When the Pastor Lets Us Down

What do we do when the Pastor lets us down, maybe even wounds us? Where does that leave us as far as church is concerned? Do we decide to withdraw from church completely? Or is there a better way?

First – I have been a church pastor, and I am sure I have disappointed people in that role. And I’m sorry about that.

Second – I have known a number of church pastors during my life, and virtually all of them have let me down in one way or another. So – there is a pattern developing here. Church pastors are people, and people are imperfect. They let other people down, and they do things they are ashamed of.

Consequently, pastors just do not belong on the pedestal that so many in their congregations want to place them on. It’s tough when the pastor is a likeable, and gifted communicator. You want to hold them up there. But – it is never a good idea, and it does not reflect reality. It’s worse when the pastor seems to think they deserve to BE on a pedestal! Spoiler alert – church pastors get it wrong, just like the rest of us.

Perhaps you’ve been in a church setting and had a touch of this. Sometimes it can be more serious than that. Maybe you’ve experienced bullying, intimidation or manipulation. You’ve endured the pastor’s need to control and be the power person. Perhaps you’ve suffered gaslighting, being undermined and misrepresented in public and private, and this has been a horrible experience for you. Recently, various serious and heartbreaking stories have come to light about high profile church pastors and their unseemly behaviour. The latest report is of the late Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, who abused multiple women during his ministry.

So – what do we do with all that?

First – we recognise that Christianity is all about saving broken people. The church is there to rescue those who are lost. And the reality is that, when we respond to Christ and become a Christian, we are just at the start of a process of life change. We don’t become perfect right away. Rather, God starts the job of changing us from the inside out.

Pastors are also people who have been saved by Christ, and aren’t perfect. But crucially, they need to cooperate with Christ in the process of life change. Everyone is on that road, church pastors included.

Second – Christianity says clearly that the only perfect person that has lived – is Jesus. And so, he is the only one deserving of the pedestal that we may have mistakenly put the pastor on.[1]

Third – every person has weak spots. Maybe it’s how we use our tongue, or maybe it’s sexual temptation, or something else. What the pastor finds in the course of their job, that their weak spot is attacked when they are in their public position. Everyone has weaknesses – we might hide ours, but we might learn about the pastor’s weaknesses because they are a public figure.

Fourth – this does not minimise the seriousness of a leader’s sin. It was Jesus himself who encouraged little children to come to him, and warned that anyone who caused little vulnerable ones to fall, would be in serious trouble with God.[2] So, there is a warning here for leaders. We are given the responsibility to care for vulnerable people. We are heading into trouble if we abuse the very people we are supposed to care for.

 

If I’ve been wounded by a leader, does this undo all the good that leader did?

I like the way the Christian leader and Theologian N T Wright puts it. It doesn’t undo the good they have done but it casts a shadow on it.[3] The good messages they shared remain good, the positive arguments remain good arguments even if the person sharing them has a shadow in their life.

Actually, this leaves us as the wounded party to do some work to do in OUR lives.

First – we must remember that Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”[4] So – we need to be looking at those words, accepting them and believing them and applying them to our situation as we pray them every day.

Second – our job is therefore to forgive the pastor who has hurt us. Why? Because if we are a Christian we enjoy God’s forgiveness, and so he expects us to share that with others who need it. Pastors included.

 

What do I do with feelings of betrayal?

Wright observes that our culture either wants people on pedestals, or it wants them crashing down to the ground, Harvey Weinstein style. There’s no “in-between” allowed. Yet the “in-between” is the reality because life and human beings are complex. Yet God’s big enough to deal with this complexity.

“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.”[5]

We enjoy God’s free acceptance even though we let people down. We need to give our feelings to him and allow God to make us into people who share the undeserved love we have ourselves received. Even to our betrayer.

 

But what if the pastor doesn’t think they have done anything wrong, yet I am still feeling hurt?

Well, sometimes the pastor needs to feel they have the moral high ground at all times. We may be sceptical of the truth of that, seeing it just as another lever of control. Yet the truth is, it is not our responsibility to police them in this. That’s God’s job. Our responsibility is to keep our side of the street clean, to ask God to help us forgive them…and walk God’s road of forgiveness for us towards them. It’s probably not going to be a short road!

