Biased, Bad, or Breakthrough: Minority Reports in Science

Evolution, akin to religion, involves making certain a priori or metaphysical assumptions, which at some level cannot be proven empirically… I think the best way to deal with creationism, but the way to deal with evolution also, is not to deny these facts, but to recognize them.” Dr. Michael Ruse

A couple of science stories came across my desktop this week that highlighted a perennial issue in scientific research: what constitutes “good science”?  Is it research that supports the prevailing wisdom?  What then if the prevailing paradigm is wrong?  Is it research that can be shown to be “unbiased”?  Who then is the final arbiter of what is biased and what is not?  In a culture where “science” is a recognized authority in a way that “religion” is not, anyone who can claim that their views are the “scientific” ones wins.  Is it any wonder, then, that everyone wants science in their corner?

Take, for example, the proponents of a more liberal view of sex and gender identity.  So long as homosexuality was a “lifestyle choice,” it could be debated whether it was an appropriate or inappropriate choice.  But if people are “born that way,” gender identity and sexual proclivity are no longer moral questions but “biologically determined.”  Gay marriage follows naturally from “the science,” and the question is therefore settled.  Who wants to be found arguing against clear science?

Dr. Mark Regnerus, a researcher at the University of Texas in Austin, showed recently that “science” is as much subject to interpretation as people claim the Bible is.  Regnerus recently completed a study that showed children of gay or lesbian parents have statistically higher incidents of depression than children of heterosexual couples.

The study asked thousands of adult children of straight, lesbian and homosexual parents dozens of questions and compared the results. While many questions did not produce statistically-significant differences, the study found major differences in a few categories. Adult children of gay couples were two to four times as likely to be on public assistance, more than twice as likely to be unemployed and more than twice as likely to have contemplated suicide.

What do you do if the clear science does not support a long-held position?   Accuse the researcher of bias, “possible falsification” and deviation from “ethical standards.”  That’s what blogger Scott Rose did in two letters to the University of Texas.  The University investigated Regnerus but cleared him of all charges.  Regnerus’ real crime was being a Roman Catholic whose research was funded by a conservative think tank.  Clearly Regnerus was biased.  Yet by that same argument Rose, an outspoken proponent of GLBTQ rights, could be held guilty of bias as well.  Finding a privileged place to stand and call the science “settled” in favor of your own view is more difficult than many believe.

The question of whether neodarwinian processes can account for the origin of life in the universe is also considered by some to be “settled science.”  Bill Nye, “the science guy,”  recently accused those who do not unquestioningly accept the evolutionary models for life’s origin of teaching a “flat earth.”  Yet the set of suppositions and models that make up the neodarwinian mechanism are founded on axiomatic a priori suppositions, as Michael Ruse admitted.  The arguments about neodarwinian evolutionary theory have less to do with science and much more to do with worldview.  But everyone, creationist, intelligent designer, theistic and atheistic evolutionist, would like the science to be “on their side.”  So much so that they are willing to disregard the research of “the other side” for fear that they might lose the scientific “high ground.”

That brings me to the second bit of science news that crossed by screen.  The American Scientific Affiliation, a group of self-identified Christian scientists, recently held their 2012 annual meeting.  In the past these meetings were not exactly a model of Christian conduct.  Yet this year the affiliation, which includes everyone from theistic evolutionists to some proponents of intelligent design, attempted to recognize how a majority whose bias happens to be in ascendancy can squelch the voices of an out-of-favor minority.  Carolyn Crocker, president of the AITSE, noted that…

…the purpose of ASA is for Christians to be able to discuss diverging opinions on science without fear of censure. The conference participants were encouraged to be gentle, kind, humble and generally helpful to one another... With regard to demonstrating a friendly, open atmosphere, the parallel sessions were equally impressive. They reflected the range of scientific opinions, and at least in my hearing, there were no comments about scientists with viewpoints differing from the speakers being “scientifically or theologically illiterate.” In fact, I was told that scientists from a range of viewpoints regarding evolution were specifically invited to attend and give presentations. They did and those interactions I witnessed were warm and friendly.

It is true that there is “bad science” out there; research based on bad data or poor methodology.  If you have questions about something science you’ve read, please ask!  But just because something goes against a long-cherished bias doesn’t make it “bad science.”  It may well be a breakthrough.  Only time, repeated experimentation, and ongoing research will tell.  The “biased” minority report can become the “obvious” majority view.  For Christians, we find solid ground in God’s Word, not on the rolling seas of science.

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