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Adam and the Genome
Reading Scripture after Genetic Science
By Dennis R. Venema, Scot Mcknight
Baker Publishing GroupCopyright © 2017 Dennis R. Venema and Scot McKnight
All rights reserved.
Evolution as a Scientific Theory
I (Dennis) grew up in a small town in northern British Columbia, Canada. As a child, I spent a lot of time out in the woods with my father and older brother, hunting and fishing. It was there that I first developed a sense of wonder about the natural world and a desire to understand it better. When we cleaned a fish or a grouse, we examined its stomach contents to see what it had been feeding on. While my father fished for salmon, I puttered in the shallows and back eddies, catching minnows and aquatic insects with a net. At home, I concocted potions and brews from whatever household chemicals I could find. While other kids wanted to be policemen and firefighters, I wanted to be a scientist. Real science, as I understood it from my private-Christian-school workbooks, matched up perfectly with what God said about creation in his Word. "Darwin" and "evolution" were evil, of course — things that atheist scientists believed despite their overwhelming flaws, because those scientists had purposefully blinded their eyes to the truth. I distinctly remember that even hearing those words said out loud felt like hearing someone curse, and not mildly.
My interest in science continued as I moved over to the local public high school, though, ironically, I found biology to be a dreadful bore compared with physics and chemistry. Those subjects required that I learn and apply principles, rather than slavishly memorize. Biology seemed to have no organizing principle behind it, whereas the others did: understand an atom, and you understand chemistry; understand how forces and matter work, and you understand physics. Biology? Here, memorize this laundry list of facts. No thanks.
Living in a small town also meant that I did not know any scientists beyond the ones I saw on TV Thus I couldn't really picture science as a career, despite my youthful ambitions. My friends didn't want to be firemen or policemen anymore either, and "scientist" seemed to be as whimsical as those aspirations had been. I had, however, spent two summers on short-term missions trips, and I thought that perhaps becoming a doctor would be a good choice for a career that could be useful in the mission field. I had good grades, so medical school seemed like a viable option. So off to university I went to study biology, because a degree in biology seemed like a good way to prepare to be a doctor. My family explored the possibility of my attending a Christian university, but it was more than we could afford. So a secular university it was, and I braced myself for what would surely be a trial for my faith. One Sunday our church prayed for and "commissioned" us graduates as we went off to university or Bible college. Our pastor thanked God for those headed for the safe confines of further Christian training, and prayed that those of us headed to secular settings would not lose our faith in the process.
I must admit that I did not like my first two years of study. Again, memorization seemed to be the order of the day, and every so often the "evolution thing" would come up. Thankfully, evolution was mentioned only infrequently and easily ignored. Still, I wasn't doing that well, and biology seemed to be as boring as it had been in high school. I doubted my grades would be enough for the hypercompetitive medical school application process. But in my third year, I turned a corner. Having struggled through the basic introductory courses, I was finally getting into more interesting material where understanding principles was more important than memorizing details. Cell biology and genetics were especially interesting. I decided I wanted to earn an honors degree and write a research thesis. Why I thought this would be a good idea, given my lackluster performance to that point, I do not recall. Still, I found a professor willing to take me on, and I eagerly started working in her lab.
It changed everything. I was working on an open scientific question, one without a canned textbook answer. To address the question, I needed to understand the principles of developmental cell biology, genetics, and how gene products work at the molecular level. I was designing experiments to test hypotheses, and troubleshooting them to get them to work properly.
For the first time I was doing real science, and I was hooked.
Not surprisingly, my grades improved dramatically. At last I was being graded on my ability to think like a scientist, rather than regurgitate textbooks. While I had been worried that my average was too low for medical school, my last two years more than made up for my slow start. I had the grades for medical school now, but I had lost the desire. I didn't even bother applying, but rather signed up for a PhD program in genetics and cell biology directly out of my bachelor's degree. My childhood dreams were coming true, and I was as happy as a kid on a field trip to the fire hall.
Just a Theory
I later came to understand why biology suddenly came alive to me in the lab, and why up to that point it had seemed so dull. What had been missing was what I had glimpsed in high school chemistry and physics: underlying principles that gave order and cohesion to a body of facts. For me, it meant exploring biological theories of genetic inheritance and development, and understanding the details (facts) in light of those organizing structures (theories). Once I understood the theories, the facts were no longer unconnected details to be memorized: the facts made sense.
