It’s a question of credibility

Josh Glancy, writing in The Times (paywall), makes some comments about our expert class. His main idea is to argue that conspiracy theorists who propagate fanciful ideas – whilst bearing full responsibility for the ideas they propagate – have been, ironically, helped along by the failure of our expert class.

Glancy is not arguing that most of these conspiracy theories are anywhere near right or helpful. Nor is he making a case that we should ignore experts in their field. Neither is he expecting experts to be right all of the time. We all form theories on the best evidence available and are, inevitably, wrong some of the time and to expect otherwise is unreasonable. He is, however, making an essential call for properly placed humility, without which the tinfoil hat brigade find support for the claims that convinced many others.

Noting the shift in many folks, he says:

On both sides of the Atlantic our expert class has let us down repeatedly, spectacularly and with a maddening lack of humility and self-awareness.

Take the conversation that preceded the final unlocking of Britain last month. It was, according to Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organisation’s health emergencies programme, an act of “moral emptiness” and “epidemiological stupidity”. The British government’s strategy was “uniquely dangerous” according to a New Statesman article by Dr Gabriel Scally, a member of the Independent Sage committee. Britain reaching 100,000 cases a day was “almost inevitable”, said the ubiquitous Professor Neil Ferguson.

Except, it didn’t. Or not yet at least. Cases have plummeted, hovering at a seven-day average of 25,000 or so, less than half the July peak. The problem is not that these experts were seemingly wrong, because everyone has been wrong at some point. The problem is their lack of humility. They projected politically driven certainty when they were making educated guesses. No wonder trust has been corroded.

Or look at the lab leak theory, which suggests that the coronavirus may have originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China and not through a transfer from the animal kingdom. The theory was, according to The New York Times, “the kind of conspiracy once reserved for the tinfoil hatters”, a confected sinophobic rumour that “has echoes of the Bush administration’s 2002 push for assessments saying that Iraq had weapons of mass of destruction”. Twitter labelled some lab leak-related tweets as “misinformation”.

Except, they weren’t. There is decent circumstantial evidence for the lab leak theory, showing that concerns had been raised about safety precautions at the Wuhan institute, and that they were embarking on potentially risky “gain of function” research to develop new and dangerous coronaviruses. President Biden recognises the theory as credible and has ordered an investigation.

Ultimately we don’t know for sure where Covid came from, and because of Chinese obfuscation we possibly never will. What we do know for certain is that none of the people who called the lab leak theory crackpot and racist will hold their hands up and apologise.

I could go on and on. Remember 2016, when the vast majority of pollsters told us Brexit was all but impossible and Trump was toast. Or 2020, when Trump was ten points behind in the polls again and certain to get pasted in the swing states; in fact it was pretty darn close. Dissenters were scorned and mocked. Trust was again corroded.

Which means that tempting as it is, it would be unfair to write off all the red-pillers as Naomi Wolf-style loons. There are plenty of sane, thoughtful people who have become uncomfortable with the arrogance of our experts and their inability to properly acknowledge mistakes. Continually deriding these doubters as cranks will only entrench their scepticism.

He says more in the article, but you get the point. It isn’t that experts are wrong, or that conspiracy theorists have seized on a truth that has been suppressed necessarily. Glancy is quite clear what he thinks about the latter. But he reckons the issue could have been dealt with if there was a little more professional humility from the expert class when they have gotten things wrong.

Other examples beyond the pandemic can be cited, as Glancy alludes even in the quoted section. This is not a new problem. Sadly, however, the unwillingness of experts or those who hold opposing positions to admit when they were wrong means that fewer and fewer people hold their expertise in high regard. If there was more honesty about what we are adducing based on our best, expertly informed guess given the evidence we have available – and a willingness to admit we misread such things when it proves to be the case – there would be fewer people saying they are ‘sick of experts’ and donning their tinfoil hats with gay abandon.

At heart, the issue outlined above is one of honesty. It is a case of overstating what we know for sure and using our credentials as a means of insisting we know for sure what is, at best, simply our best educated guess. And the more educated our guess is, the more likely our guess is to be right. But pollsters, economists and political pundits all know that cast iron certainty is not guaranteed no matter how clued up our models might be. But if we have said that from the outset, if things aren’t 100% accurate, we’ve already made clear such is true. The same is true for most modelling that relies, at least somewhere in the model, on certain assumptions. To expect that sort of accuracy isn’t reasonable; to suggest to others that everyone should listen to you on the basis that you probably can deliver that level of accuracy isn’t honest. Holding up our hands when we are badly wrong is all part of the same.

We as believers and church leaders need to take notice of this. Few people will give us – or more importantly, the gospel – a hearing if it becomes clear that we are frequently misrepresenting our knowledge and insisting that we know for sure simply because we have read the Bible a little more than whoever we’re talking to. That isn’t to say there aren’t things we will know that they don’t, but we don’t want to misrepresent our knowledge in ways that undercut what we want to communicate. There is no harm in saying, ‘I don’t know’. There is everything right about going back to people and apologising when we have offered answers and “insights” that – as we learn more – turn out to have been wrong. Trust is eroded the more we present ourselves as ‘experts’ who are, apparently, often wrong.

Of course, the church is not a body of experts. We are all disciples i.e. learners. We do well to present ourselves as such and not overstate what we know. Where we are half-guessing – albeit an educated guess – it makes sense to say that’s what it is. Presenting as absolute fact what we have essentially reasoned as our best guess based on the information we have is simply not honest. If that guess turns out to be wrong, however that manifests, we lose all credibility if we fail to apologise and continue to expect people to treat us as though we are expert.

But the same is true for church leaders too. Your elders haven’t found themselves in office by accident. They are the blokes the church recognise as godly men who understand the Bible well enough to teach it to others. But we do well not to overstate what we actually know. There will inevitably be times that we teach the Bible or we suggest courses of action for the church where we are not acting out of what we know for definite but, based on what we do know, seems the wisest application and/or approach to whatever the issue is. And there is no harm about having a bit of honesty about that. Why teach as absolute fact a biblical interpretation I am simply unsure about? Surely it lends more credibility to what I’m saying when I admit, I’m not sure, but based on what I do know, this is what I think. Surely it is a good thing to say, I don’t know if this is absolutely the right course of action, but based on what I do know and trying my best to work it out, this is what I think is best. It gives us much more credibility when we come to insist on something that we absolutely claim to know for sure!

Thankfully, the Lord hasn’t told us to go it alone on these things. He has given us a church of people who can all serve and build the body together. He has instituted plural eldership so that no one of us is expected to know absolutely everything. And that very ordering of things should give us the ability to say – not what I think for absolute definite – but what we collectively think, based on our pooled knowledge and wisdom (such as it exists) and this is what seems best to us.

I am sure this serves our credibility in the long run.