September 14, 2022, Nature, a leading science publication, ran a story by Jeff Tollefson with the headline, “Inside the US Supreme Court’s war on science.” I would be surprised if, as the author claimed, the six Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court (and only those six) have declared war on “science.” This article gave me no good evidence or convincing arguments to help me reach such a conclusion. What it did, instead, is prompt me to turn to my wife and say, “It is stuff like this that either makes Blueprint’s work harder, more important, or both.” This article, labeled a “news feature,” in a leading science publication was yet another attempt to weaponize “science” to advance particular political aims. It would not surprise me in the least if those who don’t align with the politics of the author would think, “Well, if agreeing with Science means agreeing with those politics, then I’m anti-Science, too.” Let me argue that what Tollefson has done – and Nature has allowed to be done in its name – is to attack public confidence in scientific inquiry.
To do science is to try to make sense of the natural world through systematic investigation that relies on evidence that is observable to multiple researchers. Scientific inquiry usually makes use of explicitly articulated research protocols and mathematical descriptions of the data under consideration, in order to lay bare how the researchers have come to the conclusions that they have and to invite others to check or replicate their work. We sometimes refer to the findings and theories that have arisen through such pursuit of truth as “Science,” but there really is no such static thing. Scientific findings are always partial, provisional, and probabilistic. But the sciences have also proven themselves to be among the best methods we have for learning about many features of the natural world.
The sciences have earned a high degree of deference when it comes to descriptive claims about the natural world. But the credibility of the sciences is threatened when we pretend that there is a coherent, singular thing called “Science” that is not only authoritative on descriptive matters of fact about the natural world, but also on prescriptive matters of personal decisions, group values, morality, government policies, or judicial philosophies. The sciences can help us direct our goals and values through considerations of how different actions might play out in the natural world, but the sciences cannot provide those goals and values on their own. It is for this reason that Blueprint 1543 is committed to integrating the sciences with Christian theology. Christian theology can provide foundational commitments upon which robust and useful scientific inquiry can be built as well as a broader framework of values, aims, and priorities that motivate and give direction to doing science.
If so-called science supporters persist in proclaiming the authority of “Science” in domains in which it has no authority but only a supporting role, increasingly people will question the authority of this “Science” thing when they see that it fails to deliver. Unfortunately, the likely result is many people disrespecting the work of scientists in those domains in which they should be given due respect. In these politically charged times, claiming that your political opponents are anti-Science is a quick way to score rhetorical points, but in the long term will erode general trust in the sciences. Being politically liberal or conservative is not more or less scientific. But if this thing called “Science” is a weapon used against me repeatedly, you have to expect that it won’t be long before I don’t want to have anything to do with it.
Rarely do such political matters come down to simple scientific or other matters of fact. Nevertheless, in his article, Tollefson claims that the US Supreme Court’s recent ruling to grant states the legislative ability to regulate abortion is anti-science. Why? Because, “In doing so, the court also dismissed decades of research indicating that its decision would negatively affect women’s health and increase long-standing disparities in the health system.” Tollefson seems to think these empirical projections about what might happen in the future are so clearly the determining issue that to rule as the Court did is evidence of an anti-science mindset. If anyone has declared war on the proper use of science, it is Tollefson.
We should hold our political and organizational leaders accountable to the facts, and the sciences can be an important part of determining what the facts are, but it doesn’t follow that we can claim that “Science” is on the side of a policy, a political philosophy, a candidate, or a party. We can’t simply claim that those who disagree with us politically are anti-science without damaging public understanding and support of the sciences.
-Justin L. Barrett