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Putting Science in its Place

March 10, 2021 by Admin

by Taylor Hurt, Upper School Science Teacher

I love science, but we need to put science in its place.

Science looks closely at the natural world and “watches how it behaves” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity). This observational process is based on a simple premise: the world is comprehensible and we can learn how it works through repeatable experiments. “Without a human blueprint and without human agreement” this process has resulted in a beautiful, cohesive body of knowledge we call science (Abraham Kuyper, Wisdom and Wonder).

In short, science is descriptive.

How does a straw work?

In order to practice a little science, let’s turn our scientific mind toward something we are all familiar with: straws. How do you think a straw works? Take a moment and think. Better yet, get yourself a sparkling beverage, plunge a straw in, take a sip, and observe.

 

This simple process of looking closely is science. Scientific observation has given humanity descriptions that are wonderful and powerful. These descriptions have given rise to awesome technologies. The gaze of science has unearthed secrets too numerous and numinous for one human mind to contain (relativistic physics, DNA, dark matter, and superconductors, to name a few). Even our humble straw is a treasure of ideas that is a challenge for me to fully grasp.

(Hint #1: your explanation of how a straw works should never use the word “suck.”)

Which questions are in the scientific domain?

Each academic year, I spend a whole class period in my general chemistry course showcasing demonstrations with vacuum pumps, balloons, crushed soda cans, and burettes all with the aim of poking and prodding students’ explanations closer to an accurate description of how straws work. This is science in its place, a human attempt to describe how the world works based on empirical evidence.

(Hint #2: your beverage is being pushed by something up the straw.) 

To use our straw example, what science cannot do is tell us what we should fill our cups with. Should we drink coffee, beer, ocean water, or vinegar with our straws? Science has no answer; science can only describe the consequences of those actions.

Science is descriptive, never prescriptive

Over a very narrow range of questions science reigns supreme; questions such as, “How do straws work?”

(Answer: air pressure in the room.) 

The efficacy of science is a siren call to us to think that science can answer ALL questions. We resist this call by putting science in its place and realizing science cannot stand on its own feet. After all, why does science work in the first place? What explains the explainability of the universe? Is there something, or someone, behind this? Science stands in silence, not because there are no answers, but because those questions are out of its domain.

If you are like me, every sphere of your life has been influenced by COVID-19. From work to family to friends, there are a host of situations and questions that need to be addressed: Postpone, change, or cancel an event? Masks required? Outside or inside? Vaccines for whom, and when?

When faced with complex questions like these, it is helpful to consider which questions are in the domain of science, and which are not. All of us need to consider how loud the volume setting for science is in our ears when making decisions.

Do not be afraid of science itself. Science boils down to observations that in sum serve to shed light into the inner mechanisms of our world. For those who believe in God, this is doubly true. God is the author of this “great book”—the universe. Scientific study, for those who believe in God, helps them recognize the “truth and beauty and excellence of God revealed in the natural world” (Soo Chang, A Blueprint for a Distinctly Christian Education). We turn the volume knob of science down to zero at our own peril.

To those who do not believe in God, what tells you how to live? It is certainly not science. That is not its place. The job of science is description. You cannot “follow the science” any more than you can follow a menu at a restaurant. A menu shows options, and left to itself, the belly decides. You turn the volume knob of science up to 100% and it drowns out all other voices to your peril, because science cannot answer all the questions life holds.

And for us all, we would do well to be humble and to walk gently. If you are like me, you can grow weary of doing the good, but hard work of conversation. It is easier to use science to browbeat others into believing my prescriptions. Whether the subject is COVID or straws, I need to slow down, observe, listen, and talk. Our hunger for truth needs to be twinned with a charitable love for our neighbor. This is what I am aiming for in my classroom and in my life.

Would you do the same?

Mr. Hurt creatively teaches a science lesson: his student, holding propane-filled soap bubbles, observes a chemical reaction (combustion) literally in his own hands.


Taylor Randle Hurt teaches Upper School science courses at Providence School in Santa Barbara. He earned a B.A. degree in chemistry and biochemistry from the University of California Santa Barbara through the College of Creative Studies. In addition, he was the first graduate of that college to complete a minor in science and math education at UCSB. He worked full time for a Christian non-profit organization (Cru, formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) serving one year at UCSB and one year in the Middle East. As a Robert Noyce Scholarship recipient, Mr. Hurt earned a teaching credential and a master’s of education degree from UCSB. He joined the Providence faculty in 2013.


Read more:

A Blueprint for a Distinctly Christian Education by Soo Chang

Why Bother with Christian Education? by Taylor Randle Hurt

Learn more:

For more information on distinctly Christian education at Providence School, contact Admissions Director Tawny Kilpper at tkilpper@providencesb.org

 

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