Tips on Not Getting Duped Again – Part IIApril 13, 2011
Part II on the perils of bad apologetics and tips for ferreting out the truth (Part I is here). Here are two more lessons I’ve learned the hard way:
4. Don’t reject the consensus view of experts unless you truly understand it.
First, the caveats: (1) There isn’t always a consensus on a given question. There are some issues – the field of historical Jesus research being one example – where there seems to be almost as many opinions as there are scholars. (2) Even when there is a scholarly consensus, as James McGrath recently pointed out, it can take considerable effort to determine where that consensus lies.
However, the fact that there is uncertainty on some issues does not give you permission to conclude that everything is up for grabs. There are many, many questions in science, history, biblical criticism, etc. on which the evidence has reached a critical mass such that scholars are quite confident about particular conclusions.
What then should you do when you encounter an argument that runs contrary to such a conclusion?
Where there exists a significant consensus among the scholars working, studying and publishing in a given field about a matter within the scope of their expertise, that consensus ought to be accorded great deference by those outside the field. I have learned that I should not reject the consensus view until I am able to explain why it is the consensus view. If I can’t articulate why the consensus view is so popular, I clearly don’t understand it and I shouldn’t presume to challenge it.
Scholars and scientists, on the whole, are not idiots. If at any point you find yourself thinking, “These experts are all fools. How can they believe something so obviously wrong?” chances are, you’re the one who doesn’t get it. There are usually very good reasons behind widely-held conclusions.
This is why I still accept the existence of the hypothetical Q source to explain the agreements between Matthew and Luke where Mark is silent. Mark Goodacre makes (seemingly, to me at least) a compelling case against Q, but I know that I don’t understand the field well enough to weigh his arguments properly. I can’t yet articulate why the majority of scholars reject Goodacre’s hypothesis (that Luke used Matthew as a source) in favor of the Q explanation. Until I can, I have no basis to reject Q in favor of Goodacre’s view, as much as I love Goodacre as a teacher, biblical scholar, and blogger.
Once you do have a good understanding of the rationale behind the consensus view, then by all means, challenge it, deviate from it, side with a minority viewpoint if you think it most persuasive.
Just don’t jump the gun by reading the book of one rogue scholar and suddenly decide that you know better than the rest of the experts in that field.
5. Don’t justify your theory’s lack of acceptance by appealing to a conspiracy
I’ve learned to be very skeptical when someone defends their fringe viewpoint by alleging that there is a latent conspiracy to silence critics of the prevailing theory. This conspiracy apologetic was the strategy behind the embarrassing Expelled movie which attempted to persuade viewers that the reason Intelligent Design isn’t getting a warm reception in scientific circles is that there exists a conspiracy to silence those who challenge accepted evolutionary theory. The real reason, as anyone who works in the field will tell you, is that ID lacks scientific rigor and is continually eroded by further scientific discovery in which natural selection is found doing what ID says it can’t.
The idea that academic institutions hover over their members threatening termination to any scholar foolish enough to rock the boat is nonsense. In the larger academic world, scholars are given considerable freedom to challenge the status quo and rip each other’s ideas apart. In fact, scientists (and academics in general) are always looking to challenge prevailing theories. That’s how you make a name for yourself. That’s how you win a Nobel prize. Scholars who simply toe the line don’t get noticed. The conspiracy excuse betrays a failure to understand the way science and scholarship work.
I don’t mean to suggest that the scientific or scholarly enterprise isn’t beset with internal politics or a reticence to reject established theories. Sure it is. Sometimes new, valid ideas are criticized by the broader academic community at first, only later to be proven correct and gain widespread acceptance. The reluctance of scholars to overturn well-established ideas is a good thing. If scientists readily abandoned the accumulated knowledge of the past in favor of every exciting new idea that came along, the scientific enterprise would be hopelessly confused. It can take time for a novel or minority theory to gain acceptance.
Consequently, there’s an important distinction to draw here. If you’re reading a scholar with a minority viewpoint who laments that others in his field are too wed to the prevailing theory and have not given sufficiently serious thought to alternative explanations, that’s okay (and, yes, I have Goodacre in mind again). That may be true.
Your spidey-sense should kick in, however, when you read someone who claims that his theory is not widely accepted because there exists some sort of conspiracy to hide the truth. These claims usually allege that the establishment knows the prevailing theory is bunk but is afraid to speak out for fear of reprisal (9/11 “Truthers”, for instance, LOVE this argument). As I mentioned above, this excuse betrays a failure to understand academic freedom and competition.
The more sophisticated cousin of the conspiracy-of-silence argument is the one that claims that detractors refuse to consider the merits of an argument, not because they fear reprisal, but because they fear the theory’s implications. The idea is that the majority of scholars are constrained by some sort of a priori philosophical/religious/political commitment that prevents them from seeing the obvious truth of the theory. i.e. They refuse to acknowledge the validity of my theory because they’re materialists/atheists/liberals and are threatened by my theory’s implications for their worldview.
Examine what the opponents are actually saying. If the only objection they have to the theory is that it conflicts with their worldview, then maybe your source has a point. But more often than not, you’ll find that the opponents are taking issue with the theory on its merits. The proponent of the fringe theory is simply flinging ad hominem labels at his detractors while dodging their substantive criticism.
Be skeptical about people who offer these sorts of justifications for their theory’s unpopularity.
A genuine scholar with a valid idea will pursue the hypothesis through further research published in peer-reviewed forums. If the evidence is there, it will eventually gain traction. If, after much effort, a theory is not gaining any traction amongst the best and brightest in the profession, in most cases the problem lies with the theory, not with a shadowy conspiracy to silence dissent.
Hope these tips have been helpful. What do you think? Got any tips of your own?