Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Science and Ideology: A Response

Clarion’s 29 January 2010 issue features an editorial by Dr. Van Dam, professor of Old Testament at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, entitled “Science and Ideology” (v. 59, n. 3, pp. 54-56) [online here]. He suggests that in the areas of global warming and the dinosaur dating there is more pushing of ideology than science. Rick Baartman (a world-renowned physicist at TRIUMF in Vancouver, Fellow of the American Physical Society, long time member of the Surrey Canadian Reformed church, of the Brazil Mission Board, and of the board of the Geneva Society for Reformational Worldview Studies at Trinity Western University) has carefully examined the physics of global warming. Last year, he wrote a primer on the topic for Reformed Academic (17 August 2009). Given his study of the science, he identified a number of serious problems with Van Dam’s approach, and sought to have these corrected by writing a Letter to the Editor of Clarion. The letter was rejected. It is a pity that an excellent opportunity to set the record straight was denied.

And so Reformed Academic is publishing Baartman’s response, in an extended form adapted for a wider audience. It demonstrates not only significant misunderstandings by Van Dam, but also his unfortunate dependence upon minority views and the popular ideas surrounding the so-called “Climategate.” Baartman’s analysis suggests that ideology, scientific dishonesty, and data cherry-picking are more likely found among those who deny global warming than in the mainstream. The article is provided in our “Collected Papers.” (Direct links: PDF | HTML; the latter may be most convenient in terms of following the links to other sources.)

One of the reasons given for the rejection of Baartman’s original letter was that it was considered too long; it was suggested that technical points should be removed. However, when writing about science, the technical points are essential, and so we agree with Baartman that removing technical points was not a satisfactory solution.

As with other issues, we at Reformed Academic do not have any desire to promote global warming science or to simply accept what secular science has to say. Neither do we have any joy in pointing out the scientific errors of our theological and ecclesiastical leaders.

In this particular case, Baartman’s conclusion is that Van Dam’s editorial “is based partly upon a misunderstanding of the phrase ‘statistically significant,’ and partly upon dishonest information from non-expert sceptics. As well, the editorial, taking both parts together, is self-inconsistent. Moreover, it contains uncharitable allegations against the experts, and these have been found to be incorrect.” Read the paper in full for the details: PDF | HTML.


Robert A. Schouten said...

Permit me some remarks in response to Rick Baartman's article.

1 I have no strong convictions about whether or not human activity is the cause of global warming. I do think that many people fail to realize how thin and finely-tuned the atmosphere of our planet is. I remember hearing a science teacher in high school comparing the atmosphere of the earth to a layer of plastic wrap around a basketball. I also recall wondering at the time how the emissions of millions of motor vehicles, coal-fired generating stations and natural gas power plants over the course of many decades would affect the climate of the planet. Considering how the activity of sinful human beings has brought damage to so many different parts of creation, it wouldn't be surprising to learn that we have adversely affected the climate of the earth. So I accept that Baartman's defense of the mainstream interpretation of the data may well be correct. Whether or not his analysis is correct, I'm convinced that believers should learn to live more frugally and more in harmony with the natural world.

2 I do think that Baartman overstates his case at several points when he places the present controversy in a larger context. For example, in his first paragraph he writes, "But my experience is that scientists are more thoroughly trained in objectivity than people in other fields." That's a broad statement, to say the least. It seems to me that many people other than scientists are also thoroughly trained in objectivity. Examples which come to mind are historians, lawyers and exegetes who analyze ancient texts whether biblical or otherwise.

3 In his third paragraph, Baartman uses the pejorative terms "denialist" and "denialism." In my view, this kind of language shows a loss of objectivity. It seems to have a religious flavour attached to it (think of the biblical duality of confess and deny, e.g., in Mt. 10:32-33). As with so many other controversial topics, those who control the language control the debate (think of how abortionists call their position "pro-choice"). Once you label someone a "denier," this individual is associated with flat earthers and other kinds of irrationality and no one will pay him any further attention. Reality is that we do not have final, definitive proof that our use of fossil fuels has caused global warming. Instead, we have at most a strong preponderance of opinion. Some very smart and highly-credentialed people involved in various kinds of research continue to doubt the mainstream interpretation of the data. For these reasons, terms such as "denialist" are hardly useful.

part 2 to follow

Rob Schouten
Aldergrove, B.C.

