Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Presidential Science

In President Obama’s inaugural speech, one catch-phrase caught my attention like no other. “Restoring science to its rightful place” conjured up a plethora of thoughts and emotions, some positive, some less positive. In the light of my many previous posts encouraging pastors and other church leaders to use science as an apologetic tool in ministry, we must make it clear that our president was not talking about the same thing I have advocated. Let’s discuss a little used term: scientism. Some have used the term in a pejorative sense to ridicule the overuse or misuse of science. The meaning of the term suggests that all knowledge is based on material reality only and that pursuit of that knowledge by the methods of science is exalted above other modes of inquiry and should, therefore, be the exclusive approach to gaining knowledge.

Most analysts believe President Obama’s statement was a reference to global warming. Many people on the political spectrum say science has conclusively shown that man’s fossil fuel emissions are responsible for an increased greenhouse effect. The result is global warming. Therefore, “Restoring science to its rightful place” would mandate belief that carbon emissions, resulting from society’s burning of fossil fuels, are the unquestioned cause of global warming. And once we accept this premise, the plan of action should then be crystal clear.

A chorus of science philosophers in the past half-century has pointed out that the use of any single, clearly defined scientific method may not really be the way to achieve scientific knowledge. They say, with some measure of truth, that there is no simple, or single, method of scientific inquiry. Famous science philosophers such as Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn state that such factors as subjective personal inspiration and scientific consensus (sometimes driven by the worldview of the science community), are even more important than any particular scientific method.

So what is a Christian to believe with respect to the environment, the issue of global warming, and the remedy for global warming? In Genesis 1:28, scripture commands us to care for our environment and its creatures. The inspirational chapters in Job 38 and 39 describe the magnificence and beauty of our creation: the cosmos, weather events, water cycle, earth’s living creatures, and their unique programmed behaviors. The mandate is clearly for environmental awareness, concern, and tender care.

Reasons To Believe scholars Dr. Hugh Ross and Dr. Jeff Zweerink, in a 2006 news release, clarified the issues related to human impact on environment: “Contrary to the claims of a few high profile politicians, celebrities, and environmentalists, some of our human activities in fact create a cooling effect. This delicate balancing act of multiple and diverse natural processes and human activities gives us reason to be cautious.” Alteration of rainfall patterns may be of greater concern than warming. For example, Ross claims that “During Roman times, what is now the Sahara Desert was the breadbasket of the empire.” Trees and shrubs were cut for building materials and fuel, resulting in greatly reduced rainfall levels and hastening the advance of the desert. In the last century, that process has accelerated.

“Over the past four million years, the global climate has oscillated many times,” Ross continues. In my own personal library I have old books which describe variations in earth’s orbit on a 100,000 year cycle. For 10,000 of those years, the earth is in a “global warming” event. These books were published long before the current global warming political hype. Now global warming has become a cause celebre, a belief du jour. There are many other complex factors, including tectonic activity, erosion, and changes in the earth’s biomass which are far more important in causing climate change than the burning of fossil fuels.

Science is no more immune to methodological manias than any other human behaviors such as fads in education or even church worship styles. This is reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s experience with the Athenians in Acts 17:21 (NIV): “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” We should remind ourselves that the latest ideas, the beliefs du jour, may not always be the best ideas or beliefs to embrace. In fact, the beliefs may not even be true. Generally however, science, as an enterprise of advancement of knowledge and the human condition, is still worthy of being held in high esteem.