The Branch Theory of the Church

From Wikipedia (click image for article)

One of the major contributions the English Reformation made to Christian thought is the “Branch Theory” of the church.  The idea is that there are degrees of unity among Christians, so that not every formal division between groups forces us to label those on one or both sides of the break as un-Christian.  In a blog post last year, The Reverend Mr Jonathan Mitchican, a priest of the Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania, sums up the branch theory quite lucidly.  Mr Mitchican writes:

The issue is not whether Rome, the East, and Anglicans have some secret bond of true catholicity that only the Anglicans seem to be aware of. Rather, it is that what makes a church truly Christian and truly Catholic is not automatically lost even when churches choose to separate from each other. [William] Palmer even makes the point that errors in doctrine, so long as they do not constitute out and out heresy, are not enough to remove a local church from the Catholic whole. “All errors,” he says, “even in matters of faith, are not heretical.”

He goes on to cite the most famous early theologian of Anglicanism, Richard Hooker:

In his Learned Discourse on Justification, Richard Hooker affirms the doctrine that we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone, the doctrine that Martin Luther said was the one which the Church rises or falls on, and he excoriates Rome for teaching a counter message. Nevertheless, when it comes to understanding what the Church is, Hooker took a different tack:

How far Romish heresies may prevail over God’s elect, how many God hath kept from falling into them, how many have been converted from them, is not the question now in hand; for if heaven had not received any one of that coat for these thousand years it may still be true that the doctrine which at this day they do profess doth not directly deny the foundation and so prove them to be no Christian Church…

Quoting from various Reformed sources, Hooker goes on to say that denying the title of church to Rome would be like denying the title of man to a sick man. The existence of error weakens a church but does not turn it into something else entirely any more than having a bad cold might weaken a man but does not kill him. Of course, a disease left untreated can eventually kill, but Hooker sets the bar very high. So long as Rome continues to preach that Jesus is Lord, accept and obey the Scriptures, and celebrate proper Sacraments, she cannot be left for dead.

In this paragraph, Mr Mitchican mentions alternatives to the branch theory:

Several possible options exist. The first is to do what Rome and the Eastern churches have done, to declare that their particular churches are, in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with them is outside of the Church. On the other extreme is the generic Protestant option, so often employed today under the label “non-denominational,” of suggesting that there is no real division at all, that what matters is solely correct faith and not visible communion, and that the true Church is therefore invisible, not corresponding at all with existing bodies. What Anglican ecclesiology says is that both of these options are inadequate. What we require is a much more dynamic understanding of the Church, one that accounts for the irregularity of the era we live in.

To amplify these remarks, I would quote from rather an old publication of the Church of England, Doctrine in the Church of England: The Report of the Commission on Christian Doctrine Appointed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in 1922 (London and New York: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1957; reprint of the original 1938 edition.)  Where Mr Mitchican says that Rome and the churches of the East “declare that their particular churches are, in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with them is outside of the Church,” the Commission phrased it rather more precisely:

Since the date of the Great Schism, 1054, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church have each claimed to be the one Catholic Church, at least in the sense of being the sole authoritative guardian of the apostolic tradition. (page 109)

This statement makes it clear that a theory of the unity of the church must address two closely related, yet quite distinct questions: 1, who is a Christian; 2, what is the church?  Among the great strengths of the branch theory is that it makes it possible to consider these questions separately without dismissing either of them.  For example, a friend of mine was once serving as a minister in a church in an area where many people were Hindu.  The place was usually quite empty, but on Christmas Day the neighbors crowded in. He asked them what brought them.  They told him that they had come to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  “He’s one of our gods,” they cheerfully explained.  Were they Christians?  In a sense, yes.  One of the ways Jesus defines his movement in the Gospels, after all, is that where two or more are gathered in his name, there will he be (Matthew 18:20.)  But this sense hardly tells the whole story. For one thing, Jesus himself gives several other, far more restrictive definitions of who his followers are.  For another, I doubt that many of those gathered in the name of Jesus the avatar of Vishnu would be interested in claiming the title of “Christian” for themselves, and few indeed would be the self-described Christians who were prepared to yield to their authority as interpreters of the Gospel. So, “Christian” they may have been, in some special and severely limited sense of the word, but in no sense would we include them in “the church,” still less expect them to function as “the sole authoritative guardian[s] of the apostolic tradition.”

It is the rootedness in history of the branch theory that makes this distinction clear.  The worship of Vishnu, the identification of such major figures of the Hindu pantheon as Krishna as avatars of Vishnu, and the rest of the ideological and ceremonial system into which Hindu devotees of Vishnu-Jesus fit their beliefs and practices long predate the exposure of India to the story of Jesus and the presence in that country of representatives of “the apostolic tradition.”  This devotion, venerable and admirable as it no doubt is, stands apart from “the church” in a way that groups that were once in communion with the Patriarchs of both Constantinople and Rome do not.  The separation of those groups from each other represent a different challenge to followers of Jesus than do the separation of groups, even groups that revere Jesus, that have never been united under any institutional umbrella.

