A conspiracy of silence
By Timothy Chase, BCSE member
While debating with creationists on an email list, I had noticed certain undercurrents of conspiratorial theories where people implied that scientists throughout the vast enterprise which we know as empirical science were involved in some sort of grand conspiracy to hide the truth which Young Earth Creationists are somehow privy to. With this in mind I wrote what follows...
In my time on this list, I have seen a fair amount of evidence of conspiratorial theories. The quote mining is one good example. When evolutionary biologists get quoted out of context, perhaps criticising one-another's evolutionary theories or perhaps contrasting their own views with more traditional views, they can be made to sound like they are painfully admitting an often-hidden "fact" that evolutionary biology is unraveling or even that the foundations of their science crumbled long ago. It is made to seem that other than their occasional "admissions," there exists this conspiracy of silence intended to hide the painful truth that all of empirical science is one huge sham, an illusion intended to hide the truth from the world at large.
Another good example consists of the recent talk about miracles being performed. The view has been expressed "miracles" which are happening close to home, where they could be most easily investigated are of course frauds, but those which are happening in distant lands are real. Of course, if there were a great many miracles happening in distant lands, these would be quite newsworthy -- and the mainstream media would cover them -- unless there were a conspiracy of silence.
Then more recently we have heard about babies being born more and more often with six fingers on each hand -- shades of the giants who, according to the Old Testament, were born to women who had laid down with angels. Presumably doctors are involved in some sort of conspiracy to hide these increasing birth deformities.
Now what is wrong with conspiracy theories?
Well, first of all, I don't know if anyone here has noticed, but the proponents of evolutionary biology (both on this list and elsewhere) aren't especially good at coordinating things. For example, Drew and I can't agree upon a definition of "knowledge" and whether, technically speaking, the theories of empirical science can ever be justifiably be called instances of "knowledge." However, I should point out that our disagreement is probably largely a matter of conceptual framing rather than major substantive differences, and moreover, even though I take a different position, I think there is a considerable amount of value in Drew's views on this matter.
But more importantly, the longer a supposed conspiracy takes place and the wider the conspiracy, the more the number of people who must necessarily be involved, and the greater the number of chances each conspirator has for messing up, inadvertently slipping up and letting out enough details that the conspiracy will be discovered. In fact, the likelihood increases more or less exponentially with the amount of time involved, the number of conspirators, and the amount of evidence which must be covered-up.
Incidently, this is closely related to my motivation for getting involved in debates: I enjoy understanding things. I debate because I like having things illuminated. And for me, the process of debate is a process of exploration and discovery. With two eyes open, you see things from slightly different perspectives and these two perspectives become integrated into a three-dimensional perception of the world. The same thing can happen during a discussion or debate, and I oftentimes find that it does. If things don't get too repetitive, I will get a chance to see things from a good number of perspectives and have a deeper understanding of some greater whole rather than just the particulars of a given issue. This is also part of the reason why I sometimes write longer pieces, or for that matter, hyperlink to different posts: the wider the context, the greater the potential for illuminating different aspects of our world.
Likewise, this is the principle behind dialogue. It is largely a matter of mathematics. If you have two individuals where each has only three insights which neither shares with the other, each individual is able to make only three connections between any two points. However, if these two individuals come together, there exists the possibility of making fifteen different connections. Bring in a third person and the number goes up to twenty-eight, and a fourth brings it to sixty-six. And if instead of simple, directional two-term connections, one thinks in terms of paths between all the available points, with one individual there are six possibilities, but with four people the number of potential paths goes up to more than 479 million.
But this isn't simply a matter of abstract theory. I have seen this in action at St. John's College. At this school, we would read things like "The Origin of the Species," Plato's "The Republic" or "St. Augustine's Confessions," then come in and discuss what we had read.
Oftentimes people wouldn't have read the assignments, and the discussion would simply turn into some sort of bull session where people would simply debate poorly thought-out personal opinions. This happened the good majority of the time. Alternatively, some one person would try to dominate the discussion, and we would simply end up discussing his views.
However, every once in a while we would have a genuine dialogue where insight would build upon insight upon insight until the illumination was almost blinding. Individuals who normally didn't seem that terribly bright would have insights which made them seem like geniuses. After an especially good discussion, you would leave the classroom, and it would feel like you were six feet off the ground. It would take more than an hour to come back down to earth.
Now am I so naive as to think that this sort of thing could happen here, particularly between the proponents of evolutionary biology and creationists?
Hardly. But I believe that the principles I have illustrated might be of some relevance in understanding the debates which go on here.
For example, how do people fall prey to conspiratorial views in the first place? Well,if you think about it, a large part of the answer is suggest by the term "conspiracy" itself. They are taught to approach those who believe differently from themselves with the assumption that the fact that others believe differently is in itself sufficient reason for regarding their motives as anything but benign. This extends to the "actual," hidden motives which others have for anything they say -- even if they have very little idea of what those motives are.
When you begin with such an assumption, you are unable to consider arguments on their own merits and immediately proceed to trying to figure out what wider, devious purposes those arguments are intended to serve. This tends to isolate you from any sort of check or balance on your beliefs and drives you towards more and more extreme views.
Similarly, when debate devolves to simply contradicting what someone from the opposing side has said, there can be plenty of sparks without any significant illumination -- because no wider context has been brought to bear upon the disagreement. Likewise, while it may seem that someone is able to get away with a great deal of dishonesty by repeating the same points, misquotes or even posts which have been fully responded to before, for anyone who has been paying the least bit of attention, the actual result of such dishonesty is that of digging oneself deeper and deeper into the ground.
But to leave things on a somewhat more positive note, these principles also suggest something of the power of human thought itself. The history of thought is the history of an ancient and ongoing dialogue. New participants come and older participants go, but the understanding of the community of participants becomes wider, deeper and stronger over time -- thanks to the participation of everyone involved.
Empirical science plays a very important part in that dialogue, but in a certain sense it could be viewed as something even wider: a dialogue between humanity and the world in which we live. It is a dialogue in which the questions we ask of nature determine what kind of answers we receive from it -- which then affects what questions we will ask afterwards. But this dialogue does not proceed along any one line of conversation. There are many different threads which are largely independent of one-another. With congruence between different, independent lines of investigation, the conclusions which we reach take on far greater justification than any one line of investigation would be capable of by itself.
The dialogue continues. May you each play a greater part in it.
© Timothy Chase 2006