Politicized science: the lessons of the Galileo affair

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 12, 2015

Sometime in grammar school, we all learned the rules of the scientific method, right? You remember how they go:

  1. First, form a hypothesis.
  2. Next, devise an experiment to test the hypothesis.
  3. If the experiment seems to confirm the hypothesis, launch a public-relations campaign to ridicule anyone who questions it, and call for an end to government funding of any scientists who disagree.

What? You say that Step #3 is not a part of the scientific method? Sorry; my mistake. It’s true that I didn’t learn that step in grammar school. But that does seem to be the way scientific discussions are carried on today. The most interesting debates are taking place not in laboratories and specialized journals, but in newspaper op-ed columns and in legislatures.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger observes that the politicization of science could have grim implications for our future. If ordinary folks come to the cynical conclusion that scientists are playing political games, massaging facts and suppressing evidence, then the scientific progress that we have taken for granted for more than a century could come grinding to a halt. Or as Henninger puts it, “If too many people think even scientists are lying to them, humanity is headed toward the lemmings’ famous cliff.”

Science—real science, that is, as opposed to the version found in the op-ed pages—requires free and open discussion. A researcher with an unpopular opinion should have the right to present the evidence for that opinion, without fear of losing face, losing funding, or losing tenure. Sadly, that sort of freedom is conspicuously lacking from the most heated debates of our day.

In fact, the politicization of science has created a situation in which anyone who questions any part of the prevailing orthodoxy is subject to ritual denunciations. Thus,

  • It isn’t enough to acknowledge that the world’s climate is changing; one is also expected to agree that the change has been caused by human activity.
  • It isn’t enough to say that vaccines can prevent disease without causing any harmful side-effects; one must support mandatory vaccination, without distinguishing among the vaccines.
  • It isn’t enough to say that homosexual couples can raise healthy children; one must accept studies that purport to show that children from same-sex households face no special emotional or developmental problems.

The bullying of researchers who challenge the popular consensus, the concerted effort to squelch minority views, is a disgrace to the world of science.

But why am I writing about this topic, on a site devoted to the affairs of the Catholic Church? Because I fear that Church leaders may be tempted to join in these debates.

The Catholic hierarchy has no special authority to judge scientific hypotheses, no special reason to promote any particular theory. Rather than seeking to act as arbiters or partisans, Church leaders should encourage the honest pursuit of truth and the just treatment of individual researchers. When scientific debates are politicized, both of those goals are jeopardized. We should have learned that much from the Galileo affair.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bnewman - Feb. 15, 2015 5:49 PM ET USA

    One aspect of science that has changed in the last 50 yeARS is the significance of money: and with money politics. For tenure and each succeeding promotion the degree of funding must increase. Exaggeration is required to justify the expenditure to the government, and fierce competition requires the exaggeration to increase yearly. Some try the fear tactic: civilization will collapse if I am not funded!

  • Posted by: rik92vin8086 - Feb. 14, 2015 9:35 AM ET USA

    Sorry to comment again, but I am a scientist and we have a prominent environmental sciences program at our university, although I am a chemist. A person at the last parish council meeting asked me, "how am I supposed to believe a projection about global temperature changes for the next 10-100 years, when I can't even get an accurate weather forecast for next week? I smiled and said...I have no idea. But you are required to believe it - it has been decreed a dogma of science.

  • Posted by: rik92vin8086 - Feb. 14, 2015 9:30 AM ET USA

    Science has always been politicized. There are brief periods when it wasn't. Mainly, when it was a philosophy unable to take any advancing steps due to technological limitations. It was in service of understanding God when St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas aquinas, roger bacon a monk and the bishop of Lincoln actually defined our modern definition of the scientific method. Advances have benefitted governments, military, industry and likewise have become specific tools.

  • Posted by: dowd9585 - Feb. 14, 2015 6:49 AM ET USA

    Great article Phil. The Catholic Church has no business getting involved in such hypothetical political issues like climate change. Quasi science like evolution and climate change is modern liberal dogma many of whose adherents have no belief in God and are enemies of the Church. Because climate change cannot be proved the only recourse is for the government to force people to adhere to it's various "solutions". I pray that Pope Francis not lend his credibility to this pernicious nonsense.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 12, 2015 9:12 PM ET USA

    Good article, Phil. I agree with you and St. Augustine that churchmen should publicly comment only about that which is in the scope of their expertise, and not go beyond that with their personal opinions. But I'm not sure that the Galileo case makes a good analogy. Galileo's two errors were to try to influence religion with his personal opinions and to try to sell a hypothesis that could not be verified for 100 years.

  • Posted by: Vincit omnia amor - Feb. 12, 2015 7:22 PM ET USA

    Amen, Phil! We have a Gospel to proclaim and it's not helpful to risk the credibility of THE message on junk science or even that which is still up for dabate!