Sunday, February 22, 2009

Crisis of Consensus Science

The term wisdom is used more frequently in the book of I Corinthians than in any other New Testament book. The contrast between man’s wisdom and God’s is drawn frequently. The NIV translation calls man’s wisdom “the wisdom of this world” (1:20) and “the wisdom of this age” (2:6). Eugene Peterson, in The Message Translation, refers to turning conventional wisdom on its head (1:19), and human wisdom being “tinny” and “impotent” (1:25); another of his paraphrases predicts that the fashionable wisdom of high-priced experts will be out-of-date in a year or so (2:6). The Apostle Paul could have been speaking of a phenomenon of the 20th and 21st centuries--the human wisdom known as “consensus science.”

“And the consensus is…” How many times have we been relieved that a consensus was reached in a lively group discussion of some weighty issue where a decision was needed? Perhaps not everyone was in agreement, but at least we were reassured that the democratic principle of majority rule was applied. The terms “democratic” and “consensus” ring reassuring and inspiring. When the conclusions of science professionals, however, boil down to “consensus science,” sometimes they are driven by profit motives, politics, or personal agendas. At other times their conclusions may be worldview-driven.

For this post I will mention only two of many possible examples. First, global warming has been pronounced factual, and this pronouncement comes replete with heroic, prescribed solutions. There is a “consensus,” we are told, notwithstanding the existence of an ever-expanding army of scientists and laypersons who point to errors and deficiencies in data collecting and mathematical models, and uncertainties in causation and prescribed remedies. Nevertheless, we are told we need to act before it is too late! Naturalistic evolution has also been pronounced factual, settled beyond question. They claim evolution is a conceptual pillar upon which rests the entire field of bioscience. There is increasing skepticism in some quarters of the scientific community about the truth of evolution, even as its supporters grow ever more strident. People who have legitimate doubts or questions are accused of being reactionaries, having devious motives, being out of the mainstream, or worse. Proponents of these relentlessly promoted paradigms do not tolerate opposing views.

The late Michael Crichton gave an eloquent speech questioning global warming in 2003. He stated, “I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled… Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world… If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.”

The unfair treatment of those who question consensus science results in a breakdown of confidence in science and scientists by many people in the church. There is some very good science which calls attention to the genius of our Creator. But even this good science sometimes becomes suspect. Our effort to secure truth is thereby derailed. Perhaps even our blog theme—the Science/Faith connection--suffers a credibility crisis in the shadow of this phenomenon. Science topics are infrequently used in our church settings. Christians should realize that “pure” science suffers the same challenges as “pure” doctrine, “pure” truth, and “pure” motivation. Scientists are equally as vulnerable to the human element as any other group, including church leaders and laypersons. My previous post began to explore this idea. Bad science can mislead and disappoint. Good science helps us achieve the wisdom of truth and the reality of God’s role in the natural world--past and present.