Reconciling With Science

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Chalice Lighting

What do you believe?
Do you believe in the tooth fairy?
Father Christmas?
Miracles?
Turmeric?
Whatever you do and don’t believe
By the glow of this flame,
Let us believe in the power of love to bring understanding among us
And let us trust that love is the true path toward justice

Reading: Words by Albert Einstein

The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience
is the sensation of the mystical.
It is the sower of all true science.
He to whom this emotion is a stranger,
who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe,
is as good as dead.
To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists,
manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty,
which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms -
this knowledge, this feeling,
is at the center of true religion.

Message Part 1 by Rev Andy Pakula

Some very old photographs turned up recently in my family. My aunt was moving out of the house she had lived in for a very long time and boxes and boxes of these old prints were uncovered. Lots of them were of my cousins but - as our families were very close - there were plenty that included my sister, my parents, and me.

One of those took me back to my childhood. I was probably about 7 or 8 years old. I was wearing a gold-coloured velour jumper. I can remember it now and how it felt - all velvety and soft. It was special to me and I probably wore it as often as I was allowed. In the photograph, on top of the jumper, I was wearing a long necklace that reached halfway down my torso. Seeing it, I remembered exactly what it was. My grandmother had brought it back from her travels in Europe. It was a black and gold medallion on a gold-coloured chain. It probably wasn’t meant for a child and almost certainly not for a boy, but it became mine somehow.

I remember it so strongly because that medallion was magic. I was not a particularly happy child. I was overweight, too smart, bad at sports, and generally unpopular. I was teased and picked on. If I could have verbalised it then, I might have said that life felt out of my control. There was nothing I could imagine doing to make it better. But the magic medallion - maybe that could help. I don’t think it did anything except that it made me feel a little bit better - a little bit more in control, a little bit more like things would work out.

Later, I started to learn about science. I eventually became a fully-fledged scientist with a doctorate and publications and all. Often, people will assume I must be very knowledgeable about science - that I must know why the sky is blue, how nuclear power works, and how birds can fly.

I don’t really. Like most PhDs, I learned a tremendous amount about a tremendously narrow area of reality. I can tell you a great deal about one particular protein made by one particular virus that infects one particular kind of bacterium. I can tell you how what I know about that protein can be generalised to some other proteins - a minimally less narrow field.

But the most general thing I learned in being a scientist was a wariness about claims being pushed as truth. I am skeptical until I know that there is good strong evidence. Magic medallions don’t really fit with that outlook.

The term ‘evidence-based’ has become popular lately. There is evidence-based medicine, evidence-based policing, and evidence-based practice in a range of fields like social work, psychology, education, nursing, economics, and even architecture. I hear ‘evidence-based’ being used like it’s a new thing and I want to shout ‘what the heck have you been basing it on before this?!?!?!’ How have you decided how to educate our children and treat patients?

Sometimes, the answer to my irate question is tradition. Sometimes it’s habit. Sometimes it’s a few stories that people told of events that were inspiring or surprising - that seemed to suggest something worked but didn’t rise to the level of anything like evidence.

Does the milk go into the cup first or the hot tea? If you thing one way or the other is the right way, can you answer why? Starve a cold - feed a fever. Or the other way around. Is either true? Sometimes the stories are reinforced by people who have a strong interest in you believing they are true.

We’ve seen this in politics. It’s always been true but much more so now. Social media has given various entities the ability to fill our environment with messages that aren’t true - messages that serve their own agendas. They may want to weaken Europe or the US, they may hate foreigners, they may want changes that will enrich them and their friends, they may want power. This is the part of the message where I am hesitant - it’s because I may deny the reality of something you believe to be true. I may declare that something you do is based on weak or no evidence.

To start with, vaccines do not cause autism. Conclusive studies have been performed and show no causative connection between vaccines and autism. Today, measles is breaking out in Europe and people are dying from it. It is because a large number of people have believed anti-vaxxer propaganda and refused to have their children vaccinated. Meanwhile, turmeric, ginger, apricot pits, and macrobiotic and alkaline diets do not cure cancer.

