As governors across the U.S. consider whether to relax stay at home orders, many are pitting the words “politics” and “economics” against the word “science.” California Governor Gavin Newsom, for example, told the Los Angeles Times.“We are going to do the right thing, not judge by politics, not judge by protests, but by science.”
And as Governor Brian Kemp opened up Georgia, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms urged people to “Follow the data, look at the science, listen to the health care professionals and use your common sense.”
Similar calls to “believe in science” or “listen to science” are all over policy debates and social media fights. But what does it mean to “believe in science”? And does “science” have a unified answer to questions like “who gets a ventilator,” or whether your child should go to summer camp?
We should be cautious when suggesting that science can speak in such a unified voice, says Sy Garte, a biochemist who has taught at New York University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Rutgers University.
“The idea that ‘science says’—suggesting that it's easy to come up with a consensus, a uniform, finished version of what is true—that's a problem because that's very rarely the case,” said Garte, who is also the editor in chief of God and Nature, a magazine from the American Scientific Affiliation. “One of the things you find out if you're a working scientist is that almost every answer brings up new questions. So we never actually finish learning anything in any field of science. We are continually trying to get deeper and learn more.”
Garte joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss the historic distrust between Christians and science, what science can and cannot answer, and how Christians should engage in conversations with neighbors who are suspicious of science.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #210
Before we get to the questions about science and what it can tell us, let’s talk about your testimony, which was in the March issue of Christianity Today. In it, you shared that science didn't quite hold the keys to unlocking all the mysteries. What were some of the questions that you were frustrated that science couldn't answer?
Sy Garte: I already knew that science is not made to answer questions that are not part of how we understand the natural world. Science is not built to probe into questions of morality or romance, or why some music appeals to me—all these questions of human nature and human characteristics. We can guess at them, but we can't address them scientifically.
I was even told by my father, who was a very strict atheist his whole life and a scientist, that “there are only a few questions that science can answer. So don't expect it to answer everything.” But I still thought that the methods of science would answer all the questions of the natural world.
And in fact, what I discovered—and this was very disturbing to me—is that science was giving me answers that were basically new questions. They were not giving the real answers to the question of how reality works. And so that kind of threw me off because I thought at least the scientific method would tell us everything we need to know about the natural world.
Was there a particular question that you came up against?
Sy Garte: There were several, but one that was important was the uncertainty Principle. It says that there are things where we cannot know. We just can't know. And it's not a question that we don't have the method yet, or we don't have the tools to know these things, but that there are things that we must remain uncertain about.
I had thought that we could learn everything, it was just a matter of time and we would have all questions answered and have all knowledge. And no, science itself tells us that that is not possible.
What would be your characterization of evangelical Christians’ relationship with science? What are some of the forces bringing Christians and science together, and what are some of the things that are pulling those things apart?
Sy Garte: Well, I think historically, we could go back to the end of the 19th century when there were two developments that were both very powerful and I would say somewhat destructive.
One was the origin of the young earth, six-day literal interpretation of Genesis, which came originally, as far as I understand it, from Seventh-Day Adventists, and then eventually resulted in its absorption into the Southern Baptist Convention.
The other event that happened around the same time was the publication of a couple of books that were both titled something like “The War Between Science and Religion,” which was a very revolutionary development because, before that time, almost every scientist was Christian. All of these scientists of the 19th century, they were all Christians and they assumed that they were studying science to learn how God's creation worked. Then all of a sudden, these books are saying that you can't have both science and religion. And that was a disaster. And it's sparked, along with other things, of course, a rise in atheism.
Now in response to all of this, the religious community reacted by saying, “Well, the science is not going to tell us how we should live, so why are we listening? We need the Bible” or “Yeah, science is right and true, and it gives us facts, but it doesn't contradict the Bible in a way that we have to choose one or the other. We have to interpret both.”
There's been a very divisive split within the culture on both sides. We have some evangelicals who don't want to hear anything scientific, and then on the other side, we have atheists who mock and scorn the whole idea of religion or even spirituality, that only scientific facts are real and nothing else was important.
And that's a philosophical view that most scientists don't have, but it has spread from the atheist community into the popular public consciousness. I think that a lot of folks in the Christian community tend to think of the opposition as being not just atheists, but they lump in the entire scientific community. And that's a mistake because the scientific community is not at all a monolithic group.
Can anyone ever say “the science says” or is there always an additional context that is needed?
Sy Garte: There almost always is additional context needed. Now, if we say that science says that gravity is a force of nature, that's fine. There isn't any argument about that except for people who are frankly nutcases. But in many areas, saying “science says” is premature.
This especially applies to many issues of biology. It applies to, for example, evolution. We do have a lot of information about evolution and we do understand how it works, but there's also a lot of controversy, even within the field of evolutionary biology.
So the idea that “science says”—suggesting that it's easy to come up with a consensus, a uniform, finished version of what is true—that's a problem because that's very rarely the case. One of the things you find out if you're a working scientist is that almost every answer brings up new questions. So we never actually finish learning anything in any field of science. We are continually trying to get deeper and learn more.
