Claims and Evidence

A claim is an assertion that something is a fact. “The world is round” is a claim. So is “the moon is made of cheese,” “the genetic material is composed of DNA,” and “the gravitational force applies equally at all scales of mass.”

Other than the one about the moon, all the above claims are based on evidence. Let’s look at some of the scientific examples.

When the claim that DNA was the molecule that governed inheritance was first put forward as a hypothesis, it was roundly rejected by the great majority of scientists, partly because of a lack of evidence, but mostly because it appeared to be entirely implausible. Arguments against DNA were focused on the fact that almost everything that happens in cells had been demonstrated to be mediated by protein enzymes. No one thought there was any reason why this should not also include genes.

Then in the 1940s, a scientist named Oswald Avery showed in experiments that it was the nucleic acid fraction of cells, and not the protein fraction, that was carrying the genetic information from cells to their offspring, at least in bacteria. This new evidence elevated the claim to some extent, but it was still not at all universally accepted, because of the continued sense of implausibility. How could the relatively simple DNA molecule (simple in the sense of being composed of only a few chemical components) encode complex information? The answer might lie in the details of the long polymeric structure of DNA, but nobody knew anything about it back then. And that’s where Watson and Crick came in. Their solution to the structure immediately showed that it was the sequence of the bases, and not simply their composition, that was the key to how genes worked. Now the plausibility of the claim being true became so much higher, and combined with Avery’s evidence and the evidence from later experiments, it was finally accepted that DNA is the genetic molecule.

Another way to frame a claim with no evidence and very low plausibility is to call it an extraordinary claim. Such claims are fairly common in science, especially if we include brand new ideas in the category of low plausibility. But the idea that such claims require “extraordinary” evidence to be considered true is wrong. There is in fact no such thing as extraordinary evidence. The term does not appear in the scientific literature. There is weak evidence and strong evidence, and they have nothing to do with the strength (or plausibility) of the claim. Less plausible claims might require stronger evidence to be believed than more plausible claims, but even weak evidence will immediately increase the plausibility of the claim, so in the end, whatever the initial plausibility of the claim, its truth will require the same degree of evidentiary strength.

Sometimes a very plausible claim with strong evidence, to the point that the claim is accepted as factual, can be overturned by additional weak evidence. The claim about the scale independence of the role of gravity was overturned by the evidence from mathematical research into the relationship between quantum and gravitational fields, which show that gravitation does not in fact extend to the atomic scale of matter. Stronger evidence was later found to confirm this counterintuitive truth about nature.

Another approach to the relationship of claims and evidence comes from the legal system, which can be applied to science in a general way. Testimony from a witness is considered evidence, and the strength of the evidence could depend on the characteristics of the witness. If a dozen highly respected members of the community, with no particular motivation to lie, all testify to something, and they are opposed by a single person with a criminal record and a strong reason to evade the truth, the weight of the evidence will clearly fall in one direction.

How does all of this relate to evidence for a Divine being, a Creator, God? It is clear that scientific proof for God’s existence does not exist. But what about evidence? There is evidence both for and against the existence of a supernatural Being, some of it coming from what we know scientifically about the natural world, since God’s creation should be expected to reflect something about the nature of the Creator. Most of this evidence relates to the proposition that there is something missing in a purely naturalistic model for how the physical and biological worlds came to be and how they work. The fine-tuning of so many physical and cosmological constants, the origin of life, the origin of biological information, and the mysteries of consciousness are some of these pieces of evidence. Calling them God of the gaps does nothing to dismiss them as evidence, since all evidence can at some future point be refuted by new discoveries.

A great deal of evidence is based on the absence of alternative theories (including the nature of proteins as the genetic molecule). But in addition to that kind of evidence, there is an overwhelming amount of nonscientific evidence for the reality of Jesus Christ as God incarnate. This includes historical and written evidence, eyewitness testimony, and subjective stories of the impact of religious belief on millions of people. One can easily dismiss the claims of human beings as false, illusory, impossible, etc., but again, those kinds of judgments can at most lower the strength of such evidence, they do not remove it from consideration. If they did, our entire legal system would collapse.

