Is There a War on Science? Reflecting on National Geographic’s Cover Story | The BioLogos Forum


(system) #1

Journalism about faith and science has long lived in the shadow of H.L. Mencken, the famous reporter whose coverage of the infamous Scopes “Monkey” trial in 1925 portrayed a battle between enlightened scientific sophisticates and ignorant religious “yokels”. This narrative has had a long shelf life in the media, despite the fact that scholars have universally seen it as little more than a caricature of a limited segment of the dialogue. However, there are encouraging signs that this worn-out mythology of conflict between science and faith is finally getting a second look.

A good example is the cover story of the latest issue of National Geographic magazine, titled “The Age of Disbelief”. Writer Joel Achenbach (on loan from the Washington Post) tackles the formidable task of explaining the common threads tying together skepticism about several scientific topics—climate change, evolution, genetically modified foods, vaccines, and the moon landings—all in one article. Nat Geo and Achenbach deserve a lot of credit for this approach, particularly because it frames all these controversial issues in their broader American cultural context, rather than just using religion as a whipping boy. It’s also heartening to see multiple studies cited that show how skepticism about mainstream scientific arguments is not a function of ignorance or stupidity—in many cases, people are more likely to doubt certain conclusions if they are better educated, even if that education is in the sciences (for instance, the online edition of the article is titled, “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”). This in particular is a point BioLogos has repeatedly made in reference to debates about evolutionary science—that all major positions count smart, capable, rational, science-minded individuals among their ranks.

Yet for all these encouraging signs of progress, National Geographic decided to take a step backward into the Mencken era by emblazoning “THE WAR ON SCIENCE” on the front cover of the print edition. Achenbach quickly clarifies that “war” refers to people who doubt the “consensus of experts”, not a wide-scale abandonment of the scientific method. But to him, the two are inextricably linked, such that otherwise reasonable, science-minded people are waging war against the whole enterprise of science if they doubt the consensus of mainstream experts. This is Achenbach’s task—to explain why so many people who, in his mind, have “declared war on science” can think science can be trusted while scientific authorities can’t.

Achenbach spends much of the article laying out a case for the trustworthiness of mainstream scientific experts, but his arguments suffer from a similar lack of nuance. “[Scientific] dogma is always wilting in the hot glare of new research,” he lauds, but then he quickly turns around and portrays dogmas like evolution and climate change as glare-proof, as if he doesn’t even notice the seeming contradiction. To Achenbach (any many other scientifically literate people), of course, this isn’t a contradiction—theories that have survived voluminous rounds of peer review and refinement deserve the “truth” label—but this is a far less intuitive point than Achenbach assumes. In fact, this is precisely the point at which so many people lose faith in science as a truly open, truth-oriented enterprise.

The response of Answers in Genesis (AiG) to the article (which included a double-wide photo of the Creation Museum among its print-edition images) illustrates this point. Avery Foley, writing for AiG, reiterates a common theme among young-earth creationists: how much they love science, and how confused they are about why questioning scientific consensus is labeled as bravery in some cases and a “war on science” in others. To them (and many others in the evangelical world), doubting the scientific consensus is a healthy—and even scientific—position. This at least partially explains why evangelicals, who are skeptical about mainstream science in higher numbers than any other religious group, also overwhelmingly claim to be “pro-science”, and think science and faith are in harmony.

AiG’s response, as well as the poll data, give strong evidence for Achenbach’s own conclusion that a better relationship between mainstream science and the layperson must begin with a more robust popular understanding of how the messy process of scientific discovery and revision leads to real, solid results. As BioLogos founder Francis Collins says, quoted in the Nat Geo article, “[science] may get it wrong the first time and maybe the second time, but ultimately it will find the truth.” Collins is making a crucial point: The progress of science is, in the long run, forward. We aren’t going back to a geocentric universe or a belief in the medical effectiveness of leeches. All scientific theories are fallible, but some are more fallible than others. And, once again, we need experts to help us sort this out, and—as we often argue—mainstream scientific institutions are the best method possible for facilitating this evaluation. This is the conversation that really matters: If science-loving Christians on all sides of the evolution debate can realize that mainstream science can be both fallible and trustworthy at the same time, I think we will be on better ground.

