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Covid, Faith and the Fallibility of Science

Guy Consolmagno, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Wed, Jun 15th 2022

1“These past two years have exposed how the science vs. faith discourse isn’t an abstract ideological debate but a false dichotomy that has disastrous real-world consequences,” writes Tish Harrison Warren in a recent opinion column of the New York Times.[1] Her insight was motivated by research showing that evangelical Christians in the United States were one of the sectors of society that was the least-vaccinated against the Covid virus. The implication is that a distrust of science in this community, reflected in their distrust of vaccines, is tied to their perceived need to choose between science and faith.

But the dichotomy between faith in science versus faith in religion has implications beyond vaccine skepticism. It is evidence of a false view of what science is and what it can promise. This misunderstanding is prevalent not only among those who are skeptical of science but, perhaps even more dangerously, among those who too rapidly embrace it. When science fails to live up to expectations of an exaggerated reliability, that failure only feeds further skepticism of science. Thus, for example, by closely tying acceptance of the vaccine to science, it is possible that skepticism regarding the vaccine, which originally arose from social or political motivations, may actually increase popular skepticism of science itself. 

The implications of recognizing this misunderstanding can lead us to reconsider how we present the argument in favor of science, as in promoting the use of vaccines. But it also can force us to take a closer look at how we are tempted to use either science or faith as a bulwark against our fundamental human fear of uncertainty.

Follow the science?

In the fight against the Covid pandemic, the scientific evidence in favor of vaccination is overwhelming. With this in mind, those who see universal vaccination as the only way to bring the pandemic to an end will often invoke the mantra:  “follow the science.” As a slogan it would seem to have a certain appeal; it builds on the confidence in science as a path to truth that our society has come to accept since the Enlightenment. But the evidence at hand suggests that this slogan is actually not a particularly effective motivator. Significant sectors of the population, such as many among  evangelical Christians as cited above, have still refused vaccination.

I write as the Director of the Vatican Observatory. I am both a scientist and a member of the Catholic Church. I am well familiar with both scientific and clerical authority, and those who are skeptical of either. To treat scientists as members of a kind of priesthood of truth is a questionable approach, especially in a society where actual priests are viewed with suspicion. And while I am all in favor of vaccinations, I also find myself troubled in particular with the wording of the call to “follow the science.” It is emblematic of a popular understanding of science that is both misleading and which leaves science open to attack.

“Follow the science” conveys not merely the idea that science is a trustworthy guide to truth; it also suggests that science is the only such trustworthy guide. The phrase itself, “follow the science,” is presented as the answer to an unspoken question: what, or whom, should we follow? In it one finds an echo of Peter’s plaint in the form of a question  to Jesus in John 6:68: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Indeed, the scriptural echo in “follow the science” may well be heard by someone such as an evangelical Christian, who would be familiar with that scripture passage but perhaps unfamiliar with science, as though it implied that “following the science” is being offered as a substitute for following the Lord. To such a person this slogan may inadvertently be doing more harm than good.

And at worst, the idea that  science is the only trustworthy guide implies that the authority of science is infallible. But of course anyone actually familiar with science knows that this is hardly the case. Yes, the vaccine lessens the consequences of the disease for the overwhelming majority of the vaccinated; and it reduces the severity of the disease even for those “breakthrough” cases. But the vaccines are not perfect. Fully vaccinated people can and do come down with Covid, sometimes (if rarely) with serious consequences. To the vaccine skeptic, the fact that such failures happen at all suggests not only that the vaccine is not perfect, but it gives credence to their fear that “following the science” blindly can be dangerous. And as much as we hate to admit it, that fear of blind trust in science does have an element of truth behind it. Sometimes “the science” is very wrong indeed.

I am a scientist, and I can name any number of scientific papers I’ve written that have turned out to be embarrassingly incorrect. But beyond the occasional mistakes, even the most notable advances in science have been associated with fundamental errors that eventually had to be corrected, assumptions that turned out to be false or at least incomplete, results that would need to be refined and perfected.

