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Being Pro-Life On The Planet Of The Apes

I went to see War For The Planet of The Apes recently, and despite how silly it seems at face value, I find the series covers some thoughtful stuff. In the modern reboot series, many apes are accidentally infected with a virus that was adapted to treat Alzheimer’s in humans through gene therapy, but gives other great apes human-like intelligence. Though not particularly realistic in hard details, it’s a neat idea, and I always love to see real cool genetics techniques like viral vector gene therapy in popular media.

Cool semi-hard Sci-Fi stuff aside, I find this series also challenges our thinking on something we tend to take for granted. No other species on our planet compares to our intelligence level or society. At least not anymore.

Once upon a time there were other species/subspecies of humans on our planet. Neanderthals once lived in Europe more than 40,000 years ago, but they aren’t our neighbors anymore. In fact, modern humans moving into the neighborhood may have had a hand in pushing them out of existence. Not very neighborly, but that is the law of the jungle.

Other peoples like the Denisovans and Homo floresiensis are likewise now gone. Similar story: modern humans move in, neighbors disappear.

It isn’t clear that modern humans were the direct cause of any of these extinctions, but at the end of the day the result is the same. We’re the only ones here with anywhere near our level of intelligence and culture.

And here’s where I find the new Planet of The Apes series to be interesting. It asks the question: what would we do if we were no longer so alone? The answer that I think the first two films give is probably we would kill each other. I suspect that’s true, unfortunately. As is we’re already doing a pretty good job driving all other great apes to extinction in real life.

The third film pushes the envelope on this question. The virus mutates and starts rendering humans much less intelligent and unable to speak. If you were feeling comfortable about killing off the apes before, are you still comfortable when the ape is much more “human” in thought and behavior than your own family? Or would you see your family as sub-human and OK to kill too?

The film doesn’t just ask that question, though. It provides a moral answer and message that I think is true to the gospel.

By the end of the film we are given a stark contrast between two characters: On the one hand the lead Bad Guy is willing to do anything to salvage humanity’s abilities. He will kill off the apes, put them in concentration camps, and kill them along with any infected humans if that is what it takes to stop the infection spread. Not a subtle characterization here. He is very pro-human race, and not at all pro-life.

On the other hand there is a human character, who is infected, mentally deficient, and unable even to speak. But this character is still capable of loving. They love people, and apes, and whoever unconditionally. This is obviously the character we are supposed to side with.

The moral message is clear: what makes humans “human” with moral value is not our ability to make advanced technology, culture, or to defeat others. Those things are good, but they are not holy. Perhaps our capacity to love is the best (or at least most important) explanation of what being “made in the image of God” means.

A consequence of this assertion about humanness and love is that in the hypothetical Planet of The Apes scenario, we should love our ape neighbors as ourselves. It would be the same story if we someday encountered aliens with similar capacity as us. Perhaps there are other life forms on Earth we have already encountered that we should treat this way.

Because of these consequences, some folks will strongly oppose this idea about potentially loving other species as neighbors. Some folks interpret the Bible to mean that the only real priority in creation is human life, and anything (or anyone) else can be morally sacrificed for human well-being.

I think that’s an easy perspective to take when no other species seems particularly like your neighbor. It’s also an easy perspective to pull out of Genesis 1 if you’re into proof texting. After all, we’re the only ones mentioned as being made in God’s image. I won’t pretend to be certain what that phrase really means in entirety.

I think that would be a much more difficult perspective to take if any of us were to meet a non-human being with similar thoughts, feelings, and experiences as us.

I would hope, at very least, that this thought experiment would remind us that it isn’t our ability to make money, think brilliantly, or speak eloquently that make us valuable. We are all neighbors who owe each other love.

 

 

 

 

 

Field Trips: Edmonton River Valley Leaf Fossils

I was hiking along the shore of the North Saskatchewan River here in Edmonton a few weeks ago and came across some pretty stellar leaf fossils.

These are so finely detailed they look like they could have been made yesterday, but how old are they? That’s always my first question when I find a fossil, and it can be fun to figure it out. Not because it’s always scientifically important so much as because it’s cool to think about.

So How Old Are They?

