Executive Director's Corner

Expelled--the movie

Having read too many second-hand reports, I was glad to be able to see the movie Expelled first hand yesterday. The cell animation sequence in the middle was great and worth the price of admission by itself, though it was a bargain matinee. It was also good to see a lot of friends and familiar faces featured in the film.
I had just finished reading John Hedley Brooke's Science and Religion: Some Historical Observations. As one of the premier historians of science and religion, he stresses complexity. He amply demonstrates that no simple description of the relationship between science and religion is adequate. In contrast, it seemed that Ben Stein stressed simplicity and actively avoided complexity in the movie. Good and evil were cast in black and white. Lining up on one side were evolution and eugenics, Darwin and Dawkins, Hitler, Provine, mainstream scientists, suppression of ideas. On the other were Intelligent Design, Dembski and Berlinski, Discovery Institute, academic freedom, basic American freedoms. The Berlin wall symbolized the crisp distinction between the two. Yet this veneer of superficial truth masked a wealth of complexity that was ignored presumably to avoid confusing the audience. Unfortunately, the result was a blurred message that depended on the background knowledge of the viewer.
Notwithstanding a verbal disclaimer, the juxtaposition of the atrocities of eugenics and the evil of Hitler with evolution conveyed an inherent and necessary connection. Stein missed an opportunity to assail the derivation of a prescriptive behavioral mandate from a descriptive theory of nature. By pointing the finger at the description itself, the fallacious moral extrapolation was implicitly validated.
The movie makes no attempt to help us tease fact from fiction in either evolution or Intelligent Design, offering no definition or explanation. It does raise critically important issues for our times such as academic freedom and the conflation of religious and scientific ideas but with little guidance for resolving them. If it stimulates substantive discussion on these and related issues, the movie will have been worthwhile.

Stress test

I'm back on the blogs, if anyone is reading! During this hiatus we have redone the format and we hope you think it's for the better.
In this series, I've been sharing some of my experience with a mini-stroke, a PFO that was fixed with a cardiac occluder, and the surprise insertion of a drug-eluting stent in my left anterior descending artery. I also talked a little about diet.
Now I can say that I've lost about 30 pounds in the process that have not returned as yet. One might say that I am merely skin and bones at this time but my doctor seems pleased.
This coming Monday my cardiologists wants me to have a stress test. Apparently that means running on a tread mill until one minute before I collapse. (How in the world will I know??) Then they'll be taking before and after pictures of blood flow in the cardiac vascular system.
Why did he order this test? I can only speculate and my meager and limited knowledge of this history may be wrong. But what I gather is that the rapid surge of usage of the drug-eluting form of stents followed the dramatic results of virtually no blockages six months following stent insertion compared with non-drug-eluting stents. About a year ago, however, more detailed analyses showed that blockages did start to occur from 9 months after inserting drug-eluting stents. The usage of drug-eluting versions suddenly plummeted from aroun 90% of all stents to about 40%.
I may be wrong, but I suspect this may be why my cardiologist wanted a stress test at 8 months. At least to get a baseline reference at that point.
We'll see what happens.
Randy

Drugs and Diet

[Originally posted 9/12/2007]

When I was discharged from the hospital, I was told that I would now have more aggressive targets for blood pressure and for cholesterol levels. Specifically, they wanted me to reduce LDL levels to below 70. I had been so happy to have finally reached my target of 100 a few years ago. They assured me that this really couldn't be achieved by diet but needed a higher dose of statins.

I was advised to double my dosage of statins and the result came last week. My LDL was down to 60! Amazing! I'll never know how much of this was due to diet and how much was due to the statins. I did go on a non-fat diet as well. One thing I've learned, there's no time to do the one-parameter-at-a-time experimental approach.

Yet, the comment that diet alone is not enough cuts both ways. On one hand, it gives the impression that a strict diet isn't all that important. Somehow, I don't think that's the intended message. Perhaps it does give a flicker of hope to those of us who can't adhere to diets 100% of the time. On the other, it does lead to a path of greater dependence on medications. What does it mean that our health is increasinglyh dependent on a steady dose of drugs?

