Knowing: When Experts Aren’t Expert.

Knowing: When Experts Aren’t Expert. February 13, 2015

Hello, my name is Kent Hovind. I am a creation/science evangelist. I live in Pensacola, Florida. I have been a high school science teacher since 1976. I’ve been very active in the creation/evolution controversy for quite some time. As an evangelist, God has given me the opportunity to preach and teach the wonderful history of His marvelous creation over 400 times each year to churches, schools (public and private), parent groups, youth groups, on the radio, and in university debates.

— the beginning of Kent Hovind’s “doctoral dissertation,” submitted to Patriot University in 1991 for a “Doctor of Philosophy in Christian Education”

If you haven’t already suffered through this “dissertation,” written by Kent “Dr. Dino” Hovind himself before he got sent to prison for tax frauds of various sorts, then I highly recommend perusing it (but don’t make it into a drinking game or you may end up hospitalized). This is the “dissertation” that he thinks gives him the right to disseminate hucksterism in the name of science. And he’s not the only Christian presenting himself as an “expert” in something when he really isn’t one at all.

English: A sewn Flying Spaghetti Monster craft.
English: A sewn Flying Spaghetti Monster craft. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). WERE YOU THERE?

One thing that often trips up people who are recovering from religion is having to re-learn a lot of information that we thought we already knew–but didn’t. Now that Christianity is moving toward pseudoscience as its normal way of operating and becoming more and more polarized against genuine science, a lot of ex-Christians are finding themselves in the weird position of being adults and yet having to learn stuff that most kids know by second grade.

It was a little embarrassing for me to realize, as I tiptoe into my dotage, that I didn’t actually know what a “theory” is in scientific parlance. Now most folks know that the way Christian apologists use the word isn’t at all like how scientists use the word, thanks to science-literate people drilling down on it so hard (I can’t even remember the last Christian I heard whining “but but but it’s jusssssst a theeeeeeory!”–though I’m sure there are still some isolated pockets of them around), but I seriously thought that when a theory got enough evidence behind it, it then became a scientific law. I was public-school-educated and did all right in science and I left Christianity many moons ago, just before science denial became its in-group marker belief, so I’ve got no real excuse.

Oh, did I surprise you with that last bit? Yes, there was a time long ago when being a fervent Christian didn’t necessarily imply being a Creationist. I sure wasn’t. Well, kind of, but I thought of the Genesis myth as being sort of an metaphor, with “days” meaning millions of years–I was sort of one of those Day-Age Creationists, though I didn’t know the term for it at the time. There are a lot of ways to be a Creationist, and I’d chosen the one that was totally fine with the universe being what humans had determined, through careful measurement via many methods, to be over 13 billion years old. I somehow managed to hold “the Bible is literally true in every word, which includes Genesis” in my head together with “13 billion years old.” Cognitive dissonance–I was soaking in it.

But I knew my fair share of literal Creationists (“Young Earth Creationists”, or YECs, often believe the Earth is just a few thousand years old). Heck, I knew preachers who thought Jesus dictated the King James Bible to 1st-century Christians, and if the King James was good enough for Jesus then it was good enough for them. I bet y’all thought that was just an old joke about how foolish and willfully-ignorant fundamentalists can get, but nope, no such luck; it’s based on reality. I heard preachers often talk about a young Earth, and as awful a Christian as my then-husband Biff was, even he knew that wasn’t true; one day we heard something like that spew forth from a visiting preacher up at the podium and we both turned in our pew seats to look at each other with wide, wondering eyes–had we seriously just heard this preacher talk about dinosaurs being contemporaneous with cavemen and how scientists were just guessing about carbon dating? Couldn’t be! But no, that was exactly what this guy was saying; we were so mortified on his behalf that we didn’t even want to talk about it afterward, it rattled us both so much. My fundamentalist church was filled with scientists and engineers, though, being so close to major universities and science outposts like NASA, and I didn’t know a single one of those folks who was a YEC; they all were about like I was, hoping and trusting that the Bible was literal and yet also knowing that evolution was a fact and not disputing it.

Christian culture has certainly changed since then.

