After years in the trenches of the creation-evolution controversy I have come to appreciate the complexity of navigating the foggy world of knowledge claims. This is something that college students start learning to do in their first critical writing course and are supposed master by the time they write a senior thesis. Students begin researching on any topic by Googling and gathering various viewpoints in that way, which they then assemble into arguments. It takes time to learn the limitations of this approach and the importance of understanding that the opinions of someone who does not know what they are talking about are of no value.
A student doing a paper on evolution, for example, needs to learn that the opinion of Michelle Bachmann is of no value, as a recent HuffPost blog argued. Bachmann knows nothing about the topic and, while her opinion would be interesting because of her celebrity status, it would not be informed. In contrast, Jerry Coyne, when he isn't venting about the horrors of religion, writes a lot about evolution and is well-informed, as a leading biologist at a major university.
A student paper examining the pros and cons of evolution versus creation that pitted Bachmann against Coyne should receive an "F" for improper use of sources.
On the other hand, Michelle Bachmann has had extraordinary experience with raising children -- five of her own and an amazing 23 foster children. Her insights into foster care and family life would most likely be of great value -- more so than Jerry Coyne's, for example. But in both cases, the consensus of bodies of experts would be a far more reliable starting point. And it would be essential to note whether any individual, regardless of their expertise, was at odds with the scholarly community on the topic of interest.
This kind of critical thinking about sources and expertise is essential in navigating the complexity of our modern scientific world and developing sensible and defensible positions on everything from the age of the earth to the real cost of Medicare.
Unfortunately, America has an uneasy relationship with experts. Many people don't like the idea of consulting some egghead at a university to get scoop on complex problems, even though that egghead might be the world's leading expert and hold a position endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences. Every night on Fox News Glenn Beck assaults expertise and education as if they are just different prejudices. He regularly pits his high school diploma against teams of Ivy League doctorates in a most amazing performance as America's leading anti-intellectual. A few hours later on Fox News, Sean Hannity hosts a "great American panel" in which he asks former beauty queens, football coaches, and country singers to comment on complex political and economic questions.
This sort of anti-intellectualism -- the religious and political roots of which are documented in Richard Hofstadter's classic work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and examined from another perspective in my forthcoming The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age -- provides much of the foundation for the assaults being made today on evolution. We are regularly told that we can "make up our own minds" about evolution. The preferred educational strategy being advanced is a "two models" approach where evolution and some version of anti-evolution -- like intelligent design -- are presented and students are encouraged to make up their own minds.
This is a disastrous approach to education -- anti-intellectualism disguised as democratic egalitarianism. To expose high school students to fringe perspectives, presented as genuine alternatives, and then encourage them to "choose" the one they like best is to send the message that there is no such thing as knowledge.
This approach appeals to those who don't like the consensus of knowledge-generating communities. If global warming is forcing unwanted regulations on the smoke from your factory, then alternative ideas are most welcome. If sound economics says that taxes should go up, then please find some unsound economics that says otherwise. And, if the scientific community says evolution is true, then please find a fringe group to say otherwise. After all, this is America and Americans think for themselves.
In The Language of Science and Faith Francis Collins and I cautioned our fellow Christians against holding out hope that there is a real alternative to accepting the consensus of the scientific community, especially as we see no need for Christians to be uneasy about evolution in the first place. We argue that it is significant that the scientific community has consensus on this question and that consensus is a powerful reason to accept the truth of evolution.
This argument, of course, doesn't sit well with the anti-evolutionists who have assaulted it as a bogus "appeal to authority." In a scathing review on the Discovery Institute website blasts The Language of Science and Faith as "full of appeals to authority and attacks upon the character and competence of Darwin-doubting scientists."
Our argument is described as a "rhetorical strategy" with the following statements as illustrations:
- "almost all Christian biologists accept evolution."
The author concludes that "Giberson and Collins don't want people to think for themselves on topics like evolution, but to simply capitulate to those whom they deem 'the leading experts.'" And "Dr. Giberson doesn't think that the average person should be allowed to "make up their own minds" on evolution."
This argument is a frontal assault on expertise and how to evaluate it. It is correct that a small percentage of credentialed scholars reject evolution. But this is true in every field. A small percentage of climatologists reject global warming; a few historians think the founding fathers were evangelicals or the holocaust never happened; a few economists still think supply side economics actually works. We do ourselves -- and our poor high school students -- no favors when we juxtapose the conventional wisdom of an entire community of scholars with that of a few fringe voices and invite people to choose which idea they like the best.
What I want for religious believers is what freshman critical writing instructors want for their students -- proper appreciation of sources. Invoking the consensus of the scientific opinion is not restricting "thinking" at all. It is encouraging critical thinking and the pursuit of genuine knowledge.