Science in Christian Perspective


John W. Haas, Jr.
Gordon College
Wenham, MA 01984

From: PSCF 38 (September 1986): 204-206. 

This generation has seen a remarkable turn toward the human dimension of science. The scientific community and those who chronicle its activities now cloak their ventures with terms such as ethics and morals and human values. In many eyes the acquisition of knowledge is no longer deemed to be the highest purpose available to humanity. Rather, general human welfare, or some other value is viewed as the basic framework from which science and other forms of knowledge can be judged. However laudable this perspective may be, a foundational feature of science seems to almost have been ignored in the rush to apply "values" to the issues of the day. It is the public press and the scientific press (reluctantly at first) which have let the cat out of the bag. It seems that scientific fraud is on the increase. Curiously, the recent public disclosures of gross impropriety come from disciplines closely related to human welfare-the health sciences. However, this may more reflect what sells newspapers or enhances television ratings than an inordinately large number of the dishonest in these areas.

The eighth commandment is foundational for the Chris
tian community and is also basic to the structure of the scientific enterprise. The founding fathers of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge viewed a portion of their task as "strenghten[ing] belief in God's true miracles by exposing fraudulent, enthusiastic, Cheats."' Although today's scientists would describe their work somewhat differently, history consistently demonstrates that the "cheat," holy or not, remains as an impediment to scientific understanding and credibility.

William Broad and Nicholas Wade's recent book, Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science, recounts examples of cheating-whether cooking, doctoring, fiddling or fudging-from the time of Hipparchus,  to the present day.2 This alleged dishonesty (some cases are in dispute in the historical literature) is found in all areas of the natural and social sciences and ranges from wholesale plagiarism and invention of data to selective use of the literature and the discarding of discordant results. While any number of incidents reported that scientific fraud is on the upswing. Lest we think that the subject is passe', the May 1985 Meeting of the American Association for the Advance ment of Science held an extended panel discussion on the  issue?3

Those who deal with teenagers and undergraduate college students are hardly optimistic about the mores of tomorrow's scientists. Elton Trueblood has suggested that the roots of the problem are found in the current wholesale acceptance of  "the belief that there is really no objective moral right and  that, consequently, there is no reason for action other than  the changing desires of the individual."4 The problem of  dishonesty has been of increasing concern to American educators in the past few years. Two studies carried out  during the 1980's showed that 75 and 88 percent of the  undergraduates polled reported having cheated in college,  figures significantly higher than for earlier polls which indicated that about 50 percent cheated in the 1960's and 25  percent in the 1940's.5 A UCLA psychologist who surveyed faculty at a major university found that one-third of those  who responded had suspected a colleague of falsifying data, "but that only half of this number had ever acted to verify or remedy the deception."' The rapidly emerging field of computer science is plagued with the problem due to the  relatively independent nature of much of student activity.  Table I indicates something of the extent of the problem as seen in two recent university surveys.

The tabular data and the personal experiences that each of  us can recount serve to remind us that we face a persistent  challenge in our scientific work. In this paper we wish to  point out some of the sometimes subtle problems faced by the Christian in science and emphasize the importance of one's personal integrity rather than dwell on individual cases from the past.

Christians in science may be forced into compromising situations due to the competitive funding procedures found in  industry and the university. The pressure to appear attractive to the source of the money may result in overstatement,  withholding of negative data or deliberate lies. The media currently view science (especially medical science) as "hot."  Some scientists have exploited this fact by holding press conferences to announce great "break-throughs"  in understanding cancer or some new wonder chemical instead of  submitting their work to the review process of scientific

Table I Academic Dishonesty5,6

Type of Cheating                                                                                                          Percent Who Admitted Cheating

Plagiarism                                                                                                                                               44
Getting an exam from someone who took it earlier                                                                          40
Padding a bibliography                                                                                                                        35
Working on a assignment with another person when this was not allowed                               34
Allowing someone to copy from exam                                                                                               32
Copying someone else's exam                                                                                                             31 
Doing another person's homework                                                                                                     17
Using notes in closed-book exam                                                                                                       12 
Taking an exam for another person                                                                                                      2
Turning in a paper purchased from a commercial firm                                                                       1
Fabricating or copying another student's lab data                                                                          81

journals. Public interest and resultant political support may create a funding bandwagon which may leave much more worthy projects without funding. Christians associated with research groups which practice these behaviors are under pressure to "go along" so that a "greater good" may result.

Broad and Wade note that many instances of fraud go unchallenged for many years in spite of the improbability that the work could be legitimate or even where improprieties are noticed. Often, it is lower level assistants or administrators who finally "blow the whistle." The idea that anything goes as long as no one is hurt seems to prevail.

A recent note in Chemical and Engineering News speaks to the "Ethics (Or Lack Thereof) of Refereeing."7 Among the problems noted were

1) a tendency to rake a competitor or someone considered
unworthy over the coals,

2) slowing the review process of a good paper that competes
or infringes on one's research area,

3) plagiarizing ideas for one's own work, and

4) pretending expertise.

Christians who referee manuscripts and proposals or act as journal editors must follow a high standard when acting in these areas. Editors should clearly indicate reasons why a given manuscript is unacceptable, a practice that is hardly uniform in Christian or secular circles. Neidhardt has provided thoughtful goals and procedures for the Christian referee.8

It would appear to this observer that the development of a proper attitude toward the truth should be an explicit part of the educational process. Curiously, any freshman physics or chemistry lab text spends many pages talking about significant figures and the statistical treatment of data but no one mentions what any freshman knows-that a little fudging of the data can improve any statistics. In designing lab activities one should minimize experiments which repeat work with known answers and maximize the use of unknowns and creative problems. More important than an instructor's injunctions to be honest is the way that his values speak for themselves as he relates to students and colleagues and carries out his scientific work. We should confront students whose work is too exact or done too rapidly. We need to provide an educational climate which allows students to make "mistakes" without fear of irreparable damage to their grade point average. It is frequently noted that the "intensely competitive premedical culture is an eroding factor in the moral fibre of our future physicians."3

The scientific community can look with pride at generations of accomplishments gained at the cost of long hours spent in the collection and evaluation of data. This type of work continues to be the basis of true scientific advance. A major strength of the scientific enterprise lies in the public nature of the information. Anyone may repeat the experiments and challenge the data and interpretation. This "selfcorrecting" aspect can ultimately catch up with fraud. However, in the meantime other workers using this material can waste time and money and be placed in dangerous situations. The apparent increase in adolescent dishonesty suggests that this will be reflected in more extensive scientific fraud in the future. There is no magic potion that changes a dishonest student into an honest scientist. The price paid by those who cheat needs to be high enough to be a more significant deterrent than is presently the case.

One happy recent example of Christian integrity involved a colleague in the Department of History. Near the completion of her doctoral dissertation she accidently found a manuscript in an obscure French library that covered many of the same ideas that she had independently developed. The chances were good that this manuscript would never see the light of day. Yet she took a copy to her advisor and ultimately was required to revise her thesis topic-at a cost of two more years of work. Christian character needs such examples to assist in its development. We must constantly be alert to aspire to the highest standards for our lives and our work. We may not change the overall pattern of scientists' behavior, but we can influence those around us as we follow Christ's command to be "salt" and "light."

Our motivation lies in scripture: "I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy."9

Literature Cited

1J. A. Force, "Hume and the Relation of Science to Religion among the Members of the Royal Society," Journal of the History of Ideas, XLV (1984)517.

2William Broad and Nicholas Wade, Betrayers of the Truth-Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science, Simon and Schuster, NY (1982).

3R. Jeffrey Smith, "Scientific Fraud Probed at AAAS Meeting," Science 228 (1985) 1292.

4D. Elton Trueblood, "Intellectual Integrity," Faculty Dialogue, Winter (1984-85) 45.

5C. Hedtke, "Academic Dishonesty at the University of Delaware," Alumni News, Fall (1984) 9.

6W. J. Deal, "Cheating," J. Chem. Ed., 61 (1984) 797.

7S. H. Bauer, "Ethics (Or Lack Thereof) of Refereeing," Chem. and Eng. News 62 (Dec. 24, 1984) 2.

8W. Jim Neidhardt, "The Christian as Journal Referee-A Unique Opportunity for a Christian in Stewardship and Service to the Academic Community," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 36 (1984) 65.

9Leviticus 11:44, NIV.