May 6, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, May 6, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Crisis in the sciences: Science magazine flags widespread flaws in scientific research
Science is one of the most dominant sectors of American society—so influential that it now has the aura of the priesthood. We have shifted from a day in which the actual priests in a society had the dominant moral influence to now, where it is the scientists who claim so, a new priesthood of sorts. This is a very interesting development, and that leads us to a cover story in the current issue of the New Scientist; that is a secular scientific journal. The editorial has to do with a story that is the main concern inside, and that is a crisis in science. What’s the crisis? That so much science is wrong. The editors write and I quote,
“One analysis has claimed that more than half of published research is wrong.”Show Full Transcript
They go on to say,
“A widely reported study published in the journal Science last year found that of 100 important psychology experiments more than 60 couldn’t be replicated. Similar problems,” they say, “have been uncovered in medical science, biology, and economics.”
They then write this,
“That sounds like a crisis in the making, not just for our ability to discover things but for the reputation of scientists and science. One leading psychologist,” say the editors, “has compared the crisis to the subprime mortgage crisis, which did so much to disgrace bankers and banking.”
The importance of the story inside the magazine, the cover story, is indicated by the headline:
“The Un-scientific Method” with the letters ‘U’ and ‘N’ in red.
Now this is where Christians need to think very, very carefully. In the first place, we need to think about how science as a body of knowledge and as a way of knowing emerged in Western civilization. We should note that science, in terms of what we call modern science, did not emerge in other societies and other cultures; it emerged specifically in Western civilization. Herbert Butterfield, the famed historian—he was also an historian of science—pointed out that it took the Christian worldview to produce the rise of modern science. And you ask, how is that so? Butterfield said it happened because the Christian worldview alone provided the combination of assumptions and truths that made science possible. In the first place, the biblical worldview said that the world was itself intelligible. The biblical worldview says that the world was intended by the creator to be intelligible. In other words, it’s intended to be known.
Secondly, said Butterfield, it was the Christian worldview that honored knowledge in terms of trying to understand that world. And it was the Christian worldview that gave birth to modern science as an effort to come to terms with the creation as indeed a creation. That modern science took a secular turn, and that secular turn in many ways meant that modern science has repudiated the very worldview that alone gave it birth. But now we’re also noticing a second fact, and that is that modern science has taken on that authority. We described it as being in many ways a new priesthood that is now considered to be by fiat. If science says so, whatever science is—whomever the scientist may be—it is assumed to now have an independent authority merely because it is presented as science.
But this is where Christians need also to understand, thirdly, that there is no body of knowledge and there is no way of knowing that is not corrupted to some extent by sin. That doesn’t mean we can’t know, but it does mean that our knowledge is far less than perfect. And secondly, along with this we come to understand and we must always affirm that every way of knowing, every discipline of knowledge is built upon a preliminary worldview. That is, there is a worldview behind the way of knowing. As we said, it is the Christian worldview that was behind science and its inception, but it is a very different worldview that now is fundamental to the work of so many scientists.
And this is where, fourthly, Christians also need to keep in mind that when you have a claim to authority like this in a culture, in this case a scientific authority, everyone wants in on the action. And eventually what is claimed as science begins to lose any definition. One of the issue central to the modern scientific worldview is the fact that the scientific method requires a hypothesis to be tested and then the results of that testing to be replicated—that is, repeated and confirmed by other scientists working in other laboratories or teaching in other classrooms or in other contexts that demonstrate that science builds upon the accumulated formation of hypotheses that are proved to be true or untrue, and then with the results replicated, repeated, and confirmed through other scientific endeavor.
Thus, you see the crisis in this editorial reflected in the fact that, at least in terms of some disciplines that claim to be science, up to 60 out of 100 studies cannot be replicated. They are not repeated and they are not confirmed. Now one of the interesting things we also have to note is that the specific scientific branch that is cited here is Psychology, which demonstrates that there is a major divide in the sciences between the so-called hard sciences and the soft sciences. With physics or biology being examples of the hard sciences and sociology or psychology, being examples of the soft sciences. When it comes to those so-called soft sciences, it is not clear that they are truly sciences in the same sense as physics or biology. But nonetheless, they claim the name science, because after all it gives them the aura of authority. This would include the so-called social sciences, which indeed are very social but are in many cases not at all science.
There is another interesting aspect of this editorial, it shows up again in the cover story and that is the phrase ‘torturing the data.’ What in the world would that mean? It means the temptation on the part of scientists, whether in the hard sciences or the soft sciences so to speak, to simply force the data to say what the scientist or researcher wants them to say. Torturing the data means using the data selectively, working it over until eventually you get from the data what you want.
