The Sad Condition of Science and Religion

One of my favorite science stories that I used to tell my students is the story of a brilliant physics student who was given a question on a physics degree exam at the University of Copenhagen. The question was "Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper with a barometer." The student replied "You tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building."

The professor flunked the student and the student appealed on the grounds that his answer was indisputably correct. The university appointed an independent arbiter to settle the case. The arbiter judged the answer was indeed correct, but told the student that he was to provide an answer that showed familiarity with the basic principles of physics. The student's response was to give several physics possibilities as follows:

"Take the barometer to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to hit the ground. Use the familiar physics equation X = 1/2(g)T(T) to get the distance. That would destroy the barometer, so a better way might be to measure the height of the barometer and on a sunny day measure the length of its shadow and the length of the building's shadow and calculate the height by using similar triangles. If you want to really do a physics calculation, tie a piece of string to the barometer and swing it like a pendulum--first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height can be calculated by using the difference in gravity from the equation g = 4¹2L/T2). If the skyscraper has an emergency staircase, you could walk up it and mark off the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths and then add them up. If you want to be really boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground and convert the difference in millibars to feet to give the height of the building. But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods, undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor's door and say to him, `If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you will tell me the height of this skyscraper.'" The student was Niels Bohr, the first person from Denmark to win a Nobel Prize for Physics.

I always loved this story because it shows one of the problems that exists in science and especially in science education. I have always maintained when I speak to science teachers that our job as science teachers is not that we tell our students what to think, but that we teach them how to think. Physics is one of the easiest subjects in the world, but students who have never been taught how to solve problems and how to think through investigative techniques have a terrible time with physics. I always hated to have a valedictorian or a Merit Scholarship winner in my physics class, because those students were masters of memory and regurgitation of information, but were usually terrible in problem solving. They became incensed that I would allow students to write the equations and algebraic rules like the quadratic equation down on a card to be used during exams. When I heard them say, "This isn't fair," I would ask them why they could not also write down the equations and algebraic rules. One of my favorite Merit Scholar students who was having a terrible time with my class yelled at me, "Because I have memorized all that stuff, and they didn't," pointing to the rest of the class. My response was, but I am not testing memorization, we have computers which can handle memorization of facts, I want you to think. She burst into tears at that response and accused me of being impossible.

Much of the scientific community of the twenty-first century is like this young lady. Instead of being open to evidence, new approaches, and new ways of doing things that are valid scientific methods, science is being held hostage by the media, grants, politics, and humanist organizations. The classic example of this problem has been the battle over stem cells. When the issue of abortion and embryonic stem cells erupted over five years ago, grandiose claims about embryonic stem cells were made by those who had grants to do that work. Their battle went all the way to the White House and the issue became a political football. Christopher Reeves and Nancy Reagan got into the battle and the push for the use of embryonic stem cells was championed emotionally by the media using Reeves and Ronald Reagan as emotional ploys to promote that agenda. In the process of all of this, other diseases' victims were brought on board by promises that their problems would also be solved if embryonic stem cells were used freely--so Parkinson's, Diabetes, and Alzheimer's were added to the flood of voices suggesting that all that was stopping the solving of all of these terrible diseases were religious fundamentalists who were blocking the use of embryonic stem cells. Now the issue was enlarged so that the evolution/creation battle was added to the mix polarizing things to an even greater degree. All of this emotionalism and political manipulation was far removed from the real scientific evidence.

Before going any further with this discussion, let me stop and state very clearly that I am as touched by the problems of all of these human diseases as anyone else and want a cure for these things as much as anyone else. I have family members and best friends with Parkinson's. My wife is a diabetic of nearly 60 years of insulin dependency. I do not want this discussion to sound uncaring or unsympathetic, for I would give almost anything to see these diseases eliminated and their pain and trauma removed from my loved ones--and from the human condition at large. The fact is, however, that embryonic stem cells and what they are claimed to be leading to, as far as cures are concerned, are a false hope and bad science. It is emotionalism and political maneuvering that has kept the push for embryonic stem cells alive--not good science.

