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In a conversation with a colleague yesterday the topic of popular conceptions of science came up.  We noted together that in the past year and for all the obvious reasons, we have all thought a lot more about science and in particular medical science / epidemiology than ever before.  Unless you work part-time or full-time in the field of science or some closely related area of study, then you can pass most of your days without ever once pondering what science is or how it works or what’s the latest new thing in science or medical research.

But the pandemic has brought medical and biological science to the forefront of our minds more days than not for a year now.   The results of this higher-than-usual consciousness of science have been decidedly mixed.  On the one hand—or in this case we could say on the one arm—there has been the amazingly fast development of COVID-19 vaccines.  If the Trump Administration’s labeling of the endeavor as “Operation Warp Speed” sounded overly ambitious when it was announced, it turned out to be more than a little apt.  The Star Trek reference to warp speed brings up the speed of light and if it is not literally true that the now widely available COVID-19 vaccines were developed at light speed, scientifically speaking it really was pretty close to Warp One on the starship Enterprise.    

Last Thursday on the anniversary of the announcement by the WHO of a global pandemic, I received my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine and was filled with both gratitude and wonder that this was actually happening.  True, the full year that has passed since early March 2020 has felt like the longest year in most of our lives (are we sure it wasn’t more like three years?).  But the fact is that in less than that span of time we went from sequencing a never-before-seen coronavirus to coming up with several reliable vaccines to combat it.  That verges on the miraculous.  And then we could ponder the real wonder of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and their mind-blowing Messenger-RNA science that builds antibodies in a way that would have been the stuff of science fiction not long ago.   It really is like Dr. McCoy on Star Trek having just the right hypo for almost anything.

At the same time, however, even as millions are gratefully receiving the vaccine every week now, our closer attention to science has led some to double or triple down on their doubts and cynicism about science.  And this pool of doubters includes not a few evangelical Christians in the United States according to polling.  Some point to the mistakes and false starts that we witnessed.  Early in the pandemic people were told to wipe down their groceries because some scientific studies found that coronavirus could live on surfaces like cardboard or grocery bags for up to 48 hours.  As it turns out, that was only true in pristine lab conditions with pretty significant concentrations of the virus placed on a surface.  In the real world that just doesn’t happen much if at all.  In hindsight, wiping down your new bottle of Tide turned out to be a waste of effort and time.

And so some point to that mistake—or they point to how long it took to figure out that coronavirus was also an aerosol virus or they point to the evolution of opinion on wearing masks and then what kind of masks—and they use all this to declare that scientists never know what they’re talking about.  Also, for those who view science as an enemy of faith to begin with due to conflicts between evolutionary theory and Young Earth Creationist views of Scripture (think Creation Museum and Ark Encounter), these apparent mistakes or false starts made by scientists during the pandemic serve to bolster their default position of skepticism, if not outright disbelief, in “science.”

What we need to realize, however, is that in addition to bringing science more to the forefront of our minds more days than not, what the pandemic did was give us a glimpse of how science works all the time.  Science is always about making models and theories and then testing them and re-testing them.  The average scientist and researcher is in the business of trying to prove him- or herself wrong most days as they do everything they can to test out this or that theory.  Although some theories are eventually proven to be totally false, many theories prove to have been mostly correct to begin with but all of that gets refined and honed over and over again.  Some parts of a theory get discarded, others get bolstered, and that’s how the work proceeds.

Those who are skeptical of science will still unthinkingly pop in a couple Tylenol when they get a headache without realizing that the development of acetaminophen years ago was also a result of trial and error and ongoing refinement.  It’s just that research and development like that did not take place in full view of the public in real time the way coronavirus and COVID-19 research unfolded before our very eyes.  Scientific skeptics likewise don’t realize that the iPhone in their pocket (and on which they rely every day) is also the end product of decades of research, missteps, false starts, and successes until, voila, you got yourself an iPhone 12, which is in its own way a technological marvel on a par with the marvel of COVID-19 vaccines. 

