- Paul and Bill welcomed Stephen Barr, Ph.D., president of the Society of Catholic Scientists (SCS), for a return visit to TSSM. Dr. Barr, a theoretical particle physicist, is emeritus professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware. We talked with him about the Society of Catholic Scientists and the organization’s fourth annual conference, scheduled June 4-6, 2021, in Washington, DC.
- The growing membership of SCS now totals about 1,500 in multiple countries. The organization was founded in 2016 by Dr. Barr and five other scientists. Barr, author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, described the upcoming conference, which is titled “Extraterrestrials, AI, and Minds Beyond the Human.” See details of the conference The SCS has posted an announcement about live-streaming of conference talks for those who have not registered to attend in-person.
- The talks will be livestreamed at https://catholicscientists.org/conference2021. The schedule of talks can be found HERE. During the talks, questions for the speakers can be emailed in to questionsSCS2021@gmail.com. As time permits, some questions will be selected from those emailed in and posed to the speakers during the Q&A sessions.
- Barr gave an overview of the event and the speakers.
- One of the speakers, Prof. Lawrence Principe, Ph.D., will also be the recipient of the Society’s Saint Albert Award. The award, bestowed annually, is named for St. Albert the Great, patron saint of the natural sciences. Dr. Principe, a historian of science at Johns Hopkins University, has been a leading voice in dispelling the myth of a historical conflict between science and religion, Dr. Barr pointed out. A course titled “Science and Religion” is offered by Principe through the “Great Courses” organization and is available online.
- The conference’s keynote speaker is Christopher Baglow, Ph.D., director of the Science & Religion Initiative in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Baglow, whose unique high school textbook Faith, Science, and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge has now been published in a second edition, was a guest on a previous episode of the TSSM podcast.
- Barr pointed out that, although the Society did not hold a conference in 2020, it greatly expanded its website, which now includes instructional materials about science and religion. One feature is a curated historical collection of concise bibliographies about important scientists who were practicing Catholics. Barr thanked his collaborator Andrew Kassebaum for that content, which is more authoritative than other online lists of “Catholic scientists.”
- The SCS continues to work to expand its services to teachers and students. The SCS website, at org, already contains numerous videos of talks from past conferences. Dr. Barr said the Society’s goals include facilitating wide-ranging intellectual and spiritual fellowship for Catholic scientists and helping to evangelize a secular culture that is infused with thoughts and messages prioritizing science and technology. The work of spreading the faith through science will increasingly use new media.
- Another form of evangelization is the Society’s support for Church celebrations of “Gold Masses” in numerous localities in the United States and elsewhere. Gold Masses, often planned as Votive Masses in honor of St. Albert the Great, are celebrated for members of the science professions. The Masses are part of the effort to increase the Society’s grass-roots activities through local and campus chapters.
- Paul and Bill are proud to present this encore episode featuring the Science and Religion Initiative featuring the Science & Religion Initiative program conducted by the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. In 2019, we interviewed Chris Baglow, Ph.D., director of the program, which equips Catholic high school educators with big-picture insights and detailed tools to communicate effectively regarding the complementarity of faith and reason, science and religion.
- We spoke with Prof. Baglow about topics covered in his recently published book, the second edition of Faith, Science, & Reason. He will be keynote speaker at the 2021 conference of the Society of Catholic Scientists, scheduled for June 4–6 in Washington, DC. Find information about the conference
- We also spoke with Jay Martin, Ph.D., a scholar in systematic theology who was the Science & Religion Initiative’s assistant director and is now Assistant Teaching Professor in Notre Dame’s Department of Theology.
- The initiative, with support from the Templeton Foundation, encourages a coordinated approach to educating young Catholics, helping them to avoid the trap of a focus on science as an exclusive source of truth and “real” knowledge. Such a focus can drive students away from the Catholic Church’s wisdom and values if it dismisses religious faith as meaningless—not worth serious engagement in their minds and hearts.
Life is pretty intense for Paul these days. We present this interview with Megan Levis from the 2019 Society of Catholic Scientists archives, every bit as relevant now as it was then. It was originally presented as two episodes.
- Megan Levis is a fifth-year graduate student in bioengineering at the University of Notre Dame. The topic of her talk at the annual conference of the Society of Catholic Scientists was “Created in the Image and Likeness of Man.” She described the University’s bioengineering program.
