Thursday, October 25, 2012

It's been scientifically proven ...

I'm always a little amused when issues of morality and ethics come up in public conversation and someone wants to trot science out to settle the argument.  In Minnesota's current "marriage amendment" conversation, both sides are quoting various scientific sources to claim the rational high ground.  

While I'm intrigued by the recent studies out of Texas that have indicated significant advantages for children being raised by a mother and a father, as opposed to two parents of the same gender, I don't base my support for that amendment on such studies.  Simply put, I try as much as possible to live my life in line with what the Bible recommends because I'm convinced that knowing Jesus and living obedient to him is the very best life possible.  In the same way, I want what is the very best for the society in which I live, so when I have opportunities, I try to sway that society toward a more biblical way of life.  (And no, to the critics, I am not talking about women wearing head coverings or stoning disrespectful children.  There are legitimate readings of the Bible as a whole that address those texts and place them in a wider context.  Email me and we can have that conversation if you like.)

Back to science.  We have been taught to believe that science is rational.  Science brings perspective.  Scientifically based decision making is better.  There is just enough truth in this attitude to keep us coming back for more.  

However, I think we are in grave danger if we simply believe that because "science" says something is so, it is so.  First, this is true because "science" rarely speaks with one voice on any controversial issue. Fact is, scientists are as diverse a group as humans in general and tend to disagree amongst themselves.  The fact that they disagree in scientific journals in articles using four-syllable words is what makes most of us think they're so smart and that they really have it all together.  Not so.

Second, the very scientific method, if we really understood it, militates against certainty.  Why?  Because using the scientific method you are constantly making observations, developing hypotheses, testing those hypotheses according to new observations, and going back around to revise your initial assumptions.  This very process we call the "scientific method" -- a process that is at the heart of all scientific knowledge -- is by nature based on skepticism, revision, and doubting one's earlier conclusions until they are absolutely proven -- which never happens in the scientific endeavor.  I'm not criticizing science at this point; if science is going to do its job, it HAS to operate this way.  But if you go looking to science for certainty, you might get into trouble.  

I love what M. Cartmill said on this score: "As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life - so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls."

Well said, and the comparison is apt: If you use your office as archbishop to meet girls, you have violated the very nature of the office.  If you use your office as a scientist to claim you have the facts, you violate the very nature of the office.

The other thing about science is that it is mostly practiced by scientists, and scientists tend to be human beings.  Human beings have a long track record of being wrong.  Here are a few examples:

Example #1 -- The Kaibab Plateau, c. 1906:
The best scientific minds in the area of wildlife management and environmental engineering wanted to create a lush paradise on earth for the estimated 4,000 mule deer on the Kaibab Plateau in northern Arizona in the early 1900's.  Using the best scientific techniques, they banned hunting and killed off hundreds of predators.  The deer flourished, until 1923 and 1924.  In those two years, it is estimated that about 60,000 deer starved to death on the Kaibab -- the direct result of the finest scientific minds of the time having their way.  (You can read more about this set of events here -- I have no idea why the critter at the top of the page is an African antelope.  Go figure.)

Example #2 -- Crisco.
In the middle of the 20th century, including my own childhood, Crisco was considered a necessity in most American kitchens.  Whether you were deep fat frying, baking, or just greasing a frying pan, Crisco was your best option.  I vividly remember when butter flavored Crisco first hit the grocery store shelves.  What excitement!  Crisco was the product of a candlemaker who was looking for something less expensive than beef tallow to use in his candle-making.  Working with a chemist -- a scientist -- he found a way to add a hydrogen atom to a liquid oil -- in this case, cottonseed oil.  This process of "hydrogenating" the liquid oil caused it to solidify and become much like butter or lard.  Promoters first advertised Crisco with the claim that it was "a healthier alternative to cooking with animal fats. . . and more economical than butter."  Later on, the promoters of Crisco would seize on an inconclusive government report that questioned the health implications of eating animal fats.  Dr. Fred Mattson grabbed hold of this report and used it to "prove" to the public that animal fats cause heart disease.  In the last thirty years, we are learning that hydrogenated fats are incredibly unhealthy for human bodies.  What's more, many people are exploring diet plans that are mostly based on animal proteins and fats, and they are enjoying great health benefits! So the earlier "scientific" claims about Crisco have been reversed, and these days nobody wants to cook with the stuff.  You can read more about the rise and fall of Crisco here.  

The Crisco Corollary:  Remember when margarine was considered better, healthier, more wonderful than butter?  Butter was animal fat, and animal fat was the root of a great deal of evil.  Margarine was MUCH healthier.  Today scientists have invented a term for the fats in margarine and Crisco -- fats created artificially by humans from non-food sources.  We call them "trans-fats" and now they are the root of a great deal of evil.

