An Expert?

Thoughts From Steven: A Piece of Chert Shaped Like a Clam

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A few days ago, at the museum where I work, I received a request to identify a rock. The person who found it is a friend, he is one of the volunteers at the museum, so he knew that I am familiar with fossils and rocks and would be able to identify it. He wanted to know whether it was a fossil of a clam.

The rock did indeed appear clam-like. It was the right size for a modest sized clam. It was smooth on top and bottom with nice, rounded edges. The top and bottom halves mirrored each other, like a clam. However, I could quickly tell that it was not a clam. For one thing, there was no shell. A shell could be lost during fossilization so that alone was not conclusive, but there was no trace of a shell. There was no impression of a shell, nor any remnant of the shell’s layers. One end of the rock was chipped, revealing that it was solid on the inside and appeared to be composed of chert. There were concentric lines on the rock but rather than being superficial, as in a clam shell, they appeared to penetrate into the rock as if the rock developed by the addition of layers. Finally, the rock was too symmetrical. On a clam shell, the point called the umbo, leans to one side. There was no umbo and the rock was symmetrical along its mid-line: there was nothing leaning to one side. I had to tell my friend that it was just a rock, a plain chert nodule.

Why was I able to see so quickly that the rock was just a chert nodule and not a fossil? My friend was unsure, that is why he asked me. What did I see that he did not? Nothing, really. We both saw the same thing. I, however, know how to interpret what I saw, he does not. I am familiar with clams, fossils, and chert nodules, so I could pull together my knowledge to make a conclusion about this rock, and I only needed a minute to reach a conclusion. It was easy for me but impossible for my friend.

How did I gain this knowledge? Several reasons. Schooling is one of them. I have a Masters in Vertebrate Paleontology. To get that degree, I had to learn a lot about fossils, both of invertebrates and vertebrates. I have also seen many clam fossils, while in school and while working at the museum. I have seen clam fossils preserved in a variety of ways. I have also seen chert nodules, again, while in school and while working at the museum. I had the knowledge. It was because of that knowledge that my friend consulted me and accepted my conclusion.

What if someone wanted to question my authority? It has happened. I have had people come to the museum, asking to have something identified. When I reached a conclusion they did not like, they questioned my knowledge. I had not seen a tooth so old before, or I had not seen one like this, or isn’t there some test to make sure, and so forth. It is ironic that they come to me to help with an identification, yet in the end, they trust their own conclusions over mine. They came to me because they assumed I knew more than them, yet they stuck with their own conclusions, rejected my implied expertise when it does not give the answers they wanted.

I am by no means an expert in the field of paleontology. There are many people who could run rings around me, especially on certain topics. That is an interesting observation: paleontologists, like all scientists, are experts about a particular topic. One has spent years studying tyrannosaurs, so he knows more about them than anyone else. He might know less about stegosaurs, but with tyrannosaurs, he has the best information and opinion. One has spent his life studying the Hell Creek Formation. You can not question him when it comes to fossils found in that particular layer of rock, but ask him about Ischigualasto Formation in Argentina and he would have to rely on information he read from other authors. Because I know that everyone is limited in their knowledge, that they are experts in their field but not every field, that I do not feel stupid around these people. Sure, I am less knowledgeable in most things, but there might be one or two things I have learned, or seen for myself, that they have not. Such knowledge gives me comfort and hope that I too might be an expert at some time. However, it gives me pause as well.

Are any of these paleontologist experts on science? Sure, they use the scientific method all of the time, they could tell you how it works, why ideas must be tested and retested, how to collected falsifiable data, but can they explain why all of that leads to trustworthy conclusions? Probably not, or not in sufficient detail. After all, they are not philosophers of science, they are paleontologists. They have to trust that the philosophers have done their job well because they have devoted their time to understanding paleontology. Looking at it that way, it becomes apparent that these experts have to rely on others to provide a foundation for their expertise.

What of the philosophers of science? Since they understand the scientific method, they must be the ones providing the foundation without resorting to another expert, right? They try to be. They do not cite a specific field of study or a specific authority, rather they just rely on common sense. The scientific method works because of common sense. If common sense is absent, science is absurd, but if common sense is reliable, then so is the scientific method.

Who can question common sense? It is common, no one questions it. After all, it is the most basal appeal someone can make. I am just using my common sense to figure out that is a lie. Do I have proof? No, it is just common sense that he is lying. It is common sense that religion should stay out of science. Science proved that Zeus doesn’t throw lighting bolts and Hephaestus doesn’t have a blacksmith shop in volcanoes. It makes no sense to resort to myth when science has done away with it. Does it matter if we do not know for sure how long proteins can last in dinosaur bone? It is just common sense that it can not last millions of years, do we have to verify it?

Even though common sense is supposed to be common, people reach different conclusions with their common senses. One uses it to discount religion, another to establish a religion. One uses it to support a politician, another uses it to accuse that same politician. It is not as common as we would like to think, and on the same thought, it is not the final authority that we think it is, either. The paleontologist trust the philosopher of science and the philosopher of science trusts common sense, but what assurance does common sense give us? None. It is supposed to be common because everyone has it, but it turns out that people are much more diverse than that and we all have different thoughts on the matter.

While people can not establish common sense, there is One who can. He is the one who created the human mind. He is the one who made common sense. People have taken the innate knowledge He put in us, which includes knowledge of Himself, by the way, and twisted it to their own ends. The vast majority do not even know that they have twisted common sense: they think their thoughts are normal even though they are derivative. Fortunately, the Creator also spoke to people throughout history. He inspired many of those to record what he said, and the compilation of those words is with us to this day. Much of what He said is about us and how He wants us to behave and live. He gave us an instruction manual to get our common sense back!

It is because I have put my faith in the words and person of Him that I know that I can rely on common sense. It is because of His words that I know what common sense is. He spoke on more than common sense. He also spoke of morality, religion, governments, the afterlife, and the physical world. The parts of the physical world are sparse, compared to the other topics, but because they are there, I can also use Him as a foundation for my knowledge of the scientific method and the origin of the physical world.

When I consult an expert paleontologist, they know more than me so I can trust their answers, except when they contradict what the Creator said. I know that the paleontologists have to rely on other experts who have to rely on common sense. I do not. I can rely on the word of the Creator and that gives my confidence that I am not wrong in my acceptance of creationism no matter how big of an expert tells me otherwise.

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