Those who are suspicious of science are missing part of the restoration

Scientific literacy is falling in America. Part of the reason is that its value is being under-appreciated by a larger and larger segment of the population. Suspicions about evolution and climate change have created an atmosphere where two of science’s most strongly supported investigations are dismissed. To do that, you have to dismiss science itself. Really.

The scientific investigation of such things as evolution and climate change include data gathering on a scale that most would find staggering. It includes data collected with some of the most sophisticated instruments ever built by humans. It includes people who have devoted their lives to accuracy, truth, and hardboiled examination of evidence. It involves the most rigorous oversight of any processes I can think of, and involves many others who engage thorough peer review to find flaws, critique analysis, and expose bad thinking–and most important declare, when it finds error, “You shall not pass!” It requires the most rigorous credentialing of any on the planet, typically taking four to eleven years after a bachelor degree. These years are spend in intense study and proving oneself adept at the tools, depth of understanding, and competency in the field. To complete a PhD one must take these tools, skills and learning, and add to the body of knowledge in innovative and new ways. Then present it to those who have gone before, make rigorous arguments as to why and how you gathered the data, what tools where used for its analysis, and how it fits into what’s been done before, and they must agree you’ve done so. If you can convince your peers (often unfriendly to your task) you will get published, but this requires being examined further by the body of those others who have devoted their life to the study of the subject. If you’ve made mistakes they will find it, bring it to your attention, and shame you thoroughly. And the most wonderful thing of all, unprecedented in any other human enterprise, is that this process is open. The data is freely available. Anyone can see what you did, how you collected the data, what the data actually are, how you analyzed the data, and how you interpreted it in light these investigations. In the history of human thought there has never been a more rigorous and systematic way to try to understand the universe. And it has brought us wonders, medicines, technology, and the ability to understand the universe in amazing ways.

Take Climate Change. The science behind the claim that the planet is warming, that the variance in weather events is increasing, that sea levels are rising, ecological systems are failing worldwide, that species are redistributing and disappearing, that the ice caps are melting, that green house gasses from humans are responsible for these changes, that worldwide droughts, floods, fires, and stronger storms are occurring more frequently are a matter of empirical evidence and investigation using the methods outlined above. (Interestingly the models did not predict the weather would be as extreme as we’ve seen it in the last few years, the models were off but in not in the direction people thought they’d be off. Thinks are getting wackier and wackier every year—maybe you’ve noticed?).

On the other side of the debate are institutes, “Think tanks!” who mine the data from their armchairs for evidence supporting their predetermined take that none of the above are happening. Or not so much evidence as glitches they can exploit to cast doubt on this or that. They publish their results in reports and websites. They have a couple of old physics professors who put their name on every report that comes out. But all in all. They gather no original data. Make no independent studies. Do no publish in the peer reviewed literature and are largely funded by enterprises with much to loose if climate change is true.

What’s been hard to watch, is these studies becoming politicized and the debate conducted largely in the entertainment media where both sides of debate have to be probed, even when the sides on the issue are lining up to be 250 to 2 climate scientists convinced that the climate is changing under human influence (and the two are the holdouts borrowed from the tobacco industry‘s attempt to claim smoking did not cause cancer). Of course you get the the usual cadre of list signers from the chemist, engineering, phychology doctorate who are only too happy to pontificate about subjects outside their decipline, but that are aligned with their perception of politics.

But I’ve blogged about this endlessly on these pages. What really concerns me is that denying this science, requires that the entire scientific enterprise be dismissed. Conspiracy theories of how scientists are working together have to be entertained. The result is that science has never been held in such disregard in our country. I remember growing up on an atmosphere where science was considered one of the finest achievements in modern history. Scientists were held in high regard. Trusted.

No longer. This is having effects. Effects that will ripple into the fabric of our society. I see it on blogs, especially within the Mormon world. Because science if not friendly to naive formulations of creation that held sway before science’s forays into our understanding of the universe required rethinking on fundamental levels, which as a people devoted to both knowledge and continuing revelation ought to have been more easily accomplished.

We live in an amazing day. As President Hinckley pointed out in his talk, Living in the Fulness of Times, in the October 2001 conference:

The vision of Joel has been fulfilled wherein he declared:

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions:

“And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.

“And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke.

“The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come.

“And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered: for in mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance, as the Lord hath said, and in the remnant whom the Lord shall call” (Joel 2:28–32).