Galileo’s belief in the motion of the Earth was correct, but his arguments in its favor fell far short of being convincing proofs and, in some cases (such as his arguments based on the motions of the tides),  they were completely wrong. James Clerk Maxwell developed his remarkable theory of the electromagnetic field by assuming that electromagnetic waves were carried by a compressible “ether.” One result of his work ultimately was to show that this “ether” actually does not exist. Ernst Mach, whose mathematical description of shock waves led to our understanding of faster-than-sound travel and the “Mach number,” took Maxwell’s ideas on fields as the basis of a novel theory of matter that did away with atoms.  We now  know that atoms exist, and his theory is wrong. Edwin Hubble observed the motions of galaxy clusters which have been hailed as confirmation of the “Big Bang” cosmology; Hubble himself never accepted that cosmology.

Medicine is never perfect, and practitioners of medicine even less so. The financial incentives for approving new drugs can warp even the most careful system of safe approval. Thousands of adults today still carry the birth defects caused by Thalidomide, which had been thought to be a safe  remedy for morning sickness and thus prescribed to pregnant women in the 1960s.

Vaccines themselves do not have a perfect history. As we mentioned, even the Covid vaccines allow the occasional “breakthrough” infection. Side effects to the vaccination process are common, and can vary in severity from case to case. Safety as well as efficacy are issues that require a long period of study before the  approval of  a vaccine for general use; and even with that lengthy process, mistakes can and do happen. It is not impossible that an occasion might arise where the worst fears of the anti-vaccine  community could actually come true.

But, even more troubling, there are times in our history when “the science” – or at least how it has been presented to the general public – has turned out to be not merely imperfect, but horrifyingly wrong. The popularizers of science in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people like H. G. Wells, Alexander Graham Bell, and legal experts such as US Supreme Court Chief, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, all promoted the idea of eugenics. They insisted that we could perfect the human race by eliminating “inferior” people. It was an idea so self-evident to them that anyone (like the Church) who opposed it on moral grounds was seen as a dangerous  reactionary.

We remember the Scopes trial, immortalized in popular literature (such as “Inherit the Wind”), where the high school biology teacher John T. Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution. But what all the dramas leave out is that the evolution textbook used by Scopes also supported eugenics, claiming that evolution “explained” the so-called natural superiority of certain races and nationalities. Using eugenics as its rationale, an act of the U.S. Congress in 1924 put a strict quota on immigration from southern and eastern Europe (Poles and Italians were considered inferior),  while banning all immigration from Asia. That law passed with overwhelming support. After 1924, immigration from Italy to the United States fell by 90 percent.

As a result of the popular acceptance of eugenics, it is estimated that 70,000 women, mostly minorities, were forcibly sterilized in the U.S. during the 20th century. Such programs continued well into the 1970s. And of course, eugenics was the logic behind the Nazi death camps.

Because popular science had been so wrong, does it  follow that science should never be trusted? Obviously not. For one thing, science eventually got it right; indeed eugenics had been long discredited in scientific circles decades before the policy of forced sterilizations was finally halted. And of course, even if the science had been true, it still would have been immoral. One could argue that the villains in the piece were the popularizers, succumbing to the temptation of promoting oversimplified views of the science in question. But that does not excuse the scientists who got it wrong in the first place.

Infallibility and authority

But the issue goes deeper than that. The fight over “follow the science” is really a fight over the reliability of authority in general. At the end of the day both those who promote science, and those who disdain it, are looking for certainty in an uncertain universe. There is an almost Calvinistic intolerance of error; one yearns for a world of black and white distinctions, where failure is not an option.

The irony is that science itself is actually based on doubt and error… and learning how to analyze and learn from our errors. It is essential to know that you do not know; awareness of our ignorance is what motivates us to work to know better and not be satisfied with what we already know. In science, failure is not an option; it is a requirement.