 

What do I say to people who point to this situation and say, “All Christians are hypocrites.”

Well – frankly, everyone is guilty of hypocrisy in some way shape or form. When we take a position of judgement on someone else, we are probably conveniently forgetting everything we would rather keep hidden in our own lives.

But even tho Christians are as broken as everyone else, Christianity has always from the beginning focussed on developing some particular areas of virtue. N T Wright observes that these 1st-century virtues were distinctly Christian:[6]

  • Patience
  • Chastity
  • Forgiveness
  • Kindness

Christians just admit their need to grow in these and other virtues. And as we grow in virtue, we become ever more conscious of our weaknesses. As the old hymn says:

And none, O Lord, have perfect rest,
For none are wholly free from sin;
And they who fain would serve Thee best
Are conscious most of wrong within.[7]

I am not perfect. But – I’m painfully aware of my weak spots. And I’m pretty sure I’d be a whole lot worse if I was not a Christian.

Maybe you aren’t a Christian and you think that, “Well, I’m not a Christian and I’m doing just fine thanks.” Well – maybe you are doing better than me in your life. But what additional potential awaits you if you were to become a follower of Jesus? Lots!

 

But what if I’m wounded and I just don’t trust the church anymore?

Perhaps we need to heal, and to take the opportunity to do that.

But if we are a Christian who remains isolated from church family, we will lose a lot. And – we will struggle to hang on to our faith in Christ. As N T Wright says, find another good Christian church where you will receive kindness, affirmation and friendship.[8] That’s what the church is for, and it’s what all Christians need.

[1] Hebrews 2:10.

[2] Matthew 18:1-6.

[3] Ask N T Wright Anything Podcast, 33. #31 Jean Vanier and when leaders let us down, February 28th, 2020.

[4] Matthew 6:12.

[5] Romans 3:23-24, NLT.

[6] N T Wright, podcast.

[7] At Even When the Sun Was Set, hymnal.net, https://www.hymnal.net/en/hymn/h/757.

[8] N. T. Wright, podcast.

Surviving Philosophy Class

So – it’s the first day of your new Philosophy 101 class. Now, this is not a subject you know too much about, so you are a bit nervous. But – at the same time – you want to learn as much as you can from this class. So – you select a seat on the front row, and you sit down.

The professor greets the class and he says, “Here are five common Philosophical statements that you’ll hear regularly in our culture.” He starts writing…

 

  1. There is no God.
  2. You do not have free will.
  3. You do not know that you exist.
  4. You do not know that other people exist.
  5. You will not escape the death of your body.

 

He turns to face the class. “Sound familiar?”

You review the list and, for sure, numbers 1, 2 and 5 ring a bell for you! But what about 3 and 4? Actually – he’s made an interesting point. How DO I know that I exist…not to mention the other students in the room…and the professor himself?

The professor speaks again. I’m going to show you in a couple of minutes now how we are going to address each of these common philosophical statements in this class. And – by the way – I think all five of these statements are WRONG. Here’s why:”

 

1. We can argue that GOD EXISTS.

The Kalam Cosmological argument points to the universe and says this:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

 

2. You DO have Free Will

Studies on human consciousness and how we engage in the world as conscious beings give us overwhelming evidence that we do possess free will. And – frankly – we live each day of our lives assuming that fact. Besides – there is no good reason to suppose that you and I do not possess free will.

 

3. You DO Know that You Exist

Descartes in the 16th century said, “I think, therefore I am.” By this he meant that, because I am thinking, I can know that I exist. If I ponder my existence and attempt to convince myself that I do NOT exist, I am therefore engaging in conscious thought what proves that I do in fact exist.

 

4. You CAN Trust Your Senses and Know that Other People Exist

Think about the people that matter most to you. Now, it seems to me we have a choice of three actions we can take here:

  1. Truth neither our reason nor our senses and dismiss everything. But this seems pointless.
  2. Trust our reason but not our senses. But why would we do that? It seems wholly inconsistent.
  3. Trust our reason and our senses and believe in the external world, and therefore the people who live there.

