Why Scholarly Consensus is Not Enough

We’ve often been reminded that the medical, research and scholarly community are more or less agreed on the rightfulness and truthfulness of a certain course of action. Most recently in the pandemic, that’s been underscored and highlighted repeatedly in mass media outlets.

Should not this kind of scholarly consensus be enough to embrace something we are hearing as trustworthy and obviously “valid”?

That’s certainly what we keep being told. But consider, for a moment, the list of consensus conclusions popular among academics and scholars right now:

1.      The world was created by a singularly potent “bang.”

2.      Human beings were created by gradual, iterative, interspecies evolution – with the story of Adam and Eve revered by believers for ages being entirely metaphoric and fictional. 

3.      Noah and the world-wide flood is metaphoric – and didn’t actually happen.

4.      The celebrated prophet Daniel in the Bible isn’t “actually a historical figure” – and more of a “cryptic allusion” to another ancient king.

5.      Jesus Christ, if he lived, was certainly not divine – and did not rise from the dead. 

6.      Biological transition for transgender-identifying adults and youth is the most ethical and healthiest course of action to recommend.   

7.      At the same time, any kind of therapeutic encouragement to explore an expansion, adjustment or evolution in how people relate to sexual orientation is not only not healthy, but ought to be illegal and criminal. 

8.      The vast majority of scholars agree that it should be legal for a mother to abort any fetus growing inside her – at any stage of development.    

9.      They also largely agree there is nothing special about the union of man and woman – with any committed union between two human beings who love each other rightly considered equally valuable.    

10.   The proper response to mental illness is to medically manage it – including for children. Thus, anyone facing symptoms of serious depression ought to be encouraged to consider antidepressant medication as a first line treatment. 

11.   It is taken for granted among modern scholars that children with difficulty paying attention ought to be diagnosed and prescribed stimulant medication to ensure their mind is not moving too fast and that their academic future is not compromised. 

12.   And [up to five years ago], the scholarly community was in agreement that pain is another vital sign – and ought to be medically managed proactively with opioids and other kinds of medical management.

We could go on. But you get the point. Especially if you’re a Christian or believer in the Judeo-Christian tradition broadly, this list ought to give you pause. Clearly, the domains of knowledge represented above – ranging from biblical scholarship to sexuality to medical research – are not the same, with limitations inherent in the comparison. Whatever the differences, however, there is one obvious commonality across all these consensus conclusions: they represent the dominant agreements of many Smart People in the world around us – or what scriptures call the “wisdom of the world.”

None of this, of course, is to suggest scholars and scientists are always wrong. Clearly, there is so much light and knowledge that has emerged from good scholarship – and sometimes the “wisdom of the world” does line up with the wisdom of God (and the prophets of God).

But for me, this list poses at least the following questions:  How are we to discern between scholarly consensus that lines up with absolute truth, versus scholarly consensus that reflects the mere popular bias of academics today? How is it that majorities of scholars are – and continue to be – so wrong about so many things? If they are wrong about all of this, why would we trust them to be right about so many other things that matters​, yes, including with the pandemic? At the very least, shouldn’t we be thinking more critically about what “all the experts” say to be the case (about anything)?

Take all of this as honest questions. I’d love to hear what others think?

At the very least, it seems fair to say there are some systemic biases in how scholarship is oriented, designed and set up – biases that don’t always lead towards the full truth, and which receive little to no critical attention in our public discourse today. As a result, these scholarly conclusions (across domains) get presented as “reality” and “obvious truth” – in a way that shapes lives, impacts faith, and determined life and death decisions for all of us.

That’s a problem. And it might be among the biggest problems we’re facing right now. Because a public that takes all this for granted – thinking nothing more than “well, this is what the Biblical/psychological/medical experts say” is flying blind – and, at the risk of mixing too many metaphors, being led in so many cases “like a lamb to the slaughter.” ​

After the prophetic verse we love to talk about from Isaiah (“I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder”), Latter-day Saints would do well to remember in our arrogant world today the verse that immediately follows: “For the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.”

What does that mean for all the Wise Men Pronouncements of our day? Sooner or later, I have a feeling we’re all going to find out.

10 thoughts on “Why Scholarly Consensus is Not Enough

  1. Jacob, another good post. I am continually disappointed how unwilling otherwise smart people are to be skeptical these days of whatever the various establishment groups determine to be “the truth.” Isn’t science primarily about skepticism? Apparently not these days when so many scientists spend their time defending establishment views rather than challenging them.

  2. Jacob,
    Your are engaging in some serious straw men fallacies on this one. The listed items do not possess as much scholarly consensus as you suggest. And when there is confusion in the world, do conservative Latter-day Saints line up with the First Presidency? When it comes to declaring vaccinations to be safe and using social distancing and masking to end a pandemic, apparently not.

  3. On the item of bias, the most fundamental of biases stem from metaphysical assumptions. As a trivial example, no matter how diligent, honest, and careful a positivist, reductionist, materialist researcher is, he will never be satisfied with an explanation that includes any notion of revelation or any hint of the spiritual. This is true regardless of whether the metaphysical assumptions were deliberately selected (extremely rare) or passively absorbed from the surrounding environs (almost everyone).

    Also,15 years ago it was exceedingly difficult to be a practicing scientist within academia or industry without a significant fraction (often a majority) of one’s effort and energy being focused on careerist games, dances, and compromises rather than on the fundamental search for truth. It may be impossible within the system at this point.

  4. A plug for one of Dr. Bruce Charlton’s books seems appropriate here:

    Free online copy of a draft version:

    Hard-copy and Kindle ($6.49):

    The argument of this book in a single paragraph:
    Briefly, the argument of this book is that real science is dead, and the main reason is that professional researchers are not even trying to seek the truth and speak the truth; and the reason for this is that professional ‘scientists’ no longer believe in the truth – no longer believe that there is an eternal unchanging reality beyond human wishes and organization which they have a duty to seek and proclaim to the best of their (naturally limited) abilities. Hence the vast structures of personnel and resources that constitute modern ‘science’ are not real science but instead merely a professional research bureaucracy, thus fake or pseudo-science; regulated by peer review (that is, committee opinion) rather than the search-for and service-to reality. Among the consequences are that modern publications in the research literature must be assumed to be worthless or misleading and should always be ignored. In practice, this means that nearly all ‘science’ needs to be demolished (or allowed to collapse) and real science carefully rebuilt outside the professional research structure, from the ground up, by real scientists who regard truth-seeking as an imperative and truthfulness as an iron law.

  5. Thank you, Books. My own experiences and observations are perfectly consistent with Dr. Charlton’s accounting, and he communicates all of it beautifully and comprehensively. I heartily recommend his books.

  6. (@Jacob: if this comment doesn’t comport with your intentions for this post, then deleting it would be okay with me.)

    @Segullah: Here is how I square the First Presidency statement with the matters Jacob and Geoff have posted about.

    I can see the possibility that the vaccine trials had a higher level of harm/deaths than the threshold allowed for approval, but still far below the number of expected deaths (due to this coronavirus’s transmissibility and virulence) had there been no vaccines.

    I suppose someone or some group made a “grown-up decision”, and opted for the lesser number of people harmed/killed. Kill/harm X people with the vaccine, …or…, allow 500X people to be killed/harmed by the virus. (500 is a made-up number, a guess, on my part.)

    This is how I parse the 1st Presidency statement… regardless of any harm/death due to the vaccine, _in the aggregate_ the vaccines are safer than the virus.

    (Analogy: yes, some saints died on the trek west, but collectively the saints were better off because they migrated. And… some just waited until the railroad was completed in 1869.)

    If one supports the First Presidency as prophets and seers, then the only valid trump-card that I see is to claim personal revelation that you, individually, are one of the exceptions. Both Pres Nelson and Pres Oaks described such exceptions in these talks:


    Politicallly, Pres Nelson couldn’t say “Get the vaccine unless you receive personal revelation directing you otherwise.” But given that he has frequently emphasized everyone should seek personal revelation, and taking into consideration both his and Pres Oaks previous talks about _rules and exceptions_, I don’t think connecting the two is a stretch at all.

    I’ve also responded to Jacob and Geoff in other threads, that another take-away I have from the First Pres statement, is that in regards to whatever factions might be taking advantage of the pandemiic as a crisis, that the 1st Pres statement strongly implied “vaccines and masks are not the hill to take a stand on.

    These two things can both be true: 1) In the aggregate, we need the vaccines to get over the pandemic. And, 2) The pandemic is the perfect excuse, or cover, for our authoritarian caste to implement controls that they wanted all along.

    (and there are other crises/excuses/covers coming soon… terrorism, Taiwan, Ukraine, financial crisis, Yellowstone super-volcano, Carrington Event, earthquake on the New Madrid fault, aquifer failures in California and the Midwest bread-baslet, etc.)

  7. @Segullah,

    I, too, think it is important to abide by the counsel of the prophets. However, I think it’s important for everyone accusing the vaccine hesitant of some sort of incipient apostasy to ask themselves – are YOU following EVERY bit of counsel given by modern prophets? Do you align with the church’s stance on LGBT issues? Are you working to control your weight? How mindful are you of the type and amount of media you consume? Do you read the Book of Mormon EVERY day? Do you avoid pornography wholly and completely? Do you have a financial reserve, food storage, and a 72 hour kit and do you rotate them regularly? Have you achieved excellence in your ministering assignments?

    Unless you can lay claim to immortal perfection, it’s disingenuous to accuse the vaccine hesitant of not following the First Presidency. I’ve seen this a lot in our ward – those who are most outspoken about Following the Prophet, the ones who suggested the primary deviate from the Come, Follow Me manual to give the children a special pro-vaccine Follow The Prophet lesson, are also the ones who love to derail our Sunday School and Relief Society lessons with harangues about the inherent wickedness of not being transgender affirming. Clearly these people are not interested in following the Prophet and care much more about using their politics as a club with which to beat people.

    Additionally, per Elder Renlund, the Lord does not want blind obedience. And I would even go so far as to suggest that blind obedience to the Medical Establishment is dangerous and foolish. We have been conditioned as a people to hold our peace when we have reservations about medical procedures – “Trust the Doctor,” they say. But in my painful experience, most doctors are unworthy of that trust. Every single time I have gone against my better judgement and trusted a doctor, even when my gut told me not to, it has ended in disaster: miscarriages, weeklong NICU stays, GI problems that lasted for years, poor and neglectful care for my cleft affected child (we have been counseled that we have grounds for a malpractice lawsuit on that one) that required two years, two surgeries, and a different surgical team to undo.

    Back to your original argument: Brother Hess’s point was that conforming to the prevailing narrative on any given topic does not always bring you closer to the truth. I have believed and trusted in many prevailing narratives that were sold to me by medical professionals and I’ve been burned often enough that I’m not going to give them a chance to burn me again. It is possible to believe that the mRNA COVID vaccines are neither safe nor effective and still have a testimony of the divine calling of our Prophets.

  8. Book, I really like your comment and the analogy with the trek west.

    I think that the hill that the First Presidency is taking a stand on is the need to keep the temples open. They will promote policies that allow the Saints to continue to meet and to attend the temple.

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