Robert A. Schouten said...

part 2 of my comment

4 At the end of the third paragraph, Baartman states, "I believe this ideology of laissez-faire government lies behind much of the denialism." One might suggest with equal validity (or absurdity) that scientists who accept anthropogenic global warming are all socialists. Having said this, I'm quite sure that one's political views can indeed affect one's understanding of scientific data. Some people are driven by an urge to regulate while others passionately defend freedom. Over-regulation and significant loss of human freedom is not an unimaginable danger!

5 Most importantly, I wonder if Baartman really wants to defend the notion that scientists are immune to bias and beyond the danger of group think with accompanying zealotry and bigotry? Why would that be case? Are they not sinful humans prone to defending their own ideas? Is the scientific community always tolerant of dissenting opinion? Are fresh new ideas always welcomed? Has science never been hijacked by politics? Many scientists are prepared to admit what Baartman does not seem to concede - that science is not always objective. Citations along these lines from well-known contemporary scientists and philosophers of science are not hard to find.

6 VanDam's editorial attempts to make the point that science is not always objective but can be driven by ideology and religious belief. The example which he uses is not convincing to Baartman. However, we should remember that Van Dam's larger concern is to show that scientific claims about human origins are driven by something more than the evidence. Could it be the case that objectivity is much more difficult to attain in the study of human origins than in the analysis of global warming? After all, mainstream science has a strong commitment to materialism and naturalism. Secular science begins with the assumption that human life is not the product of divine creation. That's not a conclusion but a starting point. Many secular scientists would even argue that a creationist can't be a genuine scientist. In the light of the anti-creationist orientation of establishment science, can we really believe that the study of human origins is neutral? That would be a doubtful position, to say the least. The study of bone fragments, fossils and genetic material is affected by the religious direction of one's heart. That's how I see it.

Rob Schouten
Aldergrove, B.C.

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

I found Rev. Schouten’s comment on Rick Baartman’s post “Science and Ideology” interesting. He admits that human activity may indeed have a deleterious effect on the earth’s climate, and that Baartman’s defence of “the mainstream of the data may well be correct,” but he does not interact with the mountain of data Baartman supplies. His message is, rather, that science “is not always objective but can be driven by ideology and religious belief.” Now, even if it can be argued that in a general sense this statement is true, it does not do justice to the evidence Baartman marshals in support of the reality and explanation of anthropogenic global warming. I don’t even believe that an accusation of an ideology-driven and subjectivist scientific approach can be made, without important qualifications, of science generally. Yet this often happens among us, especially if we are dealing with scientific conclusions that make us uncomfortable for religious or other reasons.

I am not of course denying the subjective element in science. Twentieth-century historians of science like Thomas Kuhn, Michael Polanyi, and scores of others have made that element very clear. But to reject the tyranny of scientistic objectivism is not the same as surrendering to a postmodernist relativism that admits no objectivity whatsoever in science (or in other human knowing). I believe that especially in the natural sciences a good many safeguards exists that prevent such relativistic conclusions. Although it is true that no scientific theories are “absolute,” it cannot be denied that there is increasing verisimilitude in science.

It is therefore possible, I think, to distinguish between scientific knowledge and various other ways of knowing. Among those who have dealt with this issue is the Belgian philosopher Chaïm Perelman. He points out that in each epoch the scientific community agrees (at least provisionally) on certain sets of propositions, but that such a body of accepted propositions does not exist in philosophy, art, literature, or morality, at least not if one crosses the boundary from one culture to another. Similarly, there is progress in science, whereas new concepts in art, literature, philosophy, or religion do not necessarily improve upon older ones in these disciplines. This is so because there are techniques of prediction, assessment, and verification in the sciences for which there are no equivalents in the other disciplines. (There is of course also the fact, as Rick Baartman has pointed out, that technological applications support the argument of scientific verisimilitude.)

