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Maggie Ciskanik, M.S., MSc.June 4, 202410 min read

Learning to Trust in Science

There is a crisis in Science.

Many analyses of the crisis in science focus on “disinformation,” or “information overload,” the politicization of facts, and the failure to replicate. Additionally, contrary claims by “experts,” the interpretation of data based on politics, profit margins, or world-view biases, even studies using falsified data, have fanned into flame this bonfire around the temple of scientific “truth” and objectivity. Couple these social and historical factors with the very legitimate changing nature of scientific “facts,” and it's a perfect recipe for a crisis in credibility.

Our understanding of nature increases and grows with new information, new methods of obtaining that information, and new methods of evaluating it. Sometimes, the change is incremental; other times, it creates an explosive paradigm shift. It is important to recognize, however, that this change in scientific “facts” or their interpretation is justifiably the goal and legitimate outcome of the ongoing nature of scientific inquiry. 

“By protecting its legitimate autonomy from economic and political pressures, by not giving in to the forces of consensus or to the quest for profit, by committing itself to selfless research aimed at truth and the common good, the scientific community can help the world’s peoples and serve them in ways no other structures can." —Pope John Paul II

The Basics: What is the Scientific Method?

Recording observations of natural phenomena, both biological and cosmological, is rooted in ancient civilizations, with pre-Socratic philosophers and then Aristotle playing a significant role in that history. The more formal method of proposing a hypothesis, making observations, and teasing out relationships, both causal and correlational, appeared in nascent form in the 1200s with scientists like St. Albert the Great and Roger Bacon. Proposed as “fathers” of the scientific method, Sir Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Isaac Newton contributed to the emergence of the scientific method as we know it today.

Any experimental study requires a testable hypothesis and a protocol to collect information about variables proposed to be connected in some way. Once this information has been collected, data analysis is employed to check the relationship among the variables of interest. The results of this analysis determine whether or not significant relationships exist among the variables, either causal or correlational. The outcome of this analysis proves or disproves the hypothesis, making data analysis a significant player in the scientific process. The whole process is meant to eliminate doubt, to produce “facts” that cannot be denied

“Just the facts, ma’am, nothing but the facts.” —Sergeant Joe Friday, Dragnet

Does the scientific method deliver “just the facts?”

Yes and no. There are limitations to the method. 

The first limitation springs from the instruments or technology used to collect the data. The recent explosion of technological advances, from quantum computing, AI, and space telescopes such as the James Webb, have filled considerable information gaps in multiple scientific fields. As more discoveries are made, new information needs to be integrated into current models and theories.

Secondly, the scientific method itself is not completely objective and free from bias. Faulty study design, unrepresentative participant populations (too small, from a limited group, etc), and other factors fall into this category. There are specific methods commonly used for different types of data sets. So far, so good. Data put under the lens of mathematically sound and impartial statistical analysis should deliver objective results. But is the choice of the type of analysis free from bias? That assumption was tested in a study published in 2018. A single set of data was submitted to 29 teams with a combined total of 61 analysts. Twenty teams reported significant results, but with variations in “effect sizes” (read “significance”) ranging from 0.89 to 2.93; the remaining nine teams reported no significant relationships among the variables in the data set. In other words, the type of data analysis matters.

Even given these limitations, all hope is not lost. Being aware of one’s own biases can help reduce their influence. One also has to be comfortable with the notion of “uncertainty.” In fact, without it and the desire to know what is “true,” the history of human discovery would not exist! This history is, in fact, a fascinating story. 

“Science isn’t about winning arguments: it’s about finding out the truth.” —Jim Al-Khalilil

There is never a single cause to a complex phenomenon–nor can we be sure that we can unearth all of them. We can be sure of one thing: the three basic assumptions that form the bedrock of scientific inquiry have not changed in the millenia since humans first shared their observations and ideas with each other.

These three assumptions were reported in an earlier post, paraphrasing Brother Guy Consolmogno, SJ, head of the Vatican Observatory:

The first is that the universe is intelligible: there is “some kind of logic and order and regularity to it.” The obvious corollary is that it is understandable to us. And the last may seem too obvious to mention: the certain belief that understanding nature is worthwhile."

Objective Reality: Do Humans Have Access?

Belief in objective truth has radically declined in the modern age. Certain neurological discoveries in the last few decades have led some scientists to embrace the odd interpretation that humans cannot “really” access objective reality. Another example of the decline comes from the 2016 Word of the Year: post-truth. Jim Al-Khalili, theoretical physicist, author, and broadcaster, refers to the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of the term in his book The Joy of Science: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

In spite of this decline of belief in objective truth and doubt about the human capacity to access objective reality, human technological feats are undeniable. NASA has landed men on the moon, placed rovers on Mars, has a mission to “touch the sun,” and even landed and collected samples from an asteroid. There are a host of examples that may spring easily into the reader’s mind. It makes sense that humans should have access to the world in which they live. That idea does not necessarily spring from a religious belief.

Steps to Recovery of Trust in Science

Is there a way out of the crisis of trust in science?

Any loss of trust can be recovered. Necessary steps include an honest examination of one’s own biases and attitudes—and even ignorance!—combined with an openness to new information and viewpoints. As progress is made, new information and perspectives can be integrated into one’s understanding of nature—which is indeed the goal of scientific investigations.

As Dr. Khalili explains:

"In science, we use different models to describe nature; we have different ways of building up our scientific knowledge, and we regularly create different narratives depending on what aspects of a process or phenomenon we want to understand, but that is not the same as saying that there are alternative truths about the world."

