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.