Chaplains’ Corner: Appreciation for the scientific method

Valerie Bailey

Each day I read the news reports, looking for clues to a better understanding of COVID-19. My favorite news sources tend to validate scientific research, while the national discourse seems to question the authority of science.  This conflict is familiar to me. I grew up in a religious setting that questioned any kind of authority that was not either God or the Bible. This included science. I learned to doubt scientific research in my religious high school. As an 11th grader, I took an Advanced Biology class where each student was given a dead animal for several weeks to study. I ended up with a cat with kittens.  I remember studying the animal, dissecting and dismembering the poor animal. I was a cat person, but at the time, I wanted to study science in college, so I pushed aside the cat-lover feelings and continued working on the variety of assignments.

But the messaging from my school was unclear: Were we preparing for careers in science, which meant studying the scientific method? Or was this just a way of appreciating God’s creation? Or both? I suppose one could think about dissecting a cat as honoring God’s creation, but I thought this might have been better accomplished with a live cat and kittens. The mixed messages seemed to put a priority on ideology over science. This led to a great deal of confusion for me.

This confusion is what I experience when I read the news — this battle over an ideology that wants to challenge the science of COVID-19 — this awful thing that is causing illness and death. It seems like COVID-19 should be something that could be better understood through scientific inquiry. But some reports appear to assume that science is just another ideology. I think that more than ever, we need to learn that science is not an ideology.

The bleach advice is a good example. Many doctors and scientists have been giving practical advice based on research. The masks are recommended as a way of diminishing the effect of the potential of catching the coronavirus from particles expelled by a sick person via a sneeze or cough. This research suggests also to avoid connections between hands and faces. 

Then comes the ideology, where one story will claim that a mask is just your opinion and the need for testing is just an opinion and that all of these things are unnecessary.  Without scientific research, we begin to hear reports like, ‘Catching the virus from a sneeze or a cough is just an opinion.’ The preventative measures are a conspiracy of fabric stores to sell more materials to make masks. And using bleach is presented as a valid preventative measure that is as valid as others. See how things can get confusing? And by the way, scientific research says bleach is a very bad idea to use as a preventative measure for COVID-19. And making masks is a good idea — with various limitations.

If I learned anything from my dead cat with kittens, it is that this poor animal’s life was not worth being used to develop an ideology or a theology. Had this poor cat been used to teach me skills of identifying problems and asking questions and using tools to learn more about anatomy and physiology, then this cat (and the kittens) would not have died in vain. 

As we try to understand the news, and parse out the ideology from scientific inquiry, perhaps we need to continue to embrace the importance of scientific inquiry as having an authority that may lead to answers based in fact, not just opinion. I do not think this diminishes religious thought or practice. Religion and faith are completely different methods of inquiry from the scientific method. Religious inquiry is often based on tradition and experience. Scientific inquiry is different and, from my understanding, is grounded in research methods and previous questions, problems and solutions. But I defer to scientists to better explain scientific inquiry.

I do think the answers we are looking for in relation to COVID-19 are beyond opinion. We need to know how these diseases and cures work.  And to that end, I pray that we can find a better understanding of the coronavirus, a possible vaccine and other means of bringing healing to the world. This means we need the scientists, not the pundits. I hope the news reports will get better at knowing the difference between ideology and scientific research.

Rev. Valerie Bailey Fischer is Chaplain to the College and Protestant Chaplain.