March 11, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Science Proves the Morally Obvious

When scientists find that virtue brings reward and vice bring trouble, are they doing a better job than preachers and parents?  Hold that thought while reading some of the things scientists have been telling us lately about ourselves.

  1. “R-Rated Movies Increase Likelihood of Underage Children Trying Alcohol.”  Thank Science Daily for that bit of advice that emanated from Dartmouth University.  A study published in Prevention Science “showed that R-rated movies not only contain scenes of alcohol use that prompt adolescents to drink, they also jack up the sensation seeking tendency, which makes adolescents more prone to engage in all sorts of risky behaviors.”
  2. “Kids Taught Self-Control Behave Better at School.”  Parents might not have known that without help from an article on Live Science about a study conducted by University of Rochester Medical Center.  “Children taught skills to monitor and control their anger and other emotions improved their classroom behavior and had significantly fewer school disciplinary referrals and suspensions, according to new research.”
  3. “Video-game ownership may interfere with young boys’ academic functioning,” said PhysOrg.  Parents may be relieved to have the authority of science to back up their orders to go to the bedroom and do the homework.  Whether it was ethical to experiment with 6- to 9-year olds for four months to find this out was not stated.  It could be an issue, though, because “the boys who received the video-game system at the beginning of the study had significantly lower reading and writing scores four months later compared with the boys receiving the video-game system later on.”  What permanent setbacks and bad habits were created in the minds of the little boy lab rats?  “These findings suggest that video games may be displacing after-school academic activities and may impede reading and writing development in young boys,” the article continued.  “The authors note that when children have problems with language at this young age, they tend to have a tougher time acquiring advanced reading and writing skills later on.”  Maybe they justified this experiment on the grounds that sacrificing a few boys for the sake of scientific knowledge of possible practical benefit to the public was morally acceptable.
  4. “New Research Looks at Beliefs About God’s Influence in Everyday Life,” wrote Science Daily, noting the truly astonishing finding that “Most Americans believe God is concerned with their personal well-being and is directly involved in their personal affairs, according to new research out of the University of Toronto.”  My, where have the scientists been?  Apparently not in church – nor in logic class.  “Many of us might assume that people of higher social class standing tend to reject beliefs about divine intervention,” explained Scott Schieman (U of Toronto).  “However, my findings indicate that while this is true among those less committed to religious life, it is not the case for people who are more committed to religious participation and rituals.”  Maybe he expected that more of the religious were participating in spite of their beliefs.  On one thing he was clear, though: the job of interpreting this phenomenon belongs to scientists: “Given the frequency of God talk in American culture, especially in some areas of political discourse, this is an increasingly important area for researchers to document, describe, and interpret.”
  5. “Happiness Is Experiences, Not Stuff,” explained Live Science.  Eight studies converged on that finding that was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  The researchers based their conclusions on questionnaires that asked participants things like visualizing a vacation deal, or how satisfied they felt with a purchase they made.  It’s not clear if there was some sort of satisfactionometer instrument used, or what the metric units were.
  6. “Modern man found to be generally monogamous, moderately polygamous,” announced PhysOrg, accompanied by the iconic image of man emerging from the apes.  This study was done not by observing human behavior but by discerning patterns in the genes.  The author did not make any value judgments about monogamy, however.
  7. “Students’ Perceptions of Earth’s Age Influence Acceptance of Human Evolution,” a story on Science Daily announced, before going off into a discussion of polls and the law.  The authors of a survey published in Evolution apparently didn’t catch the logic that without belief in deep time, belief in evolution is unlikely.  The lead author used the survey to give an NCSE-style application: “The role of the Earth’s age is a key variable that we can use to improve education about evolution, which is important because it is the unifying principle of biology,” said Sehoya Cotner (U of Minnesota), noting with horror that “about one in four high school biology teachers in the upper Midwest are giving students the impression that creationism is a viable explanation for the origins of life on Earth” – something she denounced as “just not acceptable.  The Constitution prohibits teaching creationism in schools,” she added, something readers might have trouble finding in the Constitution, which does not mention teaching or creationism.  It might also be hard to defend that statement since the Declaration of Independence, written by the same group of founding fathers, had said all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.

On the other hand, scientists sometimes announce counter-intuitive findings that make moral judgments.  For instance, Live Science told its readers that some looting in Chile after the earthquake might have been caused not by loose morals but by survival instincts.  Taking food could be “excusable given the circumstances,” the article said, and “if people do take non-necessities, such as TVs, they’re probably not thinking about right and wrong since these uncertain situations can lead to a breakdown of social norms”.  Was that a reference to situational ethics?  The article noted that most people act altruistically in the aftermath of disasters.  Daniel Kruger at the University of Michigan commented, “If we were absolutely selfish when disasters like this strike, I would be surprised if we survived as a species.”
    More and more, scientists are inserting themselves into the moral dimensions of human life.  Not only do they scrutinize and analyze our moral instincts, they also play preacher and give us advice.  Live Science, for instance wrote about “How to Grow Old Gracefully.”  Much of the advice is common sense, or advice you would hear from a doctor.  But Rachael Rettner also noted that “Churchgoing and a generally sunny outlook on life have also been linked to longer, healthier lives.”  (It is left as an exercise whether following that path would promote the belief in evolution that Cotner said is important.)  What is notable is that the scientific researchers seem to expect that their opinions on these matters should carry more weight than those of religious leaders and other scholars or experts.  Do religious leaders, theologians and non-scientists have any voice left in answering the third of the three great philosophical questions, (1) Ontology: What exists?; (2) Epistemology: How do we know what we know?; (3) Ethics: How should we live our lives?

Not that long ago people wanting a moral compass would seek the Scriptures and talk to a trusted pastor, priest or rabbi.  Many still do, but the cultural elite act as if those opinions are of no value, and we must look to scientists for answers.  They treat “the religious” as lab rats like the little boys with video games.  What if the tables were turned?  What if the scientists had to sit in church and hear a preacher say, “Thus saith the Lord”?  And why shouldn’t they?  They need to repent.  They are breaking the Ten Commandments.
    A logical truth overlooked by researchers is that scientists have absolutely nothing to say about ethics without input from a theological world view.  If naturalism is their world view, ethics reduces to Stuff Happens.  There are no gridlines, guidelines or goals.  They do not have the functional operators in their toolkit for h(S), this stuff Should happen, or h(!S), this stuff Should not happen.  Should is not in their vocabulary.  Only a theological perspective can say should.  Indeed, only a theological perspective makes the three philosophical questions meaningful and approachable.  Consequently, we just caught several scientists (in the stories above) plagiarizing Judeo-Christian assumptions about right and wrong – that is, using their principles without attribution, as if they were their own.  Thou shalt not steal.  Thou shalt not bear false witness.*
Exercise:  List some other Commandments the scientists might be breaking by pretending to exercise secular, naturalistic authority on moral matters.  You can find some suggestions in the introduction to our online book, The World’s Greatest Creation Scientists.
*Steal=h(!S)=0; BFW=h(!S)=0; source=Ex 20.

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