Should Christians Trust Scientific Experts? Expertise, Skill and Training

Today, we decided to brush off this old piece and re-highlight it on the BioLogos homepage, and I don’t normally do this for the Forum also, but thought it especially pertinent.

As we are faced with friends and family who maybe don’t quite grasp how science works, or is practiced, especially in these times, it is important to draw attention to the expertise, training and skills that trusted sources have to offer. The world is being plagued by anti-science rhetoric and the “how can we trust anyone” syndrome, and it is so hard to know the right way to combat it, besides leaning into those we trust and trying to convince others of their merit.

Best wishes to you all during this time.

Original discussion:

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Certainly a relevant topic. I have to admit that when I see the ad on TV (from Johnson and Johnson I think), I cringe a little when they state, “…there is one thing you count on: Science!” Not sure that helps with the religious community.
Anyway, I have had to take a break from Facebook as it was too hard to keep quiet in the face of so many misrepresentations of science. I’ve tried to do my best to explain error bars and the various limitations of testing and modeling along with sharing relevant articles, but find many still expect black and white, yes and no answers from science. Perhaps it is just another symptom of the division and polarization in society.

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@Sy_Garte talked with CT about trusting science, too. I thought it was quite good. Sorry if this was posted elsewhere…i can’t find it

https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/april-web-only/science-sy-garte-covid-19-christians-distrust.html

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Yes, such a good article!

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I read this article today and thought it was quite good. However, in my small corner of the world, my observation is that people do not mistrust science, they mistrust the government and think their leaders are using science to push their own political agendas.

I have been slowly working my way through the “Common Questions” articles and had just today read the one about the historical Christian reaction to Darwin before the mid-19th century. If I understand correctly from this short article, this is the exact same thing that happened then. Before evolution became a political issue, there wasn’t that much pushback against it, or significantly less than there is now (though I also wonder if it is actually a majority of Christians who actually believe in YEC or if they are just the “loud” ones that make it seem so). Anyway, my personal opinion is, that with the exception of the one or two anti-vaxxers I know, most Christians that I am around or hear from do not have a problem with science, just the politics of it…

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Science is not about trust. Do scientists trust scientific “experts?” No. The whole point of science is that you can check everything yourself. And that is what scientists do.

So if you are not going to check everything yourself, then what is the safest bet? The consensus of the scientific community is a good bet. That is what you get when all the other scientists check up on the so called “experts.”

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I’ll try to say this without getting political (I seem to have this problem every time I check in here …).

The are powerful people who want us to be distrustful of the following things: Government, science, academia, media.

We should carefully consider why anyone would want the greater public to be distrustful of these things, and how it benefits them.

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The founding fathers would have us be distrustful of government.

Science and academia would have us be skeptical of everyone including science and academia teaching us to test and research things for ourselves.

The media is a loose cannon which can often be driven by greed and catering to popular opinion, so considerable caution should be employed before believing what it says either.

Freedom and laziness are fundamentally incompatible.

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A BIG Amen. We trust our preacher. We check out what our scientists say. And I say this as a 20 year manager of geoscientists, engineers and petrophysicists. I can assure everyone that there are lots of errors of fact and logic I have seen over the years reviewing my employee’s work. AND I have had errors of fact and logic found in my work when it has been reviewed. Someone always knows something I don’t know which possibly might sink my work. Science is complex. Getting everything correct in a complex system is very difficult. Verify, Verify Verify, but don’t trust scientists.

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I think you probably have a good head for questioning, and probably question your preacher, too! (that’s a good thing; the saying goes, in a room of 3 Dutchmen, you’ll find 6 different opinions).

Thanks.

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I think you’re right. I think that even Ken Ham would not say he distrusts science. However, from what I’ve read, he would say that he thinks those who disagree with his take on truth are rebelling against God, and interpret their observations according to their whims.

It’s ironic, because as a YEC, I took only the parts of science that fit into my whim of trusting my own interpretation of the truth. I didn’t realize it at the time, I think. I’m not sure if that is what presuppositional apologetics is or not, but it seems like that–at least, as Ken Ham defined it. https://answersingenesis.org/presuppositions/what-is-presuppositional-apologetics/

Thanks for re-posting that BioLogos article, which makes a lot of excellent points, bringing a great perspective. I particularly liked this quote:

If science has shown us anything, it shows us that our common sense is not always a reliable guide to how the world works; we are standing, after all, on a globe that is spinning approximately 1,000 miles per hour at the equator. Ancient Greek science, with the earth at the center of the universe, aligns more closely with everyday human perception. The lesson I draw from the tendency of commonsense to mislead is that we as Christians should keep an open mind to the claims of experts, especially when there is a strong consensus about a theory. God’s creation might be stranger and more interesting than we assume it could be.

This is why I have enjoyed the teamwork nature of my industry science career. Get a group of people together with differing expertise, and check each other’s ideas, troubleshoot to figure out what works, double check to make sure we are doing the right experiments to ensure a safe and effective product.