There's a similar story with plavix. This anticoagulant was prescribed for me inconjunction with the stent. I've been told that many times a problem occurs with the stent if the plavix is stopped. Some have told me that I'll be on it the rest of my life--I should never stop. I have had some easy bruising but I think I can live with that. But again, there's the dependence on drugs.

This isn't a new development for those with chronic illnesses that have dependencies on drugs. We are all most grateful for the development of specific drugs that sustain our health. It does, however, raise that ethical dilemma of access. With the high expense of medication, is it ethical to make it available to a privileged subset of the population? How can we ensure that the pharmaceutical companies get a fair return on their development investment but also ensure widespread distribution and affordability?

I certainly don't have the answers but many of the questions are becoming obvious as I think too much about my health!

Who Gets Treated?

[Originally posted 8/21/2007]

One of the issues that struck me during my medical adventure was that of access to diagnosis and treatment. Why was I able to get the diagnosis and the stent when others may not have access to it? I'll defer the more interesting philosophical/theological question of "why" for later. For now, let's just look at the immediate causes.

One factor is clearly proximity to specialists or those skilled in the art. If the doctors giving me the early attention hadn't known the researchers at MGH in this specialty, they wouldn't have referred me there. And if MGH, or a similar center with such skills, had not been conveniently located nearby, I might not have been able to travel to receive such care. This brings into sharp attention the billions of people who do not have reasonable access to skilled care. How is it that some of us have such access but most people don't? Is there a way to disseminate this care more quickly?

Cost--and insurance coverage--are another obvious factor. I was fortunate to have the insurance coverage to cover the costs. The total list price for the procedure exceeds $50,000, as far as I can tell. I don't know how much the insurance company will finally pay or how much I will have to pay. But it is beyond the means of most people to cover it. Access to health insurance is a major issue. Affordability of such insurance may be one of the major challenges of our western society. In other societies such care is often not even available.

A third issue is more nebulous. What symptoms justify the more expensive and often invasive tests to do further diagnostics? For me, the trail was serendipity. A sudden blindspot in my eye led the ophthalmologist to identify an embolism. Had that mini-stroke occurred in any other location than the retina, I may never have noticed it or, if I had, it might never have been identified as an embolism. In searching for the cause of the embolism, my primary care physician requested a TEE, which stands for TransEsophogeal Echocardiogram. Had he not done that, the cardiologist doing the test would not have had a chance to do the PFO leakage test which identified the PFO problem.

As I mentioned in a previous note, the data are subtle and not overwhelmingly convincing that a paradoxical embolism is best treated by PFO closure. Many specialists in the area are still skeptical, pending better studies. It took three months for the team at MGH to decide that my PFO should be closed by inserting an occluder via cardiac catheterization. Had that not happened, I would never have been given an angiogram. There were absolutely no symptoms or test results that would have justified having an angiogram. Yet, with the catheters in place for the occluder, it was an automatic angiogram.

That's when they discovered the nearly complete blockage of the proximal left anterior descending artery. The doctors had no doubt but that in the not too distant future I would have had a severe, and likely fatal, episode of blockage. In the last four weeks, in fact, two of my former colleagues did suffer a fatal cardiac condition that may have been precisely that situation. Each of them had some minor symptoms but nothing that would have justified an angiogram.

All of this goes to show that we have no good systematic way of deciding who deserves a test like an angiogram. It is too invasive and expensive to use as a broad screening tool. Yet, too often there are no symptoms that appear in a timely way.

Who will get the angiograms in the future? We as a society need to think hard how to 1) educate the population on being alert for the relevant symptoms, 2) continue to educate everyone of proper diet and exercise, and 3) aggressively work to disseminate available to the latest medical techniques to as many people in the world as possible. These techniques cannot be reserved solely for the privileged few who live near the medical research centers and have the right insurance.

