Unsettling Science

What You Hear May Be Fact, Falsehood, Fabrication, or Merely Fiat

Shortly after his historic 2008 presidential win, Barack Obama announced that his administration would make "scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology." His first "scientifically based" decision was to lift the ban on federally funded embryonic stem-cell research.1

To the president and his policy wonks, the science "was in," settled, that such research would lead to a medical panacea. This, despite the successes of adult stem-cell research, which had already produced dozens of treatments and cures, and the failures and well-known dangers2 (not to mention the moral implications) of embryo-destructive research.

Since the ban was lifted, not a single cure has resulted from embryonic stem cells,3 while adult stem-cell therapies have continued to be phenomenally successful.4

The "scientific" label comes freighted with assumptions that a matter is factual, proven, and settled. Yet the dust-bin of science is filled with once-settled "facts" that stand as reminders that scientific conclusions can be wrong—very wrong; think of geocentrism, spontaneous generation, luminiferous aether, and the fixity of time and space, to name but a few. They should give us pause anytime we hear that some current conclusion—global warming, Darwinian evolution, overpopulation, fill-in-the-blank—is a settled scientific fact beyond dispute. As someone once quipped, he who is wedded to the science of the day will soon find himself a widower.

Causes of Error

In some cases, scientific error is due to inadequate testing and verification. For example, the Aristotelian belief that heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones was the scientific consensus until Galileo actually tested it, 2,000 years later!

In other cases, ideology and researcher bias are to blame. Take the fossil record. Ian Tattersall, curator of the American Museum of Natural History, once confessed that "the [evolutionary] patterns we perceive are as likely to result from our unconscious mindsets as from the evidence itself." Likewise, Richard Leakey disclosed that his father, paleontologist Louis Leakey, had the habit of fitting fossils into a pre-conceived line of descent.

Sometimes the error is due to intentional misrepresentation, as in the case of the "peppered moth" photographs in Britain ("depicting" natural selection in action) or the embryological drawings of Darwin groupie Ernst Haeckel ("demonstrating" common ancestry). Sadly, these images and the "facts" they support continue to adorn textbooks today.

Then there is the disturbing number of cases involving downright fraud. Examples include: Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang, who falsified research on stem cells; the raft of "discoveries" of so-called missing links like Java man, Piltdown man, and Peking man; and the thriving fake fossil business of China. In 2011 evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser was forced to resign from Harvard after it was discovered that he had falsified experimental results to make them support his explanations of how human cognition evolved.5

Things have gotten so bad that 2013 Nobel-prize-winning biologist Randy Schekman has declared he will no longer submit papers to top-tier science journals because they corrupt the publication process. In his view, the "lure of the luxury journal can encourage the cutting of corners, and contribute to the escalating number of papers that are retracted as flawed or fraudulent."6

False conclusions can also result from misinformation or ignorance, as in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover case, where Judge John Jones ruled against allowing intelligent design (ID) theory to be taught in public schools because, he claimed, ID "fails to meet the essential ground rules that limit science to testable, natural explanations."7 Clearly, the judge was either unaware of, or willfully ignored:

1. testimony presented by pro-ID biologists about scientific experiments confirming ID's predictions regarding "irreducible complexity" in molecular machines;

2. the fact that computer software, for one thing, stands as a demonstrable test of the adequacy—even necessity!—of intelligent causation to produce the type of information found in the code of life; whereas macro-evolution, though considered "scientific," proceeds much too slowly to be tested and, indeed, has never been observed;8 and

3. the fact that many other areas of inquiry are considered "scientific," yet are not amenable to observation and testing, including questions about the Big Bang (What banged? What caused it? What preceded it?), cosmic inflation, the multiverse, and parallel worlds.

Of course, it could be that the judge's real issue with ID was not testability at all, but what he and others mistakenly assume to be a reliance on supernatural explanations.

To be clear, ID is not closed to supernatural considerations, but it neither depends upon nor promotes them. Instead, its very modest proposition is that some features of our world are best explained as being products of intelligence, whether they be the scribblings on the Rosetta Stone or the molecular sequences in DNA.

ID makes no claim that the intelligence must be of divine or supernatural origin; it just has to be "up to the task." The intelligence of an advanced extraterrestrial civilization, such as has been conjectured by scientific materialists Carl Sagan, Francis Crick, and Stephen Hawking, would fit the bill. There is nothing supernatural about that, unless one puts mind and rational thought in the category of the supernatural.

What Say the Pioneers?

Moreover, the notion that science must exclude, from the outset, the possibility of ultra-natural causes would have been unthinkable to the pioneers of modern science.

The vanguard of the Scientific Revolution—Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and others—approached the universe as an intelligible creation that was mathematically describable because of laws imposed upon it. All would have agreed with Isaac Newton's statement that "gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who [or what] set the planets in motion."

