Guest Post: Science is Reliable (Sorry, Skeptics: No Grand Conspiracy against God)

Today, Karl Giberson continues his six-part series of excerpts from his new book The Wonder of the Universe: Hints of God in a Fine-Tuned World . Karl Giberson, noted speaker and writer about the intersection of Christian faith and science. (See first post for intro; see his complete bio here.)

In this fourth excerpt, Giberson tells us that science is reliable. Yeah, no grand conspiracy. Just some discoveries about how the physical world operates.

Excerpt #4: The Reliability of Science

Science has discovered much about the universe. The scientific enterprise provides amazing insights into the natural world, and I believe that those insights are reliable, steadily improving and most likely true. Caution and humility are in order, nonetheless, because science is a finite human enterprise with all the limitations that entails.

Skeptics of various sorts, from young-earth creationists to agnostic postmodern literary critics, sometimes dispute the claims of science, pointing to past scientific ideas that have been overturned or areas of present controversy. The settled and secure science of today, suggest these critics, may pass into history, joining the settled and secure science of long ago in the graveyard of wrong ideas.

There is some truth to this caution, but it really should be nothing more than a caution, like a seatbelt put on with no expectation of needing it. During every major, and even minor, transition in science there are people who hold to traditional views; there are examples of tenacious and irrational loyalty to the status quo.

There are many examples of celebrity skeptics. Einstein wouldn’t accept quantum mechanics. Galileo wouldn’t

Einstein: stubborn scientist

accept Kepler’s calculations that showed that the planetary orbits were elliptical rather than circular. Fred Hoyle wouldn’t accept the evidence for the big bang and developed a theory to oppose it.

Those eager to reject the claims of science invoke these anecdotes as if they are typical. If we don’t like the fact that science has determined the age of the earth to be billions of years old, we cling to the hope that this conclusion, like the once-secure claim that the earth is stationary, will soon give way to a new and more congenial understanding.

After all, for two thousand years educated leaders insisted that a mountain of evidence pointed to the earth being stationary and at the center of the universe. And now no scientist believes that. Similarly, Newton’s ideas were supplanted by those of Einstein. Quantum mechanics, black holes, multiple universes and string theory have blown everyone’s mind at some point over the past century.

Is there no good reason to believe that the new ideas of tomorrow will be different and perhaps more appealing than the ideas of today?

The answer, in a nutshell, is no.

The idea that science constantly changes is largely fiction, based on our lopsided familiarity with scientific revolutions and lack of awareness of ongoing ordinary science. The typical scientific advance—the sort that is presented in almost every one of the thousands of scientific papers published each year—is one that extends, encompasses and absorbs rather than refutes old understandings. Only rarely do new ideas require that old ideas be discarded.

Even truly revolutionary ideas are often compatible with many previous ideas. Consider Copernicus’s ideas—the gold standard for scientific revolutions. His new model for the solar system included the all-important but long-established ideas that the planets were different than the stars, that the planets all had their own orbits, that the stars maintained predictable patterns, and, of course, that the earth was round.

We overlook the significance of this because science often establishes its conclusions with such clarity that they seem trivial, and thus their enduring character seems inconsequential. But the discovery and measurement of the shape and size of the earth, for example, was an amazing achievement.

Similarly, Newton’s ideas have not been discarded; they simply have been shown to have a restricted domain of application. When I teach mechanics to engineering students, I use a textbook based entirely on Newton’s laws of motion. If Newton’s own treatment wasn’t so opaque, we could still be using his book from the seventeenth century. The revolution that “toppled Newton” was the discovery of certain extreme situations where his theory did not work. It was not the discovery that his ideas were wrong in any simple sense. NASA still launches space shuttles and puts satellites into orbit using Newton’s laws, which work perfectly for those situations. The repeated discovery of new planets—as exciting as it was at the time—simply expanded the domain of application of Newton’s theory of gravity.

The application of scientific ideas to technological devices provides another reason for being comfortable with science. Scientific insights that have given rise to technologies like computers, cell phones and lasers have a certain pragmatic credibility and are unlikely to be supplanted. If those ideas were not true, then building devices based on them would be impossible. Almost all the physics of the first half of the twentieth century is validated every time your computer powers up. No matter what you think about the strangeness of quantum mechanics, the devices based on it work.

The prudent approach to science is to accept its central ideas as good descriptions of reality, developed by scientists, working with integrity, who are motivated to find out how the created world functions. The central ideas in any scientific field—whether it be cosmology or medicine—have been hammered out by a community of well-informed and highly skeptical scientists. To achieve consensus with such a group is no simple task.

Appreciating the consensus character of science is crucial to navigating scientific controversies like those that swirl about global warming, the big bang or biological evolution. The central ideas of science are never based entirely on the work of a few scientists.

