Should Christians Trust Scientific Experts?
The central question for Christians today is not “should I believe scientific experts?” but “which scientific experts should I believe?"
The issue of expertise lurks underneath the surface of most discussions around Christianity and science. Christians separate into different camps about the proper role for scientific experts or, more fundamentally, whether experts can be trusted. But it is an issue that one cannot avoid. Most Christians evaluate the compatibility of evolution and Christian faith do not have advanced schooling in science or biblical and theological studies. Consequently, they will have to decide whether, or to what degree, they will accept expert opinions about scientific and biblical matters.
The idea of having to trust an expert’s opinion raises worries, which are understandable. How can I be sure that the expert is correct when, as a layperson, I do not have the training to verify what he or she says? To believe an expert requires trust, and trust always carries an element of risk.
The New Testament contains warnings about being misled by the seemingly knowledgeable. In First Corinthians, for example, Paul says (1:20-21): “Where are the wise? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Paul in this chapter explains why he did not come to the Corinthians in the eloquent style of Greek philosophy, which caused some to doubt his authority. Paul says the ornate style of Greek rhetoric is deceptive because these philosophers do not understand the message of the cross.
In American Evangelicalism today, many interpret this verse to mean that we should not trust secular experts because without the gift of the Holy Spirit, they cannot understand the world correctly. On a recent trip, I heard a preacher on the radio explain it this way: “Since the Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture, isn’t he the best teacher to explain what it means?” The message stressed that we could be most certain in our knowledge when we turn away from human opinions and obtain our teaching from God alone. Likewise, the prominence of the “no creed but the Bible” tradition in American Evangelicalism is motivated by the desire to remove all human influence from our interpretation of the Bible, letting the Holy Spirit speak to us through the text. The assumption of many Evangelicals, sometimes explicitly stated, is that human opinion can only interfere with a true understanding of Scripture. This individualistic way of approaching Scripture influences the way we think we should obtain our beliefs more generally.
Because of these worries, some Christians think it is better to try to manage without experts all together. Or at least, experts should only be believed if their opinions can be verified. In the science and Christian faith dialogue, one sometimes hears of “scientific consensus” or “scientific expertise” being discussed in a dismissive way, as if such phrases were always negative. The implication of such a dismissal is that lay Christians with minimal scientific training are supposedly better able to make reasonable judgments about the truth of a scientific theory like evolution.
Though I understand the worries many have about experts, I do not find a general skepticism towards experts to be persuasive. First, though the intent of distrusting experts is to open one’s mind to the Holy Spirit, it can give us false confidence in our own “commonsense” view of the world. This mistake has occurred repeatedly in the history of science. For example, a student of Martin Luther reported him to say this about Copernicus’ theory that the earth orbits the sun: “So it goes now…Whoever wants to be clever…must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down…I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the Sun to stand still, not the Earth.”1 Luther frames the problem as whether one should believe human opinion or divine revelation. Put so starkly, why would any Christian not pick divine revelation? Upon retrospect, however, we can see that Luther’s way of putting the issue made it difficult for him to give Copernicus a fair hearing.
If science has shown us anything, it shows us that our common sense is not always a reliable guide to how the world works; we are standing, after all, on a globe that is spinning approximately 1,000 miles per hour at the equator. Ancient Greek science, with the earth at the center of the universe, aligns more closely with everyday human perception. The lesson I draw from the tendency of commonsense to mislead is that we as Christians should keep an open mind to the claims of experts, especially when there is a strong consensus about a theory. God’s creation might be stranger and more interesting than we assume it could be.
Second, I do not think a skeptical philosophy towards expertise matches how we actually live our lives. Most of the facts that we believe about the natural world—that water molecules are composed of two hydrogen and one oxygen atoms or that we live in a solar system in a vast expanse of space—are beliefs that we have accepted from scientific experts. A general skepticism towards experts fails to recognize how much science we accept without controversy. On most matters, we believe scientists much in the same way that we believe our doctors, accountants, and auto mechanics.
