The Limitations of Science

In the first module of Dr. Jay Wile’s homeschooling textbook, Exploring Creation with General Science, Wile laid the foundation for doubting scientific claims. In the second module he launches a full assault on science. In sections titled “What Science is NOT,” and “Failures of the Scientific Method,” and ”The Limitations of Science” Wile rephrases his main point: “no matter what you might hear or read, science has never and can never prove anything!” or “science is not 100% reliable and cannot prove anything.” Wile combines a perfectly reasonable claim about the fallibility of humans who engage in science with a not-so-subtle straw man argument to convince students to doubt all scientific knowledge. Along the way he cherry picks particular episodes from the history of science to support his skeptical position.

Wile tries to inculcate[1] a particular form of profound skepticism, at least when applied to scientific results. Science, he tells his readers,[2] does not have a method for proving anything. By prove, Wile means to establish as Truth for eternity. As his previous module on the history of science indicated, even the most well-established scientific knowledge has been disproven. Therefore, a “single counter-example is enough to destroy a conclusion,” any scientific conclusion.

In case the reader needs another example of human fallibility and erroneous scientific knowledge, Wile invokes the example the “American scientist Percival Lowell [who] hypothesized that the lines [on Mars] were actually canals which had been dug by the inhabitants of Mars.” In Wile’s account, Lowell’s efforts epitomize the scientific method:


And the fact that he was proven wrong demonstrates why we should trust the scientific method but doubt the findings of science.

There’s a paradox in Wile’s project. On the one hand, he tells his reader to doubt scientific knowledge, no matter how well established or how generative that knowledge. On the other hand, he encourages his reader to accept on faith the Bible, or more precisely, his preferred translation of the Bible.[3] We’ve seen this before: emphasize the lack certainty in scientific conclusions, make Truth the standard by which scientific knowledge is evaluated, and then reject all scientific knowledge as tentative that doesn’t conform to your ideological imperative while hiding under the guise of “rational” and “the scientific method.”[4]

Now that we have started down this rabbit hole, let’s see how bad it gets. Next up, module 3, “How to Analyze and Interpret Experiments.”

  1. Were this 50 years ago, we would probably use the word “brainwash.”  ↩

  2. Let’s recall that his readers here are parents homeschooling their children and middle-school age children who are encouraged to defer to Dr. Jay Wile, PhD.  ↩

  3. His preferred translation is the New American Standard Bible, from which he quote mines to demonstrate, perhaps predictably, that “belief in the Bible is scientifically reasonable.” Not only is it “_scientifically reasonable_” to believe that the “Bible is the Word of God” (never mind the questions of translation and textual corruption), the Bible is also the source of good scientific knowledge. At one point he says,

    …it might be interesting to not that the Old Testament contains meticulous instructions concerning how a priest is to cleanse himself after touching a dead body. These rituals, some of which are laid out in Numbers 19, are more effective than all but the most modern methods of sterilization. … This, of course, should not surprise you. After all, God knows all about germs and bacteria; He created them. Thus, it only makes sense that He would lay down instruction as to how His people can protect themselves from germs and bacteria.

    Ya, whatever.
    Wile has an entire book devoted to the “Scientific Case for Christianity.” Maybe we’ll look at that in a later post.  ↩

  4. If you haven’t yet, go read Merchants of Doubt.  ↩