Should We Trust Science?

by Pastor Tom Anderson

Christians can rightly rejoice in the discoveries of science over the last 300 years. All our lives have been vastly improved and our lifespans greatly increased. Needless suffering and daily frustrations have diminished and even disappeared. As a guy who wears modern glasses--I’m well aware that had I lived in a non-scientific era, I’d have been eaten by a cave bear before I was in my teens!

Should we always trust science? “Trust” is a word that carries different meanings. I trust that any given chair will hold me up when I sit down--but I also know that there is a possibility that chairs can break. I trust chairs but I don’t have faith in them like I do Jesus Christ. Only faith in Christ can provide salvation. So while I do trust things, people and ideas on earth--it’s not the same as having faith in God. I do trust science--but not for my salvation.

I trust science in its area of expertise. I trust the electrician who comes to wire circuits in my house. She’s got an expertise that I don’t have. I would not trust myself to do electrical work, nor do I trust myself to service the brakes on my car. I want an expert--someone who knows what they are doing. But if the electrician starts offering me advice on my retirement investment portfolio--I’m skeptical. Any advice she might offer is way outside her expertise.

Many Christians are skeptical of science when it comes to issues like evolution, climate change or vaccines. This comes from the notion that science is a competitor to faith in Christ. It also comes from the unfortunate efforts of some scientists to speak on questions of value, meaning and purpose--well outside their field of expertise. For such issues God has provided other ways of knowing. I look to God’s revelation in scripture and the Risen Jesus Christ.

Still, scientific consensus deserves to be trusted. To be clear, research is never “pure”. It is influenced by the desires of those who fund it and the aspirations of those who do it. Yet, science happens in the public marketplace of ideas. No one ideological group controls it. Research gets examined and debated publicly by all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds. Consensus emerges slowly from a broad base.

But consensus is not the same as truth. The media regularly overlook this. Scientific consensus is presented in degrees of confidence and with margins for error. Reporters--and politicians--eagerly discount this in a rush to present consensus as certainty. This is the agony of most serious scientists. It sets up a widely held and destructive delusion that science is a god who can silence the necessary public discussion and risk-benefit analysis.

Consensus is not the same as unanimity. Dissent is critically important within science. Sometimes a dissenting opinion manages to overturn a previous consensus. For example: consensus once held that stomach ulcers were caused by acid in the stomach but a dissenting idea has overturned this and it is now widely held that the primary cause of ulcers is a bacterial infection. This has led to far more effective treatments for patients.