Climate science and evolutionary science

This is a guest post from frequent commenter Arcamaede, who follows the climate change news very closely. I asked him to lend his “fair and balanced” perspective to this question. Often, it’s assumed that “as evolutionary science, so climate science” — either scorning both or upholding both unequivocally. Might there be cause for a more nuanced approach?

~ Steve

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If you haven’t heard about “Climategate” then you do not follow the issue of climate change!

In brief, Climategate is the controversy that erupted after the release of thousands of emails from the CRU (Climate Research Unit) of the University of East Anglia which detailed serious scientific misconduct among climate scientists there (and in other similar institutions throughout the world). That misconduct was in the form of suppressing dissenting views as well as data that conflicted with the views of an inner cadre of high level climatologists.

So what does this have to do with evolutionary science?

Some Christians in the ID (and YEC) movements have seized upon this in an attempt to substantiate their own claims that evolutionary science is suspect due to similar behavior.

Of course this objection is not new. Before I made the transition from YEC to Evolutionary Creation, I recall one minister (who had a PhD in Biology) appealing to this in his lessons on Creation. He told the story of a professor of evolution confessing that evidence for human evolution would fit in a peach basket. (The professor purportedly retracted his statement when he discovered the questioner was a Creationist!) More recently, the movie Expelled strove to document suppression of dissent and opposing data.

Both climate science and evolutionary science are legitimate sciences. Both practice the scientific method.

The mature, refined, conclusive evidence of how evolution works comes from genetics as well as other fields. Conclusive evidence of how the climate works is still evolving (no pun intended) and has not had nearly as much time as evolutionary science to amass data and interpretations with the same level of confidence.

In short, we’re not going to see common descent overturned by a future discovery any more than we’d see gravity overturned or find that the world was flat after all. But we will indeed see changes in understanding the workings of the climate.

What would possess an intelligent, well-trained scientist to misbehave as has been done with Climategate? Hubris is a large factor. One could also argue greed and political agendas being others. That the whole issue of climate change has grown into the political (and monetary) arenas would be hard to deny.

But would other scientists behave like that?

I was trained in the area of Physics from the age of 18 until age 23. One of the factors that led me to leave after my first year of my PhD was the horrible level to which ego drove the whole endeavor of science. It just wasn’t the idealistic endeavor I’d been led to believe it was. (I later learned by age 29 that it was the same in Christian ministry.) There is no question in my mind that scientists (and Creationists) are vulnerable to pride.

I recall as a Physics student that our department was broken into three factions: two warring and one trying to stay out of the way of the the two. The whole (20 year!) war was over one faction catching a mistake in another’s presentation! Additionally, when one faction had a member come into “power” that faction falsified student evaluations in order to give their enemies low marks.

But that’s what the whole peer-review process is intended to minimize. Unfortunately in the case of climate science, the people steering the whole process are a rather small number within the discipline of climatology. It’s a relatively new field (less than 50 years) with lots of exciting questions to answer. Marking territory in this sets your name up in lights for potentially decades or centuries.

What about evolutionary science? It’s also subject to ego battles. A lot of the major discoveries have been made. But it’s an established field.

Quick! Name me one living popular evolutionary scientist who has made a monumental discovery in recent years?

Bet you couldn’t name one! That’s because there aren’t any (though a friend noted that James D. Watson is still alive). Sure, discoveries are being made but “Darwin” is a name everybody knows — maybe even “Huxley”, perhaps “Wallace” if you really know your history. The guys who remain are people like “Dawkins”, a man who has no real discoveries to his credit. He’s just a biology writer — he’s not considered a significant player. (Which largely explains his inflated ego and the way he conveys his atheism.)

The peer review process works adequately in evolutionary science due to its age and the huge number of practitioners. These are things that climate science will have when it’s been around as long as evolutionary science.

Then there is greed. Climate science is a cash cow. For the high level people involved at the CRU it means millions of dollars in research grants each year. Evolutionary science on the other hand (while receiving funding) is not the place to go if you want big money. Unless you write a really popular book containing nothing original!

(Another interesting tidbit learned from Climategate is that the relationship between CRU members and oil companies.  For those of you who would want to read a bit more about the issue of academic freedom and corporations you might take a peek at this discussion.)