These stones were broken off from the same layer of rock in the walls of the river valley, but and I found them about 100 M apart from each other. The stones in the river valley are often a jumble of broken pieces from different layers, so it’s not always easy to figure out where they came from. In this case, it looks like these stones came from a layer not far above the water line.

The above picture is the area I found the fossils in. You can see a collection of similar reddish sandstone broken off and partially embedded in the hillside. The stones could have been transported from somewhere else, but they were both among this sandstone. There were no other visible sources of such rock in the hillside, so I’m fairly confident they are from this layer.

With that in mind, it’s possible to sort out how old they might be.

The geology of the river valley isn’t too complicated. It’s mostly just debris churned up by glaciers placed on top of the Horseshoe Canyon formation. The Edmonton Geological Society has a neat poster summarizing the geology. This particular layer is close to the water line, so it’s part of the Horseshoe Canyon formation and not the glacial deposits above it.

So how old is this formation? It’s not possible to use radiometric dating on some layers of rock, including the sandstone these fossils are in. Fortunately there are tools that can be used to sort out an age bracket.

An easy tool for this (for me to look up the results from) is magnetostratigraphy, where magnetic particles in rocks are examined to see which way they were facing when they settled. The Earth’s magnetic field makes some grains of sediment act like tiny compasses and align with magnetic North. As it turns out, Earth’s magnetic field has reversed many times in its history. Magnetic North became South, and back again many times. That story is visible if you look at the magnetic grains in sediments all over the world. Geologists have carefully studied this, and have been able to piece together where magnetic North was at different times in history.

You can see the most updated chart of the Earth’s magnetic history as published by the Geological Society of America (GSA). It’s a pretty cool piece of work.

So the trick to finding out the age of my leaf fossils is as simple as figuring out which magnetic period(s) they could have been buried in. At least one layer of the Horseshoe Canyon formation here in Edmonton has been dated to ~71.9 million years (Davies et al. 2014). Scientists looking at the formation have used similar dating as a marker along with looking at the magnetic signatures in the rocks from top to bottom to figure out the Horseshoe Canyon formation’s time of deposition. As it turns out, the rock formed during the time periods (Magnetozones) 30n through 33n (Davies et al. 2014).

Periods 30n-33n work out to be between 69-74 million years (Davies et al. 2014). So that’s the time constraint on my leaves based on the formation they were found in: they must be between 69-74 million years old if they came from the layer I think they did. It would probably be possible for me to go looking for more data and figure out more exactly how old they are based on specific layers in the formation, but I’m happy knowing within 5 million years.

I think that’s pretty amazing. These fossils lived with dinosaurs 69 million years ago, were buried in sand, and found by me today. I doubt that very many of us will leave such an impression as these leaves in 69 million years time. I find that both amazing and humbling.

Sources Cited

Davies JHFL, Wotzlaw JF, Wolfe AP, Heaman LM. 2014. Assessing the age of the Late Cretaceous Danek Bonebed with U-Pb geochronology. Can J Earth Sci. 51: 982-986.

 

 

There Are No Fingerprints of God On Nature

When I was a teenager, I was that nerdy conservative Christian type of teenager who loved to read about evidences for God and Christianity and argue about them with people. It was pretty fun and really helped me learn a lot, despite some things being a bit cringe-y in retrospect (but hey, whose teenage years aren’t?). I had a strong and sincere belief that God had created the universe, and that to believe that was rational and evidenced by things in nature itself. As though God had left fingerprints in Creation that anyone could see if they looked.

I remember on at least one occasion arguing with some atheist/agnostic and using William Paley’s Watchmaker Analogy to prove God exists. This argument says that if you found a watch when walking in the woods you would know just by looking at it someone designed and made it, right? So if you look at nature and how much more complicated it is than a watch, you must know that someone must have designed and built it too. Right?

I like this argument for two reasons: For one, it really gets to the heart of this sort of argument. We can look at nature and see some evidence that proves God exists. The desire is for a rational, scientific argument for God.

Secondly, it really is a pretty good argument that someone made a watch. Unfortunately it’s a terrible argument for a deity.

