Wednesday, 25 September 2013

How to detect expertise (or why cranks are not entitled to their opinions)

Discussion on evolution, creation and the ancient Near Eastern background of the creation narratives is often marked by uninformed opinion, almost always by special creationists, who invariably fail to respond substantively to the points advanced by evolutionary creationists, and offer opinions on highly technical areas in which they clearly have no professional expertise.

Earlier this year. philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes remarked on one of the points he makes to his students:
I say something like this: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.” 
A bit harsh? Perhaps, but philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible.
The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

This is the problem the Christian community faces - laypeople who simply don't know what they are talking about forgetting that they are only entitled to have opinions they can rationally defend. Take medicine for example. It takes around six to eight years (depending on whether it is an undergraduate or graduate course) to get a medical degree, then up to a decade of post-graduate training before one becomes a specialist. Ignoring the alternative health zealots in the religious world, it is fair to say that most Christian laypeople would not think themselves competent to argue the fine details of heart failure management in the elderly, or the correct chemotherapy protocol for acute myeloid leukaemia.
Yet, when the subject comes to evolutionary biology,  those same people will think nothing of telling evolutionary biologists that the evidence for evolution from comparative genomics is nonsense, and can be better explained by common design. Likewise with palaeontology, where Christian laypeople  will dismiss the evidence for tetrapod evolution from Devonian sarcopterygians without ever having studied comparative anatomy, taphonomy, vertebrate palaeontology, or for that matter seeing a fossil in the field or lab. Putting it this bluntly, it is incredible, yet this is how debate is carried on in the Christian world by people who simply don't know what they are talking about.

A bit harsh? Hardly. This is par for the course in any academic field. New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado like all scholars has had to deal with his fair share of cranks and crackpots. In writing about a crank who argued he had found the 'true' meaning of a Greek word used by Paul, he stated:
Well, I have to say that it’s curious that someone with no training in a given field, lacking in at least some of the linguistic competence required (both relevant classical language and key modern scholarly languages), thinks himself able to find something that has eluded the entire body of scholars in that field who labor year-upon-year to try to discover anything new and interesting.  It’s also curious that, as is typical, the guy doesn’t submit his findings to scholarly review for publication in peer-reviewed journals or with a peer-reviewed publisher, but flogs his thinking straight out on his web site, complete with bold claims about its unique validity.  We mere scholars in the field, by contrast, do submit our work for critique by others competent in the subject.  We present at symposia and conferences where other scholars can engage our views.   We strive to get published in peer-reviewed journals and with respected publishers.  Even after publication, we hope for critical engagement by other scholars. 
Exactly. Peer review is no guarantee that a scholarly paper is correct, but if a layperson makes a claim that evolution is wrong, bypasses the peer review system entirely by self-publishing and then touting his book to the lay public, all he is doing is disseminating his own ignorance. Unless a person has some baseline level of professional competence in a subject, and engages with other members of that community, he's simply deluding himself and those to whom he touts those ideas if he thinks he has overthrown the scholarly consensus.

Invariably, the tired comeback is that the mainstream scientific community is biased, or engaging ina  conspiracy. For anyone who knows the academic world, herding cats is a few orders of magnitude easier than trying to enforce conformity.  There is also the fact that there is far more chance of gaining scholarly immortality by overturning the consensus than becoming a footnote to the dominant theory. If there really was a problem with common descent, then the first person to show that it was false would be feted around the world.

Hurtado again:
I can hear the responding claim that scholars in the field are uninterested in new discoveries and/or even that they conspire to keep new ideas from gaining acceptance.  But any such claim only further reveals the lack of familiarity with scholarly processes.  The field of NT/Christian Origins, for example, is now more diverse, with more approaches, more perspectives, than ever; and probably most scholars dream of being able to correct or refute some established view, or successfully lodge some new view, or publish some hitherto unknown or insufficiently noted datum.  There’s no conspiracy to suppress novel work or findings that go against previous views.
The debate in the scientific world about technical details of evolutionary biology is fierce. The debate about whether mutations to coding genes or regulatory genes are a bigger driver of evolutionary change  is one such example. Yet on the question of whether evolution has occurred, there is no debate because the question has been settled. No one seeks to argue that evolution never occurred in the same way that no one tried to debate that the earth is flat. The evidence is simply not there.

Of course, for the Christian layperson who genuinely wants to know the facts, the confusion, disinformation and hysteria created by the science denialists can make it hard to know where to turn. Hurtado's comments hold well for any discipline, be it NT studies or evolutionary biology:
So, how does some innocent peruser of the Web who isn’t an expert in a given field judge a claim about something in that field?  Well, is it being made by someone who appears to have the requisite training for that subject?  Is it from someone with an established reputation in that subject?  (And the Web now makes it fairly simple to check up on people.)  Or, if it’s from an emergent scholar, is the claim published in a peer-reviewed journal or from a respected publisher (who uses peer-review)?  If not, then I’d advise you not to bet more than a tuppence on it.
You could do worse than start here.