How do we as non-experts know when there's real debate in a field versus when someone is just being a gadfly or an outlier? What are some of the tools we can use to tell those apart?
Sy Garte: First of all, scientists are not drawn to come up with a consensus. If anything, if you want to become famous in science, the best way to do it quickly is to come up with a counter view to the consensus and show that it's right. So there's no particular pressure to be in the consensus if you can come up with some alternative and have evidence for it.
Now, how do you tell when that's real or it's just somebody who's a little off? One tool that can be helpful, is if you hear someone say, “I have it all figured out, here’s what the answer is, and it explains everything you want to know and that's it. We're done.” He or she is wrong. That never happens in reality.
What about the flip side, where you have someone attempting to muddy the waters and say that the science isn't settled in an area where it is? Are there any clues that you would recommend looking at help discern those situations?
Sy Garte: If somebody is claiming that the general scientific consensus is wrong or not completely correct, that's fine. That's not a problem in itself. The problem is when you have economic or political interests that are pulling in any direction, that's not part of the scientific enterprise. And history has told us over and over and over again, that mixing politics, economics, even religion into the practice of science never works.
Economics and science both have something to say about human life and thriving. Do you believe they are in conflict or are they in dialogue? How do we make sure we're asking the right questions with the right disciplines?
Sy Garte: Well, this goes back to what we were talking about earlier about whether all decisions are science-based. And the answer is no. And most scientists don't want to be the people who make the decisions. They want to give you the information. And it's the scientific information.
So there's no question that, for example, that this pandemic is very dangerous and very frightening. And medically, we still have a lot of questions that need to be answered, but there's no question that it's a very bad disease. It's also true that the economy is suffering. And those two facts are not in conflict with each other, but they both are things that leaders have to take into account to decide what to do.
And science doesn’t trump economics. It's not a question of which is more important. We need to know what we need to do scientifically to contain this illness and to do the best we can to come out of it. And the same is true for history, we need to know historical facts to make decisions. And the historical facts, economic facts, and the scientific facts are all things that should go into a carefully considered response.
For someone who wants to responsibly understand what's going on right now with the COVID-19 situation, but also doesn't have time to spend an hour each day reading through studies that are coming out, how might you recommend that they engage? How can they tell who they can trust?
Sy Garte: First of all, let me just say that the internet, of course, is a great thing, but it also has a lot of misinformation—there's no control over it. The way science works is involved in peer review. And the NIH comes up with fact sheets or pages that tell you what's the scientific consensus on any issue, and that's available to the public. So if you want to know what's going on—and it doesn't have to be just with COVID-19—take a look at the NIH and just search for your question and that will give you the best scientific answer that we have at the moment because it’s culled from all of the separate different studies. And if there's controversy, it will say that.
The problem that we're having is that the major institution that people don't trust is the U.S. government, and many of the websites with the best information are all government websites. But the people who work at the NIH or the CDC are not part of the government that most people don't like. They aren’t elected officials and politicians. Even though you may not like the government, that should not stop you from trusting the governmental science outlets.
There is this idea that evangelical Christians have been trained over the last hundred years to be skeptical of scientific claims. What’s the bridge that you’re trying to build between the Christian and scientific community?
Sy Garte: My answer is to trust in Jesus Christ.
We're in a very difficult and scary time, and not just with the COVID-19 virus, but this whole idea of the divisions and the actual hatred and anger that you see coming out from people. And when I see that that's when I pray. That's when I go to Christ and I say, “Lord, take this burden from us.”
There are many organizations working to build bridges. And that's an image that Francis Collins often uses. We need to build bridges within the Christian community to show them, or to at least try to convince them, that a bridge is better than a huge gap or that a bridge is better than a wall.
Obviously, it takes a huge amount of work. It takes a lot of listening. But if we can all dialogue with each other—we don't have to agree on every point of theology, but that doesn't mean that we can't commune together, worship together, pray together, and know that the truth is with Jesus Christ.
And I think if we hold that close to our hearts, and love God and love your neighbor, we'll be okay in the end.
At the beginning of this podcast, we talked about kind of the futility of saying something like, “science says this,” or “science proves this,” would you have any other advice about how to dialogue or showcase findings in a way that is not going to be received as hostile or harsh?
Sy Garte: I've listened to a scientist who was working in the South named Amanda Glaze. She gave some very good talks about how you do that. Her key thing is to listen. Listen to what people think and what they believe, and your ideas of what's true and what's not true may differ, but if you listen to each other carefully, you can treat each other with respect.
And there are many examples of people with completely opposite views who have managed to come together and work for a common goal. I think respectful listening and understanding that all of our disputes, all of our disagreements, fade to nothing when we consider Jesus on the cross. That and his resurrection showed us, and continue to show us, that some things are more important. And what's important is love, is redemption, is salvation.