When Science is Betrayed – and What Lessons We Should Learn

011415There 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!

28 Replies to “When Science is Betrayed – and What Lessons We Should Learn”

  1. Monsignor, that article is ten years old (I didn’t look either), and apparently the human-Neanderthal link was established in later research. But I think your larger point still stands…

    1. Interesting, I missed seeing the the date, adjusted. Someone just sent it to me I’d like to know if the link was established. Any verification you can send? I’d be surprised not to have heard more of it, though I didn’t hear of this story originally either. But that does not surprise me since it does not fit the usual media narrative of settled science etc.

    2. Hi Matthew and to all open minded people,

      Please watch this video – refuting evolution in less than 3 minutes:


      The site ask the question: If living organisms CANNOT produce new genetic information, then how can anything evolve from an amoeba to a man without adding new genetic information? The Answer: It can’t!

      There you will find awesome video collections and articles!

      1. Of course, I don’t agree with all their articles and videos BUT it is good to be open minded and question things!:)

  2. The article this is referring to is from ten years ago (2005), so it’s not exactly new news. But it is still interesting how much trust people put into scientists. Rarely do they say “it appears to be”, or “evidence is pointing in the direction of…”, but instead we hear how it is Truth, and to doubt it means you are a neanderthal.

  3. Prof. Protsch tried to make a monkey out everyone. They should have suspected something was up when he told them the 36,000 year old knuckle dragging Neanderthal’s name was Hahnofersand. Now how would he have known that? He probably has one of those calendars in his office with pictures of cigar smoking chimpanzees dressed in human clothes sitting at a card table playing poker. Everybody knows real anthropologist smoke pipes:)

  4. The Time Magazine title perfectly sums up mainstream media: “Be worried. Be very worried.” When Political Correctness isn’t advocating death and perversion, it’s peddling fear.

    1. “death, perversion, fears” are all Anti-Life propaganda promoted by the Population Control Crowd.

  5. I think it was Chesterton who said, “The modern mind will believe nothing from a great authority, but will be anything from no authority at all.”

  6. One of the many valuable lessons I learned from my father, a research scientist, was to first look for who sponsored the research when reading a study’s results. If the payor has a vested interest in a particular outcome, then one should take the trumpeted results with a grain of salt. One also should look at the scope of a study to see whether it is enough to draw a general conclusion. Unfortunately when articles on study results are published in popular media, this information is not always available: and the scientific journals in which the studies were originally published usually are not accessible to non-subscribers.

    Then there also is the university-based researcher’s mantra of “publish or perish.” That pressure to put out study results isn’t necessarily conducive to quality work.

    I don’t fault researchers for having a certain degree of self-interest, because with the exception of Christ and Mother Teresa we ALL operate with some degree of self-interest. But when it comes to reading information that is presented to us, we should carefully consider how self-interest could affect the validity of what we’re being told.

  7. And what do you do when thousands of scientists have revealed a particular “science” to be nothing more than a fraud and a lie and tied to a global political agenda? What do you do when the press is in collusion with the lie because they back the lie or are too lazy to research and reveal the truth? What do you do when your Pope moves from “saving souls” into a scientific cause based on falsified data for a political outcome? What happens when faith and reason is corrupted by a one sided agenda?

  8. Word on Fire posted an article about some anti-Christian tweets from our “good buddy” Neil deGraase Tyson. I dare say he is the poster boy for misstating historical scientific realities.

    People like science right up until it proves them wrong. Case in point, people in same sex unions will argue their attraction is natural, yet the very fabric of nature and of human life depends on a heterosexual union. Science steps in to create children where nature “fails” to agree with the homosexual union, because in our stupid human pride, we refuse to be told what to do.

    Yes, we are children, bratty bratty children.

  9. re: “and a consensus achieved in this decade may melt away in the next (see photo top right). Vive la différence!”

    I think it is worth pointing out two important things:

    1) the image you’ve posted is a fraud. It’s a photoshop job that has been debunked: http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2013/06/04/the-1970s-ice-age-myth-and-time-magazine–covers-by-david-kirtley/

    2) the idea that there was a scientific consensus in the 1970’s that a new ice age was coming is also a myth that has been widely debunked. There were a number of sensationalistic articles published in mainstream news outlets at that time suggesting the possibility of an ice age, but that was a minority position in the scientific community. The majority of peer-reviewed articles on climate change in the 1970’s predicted global warming, not global cooling. http://www.realclimate.org/index.pphp/archives/2005/01/the-global-cooling-myth/

    Your larger point about the possibility of a scientific consensus changing is perfectly fine, but your example is off base. And this at a time when the Church is trying to raise awareness about the issue of climate change and the threat it poses to the world’s poor and the world’s ecosystems!

    You are right that there are people who have a religious faith in science. But there is also the counter-phenomenon of people who have a dogmatic mistrust of science and continually seek to question well-established science on the basis of very thin and selective evidence. Unfortunately this has happened in the U.S. around the issue of global warming. Are there aspects of the consensus around anthropogenic global warming that will be revised? Almost certainly. Will the whole issue of man-made global warming turn out to be a hoax or a big scientific misjudgment? Very unlikely. The consensus around man-made global warming has been growing and growing because the evidence keeps growing. And that evidence comes from so many different fields of science that it is highly unlikely that they are all mistaken.

    1. Regarding your first point, it may well be true, There’s a lot of photo shopping that goes on today. But I used the picture in good faith. It also corresponds with my experience and memory.

      Your second point is incorrect.I was in high school in the 1970s, and I can assure you we were subjected to a constant barrage of films in class, and all sorts of stories on the newsabout the coming Ice age. It was a very consistent theme. And you can dabble around with the term “consensus” all you want but at the end of the day it was very widely taught in our science classes in school and everywhere else in the public during the 70s. It didn’t help that we had a number of cold winters on the East Coast. I remember some real classic snowstorms during my high school years.

      To certain degree you’re making the very case that I am making by exhibiting a kind of religious defensiveness. you protest too much, and your use of the word myth, is excessive. It displays a certain lack of comfort with what had always been true in science, namely, that new data often alters theories and in something as complex as climatology, The use of terms like settled science, and consensus, which many use today is way out of line and not consistent with the sobriety that should attend good scientific inquiry.

      1. 3 questions:

        In the interest of integrity, will you remove the image and edit the portion of your post referring to the image now that you know it to be inaccurate?

        If you feel my use of the word myth is hyperbolic and indicative of a certain defensiveness, what word should I use other than “myth” to describe a popular story that is contrary to the facts?

        Do you accept the teaching of the last three popes and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in what they have said about climate change and our responsibility to work to prevent it?

        1. 1. No. You have been able to dispute the facts and that is enough. I am not sure of your sources. See other Time covers supplied by Repent and Believe in this thread
          2. Why not just say you dispute that there was a consensus among scientists in the 1970s? Your word “myth” and expression “contrary to the facts” are disputable. I accept neither characterization but do not call your position a myth. I do think you’re wrong and, as someone who lived thought that period and was subjected to what you call a myth, I consider your characterization of my experience as “contrary to the facts” and my experience as mythical mildly insulting.
          3. No. The Church does not teach on climate and bishop’s conferences et al do not have expertise in this area. Perhaps you refer to statements by certain popes or conferences, but such statements do not bind Catholics. I would look more to Science to continue to study the matter, which I don’t think is demonstrably all that critical, since the earth has been a lot warmer than it is now, and a lot cooler too, and we did just fine. There may be some property loss along beaches if oceans rise, or changes in diet but we’ll adjust, we might even get some new arable land further north. We have always have adjusted and climate has changed a lot and is always changing. So I not all that personally concerned, and Like I’ve said, I heard the warnings before and in the other direction. It is an interesting topic, but it doesn’t seem all that critical. Heck it might be nice if it were a little warmer again, I just came in from an awfully frigid night.

          1. By the way here are a lot of references to articles from 1970 and other eras that show the widespread reportage of the coming ice age:

            Here’s a bunch of clips from the 1970s papers and magazines

            Heres a New York Times Article

            And another which saw a new Ice Age but actually hoped that Man would produce enough heat to overcome it!

            And here’s a Newsweek article from 1978

            Here’s a bunch of headlines from the 20th Century that show that early Century it was Global warming then by 70s Ice Age, now we’re back to warming fears:

            And since you are so upset about the Time cover, I’m putting the Time Article from 1974 in its place at the upper right of this post

            Perhaps you can see why some of us who are a little older are puzzled and maybe skeptical about the latest predictions.

      1. Also here’s a bunch of clips from the 1970s papers and magazines

        Heres a New York Times Article

        And another which saw a new Ice Age but actually hoped that Man would produce enough heat to overcome it!

        And here’s a Newsweek article from 1978

        Here’s a bunch of headlines from the 20th Century that show that early Century it was Global warming then by 70s Ice Age:

        And since Vincent is so upset about the Time cover, I’m putting the Article from 1974 in its place at the upper right

    2. A long time ago, in a land far, far away (ok, not really) well before the internets, the coming ice age was presented on the VHF/UHF channels and taught in the Des Moines public school system as scientific fact. We had the big Easter blizzard (’74 or ’75?) where snow drifts covered roofs and sealed us in. “Ice Age”, of course, was on everyone’s lips when schools were reopened. We were presented “scientific consensus”.

      1. Exactly, Any of us who lived through that period remember it well. Ice Age talk was everywhere. Frankly the overemphasis with consensus forgets that many of the great breakthroughs in Science came from dissenters. In the early 1960s when I was in grammar school the “Big Bang” was laughed at and we were taught the “consensus” view of a steady state universe. Well guess what, the “consensus” was wrong, or so it would currently seem. Old Fr. George L’Maitre and Hubble were right and the consensus was wrong. Peer review is one thing, but “consensus” too easily becomes pressure and PC.

        By the way in DC our worst year was 1979, we were socked in with snow most all of Jan and Feb and the last storm was a doozy, over 30 inches overnight with huge drifts. I could not even see our cars, some of the drifts in the front yard were over 6 feet. The mid 70s through about 1984 had some real big snows. Things were more mild after 1985 for a while but then it got colder again. Last year was unrelenting cold and three years ago we had almost 70 inches of snow in DC. Last year almost 40. This year, not so much.

        1. Wasn’t it 79 when Air Florida crashed? Also, I remember there was ice skating on the Potomac more than one winter in the 70’s. People who moved here in the 80s did not get those cold winters and appear shocked at our last two.

          I’m probably in the minority, but I believe the Earth is one of God’s creatures. It certainly appears to be alive in that it can heal itself from everything we do to it as if we were just pests. I think the Earth will survive long after humanity has met its Maker, or at least it has the ability to.

          1. Yeah I think too that earth has been through a lot of climatic change before we got here and even in our lifetime before we could have had much impact. I’ve been hearing all the doomsday stuff all my life. There’s been a lot of shifts in the climate in history and we’ve adjusted. It was warmer than it is today during the days of the Roman Empire 2000 years ago, they had vineyards in England. and then there was the Medieval Warm Period 1,000 years ago. During that time the Vikings colonized Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland. The settlements in Newfoundland and Greenland were then largely abandoned during the Little Ice Age that lasted from about 1500 to the early 1800s.The Thames River in England froze over regularly during those winters. The Thames last froze over in 1814 and as I recall that was the “year without a summer.” And suddenly the little ice age ended. Since then the climate has been in a gradual warming trend. Given that there were very low levels of CO2 emissions from human activity in those ups and downs, it is not likely that humans caused the Medieval Warming Period or the Little Ice Age. Natural factors had to be instrumental in those changes in climate (maybe volcanism or something in the Sun?) . But whatever the cause we are going to be fine. The bigger threats we face are moral and cultural.

  10. I am going to end comments here on this post y’all. A lot of “global warming” comments are coming in tonight and that is not what this post is about, it was mentioned incidentally. I suppose it DOES illustrate another point in the post that many today have adopted a kind of religious zealotry about science that gets very personal for them if you are not 100% on board and in agreement with theories that can and do change, Lord knows they have in my time. Science really should be science and it gets weird when it gets all wrapped up in politics and adopts a religious fervor that should be foreign to it. But anyway it is hard to have a reasonable discussion when things are taken personally, politicized and retorts become very personal. So lets end this thread. Global warming is a topic to debate on other blogs, I personally don’t have the interest in discussing it and think it generates a lot more heat that light (pun not intended).

    For Those who think I’m making up the 1970 Ice Age scare stuff, I think I’ve provided a lot of references in the comment thread above from many sources of the 1970s incl Time Newsweek, NYTimes that illustrate that there was widespread reportage of a coming ice age then. We were also taught this in Earth Science class etc.

    So I just don’t want to discuss this Global warming stuff and it is clear that the comments coming in tonight want to pile on about that. Sorry, not interested and I’ve seen where debates of this sort go.

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