6 Rules for the Catholic to Understand Science

There is an interesting but relatively troubling article linked to over at New Advent regarding the role of scientists. The actual article can be found at this location . The article makes an overarching point that has validity but with enough specific errors that it demands comment, particularly given our ongoing interest in the interface of religion and science and even more broadly religion and reason.
The piece makes the broad point that science is to be respected and that experts really should be respected for their expertise, which not unreasonable ideas. Subsequently it then links folks who are skeptical of climate change with those who deny the utility of vaccines. This is troubling and has important implications for religion and theology.

I would argue the sort of slavish deferral to experts suggested by the the Mother Jones article fails to recognize that some forms of science can become so politicized that the normal rules of science are set aside. As a general rule the academic professional societies are run by people with strong allegiances to secularism and the political left. Consequently their judgments and opinions are framed by their political allegiances either consciously or unconsciously. This sort of thing has been written about by many others. It has been described in the field of medicine by psychiatrist Sally Satel in her book “PC medicine”, which can be found here . As a physician, I find most of her comments pretty accurate. So on the one hand we should respect science as a methodology and not  be reflexively fearful of its findings, but we need to be mindful that scientists as a group are capable of flaws and bias and are not sources of truth per se. Scientific conclusions should be questioned, that’s after all the nature of science, but the questioner has the obligation to know what they are talking about. Its that simple. Many times given the biases of the academy, philosophical, political or anti-religious views are offered to the public under the guise of science, and because of this it is helpful if all Catholics have a reasonable approach to science.

As an effort to facilitate this goal I present 6 rules for a Catholic in dealing with science:

Rule 1: Understand what science is. Science is mostly a methodology. A scientist makes observations about natural phenomena, and tries to find patterns to the observations. The observations can be made by just observing natural phenomena without directly intervening or the scientist can create specific situations by intervening directly and manipulating the system being observed. This artificial situation is an experiment. He then formulates theories as to the causes of any observed patterns and determines what kinds of other predictions are made by these theories. If the predictions are correct this supports the theory, if virtually all the predictions are correct then the theory will be basically accepted as “more” than a theory, and treated as a fact. If some predictions are correct while others are not, the theory can be adjusted to be made more accurate, and if none of the predictions are accurate the theory is discarded. Finally technology can be understood as applied science with the “experiment” being the attempt to develop a new technology. A successful technology based on a theory or theories helps substantiate the accuracy of the theory much like an experiment whose results are consistent with what the theory predicts would happen. This is essentially the “scientific method” . The story of quantum mechanics illustrates this. Initially scientists developed the theory to explain certain observed phenomena,  for example it was known that heating an object caused it to glow giving off colored light that ranged from reddish to blue. Explaining why heating an object caused different colored lights to be emitted from the object occurred was a problem. Multiple theories were considered, but eventually a theory that explained this phenomena was developed. This theory is called “quantum mechanics”, and it describes how the subatomic particles that make up atoms, such as electrons, protons or even smaller more fundamental particles like “quarks” behave. This theory accurately predicted the way objects would glow when heated as well as a great many other kinds of things. For example it predicted patterns observed in certain kinds of experiments in which light was projected through different numbers of slits onto a screen. This may seem esoteric, but once the theory was fully understood technology based on it enabled the invention of many useful things, including the microcircuits that make this computer and my cell phone work.

 

Understanding this aspect of science is central to understanding what it can and cannot achieve. In terms of helping us understand and manipulate the physical world it is incredibly useful. It is not particularly useful to other pursuits that nonetheless deal with objective truth. It is not useful to understanding metaphysical concepts, because such things are not amenable to measurement. Questions like what it means for something to be “just” or what does it mean for something to be a “cause”, or even the question of whether God exists, are all very important and have real answers, but none can be answered using experiment. This is not to say that some kinds of science might not contribute information we might use to reflect on the problems. We might for example use scientific survey methodology to understand what most people think “justice” means or we might look at natural phenomena and uncover multiple anthropic coincidences that suggest the existence of intelligence behind the natural laws, or at least is consistent with such an idea. In neither case however is scientific methodology central to the question being asked.

