March 12, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Scientists Crave Integrity: Can They Evolve It?

An important item not found on lab shelves or test tubes has been appearing in science news stories recently: integrity.  That’s a word about character: moral rectitude, honesty, accountability, uprightness, the ability to resist temptation.  It’s the kind of word one might hear in a sermon.  For those who follow Darwin, how did integrity evolve?

  1. Obama’s pledge:  After loosening restrictions on embryonic stem cell research (03/10/2009), President Obama issued an edict demanding scientific integrity in the executive branch.  Live Science included the text of Obama’s statement in its report.  Obama’s wide-reaching executive order calls for (1) selection of scientific advisors based on their knowledge, experience, credentials and integrity; (2) well-established rules and procedures to ensure integrity, including peer review; (3) policies and procedures for guarding against compromise; (4) public disclosure of scientific findings used in policy decisions; and (5) whistleblower protections.  The statement was intended to reinforce Obama’s commitment to make decisions based on science instead of ideology when dealing with issues like stem cells and climate change.
  2. United for integrity:  The Union of Concerned Scientists website is big on integrity.  Reacting to “Political interference in federal government science” that “is weakening our nation’s ability to respond to the complex challenges we face,” the UCS posted a tutorial called “Integrity 101.”  Other resources include their examples of abuses of science, suggested solutions, and action items for the individual scientist.
  3. Anti-plagiarism:  Science magazine posted a Policy Forum article about Scientific Integrity and “Responding to Possible Plagiarism.”1  Plagiarism has become an increasing concern with the rise of internet publishing.  The five authors from the University of Texas concluded, “While there will always be a need for authoritative oversight, the responsibility for research integrity ultimately lies in the hands of the scientific community.”

Some other articles and news stories did not specifically mention integrity, but touched on it indirectly by discussing the nature of science:

  1. War policy:  Yahoo News bemoaned the fact that the war over Darwin still rages after 200 years since his birth.  The policy of who gets to teach children draws on the nature of science itself.  Robert S. Boyd allowed voices from both sides to get a hearing.  The scientific community stands dead-set against a majority in the public, so whose “knowledge, experience, credentials and integrity” will be brought to bear on this issue?
  2. Evolving purpose:  Evolution News commented on a recent address by atheist Richard Dawkins, who tried to explain purpose without purpose.  It goes without saying that a scientist seeking to live with integrity needs to do it purposefully.  Robert Crowther wished luck to Dawkins, who famously has explained away design as an illusion: “you can’t have unintentional intention, or unpurposeful purpose,” Crowther said.  “It seems that purpose is less of an illusion even than design is.”
  3. Balanced skepticism:  It goes without saying that science must be defined before its integrity can be measured.  What is science, anyway?  Most people grant science an extra measure of respect over other branches of inquiry.  Some sociologists in recent decades, however, have defrocked science to the point of treating it like a special-interest group.  One of those sociologists has backtracked a bit.  Harry Collins (Cardiff University, UK), in an essay in Nature last week,2 called for a rational balance between scientific triumphalism and postmodern skepticism.  He gave his readers a short history of the Science Wars of the 1990s. 

    It was said that sociologists were trying to undermine science.  But we were not questioning the results of the great experiments, merely examining how the consensus about their interpretation was established.  The conclusions of most of us were moderate: science could not deliver the absolute certainties of religion or morality, and scientists were not priests but rather skilful artisans, reaching towards universal truths but inevitably falling short.  Far from being anti-science, we were trying to safeguard science against the danger of claiming more than it could deliver.  If science presents itself as revealed truth it will inevitably disappoint, inviting a dangerous reaction; even the most talented craftsmen have their off-days, whereas a god must never fail.

    Collins defended the right of skeptics to ask such questions, but now thinks they went too far.  A science that cannot defend some measure of epistemic priority has no safeguards against abuses: e.g., Lysenko, mavericks who attract politicians against the consensus views, and creationists: “Recently a philosopher acting as an expert witness in a court case in the United States claimed that the scientific method, being so ill-defined, could support creationism.”  One can justify anything with skepticism, he said.
        On the other hand, the scientific community is no stranger to abuse: “The founding myth of the individual scientist using evidence to stand against the power of church or state – which has a central role in Western societies – has been replaced with a model in which Machiavellian scientists engage in artful collaboration with the powerful.”
        What’s the solution?  Collins called for a new standard: expertise.  Sociologists need to define new classes of expertise, and understand how authoritative consensus is achieved.  They need to develop a “periodic table of expertises,” he quipped.  This is how they can avoid the pitfalls of policy based on maverick or ill-supported science.  “Although in principle the logic of the mavericks’ position cannot be defeated, a policy-maker should accept the position of those who share in the tacit knowledge of the expert community.”
        But hasn’t the maverick sometimes been right?  Collins knows that he is dealing in treacherous waters.  He called for understanding by both scientists and their skeptical sociologist critics.  Both have limitations on what can be known.  Here’s where morality came in:

