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The Dangers of Advocacy in Science

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December 17, 2011 Tags: Science & Worldviews
The Dangers of Advocacy in Science

Today's entry was written by Steven Benner. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

This blog is the last in a series by Steven Benner (the first can be found here), which can now conveniently be accessed in a Scholarly Essay. Throughout the series, Benner discusses the nature of scientific progress and the difficulty of defining what is and is not science. Discussion questions are included at the bottom of each post.

In my previous blogs, I outlined several reasons why non-scientists often have a difficult time understanding what scientists do. Scientists study many different things using very different techniques. Science cannot easily be pinned down by being stated in falsifiable hypotheses, and science is a thoroughly human endeavor. Sometimes there is sufficient real evidence to challenge a paradigm, but often this challenge is blocked by the sociology of the field.

Non-scientists rarely see the kind of uncertainty that drives science forward. The high school science classroom and the distribution science course in college are the end of science education for most lay people. Introductory science courses at both levels are all about teaching fact under the authority of the teacher. A good grade is the desired outcome. Belief in the authority of the teacher is a key to a good grade.

Nor is this perspective on science often on display in the popular press. When scientists appear in the news, they are generally sought for their advice on a matter of public policy. They are asked for certainty, not to express the uncertainty that is at the core of science correctly done.

Accordingly, the public routinely sees scientists as advocates. The supermarket checkout magazines have scientists in white lab coats announcing a new cure for cancer. Should we brush our teeth up and down, or side to side, or in circles? Chances are that someone in a white lab coat has told us to do each of these at some point in our lives. When President Obama appears on television with doctors to support health care reform, his staff has the doctors remove their jackets and don white lab coats. When I first blogged on this site, a principal complaint by intelligent design supporters was that the scientists that they saw were no less advocates than they were.

There is no mystery as to why non-scientist co-opt readily recognized symbols of science. Biology, physics, and chemistry have been empowering in society. Every politician, advertiser, or lawyer wants to have the respect offered to scientists to apply as well to the politics, product, or client that they are advocating. Creation science, Scientology, even social science—the names were chosen to appropriate the mantle of respect that out culture gives to science. It is no accident that Mary Baker Eddy founded the "Church of Christ, Scientist" in 1879, just as our culture was beginning to give science this privileged position of respect.

This provides another reason why it is easy to be confused about what science is and what scientists do. The imagery of science and scientists is widely expropriated in the public square by non-scientists.

The temptation to participate in the public dialogue as an advocate is considerable. I myself have been interviewed by reporters who become impatient if I actually practice science before their eyes. It is generally simpler give an answer rather than to present the context, including all of its uncertainty.

For this reason, it is important, here and elsewhere, for scientists to emphasize that uncertainty is central to science, and advocacy is disruptive of it. When a scientist becomes an advocate, he loses for himself the power to use scientific discipline to discern reality.

So how do things every get settled in science, at least to the point where personal action or public policy can be based on it? As I described in my book Life, the Universe, and the Scientific Method, science proceeds through the successive movement of the burden of proof from one side of propositions to the other as each side meets the culturally accepted standard-of-proof. That standard is met when a preponderance of evidence favoring one view over another is assembled to the point where it satisfies a community of interested people.

In law, the standard-of-proof is defined by statute. Proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" is required to convict individuals of a felony (O. J. Simpson was not convicted in criminal court under this standard). "Preponderance of evidence" is the standard-of-proof used in a civil court (O. J. Simpson lost his civil case to the Brown and Goldman families under this standard).

In science, standards-of-proof are neither legislated nor dictated by authority. Instead, they evolve as part of the culture of a community of scientists. That process is poorly understood, and does not follow clear rules. Because no authority stands above any field to legislate its standards-of-proof, many arguments in science are arguments over what those standards should be.

The intellectual discipline that allows our students to apply this process to come to believe things other than what they want to believe, is key to the training of practicing scientists. This process is not easy to teach, not easy to learn, and not painless to apply. It is as difficult for scientists to admit that they were wrong as anyone else. It is as painful to come to believe what one really does not want to believe. But this is the process that leads to knowledge, or at least a view of nature that, if not itself knowledge, certainly does what knowledge was supposed to do: provide predictive and manipulative power.

