The more I listen to modern debates about “hot-button” issues the more perplexed I become about the way we use certain words and draw conclusions. We have become rigidly illogical in both the way we think and speak. We use words that carry popular (assumed) meanings that have little or nothing to do with substantive argumentation. Let me elaborate.

Two items came to mind today as I was driving to a baseball game in Florida. First, the way we debate the issue of stem cell research. It must be said over and over again that no serious Christian is opposed to stem cell research. To suggest that Christians oppose this valuable research is not only a lie, it is a damned lie that comes from the prince of lies who wants to make anything Christian look profoundly stupid. Like most Christians I know I am in favor of serious research using stem cells. I see this research as promising, important and quite humane. What I question is the type of embryonic stem cell research that will result in destroying human embryos. First, I see such an approach as an attack upon the sanctity of human life that will coarsen life and lead us where we should not want to go as a society. Second, I question whether or not the strongest present evidence supports the numerous claims made for this particular form of research. Those who want to promote it are determined to sell it to the public in ways that make the rest of us look like idiots who oppose the healing arts and real concern for suffering people.

The second item that came to my mind today is the issue of global warming. I have a similar reaction to this debate, much of which is silly and falsely presented. This occurs on both sides but especially on the left. No one who is serious about science should deny the point. What is worth a healthy debate is the why question. Why is this warming trend happening? Also in question is what can we really do about this warming trend? And, further, how much can we do without destroying more people and lives in the process?

I am not a climatologist or a trained professional scientist. I do know that many who are have strong pre-suppositions that are deeply rooted in philosophy as much as in hard science. Nothing stirs fear in modern Americans quite like a group of scientists issuing the next warning of an impending apocalypse. We long ago decided that God is not the creator. In the process, long before we denied creation, we also rejected the God of providence who operates within the creation. Now we have to explain what is happening in the physical realm with a model that leaves God completely out. This tends to make modern scientists the new messianic figures of our modern world. Get a group of them to agree on something, publish a few papers on it, and even some evangelicals will jump on board saying, “This is real science. You can’t argue with it.” True, in one sense. But not true in another. Science involves gathering data, making repeated tests, creating models for explanation, questions and more questions, etc. In the case of global warming the science is quite evident to all. Something is happening and the globe’s temperature is rising. What is not clear at all is the why question but few will admit this candidly. Some climatologists are more dogmatic than even than fundamentalist preachers. (And those who disagree with them, within the guild, are treated with contempt.) And these are the same people, at least in the broad sense, who warned us of global cooling just thirty-five years ago. It does make you wonder how we can discuss these issues honestly when we have such dogmatic views about explanations before we ever get to seriously debate the models being employed that led to the explanations that we are now led to assume.

The whole context for these two debates would be much improved if we took science, real hard science, much more seriously. It would also be improved if we challenged the philosophical pre-suppositions on both sides in these debates far more carefully. Surely intellectually inclined Christians can enter such a discussion and make some contribution, or at least I would think so. But if we can’t even agree on how to use the terminology in the debate it will never happen. Indeed, it can’t happen. The incivility of it all is staggering and the arguments employed are now so strident it is hard to think clearly about any of this. Who is telling the truth and what should we do about it?

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  1. Keith March 2, 2007 at 8:48 pm

    Global Warming: Who knows if it’s real. However, if the doomsday GW scientists are right, the people in this world who stand to lose the most are those of our world neighbors who are already in the most poverty. If there is a reasonable chance that GW is real and thus results in another way that we, the rich, get richer at the expense of the poor, then I, for one, prefer to stand up and make an effort to protect the poor. The odds are good that I will end up being wrong whichever side I choose. I’d rather be wrong in my effort to protect the poor than be wrong in my selfishness – especially since making greener choices (conserving energy) will end up saving me money too. It’s a win-win.
    Of course, it is hypocritical to say I’m going to protect the poor by supporting the GW cause and to then ignore the other ways that we as westerners exploit the poor. Our consumption of resources is pathetic (at least I think it is) from the incredibly resource costly animal based diets to the gas guzzling SUV’s that are typical in our lives. I’d say just jumping on the GW bandwagon and thinking that makes us God honoring stewards of our world is simply like taking an aspirin to alleviate the pain of a broken bone. The needed response is much greater.