The problem is that there really are no fingerprints of God in nature. Think about what a fingerprint is: a specific pattern of characteristics that is only produced by one source (ideally). A watch is a “fingerprint” of humanity. I have seen many watches in my life, and I can recognize the pattern of timekeeping symbols and other technology like plastics or refined metals and glass. Therefore, if I find a lonely watch in the woods, I can know that it was made by a human and be highly certain about that. It is a strong inductive argument.

But when I look at nature, if I am being honest, there is no such similar evidence of a deity, let alone the Christian one. I have looked at genomes and the only fingerprints there are evolution and common descent.

I have looked at mountains and the only fingerprints there are the slow movement of tectonic plates and volcanic activity over eons.

I have looked at stars and seen only the fingerprints of clouds of particles interacting according the the basic laws of physics.

I suppose I have not seen how the universe came to exist in the first place, but that can hardly be a fingerprint of a deity unless I had seen other universes also be created by deities. You need to see a fingerprint before you can recognize it somewhere else.

Another thing to note, if I am being honest, is that none of these things have anything to do why I personally am a Christian. Whether or not the Watchmaker analogy is a good argument for my faith, it certainly has nothing to do with my faith. There is something else – something not scientific – that I sense is good and right and true about Christ.

I think that when folks like William Paley go making arguments for God or Christianity from nature, they are sincerely making a mistake in focus. Many people, including myself, look at wonderful things in nature and have a strong sense of a spiritual connection being made. I think the mistake is to try to make this out to be a scientific observation rather than a spiritual sensation.

When I look at genomes, or mountains, or stars, I don’t see any fingerprints left by God. There is no such forensic evidence there. But I do get a strong sense of wonder and awe – these things are sublime to see. There is something about this wonder that resonates with me in a spiritual way, similar to how Christianity does. At very least nature does a good job of reminding us that we are spiritual beings, and humbling us about our place in the universe.

It also reminds me that spiritual things are experienced, not studied forensically. I don’t feel wonder at seeing the night sky because it has some forensic evidence. I don’t believe God exists because I’ve solved some math equation.

This perspective of spiritual experience rather than forensic evidence for God is probably disappointing to some who really want something like scientific evidence for God. It would probably be disappointing to teenage me who would like to have such evidence to convince atheists/agnostics with.

But at the end of the day I think this perspective is more honest about science, more honest about what I believe and why, and more charitable towards those who believe differently. Our experiences can be different. But if my faith is about something real and true, I can reasonably think that others will  experience it too.

 

 

Introductory Evolution As A Comic

I’m part of a Facebook group that discusses creationism and evolutionary science in debate format. It can be fun, but there is a definite, unfortunate, trend. Most vocal folks on the YEC side don’t seem to have a good handle on what evolution actually is. You can’t have much of an intelligent conversation with someone who doesn’t know the basic definitions of terms for a scientific theory they want to disagree with. The result is frustrating for everyone involved.

I do have some sympathy for this situation. Not everyone has the time to take an introductory level course on evolution.

Solution? I drew up this comic explaining most of the introductory level basics of the theory of evolution. Hopefully folks find it both accessible and informative, and much time is saved explaining basics.

Feel free to share the image for educational use, never for profit, and always with proper credit given.

The Morality of Vaccines Made Using Embryonic Cell Lines

Photo Credit: James Gathany Content Providers(s): CDC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Vaccines certainly cause a lot of public tension. I’m not just talking about those who disagree that vaccines are safe and effective; how some vaccines are made can raise some understandable moral concerns.

To make some vaccines, like the Rubella vaccine for example, we need to use diploid[1] human cells from human embryos. In this post I’d like to explore a few questions about this: Why do we need those cells? Where do those cells come from? And what moral questions do these cells raise for Christians?

What Do Human Embryonic Diploid Cells Have To Do With Vaccines?

I think most people are familiar with the general idea of vaccines: they contain a part of a virus that your immune system can recognize and remember, but that won’t infect you like a normal version of the virus. If you get infected with the full-strength virus later then your body already knows how to fight it because it looks similar to the vaccine.

So the question is, how do we get those parts of viruses to make vaccines with?

The bottom line is that we need to grow a lot of viruses. And viruses don’t grow by themselves – they need cells to infect and be built in. We need lots of virus in order to make lots of vaccine, so we need lots of cells too.

