War on Science

A recent issue of National Geographic was fascinating to me for the cover story entitled “The War on Science”.  I’m sure it is a tongue in cheek reference to how religious folks often refer to the secular war on their beliefs and values.  It is interesting to hear the shoe on the other foot, so to speak, knowing that scientific folk are every bit as certain as religious folk of being right, and have the dangerous illusion that facts are on their side sometimes.

A couple of particular comments leaped out at me in the article.  First was the author’s insistence on not just the existence of facts and data, but on the accuracy of the scientific interpretation of those facts and data.  For instance, evolution is not just a theory but a fact.  It has to be because otherwise, biology “makes no sense”.  They repeated that phrase twice.  I thought that was interesting.  What do they mean by that?  Is that an admission that the archaeological evidence for evolution has gaps that delay or prevent it from being demonstrably true, but it should be accepted as true because evolutionary theory is the only explanation that fits the facts?  Would the author be willing to consider a God as the source of creation, and if this hypothesis was put into the ring, would it equally account for what we know of biology?

The author also did a good job at depicting the scientific community as fairly monolithic in its affirmation of core beliefs such as evolution, global warming, etc.  Naysayers are treated as misguided at best, pernicious at worst, but the author ignores the fact that the scientific community is not monolithic on these topics, and that there are considerable debates still attempting to be had on these topics.  The majority opinion does not do a good job of listening to challenges.  Despite touting the better accuracy of science because of how scientists are always attempting to discredit each other’s theories, the reality remains that at a certain point such challenges are dismissed almost out of hand.

I’ll conclude with two thoughts.  First off, things have been done and developed and distributed in the name of science and technology that have later proved to be anything but the rosy panacea they were advertised as.  Thalidomide was touted as an anti-anxiety wonder drug, and only later was it realized how dangerous it was to unborn children.  The fact that we enjoy many benefits of scientific development does not mean that every scientific development is going to be a success.  The reality remains that there are far more acute allergies and food allergies today than there were just a few decades ago.  Despite our highly chemicalized environment, I don’t hear many scientific articles tackling the question of what exactly might be causing heightened sensitivity to food and other elements?  While we might say that this is merely a blip on the evolutionary radar (if you buy that theory, which I don’t), doesn’t it make more sense to suspect that some of the things we’re told are perfectly harmless aren’t as harmless after all?  Something in the water?  Something in the food?  Something in modified food sources?  Something in pesticides?  Something in any number of the fairly recent introductions to human diet and daily experience?

Secondly, doubt in some scientific assertions does not equate to a rejection of science or a war on science, which is a big difference from religious terminology.  Secular beliefs are fundamentally incompatible with religious ideas, but the reverse is only partially true.  I can disagree with evolutionary theory while trusting science in other areas.  A secular scientist might like the ethical or moral implications of religious belief, but without the underlying source of those morals and ethics, they ultimately become relative and subject to re-interpretation and revision as we see fit.   I can accept scientific description of global warming without necessarily buying in to science’s insistence that this is human-caused and therefore can be reversed by our own efforts.  But it is difficult if not impossible for a secular scientist to square off evolutionary theory with a Biblical understanding of humanity as not simply another animal, another iteration of a long string of accidental improvements, but as fundamentally different from every other creature.  Science has taught for a long time that the earth has gone through periods of heating and cooling long before the Industrial Revolution and increased human carbon outputs.  It’s not irrational of me to suspect that we are in the midst of such a cycle once again, a cycle of warming that we aren’t necessarily going to be able to reverse, but that I trust we’ll learn to cope with, though.  As a religious person I can accept that the earth goes through these cycles and that there may be very, very little we can do to alter them.  It seems very difficult for scientists to come to similar conclusions.  I suspect that at some level, this is a philosophical/theological difference.  As a Christian I understand that I am not the measure of all things, the controller of all things.  That gives me hope when dealing with both traumatic losses as well as joyful blessings.  But perhaps for someone without a god beyond themselves, there is immense pressure to be the solution to all things.  Adaptation to forces outside our control becomes perhaps a far more devastating reality than it is for me, who freely admits that I am not the one intended to be in control of all things.

So I would argue against the idea of a war on science.  I don’t know any theists who reject science wholesale, or insist that it is demonic or otherwise to be rejected in entirety.  I don’t see similar understandings from secular scientists, some of  whom (Dawkins, of course) are very insistent that religion is not just wrong, it must actually be forcefully eradicated.  I see much of scientific progress and understanding as a blessing, the amazing utilization of our God-given gifts and talents.  I have issues where science begins to advocate in arenas that it is not nearly as well equipped to deal with.  I don’t want science eliminated as I see it as a God-given use of our abilities with incredible benefits.  But it also has inherent limitations and drawbacks that require me – as well as those actively engaged in science – to sometimes remain very skeptical despite how loudly a consensus of scientists insist they are right.

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