Newton understood that gravity is not self-explanatory; it contains no message in a bottle that says, "Brought to you by ________," and thus, it cannot be explained solely by reference to itself. The same goes for matter, energy, or any other feature of nature. At the same time, the behaviors and characteristics we observe in nature are conducive to some explanations and adverse to others. For example, the predictable, orderly, and consistent effects of gravity are compatible with the notion of a primal law or lawgiver, and incompatible with the notion of a haphazard, random process.

A Word About Categories

To the careful observer, this should indicate that the categories "natural" and "supernatural," as delineated in the materialist playbook, are arbitrary, if not misleading. If "scientific" explanations are, according to club rules, limited to processes involving matter and energy under the influence of physical laws, there are any number of explanations that fail to meet that definition except by fiat or a rhetorical sleight-of-hand.

As already mentioned, that includes explanations about the origin of the universe, its physical properties, and its governing laws. But it also includes questions about its "engine"—that is, the quantum potential, which can be thought of as an all-pervasive field that works within the innermost region of nature to fuel and sustain it.

In String Theory, for example, it is the quantum potential that keeps "strings"—the infinitesimal building blocks of matter—vibrating to produce the empirical features of mass, charge, and spin. In the Standard Model of physics, the quantum potential is credited with preventing the negatively charged electrons of an atom from combining with its positively charged nucleus.

Importantly, the quantum potential is neither matter nor energy, but an immaterial something postulated to explain facts (e.g., the stability of matter) that are, naturalistically speaking, inexplicable. This seems to be what quantum pioneer Werner Heisenberg meant when he stated that "elementary particles . . . form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things and facts."

Then there's a whole category of stuff that theorists have labeled "virtual." This includes sub-nuclear entities that have never been detected and, indeed, do not exist, except as ethereal abstractions concocted by physicists to make sense of phenomena that make no sense without them. To put it as genteelly as possible, virtual things are little more than fanciful markers for missing pages in the naturalistic narrative.

Most telling is the acknowledgement of physicists, from Heisenberg to Hawking, that what really goes on in the quantum world is ontologically unknowable. As Neils Bohr noted, "The quantum world cannot be fully understood, nor can physical meaning be applied to its wave-function description . . . quantum mechanics only explains the external observations. It tells us nothing about the internal structure."

I might rephrase Bohr to say, "The supernatural cannot be fully understood, nor can physical meaning be applied to its descriptions . . . supernatural action only explains the external observations. It tells us nothing about itself."

Ideology over Truth

The fact that Bohr's conclusion is accepted as "scientific" while mine would be dismissed as superstition betrays a commitment to ideology over truth, a commitment that evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin candidly acknowledges: "We take the side of science [naturalistically defined] in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises . . . because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism."

Such blinkered devotion is both arbitrary and unnecessary. For no matter what the cause of atomic stability—whether it is a hidden naturalistic mechanism, a pantheistic "Force," or a theistic Hand—it is opaque to investigation, and yet it does not affect the laws and equations that describe nuclear phenomena, nor does it impede our ability to manipulate matter for technological advancement.

Moreover, limiting science to naturalistic explanations can be a science-stopper. For instance, consider two investigators, each of whom comes upon a non-functional ("junk") strand of DNA and tries to account for its existence. One researcher believes that everything is the chance product of matter and motion, while the other is open to intelligent agency. Whereas the first will tend to lose interest in the investigation once he makes a discovery consistent with the idea that an unguided process of mutation and inheritance accounts for the DNA strand, the second will be inclined to pursue inquiry further, in order to learn the purpose of the apparent junk.

No wonder, then, that when researchers with the ENCODE Project, a five-year study9 encompassing 30 peer-reviewed papers, concluded in 2012 that 80 percent of the human genome has a biological function (up from 2 percent when the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003), the news was met calmly, with a nod and a smile, by ID theorists, while the reception of the study in Darwinian precincts was, shall we say, a bit more agitated.

A critique of the project published in February 2013 purported to "detail the many logical and methodological transgressions" the ENCODE scientists committed in reaching their "absurd conclusion."10 Citing this critique, PZ Myers also excoriated the ENCODE scientists for failing to pay homage to the First Article of Faith of Darwinism: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." It was a dictum the ENCODE researchers apparently ignored, as their critics disparaged them for not considering the "evolutionary context" of biological function, then charged them (them!) with committing the logical fallacy of "affirming the consequent."11 Evidently, the Darwinistas meant the wrong consequent.

When science is ideologically constrained, when scientific inquiry cannot follow the evidence wherever it leads, when scientific findings are invalidated simply for bucking the status quo, and when scientists are demeaned for not falling in lockstep with the "brown shirts" of scientific materialism, then science is not about discovering truth; it is about imposing, through groupthink, intimidation, and bluster, a worldview that will not withstand too close a scrutiny. 

Regis Nicoll  is a retired nuclear engineer and physicist, a Colson Center fellow, and a Christian commentator on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters, available at Amazon.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #31, Winter 2014 Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo31/unsettling-science


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