Scientists Are Only Fallible Humans
Recent news articles remind us to qualify our trust in scientists according to the human potential for error and bias.
Science and reality overlap imperfectly, because science is always mediated by fallible humans.
Nature or reality may be “out there” in the world, but science is “in here”—in the human mind and in its extensions: textbooks, documents and memories. But perceptions of reality are always tentative. Newtonian physics was treated like gospel truth in the 18th century. It was tested and found reliable in every experiment, from table tops to solar systems. No one could imagine it being replaced, but Einstein began a new revolution, and quantum mechanics began another. Numerous scientific revolutions occurred in the 20th century in almost every field. We can have no confidence that another revolution is not ready to pounce and surprise the world’s experts. For instance, some cosmologists are thinking that a “new physics” may be required to explain the continued non-detection of dark matter and dark energy.
Science can be envisioned as an organized, logical attempt to collect and explain data in nature. It’s not so different from any other kind of academic endeavor (e.g. history), except for its domain: the natural world. But the natural world overwhelms the human mind with complexity. Just arranging data into meaningful categories is a challenge in itself. Science, additionally, has no direct access to prehistory. To the extent that scientists are faced with daunting observational difficulties, and to the extent that hypotheses are colored by political or cultural biases, science becomes less trustworthy. Add to that the potential for impure motives among some scientists—or even outright fraud—and public confidence drops further. Look at some of the news:
The Top Retractions of 2019 (The Scientist). Retraction Watch, a group that monitors journal papers that were later retracted, was surprised that “A journal is forced to remove a record-breaking number of papers—and all in one go.” And those are just the ones that were caught. Retraction Watch counted 1,433 retractions in 2019 – papers that were peer reviewed, published and trusted. They’ve only been monitoring retractions for 10 years. What slipped through before that? How many other study results should have been retracted, but passed through unnoticed? This weakens on the oft-heard claim that “science is self-checking.”
What’s next for psychology’s embattled field of social priming (Nature). This article reveals a dark secret in the “science” of psychology: “A promising field of research on social behaviour struggled after investigators couldn’t repeat key findings,” writes Tom Chivers. “Now researchers are trying to establish what’s worth saving.” Who will establish what’s worth saving? Who watches the watchers?
Spotting alien life – how ‘microfossils’ can fool scientists (The Conversation). The world became excited and mesmerized by photos of “apparent” microfossils in a Martian meteorite in 1996. With great fanfare, NASA announced the find to the press, teasing everyone that the micro-structures might be fossil life-forms. Out of the political wave this hype generated, NASA invented the new ‘science’ of astrobiology (or, bio-astrology, since it lacks evidence). Alexander Brasier revives the tale as a lesson for 2020 scientists: strong wishes can make experts gullible.
When it comes to good practice in science, we need to think global but act local (Nature). “International codes of conduct are important, but grass-roots efforts are the key to embedding research integrity.” Why are the Editors concerned about “research integrity”? Because there have been serious lapses. Notice that integrity is not something that is “out there” in nature. It is “in here”—inside the heads and hearts of human beings.
Five ways China must cultivate research integrity (Nature). “A swift increase in scientific productivity has outstripped the country’s ability to promote rigour and curb academic misconduct; it is time to seize solutions,” warns Li Tang. But who is Tang to preach to Chinese scientists? Isn’t science a testable method that guarantees the best path to knowledge? Once again, it is clear that human beings must appeal to universally-agreed on standards of integrity, or they have nothing to say to other scientists.
We cannot all be ethicists (Nature). In their correspondence to the world’s leading science journal, Silvia Camporesi and
Giulia Cavaliere disagree with Sarah Franklin’s earlier commentary about ethics (“We must all be ethicists now,” 29 Oct 2019). So who is right? Camporesi and Cavaliere think we should trust the experts who are trained in ethics. But which ethics? And who trained them? And who trained the trainers in worldview beliefs about right and wrong?
Scientific truth doesn’t exist – but we must still strive for answers (New Scientist). It’s nice for this atheist science magazine to admit what philosophers have been saying for centuries: “Even in physics, there is no such thing as truth.” Readers should be responding, “Is that true?” But then comes the triumphalist quest: We should carry on trying to categorise the world, though, providing we realise that it sometimes resists such efforts.” But why should we? (Note: CEH agrees that we should). “Should” is a moral word. It separates right from wrong. ‘We should do such; we should not do the opposite.’ Says who? Darwin? What if doing the opposite strategy improves fitness? If there is no hope for finding truth, is the search worth it? One must believe truth exists to do science at all.
Jeffrey Epstein and the Silence of Scientists (Michael Egnor, ID the Future). In this podcast, Dr Egnor gives perhaps one of the most disturbing consequences of amoral science. In the years after the notorious billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein had been convicted, scientists continued flocking to him for funding, with full knowledge of his crimes. Why? Because he had money they wanted. Some of them even partook in his sex crimes with trips to his private island. As if that were not evil enough, these same scientists and their institutions had the power to destroy the careers of anyone who spoke up about it, Egnor recounts.
These are just the recent news sources. We’ve been reporting for years about issues with scientific misconduct, fraud, lack of integrity, and misplaced confidence. Sometimes the experts are the easiest to fool, because of funding, groupthink, or desire for prestige. Consensus is not science, remember. There are plenty of examples of scientific consensuses that turned out to be wrong, or were replaced.
CEH would be among the first to admit that most lab researchers and field scientists (depending on the field) have good intentions, and carry on their work to the best of their ability. Many will readily admit their errors and make corrections when they are pointed out, or even retract them if necessary. Scientists, however, do not generally learn about philosophy of science in their training. This makes them unprepared for some pitfalls in their work. Fewer still understand grounds for morality. They just assume the culture’s view, but cultures differ. China, for instance, might value national security or prestige over truth (although outright falsehoods have a way of catching up with liars). Some Asians have no problem with genetically modifying the human germline; western scientists are generally appalled by the prospect. Who’s view should govern?
The secular scientific institutions, saturated with Darwinism, never seem to realize that their worldview permits fraud. The simplistic take-home message of Darwinism is that anything that increases ‘fitness’ is morally good. A more nuanced interpretation must conclude that good and evil don’t even exist. Only the Bible provides a reliable pole star in belief in a supreme righteous Judge of the universe, our Creator. Aligning with that pole star, we can at least have confidence in the existence of truth, and orient our behaviors to line up with that timeless and universal standard. An amoral science, on the other hand, would justify doing whatever one can get away with. Something within most of us revolts at that suggestion. But why? The reason is that we have a conscience, made in the image of God. We know deep inside that dishonesty and fraud are evil, even if we do it secretly and are never caught. Science cannot live with the atheistic worldview. Today’s Darwin-saturated science is like a hot-air balloon with the engine off, drifting on the remaining fumes of a Judeo-Christian foundation.
Recommended Resources: To those unfamiliar with the issues in philosophy of science, and why “scientific truth” doesn’t exist, we again recommend the Philosophy of Science course by Jeff Kasser at The Teaching Company as a good start. Science Wars by Steven Goldman is another good choice (these courses are often on sale). These are mind-expanding lessons about issues concerning science that most have never given any attention. CEH does not approve of all views expressed in these courses. To learn about Christianity’s contribution to science, read The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy by Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton. And browse our biographies of God-fearing scientists at this site for true-life stories of individual scientists whose belief in a created, rational world motivated them to make great discoveries.