Doctrine in the Church of England includes two lengthy paragraphs about the unity of the church that I would like to quote in full:

The divisions among Christians, as a result of which Christendom is split up into a number of competing and rival “denominations” and “communions,” are not the least grievous among the scandals that have been mentioned.  There is a long history behind them; and in some cases, at least, there are serious divergences of principle involved, such as must needs make the way to reconciliation neither easy nor obvious.  It is, moreover, to be remembered that the life of the Christian Body is enriched by varieties of emphases and interpretation, and that historically these have been developed in their familiar forms in the several communions which have resulted from the divisions in the Church.  Yet it often happens that in developing one valuable interpretation of the Gospel, a particular communion becomes unduly restricted to this interpretation, while others may fail to receive the benefit as a result of their separation from that communion.  Further, there is a natural tendency to form sectarian loyalties, which make men unappreciative of new ideas arising from outside their communion, and prompt them to defend, out of regard for their founders and heroes of the past, traditions for which the justifying circumstances have disappeared.  Thus any gain due to division is offset by loss to the whole Body and to its parts.  The gain can be secured without loss only through a real combination of unity with liberty.

The term “schism” has historically been used with some fluctuation of meaning.  It should, however, be recognised that “schism” is, in fact, a division within the Christian Body.  That Body is not to be thought of as a single true Church, or group of Churches, with a number of “schismatic” bodies gathered around it, but as a whole which is in a state of division or “schism.”  The various “denominations” may and do differ in the degree in which they approximate either to orthodoxy of doctrine or to fullness of organised life; but, just in so far as their very existence as separate organisations constitutes a real division within Christendom, it becomes true to affirm that if any are is schism, all are in schism, so long as the breaches remain unhealed, and are affected by its consequences, at least in the sense that each in its own degree suffers the loss or defect involved in schism; and this irrespective of the question on which side rests the major responsibility for the schism.

(pages 111-112; emphasis added)

Certainly a theory of ecclesiology which identifies “the Church” with a particular organization that has a headquarters, a table of organization, and a pension fund does place some rather severe restrictions on Christian thinkers who survey the world at large.  I would cite Joseph Ratzinger as one who has made clear his dissatisfaction with the view that his particular church is “in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with [it] is outside of the Church.”  In his 1960 book The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, the future Pope Benedict XVI wrote:

This discussion of Christian brotherhood has endeavored to apply what the New Testament says to the world today, even when what it says seems unexpected, even alien, to us.  As I followed up the references, sometimes with surprise, in my mind there arose the question of the “separated brethren,” the popular designation of Christians of differing confessions who thus express, across the gulf of their separation, their common adherence in faith to Jesus Christ, their brother.  Must this formula be discarded because the New Testament restricts brotherhood, in the narrower sense, to those who share one table, united through their common communion, which cannot exist among separated Christians?   But then, what is the relation of these Christians to one another?  Is a non-Catholic Christian, for a Catholic, the “other” brother only in the sense in which an unbaptized person is?  Or does the community of baptism and the confession of the one Lord not, in fact, impart to him a greater share of fellowship?  It is not easy to answer such questions, especially as they have seldom been asked in a sufficiently radical way, for fear of touching wounds that are still open.  And yet it is necessary to ask this, just as truth is necessary for love.

The difficulty in the way of giving an answer is a profound one.  Ultimately it is due to the fact that there is no appropriate category in Catholic thought for the phenomenon of Protestantism today (one could say the same of the relationship to the separated churches of the East.)  It is obvious that the old category of “heresy” is no longer of any value.  Heresy, for Scripture and the early Church, includes the idea of a personal decision against the unity of the Church, and heresy’s characteristic is pertinacia, the obstinacy of him who persists in his own private way.  This, however, cannot be regarded as an appropriate description of the spiritual situation of the Protestant Christian.  In the course of a now centuries-old tradition, Protestantism has made an important contribution to the realization of the Christian faith, fulfilling a positive function in the development of the Christian message and, above all, often giving rise to a sincere and profound faith in the individual non-Catholic Christian, whose separation from the Catholic affirmation has nothing to do with the pertinacia characteristic of heresy.  Perhaps we may here invert an old saying of Saint Augustine’s: that an old schism becomes a heresy.  The very passage of time alters the character of a division, so that an old division is something essentially different from a new one.  Something that was once rightly condemned as heresy cannot later simply become true, but it can gradually develop its own positive ecclesial nature, with which the individual is presented as his church and in which he lives as a believer, not as a heretic.  This organization of one group, however, ultimately has an effect on the whole.  The conclusion is inescapable, then: Protestantism today is something different from heresy in the traditional sense, a phenomenon whose true theological place has not yet been determined.

(from pages 88-89 of the 1993 translation by W. A. Glen-Doepel)

Here we see the future pontiff proposing a theory that works in the opposite way of the branch theory.  The branch theory posits a time when Christian organizations were formally united, and holds that a kind of informal unity can survive formal division.   The Ratzingerian theory does not depend on any particular answer to the historical question of whether two denominations split off from an older, united denomination.  For him, the kind of unity that Anglican divines have described from the days of Hooker to Mr Mitchican and his colleagues today can exist even between groups whose organizational structures do not spring from a common genealogy.

