Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
I live on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; many protesters walk past my parish on their way to the Mall and the Capitol to make their case. In the past week we’ve been treated to two sets of marchers, whose signs largely indicated that if you disagree or even question their views, you are “anti-science.” Despite its name, the “March for Science” looked and sounded more like a political march. The participants were decidedly partisan and expressed profound unhappiness with our sitting president. The second march was about climate change. The message here was similar: if you disagree with any of the policy demands you are a “denier”; you are rejecting “settled science.”
Hmm … “settled science” … what an odd notion! It seems to me that if science were ever really “settled,” it would cease to be science. Science is at its best when it doubts itself and subjects itself to the sharp critique of peer review. Pure science always searches for new data and follows what is found. If new information is uncovered that casts doubt over current theories, then the data, once verified, should alter our understanding even if it means that long-held theories must be adjusted or even discarded.
Indeed, most of us older folks can think of lots of times when cherished scientific theories and notions gave way over time in the face of new data. When I was in grammar school in the 1960s, we were taught that the universe was steady and unchanging. In the 1920s, a fringe scientist (a Catholic priest, Rev. Georges Lemaître) proposed that the universe was actually expanding. Many, including Einstein, first scoffed at the notion. By the 1970s, though, the so-called “Big Bang” theory had become widely accepted. Other cherished notions had to give way in the past century to the theory of general relativity and the even more puzzling world of quantum theory.
In the medical realm, we were all sure that ulcers were caused by stress. Then a couple of “out-of-the-mainstream” researchers postulated that they were in fact primarily caused by a specific bacterium rather than stress. Those ideas took more than 20 years to take hold, culminating in a Nobel Prize for the scientists in 2005.
And let’s not forget the whiplash we’ve suffered over nutrition. Fat is bad. Oops, no, fat is actually good. Coffee is bad, … wait, coffee may actually be good. Wine is bad … no, wine is good for your heart! Eggs were bad; now they’re good. Butter is terrible for you; use margarine. Oops, come to find out butter is better for you than margarine. Get rid of that margarine, with all its trans-fats! And then there’s my favorite: baby formula is better than mother’s milk! Come to find out it isn’t; we were badly mistaken. Children need key ingredients in their mother’s milk that chemical substitutes can’t supply.
Just last week, one of the most demonized of all substances, salt, may have found redemption. Salt is practically seen as poison by many. Requesting the salt shaker often leads to shocked looks, sometimes accompanied by warnings: “Salt isn’t good for you. It’ll kill you. You’ll get high blood pressure.”
Well, surprise! After all this, some recent medical studies have concluded that there is no necessary connection between salt and high blood pressure. Here are some key quotes regarding the study, drawn from an article in the San Diego Tribune:
In another blow against decades of accepted medical wisdom, one of the most prestigious, long-running studies reports that lowering sodium intake doesn’t reduce blood pressure studies.
Consuming fewer than 2,500 milligrams of sodium daily is actually associated with higher blood pressure, according to the Framingham Offspring Study report, given today. The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily, equal to a teaspoon of ordinary iodized table salt.
Moreover, the lowest blood pressure was recorded by those who consumed 4,000 milligrams or more a day—amounts considered dangerously high by medical authorities such as the American Heart Association.
The study took place at the Boston University School of Medicine, and was presented at the American Society for Nutrition Scientific Sessions and annual meeting last month in Chicago.
As with most things in science, the study has its detractors and it is not the nature of scientific consensus to shift suddenly. I wouldn’t suggest running out and buying an extra salt shaker without consulting your doctor.
The point of this whole essay is that “settled science” is a faulty notion. Studies and investigations are always underway. Things, even big and foundational things, can change. This ought not to cause us to wholly reject the physical sciences. Many conclusions, even if open to future amendment, are helpful and reasonable to hold. Further, some areas of the physical sciences are better developed and more stable than others. Chemists inhabit an older and more stable discipline than nutritionists or climatologists.
Yet neither should we accord science a kind of “religious” certainty such that theories become dogmas and those who raise questions are “excommunicated” from the discussion, dismissed simply because they are outside the mainstream or because their motives are questioned. Many great discoveries were found outside the world of “scientific consensus.”
Science is at its best when it is alone with the data, with the evidence. Too often, however, money, politics, and power enter the room and science is told, subtly and in stages, to take a seat. Sadly, many money-starved scientists are only too willing to comply. The leftist narrative would have us see “big pharma,” the oil industry, the food conglomerates, and other “polluting industries” as the evil interlopers. But the left-wing brings poison to the system as well: radical “earth-first” environmentalists, Darwinian evolutionists, and climate change “religionists.”
Politicized science increasingly forbids dissent from the perceived or announced “consensus.” You will either comply with what is acceptable or you will be defunded and ultimately destroyed. If you scratch your head and wonder if the conclusions regarding climate change are really as certain as announced, watch how quickly you are called a “denier” and consigned to the lunatic fringe. Defunding, withholding of tenure, and limited capacity to publish in journals is in your immediate future if you don’t recover the “proper” viewpoint and recant any doubts you may have expressed. Even appearing to question the consensus is labeled as being against science itself.
Can we have some humility please? Can we allow questions to be asked again without decrying those who dare to do so as deniers or as anti-science? Can we accept that science by its very nature flourishes in the presence of questions? Can I please ask a few questions without be called a knave, labeled a denier, or dismissed as just plain stupid? Here are just a few of the questions I’d like to ask:
- What evidence can you show me that evolution really is random mutation and utterly blind or undirected? I ask this because even before I was a serious Christian I could see design, order, and purpose everywhere I looked. I actually learned this in science class! How do you explain the interrelatedness of things at such an intricate and multilevel way?
- Why does the fossil record not widely or consistently show the very gradual morphing of one species into another, as the theory of macroevolution holds?
- How are we to interpret the sudden appearance and disappearance of species in the fossil record?
- What are we to make of the Cambrian explosion of life? How does this somewhat sudden appearance of multiple species conform with the theory of macroevolution over a long, steady period?
- Do we know what the ideal temperature for the planet Earth is?
- If the planet is in fact warming, why is this necessarily bad? Will only bad things happen or will some good things also occur?
- How do we weigh loss of beachfront property against the recovery of arable land in northern Canada and Siberia?
- How do we account for ice ages and warm periods prior to the age of man and higher carbon dioxide levels? How is the current warming different or worse?
Why does even asking the above questions elicit scorn from so many? Are these not legitimate questions? It somehow strikes me that I am dealing with religionists more than followers of science. The defensiveness and the derision the accompany such questions tell me that more is at work than concern for science. It seems that something of a religious sensibility has been touched that incites a kind of fear.
Many who have ditched traditional religion, with its revealed certainties, are not content to live without foundational truths. Something must fill this universal human need. For many, science has been that “something.” Priestly robes have been set aside in favor of lab coats and the supposed certainty of the measurable physical world. Thus, when one of the great unwashed like me from among the “unenlightened” raises a question that is even indirectly perceived as challenging, the reply is one of hostility. I detect the scent of fear. Somehow, I am dangerous. I and others like me must be stopped, silenced, or dismissed as unworthy of serious response.
In a fearful and knee-jerk reaction, many call the Church “anti-science.” Yet the Catholic Church has long been a patron of the sciences. Science has blossomed in our universities. Many great scientists have been Catholic priests or laypersons. The entire scientific method rests on the Judeo-Christian notion that God acts reasonably and establishes an intelligible order in the universe. The Church cannot hate or fear science, for because whether truth is arrived at through faith or through science, it is ultimately the same truth. Science and faith are looking for the same thing!
I love pure science because I love the truth, and I am confident that the same God who teaches the Church also made the world. Ultimately, there can be no conflict between true science and the faith, only apparent or temporary conflicts.
Yes, I know; in an age when almost everything has been politicized, pure science is hard to find. But I remain hopeful that it remains out there, somewhere. Yes, somewhere in a hidden laboratory a certain scientist never got the list of “orthodoxies” he or she dare not question; at work—perhaps scorned or dismissed as “out of the mainstream”—but still at work. One day he or she will be celebrated for being right about something that the current “consensus” has wrong. The truth will out.
If you don’t think so, all I have to say is, “Pass the salt.”