Men of Science, Men of Faith

In a must-read op-ed piece in The New York Times titled “Welcome to the State of Denial,” Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, laments on the decline of people’s perception of science in our society.

Today, however, it is politically effective, and socially acceptable, to deny scientific fact. Narrowly defined, “creationism” was a minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century. But in the years since I was a student, a well-funded effort has skillfully rebranded that ideology as “creation science” and pushed it into classrooms across the country. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.

Meanwhile, climate deniers, taking pages from the creationists’ PR playbook, have manufactured doubt about fundamental issues in climate science that were decided scientifically decades ago. And anti-vaccine campaigners brandish a few long-discredited studies to make unproven claims about links between autism and vaccination.

The list goes on. North Carolina has banned state planners from using climate data in their projections of future sea levels. So many Oregon parents have refused vaccination that the state is revising its school entry policies. And all of this is happening in a culture that is less engaged with science and technology as intellectual pursuits than at any point I can remember.

He goes on to write:

We face many daunting challenges as a society, and they won’t all be solved with more science and math education. But what has been lost is an understanding that science’s open-ended, evidence-based processes — rather than just its results — are essential to meeting those challenges.

My professors’ generation could respond to silliness like creationism with head-scratching bemusement. My students cannot afford that luxury. Instead they must become fierce champions of science in the marketplace of ideas.

As some comments note, the effort to denigrate science is strong and insidious. I agree with this:

The push by religious institutions to have creationism and intelligent design taught alongside evolution in schools as legitimate competing theories, as well as the suppression of data linking man-made atmospheric discharges to climate change by industry are designed to preserve the status quo. Science, as a catalyst of change, has always upended institutions as it ushers in new ideas. We are on the verge of discoveries that may forever change the way we look at the universe and our place in it. It’s clear that those with a vested interest in the institutions of today fear what this means for their futures. Science can make oil and bishops largely irrelevant rather quickly if left unchecked. You bet they’re scared.

If I am not being clear: this perverse social acceptability of the denial of scientific fact must be fought with vigor. I fear for our future generation in America otherwise.

9 thoughts on “Men of Science, Men of Faith

  1. My gut reaction is that if American schools are teaching creationism like they have taught math and reading then we have nothing to worry about.

    But, to make a sharp turn, I think it’s an eyebrow raising conflation to unite denial of particular facts to a rejection of scientific fact as a whole. Everyone has their own pet conceit. For me, personally, I like to imagine that animals of all sorts have higher levels of functioning than they ever could. That my pet beta fish does, in fact, know me and whatever you say or ‘science’ says does not change that. It could never change this belief. Yet I think few would accuse me of rejecting science.

    But seemingly, the inclusion of politics allows these sort of conflations. “I believe my fish is anthropogenic in a significant way” is certainly no less bizarre than ‘Genesis is wrong and science is too–the world was made in seven days.’ But suddenly it’s only the latter that means one is rejecting science? Please.

    • You’re a prime example of what this article is talking about. You’re making statements based on opinion and feeling–nothing based on logic or evidence. Personally, I don’t care whether you believe that your fish is a silent philosopher or a deep thinker, nor do I care if people think God created the earth in 6 days. What I DO care about is people who make rash statements, such as yours, essentially elevating their own opinion and feelings to a status equitable to scientific fact. Crap like this mitigates the entire scientific process, which you benefit from daily, for really no purpose than to stroke egos and further agendas.

      • You can understand my skepticism seeing as I’m working towards becoming a doctor, not of medicine and not of the social science, yet here I am being accused of furthering an anti-science agenda when I (not to mention most of the world) would hardly call my field unscientific… For all of the obvious reasons. If I’m unscientific, then frankly we need a new word for ‘scientific’ in the first place.

        Confounding this surprising preposition is that you, purveyor of a few blog articles and skimmer of the frothier Nature articles, know anything at all about what science actually is. Taken a few biology classes in high school, maybe another in some out of the way liberal arts school where the combined science budget is what I make? Please. On the face of it the comparison is sort of absurd, made more insane that you would try to lecture me.

        Trust me when I say ‘science’ will survive a few people thinking zany things. It’ll survive the general public believing all sorts of crazy things. After all, what do you know at all about pharmaceuticals, consumer electronics, system management or even how to code the simplest program? Nothing, or less than nothing? Yet even though your condition is hardly unique, science has not only flourished but thrived. It’s weathered incompetent spokespeople before, it’ll weather you and it’ll weather anything else ‘modern’ society can throw at it much less some consternated weathermen.

        • That’s not at all the point that the article is making. The author of the article seems to be a proponent of people living in an evidence based world. The crux of his argument is that the current trend in our society is to elevate ideas that have no basis in reality to a status equitable to those that are. The argument set forth in the article is that, yes, science has survived precisely because in the past those same “crazy” ideas were not given the same consideration or credence as actual, legitimate science, but that today the paradigm is changing. My point was that your notion that somehow believing in nonscientific things despite being acute aware of their falsehood is exactly what the author was talking about.

          And for the record, it’s entirely possible to not be anti-science, but pro-crazy. Also, personally, I don’t really think that career choice has anything to do intellect or ability to reason. I’ve met plenty of doctors in my time who didn’t know their head from a hole in ground, and there are plenty of whack job physicians in congress who deny things like evolution and climate change. Your choice in career does not grant you automatic immunity from scrutiny, nor does it garauntee any special level of intellect or literacy. I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. I’m going to grant that you’re actually a medical student and not just saying that to gain some upper hand in the discussion (it is the internet, after all), but please do not for a minute believe that I think that that automatically makes you a scientist.

          Furthermore, the article is talking about science as a whole and the scientific process. Science, as Carl Sagan once said, is a way of thinking, not a body of knowledge. There’s more to science than “programming a computer.” Anyone can program a computer given a step by step set of instruction, or they can take an intro to programming class where an instructor holds their hand through the entire process, but that hardly makes them a scientist.

  2. Mr. Frank is obviously coming from a modernist mindset, with the idea that if we just learn a bit more about science we will understand the nature of our existence and everything about the universe. The fact is, some people just don’t believe the same as he does. This is more a religious issue than a scientific one.

    • I am not sure I agree.

      I believe there can be a balance between a scientific mindset and a religious one. For instance, belief in the higher power is not in mutual exclusion in science. I may think that thunder and lightning are divine, but I also understand the molecular basis behind their creation.

      >we just learn a bit more about science we will understand the nature of our existence and everything about the universe.
      Perhaps one hundred years in the future, this may be the case, however. What do you think?

      • Science and Religion are inseparable. Each deals with how we understand the world around us. One could say that both are branches from the same tree.

        >I believe there can be a balance between a scientific mindset and a religious one. For instance, belief in the higher power is not in mutual exclusion in science. I may think that thunder and lightning are divine, but I also understand the molecular basis behind their creation.

        I agree completely with this statement.

        My comment was directed towards extremists. (and as a Christian I can say that the Bible teaches against extremism) Relying solely on science or religion almost always leads to unnecessary conflict.

        I cannot say for certain what we will learn in the future, but I do not believe that we will understand purpose or meaning through science. If I did, then I would not need religion.

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