Can We Trust Science?
By Merle Hertzler
At my blog, "Honey" left a comment arguing for the validity of the Answers in Genesis (AiG) site, and condeming mainstream science. Her comment deserves a detailed response, which I present here. Her words are shown indented:
She says that many have little faith in the scientific community. That is a disturbing report. After all, science has conquered many diseases and has led us to an astonishing advance in technology, which has greatly improved our lives. The Internet, TV, and jet travel would have been unimaginable two short centuries ago. Science has paved the way forward. And yet,. for some people, it remains popular to attack science.
To be fair, the remarks above are directed at the scientific community, and not at science. There is a difference. Science is a method used to empirically test new knolwedge. Basically this method consists of observing and making a prediction about how something works--a hypothesis. Then the hypothesis is tested and the results are presented to the scientific community. If the arguments are sound, and other experiments verify the hypothesis, it is accepted as science. If other experiments dispute or question the finding, or if the reasoning is not sound, the errors are pointed out, and acceptance of that hypothesis is suspended.
I hope that "Honey" is not attacking the scientific method described above. If she is, what does she put in its place? And how can she account for the great increase in knowledge that has been found through the scientific method? If science is so worthless, how has it accomplished so much?
Instead, her remarks seems to be aimed, not at the scientific method, but at the scientific community. She apparently is not critizing the concept of science, but those who attempt to practice it. In other words, this is a personal attack. It is an assault on the integrity of scientists themselves. For scientists will tell you that their work is all about discovering the facts of nature as objectively as possible. Special precautions are taken in all scientific experiments to minimize the effect of human bias. That is what scientists say they are doing, that they are trying to objectively observe and report the facts. "Honey" apparently disagrees. So she attacks the integrity of those good men of science. It appears that she may trust the scientific method, but questions if scientists can be trusted when they say they follow that method. If "Honey" does indeed support the scientific method, and supports scientific investigation of claims of new knowledge, what evidence does she have that scientists are not actually doing this as they claim?
"Honey" is concerned that many scientists do not believe in God. But many scientists do believe in God. Why does this make any difference? Science is not the study of God, but the study of nature.
"Honey" accepts AiG because it is "a labor of love." But are not Hindu, Muslim, and Mormon sites also "labors of love"? Are they not also passionate efforts ro verify the claims of certain groups? Having a passion for one's work does not make a person right, does it?
"Honey" says that there are things of a spiritual nature that cannot be proven by science. What things are they? She does not say. Is there an observable effect caused by those "things of a spiritual nature"? She must think so. For if there was no observable effect, how does she know the "things of a spiritual nature" are real? But if effects of this spiritual nature can be detected, then the study of those effect is in the realm of science. If, for instance, she claims that believers in a blood atonement experience less guilt than folks that believe a God would forgive anybody, that hypothesis could be tested by psychologists. Such a claim is not immune from science, even though science might not be able to understand a God that might cause such a phenomenon (and, by the way, I doubt if the facts would support such a claim). Science does not need to understand the cause to accept that the effect happens. Science only needs to be able to document that it happens. So is "Honey" referring to "things of a spiritual nature" that could be observed objectively, and are thus science, or about things that cannot be observed objectively, and hence cannot be known to be true? If she has a reliable method of discovering the things of the spirit world, I would like to know what it is. But if she has no such method, how can anybody claim to know the truth of such things?
That must be a very old book. For a long time we didn't really know how big Pluto was, for it was far away and very small. But it has been known for a long time that Pluto was smaller than earth. In 1983 Pluto was estimated to be 4000 km (2500 miles) in diameter. This figure was reported as the best available estimate, and was never claimed to be highly accurate. (See Diameter of Pluto.) As Rumsfeld might have put it, the exact size of Pluto was one of those "known unknowns" (See The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld.) 2500 miles is far less than the earth's diameter of 8000 miles, and represents only 3% of the volume of the earth. So if that book shows Pluto the size of earth, it was severely mistaken. And now we know that Pluto is even smaller, and is only about 2300 km in diameter.
How can the fact that Pluto was so remote to be measured accurately negate all of science? The distances to the nearby planets were known for many years, based on the works of men like Newton and Kepler. Knowing the distances to the planets, and knowing the apparent size of the planets as viewed from the earth, we could estimate the actual diameter of those planets.
You cannot negate all of science by pointing out that there are some things that science knows that it does not yet know.
Here "Honey" turns to an attack on the medical profession, arguing that they are freequently far from professional. She greatly overstates her case. Everybody is aware that medical diagnosis is an inexact science. Unfortunately, it is cost prohibitive to have multiple scientists examine and peer-review the diagnosis on each individual patient using the latest technology for each observation. The medical profession does what it can with the resources it has. Yes, of course the profession could be improved. Let's work together to do that. But a blanket attack on the professionalism of all of medicine does not seems to be the answer. And even if she could prove that medicine is frequently far from professional (and she certainly hasn't proven that) that still would not prove that all of science is corrupt. And that is the point in question: Can science be trusted?