In some cases like the measles or flu vaccines we can use the cells in developing chicken eggs to grow viruses. Unfortunately that doesn’t always work because viruses can be highly specific about the types of cells they can infect. Sometimes you need to use human cells, but of course we don’t want to infect humans.

Cartoon of how viruses like Rubella leave a cell through the cell membrane. Once it’s out, we can collect and use them to make vaccines. Animation by Gleiberg at German Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
Ideally we can just grow human cells in a lab, infect them with a virus, and collect the viruses when they pop out of the cells. But those cells would need a few abilities to be useful to us:

  1. They need the ability to be infected by the virus. Different viruses infect different types of cells in the body.
  2. We need to be able to grow lots of these cells. Human cells that aren’t cancer get old after a while and stop making more cells. This is called The Hayflick Limit and it’s bad news for for mass production.
  3. They need to stay unchanged enough that we can use them reliably. Some cancer cells may satisfy the other two criteria, but cancer is highly unstable, and dangerous if the cells somehow got into a vaccine.

Here’s where the human embryonic diploid cells come in.

Embryonic cells are so young that they can divide enough times to be useful for mass production. Just two samples of embryonic cells (cell lines) called WI-38[2] and MRC-5 have been grown for making vaccines since the 1960’s without us needing to collect any new cell samples.

Certain types of embryonic cells like WI-38 can be successfully infected with viruses we need vaccines for like Rubella.

Since embryonic cells are also normal healthy cells they are also genetically stable. That along with their long dividing life makes embryonic cells uniquely ideal for industrial production of vaccines.

So that’s all pretty great until we get to the part where the cells need to come from an embryonic human who also needs the cells.

What Moral Questions Should We Ask About Using These Cells?

In a sense it’s not hard to see why some people have concerns about vaccines cultured in human embryonic cells. The only way we have to do that is to get them from a deceased human.

Both WI-38 and MRC-5 cell lines were samples taken from fetuses aborted in voluntary abortions in the 1960’s. That makes for instant moral tension for Christian people who are morally opposed to voluntary abortions.

But vague tension isn’t helpful. We need to ask how to thoroughly understand and deal with this tension.

I appreciate the Roman Catholic church for usually being pretty methodical about trying to navigate scientific and moral issues, and in this case they do not disappoint. The Pontifical Academy For Life issued a thoughtful response letter to address this specific issue back in 2005, and you can read the whole thing here.

The basic idea the letter outlines is that by using cell lines produced from abortions, and by not publicly standing against the act of abortion that made the cells available, researchers producing and people using the vaccines bear some moral “cooperation” with the abortions.

The letter is short, carefully worded, and I think those issues are well explained, so I do recommend reading it for yourself. I think I have a criticism of it, but mostly agree with the practical conclusions.

My criticism is that the entire letter hinges on the moral problem being described as “cooperation” with an abortion. Personally I think that is a bit of a stretch. There is no evidence that the development of cell lines from these tissue samples had anything to do with the decision of these two women to get abortions, or with the act of the abortions themselves.

As far as I can see, the entire abortion side of this could be seen as a moral compartment that is only relevant to itself. I may disagree with abortion morally, but not disagree with taking cell samples from a human body. If taking the sample doesn’t affect whether or not the abortion occurs, or how it occurs, why should these two things be considered morally connected?

Consider if the samples had been taken from spontaneous miscarriages rather than voluntarily aborted fetuses. Would we say that using the cell lines is cooperation with a miscarriage? I don’t think so.

As for practical conclusions, I think my own view and the Pontifical Academy For Life letter mostly agree. Vaccines that use embryonic human diploid cells have done and continue to do a great deal to decrease suffering and death due to disease in the world. If the cell lines issue bothers your conscience, and there is a different vaccine available, using the different vaccine would be a great option.

If there is no other option, then using the vaccine is a moral option regardless. At worst, it’s a great moral good to protect yourself and others with only a weak distant connection to something many Christians consider immoral.

And if someday we develop the technology to culture viruses in cells that have a morally unquestionable origin for all Christians, then that’s all the better. But in the meantime we have these cells already, and any weak connection to abortion they have is half a century behind them.

Notes

[1] Diploid means cells that have two sets of chromosomes, like most (but not all) cells in the human body.

