Knowledge – or mere entertainment?

In any newspaper we may find a mention of some exciting new scientific discovery. It may be evidence of a promising new cure, or perhaps an association between our behaviour and health, or some aspect of human psychology which we can relate to ourselves. The scientists have been beavering away on our behalf. Newspaper mentions are a distillation of around 40,000 studies a year which are recorded in the public domain. But what weight can we place on this information: are we being offered knowledge or entertainment?

Such studies are the outcome of the scientific method. This can be simplified by its stages: observe the material world and identify possible patterns; formulate hypotheses which could reveal the rule behind these patterns; test the hypotheses and accept those that are verified by experience. The corpus of modern science is based on this methodology, and so we should be properly grateful. But we need to be wary.

The published study is not a gift just to us: it is meat and drink to the aspiring scientist because the progress of his career and his reputation can best be achieved through his public contribution to new and potentially useful knowledge. A negative study, often an important contribution in itself, gets no fanfares. As a result there is a sad history of positive studies, some of which are at least questionable. Problems may range from an optimistic massage of data to outright fraud. While many branches of science are susceptible, those concerned with psychology and sociology are particularly vulnerable because the concepts and outcomes are more difficult to measure than those in the physical sciences, even with recent assistance from fMRI brain scans.

Scientific fraud (search for examples on the internet if you are interested) is less important to us than earnest scientists who believe so strongly in their hypotheses that they are tempted to make their data fit the conclusion which they “know” to be true. One obvious way is to bin those studies that prove negative and start again – perhaps with minor alterations – until they get the results they want. We read the triumphant final study, but know nothing of the preceding failures. One authoritative source described data massage as “rife”. And I write as one who has occasionally been tempted to omit an awkward result which conflicts with the statistical confirmation I need.

Another problem is the need to account for other characteristics which may be affecting the outcomes. Take, as an example, a measurement of the benefits resulting from breastfeeding. If, as I understand to be the case, breastfeeding mothers are likely to have a higher level of education and better living standards, this may skew the results. One may employ a control for this, but omit other, less obvious, characteristics. And each control imposed can raise the cost or validity of the study. Nor does such a study necessarily identify the drawbacks.

Few studies review complete populations – they use a sample. So, even if the study itself is gold plated, the results can never be precisely reliable. Probability theory is used to calculate the margins of error. Avoiding technicality, the p value indicates reliability. This must be 0.05 or below for respectability. Oddly enough, there is always a large a number of studies which just scrape in under this threshold – too large for coincidence. A similar statistical effect occurred when teacher discretion provided more C grades at GCSE than were warranted.

But there is a longstop. Substantial studies will be published in peer-reviewed journals. The intention is to check studies through expert criticism, and to provide the information needed for the study to be replicated by others. But even this system is flawed. Peer reviews, it has been strongly argued, are of questionable value and replication is a thankless task – thus too rarely done. In one case a pharmaceutical company decided to replicate 53 published studies of new drugs. Nine out of 10 failed.

What defence does the layperson have against inaccurate results? Certainly, one virtue is healthy scepticism. A reader with some close knowledge of a subject will be able to compare other studies and, if he has the skill, to analyse the study and its statistics, so he may want to obtain the full paper. For most people, commentary in a responsible publication such as New Scientist or Scientific American is the best bet.

There is, however, a post scriptum consolation. Religious believers are often accused of superstition, magic and claims resulting from wishful thinking. It may be a comfort to know that scientists, notwithstanding their steely pragmatic evidence, all too often prefer their own interests to the hard knocks of truth.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Neuroscience, Quentin queries | Tagged | 34 Comments

The balancing act

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I look back to the many years I spent as a smoker. And I wonder how I could have been so stupid. After all, for most of the time I was well aware of the medical dangers. But that didn’t stop me because the cigarette or pipe were there, and immediately offering the pleasure of a quick drag. I even came to understand how the pleasure centres of the brain reacted to the addiction. And punished me for failing to smoke.

I have been thinking about this again because the newspapers have carried so many stories on this new facility for those over age 55 to take their pension pot early. It is, say its champions, only right that intelligent human beings should not be treated as incompetents; they should be able to choose. (There are, of course, cynics who says that the Tories are well aware that lumps of extra spending just at this stage will give an extra push to a growing economy.)

