Science as Critical Thinking? (RJS)

Harold Kroto, Nobel Laureate, co-discoverer of C60 better known as buckminsterfullerene or buckyballs, was speaking to young researchers at the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting. In his lecture he told them that science is more than a collection of facts. Sure, there is a body of knowledge, but science is more than that. It is a away of thinking and searching for truth. (From Scientific American in 60-second science.)

Perhaps most important is that it’s the way that we discover new knowledge. But for me the most important, by far, is that it’s the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability. Think about that. Because then it becomes a much bigger subject. In fact, for me, perhaps the most important subject there is. And the ethical purpose of eduction must involve teaching children how they can decide what they’re being told is actually true. And that’s not the case in general. The teaching of a skeptical, evidence-based assessment of all claims–all claims–without exception is fundamentally an intellectual integrity issue. Without evidence, anything goes.Think about it.

In these reflections Dr. Kroto is introducing science as a way of thinking, exploring and viewing the world around us. This way of thinking is essential to the growth of science through the last five hundred years or so and is part of the legacy of the Renaissance and Enlightenment thinking. Education in science is not to impart facts, but to train the mind.

How do you learn and discover and evaluate truth?

What role does “scientific” thinking play?

A popular biology text book, Human Biology 7th ed. by Daniel D. Chiras outlines rules for critical thinking (p. 13-19). These rules help to put the idea expressed by Harold Kroto on a more concrete ground.

1. Gather complete information, not just from sources that support your viewpoint.

Adopting a position based on authority – the views and beliefs of others – isn’t sufficient. Listen and read from a variety of sources and positions. We tend to selectively gather confirming information – this isn’t good enough. Make it a point to intentionally read dissenting views.

2. Understand and define all terms.

Understanding terms and making sure that others define them in discussions brings clarity to issues and debates. (p. 13)

3. Question the methods by which data and information were derived.

In science this is particularly important – how were the experiments done? what methods were used? was the theory appropriate? how was the data analyzed? These kinds of questions must be constantly addressed. A paper or report is never read or heard without these running through my mind.

4. Question the conclusion.

Even when the experiments or calculations are valid the conclusions may be wrong. Bias or implicit preconceptions can lead to misinterpretation of the data. Two questions should always be asked …  Do the facts support the conclusions? and Are there alternative explanations?

My thesis adviser insisted that we separate results from discussion in our papers – a common, but not universal practice in the field. The results, the data, should always stand the test of time. The interpretation in the discussion section may not in the wake of new information, improved methods, or a new insight or theory.

5. Uncover assumptions and biases.

6. Question the source of information.

Rules 5 and 6 are closely related. Bias and assumptions will not always invalidate a result of an interpretation, but it is important information and should play a role in evaluating claims. If someone is known to be an advocate of a certain position, especially with a professional or monetary stake in the outcome, the conclusions deserve more extensive scrutiny. Chiras highlights the importance of knowing the players. Peer review plays an important role here in the scientific community – when the results are reviewed favorably by other experts without the same bias or stake this lends credibility to the paper.

7. Understand your own biases and values

Subject yourself to the same scrutiny you subject others. Always ask … What are my biases, assumptions, and areas of ignorance? Do these impact my conclusions? What can I do to minimize the possibility that I am being misled by my biases and assumptions? (See #1).

These rules, with some modification, are broadly applicable outside of the narrow confines of science. I find it essential to employ a very similar approach when addressing pretty much any question that comes up, including questions of faith and religion. Faith isn’t the result of empirical investigation and determination of truth – it is a consequence of relationship with others and with God. But many of the areas of apparent conflict between science and the Christian faith arise from biases and assumptions, often implicit biases and assumptions

A common concern in our churches is the role that education can play in the loss of faith. The problem, it seems to me, is not the depth of Christian thinking or the strength of the arguments against the faith. The problem is the lack of resource in the local church and in the some traditions to deal with the challenges introduced by critical thinking. There is a reliance on authority rather than dialog in discipling young Christians to think “Christianly” through hard questions.

What do you think? Are these good rules? Which are the most important?

