The Catholic Church has long struggled with its relationship with science. Is God a Clock Maker who sets everything in motion or is He a Tinkerer? Is He one who simply winds the clock and sits back on his cosmic couch to enjoy the show, or is He one who hunches over His worktable, brings out a small screwdriver when the clockworks get jammed and starts twisting?
Catholics, like me, have long championed the intervening and empathetic Tinkerer, the God who answers prayers and performs miracles, sometimes through the intervention of saints: Mother Seton guiding the way for weary seafarers, St. Bernadette leading the sick to the healing waters of Lourdes, and St. Anthony helping the forgetful and the victimized find a lost or stolen pencil. But great scientific discoveries have repeatedly run counter to this interventionist view, and the accumulated evidence suggests that nature has instituted some hard and fast rules. Not only that, but more and more, even the deviations from accepted scientific rules can be accounted for by newly revised scientific rules.
Enter Pope Francis. In the past two years, the Pontiff seems to be opening up a sea of controversy, championing the work of the Clock Maker over the Tinkerer. In 2014 at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he declared that the theories of Evolution and the Big Bang were real. With similar aplomb, he repeatedly states that God is not a magician, “with a magic wand able to do everything.” Most recently, on his trip to the U.S., he appeared both at the White House and before Congress calling for action on what many have called the hokum of climate change. All of this follows swiftly on the heels of Pope John Paul II acquitting Galileo in 1992 for theorizing that the sun, and not the earth, is the center of the universe. In truth, the speed with which recent Popes have been re-evaluating scientific learning has caused some of the faithful’s heads to spin, mine included.
All of this flurry of activity raises some serious questions about how the world’s scientists will react now that Pope Francis has given his approval to the career choices of nerds everywhere. Will scientists continue to go about their work as they should, without much fuss, or will they come at science with an increased sense of pride, even a tendency to bask in their newfound adulation? Well, if history is any guide, I think we can predict with some accuracy what will happen. “The results,” as scientists who are scientific skeptics might say, “will not be pretty.”
Undoubtedly, the Pope’s recent endorsement of science will go to the scientists’ heads. Even without Papal approval, scientists have frequently embraced celebrity status. Brazen physicist Albert Einstein was so fond of posing for the paparazzi that today, his tongue-wagging photos would embarrass even the most selfie-obsessed teenager. Later, Einstein’s disciple and fellow astrophysicist Carl Sagan not only took his mentor’s theories to television, he was also fond of inventing brainy catch phrases that later became pop culture tag lines. And more recently, Sagan’s successor, Neil DeGrasse Tyson has been doing much the same, all but abandoning a promising career in physics to popularize himself and his vests on Fox and PBS. Shifting over to biology, Jane Goodall, whose observations of monkeys once set the standard for field research, has emerged from the jungle and now hocks stuffed chimps. Even a young scientist like Mayim Bialik has compromised her talents in neuroscience to star on a laugh-tracked television sit-com.
As scientists begin to enjoy this new celebrity status, there can be only one conclusion: science will continue to lose talent to the human ego, and empirical investigation will suffer. Not wishing to share discoveries and subsequent glory with colleagues or test subjects, scientists like Russian Geocryologist Anatoli Brouchkov will undoubtedly start experimenting on themselves. Like Cold Fusionists of old, men and women of letters may even start revealing their discoveries before those discoveries have been properly vetted. Can anyone imagine what the fate of the free world would have been had Manhattan Project scientists sought celebrity before fine-tuning our nation’s most valued and innovative weaponry?
It’s true that science has produced great benefits to mankind: medicines and technologies that have proven helpful. But as a respectful warning to Our Holy Father, before we go down the road of promoting science’s status to iconic, above the reach of an intervening creator, now might be a good time to take another look at the ways in which we hold scientists accountable. At least in the U.S., to prevent scientists from getting big heads, shouldn’t our government take a closer look at how these know-it-alls gain funding?
Instead of awarding grants willy-nilly, perhaps the NIH, National Science Foundation, and Department of Agriculture should include much needed stipulations in their funding processes. For example, why not prohibit scientific experts from making too many public appearances, from advancing their nascent theories on QVC, and from searching out the attention of paparazzi, tabloids, and PBS. Let’s make sure the scientists keep their big heads and their five senses where they belong, in the laboratory. By doing so, we can not only keep scientific research above reproach, we can also keep the cameras pointed where they belong, at the actors, astrologists, self-help gurus, pop musicians, and politicians who so covet and deserve our attention.