Science has been under attack recently by vociferous and often politically motivated individuals. But science is the best method we have to discover the laws that govern the behavior of matter and energy in our universe, which allows us to generate applications that work. This is not an opinion. This is a rock-solid fact. And if you want evidence for this claim, just look around you. Computers, cell phones, televisions, microwaves ovens, refrigerators, air conditioning, buildings, vehicles, airplanes, dams, satellites, space stations, telescopes, etc. Keep looking. Antibiotics, antivirals, antivenoms, hormones, erectile disfunction drugs, surgical techniques and science-based therapies, DNA sequencing, vaccines, etc. If science were not a successful method to uncover reality, none of these things would work.
When faced with this evidence, the people who attack science would probably clarify that what they are attacking is the scientists, not the principles of science. These people claim that scientists have been corrupted by powerful interests and/or by the need to obtain funds, which leads them to fake or selectively interpret the data. This claim, however, is quite startling. If what scientists are coming up with does not reflect reality because they are faking the science, then it should not work. But how are we to explain the list of scientific applications that work that I presented in the previous paragraph? One would have to argue that these discoveries were made in a pristine past when science was not corrupted, and that the corruption of science is a recent event.
Now please, if you really believe this, send me a message, because I’ve got a bridge I want to sell to you.
Not only is this not true, because there have been recent scientific applications that work such as, for example, the COVID-19 vaccines, but dishonesty and corruption have always plagued humanity. Institutions ranging from government, political parties, unions, and religious organizations, to neighborhood associations, clubs, and family businesses everywhere have experienced dishonesty and corruption. And because scientists are human beings, they are prone to dishonesty and corruption too, but those discoveries I outlined in the first paragraph were made despite the influence of dishonest and corrupt individuals. Although the methodology of science has several safeguards to insure that the science is right and free from dishonesty, the ultimate proof that science works is in the applications. If a purported practical application of science doesn’t work, then the unavoidable conclusion is that the science behind it was deficient.
Those that criticize science or scientists in the way I described above are missing the most important point. Our primary concern should not be that the science doesn’t work because corrupt individuals are somehow “faking it”. This way of thinking is divorced from reality and fails to recognize the main problem with science. The main problem with science is that it works, and that is what should scare us.
Let me explain.
Most of us are honest individuals who know that science will deliver for us and we use the applications generated by science in a lawful way. However, there are dishonest individuals who also know that science will deliver for them too, and these individuals are willing to pervert the use of the applications generated by science. This is especially true when there are strong demands for accomplishments, incentives for success, and millions of dollars in profits on the line. For example, pharmaceutical companies have paid billions of dollars in fines for engaging in off-label promotion of their products, paying kickbacks, and Medicare fraud. The most glaring example of misconduct in the pharma industry is the horrifying opioid epidemic that began with the lax FDA approval of the pain drug oxycontin from Purdue Pharma, followed by its inappropriate marketing, which led to millions becoming addicted and hundreds of thousands dying.
Thus the true and frightening power of science derives from the fact that you can be certain that it works, and that therefore, someone somewhere will misuse what science produces.
To counter this we need to exercise and demand vigilance. We need to pressure our elected representatives to police those charged with the application of science. We need to monitor our elected representatives and make sure they are not corrupted by bribes or favors. We need strong and independent watchdog groups and media outlets to keep an eye out for misconduct and conflicts of interest. We have to demand changes to regulations and procedures to ensure that the process of approval of scientific applications doesn’t become corrupted by political or corporate interests. But we cannot do this effectively if part of our energy is devoted to countering those that incessantly claim the science is “fake” or “junk” and that it does not work.
It's not fake science but the misuse of scientific applications that we should be concerned about.
The image of the Hand Holding a Sign from pixabay by geralt is in the public domain and has been modified.
On a recent trip in the Midwest, as I was perusing the tourist brochures in a stand of the hotel where I was staying, I spotted one that read: “Creation Museum, Prepare to Believe”. I shook my head and sighed. Creationism has been around for a while. But the building of modern-looking museums where creationist can present their case to the people is a more recent development that probably reflects the sad state of acceptance of misinformation and rejection of facts and reason that currently prevails in our society.
