How and why did science lose its authority in society? How does this manifest in present day themes? And how do we reposition it in our daily interactions?
Many contemporary debates seem to circle around science’s lack of authority in areas where arguably it should lead the way. Examples include climate change and public health, to name just two. Science seems to have lost prestige and authority in society. And today I want to explore what drives that, and how are we able to reposition science in our daily conversations around us – what I call our “small public squares”.
What is Science?
As always, we need to start with the definition. For the sake of this discussion, what does “science” mean? Here’s my definition: science builds and organizes knowledge that explains laws and predictable events, verifying them through empirical observations and mathematics.
Breaking it down, I’m saying that science is the result of a process – the scientific method. It explains events that follow laws and are, thus, predictable. These laws are discovered through experiments – things that can be verified by our senses, or extensions of our senses. I’m also adding mathematics as a valid verification method, because increasingly, in disciplines like theoretical physics, mathematical models describe scientific facts much earlier than our technology enables the experiments to obtain observational evidence.
In general, this definition includes the so-called “natural sciences” – physics, chemistry, biology and the like. For this discussion, I’m explicitly excluding the so-called “social sciences,” like psychology. While these disciplines follow a process similar to the scientific method, they don’t have the same ability to uncover unambiguous laws that can be unequivocally asserted.
Science Has Limits
One important consequence of this definition is that science is limited in its application. If something can be mathematically or empirically proven, science can explain it; otherwise, it cannot.
Not everyone agrees with this. Well-known atheist and English chemist Peter Atkins, debating Christian philosopher William Lane Craig in 1998, argued that science can account for everything. In response, Craig listed five things that lie outside science. First, math itself. Two plus two equals four – no experimental verification needed. Math is true on the grounds of reason, and science actually depends on math. Second, metaphysical truths. We know that minds outside our own exist, but there is no observational experiment that can confirm this.
Third, ethical judgments. Science alone can’t tell us that something is morally wrong. Fourth, by the same token, aesthetic judgments. Science can’t tell us if something is beautiful or pleasing.
Fifth, and most interesting, science itself. Scientists rightfully believe that the scientific method is the best way to uncover truths about the natural world, but the method itself can’t be used to prove this assertion.
Clearly, science does have limits. And in my opinion, a failure to respect these limits has caused the authority that science used to carry in society to become dislodged or misplaced.
Using Science Beyond Its Limits
Let’s start with the first dimension – putting science where it doesn’t belong, or using it in a realm it really can’t cover. If you’ve read me before, you’ve heard me say that science can’t explain the origin of things. That belongs to philosophy. And when a scientist attempts to explain the origin of things, they’re not doing science – they are masquerading a worldview as science.
For centuries, this was well understood. Before the 20th century, atheist scientists believed that the universe was eternal and immutable. And I feel that back then, it was well understood that these were philosophical opinions, not scientific outcomes. However, as the scientific evidence itself started pointing to a finite universe, the debate became more intense and the lines were blurred.
I would say this started with Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which pushed the scientific community to acknowledge that the universe was expanding. Later, the Big Bang theory pointed to a past event known as singularity – an event in which our current understanding of time, matter and energy makes no sense. A moment which they can’t explain, and which points to the beginning of these concepts. This would imply that the universe had an origin. You could even argue that this is the most logical explanation that follows from a scientific framework.
But not all scientists agree. For one thing, science rests on a healthy skepticism. New findings are constantly challenging and adjusting our understanding of the world around us. Sometimes, paradigms can be adjusted to better accommodate evolving explanations. Other times, the paradigm must be abandoned, with a new one taking its place. That is how we went, for example, from a Ptolemaic worldview (everything revolves around Earth) to a Copernican or heliocentric worldview (the Sun is at the center of the solar system).
The challenge with the Big Bang is that it blows away our paradigms. How do you explain an event where time, matter and energy don’t exist or don’t work? There are a few options. One is to develop a new paradigm. This hasn’t happened yet, and there is no evidence that it’s guaranteed to happen. This can look like hypotheses that can’t be proved yet, and might never be proved. For instance, Stephen Hawking concocted the idea of “imaginary time” to explain that time was actually running before the Big Bang; we just couldn’t measure or perceive it. Unlike other theoretical models, imaginary time isn’t mathematically demonstrable. It’s merely a conjecture designed to imply that the Big Bang isn’t the beginning of the universe.
Another option is to admit that a supernatural, uncaused entity brought the universe into existence, which is actually quite consistent with the Principle of Causality – a hallmark of science that states that every event has a cause.
If these options feel… Unscientific, it’s because they highlight how science really can’t answer the question of origin. These options conjure uncertainty, speculation, and almost faith and hope. And rightly so; after all, this is the realm of philosophy. However, modern society has come to accept the misplaced idea that science has explained the origin of the universe, or that it is science’s problem to solve and it’s just a matter of time. And this informs a lot of our culture and even public policy.
A similar situation arises with the origin of life. I’ll refer you to my “Life Beyond Earth” article for a discussion on how a misplaced use of the theory of evolution has driven into the mainstream the idea that life originated by random chance, that science can explain how, and therefore that life in other planets is a given conclusion.
