Controversy

During my scientific research career, I have never known of any scientific field that is not marked by controversy. When I retired from research and took a position as a senior official in the Center for Scientific Review of the NIH (the agency responsible for managing the review of 80% of US grants in the Biomedical sciences), this observation was strongly confirmed. In many study sections, controversial ideas were often hotly debated.

Controversy is part of the scientific process and is often the driver of progress. New ideas, which are the fuel of science, are always controversial, until sufficient evidence is accumulated for them to attract support. The worst thing that can happen to any area of scientific research (as I have witnessed) is an end to controversy. The development of a profound and stifling consensus is usually the signal for a stagnant and soon to be outdated field.

As Christian scientists or Christians interested in science, how should we deal with scientific controversy? There are those who propose we avoid it. They claim that the entire movement of evolutionary creation, theistic evolution (TE/EC), is based on the premise that Christians should strictly adhere to the consensus views of mainstream science, and reject the controversial positions associated with pseudoscience, such as young earth creationism, or intelligent design. I agree, of course. Being a Christian should not give us warrant to reject sound scientific principles.

But how far should this go? Do we avoid all scientific positions that seem to be held by a minority of scientists at the moment, for fear of being labelled “unscientific” or apologists for a “Christian-friendly” approach to some issue? Some within the TE/EC movement would say yes. Many of these people are not scientists themselves, or have not been active researchers, and their focus is not on finding new (and therefore controversial) truths about the world, but rather on teaching known truths and agreed upon consensus views to other Christians. Their goal is to foster a tolerance from the wider scientific community by avoidance of any boat rocking that might cast doubt on the legitimacy of their claims to be followers of science. I think there is a role for this attitude, and it is a proper and important part of the overall mission to advance the cause of Christ in the world we live in.

But it is not the only such mission for Christian men and women of science. Some of us want to go further. Some few may take the risks that all good scientists take to stir up controversy, to propose bold new ideas, to do the work needed to support those ideas, argue for them, provide data for them, and not worry if they are outside the mainstream, in fact deliberately go outside the mainstream.

And when we do that, we should pray for support, not antagonism from our fellow Christian scientists in the teaching and outreach camp. Because, when we do this sort of work, or when we proclaim and support such work done by others, we are doing two things: we are behaving in the best traditions of pure science, and we are helping to advance our knowledge of the truth. If we act according to the rules and procedures of strict scientific rigor, we need not worry about the consequences of our actions, since in both science and faith, God’s truth will always prevail.  ‘

I was recently appointed to the editorial board of a new scientific journal called BioCosmos . The journal’s mission is “to present a wide variety of novel perspectives on the origins and nature of life that go beyond the standard neo-Darwinian paradigm of biological evolution. The focus will be on theoretically innovative, data-driven analysis and experimental results from biology and biochemistry… The aim is to encourage high quality scientific research and debate, which result in novel theoretical or experimental approaches that deal with unsolved problems of the standard biological theories. “

At this point, reading behind the lines, you might have the impression that this will be a journal focussing on Intelligent Design or other non-standard views of biological evolution. You would not be entirely wrong, but I think there is more to it than that.

The next part of the mission statement says “the journal’s peer review process will take to heart Newton’s ‘Hypotheses non fingo’. In other words, it will judge the theoretical claims proposed by authors in terms of the evidence placed before the reader rather than in terms of how standard theorists might deal with the same evidence.”

In two Zoom meetings of the Editorial Board, the issue of what to include, and whether to automatically reject certain topics was discussed. There emerged a consensus that the main criterion for paper acceptance in the journal will be scientific integrity and and the quality of the data, discussion and interpretation of results, as in any other mainstream scientific journal. It was also agreed that purely philosophical papers would be better placed elsewhere. What will not be part of the review process is avoidance of controversy.

All members of the Editorial Board see this as an experiemnt and an adventure that may or may not succeed. At the moment there is only one paper that has been published and appears on the journal website, which happens to be my own. The paper went through 2 rounds of rigorous peer review,  and I would assume that will be the norm. A couple of other papers have been accepted, and eleven have been rejected.

The true test will come when a scientifically unimpeachable paper presents some controversial views. Hopefully, this new journal will survive and provide a respected platform for the kind of good scientific work that many in the Christian and science community want to do, as discussed above. Prayers are welcome.

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3 Responses to Controversy

  1. Love this development!

  2. dgilmanjm says:

    “… it will judge the theoretical claims proposed by authors in terms of the evidence placed before the reader rather than in terms of how standard theorists might deal with the same evidence.”

    This is ow all peer reviews should be done!

  3. Ineke Evink says:

    Sounds very promising!

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