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Why We Should Question Scientific Consensus

The cover of the April 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine made me think of the Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the other.”


Under the headline “The War on Science,” the cover added:


“Climate Change Does Not Exist.”


“Evolution Never Happened.”


“The Moon Landing Was Faked.”


“Vaccinations Can Lead To Autism.”


“Genetically Modified Food Is Evil.”

Now the message was clear: Anyone who expresses any doubt in what National Geographic calls “the consensus of experts” is a crank or a nut. From the magazine’s perspective, no other explanations are even worth consideration.


And the article featured a reproduction of an 1893 map of the “Stationary and Square Earth” drawn up by a South Dakota businessman who insisted that the Earth was flat. It was an illustration, National Geo says, of how “we subconsciously cling to our intuitions” about the world even when experts tell us we are wrong.


Among the many things missing from the article is any acknowledgement whatsoever that many, if not most, of the critics of the International Panel on Climate Change are themselves eminent meteorologists and scientists, such as Richard Lindzen of MIT.


In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Lindzen described the attempts to intimidate reputable scientists whose only “offense” is objecting to “alarmist claims about the climate.”


Similarly, many of the most articulate critics of Neo-Darwinism have never said that “evolution,” at least on the micro level, “never happened.” Some, like Michael Behe, even accept the idea of common descent. But what they all object to is the metaphysical and dogmatic pretensions of Neo-Darwinism, and the claim of its universal explanatory powers by its most ardent champions.


Nope—nuance is just simply absent from this article. Instead, there are only two kinds of people: those who embrace the “consensus of experts” and their public policy proposals, and those who don’t and are therefore clearly not “rational.”


Reading the article brought to mind an earlier battle between the “consensus of experts” and those who resisted this consensus for reasons that were derided at the time as being “sentimental.”


In 1925, my home state of Virginia enacted the “Eugenical Sterilization Act,” which permitted the forced sterilization of people afflicted with “hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy.” The Act’s constitutionality was upheld by the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell in which Justice Holmes famously declared that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”


Today we recoil at eugenics, forced sterilization, and the language by which Holmes justified them. But, as Harry Bruinius documents in his 2007 book, “Better for All the World,” such practices and opinions reflected the so-called consensus of experts at the time.


Experts of that day not only agreed that socials ills such as crime, poverty, and even loose sexual morals were hereditary, but that the best public policy solution was to sterilize the “unfit.”


And they complained about folks who refused to get with their program, especially Catholics and Evangelicals. In fact, some even joked about sterilizing fundamentalists.


As the saying goes, “history does not repeat itself but it does rhyme.” Once again, today, questioning the more audacious claims of scientists or questioning where their ideas might lead us is called a “war on science.” We are told that questioning the “consensus of experts” can cause great harm, never mind the harm that actually has been caused by blindly embracing previous consensuses.


And once again, we need to insist, as Pennsylvania governor Samuel Pennypacker did in 1906 when he vetoed the nation’s first forcible sterilization bill, that “scientists . . . sometimes need to be restrained” because they can “lose sight of broad principles outside their domain of thought.”


Oh, and yes, we did land on the moon.


BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at where you can read and search answers to common questions.

John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.

Publication date: March 13, 2015

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