The Undermining of Truth: The Danger of Unguarded Reliance Upon Science and Statistics

In the quest to seem with it in our present scientistic milieu, preachers and Christians often pursue fluency regarding the latest polls, statistics, and studies (punctiliar thinking) more than they seek understanding of the Scripture and linear thinking. This quest is often characterized by indiscriminate reliance upon and usage of these tools, which actually leads people further from the truth both in their thinking processes and in their conclusions. Although these tools are useful at times, they should be used judiciously and sparingly lest one unwittingly becomes a scientistic myrmidon, and by his example leads others to do likewise.

Science proper is the systematic study of the physical nature, relationships, and interactions of physical phenomena.[1] Thus, the benefit of science is the knowledge it provides about the physicality of life; however, when scientific inquiry seeks to explain or comment upon more than that or limit knowable existence to that, it is no longer science, but scientism—naturalism.

Huston Smith, who taught for thirty years at several prestigious universities including MIT and Berkley, cogently distinguishes between scientism and science when he says, “Scientism adds to science two corollaries: first, that the scientific method is, if not the only reliable method of getting at truth, then at least the most reliable method; and second, that the things science deals with—material entities—are the most fundamental things that exist….Unsupported by facts, they are at best philosophical assumptions and at worst merely opinions.”[2]

He also spoke in reference to the attitude of some prominent scientists who are unwilling to limit the scientific method in determining truth: “This is the kind of misreading of science…(that) belittles art, religion, love, and the bulk of the life we directly live by denying that those elements yield insights that are needed to complement what science tells us.”[3] Therefore, the science vs. religion conflict is usually not between religion and science, but religion and scientism because scientism—naturalism—defines reality as the sum of physical properties and the epiphenomenal (that which emanates from physical properties).

An example of science subtly transgressing its legitimate domanial authority, which many scientists do quotidianly, would be when science concludes that eating certain foods predisposes people to various health risks, which is in fact the proper domain of science; then based on that knowledge, science says that people should not eat those foods. This recommendation is beyond the domain of science; therefore, it is a philosophical statement based upon naturalism or religion, i.e. scientism. Note that such moralizing is not only beyond the scope of science, but it is also directly connected to one’s view of man. Now, the scientist can make such recommendations, but when he does, it is not as a scientist, with the authority of science; consequently, the scientist’s recommendation has no more authority (and may not have as much as philosophers and preachers) than anyone else.

If preachers and Christians rely too heavily upon science to vindicate a biblical claim, it furthers the unwarranted popular perception that science is the final arbitrator of what is true and what is not. I believe that many Christians have accepted that premise more pervasively than is often recognized. For science to be the supreme authority (or perceived as the necessary authenticator) in all areas of existence, e.g. the latest study, poll or survey, is not only a change in what we think but how we think.[4] With the evanescing of the publicly acknowledged[5] existence of the final or fixed (much less the superiority of the final or fixed), we are wittingly or unwittingly trained to think in temporary and transitory ways because whatever we believe today is really only for today or until the next poll, study, etc. Therefore, Christians must be trained to recognize this subtle shift and to think more deeply than scientific culture esteems and help others do the same.

Far too often, pastors, when preaching or teaching, can find themselves relying on science rather than Scripture to drive home their point. Again, I do believe there is a place for using such information, but Scripture relies on eternal wisdom, understanding the past, whereas science needs to know little history because what really matters is the next study, poll, etc. Consequently, when the latest data—which will probably be obsolete soon—is used to convince people of the intellectual reliability of Scripture or why they should follow Scripture, the long term effect will be an erosion of a passion to be a Biblicist. Sometimes, quite unwittingly, science becomes the evidence of the message and Jesus becomes the illustration. This is disastrously backward.