So it is completely false to claim that there is no evidence for God. There is both strong and weak evidence for God. As time goes by, some evidence will be dismissed, and new evidence will be discovered, as has happened in the past, in both science and philosophy. Meanwhile, each of us are free to believe in our own subjective evidence in salvation from grace and the deity of Jesus, without need to fear that all evidence for our beliefs is lacking. When the time comes, each of us who believe will learn that we were right, and those who do not believe may learn they were wrong. But if believers are wrong, we will never find out, and neither will nonbelievers learn they were right. Until then, follow all the evidence, weak and strong, and keep the faith.  

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How to Write a Scientific Paper

Most people not working in science have no idea of what it means to write, review, and publish a scientific paper. Why should they? Scientists learn the basic rules and customs from our mentors and advisors in grad school, and then continue learning by trial and rejection.

The overall style of a scientific paper is quite different from other written forms of communication and can be off-putting for casual readers. The generally forbidden passive voice is encouraged, so sentences like “In order to test this hypothesis, an experiment was designed….”. are perfectly common and acceptable. The great majority of papers are divided into well-defined sections: Introduction, Methods (sometimes called Materials and Methods), Results, Discussion, and References. Figures and Tables are distributed mostly in the Results section, each with legends that can be quite long and detailed.

Introductions are short summaries (a few paragraphs long) of what the paper is about, including some mention of work that came before, with lots of references. This means something like “Previous workers (Smith 2012, Jones et al. 2014) have found that standard evolutionary models do not fit the kinetic data…” There is no explanation of basic knowledge (like what is evolution or enzyme kinetics) since the reader is assumed to be a trained scientist in the field or a related field to the subject of the paper.

It is unheard of to make a new claim without any reference to previous work—even breakthrough revolutionary works of genius must refer to previous work in the area. There is also a practical reason to include lots of references. The odds are high that some of the people being referenced will be reviewers, and nothing makes a reviewer more cranky than not seeing his/her own work referenced. (Yes, I speak from experience.)

The Introduction is generally followed by a Methods section, which goes into varying amounts of depth and detail, depending on the field. When PCR was a new technique, I used to present all the PCR conditions and primer sequences. Now, people just say “by PCR”.

The Results section is required to be crisp, to the point, and limited to basics. No flowery language is allowed. A typical sentence might read “We found no evidence for homeostasis (Figure 1).” The heart of the Results section is the data, presented in figures and tables. Some Results sections can be incredibly dense, with a huge amount of information crammed into one sentence. Here is an example from a paper I recently read:

Figure 5 shows that a genotype’s vertex degree and its number of latent phenotypes are weakly, but significantly positively correlated (Spearman’s r = 0.13, p < 1.2 × 10−41), indicating that mutationally robust circuits have an increased capacity for exaptation.

Then comes the fun part, the Discussion. Here the authors are allowed a bit more leeway in terms of eloquence, and even some degree of deeper thought. Here, and not in the Results section, the meaning of the results can be discussed, almost always in the context of what everyone else has found, both in agreement and in contrast with the work presented. Thoroughness is key. Leaving out some key work by other groups is often fatal. All Discussions must include at least one paragraph of self-criticism, wherein the authors point out weaknesses of the paper, whether in methodology (“Our sample size was considerably smaller than that of Wheatly et al.,…”), or in the consistency of the data. All instances of disparity between the presented work and that of others should be brought out, and explanations for these disparities must at least be attempted. 

The entire approach is decidedly low key. A paper that purports to have “made a significant and groundbreaking discovery that will change the nature of how we think about…” would not even get sent out for review. It ain’t the internet. The use of qualifiers like “could” or “might explain” or “is consistent with” or “lends support to the idea that” are very common. Phrases like “we have proven that” simply do not appear (with the exception of mathematics, and some rare physics papers).

Books aren’t scientific papers, of course, so none of this applies to them. I felt a huge sense of freedom while writing my first trade book, since I realized I could say almost whatever I wanted to. (I still included lots of graphs, which turned out to be a mistake for sales, but that’s another discussion.)

Is this the best way for scientists to communicate? I don’t know. The style of 19th-century papers was completely different. They were long, and long-winded, with philosophical musings and off-topic tangents, all now forbidden. Some people have said we need to reform the way we write papers. Maybe, but I will bet it won’t happen, at least not any time soon.

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A Planck Era in Biology?