There has been more of scientific discovery during these years than during all of the previous history of mankind. Transportation, communication, medicine, public hygiene, the unlocking of the atom, the miracle of the computer, with all of its ramifications, have blossomed forth, particularly in our own era. During my own lifetime, I have witnessed miracle after wondrous miracle come to pass. We take it for granted.

As a student recently pointed out to me, the first thing President Hinckley brings up as an example of this prophecy’s fulfillment is Science!

You now have a chance to see pictures from space that our ancestors can’t even have imagined. And more than just pictures. We understand so much more of how the universe works. From the genetic fabric of life and its ability to change, to the fine scale structure of galaxy on temporal scales from the Big Bang to the unfolding of galactic motion and spatial scales from the size that gives us the structure of the atom (the Higgs Boson!) to the dark matter megastructures that make up 84% of the universe.

As President Hinckley points out. Science is a gift. Do not so easily dismiss the power of its findings in order to fuel your political and economic agendas. It will come back to haunt you. And you are missing some of the revelations promised as part of the restoration.

This entry was posted in Climate Change, Evolution, Philosophy of Science, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to Those who are suspicious of science are missing part of the restoration

  1. Jeff g says:

    How is this any different than claiming that the only way one can doubt the Adam and Eve or Noah’s Ark stories is by calling all of religion into question?

    Science is an amazing tool by which we can accomplish many, many things, but it’s not the only tool or even the best tool we have for each and every task.

  2. So, I love science. I think Darwin’s theory is gorgeous. But I also think that there is no such thing as “proving something true,” not by science or debate or any method of testing, except for thr Spirit’s witness. And even then, that is s “truth” only meant for the individual who recieves it (though it can apply also to those the individual has stewardship over.) I am very protective of my absolutes…I can count them on one hand 🙂

  3. Dorry for spelling errors. I am typing on my phone.

  4. SteveP says:

    I don’t disagree. The power of science lies in its self correcting nature. As I tell my students, Science tells us how to bet.

  5. Brady Wiggins says:

    This state of affairs makes it all the more difficult to explore the limitations of science while at the same time striving to embrace all that it does have to offer. Science’s self-correcting nature certainly is admirable, for example, and at the same time it is limited to self-correction only within the scope of its basic assumptions. I don’t expect science to self-correct by incorporating spiritual revelation into its epistemology, nor do I expect my ward council to move forward climate science. The shift from a pre-modern to a modern (and then post-modern) worldview has complicated the picture for those who hold religious faith and value science. I think that we need to learn to be good pluralists who can be humble while still thinking critically (and not blindly criticizing) about science, faith, and all the rest.

  6. Ideally, the power of religion also lies in its self-correcting nature.

  7. SteveP says:

    “we need to learn to be good pluralists who can be humble while still thinking critically (and not blindly criticizing) about science, faith, and all the rest.”

    Well said. I couldn’t agree more.

    And Margaret! Yes exactly.

  8. Jeff g says:

    Very well put, Brady.

  9. Dave says:

    Very nice point, Steve — the flowering of natural science since the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century has been alluded to by senior LDS leaders many times as the result of an outpouring of God’s Spirit in preparation for the Restoration. That’s exactly the same way they have often referred to the general actions of the Protestant Reformers and the religious dissenters who settled North America: as part of general preparation for the Restoration. I’m not quite sure how in the 20th century we turned this idea that science and religion together were part of God’s plan into the idea that they are in opposition. Well, I kind of know how that happened, I just think it was an unfortunate development. Let’s hope the pendulum swings back in the 21st century.

  10. Paul 2 says:

    Steve, a very good essay.

    The profoundly ironic thing about the current situation is that the knowledge produced by the process of science is limited to those things that we should all agree on….Because very clear evidence is needed before something is considered to be true, one becomes essentially forced to admit that scientific models are reasonably close or to choose dishonesty, delusion, or ignorance. Also ironic is that scientific results ARE the common ground between believers and unbelievers, Republicans and Democrats, Mormon and Hindu, etc. because such theories withstand experimental tests that work for everybody. Those parts of life related to the scientifically unproven and the scientifically unprovable are not necessarily the common ground. It is also interesting that discussions of what knowledge science has produced turn instantly to the philosophy of science instead of turning to detailed questions about the evidence when a real expert is willing to explain details for free if anyone thought to ask him questions.

  11. Jack says:

    There’s something about this that feels wrong (to me) even though it’s right. Not sure what it is — could be the adulation of science per se. You want us to accept the gift of science — I agree. I think, though, that because science generally fails to accept the *giver* there arises a sort of incidental naturalistic philosophy that smashes head on (in many instances) with hard-core religious values.

