Some say they were pursued by the Hound of Heaven, a Grace that would not take leave, not in the “nights”or “down the days,” the “arches of the years” or the “labyrinthine ways.” That poetry never much resonated with me. The first time I heard it I wondered, “At what rate did he travel, this hound?” Poetry is hard for literalists to appreciate. But if I had to pick a metaphor, being a scientist and a non-believer was more like working in the presence of a something large and obvious that no one talked about . . .
. . . the Elephant in the Laboratory.
Anyone who has ever done a lab experiment knows all too well that experimentation requires great persistence to get the equipment to work as planned. Even then, you have no guarantee your samples will produce useful data. I worked, in part, on artificial photosynthesis. That work would go fruitless for long stretches of time. Weeks and weeks of preparation, day after day in the basement LASER room only to learn over and over again that the next idea had not worked either. I often took comfort and found inspiration in a high school biology textbook, the chapter about real photosynthesis. It fascinated me that scientists figured out the complex mechanism in such precise detail. Leaves are living nano-machines.
Sometimes I let myself wonder Who designed it all in the first place. That question is kind of hard to ignore.
But avoiding the bigger question is easy enough since scientific work is so specialized. Without any knowledge of the facts of faith, you’re not really sure what to do with those thoughts anyway. But here’s the thing, the truth of God’s presence is always there. Everything any scientist does in a lab, from the substances measured into test tubes, to the structures scanned under electron microscopes, to the telescopes pointed to space, all of it is a study of something we expect to be ordered, intelligible, predictable, and magnificent. That truth pervades the entire scientific method, and we all know it.
This is why I think science is ripe grounds for evangelization. People often think scientists see science as a god and themselves as god-makers, and that may be true for certain popularizers. However, in my experience the science we pursued imposed on us exceeding humility and docility. A professor once warned me that I should only become a scientist if I liked failure because 99.99% of experiment is failure. What kept me going was the fact that I knew I was pushing into the unknown and but glimpsing it—and it was thrilling. Why do you think scientists get so worked up over the smallest discoveries?
When I finally acknowledged the Elephant in the Lab, I began to understand that science is a privilege that unites humanity. With faith, science made sense, and a fuller reality I’d been avoiding finally came into view.
I’m telling you this because if you are ever hesitant to talk to science-minded people about God and the facts of faith, don’t be. Scientists interact directly with His Handiwork every day, even before they are ready to see it.
“Clear sight be mine, to contemplate the wonders of thy law.” Psalm 119:18
Originally published at The Integrated Catholic Life™.
The Carnegie Mellon Catholic Newman Club has invited me to speak to university students.
7:00PM, Sunday, October 5, 2014
St. Paul Cathedral, Pittsburgh, PA
The talk is part of a Sunday series of campus ministry talks, called Catholic Action.
The topic is about my personal witness as a Catholic mother and scientist, titled “Faith, Science, and Motherhood.”
Yes, yes, and yes!!!
Rumor has it, I’m even taking a few daughters!
Last Monday, in the beginning of the sensationalim surrounding Dr. Theresa Deisher’s paper, “Impact of environmental factors on the prevalence of autistic disorder after 1979″ in the Journal of Public Health and Epidemiology, I asked Dr. William M. Briggs to review the paper. Dr. Briggs is a statistician, and he posted his assessment yesterday on his site, Statistician to the Stars.
What Deisher’s harsher critics are doing when calling her a fraud or liar is changing the subject (just as do those critics who call global warming a lie or a scam) away from the claim of true interest—do certain vaccines cause autism?—to those of personalities and politics. The claim is forgotten or dismissed with a wave (“only a fool would believe…”) and people are encouraged to take sides without having to do the hard work of thinking.
I have seen no evidence that Deisher is a quack or fraud or that she is lying or that she is ignorant. Instead, there is overwhelming evidence that she is highly intelligent and believes what she is saying.
He was also underwhelmed by the statistical case. He found the “paper poor in conception, argument, and quality, and regard her main contention as unproved.” I have responses to answer the criticisms, background information to understand the context of this paper, but I will post those later. I am thankful for his honesty and that he trusted me to not be offended by disagreement.