More revealingly, trying to live without experts is like trying to live without creeds or church traditions: They emerge whether you want them or not. Sociologists have noticed, for example, that Evangelicals, who tend to be most distrustful of human authorities, are also more likely to form groups around charismatic figures (e.g., the megachurch phenomenon). In the area of theology and science, even the most strident critics of scientific experts set up their own alternative institutions, publish their own research, cite their own scientific credentials, etc. In practice, critics of scientific expertise themselves function as experts; they just work outside the mainstream institutions of science.
Because reliance upon experts cannot be eliminated, the central question for Christians today is not “should I believe scientific experts?” but “which scientific experts should I believe?” Once we recognize that experts are necessary for a healthy intellectual life, we can then get on with the task of picking the most credible ones.
It did not have to be this way, of course. Upon becoming a Christian, the Holy Spirit could have chosen to reveal all knowledge on heaven and earth to us. But the evidence of both Scripture and Christian history is that God has not chosen this option. We as Christians need other people, both to understand our Bible and our world.
Seeking the opinions of experts hardly solves the problem of finding reliable knowledge; an openness to expertise is only the first step. Experts can disagree and there are far too many experts to trust them all. Because we cannot avoid reliance upon the opinions of others, the question becomes: How can we identify and find trustworthy experts?
In this post, I will lay out six principles that describe the nature of expertise and where to find it. My hope is that if we can find some agreement on general principles, it will facilitate discussions about how to handle particular cases.
Principle 1: We are not intellectually defenseless against experts.
Though we should trust experts, this does not mean we should have blind trust. Part of the reason many reject experts is that we are typically given two choices: 1) use your reason to think for yourself or 2) do not use your reason and put your faith in someone else. This leaves out a third, more compelling, option 3) we should use our reason to help make judgments about which experts to trust.
The ability to reason about experts is, after all, one that we use all the time in modern life. Whenever my car’s oil is changed, I must decide whether the additional packages recommended by my technician are necessary. Likewise, when I read weight loss advice, I pick the most compelling diet based on the credibility of the advice giver. Though we may often make choices about expert advice haphazardly, we should ideally be able to offer good reasons for why we believe in the truthfulness of certain experts over others.
Principle 2: Expertise is a skill.
The expert is not someone who is merely knowledgeable on a subject, but is also able to apply that knowledge to solve problems. Just as the expertise of the car mechanic lies in his or her ability to fix the car, the expertise of a cell biologist lies in his or her ability to manipulate the cell in a petri dish, and so forth.2 The close relation of expertise and skill explains why one cannot become an expert by simply memorizing the information in a scientific textbook.
Thinking of scientific expertise as a skill helps one to avoid the mistake of portraying all scientists as united in believing in a single, naturalistic worldview. In reality, scientists hold to many different worldviews and interpretations of a single experimental outcome. What unites scientists together in a discipline is the ability to solve the same sorts of problems. Two quantum physicists, for example, can work together on the same research project, even though one is an atheist reductionist and the other is a Christian who believes God works through indeterminate particles at the quantum level.
Principle 3: There are different types of expertise.
As a first approximation, I will distinguish between three areas to which expertise can be applied. These distinctions will help when thinking about when we should trust experts and when we should not.
First, there are physical skills, such as when a plumber is able to repair your plumbing or a physicist is able to shoot alpha particles through tin foil. Physical skills are typically easier to verify because they make some difference in the world that non-experts can see, at least in principle. Moreover, physical skills produce outcomes that often can be measured. We know that David Ortiz is an expert hitter because we can compare his slugging percentage to other baseball players. Because physical skills make a difference in the world, we have much more confidence in the legitimacy of the expertise. Even in cases where, for example, we doubt the recommendations of an incompetent plumber, we do not doubt the legitimacy of the plumbing profession itself.
