Popular science advocates often throw around the phrase “science deniers” and refer to a supposed epidemic of science denial sweeping America and other Western nations. Earlier this year thousands of people gathered in Washington, DC, for the March for Science to take action against these supposed deniers and support science and evidence-based policy in the White House. They claim,
We face a possible future where people not only ignore scientific evidence, but seek to eliminate it entirely.1
Is the future of science really headed in such an extreme direction? Is the collective body of knowledge and the methodology we call “science” really teetering on the precipice of extinction or, worse, about to be pushed off?
Science, in its most basic definition, means “knowledge.” Science is usually defined as knowledge gained by using the scientific method or perhaps knowledge derived from observations made by our five senses. Is there really a “war on science,” a war on knowledge?
Those who claim America is brimming with science deniers usually point to the “denial” of two things—evolution and man-made climate change.
Those who claim America is brimming with science deniers usually point to the “denial” of two things—evolution and man-made climate change. Denying, or even questioning, these is considered a denial of science, as if somehow denying these models is equivalent to denying all of the scientific knowledge from a wide variety of scientific fields from particle physics to immunology to chemistry to forestry to obstetrics to space exploration to computer programming. This is a ludicrous claim.
Those who cry foul at creationists or those who deny (or are skeptical of) man-made climate change display their own ignorance of the nature of science. There are two kinds of science: observational and historical.
Observational science deals with the present. It is directly testable, observable, and repeatable. It’s this kind of science that develops medical innovations, put man on the moon, and invented WiFi. A chemist in Canada can mix two chemicals together and record a result, and, under the same conditions and using the same methods, a chemist in Chile can repeat the experiment and get the exact same results.
Observational science is usually not contentious with the public or, in many cases, even among scientific circles (though, of course, how the observation should be applied or what it means is often the subject of debate). There are exceptions of course, most notably observational science that involves cloning, editing genes (particularly human germlines), or embryonic stem cell research. Your worldview regarding the nature and uniqueness of human life influences your view on the morality of these issues. But even here the question is not on the methods—it’s the morality of those methods.
The second kind of science is historical science. This science deals with the past and is not directly testable, observable, or repeatable. Fields like paleontology, paleoanthropology, or paleoclimatology fall into this category. You can’t directly test or observe past organisms or climates. So what you believe about the past determines how you interpret the evidence. Scientists will often use the same methods of study and the same evidence, but come to completely different conclusions about the evidence’s age, origin, or relationship to living things because of their different starting points.
Many scientists today start from the assumption of naturalism—the belief that nature is all there is. This is not a scientific statement—it cannot be tested using the scientific method or our five senses. It is a philosophical assumption that underlies the worldview of many scientists. Creationists and others reject this assumption and start with a different set of beliefs about the past. In the case of biblical creationists, the starting point is God and his Word. Therefore, the battle is not over the evidence; it’s over two different interpretations of the exact same evidence because of two different starting points.
The battle is not over the evidence; it’s over two different interpretations of the exact same evidence because of two different starting points.
Equating a denial of biological evolution or man-made climate change with a denial of (or ignorance of) science is simply inaccurate. You can question certain scientific models or philosophical presuppositions (which aren’t even science) without a wholesale dismissal of science. Many scientists, or even lay people, who reject evolution are very educated about evolution yet chose to reject it on scientific, philosophical, or biblical grounds (or a combination of these rationales).
A recent study from Newman University, in partnership with marketing research firm YouGov, found that in Canada and the UK
of those who did say it was difficult to accept aspects of evolutionary science, a significant majority still expressed an interest in science based subjects, including new ideas and discoveries in genetics and genomics (59% in the UK and 57% in Canada). And curiously, whilst only a minority in this group said experts in evolutionary science were reliable (28% in the UK and 38% in Canada) many in this group also felt that experts in all other areas of scientific research were reliable. Even more unexpectedly, 70% in the UK and 69% in Canada who expressed some personal difficulty with evolution also said they felt experts in genetics were reliable.2
What the authors of this study were surprised to find was that a rejection or questioning of evolution did not mean an all-inclusive rejection of “science” or even a disinterest in or distrust of science and scientists. Of course, those who understand the worldview nature of the evolution question aren’t surprised by this. Many creationists love science and get excited about new discoveries and innovations. We simply stand opposed to a worldview-based, naturalistic interpretation of historical science.
Dr. Fern Elsdon-Baker, the principal investigator of the study, writes,
We clearly need to be careful not to assume that when people say they are rejecting “evolutionary science,” they are rejecting all scientific research or indeed all of what we might think of as evolutionary science.3
Here she is tying in an earlier statement about genetics: “Genetics is a fundamental part of evolutionary scientific research.” She was surprised that those who reject evolution are still interested in genetics, which she sees as a part of evolutionary research. Why are creationists and others still interested in genetics? Because genetics is a fascinating field that magnificently shows the handiwork of God through a complex language system. Genetics is only part of evolutionary science when an evolutionary interpretation is imposed on the evidence. Indeed, evolution can’t even explain how a complex language system could arise through random, chance processes. Information can only come from an information giver!
Dr. Elsdon-Baker finds these survey results curious because she fails to acknowledge the worldview issue. The battle isn’t science vs. religion; it’s a battle of one interpretation of the evidence versus another, which is based on different starting points concerning who has told us the truth about the past—God’s infallible Word or man’s fallible ideas?
Interestingly, when people were asked “about evolutionary explanations for the existence of human consciousness,” the researchers found
Just over half of religious or spiritual people in both countries thought human consciousness could not be explained by evolutionary processes. Astonishingly . . . over 1 in 3 of Canadian atheists, and nearly 1 in 5 UK atheists felt the same.4
Even atheists question some aspects of evolutionary ideas! Dr. Elsdon-Baker writes,
It seems rejection of, or doubts about, aspects of evolution are not necessarily just an issue of religious belief versus evolutionary science. People across all faiths and none seem to have universal questions about what it means to be human, what human consciousness even is, or indeed the ability of science as a whole to answer these kinds of questions. In many cases, a rejection of aspects of evolutionary science does not mean a rejection of the whole of science.5
This whole idea of a “science denial” epidemic is really just a disingenuous way of trying to make those who reject evolution and catastrophic man-made climate change look foolish, backward, and opposed to new ideas and progress. Creationists don’t deny science. We love science! But we seek to study and research to honor God and uphold the authority of his Word. This difference in starting philosophies results in a difference of interpretation.