Reflections on science, defensive behavior – and Easter. Part II. The good news.

(Physicist Tom McLeish’s quote and eleven others in a similar vein can be found on that well-known religious website – where else? – BuzzFeed.)

“…The best defense of science is pointing out all the positives we’ve accomplished…”John Plodinec

(In his comment to yesterday’s LOTRW post, John Plodinec made my speech! More below…)


As matters now stand, two April 22 events – Earth Day and The March for Science – promise something of a somber, defensive vibe. Such defensiveness feeds on itself; it’s self-perpetuating, self-defeating. And it’s far too evident in today’s polarized discourse. This growing negativism is bad for scientists, for political leaders, and the public – and indeed the world.

And it’s also unwarranted. Maybe it’s because Earth Day and the March for Science happen to be near Passover/Easter, but it feels as if we could all afford to be a bit more celebratory – and, by implication, a little less defensive.

To get a feel for this, let’s consider how far we’ve come. Circa 200 B.C., the state of science, the state of the Judeo-Christian faith, and the conditions and prospects of Mediterranean peoples left much to be desired. Those living back then might have been forgiven for a bit of cynicism and pessimism about both science and faith – not dissimilar from some attitudes today. Science of the time was founded on introspection vs. evidence. The physician Galen concluded the function of the heart was to heat the body. Aristotle had decided porcupines threw their quills. Most people, including Aristotle and others, were still doing no more than attempting to refine Empedocles’ centuries-old idea that matter was composed of four elements – earth, water, air and fire – along with some forces he called love and strife thrown in as responsible for mixing things up. Though Democritus had put forth an idea of small, indivisible fundamental particles he called atoms, it would be centuries before his idea would begin to take hold. (There was also this guy Eratosthenes – but we’ll come back to him in a moment.)

Talk about false facts.

So much for science. What about religion? In 50 B.C., the Roman Empire and its paganism were widespread and well. And to be a Jew about this time was to experience oppression of every form and degree. Start with the dictatorial Jewish state, itself under the thumb the even more odious Romans. Step out of line? You could expect cruel punishment – up to and including excruciatingly painful death by crucifixion. Jewish religious leaders themselves were often little better – carrying rigid legalism and hypocrisy to such extremes that their very name – Pharisees – became a metaphor epitomizing such behavior. The Pharisees were the most favored in this life; everything they taught made it clear they would also be the most favored in the next. People were waiting for a promised Messiah, who would come to improve things. But “improve things” meant military overthrow of the hated Romans.

Everyone was defensive.

What’s happened to science and religion since?

Let’s start with Eratosthenes. From Wikipedia, we learn that: Eratosthenes of Cyrene c. 276 BC – c. 195/194 BC was a Greek mathematician, geographer, poet, astronomer, and music theorist. He was a man of learning, becoming the chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria. He invented the discipline of geography, including the terminology used today.

 He is best known for being the first person to calculate the circumference of the Earth, which he did by applying a measuring system using stadia, a standard unit of measure during that time period. His calculation was remarkably accurate. He was also the first to calculate the tilt of the Earth’s axis (again with remarkable accuracy). Additionally, he may have accurately calculated the distance from the Earth to the Sun and invented the leap day. He created the first map of the world, incorporating parallels and meridians based on the available geographic knowledge of his era…

 Eratosthenes was the beginning of a trend that would revolutionize science, and with it, the human prospect. In calculating the size of the Earth, he didn’t rely on introspection. He used a little math and a little experiment to guide his thought process. The idea would catch fire. Ever since, science has continued to prove self-correcting.

Fast forward.

In commenting on the previous LOTRW post, John Plodinec stated correctly that “…The best defense of science is pointing out all the positives we’ve accomplished…”

One little problem with John’s idea – it’s impossible to capture in just a few words all of today’s myriad positives. So I hope he’ll accept a friendly amendment. My plan had been to collect just a few samples from Good Friday’s news. The Washington Post reported (on the inside pages of the print edition) two breakthroughs: The first? a new application of the CRISPR technique. From the article:

The controversial laboratory tool known as CRISPR may have found a whole new world to conquer. Already the favored method of editing genes, CRISPR could soon become a low-cost diagnostic tool that could be used practically anywhere to determine if someone has an infectious disease such as Zika or dengue.

