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Certainty and authority

This is the second in a four-part series on Christian epistemology titled “Radical faith meets radical doubt: a Christian epistemology for skeptics” by John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

By John G. Stackhouse, Jr.


We might have reason to doubt some or even much of our day-to-day apprehension of things. We’re all in a hurry, all having to learn and discern and decide on the fly. Surely in the realm of medical research, however, the most important research we conduct, expert knowledge is sure and sound? David H. Freedman, in his disturbing book Wrong, introduces us to Dr. John Ioannidis. You’ll never sleep well again.

Staff and researchers checking equipment in biotech industryIoannidis, an expert in expert medical studies, has impressive credentials. Graduating first in his class from the University of Athens Medical School, he completed a residency at Harvard in internal medicine and then took up a research and clinical appointment at Tufts in infectious diseases. While at Tufts, however, he began to notice that a wide range of medical treatment did not rest on solid scientific evidence. While next at the National Institutes of Health and Johns Hopkins University in the 1990s, Ioannidis stated that two-thirds of hundreds of medical studies he read in the scholarly literature were either fully refuted or pronounced “exaggerated” within a few years of their publication.

This seems troubling. Be more troubled, however, as Freedman continues:

[Ioannidis] had been examining only the less than one-tenth of one percent of published medical research that makes it [in]to the most prestigious medical journals.… Ioannidis did find one group of studies that more often than not remained unrefuted: randomized controlled studies… that appeared in top journals and that were cited in other researchers’ papers an extraordinary one thousand times or more. Such studies are extremely rare and represent the absolute tip of the tip of the pyramid of medical research. Yet one-fourth of even these studies were later refuted, and that rate might have been much higher were it not for the fact that no one had ever tried to confirm or refute nearly half of the rest.

To confirm your permanent insomnia, journalist Julian Sher examines the world of forensic science and finds many instances of wrongful convictions. He points to a 2009 study published in the Virginia Law Review that surveyed the cases of 137 convicted persons later exonerated by DNA evidence, and found that in more than half of the trials forensic experts gave invalid testimony, “including errors about shoe prints and hair samples.” That same year, the National Academy of Sciences published a book-length report warning that even fingerprint matches can be misleading and calling for a drastically improved approach to forensic science. So much, then, for people’s fates being determined by the clear, cold, infallible judgment of the scientific expert witness. (So much, also, for the entire CSI franchise…)

As the world begins to shimmer ever more before our eyes and the solid ground beneath our feet threatens to evanesce, along comes historian Alison Winter to offer an entire book about the questionable reliability of Memory. What we do not readily comprehend, what does not fit within our set of presuppositions, does not tend to register with us immediately and clearly, if at all, and therefore also not in our memory. Conversely, what we expect to experience, or afterward believe we must have experienced, gets written into our memories despite what may have actually happened.

Contrary, that is, to the popular notion that somewhere buried in our brains is a perfect recording of everything we have ever experienced, Winter shows through her study of the last century of memory research that our minds instead are constantly coding what we experience as “memorable,” “sort of memorable,” “not memorable” and the like, according to our understanding of the world and according to our valuing of this or that element of the world.

Furthermore, our memories are plastic, and remain vulnerable to addition, subtraction, deformation, reformation, confabulation, and other processes as our lives progress and as our beliefs change, rather than being fixed, veracious “imprints” of the external world upon our minds.

What, then, can we possibly trust in our quest for knowledge? If we cannot trust our own senses, reason, memory—or even those of the most expert experts in our society—are we simply lost in the blooming, buzzing confusion of an incomprehensible world?

In a word, yes. Yes, we are.

John G. Stackhouse Jr. is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology.

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Image credit: Laboratory technicians at work in medical plant with machinery and computers. © diego_cervo via iStockphoto.

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One Response to “Certainty and authority”
  1. [...] epistemology for skeptics.’   First in the series is The Butterfly and the Matrix, then Certainty and Authority. The other two are yet to come.   The series is based on his brand new book, Need to [...]

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