What Creationists Get Wrong About Science
Science is a glorious and powerful intellectual endeavor. It teaches us truths, but we must always be open to a newer and better understanding. Unfortunately, this is something that Young Earth Creationists disallow in their pursuit of truth, and thus grossly misuse, misunderstand, and misrepresent the methods of science.
What is Science?
It is commonly asserted that science is a collection of facts. But this is not entirely true. Science is a way of observing the world and generating testable hypotheses. Those hypotheses can be confirmed or falsified. Once the hypotheses are confirmed, they can be taken as facts. But again, they are not facts like saying that George Washington was the first president of the United States. They are more malleable, like Newton’s law of gravity, which is still a good enough scientific theory that we can use it to calculate orbital parameters and rocket trajectories, and accurately send a probe to Pluto. But when Newton’s theory of gravity was proven to be incomplete, it was upgraded by Einstein’s law of general relativity.
Thus, scientific facts and ideas can change as new information comes in. That way of thinking about facts is discomfiting to those who want an unchanging worldview, but it’s the flexibility of science that gives it such power. Ideas work as long as they work and to a needed level of accuracy, but they can be upgraded (or discarded) when new information comes in, or if a higher level of accuracy is needed. Thus, facts themselves are not science either. Science certainly does include determining facts, but it also includes seeing how those facts can be woven together into a tapestry that tells a bigger story.
The Scientific Method
A common understanding of the scientific method is that it is based on a recursive method that starts with an observation of some phenomenon. For example, a person sees bumblebees landing on flowers. From this, the person forms a hypothesis, which is that the flowers are a source of food for the bees. A hypothesis is described as an educated guess. Then, the person does an experiment, which tests the idea. If the experiment fails to support the hypothesis, it is rejected. If it succeeds, then the person can elevate the hypothesis to the level of a theory, which might be called a tested hypothesis. Finally, if the person tests the theory over and over again, and it is always supported by the data, then the idea can be elevated to being a law, which is the highest-possible status in science.
This description is simple and linear, but scientific research is never that simple. The process is considerably messier, with many more twists, turns, revisions, and surprises. In fact, usually there are dead ends, false alleys, and puzzled looks! Thus, science is much more interesting at the specialist level. When it comes to how science is really done, there are more loops and modifications. For example, the hypothesis-generation phase doesn’t come just from observations, but from talking to other specialists in various fields, reading the literature, and exploring what is known and what is not. These all form an intricate interplay. Then, when you start to take data, you should have predictions with which you can compare your observations. The data isn’t usually clear-cut. It’s not like you have a theory of gravity that says that things hover above the ground that you can then prove false by dropping a ball. Most data are not conclusive. They might support or contradict your idea. You might observe something wholly unexpected, or the data might be inconclusive. Or they might partially support your idea, which then causes you to modify your hypothesis or change your experiment.
Even once you have done your experiment, you need to see if other people can replicate it. You need to have others criticize it. Even the best scientists can fool themselves. They can make mistakes and overlook things. If you want your idea to be bulletproof, you need to have everything vetted by the most critical process possible. If you can't handle criticism, then you shouldn’t become a scientist, because it’s a world of constant and brutal critique. It’s not that your colleagues are being unnecessarily mean to you; on the contrary, they are trying to help you! The goal of scientists isn’t to win an argument; it’s to be right, and this means the pursuit of answering all questions within a team of people devoted to hard work and critical thinking.
Science and Philosophy
There are those in the philosophical community who regard philosophy as the queen of intellectual disciplines, from which all the others originated, and there is historical merit in that position. However, some then imply that philosophers are superior to other pursuers of knowledge, such as scientists. Alternatively, the disciplines of science and philosophy can be viewed in the manner of evolution. For example, it is true that the original form of semi-complex animal was a sea sponge. Over millions of years, other forms of animals evolved, including the phylum Chordata, which includes mammals and humans. And even though our ancestral organism might have been a sponge, that doesn’t mean that modern-day sponges can do calculus. It’s more of a schism that occurred early on, and the divergences have made the two organisms very different. In the same way, philosophy allowed science to arise, but the two disciplines are now quite distinct. There are two core ideas of philosophy to understand science: metaphysics and epistemology.
Metaphysics is the study of existence. It's ultimately concerned with two questions:
1. What exists?
2. What is it like?
Metaphysics is recognizably related to physics, but there are some very deep questions one might ask about existence. For example, we could ask whether there is an objective reality that exists without us. Most scientists would come down firmly on the position that there is a reality out there and that it would continue to exist even if we didn’t. Other philosophers say that there is no reality other than what exists in our perception. This implies that the existence is in the perceiving. And that leads to questions like whether two people see the color red the same way. Obviously, we can’t know the answer to that in detail, which means that the conversation will continue.
Epistemology is concerned with questions of whether we can know anything for sure, and what it means to rationally believe in something. This is an important consideration for scientists because theories and models are built on the basis of observations. If the observations are somehow flawed, then the theories will also be flawed. At the very deepest and most philosophical level, this could mean that we can never be sure of our science. If humans are actually held in a giant vat, with all of our sensory information fed to us, then we wouldn’t actually know anything at all, and, in fact, our science would be totally wrong! But this doesn’t stop us in our quest for what science is. We can make great progress in our understanding of the universe. But it’s important to realize that we are actually taking a leap of faith. And this faith involves believing that our senses are a mostly accurate representation of reality and that there is no evil demon or laboratory master that is deceiving us. But, does this mean that science is like religion, because it rests on faith?
Thus, it’s important for those who really want to scientifically understand the universe to be honest and understand the fundamental limitations and weaknesses of the discipline of science. If we assume that there is an objective reality and that our senses are a good approximation of the world around us, there is the question of what science can prove. Can the scientific method prove that a theory is true? Another important aspect of science is the idea that science doesn’t actually prove that anything is true! This idea originated most famously by Karl Popper. It was his contention that the scientific method could not prove that something was true. This is because one could have a scientific theory that is right for the wrong reason. As mentioned above, consider Newton’s theory of gravity, which worked very well for hundreds of years of observations, but was upgraded by Einstein’s theory of general relativity when Newton’s theory couldn’t reproduce measurements of the movement of Mercury. This is Popper’s core idea: scientific theories can’t be proven, only disproven.
Does this invalidate the scientific method? No. But it does remind us that science is a method more than a body of knowledge! The scientific method generates for us the body of knowledge, and it gives us a model of how the world works. But the result isn’t static or timeless. Things change, and are guaranteed to evolve, like the universe. Thus, our understanding of it will always be incomplete. This is why the theology of the NT was the grounding for the development of the scientific method in Reformation Europe, especially when scientific theologians were reminded by Paul to "test everything" (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and "continually be transformed by the renewing of your minds." (Romans 12:2)