Consensus and Inconvenient Evidence

If we are such reasonable people, why are we becoming a nation of unreasoning and evidence-disdaining cattle?

Our culture likes to flatter itself on its broadminded, rational, even scientific approach to the issues of our times. Many are proud to have put the “voodoo of religious faith”, and everything that can’t be measured, behind them.

Matt Ridley, who recently “retired” from authoring the Wall Street Journal’s Mind & Matter (science) column, speaking about climate change, says, “…science does not respect consensus. There was once widespread agreement about phlogiston (a nonexistent element said to be a crucial part of combustion), eugenics, the impossibility of continental drift, the idea that genes were made of protein (not DNA) and stomach ulcers were caused by stress, and so forth – all of which proved false. Science, Richard Feynman once said, ‘is the belief in the ignorance of experts’…So, yes, it is the evidence that persuades me whether a theory is right or wrong, and no, I could not care less what the ‘consensus’ says.”

Ridley’s perspective can be applied to many subjects and issues, small and big. For instance, the consensus is that professional athletes need sports psychologists, so – using golf as an example – why is there a dearth of modern professionals with the tough-mindedness of a Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, or Tom Watson, men who excelled at the game before sports psychology was in vogue?

The consensus is that modern visual art (portraying a materialistic worldview) has displaced the anachronistic and chauvinistic art of previous centuries, so why would an exemplar of modern art, Salvador Dali, suggest that as modern artists had come to believe in nothing, their art amounted to nothing?

The consensus is that the natural environment in the U.S. is deteriorating, though the great majority of the evidence – declines in water/air-related illnesses, significant water/air quality improvements, habitat creation, sensitive species returning to once-polluted rivers, advancements in treatment/recycle technologies, indicates that America’s natural environment has been improving for decades, so why are so many people convinced that America is experiencing an environmental crisis?

The consensus is that racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation “diversity” enriches academia and workplaces, but where is the evidence that ethnic and sexual diversity produces diversity in thinking, attitude, or perspective? Why are there so many universities, populated with a “diverse” faculty and student body, that can’t abide non-conforming thinking? 

The consensus is that a culture of sexual liberation has made us happier and more fulfilled, so why is there evidence of an eruption of sexual predation, abuse of women and children, and increases in sexually transmitted diseases in recent generations?

The consensus is that once contraceptives were readily available, few abortions would need to be performed, so why are there millions of abortions performed in the U.S. every year?

The consensus was that when abortion was legalized, women’s health would benefit, so why do the Kermit Gosnells still flourish in this Country, and why are abortion supporters fighting so hard to prevent health-related standards from being increased in abortion clinics?

The consensus is that a fetus is just a lump of tissue until a woman “chooses” to permit it to live, so why are so many women (and men) haunted by a choice to expunge tissue, and what event transforms this tissue into a human person?

The consensus is that violent and pornographic videogames, films, and internet sites don’t promote acts of public mayhem, so why is there evidence that violent and abusive behavior has increased in recent generations, in parallel with the explosion of media that glorifies violence and recreational sex? 

The consensus is that too many children are a threat to societies and the environment, so why is an increasingly childless and rapidly aging Europe struggling to sustain its identity, institutions, and economy, and what of the empirical evidence that a healthy economy is necessary to safeguard the environment?

The consensus is that jihadist Muslim animosity toward the “Christian” West derives from the Crusades, so why is there hardly ever any mention of Muslim invasions, over a period of many centuries, of Spain, France, Italy, the Byzantine Christian empire, eastern Europe, and Austria?

A few years back, The Wall Street Journal published my rebuttal to their news article entitled, Study Finds Global Warming Is Killing Frogs. The rebuttal stated, “When science records what it observes, when it measures phenomena, and when it faithfully and accurately models that data, its findings are valid, useful and reliable. But when scientists, however well informed, offer speculation based on these observations, measurements and models, credibility and reliability are diminished, sometimes drastically. Thus, the observation that the frog population worldwide is declining, corroborated by measurements, in combination with models that purport to demonstrate global warming is not (yet) sufficient to assert the title of your article. This conclusion is speculative, as it is based on the assumption that warmer temperatures at higher elevations in Costa Rica are responsible for the viability of the fungus that is infecting the frogs…Unfortunately, our society is ill-equipped to distinguish the difference between valid and reasonable observation, measurement and modeling on the one hand, and speculation.”

Evidence is not the same thing as incontrovertible proof, but consensus that presents selective data, haphazardly extrapolates sound data, makes frivolous inferences, or asserts ideologically-rooted assumptions, isn’t worthy of respect.

Consensus is only as valid as the evidence supporting it. If we are too lazy or too star-struck to consider evidence, then we can, and will, be led like cattle. All the tablets and smart phones and approbation in the world won’t help if we’re chewing the cud of mere “consensus”. 

There is a growing consensus that religion should be discarded because religious faith isn’t “reasonable”, so why are the Church and faith-affiliated universities among the few institutions that take rigorous reasoning and classical philosophy seriously? Where is the evidence that rigorously reasoned works like Fides et Ratio are being produced in the world at large?

If reason is our lodestar, why are we becoming a nation of unreasoning and evidence-disdaining cattle?

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About Thomas M. Doran 82 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), The Lucifer Ego, and Kataklusmos (2020). He has worked on hundreds of environmental and infrastructure projects, was president of Tetra Tech/MPS, was an adjunct professor of engineering at Lawrence Technological University, and is a member of the College of Fellows of The Engineering Society of Detroit.