Are the majority of new scientific publications false? There is very good evidence to believe that is the case. This short video is must viewing for anyone who wants to know why that is the case. As our News Desk has faithfully reported these last couple of years, science is beset with a replication crisis.
A passage in Stephen Meyer’s Return of the God Hypothesis got me to thinking about this crisis and perhaps the reason it arose. In an early chapter of his book, Meyer discussed why the scientific revolution occurred in Christian Europe and nowhere else. The reason, of course, is that far from being at war with science as some blinkered revisionist historians would have it, science was built on the foundation of a Christian worldview, as he demonstrates to the satisfaction of any reasonable observer. But for our present purposes, the part of Meyer’s discussion that caught my attention is his explanation of the role the Christian doctrine of original sin played in the development of the scientific method.
On the one hand, the entire scientific project is grounded on the Christian belief that the universe is rational and intelligible because it was created by a rational God. But belief in an underlying rationality, in isolation, did not spark the scientific revolution. After all, the Greeks believed in an underlying order, but the revolution did not occur there. Indeed, it could be argued (as Francis Bacon did argue) that science was stymied when, for over a thousand years, it was stuck in the cul-de-sac of sterile Aristotelian rationality divorced from empirical observation.
Here is the part that grabbed my attention. While belief in an underlying order was necessary, it was insufficient for the modern scientific method to arise. To escape Aristotle, scientists needed to understand the limitations on the project imposed by their own fallible human nature and the vital role of confirming empirical experiments. In other words, the doctrine of original sin was crucial to the development of science. This is how Meyer sums it up:
Such a nuanced view of human nature implied, on the one hand, that human beings could attain insight into the workings of the natural world, but that, on the other, they were vulnerable to self-deception, flights of fancy, and prematurely jumping to conclusions. This composite view of reason—one that affirmed both its capability and fallibility—inspired confidence that the design and order of nature could be understood if scientists carefully studied the natural world, but also engendered caution about trusting human intuition, conjectures, and hypotheses unless they were carefully tested by experiment and observation.Meyer, Stephen C.. Return of the God Hypothesis (p. 38)
There is a heresy known as Pelagianism (see here for Wikipedia’s article on that heresy), which, in very brief summary, rejects the doctrine of original sin and holds that humans are born as infinitely perfectible blank slates.
So what does all of this have to do with the crisis in replication? Just this. While scientists talk a good game about skepticism and self-correction, it seems to me that the replicability crisis is a direct result of scientists retreating from the Christian doctrine of original sin and hewing to a variation of Pelagianism heresy. The default position with respect to every scientific finding should be “that is probably false and I won’t believe it until the finding is replicated.” This seems to be the exact opposite of what we see to be the case among most members of the scientific community. Scientific conclusions are often accepted uncritically on the basis of only one experiment. For obvious reasons, this should never be the case, especially when the finding is consonant with the zeitgeist.
Someone once said that the doctrine of original sin is the most empirically verifiable of all Christian doctrines. There is a lot to be said for that conclusion. And that means, given what we know about human nature, scientists (and the rest of us) should be far more skeptical and less willing to accept new findings than we have been. And this is especially the case if we want the conclusions of a study to be true, because that is when our susceptibility to confirmation bias is at its greatest.
PS: Here is an excellent video debunking the false “warfare” thesis.