Truth-Seeking in Science

on January 10, 2020

At BioLogos, we believe God reveals himself in both Scripture and nature. We are committed to seeking out the truths in both of these revelations, “ever learning as we study the natural world and the Bible.” In this post, I want to flesh out what truth-seeking looks like in science, and give an update on how we are implementing truth-seeking in our science content at BioLogos.

Truth-seeking in science

The self-correcting nature of the scientific community is one of the great strengths of the modern scientific enterprise. Scientists are constantly trying out new ideas and taking new data on board. The ongoing comparison between hypotheses and data means that scientists regularly discover that their ideas need revision. It can be a humbling experience! Many a time in my scientific career, I had to throw out a model that I had hoped would fit the data. But for the most part, scientists actually enjoy this process because it is a chance to learn new things. In fact, scientists think it is less fun when everything works the way they expect. I once heard a scientist speak in tones of actual disappointment when announcing that his theory was completely consistent with some new data—he had hoped there would be new physics to learn about the universe!

Writer Andy Crouch has described how the life of a scientist intersects with Christian virtues in areas like intellectual humility, wonder, and collaboration. Part of truth-seeking, and of being a good scientist, is a healthy willingness to change your viewpoint in the light of new data or when others point out the need for corrections. As Christians, this mental posture is not foreign to us. We are called to be humble before God and with others; Proverbs 27:17 says “as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” A scientist doesn’t discover truth all on her own. Scientists hold each other accountable to not overstate what can be claimed from the data.

To conduct science at all involves accurately recognizing the edge of what we know and what we don’t yet know. Understanding that edge is rewarding because it brings the possibility of extending that edge. Clarity about the edge of knowledge is important, not only among scientists, but when teaching students or speaking to the public. I know first hand the challenges that science educators face: we have to simplify things for clarity (trust me, you don’t want me to launch into a quantum mechanics lecture!), yet not simplify to the point of overstating what science has found or leaving out important caveats.

Truth-seeking in Science Content at BioLogos

At BioLogos, we are living out our commitment to truth-seeking in science. We’ve improved our processes as our staff has grown and the organization has matured. There has been a lot of activity behind the scenes; this is a good moment to peel back the curtain and give our readers an inside look.

We routinely incorporate new scientific discoveries into our content. We work with a large network of believing scientists who provide expertise in multiple areas. We strive to keep our Common Questions current with the latest findings, and bring in multiple experts to write, advise, and review revisions. Although we are not an academic journal, we do have a large archive (thousands of pieces) of dated articles. These are current as of the date published, but when we become aware of an issue with an older piece, we work to address it.

As we interact with new experts across disciplines, we learn new things. We’re not perfect, and we sometimes make mistakes. Over the years, we have removed old content from our website for many reasons, including articles that no longer reflected current scientific findings, that overstated scientific claims, that unnecessarily excluded theological positions that are consistent with scientific evidence, or that simply were written by authors who did not have expertise in the topic. In 2018 we performed our first content audit of the whole site, and we will repeat this on a regular basis to consistently identify and fix problems with older content.

Our goal is to be transparent when we make changes, and credit those who helped us refine our thinking. For dated articles, the date and substance of the change will be indicated at the end of the article. For Common Questions, the date of last revision is indicated at the end. In the rare cases where a more substantial change is in order, we will inform our readers more explicitly.

Here are some cases where we have revised content as part of our process of truth-seeking:

Astronomy and Geology

A good example is the common question “How are the ages of the Earth and universe calculated?” A couple of years ago, an expert reader sent us a concern about ice core dating on this page. We consulted other geologists in our network and, with their advice, updated the article. More recently, we updated the date for the age of the universe to reflect the most current findings.

Evolution

One of our common questions on evolution, “What does the fossil record show?” was completely rewritten in 2018 in consultation with multiple experts to take account of the latest scholarship.

An article titled Vitellogenin and Common Ancestry, was recently updated for greater accuracy. The article, which focuses on genes needed for making yolk in vertebrates, continues to provide robust evidence that humans share a common ancestor with birds.