Laws of physics control most of how the universe operates. These laws are believed to have come into being very soon after the Big Bang—specifically, a Planck time (approximately 10^-43 seconds) after the Big Bang)—and it is generally agreed that we can know nothing about what happened before that moment.

In biology, we don’t have mathematical laws with the precision and certainty that we have in physics, but enough is known to be confident that biology is a natural science and is therefore governed by laws, even if they have not been elucidated to the same extent as has been done for the non-living world. Among those laws is the theory of evolution by natural selection, which is not yet complete, but it has passed all tests and remains the bedrock of biological theory.

When combined with modern knowledge of genetics, physiology, and cell biology, the theory of evolution helps to guide us in understanding the great majority of biological questions and previously unsolved mysteries of life.

As the universe, life has a history. Science can look back in time to before there were human beings, before there were primates, or mammals, or vertebrates, all the way to the time when the only living creatures on the planet were single cells. And although as we go further back, we become less sure of what we know, we do know that the basic principles of biological science, including biochemistry and evolution, still hold.

But like the Big Bang that started physical reality as we know it, there was a beginning to life as well, and it was at some point before the existence of the most primitive living cell we can imagine. We call this hypothetical creature LUCA, which stands for the Last Universal Common Ancestor, since such a cell contained all the components required for life, and from this cell all further life could evolve by the processes we understand.

We can postulate that LUCA emerged in some way from protolife, but up to now, we have no clear path to understand anything about that emergence. It is my contention that such understanding of the origin of life before LUCA is, analogous to the time before the Planck era, impossible.

To continue the analogy: before LUCA, the laws of biology as we know them today did not exist; in particular, I maintain that the mechanism of evolution by natural selection was impossible. Since there is general agreement that LUCA could not have appeared spontaneously from chemical components, and therefore it must have evolved, we are left with the conundrum that we must have an evolutionary process before such a process was possible.

The only alternative is to postulate an alternative evolutionary process that does not rely on selection or on accurate replication. There is no theory that allows for the evolution, meaning the gradual change over many generations of a population of cells, that does not require high accuracy in replication of the cellular phenotype from one generation to the next. If a cell is able to improve in any way (energy usage, metabolic efficiency, longer life, more mobility, better biochemical reactions, etc.), but that improvement dies when the cell does and is not inherited by the daughter cells, the improvement is simply lost. Consider the following mathematical statement of gain of fitness (F) from generation n-1 to generation n due to selective advantage (S):

Fn = S(Fn-1)

Without accurate replication, this equation fails, since there is no relationship between Fn and Fn-1. Fisher’s fundamental theorem of natural selection, postulating an increase in fitness with time, would not hold.

The eminent pioneer of evolutionary biology and abiogenesis Eugene Koonin published a paper entitled “The Biological Big Bang Model for the Major Transitions in Evolution” that explores similar ideas, except that Koonin proposes a way to fill some of the gaps in biological evolutionary theory, postulating several Big Bang-like events. Koonin uses the expansion model from cosmology but he does not apply his model to the origin of life, nor does he suggest an analogy to the Planck era in cosmology.

It is my belief that just as in the origin of the universe, the origin of life will require new paradigms (including, perhaps, those now considered to be outside the boundaries of naturalism) to be understood.

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Music Lesson

I studied chemistry in college and biochemistry in graduate school, and I became a professional scientist. I love science, and although retired, I still work at it (just without a lab). But science was not my first love or my first choice as a profession. That was music.

I went to the High School of Music and Art in New York City, where I played the flute. Not very well, unfortunately, and I soon understood that my love of music was not going to translate into a performing career. But I still always love listening to music (and I occasionally play a little guitar or recorder for myself).

During my first week at my high school, I noticed an odd sight in the cafeteria. A short, stubby, not very attractive guy was sitting eating his lunch surrounded by four or five beautiful girls. As he sat there, other girls came by and talked to him and smiled. Sometimes guys would approach him and wave or nod. This kid would nod back, but he didn’t appear to say much.

I noticed the same thing with the same kid a few more times, and I finally asked a friend who had been in the school for a year already why that ugly kid was so popular. He looked over at who I had indicated then stared at me. “Are you kidding? Don’t you know who that is?” I didn’t. “That’s Jerry G.” I was still at a loss, and I confessed I had no idea who Jerry G was, or why that was an answer to my question. My friend told me to show up at one of the after-school jam sessions that some of the better student musicians held on Fridays.

