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.