What Good Are Experts?
by James J. S. Johnson, J.D., Th.D. *
How should we react to “experts” who smugly announce that the Bible is disproven? What about science “authorities” who have assured us that the Higgs boson particle “proves the Big Bang,” contradicting Genesis 1:1?1 Do experts ever jump to unwarranted conclusions? If so, how do we know? And do experts ever inflate their credibility by stretching their credentials—if a scholar holds an astronomy Ph.D. is that a qualifying reason to believe the man’s opinion about biblical Hebrew?
Like Job, we are often surrounded by false counselors, the so-called experts and authorities who misdiagnose, misunderstand, and misinform us about everything imaginable. When we’re faced with unproven assumptions that contradict what the Bible seems to say, the old maxim “consider the source” is a good place to start, especially when the experts’ pronouncements don’t sound biblical. We can learn from Job’s response: “And Job answered and said, ‘No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you. But I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you’” (Job 12:1-3).2
Experts tell us that extraterrestrial life forms zoomed to earth “on the backs of crystals,” to “seed” colonies of life here eons ago. Some theorists teach us about empirically unobservable Oort cloud comet maternity wards, birthing and launching baby comets into our solar system. Still other academics conjecture cosmogonical wonders like multiverse “island universes.”
Often, like poor Job, we are subjected to the “wisdom” of self-appointed “experts” as they present their authoritative opinions, leading us into error or worse. Why? What good are experts and authorities if we can’t rely on the information that they give us? How do some people fool other people, bluffing expertise they don’t really have? And if someone really is an expert, can he or she still misinform or mislead us?
These questions are not limited to discussions of Higgs bosons, comet birthing, and biogenesis. In fact, the problem of expert reliability is daily fare in the courts of America. (Consider the Evidence Rules 403 and 702 applications below.)
However, one major difference between courtroom experts and origins experts is who decides which experts are trustworthy enough to be believed. In judicial proceedings, the courtroom experts are preliminarily accepted or rejected by trial judges at what is called the admissibility “gatekeeping” hurdle. Later, if an expert survives that hurdle, the judge or the jury makes the ultimate decision about whether to rely on the admitted expert testimony. But when it comes to accepting or rejecting a claim of expertise about origins, you and I must judge—exercising discernment about whom and what to believe.
Is “expertise” the same as “authority”?
Expertise is not the same as authority, although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, especially by blog hosts and television journalists. Beware of ambiguities.
The word “authority” (exousia in the Greek New Testament, translated “jurisdiction” in Luke 23:7) denotes the jurisdictional right to regulate someone or something, i.e., what Romans 13 calls “the powers that be” who are “ordained of God.”3
Congress has authority to legislate federal statutes. America’s president has authority to nominate Supreme Court justices. Judges have jurisdictional authority to adjudicate lawsuits, prosecutions, and administrative proceedings.
In this primary precise sense of the word “authority,” no scientist is an authority on matters of empirical science because others have the legal right and opportunity to make their own objective observations of nature. The professional practice of empirical science is not a true monopoly, jurisdictionally speaking, notwithstanding gatekeeping politics of the evolutionary science community.
Of course, the Bible is the authoritative information source on origins because it is God’s official record of the historical events that comprise the origins of the heavens, the earth, and every earthly creature. In this exact sense, the Bible alone is the authority regarding origins. The Holy Bible is truly, perfectly, and ultimately authoritative. The Bible is not a mere “expert.”
However, the word “authority” is popularly used to mean something besides jurisdictional legitimacy. A looser use of the word “authority” occurs when we say “Dr. Larry Vardiman is an authority on weather and climate science” or “Dr. Jason Lisle is an authority on astronomy.” We really mean that Dr. Vardiman and Dr. Lisle are genuine experts in those empirical science disciplines. We should beware of the ambiguities of the term “authority” in written or spoken terminology and avoid the error of confusing expert opinions with truly “authoritative” information.
Regarding expert credentials, what is the problem?
Is recognizing a true expert an easy litmus test—is it really as simple as verifying an advanced degree? No. Because reality is more complicated.4, 5 In the real world of civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions, judges have a practical test to determine if a witness is truly an “expert”—if the witness has “expertise” that is sufficiently relevant (and potentially reliable), and if the witness is authorized to give an “expert opinion” by affidavit or by live testimony. Federal Evidence Rule 702 says:
If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact [i.e., judge or jury] to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.
Depending on the specific purpose of a given evidentiary proceeding, a science-based doctoral education (e.g., a Ph.D. in engineering science or geology, D.V.M., or M.D.) will likely qualify a witness to provide expert analysis or technical clarification to assist a judge or a jury in better understanding a controversy involving complicated details.6
Judicial recognition of an expert is supposed to fit reality and relevance, not cookie-cutter categories as defined by dictionaries. Specifically, pursuant to Evidence Rule 403, a trial judge may reject a dictionary’s definition if that term’s usage (at trial) injects unnecessary confusion into the analysis of the evidence or if its use is inflammatorily prejudicial to a litigant.7
When is a true expert’s opinion unreliable due to a problem with “transfer of authority”?
Expert opinions should be scrutinized for the transfer-of-authority fallacy. This analytical flaw occurs when an expert qualified in one field (e.g., cosmology) opines about a distinctly different field (e.g., cosmogony). If the expert’s objectively demonstrable qualifications are limited to cosmology, then his or her opinions about cosmogony are not “expert” opinions.8, 9
Many individuals have mastered overlapping (“intertwined”) disciplines; for example, a biochemist likely knows a lot about both biology and chemistry. Also, some have achieved genuine expertise in several completely distinct disciplines (e.g., scuba diving, wild animal care, and computer technology). When scrutinizing the expertise of a multidisciplinary expert, the judge must decide if that individual demonstrates objectively verifiable mastery in the field of specialized knowledge that is directly relevant to the evidentiary inquiry.4, 5, 8, 9
When is a true expert’s opinion unreliable due to a problem with “disconnect in logic”?
In some scenarios, genuinely qualified experts provide expert opinions about their fields of expertise, but their conclusions are demonstrably false. How can true experts come to wrong conclusions? Maybe they unintentionally assumed or intentionally relied upon inaccurate foundational data.10 Or maybe they had accurate data, yet committed logical fallacies in forming conclusions from or about that data.9
In the Dallas v. Belavitch case, for example, a thoroughly qualified doctor had relevant and reliable expertise, but she misdiagnosed or misunderstood the most relevant clinical facts, so her conclusions were judicially rejected as logically flawed and unreliable.10
How is “admissibility” different from “reliability” and “evidentiary weight”?
What about the situation in which multiple experts, all having relevant expertise and seemingly reliable analyses, offer conclusions that clash? Whose conclusions are to be trusted?
Answering that question is the role and moral obligation of the factfinder—the judge or jury. The factfinder should “weigh” the components of admissible evidence to determine reliability, accepting or rejecting those evidences in whole or in part, while making judgment calls about what (and whom) to believe.
Logic using process of elimination analysis, credibility determinations, various forensic science considerations, and a prioritized commitment to ultimate truth should be exercised when admissible evidence is “weighed” by the factfinder. However, when it comes to deciding what to believe about our origins, you and I must make personal decisions about what to believe as morally obligated factfinders (Hebrews 11:1-3).
So with the commitment to truth exemplified by the Bereans (Acts 17:11), you be the judge. Find the real facts whenever you read or hear an “expert” opinion about your origins. But always keep your Bible open because God’s Word is not a mere expert opinion—it is the ultimate authority.
- Hebert, Jake. 2012. The Higgs Boson and the Big Bang. Acts & Facts. 41 (9): 11-13.
- Notice that Job 42:7-8 shows that God sided with Job against three of his “counselors” (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar), declaring their opinions as not “right.”
- Webster, Noah. 1967. Authority. American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828 Facsimile edition. San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education.
- “For examples, expertise may be demonstrated in technical areas and disciplines (other than the ‘sciences’) such as jurisprudence, music, art, history, cuisine, landscaping, advertising/marketing, sports, foreign languages, communications, drama, story-telling, literature, hunting, video/photography, tomato-farming, journalism, banking, hotel/motel management, truck-driving, carpentry, etc.” Dallas I.S.D. v. Waiters-Lee (TEA Dkt. #122-LH-597, 7-4-1997), Conclusion of Law #6c, following Daubert and Robinson (cited infra). Titles of nobility, authority, or expertise should be appreciated, but reality always trumps prestigious titles (1 Corinthians 1:25-31, Matthew 23:9-10).
- Analyzing substantive realities, despite misleading appearance, is often called “substance over form” analysis in forensic science evidence law contexts because a substance-over-form analysis is specifically designed to avoid the “form over substance” fallacy, which is an example of reductionism fallacy. This concept appears in 1 Samuel 16:7.
- The application of Evidence Rule 702 is often guided by authoritative court rulings that analyze how that standard fits the evidence. The most notable federal precedents are Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579, 113 S.Ct. 2786 (1993), and Kuhmo Tire Co., Ltd. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 119 S.Ct. 1167 (1999). Examples of notable state court rulings that construe Evidence Rule 702 include E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. v. Robinson, 923 S.W.2d 549 (Tex. 1995), and People v. Campbell, 814 P.2d 1 (Colo. 1991).
- Evidence Rule 403, which applies to both federal and state courts, permits a judge to identify misleading sources of confusion, including the distractive use of deceptive terminology, from being admitted into evidence. Godard v. Alabama Pilot, Inc., 2007 WL 1266361, *1 (S.D. Ala. 2007) (Rule 403 used to ban testimonial use of the distraction-loaded term “seaman” because that ambiguous term biased and confused the relevant analysis in question).
- Johnson, J. J. S. 2012. Genesis Critics Flunk Forensic Science 101. Acts & Facts. 41 (3): 8-9. See also, regarding “authority” and expertise problems as they appear in logical fallacies, McDurmon, J. 2009. Biblical Logic in Theory and Practice: Refuting the Fallacies of Humanism, Darwinism, Atheism, and Just Plain Stupidity. Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 245-258.
- Lisle, Jason. 2010. Discerning Truth: Exposing Errors in Evolutionary Arguments. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 53-58.
- Dallas v. Belavitch (TEA Dkt. #076-LH-402), part III-A, critique of Dr. Chew’s clinical analysis used to support her expert conclusions.
* Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Apologetics and Chief Academic Officer at the Institute for Creation Research.
Cite this article: Johnson, J. J. S. 2012. What Good Are Experts? Acts & Facts. 41 (11): 8-10.