Why I Have Confidence in the Work of Research Scientists

banner-982162_1920The title of this blog post is written carefully. I do not trust individual scientists more or less than any other persons. I have confidence in the work they do because of the rigorous process to which it is submitted. I also particularly specify researchers, people who are testing theories, running experiments, presenting findings at conferences, and submitting papers to journals for publication. I am not speaking of scientific popularizers or those who use the cloak of science to advance ideological agendas. I also speak in the plural. Individual scientists, like any humans may err, but the scientific community has built in processes that sift out the erroneous.

I will be honest, I do not write as a scientist. I write as someone who knows scientists from work in collegiate ministry at a major research university. I write as someone who has watched people work for months setting up lab apparatus for experiments, only to get inconclusive data and start over. I’ve watched people spend hours of effort crafting research proposals for grants that are vetted by fellow researchers in a system where one in four or less are funded. I’ve listened to reports of those who report research findings in conference presentations only to have their work torn apart in question sessions, forcing them to go back and correct mistakes in their research process. I’ve observed the agonizing process of writing articles for academic journals in one’s field–articles that are sometimes rejected, at other times are returned with reviewer critiques that must be addressed before re-submission, and sometimes published only to be challenged by other researchers who cannot reproduce the purported results under the same conditions. The price for deliberate fraud is high. One is basically black-balled.

That’s what research scientists do. They are part of a scientific community relentlessly (and sometimes ruthlessly) committed to attaining ever-closer approximations to understanding the truth about the physical cosmos around us. Scientists don’t always agree on theories or the significance of research findings. Sometimes, a dedicated researcher or group of researchers will persist 40 years (basically their working life) to substantiate a theory, sometimes changing the ways scientists think about some aspect of their field. Often they replace a workable, mostly right theory, with one that works even better. It’s a process without shortcuts that takes time, and a good deal of money. But their work has yielded space shots and smartphones, cancer treatments and eradicated small pox and nearly eradicated polio.

Why do I write about this? I write because the work of these people is under attack. People are fostering the notion that these people are not to be trusted, that their reports on things like the earth’s climate and our contribution to climate conditions are nothing more than a deep state conspiracy. It is one thing to write such things when you are talking about some distant “them” you may never have personally encountered. I have friends who do this work, and they are mystified by this. Many would say they don’t have a political bone in their bodies because their research is so engrossing. There are many who share my faith. There are many others who don’t. At the lab bench and the scientific conference, it doesn’t make a difference. It comes down to how good your research is. My friends are usually among the first to cry out against those who make false claims in the name of science. Truth matters that much to them.

There are those who use science to advance political or ideological agendas. They are usually popularizers who either never wore a lab coat, or have given it up but use their reputation to bolster their claims. One may think here of ethologist Richard Dawkins who cherry picks scientific studies to support his militant atheism. One research study shows that most British scientists believe he misrepresents science. Others cherry pick science to support their particular view of biblical creation. Both approaches use science to answer questions science was not intended to answer. Most research scientists I know, no matter what they believe, want no part in any of this, except to go on the record that this misappropriates science.

It is axiomatic that when a particular group attacks a group of “them,” be they scientists or immigrants or home schoolers, we would be wise to recognize that the attack is primarily designed to garner support for that group, and to use a grain of salt in assessing their attack. I would suggest, in the case of science, that if you really care about truth and don’t want to be “faked” that you go and meet some real scientists at your local college or university. Ask yourself, “do I personally know any scientists?” Most Americans do not, which makes them an easy target.

I don’t absolutely trust science, in the way I do God. Any scientist worth his or her salt wouldn’t want me to. Most often, they present their research in terms of confidence levels or intervals, such as a 95% probability that a predicted result will occur, or results within a certain range will occur. Most of us formally or informally act with confidence even when probabilities are not that high. At what percentage of rain chances will you carry an umbrella or rain gear? At what odds will you place a bet on your favorite team?

So when scientists who have worked through the rigorous process I have described publish results and their work has survived the rigorous winnowing process of peer review, I’m willing to place confidence in the work of this scientific community. That doesn’t mean a better theory might not replace it at some point. Newton’s understanding of gravity still works pretty well in most cases, even though Einstein’s theory offers a better account. All of life is like this. But that’s a far cry from believing scientists are purposefully deceiving us. At the end of the day I’m far more inclined to place confidence in the scientists than the deniers. There is no comparable process to the peer review and criticism process for deniers who often just have to put something on the internet. So in whom are you going to place your confidence?