A Wondrous Body

[Originally posted 8/5/2007]

This is part of the medical ethics thread but I had to put it in the "awesome creation" title. I wanted to digress just slightly to marvel at the awesome body God has created. Having a PFO made me realize some more details of our incredible body.

I'm no physiologist so many of you may correct me. But here's what I've been able to figure out.

When our heart develops in the fetus, there is a passageway in the septum between the right and left atria. This allows blood in the fetus that returns to the heart through the veins to pass through the passageway and be pumped directly to the brain and the rest of the body. The lungs of the fetus are not in operation, being sequestered in the womb. Hence, the blood cannot/should not/needs not pass through the lung for reoxygenation. The mother performs that function (I haven't figured that one out yet!) somehow.

Upon birth, the lungs begin to operate and the mother's helpful action is no longer available. At that point, the blood needs to circulate through the lungs. The heart then sends the blood to the lungs and gets it back before shipping to off to do its work in the body. The passageway, known technically as the foramen ovale, is no longer needed and it closes. In several months, this opening is usually sealed.

However, in what is estimated to be 25-30% of the population, the opening does not close completely. The seal leaks and blood can pass from the right to left atria, bypassing the cleansing action of the lung. Typically, this is not a very significant amount and no problems occur. But statistically, there is a higher risk of "paradoxical emboli", or stroke of unknown origin.

What amazes me is how the entire process works. What an incredible way God has made us! To think that a valve is open just when it is needed to provide a crucial shunt and then it closes to provide an important seal is absolutely amazing. Any engineering project with such a goal would need some pretty fancy controls to ensure that this happens appropriately.

We continue to learn amazing things about our body. What reaction can we have but to worship our God who has made us in such a wondrous way.

Experimental Data

[Originally posted 8/3/2007]

One of the first aspects that struck me about my medical situation was the nature of the data. I'm a research scientist with a strong focus on experimental data. Carefully designed experiments with data verifying a hypothesis and ultimately independently reproduced and confirmed are a basic tenet of my scientific approach. In the medical field that is a fantasy. Try as one might, well-controlled experiments are difficult to design and carry out for many reasons.

In my case, the question was the relationship between unexplained strokes, known by the technocenti as "paradoxical emboli" and the PFO, that hole in the septum of the heart. What seems to be agreed upon by everyone is that there is a higher incidence of PFO in people who have experienced a stroke. In that population the occurrence of PFO is approximately 45-50% whereas in the general population estimates range from 25-30%. But that is a  statistical correlation and not a causal relationship. It doesn't tell us whether closing the PFO will lead to any benefit.

The "theorists" (I hesitate to use the term) hypothesize one of two possible ways in which a PFO can cause a stroke. One is that it permits leakage of blood from the right to the left atrial chamber. That means that blood returning through the veins that is supposed to go to the lung for reoxygenation actually leaks to the other side and goes straight to the brain or the eye or other parts of the body. Any tiny clot carried in that stream can cause a stroke. A second theory is that the presence of the PFO can cause turbulence in the blood flow, creating a region where clots are more likely to be generated. Neither has been directly proven.

It's difficult to get enough participants in a well defined random study to determine the effectiveness of PFO closure in preventing strokes. Most people, like me, who reach the stage of having had one stroke and have discovered the PFO, don't want to take any chances and just want the hole closed. Depending solely on anticoagulant drugs to avoid the stroke seems much riskier, even if the data aren't clear. Hence, few takers sign up for the study.

But my heart won't wait for such studies to be completed. Decisions have to be made now. There is no luxury of waiting for nice clean experimental data. Such is the fertile field for medical ethics.

New Experience

[Originally post 8/2/2007]

After a six week hiatus, I'm back. I hope you haven't all disappeared and that you'll be back to reading this once in a while.

The main reason for the lapse was a medical procedure I needed at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). That gave me a whole new insight into a field I knew little about. I still don't know much about it but I wanted to use this forum to muse about thoughts I had during this experience.

