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