We live in a world enamored with science. All one has to do to give his ideas or product a good standing is to appeal to science. Simply placing the adjective, “scientific,” on something gives the ring of quality and authenticity and veracity to a product or a to study or even to someone’s opinion.
So everyone, it seems, is producing a scientific study, and, when one comes out, we all speak in amazement at what we have learned. Then we set about to change our lives and ministries according to the profound new truth. After all, it is a “scientific” study.
At times, Christians have placed more trust and given more credence to these scientific studies than to God’s Word. One example of that was the self-esteem debacle. You remember that. Scientific studies were done. Theories were developed. It was fact that if a child’s self-esteem improved, her learning performance would improve and success was in her path. Churches jumped on the “scientific” idea in spite of the fact that the Bible teaches self-denial, becoming a living sacrifice, and loving God and esteeming Christ above all. Programs were redesigned. Correcting children was banished. Trophies were given just for signing up. Never was to be heard a discouraging word!
The only problem was that the studies were wrong. Or perhaps the theories based on the studies were wrong. Or perhaps the studies were just incomplete.
The incomplete study is what happened to Judith Wallerstein, who is a psychologist considered to be an authority on the effects of divorce on children. In 2000, she published a book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, in which she admitted, “One thing was crystal clear. I had stopped too soon in my inquiry of children from divorced families.” Because a woman who had been part of that study bothered to stop and to tell Wallerstein the rest of her personal story, 25 years after the original study was completed, closed, published, and accepted as fact, Wallerstein’s understanding of divorce and the trajectory of her further research all changed dramatically.
Trouble with Science
This is the trouble with science. We expect God-like objectivity and omniscience from it, and such a demand is impossible for science to fulfill.
Science is the work of finite, biased, frail, sinful men and women. When science invests sufficient time and resources, its method of verification can provide a greater certainty through review and correction. That sort of scientific review and correction is what reversed the tide against self-esteem. We all have seen similar things happen with food studies. Eat oats. Don’t eat eggs. Take this miracle drug. “If you took that miracle drug, call the law offices of . . .”
I am for good science. I am against expecting too much of science and of granting it a status it does not deserve. This is particularly true for the social sciences, like sociology, psychology, and education, the sciences that study people. For Christians, this should be a major concern, because these social sciences seek to describe and to prescribe in the very areas and matters our Lord addresses in the Bible. Further, when a social science is wrong, it harms people, and it harms the Christian’s ability to speak the biblical truth people so desperately need. If we Christians embrace a finding of social science that turns out to be wrong, we then stand responsible before God for the harm.
What To Do
So what are we to do? Give up the social sciences altogether? That would not be my proposal. I would propose that we place science in its proper place. In part two of this blog we will find six things to remember to help us do this well.
Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, Sandra Blakeslee, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study (New York: Hyperion, 2000).