Saturday, 5 July 2014

EXPERTS IN THE DOCK



The one who states his case first seems right until the other comes and examines him” (Prov 18:17)

 The truth of this verse was vividly revealed to me this week whilst I was watching the latest twists and turns in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial in South Africa.

I have found these proceedings to be fascinating on many levels, not least the simple human drama of it all. But  theology is never far below the surface of my thoughts, and here was a case in point.

 Earlier this week the trial heard from a very plausible-sounding medical professional who for several hours gave patient and considered testimony to the court. His thoughts were cogent, and his facts seemed compelling. I thought him an impressive witness.

But the very next day the opposing counsel stood up and proceeded to tear to shreds his evidence and the man himself was reduced to almost stuttering incoherence by this skilful and vigorous cross-examination.

Nor is it the first time that it had happened during this trial.

 Periodically throughout the proceedings one side has called an expert witness and then the opposing counsel would bring out their equally well-qualified expert to  flatly contradict the other.

Of course in a criminal trial each side is pursuing its own agenda and so it is no surprise that the witnesses’ testimony should reflect the needs of their respective paymasters.

But this same phenomenon of contradictory expert evidence is seen time and time again outside of the courtroom as well, and often enough that it ought to give us pause for thought about what is even meant by the term “expert.”

 Psychology, for instance, is a field that involves hundreds of competing and often contradictory theories, few of which can be backed up with empirical evidence as to their therapeutic value. But strangely this never seems to affect the overall status of psychologists in our society

 Nutrition is an area of scientific competence that is always in the press. It seems as though at some point or another a nutritional expert has condemned as lethal virtually every foodstuff on the planet - and yet we live on!

 Equally well-educated academics clash daily over a wide range of issues without anyone doubting the credentials of either side.

 So why do experts so frequently disagree?

We need to realize that all experts work with raw data. Their expertise stems from the fact that they have in their heads much more raw data on a given subject than the average person has.

 But it is what that person then does with the data which is critical.

No expert sifts information in an entirely neutral and detached manner -even when they would like us to think that they do. Instead each person brings to the data his or her own presuppositions.

 That is why a Daniel Wallace can debate a Bart Ehrman on the New Testament and the two will come to such divergent conclusions. It isn’t because one man is smarter than the other, it is because of the presuppositions that each came to the table with. Every expert interprets the data in a way which suits his own existing biases.

All of this ought to alert us to the fact that it is unwise to place too much store by  “expertise”

Yet as a society we are addicted to the Expert.

 We pretend that it is otherwise. We often jokingly say that the word “expert” breaks down to a description of a “has-been” and a “drip under pressure.”

Benjamin Stolberg put it rather more eloquently when he said that

    “An expert is one who avoids small error as he sweeps on to the grand fallacy”

We will joke like this about experts all the time but nevertheless we do still continue to believe them.

When someone lifts their head from the morning newspaper and says, “They are now saying…” we know that the “They” in question is a group of scientists and that we are now expected to dutifully accept whatever it is they might have come up with today. 

Why should this be so?

 I think it is because having abandoned the concept of biblical truth our society must of necessity substitute some other kind of “certainty” in its place. And we have chosen Rationalism as our certainty.

Hence a society that has long since ceased to be rational still remains a commitment to being rationalistic.

 Empiricism is exalted as the highest ideal –even when we often believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.How often have we as believers been presented with the “Science has proved there is no God” line only to discover that when pressed for any specifics as to how “Science” has actually done this, the speaker has no examples to offer? 

“If I can’t see it then I don’t believe it” says the man who must gulp in a mouthful of oxygen that he cannot see in order to even make the statement!

  Nevertheless we insist that our world is to be understood only from this “scientific” perspective. Hence experts –especially scientific experts - serve as the high priests of the secularist religion. 

If the priest has said it then the matter is settled.

 We ignore inconvenient little problems like the fact that another scientist equally qualified in the same field thinks that he is wrong. Or that the same scientist himself actually held a complely different different view five years ago and may well hold a third different opinion five years from hence!

Regardless he will be believed on each occasion. Indeed he will be held to have been right on each occasion. For no matter how many times he is proven to be wrong he remains infallible.

This is what we term an appeal to authority. An expert is to be believed because of his authority, not because he is right.

For where else has the secularist to turn if not to his high priestly class? 

 None of this is, of course an argument against the scientific discipines nor against individual scientists who have – by God’s grace- wrought wonderful improvements in all of our lives through the years.

But once we have elevated scientists to the level of infallibility then we have a problem. 

 It is here where the influence of the "expert" can become truly baneful. This is why a professed atheist like Richard Dawkins is accepted as an authority on a whole range of issues even though his actual area of expertise is quite narrow. He is a scientist so he is considered infallible on any subject that he addresses.

And in such an environment scientists can frequently serve as agents of coercion for a given agenda with all detractors labelled "flat-earthers" and worse.  

As Peter Hitchens has observed,

             “A mob is still a mob even though they are wearing white coats”


How different it is for those who know Christ! 

As Christians we do not look to the world and its supposed experts for wisdom. We look instead to the One who is the source of all wisdom.

 Every fact -scientific or otherwise-  is a fact only because Jesus Christ has made it a fact. For in Him are “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3)

    The fear of the Lord is the beginning (foundational principle) of wisdom

                                                                                                            (Prov 9:10)

This means that Godly fear and reverential awe ought to be the foundation stone and the constant backdrop to all scientific investigation. The world can only be understood through the prism of biblical revelation.

Christ is our wisdom. All mere "experts" will stand in the dock themselves.