When I did, I saw a bunch of mostly seniors and juniors with a variety of instruments, and there was Jerry holding a trumpet. He was sitting on a chair a bit apart from the small group of brass players who were jamming together on a jazz piece. But then they stopped, and Jerry stood up. Five seconds after he started playing, I felt like I had been knocked out of my seat and pulled up to the ceiling and then dropped down again. I had never heard anyone before (nor since) play the trumpet that way. Clear, powerful, brilliant. When his solo was over, and I could breathe again, I understood everything. Jerry didn’t need to be good looking, clever or funny. He didn’t need anything other than what he had – an enormous talent.

Jerry did not become a famous trumpeter – I never heard anything about him after we graduated. But whatever transpired in his life, I know that his talent must have been there for him whenever he needed it.

I might mention another person I met at Music and Art, a beautiful shy quiet girl, with an amazing voice. I remember a party at which I heard her sing, and I fell in love (not a rare occurrence for me). We spoke a few times, and I had the sense that she was a kind soul, but was way above my level in both music and spirit. Her name was Laura Nigro, and we pronounced her last name as Nygro rather than Neegro. When she became a famous song writer/singer she changed it to Laura Nyro. If you dont know who she is, listen to her on YouTube, and you will understand my gratitude at having known her, if only briefly.

At that time, I also had a friend who was a first-class drummer, and who had spent some time taking lessons at Julliard. He invited me to go with him to hear a recital of Julliard students, and I went. I was disappointed when we entered the hall, since the program specified that the day’s recital was going to feature string players, and I was always bored by violinists (being a wind chauvinist).

I sat through a number of very good and very boring performances by a wide variety of students from all over the world, who played extremely well, but still, it was always the violin. I was slumping in my seat, almost asleep, when my friend nudged me. “This could be interesting,” he said. I looked up and saw a student about my age struggling across the stage on a pair of crutches. “Wait,” I said. “How can he possibly play? He needs to hold his crutches.” The kid got to the front of the stage, sort of half sat on a tall stool, and brought up his violin, which he had been carrying under one arm. And he began to play. I sat up straight. It was the second time in two years I had heard a young genius play music. Again, the musician was flawless, and the music was powerful and sublime. I was transported. My friend commented that maybe he was compensating for being a cripple, which was a word people used back then. We agreed that it was an astonishing performance. I remember looking at the program to see who this kid was, but it was a foreign name that I couldn’t remember the next day.

If you know much about modern music, you will have already guessed the truth. Yes, I was one of the first people in this country to hear a performance by Itzak Perlman, generally considered to be the greatest living violinist, and some think the greatest ever.

So why have I told these 2 stories about music in this blog about science and faith? Because I found these experiences uplifting. God has endowed all of us with gifts, and first appearances (being funny looking or disabled) are useless in discerning the endowments of another human being. I have in my career met numerous similar examples of shining talents in science, housed in broken or unattractive receptacles. We all have seen this for all kinds of talents, including preaching the word of God, or writing amazing sermons. And what about those of us who are simply mediocre at most things, with no outstanding abilities like Jerry or Perlman? I maintain this is impossible, and that all human beings have been endowed by the Creator with many gifts, even if they are not at all outwardly apparent and cannot be seen in any kind of  performance. Even me.

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Shut up and Calculate

This is the advice that many physicists give to students when they ask unanswerable questions about quantum mechanics. As atheist physicist Sean Carroll points out, the mysteries of quantum theory do not need to be understood in order to use the reality of the science to make things like cell phones and computers, to see how plants can achieve such impossibly high efficiency levels in the conversion of sunlight to useful energy, and to understand that our world is complex beyond the limits of ordinary reason. The math works, meaning that using it to calculate how electrons and photons move and behave gives us the results we need, even if quantum superposition, the uncertainty principle, and the observer effect simply make no sense. What Carroll and other physicists are saying is that some mysteries just need to be left alone and accepted.

In my senior year in college, I took physical chemistry (I was a chemistry major), one of the toughest courses I ever had. For the final exam we were told to solve the Schrödinger equation for the hydrogen atom. By a stroke of good luck (or God’s favor, which I didn’t believe in then), I had memorized the equation and learned what the terms meant. I made a stab at it. My final product was far from perfect, but it earned me a grade on the exam of 40%, which was the highest in the class. I got an A in the course, the best I ever did in chemistry (I was a mediocre student at best).

