Life in the Lab | The BioLogos Forum

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Intro by Kathryn Applegate: The BioLogos blog is currently on hiatus from regular content as we prepare for the launch of a major website revision. In the meantime, we are running bits from some of our favorite books on faith and science. Today’s selection picks up in the middle of a chapter called “Life in the Lab,” which is about the rhythm and process of doing science. Ruth points out that most people who read about scientific discoveries have almost no idea how they were made. Oh, how I wish someone had handed me a book like this when I was a first-year grad student, or better yet, a science major in college! I especially love the section called “Ignorance.” Doing science isn’t about mastering what’s known (though knowing your field is critical); it’s about feeling around in the dark. It wasn’t until my fourth year in graduate school when I read an essay on the same topic by an eminent scientist in my field, which brought an enormous sense of relief and understanding: oh, you’re supposed to feel stupid in science! The fact that your ignorance is nearly infinite isn’t discouraging, it’s liberating! “Conscious ignorance,” Einstein reminds us, helps us ask the right questions.

So what has to happen before the corks can be fired? We might hear the story of a eureka moment when someone realizes, “So that’s how it works!” and suddenly a whole area of science changes as everyone rushes to use this new piece of information, but that’s not how scientific discoveries usually happen. For most scientists, finding something out is a very gradual process of seeing things coming together.

A discovery in biology often starts with a new PhD student nervously beginning their project. There are long days in the lab, and many false turns, before the first promising data emerges. These results are presented to critical colleagues who suggest further experiments. Others might come on board to help with certain aspects of the project. New experiments are designed, and months are spent testing different ideas. The final pieces of data are generated, and then they spend long days bent over a hot computer writing a dense and meticulously referenced paper. The paper is submitted to a journal, the anonymous reviewers give some feedback, a few more experiments must be done, then resubmission and a long wait. Finally the paper is accepted and the whole research group joins in the celebration.

The above story of the student is only the simplest possible version of events. The process of producing successful research can involve large numbers of people over several years, international collaborations, promising leads that go stale, and surprising results from unexpected places. And everyone has their blind spots: a bias, a pet theory, or a student who botched one of their experiments and failed to confess it.

In almost every instance of scientific discovery, no single experiment will do, no lab can change the course of history, and no individual can go it alone. Every major development is a painstaking building up of multiple layers of evidence by many people, and each paper and its champagne celebration is just a small milestone along the way. It’s very telling that Nobel prizes are usually awarded many years after a discovery is made. The work must be tried and tested thoroughly before anyone can say the course of scientific history has been changed.

What does good science look like?

Harvey McMahon has seen his fair share of celebrations. When I asked him what good science looks like, his replies covered both technique and people management. People do experiments and guide research projects, so to do science well you need to understand human nature. He started by saying that “a student needs to start with experiments that are actually achievable. Progress in science is often limited by what can be done rather than what you feel you should be able to do”. I can’t help feeling that would be a good principle for life in general.

McMahon works closely with his students to help them develop their experimental technique. “The first result is exciting for the student because they have done something new, so they should enjoy that moment and show off their results to everybody. But experiments are only believable if they can be reproduced, so you get them to do it again two or three times. If the same data keep coming up you take that result apart and figure out all the different reasons why it looks that way.”

Some of this interpretation will be interesting and some will be very mundane. One of the questions Harvey asks is, “Is the data significant, or was the equipment not calibrated properly?” The next set of experiments that person designs will include control samples to test for those possibilities, and also several other ways of checking the result. “The second round of results will almost certainly produce a more complete answer,” said Harvey, “a small piece of real information about the question they are trying to answer. Eventually what you are hoping for is that each individual will contribute much more than the pieces of information themselves. They will contribute useful knowledge.”

Success in science also involves having good intuition. For Harvey, this means “getting the best information and putting it all together in the light of your own experience, constantly questioning what you are doing and making sure the next experiment is not just a random shot in the dark. You need to know the techniques that are more likely to work, and which are most accurate. We now have access to an amazing number of techniques, so you do the experiment first one way and then another”. This principle is a bit like doing a sum and then subtracting the numbers afterwards to see if you did it right the first time. The other thing to do is ask questions that might disprove what you’ve done. Trying to prove yourself wrong is a rigorous way to do science.

