I recently read an article by a seasoned cardiologist saying that medical science has been wrong about the connection between saturated fats and heart disease. This was the second or third time in the last few months that I have heard such news. It seems that what society has been told for over 50 years about what foods cause heart problems is incorrect.
I am reminded of several other scientific conclusions that were later proven incorrect. Society was told that science had solid proof of the pesticide DDT causing thinning of eagle’s eggs, resulting in their decline. When I was an undergrad, one of my college professors told us that microwave ovens commonly leaked and would mutate plants that were grown next to them. One year the news reported a cancer-causing chemical called Alar was being sprayed on apples. Society was told that sulfur in the air was causing acid rain, creating highly-acidic lakes that killed all vegetation around them.
Now I am not in the technical sciences and do not claim to speak authoritatively about these things. My point here is that most everything in the list above were considered proven, well-documented scientific facts, but are now widely rejected by many. It seems that the lifespan of some “well-proven scientific facts” can be rather short. I once gave a journal article to a couple of strident atheists who were PhD candidates in the hard sciences. They looked at it and said “This is five years old. It’s ancient history.” and handed it back, refusing to read it. At least to those atheists, the lifespan of useful info is less than five years.
Many will be quick to point out that knowledge is cumulative. What we did not know in the past is steadily replaced by more accurate knowledge. We prove that maggots do not spontaneously generate in rotting flesh, and once we know this we never look back. No one questions conclusions about friction or Boyle’s Law or what saltwater does to aluminum. Engineers routinely apply the findings of science, and then our air conditioners work and our cars get us where we want to go. All these are true, and we do not doubt them.
However, it still is the case that at any given point in time, it has always been the case that some of the things we are being told by scientists as well-known facts are in fact not true. Since it has always been the case that part of what the technical scientists are telling us is wrong, therefore we are reasonable to conclude that part of what we are told today is wrong, and part of what we will be told tomorrow will be wrong. Perhaps further investigation will discover the truth and tomorrow the incorrect facts of today will be corrected, but new false conclusions will then exist.
So we can reasonably conclude that some of what we are told today is proven will be changed in the future. Some things, such as whether bacon contributes to heart disease, result in people not enjoying foods they love. Others, such as DDT and acid rain, cost kingly sums of money and people’s jobs and health when industries retool based on inaccurate science.
Science has no corner on mistakes. Theological history tells us that many have been wrong about spiritual conclusions and have been forced to correct their positions. No need to list them here, for our opponents are quick to remind us of these.
How does this apply to Christian theology? First, both theology and science both try to explain reality. Sometimes theology is wrong, sometimes science is wrong. When we discover that our positions are wrong, we must be honest enough to correct them. Second, given the track record of how often science has been wrong compared to how often theology has been wrong, it is more reasonable to hold to ancient theology and be somewhat skeptical of supposedly proven science that contradicts it. Christians who are tempted to change their theology based on modern science should be wary. Atheists who base their atheism on science should be uneasy. The Christian can be quite comfortable trusting in ancient theology, for it has proven itself time and again.