Uncurbed dogma

We all need a warning about "knowing" what we don't really know

Issue: "Rebel with a cause," Jan. 30, 1998

Among the most embarrassing moments of my life are those times when I was an enthusiastic participant in a conversation-probably dominating the talk more than I should have been-only to discover that I was mixed up or just plain wrong about something that I thought I knew for sure to be a fact. Such discoveries are painful.

That came into sharp focus again over the last couple of weeks when space scientists were forced to admit that they were having to backtrack from some arrogant assertions made just 18 months ago. Then they were claiming loudly that a chunk of Mars had been discovered embedded in the ice of Antarctica. And they didn't shrink from drawing all kinds of absolutely certain conclusions from their discovery-most notably that certain microbes found on the rock virtually proved that there is life on Mars. By this month, though, all that "documented fact" was being apologized for by some as, well, just a bit of understandable human error. Others were not so contrite. One NASA scientist said none of the evidence "changes our original hypothesis. It doesn't shake our belief one bit." It was like the old saw: "Don't confuse me with facts. My mind is already made up."

They were dogmatically certain. And if among their number there was anyone at all with a tentative, go-slow attitude, the big media easily made up for any such reticence. The cautious people didn't get ink or air time.

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The apostle John had quite a different approach. "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched-this we proclaim concerning the Word of life."

John's insistence on a first-hand, "been there, done that" approach represents what today has sadly become a radical standard for "knowing" something. But it's one that scientists and journalists in our own age need to get reacquainted with. It's not based on speculation or inference or hearsay or politically correct pressure. Instead, it's rooted in an honest approach found only in the lab (for scientists) or in a face-to-face interview or investigation (for reporters).

In my editorial and publishing work through the years, for example, I've found that there's nothing harder on a good story than a little honest research and shoe-leather reporting. If all we had to worry about was the latest rumor, we could easily and immediately publish a sensationally interesting magazine. The problem comes when we start pounding the sidewalks to document those rumors. More times than not, the story falls apart-or at least remains so ambiguous that we can't in good conscience publish the fascinating stuff we first thought would make such a great account.

Life is full of varying levels of certainty about what we know. So it shouldn't be all that embarrassing for any of us to spread our opinions out across a spectrum and then admit the varying certainty with which those opinions are held. In fact, it's an exercise you should take on soon: Build-maybe on a little pack of 3x5 cards-a representative list of 50 of the important things you think you know. Then shuffle and rearrange them, from most certain to least. Are you surprised how tentatively you hold some "truths"?

Christians, you see, are not exempt from "knowing" things we really don't know.

On the very issue of the age of the universe, for example, I've just been reviewing some of the debate that continues to rage even among evangelical Christians. One of the regular characteristics of that debate is that people on both sides pretend to know things they really don't know.

The tendency is most pronounced, I think, with those who hold to very old ages for the universe. Nobody was there, of course, to give an eyewitness account-but there's often an arrogant and even condescending attitude that demands agreement with the establishment point of view. The leverage isn't usually a set of orderly evidence. The leverage is the fear of being laughed at. The emperor has no clothes, but almost everybody's afraid to say so.

Yet strict creationists-and I count myself among them-also sometimes hurt their case by claiming more than they really know. Most recently, I've seen their insistence that there could not have been any kind of death prior to the fall-even the death of plants and animals. Just as very-old-earthers make themselves look foolish by claiming more than either good science or the Bible asserts, so very-young-earthers can make themselves look foolish by doing precisely the same thing.

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