Friday, August 30, 2013

The importance of stupidity in scientific research

El Greco (1541-1614) - 1590-95 St, Francis Receiving the StigmataI was thinking where to go with the series of posts on "chastened activism" and spiritual warfare, when I was reminded of this marvelous article:
Schwartz, Martin A. 2008. “The importance of stupidity in scientific research.” Journal of Cell Science 121(11):1771–1771. 

Schwartz talks about a fellow student who left a PhD program because of discouragement at the feeling of "stupidity" that it produced.  He writes:
I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science makes me feel stupid too. It's just that I've gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. I wouldn't know what to do without that feeling. I even think it's supposed to be this way. Let me explain.
Though Schwartz does not use this language, what he is talking about is a species of spiritual discipline: that personal and intellectual growth results from deliberately embracing our ignorance, our powerlessness: not from doing energetically, over and over, what we already know we can do.  "When I am weak, then I am strong" says Paul.

And if science offers excellent opportunities for such "productive stupidity", that is partly because it can be so ruthless in exposing our misunderstandings, our ignorance, our incompetence.

Part of the spiritual battle is to really hear that judgment, God's No, against all our competence and activism in his service; so that we may also hear his Yes in Christ.

Picture: St Francis Receiving The Stigmata, El Greco; photo by Flickr user RasMarley, licensed under Creative Commons

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Having Done All, To Stand

Self-Proclaimed Storm ChaserI'm wondering whether the search for a "chastened activism", which I've described in a couple of recent posts, is actually related to an earlier theme: whether our struggle with climate change can helpfully be understood using the category of  "spiritual warfare".

At first this seems a pretty boneheaded idea. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Reading Science

I was fascinated by this post on the NPR site.  Astronomer Adam Frank describes the process of science in his field (protostars and planets) and what is meant by a "consensus understanding", an understanding widely shared in the expert community.
Then he reflects on his own experience getting acquainted with other scientific fields, and on how hard it is for a similar expert consensus in the field of climate science to gain public traction.

His conclusion: " Perhaps what is needed is an army of journalists who can become meta-scientists, allowing them to straddle the literature (this is what the best science-journalists already have to do). Perhaps that is what is necessary now. But there must be other ideas. What are yours?

Understanding what science understands means going beyond opinions to embrace the collective understanding of the community. And ultimately, on issues that shape our lives, we are all the community."

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Chastened Activism, part 2

Nuh uh. I am.So I finished reading Wigg-Stevenson's The World Is Not Ours To Save.  I'm struck by how much its thesis matches that of Ehrenfeld's Arrogance of Humanism, which I've already referred to several times.  In fact, the "activist" spirit whose fundamental orientation concerns Wigg-Stevenson just is Ehrenfeld's "humanism" - "the conviction that all problems can be solved by people."  Ehnrenfeld's conscious abandonment of this perspective, together with his refusal to reach explicitly for a metaphysical eucatastrophe, is what gives his book its elegiac quality.

Wigg-Stevenson, though, does want to commend Christian hope, but he knows very well that "hope" must not be so deployed as to render insignificant our present existence, its glories and sufferings. How then does he address the relationship between present and future? Like this:
...the contours of the coming kingdom call to us from the future, like the memory of a reality that doesn't yet exist. When we respond to this call, the present is shaped as an echo or shadow or trace of what will be.  (Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good (Kindle Locations 965-967). Kindle Edition.)
 He expounds the "peaceable kingdom" vision of Micah 4 and gives a range of examples (from Britain in the second world war, from his own anti-nuclear work, and from apartheid South Africa) which, he says, illustrate this response from afar to the contours of the coming kingdom.

In the last chapter he has some detailed advice for evangelical activists.  Here is a particularly hard-hitting point:
An evangelical variant of the moral arbiter tactic has sprung up like kudzu over the past decade. It involves taking a cause not usually associated with political conservatives, which a majority of evangelicals continue to be, branding it with the evangelical label, maybe through a signed letter from evangelical leaders, and then attempting to use the "man bites dog" shock value for the purposes of political positioning. The terrific irony of this tactic is that it pays for its campaigns out of a stolen checking account, because its efficacy depends wholly on the political capital built up by the Religious Right... After about ten years of this, most media and elected officials have wised up, and our broad new agenda doesn't surprise anyone anymore. As a result, evangelical political salience has dropped, which in my estimation is a good thing, since it requires us to engage public issues from a deeply and clearly biblical basis, rather than relying simply on the political cachet of the evangelical label and a few representative endorsements. (Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good (Kindle Locations 1965-1972). Kindle Edition.)
Climate change campaigners take note!  The ellipsis that I introduced into the above quotation conceals a characteristically self-aware admission: "The Two Futures Project" (his anti-nuclear organization) "has profited from this very trend." Wigg-Stevenson wants to steer us away from an activism which sees Christian faith as a means to some already-determined public good, and towards the question "What unique and authentic contribution can the Christian church make in the public square."  (He lists nine modes, not exhaustive, of such contribution.)  This last chapter provides a detailed positive alternative to Screwtape's vision of using activism to delude believers:
Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist's shop. Fortunately, it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner...(C.S.Lewis, Screwtape Letters)
Batman photo by Flickr user Mark Strozier, licensed under Creative Commons

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Intermediate Activism

Obviously the dawn of a messianic age would be better than an economic depression, but I scarcely thought that this needed mentioning.  Not knowing how or when God will usher in such an age, or what it will be like, I have confined myself to the immediate future and to processes that already exist.  This is what I would call "intermediate or appropriate prophecy", with apologies to the late E.F.Schumacher.  (David Ehrenfeld, preface to the paperback edition of The Arrogance of Humanism.)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Call by Name and Call by Value

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you... Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name , and you are mine. (Isaiah 43:1,2)
Every computer science student has to learn about how you pass parameters to a procedure, and how you get results back.  Code like

procedure add(a,b,c);
 a := b+c;

is unlikely to have the effect that the novice programmer intends.  The parameters a,b,c are evaluated on procedure entry, and only their values passed to the procedure (this is known as call by value). As a result, the actual parameters on procedure exit are all unchanged.