[2] Leonard Hayflick was also the fellow who worked to establish the WI-38 cell line. Establishing cell lines involves more moral question than just abortion. Nature has a good introduction to that interesting story here: http://www.nature.com/news/medical-research-cell-division-1.13273

 

Consensus and Confidence: 2 Important Questions to Ask About Every Scientific Idea

These are the first two questions I use to quickly sort scientific claims into “worth considering” or “rubbish,” and I think others might find them useful too. Every day I see scientific claims of all sorts floating around the internet, and that’s pretty great to see because I’m pretty excited about science. Unfortunately I don’t have the time to verify every claim by investigating thoroughly. Frankly, nobody does. So a lot of these claims just get ignored as irrelevant to life (the multiverse theory is super great!), but others are a bit more important for how I live my life and what organizations I support (Does sexual reorientation therapy work? (no, it doesn’t)), but I may still not have time to thoroughly research.

Fortunately, without needing to get a PhD, I use two simple questions that I think can show what’s really going on with a scientific claim pretty quickly and reliably.

Question 1: Is there good consensus about the claim?

That is, do the experts in the field mostly agree with the claim? Science is a critical community effort. If there is a good argument against an idea, scientists will gleefully point it out. I know I certainly do, and I haven’t met a scientists yet who doesn’t enjoy disagreeing with other scientists where possible. So when there is strong agreement among experts, who should know of any good arguments for or against, then that’s strong evidence that the idea is good.

A handy thing about scientists is that they organize themselves into professional organizations to share what they agree or disagree on, so it’s often not hard to figure out if there is good consensus. You can look at any large psychology association like the APA and they will tell you that trying to make a gay person straight isn’t a good idea. Because the APA is clear about the subject, and because the APA represents the experts in the field, I can confidently say that there is good consensus here.

This is the first question I ask because it immediately weeds out most whackos. I can probably find someone with a PhD to agree with any nonsense idea I can think of, and that’s awful for confirmation bias. If I really wanted to believe the sun revolves around the Earth, I can find a person with a PhD to agree with me (even with arguments from the Bible!). But as soon as I ask about consensus, it becomes pretty clear if a scientific idea is even worth considering or not. Even though I am not an astrophysicist, I’m pretty confident that geocentrism is not a serious scientific idea these days. The American Astronomical Society doesn’t even mention it, so there’s no consensus saying geocentrism is accurate.

Question 2: What is the strength of confidence in the claim?

The first questions clears away most garbage, but even a good idea might not be super useful or clear. Confidence is a term scientists use to mean how certain they are that new evidence will not overturn an idea. Confidence can often be calculated by using statistical formulas too boring for me to elaborate on here. Low confidence often also means low consensus. However, low confidence despite consensus could happen when there just isn’t much evidence for or against an idea yet, but there also aren’t any other good options.

For example: Any serious biology association concerned with the origins of life will have articles about the chemical evolution of life, because there is good consensus that it probably happened somehow. It makes sense scientifically, we have some evidence, so it’s a good idea with good consensus. But how confident are we about how that happened? Not at all, really. In fact, there is no standard theory of the origin of life, because scientists just aren’t sure and are honest about that. New evidence could very easily completely change our understanding on this topic.

On the other hand, an idea we have high confidence about almost certainly will never be overturned by further evidence. Things like the Earth orbiting the Sun, our planet being more than 4 Billion years old, we juts have so much clear evidence about. There is always a chance of new evidence overturning an idea in science, but sometimes it’s completely unreasonable expect it to happen.

So if someone were to tell me about a really neat mechanism for the origin of life that involved chemical evolution, the claim would make it past my first question. There is good consensus that it’s a good idea. But as soon as I ask about confidence level, it would become clear that it’s a weakly evidenced idea. Still interesting, slightly less exciting, and a lot less useful.

I think the above two questions can let anyone quickly and reliably sort science claims into being garbage, worth considering, or probably true. Do you have different questions you use for this? Or disagree with mine? As a scientist, I’d be interested to hear about it!

Book Review: Lent Is Not Rocket Science

Author: W. Nicholas Knisely
Publisher: Forward Movement, Cincinnati, OH
Date of Publication: 2015
Title: Lent Is Not Rocket Science: An Exploration of God, Creation, and the Cosmos.

