I recently heard an interview with Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum two authors of a book published this past August entitled Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future. In the book they claim most Americans are scientifically illiterate. They try to explore why many Americans are skeptical of what the authors term “good science” and why we seem to accept what they call “bad science.” I would like to add a dimension to the conversation that they did not cover, namely, how science has edged over into the religious world by demanding a kind of faith. This movement beyond the proper boundaries of science has caused the public not to be “illiterate” so much as skeptical. Allow me to begin by stating some basic premises.
- Science it seems to me is fundamentally about what is material and measurable. It is true that there are some areas on the cutting edge of science such as quantum that defy simply measurement, but most fundamentally science is about what we can physically measure, observe and quantify. The realm of science is the material world. Further, the scientific method and peer review remain essential components of the world of science. Now I say all this with respect. I think sometimes we ask too much of science. When a scientist will not postulate a personal God or does not accept biblical texts as raw data, he does not lack faith necessarily, he is staying within his realm. To ask him to affirm some theological point or to use scripture in his reasoning is asking too much. The world of science is circumscribed by the material and the measurable. Many things of faith are not material or measurable. This does not make them less true but does place them outside the realm of what science can speak of.
- Faith on the other hand has a broader realm. As believers we not only accept the measurable and the material but also the spiritual and the authority of revealed truth. We are free to accept science into our world in a way that science is not free to accept us into theirs. Since it is a Catholic instinct that all truth is one and that truth cannot contradict truth, we can with some confidence joyfully accept the truth which science uncovers as affirming what we already believe. As we shall see this has to be done with some discernment for not all which is called science is settled or demonstrably true.
- But we have limits too. Although we are able to accept much of science into our world it also remains true that our faith imposes some limits. This is particularly true today since science not only measures the material world, it has enabled us to exert a significant amount of control over the material world. But simply because we can control does not mean we always should. Our moral tradition imposes limits on what we as Catholic Christians can accept insofar as controlling the material goes. Most recently the biggest area of tension is in the area of bioethics to include things such as embryonic stem cell research, abortifacients, cloning etc. Here there are tensions between the scientific world and the world of faith.
- But let’s be clear the Church is not and should not be intrisically “anti-science.” We ought to respect science and it’s boundaries and insist on proper limits when necessary. Some may argue that in the past when the Church has had more power we may have transgressed into the world of science inappropriately. While I do not think that every charge against the Church in this regard is true or fair, it seems clear enough that there were some regrettable moments of overstepping in our past. Yet it remains true that the Church has also been the patron of science. Through our universities and hospitals Catholics have well shown respect for science. Priests and religious have been among noted scientists.
But I want to propose that it is often science that oversteps its boundaries today and that this is what has led to what the authors above call “scientific illiteracy.” Some basic departures from the limits of science and the increasing demand that we simply put faith in what scientists say are very evident today and have led to a more general cynicism and skepticism on the part of the public toward scientific claims. What our authors call “illiteracy” may be rooted in doubt that science is all that pure anymore.
- “Settled Science” exaggeration– Some in the scientific world often request a kind of faith on the part of the public that what they claim is proved beyond doubt and is settled science. But the fact is, even so-called settled science changes a lot. I am only 48 and recall that when I was a young child being taught that the universe was in a steady state. But in the 1960s this basic scientific presumption yielded to the current expanding universe theory wherein the universe is expanding outward at a rather remarkable rate. When this theory was first proposed many scientists balked at the notion for it unsettled many notions of the universe. But rather sweepingly this theory has now gained almost universal acceptance. The proof for this dynamic expansion is the red shift indicating movement in the stars away from us. While it seems unlikely that we will go back to some other theory it always remains possible that the theory of the universe may shift to something else if new data becomes available. What was considered settled science wasn’t all that settled after all. Further, when I was in High School we were gravely informed by our teachers and the media that we were heading for a new ice age. By the year 2000 we should expect a major expansion of the ice caps and increasingly frigid winters in the north. Well 20 years later we were being told that global warming threatened everything. But which is or was the settled science? Cooling or warming (More on this later). The Theory of Evolution is often called settled science but it is just a theory and the fact is that the fossil record raises serious questions about the theory as it is currently proposed. The fossil record shows that species appear and disappear suddenly and do not just morph into each other. And we were all told without any doubt that there were nine planets in our solar system. Oops looks like that isn’t so sure either. When is s a planet not a planet? When it’s a planetoid of course! All sorts of other little examples come to mind: coffee is good, coffee is bad. A glass of red wine is good, not it’s not. This causes cancer, well no it actually doesn’t and is in fact good because it has anti-oxidants (whatever they are). Now there may in fact be some things we can call settled science but the fact is that some scientists often demand a faith of the general public that is beyond what science should ask. Science steps out of its boundaries when it starts asking for a faith that certain things are settled when in fact they are not, or may realistically change. Many theories have come and gone and the public is not illiterate or stupid to remain less than enthusiastic about the latest claims of science. The latest findings may in fact be only that, the latest findings.
- Advocacy Science– As stated above science is about the material and the measurable. In it’s purest form science has deep reverence for data and the scientific method demands that theories be tested and the results be replicable. Intense peer review, testing, checking and analyzing of data, examining alternative explanations and so forth are all essential parts of science. But in recent years there has been a noticeable shift away from the careful world of true science on the part of some scientists. The media plays a big role in this. Also, grabbing up limited funding often requires that scientists behave more like salesmen. Publicity brings in bigger dollars for research so some scientist have left the careful world of scientific precision and taken up an edgy, provocative style that often exaggerates and goes beyond what the data actually say. They manifest a kind a religious fervor that may be appropriate for religion but not for science. Again this is not true of all or even most scientists, but there are enough engaged in this sort of hyperbole that the public again becomes suspicious that we are dealing with pure science here. When science steps out of the lab and begins to aggressively advocate for public policy shifts, funding priorities, taxes etc. it has left the scientific world and entered politics. It is unrealistic for scientists who walk into the political world and begin to advocate to expect the public to take their white coat so seriously any more. When science becomes about money and public policy and less about data it has left the world of pure science and cannot demand that it be treated as pure, objective, unbiased and just about the data. There is almost a religious proselytizing evident in some. The most obvious example of all this is the global warming (climate change) controversy. Many have suspected for years that this was not pure science but rather advocacy science, more about money and politics than about real science. Recent and persistent revelations about the data having been manipulated, a lack of peer review, poor source data and even the destruction of data lend great credibility to these charges. The chief proponent of this theory and Director of Climate Research at the East Anglia University, Phil Jones has stepped aside over this scandal. Things like this go a long way to show that the general public may not be “illiterate” in terms of science but is in fact skeptical. When science demands faith and that the public make major changes but does not level with us as to the theoretical nature of its propositions it has strayed beyond science.
- There’s more to life than Science– This final critique is not directed at science per se but at our culture. There has been a tendency in our culture to emphasize the material and the measurable. But there are many things in life that cannot be measured or quantified. Justice, mercy and compassion are very real but they cannot be reduced to mere math. Love, joy, serenity, all real but not produced to a test tube or able to be put on a chalk board. The existence of God who many know to be very real cannot be found under a microscope and God cannot be reduced to a computer algorithm. But there are some in our culture who so exalt science and materialism that anything outside their world “isn’t real.” Therefore for some who see only science as revelatory, faith is unreal and it is fantasy. It can’t be “proven” using the scientific method etc. Here too is a failure to recognize the limits of science. As I have said I see this as more of a cultural issue than of science per se. This sneering at faith and things outside pure science is a source for many in the public who are skeptical of science to some extent. Most people know that life is not just mechanistic, that everything can’t simply be quantified. A scientist may declare that drinking coffee is bad but everyone doesn’t stop drinking coffee. Why, because they are illiterate? Not necessarily. Life has trade-offs. Coffee is about more than biology. It’s about relaxing, its about a small euphoria, it’s about socializing, its about taste, flavor, aroma, it’s about a lot of things.
So maybe we are not so illiterate after all. Surely it is helpful if we learn more of what science has to teach. But science is only one part of life. It is exists in the world of the material and measurable and we human beings live in the wider world, the world of faith, the world of love, the world of wonder, the world that accepts some trade-offs and that life is not about one thing or view but about many. As Christians we ought to joyfully accept what science can offer us but also realize its limits. We should respect the limits that science has, that it cannot and should not theologize. But it is not wrong to ask science to respect its own limits too. And when it does stray into politics or faith and makes demands that we accept on faith as settled things that are not settled, or when our culture idolizes science as the only thing, we are not illiterate to tune out or to object. We are insisting on proper boundaries and that science not try to become religion or politics.
This old film from the Moody Bible Institute is a pretty good example of one way faith and science can work together. For the believer science helps us to develop the gifts of wonder and awe. God has done marvelous things. Science helps us to see just how marvelous as this film shows.