What rules would you add to the list that help you determine the truth of a claim or teaching?

What runs through your mind when you listen to someone teach or preach – how do you evaluate what is said?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • Andrew Parle

    Indeed these rules are very useful, unfortunately they are not always applied when people are influenced by faith, religion or when some talks about the truth.Mainly because I think the majority of people do not know how to ask the right questions so to evaluate or learn about truth. Its a matter of educating people, its my experience most churches dont teach this.. There is a difference between learning and teaching, its important to show people how to learn not just listen to a teacher…
    What runs through my mind when I listen to a teacher or preacher? Context, context and context! Please no verse snatching, please don’t be vague etc..

  • Rick

    “What role does “scientific” thinking play?”

    “Scientific thinking” should have limited bearing on our thoughts on Christianity, since only a limited number of issues regarding Christianity fall under science.

    On the other hand, “critical” thinking should have a larger bearing since more, but not necessarily all, can use that tool.

    Scientific and critical thinking are not synonymous, and to use the terms as if they were helps cause pushback from religion against science, and science against religion.

  • dans

    The scientific method is a tool to gather information and make inferences that can be tested. But “truth” is often far above or below the reach of science. Modern science arose because of the presupposition that a creator made an orderly universe that could be studied. But tht presupposition did not arise from science. Nor can the larger questions of truth, love, beauty and meaning be reduced to pure cause and effect within the constraints of biochestry and physics without rendering them meaningless. Truth is far too big to be conceived of in relation to a mere methodology for reasoning, particularly if that methodology studiously excludes the consideration of causes beyond nature.

  • Wm

    In evaluating ‘truth’ we need to distinguish between how the ‘subject’ has come into being vs how different people have handled the ‘subject’ once it is present. In other words, I can use critical thinking skills/scientific method to determine if another person’s analysis stands up under thorough scrutiny, but that is different than questioning his ‘faith’ in the origins of a ‘thing’. Discussing ‘how’ something came to ‘be’ differs from a discussion on what we think about the thing that ‘is’.

  • Wm

    Rick – what do you see as the essential differences between the scientific method and critical thinking skills?

  • Ted M. Gossard

    Doesn’t John Polkinghorne make a similar argument in regard to the formation of Christian theology over time, related to the formation of scientific theory and knowledge?

    This is a kind of holistic, I would think, way of thinking we Christians need to become better witnesses to the truth in Jesus. I think N.T. Wright, surely in his three tomes out now, beginning with “The New Testament and the People of God,” does this admirably. Also I think Scot’s “The Blue Parakeet” helps us learn to think well in terms of the revelation in scripture God has given us. Along with N.T. Wright’s update of his book on that.

    I think in terms of scripture we always have to be asking what it meant for the original recipients of the writing, what it means in terms of Christ as fulfillment, and how we see it in that light. With reference to the present and completion of that fulfillment in the future.

    Of course I’m always thinking in terms of scripture, because that actually is the basis on which we come to rest on the foundation who is God, and come to understand God’s revelation to us in Christ.

  • Wm

    Miroslav Volf, in his recent book, Allah, points out that God ‘is’ for both Muslims and Christians. The argument isn’t there, but in the realm of our varying human apprehensions of what ‘is’. He suggests that we need to remember various biases when communicating while God remains the same. There is the real you and the real me; the image I have of you and the image you have of me; then the image I have of myself and the image you have of yourself – which may differ greatly from both actuality and anothers image of me. Critical thinking functions best in this realm, rather than in the realm of ‘origin’. As has been said, ‘a text, without a context, is a pretext, for a proof text.’ We only have the context of God’s ‘product’, not the context for God himself.

  • Amos Paul

    Science is pretending to be Philosophy again. Critical thinking IS philosophy, and science is a branch of that. But science is, in point of fact, still very similar to religion… and that is becuase, no matter how many ‘sources’ they check their facts against–they’re still taking the authority of those sources on faith! Indeed, how can we even trust that the human mind has the capability to discern things truthfully and not deceitfully? Faith.

    Faith is believing something (anything) on the basis of authority rather than having a direct and deductive proof that verifies its validity beyond a shadow of a doubt.

