More Theses for the Wittenberg Church Door


“People in this country have had enough of experts,” declared Michael Gove last week.

I don’t know much about Michael Gove, but he was certainly speaking for me. Because I’ve had more than enough of “experts”. Whenever I read that “experts say…”, I can almost feel my hackles rise.

But having spoken to packed public meetings up and down the country, we can categorically state that he’s wrong: rarely in British politics has independent, impartial analysis been so necessary. And there’s hard evidence to back this up: a recent Ipsos Mori survey showed that academics come behind only “friends and family” (57%, compared to 72%) in terms of whom people trust on issues related to the referendum. Politicians, such as Gove, came in at 11%. A separate Survation poll for British Future even found that 63% thought economists could be trusted.

Is an opinion poll “hard evidence”? And is really about “trust”? Should we all simply trust the experts?

I keep a quote from Richard Feynman at the very bottom of the right margin of this blog, which goes: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” And it must be, because it’s only through questioning current dogmatic beliefs that any scientific progress is ever made. If you believe that the experts already know everything, you’re never going to question their pronouncements, and you’re never going to come up with an alternative point of view.

And it seems to me that in a great many ways, a lot of the great issues of our times boil down to whether you believe the experts or not. For example with Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), most believers trust the experts: they listen to Climate Scientists. And they say things like “97% of climate scientists agree.” And climate sceptics tend to be people who don’t trust the experts, who don’t trust the climate scientists.

It’s the same with smoking and smoking bans. Most people trust the experts. They trust the doctors who tell them that smoking causes lung cancer. But people like me, who don’t trust experts, also don’t trust doctors. Or at least not all of them.

For I don’t think that we should place our trust in self-appointed experts (and let’s face it, they are largely self-appointed) in anything. I don’t think that we should place our complete trust in doctors, scientists, economists, politicians, or any other so-called experts. I wouldn’t even place my trust in Richard Feynman.

For the way I see it is that we humans don’t really know very much about anything. Our doctors may be bit better than the doctors we had a few centuries ago. So also our scientists. And our economists. But they most certainly don’t know everything about everything. And so we really ought to have a healthy scepticism about what they say, bearing in mind that a lot of what they know now is something that they didn’t know 10 years ago or 100 years ago. What else is there that they still don’t know today? Rather a lot, I suspect.

And this sort of distrust of “experts” has many historical precursors. The division of Christianity that began in the 16th century was really one between the Catholic true believers in the the papal authorities in Rome, and the sceptical Protestant disbelievers who didn’t automatically accept whatever the Pope said. The papal authorities in Rome were the experts of their day. They knew everything about God, angels, demons. heaven, hell, saints, and all the rest of it. And back then, that’s what people were fretting about, just like today they’re fretting about global warming and cigarette smoke.

And the fundamental nature of the debate back then was exactly the same as the debates today: do you place your trust in “experts” (the Pope, Climate Scientists, Doctors, etc) or do you listen to different opinions, and try to judge for yourself (by reading the Bible, building your own climate model, questioning the experts)?

For if you believe everything that you’re told by “experts”, then you’re as credulous and superstitious as any Catholic in the 16th century. You’ll be very easily led by the cardinals and bishops (and these days increasingly the Inquisition) of Climate Science or Tobacco Control.  And if you say that “97% of climate scientists agree about X”, that’s exactly like saying “97% of the cardinals and bishops in the Vatican agree about Y.” All it says of you is that you’re a good Catholic, and you’ll believe whatever the experts tell you, and you think they’re as infallible as the Pope.

In the same vein, Jeremy Warner in the Telegraph:

In a process of reductio ad absurdum, Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, told The Daily Telegraph’s Michael Deacon that he had taken up smoking again because he had made up his mind “about all this; I think the doctors have got it wrong about smoking”. I’m hoping this was just a joke, for not even Donald Trump, to my knowledge, has gone that far. Next up must surely be Darwin’s Origin of the Species; wrong then, wrong now. I exaggerate only to make the point.

Something similar seems to be happening to voters in the referendum. They’ve been warned by the economic establishment that a vote to Leave would be an act of economic self harm, but in growing numbers, they refuse to believe it.

Good for them. And good for Nigel. It shows they have some independence of mind. And since when has Darwin’s Origin of the Species become yet another Holy Book which cannot be questioned without impiety? For Darwin has now been elevated to the status of a modern prophet. But I for one have spent some years bashing Darwin and the Darwinists. I’m not going to worship them either.

If we leave everything to the experts – which is what we’re being asked to do -, then we effectively re-create a sort of new Roman Catholic Church, with its own elaborate set of unquestionable doctrines. And in fact, isn’t Political Correctness exactly that: an elaborate set of unquestionable modern doctrines, denial of any of which invites prosecution for heresy? We need some new Protestant Luthers and Calvins and Wesleys to start hammering a modern set of 95 Theses into the door of the Wittenberg church.

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17 Responses to More Theses for the Wittenberg Church Door

  1. Harleyrider1978 says:

    You can’t trust anything they say today all public faith has been lost and complete lack of respect for the law to boot! Since there’s no justice anywhere.

  2. Tony says:

    Although I couldn’t agree with everything he’d said, I’d always had a lot of respect for Richard Dawkins. I rate his book “The Ancestor’s Tale” as easily the best account of evolution I’ve ever read. I’m not quite so impressed with most of his other books although I would certainly recommend them.

