Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Science, religion and truth - "climategate"

Stuck in traffic this morning, I wound up listening to a report on BBC World News on the subject of "climategate" - the issue is whether or not the science reporting on climate change is being manipulated to support a particular point of view. Briefly, last year, stolen emails from East Anglia University in England seemed to reveal a skewing of results in order to support the argument that human activity is warming the planet; another report this week concluded that the science is sound that seems to conclude that our actions are having that effect, regardless of the point of view revealed in the emails..
This morning's broadcast featured two spokesmen: a climate change skeptic and a supporter of the theory, who dialogued with the host. Afterwards, the host invited comment from the audience via email, and then read some of them.
What prompts this post was the question asked, and one of the answers: the question was something like, "do you trust scientists to tell you the truth about these matters?" And one comment was something like, "Of course I trust scientists; their work has brought us so much knowledge and technology. Who else would I trust? Religion? I don't think so."
It was just an exchange on the radio, but what a false dichotomy was set up! And as a spokesperson for "religion" (I guess!), I feel like I have to say that what was posed isn't really the question, and thus the answer doesn't make any sense.
The real question is, can you trust people?
Scientists are people, and there are virtuous scientists who work hard to do honest science: to propose a theory, to test it, to publish their results and allow others to try to replicate their tests and results, and together as a body of scientists come to some new knowledge. In the best of situations, that's how science is supposed to work.
But people (scientists and religionists both), the gospel tells me, are both glorious and flawed.
That we are able to come up with a way to learn from nature, to propose theories, to come up with ways to test them, to work together with others and to expand knowledge to benefit ourselves and the planet, is a manifestation of the image of God within us. As is our capacity to love, to create beauty, to organize society and culture, to develop medicine and to make marvelous machines.
But the flaw is that we are all, scientists included, liable to be tempted - to cheat, to manipulate, to do things the easy way or to boost a cause over and above science (or religion!), or just to please ourselves. It isn't even as easy as saying that there are "good" scientists or "bad" scientists - while there may be some "bad scientists" who have no intention of pursuing their business virtuously, most of the time, there are just people, capable of things done in the image of God, and easily just as capable of sin.
And "religious" people have the same problem - we may manifest the glory of God, or we may manipulate the power or control or image of religion to boost a cause or to please ourselves.
Or, in either case, we may be easily manipulated by someone else to boost their cause, who will persuade us that what we are being led into is True Science or True Religion (or True Patriotism, for example).
What the gospel teaches us is not that religion is true and science isn't (or vice versa); rather, we are all capable of falling. The gospel calls us into a true understanding of ourselves, into confession and repentance, into prayer and submission to the word of God, so as to avoid falling into sin (and let us not omit saying that the very first step of the gospel is to enter into relationship with the God who made us, through Jesus!).
But because of what the gospel has taught us, we have sometimes been wise enough to set up safeguards, "checks and balances," within science, within religion, and every other field. We have protected the right of free speech, and the press, for just such a purpose: getting into East Anglia's emails (though there may have been a more righteous way to do it!) is not bad. Uncovering manipulation in science or any other field is helpful for everyone, including the scientists involved. Such pressure keeps our minds on doing our job virtuously, no matter what it is.
At the same time, the gospel teaches us not to be so surprised, nor to completely condemn - after all, we are all fallible. It would be nice to see those who identify themselves as Christians be as open to the follow-up report that the science is sound, as they were gleeful to hear about the original emails. We are, in the end, still stewards of this planet - we should be interested in the truth, no matter where it goes. If we will not receive the truth because we are in bed with energy companies who financially support our causes, then in fact we are doing the same thing the scientists of East Anglia were accused of doing.
"Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place," says Psalm 51:6. God is less interested in our horse trading for causes, than in our righteousness. We all must be mindful of our capacity to be co-opted, manipulated and to fall, so that we are no longer operating out of the image of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, but instead have become shadows of those things while we pursue our own or someone else's agenda. What we become then is a twisted version of the image of God.
The result, when that happens, is that the watchful world says, "religion? I don't think so."

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