Now by the way, we’re not talking here about scientists as if they are sinners in a different sense than anyone else. It’s the Christian worldview that reminds us that every single realm of human endeavor is marked by sin. That would include law or economics or politics or teaching or, for that matter, also the Christian ministry, which is why we have to be checked by the authority of Scripture and held by the discipline of the church. The reality is the temptation comes to all of us to ‘torture the data.’ To the preacher, the temptation is to torture the text until eventually the text says what we want it to say. But when it comes to either ‘torturing the text’ or ‘torturing the data’, what’s revealed is the fact that there is something wrong going on here. The text has the authority and the data must not be tortured to say what we want them to say. But that’s exactly what’s going on in so much science, and this is where Christians need to watch the headlines in the conversation around us. Because what is claimed as the authority of science is over and over again actually something that reveals the worldview of the researcher or the scientist rather than the data that might be revealed in terms of research or in a laboratory. And of course we shouldn’t be surprised by that.
But it does tell us a great deal that the New Scientist journal, the editors of that journal, now felt it necessary to write this editorial and to consider whether or not science itself is in a crisis.
Agnostic scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson says its very probable the universe is a simulation
But this is where Christians also need to look at some recent headlines and understand that this helps to explain what’s going on. For example, the Business Insider recently ran a story about Neil deGrasse Tyson. The headline says this: that Tyson, one of the most influential science educators in the media, “thinks there is a very high chance the universe is just a simulation.”
What in the world does that mean? This means that one of most popular scientist, presented as possessing scientific authority in this culture, thinks that the entire cosmos as we experience it, coming right down to our lives as we experience them, might not be even real. They might just be a simulation run by some species of a higher intelligence. Now the first thing we need to note is that this kind of nonsense actually gains headlines. The second thing we need to note is that if someone who did not present himself or herself as a scientist made such a claim so outlandish, unprovable, then you would have people who would say this is some form of religious mysticism masquerading as a form of knowledge. But that’s exactly what we do need to say about Neil deGrasse Tyson. This is some form of spiritual mysticism masquerading as science. Kevin Loria, writing for Business Insider, seems to understand exactly what’s going on when he begins his article by saying,
“We trust the scientists around us to have the best grasp on how the world actually works.”
Thus he takes us to the 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the American Museum of Natural History, which addressed the question of whether or not the universe is a simulation. Neil deGrasse Tyson was one of the participants—he was actually hosting the debate—and he says the likelihood of the universe being a mere simulation—that is, just an experiment undertaken by some higher being—“may be very high.”
Business Insider said,
They then went on to explain the question of whether or not we know that our universe is real has vexed thinkers going back far into history. The same question is now being explored in modern science. But he says,
“But most physicists and philosophers agree that it’s impossible to prove definitively that we don’t live in a simulation and that the universe is real.”
That is what you call a sentence masquerading as making an important statement. It’s actually not making an important statement at all. Of course, most physicists and philosophers agree that it’s impossible to prove definitely that we don’t live in a simulation. That’s because it’s a thesis that is fundamentally impossible to prove. This actually gets back to where Herbert Butterfield was explaining the Christian origins of modern science, because Butterfield made clear that there is another basic Christian affirmation that is necessary to science, and that is the affirmation of what is called realism. That is the affirmation that the cosmos is real; to put it more bluntly, that reality exists and that we are real. Modern science can only actually make progress, it can only make sense, furthermore, even this news story can only make sense that appears in Business Insider, if Neil deGrasse Tyson is a real person who is using real words when he was speaking in a real room in order to communicate to real people. If the universe isn’t real, why in the world would anyone pay attention to Neil deGrasse Tyson or anyone else?
Now there’s another interesting aspect about this, because when you look at Neil deGrasse Tyson, you’re looking at someone who is granted a great deal of cultural authority in our society. He’s also someone who has repeatedly denied the possibility of the divine creation of the cosmos. Keep that in mind when you hear Neil deGrasse Tyson in this context, say that we should use,
“…a thought experiment to imagine a life form that’s as much smarter than us as we are than dogs, chimps, or other terrestrial mammals.”
He asked the question,
“What would we look like to them? We would be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence.
“Whatever that being is, it very well might be able to create a simulation of a universe.”
Then Tyson said these words exactly,
“And if that’s the case, it is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just the creation of some other entity for their entertainment. I’m saying, the day we learn that it is true, I will be the only one in the room saying, I’m not surprised.”
So a man who denies the very possibility of the divine creation of the cosmos is here willing to entertain in public the idea that some higher species has merely created the entire cosmos as a simulation for that beings own entertainment.
Do our senses lie to us? Scientist perceives the world around us is nothing like we perceive
But, secondly, this leads us to a story that appeared in The Atlantic monthly; it’s about an American academic who is actually straightforwardly making the case against reality. That’s the headline of this article, the subhead,
“A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.”
Amanda Geffner here is writing for The Atlantic about Professor Donald D. Hoffman. He’s a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine.
As she explains he “has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. What’s more, he says, we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction.”
