Sy Garte on Challenging the Consensus

During my scientific research career, I have never known of any scientific field that is not marked by controversy. In many study sections, controversial ideas are often hotly debated. Scientific journals and scientific meetings are no strangers to controversy, and arguments can at times appear to be rancorous. It is also fairly common to see evidence of scientists changing their minds, coming to agreement with former opponents, and building consensus.

Controversy is part of the scientific process and is often the driver of progress. New ideas, which are the fuel of science, are always controversial, until sufficient evidence is accumulated for them to attract support. The worst thing that can happen to any area of scientific research (as I have witnessed) is an end to controversy. The development of a profound and stifling consensus is usually the signal for a stagnant and soon to be outdated field.

As Christian scientists or Christians interested in science, how should we deal with scientific controversy? There are those who propose we avoid it. They claim that the entire movement of evolutionary creation, theistic evolution (TE/EC), is based on the premise that Christians should strictly adhere to the consensus views of mainstream science and reject the controversial positions associated with pseudoscience, such as young earth creationism or intelligent design. I agree, of course. Being a Christian should not give us warrant to reject sound scientific principles.

But how far should this go? Do we avoid all scientific positions that seem to be held by a minority of scientists at the moment for fear of being labelled “unscientific” or apologists for a “Christian-friendly” approach to some issue? Some within the TE/EC movement would say yes. Many of these people are not scientists themselves or have not been active researchers, and their focus is not on finding new (and therefore controversial) truths about the world, but rather on teaching known truths and agreed-upon consensus views to other Christians. Their goal is to foster a tolerance from the wider scientific community by avoidance of any boat rocking that might cast doubt on the legitimacy of their claims to be followers of science. I think there is a role for this attitude, and it is a proper and important part of the overall mission to advance the cause of Christ in the world we live in.

But it is not the only such mission for Christian men and women of science. Some of us must go further. Some must actually act as researchers and take the risks that all good scientists take to stir up controversy, to propose bold new ideas, to do the work needed to support those ideas: argue for them, provide data for them, and not worry if they are outside the mainstream. In fact, we should deliberately go outside the mainstream, when scientifically appropriate.

And when we do that, we should pray for support, not antagonism from our fellow Christian scientists in the teaching and outreach camp. Because when we do this sort of work, or when we proclaim and support such work done by others, we are doing two things: we are behaving in the best traditions of pure science, and we are helping to advance our knowledge of the truth. If we act according to the rules and procedures of strict scientific rigor, we need not worry about the consequences of our actions, since in both science and faith, the truth will always prevail.


How do you counter the claim by most practicing scientists that TE/EC is just another conjured up way to insert religion into the scientific discussion?

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I have never heard or seen that from a practicing scientist who was not a fundamentalist atheist (like Coyne). Do you have any examples, or evidence that “most” practicing scientists feel this way? And of course the claim is utterly false, since religion is never inserted into scientific discussions by any TE/EC advocate.

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That is a great question @Patrick.

I think it a very legitimate concern, because just about every time we see a distinctly religious voice rising in science, it leads to conflict. TE/EC is supposed to be different. We are not challenging mainstream science, or trying to adjust its rules, and we see no reason for it to change.

We do, however, see a need for better science ambassadors to religious communities. Many of our communities only see science through the lens of anti-religious spokesmen, and this does great harm to their understanding. It unnecessarily excludes them, and creates a a great deal of conflict. We are doing the hard work of bridging that gap.

In the end, this welcomes more people into the wonder of science, and serves the common good. Science funding depends on the support of the population. We need everyone to know that science is not intrinsically anti-religious. Scientists in the Church have an important to role, but so do friendly atheists too. So come along, and help us seek peace in the Creation Wars.

Coyne, Dawkins, Sagan, Hawkins, Krause, Sean Carroll, David Reiss, and the silent 97% of all practicing scientist who are describe themselves as Nones.

Inserting of Religion and specifically Evangelical Christianity into science is the whole purpose of the invention of TE/EC. The scientific study of evolution doesn’t need the word Theistic in front of it to describe anything and to continue making process in the understanding of who we are and how we got here. It is merely the insertion of the God belief into science.

And Evolutionary Creationism is just another form of creationism only marginally different from YEC, OEC, and ID. Totally not part of practice of science as science is neutral on such matters.

I think you are describing an interesting situation, which reminds me of the surprise that BioLogos had when I challenged some of their “consensus.” I think, rather than getting the details straight, it was more about the appearance about being aligned with mainstream science.

It is a bit like:

And I think I would use a bit different language than you @sygarte. I would say:

I think the heart of the problem is that science functions like an appeal to authority among those that do not understand it. But it is really an invitation to play by the rules challenge the consensus, to improve it. Of course, ti takes an immense amount of training and work to find something new, but that is what the invitation of science is.

