How Reliable are Scientific Findings?

For the secularist, science is the end all and be all of knowledge about the world we live in. It informs us on how we came to be, why we act as we do, it influences choices we make about education as well as underpinning many federal and state policy initiatives. And quite obviously it is the basis for much of the technology that we use in our everyday lives.  For the secularist all other forms of knowledge – personal experience, philosophy, historical knowledge and of course revelation all pale in comparison to the certainty of scientific knowledge. In fact the very existence of scientific knowledge is thought to contradict some other forms of knowledge, either rendering them obsolete or illegitimate all together.

A recent article by Micheal Lehrer in the New Yorker called The Truth Wears Off asks the question, “Is there something wrong with the scientific method?” The article points out that events documented scientifically have often been shown to weaken or even disappear as attempts are made to replicate the initial findings. He refers to it as the ‘Decline Effect’ and chronicles it’s occurrence in any number of studies from evolutionary biology, ecology, and drug studies.

For those who have paid attention, this is not all that surprising. Science is a human venture, and is infused with all the weaknesses of other human ventures – personal biases, selfish ambitions, greed, laziness, fraud, hunger for power and recognition. And while peer review provides some remedy to those excesses, as the article details the tendency that initial attempts to replicate findings by peers often support the initial conclusion – it is only over time that the ability to replicate findings begins to decline.  One example Lehrer cites:

In 2001, Michael Jennions, a biologist at the Australian National University, set out to analyze “temporal trends” across a wide range of subjects in ecology and evolutionary biology .He looked at hundreds of papers and forty-four meta-analyses (that is, statistical synthesis of related studies), and discovered a consistent decline effect over time as many of the theories seemed to fade into irrelevance. . . . Jennions admits that his findings are troubling, but expresses a reluctance to talk about them publicly. “This is a very sensitive issue for scientists,” he says. “You know, we’re supposed to be dealing with hard facts, the stuff that’s supposed to stand the test of time. But when you see these trends you become a little more skeptical of things.”

In many ways this highlights one of my problems with skeptics – they aren’t actually all that skeptical when to comes to science; they see what is our current state of understanding of natural phenomenon as the  ‘truth’ which informs their metaphysical inclinations when in fact it is only a snapshot of where our understanding about the natural world  lies. Scientific facts are perhaps the most transient sorts of knowledge rather than pillars on which to guide our lives. Lehrer concludes:

The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything.  We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us.  But that’s often not the case.  Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved.  And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.

Excellent conclusion; in the end, we still have to choose what to believe – science isn’t going to unroll like a scroll and tell us how to live.

It’s for this reason as one who has spent the better part of forty years reading, studying and discussing the importance of science first as an skeptical agnostic and later as a committed Christian that I have come to the conclusion that while science is a critical aspect of human knowledge it is itself derived from deeper truths that cannot themselves be discovered scientifically. This being true, it can never be understood to be the primary means of understanding the world in which we live; and in the end it may prove to be one of the most ephemeral forms of human knowledge.

Hopefully some skeptics will come to realize this.

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9 Responses to How Reliable are Scientific Findings?

  1. altonwoods says:

    A very insightful take,it also reminded me of the Carbon 14 dating system which is another scientific fallacy.

  2. Bettawrekonize says:

    It’s not like science supports evolution to begin with. It clearly doesn’t.

    Heck, I’ve even seen some evolutionists use the “science is amendable” argument to argue for the possibility of evolution by saying something like “while no reasonable naturalistic explanation exists yet, that doesn’t mean there is none” and that some future discovery might prove it valid.

  3. […] discussion over at the ‘A-Unicornist’ blog with Mike (who made one brief comment here. Sort of) about whether a person could reasonably come to the conclusion that Christianity is true […]

  4. kenetik says:

    @altonwoods

    Care to expand a little further on that statement?

    @Betta

    Wow, just wow. I cannot even begin to, never mind.

  5. altonwoods says:

    kenetik, There is a great deal of controversy in the legitimate scientific community as to the validity of the carbon dating system,google it and you’ll see what I mean. When and where the carbon dating system appears to contradict the Bible,I simply choose to put my faith in what the Bible say’s more so than in science, it’s a personal choice…I respect your choice to believe otherwise.

  6. kenetik says:

    @altonwoods

    Could you explain in a little more detail why Carbon 14 dating, if correct would contradict the biblical account and why if it not correct it would make the biblical account more valid?

    I have a specific reason for asking and it’s not derogatory.

  7. nate says:

    I’m actually with you kenetik.

    Its main problem is the ease at which it can be contaminated in my opinion. Its so difficult even to know. We had a sample (some kind of fish bones as I remember) that was tested from a site in Vermont. The report said it was most likely modern refuse.

    Well the fact that it was buried deep in the ground and found with numerous cultural artifacts that were almost certainly pre-European arrival kind of raised some eyebrows.

    Two possibilities…

    1. The tested sample was contaminated
    2. American Indians could time travel and liked red lobster and had a coupon.

    And that’s only one issue. The accuracy has been questioned a number of times.

    As to how it would validate the bible… I don’t think so, I simply wouldn’t really trust anything that was carbon dated. That doesn’t lend credibility so much as it removes evidence against.

    That said, the bible is a remarkable and many times very accurate historical record. By very accurate I mean often times its better than the secular historians of the day.

    They found Jericho as one example. Even the wall had fallen down! How that happened… well archeology can’t really tell us, but it does seem to have happened.

  8. kenetiks says:

    @nate

    This is pretty much the issue that I wanted to raise and your example is pretty much in line with my understanding as well. It also pretty much sums up the point I was wanting to point out.

    The main problem with C14 dating is not even the C14 dating itself. The problem stems from the average person(usually but not necessarily always, the typical creationist) and not from the science. Most creationists see the C14 issue as a lightning rod or smoking gun that completely invalidates all sciences. As if one thing has to do with another. I’m not saying this is what was happening with altonwoods but his statement was leaning in that direction.

    As you’ve rightly pointed out, it does indeed have some issues and limitations. Also as you’ve correctly pointed out, the c14 data in your case was not needed to understand or interpret or validate what you had. C14 dating is simply one tool in the massive toolbox that science uses.

    In other words, a statement like this:

    When and where the carbon dating system appears to contradict the Bible,I simply choose to put my faith in what the Bible say’s more so than in science, it’s a personal choice…I respect your choice to believe otherwise.

    Is wrong on so many levels that anyone, atheist or creationist should immediately sound the alarm.

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