Science is not merely sometimes incomplete; it is, by design, always incomplete. It is precisely when the scientific work is done correctly and advances the knowledge, that it becomes obsolete. Indeed, a sign of a successful piece of science is that it pushes the field beyond the understanding that was assumed when the work began; once scientific knowledge progresses, the original work itself is no longer current. Science is in the business of making itself obsolete. In this sense, science is very different from philosophy or theology. You might study philosophy by reading your grandfather’s copy of the works of Aristotle,  but you would never study biology from your grandfather’s biology textbook.

Of course, this need to be open to mistakes is a lesson that goes beyond the world of science. To give a trivial example: when I was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology I was on the Institute’s collegiate sailing team, and for all the times I went sailing on the Charles River, I never once capsized my boat. But I also never won a race. The two are related: I never pushed my little dinghy to find the limits of how far and fast it could go before I capsized.

Learning to fail is difficult. It requires gauging the impossible balance of determining when to keep pushing an idea that just needs a little more work before it succeeds in being accepted, and knowing when it is time to admit you are wrong and look for a different solution. Edwin Hubble insisted on resisting the idea of an expanding universe; he was wrong. Ludwig Boltzmann resisted the fashionable new ideas from Mach, and instead argued for the traditional atomic theory of matter; ultimately Boltzmann was shown to be right. “New” is neither necessarily right nor necessarily wrong. But, as any poker player knows, there is no simple calculus that can make the decision for you of when to hold and when to fold.

The problem is not even one as simple as seeking more data to resolve the issue. The issue may well be that the idea in question requires a complete change in the way you understand the data. Science is not merely a description, however accurate, of what happens in the natural world. It is also a quest to understand why things happen the way they do. To be able to predict what will happen, to “get the right answer,” is not the goal in and of itself; it is merely a way of judging the accuracy of our current level of understanding.

Consider the contrast between how Ptolemy and Kepler tried to calculate the orbits of planets. Ptolemy’s system of circles within circles within circles is, in theory, capable of matching any possible planetary path if you allow yourself to add enough circles to the calculation. By contrast, Kepler’s ellipses could not themselves account for minor planetary perturbations and so they were only approximately correct. But Ptolemy’s calculations did not lead to any deeper insight into the nature of why the planets moved the way they did; indeed, it is doubtful if Ptolemy even asked that question. Kepler’s ellipses, on the other hand, helped Newton to derive his law of gravity.

You only become a scientist when you are able to look at something you thought you understood and then go, “hmm, that’s not right.” Until you can do that, you won’t even know to start looking for what went wrong. Sadly, though, that is not how we teach science. In the introductory courses at least – and how many people ever get past the introductory courses? – “success” in your science class means getting the same answer as you find in the back of the book. Addressing  such problems by rote learning  is probably the fastest way to immerse a student in  a sense of what success feels like; you have to learn to play the scales before you can play the music. But scales are not music. And getting “answers” is not science.

The difficulty is that accepting such uncertainty means also accepting the risk that comes from engaging with what is uncertain. You cannot win races without risking a capsize. But to capsize is a real, unpleasant and non-negligible risk.

Doubt and faith

There is a parallel role that doubt plays in faith. The popular religious writer Anne Lamott in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith noted that the “opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty.”[2] If we did not have doubts,  we would not need faith. But it is also the case that, as is the case with science, doubt is the essential driver that makes us keep looking for God and not being satisfied with just accepting, or rejecting, whatever we had learned when we were children. In his Dynamics of Faith, Paul Tillich wrote that the role of doubt in faith is “the doubt which accompanies every risk. It is not the permanent doubt of the scientist, and it is not the transitory doubt of the skeptic, but it is the doubt of him who is ultimately concerned about a concrete content. One could call it the existential doubt … It is aware of the element of insecurity in every existential truth.” Tillich also points out that, “Serious doubt is confirmation of faith. It indicates the seriousness of the concern, its unconditional character.”[3]

Accepting doubt, accepting the inevitability of error, also means being tolerant of other people even when they have been wrong. I still enjoy the stories of H. G. Wells; I still admire much that Oliver Wendell Holmes did as a chief justice; I still use Bell’s telephone, even as I abhor their views on eugenics. I can accept that heroes sometimes are also sinners, even serious sinners. I am a sinner, too.

Religion does not give a certain formula that guarantees salvation. Such a formalism would imply that salvation can be earned by our own behavior, rather than received as the unearned gift of a loving God. But religion can teach about the gift that has been offered, and give us a way in which we can express our acceptance of that gift.

Science does not give perfect truth. Ever more refined experiments or theories might result in more precise descriptions of nature, but an essential lesson for every student of science is to know the difference between precision and accuracy. A highly precise measurement can nonetheless be subject to a significant systematic error. And no matter how good our science is, it will always be subject,  not only to the systematic inaccuracies of our instruments but also to our human tendency  to force the data to fit our preconceptions. Any understanding that thinks of itself as perfect, is faulty; it will never seek to understand further.

But science can provide insights into how to see and recognize truth. And it can tell you the odds of success for a given formulation of that truth. We trust the vaccine not because it is perfect, but because it does vastly improve one’s odds of not getting sick. The trouble is, of course, that most of us are terrible at understanding how odds work. That is why casinos and lotteries are so successful.

Seeing how doubt plays an essential role in both science and faith, one can then appreciate that science and religion seem to be in conflict only if you neglect the role of uncertainty in each of them: if you think of both of them as closed books of rules, books of facts, each demanding total credulity. Certainty is not religion; it is fanaticism. Certainty is not science; it is scientism.

Skepticism and gnosticism

Galileo is a hero of modern science and the scientific method, and rightly so. His famous principle,  expressed in The Assayer, his treatise on the philosophy of science, is that the evidence of observation and experiment counts more than any number of sage pronouncements from the wisdom of the ages. And yet, one of the ironic insights that J. L. Heilbron makes in his recent biography of Galileo is why the famous scientist was so resistant to authority. He argues that Galileo rejected authority precisely on the authority of his father and his teachers; Galileo was a rebel against what was being taught, because he had been taught to be so!

Rebellion against authority is of course a common behavior pattern in adolescents, who are testing and defining the boundaries of their autonomy. I am reminded of a slogan I often saw on tee shirts during my own adolescence: “question authority!” My response inevitably was to ask, “says who?”

There is a further irony, of course, seen in some of the vaccine skeptics. After they announce that they are too clever to be fooled by the experts, some have started self-dosing with utterly inappropriate and dangerous drugs that they happened to read about on the internet. How does this happen? Why would anyone trust their lives to something they found on the internet? Why would we reject religion in favor of a philosophy we can read on a tee shirt?

In western society, skepticism regarding authority runs parallel to the desire for certainty discussed above. The two desires are, of course, antithetical. One cannot at the same time demand perfect truth while also rejecting any agent that asserts its authority to bring us toward that truth. What results instead is a rejection of “officially sanctioned” authority in favor of a secret source of knowledge available only to a hidden few.

And even though an idea found on a web page is, by definition, available to everyone in the entire world of the internet, the experience of discovering it by yourself on your own personal computer in the confines of your home creates the illusion that this is a private and hidden discovery, one which by its hidden nature appears to have value beyond that received via more public media. We should recognize the temptation. It is the allure of gnosticism, a desire to embrace “secret knowledge.” It is an urge that has been around since the time of the Church Fathers in the second and third century, evident since the time of the esoteric Eleusinian rites of ancient Athens. Indeed, it is the temptation of the snake in the Garden of Eden.

