Why Doubts? What to Do?

Why do people doubt science? (Above is the view I am enjoying this week – hard at work at a conference.)

People find many reasons to question authorities – scientists, pastors, priests, presidents. The issues are often similar, but not identical. In particular I have long been interested in the reasons religious people (especially evangelical Christians) question scientific consensus. As a group, we are not “science deniers” or at least most of us are not. Yet even David Fitch recently posted on Facebook:

There was a time when evangelical fundamentalism dismissed and defended against modern science. This led, in my opinion, to a opposite reaction within evangelicalism to embrace modern science, evolution, modern psychology, medical advances, etc. We see it in movements as diverse as creationist science and BioLogos. IMO this reaction led often to a naive acceptance of science as too readily objective and determinative in moral and social issues. Science often (subtly) becomes an equal with the Bible. And yet it has been proven over and over (since Foucault at least) to be the captive of ideology. This is why I teach, not to dismiss modern science, but discern discern discern modern science, where its conclusions are coming from, where it illumines, where it merely plays to a political agenda. 🙂

I agree with much of what David says – although I bristle at his characterization of BioLogos. His implication seems to be that it arose as an “opposite reaction,” i.e. a reactionary embracing of evolution. As an expert, this isn’t my impression of BioLogos. Rather, it arose out of expertise. A core of scientists who are also Christians have found this an important topic to pursue. Others with expertise in theology, biblical studies, and philosophy have joined the effort. We agree that discern, discern, discern is very good advice. This is why we have come together to address the issue of evolution; its implications and its compatibility with Christian faith. We endeavor to build trust and make the case. The fundamental idea of the gradual development of the diversity of life over hundreds of millions of years is incredibly well supported by the data. Aspects of the mechanisms and pathways are still being discovered, debated, and revised, but these details are insignificant when it comes to the interface with Christian faith.

But, David might be surprised to know that the issues he brings up are also of concern within the scientific community. An opinion piece in an on-line magazine The Scientist came across my inbox Monday: Opinion: What You Believe about “Science Denial” May Be All Wrong. The author, Kari Fischer, was one of the organizers of a conference dealing with so-called science denial. In this opinion piece she summarizes 6 take-away messages. The following is a quote – although I’ve shortened as indicated by the ellipses.

  • It’s not “science denial.” … [F]ew people reject science in its entirety. … [W]e ALL have a tendency to cherry-pick facts that support our beliefs, and eschew those that fail to comport with our motivations, ideologies, or fears. This is not unique to science.
  • Check yourself. … As it should, scientific consensus evolves over time as new knowledge is uncovered, so what we perceive as “truth” today may change. On top of that, science is a power structure with its own flaws. … Before we engage with those who challenge scientific thinking, we should first answer the following questions for ourselves: What were the motivations behind the research? How well corroborated is the data? What oversight and criticism has it received? And-this may the most important of all-why do we believe it?
  • Listen first. To better understand those we seek to convince, we must start by asking the right questions: Where did they get their information? What personal stories shaped their underlying fears or concerns? Storytelling is empirically proven to be more potent than stand-alone data, so we must always remember that their anecdotes may ultimately be far more compelling to them than a simple recitation of scientific facts.
  • Keep it relevant. When we transition to sharing information, we should present it in a way that is relatable to our target audience and their community. …
  • Engender trust. It is impossible for anyone to sift through all the data in the world ourselves, so people look to reliable messengers, leaders, and peers to filter and interpret relevant knowledge. … But trust cannot be forced. …
  • Remember what you represent. … [W]hen we do speak out, we must remember that we represent not only ourselves, but our institutions, and science as a whole. We should resist the temptation to engage with trolls, or become them ourselves by berating “non-believers.” Ridicule will not foster trust.

‘Engender trust’ and ‘ridicule will not foster trust’ … a message we would all do well to remember; especially as Christians aiming to spread a message within our communities and the world. We have lost the trust of much of surrounding society for unfortunate reasons. This is too big to dig into here and is largely independent of science and its relationship with Christian faith.

Back to David Fitch’s comments. Science – an ambiguous and broad designation – is not equal with the Bible. Scientists, when acting as scientists using the tools of science, address questions that are quite different from the central questions addressed by the Bible. We would all do well to also remember this.

Science is far too often viewed as “readily objective and determinative in moral and social issues.” The history, and even some current examples, can be cited as clear repudiation of objectivity in moral and social issues. “Science” has been co-opted to support among other things, racism, eugenics, and the selective abortion of “defective” infants. Richard Dawkins was never a trusted authority in my book – but when he argued a moral imperative for the abortion following an in utero diagnosis of Down’s syndrome (see one story in The Guardian) he epitomized the problem. His opinion was moral, was his own, and was not science. The possibilities introduced by new capabilities in gene editing raise concern – as does the willingness to discard members of society for reasons of health, age, and national origin. As Christians, our society encompasses the entire world – all are neighbors. There are many important questions where our input is essential.

David Fitch recommended that we “discern modern science, where its conclusions are coming from, where it illumines, where it merely plays to a political agenda.” The down side to this excellent advice is that it can be used as an excuse to dismiss the conclusions we don’t like. Discernment is hard work and requires an openness to challenging conclusions. I am open to genuine evidence that undermines the basic evolutionary model of development over deep time. So far I haven’t seen any.

Perhaps it is time we move on to more important issues.

What do you think?

How can we engender trust?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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