Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Humility in Science and Politics

The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.

The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
 – Psalm 19: 1, 7

I sat in silence before God and His creation as I observed the beautiful sunrise over Lake Howard in Winter Haven, FL.  The march of brilliant gold and orange hues across the expanse of the morning sky above and the still waters of the lake below seemed to swallow me in the glory of God all around me. 

Sunrise over Lake Howard in Winter Haven, Florida
Beneath my perch on the boat dock, the water was coming alive through the movements of many tiny creatures awakening to the warmth of the sun’s rays. The shallow water teemed with algae, protozoa, and arthropods.  Fish swam amid the littoral grasses and blooming pickerelweed.  A pair of ducks creased the golden glassy surface of the lake as they swam effortlessly in front of me.  Overhead, hundreds of martins and a few herons and ibises graced the sky.

While a myriad of biotic interactions of Lake Howard responded to the rising sun, the sound of automobile and truck traffic around the lake reminded me of the human population of Winter Haven.  Commuters, tourists, and seasonal migrants (“snowbirds”) interact with the natural and built landscape around the lake, each one contributing to the local economy.  My mind drifted to thoughts of the complexity of the “still somewhat free market” economy of America.  I was humbled and awed once again by its capacity to provide goods and services in spite of the tendency of humans toward greed and depravity.  Adam Smith attributed the seemingly unexplainable workings of the market economy to an “invisible hand.”

Now, the sun has appeared at the horizon to my right and I must shift my gaze away from it lest the energy of its life-giving rays damage the visual receptors of my eyes.  I was reminded that many times in Scripture, men have responded to the glory of God with reverent fear lest they “see God and die” (e.g. Exodus 24:9-11).  Likewise, we must respect the workings of God’s creation, learning to fear and respect the power of sun, torrential rain, lightning, tornado, fire, and hurricane.  Each of these fearsome elements of the Earth are necessary in some form to support life.  But they each must have our humble respect if we are to avoid death.

Although no human can fully comprehend the complex workings of either an ecosystem or an economic system, we have been honored by our Creator as appointed stewards of both.  Today, the economy (from oikonomia (Gr.) = “management of a household”) looms large as a determiner of how humans interact with the creation, the so-called “natural world.”  Whereas, in pre-industrial days, most people interacted directly with the forces of nature to obtain food, clothing, and shelter, today most people interact through numerous and complex interactions of the market economy—still influenced by “the invisible hand.”

As the sun now shines above the lake, I am being serenaded by redwing blackbirds and warblers who, like my wife and I, are enjoying this warm, southern latitude before migrating north.  As egrets, ibises, and herons fly across Lake Howard, their vocal expressions join with the sounds of the bustling economy of Winter Haven.  I am humbled, though not nearly enough, at the thought of how blessed I am as an American to have freedom and access to essential elements for life and many amenities besides.

Whether necessity or amenity, each of our goods and services are procured and supplied by people willing to submit to a daily schedule of work and rest.  In return, each worker is rewarded with some wage or salary based on economic and ethical considerations of their employers.  In somewhat like manner, each nonhuman creature of Lake Howard must also labor to obtain food and shelter while avoiding nearby predators.  The reward for the effort of each nonhuman creature is food and survival for another hour, or another day.

Upon contemplating the rising of the sun, the awakening of an aquatic ecosystem, and the onset of another day of labor for farmers, fishermen, homemakers, teachers, health care workers, scientists, lawyers, and corporate executives, I sit in awe that our civilization functions as well as it does.  Who can comprehend the awesomeness of the threads holding it together?  And at the heart of it all is an essential element of moral and ethical commitment to love and respect our neighbor as ourselves.  Each worker has an essential daily role-- the mother who packs lunches and sees her children off to school, the bus driver who provides safe transportation, and the computer programmer who maintains essentials like traffic control, power grids, telecommunication, law enforcement, and national defense.

As I reflect on the wonder and complexity that has unfolded in front of me on this winter morning at the shore of a Florida lake, I am not only humbled, but I am also confronted with many questions.  What then should be the attitude of one who exercises “steward leadership” in our scientific and technological society?  Wouldn’t he recognize the complexity of creation, the challenge it is to quantify and model complex processes and interactions, and our proneness to error?  Wouldn’t she recognize the tendency to view creation in too narrow of terms that must give away to deeper understanding—e.g. recall how classical, Newtonian physics was expanded to quantum physics; or in genetics, the transition from “heritability of acquired characteristics” to Mendelian genetics?  In regard to the latter, is he or she aware of the pitfall of Lysenkoism, defined metaphorically as the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, often related to social or political objectives.  [See “Imagination that Contradicts the Reality of Science” Where I have noted how Trofim Lysenko diminished Russian progress in genetics because communist ideology bedded down with bad science.]

Considering the complexity of creation and human proneness to err in even the best science, steward leaders in science must insist on rigorous and repeated hypothesis testing, while providing for open communication and peer review of results in a scientific atmosphere free from “manipulation or distortion of the scientific process” for political gain.  For example, it is particularly disheartening to hear sweeping or derogatory statements about “climate change” from political leaders who know little about the challenge of modeling Earth’s climatology and predicting future climate trends.  Sec. John Kerry’s recent statement on climate change promotes Lysenkoism (metaphorically speaking) because he offers predetermined conclusions as dictated by ideological bias.  His derogatory tone discourages the open discourse necessary for scientific advancement of our understanding of Earth’s climate:

Climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction… We should not allow a tiny minority of shoddy scientists and extreme ideologues to compete with scientific facts.

A February morning at Lake Howard in Winter Haven, FL
Secretary Kerry’s leadership influence on climate science illustrates the urgent need for responsible steward leadership in federal, state, and local government?   Returning to my ponderings on Lake Howard, I thought about the role of steward leaders in government.  Are our “civil servants” aware of the depth of responsibility and opportunity as stewards to “do good” toward their constituents?  Do they even care?  Are they aware of the history of America which, though strewn with the evidence of the depravity of all humankind, is also strewn with evidence of great sacrifice, hard work, and faithful stewardship on the part of little known Americans?  Do our political leaders remember why our founding fathers structured our federal and state governments with checks and balances to avoid concentrating power in the hands of one or a few?  Indeed, do our political leaders remember that our rights come from Almighty God above and not from government--a government of the people, by the people, and for the people?   Finally, do they realize that, given the universal sin and depravity of mankind, laws must be justly enforced and due process of the law carried out to resist corruption of our institutions—homes, churches, schools, industries, governments, and financial institutions? 

The sun is now “climbing” in the sky above me and another day has begun not only along the shores of Lake Howard but all across the globe.  Suddenly, I’m reminded of Job’s response after hearing God speak:

I know that You can do all things,
And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.
'Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?'
Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
'Hear, now, and I will speak;
I will ask You, and You instruct me.' – Job 42: 2-4

Lord, I too have spoken of “things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”  I am only one of your creatures among many, both human and non-human creatures—all depending on your grace and provision.  Help me to do my part as a humble steward of the opportunities you have afforded to me; and, help me begin by loving you with all my heart, soul, and mind; and loving my neighbor as myself.  Amen.