Tag: Science and Religion

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:

observation→hypothesis→experiment→theory

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.  ↩

Homeschooling & General Science

Exploring Creation with General Science, a homeschool textbook on general science by Dr. Jay Wile,[1] begins reasonably enough with a survey of the history of science. The author’s justification for studying the history of science could have come from any middle school science textbook:

As with any other field, the only way to truly understand where we are in science today is to look at what happened in the past. The history of science can teach us many lessons about how science should and should not be practiced. It can also help us understand the direction in which science is heading today. In the end, then, no one should undertake a serious study of science without first taking a look at its history. That’s where we will start in the course. This module will provide you with a brief history of human scientific inquiry. If you do not like history, please stick with this module. You will start to sink your teeth into science in the next module. Without a historical perspective, however, you will not fully appreciate what science is!

Science is a human activity. Science has a past that can help us understand how humans have engaged in this activity. If you want a better understanding of current science, you should study how people in the past practiced it. Sounds fine so far, especially for a middle school general science textbook. Unfortunately, the brief history of science that follows has less to do with understanding science in the past than with laying the groundwork for doubting science in the present.[2]

wile

According to Wile, we should learn three things from the history of science:

  • first, scientific claims, in the end, turn out to be wrong.
  • second, scientists often judge scientific claims by the reputation of the scientist rather than the evidence.
  • finally, “science and Christianity work very well together,” despite what most people today think.

The history of science teaches us to doubt scientific conclusions, which are regularly disproven. Wile judges science in the past and the people who investigated the natural world by “what we now know” (a turn of phrase that recurs frequently). Unsurprisingly, all past science is wrong. In his bog-standard survey, Wile finds Anaximenes foolish enough to think that air was the basic building block for all things; Democritus was wrong about atoms being indivisible and the smallest building block of matter; Aristotle was silly enough to believe in spontaneous generation; Ptolemy wrongly thought the earth was the center of the universe. In his romp through the “Dark Ages,” Wile finds devout Christian thinkers like Robert Grosseteste or Roger Bacon wrong, but at least progressively so. Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Boyle are less wrong, because “we now know” that some of their conclusions are correct.

Some people appear in Wile’s survey just to be wrong. Anaximander

believed that all life began in the sea, and at one time, humans were actually some sort of fish. This idea was later resurrected by other scientists, most notably Charles Darwin, and is today called the “theory of evolution.” Later on in this course, I will discuss this theory, showing its scientific flaws (p. 4).

And Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin of course.

That we continue to modify and reject scientific conclusions is, at best, a banal truism that has nothing to do with right or wrong. Only by approaching science as a timeless activity that we should evaluate by “what we now know” can Wile enlist this truism in his argument against science. Wile is not alone in judging the past by “what we now know.” See Gordon Wood’s recent review, The Bleeding Founders. Like triumphalist historians of medicine and science, Wile enlists the history of science in his particular project, his just happens to be a religio-political project.

The history of science also teaches us that we should doubt scientists themselves. Scientists have often believed another scientists because they were famous or well respected. Scientists also have a habit of believing what they want to believe. In both cases, Wile implies, scientists had no evidence for accepting the conclusions they did. They were, instead, awed by fame or deluded by their own biases. Aristotle is perhaps the most notable example:

Aristotle was respected! You see, Aristotle was considered (rightly so) to be the greatest scientist of his time. Thus, his ideas (even the wrong ones) were revered for generations! In fact, the absurd notion of spontaneous generation lasted until 1870, more than 2,000 years after it was proposed by Aristotle (p. 9).

Ptolemy too was revered and his geocentric system “became popular because it fit many scientists’ preconceived notions of how things ought to be.”

So this little episode from history shows us another way that science should not be done. You should not hold fast to an idea simply because it fits with your preconceived notions. Science is built on data, not a person’s beliefs. The acceptance or rejection of a scientific proposition, then, should rest solely on the data, nothing more (p. 11–12).

Wile refuses to look for evidence that might have supported a theory—e.g., Ptolemy’s geocentric system was grounded in empirical evidence and good philosophical arguments. But “we now know” it was wrong, and scientists wrongly claimed it was right, therefore we can’t trust what they say. They have succumbed to arguments from authority or their prejudicial beliefs. Scientists must be distrusted, or so Wile implies.

Finally, the history of science shows us that science and Christianity go hand-in-hand, or so Wile claims. In a concerted display of faulty logic, Wile claims that because scientists in the past were Christians, Christianity is essential to the advancement of science. He lambasts Enlightenment thinkers for rejecting the Bible, despite “the fact that a Biblical worldview had brought about great advances in science….” In his survey of medieval thinkers, he never missed a chance to point out that one was a Roman Catholic priest, another a bishop in the Roman Catholic church, and yet another a devout Roman Catholic. Early modern thinkers become devout Christians.[3]

He drives his point home in the concluding paragraphs:

Before I end this section, I want to make sure that you have picked up on something. Notice that each of the great scientists of this era were devout Christians. In fact, … you will notice that, with a few notable exceptions, most of the great scientists from the Dark Ages to modern times were devoted Christians. Once again, that’s because the Christian worldview is a perfect fit with science (p. 18).

