The Humility of Scientific Modeling

By Kersley Fitzgerald

I've heard quite a few young-earth creationists exclaim that evolution isn't science because it cannot be replicated or tested via the scientific method. These creationists are then puzzled when the evolutionists don't instantly come into the light, throw off their survival-of-the-fittest ways, and cry out in relief that they are not, in fact, descended from monkeys.

What these good-intentioned creationists don't realize is that the scientific method is not the end-all, be-all of science. It is good and right to use the scientific method but, obviously, it cannot apply to all sciences. Astronomy, for instance, and geology. Even some areas of biology and medicine where to use the method would kill the test subject. In these cases, the method of choice is modeling and prediction.

A scientific model is a theoretical system derived from the best information at hand at the time. For example, way back in the long ago, doctors thought digestion was a mystical, mysterious process wholly dependent on the life force of an animal. Considering the evidence they had at the time, this made sense — it explained what they had observed in the past and relatively accurately predicted future events. When it was discovered that the stomach secreted acid that broke down food, and that the acid worked equally well outside the body, the model changed.

This is the mechanics of a model. It fits the data at hand and explains past events. But the validation of a model (not proof, just validation) is that it predicts future events. We then act based on those potential future events. In science, "acting" usually means looking for a particle or cosmic object that is inferred by the model although heretofore unidentified.

We use models all the time. My sister just had a baby and is learning the modeling of cries — "Oh, evidence suggests this cry occurs when he has gas and if I do this he feels better and stops crying..." Unfortunately, she's also learning the inexact modeling of the medical field wherein the evidence suggested she had pneumonia or congestive heart failure, but further data modified the model to a shadow on an x-ray and a chest cold.

Modeling is so ingrained in the science culture that it's rarely mentioned. This leads to a problem with non-science folk because we hear the scientists say, "This is the way it is, now and forever!" and then the next week they completely contradict themselves with absolutely no sign of irony or chagrin. Two reasons for that. First, if they're not sure they've made the discovery of the century, they may not get funded. Second, the other scientists know they're speaking about a model which will probably be altered in the near future when new data comes in. Non-science folk don't realize this, so we stand on soap boxes and cry, "Hey, but you said…" and the science community ignores us and gets another latte.

Here's the kicker, though. When it comes to matters of science, Christians do this too — only we don't know or acknowledge we're doing it because we presume to insist we have God on our side. So we proclaim that the earth is the center of the universe because we've convinced ourselves that this is the only physical reality our theological worldview can account for. Then we say that depression and mental illnesses are always sin because Christians are supposed to be filled with joy and if we're not, it's our fault.

And then we shake our Bibles over our heads and declare to the world that God says that, despite millennia of cosmic radiation damaging our DNA and genetic anomalies passing on from generation to generation and all the chemical and environmental junk we've exposed ourselves to, homosexuality is never physiological.

My plea, for both the scientific and Christian communities, is really simple: humility. Christ said to come to him as a child; I say to investigate God's creation as a child. No fear that we might be wrong (we probably are). No arrogance that we have everything figured out (we don't). God is not afraid of science. He did not fill His Word with information that would contradict His creation. It's silly to think otherwise. But we honestly don't know everything there is to know about His Word or His creation.

Scientific modeling is a fantastic concept, one that both scientists and Christians should use. But it would be really nice if we could lay down our egos and admit that we are dealing with models. That we don't have all the answers. That this model is the one we think fits the data the best, knowing that could change tomorrow. The first advantage is it would help people get along better. The second is we would be less likely to misrepresent what God's Word actually says.

Image Credit: Stacina; "Edison's Laboratory"; Creative Commons

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Published 4-25-12