Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?
(Who will guard the guards themselves?)
Juvenal, the Roman poet, asked this question regarding the ambiguities of accountability and responsibility. In a recent op-ed, Gordon Evans tackles this age-old dilemma with clarity and verve.
Evans wrote his piece in response to Dr. Daniel Sarewitz’s lengthy article in The New Atlantis. As such, I have embraced the task of commenting on a commentary. That being the case, this op-ed is a complement to, rather than a substitute for, Evans’ essay, which can be found “here.”
Evans spends the early part of his essay agreeing, with Sarewitz, that modern science is pockmarked with “faulty research methods, flawed, hidden, and sometimes fabricated data, bias, and demonstrably false outcomes.” Perverse incentives, lack of directed research, and an overwhelming flood of ‘big data’ are major causes of some of these issues. However, Evans and Sarewitz both focus on the prevalence of trans-science.
Trans-science is, according to Sarewitz, the study of questions “which cannot be answered by science” regarding phenomena that “are variable, imprecise, uncertain—and thus always potentially subject to interpretation and debate.” As such, trans-science is particularly inclined to facilitate political activism and agenda-driven research. Evans and Sarewitz make an admirable case for the dishonesty of substituting trans-science for more objective science within hot-button subjects, like climate change.
A severe lack of humility is behind the ascendance of trans-science. In a world of email blasts and click-bait social media posts, presumption and hyperbole are the essential factors in generating an audience. At the heart of scientific inquiry, however, are modesty and understatement. The scientific method is a “let the facts speak for themselves” sort of enterprise.
While understatement is uncommon in the current academic environment, two works stand out to me as exemplary in their willingness to let the reader consider the relevant facts. One is Michael Kruger’s excellent work on the New Testament canon, and the other is E. Calvin Beisner’s book on the relationship between environmentalism and biblical faith.
Understatement is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it indicates respect for difficult questions and an effort, in good faith, to push the academic conversation in a positive direction.
While agreeing on the state of modern science, Evans and Sarewitz propose differing solutions. Sarewitz assesses the central issue of trans-science as a lack of direction. Therefore, an increase in goal-driven research should provide the impetus needed to marginalize trans-science. This would free science to “rediscover the path toward truth.”
Evans claims that such a maneuver would return scientific inquiry to the place where it began the descent into trans-science. Rather, the response to trans-science should be to recognize the limitations of science, not as chains but as defining characteristics. The fact that science cannot answer a question does not mean that science needs to be “unshackled.” It means that we must look somewhere else to find the answer.
Before describing Evans’ solution, it is important to note that the key difference between Evans and Sarewitz is one of worldview. Sarewitz is a proponent of scientific humanism and is naturally convinced that ‘true science’ must be allowed to propel human progress. Evans, on the other hand, advocates for a Biblical worldview. This leads him to seek a source of truth and accountability that is not beholden to the whims of human fallibility.
Evans is willing to challenge both the assumptions and results of scientific inquiry.
He concludes his essay with a list of questions that are designed to help the reader critically engage with both science and trans-science. This essay opened with the implied question of “what holds science accountable?” In truth, such a question misses the point entirely. Scientific inquiry is a product of human thought and effort. Therefore, we should ask the more traditional question of “who holds us accountable?”
Evans proposes, and I agree, that an objective and higher Truth is necessary to ground our pursuit of smaller truths. This grounding permits us to challenge the institutions of our own design and to confine them to their appropriate sphere of influence. We are, in the words of C.S. Lewis, to “criticize [their] acts and snap our fingers at [their] ideology.”