Science as Saviour

Modernism can be described in many ways, but central to the modernist project have been several related emphases: man by reason alone can come to all truth; science is the chief source or basis of this truth; and unfettered scientific progress will lead to an increasingly better world.

This is a highly optimistic worldview, which places a high emphasis on what science can do. Indeed, in many ways science has become the new saviour. If sources of authority, knowledge and respect were primarily religious figures prior to this period, scientists soon became the new clergy.

Thus religious gowns were replaced by white lab coats, and scientists began to occupy the place once reserved for religious leaders. The scientific method and human reason were now seen as the sole sources of truth and knowledge, and religion and revelation were increasingly given the heave ho.

Of course this did not take place overnight, and we must remind ourselves that most of the early modern scientists were in fact Christians. But over time the rise and rise of science tended to eclipse most religious concerns, and faith was transferred from the priest to the scientist.

Science really did begin to be seen as saviour. As Francis Bacon (1561–1626) optimistically put it, “Conquer nature, relieve man’s estate”. Or as Alexander Pope (1688 –1744) said, “Nature and nature’s laws lay wrapped in night. God said ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.” Later Bertrand Russell would boldly claim, “What science cannot tell us, mankind cannot know.”

This optimistic belief in scientific and technological progress led many to think that ‘every day and in every way things are getting better and better’. Of course all this heady optimism took a turn for the worse in the 20th century. With two world wars, a cold war, the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb, things did not seem all that rosy any longer.

Indeed, was it not the German scientific community which in many ways collaborated with the Nazi death camps? Was it not the scientific community that helped to invent weapons of mass destruction? Postmodernism of course arose as a protest movement against modernism and the Enlightenment Project, and science and technology were heavily called into question. So too was the unwarranted optimism and idealism of the modernist mindset.

But still, if you ask most Westerners today who they trust the most, the guy with the lab coat still gets very high marks indeed. There is still a sense that science is above the grime and corruption of politics and religion. Science is still viewed by many as a pristine and untainted venture.

Scientists are still highly respected by many, and science seems to offer the last word on most subjects nowadays. Of course much more sober voices have warned about putting science on too high of a pedestal, and have noted the very real limitations and shortcomings of science.

As Nicholas Rescher wrote in his 1984 volume, The Limits of Science: “The theorist who maintains that science is the be-all and end-all – that what is not in science books is not worth knowing – is an ideologist with a peculiar and distorted doctrine of his own. For him, science is no longer a sector of the cognitive enterprise but an all-inclusive world-view. This is the doctrine not of science but of scientism. To take this stance is not to celebrate science but to distort it…”

And can science do any wrong? A helpful volume documenting scientific fraud and scandal is the 1982 Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Hall of Science by William Broad and Nicholas Wade. A newer volume looking at similar themes is the 2001 book, Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion by Daniel Greenberg.

And a recent title which examines the way science can be used as a weapon against religion is Pamela Winnick’s A Jealous God: Science’s Crusade against Religion (2005). I have reviewed these last two books here:

These and other works make it clear that science is not in fact a new religion – or should not be treated as one – and that scientists are humans like everyone else: they can make mistakes, they can fudge the data, they can push agendas, and they can fake their findings.

All of which means we need to regard science as we do most other things in life: with caution and critical scepticism. All of this was brought to light in a recent research paper examining how much scientists may cheat and fake their work.

Just last month Daniele Fanelli penned the article, “How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research?” (Citation: Fanelli D (2009) How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5738.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005738)

This is how ScienceDaily explains the findings: “It’s a long-standing and crucial question that, as yet, remains unanswered: just how common is scientific misconduct? In the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE, Daniele Fanelli of the University of Edinburgh reports the first meta-analysis of surveys questioning scientists about their misbehaviours. The results suggest that altering or making up data is more frequent than previously estimated and might be particularly high in medical research.”

The article continues: “To make these surveys comparable, the meta-analysis focused on behaviours that actually distort scientific knowledge (excluding data on plagiarism and other kinds of malpractice) and extracted the frequency of scientists who recalled having committed a particular behaviour at least once, or who knew a colleague who did.

