(MIS)UNDERSTANDING THE LIMITS OF SCIENCE

As a member of the scientific (medical) community, I was wryly amused by a misguided opinion piece entitled “Science may not be as settled as liberals think,”  printed in our local newspaper on July 31 by Pete Heck, a conservative Christian columnist and radio host, presenting opinions that represent much of this group’s thinking.  In his piece, he claims that such issues as evolution, sexual identity, and several others, are regarded by scientists as “settled issues”. The real truth? Science is almost never as settled as even scientists think! Science itself involves the principle of making measurable observations, and usually through gradually evolving series’ of findings, arriving at conclusions that are subject to verification or refutation by other observers. Conclusions so derived are generally open to question and constant reassessment, meaning that science is seldom “settled”. One obvious exception to this conclusion is the firm science dealing with the laws of gravity, which few can deny. Almost as certain is the principle of evolution, which, after literally thousands of observations, is now agreed upon by all scientists in the biologic fields, and thus, is indeed a “settled” issue. By contrast, Heck seems to espouse the fundamentalist religious belief that was supported Gov. Scott Walker, and by Gov. Mike Pence when the latter was interviewed in 2009, that a “supernatural being created life and also resurrected a dead body from the grave.” Heck asserts that these “facts” violated the principle of “settled science.” In response, scientists would simply point out that such “facts” cannot be verified or refuted by objective criteria, and therefore, fall outside the realm of science itself. That’s why teaching such religious beliefs is not permissible in public school science curricula. What is actually taught are such verifiable facts that the earth is approximately 4 billion years old and that life, including steadily evolving humans, has been present for thousands of years. To function effectively in modern society, fundamentalist religious beliefs simply must be adapted to accommodate such realities. This means that most religions, to remain relevant, might best replace a narrow concept of God in favor of a broader, all-encompassing entity that rules the universe and probably presides over the process of evolution itself, providing modern humans with the intellectual capacity to make observations and formulate conclusions about this process. As noted above, moral precepts will continue to emanate from religions and clearly fall outside of science. This does not mean, however, that one must be religious in order to be ethical, nor does it mean that being a scientist precludes a clear vision of what constitutes ethical behavior.

One the best judgments of this issue was made by the late Pope John Paul II who, on October 27, 1996, stated in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome, “Consideration of the method used in diverse orders of knowledge allows for the concordance of two points of view which seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure with ever greater precision the multiple manifestations of life… while theology extracts… the final meaning according to the Creator’s designs”.

But then Heck goes on to object further that “settled science” is responsible for the “insistence that sexual attraction is inborn and unchangeable, thus actually forbidding someone experiencing unwanted same-sex attraction from seeking psychiatric help to overcome their urges”.  In reality, scientific observation does indeed indicate that sexual preference is largely immutable, but this certainly would not preclude one from freely seeking help to alter this preference, however ill advised.

Heck’s misguided reasoning continues even further with statements that “Scientists on the left oppose fossil fuels because of the fear of global warming” and that they also “oppose nuclear energy because it’s too dangerous, protest wind farms because they kill birds, and block the expansion of hydroelectric power because dams destroy aquatic ecosystems.” In reality, scientists have nothing to do with these attributions, and, in reality, there is no such thing as “scientists on the left.”  There are simply scientists that, as noted above, provide observable facts for society at large, including the politicians and theologians, to sort out and, hopefully, react appropriately. Within the confines of his or her discipline itself, a true scientist can only provide the objective facts, but after these facts are disclosed, may offer opinions—either right or left—as done by all responsible members of society.

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.

– Albert Einstein