It’s hard to keep people from believing what they want to believe. That’s especially true if the people are experts. After all, expert opinion defines what is true, that opinion is “expert” because of certain formal procedures and qualifications and coherence with the opinions of other experts, and a well-placed group can manipulate those things to achieve whatever result they want. The consequence is that if those who dominate a field of expertise want something to be true they can make it true, at least for purposes of public discussion.
I’ve touched on the problem before in connection with architecture. It also comes up in connection with history. In Australia, for example, the dominant “black armband” school of historians isn’t about to give up its campaign to prove Australian society illegitimate because of its treatment of the aborigines just because Keith Windschuttle has shown that they distort and fabricate evidence. They have therefore lauched a counterattack.
The counterattack covers all fronts, from the personal to the philosophical. “Malicious” and “cultural chauvinist,” says one scholar, “Replete with misconceptions, distortions, character assassinations” says another. The big problem, though, according to the editor of a book of essays attacking Windschuttle, is that “There is no room in his court for historical imagination.” As another professor complains, “Windschuttle aims to take the discipline of history back to some a golden age when it was all about facts.” And that, apparently, would be a catastrophe for scholarly understanding. After all, as one scholar observed (quoted by Windschuttle in his article in The New Criterion) “very little historical interpretation is verifiable in any strict sense,” so historians arrive at the truth on the basis of a “scholarly consensus.” And the consensus, it appears, can be based on little more than fabricated evidence and the will to believe of the dominant group of scholars. (For more on Windschuttle and the historians, see the very useful site The Sydney Line.)
The “black armband” historians may be dishonest ideologues, but they wouldn’t be able to get as far as they have if they didn’t have a point to distort. They are right that it is not possible simply to read off the facts from the evidence. Knowledge has an essential personal, social and interpretive aspect. It follows that to have knowledge you can trust you need a community and interpreter you’re justified in relying on. And that principle has obvious religious implications. In particular, you can’t have public revelation without a visible Church to carry it forward and speak authoritatively on its interpretation. “Expertise” by itself just isn’t enough, because it can, will and has been used to demonstrate anything the experts want to demonstrate. And that’s the basic problem with the scholarly rebellion against the teaching authority of the Church that has led, with the reaction to Humanae Vitae, to material schism. What the scholars speak for is not the authority of truth but the authority of scholars. And who made them the oracles?