While faith matters normally don’t interest me, the title of Reverend Russell’s January 8, 2017 opinion piece, “It’s not Science, It’s Fact” drew my attention.
According to Reverend Russell’s thesis, the Bible is not only “fact”, it is the definitive guide to a better understanding of the natural world. We are to take the Bible literally because it has stood the test of time and “has not been proved wrong.” This “chronicle of all creation” is contrasted with books based on scientific theories that have changed, been refined, or ultimately failed the proverbial test of time and therefore by extension, should carry more weight.
I would argue that this opinion should not be taken as fact, but approached with skepticism. For starters, the Bible was written thousands of years ago and translated multiple times over the course of history. During this time, new passages have been added and others dropped. It is arguable whether the Bible can be proved wrong, but given the fact that it contains information that cannot supported by objective evidence in the fossil record or natural law, it has certainly not been proven right. Perhaps this should not diminish the importance of bible for those who elect to rely on it as a guide to daily living, but those who don’t are certainly free to ignore it. And, under no circumstances should the Bible substitute for scientific knowledge.
It’s important to recognize that the Bible offers just one version of creation. There are many different cultures and religions across the globe. If one were to sample these stories of creation over time, he or she would wind up with thousands of explanations for why we are here, where we came from and how we evolved. Indeed many ancient stories that predate the bible are studied by students across the globe today. The existence of these texts must not halt scientific inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge–quite the opposite. Science offers insights into the world based on evidence that can be reproduced and verified by anyone with the proper tools and desire to do so. Society is better and stronger when inquiry and skeptical thinking are encouraged.
And yet, Reverend Russell implies that scientists’ attempts to identify our ancient ancestors through DNA evidence are a waste of time. He offers that two sentences in the Bible provide all of the information anyone needs to know about the origin of woman. According to Genesis, God made woman from the single rib of a man. While this might be an appealing narrative to some, it’s a woefully unsatisfying explanation many a curious mind, and not supported by any evidence. In fact, the very Nature news story (as opposed to a scientific report) provided as proof that the biblical Adam and Eve walked the earth at around the same time provided no corroboration of Genesis. The unfortunately named ‘Y-chromosome Adam’ and ‘mitochondrial Eve’ are the genetic variety, not the couple of biblical fame. Further, a geneticist cited in the aforementioned story was said to “bristle” at the use of biblical names to describe the subjects of his and others’ work.
Reverend Russell rightly points out that scientific theories and interpretations sometimes change or are refined over time. However, the reference to flat earthers warning Christopher Columbus that he might sail off of the planet is a poor example, and most likely, a myth. Ancient astronomers determined our planet was spherical about two thousand years before Columbus’ famous voyage, circumnavigation by numerous sailors, and before the availability of photographs from outer space. They derived their conclusions as any good scientists would, through observation, calculation and experimentation. What’s remarkable is how close their pre-GPS calculations were to what we know today about the size and shape of our planet! I’d posit most of us would look askance at anyone claiming the earth was flat today, no matter how highly regarded or widely read the text they cited, because we have so much evidence to the contrary.
Scientists now have the ability to peer deep into cells with powerful microscopes. They literally have a different, higher-resolution view of life than their counterparts from the 1600’s who’s microscopes were no more powerful than hand held magnifying glasses. Where would society be if researchers elected to accept dogma instead of exploring and looking deeper? The scientific method forces one to question strongly held beliefs and assumptions in the face of new evidence. Science, like a microscope, has the power to bring the details of how the world works into sharper focus. I would say that is the great strength of the scientific method. The main consequence of discarding a disproven theory is greater knowledge.
I also believe science and skepticism are the ultimate equalizers and that’s why I’m so passionate about this topic. In a complex world where science and technology touch the most fundamental aspects of our health and prosperity, I am concerned that those electing to ignore or disparage science will be left behind.
Ms. Mahoney is a Bronx native who now resides in the Washington DC metro area.