When Science Becomes Unscientific

From around the time of the Enlightenment, science began usurping the role of religion. Prior to then, most people had a high regard for Christianity, for the church, for the local priest, and so on. The priest or pastor was seen as an authority figure and Scripture was considered to be a reliable and authoritative guide.

But increasingly science, and scientists, have taken over that role. Science today is seen as the new religion, the new source of authority, the new fount of truth. Today if someone in a white lab coat comes out and makes a statement, his remarks are considered by many to be gospel truth.

Thus in the Western world the place of religion has receded while the place of science has greatly increased. Now don’t get me wrong here. I am not saying that the rise of modern science is wrong, nor am I saying that there is a stark choice between science and religion, and we must choose which side we will pin our flag to.

I believe that science and religion, rightly understood, can and should co-exist. And of course many have rightly argued that modern science arose out of the Christian worldview.

But what I am trying to say, and what I am concerned about, is that for many people today, science really has become godlike. The need for religious authority, in other words, has not disappeared with the decline in religious belief. It has simply been transferred to science. Science is now the new saviour.

But science, as valuable as it is, should not be accorded such godlike status; it should not be worshipped. Indeed, real scientists would be the first to agree. They are humble seekers of the truth. They recognise that science has limits, that science cannot answer every question, and that science can and does get it wrong.

This stands in contrast to scientism, an arrogant type of reductionism, which claims that only that which science can investigate is true, and that such things as religious claims are not truth claims at all. Dawkins of course comes to mind here. But earlier reductionists can be noted. Bertrand Russell once assuredly proclaimed, “What science cannot tell us, mankind cannot know.”

Genuine scientists will acknowledge the constraints of science and will recognise that truth can be found outside of science. Many of these scientists in fact are also committed Christians. But some scientists smuggle in certain philosophical assumptions into their science, such as materialism or naturalism. That is, they claim that scientists have to be atheists. Their mantra is: only matter matters. This is not science, but scientism.

Also, as much as science can get it right, it can also get things wrong. And scientists are like any other human being: they can be biased, prejudiced, sloppy in their work, lazy, selective in their use of evidence, able to be bought off by the highest bidder, and so on.

So scientists are not totally objective and neutral; they can become involved in partisan politics, or hop on various bandwagons. Thus they need to be respected, but not worshipped.

One good example of this is the current brouhaha over global warming. It is a legitimate matter of scientific debate, one which has scientists advocating differing points of view. But many on the global warming bandwagon have all but said, ‘Case closed, there is nothing left to debate. You either accept our position, or you are a heretic’.

Columnist Dana Joel Gattuso wrote a good article about this recently (“Chilling Intolerance for Free Speech on Global Warming,” townhall.com , March 28, 2007). She begins by quoting Grist Magazine staff writer David Roberts: “When we’ve finally gotten serious about global warming, when the impacts are really hitting us and we’re in a full worldwide scramble to minimize the damage, we should have war crimes trials for these bastards – some sort of climate Nuremberg”.

His September 2006 comments refer of course to “those who question looming global warming doom. They are war criminals and should be tried and prosecuted the same way as Nazi Germany leaders. In his words, global warming doubters ‘have blood on their hands’ and are ‘morally if not legally, criminals’.”

He is not alone in such thinking: “Less abrasive were the recent remarks of British Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks who, after announcing to a gathering of environment ministers that ‘humankind is in a race for life against global warming,’ called doubters ‘the equivalent of the Flat Earth Society’.”

Other examples can be produced. “Worse than the name-calling, environmentalists, the media, and even scientists are attempting to stifle other scientists with differing opinions on climate change. Last fall, staff members of the Sierra Club in Charlotte, North Carolina blasted the museum Discovery Place for bringing in Richard Lindzen, a distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences at MIT, to speak on the uncertainties of global warming.”

After presenting several more examples, she reminds us that the “field of science is all about inquiry. Intolerance for questioning or even engaging in debate suggests a fear that a theory or hypothesis is not up to the test. Without challenging theories, we accept as doctrine that the Earth is flat, or that the sun revolves around the Earth – or that, as Al Gore tells us, ‘the survival of our civilization is at stake’.”

The truth is, the topic at hand is extremely difficult: “Climate change is an immensely complex issue. While there is agreement among scientists that warming is occurring and human activity may be partly responsible, how much warming and how much of it is from anthropogenic causes is widely disputed. For one thing, scientists are learning that global climate change is nothing new. The Earth has experienced global climate swings far more extreme than what we are experiencing now, long before man began releasing greenhouse gases – in fact, long before man existed.”

