Joe Carter says facts and truth are subjective matters of opinion

Joe Carter says facts and truth are subjective matters of opinion October 19, 2011

Joe Carter of First Things is horrified that Karl Giberson and Randall J. Stephens would dare to besmirch the honor of intellectual giants like David Barton, Ken Ham and James Dobson.

Carter leaps to their defense with a two pronged strategy of First Things’ usual self-aggrandizing  huff-and-puffery (calling their op-ed “the type of sophomoric, bias-confirming piece that no reputable publication would touch”) and of some kind of post-postmodern radical rejection of all epistemology.

The core of Carter’s argument is that there is no such thing as truth or fact or reality. “Most of us evangelicals,” he says, “have been taught to think for themselves [sic].” Well, OK. Thinking for yourself is good, right?

But as the saying goes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. And by “think for themselves,” what Carter means is that everyone is entitled to their own facts. People who “think for themselves,” he says, should be free to come to whatever conclusions they choose about whether evolution is true, whether climate change “is real and caused by humans,” whether “the founders were evangelicals who intended America to be a Christian nation,” and whether “reparative therapy can ‘cure’ homosexuality.”

Here is the core of Carter’s disagreement with Giberson and Stephens. Giberson and Stephens regard those questions as objective matters of fact that ought to be answered according to evidence. Carter regards those questions as wholly subjective, to be answered according to personal preference.

Were Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine “evangelicals who intended America to be a Christian nation”? Giberson and Stephens would say no, in fact, they were not evangelicals and they did not intend America to be a Christian nation. Joe Carter says “think for yourself” — what do you want to be true? Go with that and don’t let any sophomoric, bias-confirming facts sway you one way or the other.

Is climate change “real and caused by humans”? Giberson and Stephens look at the evidence and say that yes, in fact, it is. Carter says this slavish devotion to evidence and fact is just another form of “fundamentalism.” Free your mind and the facts will follow.

What seems to have upset Carter the most in their op-ed was their criticism of James Dobson for advocating “reparative therapy.” Carter, oddly, cites a study that he says claims to show that reparative therapy works. So, wait, suddenly studies and evidence and science matter? Because just a minute ago Carter said they didn’t. This reflects another great advantage to rejecting reason and reality — you don’t need to worry about consistency. If Carter isn’t concerned with contradicting reality, then he doesn’t need to be concerned with contradicting himself either.

After saying that all criticism of reparative therapy is “politicized,” Carter writes:

However, for open-minded researchers, the efficacy of repartive therapy is still open to scientific investigation. Recently, Stanton Jones, a psychology professor and provost at Wheaton College, and Mark Yarhouse, a professor of mental health at Regent University, published a study in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy that showed that some homosexuals who seek to change their sexual orientation may be able to do so with the help of religious mediation. Will that cause the APA to reconsider their position? Of course not. The APA is not an organization to be swayed by empirical results.

Carter includes a link from the words “published a study.” It does not link to the study. It links, instead, to a deliriously misleading article about the study from The Christian Post. Yes, The Christian Post. Now we know what Carter means when he sniffs about “reputable publications.”

Carter says Jones and Yarmouth “showed that some homosexuals who seek to change their sexual orientation may be able to do so.” Jones and Yarmouth themselves say that their “results do not prove that categorical change in sexual orientation is possible for everyone or anyone, but rather that meaningful shifts along a continuum that constitute real changes appear possible for some.”

And that’s different. The study does not show what Carter claims it shows. I suppose that’s just evidence that he’s not a fact-fundamentalist and that he’s “thinking for themself.”

Warren Throckmorton offers a much more fact-driven consideration of that study, of what it does and doesn’t claim to show, and of how it is being misused by people like Carter:

Categorical change — moving from a homosexual orientation to a heterosexual one — is not what has been reported by the Jones and Yarhouse. Clearly some people reported changes which allowed them to make an attribution change to themselves – they feel more straight and so they identify with the label. However, the absolute shifts on average were modest, leading to the assessment from Jones and Yarhouse that “meaningful shifts along a continuum that constitute real changes appear possible for some.”

… the concept of bisexuality is not satisfactorily addressed by the study or by reviewers. Bisexuals I have spoken to describe their lives as a series of shifts. For whatever reason, the direction of their attractions shifts with time and/or with relationships. From their point of view, they are not changing orientation when they fall in love with an opposite sex person after a period of same-sex relationships. Instead, they are flexing along a continuum, all of which is understood to be within their essential orientation. …

I am disappointed that the study has re-ignited the “change is possible” political machine. There is fluidity for some people in their sexual attractions, however this says very little about the experience of people who don’t experience that fluidity. Change of orientation for a small group of people is one hypothesis. However, there are other explanations. I think explanations incorporating the reality of bisexuality, cross orientation relationships, and male-female differences are also plausible. In fact, I think they are more plausible.

We should note as well that Jones and Yarhouse conducted a “longitudinal study of individuals seeking sexual orientation change through involvement in a variety of Christian ministries affiliated with Exodus International.” John J. Smid, who served on the board of Exodus for 11 years and served as director of one of those affiliated ministries, sums up his more than 20 years of experience in that work this way: “I’ve never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual.”

Smid considers the evidence of his experience and, unlike Carter, he thinks his beliefs should adapt to that evidence. Carter believes that the freedom to “think for themselves” and to be entitled to our own facts means that the evidence should be forced to adapt to our beliefs.

That’s why he expends so much energy explicitly attacking any fact-based arbiter of reality — scientists, historians, The New York Times, the American Psychological Association, etc. Can scientists, historians, the Times and the APA ever be wrong? Of course, and they frequently will be. But Carter’s isn’t interested in criticizing or correcting any such particular errors, he’s attempting to tear down any influence they may have and the entire epistemology of tested and confirmed facts that they represent.

How else could he possibly go about defending people like David Barton and Ken Ham? How else could he continue defending those who say evolution is a myth, climate-change is a fabrication, heterosexuality is a choice and Thomas Jefferson was a theocrat?



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