Second, there are conceptual skills, such as when we ask a historian to translate and interpret an ancient document or a lawyer to offer a legal opinion. Because their skills lie in the ability to make an interpretation, they do not make a physical change in the world. Nevertheless, these skills are analogous to physical skills because they too have standards of competence and may require many years to master the ability to make correct interpretations. By their nature, conceptual skills are more nebulous and prone to disagreement. Some fields (e.g., law) are able to offer standardized tests that allow one to prove one’s competence. Other conceptual skills are difficult to standardize, making it sometimes difficult to recognize who has legitimate skills and who does not. Thus in the humanities, one becomes a scholar not by passing a test, but being recognized by a group of peers as having produced a work of sufficient quality.
The third type of skill is harder to name but is easy to characterize, resting on the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. I will call it spiritual skill. Whereas conceptual skill lies in the ability to apply a body of knowledge to solve problems, the skill of the spiritually wise person lies in the ability to integrate information into a whole, to see the big picture. But wisdom is not merely about what one should believe, but also how one should act in the world. In other words, how do I bring my actions into alignment with what is true about the world? For example, a skeptical biblical scholar may be able to go into exhaustive detail about how best to translate a Greek verb but is likely unhelpful in his or her suggestions on applying the biblical text to your life.
Why call this a skill? For one reason, the acquisition of spiritual skills is analogous to the acquisition of physical skills. Just as it takes many years of training to play an instrument, it often takes years of moral transformation in order to be spiritually wise. In fact, it can be closer to physical skill than are conceptual skills. Whereas one can learn conceptual skills through reading books or taking a class, physical and spiritual skills cannot be acquired in this way. This is why many aspiring clergy feel disillusioned with their seminary training because though they now give correct theological answers, they may still lack the spiritual skills needed to lead their congregations.
Principle 4: Institutions are essential for seeking truth.
The need for institutions is a consequence of scientific skill. Scientific education is not a matter of memorizing information but of working through examples to acquire relevant skills. For example, one does not become a physicist by reflecting on the definition of terms in an equation like F=MA, but learning how to identify forces, masses, and accelerations in a number of different contexts.3 After having learned how to solve problems for which there are existing solutions, then students can begin to tackle unsolved problems. Because scientific skills involve tacit knowledge—like riding a bike, it is difficult to convey in writing—they have to be taught in person. Institutions provide the place and length of time where these encounters can happen.
Institutions are not merely places where scientists and students meet; they are organizations that allow scientific inquiry to proceed in a systematic and orderly manner. This principle might be the most controversial given the low view many Americans hold of institutions. Institutions, we are often told, are more interested in accumulating and holding power than finding truth. Thus, the best way to find what is true, in the words of the historian Steven Shapin, is to “forget tradition, ignore authority, be skeptical of what others say, and wander the fields alone.”4
Institutions can often be corrupt, of course, but anti-institutionalists fail to appreciate an equally important point: Our minds are too weak to find truth for ourselves. We accept beliefs for bad reasons; we accept too many answers that fit with our own biases; we accept easy answers when we should keep searching. From a theological point of view, the same sin that infects and corrupts institutions also infects and corrupts individual hearts and minds.
What can be done? When structured correctly, I believe institutions are essential for finding truths because they allow a place for the evaluation of competing views. A comparison between scientific and legal institutions is instructive. The legal system works because it allows rival positions to engage each other fairly, providing rules about what can be said, what counts as evidence, and so forth. Nobody with an intimate knowledge of the American justice system would say that it provides perfect results. Nevertheless, it remains the best system we have for uncovering the truth in a legal context. In a similar way, scientific institutions allow theories to compete with each other using norms that govern the process before a jury of scientific peers. Scientific institutions can and have erred, but they remain our best tool for discovering truths about the natural world.
Principle 5: There are limits to scientific expertise.
As much as there is skepticism towards scientific expertise in the Christian community, it is also fair to say that our wider culture often attributes too much authority to scientists. As many have noted, scientists have replaced clergy in terms of prestige and moral authority in Western culture because scientists are thought to exemplify rationality and objectivity. Many are thus willing to trust statements by scientists even on subjects far outside their scientific field. Richard Dawkins’ interpretations of the Bible are a good example. When discussing whether Christians should trust scientific experts, therefore, it is important to say that there are limits to scientific expertise.
