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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Friday, December 15, 2017

Why a Scientific Consensus isn't What it's Cracked Up to Be

A couple of years ago, the Internet blew up over a huge debate—one that captured the attention of popular culture and caused fierce disagreements between friends and family members. I am, of course, talking about the infamous "What color is the dress?" meme portrayed in the accompanying image. One can perceive the dress colors to be either blue and black or white and gold, and it seems for most people once you see the colors a certain way, you simply can't see them from the other perspective.

Now, imagine you want to buy a gift for your mother's birthday and your father had sent you that same picture with the recommendation that since he's buying her a dress, you should purchase the accessories. Would your purchases make sense? We don't know. It all depends on what you see and whether your perception matches reality. Even if the one buying the accessories had the most exquisite fashion sense and was gifted in picking out the most tasteful and appropriate accoutrements, it matters what their perception of the dress colors were.

Scientific Consensus is Founded on Paradigms

I offer the thought experiment because it helps us to better understand how paradigms influence people. We all make choices based on a specific way of seeing things, and this is true in the fields of science as much as it is in any other discipline. In fact, the terms "paradigm" and "paradigm shift" were coined by Thomas Kuhn in his earthshaking book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn there demonstrates how scientific knowledge hasn't been acquired in a slow, steady, progressive line. That's a myth.

Kuhn states that what really happens is young scientists accept certain assumptions about how the world works because they've been taught that from those already in the field. He writes that the student studying in whatever scientific discipline he will eventually practice,
joins men who learned the bases of their field from the same concrete models, his subsequent practice will seldom evoke overt disagreement over fundamentals. Men whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice. That commitment and the apparent consensus it produces are prerequisites for normal science, i.e., for the genesis and continuation of a particular research tradition.1(emphasis added).
What this means is that scientists within a particular field of study all start with some basic assumptions and then they rely upon those assumptions to solve problems on details within that model. So, if one were to start with the paradigm that the dress is white and gold, then the answer to the problem of what kind of accessories would complement the dress will come out differently than if one were to hold the paradigm that the dress is blue and black.

The Consensus Can be Influenced by Outside Factors

If you are basing your accessory choices on the paradigm of a white and gold dress, and you find that the majority of those who you learn from and those you work with have also accepted this paradigm, you no longer ask about the color of the dress or whether whiter is a better color for a handbag than back. When someone comes into your fold and suggests black for a handbag, your reaction would be one of incredulity. Certainly any fool can see that black is the wrong color choice! You might even make fun of them and dismiss them as not doing good science. But what they've questioned is the paradigm you have assumed, not the reasoning to the color if the paradigm were true.

Here's the thing, though. These paradigms themselves are frequently caused by factors beyond dispassionate science. Kuhn himself discovered this when investigating the Ptolemaic and Copernican ideas of the solar system. Ptolemy's paradigm was first formed by Aristotle, who held to a couple of very Greek ideas, one of which was that some bodies are naturally inclined to move in a circular pattern. In other words, planets by their nature would move circularly because that's what they do. Aristotle's assumption set the paradigm that worked for many centuries and allowed the scientists for those days to come up with accurate predictions.

It's much like another image that takes on conflicting perceptions. Look at the drawing of the animal I have here. Is this a drawing of a rabbit or a duck? Normally, you will perceive one or the other first. Interestingly, outside factors make a difference in what you see. The Independent reports "At different times during the year, the result of the test seem to change. During the Easter period, people are more likely to see a rabbit first but in October, seeing the duck first is more common."2

Aristotle's assumption on the nature of bodies moving in a circular pattern was based on Greek philosophy. Thus it was a philosophical commitment that shaped the science of planetary orbits and of our understanding the nature of our solar system for centuries. It was only when instruments became more sophisticated that flaw could be seen in the model. These flaws grew to the point of crisis until those within the community had to abandon their paradigm and adopt a new one. This is what Kuhn labels a paradigm shift.

The Consensus Can Be Wrong

Before a paradigm shift occurs, there is a scientific consensus about whatever point one is discussing. But even though a consensus exists, that doesn't mean those who oppose the consensus are wrong. They may in fact be right, but they are simply offering a different paradigm.

When you read about the contentious scientific issues of our day like the origin of life, man-caused climate change, and neo-Darwinian evolution, it won't be long before someone makes the claim that given a scientific consensus exists on topic X, anyone who holds a contrary view is anti-science. That's simply wrong. It may be that those who hold to the contrary position see the flaws and wish to question the paradigm itself. The bigger question thinking people need to ask is "what are the assumptions implicit in this position and have they been tested?" The question of the color of the dress can be answered, if one enlarges the frame to see more of the picture. Doing this isn't anti-science but what Kun calls extraordinary science.