Philosopher Thomas Reid concluded, our reasoning faculties as, “all fitted by Nature to produce belief in the human mind, some of them in the highest degree, which we call certainty, others in various degrees according to circumstances.”[1]

5. You Have A Soul

People all have a strong intuition that they are disembodiable. In other words, we sense that we could still exist even if our bodies did not. Now we may dismiss that intuition with our reason…but the intuition remains all the same. Well – this is the idea that we HAVE bodies, but we are not “one and the same” with out bodies.

There is evidence that this is how the world works. Consider your parents or grandparents. Their bodies have grown old, but they have the sense that they as persons have not. The professor scratches his head. “I can’t believe I’m 51,” he exclaims, “but you’re as old as you feel…right?

Also, your body is divisible, but you aren’t. Imagine you are involved in an accident and you lose one of your fingers. Are you any less a person as a result? Sure, your capacity for achieving intricate actions with your hands may be impaired, so your actions and your approaches to life might be affected. But have you lost a bit of yourself by losing a finger? How about a leg? No – you are still you. You just need to adjust to living life in a slightly different way.

What about your brain? Sure, brain states have physical properties. But you also have mental states that do not have physical properties. Areas of the brain fire when exposed to stimuli. But you can’t scan the brain and find evidence of the red unicorn you were just thinking about. This suggests two different things. Your brain states are caused by the firing of neurons in the brain. And this is linked in a mysterious way to mental states, experiences in your soul. Hey – there are many things in life that we know to exist, but cannot see. Is the soul that much different from those?

Conclusion

The professor puts down the pen and eyes the class. “Right,” he says. “Any questions?”

Adapted from Philosophy 101 You are Wrong About Everything, https://thedailyapologist.com/philosophy-101-you-are-wrong-about-everything/

[1] Cuneo, Terence, and René van Woudenberg. The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid. Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 150.

Are Atheists More Intelligent?

Showing your Christian convictions online leads to some people assuming you are probably irrational and so unable to think critically and logically. Now, as someone with an undergraduate degree in Computer Science, and two post graduate degrees in other fields (and a career in the development and application of embedded software) I’ve always scratched my head at this state of affairs. Why would anyone I don’t know, automatically assume that I am not an analytical or critical thinker? That I’m stupid? This feels like … bias. And maybe even raw prejudice. But is it generally true? Are atheists just generally smarter people?

One helpful person on Twitter assured me that the majority of Christians today are “poor and ignorant” souls. Well, a very recent study was done by Zuckerman and Miron, and their conclusion may bear out this Twitter opinion. The study says that “our findings support the view that intelligent people are less religious because they are more rational.”[1] Atheists are more rational that believers.

This is a fascinating conclusion. I think it struggles to account for a broad range of contemporary evidence suggesting atheists are generally no smarter than believers.

Let me explain.

First – because recent history is full of influential critical, scientific thinkers who were professing Christians.

Did you know that in the twentieth century, over 65% of Nobel Prize winners in science believed in God? That’s between 1901 and 2000. The majority were Christians, receiving awards for advancements in physics and medicine. Surely these fields require analytical, critical and logical thinking, and these individuals were at the very top of this game?[2]

Throw the net further afield, and the most recent study that explored the relationship between scientists and religious faith shows that over 51% of currently active professional scientists in the last 10 years have a religious belief.[3]

Clearly this data makes a compelling case that it is not a disadvantage to have a religious belief when it comes to an analytical job like a field of science. Actually – as an aside – I would argue that ALL people have a faith position. Everyone. We just disagree on the identity of the real God.

In summary then, I feel the assumption that atheists are smarter than Christians is not borne out in the field of science. In fact, the data might suggest the opposite conclusion, as more religious believers are Nobel Laureates.

Second – because there is evidence that the conclusions of the Zuckerman study were driven by skewed data and (ironically) incorrect correlations between data and their conclusion.

