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Reflections on the March for Science

Supporting the March for Science Seems Like a No-Brainer. But Maybe It Isn't

On Saturday, April 22nd, a March for Science was held in many cities across the USA, as well as in other cities around the world.  Many scientists, as well as many non-scientists who are passionate believers in the benefits of science, hit the streets to show their support.

            In certain respects, supporting science is something equivalent to "Mom, apple pie, and the American flag."  After all, what's not to like about good science, and who can say they haven't benefitted from scientific and technological progress?  While there are a few Luddites amongst us, they don't gather a lot of support.  And yet, over the week following the April 22nd March, numerous complaints and objections have arisen.  Conservative columnist Ben Shapiro wrote that the March on Science is, unfortunately, another sign that the progressive left is trying to use "science" to further its own agenda.  In fact, Shapiro goes so far as to say that the political left is turning "science" into a new religion.

University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences, and a person considered the "go to" expert on weather in Seattle, Cliff Mass, summed up this concern on his blog:  "Science plays a critical role in civic life, acting as non-political source of information about the natural environment and as the generator of useful technologies. Scientists are credible only when their information is considered unbiased and not politically motivated. The lack of political bias is why both sides of the aisle have supported the nation's large scientific establishment over many years.

The Science March is clearly political and is an attempt to put pressure on the Trump administration. It will be seen as political by everyone and particularly those it means to pressure. Furthermore, the major concern driving this march is not science in general, but of the Trump administration's appointments and future actions regarding climate science and fossil fuel regulations."   Mass reportedly skipped the March on Science.

            As a result, "science", previously considered to be a "Mom, apple pie, and the American flag" subject, is being politicized, particularly with respect to the subject of climate change.

            Shapiro and others object to how the political left is addressing the climate change issue.  What he (and others) seem to have the most trouble with is the idea that not only is climate change an undeniable reality, but that the only way it can be solved is through massive governmental intervention and regulation.  Further, anyone who seems to object to that solution is a heretic or a "denier".

            The "politicization" of the climate change issue might just be an oddity, but it appears there are more problems than just this.  Beyond the "politicization" of science, others have objected on the grounds that there seems to be more and more "bad" science being done.  Perhaps the best example of "bad" science is the famous 1998 study published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature that purported to show a link between vaccines and autism.  It's now well known that the study results were fabricated and that the author lost his medical license over the issue.  Unfortunately, the autism article was not isolated.  Several years ago, John Ionnadis published a study titled "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False".  Houston billionaire John Arnold and his wife, Laura, have a foundation that is underwriting the Reproducibility Project, an effort to try to reproduce the findings of key scientific experiments.  Unfortunately, the results have not been particularly good.  In fact, the results have been so bad, and so many scientific studies have not had reproducible results, that it leads one to start to become very skeptical.  Two examples of this are research into diet and nutrition, as well as the research underlying many modern pharmaceutical products.  Various reasons have been cited for these problems, including the pressure of "publish or perish" for academics.

            Given how important science, and scientific research are, this is certainly an unfortunate set of circumstances.  The obvious question is, who is to blame?  Those on the left have a tendency to say it's the fault of anti-science religious fundamentalists.  This brings up the old question about a fundamental split between science and religion.  As I, and others, have written, extremists and each end of the spectrum have hypothesized a fundamental split between science and religion.  Atheists at one end of the spectrum, and some religious fundamentalists at the other end of the spectrum, have each fostered this idea.  Elsewhere, I've written that the Bible was not intended to be a scientific textbook, so there is no underlying reason for such a dichotomy.  In the popular consciousness one finds the idea that Christian evangelicals are anti-science.  Those who subscribe to this idea also seem to think that scientists are somehow more rational, more unbiased, and more "truth focused" than everyone else is being advanced.  In effect, the narrative goes like this: if we only stop listening to supporters of religion, and listen to the unbiased, rational scientific community, that somehow tainted by religion, we'd all be better off. 