While I have a very high regard and respect for Sy Garte and Christianity Today, and while I enjoyed most of this podcast, there was one part that I would like to caution about. In response to a question about how to know who to trust in this internet age, the impression was given (likely unintentionally) that scientists who work in industry cannot be trusted. Unfortunately, this is a negative view I hear often, also from my former colleagues in academics, who have jokingly asked me, “what is it like on the dark side?” Or even the milder question, “why did you decide to leave academics?” It’s also a common trope found in movies. While there are examples of malfeasance to be found (they can be found among academics, as well) such abuses are not the norm. Companies would not survive long if they made therapies, vaccines, and devices that do not work. Industry scientists serve the important role of bringing good technologies and therapies to patients who need them.

This was a rather subtle, was not overt or intentional impression that I heard in that one part of the interview. I’m sure they would have come up with a more cohesive and clear response had it been a written format instead of a free form interview setting. However, I think this trope is something for all of us to be aware and cautious of, because those are the types of ideas that make people distrust things like vaccines and traditional cancer therapies.

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I did get caught here in this small lie about my trust in preachers. :grinning:

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When I read this I cringed. I had an academic friend who once told me that I wasn’t a scientist because I was in industry, even though I have published scientific articles in the literature, that didn’t count. The perfect response to this is Feynman’s definition of science. He gave a lecture to teachers and told them that they have as much right as anyone else to doubt what a scientist told them and judge if the evidence backs up what they say. And he had harsh words for ‘experts’. After comparing them to the cargo cult of Melanesia.

"*The result of this pseudoscientific imitation is to produce experts, which many of you *
are. [But] you teachers, who are really teaching children at the bottom of the heap, can
maybe doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way:
Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.
When someone says, “Science teaches such and such,” he is using the word incorrectly.
Science doesn’t teach anything; experience teaches it. If they say to you, "Science has
shown such and such," you might ask, "How does science show it? How did the scientists
find out? How? What? Where?"
It should not be “science has shown” but “this experiment, this effect, has shown.”
And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments–but be
patient and listen to all the evidence–to judge whether a sensible conclusion has been
arrived at.
In a field which is so complicated [as education] that true science is not yet able to get
anywhere, we have to rely on a kind of old-fashioned wisdom, a kind of definite
straightforwardness. I am trying to inspire the teacher at the bottom to have some hope
and some self-confidence in common sense and natural intelligence. The experts who are
leading you may be wrong. https://profizgl.lu.lv/pluginfile.php/32795/mod_resource/content/0/WHAT_IS_SCIENCE_by_R.Feynman_1966.pdf

Experts are worthless, especially experts who can’t explain why you should believe them. and science doesn’t teach anything.

Every time any of us writes a check to a doctor or carpenter or auto-mechanic for services rendered beyond what we could do for ourselves (or maybe even understand) we show how much stock and trust we place in experts contra the quoted statement above.

Okay, so if we accept that ‘experts’ above was restricted only to those whose job it is to instruct others, then I think there is more truth in the statement - but even here… I don’t think this is necessarily true. A lousy teacher doesn’t necessarily mean that the material the teacher is putting forward is deficient. There are bad arguments for true conjectures, and there are bad teachers of great and sound techniques. Their inability to deliver that content in a satisfactory way to students does not necessarily discredit the content itself.

We pay them for their time and hope they have expertise. I remember a brake job one place kept getting wrong and charging me more money each time I came in to use they ‘warranty’ they said they had. I spent so much money I had a friend teach me how to repair brakes and for years after, I fixed my own brakes when they needed it, because these ‘experts’ couldn’t fix my brakes. My friend and I did in about an hour, and the subsequent money I saved not using those experts was large.

I have a chronic cough from problems in my throat. It started after a very bad cold in 1998. I spent 15 years going from doctor to doctor looking for a cure. Then I gave up. The doctors would all do the same thing–give me prilosec for acid reflux I didn’t have, or say it was my pepper habit and stick a vid tube down my throat to look for ‘redness’, proclaiming that it was caused by my eating hot peppers. Or they would say I had asthma and give me an inhaler, Then they would say I didn’t have asthma. They changed my blood pressure med. None of that worked. And each doctor did the same, even after I told them my story. in about 2013, I went to an ENT told him my story, that prilosec didn’t work and he prescribed prilosec for me. I told him that it didn’t work and he said, 'This is where we must start" and I quit going to doctors and didn’t fill that prescription

In 2016 my cough sounded like TB and my wife finally nudged me to go to another ENT. I told him my story of all the things I had been given which didn’t work and said “If you prescribe prilosec, I am walking right out that door”. And he said, “Sounds like you have viral vegal neuropathy.” After 18 years I finally heard something new from the medical community. In 3 months my cough was gone after his treatments. So, no, you will have a hard time convincing me experts are good Thousands of others like me who have conditions that doctors don’t believe because they dont’ actually LISTEN to the patient or believe the patient have the same doubts about expertise.

