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Knowledge, Leadership, and Science

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The last 30 days or so have seen a great uptick in the discussion about science, religion, politics and epistemology.  For the Cleveland Browns fans out there, epistemology is the study of how we know things – What is the basis of actual knowledge.  The uptick is the result of the revelation that a study on attitudes about homosexuality was essentially faked.  I searched for an article of any sort that explained what happened without a lot of opinion attached and the only ones I could find are behind expensive academic pay walls.  This is as close as I could come to something of that sort.

Not being in academia myself, I first picked up on the fraudulent study from a June 5 WSJ opinion piece.  I did not think much of it at the time because it is about polling, and while polling uses a lot of scientific tools, it has never risen to the level of “science.”  I am by academic training a chemist (M.S., Chemistry, Butler University, 1984) which is about as rigorous as science gets.

Lo, those many years ago we had some pretty constant debates about “hard” and “soft” science.  Physics represented the hardest of the sciences and chemistry was second.  Biology, zoology, botany, geology were still serious science, but they were much softer than the big guys of physics and chemistry.  The distinction was born of several concerns, mostly surrounding mathematical rigor and experimental capabilities.  The softer sciences are more observational and taxonomic than they were theoretical and testable.  On purely scientific terms, evolution was a big deal because it was a theory that could to some level be tested in the life sciences.  Prior to evolution pretty much  the only thing a life scientist did was find and classify life forms.  Hence all those expeditions to “darkest Africa.”

The year I finished my undergraduate education something extraordinary happened. Sigma Xi, a science honorary, started to admit students from “behavioral sciences,” at least the Butler chapter did, for the first time – psychology majors.  The faculty had, unbeknownst to we mere students until the induction, been debating it for a long time.  The debate was about that fact that while psychology employs many of the tools of science, it is less rigorous than actual science, if for no other reason than experimentation on human behavior is at best limited, and in many cases flat out immoral.  If you cannot experiment on it, it is not science.

What was really going on in those debates was a debate about authority.  When a physicist says “Let go of that ball and it will fall to the floor and bounce X inches high,” that would happen – every time.  There is some pretty serious authority in being able to make such predictions.  The Psych profs wanted to be able to claim that kind of authority,  Problem is, human behavior is just not that predictable.  Sure, it may bunch itself in bell curve, but that is something very different than the precision with which Newtonian mechanics can predict the motion of a baseball.  Hence we really hard science types thought that while psychology was a legitimate field of study, it did not rise to the level of “science.”  Therefore, while the psych majors inducted with me were certainly smart people, we did not think they belonged in our club and certainly should be allowed to speak with our authority..

After graduate school, I pretty much left such questions behind – choosing to use my science, instead of make more of it.  Of course, I read the journals from time-to-time and talked to friends in academia, but that was not my world.  But in my world I increasingly encountered things where the behavioral and social sciences were speaking in public and policy matters with the same perceived authority as the physicist.  Apparently we hard science types had lost the debate.  I had figured the distinction between the physicists ability to to say that object will be in that place at that time, and the psychologists ability to say “most people will” would be transparent and the authority problem would sort itself out.  But I was wrong.

Not only that, the softer sciences were now stealing the authority page from the behavioral sciences book and claiming authority far beyond what their statistical analysis would have allowed when I was in school.  Climate change would be example number one of this phenomena.  I don’t want to debate it right now, but any reasonable scientist will acknowledge that what the data says in one thing and the public furor is another.  But when scientific authority speaks….

And that  finally, brings us to the essential question.  Science is not the ultimate arbiter of things – authority is.  Hence the “fight” between religion and science.  The have very different epistemological approaches, and those approaches are fighting for authority.  This becomes transparent in a June 9 Physics Today piece entitled “Could the evolution of theoretical physics harm public trust in science?” (Warning – some pretty highfalutin’ science discussion)  Here’s the key graph:

This Science essay had nothing directly to do with the “elegance will suffice” controversy engaged in the first pair of dueling commentaries. But like empiricism defenders Ellis and Silk, it stressed the foundational importance of evidence and empiricism. “Public trust in science increases,” it declared, “when we all have access to the same base of evidence.”

The real debate is about who speaks with sufficient authority to inform the public and policy, not whether science or religion gives more access to truth and reality.

Which brings me to a recent Atlantic review of the latest science/religion debate book.  The reviewer summarizes the book’s thesis this way:

This tragic story backs up the chief argument Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, makes in Faith Versus Fact, namely that “it is time for us to stop seeing faith as a virtue, and to stop using the term ‘person of faith’ as a compliment.” In the book’s 262 pages, Coyne tackles arguments stating that belief in God is a laudable quality, and reasons instead that faith is detrimental, even dangerous, and fundamentally incompatible with science, even while peacemakers try to find common ground between the two.

In other words, the book’s author makes a moral argument for the superiority of science when science is an entirely amoralistic enterprise.  After all, observation of the natural world would tell us that murder is acceptable since animals kill each other on a regular and vicious basis.  If science cannot tell us anything about what is moral and what isn’t, how can it possibly be superior to religion on a moral basis?  What is happening is the author is claiming moral authority for science, that’s all.

So, if the key is not truth, but authority, how does the church reclaim authority?  After all of this, isn’t that the key question?  Well, I think we take a page from Coyne.  He argues for science because he thinks it is good.  In other words authority comes from goodness – not epistemology, not predictions, not data – goodness.  The apostle Paul put it this way:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

If the church wants to reclaim its authority in the world, and the world desperately needs it to, then it must recover its goodness.  What better day than Sunday July 5 for the church to begin to reclaim its goodness.

Hughniverse

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