First, I want to highlight the most important point. This is how scientific discourse is supposed to be. You discuss the science without making it personal. When I saw people, particularly fellow Catholics, accusing Dr. Deisher of fraud, blindness, bias, and deception, it was painful. I wasn’t going to say anything, but then I felt like someone should defend her, especially when I found out that the people who started the brouhaha against her knew she would be unable to respond because she was in the hospital with her son. That isn’t to say that just because we’re Catholics or we are facing personal difficulty, we cannot criticize each other on that basis alone, but when criticism becomes libel, it becomes personal, possibly sinful. I still do not understand why people had to go there. It’s not how scientists behave either; regardless of faith, there is a code of conduct among scientists, a gentility, to discuss the issues without making it personal (in my experience anyway). Last, when the accusation is based on an admitted partial understanding of the science, the accuser is in no position to call anyone else blinded or biased. Catholics (like everyone) can do better.
Then those flinging the accusations wanted to know why we weren’t engaging their scientific criticisms. Here’s why, it’s a life lesson: If you start out by calling someone a fraud, a liar, and incompetent, and then you comb through that person’s work (in this case a single paper) trying to prove your point, and then you demand someone prove to you the person is not a fraud, a liar, or incompetent—do not be surprised if people don’t want to try to engage you on the facts. Such behavior shows no attempt at good faith.
I understand the fear of disease from both sides, I do, I’m a mother too, but that doesn’t make libel right. The side of the “vaxx debaters” who are “pro-vaxx” have a starting assumption that no vaccine can ever be shown to be related to autism, no researcher can ever talk about it, because to even say the words in the same sentence might cause someone not to vaccinate. They cannot tolerate the possibility, hence when a paper appears that suggests there may be a link, nothing less than annihilation will do because they do not trust you and me to be reasonable. Or so it seems for the most extreme of them. Of course, the other side of the “vaxx debate” is the same way. Use fear and intimidation to manipulate public dialogue so that you convince people not to vaccinate. This kind of dialogue is not helpful. It is insulting.
I suspect the majority of parents are in between, as am I. I am not certain either way. I’m just not.
I was unaware of this debate with my first six babies. I became aware of it with our youngest who was born in 2011 right after the Andrew Wakefield incident. It was then that I discovered Dr. Theresa Deisher’s new company Sound Choice Pharmaceuticals. I was so confused about the Wakefield, Thimerosal, and autism issue. Although I knew Wakefield was discredited, I still also knew parents whose children’s behavior change after vaccination and were later diagnosed with autism. How can we ignore them? Or that autism is on the rise? I found Dr. Deisher’s website and read through her work. Two things stuck with me from the beginning:
- She’s pro-child safety, pro-ethical vaccines. She works to get us better choices. She’s going against the mainstream.
- Her work, like much of science, is beginning and is provisional. She’s legitimately working the scientific method.
So, my husband and I made the decision to vaccinate and held our breath. I also understood that anyone—and I mean anyone—who agonizes over the decision should be respected. I really, really wanted more guidance from the Church or the medical community, but the fact is, there is still so much unknown. It could be immoral not to vaccinate. It could be dangerous to vaccinate. And the opposite is also true as far as I can tell. So we did it, we vaccinated because that’s what we’ve always done and I couldn’t not do it. But, yes, I still wonder about the decision. This is prudence in real life, folks. You make the best decision you can with the information you have, knowing you do not know everything and knowing you cannot absolutely predict or control the future.
The one thing I knew for certain is that what Dr. Deisher is doing is good. She left her lucrative six-figure career in the biotechnology industry to spend her own money to start a company for better choices—not for herself, but for us. At least I knew that by supporting her work, I was supporting the search and demand for ethical and safer vaccines for the future. At least I could be certain of that. I think we have a moral imperative to support her search.
I’ve followed her work for three years now. I can tell you, it goes slowly and this is one paper, not an absolute declaration of an absolute cause and effect. You need to read everything on her site, and you need to spend time digesting it. And if you are confused and unsure what to think after all the confusion over this one paper, I suggest this:
Seek to know what’s known now, and stay informed. Do your best with your children, and be ready, in your faith, for whatever life brings. (That is parenting in a nutshell.) But also realize that science advances in steps and our knowledge is never complete. Watch the science play out; know both sides and know that it is okay not to pick a side. Own your own choices for your own children. Be kind to each other; we’re people not punching bags. Disagree in charity.
By the time you read this, my firstborn will be a wife. She entered the Sacrament of Matrimony on Labor Day. To say this is a milestone is an understatement. I was a pregnant teenager. I raised her as a on-and-off single mother. I put my career before her because I thought I had to prove something to the world. I neglected her. Because of my poor choices, confused ideas about relationships were cemented in her mind.
She ran away at 17 and became a single teenage mother herself. Now she has three beautiful children. Like me, she is a convert, a woman who found the courage to turn her life around. She practiced the virtue of determination to get to her wedding day. My daughter is a living testament to the mercy of Christ, the embodiment of hope. In my most desperate moments, I never gave up hope. I dared to hope.