She cites researcher Simon Brassell: “One of the key challenges for us is trying to predict climate change. If there are big inherent fluctuations in the system, as paleoclimate studies are showing, it could make determining Earth’s climatic future even harder than it is. We’re learning our climate, throughout time, has been a wild beast.”

She then discusses a recent discovery in paleoclimatology which adds new light on the debate. “But we don’t hear much about it from global warming pundits because there’s little consensus. The New York Times: ‘The Phanerozoic dispute, fought mainly in scholarly journals and scientific meetings, has occurred in isolation from the public debate on global warming. Al Gore in “An Inconvenient Truth” makes no mention of it’. But then, shouldn’t the New York Times be silenced – or even tried in a war crimes tribunal  -for its ‘noise’ on the global warming debate?”

We all should be concerned about planet earth. So a proper debate on the issue of climate change is certainly needed. But we should also be concerned when scientists stop acting like scientists, and instead start acting as censors, stifling the much-needed debate. The media, academia, and the scientific community need to allow a full and proper debate on this important issue, and not prematurely insist that the case is closed.


[1199 words]

8 Replies to “When Science Becomes Unscientific”

  1. Preachers of disastrous climate change from anthropogenic causes seem to have the same agenda as discredited communists; viz. the overthrow of our western values and a society blessed with a rich Christian heritage.

    I take comfort in the promise of the one who governs all things: “And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” (Gen 8:21-22).

    John Nelson

  2. This is the part I don’t understand. Througout history, science has found answers to problems that were previously believed to be in the realm of God. If those scientists had listened to people at the time who said the answer lay with god, such science would not have progressed.

    Are religious people saying that everything single thing they believe to be God’s work will never be ‘cracked’ by science at anytime in the future? I am not claiming science will ‘crack’ them, but are you willing to stand and say science *never* will?

    Chris Mayer

  3. The paleoclimatologists will never get it right so long as they continue to deny the fact of Noah’s Flood. This catastrophic global event that occurred only about 4500 years ago, buried huge volumes of organic matter thereby taking much carbon out of the cycle. The Genesis 8 passage quoted above by John is a much more reliable indicator of future climatic conditions than any predictions based upon faulty interpretations about the past climate that purport to extend back over an alleged tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  4. Thanks again, Bill.

    The impact of this “Science as THE authority” has greater effects on our culture than the Global warming hype. Picture, for example, some new ‘scientific’ survey on parenting with the conclusion that corporal discipline is wrong and ineffective. Again, the latest study on some other issue. Simply name your topic.

    Two consequences of science as authority come to mind.

    Firstly, as you alluded to in your opening, science is now the authority for all matters of life, whereas the Church is confined to merely commenting on social matters. Nothing the church says should be taken seriously. It is all just some ‘faith’ matter.

    Secondly, with all this ‘expert information’ people now look up to scientists / experts (worship, in a way) for the solutions to all of life’s problems. The conclusions then, and the mindset, is that all we need to solve problems is the right information. The answer to everything is “education” we hear.

    Sadly, we have taken authority from the Word of God and given it to science. I agree with those who say that this starts with Genesis.

    Prov 1:7 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.”

    Jeremy Peet

  5. Thanks Chris

    You raise some good points here. Let me try to explain. Pretty much everyone, say a millennia or two ago, would have attributed things like lightening, thunder, floods, earthquakes, etc., to the gods, to their fighting, and so on. That was simply the understanding at the time. No one had an exclusively scientific handle on all this back then.

    But as modern science arose (very much because of the Christian worldview), then of course scientific explanations could be offered. We then could speak of plate tectonics, or clashing weather fronts, and so on.

    But – and this is a big but – to acknowledge that science can greatly help us in the hows of nature is not the end of the story. The whys are still vital questions. That is, while science can offer the mechanics of various natural activities, that is not the whole picture.

    You see, I am a theist, not a deist. Let me explain. As a theist I believe that God is the creator of the universe and all there is, as well as its sustainer. Deism, on the other hand, says yes, God created the whole shebang, but has since then taken a hands-off approach. The created order now runs on its own, like a wound-up watch. Thus God is seen as an absentee-landlord in Deism. God no longer has any involvement with this world.

    Now Deism is partly right: God has established a cause and effect universe, and in one sense it does go on under its own steam. But the monotheistic traditions affirm that God is also intimately involved with this world, and he works with and in the laws of nature he has established.

    So yes, the short answer as to how we understand something like an earthquake is to simply describe the physical processes that made it happen. But a theist will also insist that God is not separate from the created order, and can and does interact with it.

    Believers understand miracles in differing ways. Some speak of God suspending or overriding the laws of nature at certain times. That is one way a believer can account for miracles. But then again, if we accept the creation of the universe out of nothing as the grand miracle, then other acts of God are not so far-fetched.