At the time I had not the faintest idea that there was anything remotely mysterious, let alone mystical, about the Schrödinger equation, or about any other part of quantum mechanics. I knew that molecular orbital energies were not continuous but came in discreet packets, but I never considered the implications of that experimental finding, and didn’t think about the enormous significance of Planck’s constant back then.

Several decades later, when I was learning about Christianity from a priest, I asked him how the Trinity could make sense. He told me, “There are many answers to this question, but I think the ultimate answer is that it’s a mystery.” I found that answer very satisfying since it reminded me of the mysteries of QM. Perhaps one way of putting it could be: Shut up and pray.

Of course, there is a big difference between the two. In physics and all of science, mystery is not something to be taken lightly. Since the dawn of the age of reason, the prevalent idea was always that there are no actual mysteries; that all will eventually be revealed sometime in the future by further scientific research. As Christians, we know that a complete revelation will happen. It will happen when the New Kingdom of God comes to us; when we, like Jesus, are resurrected in body and soul—as the song goes, “when the new world is revealed.”

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Why I Believe in God

The world is cold and hard. There is no mercy in nature. The planet shakes and buildings fall, huge waves wash all away. Fires destroy without will or care. When the rain stops, everything dies. Death is the rule in life. Hunters choose the young, the weak, the helpless. The big cats kill whatever they can. Crocodiles spare no creature, they are not merciful, they are cunning, and serve no being except their own appetites.

All fight to survive, and kill what they must. When a killer whale tosses the sea lion into the air, and then kills and eats it, that is how the world works, the killer whale is a complex chemical system, as is the sea lion. They are collections of molecules that through millions of years of natural selection have managed through a blind process to assemble into creatures that suffer, die, eat, and survive, to no particular purpose except to produce more of their own kind. Evolution has through its own mechanisms produced the sharks with their teeth, the eagles with its talons and eyes, the rabbits and mice with their fear and cunning to escape.

This is the world. Not good, not bad, just real. Who survives wins.

We are also survivors, and winners. We also kill, hunt, hurt, and do what we must. We fight our rivals to eat, mate, live. We feel anger and fear. We make weapons, and we learn how to do all that we must do better than any other creature has ever done. We have prospered. The world has become ours. We fear no cat, no bear, no lion. Not any more. We are supreme in the world of nature. We have won.

We no longer fear the lion, but we fear each other. We gather in groups to chase and kill other groups that threaten us. We kill the children of our enemies, we rape the women of those we vanquish, we make slaves of those we conquer. We seek and take control, and then we do whatever it takes to keep control of others. We invent ways to eat without hunting, We build cities and monuments. We force suffering on others to improve our lives beyond any natural expectation.

There is no mercy, all are in competition with all. We make friends for the sake of our own benefit. We extend mercy when we can profit by it. There is no limit to the misery we can impose on others. This is not evil, this is nature. We are not evil, we are not good. We are what we are, winners, survivors. Some are foolishly bothered by what we call evil, not realizing that there is no evil in the world of nature. There is only reality which is the result of complex chemical reactions. Nothing more.

That is where I started from. That is the background of my picture of the world. A chemical world, where E = mc^2, and the rest follows. I was surprised when folks complained: “Man is cruel, there is no sympathy for the downtrodden”. Of course man is cruel, cruelty can be useful, and the downtrodden are losers.

Our goal is to be the best, so that our genes will go on and on. We don’t know this, of course, but it is built into our instincts by the same selection process that produced the wings of birds and the antennae of bugs. There is no purpose, no meaning, no judge, no reason, no soul, no self, no community, no consciousness. All of those are illusions.

For a very long time, I believed only in what I have written above. I don’t believe any of that any more. And that is why I believe in God.

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Francis

In July 2004, I went to Washington DC to attend a meeting/symposium of the Genetic Variation Working Consortium (GVC). This was group of about 2 dozen scientists who had been funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (part of the NIH) to study the “Ethical, Legal and Social Implications” (ELSI) of the human genome project.  I was among this first group of people who had gotten grants from the ELSI program to study the social implications of genetic diversity in the human population, and most of us were specifically investigating issues of race and genetics.

