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The implicit faith of “Follow the science”

Ironically, “champions of science” hate nothing more than religious fundamentalism, yet they have formed their own kind where a deified “Science” replaces God.

(Image: Vlad Tchompalov/Unsplash.com)

“Follow the science” ranks high on 2020’s long list of patronizing phrases. If we yield obsequiously to scientific data, we are told, coronavirus, climate change, and all our other problems will be solved. “Science will win,” boasts the gigantic poster in Pfizer’s New York City headquarters. It’s that simple.

Or is it? In tracking coronavirus developments, our government leaders have been as scientific as nomads following migrating woolly mammoths. The latest mutated numbers, which conjecture a much higher herd immunity threshold for the coronavirus, and a much lower quantity of Covid vaccine to generate immunity, should give us pause.

How can we “follow the science” when science is an ever-shifting target?

A modicum of sanity would return to our country if “champions of science” would admit what Catholics have known for centuries: that, on a number of levels, science requires faith in order to function, and that only with humility can we maximize science’s promises.

The scientific endeavor would be impossible without a score of prior assumptions: that the universe is ordered and intelligible, that our experiments will produce quantifiable results, that we can interpret these results within a rational framework and then act upon them appropriately. In short, we have faith that science “can win”; otherwise, we would not bother with it.

The successes of science, from engineering to medicine to technology, show us that our faith is rightly placed. But we cannot forget that scientific data do not constitute dogmas that must be believed by everyone, as its champions allege. All experimental data require interpretation, which is not an act of science, but of human reason that is fallible and influenced by prior assumptions and outside factors. We would not seek “second opinions” in medicine if it were so easy to draw conclusions from data.

We do not like to admit it, but our interpretations of science are acts of faith, that is, acts of trust based on reasonable circumstances. From this follows an even more unpleasant conclusion: we can interpret science incorrectly, as too many government orders in response to coronavirus have taught us.

Harvard’s Steven Pinker has asserted that science illuminates “the deepest questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives.” His faith in science’s power could move a mountain. In the strict sense, of these questions, science can only supply data for where we came from. For the others, a tremendous amount of interpretation and application are required, all of which depends not on science, but on human reason that is motivated by faith in the scientific enterprise.

Our science-obsessed world has to acknowledge the gap between scientific data and human interpretation. Declarations such as, “The science tells us what to do,” or “Follow the science,” conceal the interpretive element in order to squash potential dissent before it can arise. In this way, “follow the science” really becomes a form of fundamentalism: this dogma is true; do not argue. Ironically, “champions of science” hate nothing more than religious fundamentalism, yet they have formed their own kind where a deified “Science” replaces God.

To conflate scientific data with social dogmas that must be held always, everywhere, and by all is to misunderstand the goal of science, which seeks the best explanation possible of the world, its features, and its creatures. As such, conclusions drawn from science are always limited and shifting as we learn and experiment more. Our understanding of where the earth is in relation to the sun is an example. What we have learned about Covid-19 in one year is a more poignant one. Scientific theories are so called because they are postulations based on evidence. A theory is not an immutable law, still less a dogma.

Scientists, doctors, public health officials, and government leaders, then, need humility as they stand before scientific data, as they have to acknowledge publicly that the data can change—and that they can interpret data incorrectly. In scientific matters, it is always necessary to test, and then retest, the latest theories in relation to lived reality. For a governor or mayor to say, “Once the Covid positivity rate reaches X%, we have to lockdown everything,” is not a scientific statement. Politicians should stop pretending that it is, and they should stop threatening excommunication for anyone who disobeys their dogma.

For a proper approach to science, we can turn to the Belgian priest and physicist Msgr. Georges Lemaître (1894-1966), who developed the Big Bang theory. In the 1950s, Pope Pius XII wanted to speak of the Big Bang as scientific evidence for the Bible’s creation account. Msgr. Lemaître privately intervened against any such declaration. The truths of theology depend on God, he said, and not on science, which, he knew well, could one day find new evidence to undermine or even contradict his theory.

Science offers us important, but finite, insights into the world’s workings. Woe to those who, like Steven Pinker and our political leaders during the pandemic, manipulate science as a cover for imposing a philosophy of living on the rest of us. For the worth of those philosophies rests on a number of principles that are not derived from science, but taken on faith. Those who are so quick to denigrate faith, believing wrongly that science disproves it, have the proper views of science and faith blocked by beams protruding from both eyes.

