Mar 17, 2011

The guild consensus

Like most people, I take my car to a mechanic when it’s time for an oil change. Despite claims otherwise, I happen to be a fairly capable human being. Sometimes I even use my brain. I’m fully confident in my ability to learn and apply basic car maintenance skills. I don’t for two reasons:

  • I’m lazy
  • I’m lazy I’d rather leave it to an expert

Specialization, as I’ve mentioned before, is a wonderful thing for humanity. It is what has given us such a wealth of choices and what allows us to master so many different things as a people. It can be daunting at times, but without it we’re merely collectively scratching the surface.

All because of that annoying thing called time. We only get so much of it.

Because time is not a luxury, nor a guaranteed or knowable amount, specialization is the key to victory. We focus our efforts in our short lives and we all benefit from each other’s individual mastery. I’ve chosen programming software, for instance.

I haven’t chosen cars, though, and while I could devote time and effort into gaining some of the basics, without sacrificing more I’ll never be more than an amateur. Perhaps that’s enough to do something like changing the oil, but see my first point above about being lazy.

Changing my car’s oil is a rather mundane task but it is one of many that I don’t bother trying to handle myself. I’d so much rather leave it to someone who does it all the time, just as I think you’d might leave the computer stuff to me. Anybody can throw together a VB Windows app if they really wanted to, but for most it would be a frustrating and annoying task and they’d likely end up with something not so great.

Experts are great. They do tasks better than we could, give advice where we’d be lost or ignorant to important aspects, and they generally allow us to get on with our own lives while leaving us with peace of mind. We all rely on experts every day for so much. Without them, we’d have no time to become an expert in something ourselves.

This is the problem that humanity faced for so long. Once upon a time practically everyone was a farmer because you needed food. It isn’t perfect, but today’s agriculture is truly awe-inspiring. Barely anyone in the US is a farmer anymore, and yet they manage to produce more food than we need. No longer must we all be forced to choose “farmer” as our profession.

But this system of delegating responsibility and knowledge to others for certain tasks comes with a price. Climate change or evolution, largely scientific fields, are a good example. Most of us don’t have time to read and study the many hundreds of papers published on these topics in the last thirty years (let alone throughout history), and so precisely 99% of us have no idea what we’re talking about when we say things like “in the 70s they said it was global cooling!” or “evolution is just a theory!”

I try, perhaps more than a lot of people, to be educated on scientific things, but even I know I’m barely aware of the data and theories. I haven’t got time (or I don’t make time, I suppose) to be even semi-literate in most important fields. And so I do what most people can and should do in most cases: concede to consensus.

This is useful in most cases, as it allows us to get 80% there with little work and focus on other things. It means we get to stand on the shoulders of giants.

But beware the guild consensus.

Normally, incentives exist only to pursue truth. Our naturally curios and scientific minds seek to simply to understand. But humanity has a way of corrupting this pure endeavor with things like money, fame, and power. Whenever external incentives are thrown into the mix be on your guard for corruption.

No where is this more evident to me than in Christian theology.

Studying the bible is not an unheard of thing, nor is it something recent. I am confident in saying that most “serious” biblical scholars are both intelligent and knowledgeable. But most are also extremely biased. They have a very strong desire, whether consciously or otherwise, to reaffirm their beliefs. Doesn’t this happen in many areas? Well, yes, it does.

But religion is a bit special. It is inherently unfalsifiable and must rely on “faith” (right?), so it begins the discussion already with a caveat. A premise of “let’s assume there is a god”, and from there extrapolate.

Further, people grow up from childhood hearing these stories, being told that there is a god that loves them, and spend whole lives believing and praying, going to services, meeting other faithful. There is an entire very strong (and very important, don’t let me diminish that) social and cultural aspect to religion. Breaking that because you’ve “figured out it’s bogus” often unthinkable, and even if you can’t shake it most continue on with the farce for fear of reprisal and losing all or a lot of their social net.

Unthinkable is right. How many would destroy so much that had been built up for so many years based on principle or logic alone? It’s a lot to consider, daunting to say the least, and something I hope never to have to face myself. My sympathy for those that do.

But this bulwark is exactly the kind of incentive to corrupt opinion. Shaking people’s faith, particularly your own, isn’t the sort of thing that wins you many friends, awards, or research grants. The incentives are clear: is it really any wonder that so many biblical scholars end up as apologists?

If you concede to the consensus of biblical opinions I won’t fault you for walking away at the very least a liberal Christian. As I said, we short-cut a lot of thinking by relying on other experts. I conceded recently to the climate change theory with just such reasoning. But I am aware that it’s possible incentives could be aligning the majority of scientists in support for global warming. It’s possible

Which is all the more reason to advocate strong opinions, weakly held, something I’ll tackle in a future entry.

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