In his career since 1960, Joseph Ratzinger has returned to this theory time and again as an attempt to supply the “appropriate category in Catholic thought” which was still missing in that year.  He has done this both in his own writing, and in his influence on others.  We can find the signs of this theory in Pope John Paul II’s letter, Ut Unum Sintissued when Joseph Ratzinger was Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, especially in the famous paragraphs about relations between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church (paragraphs 50-70, including the line “The Church must breathe with both lungs!” in paragraph 54,) and in John Paul’s comments about the Lutherans in paragraph 72.  And paragraph 87 is pretty nearly a paraphrase of the quote from The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood above:

87. Along the way that leads to full unity, ecumenical dialogue works to awaken a reciprocal fraternal assistance, whereby Communities strive to give in mutual exchange what each one needs in order to grow towards definitive fullness in accordance with God’s plan (cf. Eph 4:11-13). I have said how we are aware, as the Catholic Church, that we have received much from the witness borne by other Churches and Ecclesial Communities to certain common Christian values, from their study of those values, and even from the way in which they have emphasized and experienced them. Among the achievements of the last thirty years, this reciprocal fraternal influence has had an important place. At the stage which we have now reached, this process of mutual enrichment must be taken seriously into account. Based on the communion which already exists as a result of the ecclesial elements present in the Christian communities, this process will certainly be a force impelling towards full and visible communion, the desired goal of the journey we are making. Here we have the ecumenical expression of the Gospel law of sharing. This leads me to state once more: “We must take every care to meet the legitimate desires and expectations of our Christian brethren, coming to know their way of thinking and their sensibilities … The talents of each must be developed for the utility and the advantage of all”.

Here again, we see the idea that Christian groups, separated from the mainstream, can grow beyond that separation, eventually to merge into a new mainstream.

As Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger himself spoke in 2011 to Lutheran leaders at Martin Luther’s old monastery in Erfurt.    Praising Luther’s theological prowess and the depth of his commitment to Christ, the pontiff went on to imply that today’s Lutherans face the same challenge that Roman Catholics faced in 1517:

The geography of Christianity has changed dramatically in recent times, and is in the process of changing further. Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss. This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability. This worldwide phenomenon poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse? In any event, it raises afresh the question about what has enduring validity and what can or must be changed – the question of our fundamental faith choice.

Here Pope Benedict shows that he has reached the same conclusion as did the Church of England’s 1922 Commission.  Recall their words, quoted above: “there is a natural tendency to form sectarian loyalties, which make men unappreciative of new ideas arising from outside their communion, and prompt them to defend, out of regard for their founders and heroes of the past, traditions for which the justifying circumstances have disappeared.”  In this passage and elsewhere, Pope Benedict has suggested that the occasional inability of the Church’s human ministers to distinguish between the indispensable heart of the Christian mission and the incidental forms that mission may take from time to time was responsible for the crises that issued in the Protestant Reformation.  Here, he suggests that the same weakness which prevented Rome responding as it may have done to the crises of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries may today be preventing the Roman Catholic and Lutheran hierarchies from recognizing and fully meeting a similar challenge from the global South.  It is precisely the same chronological depth and richness of tradition that has, in Benedict’s view, ennobled Lutheranism that may also have blinded it to the need to cast aside many of the most treasured inheritances in answer to Christ’s call to enter a new world radically different from the ones in which those legacies were crafted.

I am in no position to judge between the Anglican theory and the Ratzingerian theory.  I can express only my personal preferences.  These incline me somewhat toward the Anglicans.   I suspect that Pope Benedict falls between the two stools Mr Mitchican describes.  Certainly he is in no danger of reaching the logical endpoint of the extreme Protestant rejection of historical relations among organized groups as the basis of church unity, that “what matters is solely correct faith and not visible communion, and that the true Church is therefore invisible, not corresponding at all with existing bodies,” since his theory is embedded within a defense of a particular, actually existing Christian denomination as the best venue for the formation and expression of the human person.  That is a point in his favor; if all that unites Christians is “correct faith,” and faith is a matter, not of social action, but of assent to and defense of particular abstract propositions, then the proper life for a human being is that of an internet comment box warriors, sitting alone, prepared to take all to task if they express incorrect ideas.  A path that leads to such a life can hardly be one worth traveling.

However, to the extent that his theory does not draw a distinction between the two questions “Who is a Christian?” and “What is the Church?,” Benedict cannot lead one entirely clear either of that danger or of the opposite danger, the denial that groups with which one is not in full communion are not at all Christian and the refusal to learn anything from them about the meaning of the Gospel and the mission of the Church.  For him, the Church is and can only be what the 1922 Commission explicitly said in the quote above it was not, “a single true Church, or group of Churches, with a number of “schismatic” bodies gathered around it,” since it is that “single true Church” that, however corrupted it may from time to time be by the stupidity or wickedness of its ministers, however richly it may from time to time be instructed by the witness of those outside its communion, must ultimately remain “the sole authoritative guardian of the apostolic tradition.”  The difference between Roman Catholics on the one hand and Protestants or Orthodox on the other, therefore, varies only in degree from the difference between Roman Catholics and Hindus who pay homage to Vishnu-Jesus.  If Benedict concedes that a non-Roman Catholic can be a full-fledged Christian, therefore, he is conceding that Christians can be fully formed altogether outside the influence of the historic Church.  In that case, it is difficult to see how he could explain why the worship of Vishnu-Jesus should not be classified as one of the schismatic bodies gathered around the communion of which he claims for eight years to have been the earthly head, unless by assigning to the creeds a significance that would throw us back into the world of the combox warrior.

