Would You Like Fries With That Theory?
Anti-Darwinists love to ridicule the concept of “scientific orthodoxy,” suggesting that it represents the unsupported collective opinion of many scientists who are basically just “voting” on things. Going against it is considered to be evidence of independent thinking and even courage.
A blogger at Uncommon Descent challenged Bruce Waltke’s “high regard for ‘current scientific orthodoxy’” and scolded Beliefnet columnist Ron Dreher for wondering how a leading academic like Waltke could get in trouble for simply noting that he thought the scientific consensus should be taken seriously.
The blogger went on to pose a most curious question: “Can we no longer confront the data on our own?” The answer to this is so obvious that I am surprised it would even be asked. The answer is “no.” Of course we cannot confront the data “on our own.”
To confront scientific data “on our own” would imply that we have scientific training and experience in whatever area we are looking at. If you say you can interpret fossil data on your own, for example— as biochemist Duane Gish and legal scholar Phillip Johnson tried to do—I would like to give you a brief quiz on fossils: Where might you find a fossil if I asked you to go fetch one? How much of a fossil skeleton is typically present? How do you figure out the age of a fossil? What exactly is a fossil? What parts of a skeleton are most likely to be missing or incompletely fossilized? How do you decide if bones found together are from the same organism?
If you cannot answer simple questions like these then you cannot confront fossil data “on your own.” And fossils are the simplest part of the evolutionary picture. Interpreting genomic data, with its complex biochemical, statistical, and historical underpinnings is not remotely possible without the relevant expertise.
My field is physics. I cannot imagine what it would mean for a layperson to deal with the data of physics and draw their own conclusions. Physics is particularly hard because of the math. If you don’t understand differential equations, then you simply cannot understand quantum mechanics. You can certainly look at the colored lines in a spectrum and somehow imagine that they come from electrons jumping back and forth in the atom, but that is a far cry from understanding what is going on. I earned a math degree en route to my Ph.D. in physics, but I never did learn enough math to understand quarks. I have to rely on specialists in that area.
Furthermore we rarely—if ever—apply this “Professor Everyman” style of reasoning to, say, medical diagnoses. If our child is sick we want our doctor to share the collective wisdom of the medical profession with us and tell us what to do, not hand us some charts and say “Here are the facts. Let me know what medications you want me to prescribe. Or if you think surgery is required.”
The only time we hear calls to stand up and challenge “orthodoxy” is when we don’t like that orthodoxy.
Evolution, Big Bang, and Global Warming are all places where uninformed lay people presume to challenge the scientific community. We hear calls to present both Intelligent Design and evolution to high school students and let them make up their own minds. Is this really a serious proposal? How can this possibly work? Questions that leading scientists with Ph.D.s have explored and debated for decades are to be presented to 17-year-old high school students to adjudicate during a 50 minute class right after lunch?
I need to meet these amazing students.
Professor Everyman would have us believe that the “scientific orthodoxy” or “consensus” is just an opinion poll. Scientists all believe the earth is billions of years old; they all like pepperoni pizza; and they all think blue is a great color. We can be lemmings and go along with the crowd or we can think for ourselves, and order sausage pizza, prefer green, and believe the earth is 10,000 years old.
To go along with the majority in this case is caricatured as abandoning your own thinking in favor of blindly accepting someone else’s. This kind of independent thinking would have rescued poor confused Bruce Waltke, for example, who needed to be “familiar with the current scientific data, rather than the current scientific orthodoxy.”
Unfortunately, only trained specialists can be familiar with scientific data. There are thousands of scientific papers published every month. Even if you focused on one small subfield—say fossils—it would take you years to get to the point where you could deal with the data directly and draw your own conclusions. Even scientists typically do not handle the data directly except in their own small area.
We must understand how the much-maligned consensus emerges in science. Take the age of the earth as an example where a well-defined “orthodoxy” exists. Nobody gathered all the geologists together and asked them “How many of you think the earth is: a) ten thousand years old? b) ten million? c) one billion; d) 4.6 billion? and then counted hands, as though they were choosing a venue for the Christmas party.
The age of the earth was a matter of some controversy for well over a century. Used to dating it at ten thousand years using the Bible, geologists came to understand that it was much older. At first the numbers were varied and uncertain; different dating methods yielded different results. There was no consensus.
But when scientists don’t agree, they work energetically—and generally amicably—to find out what is wrong. Research is done to gather more data; papers are published highlighting the disagreements and asking tough questions. More data is gathered. Conferences are held to address the problem. Very bright young people eagerly go into this field because it is obviously in need of fresh thinking. More data is gathered. Young whippersnappers brashly challenge their elders. Fogeys with their heels dug in gradually become marginalized. More data is gathered. Slowly the discrepancies begin to disappear under a mountain of fresh data until the reasons for the differences vanish and a consensus emerges.
The consensus on the age of the earth not a “consensus of opinion” but a “consensus of data” and a “consensus of methods.” We now understand that there are multiple ways to measure the age of the earth and they all converge on the same value.
To understand science is to understand this process—to appreciate just how much effort is expended over the course of a century as thousands of scientists from different disciplines, different countries, and speaking different languages, gather data and work vigorously until they all get onto the same page—and reach a “consensus”— about what is going on. To suggest that this “data” can be simply handed over to non-specialists so they can make up their own minds is profoundly miss the point of science.
There is a more common term for “scientific orthodoxy” that is widely used in other areas. It is wisdom.
Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.