A Christian Sherlock Holmes: Rebuilding an Empirical Christian Culture

Today’s guest post is from Perry L. Glanzer, Professor of Educational Leadership at Baylor University

“Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness speaks deceitfully.” Proverbs 12:17

In this moment, our Christian youth ought to add Sherlock Holmes to their must-read lists, next to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. As Sherlock Holmes said, “There is nothing like first-hand evidence.” Unfortunately, whether it comes to politics or science I increasingly find Christian students, friends, family, and academic colleagues making narrative fantasy arguments about good and evil in the political and scientific realms.

For example, with regard to politics, many people “feel” that the election was stolen from Donald Trump, and they build a conspiracy narrative based upon this feeling. When you ask for evidence, or point out that Trump’s legal team lost dozens of legal cases where evidence of fraud was requested, many of them presided over by conservative judges, they still claim that they “feel” like the election was stolen. To two people I know who took this line of thinking, I asked, “What if your neighbors accused you of kidnapping, torturing and shooting their cat (who you never liked), and the only evidence they had was their feelings, what would you think?” No response. “Would you want a jury that merely evaluated based on their feelings about you?” Of course not. It’s maddening. We have lost respect for empirical evidence—the portions of reality that God gives us to help develop wisdom. The expansion of political conspiracy theories are what you get when you focus on producing engaging narratives and stories without evidence.

After the January 6 capitol riots produced by these conspiracy theories, 285 Wheaton College faculty and staff signed a statement reading, “we grieve over the inadequate level of discipleship that has made room for this type of behavior among those who self-identify as Christian.” Perhaps we need to start our repentance in Christian colleges by teaching our students to care about evidence and not just identity and presuppositions. After all, I would argue that we are the ones who have failed to provide intellectual discipleship.

Unfortunately higher education culture has not been much better. With COVID-19 I have seen a significant amount of evidence-free or limited thinking, and been surprised by how often we have had college presidents, leaders of supposedly scientific institutions, writing simple moralistic arguments divorced from the data (see here and here). In August, a major higher education publication reported that one Georgia Tech model showed that ten students could die at the Tech campus alone this past fall. At the time, I thought the prediction odd and over hyped based on scientific abstracts I had been reading (and as we have learned through both COVID-19 and the election polls, our scientific and social scientific prognosticators have left much to be desired), so I tried to find how many COVID-19 deaths had occurred among college students. No one appeared to have bothered to collect that particular set of evidence.

So, I then tried to find this data. Although not every death of college students by COVID-19 may be published online, at the time I found only five 18-23 college students who has died from COVID-19 within the previous six months. Compare that to the fact that during one thirteen month period not long ago, six students took their lives on the University of Pennsylvania campus alone. Not one campus this fall lost six students to COVID-19.

Amazingly, two of the deceased had their deaths covered in People (Cody Lyster) magazine and USA Today (Jordan Byrd) even though college students were only 0.00002 percent of U.S. deaths during that time. There is something about the death of a healthy college student from Covid-19 that fed a particular a national media narrative that “that anyone can die,” even though the data showed we needed to tell a very different story about the risks. Even more recently, the USA Today published a story that tried to reinforce this narrative. The story headline declared, “The Young Die As Well from COVID-19, Even as Many Engage in Denial” (and used mortality statistics for those below 40—a rather generous definition of “young”—while bringing up reckless college student parties). The writer mistook denial for playing the odds.

Please do not misunderstand me—I do not bring up this last example to deny the severity of COVID (most of us know people personally who have died), or the reality that irresponsible college students can be major conduits of the virus to older adults (and thus direct contributors to their deaths). I merely want to point out that a significant portion of the public narrative and moralizing I read this past year did not match empirical evidence. Instead of trying to scare college students by saying they can die (actually with a COVID mortality rate below 1.5/100,000 they are more likely to die from alcohol related accidents and suicide), we should tell a truthful narrative that admits their odds of dying are extremely low but calls upon them to engage in agape love for their parents and grandparents by taking the proper precautions. We should also be very concerned about students’ mental health. One group estimates that 1,100 undergraduates take their life each year (you should always check data produced by an advocacy group, versus an academic group, but if you compare that number with the study cited earlier and the total number of college students the mortality figure appears accurate).

Christian scholars and Christian educational institutions need to help students recover the importance of finding and interpreting evidence. After all, one of the Ten Commandments refers to how we witness about things (Ex. 20:6; see also Ex. 23:1-2). Are we false or unreliable witnesses? A false or unreliable witness does not base their witness upon creating engaging stories without (or with limited) evidence.

Of course, upholding the importance of evidence is counter-culture to our emotivist culture, as the gaggle of papers I receive every semester from students that argue for things based upon how they “feel,” such as, “I feel like this scholar does not make a very good argument.” I always have to remind these students, “You feel sad, glad, mad, or bad, and the evidence, properly interpreted, may lead you to feel that way. However, your disagreement with the argument should stem from the evidence and reasons you offer. It should not come from feelings without evidence.”

Today, students talk about feeling unsafe, and there is evidence that feeling unsafe hurts academic performance. Yet, we must also encourage students to process and question their evidence or reasons for feeling unsafe. The evidence or reasoning may be valid, but it also may be lacking evidence or based in misinterpretation of evidence. Sometimes, their feelings of being unsafe are simply being uncomfortable with academic conflict. Yet, as John Milton said, “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing.” The feeling of being unsafe without evidence is not sacrosanct. Students’ feelings must be interrogated based on the evidence.

Why are we so allergic to seeking, requiring and using evidence these days? First, sloppy forms of postmodernism have fed the view that when telling a story or making an argument what matters is your identity and the feelings related to that identity and not the evidence (there are some things from modernism we should miss). Second, it takes hard work and/or expertise to uncover the appropriate evidence. Thus, few pursue evidence themselves. Third, we no longer respect expertise and thus increasingly do not respect those who put in the hard work of finding evidence (as recent political polls and epidemiological recommendations have taught us, sometimes for good reason). Finally, when you or experts do hard work to obtain evidence, you realize that our moral decisions require difficult and complicated moral trade-offs that take serious reflection and not simple, moralistic arguments.

How can we build a Christian academic culture that prizes evidence? Seriously, we can start by having our young children read more Sherlock Holmes. We could use some British empiricism among American evangelical children and youth (as well as adults). At the level of higher education, we need to honor God’s creation by investing in the rigorous study of the sciences and social sciences as part of Christian learning. In this regard, evangelical churches and schools can encourage the training of more empirical scientists and social scientists, instead of just theologians and philosophers.

Maybe one day we will once again be a culture that cares about the connections between our words, sentences and narratives and the natural and social world we inhabit, but right now it is not characteristic of many Christian and academic cultures.