Let us consider how Christian groups have justified claims to be “the sole authoritative guardians of the apostolic tradition.”  Many groups have done what Rome does, what Eastern Orthodoxy does, what Oriental Orthodoxy does, and claim that their hierarchies represent an unbroken succession dating back to Jesus and the Apostles, so that they are and have always been The Church.  Others claim, as William Penn claimed of his fellow Quakers, to be the embodiment of “Primitive Christianity revived,” the restoration of the original church as presented in Scripture.  These are the “Restorationists” of the chart at the top of this post.  A few groups, such as the Mormons and the Christian Scientists, claim to have received new revelations that are to be added to Scripture, and base their claim to authority on their status as recipients of these revelations.

The new revelations crowd include some of the nicest people I’ve ever met; honestly, I’ve never had an unpleasant exchange with a Mormon, and I’ve met hundreds of them.  But their founding premises are such that formal union between them and other Christian groups must surely be a most distant prospect.  Perhaps the nearest approach to such union is to be found in the Community of Christ, originally the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, which seems to be well on its way to becoming a liberal mainstream Protestant denomination.  In the course of that reinvention, the Community of Christ has deemphasized all of its Mormon distinctives. It still affirms that the Book of Mormon and the Latter Day Saints’ Doctrine and Covenants are two of the “three books of Scripture,” but places the other of these three, the Bible, above them and no longer mandates the use of the Mormon writings in worship or as tests of membership.  Their name change marked a similar movement.  It may well happen that the Community of Christ will sooner or later enter into some kind of formal union with a Protestant denomination, but if it does, that will likely be because that Protestant denomination is convinced that the Community of Christ has severed all its ties to its Mormon origins.

The Restorationists have had more success in building ecumenical bridges, but they too have had to moderate their founding principles in order to do so.  If two distinct movements build themselves on the belief that they are accurate recreations of the church Christ intended to found, then a merger between them can only represent a concession that at least one of them has been wrong all along.  That seems like rather a steep hurdle in the way of formal union, though perhaps not a major obstacle practical cooperation.

That leaves the Traditionalists as the best hope for Christian unity.  And, in my not especially well-informed opinion, it seems that the branch theory is the best starting point for any project that would turn that hope into reality.

What started me thinking about all of this was a humorous little exchange I participated in yesterday on Twitter.  Nathaniel Torrey tweeted this:

(A spoof of TV’s The Big Bang Theory, in case you didn’t recognize the reference.)

In response to an inquiry from Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, Mr Torrey gave an example of an episode:

This prompted my reply:

Micah Meadowcroft, a student at conservative bastion Hillsdale College, apparently found in the reference to sexual minorities an issue that might chop some branches off the tree of Christendom; he expressed this in the most effective possible way, through a link to a video produced a couple of decades before he was born:







Our old Reference links page

As I’ve mentioned, I’m scrapping most of the links pages attached to this blog, but preserving the most recent version of each as a post.  So here is what our links to reference materials looked like when we last updated it, more than four years ago:


The internal structure of the calendar, part 2

In December of 2012, I posted a few remarks about the calendar.  The visual representations of the calendar we see in the West usually take the form of a grid in seven columns, each representing a day of the week, with the rows representing the succession of the numbered days of the month as iterations of the sequence of the seven days of the week.  As for example:

What, you've seen one of these before?  That's FANTASTIC!

What occasioned my post in December of 2012 was this xkcd cartoon, in which Randall Munroe wrote the number of each date in a size that reflects the relative frequency with which that date is mentioned in materials searchable through Google NGrams:

In months other than September, the 11th is mentioned substantially less often than any other date.  It's been that way since long before 9/11 and I have no idea why.

The patterns here made me wonder if our usual grid layout oversimplifies the way the calendar is actually structured in our thought and social practice.  I’m a Latin teacher, and so my working life brings me into contact with the calendar of the ancient Romans.  That calendar did not include the week and was not organized as a grid.  Rather, each month had an internal structure in which days were expressed by their proximity to other days and by their religious status.  A visual representation of the Roman calendar might look like this:

This drawing is based on some fragments from about 60 BCE

Recently, other bits have appeared online suggesting that the calendar may have more internal structure than we commonly realize.  This morning on Slate, Ben Blatt looked at times of the year when newborns are most and least likely to be given particular names.  Mr Blatt’s charts, and the box in which readers can search for the seasonal patterns of particular names, are based on death reports released by the US Social Security Administration, since there is no national agency in the USA that collects and publishes comprehensive reports about births.  So his data is about 80 years behind the times, but it still is interesting.