Discussion Questions: Dr. Benner states that “when a scientist becomes an advocate, he loses for himself the power to use scientific discipline to discern reality.” Do you think it is possible to advocate for a particular view of science and still retain the ability to discern reality? Do you agree with him that politicians, advertisers, and others expropriate the image of science to gain a mantle of power in the public square?

Steven Benner is a Distinguished Fellow of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, FL. He received his doctorate in chemistry from Harvard University. Benner and his group of researchers initiated synthetic biology as a field and invented dynamic combinatorial chemistry, which is currently being used in pharmaceutical development.

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Jon Garvey - #66657

December 18th 2011

Not sure if it’s worth posting with an entire extraneous thread attached. But how can the problem of “science as ex cathedra truth” be solved without changing science education to show the messy “how” of science rather than the (for the present) factual “what”?

Benner is saying that science is intrinsically controversy. So if it’s taught as fact, it isn’t  being taught as science, but as dogma. Isn’t that what the ID guys have been saying too?

HornSpiel - #66666

December 18th 2011

Good question Jon. Maybe the answer is to make sure science education is balanced between teaching well established facts (basic scientific knowledge), what science is (how science is done), and what science is not (what are its limits). Both its successes and its humanness need to be taught.

It is not impossible. If we teach only the good things about US history, then that becomes indoctrination. If we teach that science is the only way to true knowledge, that too is indoctrination. However if we teach a balanced view of US history we become realistic, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of our nation, better able to guard against abuses and detect propaganda, and, I think, more motivated to participate as citizens. Likewise with science education.

A balanced approach would help heal the divisions that make people distrustful of science and, I’d hope, make young people especially Christians more motivated to go into science.

Jon Garvey - #66672

December 19th 2011

Hi Hornspiel

Couldn’t agree more. Looking back my science education was fine as far as it went, but I’d have been a lot more enthused if the reality of inquisitive people stumbling towards truth had been in there somewhere. I think the nearest we got was Lavoisier debunking Priestley and the Phlogiston theory - but how useful it would have been to understand why that theory was so plausible in the first place - we’d have been keener to think critically about why oxygen actually was a better suggestion.

One factor then is that we were in the midst of the Age of Progress. It’s hard to visualise now, but scientists were putting men on the moon, curing all diseases, making the world clean and efficient, etc. You couldn’t think of a scientist without thinking of omniscence, infallibility and selfless zeal. You also thought of the world being destroyed by H-bombs, but I think the politicians got most of the responsibility for that.

In other words, the idea of realistic, human, science ran counter to the mythology of the culture. That seems less so now - but maybe it runs counter to the mythology of the profession, still?

beaglelady - #66701

December 20th 2011

Scientists are still making amazing progress!

Looking just at the space program:

  • The Mars Science Lab with the giant rover Curiosity is on its way to Mars.  
  • Space tourism will probably be a reality in just a few years.    
  • Even the space elevator (right out of science fiction) seems more and more possible.       
  • The Hubble continues to send us gorgeous pictures of our universe.
  • Hundreds of exoplanets have been discovered; just today  NASA announced that its Kepler mission has discovered the first Earth-size planets orbiting a sun-like star outside our solar system!
beaglelady - #66667

December 18th 2011

Not sure if it’s worth posting with an entire extraneous thread attached.

Indeed. If BioLogos wants to recycle Christmas presents they should remember to remove the tags.

HornSpiel - #66675

December 19th 2011


beaglelady - #66702

December 20th 2011

btw HornSpiel, have you noticed that BioLogos has been kind of run down lately?  Several of those in leadership have left without being replaced, and we haven’t heard from Pete Enns in a long, long time. We have recycled posts, and a great many posts are just chapters from books.  And the posters seldom engage with anyone after posting.  I don’t know what is going on, and I’m sure there are reasons for all this.  I shouldn’t complain;  I’m just observing that things are different now.

Douglas E - #66722

December 21st 2011

Both Pete and Karl have ‘moved on’ and if you have a hankering to catch up with Pete, visit his blog at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/
and Karl can be tracked down here http://www.karlgiberson.com/

beaglelady - #66742

December 22nd 2011

Thanks for the info, Douglas. So now BioLogos doesn’t have a biblical scholar on board!

