The Truth about Science

I am a Christian, so the truth matters to me. The bible is true is everything it affirms. It points to Jesus as the ultimate revelation of truth. He and it speak of the importance of believing the truth, speaking the truth and living out the truth.

I am not a scientist. I have an undergraduate degree in Environmental Geology from 1996. This means that I have a casual and out-of date acquaintance with earth sciences. I am not good enough at maths to be a scientist. A few of my friends have science PhDs. They know an awful lot about a tiny corner of the scientific enterprise – more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing – as the saying goes. Most of the polymaths who have a grasp of something like the full picture are incapable of communication with normal people despite English remaining the mainstream global language of science. So how can we be clear about anything? Because of the truth about the way science works:

Bob has a chemical idea. Bob tests the idea in his lab and proves that his idea was correct. He does it again to check. And again. Bob then publishes his idea and describes how he tested it in a scientific journal. Bob’s friends try the same test. Bob’s rivals try it too…. and Derek who hates him. They all try the same test. 2 of his enemies get it to work. The others don’t. All of them write about it in scientific journals, some slating Bob’s idea, others praising it. Zihao in China notices that the people who didn’t get the experiment to work did something wrong. He can make it work every time. He is proud of his country’s scientific prowess & publishes his findings with a note of patriotic pride. Derek tries Zihao’s method and then goes to print to say that Zihao is right (inferring that Bob is still a halfwit). After five years everyone agrees that Bob was right. Everyone agrees that this is interesting and could be significant. No one knows how it can be applied. Jane writes a PhD about the body of knowledge in this area. Nobody reads it. Thirty five years later, Chris in the pharma lab remembers an old professor referring to Jane’s other work and wonders whether it might be the key to making their new chemical into a medicine. It turns out that Bob’s idea is a small part of a permanent cure for athlete’s foot. Bob is long dead. He did not have athlete’s foot.

Mainstream science accumulates peer-reviewed, publicly available, repetitively tested knowledge which gets absorbed into a built-up picture of a small, interesting or lucrative area of the universe. These pictures are pieced together over decades to form an understanding of the world. Occasionally there are seismic shifts in this understanding. But mostly the picture is formed by long, slow, painstaking, honest, sometimes tragic Bobs, Janes, Zihaos and Chrises. The accuracy of this picture is confirmed by the medicines we take, the bikes we ride, food we grow, the foundations we build & pretty much everything we consume.

I think the British Antarctic Survey were the first to spot global warming in the early 1900s. It has taken over 100 years of painstaking research and endeavour to pin the cause on human activity. This is not in the interest of the big money players in the global economy. Vaccines were discovered in 1796 at the expense of a kid called James Phipps about 8 miles from where I am sitting. It has taken over 200 years of peer reviewed development, testing and truth seeking for us to get to the stage where vaccines for a new flu virus can be turbo-developed in a matter of months and rolled out globally with constant scientific review from informed competitors, rivals, and colleagues. In the area of science with which I have a casual acquaintance, James Hutton proposed his ideas about the systems of the earth in 1789. Gregors and Charleses and Igors and Daiyus, soldiers and prospectors, physicists and botanists have published and reviewed, experimented and tested, theorised and argued to form the mainstream body of earth sciences today. All of these people were fallen human beings. Every one of them subject to the temptations of money, sex and power. But the passage of time and the framework of accountable scientific testing acts to keep the process truthful in the long term.
I think the truth matters.

Facebook pseudoscience and “Christian” anti-science short-circuit the above process and do not do the world any favours in the process. I get particularly concerned when Christian faith is marketed as an enemy of mainstream science. Jesus placed a pretty high value on truth telling and truth seeking. I think God endorses mainstream science becasue it’s about truth seeking and loves mainstream scientists just like he loves the rest of us sinners. I have a lot of time for Francis Collins, the outgoing director of the U.S. National Institute of Health and former head of the Human Genome Project: “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate and beautiful – and it cannot be at war with itself. Only we imperfect humans can start such battles. And only we can end them.” (From his NYT best seller, the Language of God). I think it’s time for Christians to find out the truth about science.