First, let me explain as briefly as I can what happened to me. Then in future posts we'll dig in a little deeper. A few months ago on a flight from London to Boston, I noticed a peculiar blindspot that appeared suddenly and painlessly in the central left eye vision. I consulted the ophthalmologist the next morning who determined I had a branch retinal artery occlusion. Basically, that translates to a mini-stroke in which a small clot blocked a small artery, permanently damaging some retinal cells.

The question was why the clot had formed. No obvious causes could be found. Eventually they found a PFO (patent foramen ovale) which has been statistically correlated to a higher risk of stroke. Translated to something I can understand, this means that the opening in a wall (septum) of the heart that was supposed to close after birth, didn't do so completely.

After five months of debate, the medical team at MGH approved the insertion of an occluder to seal the opening. During that procedure, the doctors did an angiogram and discovered quite unexpectedly a significant (>70%) blockage of the left anterior descending artery, which I'm told is one of the most important arteries that feeds the heart. When I woke from the anesthesia, I was told I had a drug-eluting stent inserted as well as the occluder.

I had some problems recuperating due to bleeding from the puncture site where the catheter was inserted but I'm delighted to report that my one-month checkup was very positive and I can now resume normal activity. But psychologically and theologically, I'm still trying to process what happened. Bear with me in the next few posts as I try to work through some of these issues.

Age of the Earth

[Originally posted 6/13/2007]

An essay review in the June 2007 issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith begins to address the application of guidelines for integrity in science to the question of the age of the earth. This review of RATE II (Radioactivity and the Age of The Earth, a young-earth project co-sponsored by ICR and CRS) is concerned primarily with the integrity of the reporting of the work rather than the claims themselves.

In the comprehensive RATE report, a nearly 800 page compendium, the RATE scientists repeatedly admit that the evidence is overwhelming for a massive amount of radioactive decay, about a half-billion years worth. To reconcile that with a young-earth view, they must assume that fundamental constants, such as radioactive decay constants, changed drastically several times in the past. Not only that, but the change was different for different isotopes. Those with short half-lives like C-14 and Po were not affected while those with longer half-lives like K-40, U-238, etc. changed by a factor of many millions. Stable isotopes were apparently unaffected. Even accepting this audacious assumption, the RATE project team concludes that there are unsolved problems with this approach. They state that there is no known thermodynamic process whereby all the heat generated by the accelerated decay could have been removed. They hope that future ideas may be found to resolve it but that this had not yet been done.

Though it is clearly stated that the young-earth scenario is not consistent with known scientific processes, the result of the conference is being presented at RATE conferences, dubbed "Thousands not Billions", as if RATE has confirmed the biblical message of a young earth. It is this duplicity which the ASA opposed in the article. When a detailed technical report states that no known scientific process supports the implications of a young earth, it cannot be stated with integrity that science has been shown to support that claim. With this statement, the ASA neither endorses nor opposes the young-earth creationist position but does oppose false reporting of conclusions.

Following the discussion of this thread, one could of course say much more about the integrity of the purported science in the RATE project. An age of 4.5 billion years for the earth is a clear consensus of the mainstream scientists in the field. Any alternative claims must be vetted through the rigors of scientific methodology in order to be considered seriously. Assuming arbitrary changes in radioactive decay constants falls far short of that criterion.

Nine Lives of Offbeat Ideas

[Originally posted 6/12/2007]

It's fascinating how non-mainstream ideas can be hard to eliminate. It seems they have the fabled nine lives.

One interesting example was reported in the June 2007 issue of APSNews, the newsletter of the American Physical Society. In the Back Page section, Peter Zimmerman recounts the story of a claim for a hafnium bomb. On the basis of a single article claiming that such a bomb is feasible, significant research and government programs were initiated and seemingly can't be stopped easily. All that despite rather straightforward demonstration that such a device is not consistent with known science.

Another example came on my desk two weeks ago from an advocate of the geocentricity society. This article claimed that there was no independent evidence against a geostationary, geocentric model. It claimed that all such evidence was circular reasoning, based solely on assumptions that the earth was moving. No details were provided. I wonder how they explain the coriolis effect.

It seems there will always be those, even with a science pedigree, who affirm some position in contradiction to that of mainstream science. On one hand, this is very good since skepticism, as we have said previously, is the lifeblood of science. Constant questioning helps generate creative ideas. But integrity in science means that all such skepticism must be subjected to scientific methodology as well. Ideas that do not meet those rigorous tests must be rejected.

Science is neither a democratic process nor a relativistic "whatever works for you" philosophy. There are rigorous tests that determine what is a conclusion in science and what isn't.  As Christians, our responsibility is to faithfully endorse integrity in science, not to simply fall back on skepticism whenever the results of science conflict with our preference. That doesn't mean we have to agree with mainstream science--but we must acknowledge what the scientific consensus is and ensure that any disagreement is based on sound methodology.

Removing Unconscious Bias

[Originally posted 6/10/2007]

Integrity in science means taking all necessary measures to ensure that neither conscious nor unconscious bias influences the result. This is why scientific methodology includes  techniques such as double-blind studies and independent corroboration.

A recently released report in particle physics shows how "blind analysis" was used to avoid unconscious bias. The MiniBooNE experiment at Fermilab was designed to detect neutrino oscillations and confirm the anomalous results of a previous experiment at Los Alamos. The Jun 2007 issue of Physics Today reports that "to avoid unconscious bias, the group had estimated backgrounds and optimized all of its data-selection criteria without knowing how they would affect the final result. The experimenters got to "open the box" and look at what their data did...only three weeks before going public." The results failed to confirm the LANL result which had imposed rather awkward constraints on the standard model for neutrinos. But the data also revealed new puzzles that remain to be sorted out.

The point is that scientific methodology must always work to eliminate bias of any kind. The greatest care must be exercised when there is strong motivation to obtain a particular result. Those motivations may be confirming a particular theory, personal credit, company revenue or reputation, or religious preference. 

In the long run, science is self-correcting and any bias-induced errors or fraud will be uncovered. The cost of uncovering such errors is great and needs to be avoided, particularly in large, expensive projects such as MiniBooNE. The principle holds for all  scientific research, large and small.

Phases of Sciences

[Originally posted 6/9/2007]

When thinking about integrity in science, it can be helpful to think of the various phases through which a particular scientific field usually passes. This is rather oversimplified but nevertheless a helpful visualization.

Three phases can be considered:

Frontier. This is the early stage of a particular question or issue. This phase is usually characterized by no data, no theory, or both. Research is focused on developing the theories or devising experiments to obtain definitive data.

Controversy. In this phase, there are contradictory theories that explain the data, or contradictory/incomplete data relating to a particular theory. Research is focused on carrying out differentiating experiments to resolve the question of which theory or model is correct.

Consensus. Finally, a phase is reached where the theory and the data are accepted by the active researchers in the field. Research is no longer focused on determining the correct theory or obtaining definitive data, but on working out details, implications, and expanding into potentially new frontiers.

These three phases represent the degree of maturity of a scientific field. It is judged on the basis of those who are professional scientists actively working and publishing in that particular field. They are the ones most qualified to assess technical work in that field.

This is why it is possible to hear the words "there is no controversy" when clearly there is a major controversy, as is often the case when discussion global warming or evolution. The "controversy" phase is determined by the community of experts working in that field. When that community is in consensus, then there is no further controversy, even though there may be alternative scientific papers coming from outside the community, or even a few isolated ones from within the group. In the media or in groups outside the experts, there can still be tremendous controversy. 

The consensus opinion of the experts may be wrong. However, if the consensus is supported by a strong set of differentiating data, then the opinion is not likely to change in the future. I cannot think of any example in this stage that has changed. Virtually all examples where "science was wrong" are cases where the work was in a frontier or controversy stage.

Who is best qualified to judge the stage of a particular area of study? Those actively working in that field. Don't hesitate to ask them directly. If skepticism comes from outside that group, we must ensure that a response comes from the expert group itself.

Fraud

[Originally posted 6/8/2007]

The most obvious antithesis to integrity in science is outright fraudulent work. Unfortunately, such misconduct is not unknown nor is it new. Undoubtedly it will continue to occur. 

Money and fame provide fertile ground for fraudulent behavior. Fossils have long been a target and most people have heard of the Piltdown man hoax. It is not unusual for museums to receive submissions of purported fossils that are determined to be fakes of some sort.

The intense public scrutiny of stem cell work recently triggered well-publicized fraudulent work. Even the field of molecular transistors stimulated a case of fraud a few years ago.

Though there seems to be no foolproof way to prevent fraud, science is well-positioned to detect it, sooner or later. As Ian Hutchinson articulated in his article in the June 2007 issue of PSCF, science is characterized by reproducibility and clarity. Fraudulent work is generally not reproducible by an independent, objective scientist. The fraudulent transistors claimed by Herb Schoen were not reproducible in the world's best labs. His deception was detected by the observation that the noise signals published for purportedly different transistors were identical. 

Fraud can also be perpetrated by those who believe so strongly in a particular theory or result that they truly believe the results to be correct. Instead of deliberately falsifying work, they subconsciously see only the data that supports their hypothesis. 

Virtually all cases of fraud in science of which I am aware were detected by other scientists. Science is a self-correcting and self-critiquing enterprise. Accusations of fraud from outside the scientific community may or may not be correct but usually they emanate from self-interests.

What does this mean for us as Christians in science? Integrity is a major hallmark of the Christian lifestyle. Integrity is vital to the essence and success of science. There should be much in common. Yet, far too often Christians latch onto non-reproducible results merely because of a preference for those results. This violates integrity of all types. Our calling is to live our lives as Christians in science with utmost integrity. As the wheels of scientific endeavor turn, fraudulent work will be exposed for what it is.

Skepticism in Science

[Originally posted 5/24/2007]

Skepticism is one of the most valuable tools in science. Continual questioning of ideas and results is a means of overturning long-held assumptions and uncovering new ideas. 

Being a skeptic is an art in itself. It doesn't mean blindly doubting everything that is asserted. It does mean to scrutinize all ideas and see if they meet the rigorous tests of scientific methodology. This is very different from the meaning of a skeptic in theology where the term refers to those who do not affirm a religious faith.

A skeptic in science will continually review the credibility of a scientific result or idea--until it is demonstrated through independent corroboration and verified data. Progress in science always builds on our current understanding. New results are seldom if ever derived in a vacuum but depend on the great wealth of understanding that has been accumulated through the ages. If we were to wait to build only on thoroughly verified ideas, science would progress too slowly. If we were to build too fast on untested ideas, the shaky foundation would soon collapse. Skepticism provides a healthy check and balance whereby we can proceed as rapidly as possible and learn of a misstep as soon as possible. 

The process of analyzing a scientific idea skeptically often reveals valuable insight. It can show us where the arguments are weak and need to be strengthened. It can offer new ideas. It can increase our confidence that what passes is accurate.

As Christians, a healthy skepticism in science is an important part of our process of integrating science and faith. We cannot blindly accept every assertion nor can we simply doubt every inconvenient truth.

Scientific Methodology

[Originally posted 5/20/2007]

If integrity is defined as adhering to a moral or ethical code, what does it mean when applied to science? Is it any different than the moral or ethical code we apply in our daily lives? Yes and no. It certainly does mean the usual definitions of honesty and all the virtues. But in science it also means more than that.

There is no rule book for scientific methodology that a graduate student needs to memorize to become a scientist. Nevertheless, one of the most critical lessons a grad student must learn is how to do science properly. Each discipline and each problem demands its own approach, making it impossible to write a single "user's manual" of how to do science. Following rigorous methods is critical to having one's results accepted by a critical, scrutinizing community of peers. The methodology therefore is developed as a means of assuring that all possible subjective biases have been removed or minimized.