 

Review: The Second Kind of Impossible

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The Second Kind of ImpossiblePaul J. Steinhardt. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.

Summary: A narrative of the search for a new form of matter, first theorized, then synthesized, and then first found in a mineral collection of questionable provenance that gave tantalizing hints that it might really exist.

This is a real science detective story. It has all the hopeful leads and unsettling reverses of a detective mystery, and one where the lead character, in this case the lead researcher, finds himself in a situation far removed from the normal environs of a theoretical physicist.

It begins with the question of whether an impossible five-fold symmetry could be possible under some circumstance.  Then Paul Steinhardt, and a graduate student, Dov Levine,  began began looking for a loophole to the forbidden five-fold symmetry, and found it, suggesting the possibility for something they termed quasi-crystals. Meanwhile, in another lab, a researcher synthesized a compound that turned out to have the predicted electron diffraction pattern. It takes the two labs a couple years to find out about each other but it demonstrates that something that seems impossible can actually exist, hence the title of this book, coming from Richard Feynman’s response to a paper by Steinhardt, who had been mentored by him. It was the kind of impossible that defies known knowledge but has an intriguing logic to it.

The next phase of Steinhardt’s research was to discover whether such a quasi-crystal actually exists in nature–the quest for a needle in a haystack as it were. He and a student comb mineral collections around the world, looking for promising diffraction patterns. They strike out over and over again until they find one sample in an Italian mineral collection administered by Luca Bindi. Part two of this book describes all the tests to confirm that this tiny sample indeed has a quasi-crystal imbedded in it and all the arguments against it. Then another sample is discovered in Russia, but the scientist, a Russian official, will not share it except for an exorbitant price. Furthermore, questions arise about both samples and their provenance–until the field researcher who actually found the material is discovered and agrees to help them find the tiny stream and collect additional samples.

The third part of the book is the trip to this stream, in a remote part of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Steinhardt, who has never done this kind of field work, is leader of the team, and against all the improbabilities, the challenges of mosquitoes, weather, bears, and the terrain, they find additional samples, leading to discoveries of other quasi-crystals, and clues to how this material was formed.

One of the fascinating qualities of this book was the quest that started with a theoretical question and eventually led to a remote peninsula of Kamchatka. For those not acquainted with the life of a research scientist, this account captures something of the excitement of pursuing a really interesting research question, how one question can lead to another, and the roadblocks and dead ends researchers sometimes encounter along the way. What we realize eventually is that all this takes over thirty years, and involves collaboration with a number of researchers from Russia, Italy, and all over the U.S. It is not the only research Steinhardt works on, but imagine spending most of one’s adult working life pursuing a research question. The combination of curiosity and sheer perseverance commands a certain kind of respect.

The other fascinating aspect of this book was understanding how research science works. Richard Feynman is not the only one to declare “impossible.” Some did so with outright opposition for good scientific reasons. This happens constantly in the submission of research papers and at scientific conferences. Steinhardt enlists his opponents on his research team, forming a “red team” and a “blue team” with opposing views. The opposing teams were good at recommending all the tests that would eliminate alternative possibilities. Eventually the opposition, formidable researchers in their own right, are convinced–but that took years.

This is a good book to illustrate the skepticism, the meticulous rigor, and the self-correcting character of scientific research at its best. The other wonderful aspect that arises out of this process is the international collaboration of people willing to share knowledge, samples, and credit, to advance a shared understanding of the world, indeed the universe. In short, this is a great book to see how science really works at its best.

Review: Neurotheology

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NeurotheologyAndrew Newberg. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Summary: A survey of the field of neurotheology, arguing for its viability as a field of inquiry, exploring the various research studies on religious and spiritual experience and practice and correlates of activity and changes in various brain structures, and what might be learned at the intersection of religion and neuroscience that may help us understand the most profound questions of our existence.