I really can't understand why she provided that link. It is a good illustration of how science works. Robin Warren reported finding an unusual bacterium in tissues from inflamed stomaches in 1979. His claim was greeted with understandable skepticism. How can bacteria grow in stomach acid? But his claim was not completely rejected. Instead, he was allowed to study his claim, and a major hospital funded research on it. By 1983 their findings had been published in a major medical research journal. Scientists continued to do what they were supposed to do, they showed skpticism and tested the claims. When Warren's claim held up against the scrutiny, it was accepted as science. By 1995, Warren was honored with many awards from institutions like Harvard for his work. Now how does this negate my statement that the “the real test of a scientific claim is whether it impresses those who understand the science behind the claim” That is exactly what happened! This claim withstood the intense scrutiny. As a result, the man who made this discovery of a new bacterium in stomach tissues has been honored for his work. Meanwhile, hundreds of bogus pseudo-scientific cures have been rejected. Science worked.
Now you might argue that the process was too slow, and scientists should have jumped on board sooner. Perhaps so, but you must understand that resources are limited, and there were many false claims made in that time period. It is often difficult to separate the true from the bogus. I am all for improving and streamlining the scientific process where possible Nobody says that science is beyond the need for improvement. But the broad attack on science in general is, in my view, unjustified.
"Honey" claims you can be in opposition to the scientific majority and still be right. Absolutely! I agree. And when this happens, one needs to demonstrate by careful research that the facts verify the claim. That is what Warren did. AiG could do the same thing too if the facts supported their claim. But AiG can't seem to find any real facts that support their young earth creationism.
I think she meant to say that the opponents of global warming warnings were a minority until recently, and that now folks are more vocal in their dispute against the threat of global warming.
But what fact do they dispute? It is known that humans have put tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution began. It is known that the measured carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have skyrocketed in recent years, far above the normal cyclic ups and downs. It is known that, in the past, whenever the carbon dioxide level rose, average global temperatures rose with it. And it is known that average temperatures in recent years have been rising to record levels across the globe. And it is known that if this trend continues without putting on the brakes, that there will be severe consequences for the planet. (See An Inconvenient Truth.) Telling us that a late snowfall happened in Australia does nothing to refute the above facts. There always will be variations in the local weather. As some have put it, the local weather is usually unusual. The problem of global warming is that the worldwide average temperature is slowly rising.
The widespread ignoring of global warming is one reason that I write this essay. How can we fiddle while Rome burns? How can we whistle in the wind without even looking at the facts, when so much is at stake? How can we be so calloused to the state of the world we will leave for our children? Why do we ignore the urgent plea of science to do something about the problem? Why do we not respond now, when we can still do something about the problem?
Okay, so AiG can list creationist scientists at their site? Sure, there are a few religiously motivated people who support them. A list of names without facts proves nothing. If science was based on a list of names, then mainstream science could generate a far longer list than is shown at AiG. (See Project Steve.)
And yes, in ancient times most scientists may well have believed in a young earth, even as most scientists back then believed that the earth was flat. But science has advanced. The implication of that article is that those people would still believe in a young earth if they had access to modern information. That is a very doubtful claim.
Sure, there are smart people that believe in young earth creation, and many of them could have written for scientific journals. That is not the point. The point is that many of the claims made on the AiG site that attack the accepted age of the earth and support a global flood are not valid science. Those claims have been repeatedly shown to be false. Those claims were never published in peer-reviewed journals, but they are still put on the web as though they are science. That is the problem.
Why not do what Robin Warren did as referenced in the link that "Honey" posted? Why not prepare a quality study for peer review that demostrates conclusively that the earth is young, and that answers the objections? Why present claims to the public, while ignoring the fact that these claims have been examined by science and have been found faulty?
Even if one journal rejects the article, there are plenty of other journals. Science is not ruled by the dictates of an emporer who decrees what is acceptable. There are dozens of independent journals to publish in. If one wants to claim a scientific conspiracy against his treasured view, then he must postulate that all of these dozens of journals, and thousands of professionals, are in a massive conspiracy to avoid the truth. If this is the state of modern science, why does it continue to make such great advances? The claim that science is all one big conspiracy against the truth ignores much of the nature of science itself.
So where are the articles verifying young earth creation that are worthy of being published in a peer-reviewed journal? In the thread to which "Honey" responded, for instance, I asked SH for a scientifically valid article that supported young earth creation. He responded with Still and Stretchy. But this article would have never made it thorugh peer-review. (See Dino Blood Redux. ) The claims may look good when presented to the public, but scientists can understand the faults in the arguments.
And so I recommend that we continue to promote science, and continue to accept its findings. Where we find evidence to disagree with a point of science, then we should objectively gather the evidence and present it to the scientific community, just as Warren did. I love science, and hope that others will join me in that passion.
I invite you to leave your comments at Can We Trust Science?
Copyright ÓMerle Hertzler 2006. All Rights Reserved.