Nothing in this article is to be construed as anti-science. I have a deep appreciation for science, and a number of scientists are members of the church I serve. Rather, my concern is to guard Christians from undue reliance upon science, mistaking scientism for science, or minimizing the need to know Scripture more deeply because of such reliance. In the twenty-first century western culture, there is a great need for Christians to think biblically so that they can understand the benefits as well as the limitations of science, and when it is stealthily transformed into scientism. Following are some inherent liabilities of the tools previously mentioned:

  1. There are always conflicting conclusions between different studies and polls; thus, cherry picking is common.
  2. Statistics can be used to demonstrate almost anything by inclusion or omission of certain variables related to the study or poll.
  3. One rarely understands how the study or poll was actually done, which can dramatically transform both the study’s certainty and conclusions being presented.
  4. Often a conclusion drawn is presented as THE conclusion while it may in fact be only one of the derivable conclusions, or may actually be misleading when other variables are considered.
  5. Often these tools are used to demonstrate proof when, even at their best, they can actually only demonstrate varying degrees of probability.
  6. The wording of the questions, order of the questions, tone of the questioner, time of the questioning, and the pool of the questioned greatly influences the statistical data and conclusions.
  7. Double-blind studies are rarely used.
  8. Fraud, personal agendas, shoddy work, biases, and misrepresentation of the data are found repeatedly, and without being privy to the entire process, etc., one cannot detect this.
  9. Decisions about what to do and not to do with regard to people or morals with these tools revamp the way modern man thinks, which is consistent with sole reliance upon science or scientism, but is actually contrary to linear, logical, or biblical thinking because all one needs to know is what does the most recent study—experiment—say.
  10. Although used to determine what ought to be and what ought not to be, these tools can only tell one what is or is not and can never tell one what should be.

For example, statistics may be used to show how many people are without health insurance, and the truth is that is all the statistics tell us. Therefore, when people start drawing conclusions from such statistics, they may very well be misreading the data or, perish the thought, misrepresenting the truth for their own agenda.

Say that thirty percent do not have insurance. This, in and of itself, does not tell us: how many have chosen not to have insurance, how many have chosen to spend their insurance money on other things, how many are covered through the generosity of hospitals, how many of those would rather be without governmental intrusion than to have insurance, how many are in transition between insurances, how many have strategically chosen to invest that money elsewhere for the potential future payoff and do not want to be forced to pay higher taxes for health care, how many have made personal decisions—even religious ones—which led them to be without insurance and do not think others should have to pay, how many have the intention but have not made the choice to spend their money on insurance or are waiting on someone else, how many have made a conscious decision to eliminate their insurance for what they deem to be a worthwhile alternative, ad infinitum!

It is the truth that makes one free, but the present undue reliance of preachers on these fragmentary tools in order to bolster their preaching conclusions may bear short-term fruit, but in the long run may undermine the very truth they passionately desire to communicate because it trains a whole generation to rely upon polls, statistics, and studies with credulous trust. Moreover, undue reliance upon science (not to mention scientism) affords very little incentive to develop a godly mind through devoted study and digging deeply into the Word of God (2 Tim 2:15; 1 Pet 2: 2).

 


[1] This is my definition of science in which I seek to express the full breadth of science proper without morphing it into naturalism.
[2] Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2001), 59-60. He gives as an example Freud’s statement, “Our science is not illusion, but an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.” This goes far beyond the realm of science into ‘epistemic naturalism’ or ‘scientism.’ Smith notes on page 62 that not all scientists accept the “epistemological privilege of science,” like the French microbiologist Francois Jacob and others. Scientism is not the belief that science will be able to “predict everything” as noted on page 63, which would make it held by only a few.
[3] Smith, Why Religion Matters, 187.
[4] There is no longer the acknowledged existence or much less the superiority of the final or fixed. Consequently, we are wittingly or unwittingly trained to think in temporary and transitory ways because whatever we believe today is really only for today or until the next poll, study, etc.
[5] I am referring here to acknowledged in the sense of publically imposable knowledge, e.g. the Declaration of Independence being  premised upon the existence of God, and public education prior to the installation of progressive education.