So let's not point to the idea of a scientific consensus as the final card in a debate. The consensus may be the very thing that needs to be questioned.


1. Thomas Samuel Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Second Edition., University of Chicago Press, 1970. 11.
2. Chloe Farand. "Duck or Rabbit? The 100-Year-Old Optical Illusion That Could Tell You How Creative You Are." The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 14 Feb. 2016,

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

The Default in Disagreement for Climate Change/Abortion Advocacy

As informed citizens, we utilize the available tools around us to help make wise decisions on public policy. And public policy, of course, codifies how people are to interact with one another, the environment, and the government. Many issues wind up being a scientific/ethical/legal debate because Americans hold to different understandings of law, conceptions of ethics, and the relevant science. This article will not examine or critique our various conceptions of ethics, though it will assume ethics are employed in our decision-making process in general. The article will, however, examine the approach to science we take in responding to issues.

It is commonplace for voters to take cues from popular science and advocate accordingly. It is just as commonplace to find a strategy like this:
  • identify data (commonly as an appeal to science), and then
  • leverage that data to make an ethical decision (commonly via voting or advocacy).
But… this strategy is often used inconsistently and, particularly so, amid disagreement on an issue. Take abortion and climate change:

The current default in society is to affirm policies that:
  1. Give choice to voters:
    • For abortion, this means denouncing policies that prioritize unborn personhood, while
  2. Denying choice to voters:
    • For climate change, this means championing policies that prioritize nature.
On the issue of abortion, regardless of whichever camp one sits on or however nuanced one’s position is, there are clear questions that science can answer in the discussion. We can look at human embryology, anatomy, physiology, gynecology, obstetrics, (i.e. entire scientific sub-disciplines that can speak authoritatively on the debate in significant ways). We can enlist the existing science there to affirm a defensible position on public policy.

On the issue of climate change, there is an appeal to climate science to justify public policies for conservation, environmental restrictions, pollution controls, et cetera. Now, given the science and regardless of wherever one stands on the issue, it is easy to find contention and disagreement in the public sphere over climate change. This disagreement, however, does not stop climate-change-conscious citizens from advocating climate-change-conscious policies. I have yet to see such an advocate (and I can bet he or she would consider it absurd) to propose: “The public disagrees on whether or not humans are influencing the climate. Therefore, the default position should be to NOT advocate or attempt to pass climate-change-conscious policies at all.”

Now, if he or she were being consistent, then he or she would consider it similarly absurd to propose: “The public disagrees on whether or not the unborn are persons. Therefore, the default position should be to NOT advocate personhood for the unborn.” That is to say, it would not at all make sense to stop trying to make laws in favor of guarding unborn human life solely because there is disagreement.

Take human embryology: the relevant claims in science here are non-controversial and uncontested regarding the unborn. We can make statements like:
  • “The organism has unique and human DNA” or
  • “All things being equal, the unborn will continue its human development as the rest of us did and do.”
Furthermore, there are far less controversial and far more modest statements that even non-experts can make, like:
  • “The only differences between the unborn and the born are size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency” or
  • “No combination of those differences have ever been sufficient to say that someone is or is not a person.”
Appealing to science here does no favors for a pro-choice position.
So, to maintain logical consistency, a pro-choice/climate-change advocate ought to suppose that disagreement on an issue with scientific connections means either of these defaults:

A) Affirm policies that give choice to voters:
  • for abortion, this means denouncing policies that prioritize unborn personhood
  • for climate change, this means denouncing policies that prioritize nature, or
B) Affirm policies that deny choice to voters:
  • for abortion, this means championing policies that prioritize unborn personhood
  • for climate change, this means championing policies that prioritize nature.
Given these options, this means a pro-choice/climate-change advocate would have to modify their position by doing either of these:
  • stop denouncing policies that prioritize unborn personhood, or
  • stop championing policies that prioritize nature
Neither of which is presumably desirable for such an advocate.

What shall it be, then? Do not look to science? Do not make ethical policies that account for the science? Do not be logically consistent? The answer, of course, is: “None of the above.” So then, why be inconsistent with the strategy? Why not let science influence our ethical considerations? If the science affirms that humans are being bad stewards of the environment, then why not uphold policies that address responsible stewardship? If the science affirms that humans begin to exist at conception, then why not uphold policies that address the inalienable value of human life?

Let us be consistent. If it is a principle of ours to appeal to the science in addressing a science-related policy, then let us not deny the corresponding ethical position it would entail or affirm, even if it means we might have to abandon or revise our prior collection of ethical postures.
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