On a recent trip in the Midwest, as I was perusing the tourist brochures in a stand of the hotel where I was staying, I spotted one that read: “Creation Museum, Prepare to Believe”. I shook my head and sighed. Creationism has been around for a while. But the building of modern-looking museums where creationist can present their case to the people is a more recent development that probably reflects the sad state of acceptance of misinformation and rejection of facts and reason that currently prevails in our society.
I have addressed the topic of creationism several times in my blog. Creationists believe the Bible to be the literal word of God. Therefore, when they perceive there is an apparent contradiction between science and their interpretation of the Bible, they choose their interpretation of the Bible.
While many people and religious denominations understand that there are sections of the Bible that are not to be taken literally, creationists are wary of this notion. They argue that it is tantamount to human beings deciding what parts of the word of God they will believe, and they see this just as a recipe for distorting God’s message. They also ask, “Where do we draw the line?” If one passage is declared not to be the literal word of God, and then another, and another, where does it stop? Creationists also argue that God would not lie to us. If God communicated in the Bible that something happened, or if we can infer it from his words, then it must be true.
While some people may roll their eyes at these arguments, they are certainly not trivial. Faith is central to the lives of creationists. They see any belittling of the word of God (the Bible) as anathema to their faith, and people who hold creationist views represent a strong and motivated economic and political block in our society. It would be to everyone’s advantage if the conflict between creationists and science could be resolved, and heaping scorn upon creationists does not help. In fact, many creationists are actually eager to find ways to reconcile their faith with mainstream science. But how do we go about this?
There is a possible resolution to this conundrum that has been proposed by several individuals in various versions over the years. In this post I will try to convey my own version of this proposal.
Although people believe that the general message in the Bible is timeless, the book is clearly addressed to people living thousands of years ago who didn’t have the understanding or the thinking about the world that we have today. But how was God to address those people?
Look at it from the point of view of God. God wanted to get key points across such as love each other, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, and so forth, but at the same time God had to provide a background to address certain common-sense issues such as how everything started, how it’s going, how it works, and how it will end. But God couldn’t do this employing the comprehension of the natural world we have today, as it would just have created confusion and bewilderment among those people. God would have had to introduce new terms such as genes, chromosomes, cells, mutations, species, evolution, deep time, plate tectonics, the fact that stars are suns, supernovas, gravity, the speed of light, etc. to describe realities that were alien to the beliefs and notions those people had regarding how the world works. It would have been counterproductive for God to dwell on complex subjects beyond the understanding of the people of those times. So the solution was to simplify the message, present it at their level of understanding, frame it within the context of their commonly held beliefs, and then move on to the really important things.
Believing that the Bible is the literal word of God is perfectly compatible with this view. The world was not created in seven days and is not six thousand years old. Life arose on Earth by a process of evolution, and there was not a universal flood. However, God communicated otherwise to the people of those times so they could relate to what he was saying in a manner compatible with their understanding and beliefs about the world around them.
There are several levels of what we call “the truth”. When we greatly simplify things for our children and explain issues and things in ways that they can understand, you could argue that we are “lying” to them because we are not conveying the actual complex, detailed truth. But it is unfair to say we are lying to them because they would not understand or relate to the truth if we were to explain it to them at the adult level. Similarly, the intention of God was not to lie, but to make the Bible accessible to the people of those times who had a limited understanding of their physical world.
And as to the Creationist question of where do we draw the line, my answer is that we draw it at science. When God inspired human beings to write the Bible, God did not intend to teach science. The Bible is not a science textbook. The Bible is not intended to teach natural history. Pronouncements about how the physical world works are not the warp and woof of the Bible. That’s the realm of science. The Bible is about how to go to heaven, not about how the heavens go. The Bible is about the Rock of Ages, not about the age of rocks.