And homeopathy. This one probably makes me more angry than any of the others since the NHS spent millions on it and gave it credibility. Homeopathy consists of bits of stuff diluted so far that there are zero molecules of anything but water and sugar in a dose. Homeopathy has been studied and has no impact beyond what sugar water alone does. The only real effects it has are to put money in the pockets of homoeopaths and shops that sell these cures and worse - to cause people to delay or forgo entirely real, proven, evidence-based treatments that could help them or even save their lives. In 2010, people staged a homeopathy overdose protest at Boots shops. They took huge amounts of homeopathy remedies - including homeopathic sleeping pills. What happened? No one died. No one got sick. And no one fell asleep. Nothing!

There is little or no evidence that organic food is better for you than the other stuff. The label ‘natural’ means almost nothing except that long words are avoided in the ingredients. Everything has chemicals. Natural sugar is still sugar. Coconut oil is really bad for you. I could go on and I’d like to but I think the point is clear: we are surrounded by evidence-free products, advice, and belief. For some of it, the only risk is that we waste our money. For others, we risk our health.

Reading: My creed, by Robert G. Ingersoll

To love justice, to long for the right,
to love mercy,
to pity the suffering, to assist the weak,
to forget wrongs and remember benefits,
to love the truth, to be sincere,
to utter honest words, to love liberty,
to wage relentless war
against slavery in all its forms,
to love family and friend,
to make a happy home,
to love the beautiful in art, in nature,
to cultivate the mind,
to be familiar with the mighty thoughts
that genius has expressed,
the noble deeds of all the world;
to cultivate courage and cheerfulness,
to make others happy,
to fill life with the splendor of generous acts,
the warmth of loving words;
to discard error, to destroy prejudice,
to receive new truths with gladness,
to cultivate hope,
to see the calm beyond the storm,
the dawn beyond the night,
to do the best that can be done
and then be resigned.
This is the religion of reason,
the creed of science.
This satisfies the brain and the heart.

Message Part 2 by Rev Andy Pakula

We are surrounded by false messages - in politics, products, and advice. Why do we believe them? The creators and transmitters of those messages are really really good at taking advantage of our natural tendencies to believe. Our minds are wired to take in everything we hear. We only evaluate its truth or falseness later. It all gets in. If we hear it enough and maybe someone we know believes it, we tend to start to believe it. It could be true, it could be a conspiracy theory, it could be medical quackery.

Trained in science, as I am, I am more skeptical than the average person. I want to know where the information comes from, what the evidence is, and what motive someone might have for spreading it.

And, yet I still find myself wanting to believe things that are not evidence-based. I want to believe that justice will keep on increasing in our world. I want to believe that the right-wing nationalism sweeping the US, parts of Europe, and elsewhere will disappear. I even notice that I want to believe that some food or herb will improve my health in some way that medicine does not know about. This longing is part of a bigger narrative: I want to believe that the natural world is on our side - that the universe is not uncaring about what happens to me and to us.

The world contains absolutely splendid beauty and wonders and some of it happens to also be good for us in various ways. We should celebrate those things in ways that delight us. The natural world is also horrible - there are devastating natural poisons, earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, hurricanes, tidal waves, and the reality that almost every animal on earth has to kill to survive. The universe is not benevolent nor is it out to get us. The truth is that the universe does not care either way about me or us. Nature did not evolve to look out for our health and well-being. Natural does not equal good.

And justice and nationalism and all the things we care about will not happen on their own. Yes, that is a hard truth that we must accept. It is not true, as many people like to say, that everything happens for a reason. This reality is also empowering. Instead of being planned and preordained, the future is up to us: we human beings have the responsibility and the power to make the future we want to see. It is not preordained. The universe doesn’t have a plan. A deity doesn’t control it. It is in our hands and all those young ones who come after us with their hope and strength. Together, let us continue to build a world of ever-greater love and justice.

Closing Words

The universe is not looking out for us
Our dreams will not be realised on their own
We have the responsibility and the power
The future is in our hands
Let us celebrate the wonders and beauty of this world
And, together, create the better future to come
May it be so