Science, The unbiased and final arbitrator of truth: Really?

Science is often presented as, or understood to be, so objective that there is very little if any bias, and if there is any it will soon be found out and decisively dealt with.  The objectivity of science is portrayed as towering above other means of knowing.  Frequently, in one form or another, I have heard the argument that, “science is the best or only real source or test of truth”.  I have heard this mantra taught in university classrooms, articulated via the airwaves, and mentioned countless times by college students that I come in contact with.  Science as the final arbitrator of truth is based in large measure on its supposed unbiased objectivity. 

However, while science, particularly the scientific method, is an excellent way of studying and hypothesizing about empirical data within its legitimate domain, it does have domanial limitations, and it is not without inherent limitations and biases that can and do result in breaches of ethics, distortions of facts, and hyper-claims. Consider the following:

First, there is the limitation of the interpreter of data.  N. R. Hanson noted, “we do not simply ‘see’ things; we ‘see’ things as something.  There is a covert process of interpretation implicit within the process of observation.  We observe nature through a filter, a set of assumptions, which conditions what we think we are seeing.” ((The Reenchantment of Nature, Alister McGrath, p 104)) An example would be the difference in a Christian and a naturalist looking at death, or a pre-Copernican man and a Copernican man viewing the setting of the sun. 

The point is that we use models, inferences, analogies, etc., to interpret what we see, what Gilbert Harmann has called “inference to the best explanation.” ((McGrath, Reenchantment, 180))  The hard truth is that everyone interprets facts according to a certain set of presuppositions, and those presuppositions color what we see.  This is not relativism because ultimate absolute truth does exist.  This merely points out the reality that there are really no merely bare facts. Consequently, the scientist, whether he is a secularist or theist, has some faith assumptions, which affect how he interprets what he experiences.

Second, in addition to the interpreter’s innate limitation is the inherent limitation of science itself.  Nigel Brush ((Nigel Brush, The Limitations of Scientific Truth: Why Science Can’t Answer Life’s Ultimate Questions, (Grand Rapids, MI:, Kregel Publications, 2005))) explores several of the inherent limitations of science, like the nature of empiricism, cultural context, and Kuhn’s paradigm shifts in areas of biology, astronomy, etc., as well as some of the human limitations and simple biases.  At best, science can legitimately only explore the material world and make tentative conclusions about matter and matter only. 

Third, the advancement of science is not only limited by human variables and the limits of science proper, but also by available technology.  This is not meant to be a criticism of science proper, but a cursory glance at the history of science will reveal how many discoveries or theories, which were once believed to reveal true reality, had to be later discarded because of technological advances.  Of course, each generation sees itself either at the summit of knowledge or so close that the kind of major scientific blunders that marred the past are really no longer a threat. 

This overconfidence is most forcefully seen in deductions, inferences and postulations that go far beyond the boundaries of science, e.g. how the earth began.  That scientists speculate concerning this major event in the past is not the problem, but rather the certainty with which they present it as being a part of their evolutionary hypothesis.  Another place this overconfidence is often seen is when scientists move beyond the realm of dealing with matter, to reducing values, actions, thoughts, etc to merely matter, which is actually the philosophy of Naturalism or Materialism otherwise known as Scientism. 

Third, there are outright misrepresentations and/or falsifications.   Alexander Kohn, Professor of Virology at Tel Aviv Medical School points out, “Breaches of ethics as encountered in scientific research cover a whole spectrum ranging from outright fraud and conscious falsification, through plagiarism and concealment of information, to minor infractions such as ‘grantsmanship’ and negligence.” ((Alexander Kohn, False Prophets: Fraud and Error in Science and Medicine, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1989), vii.))  He further mentions “…many a research project, especially in the field of psychology, is burdened by so-called ‘experimenter bias’.” ((Kohn, False Prophets, 6.)) 

Ruth Hubbard states, “The pretense that science is objective, apolitical and value-neutral is profoundly political.” ((“Science, Facts and Feminism”, in Feminism & Science, ed. Nancy Tuana (Indiana University Press, 1989), 125, 126, 128, as quoted by Jonathan Rauch, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 12.))  She explains her position thusly, “The scientific method ‘rests on a particular definition of objectivity that we feminists must call into question’—a definition very much a culprit in the social exclusion of women, nonwhites, and other minorities.” ((Rauch, Kindly Inquisitors, 12.)) (She might have also added Christians).

As a scientist, Kohn acknowledges that studies “would indicate that the prevalence of misconduct in science is greater than the scientific community is willing to admit.” ((Kohn, False Prophets, 8. He does say more research would need to be done and that the studies he refers to should not be used for extrapolation because they do not cover a wide enough range of scientific activities.  This book covers several frauds, misrepresentations, cheatings, and biases of scientists and science.  Some of these are well-known frauds like the so-called ‘Piltdown Man’ on page 133; others are basically unknown to people outside of the scientific community.))  Some fraudulent theories like German biologist Ernst Haeckel’s ‘Ontogeny and Phylogeny’ and doctored drawings remain in textbooks for years as illustrative of evolutionary themes or truths even after they are determined to be fraudulent. ((Hank Hanegraaff, The Face that Demonstrates the Farce of Evolution, (Nashville, Word publishing, 1998), 93-96. He quotes Stephen J. Gould as recognizing the fraudulence of the drawings, but then quotes Gould’s reference to it, “Properly restructured, it stands as a central theme in evolutionary biology…” Stephen Jay Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny, (Cambridge, MA: Bellknap Press, 1977), 1-2, as quoted by Hanegraaff , The Face, 201.  This very drawing was in my oldest daughter’s college science book at the University of Oklahoma in the 1999 spring semester.  When a student mentioned the inauthentic nature of the drawing, the professor said it was still illustrative of the truth.))  Now the ninety-nine percent similarity between chimps and humans is also known to be a myth. ((See my blog “See Chimpanzee: See Man” www.ronniewrogers.com ))