Non-Christian scientists today continue to propagate a myth about the opposition between science and religion—apparently this is another reason not to trust scientists.

The faintest scintilla of validity flash in the depths of Wile’s claims, which makes them all the more troubling. It’s easy to imagine 7th-grade students and their homeschooling parents following Wile’s logic to its intended conclusion: If scientists have modified and rejected scientific claims, and if scientists have been known to adhere to scientific theories for non-scientific reasons, and if non-Christain scientists today repeat a myth about science’s war with religion, then science and scientists (at least non-Christian scientists) are not to be trusted. He will make his point explicit in the next section.

Just as Wile’s section on the history of science opens with a reasonable claim and ends in lunacy, so too do many of his paragraphs. Numerous times I find myself saying, “Okay, that’s not bad.” only then to find myself shaking my head in disbelief. I want to condemn Wile for intentionally misleading his readers—this book is, after all, more about indoctrination than education—but I can’t tell if he believes what he writes. Maybe he is the first victim of his own delusion. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Either way, students are not learning “general science” from this textbook.[4]


  1. Wile is a young-earth creationist who earned a “Ph.D. in Nuclear Chemistry” before starting a homeschooling publishing company. I choose not to provide a link to his site.  ↩

  2. While it might be easy and comfortable to assume that a creationist science textbook, something of an oxymoron, would doubt contemporary science, to make that assumption without reading the textbook invites the charge of hypocrisy for ignoring or failing to engage with evidence. The point of this post is examine and analyze what the textbook says in an effort to ground my critique in evidence rather than reflexive suspicion.  ↩

  3. In Wile’s history, the ancient Greek thinkers are decidedly wrong. Some Greek thinkers are, at least, named, unlike “Chinese and Arabs” thinkers who don’t merit any more than a passing acknowledgement that they existed.  ↩

  4. I see no way to implement a check on what gets “taught” as science as long as the U.S. has a thriving homeschooling movement, considering we have failed to realize any check on what gets taught as “science” in the public schools. Perhaps we can learn something from the recent development in the UK to prevent teaching creationism as a science in free schools and church academies.  ↩

John Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science

John William Draper’s version of the conflict between science and religion is quirky and idiosyncratic, and contains some unexpected bits. He shares with Andrew D. White a central claim, which too many people today continue to accept as true:

The History of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.

Draper’s consistent praise of Islam for having supported and advanced science was unexpected and seems surprising. More surprising, however, is his view of Eastern Orthodox Christianity:

For this reason I have had little to say respecting the two great Christian confessions, the Protestant and Greek Churches. As to the latter, it has never, since the restoration of science, arrayed itself in opposition to the advancement of knowledge. On the contrary, it has always met it with welcome. It has observed a reverential attitude to truth, from whatever quarter it might come. Recognizing the apparent discrepancies between its interpretations of revealed truth and the discoveries of science, it has always expected that satisfactory explanations and reconciliations would ensue, and in this it has not been disappointed. It would have been well for modern civilization if the Roman Church had done the same.

His faith in an impartial, unbiased, and beneficent science recalls a more optimistic, if naïve, time. His ideal image of a-political science has become increasingly hard to defend:

As to Science, she has never sought to ally herself to civil power. She has never attempted to throw odium or inflict social ruin on any human being. She has never subjected any one to mental torment, physical torture, least of all to death, for the purpose of upholding or promoting her ideas. She presents herself unstained by cruelties and crimes. But in the Vatican—we have only to recall the Inquisition—the hands that are now raised in appeals to the Most Merciful are crimsoned. They have been steeped in blood!

While Draper eschewed footnotes and the other trappings of a scholarly work, he had a clear idea about the validity and value of a certain type of history. Like all things science-y, scientific history is the superior form of history because it is impartial and seeks to illuminate the universal laws that have shaped human affairs. Artistic history, by contrast, is inferior because it mistakenly assumes humans have some interesting agency, it distorts historical figures, making them heroes of our romantic fictions of the past:

There are two modes of historical composition, the artistic and the scientific. The former implies that men give origin to events; it therefore selects some prominent individual, pictures him under a fanciful form, and makes him the hero of a romance. The latter, insisting that human affairs present an unbroken chain, in which each fact is the offspring of some preceding fact, and the parent of some subsequent fact, declares that men do not control events, but that events control men. The former gives origin to compositions, which, however much they may interest or delight us, are “but a grade above novels; the latter is austere, perhaps even repulsive, for it sternly impresses us with a conviction of the irresistible dominion of law, and the insignificance of human exertions. In a subject so solemn as that to which this book is devoted, the romantic and the popular are altogether out of place. He who presumes to treat of it must fix his eyes steadfastly on that chain of destiny which universal history displays; he must turn with disdain from the phantom impostures of pontiffs and statesmen and kings.

Predictably, Draper violated his own injunction and wrote largely an artistic history, populated by a handful of heroes and as many villains, and a generous helping of romanticized conflicts between them.