Much more could be said on this topic. For now I simply want to draw attention to the difficulties we face when meeting scientific conclusions that, for whatever reason, we find disturbing. I myself struggle with these difficulties and would welcome a discussion on the topic.

ddj said...

I simply have five short observations/questions for Rick Baartman:

1) How do you explain the shift in terminology from "global warming" to "climate change"?

2) Baartman may be correct that the current downswing is too short to be representative. However he does not mention that many leading climate scientists believe the cooling period will last at least until 2020. How would that affect Gunter's arguments?

3) Baartman mentions the economic incentive for those who deny AGW; however, he does not acknowledge the millions of dollars to be made by exploiting the "green" label. Surely this is a bias that cuts both ways.

4) VanDam's basic point - that ideology affects science - is not substantially challenged by a detailed argument that seeks to objectively and exhaustively "prove" something. There is more than a little irony in the genre of this response to VanDam. Further on this point, what does Baartman say about the inclusion in the IPCC report of the prediction that the Himalayan snowcaps would be gone in 35 years? This has been exposed as completely baseless and unscientific. Again, ideological considerations cut both ways.

5) Even if Baartman's models are correct, he is a long way from proving that we should unite behind the left-wing anti-oil economics of those who think that we can somehow control the temperature. (I shouldn't have to add this qualification, but I will: I'm all for stewardship. I'm all for a careful usage of the resources God has blessed us with.)


David DeJong
South Bend, IN

Jitse van der Meer said...

I would like to comment on the response to Baartman’s paper on climate change by Rob Schouten (RS). I focus on his view of science because I know little about climate change (my numbering follows that of Schouten).

2. RS suggests that exegetes and historians, for instance, are as well-trained in objectivity as scientists are. No doubt they are. Yet Rick Baartman did not overstate his case. To be objective is to conform to the limits placed by an object of study on its interpretation by a scholar. The natural sciences are more objective than the humanities not because of a difference in stance between scholars, but because of a difference in the objects studied. Texts and historical documents are much more prone to conflicting interpretations by exegetes and historians than natural phenomena are to conflicting interpretations by scientists. The reason for this lies in a crucial difference between the objects of study. Texts and historical documents place very weak limits on their interpretation by exegetes and historians. In contrast, natural phenomena place very strong limits on their interpretation by scientists. This difference is clear from a survey of history. The single major feature of the history of the interpretation of texts, for instance, is disagreement while the single major feature of the natural sciences is agreement despite a wide range of scientists' political, religious, economic and other personal beliefs.


Jitse van der Meer said...

3. RS writes: "Reality is that we do not have final, definitive proof that our use of fossil fuels has caused global warming." This comment demands of human knowledge something that RS knows is not possible. At issue is not whether there is final proof, but where the weight of evidence lies. This is a matter of judgment and, therefore, has a personal component. But one can rule out the possibility that personal beliefs distort this judgment. The diversity of personal beliefs that exist in any large group of scientists would make agreement on a theory impossible if that theory was shaped by their personal beliefs. The reason why such agreement is possible in science, but not in the humanities was given under # 2 above. Nevertheless, it is possible that a group of scientists belongs to a school of thought and shares particular general-level beliefs about the nature of their object of study. Schools of thought are rare in mathematics and physics, somewhat more common in biology and characteristic for psychology, for instance. This confirms that there are degrees of objectivity as I pointed out under # 2 above. Scientists are guided in their research by guides called theories and higher-level beliefs about the nature of reality. This too needs to be taken into account when making judgments about the weight of evidence and its interpretation. Still, this provides no reason to caricature science as a pool of individual opinions. The history of science shows that the differences between schools of thought are eventually sorted out. This is due to the severe constraints placed by created reality upon human theorizing. Just as theories are rejected when they cannot account for the facts so are beliefs of a higher level of generality including worldviews. When all is said and done, no one has the freedom to dismiss scientific knowledge with a simple reference to ideology.


Jitse van der Meer said...