In high-energy particle physics, the stakes are so high, with so many people and so much money involved, that it is not uncommon to apply secret offsets to the data before analysis. This prevents the scientists who are doing the analysis from subconsciously skewing the analysis to achieve the desired result. After the analysis, the offsets are removed and the correct answer can be obtained.

Not all disciplines require such a technique but everyone must show rigor in methodology that ensures any critic that the results are credible. The methods used in the research must be reported accurately to such an extent that not only is it clear that subjective elements have been offset but that anyone skilled in the art could reproduce the work.

Careful work is valued in all vocations. In science it is doubly important that integrity is demonstrated at every step. Any lapse in integrity leads to a loss of credibility from the rest of the community, usually devastating in a career.

Scientific Methodology

[Originally posted 5/15/2007]

Part of ASA's policy is a commitment to integrity in science. What does that mean? Is it any different than integrity in our daily lives? Yes and no. The American Heritage Dictionary has three definitions for "integrity":

   1. Steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code.
   2. The state of being unimpaired; soundness.
   3. The quality or condition of being whole or undivided; completeness.

The first meaning is the one that applies in this context. In some ways the word is synonynous with "honesty." In science the connotation is to fairly and conscientiously apply the normal standards of scientific methodology to the issue at hand. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on the perspective), there is no definitive rulebook that outlines scientific methodology. There is no single precise methodology to which all scientific endeavor must adhere. But there are established practices which characterize science. It is part of scientific training to learn the relevant methods for a particular discipline.

A common issue for Christians is in fields where the scientific results appear to conflict with common ideas or deductions from the Bible. It is not unusual in those cases to find skepticism about the science itself. Being a skeptic in science isn't a matter of just saying "I don't believe it" or citing technobabble that dazzles the non-expert into thinking there is serious scientific debate. Legitimate  skepticism needs to go through scientific methodology as well. It needs to be published in peer-reviewed technical literature, corroborated by independent laboratories and accepted or addressed by the relevant technical community. It's a tall order but until those hurdles are cleared, the skepticism is merely a proposed idea.

In this category during the next few weeks we'll explore a few examples of what it means to have integrity in science.

God Is Great

[Originally posted 5/14/2007]

In an obvious allusion to the well-known phrase, Christopher Hitchens has published his book "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" and joined the team proclaiming the dangers of religion. Fellow "new atheist" Dan Dennett approvingly reviewed the book in yesterday's Boston Globe http://www.boston.com/ae/books/articles/2007/05/13/unbelievable/.

Hitchens provides historical anecdotes of the origins of many esoteric myths and cults that exist. He insists that religions are man-made which seems tautological for someone who doesn't believe that a supernatural deity exists. His assertions are based on identifying numerous examples of ludicrous religious and mystical claims that have been documented over the years. Somehow he feels that the diversity of religious views and the dubious origins of many of them logically extend to the conclusion that all religions are of human origin.

Logically, his argument fails. He has assumed that no supernatural being exists, examined a range of religions, found them to be wanting and concluded that none is genuine. Starting with a different premise that is open to the possibility of the existence of a transcendent creator, one would draw a very different conclusion from his observations. Humankind's quest to find God necessarily entails a large number of deadends and failed attempts. God reaching down to humankind by making his own son a part of creation is a radical approach that Hitchens hasn't begun to grasp. He expects God to act in a way that he would act, if he were God. Therefore he wouldn't just heal a blind person, he would eliminate blindness if he were God. Hence, God doesn't exist. Yet he has missed the essence of Christianity. God has overcome suffering and death not by eliminating it but by sending his son to earth to experience it and to conquer death through resurrection. That is a unique claim among all religions. 

Hitchen's presuppositions lead him in a circular path to conclude that if he can explain the origin of religions then there is no God. Focusing only on what he feels are the excesses and failures of religion, he fails to see the real reality behind the mist of nature: the God of Gods and Lord of Lords, the Creator of all things.

