Friday, January 7, 2011

The War on Science

Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones,
will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers
delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Proverbs 1:20-22

A belief in science is fundamental to Christianity.

We believe that “the Earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). And we believe that learning about that world is a sacred calling. We can trust science because we trust the world that God made. When we read that God brooded over the darkness that covered the face of the deep, and then spoke and brought forth life, we don’t read it as a scientific text, but as a faith statement. At the center of it all is the creative spirit of God, and we believe that it is good.

As a Christian, I am troubled by what appears to me as a war on science.

You might think that the war on science was confined to Fundamentalist Creationists, but you would be wrong. Writing in the current issue of Newsweek, Seth Mnookin points to the opposition to childhood immunization as a case in point.

“The vaccine rate has plummeted,” he writes, “in places where people put ‘Darwin fish’ stickers on their cars.” The phobia is traced back to an article written in 1998 by a British doctor, claiming to have discovered a link between immunization and autism.” That study has since been found to be fraudulent, but the genie won’t go back into the bottle.

When vaccinations decline, children are put at risk. Diseases we once thought were gone can come back. In 2009 there were more cases of whooping cough in California than at any time since 1947, before the vaccine was in widespread use. And in southeastern Pennsylvania in 2009, six unvaccinated children were infected with Haemophilus Influenzae type b, a disease that had been almost eradicated twenty years ago. Two of those children died.

(I am pausing now to think about my many near friends with autistic children. I do not mean to tread lightly on your pain. I have not studied this issue. And I cannot pretend to feel what you feel. We need more research on the causes of autism. But my larger point is that more research will not get us anywhere unless we are willing to trust the research.)

In the 1950’s there were persistent rumors that someone had invented a carburetor that would make it possible for a car to get 100 miles to the gallon. The fact that engineers and scientists repeatedly pointed out that there were limits to how much energy could be extracted from a gallon of gas, and that the best carburetor in the world could not change the laws of physics, some people were still unmoved. The automobile industry, they believed, was paying off the scientists.

Of course, we should not be naive about this. It does make a difference who is paying for the research. Years ago the tobacco industry invested heavily in finding "scientists" to undermine the scientific findings on the dangers of smoking. Recently I listened to an interview with an economist who argued that it would cost too much to try to do anything about climate change. When asked how much of his funding came from the petroleum industry he said, “Not that much.” But when pressed, he admitted that 40% of his funds came from the petroleum industry. Forty percent?

Part of our more recent mistrust of science is fueled by the tendency of television programs to try to present (or appear to present) both sides of an issue, as if everything were open for debate. At some point we have to trust scientists to find the facts. And we have to recognize that our tendency to want everything to be cast as a controversy undermines that trust.

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