All of this reminds me of the ironic findings of a major study years ago that discovered that the more conservative a church tended to be, the more stuffed their sanctuaries were with every audio-video technological gadget imaginable.   A high view of Scripture in a given congregation typically correlated with a low view of science and yet that did not prevent such a church from wielding the marvels of the very same science that is involved with radiometric dating, quantum physics, and other things viewed as the enemy of conservative faith.

Science is not infallible and we don’t put our faith in science on a par with putting our faith in Jesus.  But the ability to do science is a mark of the Image of God in us.  That is partly why modern empirical science grew from the bosom of the church.  Our orderly God created an orderly universe that imagebearers of this same God could investigate in an orderly way to uncover more and more divine marvels.  Yes, there are plenty of atheist scientists out there who delight in bashing all religious faith but, as Alvin Plantinga has repeatedly pointed out, that is not science speaking but the religious commitment of the heart known as scientific naturalism.

But that is a topic for another blog (or a series of 20 blogs!).  My only point is that when hardworking researchers manage to pull off a triumph like COVID-19 vaccines developed in about 9 months’ time, Christians should be leading the chorus of praise to God for such a gift, not standing on the sidelines singing songs of doubt and negativity.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

13 Comments

  • mstair says:

    “ … point to the mistakes and false starts that we witnessed. “

    “ … when hardworking researchers manage to pull off a triumph like COVID-19 vaccines developed in about 9 months’ time, …”

    Certainly a deliverance from God … a gift though …? NYT priced the Phizer vaccine this a.m. ($20/ each)! Multiplying that by millions AND millions …

    …wondering if a similar profit/race attached to the initial diagnostic discoveries could have avoided those false starts you mentioned …

    Like the “gifts” of electricity, and internal combustion engines, science plods along with hypothesis and trial … but add human greed to the mix and notice what happens …

    • Tom says:

      Yeah, I’d say that if for the price of a dinner at Applebee’s I can get a shot that protects me from a deadly virus and makes possible the end of a year of isolation that’s an absolute gift! Frankly, I don’t care if Pfizer and whoever provided them with capital to pull this off need scientific notation to count the money they made. It’s worth a lot more than 20 bucks to me.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      This is an interesting comment. I would add that the US government pre-ordered 100s of millions of shots which flooded the companies with cash to make it worth it to try and try again. The “miracle” was pre-paid for which opened the doors. One wonders if this is an argument for more investment in science. Otherwise these companies are left with investigation that must pay off (think greed or just staying alive). At any rate, the capitalist in our midst would argue that greed is the engine of the economy. Not sure that’s right but it may be worth a conversation.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      People and corporations profit off of most anything, including when we go to war. But I would rather someone or a corporation profit off that which gives or sustains life than that which takes it in the making of bombs and munitions. I would stipulate that in general pharmaceutical companies do just fine in this country and probably more regulation of drug prices are needed in the long run. At the same time R&D is an exceedingly costly endeavor in which millions or billions can sometimes be lost on dead ends. Once a company gets a good drug, they have a small window of time to recoup their investment before the medicine gets opened up to generic manufacturers. But even with all that said: I do think the rapid development of these COVID vaccines is both gift and in its own way a miracle. A miracle of science, yes, but I would trace it back further as a miracle of the God who endowed us with the ability to do science, which was my main point in today’s blog.

      • Tom says:

        I’m with you Scott and 100% on board with your point, just reacting to the ‘profit is evil’ viewpoint.
        One clarification to Rodney’s comment above – as I understand it, the government pre-ordered the vaccine, they did not pre-pay. In fact, payment was conditioned on the vaccine proving to be safe and effective, so the pre-order did not flush the companies with cash, their payoff was dependent on them successfully producing a vaccine. If you were an investor who put your money into Astra-Zeneca, you’d be a little nervous right now about the obscene profits you were counting on.

        • Rodney says:

          You are correct. I guess the only thing I would say is “pre-ordering” never happens either. They had to get it right, but they knew they hit the jackpot if they did.
          Either way, I liked this blog and I agree with Scott. I would only add, as I in-artfully tried above, this process shows we should be investing a lot more in research and development in every way we can, as a country

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Excellent. And I loved the third to last paragraph, about sanctuaries stuffed with electronic equipment. One of the real tragedies is the politicization of science that Christians are accepting, so that recommendations on mask-wearing and even vaccinations are being disputed among Christians as matters of religious liberty. It’s not new. The refusal of vaccinations and insurance goes way back in our circles, but it’s never been politicized as a matter of freedom and national identity in the way that it is now.