However, the research of Elaine Ecklund, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston, shows that isn't really the case.  Ecklund found that only 15% of Americans say that science does more harm than good, and only 14% of evangelicals say the same.  If that's the case, then Christian evangelicals have pretty much identical levels of opposition to science as the population as a whole.  Thus, one can't make the argument that conservative Christian religious views are causing evangelicals to be more anti-science than others, and "tainting" or otherwise impeding the efforts of the somehow more rational scientific community.  Further, Ecklund has found that 70% of Christian evangelicals don't see a conflict between religion and science.

            If that's the case, then it's hard to make the argument that Christian evangelicals are promoting an anti-science agenda.  Could that mean that Ben Shapiro is correct in his assessment that the political left, which is clearly not strongly Christian, is the group with the political agenda?  Perhaps.  But I don't wish to draw that conclusion. 

            Instead, the conclusion I draw is one that may be unexpected.  The first conclusion is that we need good science and technology, and we also need to be assured that good science is done.  Not much controversy about that.  The other conclusion is one that will probably be surprising.  That conclusion is that the Christian church ought to be amongst the leaders of those supporting the practice of good science.  For some, that's probably an unexpected conclusion, but let me explain why I think it makes a lot of sense.  Historically, Christian churches have emphasized the importance of avoiding the sins of lying, deception, pride, and greed.  The Bible considers each of these as sins, and reminds believers to avoid these sins at all costs.  When you think about it, though, these sins appear to be rampant in the world of science.  Not that it is any worse in scientific circles than anywhere else, just that it is present every day.  The only difference is that somehow the public up to now seems to have been buying the notion that scientists are somehow more rational, more honest, and somehow different than everyone else, particularly those with religious views.  I hate to say it, but while scientists are often better educated than the population at large, they're still like everyone else.  They still embody all of the flaws of the rest of the population.  They're no more rational than everyone else, and there's no evidence that they're any less likely to succumb to lying, deception, pride, and greed than anyone else.  If that's the case, they're just as likely as everyone else to succumb to the temptations of deception, lying, pride, and greed, among other things.

            So what, specifically, could be done?  First, Christians who work in the sciences should be reminded that things like lying, deception, pride, and greed are considered sins in the Bible (and are equally objected to by atheists), so they are to be avoided.  Christian scientists need to avoid the temptation and snares of these things.  That may sound obvious, and many people may think it is unnecessary to say anything, because scientists already know these things are wrong.  Most likely so, but we can see that these problems not only are there, they may actually be getting worse.  Who will be there to provide the appropriate reminder? 

Perhaps Christian scientists should take the lead and try to serve as models for their fellow scientists.  In a sense, that might be parallel to what happened in the first century of the Christian church.  Those who became Christians started behaving in ways dramatically different that the population as a whole.  The general population started to notice this.  Perhaps that's just what is called for in the scientific community.  It might lead to some of the following:

  • Greater attention to "fudging" or omitting data from studies
  • Avoidance of projects with actual or perceived conflicts of interest
  • Avoidance of using science to advance a political agenda.
  • Greater attention to ethical issues, as they relate to scientific experiments.

As with pretty much every profession, practitioners don't normally set out to be dishonest and/or deceptive, but we keep seeing cases where people end up going where they don't plan to go.  Scientists are no exception.  Someone needs to take the lead on this.  Why shouldn't it be the Christian church, especially since Christians have played this role for so much of the past 2,000 years?  While that might seem odd, especially given the somewhat strained relationship between the Christian church and science over the past century or so, one can reach farther back in time to realize it's not so unreasonable at all.  Without a doubt, our increasingly science and technology-based culture needs good, honest science to be done.  We cannot afford a science community riven with problems of lying, deception, pride, and greed.  Absolutely no one – Christian or non-Christian – benefits from that. 

Let me know what you think, whether you agree or disagree.  If you find these posts interesting, please consider subscribing.

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Carl Treleaven is an entrepreneur, author, strong supporter of various non-profits, and committed Christian. He is CEO of Westlake Ventures, Inc., a company with diversified investments in printing and software.

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