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You Lost Me On Hello. A Plea for Expertise

For the past several weeks we have seen more than ever why we need experts.  It is absolutely fine to have uninformed opinions.  We all have thousands of them.   But we should no mistake our uninformed opinions for knowledge.  And real knowledge takes expertise, and expertise takes years and years of training and hard work.  It doesn’t come from watching the news or reading a few articles and then making up your mind.  Since we ourselves cannot be expert in everything, we have to decide whether to trust those who are experts or to persist in our contrary views.  And as we are seeing now, in some areas expertise is a matter of life and death.    In other pressing areas (climate), it may mean the survival of the human race and the planet.

Most areas of expertise are not that significant in terms of history or human life.  But the same principles apply.  My view is that pPeople really shouldn’t work desperately hard to convince others about something that they really don’t know anything about.  I’m not saying that we should be somehow *forced* to accept our contrary view, and mindlessly accept whatever the experts are telling us.  You can think pretty much whatever you like, as far as I’m concerned, about most things.  I continue to think the 1984 Tarheels were the best college basketball team of all time, experts be damned.  But for more important matters, if you try to convince others of your uninformed views, that almost never leads to something good.

Most of us are experts in one thing or another – maybe not world-class experts, but extremely knowledgeable.  That’s one reason I don’t think affirming expertise is at all elitist – the charge that is often made against it, though not so much right now, at least in one rather serious area of our lives over the past few weeks.  An expert doesn’t need to claim to be a superior human being because of their expertise.  They aren’t a superior human being.  They simply know more than most people, or in some cases than virtually everyone, about one thing or another.

I’m an expert on all sorts of things that most people know almost nothing about, nearly all these things connected in one way or another with ancient Christianity (the Greek scribal tradition of the Gospel of John; the history of early Christian persecution; the interpretation of the Acts of Pilate; lots and lots of things).  So what?  I have no idea how my toaster works or how to repair a timing belt or how to determine the distance in light years of the nearest sun or almost anything about Genghis Khan or the history of the interpretation of Beowulf or …. The list reaches to infinity.

And for that reason I don’t give people advice about how they ought to do these things or what they ought to think about them.

Why is it, though, that when it comes to matters of history and religion so many people think that anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s?  Even when these matters cross over into the realms of science?   You wonder if that’s true?  If there really are lots of people who know nothing about a topic and try to convince others to share their ignorance, thinking that they actually do know the truth?

OK, then, think about the beginnings of the universe and the origins of life.

As happens with frustrating regularity, I received an email recently from someone wanting me to read their book.   Sent me the book electronically, as well.  In the email the person wanted to spark my interest and so included the opening line of the book:

The idea that existence, with all its complex order, unity, inherent creativity and intelligence, arose from an unintelligent, random and mechanical process like the Big Bang and evolution and that humans magically evolved from an organic soup of amino acids is just nonsense, crap, BS, not true.

My first thought was, “Good god….”   My second thought was: why do people who know nothing about a topic pronounce on it?  I mean it’s fine to think that everything the experts have shown in, say, astrophysics or geoscience, is completely wrong.  But do you really want to try to go toe to toe with them?

I responded to this person by asking what his expertise is.  He doesn’t have any advanced training, but he did do an undergraduate degree with a double major in biology and computer science.  OK, fair enough.  I suppose an outside might think, “Hey, he took a bunch of biology courses in college, so he surely knows what he’s talking about, right?”

Yeah, not right.  My field is nowhere NEAR as complicated and technical as the “hard” sciences.  But there’s not a double religious studies / computer science major in the universe who would be able to understand just my dissertation, let alone any of the hard-core research I’ve done since then.  It would take lots and lots of explaining even to give them an idea what it’s *about*.  But they wouldn’t be able to understand it from the inside – only on the outside based on the best explanation I could come up with to simplify it for them.  And that would mean that there is NO WAY on God’s green earth that they’d be able to *assess*, *analyze*, or *critique* it.

