Small-P protestant revolutions

Can you see a shared pattern in Brexit, the English Civil War, the Reformation, and similar uprisings of ordinary people against longer-established authorities with their widely-respected experts? I think I can, and I see all of them as “protestant revolutions” — protestant with a small P, as their opponents are not always Catholic with a capital C, but catholic in the broader sense of being more mainstream (i.e. more “universal”), more traditional, and more jealously protected by hierarchical power structures.

Perhaps I recognize the pattern quickly because I feel I have been engaged in my own protestant revolution for decades now against bad science. It’s a strictly peaceful, intellectual revolution, but there is real anger on both sides. I’ll try to explain why I feel a bit like a low-ranking partisan in such a revolution.

I’m a scientific realist. In graduate school, I put a lot of effort into defending scientific realism against the criticism of most of my teachers and every single one of my fellow graduate students. In doing so, my realism was tempered and mitigated somewhat, but remained essentially intact. I grew to appreciate the centrality of the hypothetico-deductive “method” to genuine science, and became increasingly aware of the ubiquity of pseudo-sciences that eschew it.

For decades now, “the authorities” (such as Sir Paul Nurse of the Royal Society, almost all governments, most academics and mainstream media, politically correct conformists in every walk of life) have been telling us that we must all believe “the science” — whatever the authorities deem “the science” to be.

But I think we have good reasons not to do so. First, none of these authorities ever seem to express the slightest interest in the hypothetico-deductive method that I regard as essential to genuine science. Second, the history of science teaches us that science has always had bad branches, and there are no doubt bad branches right now: there is no monolithic body of reliable opinion that deserves to be called “the science”. Third, genuine science does not ask us to accept the word of an authority. Fourth, observation plays a crucial role in science, and observation is what anyone with working sense organs can do: to dismiss non-expert opinion is to allow ideology to overrule observation. Fifthly, and from a moral perspective most important of all, we are entitled to believe whatever we like. Martin Luther put it in terms of “conscience”. Elizabeth I put it by saying she “would not open windows into men’s souls”. No one has a moral entitlement to insist that anyone else must believe anything. It’s simply morally wrong to so insist.

So, like a cut-rate Martin Luther, I simply cannot believe what the authorities are insisting I should believe. “Here I stand. I can do no other.” And I’m not the only one.

It’s no coincidence that supporters of Brexit tend to be so-called “climate deniers”. Skepticism about a body of opinion supported by authoritarianism rather than observation is exactly the sort of thing that characterizes protestant revolutions. The development of the internet has worked much like printing in the original protestant revolution. Blogs and social media are replacing academic journals that no individual can afford and no honest writer would expect his work to be widely read in. This is analogous to vernacular bibles coming to be seen as more valuable than authoritative interpretation of the Latin bible by clerics.

What strikes me as sad, or maybe just funny, about present-day “counter-revolutionaries” is they seem not to understand why anyone in their right mind would reject expert opinion. They assume it’s completely obvious that expert opinion is better than non-expert opinion, and only a madman or an utter fool would think otherwise. But a philosophical mistake underlies this assumption. There are two kinds of expertise, which we might call that of the “texpert” and that of the “prexpert”. A Texpert (T for ‘Theory’ or ‘Text’) is someone familiar with a body of theory or the writing of a theoretician (such as Marx, Freud, Keynes or Hayek, say). A PRexpert (PR for ‘PRactice’) is someone who has a demonstrable practical skill. The latter is something we rightly all admire. We wisely consult and frequently hand decision-making powers to prexperts. The practical expertise of a prexpert might not touch on actual opinion (belief or claims that purport to be true) at all. But a texpert is just someone with a theory, usually one whose esotericism makes its epistemic status doubtful. If we confuse these two types of expertise we are liable to unwisely hand decision-making powers to the wrong sort of person.

Alas, many texperts familiar with a theory T of subject-matter X flatter themselves with the thought that they “know a lot about X” instead of having a mere “familiarity with T”. Let’s not be taken in by such flattery!



On further reflection, I should add that a defining characteristic of “catholic” ways of thinking (as currently described) is the assumption that “transcendent” matters are to be decided by “earthly powers”.  This sets more puritan ways of thinking against it. To take a few examples, it’s often thought that questions of morality (of taking military action, say) or justice (of proposed legislation, say) or credibility (of a scientific theory, say) are to be decided by such earthly powers as reside in committees: a vote at the United Nations, a decision by the European Court of Human Rights, an act of some branch or other of the EU, or consensus among qualified scientists. Or indeed a decree by the Pope.

Puritans rankle at that assumption. Questions of morality, justice, truth, of what to believe are matters of conscience, they respond, or at least matters an individual must judge for himself because they lie beyond the competence of a committee. Such questions are transcendent is the sense that their answers are to be discovered rather than decided (i.e. created by a decision) and we are all in the same boat: we all fallible, and committees are multiply fallible. As we nowadays put it, they are subject to groupthink.

As an example of puritanical thinking, consider my own insistence (touched on above) that genuine science follows the pattern of the hypothetico-deductive “method”. I am outraged by the claim that we should accept a theory as scientific or as worthy of belief because “97% of scientists say so”. No doubt my own puritanism is as distasteful to people who make that claim as their invocation of earthly powers is to me.

As an example of catholic thinking (as here understood), consider ex-President of Ireland Mary Robinson. As far as I am aware, her opinions are always unwaveringly mainstream, underwritten by the supposed authority of some administrative body or other, and approved by current “powers that be” from academia to the Council of the European Union. She seems to suppose that UN resolutions are the highest appeal on moral questions, and that consensus among insiders is the authoritative last word on scientific questions. She revels in positions she occupies in the hierarchy, and constantly reminds us of various honours she has received (most recently, the “city of Chicago’s highest honor, the Medal of Merit”).

As you have probably guessed, the puritan in me finds that all very unseemly. But I should add that many sincere Catholics (capital C, i.e. members of the Roman Catholic religion) also disapprove. The Catholic church is no longer the earthly power it once was, and its position on abortion and single sex marriage differs from that of current catholic thinking (small C, as understood here). So this is a useful reminder that the words are not used in the same way and refer to categories that only loosely overlap.