Saturday, February 19, 2011

Thoughts on Science

When I was in elementary school, I was very interested in science. I loved flipping through books about different kinds of animals and plants. Pictures of thirty kinds of snakes? Sold! I was fascinated by atlases, especially when they peeled away the oceans to show underwater landscapes. Other planets and comets were cool too! I played around with simple optics, making rainbows from prisms and burning words into pieces of wood with my magnifying glass. I had two sets of children's encyclopedias — Childcraft and Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia of Science — which I studied for countless hours.

Yet for all that, I had a limited view of science. I thought of science as a collection of interesting observations, a list of things in the world today. What I didn't understand is that science is primarily a method of learning about the world. All the things I thought constituted 'science' were really just some of the fruits of scientific method.

Forbidden Fruits

I have a fuzzy memory of my parents removing one volume from an encyclopedia set, or maybe one of the Time-Life nature books we had. It had something to do with "millions of years" or biological evolution (probably both). I wasn't supposed to put these in the same "things in the world" category as planets and trees.

A few years later, I was taught something like the following at my private Christian high school:
Science can only give us the data; it can't tell us how to interpret the data. So while scientists may find fossils in the ground, they can't tell us scientifically that those fossils are millions of years old. In fact, scientists who talk about "millions of years" or 'evolution' are making up those ideas out of disobedience to God.
It should come as no surprise that I wasn't given a clear understanding of how evolution is supposed to work or why people think the Earth is not just millions but billions of years old. Learning "both sides" would have been a step up.

For as long as I was a fundamentalist Christian, I accepted the claim that these parts of science were made up by non-Christians for religious reasons. The Bible explained how creation happened and so I didn't need to know any more specifics to know 'evolutionists' were misinterpreting the data. I was so swept up in my religion that I had become incurious about this world.


During my four years at Iowa State I came to see Christianity as just another human religion. ...but that's a story for another time. The point is that I no longer had this enormous pressure to believe life on Earth was created about six thousand years ago. Yet instead of saying, "Well, I don't believe the Bible is reliable so I'll just accept mainstream science now," I decided to find out why mainstream science claims the Earth is billions of years old and that living species are related. I was still prepared to hold contrarian views on those points if I didn't find the evidence compelling. Losing trust in religion-based knowledge didn't automatically boost my confidence in science-based knowledge.

(Note — I'm not claiming a loss of religion is necessary to fairly investigate scientific claims. This is simply my own personal history. I didn't investigate scientific claims until I left my childhood religion.)

So I started doing what I advocate in an earlier post:1 I started reading both sides of the argument. The decisive stroke came when I read G. Brent Dalrymple's book The Age of the Earth. He did something amazing no author had bothered to do in my previous reading. Dalrymple gave a serious, patient, and readable explanation for why scientists believe the Earth is billions instead of mere thousands of years old. He didn't hide or downplay other answers scientists had given in the past. Instead, he showed why they had arrived at their conclusions and how those conclusions were replaced by better explanations.

After reading The Age of the Earth, I could see that many of the arguments for a young Earth were simply ignorant. No one who knew what I knew would even try to make those arguments in the way they were made. The next time you hear someone claim young Earth views are just as scientifically valid, ask them if they can give a very rough sketch of the significance of isochron dating. When you get a blank stare, be nice and recommend Dalrymple's book or chapter 3 of Kenneth Miller's best seller Finding Darwin's God.


My time at the university library taught me more than facts about the age of the Earth. The truly important lesson was that science is a method, not just a set of facts. Scientists aren't authorities on the truth; they're experts at discovering the a slow, never fully certain, but remarkably effective way.

Can experts be wrong? Of course! But it's foolish to assume that whenever the results of scientific inquiry are at odds with your own beliefs, the experts must be doing something wrong. Remember, these are people who are very familiar with the evidence and arguments. They probably have good reasons for holding the beliefs they do (which is a nice way of saying you're probably wrong). And the best part is that science is more or less a public exercise, so any sufficiently motivated person can find out why the experts believe what they do.

Today, I hold the fruits of mainstream science in high esteem, not because some authority told me I must, but because I have an appreciation for the method that produced them.



  1. Great post Garren. I just found your blog and love it!

    If you're so inclined, I'd love to read a blog post elaborating on expert consensus. In this article you hit the nail on the head about people assuming that "the experts must be wrong."

    People make all kinds of claims about expert consensus to protect their beliefs, e.g., "Science is not democratic." "You can't vote on the truth." etc.

    Because science is a human endeavor with a legacy of irrational paradigm defense, some skeptics are understandably wary of expert consensus. Yet, as non-experts, we're not competent to evaluate the evidence for ourselves. What are your thoughts?

    Keep up the great work.

  2. @Anonymous

    My short answer would be: We should trust scientists when we have reason to believe they are doing good science.

    Of course this means we now have to know what good science is and how to tell when it's being done! ...or not being done.

    I plan on reading more and posting more about both of these topics.

  3. The phrase "science is just another type of religion" is based on this misunderstanding. When your understanding of the world comes to you as dogma, it is easy to assume that all other views of the world are equally dogmatic. You are then left to choose for yourself between arbitrary sets of dogma based only on the authority that you assign to their sources: either God or the scientific community.

    In reality, the scientific community doesn't even make the same types of claims as the Bible, but until this misunderstanding is addressed, it is very difficult to discuss scientific findings with people who have already accepted a prior dogmatic view.