Now let’s just summarize this huge article by making this point. Here you have a professor of cognitive science at a major American University, the University of California, Irvine, who is arguing that our senses actually lie to us about the world, that the world we know through our senses actually has no bearing in reality. This includes our own existence. It includes the world around us.
One of the illustrations given in the article is the fact that our senses may actually detect something we think is a snake. We can identify it as a dangerous snake and back off of it, but the snake doesn’t actually exist. For that matter, we don’t actually exist. In something like the argument that was contemplated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the argument here is that there is no reality accessible to us by our senses and that everything is merely an experiment of delusion. The truth, according to this professor, is unknowable to us through our senses.
Now once again, the Christian worldview just comes back to say, “Okay, this is an important article.” It appears in one of the most influential American magazines. It’s about an influential professor at a major American University who doesn’t think that our sensory perceptions can yield any actual knowledge of reality. He goes even further to say that he denies that what we experience through our sensory perceptions is real. Now once again, we simply have to note that this would bring an end to all modern science. If indeed there is no way to know reality, then science itself is a failed way of knowing. We have to understand that the Christian roots of the scientific revolution are hereby completely destroyed. Now we are told not only that the universe is unintelligible, we are told that it isn’t by our own perception even real.
Now, again, from a Christian worldview perspective, the important thing to recognize is that what is shown here is the fact that there is a worldview behind every science and every scientist. And now at last we might say there’s at least the relief of having some scientists come clean on what their worldview really represents. There’s something else for us here to note: evidently a lot of fellow scientists aren’t buying this kind of argument. That’s why it made news in The Atlantic; but it does tell us that someone with this worldview can become a fully tenured professor at a major American University and that a major American magazine can write about the idea as if it is to be taken seriously. But just consider the fact that if this professor’s argument is real, The Atlantic doesn’t exist and the reporter doesn’t exist. The magazine doesn’t exist and in that sense, even his theory doesn’t exist.
One of the things most fundamental to any genuine knowledge is an affirmation of reality and the distinction between reality and unreality, the true and the false, and the biblical worldview—let’s go back to Herbert Butterfield and the beginnings a science—the biblical worldview is based upon the affirmation of the reality of the world, of the reality of the cosmos, and of the fact that a real Creator is behind it. The writer of the book of Hebrews put it this way in Hebrews Chapter 11, beginning in verse one:
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old receive their commendation.”
Then look at verse three, Hebrews Chapter 11:
“By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”
You’ll notice the affirmation of realism here. The universe is real; it is knowable. We live in it. It is intelligible and, furthermore, it points to the fact that it doesn’t explain itself on its own terms. It is by faith that we understand the universe was created by the Word of God, and again, these words,
“So that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”
Faith, we are told, is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. That means the things we see are real. It means that God has made us in His image, able to know things, and to know them in reality. But it also means that the things we see point to the things that we do not see. And one of the things we see in these stories is the fact that much of what is called science really isn’t any longer about science at all. It is an effort to gain cultural authority by calling something science.
Scientism and the Cult of Science: How science is replacing religion in the public square
And next, that takes us to an article recently published in the journal First Things by William A. Wilson, a software engineer in San Francisco, who points to this as the so-called “Cult of Science.”
That’s how he describes it, and he says,
“Some of the Cult’s leaders like to play dress-up as scientists—Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are two particularly prominent examples— but hardly any of them have contributed any research results of note. Rather, Cult leadership trends heavily in the direction of educators, popularizers, and journalists.”
How do you recognize the cult of scientism? Wilson describes it this way:
“A tendency to treat the body of scientific knowledge as a holy book or an a-religious revelation that offers simple and decisive resolutions to deep questions. But it adds to this a pinch of glib frivolity and a dash of unembarrassed ignorance.”
That tells us a great deal about what is happening sometimes in the name of science. But here Christians need to think very, very soberly and humbly. We need to recognize that we are thankful for the goods that science has brought us. We’re very thankful for antibiotics and air traffic control; we’re very thankful for much that modern science has delivered in terms of the promises of the scientific method as a way of knowing. We should be thankful for modern medicine and thankful for modern engineering and thankful for all the legitimate insights that have come to us by science. And we have to understand that culture does grant authority to scientists and to science for some very credible reasons. But we also to understand that there are limitations to that credibility and, just as in every profession and in every body of knowledge, sin is an effective agent in terms of distorting reality. That reality-distortion field extends to science as well. And thus, in an age of a secularized society in which the claims of Christianity have receded in terms of influence and the claims of scientists have escalated, we now see how the danger of spiritual claims masquerading as science becomes a crisis that is even recognized by scientific journals. And what should also interest us is that there is this much to talk about on The Briefing in one day about science and its role in our society, and about how Christians should think about science. It’s important to recognize that virtually every one of these stories emerged within just days of one another, and that tells us something about how science works in our society. This is where perhaps a warning label would be appropriate. Scientists have acknowledged that not all that is called science is actually science.