The problems with this recent study are discussed in the video, “Are Atheists More Intelligent”[4] and they make a rational, analytical and critical case. They argue that there is evidence that:

  1. The higher our IQ, the more likely we are to have a blind spot on our personal biases.
  2. The Zuckerman study defines religiosity in a confusing way, focussing on extreme viewpoints rather than the mainstream and conflating different viewpoints. On mainstream religiosity the data does not suggest Christians are disadvantaged regarding intelligence.
  3. The study does not quantify how much more intelligent atheists are compared to religious believers.
  4. Believers outnumber atheists in this study by 9 to 1. The equations they use does not work on this sort of skew in the data, so it generates misleading results that suggests atheists IQ was significantly higher. Yet this is not seen in the data they used. This renders the study results meaningless.
  5. Their measure of intelligence was completely non-standard, and ignored the gold standard measurements – Wechslier Adult Scale of Intelligence (WAIS) and Stanford Binet Test. They didn’t properly correlate religiosity to these gold standards.
  6. When they included university GPA scores, the difference in intelligence between atheists and believers was virtually non-existent and too small to have any practical significance. Did they choose not to include this measure because it adversely affected their misleading conclusions to the study? I wonder.

The folks analysing this study suggest that what is happening here is that Zuckerman et al are actually shoe-horning their own anti-Christian biases into this data.

Third – because there is mounting evidence that Christians in post Christian cultures are smart people.

Inspiring Philosophy also cite another recent study which makes an interesting observation about Christians in post-Christian cultures. In countries like England (where I happen to live), the link between analytical thinking and religiosity reverses. Here, it’s the atheists who tend towards less analytical thought. Why? Because for most people, there is a desire to conform to the mainstream, which may be atheism. The deeper thinkers are the ones who choose a different view on religiosity.

“In cultures where institutional religion is waning and where acceptance of atheism arises from tendencies to conform, it is possible that cognitive reflection may predict the rejection of atheism, a matter for future investigation.”[5]

This seems to suggest that people with low analytic intelligence tend to confirm to the majority view, whatever that is. This study suggests that to be a Christian believer in post-Christian England clearly takes work and the application of intelligence.

Conclusion

Atheists aren’t smarter than Christians. Contrary to the bullying and intimidation that happens online, and the prejudice that is sometimes shown against Christian believers, there is no convincing reason to suggest that higher levels of analytical thinking lead to atheism. So Christians should not feel any need to feel intimidated by those who are simply going along with the crowd, and repeating old atheistic ideas. When you take a good look at them, these ideas really do not hold up to scrutiny.

 

[1] Zuckerman, Miron, et al, The Negative Intelligence-Religiosity Relation: New and Confirming Evidence,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, October 2019, 10, quoted in “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

[2] John Lennox, How Many Nobel Prize Winners Believed in God, 23rd January 2019, accessed 26th January 2020, https://www.johnlennox.org/resources/145/how-many-nobel-prize-winners.

[3] Scientists and Belief, Pew Research Center Religion & Public Life, November 5th, 2009, accessed 26th January, 2020, https://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/.

[4] “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

[5] Gervais, Will M. et al, Analytical Atheism: A Cross-Culturally Weak and Fickle Phenomenon?, 2017, 272, quoted in “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

Rise of the Machines?

This summer, I had lunch with Doctor Mihretu Guta at Biola University. Mihretu specialises in the areas of metaphysics and the philosophy of mind. That particular day over lunch, he was speaking to us about his assessment of the field of artificial intelligence. And he has some fascinating observations to make here. You can listen to Mihretu talk about AI on Sean McDowell’s recent podcast.[1]

I would summarise his important points like this:

 

First – today we enjoy the benefits of weak AI.

We’ve got very useful computer based tools available to us today. Our phones incorporate facial recognition technology, self-driving cars are coming on line, we use SIRI to help us talk to and locate people, and we can order products from Amazon that get to us incredibly quickly. These are partly to do with computer tools, or weak AI.

What is weak AI? It is a machine which is fed an algorithm, a set of instructions that we gave it. It follows those instructions correctly, quickly and hopefully reliably!

By convention, we call these things AI. But these technologies are not thinking machines. They are not engaging in conscious thought. They are simply doing what we told them to do, and triggering on certain events to achieve certain tasks.

 

Second – strong AI is what some people are trying to get to.

In strong AI, people are talking about a conscious machine. Something that becomes creative and begins to spawn its own machines. But it is hard to see how you can get from a machine following an algorithm to a machine creating brand new algorithms out of its own creativity.

 

Third – we sometimes speak of weak AI like it is strong AI.

A confusion occurs in culture.

