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Fwd: Attitude toward experts

Nov 29, 2001 05:16 AM
by kpauljohnson

Theos-talk members,

This post from Whitherare addresses the question of how to evaluate 
conflicting historical reconstructions and is relevant to recent 
posts here.

--- In whitherare@y..., "Paul Johnson" <pauljo@c...> wrote:
Dear listmembers,

I've recently been thinking about the attitude that members of 
various spiritual or metaphysical groups have toward scholarly or 
scientific experts. Often it's blatantly hostile and dismissive; I 
recently tuned into Jack Van Impe on TV and heard an outrageous 
outpouring of invective directed at members of the Jesus Seminar. 
But in a world where scholarly experts so often disagree, what 
credibility do they have for the non-expert reader? In his excellent 
The Elusive Messiah, Raymond Martin addresses this quandary in 
relation to the historical Jesus:
Every competent New Testament scholar has received a great deal of 
specialized training in these areas. Relative to almost all of the 
rest of us, they know a tremendous amount about the ancient world, 
and they are much better qualified to assess competing hypotheses 
about what really happened. That is why they are the experts and we 
are not. 

Our amateur status does not mean, however, that we cannot ever pass 
judgment on the views of New Testament scholars. In certain cases, 
we may be able to see better than a historian that he or she is in 
the grip of a distorting theory. Even so, we must give expertise its 
due. In my view, when it comes to trying to decide what to believe 
on the basis of historical evidence alone, the distinction between 
experts and amateurs is crucially important. Roughly speaking, the 
rule for experts is this: Base your views directly on the primary 
evidence; although the opinions of other experts cannot be ignored, 
you can override their opinions by your own reading of the evidence. 
The rule for amateurs, on the other hand, is this: Base your beliefs 
mainly on the views of the experts; if a sizable majority of the 
experts agree among themselves, then accept what they say; if they 
disagree, then suspend judgment...Suppose, for instance, that 
physicists were divided into two equal camps about some detail of the 
second law of thermodynamics. Technically illiterate amateurs would 
not be rationally entitled, on the basis of scientific evidence 
alone, to side with either group of disagreeing physicists. After 
all, if the physicists, with all of their expert knowledge and 
training, cannot decide an issue, who are we, the amateurs, to say 
which group of physicists is correct?

The more cultlike and fundamentalist a religious group is, the less 
likely this advice is to be followed. Christian Scientists dismiss 
the universal agreement of experts on a great variety of medical 
issues, saying that Mrs. Eddy trumps all the medical researchers in 
history. Mormons dismiss the universal agreement of archaeologists 
and geneticists that American Indians are not descended from Jews; 
the Book of Mormon trumps all these scientists. Fundamentalists 
dismiss cosmology and astronomy in favor of a 6000-year-old world, 
because the Bible trumps physics and astronomy. Blavatsky said Jesus 
lived 150 B.C.; her Masters' knowledge trumps that of all the 
scholars on the historical Jesus-- who may not agree on much but 
certainly would agree on rejecting that preposterous assertion.
And so on. Revealed truth is the standard by which scientific truth 
should be measured. NEVER the other way round. And so we live in a 
tower of Babel of competing claims to truth that trumps the experts.

The question then becomes (relative to this list and its focus): how 
should ARE position itself (and members position themselves) in 
relation to scholarly or scientific experts on the subjects covered 
in the readings? Should it and we be superior, dismissive, hostile, 
contemptuous? Do the readings trump the historians, the 
archeologists, the Egyptologists, the geologists, the geneticists? 
Does it serve the purpose for which ARE was founded to take an 
antagonistic stance toward experts when they dare to disagree with 
the readings? 

Obviously, I hope the future ARE will embrace the scholarly and 
scientific mainstream and appraise the readings in light of the 
(constantly evolving) understanding of experts in various fields, 
rather than standing back and saying "Our truth trumps your truth, 
who needs you?" Or worse, bitterly attacking the experts.

No expert,

--- End forwarded message ---

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