    I also think that science can be a little smug in the present, forgetting that past achievements were usually developed through a relatively long iterative process. As I’ve said before: Thank goodness we no longer perform lobotomies on the clinically depressed.

    That said, I think science has everything to do with ushering in the Millennium. And I wish I could live to the age of a tree and wonder at all of the scientific marvels that will be forth coming throughout the 21st century. But even so, no amount of climate science (or any science) can save the world if we don’t become better Christians.

  12. Chris says:

    Margaret, can you explain how religion has a self-correcting mechanism?

  13. dallske says:

    If I may for Margaret:

    I would suppose, at least from my perspective, that at least much of the power lies in a religion with self-correction because if you don’t have an evolving church with continuous, two-part revelation (corporate and individual), then you really aren’t Christ’s church. I would equate “self-correcting” to this notion: that Christ is the head and when he reveals his will to the leaders to act on that will, the church maintains “self-correction.”

  14. Chris says:

    Ok, that seems a bit circular to me though.

    So in science (note: I am not a scientist), the self-correcting mechanism works because new data can be independently examined. We don’t have that luxury with revelation. How do you distinguish a valid, gods-induced revelation from mere man-made speculation?

  15. Clark says:

    Chris, ideally other people get confirming revelations. The problem is how to aggregate that data of course. It’s a little easier in science although even in science there’s a fair bit of trust. (At times too much – thus the move of late for scientists to put links to servers with full data including lab procedures in their papers so other scientists can go through the data more carefully)

  16. Chris says:

    Still seems problematic to me. If there are disconfirming revelations, what do you do then? Receive another revelation to find which previous revelation was the right revelation and so on? Do you just accept the majority? And why? What if 1 person gets the correct revelation and everybody else is wrong? There is no way to resolve any of this as far as I can see.

    It seems that the term “self-correcting” is a bit misunderstood by some religious people (not necessarily you, Clark). I kind of get the sense that they think it just means a change of mind. That’s what new revelation appears to me. How do I know that a prophet receives a valid revelation vs just a convenient change of mind? Either way, it could be labeled as “self-correction”. As far as science goes, self-correction happens because we can independently analyze new data or re-evaluate old theories and submit new theories for peer review. With revelation, there is no way for me independently examine the prophet’s revelation as it all happened inside of his own head.

  17. dallske says:

    I would not say “self-correcting” in religion is a “change of mind”. It seems far more cynical than I expected to read. Although it cannot be the same “self-correcting” mechanism in place in science, a church with continuous revelation I think has two parts to the self-correction process. 1) Individual revelation will tell a person whether corporate revelation is really for them. 2) Corporate revelation received in 1920 can be “self-corrected” in 2012, with new revelation. Both have parallels in science: We can independently examine a theory to see if it works for us, and we can watch as, over time, theories get updated, confirmed, thrown out, etc.
    With religion, obviously it is faith-based. But I will argue that a “self-correcting” mechanism is there, whether you want to call it that or not. We live in an evolving church where, if you look closely, will see subtle changes that don’t mean much to the untrained eye, but have drastic significance to the overall plan and to the direction the church is headed.

  18. Chris says:

    What I’m trying to say is how can you anyone be so sure that it isn’t simply a “change of mind” when there is no reliable method to distinguish a valid revelation from a mere man-made decision?

    And so I’m trying to show that there is a huge difference between how science self-corrects and how an alleged evolving church self-corrects. I don’t think it is proper to use the term to describe the church.

  19. dallske says:

    “…no reliable method to distinguish a valid revelation from a mere man-made decision.”

    There is the key for me. It may not be reliable to you, yet that does not mean it isn’t reliable. I agree that there is a huge difference. But just because one is based on faith and one is based on evidence, doesn’t mean the concept isn’t there.

    I would not necessarily call it “self-correcting,” but the term, with enough of its implications, can be understood under the realm of the Restored Gospel.

  20. Chris says:

    If the method of revelation is reliable and consistent, please explain.

  21. dallske says:

    I’m pretty sure I have already. Faith is key. Listening to the Spirit is key. Living your life conducive to having that Spirit is key. Knowing how to listen is also key. Once you have the system down, You can filter Corporate Revelation through Individual Revelation for your personal life.