I had encountered something similar before – when, in my former career, I was concerned with marketing pensions. There were a surprising number of people who, even after understanding the need for a pension and the importance of setting it up early, simply elected to spend the money now rather than provide for retirement. I even met an Evangelical who assured me that the Bible had condemned providing for the future –“Take no thought for the morrow. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof” he quoted to me. And he wasn’t joking.

So I fear that this new facility is not being offered to sane, balanced, rational people. It is being offered to human beings. And that is a different animal.

A picture of a seesaw comes into my mind. On one end is a large man, on the other is a child. Yet the seesaw balances. Of course it does, because the child sits on the long end and the man sits on the short. It’s the effect of leverage. “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.” said Archimedes.

Human nature is like that: the more immediate the reward the greater its desirability. So a puff on a fag this very minute attracts me more than good health in forty years time.

We must assume that this, apparently irrational, characteristic is the result of evolution. There must be some benefit which contributes to survival. My guess is this. We are prompted to take action immediately because, if we fail to do so, that action may never be taken. As a result of this omission, we may be destroyed before we have a chance to enjoy the future benefit. Unfortunately, the instincts which emerge from evolution are not discriminating. What may have been a good survival strategy when lives were nasty, brutish and short, may no longer be so useful in more settled times.

It is only too easy to apply this to the Christian life. Sin is immediate, and attractive. We are drawn, Aquinas tells us, to a good – or something which we perceive to be a species of good at the time. Of course, if we pause for a moment, we realise that it will be an the expense of an incomparably greater good. But unfortunately this is somewhat indeterminate, and will not be available to us for many years. The sin is there – to hand.

We may even see a version of this ‘seesaw’ instinct in Christ. His first thought is to ask his Father to take away the ‘chalice’ of his Passion. But this is only an immediate good. Through invoking his Father’s will, he chooses to accept the long term benefit of redemption by suffering and death.

In day to day matters we may well be helped by remembering that the ‘seesaw’ instinct is just that – an instinct. The choice between immediate action and future consequences must be rational and not instinctive. In more serious issues, we must try to discern the will of the Father, and be ready to follow that.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Neuroscience, Quentin queries | Tagged | 111 Comments

Poisoning the well

You may have noticed in the papers last Tuesday the disturbing reports on the exposure of young children to pornography. We are told that one in ten of 12 to 13 year-old children have made, or been part of, a sexually explicit video, that 9% of children of this age group are worried that they are addicted to porn, and that around 18% have been shocked or upset by porn images.

While I have in mind eventually writing a full column on this subject for the Catholic Herald I thought it prudent to get a view from the community of this blog. Confining myself to as modest language as I can muster, typical modern porn shows a series of scenes in which pretty well every form of possible sexual contact, heterosexual and homosexual, is repetitively filmed – between couples or groups. There is no tenderness, merely the exploration of real or simulated sensation in the most extreme form which the director’s ingenuity can muster. But I am not concerned here with the whole topic of porn but with the possible long term effects on the children who view it.

At the age of 12 or 13 my mother had long before given me basic facts of life but I was then only at the airbrushed Lilliput nude stage – although pubertal fantasy life was just around the corner. Had I been faced by modern pornography I would simply have been astounded, and probably initially disgusted – and yet I strongly suspect I would have kept the images in my mind. Perhaps, with familiarity, I would have built up the idea that married sex was routinely conducted along those lines. And that would have been a great danger. If this were my only experience, I would have assumed that marriage was simply a lifetime of extremely tempting romps.

In fact, as the long term married know, the attraction of romps is strictly finite. Romps on their own quickly exhaust their possibilities and may eventually only be revived by romps with another person – and yet another person. It is only when sexual expression is motivated by love, affection and commitment that passionate sexual attraction to another can be maintained indefinitely. I fear that the new generation is going to grow up with assumptions about sexuality through which they may damage their lives.

