During my scientific research career, I have never known of any scientific field that is not marked by controversy. In many study sections, controversial ideas are often hotly debated. Scientific journals and scientific meetings are no strangers to controversy, and arguments can at times appear to be rancorous. It is also fairly common to see evidence of scientists changing their minds, coming to agreement with former opponents, and building consensus.
Controversy is part of the scientific process and is often the driver of progress. New ideas, which are the fuel of science, are always controversial, until sufficient evidence is accumulated for them to attract support. The worst thing that can happen to any area of scientific research (as I have witnessed) is an end to controversy. The development of a profound and stifling consensus is usually the signal for a stagnant and soon to be outdated field.
As Christian scientists or Christians interested in science, how should we deal with scientific controversy? There are those who propose we avoid it. They claim that the entire movement of evolutionary creation, theistic evolution (TE/EC), is based on the premise that Christians should strictly adhere to the consensus views of mainstream science and reject the controversial positions associated with pseudoscience, such as young earth creationism or intelligent design. I agree, of course. Being a Christian should not give us warrant to reject sound scientific principles.
But how far should this go? Do we avoid all scientific positions that seem to be held by a minority of scientists at the moment for fear of being labelled “unscientific” or apologists for a “Christian-friendly” approach to some issue? Some within the TE/EC movement would say yes. Many of these people are not scientists themselves or have not been active researchers, and their focus is not on finding new (and therefore controversial) truths about the world, but rather on teaching known truths and agreed-upon consensus views to other Christians. Their goal is to foster a tolerance from the wider scientific community by avoidance of any boat rocking that might cast doubt on the legitimacy of their claims to be followers of science. I think there is a role for this attitude, and it is a proper and important part of the overall mission to advance the cause of Christ in the world we live in.
But it is not the only such mission for Christian men and women of science. Some of us must go further. Some must actually act as researchers and take the risks that all good scientists take to stir up controversy, to propose bold new ideas, to do the work needed to support those ideas: argue for them, provide data for them, and not worry if they are outside the mainstream. In fact, we should deliberately go outside the mainstream, when scientifically appropriate.
And when we do that, we should pray for support, not antagonism from our fellow Christian scientists in the teaching and outreach camp. Because when we do this sort of work, or when we proclaim and support such work done by others, we are doing two things: we are behaving in the best traditions of pure science, and we are helping to advance our knowledge of the truth. If we act according to the rules and procedures of strict scientific rigor, we need not worry about the consequences of our actions, since in both science and faith, the truth will always prevail.