So why do people do that with matters of science?  Again, it’s *FINE* not to believe in the Big Bang if you don’t want to, or to think that there is simply no way to explain the beginnings of life without believing in a Creator.   Sure – believe what you want.  But why would you write a *book*trying to convince people that science is wrong when in fact you haven’t been trained in the field and cannot understand it from the inside, but only know what others have told you who have had to to overly simplify it just for you to get a sense of it (for example, on the most basic level, the math)?

In any event, I normally try to be very polite to people when I respond to them.  But I have to admit, this kind of exchange really gets to me.  And so I decided to tell him what I really thought.

Just a response to the first statement.  Anyone who has no credentials or expertise who says that the most intelligent human beings on the planet–  who have spent their entire lives devoted to the difficult work of mastering a subject of such major complexity as cosmology or astro-physics — are in fact spouting “nonsense, crap, BS,” in my opinion, should actually learn the field before attacking it.

He responded to me by pleading with me to read the book.  I read the beginning, got the thesis, and, well – if I want to know about the Big Bang, I think I’ll talk to a cosmologist instead.   When it comes to stars, climate, or viruses, I really want to know what experts think.


Thanks to those who volunteered!
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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Jimmy  March 15, 2020

    Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins were on that team and coached by dean smith . I think they lost that year to Bobby knight and Indiana. I may have misremembered but I think it correct. North Carolina supplied a lot of good players through the years to the nba.

  2. Avatar
    forthfading  March 15, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I would totally understand why someone writing a book on early Christianity would want you to read it, even if they were not trained. Take myself, I have a bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies. This makes me informed but not an expert nor a schloar (I do think I could get an 8 on your Intro to NT pop quiz and get a free dinner though). I would understand if someone like me wrote a book and wanted a real expert to read it and give feedback, but why does someone want a Bible scholar to read their book critiquing science? I fail to see why they would care about your opinion unless they were a friend or family.

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2020

      I supose it’s cognitive dissonance. They want affirmation for a view so as to be reassured they are right. And it ain’t gonna come from an actual scientist!

  3. Avatar
    flshrP  March 15, 2020

    It’s about respect. Specifically, respect for any bona fide expert who has done the thousands of hours of work needed to reach an advanced level of expertise.

    This is prevalent in discussions of climate change. Non-experts can be exceedingly disrespectful to those who have done the work in the university and in the field to qualify as true experts in this important endeavor. These non-experts would not tolerate the disrespect that they show to climate change experts if someone, who knew nothing about their line of work, would look over their shoulders and tell them that they don’t know what the hell they are doing.

    And it’s about humility. Specifically, realizing that your views on matters outside your circle of expertise are only more or less informed opinions of an amateur and are essentially worthless compared to those of the true expert. In other words, the expert is the teacher. The non-expert is the student.

    In this era of the Internet where anonymity reigns supreme, respect and humility are in very short supply. There are too many jerks on blogs and YouTube videos pretending to expertise that they obviously don’t possess.

    • Avatar
      Nathan  March 17, 2020

      “Specifically, realizing that your views on matters outside your circle of expertise are only more or less informed opinions of an amateur and are essentially worthless compared to those of the true expert.“

      This is very interesting. One difficulty is recognizing if you are the one with the expertise (see Dunning-Kruger effect). It my understanding that there have been several papers by so-called amateurs of climate science that have contributed and corrected the literature. I believe many of the cases are because some climate scientists are not strong in statistics, and those with greater mathematical skill who, in these cases, are actually closer to being experts have contributed to this field.

  4. Avatar
    veritas  March 16, 2020

    Prof. Ehrman, does this surprise you? You of all people very well know that in a public blog this is expected. Some will oppose you and your research, work, findings and most important ideology of your beliefs/conclusions. I am not an educated/scholarly person, so I relish in learning from people like you giving me a chance to stretch and learn something I am interested in,religion, through your years of dedication and commitment to the subject. I think the 1980 USA Olympic Gold hockey win is the greatest upset in sports history, a miracle , but I will not argue against someone who opposes my belief. Because religion is very * faith* based at its core, everyone becomes experts in voicing their views without any real evidence or research. The Bible is the most purchased book and the least read.
    Why? People already have convictions from what they’ve heard from whoever. Some Churches do a fine work of demeaning scholars who don’t believe in the Bible. The very people you study alongside,scholars, read and research the same existing evidence and yet differ in interpretations of its meaning. Don’t let hubris take over your fine scholarship. Humility and your example of the time you dedicate to your work is evident and meritorious. That’s what speaks for you. I think Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci said, ” I have an ego like everyone else, I just don’t like to stroke mine.”