Science has limits. It cannot tell us what is good or bad, moral or immoral, ethical or unethical. That’s the field of expertise of the Bible and religion. As a scientist I accept that science has these limits. However, at the same time, the Bible has limits too, and creationists have to accept this. The Bible cannot tell us accurate truths about the chemistry, biology, and physics of the natural world beyond the understanding of people who lived a long time ago. Science and religion have different fields of expertise or non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), as proposed by the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould.
Our use of science has to be tempered by values, morals, and ethics, which most of the time have their origins in religion, but what we choose to believe has to be tempered by science. Science and religion have to coexist and work together, not be adversarial, and I hope that the particular view of the Bible that others and I have proposed gains acceptance among creationist circles.
Photograph by the author can only be used with permission.
I have written that science can replace magical thinking, superstition, or erroneous ideas or beliefs by ever more refined and focused views of reality though observation and experiment. And this is essentially true. Science has done away with many beliefs and ideas that were not backed by facts. However, these changes rarely happen overnight, and in fact they are often met with stiff opposition. A significant number of people won’t modify their thinking based merely on piles of scientific evidence. If one of the purposes of performing science is to generate knowledge that will help people, then scientists have to take the beliefs and cultural norms of societies into account when pursuing the application of scientific knowledge. To illustrate this, let me tell you a story.
A long time ago a physician friend of mine was working in the Amazon jungle. He was tasked with helping the local natives with their medical needs. At the time, an outbreak of malaria was decimating some of the local tribes. My friend told me the story of how he had traveled by boat up a river for several days and then hiked through the jungle to reach a particularly remote tribe. He contacted the tribe’s healer and explained to him that he had some medicine that could help protect the tribe against malaria, but that it was not strong enough by itself, so he needed the help of the healer. He explained that if they combined his medicine with the healer’s powers, they would be able to beat the malaria scourge that was affecting the tribe. So my friend proceeded to treat all the members of the tribe and the healer proceeded to make his potions and perform his dances and rituals, and all the individuals in the tribe affected with malaria were cured.
On hearing this, I was astonished. Did my friend really think that the superstitious rituals and brews concocted by the tribe’s healer contributed or were needed at all to cure the malaria?
Now, let me be clear on two things. First, I agree that indigenous peoples throughout the world have developed a rich and effective arsenal of products derived from plants and animals in their environment to treat different ailments and conditions. Second, I also agree that in diseases that are self-terminating (i.e. those from which most people recover) the right psychological frame of mind can go a long way towards making individuals recover faster from their ailment. Even if a treatment is not really effective in curing a person, merely believing it is can make a difference in terms of how fast a person recovers their health. However, when it comes to certain extreme diseases, both indigenous medicine and psychology have limitations, and they cannot compete with medicines designed through evidence-based science.
When I questioned my friend about these matters, he agreed with me that the healer’s traditional methods were not effective against malaria, but then he stated that that was not the issue. He explained that in tribes like the one he visited, the healer is a central figure in the hierarchy of the tribe. In the eyes of his fellow tribe members, the healer is so important in the role of protecting the tribe from dangers both real and imagined, that a healer who is perceived as ineffectual can deeply affect the psychology of the tribe and impair the way the tribe faces difficult challenges. My friend said that if he had barged right in and cured everyone, he would have delegitimized the healer in the eyes of the tribe and done a greater damage to the tribe than malaria. This is why he concocted the story about the need to combine both treatments.
I was a bit shook up by this. I understood that from a practical point of view this approach made sense, but I remained ambivalent. I asked him, what about truth, facts, evidence, and reality? My friend replied that if enough people believe something no matter how preposterous, that belief for all practical purposes becomes a reality that you have to deal with if you are interested in helping out. If you go head on against these beliefs and disavow or belittle them, you will do more harm than good.