As Achenbach bracingly hints throughout the piece, the rhetoric of “more scientific than thou” accomplishes almost nothing, reinforcing existing narratives rather than bringing more people into productive dialogue. While some portions of his article (including the egregiously clumsy cover title) seem to work against this conclusion, Achenbach is to be commended for stepping away from the old stereotype of “religion vs. science” and towards a more accurate understanding of what actually drives skepticism about mainstream science.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/is-there-a-war-on-science-reflecting-on-national-geographics-cover-story

"Polystrate" Fossils
(Brad Kramer) #3

I moved a post to a new topic: What divides Christians from “mainstream science”?


(Brad Kramer) #5

I’m available to respond to questions and comments.


#6

Good article, Brad. Yes, its nice they said “War on Science” instead of “Religion vs Science”. But the war of words and propoganda continues. The title is obviously false, yet it will remain in the archives as a semi-valid position, and as a derogatory comment on those who differ from mainstream or consensus positions. Just as the issue of evolution is not about religion vs science, but about science vs science, or possibly religion vs evolution, so too in the five issues raised in the National Geographic article, there are very few if any people saying that science ought to be stopped or condemned. Rather it is the dispute about values, about risk, about the human element of control (corporations or governments), about speculative science, that is the motive for differing approaches, interpretations and applications to daily life. The title “War on Science” reveals the underlying attitude of many who accept consensus “scientific” mantras without critical evaluation, and with a superior attitude towards those who disagree. Instead of science being a tool for discovery, it has become a god to be worshipped. I suppose in that sense, a war against the god, not against the tool, is valid. But in these five issues, the war is on the issue, not against the discipline of science, and in that sense National Geographic misframes the whole discussion for populist reasons, and for the same reason that it often has highlighted highly doubtful “discoveries” about human evolution which have been demonstrated to be false. These things attract attention. But the way they are discussed also leaves a lasting impression to the vulnerable.


(Brad Kramer) #7

@johnZ I think we’re largely in agreement about the rhetorical issues—and where the conflict really lies. For the author (and many others), a theory that has been peer-reviewed and tested exhaustively (and is affirmed by the vast majority of experts worldwide) self-evidently leaves the field of “speculative science” into something closer to fact. In that sense, much of the article came from the author’s exasperation that so many people think 90 percent of worldwide experts could be completely wrong. I think he has underestimated what’s actually involved in people’s trust decisions about scientific consensus, and you’re right that it has very little to do with whether people affirm the scientific method or not.

I think the trick here is to get away from self-righteous rhetoric on all sides, but still affirm that mainstream science actually does know what it is doing (and is not just “speculative”). There are some people who need to give mainstream science less credit (and faith), but there’s plenty of others who refuse to give it hardly any credit, and that’s also a big problem.


(Preston Garrison) #8

“The title “War on Science” reveals the underlying attitude of many who accept consensus “scientific” mantras without critical evaluation, and with a superior attitude towards those who disagree”.

Modern scientific theories are complex and they require serious effort and training to evaluate how good the support is. It is no doubt true that many people just choose which experts to believe. But the accusation that the people involved in these fields are uncritical, which is sometimes made, just isn’t true.

I remember my amusement when a culture war journalist came around a science discussion by a bunch of Ph.D. researchers and told us all that we needed to learn to think critically. It became pretty clear that what she meant by “think critically” was “agree with me.” You generally don’t get out of grad school without learning to think critically about your own work and that of others. That’s a big part of what the whole thing is about. It is a bad experience to have your paper shot down by the reviewers, so you learn to work hard at difficult tests of your hypothesis before submitting. I once wasted over a year on an artifact created by some sloppy work by a grad student. I was pondering what was going on with our unexpected but promising results and finally in the middle of the night, I saw what had happened. A critical experiment showed that we had been chasing an artifact. Depressing, but better than having submitted a paper that would have to be retracted. Occasionally I see someone who escaped grad school without learning this, and I always think that some people at the grad school know they screwed up.