At this point we need to clarify some terminology: "theory" in common usage unfortunately means almost the opposite of what a scientist means by it. In common usage, it means something like "guess" or "conjecture." In science, however, it means anything but. In science, a theory is an explanatory framework for why the facts are the way they are. Theories are not developed overnight — on the contrary, they are the products of a long process of making observations, forming hypotheses, and testing those hypotheses with experiments.
Perhaps an analogy will help. When my children were younger, they liked to play a game called "Guess Who?" In this game, both players have a card with various characters on them, from whom they select one. The object of the game is to guess the character the other player has chosen. Each player takes turns asking questions to try to narrow down the options, questions such as "Is your character a boy or a girl?," "Does your character have glasses?," and so on. The initial guesses are just that, guesses. As the game proceeds, however, one begins to have a better-informed guess since some options have been eliminated. And once you've guessed correctly, every question you ask will be answered as you expect it to be.
A scientific theory is formed by a similar process. It starts with a guess of sorts — perhaps an educated guess, based on prior observations. It looks to the available facts and asks why the facts are the way they are. The result is a hypothesis — the technical term for "educated guess." A scientist can use that hypothesis to form a prediction: if this is why things are the way they are, then such and such should be the case. Then an experiment can be set up to test the prediction, and the result will either support or fail to support the hypothesis. If the prediction is not supported, a scientist will reject the hypothesis. If the prediction is supported by the experiment, the scientist will fail to reject the hypothesis. Note that this is not the same as "accepting" the hypothesis — an important distinction within science. Accepting a hypothesis would mean that no further tests would be required. This would make as much sense as deciding, on the basis of one or two correct guesses in the guessing game, that one had discovered the character one's opponent had selected. Not so — future tests may show that our hypothesis is not perfectly accurate. Sure, the character is female with a hat and glasses, but she doesn't have a purple scarf. Well, then, it's time to readjust the hypothesis in light of the new evidence.
In science, a hypothesis that is not rejected after many, many predictions and tests eventually becomes a broad explanatory framework that has withstood repeated experimentation and that makes accurate predictions about the natural world: in other words, a theory The term "hypo" comes from the Greek for "less than," and "thesis" is another word for "theory." So "hypothesis" simply means "less than a theory" If a hypothesis withstands the trial of repeated experimentation, eventually it becomes a thesis — a theory.
Good theories, then, are close approximations of how the natural world actually works. Scientists don't ever fully "accept" them as "true" or "proven," but many theories in science are so well established that it is highly unlikely that new evidence will substantially modify them. The chromosomal theory of inheritance and the germ theory of disease are examples of such theories: the evidence supporting them is huge, and every new technology that scientists have developed to study either one continues to support them — though they have been revised and improved in the process. "Just a theory," then, is high praise from a scientific viewpoint — there is nothing better in science. A good theory, since it is a very close approximation of what is actually true, is very useful for making predictions about the natural world. Moreover, it provides a logical framework for making sense of current data — something that my high school biology experience lacked.
Science, Falsely So Called
Even though scientists know what they mean by the word "theory," nonscientists can be forgiven for thinking it means "relatively uninformed guess." We've all read headlines about scientific discoveries that "overturn previous theories" and "change everything we thought we knew." The truth is, these headlines are misleading and are often more the result of journalists looking for a catchy headline rather than accurately representing a new scientific finding. Often, the scientists themselves are eager to portray their work as novel and exciting, and so aid and abet the journalists. "Incremental advancement to a large body of prior knowledge!" just doesn't sell papers in the same way.
Another confounding issue is that often the topic is dietary science. One day cholesterol is bad; the next day it's fine. One day tomatoes are linked to cancer; the next day they've been shown to prevent cancer. (I'm not actually making these claims, of course — the point is that we've all seen headlines like these, many times over.) Why can't scientists make up their minds? It looks, for all intents and purposes, like they're just guessing. This sort of thing makes science look pretty wishy-washy — and leads many Christians to think that they're better off sticking to the plain truth of the Bible. There is a good reason why these news stories crop up so frequently: they naturally have a strong interest for the average person in ways that many areas of science don't. You don't as often see news stories on genetics or particle physics, unless something about a new finding is particularly interesting to average people. Dietary research is naturally interesting to everyone, since we all want to know how to lose weight and stay healthy.