Is that what you are getting at @sygarte?

Well, not for me. I’m not inserting God into science. Scientific explanations do just fine without divine causation. I’m just having fun thinking about science in light of other things. Not as science experiment, but as scientist in the public square.

Well, I’m not going to defend EC specifically, but if we could grow a more science centered voice, that took ambassadorship seriously, I think you might appreciate.

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I’ve been talking to Scott Lilienfeld, a scientist at Emory, about the psychology these conversations. He writes about a key fact, and gives an important term:

He talks about ‘surprising validators,’ and their importance. For example, when I argued on behalf of @Agauger and Buggs, that was an example of a surprising validation. Not many people expected that. If my position was “oppose ID on everything,” it would not have happened. Instead, it was rather to see what I could possibly affirm with integrity. @Agauger has been a surprising validator in the other direction, being kind to me both in public and private, even though I affirm evolutionary science. That sort of exchange is how our understanding moves forward, and we begin to trust each other.

Taking the mental short cut to say that ID is wrong on everything, or the YEC is wrong on everything, forecloses are opportunity to build bridges. It is a type of disconfirmation bias, and ends up perpetuating distrust is a clouding truth. It ultimately is a dead end, the dead end we are currently in.

Any how, @sygarte, I’m not sure you are saying to go out mainstream science. I think you are saying we need to

  1. be willing to propose new ideas that challenge the consensus
  2. risk validating people outside mainstream science when they have a good point
  3. avoid the appeal to authority group-think that silences real inquiry

Is that it?


I wonder if that is actually close the confusion I’ve had with BioLogos. I think they do not really know the rules, so they break them in some places, but are to cautious in others. Seems life a very difficult situation for them. Reminds me of a Proverb:

The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.
Proverbs 4:7

This exchange was very elucidating for both myself and @Patrick:

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Yup. You got it 100%.

So, @sygarte, how have you seen BioLogos on the continuum? To what extend to you agree or disagree with:

@sygarte, I’m asking because BioLogos makes for an elucidating prism to understand these issue better. What type of approach are they taking forward?

And I just changed the title to something more in line with this thread. Thanks for contributing @sygarte, this is great. Also, looking forward to your response.

And for onlookers, @sygarte is the real deal.

Though, are you still with BioLogos?

I hope he get’s around to tell us his story:

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Joshua, you have me blushing. Its well known that a high h index is one of the few good things about aging.

I am not as active currently on the Biologos forum as I have been in the past, and I have never had any actual formal role with Biologos after around 2011, when I did some consulting for them. I do think that they are the best resource that exists for explaining the EC position, and I frequently link their web site on Twitter and Facebook to people who ask questions about science and faith. There is a huge audience for the information they have gathered, and I believe they are a critical resource for education and outreach to Christians and others who are confused about how scientists (like us) can believe in Christ as Lord and Savior.

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It took an entire book to tell the whole story (which will be published next year by Kregel Press), but in response to many requests I posted this on my blog, which is a brief summary.


I read your blog and enjoyed the story. I am glad you found your happiness and peacefulness in your mind. Everyone should be free to live their lives with their own peace, happiness, purpose, and meaning.


You also wrote it in a tweet this February, with 5,000 retweets and 8000 links.

Careful @Patrick, we might forget that you are a fundo-militant atheist and start thinking you are friendly. :wink:

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I think you are also saying:

  1. we have to admit where we were wrong.

And I’d like to add that this is a critical quality of excellent scientists.

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I am a friendly atheist - kind, compassionate. I have everything to live for and nothing to die for. :sunglasses:

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I have here by bestowed upon you the title “Friendly Atheist”. I am very curious to see if this keeps people from taking the bombs you throw seriously. If the title is removed, do not take personally. I just wouldn’t want to interfere with your fun.

I like the title. It is much better than Militant Atheist. If you need other titles for me, blasphemer, heretic, and heathen are okay too. :rofl:

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4 posts were split to a new topic: Anthony Bordain’s Death a Tragedy

Good post, Sy - but is this argument sustainable? Sustaining the idea that science (and especially origins science) is about consensus is actually maintaining a myth. Moreover, it’s not evenhanded - even ordinary folk in churches get to hear that some theology is disputable, and when well taught they become discerning. When they’re not well taught, and think that all the theology is cut and dried, they either become bigots or ripe for disillusionment.

One way of disillusioning them in a bad way is by presenting science as the settled truth they thought they had in religion. Better, surely, to excite them to the challenge of discernment in both fields, which is, of course, quite compatible with taking both as genuine sources of truth.