- Growing what can be deemed the beginnings of a human brain, for purposes of research, invites important ethical considerations. Levis has found resources at and through Notre Dame for deeper study of the responsibilities entailed in such research. She has worked with the John J. Reilly Center on science, technology and values. She has also been part of the Leadership Advancing Socially Engaged Research (LASER) program within the Graduate School.
- Levis participated in an NSF-supported workshop on engineering design principles of multicellular living systems. Such workshops reflect a growing nationwide interest in the ethical and societal ramifications of rapidly developing technology related to systems of living things. The interest is prompting collaboration among philosophers, scientists, ethicists and engineers.
- It’s a false dichotomy to separate faith and engineering. Levis said her advisor [Jeremiah Zartman] has been supportive of integrating values-related concerns, and that integration has made her research better. Now that there is an increased focus in bioengineering on the transfer, or translation, of knowledge from the lab bench to hospitals and clinical practice, the assessment of ethical implications is even more important.
- Organoids are systems built from human cells that begin to look like an organ. In this new field, it’s important to create room for philosophical understanding, but right now the field is dominated by engineers and scientists largely using terms that sound like clunky jargon. Philosophy tells us we need to define our terms better, Levis said. We need better ways to describe what’s going on in accessible ways that allow for ethical thinking. Engineers tend to look at every component in its specifics, but there is value in seeing how one thing is similar to something else so both may come under similar ethical principles.
- This is the second half of TSSM’s interview with Megan Levis. We talked at greater length about this graduate student’s research and its good fit with values-informed thought, with the Society of Catholic Scientists, and even literature. The Society held its third annual conference at the University of Notre Dame a few months ago.
- In Megan’s presentation to the scientists at the SCS annual conference, she posed the question: How do you distinguish and exercise ethical responsibilities when something like brain organoids are “made in the image and likeness of man rather than the image and likeness of God.” Organoids are multicellular systems built from brain tissue. Are they just cell cultures or something so akin to the human being—particularly when they are brain organoids—that ethical duties arise out of respect for human dignity? This is a relatively new field where the scientific understanding and moral consideration still must develop in tandem, she explained. A New York Times article touched on some of the questions being raised.
- Megan’s own main research project as part of her graduate studies at Notre Dame deals with microfluidics. They are devices, a kind of miniature bio-reactor, in which researchers can grow cells and small organs. Her goal is to make it easier and less expensive to make microfluidics that can be used in future research. Here are resources on microfluidics from the journal Nature.
- Her collaborations in this area came about from her meeting with a leader in microfluidics technology, Dr. Fernando Ontiveros, while they were both attending a previous SCS conference. His team is exploring new applications for microfluidics, such as the growing of organoids.
- At what point should moral concerns tied to the dignity of the human person “kick in” when dealing with the brain and brain organoids? Where do you as a person reside in the body? The existence of a capacity for rational thought is a conventional scientific benchmark for the existence of personhood, Megan said. There are many theories of the complex brain-mind-body connection with personhood. The human person is a complex creature, not reducible to the brain or body alone. Here’s an exploration of some insights from National Geographic.
- There is a real role for literature in helping us to explore the many questions that combine operational questions of engineering and more abstract, integrated thinking about persons, Megan says. She recommends renowned author Walker Percy, who explored such subjects in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. He comments that being a human is inevitably an uncomfortable process involving tensions within our nature. Our culture tends to look to science for answers to the big questions of human nature, but literature and art are pathways to answers too; literature allows us to think without predispositions and suppositions, to discover truths about ourselves and the world that transcend scientifically measurable parts. As Megan put it, the ability to wonder about the world is a gift that is transmitted sometimes through engineering and sometimes through literature and art.
- Megan has been able to work with Ontiveros while he has done research and prepared journal articles at Notre Dame. With the support of mentors and advisors, she has embraced opportunities at Notre Dame and elsewhere to spend time thinking about faith and science in relationship. She attended a conference with like-minded graduate students interested in these connections. She has appreciated the insights of SCS president Stephen Barr and microbiologist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP, a speaker at this year’s SCS conference. Barr is the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.
- Austriaco has recorded a podcast available through the Thomistic Institute titled The Science and Practice of Christian Prayer.