    Faith can be reasonably founded. In fact if someone went around believing just *any* source of authority we might question if their faith is genuine. But is there really anything that we don’t have to have faith in?

    Though I thoroughly agree, young Christians should be edified in thinking for themselves and recognizing how and why proper authorities should be trusted in that thinking.

  • rjs


    There is taken on faith, justified by reproducibility, but still taken on faith, a trust in human reason and human senses. This is not a “blind” faith – and it requires an openness to things that are counter intuitive – but it is an assumption.

    But when you say that science is a branch of philosophy I think that is mistaken – although it may be a difference in the definition of science (see #2 in the list). Critical thinking is a subset of philosophy which one could take as equivalent to science.

    Perhaps Philosophy is to science and theology what Mathematics is to Physics (and all of science). As J. Willard Gibbs said – “A mathematician may say anything he pleases, but a physicist must be at least partially sane.

  • Tom

    This is the same as deconstruction isn’t it? This is the way we should be evaluating everything that claims to be truth. To do less is to close your mind to the truth that you are supposed to be seeking.
    Once religious thinkers commit to a position and write a book, they tend to close their minds to ideas from others and push the truth that they are committed too. It is hard to admit you are wrong once you have publicly stated your position and only a few good people can do it.
    Religious convictions carry the further issue of “leading others astray” when you claim to be teaching the truth with “authority”. If you think you are being led by the Holy Spirit, how can you change your mind? If someone questions you, they are a “heretic” or worse a “liberal”.
    I don’t know how you change this except to admit that none of us have all the answers and that God speaks to us in community, not as individuals when it comes to doctrinal issues.
    Again I’ll say that when I hear the words “God told me” I tend to run the other way. Can you imagine a scientist saying “God told me this”? I know it is not the same but it is close and if we are going to base our life on a doctrine, souldn’t we be more careful than even a scientist?

  • Patrick

    My only beef is Kroto appears to view science as I view Christ and the spiritual life.

    His methodology is great for science or for the spiritual life. It’s what Thomas Aquinas did in fact. I’m not Catholic, but, the Aquinas method seems to lead to great discovery and accuracy, IMO.

  • rjs


    It would be interesting if you could elaborate on that a bit. I am not quite sure what you mean.

  • Adam Omelianchuk

    Really? Be skeptical towards everything? That’s self-defeating. And to suggest that we should be surprised at accepting the truth about the earth going around the sun from reliable testimony (high school teachers) downgrades testimony as a source of knowledge. And yet scientists bemoan the public as idiots when they question the testimony of scientists that evolution is true… Sorry, but his rules of knowledge and justification are terrible.

  • Rick

    Wm #5-

    Dans #3 said it well.

  • T

    I do think that science is a kind of critical thinking, but the rules laid out above are more general in nature (they do not share the same assumptions as the scientific method), and can be used to critique either scientific or theological conclusions and ways of thinking.

    What’s more, I flatly disagree with this: “it’s the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability.” This seems to conflate scientific method with critical thinking, of which science is just a subset. This is the kind of statement that justifies the use of science as an epistimology rather than one tool for truth.

    only construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability.” Wow. Now that’s great faith, blind even.

  • Ray Ingles

    dans –

    Modern science arose because of the presupposition that a creator made an orderly universe that could be studied.

    Yes, but note that doesn’t mean modern science is still dependent on that notion. Astronomy grew from astrology, and chemistry from alchemy, but that doesn’t mean astrology or alchemy gain any validity from that fact.

  • Amos Paul

    @9 rjs,

    I didn’t mean to accuse any faith as being ‘blind’, other than what I would want to generally accuse of not actually being faith. That is, if faith is not reasonably founded it doesn’t seem like genuine faith at all to me. This is actually a doctrine of St Thomas Aquinas. While not a devout Thomist myself, I do think that the man was right about quite a few things.

    But Thomas’s reply to people’s accusations of Faith being opposed to reason was, what is your reason founded upon? How much knowledge do you qualify as being ‘reasonable’? Anything you learned in school? Read in the news? Reasoned with your own mind? Immediately or ultimately, it’s mainly all a form of faith–trust in some kind of authority. Be that the authority of your own mind, the authority of scientific reports, the authority of some theory, whatever.

    And I enjoyed your analogy of Philosophy and Mathematics. Although I’d simply remind you as a point of historical fact (taken, of course, on faith!) that science emerged from what was called natural philosophy–that is, philosophy aimed at discovering more about the natural universe []. This is because philosophy just is careful and intentional critical reasoning. Almost every academic field historically emerged out of it. That’s why PhD means ‘Doctor of Philosophy in [Whatever field]’. Etc.

  • rjs


    I am not in agreement with Kroto about many things. But take the sun example – yes we believe that the earth goes around the sun on testimony. But as we grow and learn and gain experience that testimony is always tested against the other information, for coherence and consistency with an increasing body of knowledge. If the testimony of the teacher was true it will hold up to the test of time.

    If the testimony was not true it will not. Sometimes we then realize that small tweaks are needed to our understanding and sometimes major shifts.

    So – yes always have a degree of skepticism. But skepticism doesn’t mean distrust, it means testing and searching.

    On the issue of evolution – ask questions, look for answers, do not simply take on authority. But, and this is the big one, be prepared to defend reasons for taking a different position and make logical coherent arguments why. Be skeptical both ways and look for consistent answers. Make sure you understand why – not what. Expect to be challenged and questioned. Most Christians who do this, unless constrained by an interpretation of scripture, tend to move to a model of evolutionary creation or some mix of intelligent design and evolutionary creation for a reason rooted in the strength of the evidence for evolution as God’s method of creation.

    I have a few friends who take something closer to an intelligent design position – but they don’t make the argument based on easily refuted rather absurd ideas of evolution. Here we can have an educational debate and discussion.

  • Adam Omelianchuk

    Thanks, RJS. That is more helpful.

  • Ethan Magness

    I am so sorry that I am late to this party because I have great passion about this conversation. On the one hand I applaud everything he is saying as he expounds the benefits and virtues of the epistemology of science (or more broadly critical thinking) but I am concerned that he seems to suggest (and I know many who to more than merely suggest) that this is the only valid epistemology.

    This is a grave problem. If I ever get a PHD I want to explore exactly this issue. We as humans need a more robust set of epistemologies not a reduced one. While we certainly need the one that Kroto is supporting, we also needs others. We need to maintain epistemologies appropriate to history and to relationships and to the law courts. That is we need epistemology that can help us determine the truth of these kinds of claims.

    I love you.
    I saw him kill the butler with the candlestick in the library.
    Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

    Kroto use of the word “truth” as no more and no less than “Provable” is a very serious problem not only for those of us who want to promote faith in Christ but even just for those of us who want to be human.

    I had a wonderful quantum physics professor in college. He frequently side, “Nothing is true except that which can be proven.” I finally got up the nerve to ask him after class, if perhaps he meant that he would not believe anything that could not be proven. He assured me that instead he meant that the category of true only applied to things that could be proven through the scientific method. He went on to say this a was the only kind of knowledge that was real.

    I asked about love and faith and he assured me that we could test the chemical effects on the brain, but that other than that these were illusions.

    I worry that this is where the reduced epistemological framework described above will ultimately lead us.

  • Jeff Doles

    Ethan, about your professor who asserted that nothing is true except that which can be proven by the scientific method — was he ever able to prove the truth of that statement by the scientific method? :)

    And was he ever able to prove the truthfulness of the scientific method by the scientific method? :)

  • Ethan Magness

    I never asked. I was precocious but not that precocious. He was a very wise and very good man who I loved as a prof. I took him for four classes. I even took a wonderful philosophy of science class with him about physics and the search for meaning. This was where I realized that for him the scientific method was more than just a tool for good science, it was the only epistemological frame that he accepted. I think that mainly it was because the scientific method just worked so well and was so tidy.

  • DRT

    Ethan#20, I am choosing to be very careful about making statements such as you did in

    “Kroto use of the word “truth” as no more and no less than “Provable” is a very serious problem not only for those of us who want to promote faith in Christ but even just for those of us who want to be human.”

