What does it mean to be a Christian and Scientist?

And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind.

Ecclesiastes 1:13–14

Frequently I am asked how it is possible for a person to be a scientist and Christian. The idea behind such queries, I believe, being that there is some sort of disconnect between faith and science, that the two cannot coexist. Often times, I am unsure how to answer, or if an answer is even expected. Perhaps the individual is asking rhetorically to prove just that point. As such, it seems fitting to me to begin this blog addressing this issue. It is an issue that is not as simple as most people seem to like. It is an issue that I hope to one day be able to answer completely, accurately, and intelligently as I believe that the two are not necessarily discordant. This is the first of (insert number here) posts with that intent. This post will focus on our modern scientific processes as it seems quite hard to define a “scientific Christian” having not defined “scientist,” which itself requires a working definition of “science.”

As a scientist, I find it my duty to pursue and categorize the workings of our universe. It is a seemingly endless task. We are advancing at a tremendous rate with new breakthroughs in technology fueling new theories, and those theories becoming more intricate and complex. We have reached a point in our capabilities in the lab where it is an exceptionally difficult and formidable task to stay current with scientific developments. In fact, the breadth of scientific possibility is so broad, that our current approach is to break “science” apart and allot it amongst various individuals and institutions wherein experimentation and investigation are conducted. This has two outfalls: (1) individuals participating in a field of research are (of necessity) highly specialized in that specific field and (2) individuals not participating in that area of study develop an understanding of that field based on information provided by the aforementioned “experts.” Couple to this the fact that most people receive their news on scientific developments from columnists and anchors with absolutely no scientific training, and it becomes quite easy to see why the vast percentage of the population has a completely unscientific take on science; if the individuals presenting it have no practical grasp of the theoretical and technical aspects of a study, it is simply “dumbed down” to such mundane and universally understandable tenements as “Global warming is bad” or “Nuclear power is scary” or even “Cigarettes cause cancer” without any appreciation of the nuances and intricacies that contain the truth of the matter. The bulk of the populace relies on untrained individuals to report on the findings of those few with the expertise and funding necessary to conduct intensive research.

The goal of this approach is to make “science” accessible for the masses. The problem is that it requires no prerequisite knowledge of what science is or how it works on the part of the non-scientific community — there is no responsibility to understand. Nobody wants to work at developing a scientific knowledge base, in part because it requires extensive time and effort, and in part because in order to truly learn the material, you have to be able to not only make mistakes, but accept that you are often going to be wrong. Neither of these is particularly appealing to the public at large — we like things to be fast, simple and make us feel good. Working for hours/days/months just to find out that we are wrong holds no appeal. And the nonscientific community is not alone — the large majority of students in my classroom who want to be doctors, pharmacists, et cetera express little to no interest in the material. They simply want to know what will be on the exam. There is virtually no intellectual curiosity. It is a major failing of the current teen — twentysomething generation and incredibly disheartening to me as a teacher (and a topic for another post, another day). At any rate, the short of it is that there is a lackadaisical embracing of science in terms that everyone can understand, which makes the bulk of what people think they understand inaccurate. Science is not always user-friendly and trying to make it so often makes it wrong.

This lends itself to a dichotomy of sorts: a small, theoretically knowledgeable community dictating to the massive, uneducated populace. And because this populace is uneducated on the topic, there is no questioning on the part of the populace, just acceptance of what it is told. Conversely, it is highly unlikely that the educated community would welcome such questioning and critiquing. After all, how can the ignorant call into question the work of the knowledgeable? On the occasions when this happens, there is often a mocking, elitist retort to the alternative view (re: the intelligent design debate or labeling “climate deniers” for questioning data interpretation). This leaves only select peers in the educated community to examine the work and conclusions produced within its own collective. This is a strikingly self-serving functionality and one that lends itself to communal tolerance of the bending or breaking of fundamental scientific principles in the name of scientific advancement. There is a very real danger to “science by consensus” when any non-conformist perspective, no matter how informed, is ridiculed or dismissed without consideration due to legitimate questioning of an issue. The assumption is that the consenting group has done its due diligence and correctly analyzed and interpreted the data. This seems to be a rather unsafe assumption to make.