For example, Mr Blatt shows that babies born on prominent saint’s days in the USA 80 years ago were much likelier than other babies to be named after those saints.  So lots of Valentines and Valentinas were born on 14 February, lots of Patricks and Patricias born on 17 March, lots of Johns and Janes born on 24 June, etc.   This strikes me as a bit sad- I’ve always thought the Orthodox had a good idea with celebrating both a birthday and a name day.  Having your birthday and your saint’s day simultaneously would cheat you out of an excuse for a party in your honor.  Mr Blatt also shows that lots of girls named June were born in June, lots of boys named August were born in August, etc.

Last week, Cracked highlighted an old piece called “The 9 Most Statistically Terrifying Days on the Calendar.”  I remember the weaknesses of Cracked magazine, I even remembered them in a post here,  and more than once I’ve seen things on the site that I knew to be false.  So I take everything I read there with a grain of salt.  But each of the items on that listicle looks pretty plausible.  For example, #9 tells us that traffic accidents spike the morning after people set their clocks ahead for daylight savings, since the hour of sleep-deprivation has the same effect as drinking a couple of shots of Scotch.  I haven’t done any checking to verify that or any of the other claims on the list, but none of them is outlandish on its face, and they all have explanations attached that make me feel smart when I read them, so why the hell not repeat them.



Our old Science links page

I’ve been trimming down the links pages connected to this site; the idea of a links page is hopelessly old-fashioned, and neither I nor anyone else was using most of them. But I’ve been copying them into posts, as a way of recording what they looked like.  So, here’s what our list of Science links looked like when it was finally deleted:


Star Pilot #11

If by some odd chance you are one of the sad souls who has not yet discovered the independently produced comic book series known as Star Pilot, take heart- issues 1-10 can be yours for the amazingly low price of $11, and issue #11 is now available for a mere $1.25.  I defy any comics fan to look at the series’ home page and not place an order.  The guy has created a world anyone can enjoy losing herself or himself in for a quarter of an hour.

The “two separate languages” of neuroscience and psychology

In yesterday’s New York Times, Gary Marcus wrote an op-ed called “The Trouble With Brain Science.”  Writing of big-ticket research projects underway in brain science on both sides of the Atlantic, Professor Marcus writes:

Biology isn’t elegant the way physics appears to be. The living world is bursting with variety and unpredictable complexity, because biology is the product of historical accidents, with species solving problems based on happenstance that leads them down one evolutionary road rather than another. No overarching theory of neuroscience could predict, for example, that the cerebellum (which is involved in timing and motor control) would have vastly more neurons than the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain most associated with our advanced intelligence).

But biological complexity is only part of the challenge in figuring out what kind of theory of the brain we’re seeking. What we are really looking for is a bridge, some way of connecting two separate scientific languages — those of neuroscience and psychology.


Such bridges don’t come easily or often, maybe once in a generation, but when they do arrive, they can change everything. An example is the discovery of DNA, which allowed us to understand how genetic information could be represented and replicated in a physical structure. In one stroke, this bridge transformed biology from a mystery — in which the physical basis of life was almost entirely unknown — into a tractable if challenging set of problems, such as sequencing genes, working out the proteins that they encode and discerning the circumstances that govern their distribution in the body.

Neuroscience awaits a similar breakthrough. We know that there must be some lawful relation between assemblies of neurons and the elements of thought, but we are currently at a loss to describe those laws. We don’t know, for example, whether our memories for individual words inhere in individual neurons or in sets of neurons, or in what way sets of neurons might underwrite our memories for words, if in fact they do.

The problem with both of the big brain projects is that too few of the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent are devoted to spanning this conceptual chasm. Both projects are making important contributions: the European effort is helping build infrastructure for data integration; the American project is emphasizing the development of state-of-the-art tools for collecting new kinds of data. But as anyone in a field richer in data than theory (like weather forecasting) can tell you, amassing data is only a start.

The success of both the Human Brain Project and the Brain Initiative will ultimately rest not just on the data to be collected but also on what can be done with those data once they are collected. On that, too little has been said.

I’m a bit leery of this.  Professor Marcus’ bridge-building and lawful relations sound like aliases for reductionism.  Say we don’t reduce psychology to neuroscience- say we can never reduce psychology to neuroscience.  So what?  Gödel proved that we will never be able to reduce arithmetic to logic, that arithmetic needs concepts that cannot be derived from rules of logic.  Gödel did not thereby give warrant to mysticism or undermine the rationality of arithmetic, since the only concepts in that category are perfectly mundane.  Just because there is no “lawful relation” between the concept of set and the procedure of modus ponens does not make arithmetic any the less a rational pursuit.

So if it turns out that there is no “lawful relation between assemblies of neurons and the elements of thought,” it does not necessarily follow that psychologist will have to conclude that the phenomena their discipline studies derive from supernatural influences, or that they will have to become magicians, or anything so dramatic as that.  It may just be that the two fields of study will have to plod along as they currently do, operating quite independent of each other despite their superficial similarities.  Of course, it may not turn out that this is the case- perhaps some day one field will be reduced to the other.  But science has nothing to fear should this reduction prove impossible.