- What does Megan recommend for graduate students and others who want to advance in their bioengineering studies while staying informed and mindful about the faith-related aspects? She highlights the power of community, building friendships and conversations over time with a diverse range of people on similar journeys, including philosophy and science. One can attend relevant lectures and conferences, such as those sponsored by Notre Dame’s De Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. She recommends the resources of the Collegium Institute. Building and updating such mindfulness is a long-term process requiring persistence, she adds.
This episode had to be rushed in due to Paul's travel schedule. He got to visit a location peculiarly dear to his heart, Lander, Wyoming, and give a talk at Wyoming Catholic College. It's just Paul's cut of the raw audio, bonus-episode style, since we had to record it Sunday afternoon. Paul and Bill discuss the visit and the substance of his field exercise, including how the ideas of our friend Nicolaus Steno and the 18th century James Hutton play out in a live outdoor setting: Derby Dome in the Wind River Basin, or as it is most often called these days, Johnny behind the Rocks.
- Our guest, economics professor Dr. Aida Ramos, returned for further conversation after Episode 114. She pointed to wisdom in papal encyclicals from the past that we still need to tap into today—for the sake of just and reasonable arrangements in society and the economy. The granddaddy of these encyclicals is Rerum Novarum, from Pope Leo XIII in 1891. Forty years later, Pope Pius XI issued Quadragesimo Anno.
- Words are important, we noted in our discussion. The root for the word subsidiarity, which is a key concept in Catholic Social Thought, comes from the Latin for assistance or help. The origins of the word economics trace back to the management of a household, which incorporated a sense of stewardship, seeking the good for all persons connected with a household.
- Ramos pointed out that the appeal of Catholic Social Thought is by no means limited to Catholics or the Church. This wisdom is compatible with a broader legacy of insights deep in the Western intellectual tradition. She discussed economic insights embodied in the Acts of Union of 1707 in Great Britain, as described in her book, Shifting Capital.
- Historical figures who helped to shape ideas of economic justice through their expertise and their advocacy regarding the Acts of Union included Sir James Stewart. Dr. Ramos also mentioned Adam Smith, the 18th century economist and moral philosopher whose book The Wealth of Nations argues for the wisdom of free market capitalism. Henry George, a 19th century economist, also contributed to the secular intellectual trends which ran counter to the individual-utility principles of today’s neoclassical economics.
- Echoes of the notions more inclined toward common-good thinking are expected to receive attention in a new introductory economics textbook now being written by development economist Jeffrey Sachs. This will integrate concepts of subsidiarity and common-good motivation, which have a long history in secular discussion and are outlined cogently in Catholic Social Thought.
- Brad Stalcup joins Paul and Bill in this episode to talk about his recent entry into the world of Catholic education. He began teaching religion to high school freshmen and sophomores in this fall semester of 2020—a time that Paul describes as a “baptism of fire” because of Covid-19 and today’s unusual circumstances overall.
- The vast majority of the approximately 120 students in Brad’s various classes is learning in-person, but there are several who are “live-streamers,” participating in the courses through distance-learning. The school is located in the region around Cleveland, OH.
- It’s a labor of love, not overwhelming, and “I’ve got great students,” Brad says He has not surveyed the classes to find out which ones identify themselves as Catholic, but the vast majority are Catholic and probably 50 percent are practicing Catholics in the sense of weekly Mass attendance. There is definitely a Catholic identity in this high-powered school, “which I’m grateful for,” Brad says.
- There is an eagerness to learn, especially among the freshmen, he says. He recalls that his own freshman year was a bit of an iffy time, and he wanted to help young people not fall into the trap of a slow start in high school, perhaps accompanied by theological doubt. The bottom line for sophomores is that they try to predict and give the teacher the “right answer.”
- Two key messages to Brad’s approach to the freshmen: God does stuff. And your life matters. Because of scientific materialism, there’s a temptation to think life doesn’t matter because humans are actually reduced to a tiny bit of matter drifting through space. For the sophomores: God desires your happiness. And He invites you into relationship. Church only makes sense in the context of relationship, Brad points out. His principal goal is to rid them of “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” which already shows up in students’ papers—when they say, “God is there for you,” for example
- Brad says he likes using poetry, particularly “The Hound of Heaven.” It makes both of the two points he wants to focus on with freshmen. He adds that it’s important to present certain things as true while also leaving room for questions. Or else they will build a wall around their heart. Thomas Aquinas himself asked the question, “Does God exist?” so it’s a worthy question to think about. Ceasing to believe in God drives a wedge between science and God. Today’s focus on science is for things that happen on earth and God is for my spiritual fulfillment. When they start conflicting, our culture encourages scientistic This involves incorporating faith and reason together in a healthy way—leaving room for questions, having them think about life in non-scientific ways.