“On average, across the surveys, around 2% of scientists admitted they had ‘fabricated’ (made up), ‘falsified’ or ‘altered’ data to ‘improve the outcome’ at least once, and up to 34% admitted to other questionable research practices including ‘failing to present data that contradict one’s own previous research’ and ‘dropping observations or data points from analyses based on a gut feeling that they were inaccurate.’ In surveys that asked about the behaviour of colleagues, 14% knew someone who had fabricated, falsified or altered data, and up to 72% knew someone who had committed other questionable research practices.”

These are quite remarkable – and disturbing – findings. And as Fanelli says in the article abstract: “Considering that these surveys ask sensitive questions and have other limitations, it appears likely that this is a conservative estimate of the true prevalence of scientific misconduct.”

Of course to point all this out is not to suggest that science is inherently untrustworthy, that most scientists are cheats, or that scientists are any worse than anyone else. But given such contentious hot-potato debates surrounding theories like man-made global warming or macro-evolution, it is always good to keep in mind that scientists are not saints and science is not a saviour.

We are all tremendously enriched because of science and technology. Modern science has accomplished much, and we all tend to benefit from the advances of science. But science is not an unmixed or unmitigated blessing. It has done much good, but it has also caused much harm.

Scientists can and do get it wrong; scientists can be bought with a price; scientists can deliberately seek to mislead and deceive; science can be politicised; and science can easily degenerate into scientism. Thus we must always proceed with caution here. Science is not our saviour, and scientists are not perfect. Both need to be critically assessed and monitored just like anything and anyone else.

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12 Replies to “Science as Saviour”

  1. Thanks Bill
    And the most blatant and egregious example of this scientific malfeasance is – you guessed it – the global warming hype. Never in the history of science has there been such widespread misinformation, deliberate cover-up, resort to ad hominems to silence opposition, and all this on the most basic level.
    My fear is that, notwithstanding your strictures on the optimistic Enlightenment view of science which you outline (and I would concur), after this monumental scam has passed into history, few if any will believe anything a scientist says any more. It will be the death of real science. After all, lies have their (high) price. But perhaps, that’s just what the New Age greenies really want!?
    Murray Adamthwaite

  2. Perhaps even worse is how incorrect the attitude of ‘Only science can tell us truth’ is, refuted by a simple question:

    “How do we know this; by what study?”

    Yet still the attitude persists….

    (But remember you’re not supposed to challenge presuppositions).

    Tristan Ingle, Sydney.

  3. Thanks Tristan

    Yes, scientism is self-refuting. It cannot be scientifically verified. One simply cannot empirically demonstrate that all non-empirical truth claims cannot be known, or are meaningless. Indeed, science rests on non-empirical assumptions, including the reliability of sense perception, the uniformity of nature, and so on. These are philosophical assumptions upon which science is based

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. To differ slightly with Murray, I would rate evolutionary propaganda ahead of global-warming propaganda in the contest for the world’s worst example of scientific fraud and deception. Evolutionary propaganda has been around for longer and has deceived more people than has global warming propaganda. I’m not saying the proponents of either of these example are deliberately setting out to deceive us, it’s more a case of them being self-deceived. The enforced group-think in both of these areas is an impediment to free inquiry.

    Ewan McDonald.

  5. Thank you Ewan!
    Yes, I did consider evolution before I posted my response, and I would, over all, agree with you. However, that said, I think a couple of points should be made:
    1. Evolution represents more a philosophical shift than outright deliberate fraud. Yes, there have been sheer frauds associated with evolution (Piltdown man, Peking man, peppered moths and the like), but the basic problem has been this philosophical mindset, such that scientists see what they want to see, and what their philosophical framework dictates that they see. Take a simple example: alleged horse evolution. Even some evolutionists have pointed out that the parade diagram purportedly showing the evolution of the horse is nothing more than various horse-like creatures arranged in order of size from left to right. What happened post-Darwin (and had been happening even before Darwin) was a new deistic, even atheistic, paradigm shift. Regrettably, it was churchmen who came on side early as they fell over each other in their zeal to ‘harmonise’ Genesis with the long ages Darwinism required. However, that new paradigm persists to this day. This is the real problem, not so much deliberate fraud.

    2. As to propaganda, yes, there is much that is nothing more than mendacious brainwashing, and not-so-subtle suggestion dropped at convenient intervals. Just look at the typical David Attenborough nature programme on TV! However, even here, from the evolutionist’s standpoint, it is not so much deliberate fraud as his whole-soul commitment to the evolutionary philosophical outlook, such that he sees everything from within that framework, just as a Christian sees everything from a Creation-Providence framework.