 CRISPR — which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats — is basically a bacterial immune system that uses “molecular scissors” to snip away genetic material from invasive viruses. Early in this decade, researchers figured out how to exploit the natural system to craft a relatively cheap, remarkably easy-to-use technology for editing genetic codes almost as readily as using a word processor to revise a paragraph.

A second Washington Post article explained that a NASA space probe had detected conditions from volcanism on Saturn’s moon Enceladus that made it perhaps the Solar System’s most promising site for life outside Earth itself. And speaking of NASA, Berrien Moore and Sean Crowell, writing in The Conversation, explained how a NASA satellite will enable us to “watch Earth breathe” from space.

Meanwhile, this from the AMS Front Page blog, a bit of forensic meteorology:

A one-two punch inside intense Hurricane Felix in 2007 turned a NOAA hurricane hunter flight into a harrowing rollercoaster ride, causing the mission to be aborted. A study of the extreme event, scheduled for publication in the next issue of Monthly Weather Review, determined a small-scale vortex known as a misocyclone rotating within the Category 5 hurricane’s eyewall is likely what bucked the plane upward nearly a thousand feet before sending it plunging back to its original altitude in less than a minute. The feature is similar to what nearly crashed the same plane inside Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Just the merest sampling from an ordinary day in 21st-century science. There’ll be comparable headlines tomorrow. Were Galen, Aristotle, Empedocles, Democritus, and Eratosthenes alive today – were Galileo and Newton alive, for that matter – their jaws would drop to see where their work has led. Science has transformed from a frail, largely personal activity into a powerful, unstoppable, and largely positive society-wide force.

Science? Cause for celebration!

How about religion?

Enter Jesus into the world of Romans and Pharisees. Today the tendency for some is to consider that no such person ever existed, or, if he did, that he was at best a genial rabbi, a good teacher, not especially bright. But that would be unscientific. To the people of the time, he was very real, scarily and thrillingly real. He was the smartest person they’d ever seen – way smarter than the most educated Pharisees, confuting them daily. And he made extraordinary claims that were both comforting and terrifying – that he was the son of God; that when he was near the kingdom of God itself was very near; that He could offer love, peace of mind and rest that completely transcended the political and military powers and dysfunction and evil of the day.

He not only talked the talk but walked the walk. He acted with authority. He read thoughts and motives. He healed and cast out demons and quieted the winds and the waves. He despised and condemned hypocritical or legalistic behavior (i.e., everything Pharisaic) but he loved everyone – the most common, the outcasts – lepers, Roman soldiers, Samaritans, women, tax collectors (especially poignant this and every April), and even the Pharisees themselves. He never wavered from seeking their truest well-being.

And he was never defensive. Even as the Pharisees and the Romans grew defensive, seeing his message as a threat to their rule; even as they began the trumped-up legal process that would lead him to the cross, he never sought to evade or dodge or try to argue his way out of the coming danger. At his arrest and crucifixion, his few disciples scattered to the four winds.

Well, that ragtag of timid, unlearned disciples who fled at Jesus’ crucifixion – a few days later, they regrouped, changed into dynamic, fearless, untiring leaders – so energetic and committed that today one third of the world’s peoples identify with the name of Jesus.

What led to this transformation?

It wasn’t faith so much as the biological science of the time. Today, most of us lead lives in which death is compartmentalized. It happens off to the side, out of sight. But back then, death was public, part of everyday experience. Everyone was intimately acquainted with life and death, and was skilled at telling the difference between the two. The public had seen Jesus die. The Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus and hauled him down from the cross were paid killers, who knew what they were doing – and subject to crucifixion themselves should they botch the job.

So three days later, when the tomb was empty and Jesus walked among them, the disciples knew their lives would never be the same. They didn’t need to fear. They didn’t need to be defensive. And that’s why today we know we don’t have to lapse into defensive behavior – that each of us has within ourselves an unlimited supply of love, forgiveness, grace, positive energy.

Easter? Cause for celebration!

Come April 22, how can you and I model that – contribute to making Earth Day and the March for Science celebratory, rather than defensive and grim? What would that look like?

Some thoughts in the next post.

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One Response to Reflections on science, defensive behavior – and Easter. Part II. The good news.

  1. James Henderson says:

    Thanks for such an excellent article on Easter Day. I felt energized and compelled to share the article with my family members and colleagues. We scientists and Christians need to pause and reflect on this important day of our tradition, accomplishments and those who have gone before us.
    James Henderson

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