There has been an explosion of research in the field of neuroscience and related disciplines in the study of the functioning of the brain and how various brain structures interact with everything from autonomic processes like breathing and heart rate, creation and loss of memory, reasoning, stress responses, sexual response, motor skills, language–indeed every aspect of human experience. This includes a growing field of studies of religious experience and a whole host of questions that arise as to whether brain differences account for different experiences, how such experiences change the brain, and even whether the neuroscience of religious experience can account for the religious nature of human beings. Needless to say, such inquiry can both offer deeper insight into the significance of religious practices, rituals and experiences in our lives, and arouse controversy around the fear that neuroscience could “explain away” faith.

In this work, Andrew Newberg navigates this potentially contentious ground by offering us a survey of the work that has been done, the research questions that might be explored, and the potential or actual value that may be derived from this multi-disciplinary approach to studying neuroscience and religion.

Newberg begins by discussing the “happy prison of the brain” within which all of us are trapped and that all of our perceptions of the world come through our senses and are processed by our brains–religious perceptions as well as scientific ones. He contends that an approach that draws upon both has the potential to help us more fully understand what it means to be human and our belief systems and how we experience them.

The early chapters of the book focus on overview, defining neurotheology and the disciplines that contribute to this study, the most relevant neuroscience data looking at different brain functions as they pertain to religious and spiritual experiences and the elements of religion and spirituality that might be studied by the neurotheologian and the tools that may be used in such study. I was struck by how much was defined by what could be studied while in an fMRI scanner, although sensor “helmets,” magnetic fields, as well as survey data are also used. I wonder for example about how one would study various forms of active service in one’s community or one’s ethical behaviors that arise from one’s faith.

Beginning with chapter 6, the focus of the next three chapters are on what various scientific disciplines contribute to our understanding. Evolutionary biology and anthropology helps us understand the evolution of the human brain and known correlates between the development of aspects of religion and the development of specific brain structures. Psychology helps us understand various “cognitive, emotional, attachment, and social elements of religion” and their connection to brain processes. The study of brain pathologies and pharmacology reveal the connection between some forms of brain disorders and some extreme types of spiritual experience. This raises the question of “the God delusion,” although the author notes that if this contention is true, much of humanity is delusional.

Chapter 9 and following turn to elements of religion–the creation of mythic stories, rituals and practices like prayer or meditation. Each of these chapters explore some of the brain processes that connect to the various elements of religion as they have been studied. Then chapter 12 and the remaining chapters focus on some special questions such as whether there may be differences in brain function between religious, “spiritual,” and non-religious persons, what neuroscience reveals about free will (or free won’t, as the author suggests at one point), and the nature of mystical experience, where one experiences transcendence, perceiving that one has escaped one’s body. It is fascinating to see the changes that occur both in the frontal and parietal lobes during such experiences.

The final chapter (15) was perhaps the most controversial to me in the author’s proposal that neurotheology might offer a “metatheology” or “megatheology.” This struck me as at best unhelpful to collaboration between science and faith, suggesting that particular religious or theological perspectives might be subsumed in some universal. This feels a bit like those who claim with smug superiority that all religions really are “different ways up to the ultimate” that they, unlike the poor benighted adherents of particular religions, are enlightened enough to see. Much of this work was characterized by a becoming modesty, that seemed to be suspended at this point. The most charitable interpretation I can place on this is the author’s enthusiasm for this multidisciplinary approach, which made this an informative and engaging read.

Overall, I found this work quite helpful in getting up to speed on the current state of research in this field. I found myself often reading with a sense of wonder at how amazing the brain is that is reading that text (not that I am claiming my brain to be amazing in any distinctive way)! Personally, I think, just as we are wired up to function in so many ways effectively in the world, so it is not incredible that if there is a spiritual dimension to life, we would equally have cognitive capacities to apprehend and experience those realities. I do hope there can be a continuing respectful conversation between scientists and believing people (sometimes they are one and the same!). It is clear we have much to learn from each other!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

May 2014: The Month in Reviews

It was a rich and varied month of reading–everything from a long history of genocide to a reflective book on a one sentence prayer. I read primary source accounts of the beginning of the Atomic age and a collection of essays on the challenging theological question of “holy war” in the Bible. There was a book on 19th century efforts to reconcile faith and science, and the cutting edge 21st century science of genomics and its challenges to faith and ethics. I explored a full length memoir of growing up in southern Saskatchewan, a full-length biography of the “little woman that started this great war [the Civil War]”, and a delightful collection of short stories by a Bengali Indian writer. So, here is the month in reviews, with each of the links taking you to the full review of the book:

1. God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America, by Walter H. Conser, Jr. The title summarizes the book in many ways, exploring how 19th century theologians grappled, even before Darwin, with discoveries that called into question interpretations of the Bible.