  • Jane brown says:

    Really appreciate this paragraph-
    Science is not infallible and we don’t put our faith in science on a par with putting our faith in Jesus. But the ability to do science is a mark of the Image of God in us. That is partly why modern empirical science grew from the bosom of the church. Our orderly God created an orderly universe that imagebearers of this same God could investigate in an orderly way to uncover more and more divine marvels. Yes, there are plenty of atheist scientists out there who delight in bashing all religious faith but, as Alvin Plantinga has repeatedly pointed out, that is not science speaking but the religious commitment of the heart known as scientific naturalism.

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    Scott, thanks for writing this. I could add to your suggested blogs about science, scientists, and faith, but will restrain myself to three comments.

    I think it is useful to think about basic science, applied science, and technology. Without applied science, there is no technology; without basic science, there is no applied science. Technology is the production and delivery of millions of doses of a vaccine. Applied science is the development of the specific vaccine for Covid19. Basic science is the understanding of how a virus works, how the immune system works, and how vaccines prevent virus attacks. The corollary to this is that technology is where the “money” is. Scientists by and large are not paid overly well. The average pay for a research scientist in the US is less than half the pay for a general practice medical doctor. The “greed” factor alluded to in the comments may apply to the companies producing the virus vaccines, but very little of that money finds it way back to the applied scientists and virtually none to the basic scientists.

    Continued technological advancement requires continued investment in basic science, but there is little short-term financial reward for that investment. The US government realized this following WWII and made a conscious decision to invest in basic science, as did a number of large US companies. The latter investment no longer occurs and US government investments have been declining (in real dollars) for years. At the same time, science has been expanding, particularly in the biological and health areas, putting further stress on our basic science investment.

    The basis of product regulation and pollution control is often applied science. This leads to direct attacks on the applied science by industry consortiums and corporations that all too often focus on misinformation, scare tactics, and outright lies. Please do not misunderstand me. Good science requires skepticism, testing, and revision. But it does not require personal attacks, attribution of false motives, and denial of reasonably established results. These attacks are fuel for the anti-intellectualism and anti-science that is all too prevalent in the evangelical community. If you want an interesting read on this subject, I suggest “Merchants of Doubt” by Oreskes and Conway.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Scott, Thank you for reinforcing the Reformed view that all areas of Creation should be explored and science explores many of them including the biological aspect. Thank you doctors, nurses and technicians for your commitment to using science to help Creation and serving the Lord.

  • I live with a chemical process engineer who has been working in the production side of the pharma industry for twenty years. She is proudly a member of the first graduating class of chemical engineering students from Calvin University, from the spring of ’01.

    It is interesting how many CRC members have had such difficulty accepting basic science for at least half a century now. The sentence, “A high view of Scripture in a given congregation typically correlated with a low view of science” deeply saddens me… such a view simply takes away from the glory of God and in turn our faithfulness to the world in which we are called to steward.

  • David Hoekema says:

    Back in the first months of the Trump administration there was a march and rally for science in downtown Grand Rapids, at a time when climate scientists and geologists were being purged from regulatory agencies and replaced by coal and oil industry lobbyists. As we marched we were led in what remains one of my favorite protest march chants, albeit not the most concise.
    Leader: What do we want?
    Assembled citizens: EVIDENCE-BASED SCIENCE!
    L: When do we want it?
    AC: AFTER PEER REVIEW!

  • John says:

    Thanks for sharing your perspective and your support of science. As a science educator I have been dismayed to witness the effects of “denialism” of all sorts over recent years. Misinformation about the pandemic has only made the situation worse. I endorse Mr. Ackerman’s recommendation of Merchants of Doubt as a way to understand this phenomenon.

    It’s been particularly striking to encounter the thinking that when a scientist or public health professional changes their position based on new evidence, they are “flip flopping”. Where do people get the idea that there is virtue in sticking with your original conclusion, even if the face of new evidence? The public needs a better understanding of the scientific process.

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