Between science denial to maintain a childishly literalist belief system and history revision to give themselves the right to control other people’s lives, Christian leaders have a lot of fakery and snake oil to sell to their flocks. A big part of how they do it is by pushing “experts” on those flocks to convince them of Christianity’s various distortions and denials.

The Creation of Adam
The Creation of Adam (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Yeah, looks legit.

That’s how an “expert” like like David Barton can be pushed at believers as a “historian” and legal expert when he has absolutely no training in either history or law. That’s how preachers with no background whatsoever in mental health can give psychiatric advice to people suffering serious disorders like PTSD that could well result in their deaths. And that’s how Creationist outfits like the Discovery Institute can circulate lists of scientists who kind of sound supportive of Creationism in the hopes that the gullible Christians seeing the list won’t notice that almost all of the names on it are of people with no background whatsoever in biology or research, so they actually couldn’t be counted on to be familiar with the concepts (also: see Project Steve)–and for that matter, the father of the modern Creationism movement himself, Phillip E. Johnson, is not even a scientist at all but rather a lawyer.

Yes, I’m talking about a fallacy here called an appeal to authority. The term means to fall back on someone’s credentials rather than the actual argument at hand. If the argument or support for the argument is very weak, then the whole shebang rests on how reliable the authority is who’s making the argument. If the authority is seen as very reliable, then that reliability itself starts to carry the argument. (An ad hominem attack works in reverse, by maligning an authority’s credentials instead of tackling the argument at hand.)

Credentials in and of themselves aren’t bad, of course, and neither is being an authority on a subject. But we need to make sure the authority is trustworthy and of course we need to check where we can to ensure that the argument itself–whatever it is–is credibly supported by evidence. When those conditions are not met and we simply trust that the person making the argument knows what he or she is talking about, that is when we’re falling into the fallacy of an appeal to authority and that is when we are at risk of believing something untrue.

For some reason, there’s this thinking–especially in “bootstrap” America, and especially among Christians–that any fool can read a lot of books and come out of it the equal of someone trained in scientific and research-oriented methodology. I certainly thought so when I was a Christian, and I see Christians doing it constantly today–especially when they try to claim that this or that scientific idea or finding supports their confused woo-mongering when it distinctly does not actually support their woo at all.

Not only does this misrepresentation of credentials mislead people trying to learn about reality, it can actually actively damage precious resources–as we are finding now with religious zealots who think they are perfectly qualified archaeologists–and whose “research” in the Near East is actively destroying dig sites that we can’t get back once they’re gone. And of course we know about anti-vaxxer “authorities” who have no background in medicine at all–or if they do, it’s not related to epidemiology (a little NSFW language, but folks, if you can handle my foul mouth, you’re probably okay with anything I link you to), and yet desperate and frightened people–or sanctimonious and smug ones–listen to these false experts.

And they listen for the same reason that Christians listen to their fake “experts” spouting off: because these “experts” are telling people what they want to hear.

Most of us aren’t trained scientists or researchers–and though we might know a lot of Bible verses and doctrines, we’re not trained theologians either. So how do we know if someone is a reliable source of information?

1. That person has reputable training.
School isn’t magic–George W. Bush famously went to Harvard and Yale and I don’t know how the fellow ties his own shoes–but it definitely helps people learn how to obtain and interpret data as well as how to do the mechanics of whatever their chosen field happens to be (working around dig sites; operating on people’s bodies; interpreting Census data). Watch out for someone who actively denigrates and eschews formal education. There’s a reason why we’ve found that it is the best method possible for getting people taught stuff, and why we actively discourage people from trying to be their own lawyers in important court cases. If you don’t believe me, then feel free to take your child to a pediatrician who learned everything from studying books on his or her own.

2. That person has a decent reputation in his or her community, whatever that community is.
The few Creationists who actually have some kind of biology or research credentials don’t tend to have awesome reputations in the science community. There’s a reason for that. It’s not that they’re going against the grain–egad, tons of scientists do that–but that they’re doing it very poorly. If you go look them up in PubMed, a national database of scientific, peer-reviewed papers, you’ll find most of these lot have vanishingly small lists of contributions to actual science considering how much they claim otherwise–and significant criticism exists of both the methods and findings of these so-called “experts.” And the revisionist “historians” floating around do even worse. It pays to do one’s research before repeating claims–especially very outlandish claims–from what may well be a crank.