The young who report that they have been shocked or upset by pornography are in a sad case. We all know that intimate sexuality is always shadowed by the possibility of disgust. What a terrible introduction it must be to start with such a mental picture! No doubt some get over this with time and experience but I wonder if there are those who carry the elements of their early reactions throughout life. It could be a high price to pay for yielding to a friend’s request to share the viewing.

Are there remedies available? I am told that the peer pressure to join in the use of pornography are considerable. Social media provide easy ways in which a sexual subculture can flourish well below the parental sightline. In even the strictest of households there is no certain way of protecting the young.

In the absence of such protection how do we prepare the children? At what age must we start? How well is the school going to help us? Remember that we are considering not just the biology of sexuality and conception – which is by comparison easy — but the emotions of sexuality. Yet those emotions are meaningless before they have been experienced and truly difficult to discuss when they are already present.

I am looking for answers here, or concrete suggestions. We are not going to change society, or indeed human nature, we must work with what we’ve got. And if we cannot find answers, are there ways at least in which we can mitigate the damage to the young, and give them their best chance of good sexual lives? The alternative is not attractive – either for them or for society.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 74 Comments

Telling stories

How much of scripture is true? That question can only be answered by respecting the difference between pre- and post-scientific understandings of truth. Thus we avoid The New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture’s stricture of “bad science and bad exegesis”. Since the Enlightenment we have sought knowledge through factual evidence, but our forefathers used stories to explain phenomena. Such stories may often have a proximate or remote origin in history, or perhaps a deduction from human observation and experience.

A prominent example is the six days of creation. Faced with the existing world, the ancients developed a story which explained it in terms of the immediate action of God. No doubt they believed it to be factual, but it went beyond observable fact, while conveying the underlying truth. The scientist, by contrast, explores the procedure of creation through observable fact, and throws light on everything except the underlying truth.

The story of the Tower of Babel may well have been based on a historical incident. Ziggurats, or great towers, were common in Babylonian cities – and we can easily imagine the quarrels between the different teams of builders (were there trade unions then?) leading to abandonment of a project. But the author is inspired to present us with the conflicts that arise when men go beyond their brief and attempt to make progress without reference to God. If you want to check the underlying truth of this warning, watch the news on television tonight.

Where Noah’s flood is concerned there is an embarras des richesses. There are 10 separate Babylonian sources for this fable – including the Gilgamesh epic, which shares the same Mesopotamian tradition and is uncannily similar to Genesis. There is no archaeological record of a flood as extensive as Noah’s, but we may assume that memories of widespread disasters were the basis. Again the writer conveys the lesson: where the other sources refer to the gods acting out of pique, we are presented in Genesis with God as saviour, and a foreshadowing of his covenant with Israel. There are several other elements significant in the history of salvation.

These stories share a common feature. Ultimately, the accuracy of the account matters less than the underlying truth being proclaimed. I do not need to see the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as a literal account for my focus to be on the faith, obedience and prefiguring of the Incarnation which the account presents.

Since the dawn of our species was about 200,000 years ago, and may well have been preceded by strains which are now extinct, the Fall of Man can only be inferred as a possible historical incident because we are all related through common ancestry. So here we must reconstruct the evidence provided through the inspired writer’s experience of human nature. He would have recognised the tension between our created spiritual nature and our inherited animal nature. He knew our aspiration to the good and our failure to achieve it. It should not surprise us if he presented this graphically by a story in which our parents initially live a kind of ideal human life, governed by right reason and directed towards God. The Fall illustrates dramatically how, in rejecting God’s call, we inevitably – as if by gravity – fall back into our native sin.

In the absence of evidence we cannot exclude the literal account in Genesis, but to recognise it as a story, and not history, does not threaten the essence of the course of salvation. Original sin is built into our human nature, and so is universal. In essence, it is not personal guilt; it becomes so when we embrace it. Our aspiration to the good finds its source in the goodness of God; we call it grace. And this gift comes to us through redemption, whose effect is not bounded by time. We do not have to accept the original story as history in order to grasp its meaning.

In this context our native tendency to lapse into sin is displayed by Christ’s temptations in the desert. If he were not attracted to power, represented through Lucifer’s suggestions, it would not have been temptation – because attraction is what temptation means. But his rejection is complete. The process is more explicit in the Agony in the Garden. Here his human fear leads him momentarily to pray to be spared. But the grace from his Father enables him to accept the divine will. He is like us in all things except sin.

