Galileo was Wrong (Richard Carrier and Arguing from Consensus)

Galileo was Wrong (Richard Carrier and Arguing from Consensus) May 8, 2014

Richard Carrier has posted on arguments from consensus on his blog. It is, like most of his posts, unnecessarily long to make the point that it seeks to.

Carrier suggests that laypeople can and should evaluate the arguments of experts, even with respect to the consensus. That seems to me strikingly odd – if laypeople who do not have the extensive knowledge professional scholars do can normally (and not just in exceptional rare cases) evaluate matters in that domain, then surely that implies that one doesn’t need the extensive knowledge of data experts have in order to draw conclusions. But anyone who has studied a subject even as an undergraduate, and has had what they thought was a brilliant insight, only to discover through grad school that their idea was neither new nor brilliant, will probably protest that Carrier is wrong.

The experts may be resistant to new ideas. But they are also required as part of their profession to come up with new ideas. And when the experts agree about something for good reason, regularly the general public then resists what the consensus of experts tries to convince them of. That doesn’t suggest that most laypeople are well poised to do better than the consensus of experts.

Even experts can be wrong. And even the consensus of experts can be wrong. But it is rarely the case that someone without expertise will be the one to discover and then persuade them that they are wrong. And rarely is it the case that a scholar who is persuaded that he is right and the rest of the academy wrong turns out to be right.

And so I thought I had better mention Galileo.

While there is a bizarre website defending geocentrism that bears the title “Galileo Was Wrong,” that should not deter us from acknowledging that Galileo was indeed wrong – although not, it turned out, about heliocentrism. As yet he had no workable mechanism to account for aspects of the system (that awaited Newton), he was not eliminating the epicycles of the Ptolemaic system, and some of his arguments – such as that based on tides – were demonstrably wrong in his own time.

Galileo contributed to progress in our understanding of the cosmos. But it would have been as foolish to simply follow Galileo on the basis of what he offered in his time, as it would have been to insist that the consensus could not be wrong. As the relevant evidence amassed, it turned out that Galileo was on the right track but that the actual state of affairs was different than either what his view or the earlier Ptolemaic view proposed.

And so, when it comes to Jesus mythicism, by all means entertain hopes that the scholarly consensus may change. But don’t think that it is appropriate to suggest from the comfort of your armchair that the consensus probably is wrong, and fringe voices that you happen to agree with – whether themselves experts or not – are certain to be vindicated one day. Not all consensuses are wrong, and not all challenges to consensuses are successful or should be. Let scholarship work its course. That’s the best method we’ve found to make progress in getting an increasingly accurate understanding of science, history, and other subjects. It sorted out the questions Galileo wrestled with. Why think that it is now no longer capable of doing so, when in fact we have much greater freedom of expression and more finely honed scholarly methods in place than we did a century ago, to say nothing of several centuries ago.

Returning to the question of the historical Jesus, Carrier bizarrely writes:

But a consensus has zero argumentative value when the individual scholars comprising that consensus have neither (a) examined the strongest case against that consensus nor (b) examined enough of it to be able to identify and articulate significant errors of fact or logic in it. So it is fallacious (indeed, a conspicuously unreliable practice) to just cite the consensus on anything, without first ascertaining whose opinions within that consensus actually count. The most reliable population to heed is that which consists of all qualified experts (those who have requisite expertise in the subject being appealed to, e.g. climate science, evolutionary biology, economics, the historicity of Jesus) who have met either condition (a) or (b), and therefore exclude from consideration all such experts who meet neither condition.

Notably, when questioning the historicity of Jesus, this means excluding from consideration nearly all historians of Jesus. Because almost none have met either condition (a) or (b)…There is something else driving their opinions, something other than a careful and objective examination of the facts.

It is absurd to suggest that most historians have not considered the strongest case for mythicism – by this, is he referring to the deeply flawed nonsense that Earl Doherty has self-published? Or is he referring to his still-forthcoming book? Or is he referring to the arguments that were made and adequately addressed more than a century ago?

It is interesting that he concludes by saying the following:

Generally, eventually, you will find one side to be disproportionately more dishonest about the facts (citing bogus sources, or misrepresenting what those sources say or demonstrate, or not even citing sources for their claims at all, or any evidence you can independently verify) or illogical in its reasoning (and basic competency in detecting fallacies is all you need here, a competency everyone should have, or certainly labor to develop if they don’t).

Then you will know which side’s opinion you can safely discount.

That doesn’t leave any real room for mythicism, does it? It fascinates me how someone can say all the right things regularly on a theoretical level, and yet still have a blind spot when it comes to having been duped themselves by some crackpot theory or other.

When someone who accepts a fringe view tries to convince you that the reason their view is rejected by almost all the experts is because the experts haven’t really looked at the matter properly, I am hopeful that, even without the extensive knowledge of relevant content and data that experts have but you probably do not, you can see the unlikelihood of what is being proposed, and the probability that this is more likely to be motivated reasoning at work than an accurate analysis of the incompetence of the world’s professional scholars.

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