What is science, and who owns it?

If you take a look at this video, you will see a series of questions being asked of Governor Rick Perry by a young boy whose mother is feeding the questions through him.  The first question asked is: how old do you think the earth is?  The second is: what do you believe about evolution?  As Governor Perry is explaining to the boy that Texas schools teach both creationism and evolution, you can hear the mother telling her son, “Ask him why he doesn’t believe in science.”

The point of this post is not to consider the educational policies of public schools.  It is, rather, to investigate the questions posed in the title: What is science, and who owns it?  Conventional wisdom is that mainstream scientists (all rise!) have a monopoly on the discipline, and therefore any departure from the party line that they promote constitutes a rejection, not of particular views held within the scientific community, but of science itself.  Three easy examples are global warming, embryonic stem cell research, and evolution.

Question the proposal that mankind either (a) is currently causing the earth to warm or (b) can actually do anything to change that, and you will labeled anti-scientific.  After all, “science” has already settled that issue.  In fact, at least some scientists have in the last few days kindly alerted us to additional dangers of man-made global warming.  It turns out that, if we don’t end up frying ourselves to death, our uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions might inadvertently draw attention from malicious alien forces who will decide on that basis to annihilate us.  No, I am not kidding.  One wonders how long it will be before those like me who are skeptical of the “Aliens Against Greenhouse Gases” thesis are, by definition, anti-science.

When President Bush restricted federal funding for the destruction of human embryos for scientific research purposes, he was accused of opposing science itself.  This accusation presupposes that science has the ability to prescribe moral imperatives, which constitutes a wildly inflated view of the scope of scientific investigation.  Science can often tell us what is or is not, but it can never tell us what we ought to do in any given situation.  For that, ethical reflection is required, and when the question being posed is what to do with human beings at the earliest stage of their development, serious ethical reflection should be a welcome activity, much more welcome than the arbitrary division of positions between those that are for science and those that are against it.

Finally, we have Darwinian evolution.  Mainstream scientists often act as though they are neutral observers who are only following evidence where any rational person would follow it.  They are compelled to adhere to the Darwinian doctrine by the plain, self-explanatory data written all over the fossil record and the genetic code.  They have no presuppositions or ultimate commitments.  They come as blank slates ready to receive whatever the evidence will say, and when they speak, they speak only as the voice of the evidence itself.  To question their authoritative voice is to question science itself.

The problem with this way of thinking is that no finite creature can escape presuppositions.  All scientists begin with a host of unacknowledged assumptions about the nature of reality, about the nature of knowledge itself, and about the nature of good and evil.  These presuppositions form the interpretive grid through which they filter all scientific evidence.  Darwinian evolution is the reigning paradigm right now because there is no other way to account for the evidence if you already hold a prior commitment to methodological naturalism.  In other words, if you start with the presupposition that science, by definition, is forbidden from acknowledging any kind of divine activity, then of course you are going to conclude that no divine activity was involved in the development of all living species.  But the evidence didn’t lead you to that conclusion.  Your presupposition told you that was the conclusion, and so you aligned the evidence to fit it as best you could.  It just so happens that, so far as any naturalistic process is concerned, Darwinian evolution is the only game in town.  If I told you that I could read your mind, and then I said, “Pick a whole number between 1 and 3, one that is neither 1 nor 3,” it wouldn’t be very surprising when we came to the end of that process and I told you your number was 2.  It couldn’t have been anything else because I had already foreclosed on all other options.  This is what has happened in biology today.  Mainstream scientists, because of their commitment to methodological naturalism, have already foreclosed on all other options, defining them outside the scope of science itself.  That means that people like me, who remain skeptical about evolution, are automatically labeled anti-science.  But understand this: it is not because evidence tells me that I am anti-science but because the rules of the game were set up this way in advance, excluding me from being a part of it.

So, every time you hear it said that a consensus of scientists believe in evolution, remember that you are being fed a tautology.  Of course a consensus of scientists believe in evolution because anyone who doesn’t is automatically excommunicated from that category.  Belief in evolution is one of the badges you need to get into the club in the first place.  And if you question the paradigm, guess what happens to your prospects of getting teaching positions, tenure, publishing opportunities, research grants, and a flourishing career in academia.  Make no mistake about it: the scientific establishment in America is not committed to freedom of inquiry, at least not when it comes to Darwinian evolution.  If you don’t toe the line, you get cast out (see documentation of this pattern of behavior in Ben Stein’s movie Expelled).  It is quite easy to maintain a consensus when your modus operandi is the same as that of the communist party under Stalin.

But we can take comfort in the fact that scientific revolutions happen every so often.  At one time there was a scientific consensus that life could arise from non-life (known as “spontaneous generation”).  With the weight of Aristotle behind this theory, I can imagine that many of its detractors throughout the 2,000 years of its history were regarded as anti-science.  But then Louis Pasteur turned it into mulch.  We can only hope for the day when Darwinian evolution will meet the same fate.

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