False Counsel

Experts – who needs them? In the face of the sheer number of scientists and other educated people who agree with evolution, creationists need to find some way to dismiss their expertise. Andrew Schlafly has his “best of the public” concept, claiming that these people (generally, those that agree with him) are “better than a group of experts.” For his November 2012 Acts & Facts article James J. S. Johnson too asks What Good Are Experts?

Buried deep within his article Johnson does make some good points about not trusting arguments from authority, especially when the authority is talking about something beyond their area of expertise. But these small nuggets of wisdom – so easy to acquire elsewhere – are few and far between. The bulk of the article, as you might expect, is an entirely nonself-critical attack on the expertise on anyone and everyone who disagrees with the position of Johnson and the ICR. He begins his article like so:

How should we react to “experts” who smugly announce that the Bible is disproven? What about science “authorities” who have assured us that the Higgs boson particle “proves the Big Bang,” contradicting Genesis 1:1? Do experts ever jump to unwarranted conclusions? If so, how do we know? And do experts ever inflate their credibility by stretching their credentials—if a scholar holds an astronomy Ph.D. is that a qualifying reason to believe the man’s opinion about biblical Hebrew?

The Higgs boson reference is cited to Jake Hebert’s September article, covered here. I am yet to find anyone actually making the quoted claim, and it’s unfortunate that the ICR is running with it as if somebody actually did. All in all, not a great start.

Johnson has some more silly, silly claims that scientists have made:

Experts tell us that extraterrestrial life forms zoomed to earth “on the backs of crystals,” to “seed” colonies of life here eons ago. Some theorists teach us about empirically unobservable Oort cloud comet maternity wards, birthing and launching baby comets into our solar system. Still other academics conjecture cosmogonical wonders like multiverse “island universes.”

The panspermia idea that the first part refers to had on of its most famous proponents in the person of Fred Hoyle, who also gifted creationists the “tornado in a junkyard” line as well as the hilarious claim that Archaeopteryx was a fraud – two textbook examples of unwisely trusting an expert beyond their field. As far as I am aware panspermia isn’t quite as absurd as Johnson makes out, though not generally accepted not least because of a total lack of evidence in favour of it, and I’m agnostic over the multiverse. You can read about the Oort cloud in this recent post – that, at least, is a real thing.

The rather out of place and bizarre “on the backs of crystals” quote is not sourced, and as far as I can tell it’s actually a line from Ben Stein’s Expelled on the subject of an unrelated mechanism for abiogenesis (which does involve crystals). For somebody attacking the claims of others on the grounds that having qualifications doesn’t make you right, this particular trained lawyer/theologian seems rather out of his depth.

Alluded to throughout the article are a random verse from the book of Job, and “Evidence Rules 403 and 702″ in the American court system. The latter is, of course, a clear attempt to bamboozle with irrelevant legal trivia – par for the course in a Johnson article. But first, some semantics:

Is “expertise” the same as “authority”?

Expertise is not the same as authority, although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, especially by blog hosts and television journalists. Beware of ambiguities.

The word “authority” (exousia in the Greek New Testament, translated “jurisdiction” in Luke 23:7) denotes the jurisdictional right to regulate someone or something, i.e., what Romans 13 calls “the powers that be” who are “ordained of God.”

Congress has authority to legislate federal statutes. America’s president has authority to nominate Supreme Court justices. Judges have jurisdictional authority to adjudicate lawsuits, prosecutions, and administrative proceedings.

In this primary precise sense of the word “authority,” no scientist is an authority on matters of empirical science because others have the legal right and opportunity to make their own objective observations of nature. The professional practice of empirical science is not a true monopoly, jurisdictionally speaking, notwithstanding gatekeeping politics of the evolutionary science community.

Johnson seems unaware that words can have multiple, perfectly legitimate meanings without one of them being “ambiguous” and therefore inferior. Nobody is claiming that people with expertise can simply dictate what is true and what is not.

Now, we get to the lack of self criticism part:

Of course, the Bible is the authoritative information source on origins because it is God’s official record of the historical events that comprise the origins of the heavens, the earth, and every earthly creature. In this exact sense, the Bible alone is the authority regarding origins. The Holy Bible is truly, perfectly, and ultimately authoritative. The Bible is not a mere “expert.”

Not only is the Bible here taken as being true as a premise, but it’s worth remembering that it’s implicit here that the young Earth creationist interpretation is also being considered inerrant and trustworthy. It gets worse:

However, the word “authority” is popularly used to mean something besides jurisdictional legitimacy. A looser use of the word “authority” occurs when we say “Dr. Larry Vardiman is an authority on weather and climate science” or “Dr. Jason Lisle is an authority on astronomy.” We really mean that Dr. Vardiman and Dr. Lisle are genuine experts in those empirical science disciplines. We should beware of the ambiguities of the term “authority” in written or spoken terminology and avoid the error of confusing expert opinions with truly “authoritative” information.

So Vardiman and Lisle get to be experts, without any doubts about what they claim, but those that disagree are smeared?

The legalese-infected next section, on “recognizing a true expert,” seems reasonable. The one after that is on the “transfer of authority”:

Expert opinions should be scrutinized for the transfer-of-authority fallacy. This analytical flaw occurs when an expert qualified in one field (e.g., cosmology) opines about a distinctly different field (e.g., cosmogony). If the expert’s objectively demonstrable qualifications are limited to cosmology, then his or her opinions about cosmogony are not “expert” opinions.

Cosmogony, according to wikipedia, is science to do with the origins of the universe. I have generally found the word to come from creationist sources, as the field is covered by our everyday conception of cosmology. The two fields are not “distinctly different,” but inseperable. Dismissing an expert on the big bang because they call them-self a cosmologist and not a comogonist is just silly.

Many individuals have mastered overlapping (“intertwined”) disciplines; for example, a biochemist likely knows a lot about both biology and chemistry. Also, some have achieved genuine expertise in several completely distinct disciplines (e.g., scuba diving, wild animal care, and computer technology). When scrutinizing the expertise of a multidisciplinary expert, the judge must decide if that individual demonstrates objectively verifiable mastery in the field of specialized knowledge that is directly relevant to the evidentiary inquiry.

Exactly, like cosmology and cosmogony.

The rest of the article (a small handful of paragraphs) is ok to my eye, with the exception of the final paragraph:

So with the commitment to truth exemplified by the Bereans (Acts 17:11), you be the judge. Find the real facts whenever you read or hear an “expert” opinion about your origins. But always keep your Bible open because God’s Word is not a mere expert opinion—it is the ultimate authority.

This article is not about proper evaluation of evidence and expertise. It’s about sowing doubt around the pronouncements of people who actually know what they’re talking about, and establishing (their own interpretation of) the Bible as the only reliable source. It’s the modern creationist strategy in a single article.

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