This is why I favor trying to explain scientific results directly, without analogies, and in some detail to make it clear that the researchers have already thought of the possible problems and tried to correct for them. It’s far better for people to get an understanding of the actual scientific reasoning than for them to just pick some experts to believe, as they will tend to pick the experts (or supposed experts) who will tell them what they want to hear.

Some areas are so demanding that even a scientist in another field may not be able to really evaluate. I don’t have the experience with physics and complex mathematical models to evaluated climate science. I have to just look to see how it is working out in practice with current observations and predictions. There seem to be well-trained people involved, so I guess that they are probably not far off in their predictions. It’s hard not to think that most of the skepticism isn’t driven by any real understanding, but by economic considerations.


#9

Yes. In the scientific papers I read, the language is usually much more conservative than the press likes to put it. In other words, the conclusions in peer reviewed papers generally confine themselves to the data at hand, and do not make vast generalizations and extrapolations. A research paper might say for example that there is a correlation between two sets of data at a certain level of significance, or that it reasonable to assume, or that no statistically significant level of harm has been discovered in the data. Conversely, a scientific speculation about the possibility of something may be reported in the press as fact, even though the research is incomplete or even before the verifiable and repeatable research has even begun.

Although scientific consensus sounds authoritative, there may also be scientific consensus (as in community of scientists) that there should be more funding for science, or that the earth’s population is too big (Malthus), or that we will run out of oil by a certain time, or that the world is cooling (*1970s), or that another earth will be discovered in space in the future, or that we should put a carbon tax on everything. For the average person to separate out the consensus on these types of issues compared to the conclusions of peer reviewed research is difficult, and there is a blurring between the two different categories of consensus.

In terms of evolution certain things are indisputable, ie. that mutations occur, that there is variation within species, that natural selection occurs, that fossils are found, and that certain organisms appear to be extinct. But on the other hand, there are many disputable things, such as whether animals are non-existent during geological times, simply because no fossils have been discovered in those geologic layers… in fact we know that is not true, but we cannot know when it is true or not true. We know there is a great deal of variation within species, but we cannot know for certain that genetic information has increased within one species to create a new species with significantly different characteristics. We cannot prove a distinction between inheritance and design in the genome, or the extent to which each plays a role.

Speculation abounds in science, and even in research papers sometimes, but it is often not reported as speculation within the press, or the speculative nature gets missed. Most research papers continually emphasize that more research is needed on a topic, partly because if justifies feeds the research funding, but also because there are always unanswered questions. When reading the specifics of the need for more research, you will get a clue as to what is still not known, and this helps you to understand the certainty or uncertainty of the extrapolations from the actual scientific discovery, and the validity of the scope of the extrapolation.

I work in agriculture, and when we do research, we need to see economic levels of benefit for certain practices in order to promote them. For example, if autosteer reduces seeding and spraying overlap from an average of 18 inches to an average of 3 inches, then we can calculate the savings in seed and fertilizer and herbicide. But to calculate a yield benefit, we need to actually measure comparative yields on the overlap portion with the non-overlapped portion in a statistically random fashion on the various common crops in various parts of the province. This means at least twenty samples on a paired sampling technique, in at least three or four geographic locations. When a result is obtained, we say that it is obtained on a certain variety of a crop for a certain seeding regime, under specified conditions of weather, fertilizer, seeding rates, and herbicide applications. The conclusion is that it is likely to apply to other similar crops under a certain parameter of conditions. The “likely” statement is an extrapolation, and while reasonable, is not by itself assumed to be a scientific research. Depending on the scope of the extrapolation, more research will often be advised.

All of the speculations in crop growth must be demonstrated on the field in actual comparisons under controlled conditions, before they can be accepted or denied, and then applied. This is very difficult to do, or even impossible, in paleontological science, and thus the degree of certainty is greatly diminished.


