Consensus and sense

It seems people are capable of believing anything. On a current BioLogos thread there was some discussion of the range of cults, therapies and conspiracy theories around – and I confess I rubbed in a little that most of them come from America, the land of progress and science. But my last post was about fundamental disagreement not at the fringes, but at the centre, of established science.

That actually seems to be the norm, on reflection. As the no doubt factually incorrect but thought-provoking Brignell’s law of scientific consensus  states:

At times of scientific contention the consensus is always wrong.

I stumbled on an archaeologist’s website at the weekend (I was actually looking for information on the rare neolithic cursus at my old home of Chelmsford – now destroyed by a housing estate), where the owner was bemoaning the fact that British archaeology has been taken over by post-processual thinkers who believe they can discern the ritual beliefs of neolithic Brits in the mythology of Melanesian tribesmen. In documentaries even I have indeed noticed the speculative nature of stuff about stone meaning death and wood meaning life etc, but hadn’t known that such things were crowding more solidly based work out of the academy. He seemed to find considerable support from other students of archaeology, so he may be right. If so, one can predict the need for a paradigm shift a few years down the track.

A similar process occurred in anthropology regarding palaeolithic art, which from the 1990s became almost universally interpreted as arising from shamanistic trance-states (and from the paleolithic it has spread to the neolithic too). Yet that too turns out to rest on shaky foundations, though I doubt we shall see any TV documentaries reflecting the challenge in the near future: primitive religion has to be made to fit into our evolutionary understanding, though for all the evidence proves, cave men may have been Methodists.

Evolutionary religion underpinned nineteenth century theology too, in spite of, rather than because of, the evidence. The elaborate reconstruction of Israelite history to match that scheme, through the elaborate reconstruction of the Old Testament documents from non-existent literary sources, ought to be thoroughly discredited by modern archaeology and the study of ANE cultures. But though the theories have evolved, they still bear the mark of their Victorian ancestry. Detailed theories of Pentateuchal composition, and the historical circumstances surrounding it, are still published, and are just as fictional  as the JEDP hypothesis of the nineteenth century. The New Testament and the early Church are treated the same way, just as conjecturally, as Richard Bauckham satirises wonderfully here.

One could look at the social psychology I studied at University, in which behaviourism and genetics were the only conceivable controllers of human behaviour, until cognitive psychology swept behaviourism away. Now, I understand even free choice is admitted to be a factor in human activity, having been long debunked as a myth in my day.

In biology, of course, still dominated by atheistic materialism, free will is still regarded by many as a myth, though Jerry Coyne recently admitted that one has to live as though it weren’t. The whole science-faith discussion hinges around the denial of teleology in evolution, even by many theistic evolutionists – just at a time when teleological mechanisms are becoming more and more undeniable in primary research.

But although those of us interested in that field wax eloquent about the need for a paradigm-change in biology, it’s not the only area where the insistence that solid truth has replaced former ignorance proves to be a convenient myth. The belief in secure knowledge is only tenable because Brignell’s First law of journalism is also globally true:

Readers have short memories.

In medicine for example, a few decades of experience taught me that new, incontrovertible, evidence usually took us back to practices displaced a few years before by new, incontrovertible, evidence. But those enforcing best practice were the young researchers who’d not been around the loop before, and couldn’t understand my skepticism.

In philosophy positivism or existentialism made it impossible ever to see the world in the same way again, before both disappeared without trace. In politics – and in pretty well every other academic discipline – Marxism was the only thing that made sense… now it dare not speak its name, but it is still pretty hard to be taken seriously in some academic fields unless one is left-wing: and that includes journalism, comedy and rock-music.

I was reading about the origin of Karl Barth’s theology the other day. It was all to do with the First World War:

One morning Karl Barth was shocked to read in the newspaper a statement affirming the Kaiser’s policies signed by most of his old theology professors. This drove home to him the danger of identifying the seemingly sagest voices of human wisdom with the truth of God. If theology and philosophy could be so self-blinded as to baptize German imperialism, what other mistakes might they make?

What other mistakes indeed? Even Barth himself failed to shake off some theological influences that are now clearly the product of his age. Yet we should learn from him not to be shocked that wherever the truth of things lies, it’s quite likely not to be where the consensus is. Conversely, any good look at the fringes, well-represented in the blogosphere, demonstrates that’s not the place to find truth either. It’s tempting just to counsel humility, but giving up on truth is the worst option of the lot. So maybe I’ll just leave you, as I go off for a few days holiday in the rain, with a couple of lines from Larry Norman :

Don’t ask me for the answers, I’ve only got one
That a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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