Not Uncommon Dissent from the Experts

Not Uncommon Dissent from the Experts December 28, 2010

My irony meter was off the charts last night when, after just having posted about experts and those who don’t trust them, I saw that Uncommon Descent (the intelligent design blog) had a post illustrating what those without expertise do when they accept this principle, and yet want really badly to nevertheless be able to disagree with experts in a particular field.

They simply say that the field in question, in spite of the successful research programs and publications and everything else, is all rubbish and so doesn’t actually represent expertise. Then you can go on to say how anyone can see the flaws in this particular domain of knowledge, and resume crackpot fringe business as usual.

If only they had stuck with the valid principle that we need to listen to and understand the views of experts and accept their input, they would have seen another course of action open to them: read the scientific literature more thoroughly and more carefully, and figure out why the experts reach the conclusions that they do, and look carefully to see whether the problem is not with the largely unanimous experts, but with your own understanding.

I once heard someone say about the study of religion that if you cannot understand why someone would find a religious tradition attractive and want to adhere to it, then you have not understood that religious tradition.

Appreciation of religious beliefs is, of course, on the level of symbolism, values, and aesthetics. But then how much more should the same principle apply to domains of intellectual inquiry? If you have not understood why the vast majority of experts reach the conclusion that they do, it is certainly not the case that they are all deluded idiots while you alone are an insightful genius. It is obviously far more likely that it is the other way around.

On this same topic, Unreasonable Faith has a question about whether it is worthwhile to “debate the lunatic fringe.” As a former young-earth creationist, and as someone who initially approached his education about the Bible suspicious of and set to argue against those “liberal scholars,” I can say that there is hope for those who are on the lunatic fringe. What has to be remembered is that no one who is on the lunatic fringe believes themselves to be on the lunatic fringe. And admitting that you are involves humbling yourself and admitting that you were not only wrong but seriously wrong. And so I think engagement is necessary and can be fruitful, but also needs to be handled in a way that helps those who find themselves in that situation to escape from the delusion in which they’ve become entangled, and realizes the difficulty of the admissions of wrongness and self-delusion that will be involved, and thus treat those who are being called to make the transition with as much sensitivity as you can muster.

And so perhaps reflection on this offers a helpful perspective on where to start the process: rather than debating this or that piece of evidence, perhaps the first step is to work on getting one’s conversation partner to take seriously that the experts are not deluded, and that as a consequence they might be wrong.

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