 

Similarly while science typically uses mathematics heavily as a tool, mathematics itself is not developed using scientific methods. Mathematics uses a deductive process to arrive at conclusions which is much more akin to how philosophy proceeds as opposed to the experimental approach used by scientists. Mathematician Kurt Godel’s Incompleteness theorem was not proven using scientific methods but rather deduced using complex methods of mathematical logic. This means that for many mathematical issues science will be peripheral not central. This is true of philosophical issues as well. As a little aside if you want to see what this looks like check out this site. By the way Godel also has a little mathematical demonstration of St. Anslem’ Ontological proof for the existence of God, which can be found here.

 

Getting back to our main point, Science in general does not deal with metaphysical things, like the existence of God, though many fail to understand this. This is one reason we have spent a fair amount of band width discussing evolution on this blog. At the end of the day questions regarding evolution simple are irrelevant to whether or not God exists or Christianity is true. One suspects that some Christians are simply under the misguided fear that deep down they think that “If evolution is true.. Then these atheists’ guys might be right”…. This is a common if almost self evidently absurd conclusion. I am actually hard pressed to think of what evolution has to do with the question of God’s existence at all. One might as well assert that “if the Cover-Two pass defense is inferior to man to man coverage then God does not exist”. The two questions have nothing to do with each other. We have made this point earlier, see our post on 2/22/14. Since science cannot pronounce on the truth of our faith we should never fear its findings consequences.

 
Rule 2: Respect the findings of science overall, as most of them are reasonably correct. We have made this case earlier. If you are a non-specialist it is usually a reasonable first assumption that those theories which are regarded by the majority of scientists as accurate are overall fairly correct. There may be modifications of the details but in the main there is substantial data usually supporting the science. It is important to avoid becoming aligned with errors. This has been pointed out previously regarding evolution, and most recently regarding the confusion surrounding “mitochondrial eve” in this post. Not everyone can be an expert in everything so Christians should not overstate what we actually know. If you are a non specialist, be careful following the opinions of someone who is clearly making a case for something outside the scientific mainstream. The corollary is if we are going to talk science we need to really know our stuff. This is particularly true since the enemies of religion want to portray Christians as obscurantist. We should not play into this. Perhaps this was New Advents point in linking to the “Mother Jones” article post.

 
Rule 3: On the other hand Rule 2 needs to be balanced with appropriate skepticism in appropriate situations. This may appear to be a contradiction to rule 2 above, but it is merely a matter of balance. Some Christians (hopefully a growing number) have a significant background in science. This includes not just scientists, but many others such as engineers, physicians and other medical professionals, college professors in the sciences, even well trained high school science teachers. Those of us with such a background should be encouraged to continue calling out nonsense, and to make note of the fact that some areas of science have become so heavily politicized that political or philosophical bias of academics may interfere with what gets published as “science”. ( Not to mention the effects of other kinds of bias generated by professional jealousies, egoism and all the foibles of fallen human nature.)  Since potentially biased academics can control what literature is published, what faculty gets tenure, and whose research is funded, science is not always the pure dispassionate pursuit of truth its often portrayed as, and not everything claimed by someone to be true because “science says so” is in fact true. This kind of thing is  often particularly relevant to Catholic concerns. It is of note that virtually all professional medical societies are pro-abortion and therefore do not expect it to be very easy to for a researcher to obtain funding to study psychiatric complications of abortion or write a paper that suggests women who have abortions are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, (although some papers make it through the bias as witnessed by this one here ).
This why the Mother Jones piece that linked opponents of vaccines ( which are established prevention for over 100 years and which have manifestly eradicated disease like polio and small pox) to skeptics of climate change who are a little bit more justified in their skepticism is absurd . We here at Catholic X-ray are agnostic on the issue of climate change since we are not climatologists and have not analyzed the data. We would note as intelligent lay people that given the heavy governmental involvement in this issue and the multiple policy implications the whole debate is much politicized. The consequences of such political influence has been noted even by experts who have worked with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,(IPCC) which is really the authority driving much of the global warming issue. For an example see this article by Danish climate scientist Richard Toll here. With these facts in mind it is reasonable to not simply accept any policy demand made in the name of “climate change”.