3. If that person’s saying something really on the fringe of that community, then he or she has got a credible way in mind of demonstrating the validity of the claim.
Scientists usually disagree with something, somewhere, for some reason. They’re not by nature a harmonious group and most of them don’t exactly have sterling social skills. That very cantankerousness is how science works. It’s a feature, not a bug, of the system. Someone sees an accepted model, goes “Huh, I don’t know if that really works,” and finds a better explanation. But Christians don’t normally understand how that conflict works. In religious disagreements, often the argument devolves to the authority of the people involved–or quibbles about what “the original Greek and Hebrew” really said (yikes, that phrase makes my teeth grit even today), or to protestations of certainty. Nobody actually has any facts to rest upon so it really comes down to those subjective arguments. They don’t understand that when actually reputable folks differ from their communities somehow, they don’t just charge around insisting they’re right. They design experiments or studies to test their ideas and offer a competing model that answers whatever the question is better than whatever existed before. They refine ideas or change them, but it’s not an arbitrary process. There isn’t some big group of scientists getting higher than Tibetan prayer kites somewhere and deciding “to hell with it, Pluto’s not a planet anymore/vaccines are totes safe/sex education doesn’t make teenaged girls go sex-crazy/climate change is a real thing and humans are almost certainly causing it.” Well, I mean, they might be getting that high at some point, sure, I mean I don’t know or care either way, but they’re definitely not arbitrarily deciding to tell people stuff just because they like the idea or they hate Jesus or whatever it is Christians imagine is going on in their heads. And this last part is where many Christians in general miss the entire point of the robust nature of science and historical inquiry: disagreement is good. Disagreement is how we make our theories better fit reality. We make predictions, we find somewhere that an existing model is wrong, we observe, we measure, we argue, and we come out of it with better ideas.

Demonstrating an idea’s validity is really where pseudoscience, pseudo-history, and pseudo-archaeology all fall down the hardest; often their proponents have no idea how to prove their ideas correct, or else have some vague idea about it but don’t actually do it, or else they misuse established information or practices to try to shoehorn their ideas into reality when they don’t really fit at all. (Creationists are so bad about the misuse and fabrication of real scientists’ quotes that the practice gets its very own page over at TalkOrigins–do check it out; it’s hilarious to see such blatant dishonesty on the part of self-appointed ambassadors of a god who ostensibly disapproves of, well, false witness.) When real scientists and historians do this stuff, they get rebuked–because in the real world the process corrects itself, largely through the engagement of civil disagreement.

To a great many Christians, that very robustness conveys uncertainty, and there is nothing worse to them than uncertainty. We’ll be talking about that terror of uncertainty later on. For now, I’ll merely assert that fake “experts” paper over that uncertainty with false certainty, and that seems to me to be one of the biggest reasons Christians flock to them: given many thousands (if not millions) of scientists past and present who say honestly that they don’t know exactly how life began on Earth, but a few who say that it was “obviously” done exactly as the Book of Genesis says it was, or given the many thousands of historians and legal eagles who know that America was not ever meant to be a “Christian nation” and a few who say that it was, or the millions of doctors who say that vaccines are safe and a very few who try to say they are dangerous, even though those few can’t even come halfway close to supporting their ideas and aren’t actually qualified to present themselves as experts about their chosen cause, a lot of folks who feel adrift or angry or frightened otherwise are going to latch onto those few like that baby elephant grabbed onto his lucky black feather.

And that doesn’t make any of us “dumbos.”

It makes us human.

We like to know. It gives us a rush. That’s part of what makes humanity so glorious: we can find stuff out. And a few lucky folks get to be right at the forefront of finding stuff out–about our past, about our future, about where we are in the universe.

Let’s not get tripped up on false experts while we’re doing it, is all. There’s already so much to learn from real experts that we don’t have time to waste on the false ones.

And next time we’re going to talk about that need for certainty. I invite you to join me on Monday!

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