Expertise, knowledge….

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

One of my favorite biblical scholars, Richard Elliott Friedman, is out with a new book, The Bible with Sources Revealed.1 In the introduction he notes:

…Both traditional and radical scholars…have claimed that the hypothesis [the Documentary Hypothesis] has been overthrown, that “hardly anybody believes that anymore,”…The hypothesis that, supposedly, no one believes anymore continues to be the model in which most scholars work. It continues to be taught in courses in major universities and seminaries. And it continues to be outlined in introductory textbooks on biblical studies. The primary arguments for it continue to go undebated-and frequently unmentioned.

Sound familiar? No doubt many of you who see it written somewhere that people should “teach the controversy” about evolution wonder, “what controversy?” Some of the readers of this weblog make arguments that teaching Intelligent Design makes political or intellectual sense in some fashion, but few would credit the idea that descent with modification and/or methodological naturalism is under some “debate” in the academy. Nevertheless, I have met many evangelical Christians who want to “argue” the “controversy” with me.

Human beings today are specialists. No one can know everything, and so we appeal to authorities. When someone who is a scientist speaks before your church and tells you that there is a controversy as to the validity of the theory of evolution, who are you to disagree? As I’ve noted, many of the people who are movers and shakers in the Young Earth Creationist movement are scientists, of a sort. The problem of course is that science is an enormous field of study, and though over time there are many cross-linkages between the disciplines very few people keep up on the literature even within sister fields. In other words, if you a biochemist, you might not know that much about molecular genetics beyond what you learned as an undergraduate (and conversely). If you are an organic chemist you might not know much about biochemisty. A friend of mine who is in graduate school in chemical physics was telling me about how he regularly observes his Ph.D. advisor bullshit about material he has no clue about because it is embarrassing for him to acknowledge that he hasn’t kept up on the literature in the subfield of his subfield (that is, the corners of the field that his graduate students are focusing on).

I recall a conversation with a friend of mine who was discussing with me the plausibility of quick response to selection in microevolutionary processes. He hadn’t known that I had done a lot of reading in this area of late and so I was up on the literature and the analytic models in circulation, and so when I disagreed with his characterization of plausibilities his comeback was “well, my wife is a veterinarian and she said….” Simply replace “veterinarian” with “doctor” and you have, in my experience, the most common appeal-to-authority I have observed. Since when it relates to specific evolutionary or genetic questions I often do know more about the topic at hand than my M.D. friends I have no problem in brushing aside that appeal to authority, a pro forma deluge of impressive sounding vocabularly usually mollifies the target and we can get back to the normal business of actually exchanging information and progressing in extracting insight via communication. But this sort of interjection is ubiquitous in some fashion. Consider a thread over at the anthropology weblog Savage Minds where a reader noted that she worked in a neurochemistry lab, and while she was there she had no idea who E.O. Wilson was, ergo, the implication was that he can’t be very prominent in biology. Of course, Wilson is an entomologist, and one of the world’s experts on ants.2 As an organismic biologist it wouldn’t surprise me that people in neurochemistry wouldn’t talk about him. I also wouldn’t expect that R.A. Fisher, Sewall Wright or J.M. Smith would be figures that she was acquainted with, that doesn’t mean that they weren’t prominent (she later notes that Wilson was someone she heard about in graduate school in anthropology, which makes sense if you think about, that is, someone with a training in ethology and ecology might seem more relevant to people who are working in a higher order complexity field. Ontologically anthropology is reducible to physics on some level, but no one is going to chatter much about Edward Witten). The insight here is that biology is a big field with diverse methodologies and literature ghettos.3

This is a serious problem in many contexts. For example, I have heard from people that a “linguist friend” has assured them that the “Chomskyian model” has been overthrown. I don’t have the expertise to judge this assertion. Or, consider our friend Bora Zivkovic who regularly goes around commenting on blogs that “genocentrism” is an old paradigm and that the hot field of inquiry is multi-level selectionism. I happen to think that is a load of crap. But Bora has a lot of cred with many liberal webloggers because he’s a liberal, and well, I’m not. Or consider the appeal to the 1982 Lewontin and Sober paper Artifact, Cause and Genic Selection over at Crooked Timber thread on Evolutionary Psychology.

How to resolve this problem? If I was God I would have the NSF fund regular surveys on “Big Questions” within various subfields among NAS scientists, and whatever equivalents exist in other fields. This would be a good pulse check for those of us who aren’t in field X and so can’t make a gestalt evaluation based on personal review of the literature and knowledge of others who work within that field. Unfortunately, this probably isn’t going to happen anytime soon, so what to do? I think there are two short term strategies: 1) try and find a survey within that field to establish the bounds of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, 2) remember that the fine distinctions of knowledge and expertise that you are familiar within your areas of fluency apply elsewhere. There is a reason there is biochemistry, and organic chemistry and cognitive psychology. These modifiers are essential markers which suggest tightly bound disciplines, and even within them there are narrow specialities, so don’t expect more than undergraduate level of fluency when they venture outside their ghetto.

Addendum: Of course, you could immerse yourself in the literature of a particular field if you wanted to get firsthand knowledge and sample the zeitgeist, but this isn’t a general strategy you can follow because of the finite nature of disposable time for most people.

1 – Not the “whole Bible” as understood in the Christian tradition, but the Pentateuch.

2 – He was also given a professorship at Harvard before James Watson.

3 – I happen to think there is a lot of convergence going on though. A lot of evolutionary biology today uses molecular method.


  1. These modifiers … outside their ghetto 
    If you think its bad in the physical/hard sciences, come over to the social sciences (much less Education) where (almost) every person with letters behind his/her name feels endowed to wax elloquently about stuff they have no busisness discussing (much less as an authority), just because he/she read an article or book at one point in his/her academic career. The best phrase I learned a long time ago is: “that is not my area of expertise,” which goes hand-in-hand with my all time favorite Arthur Jensen quote:
    I’m always amazed to see a psychologist offering a glib explanation of some immensely complex behavioral incident when psychological science has not even provided explanations for comparatively simple general phenomena…

  2. If you think its bad in the physical/hard sciences 
    i figured if its bad in those sciences, must be worse elsewhere.