It Makes Sense to Disagree With Experts- Sometimes.
Anyone on social media in the last six months has seen friends and family reveal surprising expertise in matters of public health, race relations, and other areas, often to the contradiction of what the experts in those fields say. When is it actually reasonable to disagree with experts?
What seems like a neverending back and forth on social media between invoking unnamed experts and people with all the power that YouTube affords them has gotten a bit old, at least to me. It seems like most people have been on edge since the pandemic began, and since then the ability to civilly disagree appears to have all but vanished.
Because of this unfortunate state of affairs, I've wondered if there might be a way to stop most of these dialogues before they begin because honestly, some of the conspiracies floating around really should never be considered reasonable.
For instance, if masks really restricted oxygen, I would think that one of our best and brightest doctors of the 20th century (who wear them frequently) would have realized that by now. But I digress.
One of the joys of grad school for me has been learning under a philosopher named J.P. Moreland. He has a mind sharper than a razor, and a witty sense of humor that laces his lectures. In a couple of those lectures, I have heard him give the criteria I am about to share, but I finally found them in print yesterday when I received the most recent copy of JETS.
The Role of Consensus
To set the stage, it might be important to first consider how consensus plays into our lives. Say I went to the optometrist, and she said I needed to start wearing glasses. But there's a problem; I don't want to wear glasses. So, I see 98 other optometrists who all confirm I need glasses, despite my not wanting to. Finally, I see one last eye doctor who advertises as a holistic optometrist, and he recommends that I eat 6 carrots a day and apply a poultice of his making to my eyelids every night before bed to correct my vision.
Now, all things being equal, it would be unreasonable of me to ignore the 99 in favor of the one; this is a rather airtight medical diagnosis!
So in this situation, I should agree with the consensus, but it also seems that there are times when agreeing with the consensus may be less reasonable. History can help here.
Imagine being a contemporary of Copernicus or Galileo, these men were certainly in the minority opinion in their promotion of a heliocentric solar system, but as time has gone on their theory has been vindicated and consensus has posthumously swung in their direction. How do we know when we're in the minority that we do not stand in a similar moment?
So, When are We Justified to Disagree with Experts?
Enter Dr. Moreland's criteria. In this article , He discusses when it's reasonable to hold a view contrary to the expert consensus. I'll reflect on each of the four criteria in turn:
1. Are there other reasonable explanations?
Make sure there is not an alternative interpretation of the Bible that is interpretively reasonable and that resolves the tension.
This reflection is specifically addressed to theologians, so I might amend this to make sure there is not an alternative option that is reasonable and epistemically viable to make it more generally applicable.
Notice briefly the condition of rationality as opposed to possibility. This is very important; conspiracy theories that you may see circulating trade on possibility. In conversations with friends advocating these views, they often think they are backing me into a corner when they ask, "but do you think X is possible?" To which I inevitably agree, and they reply something like, "Well there you go!"
Here's the problem with that line of thought; loads of things are possible. It's possible I'm not actually in downtown Seattle right now and that I'm actually on Neptune undergoing a VR simulation that makes me think I'm here. I have no way of proving that wrong. But, equally if not more important, I have no good reason to think that such a proposition is true.
Possible? Yes. Reasonable? Certainly not.
So, when we consider dissent against a well-accepted consensus, we must ask if our dissent has a reasonable basis, if that reason is stronger than the reason for the consensus, and if there are any other reasonable alternatives that are viable.
2. Are there multiple experts that dispute the consensus?
The presence of a band of highly trained, academically qualified scholars with a good track record for publishing in top journals or with highly regarded book publishers, and who are unified in rejecting the view...
This condition puts a lot of competing narratives out of the running. While you don't need a PhD to have an opinion on a topic (I certainly don't!), it is wise to listen to those who do.
In any discipline, there are certain canons and methods that have been developed over time that prevent egregious error. In Philosophy, you might consider the laws of logic, in science the scientific method. Experts in these fields are trained to operate within these bounds, but those who are untrained may miss them, or misuse them, and thus err seriously.
As such, if we are to disagree with a well-established consensus, we ought to seek out expert dissent to bolster our own. In the absence of such qualified opinions, it would be wise to rethink the dissent entirely.
3. Are there other factors influencing the consensus?
There are good historical, sociological, or theological explanations for why the expert majority holds to the problematic view...instead of their adherence to the problematic view being largely a rational commitment based on a lot of good arguments and strong evidence.
Similarly, this criterion needs to be applied to the dissenter as well.
Here is where we have to do one of the most difficult things in the world: critical self-examination.
Am I disagreeing with this view for social approval? For political gain? To maintain a presupposition? Because of a theological commitment? Because I am uncomfortable with uncertainty?
Answering any of these affirmatively does not by itself mean that the dissent is false (if we have good reason for a theological commitment, that may provide rationale for dissent by itself), but it may warn us that we are trying to contradict the consensus for reason other than the pursuit of truth.
I think once we have seriously engaged in this process it then makes sense to turn the tables and attempt to examine the majority opinion in the same manner. If we find competing motives other than truthfulness, we may continue to pursue doubt.
A word of caution before continuing though, we do not have direct access to someone's mind, only their words, and deeds. In this process, it is unacceptable to manufacture motives or alternative explanations simply to support doubting a consensus, there must be good independent reasons for doing so.
4. How does the consensus relate to Christianity?
Given that fact, it is rational to reject a potential defeater of Christianity precisely because it cannot withstand being weighed against the significantly high rational support of a Christian worldview of which the defeater is an essential component universities.
This might be seen as a subpoint or corollary to the third condition, but for a Christian, given that (3) is met, a consensus at odds with her worldview should be weighed against the evidence that her worldview is true.
Let's say there was some consensus truly incompatible with Christianity, perhaps Jesus was a myth and never really existed. Let's also suppose there's good evidence that this hypothesis is true (there's not).
If we can conclude there is a theological motive here, perhaps the rejection of Christianity, then we may weigh the consensus against the other rational support for the Christian worldview. This is quite a project and would take more space to detail than I presently have, but for now, suffice it to say that over the last two thousand years many of the brightest minds have believed that there is good reason to believe the claims of the Christian faith, including contemporary thinkers like Dr. Moreland.
The point he is making here is that he believes the other evidence is compelling enough that, should our other criteria be met, a belief that is something of a consensus but truly at odds with a Christian worldview may be disputed on that basis. Because of the strength of the Christian Worldview, a consensus which contradicts it may later turn out to be something of a "geocentric solar system."
So, when we take these criteria to heart and apply them critically (especially to conspiracies), I think we'll find that there are a lot fewer scenarios where we should doubt experts than our current social media culture might lead you to believe.
When doubting a consensus held by experts, we ought to carefully apply these criteria to avoid flippantly dismissing something that is actually true in favor of a falsehood.
While no one is perfect, experts included, consensus exists for a reason, and we ought to be careful when disputing it. However, if there is good reason to, then, by all means, pursue the truth.
J.P. Moreland, “How Christian Philosophers can Serve Systematic Theologians and Biblical Scholars,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 63, no. 2 (June 2020): 297-306.