Thursday, March 10, 2005

Science & the Christian

This post is inspired on a convergence in the blogosphere. Not Crunchy posted a warning to, well, I guess Christians that we should not allow "pro-big-business Republicans brainwash you into believing that scientists have an

agenda." At the same time, Catez at Allthings2all is hosting a showcase of Christian "blogthought" (did I just coin a term, or has "blogthought" been used elsewhere?) on Christianity and science.

As regular readers of this blog (both of you) know, I've been engaged in a semi-regular running discussion with Not Crunchy (NC). I find her to be a delightfully open-minded and intelligent blogger. Please read her post starting all

this (linked above), which pleads for like open-mindedness from Christians. Fair enough, and I am more than happy to comply.

And well I should comply. NC has some very valid points, which at the very least Christians of the conservative ilk should consider if not accept. The first of which is when she says, "[t]he public becomes aware of scientific developments

through the filter of a non-scientific media - the hot science story of the day usually become distorted in fact, scope, and importance." We often make the mistake of confusing questions. It is easy to mistake questions of application and significance for science itself. We can't separate science from ethical considerations relating to application, but much of what we see on the nightly news isn't about science but rather about policy.

NC is also spot on when she says, "Christianity and trust in science do not have to be mutually exclusive." I touched on this Tuesday. I think most evangelicals agree with this statement. Many of us owe our livelihoods to the results of scientific endeavors. We love what science can bring to the world. Like the laptop on which I'm typing this post.

However (and you felt at least one "however" coming, didn't you?) NC's description of peer review and checks/balances within the scientific establishment is a bit idealistic. To her credit, she acknowledges this in the comments section of her blog. My experience, though, says that many others aren't as fair. To those I'd like to point out a few things.

Yes, peer review is supposed to act as a check against "bad" science. But peer review is performed by peers - most of whom I assume are human since I know relatively few feline scientists (though one of my cats likes to experiment with catnip.) (Sorry - that was lame.) Humans are fallible, and politics can enter the peer review process quite easily. While I don't know the wherefores and details of many particular cases, there is some anecdotal evidence that Christians have been kicked around in the peer review process for reasons I'd think have little to do with science or methodology. This can understandably lead to some justifiable suspicion in the Christian community writ large. As with all professions, arrogance is found aplenty among scientists. As often as we Christians are accused of being dogmatic, many scientists are equally dogmatic about the power of their discipline.

This is not to denigrate what NC says; in principle I agree with her ideals. But I don't fault some Christians a certain amount of the cynicism they have. Some discussion about such things are here, here and here.

Google would probably reveal more claims from what I've read so far. How widespread is hostility to Christianity among scientists? I dunno. Maybe not very in a purely numerical sense. But hostility does exist, and in enough places that it needs to be exposed. Fair criticism of research, methodology and results is fine; unfair critiques based on personal, philisophical or religious bias belies the honesty of the peer review system.

In reality all people have agendas. Even scientists. Believing in the purity of a system that is operated by people puts more faith in the system's ability to correct itself than is warranted by the experience of humanity over, well, all recorded history. I would agree with NC that most scientists' agendas are not hostile to Christianity. This is something that Christians do need to recognize. But there are scientists who are actively anti-religion/anti-Christian, and some of these hold "gatekeeper" roles high up in the scientific establishment. The reason so many Christians are distrustful of science - wrongly so IMO - is that those who let their agendas interfere with their fairness and objectivity are looked on as leaders instead of criticized for misusing their discipline.

We can't be so idealistic as to elevate science to a level of perfection that it can't attain, or turn science into a religion unto itself. Nor should we hold that, "[e]go and reputation keep the system honest." Seeking ego

stroking and reputation has led people to great failures as well as protected them from risking said rep's on deceipt.

Science is a tool, and any tool can be used for good or bad. This tool is used by humans, all of whom have agendas at some point in their lives. I do. The more open we are to acknowledging our own biases and agendas, and

the slower we are to accept that others are free of them, the better able we will be to judge cases on their merits, especially scientific cases.

What some scientists (and their apologists) need to understand is that Christians are as likely to be rational folks as the scientists - critique fairly and we'll give you a hearing. If you want us to be open-minded, treat us as the intelligent folks many of us really are, not the superstitious "brainwashed" some folks believe we are. Treat Christians as equals in the debate and I think you'll find that most aren't as anti-science as anti-misuse-of-science. That should be something on which we can all agree.

And what many Christians need to understand is that scientists aren't necessarily anti-religion. Any scientist, believer or not, is a person loved by God. We need to remember that, and not responde to any hostility we do encounter with hostility. We need to love scientists, even those who attack the faith, as God commanded.

This being said, I want to acknowledge another good point of NC's (and no, it does not pain me to say that - as I said, she's intelligent and I agree with the gist, if not the idealism, of her post): "No matter how careful one is, it is still easy to get the facts wrong when summarizing a large and complex issue." If you think I'm overstating my case, or misrepresenting reality, please let me know (and thanks in advance!)
...

In truth, Christianity and science have been allied more often than not. Many prominent scientists through history have been devout Christians, and even our modern culture has its share of believing scientists. There is a diversity of interpretation of evidence among the Christian scientists, but most think science is a way to discover more about what God has created - either through 6-day creation or evolution. Here are some groups of Christians interested in things scientific:


God bless!

3 comments:

Catez said...

Trackback from Allthings2all:
The Science and Christianity Showcase Excerpt: I am pleased to present the Science and Christianity Showcase. Contrary to the usual experience of scientists around the globe, this first time experiment has yielded excellent results...

Not Crunchy said...

Great post Ron (and not just because you said you agreed with me on several things!). Regarding "Treat Christians as equals in the debate and I think you'll find that most aren't as anti-science as anti-misuse-of-science,"...I sure hope that you are right on that one. Regarding "If you want us to be open-minded, treat us as the intelligent folks many of us really are, not the superstitious 'brainwashed' some folks believe we are," I will admit guilt in this department. I had a stereotype of Evangelicals as not being so high in the intelligence department, but my experience here has proven me wrong.

R. Stewart said...

"Regarding "Treat Christians as equals in the debate and I think you'll find that most aren't as anti-science as anti-misuse-of-science,"...I sure hope that you are right on that one."

Me too:) Otherwise, they're being hypocritical unless they've given up things like computers, cars, electricity...

"I had a stereotype of Evangelicals as not being so high in the intelligence department, but my experience here has proven me wrong."

Some of the brightest, best-read, rational people I know are also Christians. I also know many bright, well-read, rational atheists. While it doesn't bother me when I hear things along the lines of "ignorant, superstitious red-stated uber-self-righteous" (mostly cuz I know it ain't so much true) it is still good to try and debunk the general notion. We can't have an honest discussion with people who think we're beneath them, in intellectual terms. Glad we're changing your mind:-)