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2020

      No, doesn’t surprise me. I always draw a sharp line between aggravation and surprise! 🙂

  5. Avatar
    Salmonguy  March 16, 2020

    So true… those of us who believe the *experts* in critical thinking such as yourself place a lot of trust in what you say simply because we are not experts and cannot even understand the research you do.

  6. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  March 16, 2020

    I’m not sure why someone would write a book about cosmology who has not formally studied it. I wouldn’t be inclined to read his book because I need foundational knowledge for cosmology and that would come from an expert first. I do wonder though—are you irritated because he’s not an expert or because you recognized right away that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about?

    I know many laypeople who write essays and books for Biblical studies. They can publish their work in lay-journals. Sounds strange, but it’s actually a thing. Sometimes they’re overseen by a scholar, too. I think it’s a great outlet for someone who has a passion for Biblical studies. Trying to win an argument is normally done from layperson to layperson.

    I am kind of curious to know what this person has to say about cosmology, but he’d have to be willing to come under the microscope of public opinion. I’m interested in lay work as well, but again, they’d have to be willing to be criticized. I think they would make some great posts and be really fun. I know you normally keep the blog to experts only, but you could always create a new category! And think of all the volunteers…..

  7. Avatar
    johnsotdj  March 16, 2020

    Excellent. I am grateful for the writers (such as Bart) who make the technical knowledge accessible to the “layperson,” whether in the fields of early Christianity, evolutionary biology, or cosmology.

    Tom

  8. Avatar
    Zak1010  March 16, 2020

    Dr Ehrman,

    The question of universe creation is as old as human history. It wasn’t till recent history where it was intellectually discussed among scientists. This was explained pretty clearly in a book over 1400 years ago when modern technology was absent.

    https://www.islamreligion.com/articles/212/quran-on-origin-of-universe/

    Your thoughts.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2020

      I’m not quite sure what you mean. Yes indeed lots and lots of ancient societies agreed the universe was created. Modern science has shown that all these ancient myths are *myths*, not descriptions of what actually happened.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  March 18, 2020

      The link only quotes verse 41:11 but leaves out the verses before and after—

      41:9 Say, “Do you indeed disbelieve in He who created the earth in two days and attribute to Him equals? That is the Lord of the worlds.”

      41:10 And He placed on the earth firmly set mountains over its surface, and He blessed it and determined therein its [creatures’] sustenance in four days without distinction – for [the information] of those who ask.

      41:12 And He completed them as seven heavens within two days and inspired in each heaven its command. And We adorned the nearest heaven with lamps and as protection. That is the determination of the Exalted in Might, the Knowing.

      These verses go against everything we know about the formation of the earth scientifically.

  9. Avatar
    brandon284  March 16, 2020

    Hi Dr. Ehrman. About a year ago I asked a question about the dating of the Gospels. I know Jesus’ prediction of the temple destruction has been used as a data point but I asked what other indicators there were for dating these texts. You provided me with an excellent response and now with the passage of time I don’t recall what post I commented on to go back and find your reply. I’m wondering if you would be gracious enough to comment again on this issue of dating? Thank you so much!

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 16, 2020

    Reminds me of the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”: Those who know the least about a field are the ones who have the most certainty about it.

  11. Avatar
    Stanley  March 16, 2020

    Excellent Post! My own mission in life is to truly master my field and this post speaks truth.

  12. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  March 16, 2020

    I have to be careful sometimes because I think I understand perfectly what you are saying.
    For me your writing was the scratch for that impossible itch.
    I knew what I believed and it reminds me of what I think I read in Sartres “ Being and Nothingness” as a reply to Descartes “ cogito ergo sum” … a line written that said “ I am aware that I doubt, therefore I am”
    Come to think about it, I’m not sure where that quote came from…
    But that was me….

