A number of Church leaders and influencers display skepticism about long-held Church teachings or practices involving sexuality, the family, abortion, evangelization, the priesthood, and man’s stewardship of the Earth. They suggest reforming Church teachings or practices to adhere more closely to modern science, psychology, social or political theories. They invoke science—what science has learned about the world and man—that presumably changes the ground rules.
Perhaps these reformers should question their reference points.
My graduate advisor would often display sample data, then call one of us to the front to describe flaws or inconsistencies in the data, not involving deep statistical dives, while requiring savvy and nerves. Question data. As a project leader, I recall running into trouble by relying on lab data without viewing the samples, meaning a treatment process that should have worked well didn’t perform as expected. I should have known better!
I rarely hear Church leaders publicly question the popular narrative of the decline of water and air quality, habitats, or dire climate change. In particular, few seem to recognize the importance of context in scientific matters. In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, “Peter Huntsman Is a CEO Who Doesn’t Equivocate About Climate,” Huntsman said, “There is not a single product I am aware of in [Huntsman Corp.’s] entire portfolio of products that today consumes more energy, more raw materials to make the same product we made five years ago. Because if there’s such a product, our competition would’ve replaced it by now.” We don’t always appreciate the competitive impact of innovation and creativity.
Huntsman noted one highly visible environmental improvement in his hometown. “I grew up in Los Angeles,” he told the Journal. “I went back many years later, and I could see the San Gabriel Mountains from the home I grew up in. I don’t remember ever seeing mountains in the home I grew up in.”
Michigan boasts similar success in the Detroit River’s dramatic rehabilitation. Cleaner air, water, and habitats are now the norm in America rather than being anomalies. For context, compare the river today to its water quality and habitats 30, 50, 70 years ago. For more context, consider that 50 years ago we could detect pollutants in water as low as 1 part in a million, whereas we can now detect many pollutants in amounts as low of one part in a trillion, or in even lower amounts. This means that 50 years ago just detecting a pollutant often meant harmful impact; not today.
But you would never know about this significant progress by reading or listening to popular voices, or prominent voices in the Church. Complex climate change debates notwithstanding, many environmental assessments today lack context. In the meantime, strategic infrastructure that might alleviate the impacts on communities of disastrous storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires is rejected or interminably delayed by legal challenges and interest groups. My recent Mackinac Center for Public Policy piece, “Renewable Energy or Bust? Strategic infrastructure can play an important role in dealing with climate change,” highlights this policy blind spot.
While most scientific research is still sound and worthy, one ought to maintain a measured skepticism of new or novel scientific conclusions, especially those curated by the media and interest groups.
Under the heading of keeping science honest, the trio of Joe Simmons, Leif Nelson, and Uri Simonsohn were profiled in The Wall Street Journal (“The Band of Debunkers Busting Bad Scientists”) for their tireless work in exposing bad science (their blog: Data Colada). The article suggests that largely due to their work as data detectives, and the work of those they have inspired, at least 5,500 papers were retracted in 2022 compared to 119 in 2002. They coined the term p-hacking “which describes cherry-picking data or analyses to make insignificant results look statistically credible.” According to these data detectives, and others, good science takes time, yet academia and other institutions incentivize volume and capturing media attention.
If measured skepticism of physics and other hard science research is warranted, even more so with psychology and the social sciences. Why in my lifetime have so many “scientific” conclusions reached by psychologists happened to correspond to the popular perspective of the times? The most egregious being that young children are competent and mature enough to determine their gender at young ages. Yet, “expert” studies have been trotted out to justify childhood “gender alteration” as an appropriate therapy. Recall the thousands of studies that are retracted, almost always with less fanfare than their publication.
Of all things about which Church leaders and influencers might express skepticism, why choose time-tested, tribulation-tested, Gospel-grounded teachings? Science, especially psychology and the social sciences, deserves its share of skepticism and jaundiced eyes. Atheistic political theories have track records too that deserve to be pursued into every dark cul-de-sac. How many words have we heard from Church leaders and influencers critical of America’s and other representative government’s immigration policies, yet the Chinese regime is immune from criticism for its gross and daily human rights abuses? Again, context.
Church leaders and influencers who promote skepticism about the Church’s beliefs and practices should be cautious about invoking the hard sciences, the soft sciences, or political theories as arbiters. Not if they care about evidence and experience, or about p-hacking and politically expedient outcomes.
Numbers may not lie, but people do.
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