    But the point is, as I said, science and faith do not have to conflict here. In fact, they can and do coexist continuously. Science will not provide all of the answers, partly because they cannot ask all of the questions. What science can discuss is clearly limited. Philosophy and theology help to fill out the picture, and deal with those things which science is not properly concerned about.

    Therefore both science and religion can offer in their own ways, truthful accounts of the way things are and the way things work. Gould for example has spoken of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) in which both science and religion have their separate and distinct roles.

    Theologian and scientist Alister McGrath proposes a better understanding: POMA (partially-overlapping magesteria). Both spheres are important and have their place, but they are not completely distinct from each other, but overlap to some extent.

    As such, this is not a “God of the gaps” type of thinking (wherein whatever science cannot explain, we then throw God into the equation). God is everywhere in the equation, while science offers its limited, yet valuable, contribution.

    Much of this of course is a discussion of the philosophy of science, which is a huge issue, and one that cannot properly be covered here (because of time and space constraints). But hopefully these thoughts will partly explain where we are coming from on this important topic.

    Let me know how we can next tease this all out.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. Hi Chris,
    If I understand you correctly, you’re concerned that if we rely on the “Church” as the authority as to what is truth and what isn’t then where’s the objectivity and where’s the impetus for discovery and progress? I can see your point.

    The answer lies in the acknowledgment that there is a place for ‘real’ knowledge that science should brings just as there is the need for ‘real’ knowledge of God that should religion bring. We all have to sort out the question of eternity and meaning of life for ourselves ultimately, and this is not to be left in the hands of others (church leaders, parents etc.) as we have to come to a realisation of the truth for ourselves – we should not blindly follow the edicts or interpretations of another human being, no matter how ‘well-intentioned’ or ‘qualified’ they may seem to be.

    And as is noted in the article by Dana Gattuso, “Intolerance for questioning or even engaging in debate suggests a fear that a theory or hypothesis is not up to the test.” If we are ostracised or restricted in asking pointed questions about faith, the Bible, the church etc. then someone has something to fear about what they are putting forward or doing.

    Similarly, if questioning science becomes a problem then those that question the questioners are in fear of their methods, beliefs or theories being discredited. As a Christian I welcome science and the discovery it provides, as long as it doesn’t impinge upon the sanctity of life and our morality and dignity as human beings. Indeed there have been many times no doubt when the Church has tried to silence science because it didn’t fit the interpretations of some order or denomination – however what is also true is that science lays bare the wonder of the world and actually proves in just as many cases the truths in the Bible. Please keep in mind that science also only sees part of the story at any given time, and while we may discover a fact that seemingly points at a different explanation than what is given in the Bible, as science learns ever more about the totality of the world and the species that live on it more understanding comes into play which inevitably comes back into line with what the Bible said about it in the first place.

    The erroneous basis that we use to establish unequivocal reliance on carbon-dating, and secondly, the body of evidence that exists that supports the flood are perfect examples of this. In 50 years we will be much further down the track of calibrating methods for carbon-dating and the wild dating guesses that come into play with anything beyond a few thousand years will seem ludicrous to us as many other methods and hypotheses were from a hundred years ago. And all the time people discover more evidence of things supporting a major upheaval on the earth such that the flood would have caused. Eventually one by one, the truths of the Bible are proven again and again, the more technology and understanding we gain.

    But science is not here to prove or disprove God – its function is to learn more about the world and us, and to make things better for mankind and the other inhabitants. If in both cases of religion and science people were to approach it objectively with a purpose to find truth at all costs then your concern would not be an issue – but human nature is an enemy to that and that’s what we must fight.

    Garth Penglase

  7. Many of Chris Mayer’s objections could be overcome by understanding the difference between operational and origins science. The biblical founders of modern science tried to find scientific laws to describe the regular repeatable operations of nature, and thus overcame superstition. This does not entail that the origin of the universe and life occurred by natural processes, any more than the laws of physics that make a car go also made the car in the first place. See Naturalism, Origins and Operational Science.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  8. We tend to overlook the obvious when it comes to science and it is difficult to argue against it. Science is the art of discovering what is already there. However, sometimes the discovery is useful and beneficial to humankind and sometimes it is not. Nuclear fission could be made into a bomb or used more in the interests of humanity. Nevertheless, it is science that fiddles with what is already there as they are now doing with their contrary views about the causes and ramifications of Global Warming. And because ordinary people accept as true what scientists say about such things this can cause considerable public anxiety and possibly unnecessary expenditure of public funds. It is very wrong to place these people in god-like positions and some may have ulterior motives.
    Peter Rice

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: