Due to the reaction and responses to an earlier Rational Catholic analysis of a scientific study, I’ve been concerned about some persistent misconceptions about the nature of scientific discourse. Some Catholics have conflated asking valid scientific questions about a study with personal attack. Scientific discourse is about engaging with the ideas presented in a paper. In this case, no one is criticizing the scientist in question as a Catholic or even as a person. Raising legitimate scientific questions about a study is not “unjust”, “taking shots at [a scientist]”, “taking sides”, or “hateful.” Rather, these inquiries question methodologies problems and factual errors in the paper. These issues are well within the realm of scientific discourse and are in no way personal attacks. Likewise, personal information about a scientist (religious affiliation or political beliefs, for instance), have no bearing on the scientific merits of the work he or she produces. This is the nature of science.
It has been frustrating to find that questions about the substance of a study are side-stepped or given responses that have nothing to do with the legitimate scientific queries about the topic. One common response is that only someone with a PhD in the sciences is qualified to question scientific methodology and conclusions. That is simply not true. Even in introductory science classes, students are trained to engage with scientific literature. Advanced undergraduates and graduate students who do not have the title PhD after their names can evaluate and discuss scientific papers. And those from other fields with a grasp of the science are also free to raise concerns about methods and conclusions, so long as the questions are rooted in sound science. One does not have to be a scientist by trade to raise concerns that stem from fairly basic scientific or statistical issues in a paper.
Similarly, it is disappointing to hear responses along the lines of “Well, [author] has a PhD” as if that is the be-it and end-all of the discussion. Having a PhD does not mean that one’s work should not be scrutinized, nor does it make one’s work immune to valid criticism. A PhD generally means that someone has completed a university’s prescribed course of study, passed various exams (usually written and oral), and produced original academic research in the form of a thesis or dissertation. Possession of a PhD does not place an individual’s scientific practices and conclusions above questioning. If you’ve ever been to an academic conference, you know that academics with PhDs are questioned about issues in their work very frequently.
Another oft-used response meant to quash legitimate scientific inquiry is “It was published in a scientific journal,” as if this, too, makes a study immune to scrutiny. Beside the fact that academic papers ought to be able to stand up to further scrutiny after their publication, it is also relevant to point out whether the study was published in a reputable journal or not. Unfortunately, predatory publishers profit from author fees, and their publications do not have adequate quality control. In these cases, confidence in their self-proclaimed peer-review process is unjustified. Impact factor, a measure of how often a journal is cited (and thus its influence), is a well-recognized metric of quality; a very low or non-existent impact factor does not speak well of a journal. Scientists are competitive and vie to publish in the prestigious journals in their field or subfield (it makes sense–it’s good for their CV and also increases the likelihood that peers in their subdiscipline will read their papers); publication in bottom-tier journal often indicates that the work was not good enough to get into a more prestigious one.
We also hear that it’s “un-Catholic” to question a study from a pro-life Catholic scientist. Pro-life Catholic scientists are (and should be) held to the same standards as all scientists. We ought to be righteously offended by the assertion that Catholic scientists can be held to lower standards merely because they are Catholic. It is not “un-Catholic” or anti-Catholic to raise legitimate scientific concerns about a study put forth by a Catholic scientist. Doing so is simply engaging with the science. Science is science; there is no Catholic science that is in opposition to secular science. Science is not at odds with the Catholic faith; rather it should (and does) illuminate our understanding of God’s creation.
My last area of concern is the pervasive unwillingness to engage with scientific questions, both when it comes to asking or responding to queries. Instead of addressing specific scientific concerns that have been raised, the respondents often entirely avoid the actual science presented in the study. Perhaps they simply don’t understand the science but find the consolation of validation in a hoped-for conclusion. It is baffling to me that people who agree with an article’s conclusion will refuse to address or even acknowledge possible shortcomings; this type of mentality is about as far from scientific discourse as you can get. In order for a study to have merit, it ought to be able to stand up to scrutiny. Avoiding probing questions with diversion to unrelated points is an abuse of the logic and reason at the core of both scientific discourse and our Catholic faith. Furthermore, the absence of academic refutations does not mean a study is valid or accepted by consensus (as some have claimed); it may indicate that researchers have simply not considered that topic worthy of their time and limited research resources.
If a scientific paper is solid, there should be no need to defend it with poorly executed logical or rhetorical games. When a discussion is dominated by issues with no correlation to the substance of the study, it keeps us from seeking the truth. It prevents us from doing what we’re meant to do with published scientific studies: actually discuss the science and analyze how it fits in (or not) with existing scientific knowledge.