Posted by: dacalu | 25 April 2019

March for Science

Today’s post comes from a reflection I gave for the Society of Ordained Scientists TeleCompline. I have decided to set it forth twice: once as a secular essay for scientists, and once as a reflection for Christians. This post carries the secular portion; the next relates it to scripture, gospel, and mission. Whether you fall in one camp or both (or neither), I’d encourage you to read through and see how the two types of reasoning relate to one another. It might surprise you… Indeed, I hope it will.

This week, I was remembering the March for Science. On April 22 (Earth Day), 2017 around 100,000 people gathered in Washington, DC to advocate for science. Tens of thousands gathered in other cities around the U.S.

I recall being troubled at the time. “Science” sounds good as an abstract principle. The word means roughly, “knowledge acquired by study.” Who doesn’t like well-earned understanding? A little reflection, however, reveals a challenge. There are natural sciences (e.g., physics, biology, chemistry…) and social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, economics…). It’s not clear to me that they all use “science” in the same way.

Many other ways of knowing claim to be science. Aquinas called theology Queen of the Sciences (13th cent.). Gauss gave that title to Mathematics (19th cent.). Even today, we see Christian Science, Creation Science, and Scientology. The name is not enough. Most of us want science to be a reliable and commonly accepted way of knowing.

That’s where the trouble starts. What makes science reliable? Who decides? The marchers want “evidence-based policy.” For my part, that means policy should use the best empirical data according to natural science. It narrows and focuses “evidence” and “science.”

I doubt politics will change the weight of biological evidence (human embryos implant ~7 days after fertilization, viruses evolve) or climate science evidence (the atmosphere is warming, human activities contribute significantly). The same cannot be said for economics. Here, the evidence reflects many biases that vary with political party. Should we consider humans rational and selfish? Should we think of them as good at estimation and planning? Evidence in economics works differently than evidence in biology.

More troubling, I know many people who wrap materialism, progressivism, and other ideologies into their definition of “science.” Strangely, individualism (“see for yourself”), socialism (consensus), and meritocracy (peer review) all arise in discussions of good science. Some of the marchers may care more about these things than they do about empirical data.

I think the organizers of March for Science focus on good things – rigorous reasoning, inclusion, impartiality, forward-thinking, and reflection. There’s another march on May 4. Check it out.  Maybe you should go…

I’m not attacking science or the march. I’m asking what’s at stake and what I care about.

Perhaps I’m being persnickety, focusing on metaphysics instead of practical questions? (I do that.) Perhaps I over-reacted because Scientism (over-valuing science by seeing it as the only source of knowledge) was so popular in the 90s and 00s? (I do that, too.)

So, I did a thought experiment. How would I feel about a March for Christianity? That would make me rather nervous as well. I am always for Christ, but Christianity has all these foibles that come from human imperfection and social structures. Christian marchers calling for “virtue-based policy” would give me chills. Too many Christians have “virtue” that is alien, if not antithetical, to my faith.

Public debate should be driven by empirical data (a kind of evidence) and compassion (a virtue). When I speak of science and Christianity informing policy, that is what I mean. I will march for these things. I might even be willing to die for these things, but they may not be the first things my neighbors think of.

We live in an age of confusion. Clarity comes from knowing what we care about and why. I can be persnickety about science (and Christianity) and I will be, because the words matter. It matters what we say and what we mean. It matters if we march. And it matters why.

The religion-y portion follows, here.

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Responses

  1. […] once as a secular essay for scientists, and once as a reflection for Christians. The previous post spoke about the essence of science and what it means to “March for Science.” This post […]


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