When “Trusting the Expert Consensus” is Wrong

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by Neil Godfrey

I am quite happy to defer to “the expert consensus” when that consensus of experts is grounded upon advanced mathematics, quantum physics or anything medical.

There is a blog out there with a curious byline:

A community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality.

The first post on this blog that I read, however, indicated to me that that byline was ironic. That article, Trusting Expert Consensus, is a mix of good and evil, impeccable logic and fundamental fallacies.

In the introductory section of the post we read:

Expert opinion should be discounted when their opinions could be predicted solely from information not relevant to the truth of the claims. This may be the only reliable, easy heuristic a non-expert can use to figure out a particular group of experts should not be trusted.

From that principle I concluded that the opinion among biblical scholars and theologians that there was an historical Jesus should be discounted. But LessRight disagrees. He/she concludes the opposite, in fact.

The reasoning appears to be basically along these lines:

  • Although an obvious minority in the field, there are a good number of scholars who reject traditional Christianity and espouse quite unconventional and “liberal” views (e.g. Crossan, Borg).
  • This subset of scholars, including even a few who are even atheists, for most part accept the historicity of Jesus.
  • Their liberal or non-religious personal views would not lead us to expect them to believe in the historicity of Jesus.
  • Therefore “non-experts” should defer to the view that Jesus was an historical figure.

(By the way, I owe a thanks to J. Quinton for alerting me to this post.)

Yet the same article also concedes that virtually all of even those liberal or atheistic scholars were at some time in their lives believing Christians.

That tells us something that the article nowhere addresses. People do not like admitting they were wrong. That’s not to say we are incapable of it. Many of us do admit it despite the embarrassment it sometimes causes. But we all have limits. Some people who leave extremist cults will regret some of their former beliefs but not all of them. They will migrate to a more conventional church. Or become a liberal Christian similar to Borg or Crossan.

Besides, the belief that Jesus was an historical person is both a religious dogma and a cultural heritage. It is fundamental Christian dogma that God acted through Jesus in history. It is also a part of our cultural identity — at least for those of us in countries with a Christian heritage. The historical Jesus is an icon rich in meaning for all types of philosophies. There is a natural fascination among many — Christian or not — with discovering and explaining the original person for this very reason.

To challenge the historicity of Jesus is to go beyond challenging a fundamentalist believer. Atheists will also be as likely to look askance at someone doing that. That’s true especially if the atheist is struggling to feel accepted in the wider community. We have seen on the net some people who claim to be atheists saying just that: they don’t want to be embarrassed by fellow-atheists questioning the historicity of Jesus.

So in the educational institutions of many Western countries I would expect people of all shades of opinion about God, the universe, life, to be interested in studying or attempting to uncover the “real historical Jesus” as far as they could.

Besides, even the non-expert (who reads Bart Ehrman, say) can see at a glance that scholars have not sat down to thrash out the question of Jesus’ historicity. Ehrman even says his own book is the first attempt in his entire field to do anything like that. So we have the admission from the expert that Jesus’ historicity has been assumed. Other experts (e.g. Thomas Thompson) say the same thing.

And of course we would expect many of their peers to be offended by such statements. They are embarrassing. Of course other experts would try to deny it. But the fact that the claims could be made in the first place tells us a lot.

It is ironic that a website expressing devotion to refining the art of human rationality should advise a deference to authority when surely we could indeed predict most scholars (who after all often entered their studies with a view to learning more about one of our defining religious or cultural icons) would assume the existence of Jesus.

And we would also expect for reasons irrelevant to the conclusion of the historicity of Jesus that most scholars would be offended and denounce any such claims.

Finally, we would expect that if there were well-established reasons for believing in the historicity of Jesus that scholars would be very willing and able to present them without the wrapping of appeals to authority and ad hominem and outright misrepresentation. We would expect them to know the arguments they oppose and to not make inconsistent claims (e.g. Ehrman’s claims on Galatians) in their defence of historicity.

If I were associated with a blog called LessWrong and were devoted to refining the art of human rationality I would counsel that non-experts should adopt an agnostic position on the historicity of Jesus. Certainly the opinions of the experts are indeed predictable solely from information not relevant to the truth of the claims.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “When “Trusting the Expert Consensus” is Wrong”

  1. In the comments over there, I disagreed with Chris Hallquist’s conclusion about Biblical studies. Here’s what I wrote:

    As a matter of fact, there’s a huge halo effect bias among Biblical scholars when describing Jesus in a supposed secular academic context:

    Jesus, a perfect example of imperfect ethics

    My project actually began with a puzzling experience. If one reads almost any book on Christian ethics written by academic biblical scholars, one finds something extremely peculiar: Jesus never does anything wrong.


    This uniformly benign picture of Jesus’ ethics is peculiar because when historians study Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar, they note the good and the bad aspects of their actions. Even when academic biblical scholars study Moses or David, they might note their flaws. From a purely historical viewpoint, Jesus is a man and not a god. He should have flaws.