2. The Manhatten Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians, ed. by Cynthia C. Kelly. The immediacy of these accounts combined with the skillful editing that fashions these into a seamless narrative makes this a compelling read of the beginning of the nuclear age.

3. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power.  From the story of Rafael Lemkin who gave us the word “genocide” to the tragedy of Rwanda, and our first real steps to intervene in the Balkans, Power tells a story of America’s studied avoidance for the most part, of using its power to prevent genocide, even while piously saving “never again” after the Holocaust.

god and natural worldmanhatten projectproblem from hellexcellence in preaching4. Excellence in Preaching: Studying the Craft of Leading Preachers, by Simon Vibert. I appreciated both the concept and conclusions of this book but felt it was marred by its exclusive use of white, Anglo male models. Is excellence in preaching really limited to this demographic? I think not.

5. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life, by Nancy Koester. Stowe did far more than just write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was a pioneer among women authors, the daughter and spouse of New School Calvinist pastors who moved away from these theological roots while not moving away from Christ, and contributed far more to the abolition of slavery than simply her novel. An outstanding biography.

6. Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream, by Suzanne Mettler. Mettler argues that in the field of higher education as in the wider society, our education policies and our failure to maintain policies offering affordable access to all, are creating a new educated elite while excluding many from the lower classes of society.

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7. Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, by J. Craig Venter. Venter was the leader of one of two teams (Francis Collins led the other) who sequenced the human genome. In this book, Venter talks about what he and other genetic researchers have been doing since, particularly in developing our capacities to synthesize DNA and the ways they’ve applied this research.

8. Holy War in the Bible, ed. by Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan.  This book represents the proceedings from a conference on this issue and is organized around essays representing six different approaches to the question of how we deal with war in the Bible. Probably the most thorough-going treatment on this issue I’ve read.

9. The Jesus Prayer, by John Michael Talbot. This little booklet reflects word by word on the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner). A book at once theologically rich, devotionally nurturing, and ecumenically written.

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10. Wolf Willow, by Wallace Stegner. This is Stegner’s memoir of the settlement of south Saskatchewan in the area of the Cypress Hills and his own boyhood. He punctuates this with a riveting, fictional account of the struggle of cowboys to survive the winter of 1906, that devastated the herds and nearly took their lives.

11. Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri. This Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories by Bengali Indian Lahiri explores the intersection of traditional Bengali values with modernity, particularly in negotiating the immigrant experience. A number of the stories are set in Boston, where Lahiri was educated.

David Brooks, in a recent op-ed in The New York Times made this observation about what books can and cannot do in our lives:

I suppose at the end of these bookish columns, I should tell you what I think books can’t do. They can’t carve your convictions about the world. Only life can do that — only relationships, struggle, love, play and work. Books can give you vocabularies and frameworks to help you understand and decide, but life provides exactly the education you need.

That’s what I felt these books do in my life. It’s my hope that one or more might do the same for you!

 

Review: Faith and Fragmentation

Faith and Fragmentation
Faith and Fragmentation by J. Philip Wogaman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

J. Philip Wogaman has served as a pastor to Presidents and so I was intrigued to see how he would handle the project of re-framing the Christian faith in a post-colonial age of rapid scientific and technological advance, an age of intellectual and religious pluralism. The book itself is a reprint of a book originally published in the 1980s. Most of the trends he notes have only continued to unfold so there is much of current relevance in what he writes.

He begins with an image of a broken, fragmented cup related by Ruth Benedict in Patterns of Culture, an image shared of the shattering of the cultural and worldview framework of the Digger Indians in California. Wogaman questions whether the same thing has happened with Christianity as it has been understood, and whether there are resources within the faith that provide an unfragmented cup, one that can hold water, or the new wine of new life.

I found his analysis of traps avoided by early Christianity (being held captive to a Jewish form of Christianity, anti-intellectualism, antimaterial spritualism, and sectarian aloofness to secular power) spot on. Likewise, his analysis of the “fragments” of a broken faith we are tempted to cling to was equally telling–nostalgia, religious feeling, liturgical formalism, institutional activism, fundamentalism, nationalism, rationalism and more.