To write a procedure that will actually update a, as the above code is intended to do, one has to do something different. When I was learning to code (in BCPL) one had to use indirection, passing a pointer to the variable rather than the variable itself; but many high-level languages have alternative calling mechanisms that can be invoked by a declaration, such as call by name, and these allow passing a parameter that can be modified by the procedure.  Oversimplifying things quite a bit leads to a phrase which, for me, resonates a lot with the quotation from Isaiah:
Only what is called by name can be truly changed.
Isn't this thought a central one in the biblical drama? The LORD calls his people, not because they yield something of value to him, but because he wishes to establish a relationship, to "call them by name".  And in this relationship there is the possibility of true change, of something new and beautiful appearing - a possibility which is not there in a relationship based on "value" and reward (Philippians 3:3-11).

Now in the creation story, humanity is described as being created in the "image" of God.  I find the interpretation quite plausible which suggests that this refers to humanity's acting as God's vicegerent towards the created world.  If so, humanity's manner of relating to that world should mirror God's manner of relating to us.  So, when we treat the creation simply as a supply of "natural resources" for use in our projects, is that "call by name" or "call by value"?  I think the answer is clear.  What would "call by name" look like?

Image: detail of Michaelangelo's fresco The Creation of Adam.  Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sustainable Shalom

The Peaceable Kingdom (De Young Museum)It's often pointed out that while the biblical story of humanity begins in a garden, it ends in a city.

What's being said here is that human culture - city-building - is an integral part of the new creation.  Our destiny is not simply to head back to a hunter-gatherer existence - or rather a "gatherer" existence, for Adam and Eve are not portrayed as hunters - but to be participants in creating a new vibrant reality, a peaceable city in the peaceable kingdom.

This isn't always easy to envision.  Environmentally concerned people - especially if, as with me, one of the roots of that concern is experience of the wilderness - are tempted to think of human influence as largely negative, as a contaminant.  Where is a positive vision of the creation "coming into its own" along with the children of God? 

A friend shared with me a review article entitled Sustainable Shalom: The Hope of Bright Green Urbanism.  The author, Jonathan Hiskes, writes
Our most hopeful response to climate change  echoes a biblical vision: not just abstaining from harmful acts but participating in creative ones.
After sketching his vision (for which he acknowledges a debt to Alex Steffen's Carbon Zero), Hiskes concludes

Right now, we lack imagination. Plenty of people can see that our fossil-fuel economy is sputtering (as every pipeline spill and offshore drilling blowout reminds us). It's just difficult to see what comes next. "We can't build what we can't imagine," says Steffen. And from the Book of Proverbs: "Without a vision, the people perish."

Sketching and building out that vision demands the best of minds. The most exciting dimension of bright green activity is that it's being imagined and tested and tried out by entrepreneurs, home-builders, planners, architects, engineers, scientists, cyclists, gardeners, investors, and others who don't identify as typical environmentalists. Because a climate-resilient world is a more just and peaceable world, we need the help of pastors, teachers, and parents too. We need everybody.
Read the whole article here.

Image: The Peacable Kingdom by Edward Hicks.  Photo by Flickr user jimforest, licensed under Creative Commons. 

Monday, August 5, 2013


Housing stimulusThe words economy  and ecology both derive from the Greek oikos, home.  That makes sense. The planet really is our home, and it's natural to think about our stewardship as a kind of "domestic economy" writ large.

But in some ways the analogy is seriously misleading.  Especially when we start trying to think about the resources available to our "household".

For a single household (in the developed world), money is usually the limited resource.  We have a certain amount; we use ("spend") it once; it's gone.  We may get something in return, but as far as the individual household is concerned that money is lost forever.

Economists regularly have to explain that this is not true for the economy as a whole.  The money I spend buying something from you is not thereby dissipated beyond return; it ends up in your pocket.  The total economy does not dissipate money, for money cannot be destroyed.  (In fact, this symbol of materialism could be the most "spiritual" thing with which we regularly interact!)

So the resource we worry most about wasting turns out, from a global perspective, to be inexhaustible.  We are indulging a "limited money illusion".

On the other hand, for a single household (in the developed world, again), stuff presents itself as effectively inexhaustible.  The world is a giant Wal-Mart.  There is no shortage of goods that cry "Buy me!"  And even if some shelves are empty for a moment, that is only temporary.  The ships, the trucks, will soon arrive to restock them.

But from the perspective of the economy as a whole, this too is a mistake.  Unlike the endless recurrence of the money cycle, the journey of "stuff" really is a one-way journey: from resource to waste.  Some resources are more limited than others, but none is inexhaustible.

So when we identify ourselves as consumers first and foremost (as in a recent Facebook meme that states: "Progressives need to hammer home the point that the real job creators are consumers"), we are indulging an "unlimited stuff illusion".

On both points (money and stuff), our natural extrapolation from household experience yields an illusion.

Image from 1926 Sears catalog.  Courtesy of Flickr user arbyheather, licensed under Creative Commons. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Creation Care As a Focus For a Mathematics Course

I was asked to write up my presentation at the recent conference of the ACMS (Association of Christians in the Mathematical Sciences).  The talk aimed to suggest that creation care could be the integrative focus in a mathematics course for non-technical students, combining quantitative themes with wider ethical, social and spiritual questions.

I've put the write-up online here.