This is the first year that I’ve done something pretty regularly for lent and it’s been a nice addition to life. I picked up Lent Is Not Rocket Science from a church I was attending an Ash Wednesday service at. On the way out the pastor asked if I’d like a lent devotional, or, a science lent devotional. The choice was obvious.

The devotional’s format is simple and easy to read. A focus Bible verse or other quote, 2-4 short pages of meditation related to science and tradition, and leaving off with a few thoughtful questions. The way science is used doesn’t feel corny or forced, but instead seems genuinely insightful. Concepts like chemical equilibrium have clear comparison so how we can live balanced lives. Cosmic mysteries like dark matter give insight into how we can learn to comfortably deal with spiritual mysteries as well. The comparison with scientific concepts gives a concrete and relatable quality to the spiritual meditation rather than feeling like a corny token science fact.

The questions at the end of each day strike a balance between being easily applicable to daily life and the more abstract. Some of these are easy to answer: “What are the forces in your life that balance you and allow you to find stability?. . . Where is God in this balance?”(51). Other questions are important, but more difficult and abstract: “Is it possible for you to see God’s constant action in history?” (48). Yes, I guess, but I’m honestly not sure to what extent. It’s worth thinking about.

The author, W. Nicholas Knisely, is the current Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island and has done graduate studies in Physics and Astronomy. Knisely’s scientific and theological training lets him write about both subjects competently and share useful insight. I’ve seen one too many pastors with no real science training try to talk about science and completely mess it up. Or, it often comes across as a corny overly-sentimental and unnecessary addition to a sermon. Two weeks in, I haven’t found examples of either mistake in this devotional.

I wasn’t sure what to think before I started, but I’ve really enjoyed the time spent every day with Lent Is Not Rocket Science. It’s both intellectually and spiritually engaging. If you’re looking for a lent devotional that can engage with science, scripture, and tradition in positive ways, this devotional could be for you.

 

 

The QA Project is a Great Pro-Life Strategy

Abortion is such an awkward issue. A lot of folks feel VERY strongly about their opinions on the topic, so they badly want to talk about it, but trying to talk about it often ends with unproductive conversation or worse. In my opinion, inability to have good conversations is the single biggest problem the Pro-Life movement has. Fortunately, conversation doesn’t have to be something to waste time or lose friends over. You just need a good strategy, and I think one of the best strategies out there is what the QA Project does.

The QA project is a wonderfully simple concept called “clipboarding” that has all the right characteristics of a great strategy. The idea is this: you get a few people with clipboards, you have a few prepared questions, and you go somewhere public and ask people the questions.

  • What do you think the current legal restrictions are on abortion in Canada?
  • Do you think there should be restrictions on abortion in Canada?
  • What restrictions would you suggest?

It’s also helpful to have a few facts on hand, like the answer to what legal restrictions there are in Canada (none), but the more important thing is that you’re out asking people questions. This is fantastic because people are almost always willing to tell you what they think, and this exercise encourages folks to think about the issues! Once people know you’re a decent person, and care about hearing what they think, lots of people are happy to continue chatting about the topic. It’s an effective ice-breaker, and people’s reactions to the QA project are overwhelmingly positive in my experience.

Another great thing about this strategy is that it’s so intellectually honest. Should there be more restrictions on abortion in Canada? Well, I have an opinion, and I think it’s right. So does everyone else. But if someone can see that I’m mistaken (I always could be), I want them to tell me, and I doubt I’m alone on this. This is the basis of healthy productive conversation about a controversial issue: of course we all think we’re right, but our goal in conversation should be to find out if there is anything we’re missing, not to beat the other person’s argument.

By asking others what they think, you’re taking the first step and being willing to test your own ideas against facts you might not be aware of.  Many people really appreciate that and will ask what you think too. At very least, if you ask the questions, you’ve made someone think about an important issue and haven’t taken up too much of their time. The worst case scenario here is that someone doesn’t want to answer your questions, which is really not a big deal. This is a super low-risk strategy.

All that being said, I would still give a couple warnings. Despite the QA Project’s strengths, It’s still possible to do this poorly.