Equally, I was impressed with the scope of issues he explores–the question of human knowledge, cosmology and science, the self, our relation to society and response to various forms of injustice, and missions in a post-colonial era. I will give Wogaman credit for not retreating to a privatized, interior faith that says little or nothing about these challenges.

Where I found Wogaman more problematic was in his core theology. Most critically, I find Wogaman denying the possibility of the miraculous and the bodily resurrection of Christ. For him, the incarnation is simply an expression of the transcendent love of God for all humanity. What this all seems to boil down to is a “moral influence” idea of the work of Christ. Wogaman’s vision is for a church that responds to this work as a “community of hopeful love”. Certainly I would affirm that love is the mark of disciples in Christian community and that we love because God first loved us.

Yet in the end, what Wogaman seems to advocate is a Christianity without power, and really without hope beyond this life. In his denial of the transformative power of the Risen Christ working through the Holy Spirit to work inner transformation, I find that all he is proposing is a form of moralism motivated by some vague gratitude toward God. In the end, it seems to me that Wogaman himself is offering us only fragments of what is a far more robust faith, fragments that cannot hold water, nor carry the new wine of new life.

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Either/Or

Yesterday I stirred up a bit of a firestorm of comments on my Facebook page because I posted my son’s blog, Evolution vs. Creation (IT DOESN’T MATTER)I posted it not to stir up a flurry of posts defending one or another theory (although it did–what was I thinking?). Nor do I think the discussion doesn’t matter. Actually, I think it does. Rather, I posted it because I think his post reflects what many of those on both Nye and Ham’s side don’t get–that the way this discussion has been occurring has become tiresome and off-putting. Many scientists would just like to get on with their science. And many Christians feel like we are shooting ourselves in the foot in having these arguments. Even if we “win” the argument, we lose people who conclude we are narrow-minded and anti-scientific. And as Ben pointed out, the center of our faith is the cross of Christ and his call for us to follow him in demonstrating and sharing his sacrificial love in a lost and needy world.

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What I think matters crucially in this discussion that I find needed on both sides is a willingness to think about how physical causes that are scientifically observable and the activity of God in creating and sustaining the world go together. I feel both sides of the “debate” are locked into an “either/or” paradigm. Either the universe came about purely through a series of random events and a chain of physical causes, or God created the universe, whether in a shorter or longer time.

The issue is larger than the question of beginnings though. Christians are not deists who simply believe God started the world but that it now runs on its own. Hebrews 1:3 claims this of the Christ who redeems the world:  “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” That states that God in Christ is continually active in the world. It has been said that “the laws of science are adjectives for the activity of God in the world.” It was this in fact that motivated many of the early scientists in their research, to more clearly understand how through physical causation God was at work in the world.

If in fact we believe that we can both study physical causation in the present and understand something of the mind and working of God, why can this not also be so when we speak of beginnings?  Why can we not think in both/and terms? I think part of why both “sides” in debates like the one between Ham and Nye are so entrenched is that the debate is framed almost exclusively in either/or terms. It becomes a zero sum game where if science wins, the Bible loses, or if the Bible wins, science loses.

For scientists like Bill Nye, I think the question is, are you willing to admit the possibility of a universe in which God exists, and in which he actively is involved in the beginnings and continuance of its existence including your very own?  Are you willing to admit that such a God is capable of revealing himself and that this, along with the fruits of reasoned observation should shape our view of the world? Good science doesn’t exclude this possibility, only “scientism”.

For Christians, are we willing to live in the tension of believing that Genesis 1-3 is a true account of God’s activity in creation while not forcing a reconciliation between the findings of geology, physics, and biology and our narrative of beginnings that compromises either faith or science? This means living with unanswered questions. The truth is, we live with many unanswered questions in this life and I would rather do that than summarily say that the science around origins is wrong or that Adam never existed.

For those who did not see the debate, Al Mohler, Jr. gives what seems a good account that underscores the real issue of the debate–the worldview clash between what I’ve called “scientism” and the Christian worldview that is open to learning both through reasoned inquiry and revelation. If we can get to a discussion of this, then I think we can have a discussion that “matters”.