On Being Wrong in Science

on August 11, 2015

mcfarland proteinThis is the protein-protein complex that we redesigned in the lab. The red and orange protein is called NKG2D, and the yellow protein on the bottom is called MICA. The gap between them is a disordered region that may affect how the two fit together. This study is published here.

John Walton’s post on the BioLogos blog titled “On Being Right and Wrong” takes a nuanced approach to questions of “right” and “wrong” in discussions about science and faith. Reading it brought to mind a time in my biochemistry lab when the right result came from a wrong beginning.

With complex theories, right and wrong have a complex, even symbiotic, relationship. If the right science can start with a wrong idea, then scientists can benefit from being wrong. At least, I did.

Soon after starting my own research lab a decade ago, I had a great hypothesis and was ready to prove it right. I work with proteins, and I had the idea that my proteins would work better if we tightened them up and made them more stable. Proteins are like tiny balls of yarn, so we changed their internal chemistry to wind them more tightly.

Our first tightly-wound protein worked no better than normal proteins. A second protein gave the same result. After a dozen proteins failed the test, I began to suspect that my hypothesis might be a bit flawed. At that moment, I felt a tension in my gut, a particular form of anxiety experienced by all scientists. The pressure of “publish or perish” became tangible.

But then, thankfully, something went wrong with my wrongly directed experiments. These two wrongs made a right. By accident, one of our proteins had a mutation that made it less tightly wound. This protein worked better in our tests. So we changed direction and made more loosened proteins. Most of those also worked better. After making two dozen of these, we were able to publish the results, and my lab did not perish.

I never would have tried loosened proteins at first, but I had to go through the simple, wrong hypothesis before finding that reality was more interesting. The wrong idea led to a right result. Some days, being a scientist is more about fixing where you’re wrong than it is about being right in the first place.

This happened for me with the theory of evolution as well. In high school and university, I adopted arguments against evolution that I now believe are wrong. You may recognize some of them by familiar phrases that often accompany them: “simple organisms have more chromosomes than complex ones,” or “the flagellum appears irreducibly complex,” or “some scientists once labelled some DNA as junk but were proved wrong.”

Today, I think these arguments are wrong, even if some start with technically accurate statements. These are inadequate to sufficiently outweigh the thousands of other experiments that support the validity of evolutionary theory. It took decades for me to consider and accept the counter-arguments, because there are so many, but gradually, I agreed with the scientific consensus, that evolution is the right explanation for life on this planet.

Because the process happened over decades, with each new experiment I was able to see how my faith still fit. I was also able to see the beauty and elegance in each experiment. In the end, my faith in God as Creator was not displaced, but enhanced, by understanding natural history through evolution. I see God’s faithfulness in the billion-year regularity of the natural laws that allowed life to grow, adapt, and organize into people that can choose to worship.

In the edifice of science, the anti-evolution arguments above are not what I would call load-bearing arguments—arguments that, proven valid, would single-handedly disprove evolution. Even if these arguments are true and their contribution knocks out a section of the edifice, the structure still stands because the network of evidence is so much larger than what the argument at hand addresses. It’s like removing a single Jenga piece from a Jenga stack the size of the Great Pyramid—very rarely does a single issue take out a structure that substantial.

The genetic evidence that is consistently accumulating in academic journals (some of which is explained by Dennis Venema on the BioLogos blog) continues to convince me that the theory is right. I was therefore wrong to attack it, and, like with my protein experiments, I have now changed direction and adopted a new theory with new hypotheses.

These new hypotheses led me to see a chemical order undergirding evolutionary change. In order to explain this chemical order, I received a BioLogos Evolution and Christian Faith grant to write a book titled A World From Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life, to be published this winter by Oxford University Press.

This narrative interpretation of natural history comes from the fact that we have been given a universe in which science is possible—a universe of constancy, which is consistent and comprehensible on a billion-year scale, filled with regular events that we can understand, replicate, and predict.

From the proper perspective, chemistry and math can even predict some of the paths of evolution. Those paths can be complex. At times, life endured intense threat or meandered through swamps of random events, but even then, the paths were shaped by consistent chemical rules.

These rules emerged from the organization of the periodic table, resulting in a chemical sequence running through natural history. A World From Dust describes how this orderly sequence was first predicted by the chemist R.J.P. Williams, and later supported by genetic data.

Real stories follow complicated but comprehensible trajectories, starting with something wrong and turning it into something right. In the greatest of these, Adam’s sin marred God’s good creation but led to Christ’s redemption—the “felix culpa” of Easter morning. Scientific stories can follow the same pattern if, as scientists, we listen carefully to the world God has made, willing to change when we’re wrong. What is wrong can be made right in a recurring story of hope.