I have thought about what my friend said over the years, and I believe it has some truth. People have deeply held beliefs that are often very important to them. From a scientific point of view, I may understand that some of these beliefs can be demonstrated to be false such as, for example, the belief in creationism, but I have to understand that the mere generation of more data and its repetition will not sway minds. And I think that this is a concept that should be applied (and is actually being applied) to the opposition against many of the initiatives that we need to implement today such as dealing with global warming or dealing with an increasing number of unvaccinated children. This is especially true in our current polarized environment, where scientists are portrayed by many with vested interests either as atheistic, liberal, socialist individuals who want the government to take over the lives of regular folk, or as individuals beholden to corporate interests who deliberately hide, falsify, or mischaracterize data.
The success of the strategy I outlined above will depend on the approach. Very conservative and religious people will be suspicious of scientists warning them of how, unless we change our behavior, we will harm the planet. However, they may be more receptive if the focus is on the concept that humanity is the steward of creation; that we should take care of what God has created. This approach will be even more effective if it is implemented by individuals who share their own beliefs.
A similar approach is also needed with people who are hesitant to vaccinate their children because they believe that vaccines cause autism. Many of these people have been swayed by stories of human suffering interpreted within the context of false or simplistic alarmist explanations. Data and facts are important in combating these false or misleading narratives, but the human side of the issue has to be addressed if scientists wish to change some minds. Scientists should acknowledge the parent’s fears and stress that the common goal of everyone is to protect children, and explain that’s why scientists vaccinate their own children. They should talk about the millions of people alive today because of vaccines, about how the world was when smallpox, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and other diseases were prevalent in our societies. Again, these arguments will be more convincing if delivered by former vaccine opponents.
The human mind is very complex. Different people perceive the same reality in different ways determined by genes, experience, and culture. Some of these perceptions will not conform to the actual veridical reality that’s out there, but as explained above, this in itself constitutes a reality that must be taken into account if we truly want science to help humanity. Whether it is helping a tribe in the Amazon or getting people to go green or to vaccinate their children, science cannot operate in a vacuum.
Photo by Agência de Notícias do Acre used here under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Science is the best method we have to find the truth about the behavior of matter and energy in the world around us. As opposed to other alternatives that seek to discover the truth about the universe and generate applications, science works, and that is a fact. This, however, creates a problem. Despite its achievements, it must always be remembered that one of the greatest limitations of science is that concepts like “good or bad”, “moral or immoral”, or “ethical or unethical” are alien to it because they depend upon value systems. Not only is science unable to answer some of the most pressing questions we have about the meaning of our existence and how to live our lives, but the scientific method does not have any inbuilt requirement to follow ethical or moral procedures when answering questions. Science is just merely a tool, no different from an ax, and an ax can be used to build or it can be used to kill.
And this leads us to scientists.
Due to the fact that scientists are the wielders of a tool (science) that actually works, they are sometimes sought out and recruited by unscrupulous people, organizations, corporations, and governments to carry out research that may be questionable in nature or downright unethical or immoral. This is because these entities know that given enough time and resources, scientists will produce results. And, despite their smarts and their academic degrees, scientists are as human as any person in the street. Most scientists are good, moral, and ethical people, or at least they try to be, but a few are not. It is important to understand this because performing research following the scientific method may make you a more rational and thinking person, but it does not necessarily make you a good, moral, or ethical person. I have previously detailed how many scientists seeking to advance their careers or simply gain a measure of stability, game the system in ways that are mostly benign, but some scientists engage in practices that are outright fraudulent such as forging data. However, nowhere are the consequences of the ethical lapses of scientists more serious than in fields of science involving human experimentation.
Horrific human experimentation was carried out by scientists of the Nazi regime in Germany during World War II. From exposure to disease and chemical gases to forced sterilization and limb transplantations, these experiments were detailed during the Nuremberg Trials, and they have become the epitome of evil. However, these experiments pale in comparison with the atrocities carried out by Japan’s Imperial Army and specifically by an infamous branch called Unit 731, mostly on Chinese nationals during the war. Tens of thousands of civilians were exposed to chemical and infectious agents and many subjected to other tests and sometimes dissected alive in some of the most gruesome experiments ever carried out in the annals of infamy. Examples of other nations that engaged in ghastly human experimentation include the Soviet Union, which carried out experiments where they applied several poisons to the inmates in the Russian Gulag prisons, and North Korea where human experimentation in concentration camps is still ongoing according to defectors.
