Guidelines for Making Sense of Science in the Media

by Christina M. H. Powell

We live in a world of specialization. Long gone are the days of the Renaissance when Christian leaders and scholars were as versed in matters of science as they were in matters of Scripture. Yet, science is part of our world. Scientific matters appear daily in the news and impact a pastor’s life and ministry. What does the latest stem cell breakthrough mean? Should I be concerned that genetically modified crops will lead to the famines of biblical prophecy? How does research on the age of the earth fit with the Genesis account of creation? Will this new alternative health treatment help my friend who is suffering with cancer? To what degree do genes influence human behavior?

How can a busy pastor without training in the sciences learn to discern the critical issues of the day? How can he find answers to the questions posed by science in the news? Discernment in matters of science begins with understanding how scientists think, how research works, and how science advances. Guidelines for making sense of science in the media emerge from an understanding of these processes. Such guidelines can save a preacher from the embarrassment of mishandling science in the pulpit, a youth group member from the disappointment of having his inaccurate apologetics discredited by a science teacher, and a seeker with a technical background from the disillusionment of feeling that the church misunderstands science. Here are some basic things a pastor needs to know to address scientific matters wisely in his ministry.

How Scientists Think

From astrophysics to zoology, scientists in all fields of inquiry use the same framework for reasoning — the scientific method. The scientific method is an iterative process. At any point in the research process a scientist may need to repeat steps when faced with new information. These series of steps start with the scientist posing a question about something he can observe and measure. What is the circumference of the earth? Which pathway controls cell growth in response to a hormone signal, pathway A or pathway B? Does this gene predispose people to obesity?

After a scientist defines his question, he does background research to gather the best information and resources for preparing his research plan to answer the question he posed. This step also ensures that the scientist does not repeat mistakes from the past.

With the enhanced understanding of his research topic that has come from his gathering information, the scientist is ready to construct a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a tentative explanation for how things work that a scientist can test by further investigation; it is the scientist’s educated guess in answer to the question he posed. For example, a scientist’s hypothesis might be that the earth is round. Next, he designs and conducts an experiment to test whether his hypothesis is true. In a properly designed experiment, the scientist should only change one variable while keeping all other conditions the same. In addition, the scientist needs to repeat the experiment several times to ensure that the first results were not just an accident.

Once all the experimental data has been collected, the next step in the scientific method involves analyzing the data and drawing a conclusion concerning whether or not the hypothesis was correct. Scientists often find that their hypothesis was false. In these instances, the scientist will construct a new hypothesis and begin the process of the scientific method again. If a scientist finds that the hypothesis is true, he often decides to test it again in a new way, restarting the steps of the scientific method. Thus, the conclusions drawn about the experiment ideally should serve as a launching point for new hypotheses.

The final step in the scientific method is communicating the results. Publication of the data and conclusions in an appropriate scientific journal enable other scientists to use the new results when they gather background information for designing their own new experiments.

What guidelines for making sense of science news emerge from our understanding of how scientists think? First, we must think carefully about how a scientist draws conclusions from a given set of results. For example, because two variables correlate to each other does not imply that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the two. This idea often is stated: Correlation does not imply causation. An example often used in college statistics courses to illustrate this principle is the correlation between a city’s ice cream sales and the number of reported drownings. Ice cream sales are highest when the rate of drowning is highest. This correlation, however, does not mean that increased ice cream sales make drowning more likely. Instead, the hidden variable is that hot summer weather increases both ice cream sales and the number of people swimming and thus exposed to the risk of drowning.

An example of the importance of remembering that correlation does not imply causation exists in brain structure research. Suppose the size of a certain brain structure varies in relation to the presence of a certain human behavior. In the absence of more information, we do not know whether the size of the brain structure affects the behavior, the behavior causes the change in size of the brain structure, or a hidden variable creates the correlation between size and behavior, with no cause-and-effect relationship between size and behavior. Discovery of a correlation between two variables may mean that a scientist needs to study the relationship between those variables in greater detail by conducting more experiments.

The need to confirm a result by other experiments, preferably conducted by another group of researchers, is another important guideline for interpreting science news. Thus, while news of any new breakthrough is certainly interesting, until the discovery holds up under the light of further research, caution needs to prevail.

Finally, we need to realize that assumptions made in the study can often affect the conclusions scientists draw on a set of data. If the scientist has incorrect assumptions, he will also have flawed conclusions. Research performed by someone who has a vested interest in the outcome may lead to bias in the conclusions drawn from the experiments. Check the sources and sponsors of a research study. While sponsored research can be of high quality, knowing who is behind the research can be enlightening.

How Research Works

The image of a scientist working alone in a laboratory that has been popularized by Hollywood could not be further from the truth. Scientists conduct their work in the context of community. Scientists in universities raise money for conducting research by writing to government agencies and charitable foundations asking for grants. These grant applications are peer-reviewed, meaning that fellow scientists familiar with the field evaluate these applications. Scientists receive funding for the best research. After receiving grant money, a scientist needs to write follow-up progress reports and submit proposals to have the grants renewed.