Faith is a part of science. Let’s quit pretending the two are enemies. It is the Catholic approach, which acknowledges the mutual dependence of the two, that can best steer us out of the Covid crisis and into more sane political conversations.


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About David G. Bonagura, Jr. 5 Articles
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism. and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.

12 Comments

  1. We read that “Harvard’s Steven Pinker has asserted that science illuminates ‘the deepest questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives.’” Three points:

    First, the greater fallacy is not only that we misinterpret (cumulative) lab science, but that we mingle real science with imperfect constructs (models), and then mistranslate such “science” into the very separate realm of multi-consequential and morally relevant public policy. Science traffics in often-misplaced decimal points; public policy traffics in words.

    Second, as for Pinker, here we thought we had it straight from on high—a United States Supreme Court fatwa!—in Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992), that: “At the heart of liberty, is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning and of the mystery of life.” To hell with science, as in denying the scientific existence (!) and meaning and mystery (!) of each unborn child’s life (!).

    Third, it was Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (while still at Harvard!) who in 1895 set the tone for modernday legalistic fictions when he wrote: “. . . I often doubt whether it would not be a gain if every word of moral significance could be banished from the law altogether. . . .”

  2. I got online and had a ‘bumper’ sticker made up for the back window of my truck:
    “The Science is In: Men are made for women, and women for men”

  3. “Science” is a gift from God to help us and to help others who may be sick with human illnesses or other disorders, as well as to improve our lives through this human observational process. If you use electricity or almost any human device, you can thank science or specifically scientists. It is one method of discovery (the scientific method-which requires repeated observation of variables) and there are several methods of discovery. Most of us Christians trained to use the scientific method do not “yield obsequiously to scientific data” (i.e., we are not blind servants to the data we discover as it always contains human errors). We use such data wisely and virtuously as it was intended as a gift from our Creator in whom we have faith, not fallible faith in scientific data. Unlike science which assumes errors and tries to reduce their probability, faith in God does not.

  4. There are various ways to define human stupidity, actually the perfection of human stupidity. Believing that moral principles could ever be relative, or believing in the mutability of truth, or believing that man could think of anything that God doesn’t already know are probably sufficient. But as someone with graduate degrees in physics, I always thought a good candidate for the perfection of stupidity is to believe that science could in any way whatsoever have anything at all to do with the formation of value judgments.

  5. I have no real problem with the people advising us to “follow the science” except that they seldom do. Too often the proponents of some social movement have no problem with corrupting science to fit their means. The scientific community has a real problem with reproducibility; fully 80% of scientific papers published cannot be reproduced. Yet we are expected to acquiesce to anyone who appears wearing a lab coat. Is no one paying attention or have we become so intellectually lazy?

  6. These sad people – They can’t see that the worship of technology is just another faceless pagan god promising individuals a certain future free of ill-fate and the responsibility of making moral choices in life. Let’s have patience, pray for them and be united in our resolve to give them good directions on how to get to the City of God. Thank you Lord for the wisdom of the Saints and the ability for to see history in perspective, and a special thanks to St. Augustine.

  7. Sad news for science worshipers. It has been shown that the material under exam by science can be influenced by the consciousness of the viewer.. I have seen this in a small way. So many things are unexplainable by science. I’m going with the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things visible and invisible and He invites us to co-create
    with Him under His truth. How freeing that is. Science alone requires a huge amount of faith haha

  8. IF, we had any true investigate journalists left in the UK, they would expose how much money some of these scientists/advisors have made from the Covid Crisis. God truly help us.

  9. “The scientific endeavor would be impossible without a score of prior assumptions: that the universe is ordered and intelligible, that our experiments will produce quantifiable results, that we can interpret these results within a rational framework and then act upon them appropriately. In short, we have faith that science “can win”; otherwise, we would not bother with it.”

