Science had helped us to expand our knowledge. But how reliable is scientific truth?
Arthur A. Eggert
Mathematics and formal logic are examples of deductive reasoning. When using deduction, we learn no new information. We are working within a well-defined box with well-understood tools. If we begin with premises that are true, then our conclusion will also be true. This is of great value for business and engineering, but it does not meet the needs of scientific investigation.
The driving motivation for scientists is to expand knowledge. Therefore, they need to reach beyond the boundaries stated in the premises of what they are studying. This involves what is called “inductive reasoning,” which goes from specific cases to a more general conclusion. For example, “It snowed in February this year, last year, and every year that I remember. Therefore, it will snow next February.” Next February, however, is not within the set of initial information, so we are drawing conclusions when we state something about it. Such generalized conclusions run the risk of not being true, even though all the premises are true. Perhaps unusual conditions will make next February without snow.
Virtually all science is based on inductive reasoning. This is because scientists can usually study only a small fraction of the cases that occur in nature (e.g., all the stars in the Milky Way). Only in the rare instance when they are able to actually investigate every possible case can they say with certainty that something is true.
To understand the nature of scientific truth, one has to avoid being taken in by meaningless statements, such as “It’s a scientific fact that . . .” This statement claims that the information being put forth is absolutely true. But how do we know the “fact” is true? Establishing that it is true might take considerable time and effort. Consequently, scientists regard something as a “fact” only if its probable truthfulness is accepted by everyone discussing it. If some people reject it, it is not a “fact.” Such a “fact,” whether true or not, becomes a part of one’s set of unproved assumptions.
“Evidence,” which is the heart of scientific investigation, is obtained through making observations of the physical world. Unfortunately, collecting evidence or data can be affected by physical limitations, such as, the precision of the instrumentation or the bias
of the observer. For observations to be considered evidence, they must be made and validated based on a set of rules or standards that have been agreed upon before observations are made. For example, archeological findings are sometimes announced that “disprove the Bible,” only to have those findings later discarded once the observations are reviewed according to the accepted standards.
The goal of scientists is to create models that explain all their observations in terms of the natural properties of matter, energy, space, and time. Because the conclusions of inductive reasoning can never be absolutely certain, scientists have developed a method of determining which models are more likely to be true than others. “Scientific truth” is therefore the result of the scientific method. This method requires that observations be made; a theory (model) be formulated to explain the observations; the model be submitted for review by the scientific community (falsification challenge); and the model be modified, as necessary, based on any criticism. The process is then repeated until sufficient evidence exists for it to be generally accepted (i.e., scientifically true) or rejected. Because science does not have the absolute certainty of deductive reasoning behind it, the falsification challenge is critical to guarantee that the best analysts in the field see no reason that the theory is not true. Without this, one has only pseudoscience. Even still, scientific truth can be overturned if new evidence is found that does not fit the model.
Three kinds of science
There are basically three kinds of science. In the hard sciences like chemistry and physics, it is possible to isolate the entity being studied (e.g., oxygen atoms) from the environment, thereby eliminating interferences. Experimenters then hold constant all independent variables except the one of interest (e.g., temperature) to study a dependent variable (e.g., pressure). The experiments can be exactly duplicated by others with similar equipment, thereby removing investigator bias and providing an easy way to falsify incorrect theories or verify correct ones. Scientific models are developed using mathematical models that seem to fit the evidence. The mathematical models are reliably valid, but the scientific models they are used to underpin might not be. Mathematical models are completely under the control of mathematicians, but natural phenomena are under the control of the Lord, not scientists. In general, models in the hard sciences do not pose a challenge to a Christian’s faith.
Researchers can also do experiments in the “soft sciences” like psychology or pharmacology, but they cannot completely isolate the entity being studied, for example drug metabolism, from other factors, such as emotional stress. Experimental
environments are extremely complex because they involve living beings who respond to multiple equilibria and stimuli with various reaction speeds. Experimental results are often sensitive to the exact composition of the population (e.g., age, sex, culture, disease status) being studied. Repeating experiments can, therefore, yield significantly different results. This is why medical guidelines often change. Because it is so susceptible to variations in experimental conditions, “scientific truth” from the soft sciences is not nearly as reliable as that from the hard sciences. Challenges raised by the soft sciences to Christian beliefs include the way researchers conduct experiments on living beings, including humans; the methods they use to collect their research materials, like aborted fetuses; and their assumptions about the nature of man, for example if humans are capable of moral improvement.
Finally, in observational science like astronomy and paleontology, the investigators are limited to what they happen to encounter. They can search where they hope to find new or confirmatory information, but they cannot produce new cases to study through experimentation. For example, economists cannot start financial depressions to experiment with methods of recovering from them, and astronomers cannot create new earthlike planets to test their models. Because its models often change due to new discoveries, the reliability of observational science research is generally overstated in the media. Theories of macroscopic evolution that are inconsistent with the Bible come primarily from the observational sciences. Since there is no rigorous way to test observational science models, they will always remain relatively weak. Moreover, any effort to introduce acts of God into such models makes them completely unfalsifiable and turns them into pseudoscience.
When we are dealing with something that is claimed to be scientifically true, it is essential that we look at the type of science that is involved and ask, “Is it reproducible?” “Can it be tested by falsification?” While all scientific models are somewhat fragile and susceptible to being overturned by new discoveries, scientific truth in the hard sciences is more reliable than in the soft sciences and much more testable than in the observational sciences.
The Christian should not be troubled by “scientific truth” because it is only a human explanation of the world. The Lord is in control.
Dr. Arthur Eggert is a member at Peace, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
This is the third article in a four-part series on different ways the world finds truth and where we as Christians should look for truth.
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Author: Arthur A. Eggert
Volume 105, Number 3
Issue: March 2018
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