“The history of Science is the history of bad ideas.”
This is a quote that I heard recently. I think that it is a rather tongue-in-cheek way of expressing our (post)modern culture’s current attitude with respect to the authority of science. During the modern period, science was king. The scientific revolution produced hopes of a Utopian society where virtually all problems would be solved due to human innovation, evolution, and advancement. But during the postmodern period, science has been humbled due to a realization that the process was not as clean as we thought. Human contamination, insufficient data, faulty presuppositions, and religiously and politically motivated studies have tainted our hopes that science is truly king.
Euclid said, “The laws of nature are but the mathematical thoughts of God.” Such is true, but how do we know that we have properly interpreted the “mathematical thoughts of God”? I believe in the authority of nature and many of our (scientific) conclusions about such. Every Christian should. I have written about this in times past. Romans 1 says that creation itself leaves people without an epistemic excuse about God’s reality. This, among many other things, provides a firm biblical foundation for cosmology, biology, physics, and rationality in the Christian life. In this sense, the study of nature is mandated for the Christian.
However, we need to be timid about our conclusions that come from science, knowing the ways that it, like the Bible, can be manipulated. More important for what I am talking about now, we need to realize how dynamic the conclusions of science can be.
I was a fitness trainer through the nineties as well as working in the fields of sports medicine. I was very good at what I did and understood the issues (at least I thought). I focused on weight loss physiology. I wanted to provide people with the best—the most scientifically accurate—routine for weight loss. When it came to losing weight though, I would tell people to engage in a steady-state cardio routine. This is one in which you would keep your heart rate up consistently and moderately for above thirty-minutes. Then about fifteen minutes of resistance training. Without getting into all the details of why, suffice it to say that this was the most accepted scientific method for such goals. When it came to nutrition, I was not faddish at all. I repudiated the fads. I wanted to stick to that which was scientifically verifiable and accepted: the food pyramid. However both have changed since the nineties. Now, in order to lose weight, your cardio must include more of a circuit training where your heart rate gets up into its anaerobic state every so often. This is something that I used to teach against with (scientific) resolve. On top of this, the food pyramid has been turned upside down and subjectivized! Now, I am not saying what I did before did not work…it did. But it was not really right. There is a stability to say that exercise and proper nutrition are essential to weight loss. But I am no longer quite so committed to a particular type of exercise and nutrition. It is not so stable. Some of my theories have been literally turned upside down! That is just one example of the sort of things that can dissolution a person toward so-called scientific conclusions.
Here is a list of some other things that have changed over the years with regard to scientific ideas:
- Maternal impression (the mother’s thoughts can influence the child’s)
- Human cell (simplistic to complex)
- The status of Pluto (no longer a planet)
- Piltdown man (scientific hoax about a “missing link” in evolution)
- The food pyramid (turned upside down)
- Health benefits of alcohol (bad for you one day, good for you the next)
- Leeches (depending on the century you are in, very good for medicinal purposes—which? Who knows?)
- Darwinian evolution (changes much faster than we do!)
- Light (what is it? particles? waves? emitter theory, etc),
- Speed of light (is it steady or relative?)
- The osculating universe (the universe is eternally osculating)
- Steady state theory (the universe has never changed)
- Big bang theory (a big bang started it all–superseded both the osculating universe and steady state theories)
- Nature of time (relativity theories are the current standard)
- Global Warming (do I need to explain?)
- Global Cooling (oh yeah, we have those theories too)
- Creation science (can I even make this a single category?)
- Spontaneous generation (the way it all began…then again, maybe not)
- Y2K (oh yeah! This did come from the scientific community)
- Punctuated equilibrium (a drastic change in how species evolve)
- Phlogiston theory(superseded by Lavoisier’s work on oxidation)
- The blank slate theory of social behavior (disproven by cross-cultural universals)
- Aristotelian physics (superseded by Newtonian physics which was [somewhat] superseded by Einstein)
- Just about everything in Freudian psychology (most have been discredited, yet this influenced so much for so long)
- Telegony (a discredited belief that people could inherit traits of previous sexual partners of their mother)
- Continental drift (replaced by plate tectonics)
- Catastropheism (belief that a catastrophe has drastically changed the way things are)
- Uniformatarianism (the current replacement for Catastropheism—that is, until catastropheism takes back over and then everything is up in the air in so many areas)
- The so-called Open Polar Sea (you know, that sea without any ice that was supposed to be around the north poll?)
- The expanding earth theory (wait, isn’t this how the continents divided? Depends on which century you are in)
- Quantum mechanics (the new kid on the block)
Once again, most of these represent theories that were once accepted as true or those that are the current champions in their particular area. The point is to recognize the dynamic nature of the history of science. You can add your own to the list. Please do.
We live in a postmodern world where people are disillusioned with all authoritative means of knowledge, science and the Bible included. For the most part, it is due to the fact that things change. Interpretations change. Theories change. Presuppositions change. The data changes. Our experience changes.
This does not mean that the truth itself is dynamic, but it might help you to understand why people are so confused about truth these days. It might also help you to understand why science does not reign the way it once did. While I love science, appreciate its discoveries and am intrigued by its conclusions, I am very careful about committing myself to whatever the prevailing notion is today. I think you should be tentative as well. While I don’t think the history of science is the history of bad idea, it is the history of dynamic change and discovery that is not as stable as we once thought.