  2. Canadian March 2, 2007 at 9:11 pm

    I have a 1976 National Geographic (somewhere around here)that has a feature article warning about climate change and gave dire warnings about the cooling temperatures.
    I find a similarity between the hubub concerning global warming and my former view of Christianity. I think scientists observe the data and simplisticly conclude that if the trend they are observing continues for X number of years, then we are in trouble! The problem is that they are observing such a small slice of the historical timeline not stopping to consider at which point we might be on the cycle of these things. And have we all taken stupid pills so as to forget the previous false warnings they have tried to terrify us with? We no longer hear about overpopulation or the Ozone layer or the returning ice age (there are others).
    In a sense, I was like this when I used to think that if you didn’t get the doctrine of Justification perfectly nuanced or didn’t hold to the 5 points and the sola’s you were likely in deep trouble. However, I discovered that the things which I considered “essential” could only be found during a very small slice of the Churches historical timeline. If I were consistent I would have to anathematize Augustine etc, and that began to bother me greatly. It’s difficult to have our ideas challenged when we restrict our interaction and observation to those who are always agreement with us, and if we do venture out of our tight circles it is often for polemical purposes only.
    It has been enriching to “venture” into previously unknown territory like the Church Fathers, the Councils and Creeds, several Eastern Orthodox and Catholic writers, or Protestants trying to “reclaim the Great Tradition”. This latest doom scenario will pass within a few years, but if our God is the Sovereign One we claim He is, then he allows all of this for His greater purposes and we need not be afraid to learn a thing or two without the associated panic that is exhibited by those who are without hope and without God in the world.

  3. Adam March 3, 2007 at 9:18 am

    The way to take real hard science is to really look at it. Evangelicals tend to not like science, even though there are lots of evangelicals in the hard sciences. Dobson’s recent call for the removal of the NAE vice president over his advocacy around Global Warming is another example of the fact that we are not taking science seriously.
    The other really serious issue is that science does not really have a lot of opinions on this. The vast majority of scientist agree on the evidence, but journalists continue to try and paint a balanced view and therefore about 95% of scientist agree with Global Warming, but about 60% of articles written about assert that there is still strong disagreement.

  4. Joe Schafer March 3, 2007 at 12:32 pm

    Hi John.
    I agree with your assessments. We ought to take
    “real, hard science” more seriously. But doing real, hard science is
    Scientists generate the data and articles that become the ammunition
    in these hot-button issues. But, as an active research scientist, I
    am amazed at how rarely we give serious thought to how this
    research is driven, shaped and interpreted by human aspirations,
    frailties, world views, culture, politics, and interpersonal
    The chasm between the realm of “facts” and the realm of “values” is
    deeply ingrained in the modern mind. Yet scientists, who are supposed
    to ask the tough questions and to be skeptical, rarely
    question this principle.
    It’s difficult to get an article published in a top-tier journal.
    When the article gets through the review process, it becomes a source
    of pride. The authors want to place the work squarely on the side of
    “fact” side of the valley. Like placing a trophy on a shelf. We
    pretend that the matter has been settled for all time. Which is
    remarkable, given that even the best articles may have a half-life of
    only five years. Scientists, like most people, are notoriously poor at
    at attaching appropriate levels of uncertainty to their own beliefs
    and statements. Claims of consensus or near-consensus on issues like
    global warming are incredibly short sighted. Even if the evidence
    itself stands up to the test of time, the interpretation of that
    evidence will certainly change.
    All people are inherently subjective, which is why we desperately need
    the word of God. Sociologists and anthropologists are formally trained
    to become aware of their own biases. In other fields (especially the
    physical sciences and medical research) this training is absent. But
    even when this training is given, the training itself often becomes
    another tool for advancing one’s subjective views.
    Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science, wrote about “theory choice.”
    When presented with the same evidence, two scientists mat be inclined
    to believe very different things for a variety of reasons, not the
    least of which involve personal experience, motivations, personality etc.
    Kuhn can be hard to read, but I ran across a good article by
    Kaufman and Poole (2000, Annual Review of Public Health, 21:101-119)
    which discusses these issues nicely. Segments of the general public
    are inclined to hold to certain theories (e.g. OJ Simpson is innocent,
    the US government brought down the World Trade Center, etc.) with an
    evidence-be-damned attitude. Scientists like to pretend that they
    rise above the fray, but clearly they do not.
    Another great example is the book Born to Rebel by Frank Sulloway
    (1996). Dr. Sulloway compiled a database of scientists who rendered
    opinions on all sorts of scientific revolutions, some of which were
    later repudiated by the scientific community (e.g. phrenology,
    spontaneous generation) and others of which were not
    (e.g. macro-evolution). He found that politics and religiosity are
    strongly related to the scientists’ propensities to accept new
    theories. But he found that the most powerful predictor is family
    birth order. Firstborns in a family have a strong tendency to reject
    new or radical theories, whereas laterborns are much more likely to
    embrace them.
    I think hard science is good. But what we really need is hard
    people. People who are continually willing to take a hard look at
    their own views and allow them to be challenged by real evidence and
    clear thinking from a variety of sources. (Maybe these people could
    be called “soft.” They need hardness and softness, grace and truth in
    the right measure.) It’s really a matter of character. As
    Christians, we need to be secure and mature enough in our faith that
    we can be actually be humble and openminded without feeling threatened
    by those who disagree. That’s what I pray for.

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