Science is a bit of a political football and a wax nose these days. The New Atheists are claiming that science has all the answers and no other discipline, especially not theology, can or should dare speak to science. But here’s the problem with that idea: science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. People do science. Just like people do theology and sociology and psychology. And when people do “ology” their biases and preconceived notions come in to play. The scientific method should manage that but, like science, the scientific method doesn’t happen in a vacuum either. People do the scientific method. And so what you wind up with is science and the scientific method operating pretty well as long as research and theories occur within the boundaries of what scientists are willing to accept as truth. Once you stretch that boundary, you’re in trouble, adequate research not withstanding. I’ve posted on this before.
And so today I came across two news articles that once again demonstrate this principle. I’ll offer the first without much comment since the findings are new and are still being evaluated. Dr. Mark Regnerus did some research on homosexuality and that seems to have gotten him in a lot of trouble. This is one of the areas that is so highly politically charged that only specific types of research are tolerated. Regnerus went beyond the bounds and he is now under intense scrutiny. The first round of reviews found nothing suspicious in his methods but “according to a report released on Wednesday by the [University of Texas at Austin], that does not mean the study isn’t ‘seriously flawed,’ only that there was no evidence of falsification or other unethical practices.” Obviously, it must be flawed because it seems to prove what we don’t believe.
The second is kind of similar except instead of a young professor, it is about a retired professor who really doesn’t give a rip if people don’t like what his data are saying or how he interprets them. That, my friends, is kind of refreshing! James Lovelock, the father of the Gaia theory which says that the Earth operates as a single, living organism, acknowledged that he had been unduly “alarmist” about climate change. How did he arrive at this? Was his researched tainted by money of special interest groups? Nope, just the opposite.
[Dr. Lovelock] responds to attacks on his revised views by noting that, unlike many climate scientists who fear a loss of government funding if they admit error, as a freelance scientist, he’s never been afraid to revise his theories in the face of new evidence. Indeed, that’s how science advances.
Isn’t that great? Here is a leading scientist, and I do mean ‘leading’, and I do mean ‘scientist’ who is not afraid to update his position because he can’t lose funding if he does. What caused his update?
Having observed that global temperatures since the turn of the millennium have not gone up in the way computer-based climate models predicted, Lovelock acknowledged, “the problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago.”
Right, his change of heart is data driven. Personally, my attitude toward climate change has been that something is going on but we can’t be sure what just yet. I’m relieved to hear that I’m pretty much in line with the grandfather of climate change theory. I didn’t have facts, I was just going with my gut and looking at how the facts were being handled and presented. Here’s a guy who has the facts.
The lesson we all need to hear from this is that no matter what side of the debate you’re on, you’re on that side of the debate and you have luggage packed and sitting there with you. You believe what you believe and you’re biased to keep believing it unless something sure can change your mind. Therefore, when something you don’t believe seems to contradict, the first response is doubt. That’s fine, be skeptical, but also be prepared to listen and to be wrong.