I believe in the Gospel + state science

I had a circular e-mail from BioLogos recently, asking me to sign a statement about Christians supporting Science during the COVID epidemic. Yesterday I got a personalised mailing from Jim Stump noting that I hadn’t yet signed it.

Being of an inquisitive bent (isn’t that what science is about?) I wondered just what purpose this statement is supposed to serve. The associated blurb seemed, on the one hand to be about showing solidarity with science against “misinformation” and “conspiracy theories.”

On the other, it said how many prominent Christians had signed this statement, including people like N. T. Wright. Now, I’m quite a fan of N. T. Wright, but he’s a New Testament scholar and historian, not a scientist, so is unqualified to decide what constitutes misinformation in science. Likewise, when I was active at BioLogos I tended to be the “medical man” in most discussions, and other doctors (that is those with some professional experience in virology, epidemiology, etc) were quite thin on the ground. So few of the signatories are likely to be well versed in the medical sciences.

So it seems BioLogos is not aiming at harnessing any particular medical expertise, but just in signing up Christians who support whatever particular view of “science” the statement is putting forward, whether scientifically trained or not. In other words, it is intended as some kind of “lobby” that trusts the authority of this science (whatever it may be) alongside the other authorities of Christianity, such as the Bible.

That leads me to ask firstly just what the statement means by “science” with reference to COVID-19, and secondly who or what it is lobbying for. It seems from the references to “misinformation” and “conspiracy theories,” both terms widely adopted by the press and social media, that “science” means “the particular scientific positions adopted by government scientific advisers and the political policies arising therefrom.” In other words what H. M. Government spoke of as “following the science” in the early days of COVID, which many of the SAGE scientists involved now say was exactly what they weren’t doing.

So the statement really seems to mean “The undersigned Christians accept the authority of the government and its advisors in its whole policy on COVID and its management.” And in my book, that is not what “support for science” is about. If it’s science, it is not consensus and if it’s a consensus, it isn’t science, especially when the “consensus” is arrived at by politicans, journalists and social media, reinforced by a purposefully terrified population.

To give a concrete example or two, since the beginning of the pandemic the British government has based its policy on the epidemiological modelling of Imperial College. But epidemiologists at Oxford, equally qualified, have rejected those models’ fitness from the start, and at least one of them believes the pandemic has effectively been over for weeks. So far, Oxford’s predictions have been closer to the data, and Imperial’s look increasingly strained. Why is the “misinformation” more predictive than the “information,” and which is “science”?

Then take that controversial business of hydroxychloroquine. A good number of genuine physicians have found this safe and cheap drug helpful, but “official” opinion not only disagrees, but assassinates the character of those doctors, even striking them off occasionally, and forbids physicians to prescribe the drug as if it were a lethal quack cancer cure rather than a long-established medication with known efficacy against viruses in the literature. The reason for this over the top response from the scientific community appears to be nothing more than that President Trump advocated it.

Meanwhile, the two most major recent studies disproving its efficacy in COVID – one in the New England Journal of Medicine and one in the Lancet – have proven to be not just erroneous, but totally fraudulent, a fact somehow not spotted at peer-review. So in this case, the decision as to what is “sound science” and what is “misinformation” appears to be at best a political prejudice, and maybe something worse. There are occasions when it might be quite scientific to suspect a conspiracy, at least as a hypothesis to be tested dispassionately.

So the last question – what lobby such a statement of support for current COVID policy would benefit – seems to be rather important. Broadly speaking the U.S. Democratic Party stands foursquare behind lockdown, universal vaccination and so on, whereas the Republican President Trump, standing for re-election, has expressed significant reservations not about science itself, but about the state-sponsored science that has been responsible for policy decisions. It is therefore not beyond the bounds of possibility, shortly before a US general election, that the statement is intended to say “Thinking sciencey Christians support the Democrats on COVID, and so should you.”

Now it’s true that academia in America reflexly votes Democrat as much as in Britain it reflexes votes socialist, and as far as I have seen Christian academics generally follow the herd on both sides of the Atlantic. As a recent Times article found, 75% of British academics are left-leaning, and most of the rest are afraid of speaking their true beliefs for fear of censure or worse. But let’s not pretend that has anything to do with the nature of science, nor Christianity – it has to do with politics and institutionalized political ideology.

Science is supposed to be about following the evidence where it leads whoever is presenting it, and more importantly about resisting arguments from authority on principle. And what is the influence of a statement signed by a few thousand self-selected Christians but an argument from authority? I honestly don’t think that most BioLogos members know as much about medical science as I do, nor that they have examined and compared the evidence on COVID as much.