What led scientists to participate in the heinous experiments outlined above? It can be argued that these countries were or are dictatorships, and scientists were either brainwashed or coerced into these activities. However, this ignores that despicable cases of human experimentation have also occurred in or been sponsored by democracies such as the United States.
A case in point is the infamous Tuskegee study which began in 1932 and lasted for more than 40 years. In this study, carried out by the U.S. Public Health Service in cooperation with the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), nearly 400 black men in Alabama that had syphilis were told they were being treated for “bad blood” and were never informed of the true purpose of the study which was to observe the consequences of untreated syphilis. Even when penicillin became available to treat syphilis in the 1940s the participants in the study were still not treated. The men were followed for many years and the results were documented and published. As late as 1969 when the ethics of the study was being questioned, the Center for Disease Control with the support from local chapters of the American Medical Association and the National Medical Association still argued for continuing the study. The study finally ended in 1972, but by then many of the men had died from syphilis or complications associated with it, many of their wives had been infected, and more than a dozen children had been born with congenital syphilis.
While the Tuskegee study can in part be blamed on racism, that explanation falls short when considering the cold war human radiation experiments conducted by the US government. These experiments ranged from exposing individuals to radioactive substances without providing appropriate information or even obtaining consent, to releasing radioactive gases into the environment to study their dispersal over areas that had significant human populations. Another series of unethical experiments were conducted by the CIA under the code names like “MKUltra”, “Artichoke”, or “Midnight Climax” beginning in the 1950s and continuing well into the 1990s. In these experiments conducted in venues ranging from universities to prisons American citizens were exposed to mind-altering drugs like LSD without their consent to study how individuals could be controlled. These experiments demonstrate that when confronted with a threat (in this case the development of nuclear weapons or the potential for mind control capabilities by the Soviet Union), the US government tended to relax or ignore ethical standards and many scientists were willing to go along.
However, in some situations the driver behind unethical experiments has just been the desire to answer meaningful scientific questions. Such was the case of the famous “Monster Study” performed in 1939 as part of the Stuttering Research Program at the University of Iowa. In this study, scientists set out to test the theory that stuttering was an acquired behavior as opposed to being of genetic origin. For this they performed an experiment with children at an Iowa orphanage without telling the children that they were going to be involved in a study and misleading the caretakers of the orphanage about the purpose of the study. The researchers divided the children into groups that either received positive reinforcement, which involved commending them for speaking well, or negative reinforcement, which involved criticizing them for any imperfections in their speech. Some of the children that received the negative reinforcement developed speech problems that they retained for the rest of their lives.
A more contemporary example of an ethical lapse in experimentation with humans is the creation of babies whose DNA was genetically modified employing the CRISPR technique by the Chinese scientist He Jiankui in 2018. In this case the motivation of the scientist seems to have been to be the first to have done it. The children created with the genetic modifications seem to be healthy at the moment, but their long-term health prospects are unknown. This experiment was universally condemned by the scientific community of both China and the world.
The above examples and many others of scientists committing or becoming involved in unethical or immoral acts justify the need of regulations, especially in fields that involve experimentation with human subjects. In the United States and other countries legislation is now in place that regulates scientific experimentation and on top of this there are citizen “watchdog” organizations that independently monitor various aspects of the scientific enterprise. All this is necessary because of the limitations of science.
The photograph of the Nazi doctors' trial in Nuremberg taken by US army photographers is currently in the Holocaust Memorial Museum and is in the public domain. The photograph of participants in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study is from the National Archives and is in the public domain.