And I will point out that you have not run across Phillip Tetlock’s work on expertise. Experts are correct about 55% of the time. Forbes had a wonderful article on him

“Tetlock then cranked all those numbers through every kind of statistical thresher, flail, and grinder you can imagine, and the result was clear: Experts don’t actually exist. Specifically, experts were no better than nonexperts at predicting the future. They weren’t even as good as computer programs that merely extrapolate the past. The best experts could not explain more than 20% of the variability in outcomes, but crude algorithms could explain 25% to 30%, and sophisticated algorithms could explain 47%. Consider what this means. On all sorts of questions you care about-Where will the Dow be in two years? Will the federal deficit balloon as baby-boomers retire?-your judgment is as good as the experts’. Not almost as good. Every bit as good."
"Which is not to say that experts are no different from you :! and me. They’re very different. For example, they’re much more confident in their predictions than nonexperts are, though they obviously have no reason to be. For example, the members of the American Political Science Association predicted in August 2000 that a Gore victory was a slam dunk.” Geoffrey Colvin, “Ditch the ‘Experts’” Fortune, Feb 6, 2006, p. 44

Another part of the answer is especially troubling for the media. The awfulness of Tetlock’s experts was almost uniform whether they had doctorates or bachelor’s degrees, lots of experience or little, access to classified data or none. He found but one consistent differentiator: fame. The more famous the experts, the worse they performed. And of course it’s those of us in TV, radio and Newpapers, magazines, and on the web who bestow that fame.” Geoffrey Colvin, “Ditch the ‘Experts’” Fortune, Feb 6, 2006, p. 44

“In one part of this study, Tetlock asked experts years ago to predict outcomes on seven different issues. In 1988, for example, he asked 38 Soviet experts whether the Communist Party would still be in power in 1993; and he asked 34 American political experts in 1992 whether President Bush would be re-elected later that year."
"After the events occurred, Tetlock then re-contacted the experts to ask them about their predictions. In all seven scenarios, only slightly more than half of the experts correctly predicted the events that occurred. Still, even those who were wrong had been quite confident in their predictions. Experts who said they were 80 percent or more confident in their predictions were correct only 45 percent of the time.
http://www.scienceblog.com/community/older/1999/C/199902734.html

As I recall, Hillary is now our president…All the experts said so, thus it must be true.

Yes and no. We may write the check out of obligation, but you are correct that trust is a big part of why we call the plumber or doctor or mechanic. That trust is something that is developed by experience with them, however. It maybe the neighbors experience or our personal experience. In the absence of experience, we rely on creditals given by those we trust. The problem is that there are so many different factors, and we cannot be fully informed. I know brilliant doctors who you would want caring for you who struggled professionally because they had the personality of an opossum, and very popular successful docs who were woefully incompetent but had charm and charisma. I am sure the same is true in every field.

So, where does that leave us when it comes to trusting science. I think we have to put a premium on truth and openness. The openness aspect is of course where corporate science has a problem, but that is unavoidable but can be taken into consideration when recognized.
The truth thing is a big problem now with so many posts coming out that are half truths and distortions.

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A hearty AMEN to this. There are a few geophysicists who find most of the oil. I had one of them in my group. His math skills were not great and the director of Technology wanted him fired, but this guy had been involved in finding 7 or 8 fields in the Gulf of Mexico while the other 14 had found 1 or 2 or even none. Finding oil was less about math than a sense of where it was–an intangible thing that few folk have. I can’t believe that it is any different in any other scientific discipline. The story of what happened after I saved Alan’s job was interesting in and of itself.

I stand by my original sentiment here … you all would not be out paying experts for anything if they did not produce success in their area at a higher rate than non-experts could. Sure we can multiply examples where experts were wrong - those are the times we tend to remember (especially if we, the non-experts, got it right). You don’t fire the meteorologist the first time they get a weather prediction wrong. And they will get plenty more wrong yet as well. But they (on average as a body of trained experts and over time) will be right a higher percentage of the time than a non-meteorologist will. Even if experts are correct only 55% of the time, what that means is that all the rest of us non-experts in that same field will be right less than 55% of the time. If that were not true then the medical profession, the auto mechanic profession, or virtually any service profession would not exist because we would all be able to serve ourselves equally well or better (and probably a lot less expensively) just doing it ourselves. Sure there can be bad experts (or newbie ‘green’ experts) whose performance lowers the average, and perhaps even an entire field might languish in its skills due to societal factors, as it coasts off the more robust reputation of its predecessors. But over all, expertise is still a thing, and will remain so precisely because of its ability to be valuable to the population at large.

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I agree that it could be misleading, especially in the current situation. I also strongly believe that non academic scientists are as ethical as those who don’t work for a company. However, even in medicine, we have to be very careful about subconscious influences.

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