Peace Like A River

It was a wide river, mistakable for a lake or even an ocean unless you'd been wading and knew its current. Somehow I'd crossed it... Now I saw the stream regrouped below, flowing on through what might've been vineyards, pastures, orhards... It flowed between and alongside the rivers of people; from here it was no more than a silver wire winding toward the city. - Leif Enger, Peace Like A River

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Scientists are hardly the new priesthood

Over at NRO, David Klinghoffer has an account of a Smithsonian scientist, Richard von Sternberg, who is experiencing the wrath of his peers because he dared to publish something in a journal these scientists didn't agree with.

The article in question touches on Intelligent Design. One of the questions the paper looks at is why so many new body types appeared in a geologically short period of time, the so-called Cambrian Explosion. With no obvious ties to earlier forms, the paper suggests there may have been a Designer at work.

My point here is not to discuss the merits of ID, but rather to highlight this is hardly a rare case of "scientists" attacking people who hold ideas they don't agree with.

One of the hallmarks of the scientific process is that an hypothesis is put forward, the evidence is discussed, weighed, verified by others, or not, but in the end a debate takes place, and a consensus is arrived at concerning the validity of the hypothesis.

In this system, there should be no topics that are off limits. If an idea is wrong, it will become apparent as the evidence is discussed. Healthy debate is the foundation of science. Without it, erroneous conclusions can be reached.

Yet, as this story highlights, scientists are remarkably close minded when it comes to ideas that threaten their own tightly held beliefs. This is one of the things that surprised me the most as I walked the halls of scientific academia.

The public is often presented with the image of scientists as a priesthood, possessors of numinous knowledge. When panels of scientists are trotted out to the public at venues like NASA press conferences for various space exploration missions, I just shut the tv off. The public never gets a glimpse at the biases these people might have. One topic that particularly makes me want to throw bricks at the tv is the study of water throughout the solar system. Invariably, when you see these press conferences talking about water on Mars or some such place, a scientist will opine that the discovery of water may lead to signs of life on these other bodies.

The public never sees how this same scientist would react if faced with a differing opinion, one that says just perhaps we should closely examine the idea that if we pour a glass of water on the dirt, suddenly gardenias and mountain lions will leap forth. I promise you there will be no willingness on the part of this scientist to examine his or her beliefs.

(I should add, in this context, by examining one's beliefs I mean one should be willing to defend them.)

Certainly, at the bottom of it all is a refusal on the part of these scientists to acknowledge God, as Klinghoffer's article touches upon. Jesus knew this long ago, when he said in Mark 13:13, "You will be hated by all because of My name".

When I was in Iowa, I saw a similar scientific attack up close. This didn't involve God, or a belief in an Intelligent Designer, but it was a case of scientists refusing to foster an open debate on a controversial topic because it was something that went against firmly held beliefs.

In 1986 and 1987, Lou Frank, who was and still is a scientist in the University of Iowa Department of Physics and Astronomy, published papers postulating the existence of "dirty snowballs".

Frank and his colleagues were studying ultraviolet photos of auroras around the Poles. They noticed dark "holes" in the photos. After a great deal of work, they couldn't find any evidence that these holes were artifacts, or noise, and concluded they must be real.

Evidence of water vapor was found around these holes, and after more work, Frank published his paper saying the cause of these holes might be icy comets striking the Earth's atmosphere at a very surprising rate.

Granted, it was and still is a controversial idea, because these comets would need to be as big as a house in some cases, and would be striking the upper atmosphere at such a rate most other people believed these dirty snowballs would've been noticed long ago.

In 1997, Frank published data that seemed to support the existence of these dirty snowballs. Many did not consider the data conclusive, and many scientists believed the holes really were artifacts, and not real.

True, many scientist did engage in legitimate debate, and tested the evidence. But many scientists were downright vicious to Dr. Frank. Nobody was threatening to kill these scientists' families or anything, yet they reacted in remarkably personal ways.

I lost track of this debate after I left Iowa, so I'm not sure where things stand today, but the episode was just more evidence for me that scientists do not have a monopoly on the competition for Most Valued Members Of The Human Race. Far from it.

(Others commenting on the Klinghoffer article are ID The Future, Abednego at the Parableman blog, Telic Thoughts, Teleological, and Espresso Roast.
The Evangelical Outpost also has some related thoughts.)


  • At Wed Aug 17, 12:08:00 PM, Paul said…

    Hey, look at this: a comment from yours truly--finally. I heard about this Meyer article a while ago--I don't remember where--but didn't know much about it. Thanks for the links.

    In a way, this sounds like what Galileo went through, with the obvious difference being that back then, the seat of scientific authority was also the seat of religious authority. People don't like having their dogma challenged, whether they wear a miter or a lab coat, and this being a flap over Intelligent Design makes the issue even more contentious.

    Won't everyone be surprised when we wake up and discover this is all one big Keanu movie?

  • At Wed Aug 17, 07:11:00 PM, Jeff said…

    Yes, in a way, that's what I was getting at. Reactions are governed by something other than cool reason. As you rightly say, people don't like having their dogma challenged. What strikes me is the similarity of reaactions between challenges to scientific faith, and religious faith.

    Keanu and Intelligent Design in the same discussion. I think we just broke several federal laws.

    (btw, my emails to you the last couple days have bounced)

  • At Wed Aug 17, 11:18:00 PM, john grif said…


    As I look back I wonder at the expensiveness of contemporary American life. Houses, cars, other necessary 'social' possessions.. our grandparents would qualify as homeless in today's world. How much of the 'cost' of American living is due to modern science's bureaucracy? What trappings do business and industry find necessary today and not 40 years ago? ARe they necessary? Education springs to mind. States/federal governments pour billions into gadgets/schemes to make education 'work.' The stupendous cost of a college degree cannot be linked to faculty salaries or the quality of instruction. Yes, we need a critical novel in which those beautiful 15c parish churches that yet dot England--built by the wealthy as evidence of their faith--are compared to the secular tithe given modern science in 21c America/modern world. HOw much of our national capital do we spend in the technological race ( cutting edge in business, consumer goods)? Spending not for the afterlife but for.. (Note: I think I am using science and technology interchangeably here) What structures/ edifices in ugly, urban sprawl America compare to an English church. Built by faith and community..

  • At Thu Aug 18, 09:26:00 AM, Jeff said…

    Hi John, thanks for all your comments! That's struck me, too, how all these magnificent cathedrals were built in an era where it truly cost something, and took years to build. Today I think it is valid to develop technology that makes our lives easier, but you're right in that our focus is not to spend money on our faith. Similar thoughts sparked me to write this a few years ago.


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