In which I demonstrate that I am the world’s nerdiest nerd

In a recent email exchange with the cofounders of this blog, known here as VThunderlad and Lefalcon, I shared some thoughts about Star Trek, including a synopsis of an idea for a new Star Trek movie.  Find the relevant bits below the jump.


The unliked and uninjured

Earlier this week, Slate‘s Mark Joseph Stern wrote a piece asking incredulously “Do Anti-Gay Christians Really Face Employment Discrimination?”  Mr Stern cites blog posts by Princeton Professor Robert George and The American Conservatives always interesting, often apoplectic blogger Rod Dreher about a survey in which investment bank JP Morgan-Chase recently inquired into its employees positions with regard to the rights of sexual minorities.  Finding the survey a perfectly routine bit of corporate boilerplate, Mr Stern shows impatience with the concerns that Professor George and Mr Dreher voice.  “All of this is extravagantly silly, and I respect Dreher and George’s intellects too much to believe that they’re actually taking it seriously,” he writes.

I would agree that Professor George, Mr Dreher, and their fellows have made many hyperbolic statements regarding this and similar matters.  At the same time, I do think they are onto something.  I would refer to an item the retired Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, the Right Reverend Mr V. Gene Robinsonposted on The Daily Beast several months ago.  The Rt. Rev. Mr R, himself the first openly gay person consecrated a bishop in a traditional denomination, denied that anti-gay Christians in the USA are the targets of anything that should be called “persecution.”  At the same time he did acknowledge that they are coming to be a minority, not only numerically, but in the sense that they bear a stigma which sets them apart from the mainstream:

Here’s what victimization looks like: every day, especially in some places, LGBT people face the real possibility of violence because of their orientation or gender identity. Young people jump off bridges or hang themselves on playground swing sets because of the bullying and discrimination they face. In 29 states, one can be fired from one’s job simply for being gay, with no recourse to the courts. In most places, we cannot legally marry the one we love. Some of us have been kicked out of the house when we come out to our parents, and many young LGBT people find themselves homeless and on the streets because of the attitudes of their religious parents toward their LGBT children. And did I mention the everyday threat of violence?

Compare that to the very painful realization that one’s view of something like homosexuality is in the minority after countless centuries of being in the majority. It may feel like victimization to hang a shingle out to sell something or provide some service to the public, only to find that the “public” includes people one disagrees with or finds immoral in some way. It may feel like it has happened practically overnight, when it has actually been changing over a period of decades. Being pressed to conform to such a change in majority opinion must feel like victimization. But as a society, we would do well to distinguish between real victimization and the also-very-real discouragement felt by those who now find themselves in the minority.

I do not mean to brush aside as inconsequential the feelings of those who find themselves in the minority, whether it be around the topic of gender, race, or sexual orientation. But I do mean to question characterizing such feelings as discrimination, violation of religious freedom, and victimization. It’s time we called out our religious brothers and sisters for misunderstanding their recently-acquired status as members of a shrinking minority as victims.

I would amplify the good bishop’s remarks about “the feelings of those who find themselves in the minority.”  I would say that “feelings” is perhaps an unfortunate choice of words here, being as it is a word that often figures in non-apology apologies such as “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings,” which is a polite way of saying “I wish you hadn’t become upset when I was doing what any sensible person would regard as that right thing, you crybaby.”  The beliefs that motivate people who disapprove of homosexuality may be wrong; I am quite sure they are wrong, as a matter of fact, though I am chastened by Mr Robinson’s* own willingness to suspend final judgment on the theological ins and outs of the issue.  However, it is hardly reasonable to expect the members of this new minority group not to share the experience of every established minority group, who are from time to time frustrated when the image of the world that is presented to them in every movie, every book, every TV show, every presidential address, every classroom, every other place where the voice of The Mainstream is heard, is so much at odds with what they have seen and heard and felt in their own lives, from their own point of view, that it begins to seem as if they have been transported to a parallel universe.

I believe Mr Robinson would be quick to agree with this.  I heard him make a speech a few years ago in which he told an audience made up primarily of same-sexers that “we will never be anything other than a small minority group in society at large, no matter how large a majority we may form in this room at this moment.”  He went on to talk about the challenges inherent in minority status, especially the sense of not being heard that comes when an element so central to personal identity as one’s sexuality takes a form that is basically alien to most of the people one meets on a daily basis.  So when he tells his opponents that their new status as members of an unpopular minority does not by itself mean that they are victims of injustice, he is not trivializing their experiences or concerns.  Rather, he is suggesting that in the future he and they will have something in common.  Anti-gay Christians may never again be anything other than a small minority group in society at large, no matter how large a majority they may form in their own worship spaces.  And they can no longer expect culture high and low to be dominated by a worldview in which male and female are categories created by God and inscribed by God with specific meanings, meanings that include a concept of complementarity that exhausts the legitimate purposes of sexual activity.  Nor can they even expect the average person to have the vaguest knowledge of what their views are, or to be at all interested in learning about them.  They can hardly be faulted for considering this an unattractive prospect, yet it is no different from what any other minority group experiences.  On Mr Robinson’s account, the reduced visibility and inadvertent exclusions that come with minority status do not by themselves constitute unjust discrimination.

