafia, who have an Illuminati-like grip on the entire Western World.

      Now Scalia and other don’t seriously believe that any of us or the mainstream of society will believe that rot, but it does give a reasonably palatable answer to members of their own movement who sometimes wonder the party line seems to be forever at odds with the consensus of highly respected experts. “The truth is out there, but it can’t get out, because THEY won’t let it out, but if you join our group, you’ll be in the real know.”

  • Rain

    Perhaps that is why the notion of “truth” to them, seems like such a changeable thing, yet is to be followed almost slavishly in the “dictatorship of relativism”, with each new pronouncement quickly embraced — even if it directly contradicts the received wisdom of five years ago. It’s a truth that serves the day.

    She makes it sound like everyone is a bunch of Keystone Cops running around chasing new truths all day long. She does go a little overboard with the shtick. And then there’s the not entirely unexpected punch line at the end about the Eternal Truth®, which ironically is the convoluted pretend Catholic theology “truth” that doesn’t even make any sense at all, let alone any “common sense” at all.

    • iknklast

      Of course, experts pursue little t truth, which can change as new facts come in, and leave big T truth to the faithists, because big T truth can’t change (and often isn’t true).

  • smrnda

    This seems to be the line of reasoning:
    1. expert opinion sometimes changes.
    2. since expert opinion sometimes changes, it is unreliable.
    3. since expert opinion is unreliable, we might as well go with our gut instincts.

    Try doing ENGINEERING according to those principles – anything you can bang together with duct tape and bubble gum and leftover scrap metal is *just as good* as what you design using the best knowledge from the experts. The expert opinion might be wrong, but it’s definitely better than any competitor.

  • http://smingleigh.wordpress.com Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

    -Agent “K”, Men in Black

    Leaving aside the “aliens on Earth” bit, I love this. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow. To me, there is no more optimistic human sentiment than this.

  • Kubrick’s Rube

    Did Scalia really decry relativism in a post where she essentially argues that no one should ever have an opinion on anything because anyone can be wrong about anything at any time? That nothing can be known objectively so we should ignore all the experts and just trust the non-experts who agree with her over the non-experts who don’t agree with her?

  • Robert B.

    Glodson: “That’s just it. Science evolves. Science self-corrects.”

    Actually, science self-corrects much more efficiently than evolution – science can make major changes in itself in only a few decades. For example, at the dawn of humanity, evolution told our brains that unsupported objects fall straight down, and so we believed. Then ordinary pre-scientific intelligence discovered otherwise and immediately began a multi-kiloyear campaign of killing humans of reproductive age with unsupported objects moving sideways – from thrown rocks to RPGs – and human babies are *still* surprised to see unsupported objects fall other than straight down.

    • Glodson

      Robert, I wasn’t alluding to the theory of Evolution. I was using the term evolves in the meaning that science changes over time, with the intended connotation that science progresses as the bits falsified by experiment are discarded or modified if possible. And it was the term used by both JT and Scalia to describe the change of science over time.

  • Quintin

    Of course, when Miss Scalia gets sick, she’ll suddenly insist on following the advice of an expert whose decisions are informed by the same ever changing science that informs the APA, rather than her gut instinct. Hypocrite.

  • Thumper1990

    I hate this argument. It’s so stupid. “Science changes, so it’s wrong.” Um, no. Science changes because we discover new things, you moron. What is it with these people? Clinging on to a belief when new discoveries blatantly contradict it is stupid. Changing your beliefs in the face of those discoveries is sensible.

  • Pingback: New bill would allow therapists to refuse to treat LGBT people.()