Nevertheless, we must always be cautious in judging between story and history. The Incarnation and the events that brought about our redemption are incidents in history, and so is the broad account of the Old Covenant. There may be argument about detail – but we must heed expert authority.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Scripture, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , | 113 Comments

Am I indifferent?

Last week, when we were discussing faith schools, a contributor suggested that we might be looking at ways in which we could work together with the C of E. It would be a fruit of ecumenism. I find the idea immediately attractive. Apart from the economies of scale, the two denominations seem to have excellent relationships nowadays and, in the face of a hostile secular world, sharing schools would give great witness to the fruits of Christian cooperation. But then I pause.

The Church has put much effort over the centuries in the battle with indifferentism (I take this to mean that, providing we are Christian, different denominations are more a matter of choice than a big issue). For example, the CDF issued in 2007 “Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church”. Following Vatican II’s more generous statements with regard to other denominations, this made clear that, while the Oriental churches could be properly so called – since they had apostolic succession, the communities born of the Reformation could not be called churches in the proper sense – since they had not (link below). And I recall from a standard moral theology of the 20th century a passage in which the actions of a nurse, when a dying, Protestant, patient asked to see his Minister, were strongly circumscribed lest the scandal of indifferentism might be caused. The most she could do was to prepare a suitable table, and, of course, she could not join in the Minister’s prayers.

While we might feel this view to be harsh, I think the fundamental position has not changed. That is, we can work in many ways with other denominations, and we can recognise their virtues and even benefit from their insights, but we must avoid giving any impression that we relinquish our firm view that the Catholic Church, and none other, is the Church which Christ founded.

It would follow that any cooperation with the C of E over schools could not extend so far that it appeared to admit that a general Christian education would suffice. A Catholic education is unique, and differs in substance from any other variety. Were this to be known to all parties and accepted, it might perhaps be possible to cooperate in other, practical, ways.

I am not here attempting to extend our discussion on faith schools, but I use this example of indifferentism to ask whether or not contributors agree with the way we approach the general question of our relations with other denominations. There may well be some who think our reluctance to cooperate more fully with our fellow Christians is, in itself, a cause of scandal. They might argue that our attitudes counter Christ’s wish that we should all be one. Others would hold that any compromise flies in the face of the truth we hold – and would ultimately end up with a polite mish-mash of beliefs which would impress no one. In effect the claim that Christ founded one Church within which we may be saved would be abandoned.

So what do you think?


Posted in Church and Society, Quentin queries, Spirituality | 101 Comments

On the other side of the fence

Josephine looked over the fence and, shaking a letter in her hand, she called out to Betsy “We’ve got it, we’ve got it! Dominic has been offered a place at St Bede’s – next term”

But Betsy didn’t smile. “Good for Dominic, but my Bob won’t be going there. We’re not Catholics like you. So he’ll be at the Lawn Primary. It’s a bit of a journey and they have some rough kids there. Sorry Jo, but I think its unfair. After all we both pay our taxes, so why shouldn’t Bob have just the same chance as Dominic to go to the nearest school – he’s a bright boy.

“I do sympathise” said Josephine “but we have Catholic schools to provide a Catholic education. So it’s inevitable that Catholic children have the best chance of a place.”

“That’s just what I mean. After all, the school system is public and it’s paid for with public money. I don’t think they should have denominations. If Catholics want their own schools then they should pay for them directly, so should the Muslims or Jews. I don’t see why I should subsidise Catholic schools when I’m not a Catholic.”

“You know” said Josephine “you’re not having to spend any extra – in fact, a little bit less because we have to contribute to the capital costs of our schools. Sometimes I think people are jealous because Catholic schools seem to do rather better than most academically.”

“There’s another thing” Betsy added “it can’t be right for Catholic children to be shielded from mixing in ordinary society. After all, we have to live together so why start off by keeping Catholics separate from everyone else. In two ticks your Dominic is going to have Catholic friends – he’s going to have a shock when he gets out into society. Wouldn’t it be better if he got used to all sorts of people from the word go?”