The biggest risk is that some folks can get a bit excited and not really pay much attention to other people’s answers to the questions, then jump right into arguing some pro-life apologetics talking point. What a way to come across as a pushy jerk. The strength of the QA project is the simple format to foster healthy conversation. Ask questions earnestly, and listen carefully to the answers. If it’s not absolutely clear that the other person wants to hear your thoughts, just ask to make it clear.

The other major risk is what sort of information you include along with the questions. Frankly, there is an awful lot of misinformation out there about abortion. If you share some factually untrue information in an attempt to enlighten someone, you can be sure that is the one thing they’ll remember most about you and your opinion. Any extra facts that are included with this sort of project should be absolutely thoroughly researched.

For anyone interested, you can order a prepared kit to do this from National Campus Life Network (NCLN), and I’ve even seen them send out a representative to a university campus to help do it. NCLN focuses on university pro-life clubs, but I think the QA Project would be great for any public space you can do it legally in. If you’re on a budget, frankly, this isn’t hard to put together yourself for a few bucks. Just get some clipboards, pens, and paper with questions on it.

Overall, the QA project is hands-down my favorite way of approaching pro-life issues in a productive way. Low risk, high positive results, cheap, easy, intellectually honest: what more could you ask for?

 

 

Why Your Church Should Have A Science Officer


Chief science officer isn’t exactly a traditional role in most Christian denominations. Sure you have pastors, elders, deacons, Sunday school teachers and others. Science officer, not so much. But having a science officer, or even a science council would make an awful lot of sense for churches in today’s society. Consider the following:

Christians want to make or interact with empirical claims relevant to their faith.

We live in a scientific age. Many of the biggest questions from a Christian perspective in modern society are either directly or indirectly related to science. That’s part of the reason I write this blog; to explore those new and interesting questions. Whether we’re talking about sex and gender, stem cell research, when life begins, birth control, if gun laws are effective, how to best help refugees, human origins, or if the physical world is any evidence for God existing, there’s a lot of science involved. These topics bring up deep faith questions, and folks expect their faith to help address those questions.

But unfortunately. . .

There are a ton of folks spreading misinformation about science for profit or from ignorance.

Lying about science is big business. The recent hype over “Fake News” is a pretty clear example. Science is a prime target for professional liars because people care about what science has to say, but most people don’t have the time or training to thoroughly investigate most topics. It’s painfully easy to be fooled by a good liar about a topic you have no training in. I’m currently working on a fairly large research project for a series of future posts, and after many hours of using my science research training to analyze dozens of primary sources, it’s still not absolutely clear who is right and/or being honest. Science literacy takes time. Without my research skills or the time to invest in the project, it would be a pretty hopeless endeavor.

Pastors are seldom trained to critically examine scientific claims.

To evaluate science well, you need science training. Period. Pastors are not required to be trained in science in most Christian traditions, though, there are quite a few pastors who are. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, nobody has to be an expert on everything, and an effective Bible scholar is what is reasonable to expect from a pastor. However, if a pastor isn’t trained in science, they should be pretty reluctant to form strong opinions on scientific subjects they don’t know much about. That’s just being honest, and I think that’s also a reasonable expectation to have for a pastor.

All too often, pastors seem to default to digging up the supporting opinions of folks who agree with their preconceived theological opinions rather than critically looking for what the scientific community actually thinks. Meanwhile, there are usually honest scientists in a congregation, or in a nearby congregation, or somewhere in the community who could easily tell you what scientists think. So why not ask them scientific questions?

We (should) care about what’s true.

Not too long ago I was chatting on and off with a local pastor about the Theory of Evolution, and in an effort to convince me of his young Earth opinion he lent me a book by a fairly prolific young Earth writer. This book contained many obvious factual inaccuracies to make its points, which I can only assume were written dishonestly rather than accidentally because the author had a PhD in a scientific field. Anyone with scientific training could spot these lies as obvious. Unfortunately, the pastor who lent me the book responded to this fact with a shoulder shrug rather than any kind of moral outrage. This was surprising to me, since I would expect a Bible teacher to care as much as me about dishonest or mistaken teaching:

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1 ESV).

That strictness is a weight I have always felt when talking about scripture, and a weight I also feel when making strong claims about science. A healthy fear of making a mistake should be there. As for outright liars, Jesus himself certainly had nothing nice to say about them:

“You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44 ESV).