I don’t want to put words in Mr Robinson’s mouth; I’m sure he would be the first to concede that there is such a thing as institutional discrimination, and that injustices no one in the majority intends to commit or even knows are happening can at times wreak horrific consequences in the lives of the minority.  And while Mr Stern is blithely confident that laws against religious discrimination will give anti-gay Christians all the protection they need against any mistreatment they may suffer in the future, Mr Dreher’s American Conservative colleague Samuel Goldman** links to a recent article raising the question of whether “religious freedom” is even a coherent category in our current legal system.   So I see more grounds to the fears of this new minority than does Mr Stern.  I cannot be of much help to them; in the unlikely event that anti-gay Christians were to ask me how they could be sure of receiving fair treatment in a strongly pro-gay America, my suggestion would be that they abandon their false beliefs and join the rest of us in affirming the diversity of sexual expression in today’s world.  I’m sure that would be about as pointless as a Christian telling Muslims that if they don’t want to be smeared by association with terrorists, all they have to do is to be baptized.

*To avoid confusion, let me explain: The customary form in which the names of Anglican clergy are presented is “[Ecclesiastical Honorific] [Courtesy Title] [Proper Name]” at first reference, and “[Courtesy Title] [Proper Name]” at subsequent references.  That’s why I introduced Mr Robinson as “the Right Reverend Mr Robinson,” then switched to plain “Mr Robinson.”  My wife works for the Episcopal Church, and I occasionally read the novels of Anthony Trollope, so I’m aware of all these things.

**Like Mr Dreher, Mr Goldman is always interesting.  Unlike him, he is never apoplectic.

Science and the argument from authority

Back when the earth was young and I was an undergraduate, a friend of mine named Philip told me with great satisfaction that the chemistry professor who had agreed to be his advisor was the world’s foremost authority on the reaction which he planned to study.  Later in that same conversation, I mentioned something about authority in science.  “Oh, authority counts for nothing in science!” Philip earnestly assured me.

Well, I said, “nothing” is a rarity.  Perhaps there is some small residue of authority in science.  No, no, Philip insisted, there was absolutely no place for appeals to authority in scientific discourse.

I produced a hypothetical example.  Say he was working on the reaction which so interested him.  After all these years I don’t remember what it was called, unfortunately.  And say his new advisor, Professor Whatever His Name Was, were to amble into the lab, look over his shoulder, furrow his brow, and after a few moments say “I can’t put my finger on it, but I think you’re doing something wrong.”

“I’d be devastated!” Philip exclaimed.  “I don’t suppose you’d rest until you’d figured out what it was that was bothering him, even if it meant a series of sleepless nights?”  “I wouldn’t, no,” Philip agreed.

“Whereas, if someone like me, who knows as little as a person can about chemistry, were to make a similarly vague remark, you’d ignore it completely.”  “I sure would,” said Philip.

“So, Professor Whatever His Name Is has earned the authority to set you working frantically to check and recheck your work, while I have earned no such authority.”  Philip agreed that this was the case, and that to a certain extent, therefore, authority was a meaningful concept in the practice of science.

I bring up this story, not only because it gave me a rare opportunity to play the role of Socrates in a real-life Platonic dialogue, but because it seems timely.  Monday afternoon, io9 published a link to an undated essay by Jason Mitchell, Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard.  Professor Mitchell’s essay, titled “On the emptiness of failed replications,”   argues that there are many reasons why an attempt to replicate the results of a published study might fail to do so, and that such failures should often, even usually, not be used as a reason for setting aside the original claims.  Professor Mitchell’s argument has at its heart an appeal to authority.  He writes:

Science is a tough place to make a living.  Our experiments fail much of the time, and even the best scientists meet with a steady drum of rejections from journals, grant panels, and search committees.  On the occasions that our work does succeed, we expect others to criticize it mercilessly, in public and often in our presence.  For most us, our reward is simply the work itself, in adding our incremental bit to the sum of human knowledge and hoping that our ideas might manage, even if just, to influence future scholars of the mind.  It takes courage and grit and enormous fortitude to volunteer for a life of this kind.

So we should take note when the targets of replication efforts complain about how they are being treated.  These are people who have thrived in a profession that alternates between quiet rejection and blistering criticism, and who have held up admirably under the weight of earlier scientific challenges.  They are not crybabies.  What they are is justifiably upset at having their integrity questioned.  Academia tolerates a lot of bad behavior—absent-minded wackiness and self-serving grandiosity top the list—but misrepresenting one’s data is the unforgivable cardinal sin of science.  Anyone engaged in such misconduct has stepped outside the community of scientists and surrendered his claim on the truth.  He is, as such, a heretic, and the field must move quickly to excommunicate him from the fold.  Few of us would remain silent in the face of such charges.