- Learning science involves asking questions just like learning religion. The tendency in students is to think they can memorize answers, in both, but there are more constructive ways to teach both.
or Paving Paradise and the Parking Lots
Bill and Paul discuss attitudes toward masks, and then consider why the science wasn't more settled on the subject long before Covid-19. We discuss the obsession of modern society with all things novel and consider how this plays out in science, politics, and our individual lives and families.
1. A discussion of masks as defenses against the pandemic led Paul and Bill to ponder how scientific knowledge about the functionality of these masks for the common good is not always viewed as a fundamental, enduring value. In our media, the mask discussion gets wrapped up in political and symbolic and power-struggle considerations. The methodical pursuit of knowledge based on shared values and needs has been partly replaced by a marketplace of ideas that gets bored with what we know. Support for ideas gets hijacked by pursuits of vaguely defined notions of progress which are relativistic and individualistic and not systematically carried out through time.
2. Paul pointed out that he sees in the world of science that there are some surprising gaps in knowledge about certain things that resulted partly from people seeing no particular motivation—or research grant money—to drive knowledge forward. With some important exceptions, knowledge in some fields grows more randomly than through a coordinated sense of purpose. Paul recalled an earlier discussion about “p values” that can fail to give researchers the persistence born of confidence that next stages of knowledge will give us what we need to solve problems in a meaningful way.
3. As Paul put it, a “p value” may tell you the likelihood of your data given your hypothesis, but what we’d really like is to know the likelihood of our hypothesis given our data.
4. Bill pointed out that traditional notions of the university seemed to have a more obvious commitment to nurturing, collecting, and spreading knowledge so that it could become the reliable framework for incrementally building new knowledge that brings us closer to solving problems. But there is a notion in the present-day university—and in the marketplace, as Paul agreed—that progress is gained through disruption—dismissing or dismantling or deconstructing current knowledge because it isn’t as exciting or satisfying as a march toward future knowledge can be. That knowledge is seen as inherently better, Bill said, but our eager disregard of today’s knowledge suggests we will treat tomorrow’s knowledge in the same dismissive way. So we’re moving but not really expecting to get anywhere better as a society.
5. We’re caught up in the search for novelty. We’re looking for the next revolutionary thing that makes old learning moot. Shouldn’t we be trying to build and improve upon the good parts of the status quo. Can we find a golden mean between a love for innovation and a desire for preservation (a conformism?) that values the knowledge already acquired. In some sectors, has innovation been redefined at its very roots? Are we disinterested in the long-term trajectories of our human engagements and projects? Are we only focused on doing what’s new, bigger, and better in the current moment, leaving little interest in yesterday or tomorrow?
6. We’re describing a disposable mindframe. Today’s sense of urgency amid impending crises can make us so focused on new action for its own sake that we are willing to disrupt or tear down much of our current life and the history that brought us here. There seems to be too little argument in favor of recognizing the good things we have achieved and our responsibility to conserve/preserve these things. We have so much social capital built up over time, we feel less responsibility to preserve current sources of stability and sustainability. It seems okay to tear these things down. In periods of human history where survival has been more at stake, where there has been less of a cushion of social capital, the marketplaces of ideas and capital have more doggedly pursued incremental change which values and builds upon what has come before. On a grand scale, we don’t expect to feel a pain of loss, but at the personal and spiritual level, people are feeling the pain of loss, fear for the future, dislocation and disconnection, all the time. Indeed, our overall happiness as a society has eroded.
7. People have come to see the future as so urgently problematic that they’re more willing to quickly and readily dispose of stuff from the past without allowing any grounded time or space for wise transitions. No one is coaching us to press pause.
Audio editing by Morgan Burkart.
This is part 2 of our interview with Richard Garrett, author of The Kids Are Smart Enough, So What’s the Problem?
