What is the Proper Role of Science?



Of numerous things that President Obama said in his inaugural address his comment about science was one that stuck out to me.  He said that he would, “restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality.”

Some questions:

  • What is science’s rightful place?
  • What exactly happened, in his mind, that preempted science?  Was it President Bush’s opposition to ESCR or unwillingness to sign the Kyoto treaty?
  • If so, if you hold opposing views in those areas (or others) does it naturally follow that you are demoting science?  Or are you demoting something entirely different?

Those were some thoughts/questions that I initially had when listening to his speech.  Today, Chuck Colson in his Breakpoint commentary addresses this position, because it would seem that some whom President Obama is getting his advice from are not just proponents of science, but scientism.  What’s the difference?  Colson explains the difference:

The standard assumption is that science is objective knowledge, while religion is an expression of subjective need. Religion, therefore, must subordinate its claims about the world to whatever science decrees.

Scientism assumes that science is the controlling reality about life, so anything that can be validated scientifically ought to be done. Other things are subjective fantasy—like love, beauty, good, evil, conscience, ethics.

So science, which originally simply meant the study of the natural world, has in this view been conflated with scientific naturalism, a philosophy that the natural world is all that exists.

Humans are reduced to “objects” that can be inspected, experimented on, and ultimately controlled. In 1922, G.K. Chesterton warned that scientism had become a “creed” taking over our institutions, a “system of thought which began with Evolution and has ended in Eugenics.”

C.S. Lewis warned that the rise of scientific naturalism would lead to “the abolition of man,” for it denies the reality of those things central to our humanity: a sense of right and wrong, of purpose, of beauty, of God.

And if we deny the things that make us truly human, by definition we create a culture that is inhuman—a culture that, for example, embraces moral horrors like the killing of humans at the earliest stage of life on the spurious grounds that doing so might cure other people’s diseases. Or cloning. Or medical experiments on humans, as the Nazis conducted.

Our task is to expose the flaws in scientific naturalism—not because we are against science but because we want it to fill its proper role as a means of investigating God’s world and alleviating suffering within ethical boundaries.

And it’s right that we should be doing this because it was a Christian view of reality that led to the scientific method, investigating all the things God has created.

He concludes, and I concur, let’s hope that President Obama knows the difference between the two.

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  • ava

    Hi Shane and everybody here,
    I really don't think that Obama knows the difference….he is a soul in travail….on a journey of discovery like Sarah Palin said about him.
    Mr. Obama lacks a spiritual life. But he thinks he has one. This makes him DANGEROUS.

    If he kept all this private, but no, it is his raison d'etre, and his reason for wanting the Presidency, to impose HIS world view on all of us inthe name of objective science and reason that CANNOT BE WRONG. Reason cannot be WRONG…got it ? So what is right, as determined by people, is the ABSOLUTE right. He is a megalomaniac and an ideologue and underdeveloped intellectually and spiritually while being highly intelligent. This is the CLASSIC DANGER MIX for insanity. I'm sorry but that's what I think.

  • http://caffeinatedthoughts.com Shane Vander Hart

    Hi Ava,

    Interesting perspective. I wouldn't quite say that he lacks a spiritual life, but that is faith perspective is steeped and filtered through a humanistic point of view. Your statement about his embrace of reason is interesting since many portray him as the first postmodern president, but that perspective is thoroughly modern.

    Where the postmodernism/relativism creeps in (and we see this with how he applies situational ethics to members of his cabinet).

    I wouldn't worry about his sanity. Our concern should lie with his policies and positions and how that effects our own personal, as well as, national interest. That type of rhetoric isn't going to be helpful when making a case for conservative principles.

    Also, Obama in some instances has seemed to be somewhat pragmatic and not a complete ideologue. Not that I think we shouldn't be on our guard.

  • Argon

    What exactly happened, in his mind, that preempted science? Was it President Bush’s opposition to ESCR or unwillingness to sign the Kyoto treaty?

    How about appointing EPA administrators who rewrote and suppressed inconvenient reports from staff scientists? http://www.scienceprogress.org/2008/04/enormous

    Do a quick check of meddling with scientific reports from Department of the Interior. Consider reading Chris Mooney's book “The Republican War on Science”. It's one thing to present the data and then argue policy based on what is known but quite another to suppress data that doesn't support a political policy.

    Now, if one is interested on the role of science in society, consider starting with a read through John Wilkins' essay here:
    http://scienceblogs.com/evolvingthoughts/2009/0

    It's pretty clear that Obama isn't pushing scientism.

