Saving Science

Not every statement by a scientist,” Oxford University professor John Lennox reminds us, “is a statement of science.” In this way the scientific method doesn’t really make statements at all. The scientific method can help us observe and consider natural phenomena. But this data has to be interpreted. Science doesn’t have a megaphone, blog, or a journal. Scientists do.

But we can trust them, can’t we? That’s sort of the question that the long-form article “Saving Science” in The New Atlantis deals with. It’s not an overly optimistic piece. Daniel Sarewitz writes, “much of this supposed knowledge” regarding massive increases in scientific research, “is turning out to be contestable, unreliable, unusable, or flat-out wrong.”

It turns out that scientists are human too. They have motivations that shape where they look, what they look at, and even how they think about it all that results from, as Sarewitz describes, “problems of values, assumptions, and ideology.” But I thought Bill Nye the Science Guy only follow facts and only holds non biased positions. You mean good ‘ole Bill has values, assumptions, and ideologies of his own?

You betcha! (read with a thick midwestern accent)

Sarewitz is concerned with sounding a clarion call to “ensure that science does not become completely infected with bias and personal opinion.” One of his remedies for correcting this problem is for scientists to be honest about the limits of science. He doesn’t seem optimistic about that either. He writes:

Advancing according to its own logic, much of science has lost sight of the better world it is supposed to help create. Shielded from accountability to anything outside of itself, the “free play of free intellects” begins to seem like little more than a cover for indifference and irresponsibility. The tragic irony here is that the stunted imagination of mainstream science is a consequence of the very autonomy that scientists insist is the key to their success. Only through direct engagement with the real world can science free itself to rediscover the path toward truth.

This is a good place for the believer to pause. If there aren’t statements of science, only statements of scientists, then what exactly do we think scientists will say about truth? Can science give us propositional truth claims? No. It gives us observations that are then interpreted, and according to Sarewitz, often validated by peer-review driven by the same ideologies; Call it a scientific echo chamber.

But for the Christian there is another source of information regarding the natural world. I understand why my skeptic friends question the validity of “top-down” revelation, but the notion that the natural world exists by itself and for itself, while being “bottom-up” is no less a religious belief. And I’m not sure I have as much faith in scientists’ observations to remain free from their own values, assumptions, and ideologies.

It’s interesting that the big wigs in science (think Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking) have always been fascinated with a quest for a grand unifying theory that can explain everything. I’m convinced that won’t be found starting “bottom-up,” particularly within the confines of naturalistic assumptions. The Christian believes the Creator stepped over the threshold of time and space to show us a path of truth: himself. As a Christian, I believe that provides a bedrock capable of saving science and scientists alike.