The AI we are talking about today is purely functional. It is doing tasks within a very specific context. It is not a thinking, creative machine that decides what it wants to do and works out its own way to do it. But – we begin to talk like it is. We import ideas from books and movies we like, and sometimes we fool ourselves that our cool gadgets are strong AI.

We may talk of strong AI, but there are issues to face when trying to create it:

1 – We are the thinking beings here, and we are the ones inventing machines. Thinking always requires a thinker to be somewhere. We therefore have ONTOLOGICIAL SUPERIORITY over machines. We are always the ones that built them.

2 – However clever our machines appear to be, they cannot take away from us our ontological superiority over them.

3 – Miharetu does not think people have a metaphysical property as rational beings to bring about a conscious being that is similar in kind to us.

4 – Miharetu is joined in this scepticism toward strong AI by John Searle, who is a naturalistic philosopher of mind. Searle also rejects the notion that we can invent a strong AI.

 

Fourth – an important step to strong AI is an understanding of consciousness.

We have to understand what consciousness is before we can create machines that are conscious. Yet no one is even thinking about this. He observes that the AI researchers today usually dismiss the subject of consciousness in 3 lines. They haven’t even tried to grapple with this area.

Part of the problem is that consciousness is something we have. It is deeply subjective and requires someone to be conscious. It is not something we can dissect from a third person perspective. Rather, it is something we experience. Thinking always requires a thinker.

Machines aren’t conscious. We cannot even articulate what our consciousness is, never mind imbue some machine with it.

 

Five – we are simply of a different order from our machines.

Whoever we are, we have the ability to navigate our way through life, following our own thoughts and ideas and intentions. We create opportunities and respond to events that occur from our own rational, creative and conscious selves. We have general intelligence. We live in our environment and we cope within it, we adjust. We establish a social network, we conduct our lives appropriately.

Machines are different order from us. They lack this general rationality. We give them rules to follow and they don’t think about it, they just do it. We are simply of a different order from them. We can build them to mimic human characteristics, but they are not thinking as they do so. They are simply following the instructions we programmed them with.

[1] Artificial Intelligence and Our View of Human Persons, Think Biblically Podcast, accessed 19th November 2019, https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/artificial-intelligence-our-view-human-persons-mihretu/id1300837524?i=1000453915653.

 

Faith of the Scientist

I’ll often hear people say things like, “I have no time for faith. I live my live on reason, observation and evidence.” Really?

I see. Well – let’s see how that works, shall we?

 

Lets imagine a scientist is doing some rigorous analysis, studying something in nature. How about, the behaviour of enzymes in the human digestive system. Well – I agree. That scientist is going to use reason, she’s going to make observations and also appeal to the evidence she gathers as she reaches her conclusions. But – what else is going on as she does so?[1]

 

1 – She BELIEVES that her senses are trustworthy. In other words, she has faith that as the facts reveal themselves to her, that she has the abilities to detect them via her senses. That she can know facts using human senses.

2 – She BELIEVES that her mental faculties are trustworthy. And – she believes the peer group that reviews her work – also have trustworthy mental faculties. These scientists trust their rational faculties. They just take for granted, for example, that their rational faculties allow them to perceive, compare, combine, remember and infer. In other words, these people believe their mental faculties are reliable and can be used to reach legitimate conclusions.

3 – She BELIEVES certain critical truths that she has NOT learned thru scientific observation alone:

  • Every effect must have a cause
  • The same cause under like minded circumstances will produce the same effect.

4 – She BELIEVES it is moral and right to use her rational faculties, not to manufacture and make up things, but to accurately observe the behaviour of these enzymes, and report them as honestly and rigorously as she can.

 

That’s a lot of faith / belief before we start our scientific analysis. Don’t you think? Perhaps you and I are in the same boat whether we do science or not. People often appeal to science because it holds a lot of authority in our culture today. But what is science actually grounded upon?

Sir John Polkinghorn has said:

“Science does not explain the mathematical intelligibility of the physical world, for it is part of science’s founding faith that this is so.”

Professor of Mathematics, John Lennox, has continued.[2] You cannot begin to do physics without believing in the intelligibility of the universe. And on what evidence do scientists base their faith? Lennox observes the following:

1 – Human reason did not create the universe.