    So his extraordinary statement here was horrifying to me:

    My own answer to the question is, “How should I know? I don’t have a degree in economics. Or history. How dare you entrust such an important decision to ignoramuses like me?”

    I, and most other people, don’t have the time or the experience to do our due diligence on the highly complex economic and social issues facing our country in, or out of, Europe. That’s why we vote for our Member of Parliament, who is paid a good salary to debate such matters on our behalf, and vote on them. The European Union referendum, like the one on Scottish independence, should never have been called.

    I’m appalled to discover that an educated man could have such ignorance and contempt for the whole principle of democracy. And it is that that is at stake here.

    • Frank Davis says:

      Dawkins is a very good writer. I thought very highly of The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene. But he’s a Darwin-worshipper.

      What I can’t stand about Darwin isn’t the idea of evolution (which I immediately accepted the first time it was explained to me), but the hideous and unnecessary War of Nature that he bundled up with it. Darwinism is a beautiful and simple idea with a turd floating in the middle of it. And it was Darwin, and Darwin alone, who put the turd there. If it had been left to Wallace, we would have just got the beautiful idea. Instead we have an absurd War of Everything against Everything Else. And it’s lent the theory of evolution an edge of sheer nastiness that good people (e.g. Christians) are repelled by. And it lends an edge of sheer nastiness (in the form of anti-Christianity) to Dawkins as well.

      And it’s absurd that Dawkins is quite prepared to trash Christianity (and all religion), while here pleading ignorance of politics and economics. And anyway, it’s not as if all politicians have degrees in economics. Most of them don’t.

    • Frank Davis says:

      I went and read the whole article by Dawkins. It makes rather more sense than the first few lines did. But I still disagreed. He wrote:

      The EU referendum should never have been called, and Cameron must be kicking himself for doing so. But is that a reason to abstain from voting? Certainly not. We are where we are, and there’s no use wishing we were somewhere else. I shall vote. And I shall vote to stay in Europe, exercising the Precautionary Principle which is appropriate to anyone lacking the confidence to push for a radical change in the status quo. Better the devil you know, or at least the devil that seems to be working adequately.

      I agree with him that Cameron must be kicking himself for calling a referendum. But the cat is out of the bag now.

      But I’d use the Precautionary Principle the other way round. Because the radical change has been Britain’s entry into the EU, and the status quo was (and still is) a long-standing British parliamentary democracy. It’s that parliamentary democracy that is the devil we know, and it was working perfectly adequately. By contrast, the EU experimental project is showing every sign of malfunctioning badly.

      • Tony says:

        Yes, I fully agree but thought I’d ramble on a bit more anyway.

        He states:
        I am indeed a true democrat, but we live in a representative democracy not a plebiscite democracy. To call a referendum on any subject should be a decision not taken lightly.”
        Completely missing the point, which is that voting to stay in is a vote to not only confirm the disenfranchisement of the electorate that has already occurred but to continue with more of the same. Arguably completing the process altogether.

        J. S. Mill argued that a man should not be permitted to sell himself into slavery. Perhaps this is not quite the same but it is not far off. And Dawkins plans to vote to disenfranchise both himself and all of his fellow citizens.

        Even worse though, he thinks no-one should be allowed to oppose this unless they belong to the ruling elite. Of course as an “intellectual” he feels absolutely certain of his place in the ruling elite, albeit not as an expert politician or economist. In any case, as you say, his whole elitism stance is in stark contradiction to his atheist campaigning. He has no qualification in theology as far as I know. And I say that as a non-believer myself so I have no axe to grind.

        He ends by stating that a vote for Remain is a vote for the status quo, which illustrates that either he hasn’t been paying attention (or doesn’t believe what he’s heard) or else that he’s lying. The status quo is not on offer as Leave campaigners have been at pains to point out. Also, as you say, if anything it is our parliamentary democracy that is, or was, the status quo. So by Leaving we’d be opting back into the status quo we used to have.

  3. I’m generally a fairly strong Darwinist but the diversity and complexities of nature’s oddities are sometimes a bit tough to fit into the mold. For example, the “mimic octopus”:

    What incredible subdivision of a femtofraction of random chance would produce such a melange of protective mimicry/behaviors in a single animal?

    – MJM

  4. garyk30 says:

    I suspect the Brexit Referendom will have the same effect as all the polls that showed that 60+% of Americans did not favor Obamacare.

    The ‘Anointed Elites’ have little concern for those that they consider the ‘ignorant masses’.

  5. harleyrider1978 says:
  6. harleyrider1978 says:

    Britain is in the midst of a working-class revolt | John Harris

    Across the nation this past week I’ve heard the same refrain: ‘No one listens to us, no one cares.’ Now those ignored for so long are demanding a voice|By John Harris

  7. Manfred says:

    Finally, the silent majority are waking from their social narcosis to feel their powerlessness. Their anger overturns decades of conditioning with political correctness. They lash out at anything like children having a tantrum. Just maybe there are a sufficient number that come to their senses. One unintended consequence – Pandora’s Box has been opened. The political elite across the World should start to worry. When ‘tell them to eat cake’ no longer works, there’s only diktat by gun or the ministrations of Dr Guillotine.

  8. Pingback: Public Cynicism Towards Experts | Frank Davis

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