Following the scientific method and testing and retesting hypotheses ultimately gives us a useful picture of nature and how things work in the world, always expanding our understanding and view of its complexity.

Evolution As An Example of Misunderstanding Scientific Facts

Many people are unaware of the history of the theory of evolution.

Even as early as Aristotle, observations of the natural world revealed a startling fact: among species of plants and animals there was incredible diversity but also striking similarities. What might explain these observations? In order to explore these ideas and explanations, one can begin by reading this short article, "Theories of Evolution before Darwin." Considering the state of scientific knowledge at the time helps to put Darwin’s proposals in context:

"It is essential to recognize that an understanding of embryology and even earth history was in its infancy in the 18th and 19th century. Both fields of study had an impact on the prevailing ideas about the inheritance of traits. Even vague germs of genetic inheritance can be found at this time. The proposed mechanisms were incorrect, but the primary insights open a window onto the scientific thinking of that time."

The theory of Evolution has undergone substantial revision as new information has been obtained. Although some Darwinian evolutionists are fierce in the defense of Darwin’s initial proposal of natural selection as the driver of the evolutionary process, there are other proposed mechanisms. These are explored in a thoughtful and informative analysis written by Dr. Thomas Fowler and Dr. Dan Kuebler, The Evolution Controversy: A Survey of Competing Theories.  

The distrust of the theory of Evolution is understandably strong in certain religious circles. Long used as a billy club against belief in God or the idea that man is created in His image and likeness, the theory has cast a dark shadow in the minds of many religious believers. However, using religious belief as a billy club against science should also be avoided. Secondly, failure to embrace basic scientific facts as a result of narrow Scriptural interpretations, for example, has led many young people to reject religious beliefs. These are two reasons why the Magis Center launched its Purposeful Universe project sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. Resources include articles and videos that explore an understanding of cosmological and biological evolution that highlight the order, purpose, complexity, and beauty of the contingent world in which we live.

Dr. Dan Kuebler is Dean of the School of Natural and Applied Sciences at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He holds a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from UC Berkeley and, as mentioned above, is the co-author of "The Evolution Controversy, A Survey of Competing Theories." Dr. Kuebler is the guiding expert for the Purposeful Universe project and hosts the Purposeful Lab podcast with Catherine Hadro. 

In his opening article, "Order, Chance, and Purpose in Evolution," he proposes a road map for a more insightful understanding of evolution with the latest data and insights in the field. Resources include a series of informative videos covering a range of topics from Cosmological and Biological evolution to Purpose in the Universe and Consciousness. The evolution videos include interviews with experts such as Karen Oberg on the origin of life in the cosmos and Simon Conway Morris on convergent evolution—the video series attempts to address and answer some fundamental questions. Let’s focus on Cosmological and Biological Evolution.

What is Biological Evolution?

“Biological evolution is an explanation for the way that complex organisms have come about and continue to change.”

The video series and articles on Biological Evolution examine the order and patterns found throughout nature across geographical locations and over time, even at the molecular level. One-minute videos highlight unusual facets of evolution, including “Increasing Complexity Means an Increase in Energy” and “The Arrow of Time in Evolution.” Another example of the content in this section is an excellent podcast,  Evolutionary Psychology–What Sets Humans Apart.  Dr. Kuebler describes how both in form and function human brains are distinct from other primates.

What is Cosmological Evolution?

Cosmological evolution refers to the origin of the cosmos, how stars and galaxies form, and how the expanding universe continues to change and evolve. In order to see the order and purpose found throughout the universe requires that we have an idea of how and when it began. Cosmology also includes the formation of stars, galaxies, black holes, exoplanets and even searching for extraterrestrial life. From intriguing possibilities that we are not alone in the universe to evidence for the Big Bang, the videos and articles in this section paint a vivid and often startling portrait of the Cosmos. The information found in these resources is truly awe-inspiring.

Accepting Uncertainty

“Uncertainty is really about waking up and then being adaptive, being nimble, being at the edge of what you know. . . . That’s where learning occurs.” —Maggie Jackson, author and science journalist, Templeton Foundation podcast.

It is a challenge to overcome long-held beliefs and to step into the arena of uncertainty. First, it might help to uncouple the word “belief” from “religious belief.” Changing our beliefs is necessary when we collect new information, whether it is about the natural world, history, or even about ourselves and the people closest to us. It does not mean that there is no such thing as truth.

Secondly, one must be patient. There is always more information: another interpretation, or scientific paper, or new theory to “explain it all” (or “explain away” the discomfort!). Even without unprecedented access to information in our time, gaining an in-depth perspective on a topic requires time—and real effort. No one becomes an expert overnight or even in a fortnight!

One can accept the challenge of discovering the theory of evolution (or any challenging scientific information) in a new light—or ignore it. However, rejecting current science will continue to strike a discordant note in one’s appreciation of the complex and ultimately astounding world as God created it. If nothing else, that appreciation is worth cultivating. 

“May wonder at Your glory captivate me continually.” John the Elder


Maggie Ciskanik, M.S., MSc.

Maggie Ciskanik, MS, MSc, has been a neurological nurse, an educator, and a writer. Her interests, life experience, and education have put her at the crossroads of philosophy, theology, and the science of human flourishing. With a B.A. in Philosophy, an MS in Nursing, and an MSc in Applied Neuroscience, she thrives on sharing scientific information from a faith perspective. She has written short biographies of many scientists, keeps up with astronomy news, and explores topics such as purpose, intelligence, free will, and consciousness. She is a regular contributor to the Magis Center for Faith and Reason, Purposeful Universe and has guest posts on Aleteia, the Vatican Observatory, and the Templeton Foundation.