Greensburg, KS Tornado

[Originally posted 5/7/2007]

The town of Greensburg, KS is no more, a victim of a massive tornado. God's awesome creation seems so wonderful when we behold its beauty but oh so tragic when we suffer the intense loss in the face of such power. Some estimates indicated wind speeds as high as 205MPH in what appears to have been a max force F5 tornado.

This one hit close to home for me. Greensburg is only about 70 miles from where I was born and raised in Kansas. Growing up, tornadoes were a way of life. Each summer the threat of tornado-producing storms came and went. At school we often had drills of going to the cellar. A few times I recall tornadoes passing overhead as we huddled in a shelter.

Our deepest sympathies go out to those who lost their loved ones, their homes, their possessions, their jobs, or any of the many things we take for granted.  How we wish God's awesome creation would only bring peace and quiet and good things to us. But that's not the message of Christianity. God  made a creation where life comes from death. His own Son actually became part of creation and participated in the life, death, and the glorious resurrection. That theme is displayed throughout creation, whether we like it or not. The specter of death and destruction is vividly rampant in Greensburg. But hope is not gone. God in his power will use it in ways we do not yet know to bring life from death.

Largest Supernova Ever Seen

[Originally posted 5/8/2007]

NASA recently reported that the Chandra X-ray Observatory has confirmed the largest supernova ever seen. It was first detected in the fall of 2006 and is labeled SN 2006gy. Detailed pictures can be seen at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/chandra/main/index.html and they are amazing.

It is hard for us humans to comprehend such vast distances and enormous amounts of energy. The star that exploded appears to be about 150 times bigger than our sun. It is believed to be the largest supernova ever detected. It is about 240 million light years away. If it had happened in our Milky Way galaxy, which is possible, it might be bright enough to see in the daylight from earth.

What an amazing process God used to generate the raw material for our earth. Supernovas like this one were key to forming the higher atomic weight elements found naturally on earth. The process is still going on. God's plan is grander than anything we can comprehend but that doesn't mean we're clueless. He has given us the power to comprehend a significant part of his plan and has revealed some of it to us. Above all, through the incarnation, his Son became part of creation and became flesh like us. What a wonderful plan!

The Wind and the Waves Obey His Voice

[Originally posted 4/17/2007]

The Nor'Easter that swept up the coast the last two days was indeed a potent storm. The wind whipped up waves that were impressive to watch. It wasn't so much fun for people along the coast who sustained damage to their property.

I couldn't help but be reminded of the passage in Mark 4:41 where the disciples marveled "Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!" We serve a God who is creator and Lord of even the wind and the waves. 

But what do we mean when we say that? Does it mean that we can command God to stop a storm whenever it might mean damage to us? No. Does it mean that God will prevent a potent storm from causing damage to his people? No. Does it mean that if we pray more fervently and according to his will that storms can be arrested instantaneously? No. Then what good is it to worship such a God?

It means quite simply that we serve the God who is sovereign over all. He wills all things into existence including the winds and the waves. He can and has calmed the wind and the waves to demonstrate who Jesus was. But that is not for our convenience or for our pleasure. God is over all things. Our role is to serve him and trust him completely--as we batten down the hatches.

The Love of God

[Originally posted 4/2/2007]

This weekend I I flew back into Logan airport after two weeks of several trips. The weather was beautiful and our aircraft flew past Boston, turning around over Massachusetts Bay. The view of the ocean was awesome. It stretches forever, it seems.

A few hours later I was walking along the beach with my wife and our Corgi. She reminded me of the majestic hymn, The Love of God, that summarized our feelings. One stanza says:

Could we with ink the ocean fill
And were the skies of parchment made
Were every stalk on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade

To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky

O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure
The saints' and angels' song

Frederick Lehman wrote that hymn in 1917, writing two stanzas, the refrain, and the music. But this particular stanza he found on the walls of an unnamed asylum inmate after he died. Apparently these words were adapted from a poem called "Hadamut" written by Rabbi Mayer in 1096.

Nature is often an object lesson, calling to mind the truths that God has revealed to us. May the vast ocean always remind us of the infinite extent of God's love.