While certain great scientists like Darwin or Einstein may provide the initial flash of genius, the idea flows from the margins of science into a much larger world until thousands of skeptical specialists are thinking hard about it. Many of those specialists are looking for an ingenious flaw in the theory, just as Einstein tried heroically to come up with a good reason to reject quantum mechanics.

The simple fact that quantum mechanics survived a quarter century of assault by Einstein should convince us that the theory must be reliable. But this same fire refines every idea in science. The moment a new idea appears in the scientific literature, critics spring into action, motivated by everything from self-defense to curiosity to an enthusiasm for knowledge to a desire to be famous.

New ideas from the fringes lobbying to get into the scientific conversation can be taken seriously but not uncritically. They may be the explanations of tomorrow, or they may pass like the “cold fusion” claims from the 1980s, which I suspect you have never heard about, despite making a great stir at the time. There is presently a lot of excitement about multiple universes.

I am skeptical that these ideas will endure, but the right people are proposing them in the right way, so we have to take them seriously. We should not dig in our heels, as some did against the ideas of Galileo, and cut off discussion. These ideas may withstand the scrutiny they are receiving now. For truly controversial ideas, we should look closely at who is saying what, and why they are saying it. Great scientists, from Newton to Einstein to Dyson will often end their illustrious careers exploring oddball ideas that would sink the careers of lesser scientists.

And of course one should always be skeptical of the way that zealous scientific crusaders misuse science to make some larger point that has nothing to do with science. Atheists claiming that Darwin forces us to abandon belief in God are the best example of this.

The most difficult part of science for an outsider to navigate is scientific controversy.

Many ideas in science—and many other fields, for that matter—are opposed by dissenters. Often these dissenters have Ph.D.s and are well-credentialed. They may have written books and hold appointments at respected universities. How are we to know if the controversial idea held by the dissenter, and being opposed by people too invested in the status quo, is the new science of tomorrow? Is it possible that the status quo is on its way to becoming the science of yesterday, and its champions are just the faithful few who just can’t let go? If two scholars holding opposite ideas are pitted against each other and both have comparable credentials, what do you do?

Consider the case of Francis Collins and Michael Behe, who are both Christians, although that is not technically important for the point I am making.

Collins is a well-respected geneticist who headed the Human Genome Project and, as of right now, directs the National Institutes of Health, overseeing the largest biomedical research budget in the world. He has written several books, including the bestseller The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. In 2011 he and I coauthored The Language of Faith and Science: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions. In both of these books, in his public presentations and in his many research papers he affirms the theory of evolution and the adequacy of that theory to explain the development of life on this planet.

Michael Behe is a fully credentialed biochemist tenured at Lehigh University, a respected research institution. He has published more than a hundred research papers and has written two bestselling books: Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution and The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism. In both of these books he denies the theory of evolution by natural selection, claiming it cannot account for the development of life on this planet. He promotes intelligent design as a superior explanation.

Who is right—Collins or Behe? And how do we decide? Almost all the controversies about science within the evangelical world—and elsewhere—come down to this sort of situation— multiple experts, often impressively credentialed, but with opposing views. Behe and Collins both claim to speak for science.

I want to suggest that, despite the apparent symmetry of the two sides in this case, that Collins should clearly be preferred over Behe. Collins promotes scientific ideas that are shared by tens of thousands of other credentialed scientists.

The pages of leading science magazines discuss those ideas. Scientific meetings put those ideas on their programs. Grants are awarded to study those ideas. Biotechnology companies research new products based on those ideas. Some pharmaceutical companies even have products for sale based on those ideas. In contrast, Behe’s ideas are shared by a tiny number of scientists, and most of them are less credentialed than he is. Collins’s group of colleagues is hundreds, perhaps thousands of times larger than Behe’s.

The ideas about intelligent design promoted by Behe are almost nonexistent in scientific magazines. Some of the ideas, in fact, have never been written up and submitted to a science journal. They appear only in his popular books. Behe’s ideas are not discussed at scientific meetings but only at gatherings of like-minded Christians who are often suspicious of science. They are published primarily in books that are not peer reviewed in the way that scientific research is peer reviewed before it is published. No grants are being awarded to study these ideas and no companies are interested in creating products based on them.

Behe represents a common phenomenon in American culture—the heroic but lonely outsider defending a view rejected by the majority. He is like the handful of historians who say the holocaust never happened or, if it did, that Darwin caused it. Or the handful of climate scientists who deny global warming. Or the champions of the existence of actual cases of alien abduction, some of whom are credible scholars.