    So how is it that most Christian academic biblical scholars never see anything that Jesus does as wrong or evil? The answer, of course, is that most Christian biblical scholars, whether in secular academia or in seminaries, still see Jesus as divine, and not as a human being with faults.

    Such scholars are still studying Jesus through the confessional lenses of Nicea or Chalcedon rather than through a historical approach we would use with other human beings.

    It’s as though their scholarship is still being biased with a need to appease Christians. Any scholar who came to such a drastic conclusion like Jesus not existing at all would be anathema to a field that still venerates Jesus in a way.

    I wouldn’t expect something as drastic as “what’s the worst teaching of Jesus?” in scholarly writings, but there should still be some more criticism of Jesus and his actions beyond “Oh, he was wrong about the end of the world” which is too obvious to count as any sort of significant critique.

    1. It’s not just Jesus. Everything I read about Paul assumes that he was being sincere and truthful in everything he wrote (except of course when he wrote that his gospel came to him by direct revelation since clearly he must have learned it from Jesus’s disciples). Nobody ever addresses the possibility that he was a lunatic or a huckster or a pathological liar, although no one would hesitate to acknowledge these possibilities when it came to Joseph Smith or L.Ron Hubbard.

      More generally, isn’t our confidence in a robust process of peer review one of the main reasons we trust the consensus of experts? It is the breadth of challenges to every position from all points on the spectrum that causes us to think presuppositions and biases are being tested. Even if we could identify the small subset of historical Jesus scholars who are free from confessional biases, we can doubt that any position that is consistent with historicity is ever going to get the same kind of scrutiny as one that challenges it. Moreover, not only were most of these liberal and atheistic scholars once sincere believers themselves, but their training and methodology came from sincere believers..

  2. One of my New Testament professors in seminary, a charter member of the Jesus Seminar, said off-handedly that no one had ever questioned the existence of Jesus “physically.” Of course, people have been questioning that since the French Enlightenment (Volney, Dupuis). If NT scholars have never even studied the historicity of Jesus, how could their “consensus” amount to expertise? Bart Ehrman asks rhetorically, wouldn’t you want a dentist to work on your teeth? Yes, but I would want one who knew something about tooth decay.

    1. Some of the nineteenth century radicals questioned the historicity of Jesus but they were ignored. This sidelining has since been interpreted as scholarly rebuttal.

      Early twentieth century also saw questionings of the historicity of Jesus and there were scholarly rebuttals (e.g. Shirley Jackson Case). Those few responses by scholars have been held up as the final word. There has been no debate, no scholarly critique or engagement with those works. So Ehrman can even say he never knew anyone questioned Jesus’ historicity till recently. In other words, he is telling us that scholars as a whole at no time engaged with, or took any notice of, those few who did attempt responses to the Christ Myth theory.

      Hurtado even advertized one work from the 1930s as having said it all in rebuttals to mythicism. Yet if he really read that work recently he would surely be embarrassed by some of its arguments in the light of modern scholarship.

  3. There is a distinction between respect for skill, for expertise, acknowledgement of learning and wide knowledge – and abdication to a consensus. Though Boyle and Newton thought of themselves as an elite with special gnosis in some activities, modern science is essentially democratic (Galileo chose to write his dialogues in Italian, Faraday founded the Xmas lectures, Feynmann regretted that the fact that modern theories of Physics were so difficult to express except in Mathematical language that most people found difficult yet read all the correspondence with suggestions of changes to his theories) and the evidence and experimental basis of the sciences is broadcast to be tested by thought and experiment by everyone – else it is not science.
    Exposing the ideological basis of some learned theories is not always difficult and does not disrespect learning. Decades ago I read Stenton on Anglo-Saxon history and was able to see the flaws in his picture of the Adventus Saxonum, of the relations between Norse and Danes and so on, without in any way disrespecting his knowledge of all the key texts, the coinage, much of the archaeology, very wide knowledge of the wider European histories and so on. Similarly one could have questioned the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mecanics, understanding its ideological roots, without losing any respect for the great achievements of the founders of quantum mechanics. And one can admire the experimental designs and discoveries of Biologists who investigate behaviour and evolution while understanding that their model of animals behaving like rational individuals in a capitalist society both helps and in detail vitiates their explanations. I put economics in a case on its own – yes these scholars know much more than me about the facts and details of markets but their so-called science is purely ideology from elementary textbooks to the most grandiose theories.
    It may be true that if your object is polemic= then to put in doubt the historical existence of Jesus is not the most effective argument. But what if your objective is truth? Casting honest doubt on the historic existence of this son of man is surely a help in getting to grips with the deeper social and ideological changes and very long term trends which helped create the new religions and philosophies which challenged and strengthened the empire.

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