In Defence Of Science

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
9th July 2011

Tagged: science truth

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The advance of ‘science’ is sadly being compromised by political polemics.

This is a matter of sadness for Christians because the modern scientific endeavour arguably comes from the Reformation’s commitment to truth and the Biblical view of creation, and humanity’s place within it. Arising primarily in the Protestant world of the 16th and 17th centuries and freed from Aristotelian rationalism, the Bible opened the importance of the creation itself as worthy of study and the importance of truth derived from experimentation.

The word ‘science’ originally meant knowledge but slowly developed over time to mean ‘a systematically organised body of knowledge’, then ‘knowledge of the physical or natural world’ and finally to ‘an experimental method of acquiring such knowledge’. 

But with the shift in meaning of the word ‘science’, has come the changing emotional attachment to the word. To most people, the proof of the scientific pudding has always been technology. As scientific discoveries have been turned into practical and useful technology, the standing of scientists in the community has risen. From wonder drugs to aerospace, from computers to refrigeration, the advance of technology has vindicated science in public opinion. So much so that the scientist is held in high regard and esteem and ‘science’ is a word that carries great weight of authority and power.

In the 1960’s when I was studying for an Arts degree, every subject commenced with an explanation as to why and how it was a science. The scientific study of History, Psychology, Economics, Geography and even English meant we were not studying Arts but “Social Sciences”. It was amusing that nobody studying Chemistry, Physics or Biology had to be given lectures about the ‘Art’ of their discipline. The advertising industry soon caught on to the power of the word for science was used to ‘prove’ the virtue and efficacy of every product from cosmetics to sporting equipment and detergents.

There was even a desire to create the scientific society, where all decisions were to be made on the basis of demonstrable scientific reasoning. Politicians still appeal to ‘evidence based’ decisions, even though the evidence is not possible to gain and what evidence is available is routinely ignored. Society is often too complex to gain predictive evidence. There is no laboratory to adequately experiment on human social changes. Human values are outside reasoned experimentation. And vested interests ignore clear evidence, e.g. against tobacco, alcohol, gambling, adultery, etc.

But of recent times the politicisation of science has undermined its credibility in the community. In one debate, the ecological catastrophists’ claims about global warming and our contribution to it, has enabled sceptics to cast doubt about science and scientists. In another debate the arguments of evolution and intelligent design have been used by atheists and theists in such a way as to compromise the standing of science itself.

Human grasp on knowledge is both enormous and fragile. Enormous because, created in God’s image, we can, by working together, rule God’s world (Genesis 11:6). But fragile because, in our sinfulness, we not only are divided amongst ourselves (Genesis 11:7f) but also turn our back on knowledge and are self-deceived (Romans 1:18ff, Ephesians 4:17f).

To argue a position on the basis of ‘science’ or worse, the ‘consensus of scientists’, may bolster the position but does so at the cost of science itself –for the power of science lies in its ability to change opinion by demonstrating evidence. It is evidence that is king in science.

Certainly the evidence we look for and accept most easily is woven into our already organised body of knowledge. But evidence can overturn our already organised body of knowledge.

Certainly the consensus of scientists around the world should not be lightly discounted but the evidence of one scientist (or even a non-scientist) is as important as the collective understanding of the many. The narrative of modern science is built on stories like Galileo overthrowing the Aristotelian collective that dominated the academy in his day.

The nature of scientific knowledge is conditional, never final. It is always possible that new evidence will be found, or a new way of understanding our existing evidence will arrive, that will change our present conclusions.

The nature of scientific inquiry is that the evidence is public and, wherever possible, the experiments are repeatable and predictable. Not all science deals with experiments and predictions, some of it has to do with the unique past.  But scientific knowledge only includes claims that can, at least theoretically, be falsified or investigated by independent observation.

Scientific methodology is a very powerful tool in what it can investigate but has limitations as a method of knowing the truth. It is not designed to investigate everything. Claiming too much for science can undermine its credibility. It cannot tell me whether my mother loved me, nor explain the subtle imagery of a poem. Though it relies heavily on maths, pure maths itself is arguably not a science.

Christians are concerned for truth and so should value and defend science as an enterprise. It is a way of thinking and discovery that accepts gladly disproof of our views on the basis of evidence.  As such it is opposed to censorship and open to listening to alternative views. It is open to reason and more concerned with arguments and evidence than institutional authority and tradition. It may not be perfect, nor does it claim to give exhaustive or even final knowledge but it is the most honest, open way forward that humans have developed.

However, when groups with particular vested political interests use science to promote their view, it is science itself that comes under attack. When ‘evolution’ and ‘intelligent design’ are weapons in the hands of atheists and theists, it is very hard to weigh accurately the evidence. When catastrophists and sceptics discuss global warming, the truth is lost in politics and sadly for us, science itself gets a bad name.