(Brad Kramer) #10

I don’t have any formal experience in the field of paleontology (do you?) but it seems to me that “speculation” doesn’t mean the same things in scientific and popular usages. Specifically, I wonder if there’s a difference between a speculation about how a certain fossil fits in the big picture, and whether the big picture itself is one big speculation (and how would we know either way?). I was raised to believe that scientists came up with evolution the same way drunk people play darts, which I have since realized was not only wrong but completely prejudiced (and even some young-earth creationists would agree).


(Preston Garrison) #11

Have you ever looked at Ford Denison’s blog, Darwinian Agriculture? Plants are not my field, but he has some very interesting stuff there sometimes. He published a book by that title a few years ago.


#12

I am not a paleontologist, but I have been at an excavation site of Pachyrhinosaurus and seen the excavation and removal of a skull, as well as the bones left behind, and the layers of earth above and below the excavation on the edge of a creek bank. I have visited the Drumheller Dinosaur Museum, as well as the the Big Valley Creation Science museum. I have been superficially exposed to paleontology when I asked the paleontologist how he knew the age of the pachyrhinosaurus… he gave the impression that it was too complicated to have a simple explanation… yet he appeared willing to state the assumed age. I agree that evolutionists did not come up with evolution as a dart playing game, but that doesn’t seem to be very relevant. Criticisms of evolution are also not a game of darts, so?

Yes there is a difference of degrees of speculation. But if the speculation about certain fossils and species (or about vestigial organs or junk dna) is often found to be wrong, it might be supposed that not just the particular incident of discovery was incorrect, but that the validity of the direction of theorizing is itself mistaken. Before heliocentrism simplified the solar system, astronomers devised an incredible array of systems and circles to account for the evidence. We would say they constantly twisted the evidence to fit into their geocentric model. I suspect the same is happening with evolution… a constant twisting of evidence to fit the evolutionary model.

You may ask why I suspect this? For a number of reasons. Polystrate fossils. Selective uniformitarianism (7 foot snowfall to result in several annual ice rings per inch?). Assumptions of vestigial organs that were not vestigial. Assumptions of junk DNA that was not junk. Disregarding the significance of different genome sizes between ape and human. Haeckel and his twisting of the embryonic evidence. Assumptions that a pig’s tooth was an ancient human tooth without clarifying the uncertainty. Claiming extinct fossils when the animals were not extinct (Coelecanth). Assuming that the only reason fossils could be stratified is because of age. Making errors about sedimentation (water laid vs wind laid). Assumption errors about rates of sedimentation. Assumptions about rates of mountain uplift. Assumptions about uniformitarianism. C14 found in millions of years old rock. Inability to explain evolution of complex organs and complex organisms. The innate desire to explain a-biogenesis even though it contradicts the law of biogenesis. The preference for some to consider aliens as source of life, rather than to consider the written evidence. All of these reasons, and more besides, make me wonder whether all the options are really being explored, or whether the evidence is being read to fit the theory.


#13

In reference to the difference between science and how the media portrays it, we might almost say that there is a war of media against science. Science says, “there is a possible or alleged human ancestor fossil”. Media interprets that to say that “fossil find revises upsets the line of human ancestry”. in this you-tube video, about half way through, you will see the actual examples of the headlines used. www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqnJrDeGXps


(Brad Kramer) #14

I moved 5 posts to a new topic: “Polystrate” Fossils


(Brad Kramer) #15

I moved 6 posts to a new topic: What caused the Flood?


#16

I read an article yesterday, that indicated that a scientific publisher (for medical articles) was retracting more than 40 research papers that had been determined to be fraudulently peer reviewed. That doesn’t mean that the papers were wrong, just that either no peer review had taken place, or that the peer review was a set-up, trading favorable reviews for favorable reviews. There was fraudulent use of scientist names without their knowledge, as well as completely fictitious reviewers. Estimates run as high as 400 papers may be subject to these fraudulent reviews. Brad’s first comment on this thread referred to peer review, which I also think is a good idea. But we ought to keep in mind the vulnerability of scientists to fraud, to fraudulent thinking, and to missapplied reasoning within a sort of status quo environment. To say this or point this out does not mean that I have a war against science. But to think that science exists outside of the human element is naive. When paradigms get challenged, unscientific thinking and actions often begin.


(system) #17

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