The fundamental backbone of any scientific study is control. A true scientific study minimizes influence of variables outside of the variable of interest. Essentially, this means keeping all variables but one constant, conducting an experiment and recording the results. If necessary, subsequent variables are then manipulated, one by one, and this process is repeated until a thorough understanding of the system is achieved. Drawing conclusions from situations where this control is not exercised is not scientific. For example, let’s revisit the “cigarettes cause cancer” issue. Everyone knows that smoking cigarettes causes cancer, right? Science says so, doesn’t it? Well, no it does not. There is no way to control every aspect of every individual’s life in a sample population. To do so, we need to find a population with identical genetic constitution, were raised in identical environments and so were exposed to identical environmental phenomena, had identical diets for their whole lives, etc. Then we would divide the population in half, allow half to smoke and prevent half from smoking or being around second-hand smoke and observe the results. Obviously, we cannot do this. It is impossible to find even two individuals with consistent genetic constitution let alone being identical in all other facets of life (and we would certainly require more than two individuals to have a sample population). As a result, it is impossible to scientifically prove that smoking cigarettes causes cancer. The best we would possibly be able to conclude is that there is a correlation between cigarette smoking and the occurrence of certain types of cancers (and remember that correlation is not causation!).

The point here is not to disregard anything that cannot be scientifically proven (it is most likely a great idea to not smoke or quit if you do — there is an abundance of data that suggests smoking can cause various health maladies), but rather be cautious with what we label as “science.” Science is about control and using that control to obtain hard data. It is not about obtaining data in loosely defined experiments or through proxy sampling wherein strict control is simply not possible and fitting that data to suit an explanation, nor is it about picking which data we choose to accept (for any reason — limiting data because it is complex and difficult to understand/interpret is equally as disastrous as disregarding or deleting “inconvenient” data). This is common practice today when media presents scientific findings (one need look no further than the variant reports and responses to the Covid pandemic, though there are certainly countless others) that leads to a lopsided, inaccurate portrayal of what the data actually say. The endpoint of this oversimplification (and therefore misrepresentation of data) is that it validates a particular side of an argument without true scientific justification. This problem is exacerbated when an issue, such as global warming or Covid, is embraced by policy makers with little or no scientific training. Whichever side the policy favors further “validates” what that side’s science says* (even if science cannot actually make such a claim). Any discrepancy or “inconvenient finding” that seems evidence counter to the dominant view point is overlooked or dismissed as unimportant or labeled as “bad” or pseudoscience. In effect, we have a system wherein individuals who are untrained in a scientific field are interpreting data and relaying it to other untrained individuals who accept it as scientific fact and make decisions based on their interpretation or opinion, not actual scientific data. Moreover, some of those decisions include which scientists should get money to fund their research (which, in a sense, further validates a point of view, even if it is not accurate). It is not hard (or completely inaccurate) to imagine that system being driven by policy makers’ interests, not true scientific discovery.

Integrity aside, this “convenience science” is actually huge disservice to everyone. If an issue is controversial and there is some evidence for opposing view points, this process of disregarding them only serves to weaken the favored interpretation. A true scientist would embrace the challenge to his interpretation of his data, not belittle or disregard it. Any inconsistency with an explanation is an opportunity to strengthen that explanation through further experimentation. In other words, a data-backed challenge to a proposed explanation of results would, at worst, pinpoint areas for further study to strengthen a position. This is supposed to be the true scientific approach: make an observation, propose a hypothesis to explain said observation, conduct controlled experiments and analyze and interpret the results, repeat as necessary. Disregarding a viewpoint because it is inconvenient or seemingly “unbelievable” destroys the scientific process and therefore renders any conclusion as unscientific. A position should only be disregarded when there is no data to support it. In short, we cannot manipulate or twist science to suit our beliefs or desires — it is no longer science if we do.

This mirrors being a Christian in many ways. We cannot manipulate or misrepresent God’s word to suit a situation or personal position/desire. We are going to be challenged with issues that we may not be able to readily or completely answer. Our viewpoints will be questioned and our doctrine challenged by those who are not “educated” (we ourselves may even be in early stages of becoming “educated”) in this particular subject. And much like true science, we may need to return back to our research for further study and our responses should be controlled and in accordance with God’s law. Just as we can’t disregard data to make science convenient or easy to understand, neither can we ignore parts of the law to make our faith convenient or easy to accept. And just like a challenge to a scientific theory only provides opportunity to enhance the theory, so too should challenges to our beliefs serve as an opportunity to strengthen our faith.

*The use of “sides” is intended to illustrate a point. Obviously science does not take sides, but rather individuals may have competing interpretations to the same data.

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John Tedesco

I am an Associate Professor of Chemistry and Dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics with profound interest in philosophy and faith.