 
Rule 4: Realize most decisions about “what to do” are not purely scientific. As a physician this is pretty much obvious to me. Imagine the situation of an older person who needs a complex heart operation. They may have other health problems like diabetes, or emphysema. In deciding “what to do” there are a variety of technical questions ( such as what is the chance in this setting of the patient tolerating the operation, what kinds of complications are likely, what alternatives to surgery are available etc.), but there are questions that involve non medical issues as well, what is the cost of the surgery, does the patient have family to help care for them, is the patient willing to go through the burdens of surgery and recovery or would they prefer to avoid surgery for whatever reason. The decision of what to do is rarely a purely technical question. This comes up a lot in many of the controversial issues of the day that Catholics deal with. So if you hear something like “scientists say embryonic stem cell research might cure Parkinson’s disease, so we should promote it” , the most effective response is not to debate this by saying adult stem cells are likely to be a more effective tool. (That may or may not be true and in fact maybe curing Parkinson’s disease will not ultimately use any kind of stem cell at all.) The real issue is not how effective ESC cells may or may not be, it is that killing the embryo is wrong as it is killing a human being ( albeit one a very young one) It is wrong independently of what science might say about the utility of the stem cells. The fact that it is wrong to kill human beings, even young ones regardless of what utilitarian benefits one might think killing some humans generates is demonstrated using the tools of philosophy not science. Similarly in terms of climate change, what precisely to do about it and at what costs to other important goals involve decisions touching on economics, and have effects on things like poverty and global development that climatologists know little about. In fact then the question of climate change is not purely scientific but multifaceted. This idea heavily overlaps with Rule 1.

 

 

Rule 5: Always realize technical experts are experts in their specialty not necessarily anything else. This is a corollary to rule 4. If a noted molecular biologist has an opinion on global warming it is not necessarily better than any educated lay persons. Being an expert in biology does not confer expertise in climatology even though there might be some shared basic scientific knowledge. The biologist is not an “expert” in the area of climatology, anymore than being a neurosurgeon qualifies you to be an obstetrician and deliver a baby, even though these specialist share a superficial common core of medical knowledge. This is another reason for some skepticism for some scientific claims. It is not uncommon for a “scientist” to be paraded around as an expert in a field about which they know nothing. By the same token if we find a “scientist” who says something we like, we should make sure they do so not because of their own biases etc… This goes triple when the scientist is roaming into areas such as philosophy or theology, or politics in which they may be particularly clueless. Einstein for example was a socialist who thought that “planned economies” would work the best. This is obviously not just wrong it is stupidly so. Einstein was a brilliant physicist and also economic dunce. Be particularly skeptical if a scientist is making claims in an area in which one would not expect them to have particular expertise.

 

 

Rule 6: Leaders in the Church need to have significant understanding of science. This includes a significant fraction of the clergy! Although science is not central to religious concerns it touches on many of them, and more specifically impacts how we understand our world. Once upon a time it was thought that clergy needed to have a significant understanding of the ancient languages Ancient Greek and Latin because the original writings of the Fathers were in these languages. To speak and understand theology and philosophy one needed to understand the language of Aristotle, St Jerome, St Thomas, and the Septuagint etc. This was quite true, I recall with fondness my college biology comparative anatomy professor, who was a Jesuit priest ( The late Fr.John McNamee). Comparative anatomy was a brutally detailed class required of all the biology majors, probably with the primary goal of getting excess numbers to change majors for greener pastures. In perhaps a moment of compassion for the students, every now and then, Father McNamee would take a break and go on a little riff on Greek and start going into the etymology of some technical term all while writing out parts of it in the Greek alphabet. It was very impressive and afforded a respite from memorizing the details of invertebrate anatomy.  Today our society is shaped by science and many of the pressing moral and social issues of our time touch on scientific concerns. It is much easier to teach about the morals involving medical ethics when one understands the basic medical science, or to discuss policies to help the poor when you have some knowledge of economics, and so forth. Beyond this there is a constant effort to portray religious people as ignorant boobs. It obviously was not possible to portray scholars like Fr. MacNamee as a boob. When I was in college several of my science professors were priests with Ph.D’s in organic chemistry, immunology, anatomy, and mathematics. At a time when I was young, foolish and skeptical of the Church this helped me to understand that deep knowledge of science was not incompatible with the Catholic faith. Obvious to me now, but was less obvious to me then. It is still not clear to enough people. Let’s make it so that it becomes clearer to everyone.

Finally it’s not a bad idea to pray to St. Albert the Great, patron of scientists for help in understanding our technological society and orienting it to God’s will:

 

santalbert

St Albert pray for us

Leave a Reply