Smart People Saying Stupid Things

Loftus’s observation that faith makes smart people say stupid things reminded me of two instances I’d previously come across. The first involves Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and the author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. As some here may already know, Collins, a geneticist and defender of evolutionary theory, “knelt in the dewy grass… and surrendered to Jesus Christ” as a result of seeing “a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall” while hiking in the Cascade Mountains. That he considers a purely emotional reaction like that as a reason for accepting the claims of Christianity shows just how unscientific a scientist can be. (How would he respond to someone who denied evolution based on nothing more than emotion?)

Collins was also convinced by C. S. Lewis’s “liar, lunatic or Lord” argument. Most readers here are probably familiar with this very weak argument: Lewis says that one cannot call Jesus merely a great moral teacher. For, if he wasn’t who he claimed to be, then he was either lying or deluded. “Either this man was and is the son of God or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.” So the only options are liar, lunatic, or Lord. But of course there is a fourth option: that Jesus didn’t claim to be God at all. Thus the choices really are liar, lunatic, Lord, or legend (and in fact, probably a mixture of three of these).

Lewis’s argument is obviously flawed and very easy to refute — and yet Collins fell for it. Why? I think the answer is clear: because he wanted to believe it.

My second example comes from William F. Buckley’s Nearer, My God. Buckley, father of the modern conservative movement, was — whatever you may think of him — obviously very smart. It is therefore fascinating seeing him try to defend claims that are clearly unfounded.

One such claim is that of miracles at Lourdes. Buckley points out that nonbelievers (like one reportedly sent by a French “anti-religious organization") have attempted to discredit the process by which miracles are verified — sometimes even by faking illnesses and then claiming cures. And yet, they all have failed, he informs us, for the process is very strict: “there are no tribunals in existence more skeptical than those through which you need to pass if your claim is to have been cured of illness at Lourdes.” In fact, although millions of pilgrims have visited the sanctuary, “fewer than one hundred ‘cures’ have been certified by the Church as miraculous.” So you see, the verified ones must have been the genuine article.

It never appears to have dawned on Buckley that odds this bad, though supporting the argument that the process of verification is strict, completely fail to support the claim of miracles in the first place. A "miracle" here just means that “there is no known or hypothetical scientific explanation” for what the doctors have observed. The patient simply got better. But since cases of spontaneous remission of disease do occur from time to time, the fact that some of these occurred to people who visited Lourdes — and at a rate that does not appear to be greater than for others — proves exactly nothing.

And why did Buckley fail to see this? Once again, it seems the reason is that he wanted to believe. Buckley admits that his visit to Lourdes left him “profoundly affected” — maybe as much as Collins was by the frozen waterfall. In other words, his emotions got in the way of his better judgement.