Kohn explains that what prevented scientists from discovering or correcting the Piltdown hoax sooner, even though the true explanation was available, was “hope, cultural bias and prejudice….” ((Kohn, False Prophets, 140.)) In response to creationists’ charge that evolutionists are biased, Rauch, who is an evolutionist, says, “Of course evolutionists … are biased.” ((Rauch, Kindly Inquisitors, 67.))   Concerning why English paleontologists accepted the Piltdown man so easily, Kohn notes, “Scientists, contrary to lay belief, do not work by collecting only ‘hard’ facts and fitting together information based on them.   Scientific investigation is also motivated by pursuit of recognition and fame, by hope and by prejudice.  Dubious evidence is strengthened by strong hope: anomalies are fitted into a coherent picture with the help of cultural bias.” ((Kohn, False Prophets, 140.))

My point is not to condemn science or diminish its rightful place in education and society, but rather to make sure that our view of science is not overly naive or ‘prejudiced’.  Our society is progressing rapidly toward a secular view of all life, and that, by and large, is being fueled and legitimized by the exchanging of a proper view of the role of science in society for a “deified” status.  In other words, when science speaks in the public domain, no other claims merit more than privatized status.  However, the reality is that science is flawed and limited.

Thomas Kuhn noted, “Normal science…often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments.” ((Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 5.))  Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, “Science, since people must do it, is a socially embedded activity.  It progresses by hunch, vision, and intuition.  Much of its change through time does not record a closer approach to absolute truth, but the alteration of cultural contexts that influence it so strongly.  Facts are not pure and unsullied bits of information; culture also influences what we see and how we see it.  Theories, moreover, are not inexorable inductions from facts.  The most creative theories are often imaginative visions imposed upon facts; the source of imagination is also strongly cultural.” ((Brush, Limitations, 267))

Brush says, with regard to known problems or limitations in science, “Each element in the scientific process has been found to have significant problems.  Although science only studies the physical universe, scientists no longer believe that all aspects of that universe are knowable….Empirical observations are not always objective, they are often interpreted according to subjective beliefs and experiences….scientific ‘facts’ cannot stand alone—they must be interpreted before they have any meaning….scientific interpretations of facts are frequently colored by the historical, literary, or racial biases of the culture in which the scientist is working….Because of the problem of induction, science cannot even generate a provable universal statement.” ((Brush, Limitations, 266-267.)) 

If we are unaware of the domanial limits and biases of science, we find ourselves tyrannized by a not so benevolent dictator; moreover, naturalism, posing as science, is allowed to define realities beyond the scope of the domanial legitimacy of scientific knowledge.  Thus, scientism (( I mean by scientism, the transformation of legitimate science into naturalism by transcending its legitimate domain)) determines what answers are off limits a priori—regardless what the evidence may suggest—like the theory of intelligent design, or the reality of the spiritual world, thereby eliminating all other biases and challenges to what are purportedly scientific answers. 

The elimination of other biases is a dangerous road to travel. Even Jonathan Rauch argues for liberal democracy and against seeking to eliminate all prejudices, which he maintains is impossible, because it also eliminates competing ideas. “For not only is wiping out bias and hate impossible in principle, in practice eliminating prejudice through central authority means eliminating all but one prejudice—that of whoever is most politically powerful.” ((Rauch, Kindly Inquisitors, 68.))

The harsh reality is that we are all biased.  Our goal should be to be as objective and unbiased as possible, but if we endeavor to be objective while having failed to see our own lack of objectivity, we are doomed to blinding bias. The easiest path to unbridled biases being accepted, as objective, is to eliminate other biases, or facts, which undermine the presently accepted biases a priori. 

Christians, as well as all citizens should be cautious of naively accepting science as the final arbiter of progress, shoulds and shouldn’ts, what is relied upon almost exclusively in public debate, and the determiner of what is taught and not taught in our schools.

In order for education to take place as it needs to in state schools, the strengths and weaknesses of religion, science and different scientific theories need to be taught.  The 1967 “Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students” adopted by the American Association of University Professors clearly states that the “‘freedom to teach and freedom to learn’ are inseparable.” ((William Van Alstyne, Freedom and Tenure in the University, Duke 1993 Appendix C, 411-418, as quoted by David Horowitz, You Can’t Get A Good Education If They’re Only Telling You Half The Story, (Los Angeles, Center for the Study of Popular Culture), 7 .))  In response to a controversy concerning a course at UC Berkeley in the spring of 2002, UC Chancellor Robert Berdaho said, “It is imperative that our classrooms be free of indoctrination—indoctrination is not education.” ((Horowitz, Good Education, 7.))