A More Sensible Solution to Religious Bias in Science - Evolution News & Views

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A More Sensible Solution to Religious Bias in Science

One of the key expert witnesses for the ACLU in the Dover trial was Barbara Forrest, a Professor of Philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University. She recently authored a paper entitled "Understanding the Intelligent Design Creationist Movement: Its True Nature and Goals," (May 2007) in which a major theme is that, since nearly all of the leading intelligent design proponents are Christians who have expressed a preference for a Christian influenced culture, their scientific efforts cannot be trusted as bona fide science. Forrest's claim, echoing a common theme of Darwinists, is that since the vast majority of intelligent design promoters are Christians, their scientific work must necessarily be so biased by their religious beliefs as to be compromised. On this basis, Forrest essentially argues that anything Christian proponents of intelligent design say about science must be rejected as real science.

Forrest focuses exclusively on the alleged religious biases and motives of Christian proponents of intelligent design. This isn't surprising, given Forrest's role as one of the ACLU's hired guns in the Dover trial. It is Forrest's status as an ACLU hired gun that should cause us to question the objectivety of her own academic work.

Nevertheless, the corollary of Forrest's thesis would be that the religious beliefs of scientists adhering to non-theistic religious beliefs must be presumed to taint the scientific work of those scientists in the same proportion as the religious beliefs of Christian scientists supposedly taint their professional work.

Assuming arguendo the validity of Forrest's thesis that a scientist's religious beliefs necessarily inject a bias into a scientist's professional scientific work, let's see how it would apply to Darwinists and their work.

Leading Darwin proponent William Provine, a professor of biology at Cornell University, recently co-authored a study, "Evolution, Religion and Free Will," (Gregory W. Gaffin and William B. Provine, American Scientist, July-Aug. 2007) showing that less than 5% of evolutionary biologists believe in a personal God, and more than 95% Of evolutionary biologists are non-Christians and non-theists.

Applying Forrest's thesis, we would then have to conclude that the scientific work of over 95% of evolutionary biologists is infected with a non-theistic religious bias. According to Forrest's prescribed response to this bias, we would have to reject all of the scientific work of over 95% of evolutionary biologists based on the non-theistic religious bias that infects their work. Apparently, Forrest would urge rejection of the work of the remaining 5% of evolutionary biologists on the basis of the theistic religious bias that supposedly infects their work.

Clearly, Forrest's prescribed response to possible religious bias in science is unworkable. All scientists have some religious belief system, ranging from those scientists holding Christian or other theistic religious beliefs to scientists holding atheistic or other non-theistic religious beliefs. Applying Forrest's prescribed response to religious bias evenhandedly, we would be have to throw out the work of all scientists, since the work of all scientists is necessarily biased by their religious beliefs. Forrest's thesis and prescribed response is, at its core, anti-science, because it would require us to reject the scientific work of any scientist holding some sort of religious belief -- i.e., 100% of scientists.

Let's get real and admit that the religious beliefs of all scientists probably influence their scientific work to some extent. So what is the proper response to this presumed religious bias in science?

Speaking from experience as a litigation attorney for the past twenty-eight years, I would propose an alternative remedy to the problem of religious bias in science, one that is routinely used in American courts. Any trial attorney can tell you that the opposing parties in civil trials routinely hire expert scientific witnesses to support their side of science issues in lawsuits. It is quite common to find some of the leading science experts in the world testifying in civil trials in America. The rules of evidence assume that all scientific witnesses are likely to have some bias. The most common bias is a bias in favor of the party that hired the witness. The legal system deals with the issue of bias by permitting the opposing party to expose this bias to the trier of fact through cross-examination of the witness. The scientist's bias does not disqualify the scientist from offering scientific opinion at trial. Rather, the rules of evidence and argument permit each party's attorney to expose the bias of the other party's science expert, and then to argue that the trier of fact should take into consideration that bias in evaluating the reliability of the expert's scientific opinion. Once the trier of fact sorts through the bias of each party's scientific witness, the trier of fact must determine which scientific expert's application of valid scientific analysis to the actual facts and scientific data presents the more valid rendition of reality.

It has been my experience that the most successful expert scientific witnesses are those who are most prepared to provide valid scientific explanations based on careful attention to the actual facts in the legal case.

I would propose that a similar model be used to deal with the issue of religious bias in scientific work relating to evolution. We would begin by assuming that all scientists hold some religious belief that will have an impact on their scientific work. Standard procedure should be to disclose that religious belief at the outset of any discussion of the scientist's work, so that the bias that presumably flows from that scientist's religious beliefs can be taken into consideration in evaluating the scientist's work.

But once the religious bias of the scientist is exposed and taken into consideration, the real focus in evaluating a scientist's work should be on how the scientist's scientific theory or hypothesis comports with the actual scientific data. The scientific work of scientists who are proponents of intelligent design and of scientists who are opponents of intelligent design should be judged by the same ultimate standard -- how do their scientific theories or hypotheses about life's origins comport with the actual scientific data?

Under my proposal, the potential impact of a scientist's religious beliefs on their scientific work can be disclosed and taken into account in an appropriate way in assessing the scientist's work. But the real focus of judging a scientist's work will be where it should be -- to what extent does the scientist's work advance our knowledge of the truth about nature?