Then there is agenda.  This really steps outside of the scientific arena and puts us into the political one. Here’s an analysis that makes it clear that the political leanings of some climate scientists biases their work.

Can the same thing be said of evolutionary science? Well, yes, but in a totally different direction. A primary case in my mind is the objection of some to the appointment of Francis Collins to his position at the NIH. This, however, does not reflect on any particular bias to the evidence for evolution (or show any particular attempt to hide counter-evidence) but just shows how a person’s worldview can make them into a bigot.

A different, tangential question is, “Do humans influence climate?” The answer is, “Yes.” But like anything in science the corollary question is, “How and how much?” The answer is, “We know many ways that humans influence climate but the full impact and how to mitigate that impact is still debated among climatologists.” Or, as a popular but controversial climatologist put it recently:

The so-called “greenhouse effect” is real. The question is how much will this effect be, and this is not a simple question. There are also questions being raised as to the very sign of some of the larger feedbacks to add to the confusion. Our purpose here was to merely point out that the addition of absorbing gases into the atmosphere must result in warming, contrary to some research currently circulating that says to the contrary.

On the evolutionary science side, there are absolutely no empirical data that would allow us to even question it as a valid explanation. The only objection is one based on a (shaky) literal theology. (Intelligent Design does not invalidate evolution, folks!)

I was encouraged to write this little post because I see a lot of misinformation on all sides of these issues. Some Christians attack the solid science of evolution. In the climate controversy, we have Christians on many sides of the aisle mixing their theological perspectives in their understanding of the science. The extremes I have in mind are:

1. God won’t allow us to destroy the environment.

Actually, the Bible makes no such promise. We’re quite free to make the whole world a wasteland.

2. The Bible is environmentally sensitive.

The cultures that wrote the Bible were not environmentally sensitive by our terms. They deforested.  They executed wholesale slaughter of animals. The concept of a time when man was somehow “one with nature” just never happened.

3.  The environment doesn’t matter.

John MacArthur once said, “I’ve told environmentalists that if they think humanity is wrecking the planet, wait until they see what Jesus does to it.”  This is a view based on a strain of fundamentalist literalism which is foreign to the original audience of the text of Scripture.

The Bible says zero about environmental issues. Any attempt to make it say anything is anachronistic. The question of climate issues will be settled through careful science and reflective thinking of humanity.

We need to let our understanding of the the history of science influence our understanding of the text of Scripture. By no means should we let the empirical contexts implied in Scripture distort our present understanding of scientific data. So where does that leave the place of Scripture in science?

Scripture remains a gateway for believers to be inspired to participate in scientific endeavor. Those of us who are believers can use science to better understand the works of God, and so deepen our understanding of Him.

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  • jonathanrobinson

    A good post on the whole, thanks.
    but, you do write,
    “The Bible says zero about environmental issues. Any attempt to make it say anything is anachronistic. “
    Which is an unhelpful assertion, the Bible does not treat the environment as an independent entity but it does treat “the land” as as being of significance theologically, stewardship, and generational legacy, and it most certainly treats justice and protection of the poor and marginalised. It is the poor and marginalised of our world who are bearing the brunt of climate change, deforestation, pollution, etc. Environmenatalism does not have to be driven by a concern for “mother earth” it can equally be driven by a concern for those who live in that environment. This of course does not dictate which way the climate is changing, what way it is changing, what is causing the change, or if it is changing at all, but it does mean the Bible demands our interest in environmental issues and gives us principles to approach the attendent issues.

  • Arcamaede

    Jonathan,

    As a guiding force for moral issues, the text would influence our decision making process with regard to what we know about the Science. The text cannot and should not guide the Science itself. The reactions I see to environmental issues have the Science being steered by the text.

    A

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  • Very interesting–and important–analysis here. I like it.

    I will admit I was initially put off by your claim that “We need to let our understanding of the the history of science influence our understanding of the text of Scripture.” But upon further reflection, I realize you're right: We do need to let our understanding of the world through science influence how we understand Scripture. My problem was assuming–quite wrongly–that you meant that science was the only/primary method for considering Scripture.

    ~Luke

  • Arcamaede

    Luke,

    Bingo! That sentence and its surrounding paragraph were probably the hardest part of the whole article to write. I think that each time I read it I want to write more about that particular aspect.

    A