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by Doug Ward


The relationship between science and culture was the subject of a Templeton Lecture given by Dr. Dorothy Chappell at Miami University on April 14, 2004.

Chappell, the Dean of Natural and Social Sciences at Wheaton (Ill.) College, is a botanist who earned her Ph.D. at Miami in 1977.  Returning to her alma mater, she delivered a thought-provoking address entitled “Science and Culture:  A Marriage of Convenience?” to an audience of faculty and students. 

Prof. Chappell began her lecture by surveying the amazing scientific progress that has occurred in recent decades.  Science has been advancing at a breathtaking rate that shows no signs of slowing down as we enter the twenty-first century.  She noted that discoveries in areas like nanotechnology, genetics, and medical research have the potential to either greatly benefit mankind or do massive harm, depending on how they are applied. 

How will boundaries be set for the ways in which our scientific knowledge is applied?  Chappell asserted that the scientific community can not---and should not---make those decisions on its own.  Giving a negative answer to the question in her title, she said that ideally, such decisions should be made by well-informed societies after considerable dialogue and reflection.   

                                                                                                            Two Areas of Concern

Looking at how that dialogue has been conducted in recent years, Dr. Chappell identified two areas that are of special concern to her.  One is the fact that the “public intellectuals” who have informed the general populace about scientific subjects---people like Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Jay Gould---do not adequately represent the views of the entire scientific community.  In particular, few if any of the prominent scientific spokesmen are people of faith. 

A second area of concern is the polarization that often occurs in the ongoing ``culture wars'' in the United States.  For example, the extremists who bomb abortion clinics hurt both the pro-life cause and the progress of public dialogue on important ethical issues.  Chappell expressed the hope that future cultural battles would be waged with weapons of reason rather than of violence. 

Professor Chappell's concerns highlight major challenges for scientists and other scholars who are people of faith.  Too often such scholars, working in environments that are hostile to traditional Judeo-Christian views,  are reluctant to speak up about their private convictions.  For the benefit of society as a whole, these views should be effectively and forcefully articulated.    



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