When a scientist completes a research study, he usually submits a manuscript detailing his research results and conclusions to a scientific journal. The editors of these journals then send this research paper to one to three scientists for review. These reviewers usually remain anonymous to the author. Reviewers may recommend modifications or additional experiments that the scientist needs to complete prior to publication, or they may advise against publication in the journal. This process serves to enhance the overall quality of scientific literature, cutting down on obvious errors and faulty reasoning. Publication in prestigious scientific journals leads to more grant money to do more research.

The peer-review process is not perfect. Sometimes this system can suppress controversial topics or interesting but unusual topics of study from gaining attention in the scientific community. Yet, the peer-review process is widely used in science. The scientific community considers it inappropriate to announce one’s work in the popular press before submitting that work for peer review.

Once you understand how research works, guidelines for evaluating science in the news will include checking the source of the scientific information you are intending to use. Make sure the results and conclusions you reference come from sources published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. A press release from a public relations department does not carry the same weight as publication in scientific literature. For example, watch out for manufacturers of alternative medicine treatments who make health claims based on research not yet subjected to the peer-review process.

One way a pastor can keep abreast of challenging new developments in the sciences is by making use of the concept of peer review in his ministry. Peer review presupposes that the most qualified person to judge a certain piece of research is the person who conducts similar research to the work under review. In the same way that an editor at a scientific journal seeks the opinion of an expert in the field, it is wise for a pastor to cultivate friendships with those who have the appropriate technical background and seek their input when attempting to make sense of a scientific news topic.

How Science Advances

One interesting study alone is not enough to validate a new scientific idea. Scientists must conduct other studies that build on and expand the initial study. In the same way, we should not trust an interesting data point unless scientists can repeat the results. Scientists must also repeat interesting studies, preferably a different group of scientists than the ones who made the initial finding.

Most of the time, science is self-correcting because of this approach. Even if falsified results make it through the peer-reviewed publication process, further studies will expose the results as false. When the body of evidence becomes overwhelming, new paradigms emerge.

Scientists often construct theories that serve as frameworks to bind together many different specific hypotheses into a coherent structure. Thus, theories in science are much more than educated guesses. Theories can aid in the formation of new hypotheses as well as placing current hypotheses into a greater context of understanding. Sometimes new theories replace old ones in science, but usually a new theory expands on knowledge beyond the old one. For example, Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity expand on Newton’s theories, addressing phenomena that Newton was not able to observe, such as the astronomically large, the minutely small, and the tremendously fast.

The guidelines for making sense of science in the media that emerge from understanding how science advances include the following: Studies that have been repeated and confirmed by others need to be viewed as more trustworthy than studies that have only been performed once. In addition, while new discoveries are exciting, not all will stand the test of time. For example, many hurdles stand between the clinical use of human embryonic stem cells to treat Parkinson’s disease and an initial finding that mouse embryonic stem cells can be directed to differentiate into dopamine-producing neurons.

Another helpful guideline that comes from understanding how science advances is to make cautious use of research findings more than a few years old. Apologetic arguments based on scientific thinking even a decade ago may seem laughably outdated to today’s science educators.

Since scientific thinking is constantly advancing, Christians who develop apologetic arguments must ensure their information reflects current scientific thinking, not an old hypothesis that the scientific community has modified or even discredited. Youth workers and campus ministers must be diligent to check out any such apologetic materials for current relevance before teaching them to students who may suffer grave disappointment when their high school teacher or college professor reveals the errors in their apologetic.

Words of Encouragement

Even after applying all the appropriate guidelines for making sense of science in the media, you may still get it wrong from time to time. If you do, be willing to admit your mistake when confronted by a knowledgeable teenager in your congregation who is an expert in the area of your mistake. Even the best scientists at Harvard make errors now and then. During my doctoral training in the sciences at Harvard, I learned one of the most important phrases to memorize and use freely when needed: “I don’t know.” Pastors can also powerfully use this phrase in ministry settings. Sometimes our best response to questions about science and faith is to admit that we might need to do more research before producing an answer in a field outside our knowledge. Undoubtedly, the person who asked you the question you could not answer will respect your honesty and appreciate that you did not attempt to offer a potentially inaccurate response.

While avoiding the discussion of scientific topics altogether may seem tempting in the face of exponential scientific advances, your congregation needs your guidance in navigating the ethical implications of today’s scientific breakthroughs. I am encouraged to see pastors increasingly willing to seek input from Christians in their congregations who have technical backgrounds and then tackle the difficult issues of our day. As the Bible encourages us in 1 Peter 3:15, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” Through prayer and preparation, you can be ready to make sense of the science in today and tomorrow’s news.

Christina M.H. Powell, Ph.D., an ordained minister and medical research scientist, preaches in churches and conferences nationwide. She is a research fellow at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital as well as the founder of Life Impact Ministries.