 Irresponsibility about science is morally offensive.

If we as Christians don’t give a proper care about what’s true and honest, what does that say about the moral quality of our faith? It looks pretty darn bad to any honest person, and honest people are noticing. As the Barna group reports as part of their study on why 3 out of 5 young people leave the church:

“Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that ‘churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in’ (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that ‘Christianity is anti-science’ (25%).”

Frankly, being irresponsible about how science is treated can only result in a drain in any church’s vitality and brain power. Folks should leave a church that doesn’t care about lying; dishonesty is wrong.

So why just accept this problem? There are scientists who are Christians around. Some of us are called to be pastors, some parents, some craftsmen, and some scientists. So why not get scientists to serve the church with their expertise as pastors do with theirs? Some denominations do this sort of thing. The Vatican has its own observatory and trained astronomers. In the scientific age we live in, surrounded by scientific questions important to our faith, it seems irresponsible not to be listening carefully to the scientific community.

So live long, and prosper, and go ask a scientist.

Book Review: Not By Chance! Shattering the Modern Theory of Evolution

Alternate title suggested by this review: One physicist thinks he’s more clever about evolution than 150 years of actual biologists.

Author: Dr. Lee Spetner
Publisher: The Judaica Press Inc., Brooklyn, NY
Date of Publication: 1998
Title: Not by chance! Shattering The Modern Theory of Evolution.

What do you get when someone takes an introductory level course on evolution, and instead of asking questions in class, decides that since they have questions they must be more clever than 150 years of biologists and must write a book about how clever they are? Well, you get this book.

I must admit, I did not finish the book. I made it through chapter 5 and had more than enough insight into Spetner’s level of competence in this field.

The whole book could be summarized much the same as any Intelligent Design (ID) argument. The ID thesis really has 2 parts: 1) Look at all this really complicated stuff! Then comes 2) Since all this stuff is so complicated, it must have been assembled by something other than evolution! [insert intelligent force here].

Spetner gets right to work explaining that cells, DNA, proteins, reproduction, and development are all really complicated things in chapter 2. (Look at all this complicated stuff!). This must be a problem because “there is no evidence that complexity has been built up by the process described by” evolution (Spetner 61). Or at least no evidence Spetner is competent or honest enough to mention. Go ask a biologist about examples of duplication and exaptation of genes and they likely won’t have any trouble giving you several off the top of their head.

But since Spetner is too clever to ask questions of real biologists, he decides to come to an ID answer to his imagined problem for evolution. Chapter seven: The Deck is Stacked! I did skim this chapter. Using several examples Spetner explains his Great Idea: the Non-Random Evolutionary Hypothesis. “The environment induces a change in either the phenotype or the genotype. . . the NREH does not suffer from the contradictions of the [Neo Darwinian Theory], and promises therefore to provide a more consistent picture of life.” (Spetner 208). Not long after, and absolutely unsurprisingly, Spetner finds space to jam God into the works: “The NREH, on the other hand, is agnostic and poses no contradictions to creation. The NREH, as an explanation of evolution, is in fact derivable from Talmudic sources.”

Besides the thesis being trash, not much else can be said about the book. The writing is painful. Many chapters open with campy made-up scenarios like Cowboy Chuck shooting Cowboy Bert for winning poker, because winning against a straight flush is too unlikely. This is certainly a subjective thing, but it really made me cringe.

Spetner’s rampant incompetence also is pretty cringe-worthy. He makes all sorts of frankly factually incorrect claims about population dynamics and genetics. “Population size is not controlled by starvation, disease, or predation” (Spetner 16), except for the painfully well-understood fact that starvation, predation, and disease do greatly control population sizes. Or, “one step of evolution cannot, on the average, bring to the genome more than one bit of information” (Spetner 72), in which case he has arbitrarily defined one bit to mean any genetic change whatsoever instead of any definition of information that scientists actually use. Ugh. A guy can only take so much of watching his field of study be incompetently represented before needing to put a book down.

This book is just a mess of incompetence. I think it’s the first book I’ve read by an ID supporter, and I suspect it will be the last. Based on what I’ve seen of ID writing elsewhere on blogs, this book was as about as intelligently designed as they come.