When I asked Harvey about “eureka moments”, he said that “sometimes new paradigms come about almost imperceptibly. Someone publishes a paper here, then another person does work that agrees or disagrees with it there, and then half a dozen other people say they found it first. You never know when to celebrate, but at some point you need to open the champagne bottle and enjoy your achievement.”

Harvey described the first time, about fifteen years ago, when he found evidence that the shape of a cell was determined by proteins embedded in its outer membrane. “Nowadays that seems completely trivial,” he explained, “but nobody agreed with me then. So I had arguments with absolutely everybody in the canteen about it.” Those conversations helped him to come up with different ways to defend his theory, and determined the course of his work in the lab. “I found people who were willing to do experiments with me, and we got evidence that proteins shape membranes. Nowadays people accept it, but initially it was a hunch that developed very, very slowly.”


The picture of science I have painted so far is a far cry from what most of us learn at school. As a PhD student in Edinburgh I joined a church that was conveniently located next to a number of good pubs. Some of us used to pile into one of these establishments after the Sunday evening service, and the ensuing conversation ranged from “Who are you?” (it was a big church) to discussions of the sermon we had just heard, and other more philosophical issues.

On one of these Sunday pub nights I sat next to a photography student, and when I introduced myself as a geneticist she said something along the lines of, “All those facts and figures are not for me, I’m an arts student.” Rather than just moving on, which would have been infinitely easier, I tried to explain why I thought science was more than a bunch of facts.

We started out by talking about textbooks. No matter how well written a scientific textbook might be or how lavish its illustrations, it is unlikely to make it onto anyone’s bedside table except during exam time. I pointed out that textbooks have their place, but the dynamic nature of science means that they’re out of date before they’re printed.

I explained that the job of scientists (such as McMahon and his lab members) is to go to the shelf of unanswered questions, pick out one they know a bit about and think they can tackle, take it to the lab and start looking for answers. As they work they’ll find things out but they’ll also discover more questions, some of which they investigate and some of which are put on the shelf for later. As soon as they begin to make progress they start putting together a scientific paper. After they’ve published their article, celebrated, and had a bit of sleep, they throw their new paper gleefully over their shoulder and run back to the shelf of unanswered questions. What next? What about that thing that looked weird in the last experiment, is that worth following up? Let’s test the theory we just published even further – does it apply in other circumstances? Every stage in the enquiry is a step closer to a truer understanding of the world.

My friend was surprised, and said she would have found science much more exciting if it had been presented that way at school. It’s sometimes difficult to get the message across that science is a process and not an encyclopedia at the same time as cramming heads full of knowledge, but science teachers need to shout it as loudly as possible before any more young people are duped into thinking that science is boring.


In the real world of science, a certain kind of ignorance drives forward the process of investigation. Harvey McMahon told me how he got a reputation as a talker when he was a post-doc in the USA, and was invited to attend the lab meetings of Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein. These two men ran an unusual joint lab, collaborated together on cholesterol research, and won a Nobel Prize for their work. Harvey said that “they used to invite me along to their lab meeting simply because I used to always ask questions and they like people to ask questions”. In return, he got to learn about some of the best research happening at the time. Clearly the drive to find out “Why?” and “What’s that?” is still important to successful science.

Taking this idea even further, a neuroscientist from Columbia University has written a book called Ignorance: How it Drives Science. The author, Stuart Firestein, describes how he loved lab science, but found teaching a bit of a struggle. The problem was that he was following the textbook, and had forgotten to highlight the unknown areas or rival theories. He had missed out the most interesting bits.

Firestein’s analogy for scientific research is that it’s like looking for a black cat in a dark room. “It’s groping and probing and poking, and some bumbling and bungling…” Eventually someone finds a light switch, and a solution is revealed. Everyone exclaims, “Oh, wow, so that’s how it looks,” then they troop into the next dark room. This process is exciting to scientists, so when left to themselves they tend to talk about what is unknown, rather than the contents of books. As Marie Curie said, “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done…”

So to counteract his unthinking tendency to teach only the known, Firestein created a new course called Ignorance. The quandary is, do you want a good mark or a bad one in Ignorance 101? And would you want to be asked to teach on it? Thankfully, Firestein’s colleagues accepted his invitation to present the most puzzling problems in their field, and it was a popular course. This perceptive sort of ignorance leads to good questions and successful research programmes. As Einstein said, “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.”