But there is another possible purpose for this position statement, to my way of thinking, and that is to put a lot of clear water between BioLogos and other Christians who have expressed doubts about aspects of COVID policy and the scientific opinion (rather than rigorous research) informing it.

Regular readers here will know how frustrating I have found it trying to get Christians I know to look beyond the superficial presentation of facts we get from the media not only about the pandemic, but about other pressing issues like identity politics. I know from commenters and correspondents here that many others in Britain, America and elsewhere have experienced the same. It is, I have often complained, left to secular commentators whether conservative, or libertarian, left-leaning or right-leaning, straight or gay, black or white, working class or profoundly academic, to sense that something is not right about the dominant “science of COVID.”

A Daily Telegraph article yesterday quoted a “dissident” from Oxford’s prestigious Centre for Evidence Based Medicine, and the comments following, often well informed on research evidence, were overwhelmingly supportive of his arguments against continued lockdowns. But they were not obviously Christian, apart from those few bemoaning their ongoing inability to meet for worship, especially Anglicans whose bishops totally closed down the churches at the first opportunity in March.

The only well-publicized situation I’m aware of, in which Christians have spoken up loudly against COVID restrictions, is the single US case of John MacArthur’s Grace Church, whose recommencement of communal worship against the Californian Governor’s edict is going through the courts at the moment.

Now in that case, the core of their case is the issue of constitutional civil liberty, and any critique of the “received wisdom” on science is secondary to the denial of their right to free religious association. The last I heard (yesterday) a higher court has agreed that banning public worship is indeed unconstitutional.

BioLogos, though, it seems to me, is aiming at undermining MacArthur’s stance on this, and saying in effect, “Disobeying the governor’s edict is unscientific, and good Christians will oppose their example and support unconstitutional state policy because Science TM .”

In other words, this statement is not intended so much to show that thinking Christians support science, but that they support governments, and oppose other Christians with a different understanding of the science, and a different attitude to state control. It smacks of the same attitude I found throughout my ten years at BioLogos, in which they supported “evolutionary science right or wrong” against the various ID and Creationist people whom they ought to have seen as their brethren in Christ ahead of any intellectual commitments.

You may remember that on at least one major issue – the impossibility of the historicity of Adam and Eve – I and particularly Joshua Swamidass, via Genealogical Adam and Eve, showed that stance to be wrong genealogically. And Josh also, in work with others like Prof Richard Buggs, showed it to be wrong genetically as well, at least to some degree.

As you may have gathered by now, I’ve no intention of signing this declaration. And no doubt that places me among the misinformers and conspiracy theorists which all the establishment institutions – now including BioLogos – agree to be the real threat to science, rather than state and corporate corruption of science, the replication crisis, institutionally poor use of models and statistics, and so on. So be it.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Politics and sociology, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to I believe in the Gospel + state science

  1. Peter Hickman says:

    Well said, Jon.

    Incidentally, I have noticed that your blogs receive fewer comments these days than previously.
    That cannot be a reflection on the quality of your writing which continues to be relevant, interesting and informative (and sometimes entertaining).
    Presumably there are many, like myself, who read everything you write but often don’t have anything salient to say. There is no point in commenting for commenting’s sake.
    If WordPress provided a ‘Like’ option similar to Facebook I would have used it numerous times simply to let you know I was engaging at least to some extent.
    Anyhow, lest you should feel like a lone voice crying in the wilderness let me encourage you, if you need encouraging, to keep up the good work!

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Peter

      Comments were usually relatively thin on the ground anyway without the “conversation” software of somewhere like BioLogos or Peaceful Science. On the other hand, the blog format at least means people comment on the articles rather than getting into endless debates about whether God exists!

      In fact, I’ve noticed that the number of hits for recent articles, which gives a better clue to genuine readers than the overall numbers, contrary to the impression due to comments, have been rising significantly over the months. So I’m well pleased.

      The other factor that I take into account is that I’m writing less about biology/theology/origins and more about sociology and current affairs. Quite possibly the demographic of readers will have shifted because of that.

      In any case, thanks for your encouragement. There’s always a danger, on dark nights, of thinking that one is shouting into the wind!

  2. Elizabeth B. says:

    Jon,
    As Peter says, there is often nothing to add. Also, personally, life takes over and lately I am lucky to read anything, let alone comment.

    Your writing is phenomenal.

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