James R - #66724

December 21st 2011


Agreed.  Recycled posts are of questionable use, since people can look up the original column if they want something on that topic.  And passages reprinted from books, though they can be valuable, are not always satisfactory, especially if they are framed in a way different from the way they were framed in the original context.  And there should be more interaction between columnists and commenters.  I think this is less likely when the column is a reprint of part of a book; if the author didn’t originally intend the piece for Biologos, he is unlikely to feel any obligation to reply to, or even read, comments posted on the excerpt, whereas if the author wrote the column especially for Biologos, he is more likely to take an interest in how it is received, and read the comments, and maybe even engage with the commenters.

Still, even under columns written especially for Biologos, the frequency of interaction with commenters seems to have gone down.  Pete Enns was great at interacting extensively and constructively with commenters, and now he is gone.  And some columnists here have made comments about Calvin that have been challenged, and have not interacted with their challengers.  Actually this is not uncommon here, that scientist-columnists make theological statements and then, when questioned about them by students or professors of theology, give only a spotty reply, or none at all.  If the purpose of the site is to have a conversation between science and theology, the scientists should be listening to constructive criticism of their theological statements, and showing that they are listening, by responding, and even, on occasion (as Pete Enns would sometimes do), retracting a point or admitting that there are aspects of the topic that they have not adequately studied or considered. 

I’d also like to see more articles written by people from traditional (with emphasis on the adjective) Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican perspectives.  Christianity is a big tent, and sometimes it seems as if only a very small corner of that tent gets most of the exposure here.  We’ve had reprints of articles by the Anglican Polkinghorne, but they were not written for Biologos and he does not interact with commenters;  we’ve seen one column ages ago by George Murphy for the Lutherans, but this major player in science-religion discussions is virtually absent from the site, as, for the most part, is his tradition.  I think Catholic Ken Miller posted something ages ago, but I haven’t seen much Catholic theology here.  And from the Reformed tradition, it’s inexplicable that we haven’t had a column by Alvin Plantinga, one of the greatest authorities in the world on many religion/science questions.

That’s my two cents’ worth.  I stress that I intend these suggestions constructively, as ideas that could improve Biologos, and am not trying to bash anyone or take away from the many stimulating discussions that Biologos columns have provoked. 

beaglelady - #66743

December 22nd 2011

I can understand why we don’t see John Polkinghorne interacting with us, as  he  doesn’t use the internet/email at all! (Remember, he is eighty-something.)  But what about everyone else? It would be helpful if, for each post, BioLogos would state up front whether we could expect any engagement with either the author and/or a BioLogos team member. It seems like the only fair thing to do. We often directly address the authors of posts, and nobody likes talking to a wall!

HornSpiel - #66754

December 22nd 2011

Hey beaglelady, I can’t say that I really noticed consciously. I guess I was just figuring it was a holiday slowdown. If you might have noticed I was not posting here for some time. When I came back I did notice there was not as many conversations as previous.  I think you are right though that the amount of original posts has gone down along with writer interaction. That is too bad.

I have to say though that I really like Biologos because IMHO it strikes the right balance between faith and science. It’s also great that they are able to put up a new post nearly every day.

Merv - #66677

December 19th 2011

“Introductory science courses at both levels are all about teaching fact
under the authority of the teacher. A good grade is the desired
outcome. Belief in the authority of the teacher is a key to a good

So science gurus lament the “regrettable state of affairs” when classrooms are more about authority and regurgitation than actual science.  But in defense of the current schema—how are students ever going to stand on the shoulders of giants without first making the (often difficult) climb up to those shoulders?  Every educator can drool and fantasize over the classroom where Johnny and Jane get unlimited time to explore, discover for themselves, and retrace the steps of all the early great scientific thinkers.  In addition to being extraordinarily motivated, these dream students are apparently exempt from needing to reach certain benchmarks of understanding on a fixed schedule.  And also waiting for our return trip from the clouds is John Q. Employer would like Johnny to be able to  learn fast (by authority when that is more efficient) what is workable and what isn’t.  All this adds up to something that inevitably earns the criticism of falling short of science.  But perhaps this is as it should be?  Most people are not scientists.


James R - #66682

December 19th 2011


It isn’t an either/or matter.  It’s a both/and matter.

