Being Reasonable About Science

October 20, 2011 — 2 Comments

In an article published in Monday’s New York Times, authors Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens explore the evangelical rejection of reason. While I agree that there may be a problem in that particular, and want to champion the overall point they are making, I think from the onset of the article, the authors themselves are muddled on the nature of reason.

Notice how the article leads off:

THE Republican presidential field has become a showcase of evangelical anti-intellectualism. Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann deny that climate change is real and caused by humans. Mr. Perry and Mrs. Bachmann dismiss evolution as an unproven theory. The two candidates who espouse the greatest support for science, Mitt Romney and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., happen to be Mormons, a faith regarded with mistrust by many Christians.

The rejection of science seems to be part of a politically monolithic red-state fundamentalism, textbook evidence of an unyielding ignorance on the part of the religious.

In other words, questioning the legitimacy of man made climate change and evolution is considered not just unreasonable, but an outright rejection of science itself. From what I understand though, none of the above candidates actually favors rejecting science itself, they are just rejecting those particular aspects of current scientific study.

They bring up the rejection of “Darwin’s insights” later on in the essay, so I’m assuming they equate that with a prime example of evangelicals rejecting reason, but I’d like to suggest this a clever slight of hand by two professors with no background in philosophy. I doubt they are doing it maliciously, but would imagine, like many others, they are genuinely confused.

Whether or not evolution, in all its particulars, is true or false, is irrelevant for this question. The question is, is it inherently unreasonable to reject things like man-made climate change and evolution?

Two things are worth noting about questions like this. The first is that the history of science is also the history of failed interpretations of nature. It is a bit of chronological snobbery to assume that current scientific research on things man-made climate change or evolution have arrived and anyone who fails to uncritically embrace both is being unreasonable. Maybe they are doing so for unreasonable reasons, but considering how scientific paradigms change, the odds are generally in favor of assuming what’s scientific dogma today might be laughable 50 years from now.

The other thing, and I think this is the better argument, is that it is never unreasonable to be tentative about scientific findings. The reason for this is because all science is the result of inductive reasoning, which only yields probable results. Unlike deductive reasoning, which yields certain results if the premises are true, inductive reasoning, the process that the scientific method (or methods) follows only yields probable findings that could, in principle, always have another explanation. Because data under determines theories, it is never strictly unreasonable to question scientific findings, even such sacred cows as evolution and man-made climate change.

Personally, I am doubtful of both, not for theological reasons, but for philosophical and scientific reasons. In other words, at least in my case, I am doubtful of the legitimacy of climate change and some of the particulars of evolution precisely because I am being reasonable about it. It is simply a fallacy on the part of Giberson and Stephens to equate questioning evolution with being unreasonable. In doing so, they fail to reckon with the nature of both logic and science. While they attempt to trumpet the need for evangelicals to be more reasonable, they instead hit several wrong notes. In the end, it is Giberson and Stephen who turn out to be unreasonable in their assessment of both the problem and the solution.

UPDATE: For more on this, read Al Mohler’s recent article taking a similar angle, but going into more depth.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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