This misplacement of science would seem to give it more power and influence over modern society; but ultimately, it really does a disservice to both. It forces us into dogmatic explanations in areas where a healthy debate and skepticism would serve us all better.
Ignoring Science Within Its Limits
A bigger problem, in my mind, is the opposite misplacement – that of denying or ignoring science when dealing with issues over which it does have unquestionable jurisdiction.
My favourite recent example is a perfect storm of two controversial topics. We’ve seen governments struggle with the adoption of the COVID vaccine. The delta strain has moved our goal posts for herd immunity, and we are in the slog to move past the original goal into a much more ambitious one — getting 90 percent of the population vaccinated. And often, this decision is cast as a clear-cut one, based on the science. Personally, I agree. The problem is that almost anyone can see how politicians, businesses, and other entities, in other topics, are equally adept at shunning science as they are at ushering it in, depending on whether it serves or hinders their goals.
Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden stated that he respected those who believe life begins at the moment of conception, but that he doesn’t agree. Here’s the thing: that’s not a matter of opinion. The overwhelming biological consensus is that in all animals, including humans, life as we know and define it does begin at conception. The debate of what rights we grant that life against the rights of other lives is a different issue. Science can only bring facts in its area of influence; decisions around those facts are moral and pre-political. They demand, and deserve, other types of arguments. But those arguments shouldn’t hinge on denying clear scientific facts, or degrading them to mere beliefs or opinions. That erodes the ability of science to inform policy where it can.
To recap, misplacing science, either by stretching it out of place or by ignoring it where it does belong, and treating facts as opinion, complicate our ability to connect scientific knowledge to decision- and policy-making in society.
Considering Science Infallible
To make things worse, even when you stick to science in its right scope, you can misplace your faith or judgment of it. You can elevate it to an infallible power, which it really isn’t.
Here’s just one example. Thalidomide is used today as an effective drug against cancer. However, in the middle of the past century, it was prescribed to pregnant women for morning sickness. What wasn’t known at the time is that the drug causes severe malformations to the unborn; the concept of drugs causing such malformations wasn’t fully understood at the time. As a result, over a hundred thousand children are thought to have been affected by this, until thalidomide was rejected by the FDA in America and later withdrawn in Europe. (By the way, the FDA reviewer who blocked the drug in the US was a Canadian physician, Frances Kelsey.)
There are many more examples. Science can be wrong at times. And like I’ve said earlier, this doesn’t invalidate the scientific method, or the role of science in bringing facts to society. Quite the opposite. A commitment to reviewing how science models and understands the world in light of new evidence is a hallmark of the scientific method. Conversely, having blind faith in science as if it were always, unanimously and infallibly right can be as dangerous as using it out of context, or ignoring it when we shouldn’t.
How Do We “Reposition” Science?
I’m not a scientist. (Maybe you are!) What are us mere mortals to do to counter these problems? I offer three ideas.
First, we must uncover and call out these problems when we see them. Too often, philosophies enter the public square disguised as science, and are even used to prevent other philosophies or worldviews from also entering the public square. We need to learn to detect this and call it out in constructive ways. Whether you are a believer or not, I would encourage you to identify a few “science dogmas” in place today and to seek objective and plainly worded literature to broaden your perspectives on them. Despite what politicians love to tell us, things are seldom binary or black and white. Nuance is our ally here.
Second, we need to remember that science seldom drives decisions. Most personal and collective decisions are moral, pre-political, and driven by our worldviews – not merely by scientific facts. This isn’t new. We’ve known for quite a bit that things like sleep deprivation, or excess calories in general, or more specifically excess sugar, excess alcohol, certain types of fats – all have serious negative consequences to our health. Despite this knowledge, we don’t always make the right decisions around these things.
So it is in society at large as well. Ideally, science brings to the table objective facts – with various degrees of certainty – which help inform decisions along with other factors. We need to keep this in mind as we debate complex contemporary topics like climate change and vaccine uptake. Science often looks more like a debate than absolute truth, and that debate cascades into a larger debate of various non-scientific viewpoints that also influence decisions.
My third and final idea is that we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Despite these mishaps and science’s own shortcomings, we shouldn’t think of science as some kind of public enemy. I think that some Christians, in particular, have been misled on this for too long. Philosophies masquerading as science have caused some of us to believe that science is the enemy of Christianity. It’s not. The fight is not philosophy versus science; it’s philosophy versus philosophy, worldviews against each other.
Every good gift comes from God (Jas 1:17), and science is no exception. It improves our ability to understand the world around us, and to develop technology that effectively influences and improves the world. What is that, if not our mandate to rule and subdue the earth? (Gen 1:28)
In His providence, God made His creation ordered and predictable, and gave us the gift of reason and intellect to study and understand it, that we may effectively partake with Him in the development and care of creation.
Science is not the enemy. Let’s learn how to tease it apart from philosophy. Let’s not idolize it either. And let’s learn to leverage it effectively within its sphere of influence to uphold all of God’s truths in our world.