I was honored to be there with so many well known, highly respected population geneticists, social scientists, anthropologists, and others. We all gave brief talks, mine was on the first day of the 3 day conference. When we introduced ourselves, one woman at the table said she was a lay observer representing the faith community.

On the second day, somebody new joined us, a very tall man who sat next to the non-scientist observer, and chatted with her very amiably. The man next to me (a famous geneticist) whispered to me “OMG, that’s Francis Collins”. I noticed that the entire room had gone quiet and everybody was studiously not staring at the Director of the NHGRI, who had only 3 years earlier published the first map of the entire human genome. The ELSI program was Collins’ brainchild. This kind of attention to important non-scientific consequences of scientific advances became a hallmark of Dr. Collins’ subsequent years in leadership at the NIH.

That was my first meeting with Francis, who struck me as unusally kind and gracious for such a famous and distinguished scholar. At the time, I knew little about the man, but that was to change. A few years later, while in the throws of coming to Christ (with much hesitation and gnashing of teeth) I read his book, The Language of God, which showed me that being a scientist (even an outstanding one) and a Christian was not an impossible contradiction.

Five years after that initial meeting, Francis resigned from the NHGRI to found the Christian organization Biologos, and then in 2009 he was appointed Director of the entire NIH. Coincidentally I arrived at the NIH as a Division Director in the Center for Scientific Review 2 months before Francis took over his new duties.

I came to know him well, from senior staff meetings at the NIH (where he unfailingly treated us to newly written songs with with his guitar accompaniment) and at a couple of smaller,  focused meetings on review policy issues. At the same time I kept seeing him in a Christian context of Biologos and American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) and other Christian gtherings in the Washington DC area.  We spoke a few times, and I was thrilled to learn that he everntually knew who I was from my role as Editor-in-Chief of the ASA magazine God and Nature. Hero worship on my part? Absolutely.

Now, aftter 12 years as NIH Director, Dr. Francis Collins has stepped down and is (at least for the moment) outside of the public eye. For years, Collins  has been extolled by Predidents, Senators, the press and so  many others  as an exemplary scientist and a faithful Christian. In addition to leading the NIH masterfully through 12 years of political and financial turmoil, while managing to maintain and even increase the NIH’s budget for the performance of life-saving biomedical research, Dr. Collins has had a brilliant record in setting a high moral and ethical tone to American science based on his deep Christian faith.

However, recently the chorus of praise for Dr. Collins has become less than entirely unanimous, even among the Christian community. Some have raised issues characterized as “failures” of Collins’ tenure at the NIH.

Francis Collins has often stated that he is opposed to deliberately creating embryos for the purposes of research, but that he finds it permissible to use embryos that have been already been created at IVF clinics and are destined to be discarded otherwise. Some Christian commenters who view IVF is immoral, believe that Collins as a professing Christian should have worked to prevent any use of embryos for research, even those destined to be destroyed. This argument is like arguing against using the organs of a donor killed by a drunk driver, because of the source of the organs’ availability.

Some critics of Collins have argued that as NIH Director, he is ultimately responsible for all funded research grants, including those that these critics object to, whether they involve the use of fetal cell lines or research on potentially deadly viruses. But that is not how NIH works.

Each of the 21 Institutes that make up the National Institutes of Health is fully autonomous—the NIH Director has no say in what research individual Institutes carry out or fund within the confines of existing policies. NIH funding decisions are made by independent panels of academic scientists, and the individual Institutes. At no point does any part of this decision go to the desk of the NIH Director.

Some politicians and journalists have claimed that Collins and Tony Fauci, head ot the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, are responsible for “creating SARS-CoV-2” by sponsoring gain of function research. This is both scientifically and administratively nonsense. The grant to Dr. Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance had nothing to do with the emergence of COVID-19, and interested readers can see the details in an excellent summary recently published in Science.

The NIH Notice of Award sent to Dr. Daszak states:

“No funds are provided and no funds can be used to support gain-of-function research covered under the October 17, 2014 White House Announcement …should any of the MERS-like or SARS-like chimeras generated under this grant show evidence of enhanced virus growth…you must stop all experiments with these viruses and provide the NIAID Program Officer …with the relevant data and information related to these unanticipated outcomes”.

In other words, the NIH did not fund gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses, and never contradicted itself on the matter.

