As might be expected, the question of “scientific consensus” and its presumptive role in shaping our public and ecclesial policy was raised in the context of a decision by the Christian Reformed Church to make a formal public statement regarding climate change.

Jason E. Summers notes in an insightful piece addressing the complexities of scientific authority in our modern world that “scientific claims have substantial bearing on many public issues. But unless the nature of these claims and the basis for their authority are better understood, they cannot be meaningfully incorporated within the political process.”

One of the ways of better understanding the public role of science is to understand precisely what consensus does and does not mean. As Summers writes in the context of delineating “scientific consensus,”

science develops confidence in its findings on the basis of evidence accumulated under the methodological norms of the field, but it does not conclude in a final sense. Thus, a product of scientific inquiry may be highly robust—having well explained all available data and made accurate predictions—but it is not a final and absolute truth claim because it is predicated on evidence that continues to accumulate with time.

A related point is that consensus, no matter what kind, whether popular or expert, is an imperfect indicator of truth and not determinative of it. That is, truth is not created by consensus but rather by correspondence with reality.

Abraham Kuyper makes this point in his reflections on common grace in science and art. He observes,

Modern science is dominated by distrust when it comes to our own deepest sense of life, and that distrust is nothing but unbelief. What people lose thereby they attempt to recover by locating their fulcrum in the consciousness of the prevailing majority. Whatever is generally regarded as true in scientific circles people will dare to accept for themselves.

What people generally agree upon in this manner is called the truth, the truth that people profess to honor. Pressed a bit further, they sense that such a general agreement constitutes no proof at all, so they suppose that only what I can make so clear to all persons of sound mind and sufficient education such that they finally understand and agree with it belongs to what is scientifically established.

The role of scientific consensus is absolutely central to determining what ought (or ought not) be done by various institutions (governmental or otherwise) with respect to climate change. As Andy Crouch’s original piece illustrates, the scientific “near-consensus” on climate change is the latest in a long line of scientific determinations (such as evolution) to which the public is bound to accommodate itself.

But if we confuse consensus with absolute truth, and conflate scientific conclusions with ethical imperatives, we are unduly influenced by the “priestly voice” of science and invite the tyranny of scientific consensus.


  • AMS

    Excellent. Applies to theories regarding evolution as well.

  • http://twitter.com/jasonesummers Jason Erik Summers

    Jordan,

    Thanks for sharing this.

    I’ll note that, in my view, science is essentially a social process that uses consensus to arrive at models that are correspondent to reality. So the two are linked.

    In the passage you quote from Kuyper I believe his focus is more wissenschaft understood broadly, versus the processes Kuhn describes. But I am away from the ofice, so may be recalling the context incorrectly.

    js

    • http://www.jordanballor.com/ Jordan Ballor

      Thanks, Jason, for following up and clarifying. I didn’t mean to simply oppose the two (consensus and correspondence) as if they aren’t linked, at least potentially. Kuyper does note that one of the ways we come to know things is through the mediation of others, including experts. And majority opinion can well be helpful indicator of truth.

      Thus consensus can certainly be a helpful pointer toward truth, but it does not on its own determine it (to restate what I asserted above). And you are right, Kuyper is talking about consensus as well as science more broadly…corresponding more to something like your usage of MacIntyre’s observations about the authority given to technical expertise in the context of contemporary democracy. In any case, it all seems to point to more clarification about the role that scientific expertise and consensus of any sort (natural, social, political, theological) ought to play in our civil discourse.

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