Because it cuts at the very core of our professional identities, questioning a colleague’s scientific intentions is therefore an extraordinary claim.  That such accusations might not be expressed directly hardly matters; as social psychologists, we should know better that innuendo and intimation can be every bit as powerful as direct accusation.  Like all extraordinary claims, insinuations about others’ scientific integrity should require extraordinary evidence.  Failures to replicate do not even remotely make this grade, since they most often result from mere ordinary human failing.  Replicators not only appear blind to these basic aspects of scientific practice, but unworried about how their claims affect the targets of their efforts. One senses either a profound naiveté or a chilling mean-spiritedness at work, neither of which will improve social psychology.

What my friend Philip and I agreed on those many years ago was that science had an advantage over other forms of inquiry because, while it does have its authorities, those authorities are always open to challenge.  It may be very likely, in my hypothetical example, that Professor Whatever His Name Was could not immediately explain why Philip’s procedure was wrong simply because organic chemistry is a very complex field and he could only vaguely remember the most relevant point until he had gone through the whole experiment in detail.  However, Philip himself or any other competent researcher who checked over his work in the same way would come to the same results as would Professor Whatever His Name Was, if not as quickly or in as clever a manner as Professor Whatever His Name Was may well have done.  Science therefore promises, not to slay authority, but to tame it.  Scientists can earn authority and use it guide their colleagues without inflicting fatal damage on their fields every time they make a mistake, because there is a system for identifying and correcting the mistakes even of the most august figures.

Professor Mitchell is therefore not wrong to protest that one ought to be mindful of the reputations scientists have earned, and circumspect about impugning those reputations, however indirectly.  On the other hand, his strictures against using replication as a standard for the reliability of scientific claims go so far as to raise the question of how a scientist who has accumulated an impressive set of credentials could ever be proven wrong.  It is therefore not surprising that the io9 posting of Professor Mitchell’s essay has sparked a ferocious response from readers accusing him of threatening to ruin science for everyone.  Indeed, the headline on that posting was “If You Love Science, This Will Make You Lose Your Shit,” the tag io9 editor Annalee Newitz added to the post was “HOLY CRAP WTF,” and it is illustrated with this gif:

To io9’s credit, the comments include some thoughtful and nuanced replies, as for example this one from a sociologist explaining why she believes both that her discipline represents an important source of knowledge and that it is misleading to use the word “science” to describe it.

I’d also mention a response to Professor Mitchell’s essay by Discover’s famously pseudonymous “Neuroskeptic.”  Neuroskeptic praises Professor Mitchell for identifying a naivete in those who are quick to regard a failure to replicate as proof positive that the original finding was flawed, but goes on to argue that Professor Mitchell himself exhibits a similar naivete in defending the opposite habit:

Whereas the replication movement sees a failure to find a significant effect as evidence that the effect being investigated is non-existent, Mitchell denies this, saying that we have no way of knowing if the null result is genuine or in error: “when an experiment fails, we can only wallow in uncertainty” about what it means. But if we do find an effect, it’s a different story: “we can celebrate that the phenomenon survived these all-too-frequent shortcomings [experimenter errors].”

And here’s the problem. Implicit in Mitchell’s argument is the idea that experimenter error (or what I call ‘silly mistakes’) is a one-way street: errors can make positive results null, but not vice versa.

Unfortunately, this is just not true. Three years ago, I wrote about these kinds of mistakes and recounted my own personal cautionary tale. Mine was aspreadsheet error, one even sillier than the examples Mitchell gave. But in my case the silly mistake created a significant finding, rather than obscuring one.

There are many documented cases of this happening and (scary thought) probably many others that we don’t know about. Yet the existence of these errors is the fatal spanner in the works of Mitchell’s whole case. If positive results can be erroneous too, if errors are (as it were) a neutral force, neither the advocates nor the skeptics of a particular claim can cry ‘experimenter error!’ to silence their opponents.

The phrase “spreadsheet error” may remind politically-oriented readers of the Reinhart-Rogoff Affair, a spreadsheet error underlying a 2010 paper by economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff.  That paper had a significant impact on policymaking in the USA and elsewhere before the error was exposed in 2013.

The Reinhart-Rogoff Affair took a prominent place in my mind, and I think it is safe to say in the minds of many other observers, as an example of just how untrustworthy the governing elites of the USA truly are.  Ever since the late 1990s, Washington and Wall Street have made a series of clownishly ill-advised decisions.  Many of these decisions were not only decried by experts at the time as likely to lead to disaster, but were in fact hugely unpopular with the general public.  In every case, the predicted disasters have come to pass, and our rulers have reacted to these disasters at first with denial, then with bewilderment, then with apparent amnesia as they propose a repetition of exactly the policies that had failed before.  When those same elites look to science for a warrant for their policies, it seems to bother them not at all when the studies they have cited are discredited.  Seeing how deadly is the entrenched ignorance of political and business elites, the idea of insulating distinguished scientists from criticism raises the prospect that they may in time come to form a class that is as detached from reality as are those who wield power in Washington and on Wall Street.  If such an event comes to pass, future Reinharts and Rogoffs can be as sloppy as they like, provided their claims serve the interests of those who hold the levers of opportunity.