One hundred years ago today the most infamous science fraud of all time was presented to the world: Piltdown Man, a “missing link” skull that turned out to a creative composite, a human skull attached to an orangutan jawbone. Some researchers were immediately suspicious, yet still it took until 1953 until the scientific community reached consensus that it was a hoax. In the meantime, it was taken to be solid evidence supporting apelike animal-to-human evolution.
Piltdown Man represented one of the great failures of science, and as such it has real historical significance. That’s not to say we should draw the wrong conclusions from it. It doesn’t mean that evolution is a hoax, or that evolutionary theory is built on false pretenses. It doesn’t mean that evolutionary scientists can’t be trusted, or that there’s something inherently wrong with science itself.
Science as a Human Enterprise
The real message of Piltdown Man is that scientists are human, and science is a human enterprise. Science is therefore subject to all the pitfalls and failings of humans, one of which is deceit. While this episode certainly doesn’t show that science (or evolutionary science in particular) is essentially fraudulent, it is nevertheless our most salient reminder that science, like every other human endeavor, cannot always automatically be trusted. Its mistakes are not all in the distant past, either. Just two months ago the NY Times reported on widespread misconduct in scientific research (see also the report in Nature).
Checks and Balances…
While fraudulent science is both wrong and tragic, often it gets caught, which is testimony to one of the great strengths of science: objective, independent confirmation. If only such a thing were possible in every discipline! Suppose for example that when one person said, “I believe our country—its economy, its defense, its national character and ethos—would be strengthened by an increase in taxes,” teams of researchers in Japan, Nigeria, and Russia could run tests to confirm or disconfirm it. What a simpler world this would be!
In fact one of the reasons science has been so successful is because it is essentially simple. I don’t mean easy. I mean simple, or in other words, the modern natural sciences focus their attention on those aspects of nature that behave themselves consistently while in consistent conditions. That’s true especially for the “hard sciences.” Sociology, anthropology, and psychology are relatively less firm in their findings, because their subject matter is people, who stubbornly refuse to practice the same kind of consistency in behavior. Economics and politics are even worse. When we move into truly creative disciplines like art, music, and literature, science has virtually nothing to contribute. Then there is theology, the study of God, who by definition cannot be made subject to controlled study.
It would be all too easy to conclude that because science is successful, it is a superior form of knowledge to all others. The better way to view it is that science is successful because it limits its subject matter to that which can studied so successfully.
… And Why We Need Them
And yet there is something to be learned about science from the study of theology, specifically theological anthropology, the theological study of man. Scriptural revelation provides a strong theoretical background for what we already know: that humans are subject to temptation. Some of us commit fraud. Our best defense against it is independent checking by disinterested others. In spite of our flaws, though, there is such a thing as good to be reached for, and one form of the good is increasing knowledge. I’m not aware of any other belief system that so thoroughly endorses the reality of the good, which so supports the value of investing our lives in attaining the good, and which so comprehensively explains how and why we undermine ourselves in the pursuit of the good. It’s all based in our creation in the image of the only good God, our fall away from God, and yet our retained remembrance of the good we have fallen from.
Science is an explanatory discipline whose success rests on checks and balances against human error and deceit.* The importance of those checks and balances is best explained from outside of science, in what revelation teaches us about human nature.
For some forty-one years or so the world believed Piltdown Man was a real missing link. More recently, Marc Hauser’s frauds lasted for years, as did Hwang Woo-suk’s.
It’s not the fault of science. It’s the fault of humans doing science. Our best defense against it is caution, self-checking, a healthy respect for our own failings, and a commitment to the very Scriptural principle of honesty.
*Of course there are also other reasons for objective independent research confirmation, having to do with the possibility of chance results, local effects, inconsistencies in materials and supplies, instrumentation error, etc.