2 – Humans did not create our own powers of reason either. We can hone them, but we didn’t originate them.

How odd then that what goes on our tiny heads actually gives us anything near a true account of the behaviour of the staggering universe in which we inhabit? This is truly an unreasonable conclusion…from the perspective of atheism.

BUT – for a theist – the grounding beliefs of the scientist and the observations above make perfect sense. And they resonate perfectly with:

In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God … All things came to be through him.” (John 1:1,3)

[1] Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism, (New York: Trinity Press International, 2007), 33-34, summarised.

[2] John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything, (Oxford: The Good Book Company, 2019), loc 526.

Joker and the Cost of Nihilism

The reports were correct. For a comic book movie, Joker is unusually violent. Very violent, in fact. Yes I’ve seen it. No, I didn’t walk out. But I had to shut my eyes a few times.

(No spoilers below)

Director Todd Phillips portrays violence in the actions of his characters, but also in their uncaring, selfish and brutal attitudes towards each other. Violence is nothing new in cinema. But violence with no mitigating circumstances? Or apparent consequences? Personal pain turning into raw and unchained nihilism? It’s a tough watch. I’m grateful that Phillips clearly telegraphs the oncoming violence in his movie so that the audience has time to look away if they want to.

There is concern about the effect this film will have on culture. The tragic Aurora cinema shooting of 2012 was mistakenly linked to perceived glorification of violence in the earlier Dark Knight movies.[1] Well, Joker is a well-made and gritty homage to the Scorsese and Friedkin pictures of the 1970s. It feels like The French Connection in places. The cult status of the Joker character has caused people to worry that Aurora could happen again, a “wider cultural conversation is bound to crop up … [about] the influence these movies have on the national mood.”[2] Could the new Joker movie inspire copycat behaviour in certain types of people in its audience?

Well – I can’t speak for anyone else. I didn’t think Joker glorified or promoted acts of violence (physical + non-physical), even though certain scenes in the movie graphically show it. Rather – I think the filmmaker assumes you bring your moral sensibilities to the movie, and he spends a couple of hours facing you with a growing “sense of rage [that] pulses through Joker and makes it a compelling viewing experience.”[3] Yet it left me with a sense of utter tragedy and loss. This is the result of someone choosing to empower themselves through acts of violence. Joaquin Phoenix has said, “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong.”[4] I’m no filmmaker, but I’m an inherently moral human being. And – I think Phoenix is right about what he says.

Here’s another way to put it. The movie WORKS because we are essentially moral creatures. If we weren’t, then nihilism would be the norm. What is nihilism? It’s an idea that says that nothing is real or matters, particularly religious and moral principles.[5] Life is meaningless. So, who cares if I eliminate people that get in my way? Those acts are of no ultimate importance. Under nihilism. But this is simply wrong. Murder does matter, whatever the reason. It is because we are moral beings, that acts of unbridled violence are deeply unsettling to us. And – rightly so. Nihilism is a broken and dangerous idea.

Ideas have a big impact on people. So does nihilism. One consistent and possible outcome of nihilism is portrayed in Joker. And look at the results:

  • mental breakdown.
  • loss of relationships.
  • casual destruction of the family unit.
  • loss of life.
  • misery.
  • terror.
  • social unrest.

Will Joker impact society? No doubt. But I think it would have done its job well if it underlines the cost of any nihilist tendencies within us. Look at it. They are just not worth this cost!

There is a better way to live. One that won’t leave you always running from a caped vigilante…

[1] Untangling the Controversy Over the New Joker Movie, The Atlantic, accessed 6th October 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/10/joker-movie-controversy/599326/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nihilism, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, accessed 6th October, 2019, https://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/.

RESPONDblog: The Danger of Scientific Consensus

When discussing scientific theories, it can be tempting to appeal to the consensus view of scientists when we want to silence a new theory that we don’t like. This has been done to me in online discussions by people who disagree with my position. And – frankly – I’ve not really known how to respond beyond just saying, “okay…if you say so!” However – I’m coming to think that an  appeal to consensus is not only unjustified, but its also dangerously unscientific.
In his book “Undeniable”, the biologist Doug Axe recounts his experience as an undergraduate student sitting one of his first University exams. One test question asked which macro molecule was most apt to have been the first “living” molecule. Doug decided to give the correct answer to the question, but he then decided to continue his answer by pointing out why he felt that no molecule actually had what it takes to “start life off” by itself. He did this anticipating extra credit from his professor for his creative thinking.