    It is not only social scientists who would have to change their approach under elective modernism.  If we are to choose the values that underpin scientific thinking to underpin society, scientists must think of themselves as moral leaders.  But they must teach fallibility, not absolute truth.  Whenever a scientist, acting in the name of science, cheats, cynically manipulates, claims to speak with the voice of capitalism, the voice of a god, or even the voice of a doctrinaire atheist, it diminishes not only science but the whole of our society.
        In a society informed by elective modernism, free criticism of ideas would be a good thing; the right way to pursue knowledge about the natural world would be through observation, theorization and experiment, not revelation, tradition, the study of books of obscure origin or the building of alliances of the powerful.  Science’s findings are to be preferred over religion’s revealed truths, and are braver than the logic of scepticism, but they are not certain.  They are a better grounding for society precisely, and only, because they are provisional.  It is open debate among those with experience that is the ultimate value of the good society.

    Collins makes it clear that scholars can no longer assume science’s epistemic authority; “assessing scientific findings is a far more difficult task than was once believed,” he said, “and … those findings do not lead straight to political conclusions.”  Still, he believes that science can provide us with values, if not findings.  Bottom line: “Scientists can guide us only by admitting their weaknesses, and, concomitantly, when we outsiders judge scientists, we must do it not to the standard of truth, but to the much softer standard of expertise.

It’s clear that many of the same voices clamoring for integrity and moral values believe in evolution.  One only has to recall the big celebrations over Darwin last month in all the major science journals to ask a pertinent question: how did integrity evolve by an unguided, purposeless, impersonal process of natural selection?  As a case in point, Live Science printed another article in a long series claiming that belief in God is an artifact of brain evolution.  Reporting on a study by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, the article said, “One question that remains unanswered is whether religion evolved as a central functional preoccupation for human brains in early societies, or whether it simply relied on brain regions which had evolved for other types of thought-processing.”  The option that religion might be true was off the list of options.  With that viewpoint, integrity could certainly not refer to any universal moral standard.  A corollary is that scientific institutions can define and govern their own moral standards.  That’s why the piece in Science stated, “the responsibility for research integrity ultimately lies in the hands of the scientific community.”

1.  Long, Errami, George, Sun and Garner, “Scientific Integrity: Responding to Possible Plagiarism,” Science, 6 March 2009: Vol. 323. no. 5919, pp. 1293-1294, DOI: 10.1126/science.1167408.
2.  Harry Collins, “We cannot live by scepticism alone,” Nature 458, 30 (5 March 2009) | doi:10.1038/458030a.