I am confident that these politically based attacks on Francis Collins will fade away, and his unblemished record as a pioneering scientist and evangelical Christian will overcome the poisonous whispers of the ignorant and ungodly. Perhaps it’s a sign of our times that such infamies have seen the light of day. But as Christians, we know that the truth of Jesus will always triumph, and I know that our Lord smiles at Francis Collins, His good and faithful servant. Francis Collins is an American, Christian, and scientific hero, and his tale is inspirational.

Francis with my wife, Aniko Albert and I at an annual ASA meeting in 2017 at Gordon College.

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Who I am

To all my faithful readers and followers, I thank you for being here and reading this. It’s been seven months since my last post, and I am sure many of you thought I was calling it quits for this blog. I thought about that, but clearly I am back, and the blog is about to start a renaissance or resurrection or re birth, or whatever. Here is what happened.

I have been very active online in my Twitter account (now up to 19K followers) doing video interviews, debates, discussions and presentations, Facebook, and so on. I also started a YouTube channel called Faithful Syence, and made quite a few videos. Then, on the advice of an editor, I started doing podcasts. All of this has been very educational for me, since it helped me understand who I am in this modern age. And who I am not.

As it turns out, I am not a videographer, or a podcaster or an actor. I am fine with speaking spontaneously, but when I read a script I sound like a boring undertaker or accountant. My video skills are just barely adequate, but compared to most of the good channels, mine is not at all in the top rank. My YouTube channel has been stuck at just under 1000 followers, and I have no idea if anyone has listened to any of my podcast episodes (Its called “The Works of His Hands”)

As to who I am, its become clear to me that I have always known I am a scientist and a writer. I am a writer of books, letters, scientific peer-reviewed papers, magazine articles, editorials, Facebook posts and comments, speeches, sermons, scripts, newsletters, blog posts and tweets. So, since it makes a lot more sense for a writer to write than to look stupid on a video camera, I am returning my time and energy to this blog, and to other kinds of writing, and leaving the world of videos and podcasts to those who are good at that.

So, thanks for bearing with me these past months. I am finishing up some other writing projects and working on the Winter issue of God and Nature to be released shortly. And after that I will return with regular posts here. Praise God and hallelujah!

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Holy Leaves

It was a beautiful day, and I went outside to spend some quality time in my hammock. Looking up, I could see the beautiful yellows and oranges of the Fall leaves set against the blue sky, white clouds. Some of the trees still had green leaves, and for others they had turned brown. A gust of wind came and I was treated to a shower of gently falling leaves.

I knew of course that leaves were falling because being almost dead, their attachments to the trees had been weakened enough for the wind to pull them loose. But I also knew that God was greeting me and sending me good tidings on this lovely day. The day before was not such a great day, both my wife and I were feeling out of sorts, and she became ill and spent a good part of the day in bed. But this morning we awoke to a new and promising day, free from physical or spiritual troubles, and I know that God was signaling to me his care and attention.

The fact that I knew the mechanism by which the leaves had come to provide me with a beautiful exhibition of nature, and also that I knew it was a message from Lord, and that both kinds of knowledge are simultaneously true, is a good summary of my theology.

But the experience of God smiling on me in my hammock wasn’t quite over. Several minutes after the breeze had stopped, a single leaf floated down and landed right on my chest. I picked it up, and saw that it was an ordinary brown leaf, but dotted with tiny white marks. On closer inspection I found that all of these dots were actually holes. When I put my hand behind them, they disappeared, since the light that made them appear white was blocked. Holding the leaf close to my eyes, I found I could see through the larger holes, but not the smaller ones.

I thought, what a great metaphor for scientific research. Our knowledge is full of holes, and for some, it isn’t that hard to see through and maybe find some new truths, but for others, it just seems to be impossible. I said a brief prayer of thanks to God for sending this useful message or reminder. While I lay there, lost in thought, another larger leaf floated down and also landed on me. It too was brown and had only a few marks on it. One was a quite large and obvious hole, and  near it were three white spots, that were not holes – they were too large, and they remained visible when I blocked the light behind them.