    As much as us inquisitive types would agree, the bigger problems, imo, are:

    1. Those who take that to mean that objectively verifiable and provable don’t mean squat compared with their literal interpretation of the bible or their disbelief in global warming or such…


    2. That there are many who neglect scientific understanding on the basis of it being evil or somehow dishonest.

    I agree with you, but I believe that is for advanced players only.

  • Tim Dalrymple

    Sounds like he confused Cartesian method with scientific method, for one thing. But I also think it’s problematic essentially to reduce rational inquiry to one very narrow, modern and performatively-contradictory version of scientific inquiry. I believe in the importance of method, and of ideals, but twentieth century philosophy of science did some very important work in showing the extent to which this ideal is impossible to achieve, and to which scientists (who can still strive for the impossible) should acknowledge the ineluctably human and therefore limited and imperfect elements in scientific inquiry. The attempt to make scientific inquiry paradigmatic for all inquiry is problematic in all sorts of ways. But since I’m on my iPhone I’ll have to leave it there. I find Nancey Murphy and Wentzel van Huyssteen helpful on these things.

  • rjs


    Kroto overstates – or so I think anyway. But I also think you may be missing the point of some of the rest of the post.

    One of the key points is the way we approach “authority” as a way of knowing. Authority (like evidence) must be assessed and evaluated.

  • DRT

    I feel like David in his laments. How can my enemies only see a cold hand of technology when I see the divine hand of creation. All people should sing praises to the creation that the creator God has given us. My enemies try to say that your creation is heartless, without intent and without your life breathing every existence into its being. Why? Why don’t they understand that they don’t need to fear you? Why don’t they understand that you have set the heavens in motion and my life in glory to your existence.

    Folks, you break my heart.

    Sorry for the emotion, but it sure felt good!

  • rjs


    I like your lament – I may use it. But who are the “folks” who break your heart? Commenters here?

  • Ethan Magness

    Hey DRT,

    If I understand your correction, then I am in full agreement. I work against all forms of epistemological narrow mindedness. In fact in my current role I actually spend more time encouraging people to embrace the very principles that Kroto is advocating. I want people to be skeptical, to question evidence and bias and you are certainly right that the epistemology of “literal reading of scripture” can be terribly tyrannical.

    So maybe I am reading too much into this statement: “it’s the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability.” Maybe he just means that all our epistemologies need a healthy dose of reason and skepticism. If that is all he means then sign me up. But I thought I heard him establishing a new tyranny to replace the one that you mentioned (which also concerns me and is problematic.)

    So let us oppose all forms of epistemological narrow-mindedness in ourselves and others.

    Did I understand you?


  • DRT

    rjs, yes, some here, but those folks seem to be everywhere now. It seems like a failure of our educational system.

  • Rick

    I was reading a Thomas Oden book last night and happened to notice his mention of Jesus encouraging critical thinking.

    He used John 10: 36b-37 as an example:

    “Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? 37 Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father”

  • DRT

    Ethan, I think we are in agreement. Perhaps I am not reading enough into his statement.

  • Fred


    One of the most poignant posts I have ever read on this blog.


  • Patrick


    What I perceived was the “science as a search for truth” aspect of the article could be seen as a replacement for a spiritual “search for truth in Christ”.

    I love the methodology and inquisitiveness, I think that’s how we grow.

    I probably misunderstood the point.

  • rjs


    I think you are right so far as Dr. Kroto and many others who look at science and a supreme way of knowing. There are many who look a science as a search for truth replacing search for truth in Christ or any religion or spiritual realm.

    But what struck me was methodology and inquisitiveness.

    So maybe there are two points

    (1) the way some use materialism explored scientifically as the basis of all reality and all knowledge – this is troublesome, and something we must be prepared to counter.

    (2) intentional inquisitiveness and a methodology of critical thinking, which does not necessarily lead to atheism or ontological naturalism (in fact I think it does not lead to these conclusions).

  • pds

    Interesting post! I wish I had time to read all this and jump in.