Excerpt from GOD IN THE LAB: HOW SCIENCE ENHANCES FAITH by Ruth M. Bancewicz. Reprinted by arrangement with Monarch Books, an imprint of Lion Hudson PLC (UK). Copyright © 2015 by Ruth M. Bancewicz

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Albert Leo) #4

quote="system, post:1, topic:2541"
As Einstein said, “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.”
[/quote]This is one of the greatest inducements of following a career in science. It’s only human nature to show off what one knows. And yet, when one acknowledges ignorance in a certain area, and especially if it appears that everyone else is in the same boat, it provides strong motivation to find a way to reduce the amount of ignorance in the world. An outstanding example of this in my field, chemistry, is that of Lavoisier, who intuitively felt that the phlogiston theory, although espoused by famous chemist like Priestly, left science woefully ignorant of what really was happening when logs were burning in a fireplace. It was Lavoisier’s admission of ignorance and his desire to lessen it that led to the understanding of the role of oxygen in the process of oxidation.

I just finished reading Christopher Wright’s book, “The God I Don’t Understand”. He had previously written three books with titles beginning: ‘Knowing God’. And so some of his friends thought, with the fourth book, he might have lapsed into apostasy. Actually the later book was the result of Wright focusing on the areas of ignorance of God’s nature that remained after many years of progress toward that goal. In the Preface he states: “There are things I don’t understand about God that leave me morally disturbed. Some of these are things that happen in the Bible itself, and especially in the Old Testament.” [emphasis his]. High on the list of ‘disturbing factors’ was the destruction of the Canaanites to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham, and following ‘God’s law (??) of herem’ which certainly does smack of approved genocide.

I, for one, commend Wright’s admission of ignorance in some areas that have already received a great deal of attention, and to tackle them head-on. However, his statement further on in the Preface: “I hope to show that it is possible to be as clear as we can be on things that we do understand or should understand,[emphasis his] because God has made them clear in the Bible…”[emphasis mine] This seems somewhat at odds with the fact he found it necessary to write this book. Knowing that the human intellect is too feeble to really understand God, we should not be surprised that the Bible falls short of making it clear.
Al Leo

(Christy Hemphill) #5

I read it more that instead of manufacturing forced and at times downright disturbing “biblical” answers to questions the Bible doesn’t answer, we should focus and take comfort in the answers to the questions it does answer clearly. Why do innocent babies die painful deaths? There is no good answer, and frankly most attempts to come up with a why are sickening. Is there hope that someday justice will reign and every tear will be wiped away? Yes, we have a clear answer to that question, and we can take comfort in that even as we admit that the unanswerable-ness of the first question is hard to live with.

I think there is an important difference between the ignorance that fuels scientific investigation (an ignorance we presume can be overcome, based on experience) and the ignorance we have of God and his management of the universe, which can never be investigated. We only have the revelation we have and it leaves a lot of things unanswered. We just need to live learn to live in the tension between our ignorance and our hope.

(Albert Leo) #6

Christy, I beg to differ with the first quote above, but I (mostly) agree with the second.

One of the primary objectives of BioLogos is to investigate the ways that the science of evolution can be reconciled with the Christian belief that humankind is special in God’s eyes and that we are in some way made in His image and can covenant with Him. For centuries it was easy to grasp the picture of God taking clay, forming it into a human figure (somewhat like a potter works with clay), then breathing His life-giving spirit into the human form. Scientific investigation strongly suggest that God did not manage the creation of humankind this way. It seems like God waited patiently for some 3.5 billion years for life to evolve into a creature that could ‘house some of His spirit’-- become worthy of an immortal soul. It has been over 150 years since Darwinian evolution was first proposed and for anthropologists to realize that the relatively sudden transformation of the Homo sapiens brain into mind (symbolized by receiving God’s breath) was epi-genentic, and something decidedly unusual in the history of life on earth.

