Reject the Scientific Consensus? How Do You Justify THAT?

Reject the Scientific Consensus? How Do You Justify THAT? December 19, 2012

What reason goes in that blank? What could possibly go in that blank? If you’re a layperson in a particular scientific field, how could you reject that field’s scientific consensus, where it exists, as the best provisional explanation of that aspect of nature?

People do reject the consensus—mostly Creationists, in my experience—but I can’t begin to understand the thought process that justifies this conclusion. People reject radioisotope dating who aren’t geologists, reject the Big Bang who aren’t cosmologists, and reject evolution who aren’t biologists.

You might think that evolution is a remarkable claim. Perhaps even that the evidence isn’t there (though the fact that you’ve only dipped your toe into the water would scream out as the obvious explanation). What I can’t imagine is concluding, based in that “research,” that the theory of evolution is flawed. On what grounds could someone reject the consensus of the people who actually understand this stuff, the people who actually have the doctorate degrees and who actually do the work on a daily basis?

I often hear people handwaving justifications. I recently mentioned a debate in which the Creationist speaker demanded that we follow the evidence. That sounds strange until you translate that into what he meant: give yourself license to weigh scientific conclusions yourself and discard the ones you dislike.

When science and scripture conflict, Ken Ham of the Institute for Creation Research tells Christians that they shouldn’t go with the discipline with the remarkable track record for telling us about reality. Instead, discard that and go with faith.

We should be very wary of any idea about life that has a consensus among non-Christians. Sadly, many Christians listen to the ideas of secular scientists and try to add these to the Bible. This shows that they have the same problem as the non-Christian—they don’t want to submit to God’s Word.

These same people wouldn’t dream of telling a surgeon how best to approach a particular operation or a pilot how to fly a plane. But they seem quite happy to read a Creationist book and reject any consensus in biology, geology, or cosmology that steps on their theological toes. Can these science deniers possibly be so self-important as to pretend to be the Judge of All Science®, anointing the correct science and rooting out the false?

Creationists’ arguments often defeat themselves. Ask them how they make their conclusion and few will say that they’ve evaluated the scientific papers themselves. Rather, they will point to Creationist “scientists” from the Discovery Institute, the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), Answers in Genesis (AIG), or similar organization. Apparently, they think that the conclusions of competent scientists is important. Fine, then be objective and look at the consensus of experts on that subject.

You’d think that organizations that constrained their “researchers” with statements of faith, as both the ICR and AIG have, would be disqualified from scientific discourse for being biased. Similarly, it’s baffling that many Christian scholars like William Lane Craig feel comfortable pontificating on science

  • when they have no scientific credentials to do so,
  • when they celebrate the consensus and use it to support their argument when it suits them (Big Bang) and then reject the consensus when it doesn’t (evolution), and
  • because they, too, are bound by statements of faith.

When they say that evolution is nonsense, I always ask: is that the facts or your statement of faith talking? (More in my post “Can Christian Scholars be Objective?”)

Science deniers often raise three objections.

  • The scientific consensus is wrong sometimes. Yes, it is. The consensus is not immutable truth but a provisional approximation to the truth. This doesn’t change the fact that the consensus is the best guess at the truth that we laypeople have.
  • Demanding that laypeople accept the scientific consensus in all cases is the Bandwagon fallacy. No, it isn’t. The bandwagon fallacy (argumentum ad populum) says that “a million Chevy owners can’t be wrong”—if the majority believes it, it must be true. Note the differences: I argue that the consensus is our best bet, not that it is invariably true. Also, the scientific community is a group of experts of which laypeople are not members.
  • Okay, then it’s the Argument from Authority fallacy. Wrong again. The scientific community is quite different from a single authority. (I’ve written more about this fallacy fallacy and the role of consensus here.)

Sorry, folks—science is not a democracy. When it comes to the scientific consensus, no one cares what we laypeople think. Creationists have done an impressive job in deluding Americans so that, 150 years after Darwin’s Origin of Species, 40% still think that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”

This deluded thinking becomes a bigger problem when policy makers are able to adopt it. Rep. Paul Broun (R-Georgia) called evolution, Big Bang theory, and other disagreeable aspects of science “lies straight from the pit of hell.” Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) said about climate change, “I don’t think we can control what God controls.” Todd Akin (R-Missouri) has famously odd views on conception and evolution. Each has training wheels on their understanding of science, but all three are members of the House Science and Technology Committee.

Science deniers get high marks in Machiavellianism 101, but the American public’s childish relationship with reality puts us in a poor position to handle the challenges of the 21st century.

Evolution is one of the most robust and widely accepted
principles of modern science.

— American Association for the Advancement of Science


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