    The global warming hype, by contrast, has so much to it that just is deliberate fraud, lies, propaganda, cover-up, and corruption at the highest level. The best comparison, in my view, is the thalidomide scandal of the early 1960s and the overtly fraudulent work of William McBride – for which he was later convicted. The trouble is, that, it is so much a part of the UN and its affiliated governments that we can be confident that no-one will ever be arraigned or convicted before a human court. We must leave it to the judgment of The Great Day (Jude 6).
    Murray Adamthwaite

  6. Hi Bill,

    I am not sure if I really follow this article. If a house falls down do we blame the hammer? We must make a clear distinction between the science and the scientist. As an example, you refer to nuclear technology. One scientist will make devastating weapons form it yet another will make electricity. The science has not changed just the use of it has. To attack science per say makes no sense., the real culprit is the scientist and as we both know that area can be populated with quite odd people. Maybe a better heading might be Scientists as Saviors??
    Ben Green

  7. Thanks Ben

    I actually think it is both. There are of course rogue scientists, dishonest scientists, and the like. Not all of them are obviously. But many people do see science as saviour. As part of the Enlightenment project, there really is a (misplaced) faith in science to come up with all the goods, to solve all our problems, and lead us into the Promised Land.

    That is why of course, in part, Postmodernism has arisen as a protest movement against modernism and its emphasis on science and technology, progress and an overly optimistic view of life. While I have of course many problems with PoMo, it is right to question many of the core assumptions of modernism, including its tendency to turn science in scientism.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  8. One of the frauds in science that interests me is the 1973 decision of the American Psychiatric Association to strike homosexuality from its approved list of mental disorders. All I have read so far points to this being the result of political influence. There was no crystallising breakthrough in research into the causes of homosexuality at the time to warrant the change. Nor was it the succinct result of cumulative research proving that homosexuality had causes innocent of dysfunction or pathology.

    What would we think of physicists or chemists who changed their theories in response to political pressure or the ignorant opinion of liberal elites? Would we pay them to design, say, a spaceship with their new theories?

    The American Psychological Association, a semi-political organisation not known for pursuing scientific rigour consistently, eventually followed the above poor example of medical science prostituting itself. Within the last few days I have read the opinion of a psychologist who said he approved of this change but nevertheless urged his colleagues at the time to research the subject further to scientifically justify the change. Liberal ideology first, science later.

    There was also an attempt to remove paedophilia from the official list of mental disorders. I don’t know the outcome of that yet. In particular I don’t know if the culprits were the usual suspects. Or was it the clique that wanted coffee addiction listed to flesh out the official nomenclature that undergirds the economic base of the psychiatric profession?

    John Snowden

  9. A basic belief of our Christian religion is in Genesis Chapter 1 which states that God made the earth and all it has in it. This is a comfortable belief to most believers, but it mentions nothing about scientists and I believe He imagined that the humans he created would discover all the things He provided. Scientist, I believe, are still doing this but some scientists misuse what they find and they believe this will gain an advantage and one might be to use an atomic weapon to win a war. But much of what scientist ‘discover’ is of the earth and it does not reach outside the earth (except perhaps for space exploration) where we know God is becouse he also created the universe. My belief is that man must judge man (scientists in this case) and do all possible to deal with scientists who misuse their knowledge. It seems too many people in the past have turned a blind eye to misuse of scientific knowledge and many in our society tends to turn away when they should raise their voices in protest.
    Peter Rice

  10. Bill & Ben, I would agree with Bill about it being both.

    Due to their basic faith (Materialism) many scientists will ignore or misread information which clashes with their faith.

    Reports from such people will mislead others who would otherwise take a more honest approach.

    I saw an interesting example of this, recently. It was reported a few days ago that the 1908 Tunguska meteorite was really a comet:

    Michael Kelley, Distinguished Professor, evidently failed to explore the larger ramifications of this.

    The Plasma people, who are far from Creationists, but regularly publish raw data & insightful exploration of it which completely undermines the Big Bang, would point out that our misunderstanding of some very basic cosmological facts (such as 99+% of everything being plasma) definitely leaves room for a recent beginning.

    The fact that the Big Bang cannot possibly work is obscured by the first group (who reinterpret according to presumed belief), so the second group are then free to assume what they wish, based on this non-data.

    Leon Brooks

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