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Luke Coppen's Catholic Herald Blog

Will the 21st-century public lose faith in scientists?

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The Catholic Church was just one of many institutions that received a battering in the 20th-century West. The scientific establishment was one of the few that survived the century relatively unscathed.

I wonder whether the “Climategate” furore is a sign that this is about to change. Could this century see more scientific scandals and public trust in scientists plummet? Will people begin to treat the pronouncements of scientists such as Richard Dawkins with the same cynicism they reserve for those of Churchmen?

The brilliant science writer Jonah Lehrer says he’s amazed it’s taken general public so long to realise that scientists are fallible human beings, rather than Olympian truth seekers. Nevertheless, he believes that science as a whole is robust enough to survive these crises.

He argues:

The larger point … is that the effectiveness of science has never depended on the inhuman objectivity of scientists. Instead, science works – and it really does work – because of the institutions that help correct for our innate imperfections. Scientists don’t have to be rational, because science is.

Here’s Richard Rorty:

‘There is no reason to praise scientists for being more ‘objective’ or ‘logical’ or ‘methodical’ or ‘devoted to truth’ than other people. But there is plenty of reason to praise the institutions that they have developed and within which they work, and to use these as models for the rest of culture. For these institutions give concreteness and detail to the idea of unforced agreement.’

Over at the First Things website, Stephen M Barr, a professor of physics at the Bartol Research Institute at the University of Delaware, picks up the theme:

Ideologues who would trample down legitimate scientific questions raised by their entirely qualified colleagues are risking terrible damage to science in the long run. If it turns out, as it might, that the global warming fears are overblown or ill-founded, the credibility of the scientific establishment will suffer a grievous blow from which it will be hard to recover. It will open the door for all the real kooks and purveyors of pseudoscience, who will be that much harder to resist in the future. And what if at some point in the future an environmental catastrophe looms about which there really is a solid consensus in the scientific community? And what if at that point it really is only kooks who deny it? Won’t non-scientists be disposed to say: ‘We’ve heard that all before? We believed you the last time and you led us astray?’

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PS If you are interested in the relationship between science and faith, do visit the Second Sight blog, run by The Catholic Herald’s science editor, Quentin de la Bédoyère.

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Written by Luke Coppen

December 3, 2009 at 8:48 pm

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