Find an overview of his distinguished career in this story about Dick’s zeal for researching and promoting education reform. (The story was written for Purdue’s College of Engineering by Bill last year.)
Dick’s book traces his growing concerns about problems in public elementary education. Those concerns led to extensive research from a business executive’s perspective, applying systems analysis skills from his background in engineering. Our interview probed not only the findings from that research, but even more current knowledge of education reform efforts which Dick continues to harvest and share. He has created an online gallery of videos for the general public, explicating what he has learned about educational-outcome statistics and various efforts to improve the outcomes. The videos are part of his “Elevate Teachers” website, which champions robust investments to help both teachers and students succeed.
...or as Paul wanted to put it, "Lies, D--d lies, and p-values."
- This episode contains a conversation between Paul and Bill in which you’ll learn new things about their experience in particular fields—geology and journalism, respectively—and where their zeal to harvest and connect information bumps up against troublesome uncertainty. You’re accustomed to hearing us as podcast co-hosts, sharing our opinions and our interviews with experts to explore insights at the intersection of science, everyday human experience, and the values of theology and philosophy. We welcome an audience that, like us, hungers to understand the details that well-informed research provides—in light of the wonder, mystery, and uncertainty that we complex human creatures provide. We embrace deeper and broader consideration and communication, and these values feed into our “day jobs,” which involve writing, teaching, consulting, and more.
- Paul’s efforts to dig more deeply into the methods of purposeful scientific learning recently prompted him to enroll in a data-science “boot camp”—an intense, 12-week course offered by an organization called Metis. He wants to extract every bit of value from the oceans of data generated in this world. Or at least he wants the value that will serve his own colleagues and clients as he tackles projects and secondarily adds content to “Dr. G’s Blog,” named for him—Dr. Giesting. One of his guiding maxims is mentioned here: “No Data Left Behind.”
- (Testifying to the diversity of the “That’s So Second Millennium” duo, Bill likes to focus on story-telling for clients to describe various accomplishments of science and values, sometimes faith and reason. And he’s writing in his OnWord.net blog these days about crucial times in our world today that will require rich knowledge and deliberation alongside problem-solving strategies marked by prudent, civil, inclusive dialogues and inquiries. This is an example of the approach he’s formulating. But today’s podcast draws its energy mostly from the Paul’s recent ruminations.)
- Those thoughts include a look back at something called the “p-value.” Their discussion of p-values in the world of scientific statistics led Paul and Bill into consideration of the co-existence of intellectual rigors necessary to the practice of research and unavoidable uncertainties inherent in the real-world application of data-driven knowledge. That co-existence of firm principles and subjective interpretation turns out to be a phenomenon that both co-hosts have experienced in their respective fields. They agreed that the pursuit of more and more data, nurtured by practicality and idealistic values, is a beautiful thing, but it’s not always possible. In many cases where a specific project is choosing and using a finite set of data, the consumers of scientific or journalistic information have reason to quote the skeptic’s famous aphorism that “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
- Bill cited examples from the past reporting of political polls, which too easily can neglect important nuances that should influence an audience’s interpretation. Both Bill and Paul noted that, during the Covid-19 crisis, the public is seeing science and its generation of statistics play out in real time, with massive policy implications, and the practice of “objective” science now seems to many people as iffy and subjective as theology-based interpretations of the world. That’s ironic since observers have said the availability of scientific certainty and experiential knowledge has driven them away from religion as a poor, mythological substitute for reality.
- Neither co-host called for a dismissal of the knowledge gained through religion, philosophy, or statistics; after all, in many policy matters surrounded by uncertainty, statistics are a huge part of the guidance empowering human reason. But there is much going on behind the scenes at every point in a statistics-driven exercise, with some of that context warranting caution in our binary decisions about importance and implementation. Paul acknowledged that he encountered this in preparing his capstone report for the Metis data-science program. Scientists have grappled with ways to assess the validity of some data, the replicability of some experiments, and the dominance of some assumptions about statistical analysis. Indeed, the “p-value” suggests good examples of doubts that have arisen.
- This podcast discussion did not unearth any solutions for doubts about statistical findings, but it did prompt a meeting of the minds. Both the scientist and the journalist determined that all of us seeking to optimize understanding for reasonable policies and practices must continue our zealous pursuit and values-informed stewardship of data.
Image by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay