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Experimental Science and Its Implications for Faith

Kirk Durston

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I stood in the Assiniboine Conservatory parking lot holding my newly minted B.Sc. degree in physics. I had a student summer job with the geological survey in the nickel-belt region of northern Manitoba, so could not make it to my convocation. Upon my return to Winnipeg, a friend met me in the parking lot and handed me the parchment in an envelope.

A nice thing about being young is that you have no idea how much you do not know.

A fresh physics degree, fueled by youth and naïveté, led me to believe I had a pretty good idea how the universe works. At that point, I regarded science as the gold standard for finding truth. Many more years in the halls of science would quietly lay to rest that piece of sadly misplaced faith.

Modern science can be divided into three major categories: experimental science, inferential science, and science fiction. This post focuses on experimental science and faith.

Experimental Science

I have three things to say about experimental science:

  1. Every technological benefit science has given us, without exception, has come from this category of science
  2. Though I’ve thought long about this, I am not aware of a single conflict between faith in God and experimental science.
  3. Even experimental science, trustworthy as it is, has a warning to give us about “believing” in science.

Benefits of Experimental Science

Upon graduating with my next degree in mechanical engineering, I worked for Pratt & Whitney, in a group of engineers responsible for building and testing experimental aircraft engines. There were thousands of hours of testing, tweaking designs, and more experimental testing until the engine was reliable, safe, and certifiable. I have since flown on several aircraft that use that engine.

I define experimental science as the process of real experiments and observations that give actual results, which can be published, reproduced, and verified by other scientists. Because experimental science gives results that can be tested by third parties, it has a very high level of accountability. It is, therefore, very trustworthy provided it is honestly done (more on that below).

All the material benefits of science we enjoy today, from smart phones, to flat-screen TV’s, the International Space Station, vaccines, medical advances, and all of modern technology, are the result of experimental science. To clarify, all these things are the end result of testing and experimentation that gave real results that could actually be used to advance our modern technology and quality of life. As I hope to show on future occasions, the other two major areas of modern science, unless united and verified via experimental science, have contributed nothing to 21st century technology. This is a strong claim, but I think I can clarify why I suggest this.

Experimental Science and Faith

Many years after receiving my first degree in that parking lot, I walked out of the front doors of Rozanski Hall at the University of Guelph into a warm, spring day, having just successfully defended my PhD (biophysics) thesis. What a feeling of freedom after years of work! Having spent decades in the sciences, and in countless discussions of science and faith, I realized that I have never encountered a single example of conflict between experimental science and faith. Instead, experimental and observational science compliments faith in God. As I have argued elsewhere, logic requires a non-natural cause for nature, and God has created the laws of physics that govern the cosmos and the Earth (Job 38:33). God has, therefore, made science possible and encourages it. As the Bible states in Psalm 111:2, “Great are the works of the Lord. They are studied by all who delight in them.

Experimental and observational science is our tool to understand how nature works. Tension between science and faith arises from inferences and assumptions made in the other two categories of science. Experimental science is the gold standard. It is the heart of science and represents what science should be.

A Warning from Experimental Science

In 2012, the science journal Nature published an article revealing that out of 53 landmark papers in cancer research, only 11 percent could be reproduced. Five years later, an article in Nature found that after “numerous studies … failure to replicate published findings is the norm.”

Note the phrase, “is the norm.”

Another Nature article found that the top two reasons for this were “selective reporting” and “pressure to publish.”

As Nature put it, “In the competitive crucible of modern science, various perverse incentives conspire to undermine the scientific method, leading to a literature littered with unreliable findings.” The problem is not with experimental science; it is with human nature under the influence of pressure to publish, the desire for academic advancement, and competition for funding. Where the funding goes, so goes the corrupting influence of human nature. At present, two major funding areas are cancer research and climate change. If you wish to see where human frailty experiences the greatest pressure, follow the funding.

In the midst of all this, however, it must be strongly emphasized that there are countless scientists who are committed to the highest standards possible. My PhD supervisor, for example, required impeccable and meticulous standards, and was an inspiration to me. This was driven home one day when we were going over a paper I was submitting for publication. He noticed the word “suggests” in my conclusion. He asked, “Do you have data to support this?” I said, “No, it’s just an inference.” He replied, “Then take it out.” I very much appreciated his raising the bar and remember it often.

The Take-Away Warning

Because experimental science publishes its results, exposing them to possible verification, potential accountability is very high … much higher than in the other two categories of science to be discussed in subsequent posts. If the results of experimental science are so prone to corruption by human nature where accountability is extremely high, then the implications for the other two categories to be discussed, where accountability for inductive inferences to conclusions that cannot be experimentally reproduced is absent, are obvious. As we shall see, challenges to faith come from other branches of science that, themselves, have a substantial accountability problem, requiring us to exercise careful, critical thinking and analysis.

Photo: International Space Station, by NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cross-posted at KirkDurston.com.