This is not to say, of course, that Behe is wrong. Holding a minority view is not the same as being wrong. Most of the major ideas in science were once minority viewpoints embraced by a few renegade thinkers marching to their own drummer. But it does mean that Behe’s views cannot properly be called scientific, in the normal definition of that term.

Science works by achieving consensus, and only those ideas that have secured the allegiance of the scientific community can legitimately be called scientific. Other ideas might be up-and-coming; they might even be true. But they cannot be considered genuinely scientific ideas until they have persuaded the majority of scientists. And scientists, by temperament, are hard to persuade.

Next post: “Excerpt #5: Be Cautious with Design Arguments”


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  • Peter

    I am a reforming fundamentalist and left YECism a long time ago. I am delighted with Dr. Enns’ handling of scripture and in many ways I “do not have a horse in this race” when it comes to evolution. However, I do have a background in science (a long time ago) and every refutation of Behe’s arguments that I have seen seems to lack power. His work (and everything that I understand about biochemistry and its interface with genetics) still leaves me doubtful of the power of unguided evolution. I would be appreciative of any recommendations for reading (I don’t have time to go back to undergrad or grad school though!) that you might give. Thank you.

    • peteenns

      Hi Peter, I don’t have any recommendations for reading (i would likely ask you that question). Wish I could help. I wonder if the BioLogos website has some suggestions?

    • Stephen

      Peter (not Enns),
      Ken Miller has addressed Behe’s work at length. See his Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution and Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul.

    • Much of the work I’ve seen that attacks Behe’s arguments focuses on his premises. For instance, Behe’s specific ideas about the non-maintenance of selectively-neutral features and the fitness landscapes that he proposes aren’t really one he argues for in his books (he just assumes them) but they also aren’t ones that should be accepted without question and in some cases they seem to be pretty far off base. A fairly simple example of this sort of issue is with irreducible complexity. Irreducible complexity assumes a constant evolutionary pressure to solve the same problem over time. It also assumes that all systems evolve by adding parts iteratively rather than modifying existing parts, co-opting parts from other systems, or enhancing a prior simple working system through addition until the entire prior system is obsolete and disappears. However, it’s not at all clear that this is really how systems evolve. There are proposals that insect wings originated as gills which would require the flat surfaces and extensive veination seen and required in insect wings but that at some point these gills began to be used for a different function, that of wings, for which they were pre-adapted. Behe’s theories don’t seem to be set up to handle shifts in function like this.

      Behe largely doesn’t handle these issues because while it’s easy enough to show that something is irreducibly complex it’s just about impossible to model all the other routes by which something could have come to be in which its prior state was not its current state minus one component. Behe’s argument hinges on the ability to know that something couldn’t be rather than on proving an alternate true. Because of this, he effectively has to over-simplify his premises or there are too many possibilities to test. (This also may be why Behe’s arguments are almost all biochemical where we don’t know very much of the picture of life on earth [we know a little bit about a few systems in common test organisms, mostly]. Many of these same sorts of arguments were advanced for macrostructures at one point but then viable intermediates were found and the arguments had to be dropped.)

      I’ve noted that many biologists who challenge evolution seem to be from the biochemisty end of things. I’m not so sure that this is because biochemistry is challenging for evolution rather than that biochemists are not in a field where the serious legwork of evolution is critical core material and universally well-known. Of course, I’m at the intersection of ecology and evolution so I’m likely to be biased towards thinking the specialists on my end are the ones who grasp the important data the others are missing.

    • James

      Evolution is not necessarily “unguided.” There is lots of scientific evidence showing both chance and necessity may have a part. Read British brethren Simon Conway Morris, Keith Ward or John Polkinghorne.

  • Keith from NJ

    To Peter: As a start, try reading Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne. It’s probably in your local library. For me, the matter is settled. Evolution via natural selection is a simple hypothesis backed up by an enormous amount of evidence. It may not explain everything about evolution, in the same way that Newtonian mechanics may not explain everything about mechanics, but it is the central idea. Behe’s arguments supporting Intelligent Design were shredded at the Dover, PA trial. Look for “Nova Judgement Day” on the web; it is available on Youtube. Also on Youtube is Ken Miller’s talk at Case-Western University from some years ago, in which he refutes Behe’s arguments about evolution.

    I hope these suggestions are useful.

  • Beau Quilter

    A good post – just a couple of quibbles:

    As Karl notes: “The central ideas in any scientific field—whether it be cosmology or medicine—have been hammered out by a community of well-informed and highly skeptical scientists.”

    Your subtitle (or parenthetical) uses the word “skeptic” to refer to those who question mainstream science (usually those with an agenda, such as young Earth Creationists) – not real skepticism, just agenda-driven drivel. I think the better use of the word “skeptic” is in it’s honored application to real scientists in the field.

