Science, Truth, and the Current Political Climate
Orthodox involvement in world affairs is increasingly becoming necessary; a faith that cares about “true worship” must be ready to defend not only spiritual Truth but the truths that underlie it as well. Orthodox Christians, and indeed most religious traditions, value truth and truthfulness. For Orthodox, there should be no division between the truths we discover in nature and the larger Truth that is revealed in a life of spiritual struggle. Maximus had identified three different laws that are all linked—the law of nature, the law of scripture, and the law of grace. He wrote (Questiones ad Thalasium 19) “In Christ…the natural law, the law of Scripture and the law of grace all come together as one.” Later in the same text, Maximus writes “For the Logos of God is the Creator of all nature, every law, every bond, all order.” They are all linked together, the scientific truths of nature with the larger Truth, and there is no room for deception and falseness in science nor for “alternate facts” in public relations between citizens and their government. As imperfect human beings we may not always be truthful and our scientific discoveries could be subject to human error like all things, yet for Orthodox and all truth-minded people there is a recognition that truth is always to be strived for, important, valuable, and even sacred.
In the world of science, truth about the natural world is the basis of its continued growth and the source of its utility to society and humanity. Scientists in each field work to understand basic concepts of their areas of study; the veracity of such findings is tested repeatedly and reproducibility of results across the world is at the core of how science works. This is true for all scientific disciplines whether they involve biological systems, planetary bodies, or x-ray beams. Lives depend upon those scientific truths: in medicine – the drugs must do what they were designed to do, the radiation therapy beam must hit the cancer and not much of the normal tissue, the antibiotic must kill the infection. There can be no “alternative facts” here, or people die. The era of the traveling “snake oil salesman” has ended–no pharmaceutical company will sell a therapy that was based on lies because no doctor would prescribe it. The need for truth is no different for scientists working in other fields of science–a world-wide community of scientists working to evaluate climate change or to develop low-pollution energy resources is working together–evaluating and re-evaluating one another’s work–keeping each other truthful and therefore effective. Each technological improvement in peoples’ lives can be traced to a truth about the way nature works. This is not to say that technologies can all be safely embraced; of course, some cause harm “collaterally”. The identification of such harm by science, however, while it may lag behind the original discovery, still necessitates that value be placed on peoples’ health and safety. Historically, it was the role of government to hold companies that profit from new technologies accountable for people’s safety and ensure that applicable scientific knowledge be used to protect humanity and the environment.
In the United States today, in the current political climate, truth for increasing numbers of people seems to have become unwelcome including truth in science. In a single day at the level of federal policy, climate change work has been undone, decades of studies on pollution-free fuel sources have been made irrelevant, the Environmental Protection Agency’s actual function is endangered. While it is known that coal causes more pollution that any other energy source, new signs in the lobby of Environmental Protection Agency building in Washington, DC are singing the praises of coal as an energy source! In some ways this should come as no surprise since there is nothing sacred to this government—nothing that cannot be lied about. There is no respect for facts as being sacred, for words as an expression that should reflect truth. Therefore, science, as a human endeavor dependent on truth, is also suppressed and increasingly thwarted.
Almost universally for scientists, this Trump era is not only vehemently anti-science but it provides an atmosphere where truthful work is nearly impossible. While scientists will continue to communicate with each other truthfully, their ability to influence government policies is likely going to diminish. Any communication with government, regulatory bodies, and similar agencies will be (and already is becoming) severely compromised because government at the federal level no longer cares about truth in the same way. When federal agencies become disconnected from science and facts, decisions become arbitrary and lives can become threatened. For now, medical treatments are not yet endangered by the current administration’s approach, but we do see regulatory policies about environmental protection, climate change, and others threatened. Where and when will this end, if at all?
There have been many “calls to action” with Earth Day marches and science day marches (encouraged by the universities and funding agencies) to stand up for the various scientific truths in everyone’s interest such as climate mindfulness, green energy production and environment protection. Many Orthodox Christians have rejected Trump’s ideas because of his denial of climate change and his withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, issues that are important to Orthodox faithful and that have been rightly emphasized by the Ecumenical Patriarch as essential for the world today. The problem with Trump’s world, however, is not just the denial of climate change and the failure to accept tenets of science and the scientific method. It is the negation of truth, the seamless substitution of lies with truth, and the lack of value placed on words. Exaggeration and distortion may well be standard political currency, which previous administrations have traded in too, and even outright lies are not unknown in the history of U.S. presidential politics, but the systematic disregard for truth from the current administration is like nothing we have ever seen before. As Orthodox scientists, we wish to point out that one cannot willfully twist words without denigrating the Word, and one cannot deny empirical truths without denying Truth itself, because they are linked as Maximus has reminded us. What kind of country do we live in when our leader (and his team) does not respect truth and decisions are made based on ideologies instead of ideas and facts? Orthodox Christians (and indeed all Christians) should reject Trumpism because of the perversion of truth that is at its heart. The need for truth is something that each Orthodox Christian should be defending with our most profound being. It is therefore fitting that Orthodox should make every effort to support propagation of truth in every sphere of life and uphold science in remaining truthful.
This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Project on Faith in Public Life.
Gayle Woloschak, PhD, DMin, is Professor of Radiation Oncology at Northwestern University School of Medicine and Adjunct Professor of Science and Religion at Lutheran School of Theology.
Tatjana Paunesku, PhD, is Associate Professor of Radiation Oncology at Northwestern University School of Medicine.
Katarina Trajkovic, PhD, is Research Associate of Neurology at Northwestern University School of Medicine