    Yes, these background assumptions derive from philosophy. Physics was originally called natural philosophy. The university degree PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy. It is not good that probably most who receive a PhD don’t know anything about philosophy except perhaps for a small percent the FALSE modern “philosophy.” These “philosophers” may have learned of Aristotle and perhaps Aquinas, but they apparently (incorrectly) believe that – like science – our knowledge of philosophy naturally grows progressively better over time. If there was one thing which ought to have been rigorously and vigorously excised from history when it first reared its “seven-headed dragon” it is modern “philosophy.” I keep finding out “how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

    Any faith that we have in science is faith that the universe is rational, which ultimately comes from our knowledge of God. Science – natural science, that is – itself points us the way to better theories by being reproducible. Unfortunately, UNPROVEN theories (e.g. the germ theory of disease) can be taken as and promoted as “science” for a long time because many humans immorally serve MONEY (not God).

    “From this follows an even more unpleasant conclusion: we can interpret science incorrectly, as too many government orders in response to coronavirus have taught us.”

    They don’t need to interpret anything.

    People appear to believe anything that politicians call “science” without even demanding REFERENCES, or they don’t have the courage to counter the injustice. Politicians know this. So long as there aren’t violent or patently unjust (e.g. unlawful “arrests”) actions, then everyone just seems to not realize that there is a serious issue. As one very critical video put it “It’s just a mask.” Actually, any violation of rights is always important. That is what the justice system is for. Perhaps a person might not be very upset over a few dollars stolen, but it is WRONG (unless you happen to be homeless) even if not – typically – grievously. In probably most codes, there is no lower limit for stolen property values.

    “Declarations such as, “The science tells us what to do,” or “Follow the science,” conceal the interpretive element in order to squash potential dissent before it can arise.”

    Actually, this is about the virtue of prudence. There needs to be a judgement call by the government – regardless of what the science says. After all, if we outlawed cars, there couldn’t be any car accidents, but our way of life currently depends on them. The government must craft laws to seek to avoid unnecessary risk – not unrealistically – ELIMINATE risk.

    “For a governor or mayor to say, “Once the Covid positivity rate reaches X%, we have to lockdown everything,” is not a scientific statement. Politicians should stop pretending that it is, and they should stop threatening excommunication for anyone who disobeys their dogma.”

    Again, they are very probably not referencing anything scientific. I have come across a good phrase to describe this: “politics playing medicine.”

    The thing is that natural rights make these decisions unnecessary. A more “teachable moment” couldn’t have been created for the world. Since it is never permissible to violate a person’s natural rights unless there is some conflicting and overriding right at stake (e.g. steal food to avoid starving), then politicians in these cases should stop violating subjects’ ordered liberty. That they don’t means that either they are probably culpably ignorant, or malicious (perhaps corrupt) TYRANTS.

    I recall the Orwellian “Homeland Security Advisory System” with its color-coded “threat levels.” It is almost as though a COVID-19 “pandemic” was planned all the way back then. (It appears that all of the “emergency” governor “health powers” were unjustly “instituted” in the early 2000s so that governors could swiftly respond to a bioterrorist attack.) At least it is probable that there was “inspiration” drawn from such empty, meaningless, fear-mongering posturing.

    “The truths of theology depend on God, he said, and not on science, which, he knew well, could one day find new evidence to undermine or even contradict his theory.”

    This has already happened. Check out the “Electric Universe” model. It truly is much safer nowadays to believe the opposite (or at least give higher credence to “conspiracy theories”) of whatever you hear repeated on TV. It’s best to chuck TV altogether (except perhaps for the big screen size).

    “For the worth of those philosophies rests on a number of principles that are not derived from science, but taken on faith. Those who are so quick to denigrate faith, believing wrongly that science disproves it, have the proper views of science and faith blocked by beams protruding from both eyes.”

    I would call the false “philosophies” two moral “philosophies:” utilitarianism, and legal positivism.

  10. I am fascinated by all the gains in knowledge from the various telescopes that governments have put into space, as well as from the ground-based telescopes. But, one thing that has been established is that it will take Voyager I 40,000 years just to pass through the Oort Cloud. That cuts through the fantasy that there will ever be practical travel in space. The costs associated with such an endeavor would be astronomical, not to mention the various risks from running into some danger way out there. There are many more frontiers to explore and conquer right here on Earth.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. 'Follow the science': Is there room for Catholic voices in COVID-19 news coverage? – Spirituality, Metaphysics & Religion
  2. ‘Follow the science’: Is there room for Catholic voices in COVID-19 news coverage? – Your Bible Verses Daily

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