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2020

      Cogito ergo sum was in Descartes 2nd Meditation, though I believe he expressed it in French a few years earlier.

      • Avatar
        meohanlon  March 18, 2020

        ¨Je pense, donc je suis¨ ( I majored in philosophy, along with physics). You are right to be skeptical of the contributor´s claims. Not enough would-be/outsider scholars understand the value of peer reviewing – and they seem to ignore a useful rule of thumb; in the process of constructing your arguments, anticipate all the possible, and strongest objections, write as if you´re addressing those and make your rebuttals stronger, if possible. Many a self-proclaimed expert overlooks the importance of this, no matter how intelligent they may be, probably because they haven´t had the exposure to all the extensive literature that has dealt with the topics they propose to have the final word on. Even my last couple of years of devouring biblical scholarship, delving deeply into your field (and the blog I must say has been very helpful) has cast enough light on the intellectual landscape that spans biblical sholarship, that I now regard my level of understanding three or four years ago, and pet theories as being over-simplistic, unaware of the many problems mainstream views overlook.

  13. Avatar
    timcfix  March 16, 2020

    Why would you want to talk about the ‘big bang’ with your beautician?

  14. Avatar
    JacobSapp01  March 17, 2020

    Professor Ehrman,
    I encounter this a lot among my friends, some of whom are very smart, but not highly trained in any particular field. My own training is in Creative Writing, English Literature, and Theatre. I don’t recommend people come to me for advice about biology or advanced mathematics. I have a laymen’s ”armchair expertise” in what many fine scholars think about certain fields, as I am a voracious reader, but I never attempt to pass a Professional Scholar, Scientist, or Academic’s views off as my own original thoughts. I often find myself having to explain to people that they need to read my sources. Don’t quote me, or take MY word for it.
    A friend of mine once asked me if I considered myself an expert on the bible. (Back in my evangelical days, I led many, many bible studies) I told him that I am reasonably well-versed on what English translations of the Bible say. I’ve read all 66 books numerous times in various versions. I’ve learned an awful lot from reading commentaries, as well as from scholars (such as yourself), but I can’t read the Greek, and have no formal education in anything related to the bible, so no, I can’t call myself an expert, unless what he means by expert is ”somebody that knows an awful lot about what smarter people have researched and is quite good at learning their arguments and passing that information along”, in other words, I can teach bible studies fairly well and offer insightful commentary because I know what some of the actual experts think.
    I tell this long winded story to get to the major ”face-palm” moment that occurred sometime later when my friend started introducing me to people as an ”expert” on various biblical topics. *Sigh* I tried. I still try. And I, as a non-expert, sympathize with your plea for expertise.

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 17, 2020

    I’m a Duke basketball fan, but I agree that the 1984 Tar Heels with Jordan and Perkins were the best team ever. This is a matter of fact not opinion.

  16. Avatar
    davebohn  March 17, 2020

    Really? The 1984 Tarheels? Now that’s faith, not history *or* science…WINK AND A SMILE, BART!

  17. Avatar
    clerrance2005  March 18, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,
    Please permit an off-the-topic question. In what contest do we put the concept of ‘heaven’ in 2 Kings 2:11. How do we contrast this with the concept of heaven in the NT. Wont this expression of heaven connote the idea that people in the OT may have held an idea of heaven where people go (whether in the now or afterlife or seat of Yahuah). This is in relation to your book Heaven and Hell.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2020

      Great question. You’ll need to repeat the question by quoting the passage itself, so people can see what you are referring to before I answer it.