Unfortunately, dietary science is one of the most challenging types of science to do well, and a lot of it is not performed to a high standard. Throw in an overeager, self-promoting researcher and a journalist on a deadline, and it is not surprising we get what we get in our Facebook feeds. One of the main challenges for this type of research is that it is difficult to exclude potential confounding variables: Are the two groups of research subjects as similar as they can be? Not likely Has the research been properly scrutinized by experts in the field before being published? Perhaps not. Are the results shocking and therefore newsworthy? Press release!
One study that beautifully reveals the challenges and problems with this type of research and its subsequent news cycle came to light recently It's not surprising that this study gained international attention; after all, it showed that eating chocolate was a way to lose weight!
"Slim by Chocolate!" the headlines blared. A team of German researchers had found that people on a low-carb diet lost weight 10 percent faster if they ate a chocolate bar every day. It made the front page of Bild, Europe's largest daily newspaper, just beneath their update about the Germanwings crash. From there, it ricocheted around the internet and beyond, making news in more than 20 countries and half a dozen languages. It was discussed on television news shows. It appeared in glossy print, most recently in the June issue of Shape magazine ("Why You Must Eat Chocolate Daily," page 128). Not only does chocolate accelerate weight loss, the study found, but it leads to healthier cholesterol levels and overall increased well-being. The Bild story quotes the study's lead author, Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D., research director of the Institute of Diet and Health: "The best part is you can buy chocolate everywhere."
Before you get your hopes up and dash off to the store with a newly cleansed conscience, I've got some bad news: the study shows nothing of the kind. In fact, the real experiment was to see if a weak study with obvious flaws could be published and grab public attention. In other words, its actual purpose was to see how easy it was to game the "dietary science" news cycle, as the lead author of the study revealed after the fact:
I am Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D. Well, actually my name is John, and I'm a journalist. I do have a Ph.D., but it's in the molecular biology of bacteria, not humans. The Institute of Diet and Health? That's nothing more than a website. Other than those fibs, the study was 100 percent authentic. My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany. We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes. And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data. It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research. Which is to say: It was terrible science. The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.
Reading Dr. Bohannon's full account of this "study" is well worth your time, since it reveals just how easy it was to pull off this stunt. The secret to "success" in this case was using a small number of test subjects and examining them for a large number of traits (cholesterol levels, weight gain, general feelings of happiness, and so on). With this experimental design, it is highly probable that at least a few statistically significant differences between the two groups (groups on a low-carbohydrate diet either with or without a small serving of dark chocolate) would be found. Those differences, however, are due to chance alone. Every claim of statistical significance is based on rejecting the probability of it being a fluke. Test enough variables with a small number of subjects, however, and eventually you'll find, by chance alone, a few variables that show "significance." In this case, a small chance fluctuation in weight and cholesterol levels in the right group was what gave the needed results and led to the subsequent rapturous headlines. Now, the peer reviewers of a high-quality scientific journal would easily catch those flaws — but Dr. Bohannon didn't submit his paper to a good journal. Rather, he submitted it to one that any working scientist would immediately recognize as a poor one, even one likely to be a solely-for-profit publisher — the scientific equivalent of a vanity press. In fact, it seems the paper wasn't peer reviewed at all. But that didn't matter: the media fell for it anyway. What surprised Dr. Bohannon was just how readily the media lapped it up. He had suspected that the diet-science, news-hype cycle was uncritically pushing bad science, but even he wasn't prepared for just how easy the process was.
So it's not surprising that many people may have a low view of science; the "science" they see in the newspaper day to day is always changing and constantly contradicting itself. The reason for this unfortunate pattern is simple: it's not rigorous science, and it's being reported by gullible and uninformed journalists. That's not to say that there aren't scientists out there doing careful work in nutrition science and slowly advancing our knowledge base in this important area. Surely they must pull out their hair at the sorts of poor studies that hit the news cycle. Moreover, there are journalists out there who handle science well — such as Dr. Bohannon himself. Typically, they have advanced scientific training as well as a gift for writing for nonspecialists. Unfortunately, they are few and far between.
Excerpted from Adam and the Genome by Dennis R. Venema, Scot Mcknight. Copyright © 2017 Dennis R. Venema and Scot McKnight. Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
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