Since I write about faith and science and about my experiences as a convert and a mother of a convert, I get requests for advice from parents whose children have also turned away. Here’s the thing: There is no perfect answer, save faith, hope, and love in Jesus Christ.
Nonetheless, here are a few practical tips I’ve learned (the hard way).
Don’t argue. Pleading will only push your child further away. Conversion has to be a personal act of the will illuminated by grace, and we are all unique. Hold your child in your heart through prayer.
Don’t give reading assignments. No matter how objective any writing is, it passes through a subjective personal filter. If your child is not ready to open her heart, she won’t find the arguments compelling. A flawed understanding may even be detrimental.
Read and learn. This is a time for your intellect to grow; do it as an act of love. When your child wants answers, be ready to stand on the rock of truth and point to the light of the Holy Mother Church. Teachable moments can be fleeting, so strive for loving and precise articulation of the truths of faith.
Expect to suffer. It will hurt; you may panic. The thought of your child dying in a state of mortal sin will incite the worst fear. Desperation is a time for your faith to grow stronger, through endurance. Pray because your prayers are heard. Your tears are not wasted.
Be realistic. I know my daughter will still face hardship. She may still go through periods of despair, as may I. Life is like that. When you fail, admit it, pray for grace, and try again.
I could write so much more, but these are the sifted nuggets of wisdom. Any of my other six children could turn away one day too—I know that—and I dare to hope that should that day come, I will dare to hope all the more.
Originally published at The Integrated Catholic Life™ a few weeks ago.
“Red flag” critiques of Dr. Theresa Deisher’s work on fetal cell lines used in vaccines have gone around the Catholic blogosphere this week. Her work has been called a “conflict of interest” and a “sword” named “bad science.” She has been called a “fraud” and a “liar.” And these people have accused her of appealing fallaciously to emotion.
One: Deisher is not trying to get people to stop vaccinating. She’s conducting research to urge the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to investigate unsafe manufacturing practices. She’s doing exactly what the Vatican asked us to do—find safer and ethical vaccines—and she’s doing it within the appropriate procedures of scientific research.
Two: The appropriate method of countering a scientific work is to do your own work, write up the paper, and submit it to a refereed journal for publication. If it is accepted, the research you refuted is still not considered fraudulent or deceptive. Disagreement is common and necessary in science, for the sake of progress.
Three: To say that forming a hypothesis, conducting research, and gathering data to support that hypothesis represents a “conflict of interest” and “bad science” is to reveal a fundamental ignorance of the scientific method. Standard and responsible procedure in new product development demands research of the products being improved.
Four: Accusing a scientist of perpetuating a “lie” or a “fraud” while framing yourself as an authority even though you have no training or experience in the area is not rational. If you encounter a rebuttal of a paper published in a scientific journal, and the rebuttal begins with, “The article is written with a whole lot of big, science-y sounding words and has a bunch of graphs,” then you have encountered an actual red flag that what you are about to read is bad science.
Here’s an interview Nature journal requested with her. Nature is one of (if not the most) prestigious science journals in the world. Note in the story how Dr. Deisher left her lucrative career to defend her faith. For this, I think she is a hero. It is remarkable that Nature solicited this interview.
Further, here is information about the CDC’s ongoing and comprehensive investigation about the causes of autism. Note the section under “Vaccines Safety.” The question about vaccines and autism is not settled science. It says that “to date” studies have shown no association. However, the association between contaminate DNA from fetal cells lines has only begun to be studied thanks to Dr. Deisher’s efforts.
To date, the studies continue to show that vaccines are not associated with ASD.
However, CDC knows that some parents and others still have concerns. To address these concerns, CDC is part of the Inter-Agency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC), which is working with the National Vaccine Advisory Committee (NVAC) on this issue.
This is how science works—you gather the data to support further research. Anyone who has ever written and submitted a proposal to a government or academic agency for support for further research knows this. Again, such research is not a conflict of interest or bad science. It is necessary groundwork in product development. Catholics ought to be supporting this accomplished and courageous woman and thanking her instead of trying to discredit her.
So here’s a video where she presents her findings.
And last, as a personal appeal, Theresa Deisher’s son was diagnosed with a very aggressive lymphoma on July 30. The people who chose this time to criticize her work know this. She has been conducting this research for years, and I don’t know why Catholic bloggers picked last week to criticize her as they did, nor do I wish to speculate. However, some of us who respect her and her work felt it necessary to defend her since she has much more important concerns to deal with right now. In your kindness and generosity, we ask you to please offer a prayer for her family.