Example #3 -- low-fat diets.
Remember rice cakes?  In the 1980's and 1990's, rice cakes were supposed to be the dietary salvation of us all.  They tasted like styrofoam and had basically no food value, but scientists could use chemicals and make them taste like caramel or cinnamon without adding any calories.  The idea was that they would fill your stomach without introducing too many calories into your body and thus help you be healthier.  It was all part of the belief we all shared, noted in example #2, that animal fat -- and fat in general -- is bad.  So we all tried to eat low fat.  Pasta became all the rage.  Fat free cheeses (ewww ....) appeared on grocery store shelves.  Sales of beef plummeted.  Sales of chicken skyrocketed, because lean chicken with the skin pulled off it was one of the few acceptable meat choices.  People figured out ways to make bacon and hamburger substitutes out of turkey.  Breads, potatoes, pastas, and the like became the staple of our diet.  And we gained weight like crazy.  Obesity and Type 2 diabetes levels skyrocketed.  Today we have begun to realize that all these foods are high in carbohydrates, and it is carbohydrates that trigger the production of insulin in the body, and it is insulin that opens the way for the body to store fat in its cells.  Once again, the clear scientific wisdom ended up being wrong.

We could go on and on.  Doctors used to prescribe cigarettes as a calming agent.  Cocaine was used to treat tooth pain.  Just because science currently teaches something is "true" doesn't mean the data -- and the beliefs about truth -- won't be reinterpreted next week.  The real danger is when public relations campaigns grab hold of a few scientific facts and use them to promote a political agenda.  We are taught to view something as good and healthy and normal because "science" says it is.  This is happening around you right now.

I'm not against science.  Are you kidding?  I am alive thanks to a crew of scientifically informed medical people who treated me quickly and correctly in 2009 when I suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage.  The helicopter that flew me to North Memorial that day was built from technology designed by scientists.  On my belt I wear an insulin pump to provide carefully controlled amounts of insulin to my diabetic body.  (Note: I was diabetic long before the low fat diet craze, and mine is "Type 1" -- but that's a long story.)  

I'm not against science.  But in our public decision making, in our public debates, in our rhetoric and our discourse, we need to learn to be cautious about using science to "prove" a point.  The scientific establishment has many times changed its collective mind when new data became available.  Things we thought were totally safe -- playing with lumps of uranium, for example, and I am NOT making this up -- have turned out to be deadly.  Things we thought were impossible -- propelling a spacecraft through the vacuum of space using a rocket engine, for example -- have turned out to be manageable and sometimes even routine.

This is one reason I return again and again to the Bible as a powerful tool for discernment and decision making.  Not only do I have the Bible's text itself to instruct me; I also have a two thousand year tradition of companions on this journey who have left their reflections and their understandings.  Some of them were clearly kooks and I want nothing to do with their understandings.  Others were brilliant and I savor their writings, learning from their God-given wisdom.  

I love G.K. Chesterton's line in his book, Orthodoxy, about tradition: "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about."

By all means consult scientific wisdom when you have a decision to make.  But don't let the changing whims of our public perceptions of science -- far less reliable than scientific research itself -- persuade you that something is right or wrong.  Science can build you a weapon, but cannot advise about the morality of using it.  Science can describe a set of genes and chromosomes that will impact the life of a living thing, but science cannot assign a value to that life.  For those matters we need a source that will take us deeper.


  1. Jeff, while agree with what you say here, I do wish to add a comment from a different perspective. When the fullness of science and the fullness of theology is known, I believe they will align fully (complement one another). Until they time, both theology and science, are hindered by the minds of mankind. (We have as many disagreement in seminary as I ever had in my science classes.) While your point is well taken for the Christ-Follower, the point is less clear for the pre-Christian. Many with whom I associate find their faith in science. While this is unfortunate, it is reassuring to me that I can share scientific investigations that support what God's Word has made clear to me. The study out of the University of Texas has been helpful to many. At the same time, my faith lies securely in Scripture.

    Thanks again for your Biblical insight and extraordinary gift of writing.


  2. Bruce, great insights. I agree that for those who don't find their frame of reference in Christian faith, science often becomes the grid they use to determine meaning and significance. (That's why I enjoy listening to these folks talking about the Big Bang -- sounds a lot like a creation story!) I think part of what was getting to me when I wrote this blog was observing so many times that a scientific breakthrough or a factoid gets taken up by someone with a promotional axe to grind, and promoters use the scientific "fact" to sway people toward political or commercial ends. I see this so often!

    I loved what you said about the fullness of science and theology converging. That is a great image. Thanks!