Friday, June 3, 2011

Science and Prudence

Mark Shea has an article on how Catholics should read scholarship on climate change, history, social programs, etc.
Ye Olde Statistician’s real point is not to make a case for global warming, but to make the perfectly sensible case that what Rome generally does is try to pay attention to what the consensus of experts in a given field say and then act accordingly. This is called prudence. It’s why we hire electricians instead of just praying and sticking a fork in the fusebox to try to repair a power outage. It’s why we call an expert to repair our computer or tell us if it’s going to rain tomorrow. Bishops ain’t climate experts. So they defer to those who are and make a judgment call about the prudent thing to do in light of what appears to be the current consensus.
When the Vatican uses experts in matters other than faith and morals they are being prudent. We are also called to be prudent. What happens is we tend to pick and choose experts we like and ignore evidence to the contrary. The trouble is we tend to like exactly those experts who agree with our previous non-expert opinion on the matter. So we find someone who can state what we already believe in a more convincing manner. Then we tell ourselves that our opinion is actually based on this person's scholarship. But we haven't done anything close to an unbiased survey of the best thinkers. We have just read what people who think like us are comfortable reading. 

There are some subtle distinctions to be drawn here.the Vatican's opinion on matters other than faith and morals is never going to be dogma. But it should give us pause when we are valuing a different set of experts with a different opinion than most Catholics. It should especially concern us when our opinion on such matters corresponds to a particular sub-culture we are active in and pretty much lacks respect among Catholics outside that subculture. Certainly the liberal and conservative political subcultures come with that danger. There are others. Creation science tends to form it's own little subculture. The point is these subcultures exert a powerful influence over our thinking and mostly we are unaware of it. We think we have made an unbiased rational analysis but we have done nothing close.

So what is the answer? Thinking with the church. The church transcends time and culture. It also avoids the serious theological and philosophical errors that can send scholar off into left field. Even in matters where there is no infallibility it is much more likely to be right than you are on your own. That is hard to accept. It is much easier to dismiss something far away when you and everyone close to you have come to a different conclusion. What does it mean that Catholics from other times and other places don't agree? Often it means you are embracing the spirit of the world. 
GK Chesterton said the catholic church is the only thing that can save us from being a child of our time. Do we want to limit that salvation to just matters of faith and morals? Sure those are the most important areas. But science, economics, history, politics, etc. They are still important. We accept that our private judgement in biblical interpretation can be way off. Why can't our private judgement in these other areas be just as far off? Especially when there is significant controversy? 
What is at stake is the usefulness of scholarship. With so much pseudo-intellectual babble going on it is harder and harder to tell what the best minds are really saying. Each side trumpets their own research and it all sounds pretty good. Finding the truth can get hard. So most people just listen to one side and accept whatever. It is like deciding to just listen to Lutheran theologians so you won't be so confused. It removes confusion but it does not give you truth. It gives you a community that will make all the same errors as you do. You just have no idea how close you are to the actual truth. Nobody has any unbiased way of evaluating research. So the whole value of doing research becomes questionable.

1 comment:

  1. It appears that there is previously unreleased information about the Vatican on these audios: