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The virtue of questioning 'science'


A new sociological study by Gordon Gauchat claims there has been, in the past four decades, a dramatic decline in churchgoers' faith in science. The study, published last week in the American Sociological Review, finds that "public trust in science has not declined since the 1970s except among conservatives and those who frequently attend church."

No doubt Pastafarians of the world (for those of you who don't know, those are members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster—founded as a gibe at religion as irrational) will titter with glee at this "I-told-you-so" moment. The study plays into the popular trope that Christians are inclined by their religion to oppose science.

Regardless whether Gauchat's paper has credibility from a purely empirical view (sociological studies being notoriously "soft"), it does offer opportunity for learning.

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As a member of the scientific community, and a conservative Christian, perhaps I can add some insight into why churchgoers might be much less trustful of "science" than decades ago. I have all the qualifications usually claimed as proof of credibility: a Ph.D. (in physics), a consistent record of government-funded research for more than a decade, and an extensive list of peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals.

Yet my scientific credentials have been called into question several times. Why? Because, according to the paper, "conservatives are far more likely to doubt scientific theories of origins," and, "In 2010, only a third of conservatives believed that global warming is occurring." To be skeptical of these things is, according to the paper, "anti-science."

In the 1970s, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman became publicly critical of so-called "social sciences." He called them pseudo-science, bereft of basic honesty and experimental controls, yet having researchers who ostensibly go through the motions of scientific rituals, even wearing lab coats, but without actually doing science.

In contrast, experiment first, conclusions later is the basis of scientific inquiry. The post-normal science Feynman criticized predetermines its conclusions. Intentionally or not, it perverts normal scientific practice. And it is crowding out normal science.

Mike Hulme, a professor of climate change, explains, "The function of climate change I suggest, is not as a lower-case environmental phenomenon to be solved. … It really is not about stopping climate chaos. Instead, we need to see how we can use the idea of climate change … to rethink how we take forward our political, social, economic, and personal projects over the decades to come."

So, at least for Hulme—who in addition to his influential work with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a high-ranking professor at the University of East Anglia (of Climategate emails fame)—global warming "science" is not essentially about science but politics. Then science becomes not about seeking to understand and control our world, but about activism and controlling our neighbors.

For the sake of full disclosure, I am an expert reviewer for the IPCC, though in light of its history I doubt its lead authors will take my concerns seriously.

Lest we forget, the cultural authority of science, drawn from marvels like rocket ships and cancer cures, is born from the biblical view that nature is the orderly work of a personal Creator who governs nature in rational terms that humans, created in His image, can grasp in some measure.

The irony is that post-normal science, even such as Gauchat's paper, is destructive of the normal science everyone knows and appreciates. Objective truth is not a major concern of post-normal scientists; indifference to it, and a concentration on mere power, has been the result.

It is not that Christians reject science, but that they, who are lovers of truth, increasingly recognize that what is sold as "science"—a search for truth—really isn't any longer; it's bogus post-normal science. That is what conservatives and Christians distrust, and what anyone who cares about science should also distrust.

As the eminent philosopher of science Robert K. Merton wrote, "Most institutions demand unqualified faith; but the institution of science makes skepticism a virtue." And that makes Christians, and anyone else who is skeptical of post-normal science, virtuous.

James A. Wanliss, Ph.D., is associate professor of physics at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.; author of Resisting the Green Dragon: Dominion, Not Death; and a senior fellow of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.

James A. Wanliss
James A. Wanliss


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