Should We Trust Science?
Trust can be used as a synonym for faith, but we should not “trust in” science in that way. What does trust look like then, and when should we trust science?
Science has proven to be a remarkably successful way of understanding some aspects of our world. There is no doubt that scientists have dramatically increased our knowledge about things like the size and age of our universe, the history of life on our planet, and how our bodies work. Furthermore, scientific knowledge has led to the development of technologies like combustion engines, computers, and vaccines. These technologies have radically changed the way we live and are evidence that scientists have gotten their theories largely correct. Does this track record of success mean that we should always trust science?
“Trust” is a word that has different connotations in different contexts. When someone proclaims, “In God we trust,” they mean something more than when they say, “trust your senses” or “I trust that this chair will hold me up when I sit down.” Trust can be used as a synonym for faith, but we should not “trust in” science in that way. Our ultimate hope and salvation comes from God not from science.
So in what sense is science trustworthy? When should we trust science?
Trust scientists in their area of expertise
“Science” is another word that is difficult to pin down. Most people agree that science has generally been a good thing for society and accept the vast majority of scientific findings. But many people—particularly many religious people—disagree with the main conclusions of scientists on issues like evolution, climate change, and vaccines. Part of the reason for this disconnect is that science is often understood to be a competitor to religious faith. Some famous scientists reinforce this belief when they use their platforms to make pronouncements that go well beyond their area of expertise. That can lead to mistrust.
Like any other field of specialized knowledge, we ought to defer to experts in their areas of expertise, but we should also be mindful of the limits of that expertise. If you have an electrical problem at your house, it is reasonable to trust a licensed electrician to solve it. But if they said, “While I’m here, could I help you pick which stocks to invest in?”, we’d question whether that’s really their area of expertise. Similarly, when a few experts in biology claim there is no God or that all religion is harmful, they are speaking outside of their area of expertise. This understandably can make religious people mistrust even what they say about biology.
It is only fair to note that this works the other way too: it may be tempting to give greater weight to the scientific conclusions of people who share our faith. For example, at BioLogos we regularly highlight the work of Christian scientists like Francis Collins. We tend to trust people we know, and who are members of our faith community. Such figures can be important starting points for us to consider the trustworthiness of science. But we must remember that the scientific merit of their work does not rest on their Christian commitments. And their work should be tested fairly and held to high standards, like other scientists’ work.
Hearing from individual scientists we know and trust can make certain scientific conclusions more attractive to us. But the trustworthiness of science as a discipline does not come from any individual’s scientific work. Even if a scientist has good credentials and agrees with us on other issues, we should be cautious of accepting their conclusions when they go against the community of experts in a particular discipline. The trustworthiness of science comes from the community of experts following established standards and procedures.
A scientific consensus deserves to be trusted
Scientists, as a general rule, are motivated in their work by curiosity about the world and how it works. They ask lots of questions and test possible answers with experiments. They interact with others who are interested in similar questions. They submit their research to other qualified people who analyze and critique the conclusions, and who even try to produce similar results. This is a process called peer review. Over the long term, a consensus about the answers to scientific questions emerges from the peer review process.
This kind of consensus does not come from scientists in one ideological group. If a scientific claim is persuasive only to Christians or only to Marxists or only to atheists, that would be cause for concern. All of us have biases and limited perspectives. But the involvement of many people from a wide variety of backgrounds in the scientific process helps to reduce the effects of any one person’s views on the conclusions of the community. It is only when acceptance of a scientific claim does not depend on the ideologies of individual scientists that there could be a scientific consensus.
Consensus is not equivalent to truth. A consensus of experts can be wrong. But a high level of acceptance among a diverse set of experts creates a very high bar for overturning a scientific claim. New ideas and discoveries that challenge the consensus are very exciting and very rare. They are rewarded with the highest honors (like Nobel Prizes), but their proponents must persuade the scientific community with arguments and evidence. The trustworthiness of science depends on this and thus weeds out fringe groups and the latest fad theories that aren’t persuasive in this way.
Critics who have only a superficial acquaintance with how science works sometimes argue, “science is always changing” as though that gives us license to discount any scientific claim. It’s more accurate to say that science continues to develop. Remember, some questions that were once a matter of scientific dispute have been settled beyond all reasonable doubt. Included in these are the movement of the Earth around the sun, the periodic table of elements, and the germ theory of disease. These findings can be trusted and ought to be acknowledged as evidence that science really does discover facts about the world.
Other issues today are still a matter of scientific dispute. There is no current scientific consensus on how life first arose on Earth or what dark energy is. For other topics there is a general consensus, but new data continues to come in and give us a more complete picture. New discoveries can fill in details or point to different ways of applying what is known. In this way scientists can modify the consensus in a specific area. For example, new fossil discoveries might show greater diversity in a certain lineage than we thought. Or advances in nutrition science might lead to new dietary recommendations.
When the data is not conclusive, scientists express degrees of confidence and margins of error. The flashy headlines and sound bites of popular media often overlook that uncertainty. Other times the data is clear and conclusions are nearly certain. Even then, media sources often look to cover “both sides” of a topic by finding a scientist who disagrees with the consensus. That can give the impression that there is no consensus.
Consensus does not mean unanimity, and there will always be dissenting opinions. That is a healthy part of the scientific process, but should be represented accurately. The most reliable guide to knowledge about scientific matters is to follow the scientific consensus.
Faith and science
But again, science does not have answers to all the questions that are important to us. We Christians believe God has gifted us with the ability to use science to describe and explain important things about the natural world. But science can’t answer questions of value, meaning, and purpose. These things are outside the expertise of science. Thankfully, God has also provided us with other ways of knowing what is true. God has revealed himself through Scripture and his Son, Jesus Christ.
Will these different ways of acquiring knowledge ever conflict? What if the scientific consensus on a topic goes against the teachings of our Christian faith? It is true that there have been episodes in the history of science that seemed to do this. But we must remember that our interpretations of biblical passages are prone to the full range of human error. We don’t let science dictate our theology, but we should allow for truths discovered in other areas to prompt us to consider whether we have made mistakes in interpreting Scripture.
At BioLogos, we are convinced that any conflicts between the findings of science and the teachings of Scripture are superficial and temporary. There is a deeper harmony that emerges when we allow a genuine dialogue between scientists and theologians. And this is just what we would expect from a God who has created the world and created us to be his image bearers. All truth is God’s truth, whether it is discovered in the pages of Scripture by a Christian theologian or in the cells of living things by a scientist with no religious affiliation.
There are Christians in every field of science, contributing to the consensus. They see the harmony between what they know from science and what they know from reading the Bible and following Jesus. They see their scientific work as a way to bring glory to God—the source of all scientific truth. They can help us understand the bigger picture of what God has done, and we can see that the process they are involved in is trustworthy.
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