Collins’ essay is informative and thought-provoking.  Read the whole thing if you can get a copy of the March 5 Nature.  But is his advice fatally flawed?  What about his contrasts between the approach of science and that of revealed religion?  Just as religion did in earlier centuries, science now has the most powerful influence on many vital issues that impact government policy and society: global warming, stem cells, nuclear weapons, the economy, and the story of our origins.  Careful thinking on the nature and limits of science is even more vital.
    Collins provided a good summary of the Science Wars of the 1960s to 1990s.  It may surprise many who learned respect for science in school that the scientific institutions were being hammered in many parts of society for 30 years.  The collapse of logical positivism left science vulnerable to criticism from many sectors.  It could no longer be viewed in the white-lab-coat model of the objective, unbiased search for truth.  It got tied up in the military-industrial complex, international corporations, and politics.  Philosophers seriously questioned the ability of science to achieve progressive unfolding of truth about nature, and sociologists turned the tables and put scientists in their test tubes.  Postmodernists looked at science as just one other text among many, with no special epistemic status.
    Much of that played out by the turn of the millennium.  “Scientific realism” (the science institutions’ own philosophy of science) now predominates, more by endurance than justification.  It’s a toned-down version of positivism that makes less audacious claims.  Typically, scientists will justify their approach to truth-seeking as “the best tool we have.”  They assume that their measurements correspond to what is “out there” in the world.  They reach beyond strict empiricism and allow themselves to speculate on unobservables (like black holes, the interiors of stars, quarks, and dark energy).
    What all the secular players fail to realize is how much they are helping themselves to Judeo-Christian concepts.  They leave key questions begging.  How can we have confidence that what we sense corresponds to reality?  How valid is inductive reasoning?  Why can we assume the laws of logic?  Why do we assume that honesty and cooperation are good things?  Where does integrity come from?  By what standard can we measure things?
    The solution Collins offers is no help at all.  He thinks that by analyzing a mystical concept of “expertise,” the sociologists and scientists can learn to get along.  Doing that requires objective measures, else it degenerates into following the latest bandwagon or resting on appeals to authority.  Today’s expert can be tomorrow’s dunce.  A thousand French experts can be wrong.  Surely Collins doesn’t think that it is better to follow a thousand experts off a cliff.  He knows of historical examples when the maverick was right.  It seems he just doesn’t want to start another Science War, so he is content to propose a peace treaty: sociologists study expertise, and scientists avoid claiming they have a godlike truth.  Scientific institutions, though, left to their own devices, are like communists: they will not be content till they have totalitarian rule.  They want the sociologist in their test tube, not the other way around.  Before Collins knows what hit him, they will be publishing papers on the Evolution of Sociology.
    Consider this radical solution: Bible-based science.  Before exploding in rage, if you are an evolutionist reading this, think for a moment.  Here’s what you get with Christianity.  You get: an absolute standard for morality, the correspondence theory of truth, the validity of induction, the validity of deduction and the laws of logic, curiosity about the world, motivation to seek out the workings of nature, fellowship over the Imago Dei common to all human beings, and the virtues of honesty, integrity, unselfishness, charity and cooperation.  Could science use those things?  Absolutely.  You get all these for free in the Christian package.  Christianity provides the preconditions for intelligibility for science, and offers justification for all the good things in rationality and morals that science desperately needs.
    Maybe you were taught to picture Christians as backward, obscurantist, dogmatic bigots whose religious motivations would bring science to a stop.  Every group has its bad apples, but we would argue that you really cannot have science without these things the Bible provides (see introduction to our online book).  Harry Collins scorns religion as enslaved to sacred texts, but the Bible leaves many, many subjects open to investigation.  It even encourages research (Proverbs 25:3, I Thess. 5:21, Philippians 4:8, Psalm 111).  The Bible is a condensed book.  It touches on nature, but its main thrust is on salvation.  Christians believe that prior to the Fall, part of our job was to do science (ICR).  Christians believe God is glorified when we strive to comprehend His works (Psalm 104).
    Further, none of the other world views offers these good things – especially secularism.  There is no way to get integrity out of an unguided, purposeless, selfish process like evolution.  Integrity is not made of particles.  It is strongly to be doubted that human rationality has any connection to the world – or even exists – if we evolved from screeching chimpanzees.  Unable to operate consistent with their presuppositions, evolutionists cheat by filching rationality, integrity and morality from the Christian smorgasbord.  Integrity and rationality make perfect sense from a Christian viewpoint.  They make no sense at all in the shifting, aimless world of the materialist and evolutionist.
    How would Bible-based science work out in practice?  It would not end controversies in science.  Why?  Because we’re only human.  We don’t know everything.  We can see through a glass darkly that absolutes exist, and we can strive to perceive them as best we can, but our science and our knowledge will always be incomplete in this life.  The medieval period makes this clear; controversies got very lively, even when the Biblical world view was assumed by the majority.  Nevertheless, medieval scholars and nature philosophers never doubted that searching out matters of natural philosophy was worthwhile.  Their Biblical world view gave them a pole star by which to navigate.  Their doctrine of an all-wise, communicating Creator gave them confidence that real progress could be made.  Even aging Solomon, writing in Ecclesiastes, found satisfaction in learning, though calling it vain in an ultimate sense (vanity could mean inscrutable or beyond full comprehension).  Newton took heart from Daniel 12:4 that in the last days, knowledge would increase.  He was on a personal campaign to be part of that process.
    So how would a modern Bible-based scientific community deal with a Lysenko or other pseudoscientific maverick who runs counter to the consensus?  Collins and other secularists have nothing to fall back on but the political power of the majority and their self-styled measures of expertise.  With the Bible, however, all could assume absolute standards of morality and rationality.  The actual existence of integrity and rationality provide confidence for creating standards of evidence and proof.  Furthermore, believing that one’s character counts, the scientific community would take into account the lifestyle and core beliefs of a scientist making an apparently outlandish claim.  Lysenko could no longer rely on political connections and bluffing; his character record would be part of the judgment on his claims.  The humility and deference of scientists would not deny any maverick a fair hearing at the outset, but they would demand rigorous logic and evidence for any unfamiliar view.  Christianity provides the scientific community with confidence that logic is real and evidence is available to the senses.
    Another good outcome is that rank speculation and imagination would be scorned.  Speculation is the Pandora’s Box that Darwin opened in science lab (08/22/2005 commentary).  Scientists of Darwin’s day denounced his speculative theory and demanded rigorous evidence (01/14/2009 commentary), but Charlie and his schemers persuaded the intelligentsia of the day that stringing isolated facts into a broad, all-encompassing hypothesis was acceptable in science (01/15/2004 commentary).  Now we have storytellers running amok with tales of the evolution of self-control (01/01/2009), the evolution of hiccups via your inner fish (12/16/2008), the origin of life on asteroids (03/05/2009) and other fables, trying to outdo each other in silliness and getting away with it.  Biblical science would be a return to a more Baconian scientific method: support your ideas with experiment, and abide by the maxim of Jesus, “by their fruits ye shall know them.”  Good science will once again be aimed at improving the lives of people and advancing good stewardship of the Earth.
    Is this a pipe dream?  No; it’s how science was actually done before the Charlietans raided the science labs and took over (12/22/2003 commentary).  Just ask Bacon, Kepler, Harvey, Pascal, Boyle and all the other great scientists in our online book.

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