There is a great reverence for science in our culture. On the one hand, rightly so. Science has made enormous strides that have changed life as we know it. Profound discoveries have eradicated diseases, improved health, increased the world’s food supply, led to a computer revolution, drawn us higher into outer space and deeper into inner space, revealed hidden mysteries of nature, and produced technologies unimaginable to even our recent ancestors.
On the other hand, the reverence of science has tipped perhaps too far in the direction of a religious substitute. Indeed it is arguable that the robes of the priest, once admired and revered, have now been replaced in our culture’s esteem by the lab coat. Many regard the findings of science with an almost blind faith that many (often unfairly) attribute to religious believers. “Scientists say … ” has become a kind of mantra wherein all dissent must stop and a slight bow of the head might also be appropriate. The matter is settled since “scientists say … ” And while religious believers base their faith on some connection to unchanging Divine utterances, “believers” in science too often couch their belief on the utterances of mere human beings, learned to be sure, but fallible and subject to changing their theories (rightly) when new evidence comes in. Hence the sort of religious reverence that many today give to scientists is problematic, both for them and for science.
While many will deny they have such religious adherence or reverence, try questioning (not even outright disputing) a pet theory like Darwinian evolution or global warming and observe the religious fervor of their anger and their shock that you have the nerve to question “settled science” (read “dogma”). Rival thoughts must be scoured from the public schools and from newscasts with as much zeal as the Inquisition ever had (at least the inquisition involved an extensive questioning of dissenters)! Threats of legal action and ridicule, exclusion and defunding, boycotts and loss of professorships, follow the mere questioning of whether the scientific data really support such dogmatic conclusions.
I love science and have great respect for the scientific method, which is why the reactionary tactics of the last paragraph are so objectionable to me. True science should crave peer review and the challenges that help harden the data or refine the theories. New information is always coming in; there is no “settled science.” There are few if any permanent dogmas (other than to respect the data and method), and a consensus achieved in this decade may melt away in the next (see photo top right – click to enlarge). Vive la différence!
Further, 100% of scientists are human beings. And it pertains to a certain percentage of any collection of human beings to be corrupt and to betray the very institutions they serve and the principles they uphold. The vast majority of scientists respect their discipline and the scientific method, but there are some who “fudge” the data and some who outright lie. Most of us remember the scandal (Climategate) related to the skewing of data at the East Anglia Climate Research Unit. It was a huge blow to the science on this issue whatever your view of anthropogenic global warming.
Consider too another blow about the time of climategate, this time to anthropology, wherein significant and celebrated claims that the “missing link” between primates and man was being filled in, were found to be a hoax. Consider some excerpts from a column in The Guardian in which the debacle was described. These are excerpts; the full article is here: History of modern man unravels as German scholar is exposed as fraud. My comments are in red text.
It appeared to be one of archaeology’s most sensational finds. The skull fragment discovered in a peat bog near Hamburg was more than 36,000 years old – and was the vital missing link between modern humans and Neanderthals. This, at least, is what Professor Reiner Protsch von Zieten – a distinguished, cigar-smoking German anthropologist – told his scientific colleagues, to global acclaim, after being invited to date the extremely rare skull. However, the professor’s 30-year-old academic career has now ended in disgrace after the revelation that he systematically falsified the dates on this and numerous other “stone age” relics. Yesterday his university in Frankfurt announced the professor had been forced to retire because of numerous “falsehoods and manipulations.” According to experts, his deceptions may mean an entire tranche of the history of man’s development will have to be rewritten. Notice, “entire tranche…rewritten.”
“Anthropology is going to have to completely revise its picture of modern man between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago,” said Thomas Terberger, the archaeologist who discovered the hoax. “Prof. Protsch’s work appeared to prove that anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals had co-existed, and perhaps even had children together. This now appears to be rubbish.” Again, notice, “completely revise … ” Parents, call your school board …
… a crucial Hamburg skull fragment, which was believed to have come from the world’s oldest German, a Neanderthal known as Hahnhöfersand Man, was actually a mere 7,500 years old, according to Oxford University’s radiocarbon dating unit. The unit established that other skulls had been wrongly dated too. Another of the professor’s sensational finds, “Binshof-Speyer” woman, lived in 1,300 BC and not 21,300 years ago, as he had claimed, while “Paderborn-Sande man” (dated at 27,400 BC) only died a couple of hundred years ago, in 1750.
“It’s deeply embarrassing. Of course the university feels very bad about this,” Professor Ulrich Brandt, who led the investigation into Prof. Protsch’s activities, said yesterday. Prof. Protsch … had simply made things up … At the same time, German police began investigating the professor for fraud, following allegations that he had tried to sell the university’s 278 chimpanzee skulls for $70,000 to a US dealer.
The article goes on to describe three other frauds perpetrated this past century in the area of archeology.
OK, now let’s be fair (in a way that many critics of the Church are not). What this scientist has done is a betrayal of science. But the scientific method is not thereby repudiated. On the contrary, it is needed all the more! There are likely a lot of human layers to the hoax here (lack of proper peer review, too much human respect, ideological credence, and a lot of money in the mix). But again, the scientific method remains valuable and necessary. Had it been followed more carefully, this might not have happened. But scientists are men and woman, sinners, and mere mortals. In our fallen condition such things do happen.
And this is all I ask as a mere observer, a scientific amateur: that we remember that science is not a substitute for God or religious dogma. Science is useful and helpful, but it is not infallible; it is not settled; it is not perfect or pure. Scientists, like any group of humans, are affected by every human glory and every human vice. Yes, even among the “white lab coats” there are crooks, liars, the greedy, those enamored of fame, and ideologues obsessed with forcing a particular conclusion no matter what the data really say. But those who do such things betray science and undermine the work of many good scientists who work hard and follow the data and the method.
Many who criticize the Church are not so fair, insisting that the fact that a few priests and religious have betrayed the Church indicates that the Church and the Faith are bad. But despite bad priests and unfaithful members, the Church and the Faith are not thereby repudiated. They are needed all the more! Had the Faith been followed more carefully, the evils might not have happened.
The few who stray, whether in science or faith, are countersigns to what the reality should be. The Church, faith, and science should be accorded due respect, even when some leaders from their number betray their very principles. It is popular to point to the failings of the Church, but less popular (in fact downright unpopular) to point to the failings of science. But yes, dear reader, even some scientists stray, and “objective” science is not without sinners in its ranks too, no matter what the “white lab coats” might lead you to think.
Rebuke all betrayals, but respect what is good and true.
Here’s a humorous commercial about learning from the experience of others. It’s a kind of hat-tip to tradition and the scientific method all at once!