    Atheists stand as Karl’s example of ” zealous scientific crusaders misuse science to make some larger point that has nothing to do with science.” I think you’ll find that religious zealots are the far more pervasive and ultimately harmful in their abuse of science. I would include organizations ranging from the YEC’s at Answers in Genesis to the inconsistent but well-funded voices at the Templeton Foundation.

  • Redfrost

    Making any reference to God is delusional or at the very least part of the illusion. I refer you to Alex Rosenberg and “The physical facts fix all the facts.” It’s quite simple really. The thing that really gets me is this blind the-world-is-flat-according-to-god and Jesus died for our sins and Moses came down from the mountain with commandants from the Wizard and the Virgin Mary didn’t have sex and you have a soul, self, mind and that you have a purpose in the this vast universe. I have to laugh. Evolutionary biology is science and it’s full of facts that dispute any other organizing principle apart from natural selection and random variation. Hello. We are here by random variation. We are just here. A purpose, a plan, intelligent design are just part of the illusion of introspection, that mind that doesn’t exist. I have to say the the organizing laws of physics in this universe have sense of humor.

  • edward johnson

    Actually the Theory of everything is much simpler than people think with no invented supernatural god particles. The simple equation: Ut, x,y,z are the 4 real spatial dimensions Where Ut is the expansion of the universe, which just so happens to be expanding at the local rate of 300,000kms. This is what determines the speed of light and the formation of atomic materials – and if the value of Ut changes the luxury of atoms dissapear. In a book called Absolute relativity – theory of everything available on amazon books. 1. law of the universe is to expand. The 2nd law is to acheive equillibrium. 3rd atoms will form up by converting the background energy provided by Ut hence the evolution of biology. The universe does not give a damn if biology exists or not it just happens to be part of its equillibrium process and can only occur when the local expansion of the universe just happens to be this accidental number 300,000kms. I agree with this New Theory and the author is finally submitting ideas which are sensitive to nature – not scientific imaginings…. The large hadron experiments will fail – no god particle and will not exceed the speed of light. If it were possible to exceed the speed of light that would have occured in 1932 when the first collider was built – or at least some indication it should be possible. Instead the scientists continue to do the same experiment over and over – now in the 200 colliders which exist in the world! Perhaps when the LHC ends with a failure then maybe the community of scientists will finally come out of the post Einstein dark ages and re think the meaning of an absolute spacetime and reflect the ingenious hypothesis and insight of this author.

  • AHH

    It is misleading to say that Behe “denies the theory of evolution by natural selection”.

    Behe is a theistic evolutionist (even thought he does not use that phrase). He affirms that evolution (in its basic meaning of common descent) has happened; it is just that he thinks the “theistic” part had to be more interventionist in the course of evolution (and especially in the origin of life) than other TEs like Giberson might say.

    I’m not a fan of Behe’s work, but it is head and shoulders above most of the ID movement in that it makes scientific arguments and it does not deny the basic fact of evolution. It always pains me when my fundamentalist-leaning brethren lean on Behe when they want to reject “evolution”, as they don’t seem to recognize that Behe actually agrees with consensus science on most of the matters that make the anti-evolutionsists uncomfortable (common descent rather than special creation of species or kinds, humans descended from earlier primates, etc.).

    • Beau Quilter

      Behe’s reputation only has merit among the Christian audiences of his popular books. His peer reviewed publication record is scant and doesn’t address his ID ideas directly. His popular ID books routinely receive negative criticism by some of the best in the field (his popular books would probably be ignored if he didn’t have such a broad audience of nonscience peers in Christian circles.

      Behe may believe that evolution can operate, but only in the most limited fashion. He believes in common descent of a sort – but believes that ID is the driving force of common descent – not evolution.

      Behe is fond of using the language of his field in ways that sound credible to laymen, but are clearly faulty premises and unsubstantiated statements to anyone familiar with the field.

  • greg huguley

    Karl, Greetings. I love your work, thanks for your writings. I do have a question: You seem to be saying that for ideas (would this include “theories”) to be properly called “scientific” they need to (already) have the consensus of scientists in that respective field(s)? Is that a commonly held view within the scientific community? Is that akin to saying that “only the winners can be called scientific?”

    • Beau Quilter

      If I can answer your question, Greg, it’s not just commonly held belief, it is a precept of the scientific method that a scientist creates a model for the way something works – a hypothesis, and then tests it by experimentation and/or by a predicted observation; but one experiment is not enough, experiments must be approved by peers in one’s scientific field as valid (i.e. tests or measures what you say it tests or measures), and the experiment must be repeatable and must be performed many times by many different scientists (usually for years) before it can become accepted as a scientific theory.