Faith & Science Icon Faith & Science

When “Science” Becomes a Cult

David Klinghoffer
Photo: Bill Nye and the March for Science, by Paul and Cathy / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0).

As protein chemist Douglas Axe tweets, “The people who keep insisting they’re on the side of science don’t get that science is an open approach, not a list of settled dogmas.”

I think the problem is that there are two phenomena here, both going by the name “science.” On one hand there is “science” in the sense that Dr. Axe first uses it, an “open approach” to seeking the truth about nature. And then there is “science” in the sense that others seem to have in mind when they invoke sacred dogmas and demand that we “Trust the Science” or “Trust the Scientists.” Science in this usage has taken on an increasingly cult-like aspect. No one would insist that you blindly “trust” an open process that follows the evidence wherever it leads. A process like that expects debate, not trust.

Politics Becomes Dogma

Even as its own demands have been continually ratcheted up in volume and stridency, “science” as a cult has suffered multiple blows to its prestige. One blow has come from seeing how institutions of science in the “process” sense are increasingly corrupted by politics. The politics then becomes the dogma and the object of commands that we accept and venerate it.

Our colleague Wesley Smith has an excellent article out now arguing that “Ideology in Science is Destroying Trust”:

Science should never be tainted by ideology. After all, science isn’t supposed to be about political beliefs but is a powerful method for learning about and understanding the physical universe.

Science’s tools are decidedly empirical, i.e., observation, measurement, experimentation, falsification, and the like. To be effective, science must be pursued objectively. The point is to determine what is — not what one wants to be — real.

Which is why I am so alarmed that highly respected science and medical journals are becoming so political. For example, Science — one of the world’s most respected scientific publications — recently published a stridently ideological column advocating granting “rights” to nature.

The “nature rights” movement is a left-wing and anti-free market ideological faction within environmentalism It’s goal is to grant flora, fauna, ecosystems — even geological features — human-type rights, “toexist, persist, evolve, and regenerate its vital cycles in evolution.”

What are the scientific bases for granting “rights” to nature? There aren’t any. “This claim is not grounded in scientific evidence,” the authors admit.

Then, why in the world would a prominent science journal grant its imprimatur to such a clearly ideological agenda? To lend its prestige to a radical cause, in short, politics.

Wesley points to a remarkable editorial in the journal Nature:

Nature cast aside all pretense of objectivity with a just-released editorial promising “to publish more primary research in political science and related fields.”

Wait! Political science is one of the humanities — like sociology and philosophy — an area of academic advocacy, which, not coincidentally, has grown stridently leftwing in past decades. It is also subjective and almost definitionally ideological in its techniques, approaches, and conclusions.

That would appear to be the point. “Science and research inform and shape a spectrum of public policies, from environmental protection to data ethics,” the editorialists write. For example, they can “commit institutions to work harder to protect equality, diversity and inclusion, and to give more space to voices from previously marginalized communities.”

Those may well be laudable social goals. But they are hardly scientific matters.

An Absolute Right

Today at The Stream, John Zmirak gives a concrete illustration: the “fervent, devout attachment to abortion, right up through birth, for any reason, at taxpayer expense isn’t grounded in reason. Or science.” Ideologues “pretend that their own value systems are somehow neutral, based on objective facts and ‘science.’ But what if that isn’t true? What if, in fact, the very opposite proved to be the case?” He notes the irony that dogma and creed are loudest among those who insist on an absolute abortion right, in the name of “science,” even as they defy what science in the “open process” sense indicates:

It’s interesting that so many founders of the pro-life movement were Catholics, and that so many who carry it on today are either Catholics or evangelicals. But that’s not because “life begins at conception” is some Christian dogma, like the Incarnation. No, it’s a sober fact of science, which appeared in embryology texts around the world before Roe v. Wade. Religious faith forces us, despite what we might want to think, to accept the verdict of science.

Zmirak traces the abortion creed back to the source: “Simone de Beauvoir’s claim, borrowed from the Marquis de Sade, that women could only be truly equal if they, like men, could freely evade the consequences of sex. Hence abortion.”

An Unborn Life

Biologist Jonathan Wells has written here recently about the science (“open process” sense) of embryology and what it tells us about the unborn human in the womb. See:

He actually distinguishes three separate senses of science:

In one sense, science is the enterprise of seeking truth by formulating hypotheses and testing them against the evidence. If a hypothesis is repeatedly tested and found to be consistent with the evidence, we may tentatively regard it as true. If it is repeatedly found to be inconsistent with the evidence, we should revise it or reject it as false. This is empirical science.

Or in other words, that is science as an “open process.” Dr. Wells goes on:

In a second sense, science can refer to the enterprise of providing natural explanations for everything — that is, accounting for all phenomena in terms of material objects and the physical forces among them. But this is equivalent to materialistic philosophy, which regards material objects and physical forces as the only realities. Mind, free will, spirit, and God are considered illusions. This is materialistic science.

In a third sense, science can refer to the scientific establishment, which consists of people who are trained and employed to conduct research in various areas. The majority opinion of this group is referred to as “the scientific consensus.” Unfortunately, the scientific consensus has changed many times in the course of history, so it is not a reliable guide to the truth. And although many people in the scientific establishment do excellent empirical science, the scientific consensus is currently dominated by materialistic philosophy.

The science cult unites those two final senses, where the “consensus” has drifted toward materialist dogma.

The cult enthrones politics and ideology and calls it “science.” That hurts the credibility of whatever goes by the name of science, unfortunately including the open-ended process of discovery that truly is scientific. The ideologues have themselves to blame. But what a mess! It impacts everyone, inside and outside of the cult.

I don’t have a problem with “cults” as such, by the way. Every religion, whether my own or the New Atheism or whatever example you choose, started out being dismissed as a cult. When Pharaoh first met Moses, no doubt he thought of him as a cult leader. The problem comes when, in order to win our acceptance, double-talk is used to pretend that a cult is something other than what it is.