I have addressed the topic of creationism several times in my blog. Creationists believe the Bible to be the literal word of God. Therefore, when they perceive there is an apparent contradiction between science and their interpretation of the Bible, they choose their interpretation of the Bible.
While many people and religious denominations understand that there are sections of the Bible that are not to be taken literally, creationists are wary of this notion. They argue that it is tantamount to human beings deciding what parts of the word of God they will believe, and they see this just as a recipe for distorting God’s message. They also ask, “Where do we draw the line?” If one passage is declared not to be the literal word of God, and then another, and another, where does it stop? Creationists also argue that God would not lie to us. If God communicated in the Bible that something happened, or if we can infer it from his words, then it must be true.
While some people may roll their eyes at these arguments, they are certainly not trivial. Faith is central to the lives of creationists. They see any belittling of the word of God (the Bible) as anathema to their faith, and people who hold creationist views represent a strong and motivated economic and political block in our society. It would be to everyone’s advantage if the conflict between creationists and science could be resolved, and heaping scorn upon creationists does not help. In fact, many creationists are actually eager to find ways to reconcile their faith with mainstream science. But how do we go about this?
There is a possible resolution to this conundrum that has been proposed by several individuals in various versions over the years. In this post I will try to convey my own version of this proposal.
Although people believe that the general message in the Bible is timeless, the book is clearly addressed to people living thousands of years ago who didn’t have the understanding or the thinking about the world that we have today. But how was God to address those people?
Look at it from the point of view of God. God wanted to get key points across such as love each other, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, and so forth, but at the same time God had to provide a background to address certain common-sense issues such as how everything started, how it’s going, how it works, and how it will end. But God couldn’t do this employing the comprehension of the natural world we have today, as it would just have created confusion and bewilderment among those people. God would have had to introduce new terms such as genes, chromosomes, cells, mutations, species, evolution, deep time, plate tectonics, the fact that stars are suns, supernovas, gravity, the speed of light, etc. to describe realities that were alien to the beliefs and notions those people had regarding how the world works. It would have been counterproductive for God to dwell on complex subjects beyond the understanding of the people of those times. So the solution was to simplify the message, present it at their level of understanding, frame it within the context of their commonly held beliefs, and then move on to the really important things.
Believing that the Bible is the literal word of God is perfectly compatible with this view. The world was not created in seven days and is not six thousand years old. Life arose on Earth by a process of evolution, and there was not a universal flood. However, God communicated otherwise to the people of those times so they could relate to what he was saying in a manner compatible with their understanding and beliefs about the world around them.
There are several levels of what we call “the truth”. When we greatly simplify things for our children and explain issues and things in ways that they can understand, you could argue that we are “lying” to them because we are not conveying the actual complex, detailed truth. But it is unfair to say we are lying to them because they would not understand or relate to the truth if we were to explain it to them at the adult level. Similarly, the intention of God was not to lie, but to make the Bible accessible to the people of those times who had a limited understanding of their physical world.
And as to the Creationist question of where do we draw the line, my answer is that we draw it at science. When God inspired human beings to write the Bible, God did not intend to teach science. The Bible is not a science textbook. The Bible is not intended to teach natural history. Pronouncements about how the physical world works are not the warp and woof of the Bible. That’s the realm of science. The Bible is about how to go to heaven, not about how the heavens go. The Bible is about the Rock of Ages, not about the age of rocks.
Science has limits. It cannot tell us what is good or bad, moral or immoral, ethical or unethical. That’s the field of expertise of the Bible and religion. As a scientist I accept that science has these limits. However, at the same time, the Bible has limits too, and creationists have to accept this. The Bible cannot tell us accurate truths about the chemistry, biology, and physics of the natural world beyond the understanding of people who lived a long time ago. Science and religion have different fields of expertise or non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), as proposed by the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould.
Our use of science has to be tempered by values, morals, and ethics, which most of the time have their origins in religion, but what we choose to believe has to be tempered by science. Science and religion have to coexist and work together, not be adversarial, and I hope that the particular view of the Bible that others and I have proposed gains acceptance among creationist circles.
Photograph by the author can only be used with permission.