  22. Chris says:

    Yes, you’ve reiterated the method a couple of times. But you have not sufficiently shown how one can distinguish a valid gods-induced revelation (whether that be “corporate” or “individual”) from mere man-made speculation. If you propose to validate corporate revelation by using personal revelation, not only is that circular to begin with, but the problem still exists. I have no good reason to confidently claim that I can accurately and reliably distinguish whether I am receiving a revelation from a 3rd-party (let alone a revelation that comes from a specific “god” or being).

    Do you understand my objection?

  23. dallske says:

    I understand that you cannot grasp the concept based on faith. I’m sorry. Whether or not you can apply it, all we are going for is grasping the concept. Maybe I cannot articulate it sufficiently. All I can say is that the Spirit confirms truth to us, whether that is scientific or revelatory truth, the Spirit has a function. The pure revelations are heavily faith-based, whereas the uncovered scientific discoveries are heavily evidence-based, even though the Spirit has a part in both.

  24. Chris says:

    I get the sense that you are being deliberately obtuse. Do you understand the objection I outlined in my previous comment or not?

  25. dallske says:

    “…how one can distinguish a valid gods-induced revelation (whether that be “corporate” or “individual”) from mere man-made speculation.”

    From this statement, I will deduce that you have little experience and/or knowledge with either kind of revelation if we are still at a stand-still.

    I am not the most spiritual or “in-tune”, yet I thought the concept was easy enough. Alma 32 might help a bit. Other than that, I’m sorry.

  26. Chris says:

    Don’t you see how using scripture/revelation (Alma 32) to support scripture/revelation is circular reasoning?

  27. dallske says:

    I suppose I can see your point of view. Something you don’t seem to understand: Understanding another’s point.

    Yet, seeing your point of view doesn’t make it right. Alma 32 isn’t for everyone, see? Neither is any/all revelation for any/all individuals. But I’m not really typing words for you am I?

  28. Chris says:

    The conversation started by comparing religion with science because they both had a “self-correcting” mechanism. I showed that that isn’t true. I tried to get anyone here to show me how it is true and no one has.

    Done and done.

  29. Red John says:

    > Alma 32 isn’t for everyone, see? Neither is any/all revelation for any/all individuals.

    I didn’t realize Mormon doctrine is that I can pick and choose the doctrine that applies to me.

  30. dallske says:

    Whether you think so or not, everyone does that.

    Also, not everyone actually confirms revelation personally.

    So its not so much picking and choosing, most people are just…lazy.

    Another thing: not every chapter/verse is actually applicable for us, and neither is 100% of all doctrine.

  31. dallske says:


    I’ve tried to explain how this is an apples to oranges conversation, yet you continue to be a bit conceited and arrogant about the delusion that you successfully showed something to not be true.

    Your opinion was rather quite weak. All I got out of it was a weak circular argument that didn’t progress. You never really addressed the fact that I tried talking about two whole different ball games. I’m sorry for your loss, but I can’t waste anymore time with you.

  32. R. Gary says:

    SteveP: The subtitle of your blog says “A BYU Biology Professor Looks at Science and the LDS Faith.” I have a question for you. Are you just looking at the LDS faith or trying to redefine it?

  33. Greg Damon says:

    Religion and science are two sides of the same coin–they are the essence of humanity’s quest for truth and knowledge.

    Belief is the hypothesis, faith is the experiment. In both cases, results are realized and conclusions can be drawn, and then perhaps knowledge can advance a bit closer to comprehending truth.

  34. Sylvia says:

    Steve, I made a great comment last night before there were so many other posts, but for some reason it wouldn’t post. I’m trying this again as a test. I’m sorry it’s not my original insightful comment.

  35. Sylvia says:

    OK, now that I know it works, I’ll just say I have great admiration for you and other BYU profs. I am a fringe academic; my husband is an associate professor in philosophy. I am devout LDS; he is agnostic. I am now exposed to full-blown academia, and it has made me have a greater appreciation for BYU profs who must live in that world but not of that world. Every time I hear comments like Elder Nelson’s, delivered with that smug smile that says “Anyone who thinks differently is sorely mistaken,” I think, “Oh, those poor BYU profs. Their jobs are going to be even more difficult–again.” Thanks for being a voice of reason and faith, for expounding and explaining the beauty of science, made all the more beautiful when we can include our spiritual insights. I loved my experience at BYU because I felt like the whole of life–spiritual and physical–was considered. In my current academic experiences, the spiritual must be ignored and I feel that means I must ignore most of what makes me who I am, and it makes me sad. Thanks again for keeping the faith and putting up with the faithful!

  36. SteveP says:

    Sylvia, I can’t tell you how much your comments warmed my heart and made my day. I’m glad you got through to make the comment. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *