Scientific Gamesmanship

[response to Dickerson]


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 Berkeley, CA 94707

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 44 (June 1992): 138-139. 

"The Game of Science" is a metaphor used by many of us to argue that science isn't the whole meaning of life. Science is a game, we say, though not the only game in town. Not everyone chooses to play, but those who do must abide by the rules of the game.

Richard Dickerson has reminded Perspectives readers that Rule No. 1 limits scientific explanations to physical and material causes. Rule No. 1 applies with equal force to every team on the field, from the "Harmless Doves," who believe that God exists and interacts with his creation, to the "Savvy Serpents," who claim that all God-talk is a lie or a delusion.

As though to reinforce the metaphor, those who police research papers submitted to scientific journals are called "referees." They see to it that Rule No. 1 is obeyed. Spectators of the sport seldom appreciate how much leeway this system leaves for Christians to make distinctive contributions to life in the lab, or to hold views of how the world works that differ from currently accepted scientific views.

When metaphors are taken literally, problems arise. Insistence that "Science is, fundamentally, a game," can give the impression of an overrated diversion. After all, not everyone sees the point of grown men battling over possession of a ball. And even avid sports fans suspect that many professional players are grossly overpaid for what they do. Few branches of "the science game" can be played with so little equipment as to resemble a chess game or footrace. Scientific work (or "play") has become an expensive, elitist enterprise, more like professional sports or the winter Olympics--which ordinary citizens might refuse to support with their taxes. Games can get out of hand.

On the other hand, U.S. citizens have been bombarded with dire predictions about what will happen to our country unless science and science education are taken with utmost seriousness. Coach Dickerson warns that we would face "peril" if we changed the rules of "the game of rational science." Does that send citizens a double message? Why should "playing a game" under slightly different rules amount to "insidious evil"?

Pondering divine participation in the world might stifle curiosity and blunt the intellect. But a lot of curious people are already asking, "Who made the rules?" and "Who defines what constitutes progress?" In 1992 it seems clear that millions of people suffered great harm through the application of navigational technology 500 years ago. It also seems clear that those who control technology have defined the terms ever since. Was the voyage of Columbus really an amazing discovery of a new world? Or was it the beginning of conquest and exploitation of an old one?

Scientific research depends on the financial support of millions of citizens who will never know the joy of scientific discovery. Hubris about scientific progress can produce a backlash: "If science can't deal with questions that are important to everyone except scientists, maybe it's time to redefine science--or shift our support to some other pursuit." "Scientific creationism" might well earn the ridicule of future generations, but (alas) so might "rational science."

Evidence is now coming to light about grave environmental damage done in countries where scientific progress was officially embraced while the validity of religious faith was officially denied. The leaders responsible for that misuse of science were hardly "creationists." While fending off overwrought critics and guarding science against encroachment, we must not let a quasi-religious belief in "salvation through progress" shut down our own curiosity.

I wonder, for example, if adhering strictly to Rule No. 1 to rid the game of a personal deity could, perhaps over many generations, lead to a devaluing of personhood in general. Last year I corresponded with a prominent molecular biologist who had put down ASA's Teaching Science booklet as "a work of religious advocacy." In a letter to me he advocated that human beings are "the descendants of defective purple bacteria."

To me that assertion seemed largely underdetermined by empirical evidence, and not very helpful, but he devoutly believed it. To produce a biologist from a bacterium is not technically a divine miracle--if it took three or four billion years--so the concept was allowable under Rule No. 1. It was just one of those points that science has not cleared up--"yet," according to Dickerson. It might even be true, I thought. At least belief in his bacterial ancestry didn't seem to stifle that scientist's curiosity. But of course belief in God's creative activity did not stifle the curiosity of Copernicus, Galileo, or Newton, either.

Cartoonist Bill Watterson began a recent "Calvin and Hobbes" strip with Calvin's teacher saying that the class would move on to the next chapter if there were no questions. Calvin, a precocious six-year-old, did have a question: "What's the point of human existence?" His long-suffering teacher replied that she meant any questions about the subject at hand. Calvin then said that he'd like to have the issue resolved before he expended any more energy on school work.

Perhaps Calvin and others like him will never be "real scientists," but it would be unwise to tell them, in the name of science, to stop asking such unanswerable questions so we can get on with playing the game.