Last month, as the science of climate change seemed to have collapsed in a global scandal of sloppy research, a neurobiologist in Alabama shot six coworkers, three fatally, after being denied academic tenure.
Five months ago a court in Seoul, South Korea found a researcher guilty of falsifying results in stem-cell studies; a similar case happened in 2008 at the University of Minnesota.
These incidents remind us that politics and sin are as happily at home in the ivory towers of scientific research as they are anywhere else.
For the secular world such news is troubling. Human reason was supposed to liberate humanity from the dark ages. Science was supposed to free us from petty misunderstandings, crusades and confessional wars. Academia was supposed to find rational means to earthly glory—a pill for every disease and a machine for every inconvenience. God would no longer be needed.
But even in atheistic or academic circles there should be little doubt today that something within the Age of Enlightenment has gone wrong. For people of faith—most especially those who accept as a given the fallen nature of humankind—news that all is not well in scientific circles comes as no surprise. Researchers don’t stop being sons and daughters of Adam when granted advanced academic degrees.
Catholic ecologists in particular can attest to this thanks to the recent drama over the falsification of climate change research.
This drama began several weeks before December’s United Nations-sponsored talks on climate change in Copenhagen, when the internet grew white hot with leaked emails and data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Britain; these emails seemed to counter the legitimacy of climate change.
Then in January the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found itself in turmoil because it had used an interview in an outdoors magazine as principal evidence of disappearing ice on the Himalayans. That claim was soon revised.
Charges by skeptics against climate research continues to mount—and many of these charges are dead on. Still, the larger body of evidence shows us that worldwide climate changes are occurring as a result of increased levels of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide). How or when these changes will impact you or I is largely unclear. Global distribution of moisture and thermal energy is difficult to predict even when the atmosphere’s makeup remains constant—which, because of human pollution, it isn’t.
Of course such scientific minutiae can be debated. But what Catholic ecologists are certain of is that the complexities of modeling global reactions to altered atmospheric compositions are sadly, but inevitably, made even more complex thanks to human sin—be it greed, a hunger for power, madness or simple hubris.
What the current turmoil in climate change science shows us is not that the science is all wrong—that would be wishful thinking. The lesson here is that scientific researchers can be as sinful and stupid as the rest of us. That said, what these people—these sinners—need is not our scorn and disbelief, but our sympathy, our understanding and our prayers.
William Patenaude is an engineer specializing in environmental regulation and a graduate student of theology at Providence College. He is a parishioner of SS. Rose and Clement Church in Warwick.