  18. Avatar
    Boltonian  March 18, 2020

    A few observations:

    1) My dictum, especially on things that interest me but on which I have very little expertise: ‘Read widely, think deeply.’
    2) Definite conclusions are the enemy of truth (if even such a thing exists). Answers are always provisional.
    3) Consensus is not a scientific term and should be a dirty word in any area of study.
    4) The minority view often turns out to be correct (or nearer correct than the majority).
    5) Money talks, including the allocation of research budgets.
    6) Fashion is a serious impediment to alternative lines of research and, therefore, discovery.
    7) Temperament rather than factual evidence often (rather more often than not) governs viewpoints and then confirmation bias, group think and virtue-signalling take over to support one’s position and trash the opposition.
    8) Tribalism does not accept nuance -‘You’re either with us or agin’ us.’
    9) Pessimism has been a more successful evolutionary strategy than optimism and this tendency is still with us.
    10) Genuine free speech is necessary for progress and is less prevalent than we like to believe.
    11) We have almost no control over anything but we think we have.
    12) I have no idea whether there is anything ‘Out there’ that we might call God or not (and neither does anybody else). If we need a creator to explain how the world happened, then who or what made the creator – it just pushes the problem back one place?

    Of course, I could be wrong about all those things – they are mere opinions – but it summarises where I am at the moment on my journey of discovery. It could, however, all change tomorrow.

  19. Avatar
    clerrance2005  March 19, 2020

    Prof Ehrman, thanks for the audience.

    2 Kings 2:11 quotes 11 `As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven. `

    Doesn’t this passage connote an idea of ‘heaven’ as a dwelling beyond this realm as similarly expressed in the N.T? Are both OT and NT writers expressing an idea of a heaven in similar contest?

    I actually hold a view that Traditional Judaism is devoid of the concept of ‘heaven’ as used in the N.T

    What is ‘heaven’ as used in 2 Kings 2:11

    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  March 20, 2020

      Heaven in the Hebrew Bible is the place where God and his angelic attendants live. So yes, it is a dwelling beyond our realm. BUT, it is not a place *humans* dwell. That’s why the Elijah story is so amazing: he actually goes up to live with God. No one does that! (Well, almost no one)

      • Avatar
        clerrance2005  March 20, 2020

        Prof Ehrman,
        So to be very clear, Traditional Judaism equally believed in the realm of heaven but only as the seat of God and His Angels ;but did not hold the belief of heaven as the eternal dwelling place of man in the afterlife as a reward for a ‘good’ life as the Christians believe.

  20. Avatar
    Hon Wai  March 23, 2020

    “Why is it, though, that when it comes to matters of history and religion so many people think that anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s?”
    I broadly agree with your post, with a few caveats. While one needs research level expertise in order to speak authoritatively on matters of how ancient people thought about and practised their religions, one does not need specialised expertise to make sound judgments about central contemporary religious claims, such as “does God exist”, “there is evidence for miracles today”, “will we survive our deaths”. Some Christian apologists with PhDs in philosophy of religion would like people to think otherwise!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2020

      Fair enough. I would say those are theological questions, not historical questions — and so no way to produce any actual evidence (despite what apologists say) one way or the other.

      • Avatar
        Hon Wai  March 24, 2020

        These are undoubtedly theological – more accurately, philosophical – questions. (They are philosophical because they can be tackled without any religious commitment). As a comeback, those Christian apologists would argue that these philosophical questions require philosophical expertise to answer, just as scientific and historical questions require the corresponding expertise. My response is that highly esoteric and technical philosophical questions do require expertise to tackle competently, but most central religious claims such as existence of God and of afterlife and evidence for miracles, do not belong this category. They simply need general intelligence and careful thinking, being well-read, openness to evidence without attachment to dogma and everyday experiences of life. I would however disagree that answers to these religious questions cannot in principle be evidence based one way or another. Lots of secular philosophers think they can be answered with rigour, evidence and sound argumentation. I think in authoring “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–why We Suffer”, you have implicitly settled on one side of fence, with good reasons and evidence. Many philosophers would agree with you: evidential facts about suffering undermine theism.

      • Avatar
        Hon Wai  March 24, 2020

        You might want to check out Lawrence Shapiro’s “The Miracle Myth: Why Belief in the Resurrection and the Supernatural is Unjustified (2016)”:
        https://philpapers.org/rec/SHATMM-3
        Shapiro is an accomplished philosopher specialising in philosophy of science and philosophy of mind. This is probably his only publication by an academic press dealing with philosophy of religion. It is highly readable, witty and compelling. He cites you approvingly a number of times, including your exchanges with Michael Licona on the possibility of evaluating actuality of miracles by the historical method.

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