How do we draw these limits? In the previous principle, I made a distinction between physical, conceptual, and spiritual skill, which I think can help one to understand the limits of science.
The clearest example of scientific expert is one with physical skill. By calling it a physical skill, I do not mean to imply that beliefs are unimportant for carrying out the action. Car mechanics need many beliefs in order to work on an engine, for example, but these beliefs are always in service of carrying out some action in the world. The theological beliefs of the practitioner do not make much difference in the performance of a physical skill in most cases. When one needs surgery to remove cancer, for example, one should pick the more skilled surgeon rather than the one that goes to church. Likewise, there are many areas where scientists are able to skillfully manipulate and measure the world, abilities that are not affected by holding to a particular religious viewpoint. Part of the power of science is that persons with different metaphysical and theological assumptions can work together and agree on many aspects of physical reality. Consequently, scientists, like auto mechanics or plumbers, generally should be trusted when their judgments are related to or undergirded by physical skill.
With respect to conceptual skill, one’s theological beliefs can make a difference with respect to expert judgment, but not always. Theological beliefs can shape some of the background beliefs of a theory and influence the judgments that practitioners make. In the legal system, for example, there is a large body of agreement about how to apply certain statutes, otherwise the justice system would collapse. Nevertheless, there are places in the legal system where experts differ on the correct legal interpretation in ways that reveal fundamental theological differences, particularly in certain decisions made by the Supreme Court. In science, the issue comes down to how broad a conceptual interpretation is being offered. Narrow interpretations—and almost all of everyday natural science focuses on narrow questions—make theology less relevant to the analysis. Broad interpretations, such when psychologists try to offer a theory of human nature, very often depend on theological presuppositions.
Finally, as one would expect, theological beliefs play a large role in the domain of spiritual skill. Questions like “how should I live?” and “how do theology and science integrate together?” cannot be answered without presuming a view about the nature of our universe. For Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ provides the framework for understanding ourselves, our Creator, and the ultimate destiny of our world. To the extent that scientists offer opinions in this area, they are outside their area of competence and so are on the same level as any other layperson.
Principle 6: We should take scientific expertise seriously.
I conclude by answering the question in the title of the blog post: Yes, we should believe scientific experts on certain subjects. Or to put it another way, we should take scientific expertise seriously. By seriously, I mean we should not treat science like we often do politics, where people pick sides on issues and then automatically reject claims made by the other side. To take scientific expertise seriously is to approach a scientific theory with an open-mind and awareness of your own lack of knowledge and competence on an issue. One might remain unconvinced by the argument, but a humble approach to the matter will help avoid the problem against which Augustine warned in his commentary on the Book of Genesis: damaging the credibility of the Christian faith by claiming to know things on matters that one is ignorant.
The problem with my suggestion that laypersons take science seriously is that the state of the science in question is often not clear to outsiders. Is this scientific claim backed by scientific consensus or is it in the minority? Is this claim backed by physical skill or does this interpretation need more research to be convincing? The problem of expertise arises here again: the best people to evaluate the expert—to see the strengths and weakness in the theory—are other experts. Without knowledge of the science in question, it is possible to give too much credence to scientific claims that will soon pass away.
In matters where there are significant ramifications for the Christian faith, it is usually best for the Christian community to seek the judgment and advice of Christian scientists who display both scientific skill and spiritual wisdom. Or on issues that involve multiple disciplines, that we bring scholars together in teams that display these traits. This is the value of organizations like BioLogos: they have the resources and people to help Christians see what parts of biology are backed by scientific consensus and help laypersons to make informed choices about where experts disagree. Without faithful scholars who understand science from the inside, the Christian community would be lost. As Paul says in First Corinthians, we are united together in the body of Christ, therefore relying upon the skills and knowledge of other members of the body on specialized topics is a perfectly Christian thing to do.
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