And so the conversation carried on. We may hope that Jo and Betsy remained friends, and that Dominic and Bob remained friends too. But are you a supporter of Catholic schools or do you think that it would be better to have secular schools, and separate arrangements for studying Catholic doctrine? There are certainly points on both sides which Jo and Betsy haven’t made. So this is an opportunity to put this right.

Posted in Church and Society, Quentin queries | Tagged | 44 Comments

Science, faith and resurrection

What is this Science and Faith column all about? It has now passed its fifth anniversary, and we have welcomed new readers, so it is time for a review. 2009 was the Year of Darwin, and we thought we should focus on the meeting point between our faith and the wonderful achievements of science. The relationship between the theory of evolution and our belief in God’s creation was a fitting point to start.

In over 130 columns we have looked at a great number of topics – from pre-human ancestors to psychopathic world leaders, from temptation to righteous anger, from marriage to meditation, from mitochondria transfer to Liverpool Care, from justice to disgust — a broad waterfront. One recurrent theme has been the direct effect the brain has on our choices. Another has been our exploration of DNA, with its thriving, brother — epigenetics.

The interface between faith and science is where the column focuses. Take, as one example, the question of altruism. A scientist will explain just how altruism serves human societies and so can be regarded as an outcome of evolution. But we would want to say that love of neighbour is at the heart of our calling to which we respond through the grace of God. In another example, a scientist may tell us that our decisions are in fact determined by a myriad of antecedent causes: we reply that our freedom of will is a characteristic reflecting the image of God. Science and faith are not opposed, like the body and the soul, they complement.

In a recent television drama a pathologist was asked if she believed in the existence of souls. She said: “Yes. When I am working on a body I know that the person who inhabited that body is no longer there.” Her simple recognition that living human beings are both physical and spiritual reminds us that, although we may separate the two for our mundane explanations, the soul is the form of the body and principle of its living unity. When a person dies, that unity disintegrates. But, we believe, not forever. While the Catechism wisely avoids specifics, it firmly teaches the resurrection of the body within a redeemed universe. The glorified body of Christ, who eats fish with his apostles, is the pledge of our ultimate salvation.

But do we believe it? Do we in fact only think of ourselves as souls trapped, fortunately temporarily, in rather unsatisfactory bodies – looking forward to the day when our liberated spirits swoop up to the Almighty? If so, we approach heresy. We are not here to save our souls but to save ourselves, body and soul. We are not angels. Time does not pass between death and resurrection.

Paul tells us (in Romans) that we and all creation groan in travail together awaiting our resurrection. This expectation should spur us on as we inherit Adam’s vocation to care for the earth which will one day be transformed into our fitting home. When we first try to come to terms with this doctrine it may seem to us to approach fantasy. Getting our imagination around it is not hard; it is impossible. “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered the heart of man what things God has prepared for those who love him.” Words failed St Paul, and they fail us.

We all know that, as a result of the Fall, we struggle to bring the human body, with all its passions and infirmities, under the control of right reason. To do that we must try to understand it better in both its psychological and physical elements. Similarly, we need to understand material creation to which we must bring order. The work of science is not mere utility, it is an element of salvation, foreshadowing promised transformation.

When I first undertook the column I realised that I needed to be literate in theology, science and philosophy. But I am no polymath. My long term memory has migrated to jumbo hard disks, my shelves bulge with books and periodicals. And the biggest thief of my time is research. Often the essence of a column comes to me when, in those precious moments before I sleep, ideas from several, hitherto unrelated, disciplines, come together.

Nor must I forget , where the columns appear on line. Thankfully there are many comments, often exceeding three figures. I am frequently, and usefully, taken to task, or my ideas constructively extended. We even have one contributor who undertakes the function of disputing all things Catholic. Unfortunately, or fortunately, he is extremely well read – and keeps us on our toes. No surprise that his nom de blog is Advocatus Diaboli. It is only, said John Stuart Mill, when our propositions have survived every objection that can be raised against them, that we have good title to hold them.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Spirituality | Tagged , , | 75 Comments