This scientific view of how God managed to create us through evolution does provide some ideas to answer in part your question of “why do innocent babies suffer and die?” You may deem these ‘part-answers’ sickening, for, in accepting the role of “created co-creators” we find that God may be challenging us more than we are comfortable with.

Take the example of Tay-Sachs disease, an autosomal recessive genetic disorder most commonly displayed in Ashkenazi Jews. This disorder, which has been around for centuries, was named and characterized in the late 19th century. Recently the mechanism–a metabolic enzyme defect-- has been elucidated and the defective gene identified, Even with the best of care (?) a Tay-Sachs baby becomes blind, deaf and paralyzed, rarely lives to the age of four, and only that long if on feeding tubes. What a horrible fate for an innocent baby!!! And we might as well face up to the Truth: It is all part of God’s creative mechanism!

So how does a Christian live with that? How can we go on believing in a loving God? In my view, we can do so only if we accept the role of co-creators. This concept inspired Albin Polasek’s sculptures of a male figure emerging from a block of marble, holding a hammer and chisel (Google it for illustrations). Current scientific progress gives us hope at least that someday we will be able to ‘repair’ the faulty gene. In the meantime, couples who are at risk can get genetic counseling to see if both are carriers and, if so, decide on alternatives: (1) adoption; (2) use amniocentesis or CVS in early pregnancy to detect the presence of the T-S gene in the fetus (abortion may be less ‘sinful’ than bringing to term if T-S is positive); (3) use artificial insemination (now considered sinful for Catholics) and screen for T-S before implantation. Is this an illustration of the challenging and sometimes unpleasant task that God has given humans as Created Co-creators? It’s the least sickening ‘excuse’ I can think of for something like Tay-Sachs to exist in God’s good creation. It is more honest than blaming the Devil, or the sin of the parents.
Al Leo

(Christy Hemphill) #7

I think I understand what you mean, but theological investigation and scientific investigation are two different animals. It is the results and conclusions of both kinds of investigations that people are trying to reconcile. I don’t think the BioLogos writers would say they are doing theological investigation via scientific investigation. Isn’t that more what the ID folks are attempting and the main bone of contention between the two ideaologies?

The way we “investigate” theological questions is by looking again at the same set of revelation and trying to understand it using new insights, new paradigms, new mental pictures and frameworks, and new lines of thought. But the revelation itself is what it is and it isn’t limitless. There’s no new revelation to discover, just possibly different ways of approaching the revelation’s meaning or application.

On the other hand, when we investigate scientific questions, there are hypothetically whole realms of new information that have not yet been adequately accessed. There is the chance of discovering new content, not just new interpretations of what we already have.

Yes, I think all the work we do in preventing and easing suffering, fixing brokenness, stewarding resources well, and building “betterness” is image-bearing, Kingdom work that is ordained by God and has value in eternity. I think humanity is part of God’s plan for “setting right” his creation, which perhaps has never been as perfect as some have imagined and has always been longing for its redemption. So, yes, we are co-creators in a meaningful sense. I don’t think that solves the “why?” problem of pain, suffering, and evil, but it at least gives us a direction in the “what do we do about it?” department.

(Albert Leo) #8

Hi Christy
The relationship between the two investigations–theological and scientific–may be more complex than your statements seem to indicate. Historically, most folks did not need science to discern the allegorical nature of the passages in Genesis 2 where God molds clay into a human figure and breathes His spirit into it to make it come alive; or the passage of Him forming Eve from Adam’s rib. But until the 19th century, most folks believed the creation of humankind was direct and relatively instantaneous. The scientific investigations that proved otherwise certainly had important theological repercussions–not just to Biblical scholars but also to ‘people in the pews’ (PIP). The scientific investigations as to whether or not the immense variety and complexity of life, as we now can observe it, could have developed without supernatural intervention (ID) are much more difficult, as you are well aware. This may be very important to how science is taught in schools, but it is of lesser importance to the PIP.