4 and 5. No one will disagree with RS or Van Dam that scientists have their biases. But political views do not affect one’s understanding of scientific data unless RS is referring to fraud. But then we are not talking about understanding scientific data. Political views can only affect one’s use of the data. The history of science shows that one needs to distinguish the abuse of science in the interest of various personal agendas from the proper use of science which is constrained by the things that exist independent of human knowledge. The difference is sometimes not clear when one is in the middle of a controversy, but it tends to shake out over time.


Jitse van der Meer said...

6. Likewise, anyone would agree with Van Dam that theories about human origins can be driven by philosophical and religious agendas. The questionable part in this editorial is that it makes a caricature of science in that it does not acknowledge the fact that such theories are also driven by facts. This is most obviously made clear by the scientific creationist Todd Wood who admitted in a review here that the genetic evidence for common ancestry was undeniable, but decided not to accept it for religious reasons [T.C. Wood, “The Chimpanzee Genome and the Problem of Biological Similarity”, OPBSG (February 20, 2006) n. 7, pp. 1-18.]. These are the kind of people whose objectivity deserves the respect of those inside and outside of the scientific community. In contrast, Van Dam’s caricature of science as a ship tossed every which way by the winds of ideology suggests that his views of science are driven by his own agenda .

RS writes: “After all, mainstream science has a strong commitment to materialism and naturalism.” Scientists do have commitments and among them one does find materialists, atheists, Buddhists, spiritualists, Christians, Muslims and what have you. Even if some scientists tried to make philosophical materialism or philosophical naturalism the adopted scientific philosophy, they wouldn’t stand a chance. In the humanities – philosophy in this case – the object of study hardly constrains interpretations of reality.


Jitse van der Meer said...

6. RS writes further: “Secular science begins with the assumption that human life is not the product of divine creation. That's not a conclusion but a starting point.” To be precise, nothing in the natural sciences can be explained by saying that God did it. There are good reasons for this rule which can have the full support of Christians. If God were included in scientific explanation, he would become one of the so-called variables that need to be manipulated to proceed with research. The very thought of this is blasphemous and to be rejected by any Christian. Moreover, God cannot be considered as a cause in scientific explanation because it would turn the Creator into a creature. Finally, is it not appropriate to explain material phenomena in terms of material causes because God made them of matter? I am sure RS and I would agree on these points. Does this not leave God out of the picture? No. Faith in God as Creator and Provider enters the picture as a Christian’s interpretation of scientific explanations and theories. I am aware that I am not doing this topic justice by just stating it, but this response is already far too long.

Nevertheless, there are problems to which RS’s reservations apply. I’ll mention just one example. Some biologists have suggested that one can explain not only the phenomenon of religion, but also the specific content of religious beliefs as the result of material causes. I do not have the time and space to explain this fully, but it involves a re-description of reality to make it suitable for such attempts. The result would be, for instance, that divine revelation would not come from a transcendent God, but from the religious experience of people. Here is where I draw the line and I do so by analyzing the re-description of reality as a result of a worldview that has no legitimate role in science [Van der Meer, J.M. (2000) “The Engagement of Religion and Biology: A Case Study in the Mediating Role of Metaphor in the Sociobiology of Lumsden and Wilson.” Biology and Philosophy 15: 669-698. ]


Jitse van der Meer said...

By now it should be clear that there is a problem with the popular understanding of science as presented under # 6. What is one to do? Specialization is a fact of life that we have to learn to live with. I follow this strategy. If I need an opinion outside my areas of specialization (developmental biology, history and philosophy of science, religion and science) I ask for advice from people with diverse backgrounds. If I started offering opinions about things I do not understand, I would lose credibility even when speaking about things I do know about. This ought to be a concern for anybody who strives to be true to God’s revelation whether in Scripture or nature.

Jitse van der Meer, Hamilton

Reformed Academic said...

Rick Baartman has posted a response to David DeJong’s five observations and questions of June 9 here.

Arnold Sikkema said...

Rick’s concern for honesty and objectivity in science, which is clear in his valuable pieces written for Reformed Academic, has recently been acknowledged by the American Physical Society. He was recognized as an outstanding referee because of his significant contributions to the peer review process. Congratulations!