Distrustful Science

Female researcher looking into a microscope and writing notes atTen years ago I had an essay published entitled, “Ethics in a Postmodern World” in the volume Christian Ethics. At that time we did not know exactly what “postmodernism” was, but we were pretty sure that the Enlightenment consensus was breaking down. This was the “modern” world, and we knew something else was on the horizon, so it was labeled “postmodern.” The modern world had been characterized by supposedly rigorous logical analysis, and its companion, scientific methodology. The scientific method was the touchstone of truth, the laboratory was the gateway to the future.

In this essay, I attempted to define the new, postmodern world’s contours by giving six contrasts, six ways in which what I saw coming was unlike the 19th and 20th centuries. Postmodernity, as I saw it, was:

  1. Fluid rather than Foundational. Knowledge was based on a changing web rather than a foundational edifice.
  2. Multi-Connective rather than Sequential. If we disregard foundationalism, there is no obvious starting point or ending point, and sequentialism is less valid.
  3. Holistic rather than Compartmental. I meant this especially in regard to behavior. There is no more need to compartmentalize our lives. We don’t hide anything any more.
  4. Spiritual rather than Scientific. This is seen in the rise of folks who claim to be “spiritual” but not “religious,” but also in larger and larger distrust of the scientific community for having led us astray.
  5. Personal Story rather than Metanarrative. Our own personal stories become more important than the larger story of humankind, the story of salvation as told in the Bible, etc.
  6. Interiorizing rather than Externalizing. I meant this especially in the realm of authority. We no longer look to external authority figures to help us navigate the hard decisions of life. We are all independent operators.

I think these have held up surprisingly well. We don’t really talk about “postmodernism” any more, but no one is quite sure what age we have entered. I think we are close to moral anarchy, but that is another story.

I have been a reader of the Economist magazine for many years. I am challenged by its unlikely mix of social progressivism and economic, pro-business conservatism, which are pretty much the opposite of my views most of the time. A recent issue highlighted what was called, “Trouble at the Lab” (October 19-25, 2013). In this issue, an editorial and an article talked about the dismal state of scientific research and the unreliability of published research results. One shocking example was the report that the American drug company Amgen had tried to reproduce the results in 53 experimental studies that were considered landmarks in the study of cancer. The results: in only 6 of these were they able to replicate the published results. In other words, much of what is considered the “assured results of science” may be a house of cards.

This seems to me to be a validation of my point 4, that we are in a world that is Spiritual rather than Scientific. For many reasons, there are huge cracks in the credibility of the scientific information business. The breathless publishing and reporting of astounding “breakthroughs” in science that seem unbelievable and incredible may be just that, unbelievable and lacking credibility.

Scientific research is not done by men and women with no agendas and no self interests. The economic and reputation stakes are very high, so we should not really be surprised when the results are fudged or faked.

So who do we trust if science fails us? I think you know my answer to that question.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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