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I’m beginning to see a pattern here

October 15th, 2016

I seem to have had this feeling of deja vu before! 🙂 Conversations on the internet where the topics were very different, but the discussions seem to go in the same direction.

The other person might be an atheist or they might be a christian, but I seem to end up saying the same things.

Different topic, similar argument

These summaries come from many discussion on each of these topics.

Evolution vs creationism

I accept the science of evolution, but many christians do not. I believe the evidence (DNA, fossils, radiometric dating, etc) points to evolution being true – or else that God has made the world so it looks like evolution is true. But creationist christians I have met generally don’t address these evidences.

These critics tend to find small aspects of evolution that they can throw doubt on, and argue this shows the whole theory is false. They generally lack qualifications and experience in biology, but feel they can dismiss the conclusions of those who have relevant qualifications. Often they think the evolutionary scientists (even including christians like Francis Collins) have some agenda to foist a lie on the rest of us. They think the scientists are anti-creation because they are biased against God, but they don’t think their own biases discredit their viewpoint. They want me to believe them rather then the consensus of thousands of experts.

Are Jesus and Nazareth historical?

Almost all ancient and New Testament historians, whether christian or not, conclude that the historical evidence is quite sufficient to establish that Jesus lived, and we have some good information about his life, teachings and death. And most ancient near east historians and archaeologists believe the archaeological evidence for the small village of Nazareth where Jesus grew up, is compelling.

Yet there are critics who don’t accept this evidence. They tend to find small aspects of history and archaeology that they can throw doubt on, and argue this shows that Jesus never existed and Nazareth didn’t exist at the time Jesus is supposed to have lived. They generally lack qualifications and experience in any relevant field, but feel they can dismiss the conclusions of those who have relevant qualifications. Often they say that historians and archaeologists are beholden to the church, and so have an agenda to foist a lie on the rest of us. But they don’t think their biases discredit their viewpoint, and want me to believe them rather then the consensus of thousands of experts.

Climate change

I worked as a hydrologist for decades, and am familiar with many types of water and climate data. I have spoken with climate scientists and read some of their conclusions. I find the evidence for human-induced climate change to be compelling.

Yet many conservative people contest the idea. They tend to find small aspects of climate science that they can throw doubt on, and argue this shows that the predictions are untrustworthy. Often they use very poor methods (like thinking a straight line extrapolation of a complex graph is a better predictor than climate models based on the physics). They generally lack qualifications and experience in any of the disciplines involved in climate science, but feel they can dismiss the conclusions of those who have relevant qualifications. Often they think there is a global conspiracy that makes climate scientists biased and foist a lie on the rest of us. But they don’t think their own biases discredit their viewpoint, and want me to believe them rather then the consensus of thousands of experts.

Medieval church vs science

In the last century, some christians have become critical of science (especially evolutionary science, but also climate science, neuroscience and other disciplines), and so it is easy to project this conflict back into the middle ages. But historical experts have concluded that the perceived conflict is mostly a misunderstanding, if not an invention. Sure, Galileo had his run-in with the church, but that was more about egos and politics than science, but in the main, the medieval church tended to support science – the church established or supported the formation of universities and many of the best scientists were churchmen.

But many sceptics argue that the Middle Ages were dark ages that set back science a millennium because the church implacably opposed science. They often pick up on small examples of discrimination and ignore the more obvious facts that many natural philosophers of the day were churchmen. They generally lack any qualifications, experience and publishing history in medieval history but feel they can dismiss the conclusions of those who have relevant qualifications. They sometimes dismiss the views of historians that there was relatively little conflict as biased church propaganda. But they don’t think their biases discredit their own viewpoint, and want me to believe them rather then the consensus of the experts.

The beneficial effects of religious belief and practice

Numerous scientific studies by neuroscientists, psychologists and anthropologists have shown that genuine religious belief and practices have many beneficial effects – personal mental and physical health, wellbeing and life satisfaction, plus benefits to society in increased prosociality (reduced antisocial behaviour and increased community volunteering, charity and altruism). Of course there are some aspects of religion that have negative effects, but the balance is strongly positive.

Yet many sceptics contest these conclusions. They often find the occasional study that shows a negative effect of religion and argue this shows that religion is harmful overall. Often they use poor methods (like using national statistics to show religion in a bad light without showing that any of a multitude of other factors could be the cause). They generally lack qualifications and experience in neuroscience, psychology or anthropology, but feel they can dismiss the conclusions of those who have relevant qualifications. Often they think the studies are biased, but they don’t think their own biases discredit their viewpoint, and want me to believe them rather then the consensus of the experts.

I’m beginning to see a pattern here

It seems to me that there are a number of common threads here:

  • someone, generally a non-expert, believes they know more than all the experts;
  • their critique of the accepted view is often in such technical detail that most of us lack the knowledge and background to judge one way or the other;
  • when new data comes in supporting the experts, the critics adapt their theories to the new evidence, even if this requires some contortions;
  • much of the critique is about minor matters, while the major evidence is often not addressed;
  • they often say there is some hidden reason why all the experts are supposed to be wrong (basically a conspiracy theory), though it is rare to be given any evidence of this;
  • the sceptics expect a layperson to believe them rather than the far greater number of experts;
  • the critics often have some other reason (christian belief, atheism, etc) that seems to lead them to their sceptical view.

This raises questions

Should we always trust the experts? Or should we never trust the experts?

When is expertise important in forming our beliefs, and when are other factors more important?

I’ll look at these questions next post.

Photo: MorgueFile

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