    • http://caffeinatedthoughts.com Shane Vander Hart

      I wouldn’t translate those two articles and say that is or isn’t what Obama is pushing. I hope you are right that he isn’t.

      We’ll see.

    • http://caffeinatedthoughts.com Shane Vander Hart

      I wouldn’t translate those two articles and say that is or isn’t what Obama is pushing. I hope you are right that he isn’t.

      We’ll see.

  • M.Hovda

    Hey, Shane, everyone. The most confusing portion of the above Obama statement is “restore science to it's rightful place….. ” Huh??? I'm pushing 50 and all I've ever heard is that science is everything. When was science NOT in it's rightful place President Obama? When the Discovery Insitute (Intelligent Desgin Scientists of all Creeds) was formed? I think you really have to pair what Obama thinks the proper role of science is to what he thinks the proper role of faith in America. When you look at how Obama charicatured (sp) the Old Testament in how we should not style government like a theocratic rule. And yet, it seems that Obama and the left want to be theocratic. The Apostle James charges the Church to personally feed the hungry, heal the sick and cloth the naked. For the Christian, to borrow a phrase, “The Drama is in the Doctrine.” For the Left it seems the Drama is in the RE Distribution.

  • Argon

    Note that most of my reply was a response to your question about Bush's administration. I hope it provided some insight for you. I recall that when Bush first took office, he said that scientific data would be used to help guide decisions. It quickly became apparent that this wasn't true as reports from staff scientists and expert panels were often disregarded, rewritten or tanked. I am a scientist, and all the other scientists with whom I work (including Republican colleagues) were aghast at the often blatant manipulation of reports by Bush appointees. Even Christine Todd Whitman was repeatedly blindsided by Cheney while she served as director of the EPA during Bush's first term.

    As to Obama's statements: I remain extremely confused how one could interpret his words as a call for something like Scientism. Given the context of the Bush administration's data handling related to policy objectives, I see it as a return at least to the earlier status quo where scientific data and reports are less frequently blocked by appointed administrators with ideological objectives. This is more in line with what John Wilkins describes in the second link I provided. Scientific evaluations can provide a context and background for policy decisions. They help provide a picture of potential impact but cannot determine which paths one should take.

  • http://caffeinatedthoughts.com Shane Vander Hart

    I'm not saying it is, but he's listening to those who embrace it.

    That is why I said I hope “he knows the difference between the two.”

  • http://caffeinatedthoughts.com Shane Vander Hart

    You make a good point, science has been pushed as the end all and be all of everything for years.

  • Argon

    He's *listening* to those who embrace *it*. Does doing that put someone at grave risk? Is it important for Presidents not listen to people who may have different ideas from them or who may have differing moral views?

    First: Precisely who is giving advice to Obama that we should worry about? Colson says “they” and lists no individuals. Instead Colson indicates three groups: Those who want research funded (that seems no different from past administrations), those driven by greed (nothing new there, either) and those driven by a “worldview of scientism”. Ok, let's consider the latter because that's what you've latched upon.

    Second: Why is this a worry? He's also listening to Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Atheists, Muslims, Chinese, British, left-handers, right-handers, mathematicians, housewives and golfers.

    Could you explain your fears in a bit more detail? What *scientific* advice would a Metaphysical Naturalist give that is different from the scientific advice given by someone who employs methodological naturalism (i.e. basic science as practiced by religious and non-religious scientists)? Scientific advice provides information about how the world “is” not how it “ought to be”. Ethics and values judgments in policies are not scientifically driven. At best, policy decisions are merely *informed* by scientifically researched outcomes: i.e. If you choose to do 'X', there is a 'Y' percent probability that 'Z' will happen. Or, if you've decided that doing 'X' is the right thing to do (morally), science can be used as a tool to optimize the outcome.

    Personally, I'm more worried about greed and infighting to secure research money altering the reliability of scientific recommendations than Scientism.

    If you are interested in more on this topic, I recommending checking out the American Scientific Affiliation. It's the largest group of Christian professional scientists in the US (http://www.asa3.org) They frequently discuss the interface between Christian faith, science and research. There is an often spirited discussion on these issues at their email reflector. Archives are here: http://www.calvin.edu/archive/asa/

  • Argon

    One other discussion source worth examining is here:
    http://scienceblogs.com/rightfulplace/

    This a topic started by Seed Magazine's Science blogs and includes many responses from scientist bloggers.