In other cases, however, we need to be honest when we overstate an argument. One example is how protein folds evolve. An argument based on the nylonase protein, used in a few website articles and my chapter in Four Views on Creation, Evolution and Intelligent Design (Zondervan, 2017), does not show rapid protein fold evolution. See instead, The Amazing Natural Order Behind “Random” Protein Folding and our Common Question “Can evolution generate new information?

Beyond our website, I and others in the BioLogos community are continually updating content in our public speaking. In my own talks, for many years I presented a simplified version of evolutionary science, teaching audiences about only one evolutionary mechanism (natural selection). Biologists have long known that several other natural mechanisms are at work in evolution. While I disagree with the conclusions of the Intelligent Design community on evolutionary science (e.g. Stephen Meyer in Darwin’s Doubt, see our series and our answer to Is evolution a theory in crisis?), their work was a useful prompt to be more explicit in my talks, to always make at least a brief mention of the variety of evolutionary mechanisms.

Human origins

For the science of human origins, we address new discoveries as they happen, such as our coverage of the 2017 discovery of fossils of a new hominin species, Homo naledi.

A few years ago we added the Common Question “Were Adam and Eve Historical Figures?” to give readers a concise, readable gateway to the large complex topic of human origins and its theological implications. This is an active area of debate in recent years, so we have updated this Common Question multiple times to reflect new scientific findings and scholarly insights. For example, an earlier version stated that a de novo creation of Adam and Eve is inconsistent with the scientific evidence. We revised the Common Question to clarify that a model of two Homo sapiens as recent sole progenitors is inconsistent with scientific evidence (Adam and Eve could have been miraculously created within a larger population—de novo but not sole progenitor). We also added links to recent scholarship on genealogical science, which shows that a relatively recent pair could be genealogical ancestors of us all. The scholarship of biologists Josh Swamidass, Douglas Rhode, and others was helpful in improving this piece.

The science of population genetics gives insights into the number of individuals living at various times in history. Given the biblical account of Adam and Eve as our ancestors, a common question is whether there was a time in our history when there were just two Homo sapiens.

The current scientific evidence does not support this. At BioLogos, we accept the evidence to date indicating that the average breeding population of our ancestors has been larger than a single couple for at least the last 200,000 years. However, we have not always been precise in how we make this claim and have sometimes claimed more than that data show. We have recently updated a 2017 article, and are working on revisions to a 2014 series. Discussions with and among Josh Swamidass of Peaceful Science, British geneticist Richard Buggs, Ann Gauger of the Biologic Institute, and Steve Schaffner of MIT’s Broad Institute have helped to sharpen our thinking about population genetic models and how to interpret them.

Conclusion

Thanks for tuning in for this inside look.  Truth matters, and we are always learning more as we study God’s Word and God’s world. Scientists, if you wish to comment on BioLogos content in your area of expertise, we encourage you to reach out—we’d love to hear from you.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Jeff Schloss, Jeff Hardin, and Jim Stump for helpful discussions.


So What Is BioLogos?

Well it all began with a scientist and a book. Francis Collins, the physician and geneticist who led the Human Genome Project, wrote the book, The Language of God. In it he describes his own journey from atheism to Christian faith, and the harmony between Christianity and science.

Today, BioLogos continues to carry out the vision of Collins, showing that you don’t have to choose between modern science and biblical faith.

I want to learn more

Deborah Haarsma
About the Author

Deborah Haarsma

Deborah Haarsma is President of BioLogos. She is a frequent speaker on modern science and Christian faith at research universities, churches, and public venues like the National Press Club. Her work appears in several recent books, including Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Design and Christ and the Created Order.  She wrote the book Origins with her husband and fellow physicist, Loren Haarsma, presenting the agreements and disagreements among Christians regarding the history of life and the universe.  She edited the anthology Delight in Creation: Scientists Share Their Work with the Church with Rev. Scott Hoezee. Previously, Haarsma served as professor and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College.  She is an experienced research scientist, with several publications in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology. She has studied large galaxies, galaxy clusters, the curvature of space, and the expansion of the universe using telescopes around the world and in orbit.  Haarsma completed her doctoral work in astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her undergraduate work in physics and music at Bethel University. She and Loren enjoy science fiction and classical music, and live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.