[quote=“Christy, post:7, topic:2541”]
The way we “investigate” theological questions is by looking again at the same set of revelation

Perhaps you can enlighten me, Chriisty, why the position, as indicated in the above two quotes, is so important to evangelicals and, in slightly different phrasing, to the Vatican Curia as well. The Catholic church, in my view at least, takes the position that the Ancient Truths contained in the Magisterium are sufficient, if wisely applied, to solve all moral problems that can arise far into the future. “Having ethical problems with in vitro fertilization, with stem cell research? Just open up the Magesterium ‘chest’ and sort through it. Answers will surely be found.” Why can’t we believe that revelation is on-going? With the modern knowledge of how the Universe works, God’s new revelation should fall on more fertile ground–be less likely to be misinterpreted–and add to, rather than displace, revelation from ancient scripture.

[quote=“Christy, post:7, topic:2541”]
all the work we do in preventing and easing suffering, fixing brokenness, stewarding resources well, and building “betterness” is image-bearing, Kingdom work that is ordained by God and has value in eternity[/quote]
In Old Testament times the concept of humans being co-creators in God’s universe would have been difficult to comprehend. Your quote illustrates that science (especially biological and ecological) has made it possible that new revelation could find fertile ground. Yes, we see pain, suffering and evil in this world, but instead of accepting it as inevitable (“It must be God’s will”) God encourages us to do something about it. Bottom line: Much of God’s new revelation comes to us through scientific investigations. That puts the onus on theologians (and on mothers/teachers like you) to make sure it is applied in a wise fashion that serves the long range future of humankind.
Al Leo

(Christy Hemphill) #9

I won’t speak for Catholics, maybe one of them can chime in.

Having the Bible as the “rule of faith” and infallible Word of God is pretty central to Evangelical theology.

General revelation is on-going, but most Evangelicals will say special revelation is complete. Depending on how people conceive of the Holy Spirit and the embodiment of Christ in the Church, there might be some wiggle room there for “new” special revelation from God, but whether it is legit or not is determined by making sure it’s in harmony with the Bible, since that’s the “rule of faith.”

So in order to be “under the authority of Scripture,” no Evangelical is going to be okay with just claiming God is saying something different today that negates or replaces what he said before. You have to do the appropriate exegetical or hermeneutical gymnastics to show that it all fits and you are still under the authority of Scripture and not really contradicting the past revelation, just re-contextualizing it. If those constraints get to be too much, you can always go mainline where the rules are different. And that’s where the Evangelicals who get too progressive for their Evangelical britches usually end up. :wink:


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(Christy Hemphill) #11

Thank you for the clarifications.

I guess this is where I’m still unclear though. If “God exists” is theoretically a conclusion one could arrive at based on scientific inquiry, then how is that not (at least potentially) investigating theology via science? Even if it’s clearly not Christian theology, just general natural theology?


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(Christy Hemphill) #13

Yep, everyone takes the “fake it til you make it” route at some point.

Some things never fit. I personally think trying to maintain an outdated allegiance to the concept of inerrancy is the problem. It needs to give way to a more appropriate conceptual model of where Scripture’s authority comes from, given the move away from seeing truth primarily in terms of propositional truth claims and more in terms of embodied / en-storied metanarratives. I think there will continue to be a polarization between “progressive Evangelicals” and those pushing for a pendulum swing back to Fundamentalism. But where the chips will all fall, who knows? The majority world Evangelicals are not moving toward theological liberalism or Fundamentalism, and I predict majority world Evangelical leaders will gain a greater voice and influence in the coming decades, so maybe that will help us here in America get over our more ridiculous issues.


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(Albert Leo) #16

@Christy @Eddie
First off, let me thank both of you for clarifying for me (by the exchanges which follow) some misconceptions I have had regarding both evangelical Christianity and ID proponents.

It seems to me that, in trying to solve many of the most serious ethical/moral problems in recent years (genetic engineering, stem cell therapy), the idea that a proposed solution should be held up against what God has said before in special revelation cannot be applied, because humankind in those days was not capable of dealing with it, and so God did not address it. So new revelation is needed. A Christian ethicist may ask the Holy Spirit for guidance, and any answer would count as theological revelation; an atheist might rather depend on social conscience for guidance. Does it really make a difference? Faced with truly new problems in these modern times, if we are truly created co-creators, we must eventually cast off our training wheels and learn to keep our balance, relying on His future guidance.
Al Leo

(system) #17

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