Yes, it is true that there is not enough time in life for every science classroom to relive the entire history of science, following up all the blind alleys and reenacting all the great experiments.  On the other hand, to say:  “You can’t do anything creative until you get to grad school, so just spend all of high school and undergrad memorizing this stuff and learning to solve these kinds of problems, and you’ll learn why it’s all important later” —is stultifying, because it strangles natural curiosity and conceals how difficult it was for scientists to establish “all this stuff.”  It gives students the impression that the way to become a good scientist is to be good follower, a loyal time-server, etc.  That may be all right if the only goal of science education is to train people to do titrations 8 hours a day for a pharmaceutical company, but I think science education should be more than that.  Its purpose is to expand our vision of nature, and only minds that are critical, elastic, open to looking at things from odd perspectives, will ever produce truly great science.

So what needs to be done is a combination:  yes, students need to learn definitions of terms, lab technique, mathematical skills, and so on.  But they also need, every now and then, to review crucial historical turning points in science to understand how first-rate minds could differ, and how such differences have been worked out by the scientific community.  They need to look occasionally at current scientific debates, not as if they know enough to settle them, but in order to become aware of why even the greatest scientists don’t know enough to settle them, and in order to become of aware of the dangers of strident partisanship for one’s pet theory.  And they need to reflect on the epistemological limitations of science as an enterprise, so that they do not lapse into a stupid, know-nothing scientism of the type that was popular in Anglo-America from about 1860 to about 1945, and is undergoing something of a revival today, thanks to people like Dennett and Singer and Weinberg and Dawkins and Coyne.

For example, in high school biology, I think it would entirely appropriate, in the evolution unit, for students to read some brief passages of Charles Darwin and of Paley, in order to see what a momentous change in the life sciences was wrought by Darwin and his supporters.  And I think it would be valuable for them to have heard of Lamarck, and of how empirical evidence “disproved” Lamarck, and then to become acquainted a little bit with the ideas of people like Shapiro, who are in a certain qualified way reviving “Lamarckian” ideas; this exercise should combat the tendency of many students (and teachers) to assume that the newer theories are always better, and the older points of view are utterly worthless.  (And if any neo-Darwinists out there read this and want to start a fight about Shapiro and Lamarck, I’m not biting; this is just an example and I could provide many others.)

Every academic subject requires a certain degree of memory work and training in how to handle routine problems.  That cannot be avoided.  But that doesn’t mean science education has to reduced to learning the stuff at level A that will enable you to understand the stuff at level B, etc., and never worrying about why you are learning it and never stopping to reflect on whether what you are being taught is true or even plausible.

Merv - #66689

December 20th 2011

Thanks for the pep talk, James—and you are right of course, making me sound like a jaded teacher who just spent too much time in the teacher lounge.  Indeed the gemstone moments of any classroom experience are when the students engage in the mental struggles of a debate for themselves, and take the time to understand the undergirdings of various approaches.  As long as we are realistic enough to acknowledge the balance (and acknowledge the value of the repetitious tasks of science—after all the patient Tombaughs are still needed to search for their next Plutos)  then I’m happy with that.

James wrote:  “They need to look occasionally at current scientific debates, not as if
they know enough to settle them, but in order to become aware of why
even the greatest scientists don’t know enough to settle them, ...”

Or we could observe that smart ndividuals each think they have it plenty settled, with their only inability being the task of persuading their obtusely stubborn opponents.  But still your point is well taken that many such issues remain unsettled on a community wide scale.


beaglelady - #66696

December 20th 2011

Speaking of poor Pluto and the farm boy Tombaugh…

Do you need a Pluto-less mnemonic to help the kids remember the names of the planets? Neil deGrasse Tyson suggests the following:

“My very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos”

ZeroG - #66678

December 19th 2011

This article is a good example of how you can show that any two things oppose each other. Here it is science and religion. Comparing science and religion is like comparing a race car to a song. Science is the search for knowledge of the physical world around us. Religion is the study of your soul. You can use the same tools to learn about both, but that doesn’t mean they are the same, or in conflict with each other. 

I have been reading BioLogos for a couple of months now. Looking at this article from a while back, it appears as though we haven’t progressed much. I think it is because we are continually trying to make science and religion compatible.

The problem is not how science is perceived. The advances in technology and science over the last 400 years show it is doing fine. The problem is the confusing nature of religion. Religion not only encompasses many different faiths, but ulitmately it gets down to what religion means to each and every one of us. That is a LOT of opinions. Science is pretty well defined: if I hurt my head the last time I rammed it into a wall, I’m pretty sure I’ll get hurt if I do it again.

Science and religion are different things. Why are we trying to reconcile them with each other?

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