Science Corner: Choosing Whom to Serve

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While we’re here, some good environmental news: the hole in the ozone layer reached a 30 year low. (Photo by ikewinski )

Exploring the intersection of science and faith can lead back to some familiar paths, like the mode of God’s creative acts or the ethics of certain applications of technology. Then there is the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency referencing the book of Joshua when announcing a new policy change; that’s a new one for me. Going forward, individuals cannot serve on EPA advisory committees if they also receive EPA grant funding for their research. EPA head Scott Pruitt likened it to Joshua charging the Israelites to decide whom they will serve. I think I can see where Pruitt is coming from, but I also have some concerns.

Many commentators seemed to think Pruitt was using the Bible to justify his decision. I’m less certain; perhaps he was going for more of an illustration or comparison. I’m not sure you need a Bible verse to explain ‘conflict of interest’ as a concept, and if you did need one I’d probably consider Matthew 6:24 first. One can also consider whether verses about following God apply to the EPA, but that’s more of a Biblical interpretation question than a science one. Perhaps this is a counterpoint to my suggestion a couple of weeks ago about the Bible as our cultural common ground, the idea that there is so much room for interpretation that the ‘common’ part breaks down. Still, conflict of interest is a reality and one discussed in the Bible, so it’s not unreasonable to bring the Bible into the conversation.

There is still the matter of whether the policy is necessary. Conflict of interest seems fairly straightforward, and we’ve been conditioned to think unbiased and objective perspectives are best. Yet there are legitimate reasons to wonder whether such a beast exists, especially when you get into areas of narrow expertise like many scientific pursuits are. I proposed the Bible as a common ground precisely because scientific knowledge and experience have become so fragmented and specialized. When you need people to evaluate a grant application or a research publication or a policy decision, you want folks who understand the topic well enough to make an informed decision. Often, the potential pool of such people is small, and many will have some stakes in the outcome of the decision. One could even argue that going through the training necessary to become an expert in a scientific field by itself represents a form of bias. Avoiding bias completely simply may not be possible.

While not specifically about the EPA decision, I found Kevin Elliott’s thoughts about values in science to be relevant. Rather than pretending scientists are somehow remarkable or exceptional people capable of completely putting aside bias, subjectivity or value judgments, we should accept their humanity and its role in the scientific process. After all, if we can’t make unbiased computer systems, why think we can eliminate bias from ourselves? Instead, Elliott recommends accepting a role for values in science, and building transparency right into the process so we can assess the influence of those values. We are already practicing transparency in some places, such as disclosure statements like the one accompanying Elliott’s piece.

From that perspective, there’s no reason Pruitt or anyone else cannot bring a Biblical perspective to questions of science and science policy. And all the better to make that influence explicit. Then, using a common familiarity with the Bible and also a diverse group with varied experiences, we can have a conversation about valid interpretations and applications, knowing that we have a shared frame of reference for discussing our values.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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