Of course I knew that all the holes, as well as the white spots had been made by some kind of insect, but I was more interested in trying to understand the divine messages in these leaves. The second one seemed more obscure, but as I looked carefully at those white almost translucent spots, I realized that my conclusions from the first leaf were a bit simplistic and incomplete. The second leaf indicated that things are not always so simple. Holes are obvious, but white spots may be many things, the beginning of the generation of a new hole, or maybe the leaf’s attempt to repair a previous hole. The exact nature of the white spot, what it was made of, how did it get there, was beyond my knowledge, and would require active effort to solve. Yes, I thought, again how appropriate for a scientist embarking on a new area of research (as I have been doing for a few weeks).

I closed my eyes, rocked a bit on the relaxing hammock, and thanked my God for His wisdom, guidance and attention, as well as for the amazing, undeserved blessings I had been given.

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Now, get up!

In 2007 I published a book about the environment (I was a professor of Environmental Health) entitled Where We Stand: The Surprising Real State of our Planet”. Like most book titles, this was chosen by the publisher. My original title was “The Good News” since the book was about the fact that the state of our planet, including pollution levels, literacy, disease, infant mortality, even political freedom had been getting better since the second world war. I myself was surprised by this, as was everyone else, because there was no sign of it in any kind of media.

The book was filled with charts and figures, data and other demonstrations of the truth of my point. I also had a chapter mildly castigating my fellow enviornmentalists for their overwhelmingly gloomy outlook on everything, even in the face of facts like the recovery of endangered species, and the continuous drop in levels of hazardous chemicals like lead in the environment, and I pleaded with those responsible for helping the relevant legislation (the Clear Air Act, The Endangered Species Act etc) to get enacted and enforced to at least acknowledge their own success.

The book was a flop, and sold very few copies. As for any book there were many reasons for this. It wasn’t terribly well written, there were too many charts, figures and data, and the publisher took almost no interest in promoting it. But the main reason was the well known fact that the last thing the public wants to hear about is good news.

Does that sound counter intuitive? It shouldn’t. The publisher rejected my working title, because they said it sounded like a religious book, the good news referring to the Gospels. It wasn’t. I was not yet even a Christian, although I was thinking about it. But I think the real reason they didn’t go with it, was they (and everyone in the media business) knew full well that good news just doesn’t sell.

Look at what’s going on now. Even the NY Times has been running a series of online blog posts about how there is too much emphasis on everything going wrong with the COVID vaccines, the various virus variants, the lack of public health measures, the bad side effects, doubts about the future, etc. Hardly a word about the obvious reality that this very serious pandemic is being brought under control, despite enormous odds. The Times reporters warn that this emphasis on doom and gloom, so long the norm in all reporting, might have some negative consequences in terms of undermining confidence in the future, not to mention a further worsening of an already universal crisis in mental health.

I don’t know why bad news is so popular and good news isn’t. But I don’t like it. I didn’t like it before I became a Christian, but now that I am one, I see it as a religious issue. Christians have something that they can always look at with joy, hope and optimism – the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and its significance for all of humanity. They can see the good that is being done by other humans all around them, as expressions of Christ’s command to love one’s neighbor, and to feed the widows and orphans, care for the stranger.

Of course, we know that there are terrible things in this world, who doesn’t, and most of us have no good explanation for how a loving God can allow that to be. But when we think of the coming Holy Week, the suffering and final victory of our Savior, and the hope of that message, we also recognize the reality of a happy ending, or at least the possibility of a happier future. Christians mourn the death of friends (as I am now doing) and weep at the loss. But we do not descend into the hell of unrelieved terror, misery and gloom, but dwell in hope and the promise of eternal joy, even if we cannot fathom what that means.

Perhaps we can all start by thinking about what is very likely to happen in the next couple of months. Schools are opening, and teachers are greeting their students. Every day a couple of million more Americans (and 10 million people around the world) are getting vaccinated and getting out of danger. Barber shops will open, restaurants will begin serving, people will begin to visit each other, grandparents will hug their growing grandchildren, planes and trains will be full again.

And churches will open, worshippers will meet and hug each other with joyful tears, and also mournful tears for those not still with us. Our choirs will sing, our organs will resound, and the body of Christ will raise their voices to give thanks to the Lord. We will emerge from our fear and sorrow, as we have so often in the past, and give glory to our Creator.  As Jesus said to Paul when His newest disciple had fallen to his knees “Now get up…”. (CEV, AMP). It is time for us to get up.

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