It is instructive to see how this desire for secret knowledge can manifest itself even among the educated. Scientists (I speak as one) and engineers are particularly tempted to think of themselves as cleverer than the rest of the world. They are, after all, highly trained at their own area of knowledge, and they can sometimes extrapolate from their experience a supposed superiority in the knowledge of all subjects. One can merely observe how the Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking would philosophize about God and the origin of the universe while insisting that he was not himself a philosopher,  implying that, as a scientist, he was better than a mere philosopher. Likewise the astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson at the American Museum of Natural History appears to have an opinion about nearly everything and an urge to share that opinion on social media, no matter how far the topic is from his realm of expertise.

But even more than scientists, engineers are especially vulnerable to a particular variant of this sense of privilege. While scientists get their sense of value from how much their ideas are accepted and cited by other scientists, and so they tend to be sensitive to what other people (or at least other scientists) think of them, an engineer’s worth depends solely on what they make. Thus engineers are not necessarily inhibited by social pressures from adopting beliefs that the rest of the world would find absurd. This can make them easy prey for the peddlers of modern forms of gnosticism.

Furthermore, engineers can often be surrounded at their work by bosses who do not really understand “the smartest guys in the room.”[4] The fact that hardly anyone else seems to share a belief in some particular bizarre idea does not surprise the engineer; it rather confirms their conviction that they are smarter than everyone else. Indeed, what is the point of being the smartest guy in the room if you merely agree with everyone else?

A particularly dangerous effect can occur when holding such fringe beliefs eventually does come to impose a cost on the believer, either in loss of social status or the loss of employment. In such a case, this perceived persecution can have the unintended effect of turning the unorthodox belief into a marker of self-identity. If your beliefs come at a high personal cost then you become so invested in your particular stance that you can never admit you were wrong. To abandon the belief in favor of what is more commonly accepted would feel like abandoning your very self.

Notice that while this tendency can be particularly acute among engineers, it is a trait found widely in western society as a whole. Again, ironically, our desire to maintain our personal identity in the face of a hostile culture is something that we in the West actually learn from that very same culture. It can be seen, as an example, in the case of a famous athlete who claims that he will “do his own research” to decide if the Covid vaccine is efficacious. More often than not this same athlete is one who scorns any expert in his own field (such as his coaches) who might have a suggestion about how he could improve his athletic abilities. This attitude reinforces his sense of “stardom,” his self-evaluation as being superior to the other people in the room.

Knowledge, worth and love

Rather than heaping scorn on those who fall prey to such urges, we can employ ourselves usefully in  looking for where these ideas come from. If we assume that scientists – or authors of the “secret” websites – deserve to be followed because they are smarter than the rest of us, then implicitly we equate “smarter” with “better.” That is at the root of the temptation to gnosticism, where one’s sense of self-worth comes from thinking that you are smarter than the average person, that you are the “smartest guy in the room.”

But consider the unspoken assumption in this evaluation, the identification of “being smarter” as a marker of personal superiority. This ought to be antithetical to Christian belief. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (11:25). Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1:17-2:7) insists that the wisdom of the Gospel looks very different from what the world considers wise. And consider whom it is we acknowledge as saints and heroes today. There were many learned theologians in 19th century Belgium and France (most of them at each other’s throats) but the saints of that era were people like Bernadette and Therese, the Little Flower.

This is not to demean theology or intelligence. After all, I write as a professional astronomer. But it does mean that cleverness cannot be correlated with “worth.” Again, this also matches my experience dealing with my fellow astronomers!

The value of whatever intelligence, education or even wisdom that we have does not lie in those attributes themselves. Whatever we do has value only insofar as it is a form of praise to our Creator. We all have our own God-given talents, academic or otherwise. Engaging them makes us more authentically the individuals God created us to be, and thus able to encounter God more fully, each in our own way. For me, astronomy happens to be the playing field where I have been given an opportunity to come to know God. Others find God in places that I cannot reach. Thus do we all find God in all things, and do all things for the greater glory of God.