Let us talk about good science and the evidence. The very thing that causes promoters of embryonic stem cells to call for their use is what makes embryonic stem cells unusable. Because they are a blank slate, they are virtually uncontrollable. Dr. Edward Scott of Florida's Shands Cancer Center and director of stem cell biology at the University of Florida's College of Medicine says, "The cells that we're going to use for therapy are most likely going to be adult stem cells just because we know that you can transplant them and they will behave. With embryonic stem cells, if you transplant too many, you end up with a tumor." Bone marrow transplant is essentially adult stem cell therapy that has been used for decades. Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford University's program in human biology says, "Adult stem cells are like the adults themselves. They've been acculturated somewhat, and they've been trained to behave." Scientists working with adult stem cells have already had success with the big diseases. Dr. David Prentice of the President's Council on Bioethics says, "We're seeing complete reversal of symptoms for MS, Lupus, and things like Crohn's disease. Stem cells have been used to treat spinal cord injuries, heart attacks, Parkinson's disease and diabetes in clinical trials around the world."

The political and media distortion of science by championing embryonic stem cells to the exclusion of everything else has also made other scientific research that might actually solve the debate get minimal or nonexistent attention. Dr. Robert Lanza, for example, has developed cells that have all of the properties of embryonic stem cells by using skin cells and doing therapeutic cloning where the cells are manipulated so they have all the properties of embryonic stem cells called a parthenode. The point of all of this is that science is being driven by the wrong thing--by political agendas, media hype, celebrity endorsement, and not by the evidence or the data. This is bad science and unfortunately it is very common in all of science, not just in the area that we have discussed here. Cosmology has been driven in recent years by philosophical agendas rather than by questions of evidence and scientific method applied to questions raised by what has been observed. Evolutionary theories have been driven by controversy about the religious or philosophical validity of Darwinism rather than what scientific investigation shows. The fact that National Geographic felt compelled to devote the major part of a recent issue (November 2004) to defend Darwinism is a demonstration of how emphasis has shifted in this area. A number of frauds have been exposed in recent years where someone faked scientific data in order to have funding to continue their research. 

 The other side of this situation in which apologetic material is affected is the condition of religion in the world. If you read articles about religion in the media these days, it is highly likely that what you will be reading about is material dealing with political issues or social issues involving human rights. The war in Iraq has shifted the focus of the world on what is perceived as religious fundamentalism verses American aggression and attempts at control. In America today there is massive debate about human rights and what is seen as religious attempts to violate the rights of others with whom people differ religiously--whether it be homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, birth control, abstinence, or women's rights. Before we go any further in this discussion, let me emphasize that the question is not about whether there is an absolute Truth involved in each of these issues, because the Bible clearly teaches that there is. We have had numerous articles in this journal over the years on every subject listed above. The point needs to be made, however, that what Christianity is about is the changing of people's hearts and the winning of their souls and minds to the principles of life that Jesus gave us, not to the production of and financial and emotional support of political machines to force Christian views on the world. Jesus and His followers won people over not by pressuring the Roman government to pass and enforce laws that promoted what Jesus taught, but by loving, serving, and teaching the people about how God would have them live.

Much of the hostility to Christianity today stems from the militant political control that some have attempted to develop in the name of Christianity. Instead of trying to win people over by love, support, and service, many religious leaders are crusading for political and financial power to force the agendas they believe in. When politics and money are the driving forces behind religious change, it will fail. The fruits of the Spirit are what will change the world--not religiously acceptable laws. Christianity will change the world by changing the hearts and minds of people including those who make and enforce the laws.

The world needs good science--science that addresses human problems and which functions in terms of evidence and observation, not political and financial agendas. The world needs pure and undefiled religion "to visit the widows and the orphans in their affliction" (James 1:27). The world needs to hear the Gospel--that God has sent His Son to redeem mankind and to bring man back to God. The world needs to "know that there is a God through the things He has made." It is our hope that the people (you and me) will pressure our leaders in all aspects of life to focus on what science and Christianity are all about and by working together we can bring positive change that will ultimately resolve the issues and bring peace and understanding to all people. If political and financial issues continue to be the driving force on the planet, we can only expect to have more conflict and more violence as each agenda tries to force itself upon all humanity.

Jesus said "By their fruit you will recognize them" (Matthew 7:16). Paul tells us that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control." Let us do it God's way, not man's way.

--John N. Clayton

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