Tuesday, August 27, 2013

One-Eyed Science, One-Eyed History

            Let me begin with two anecdotes:
            One day many years ago I was walking down a hallway in a chapel in Sterling, Virginia. Walking towards me was our Relief Society President. As she came near, she suddenly grabbed both my lapels and shoved me into the wall, her nose inches from mine.
            “Have you any idea of what you have done?!??” she demanded.
            My mind raced, but all I could say was “Uhhh…”
            “As the counselor to the Bishop you have been setting apart sisters in the Relief Society as they receive new callings. As the Relief Society President I have been recording these. Several months ago in separate blessings you told two sisters that they would have more children. One sister has MS, and the other is 44 years old and newly married. BOTH had been told by their doctors that they would never have more children. BOTH ARE PREGNANT. “
            It took a while for me to realize that (a) I had done nothing egregiously wrong, and (b) Jinx was not mad at me. Both women gave birth to little boys. The father of one held my right hand in both of his and thanked me repeatedly. The second little boy, whose name I will never forget, lived just a few days. His parents asked me to join them at Fairfax, VA, General Hospital to give this infant a name and a blessing. I drove down to the hospital with a deep sense of foreboding. As his father and I held his tiny body, and blessed him, he was struggling for all he was worth just to breathe. He died shortly afterwards, and for weeks afterwards I cried every time I thought of him, which was often. I’m tearing up as I write this, in fact, more than 30 years later. His parents, however, were calm as a summer morning. They told me later that they knew where this child had come from, and where he had gone. He was in the hands of a loving God, forever part of their family now, and waiting for them on The Other Side.
            Another anecdote:
            Many of us during our lifetimes will have to wear an eye-patch. We may have amblyopia (“wandering eye”) as a child, or we may have an infection, or we may scratch the cornea by rubbing the eye when sand gets into it. There may be an injury, temporary or permanent. Whenever we wear an eye-patch we have what is called mono-vision. We no longer have stereo vision, and our depth perception is seriously impaired. We may stumble over a curb or doorway, we may walk into a door jamb. We are visually crippled, and we have continuing problems from our one-eyed vision, though we may partially adapt to the condition.
            What have these two stories have in common? Consider the following.
            In science we must evaluate the data that we collect, and there are always arguments on how we do this. As I write this there are at least two major schools of how to use statistics in science: how to calculate a numerical probability, from a given set of data, that a certain answer or conclusion is true. The main schools of thought are called Bayesian and Fisherian. The former school teaches that a prior understanding – an eye on what we think are the physical processes involved – must be built into the calculation, and there is a deceptively simple equation to do that. Implicit in this is that we are thinking about the larger picture – the underlying principles. The Fisherian statistical school on the other hand, which dominates the biology field at this time, believes that all information is contained only in the dataset. To these scientists a prior understanding is only a bias, and must be discounted, or it’s not good science.
            However, any scientist who has collected data knows that where there are data, there is always noise: random noise, systemic noise, measurement noise. The tendency to evaluate all the data blindly means that in many cases we are trying to fit a solution to noise. In simplest terms, this is trying to draw a curve through dots scattered all over a graph. A least-squares-fit line or curve drawn through some data points is called a regression fit, or just a regression. If there is significant noise, this line can tilt in a number of different directions depending on how the points are “weighted” – how important the scientist thinks the outliers are. In simplest terms, we are trying to make sense out of junk. We are giving weight to noise, and this means that we are often just trying to put lipstick on a pig.
            This leads, as you can imagine, to study after study that contradicts other earlier studies on the same topic. One has only to read the popular science magazines or the morning news to become painfully aware that “science” disagrees with itself at least as often as it agrees. In one study of drug research papers, less than 15% of scientific results reported could be replicated by other independent science teams. Should you take vitamin C to strengthen your immune system – or avoid it because it leads to greater cancer likelihood? Does hormone replacement therapy (HRT) lead to greater or lesser likelihood of heart attacks or cancer in post-menopausal women? There are scientific papers that support all of these conclusions. As mentioned elsewhere in this book, one current magazine even has a section titled “Health Scare of the Week.”
            Where are these disparate lines of thought leading? Are we looking at the forest or just seeing a tree? Are we letting something that is just noise become disproportionately important over everything else? Are we missing the big picture?
            In a talk given by Jeffrey R. Holland or the Quorum of Twelve Apostles titled “Lord, I believe,” he relates the story of the man with the thrashing son, who says “Lord, I believe. Help Thou mine unbelief” [see Mark 9:22–24; also verses 14–21]. Elder Holland goes on to note that there are people who, despite much of a lifetime in the Church, will find some small item that really upsets them. They may not understand why the Mountain Meadows Massacre took place, why a Church leader (Relief Society President, Bishop, General Authority, President of the Church) did or said something. I personally know people who have left the Church over such issues, or are unwilling to forgive some offense, or cannot reconcile some remote event in Church history.
            I count myself among these. A Mormon family once instructed their six children to attack my 8-yr-old son whenever they encountered him playing in our neighborhood cul-de-sac. This went on for a week before we accidentally found out what was going on. They later queried their 5-year-old again, and then acknowledged that, well, Jared had actually NOT struck their 3-year-old, but by that time the damage was done and there was anger on both sides. The idea of encountering that couple in the Church hallways led me to suggest to my wife, who had taken the brunt of the social ostracism, that we simply stop attending Church. I will never forget her response. Last I checked, this was CHRIST’S Church, not XYZ’s church!
            Elder Holland’s key point is this: hang onto the things you KNOW. Do not be afraid to seek answers for something that bothers you, but at the same time don’t throw everything else out for one or two negative things that bother or offend you.  In his words, Now, with the advantage that nearly 60 years give me since I was a newly believing 14-year-old, I declare some things I now know. I know that God is at all times and in all ways and in all circumstances our loving, forgiving Father in Heaven. I know Jesus was His only perfect child, whose life was given lovingly by the will of both the Father and the Son for the redemption of all the rest of us who are not perfect. I know He rose from that death to live again, and because He did, you and I will also. I know that Joseph Smith, who acknowledged that he wasn’t perfect, was nevertheless the chosen instrument in God’s hand to restore the everlasting gospel to the earth. I also know that in doing so—particularly through translating the Book of Mormon—he has taught me more of God’s love, of Christ’s divinity, and of priesthood power than any other prophet of whom I have ever read, known, or heard in a lifetime of seeking. I know that President Thomas S. Monson, who moves devotedly and buoyantly toward the 50th anniversary of his ordination as an Apostle, is the rightful successor to that prophetic mantle today. We have seen that mantle upon him again in this conference. I know that 14 other men whom you sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators sustain him with their hands, their hearts, and their own apostolic keys.”—Jeffrey R. Holland, April 2013 Ensign, p. 96.
            I remember the little boy improbably born to the mother who had MS, and how he came to dwell for a short time on this Earth. I remember uncounted priesthood blessings that suddenly healed me, or in one case brought a man out of a 4-day coma as I laid my hands on his head. I still keep the list of the 13 steps that all had to happen in sequence for our family to move to Venezuela, where incredible adventures and opportunities awaited all of us. A failure to complete just one of the complicated steps would have aborted the entire three-year stay. A few of these events and blessings would have been remarkable coincidences, but the aggregate of them all is immense.
            My counsel is this: Don’t get all wrapped up in a single tree. Look at the entire forest. If you feel your faith is being shaken by something, first consider who benefits from this? Then remember this from Elder Holland’s talk:When doubt or difficulty come, do not be afraid to ask for help. If we want it as humbly and honestly as this father did, we can get it. The scriptures phrase such earnest desire as being of “real intent,” pursued “with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God.”11 I testify that in response to that kind of importuning, God will send help from both sides of the veil to strengthen our belief. –ibid.
            This requires some patience, or a little faith, however you wish to view it.
            But from my vantage point, it’s so very, very worth it. Your long-term happiness depends on this.