Conclusion

The phrase “follow the science” fails to convince those who most need convincing, especially if it reinforces the fear that science is challenging the authority of religious faith. On the other hand, if one expects science to be a sure path to truth, then failures in science can reinforce a skepticism regarding science, while ignoring how failure in fact plays an essential role in the advance of science. And when a desire for certainty, beyond what true science can honestly offer, lives in tension with a culture of skepticism of authority, this can lead to a replacement of an appropriate appreciation of authority with a gnostic desire for secret knowledge.

I am reminded of the response to an earlier pandemic that struck our society, the HIV pandemic. The HIV disease was popularly associated with transmission during sexual activity, and so the slogan to prevent it was to practice “safe sex.” The reasoning behind the slogan made sense within the context of the disease; but like all slogans (like “follow the science”) the reality was much more complicated. To give but one obvious example, sexual activity was not the only way that the disease was transmitted. But worse, the slogan tended to reduce the nature of sexual activity to being just a vehicle for transmitting disease, and neglected the psychological and emotional vulnerabilities that are in fact at the heart of the act. Disease is not the only risk that comes with sexual activity!

At its best, sex is an act of love, and love itself is never safe. Indeed, it is not supposed to be safe. To love another person is to open oneself to the risk of rejection and betrayal. But without that risk, the act of love becomes meaningless. Jesus himself was our model for how to love, but he also showed us how loving opens us up to the risk of betrayal.

Trying to understand the universe, from astronomy to medicine, is only possible when it is a response to love. Doing science depends on loving even the unlovable tedium of careful study; trusting even when trust in our scientific progress is uncertain; being willing to forgive and learn even from those who have gone wrong in the past. Loving means living with uncertainty, even as we learn to trust.

So how can we live with the uncertainty of disease, the fallibility of science, the fear of losing our own personal autonomy that comes from trusting the work of others? We respond the same way we always respond to the invitation of love from our fellow human beings,  with both caution and boldness. When we are given the opportunity to love, we know that this love will inevitably fail at times; and indeed, we in turn will sometimes fail in our ability to love. We are all fallen humans. Nonetheless, we know that an imperfect love is still far preferable to a life with no love at all.

But we also know to take sensible precautions! We neither reject love, nor do we rush into it blindly. Even if we enjoy the special love that comes from a committed monogamous relationship,  we also continue to rely on a community of friends and family, including our church, who will be there to support us at moments of crisis within our principal  relationship. That is one of the reasons why public ceremonies such as the exchange of vows before our friends and family are so important. And we also recognize that such crisis moments can often be steps to a deeper and more perfect love.

In the same way, we know that trusting science means putting our trust in a beautiful but fallible branch of wisdom. We do not give total and blind trust to any one aspect of “science” alone (including that found by our own efforts, on the internet or elsewhere). We accept the vaccine, yes; but we also maintain social distancing, appropriate hygiene, the wearing of masks, and so forth.

The reality of human fallibility, the consequence of original sin, is both a reason to fear and an opportunity to rejoice. We rejoice that science, for all its flaws, does nonetheless give us far better odds of living healthy lives. We rejoice that we have been given by God the capability of understanding and appreciating His creation through our science in ever more profound ways. We rejoice that even in the face of the most serious challenges and temptations, love can triumph.

And this exercise can also be a way of recognizing the same dynamics in our Church, where the Spirit can guide us, but we fallible members too often fail to heed that guidance. With every failure comes an opportunity to learn. And with every success comes the recognition that God can act through us. Precisely because no success is certain, we can glory all the more in every success that does occur.

After all, the only certain thing in life is God’s love and mercy… and our need for both.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.2 art. 1, 0222: 10.32009/22072446.0222.2

[1] T. H. Warren, “How Covid Raised the Stakes of the War Between Faith and Science”, New York Times, November 7, 2021.

[2] A. Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, New York, Riverhead, 2004.

[3] P. Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, New York, Harper and Row, 1957.

[4] Cf. B. McLean – P. Elkind, The Smartest Guys in the Room, London, Penguin Books, 2004.

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