Monday, January 19, 2015

Consensus & Source

I see both atheists and theists finding a scientific study or paper from somewhere on the internet and posting it as a central support to their argument or claim. This study or paper might even be written by someone with a degree in a relevant field. That's great, but the internet is a big place and there are all kinds of people who use it. The interpretations of data and the conclusions to be drawn from them can vary as much as the agendas and biases of the article writers. The best thing to do is to only look at the data and apply your own encyclopedic knowledge gained from being an expert in the field to draw your own conclusions.

Oh, that’s right, I’m not. I only know the broad strokes of evolution, TV cosmology and pop-quantum physics. In other words, I don’t know shit. I know a lot more than the average guy walking down the street, but it’s relative. If I know anything, it's my limitations.

Which brings me to the conundrum. In order to talk about issues beyond my pay grade, I need to trust some of those papers and studies by the professionals. The best way I see to go about this is by focusing on consensus and source. Papers from respected journals with no clear agenda are more valuable than those from publishers with a vested interest in certain kinds of conclusions. The assessments supported by the majority of the community should be taken more seriously than fringe assessments by outliers.

I know this is the road to the fallacious arguments from authority and popularity, that’s why it’s important to consider source and consensus not as markers of truth, but as markers for a better likelihood of truth. It’s not perfect, but I can think of no better way. Can you?


  1. When evaluating research papers, there are a few good questions to keep in mind. Is the journal peer-reviewed? How large is the sample size in the study? Are the measurement instruments solid?

  2. The bigger issue is why, if a god exists who created the universe for us to know him and have a relationship with him, would he make it so difficult to know this, such that you have to be or consult experts in so many fields in order to have an educated judgement on whether or not god exists and what version of what religion is true.

  3. While this may seem an appeal to authority, you certainly have to start somewhere. Even some of the best scientists do not know everything due to the broad scope their subjects are layered in. As such even they build on the consensus, it does not mean they are appealing to authority its like you say trusting the likelihood of this truth.

  4. There is a difference between presenting a study as data to support your contention and presenting a study because it was done by some big name in the field. It is quite easy to tell which a particular writer is using by how they play up those involved in the study. If they start calling them eminent and experts in the field and all kinds of other labels meant to make the "studyers" seem more credible, then you need to be really, really careful about taking the study at face value. Real data and valid conclusions don't need to be pumped up in the minds of the readers.