What he got – was marked down.

Why?

Because, “we students were expected not only to know current thinking in biology but also to accept it without resistance. We were there as much to be acculturated as educated.” (1)

Axe goes on to point out that in the conclusion of the first edition of Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species”, Darwin voiced his hope that scientists would stop rejecting his theory of evolution, and one day they might gradually take it on board. To Darwin’s surprise (I’m sure), within a period of just three years, we read in the sixth edition of the book that

“Now things are wholly changed, and almost every naturalist admits the great principle of evolution.” (2)

What caused the change? Was it a scientific discovery? No – because as Axe points out, Darwin would have recorded the discovery and attributed the change to it. (3) No, instead “peer pressure is a part of science…scientific interests compete against one another for influence…might the sudden change in Darwin’s favour have been more like a change of power than a change of minds.” (4)

Human influence and power turned the tide opinion. Not scientific discovery. Ironically – it was Darwin at the time of his book’s first edition who was the one straying from the herd…not complying with the consensus view at the time on the origin of biological life. Consensus doesn’t move us forward. As Axe says, “those rare people who oppose the stream are the ones to watch.” (5)

In other words – scientists from the past were influenced by human factors as well as data factors. Possibly more so. Our deference to consensus seems to be about sticking with the herd and not straying too far from it. And discouraging others from straying from the consensus view. If that was true for scientists back then – its sure to be true now. Arthur Koestler talks about this principle in play during the formation of cosmology. It’s also present in biology too.

Now – I’m not suggesting accountability is wrong. Not so – our colleagues keep us honest. What I am criticising – is consensus. Or to put it another way – “group think” holds creative scientific discovery back. It hurts scientific understanding by slowing the formation and adoption of new theories.

Here are three observations about the scientific process and the dangers of group think:

First – this suggests to to me that it takes courage to be the one to stand up and disagree with the consensus – and propose a new idea. It takes courage to put forward a new theory, and back that theory up with evidences. Courage is required because, inevitably, rejection will follow from your peers.

Second – it also suggests to me that scientific consensus does not equate to truth. I wish Darwinians today could wrap their heads around this. Just because the consensus of scientists agree on something does not make their theory true, however scientifically orthodox it may currently be. Rather – the consensus is simply that. The widely held public view of qualified people today. Tho in private – they may say something else entirely.

Thirdly – it suggests to me that anyone who rejects a new theory based on the views of scientific consensus is missing the point of science, and actually behaving in an unhelpful and non-scientific way. Consensus is just the current status quo. Humanity needs people of courage to stand up and propose something that’s new so it can be examined and tested. To simply reject this on the basis of personal and consensus led bias…seems unscientific and harmful to the scientific enterprise as a whole.

The answer to a new scientific theory is not, “Don’t be so silly. No one else believes that because its stupid.” Rather – the answer should be, “That’s an interesting idea. Let’s test it together.”

Scientific consensus is harmful to the progress of scientific understanding.

Michael Crichton, who went to Medical school and taught anthropology before he authored books like Westworld and Jurassic Park, stood against scientific consensus much more strongly then either Doug Axe or myself. He calls the notion of scientific consensus “pernicious…and the refuge of scoundrels, because it’s the way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled.” Oh – how familiar that problem is to me today.

I’ll end with a Crichton quote.

“I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.

Let’s be clear: The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period. . . .

I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way. .” (6)

(1) Douglas Axe, Undeniable How Biology Confirms our Intuition That Life Is Designed, (Harper One, 2016), 3.

(2) Online Variorum of Darwin’s Origin of Species: first British edition (1859) comparison with 1872, http://test.darwin-online.org.uk/Variorum/1859/1859-483-c-1872.html

(3) Axe, 5.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Axe, 6.

(6) Michael Crichton, “‘Aliens Cause Global Warming’Links to an external site.,” reprinted in Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2008.