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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.