Religion, science, and believing.

I don’t usually talk about my personal views on this blog. However, this topic is something that I have contemplated for a while now and think is fair to be open about. I am still learning and evaluating my outlook on approaching this subject. Below are some bits revolving around the themes of religion and personal belief systems that were hidden away in my drafts folder for a long time. I have decided to publish all of them together. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this topic in the future, but here’s a start.

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Recently, I had a conversation with a fellow grad student about religion and his personal beliefs. Most academics shy away from this discussion in a professional (and sometimes even in a personal) setting. It is considered uncommon or rude to talk about it and people keep it to themselves. It is often acknowledged that as scientists, “we do science for science’s sake”, or that “a person’s religious beliefs has no place in his/her scientific pursuits.” This is something that has always boggled my mind. As a biologist and an atheist, I have confidence in my work/study because the underlying laws of biological systems are established and follow a set of proven scientific principles. For example, when we design an antibacterial drug against a particular strain of resistent bacteria, we know for a fact that the bacteria has mutated (or evolved) and therefore the old drug doesn’t work anymore. Similarly, we use mouse, worm, and other animal models for testing compounds in vivo because we have evidence to prove that humans are genetically related to other animals through a common evolutionary ancestor. Therefore, we can study the effects of the drugs in other animals before testing them to humans. The empirical evidence that exists as the basis of our research is inherently acknowledged to be the underlying force that drives scientific research. Now, how can someone who does similar work in a laboratory setting have a completely contradictory viewpoint in his/her private life? How can someone believe in a book (or many books) that preaches blatant falsehoods about our understanding of the universe and at the same time come to work every day and do science with a conscious mind? For me, science is deeply woven into our personal lives. No, I cannot pretend that science does not affect my personal views about the world. Similarly, my conscious will never let me pretend like my personal views have no affect on my scientific work.

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One of the most common arguments that I have come across during such discussion is that people often say “I don’t believe in *everything* that this book says. I only believe in a few things that are important for my moral framework.” This is complete BS and hypocritical. One cannot disregard a particular theory written in a book (for example, “the earth is 6000 years old”, or, “when humans die we come back as another life form on earth”), and at the same time believe in another theory written in the same book. One can’t pick and choose what you want to accept and reject from a book, and then claim the book to guide one’s moral framework.

And then there is an argument that science is not perfect and that not everything published in all of the scientific literature is true. This is absolutely correct. This is why science is constantly changing – because our understanding of the world is constantly changing. This is why scientific literature constantly undergoes modifications and updates to accommodate our latest understanding of the world and the universe.

This is not the same with religious texts. These texts were written hundreds and thousands of years ago and are obsolete in this day and age. These texts were written to accommodate the worldview of an ancient time period. They are not relevant to the 21st century and we certainly do not have to submit to these texts in order to live within a moral framework of society. As of 2017, we have discovered around 8.7 million species on earth and can estimate a hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. We have achieved things that were once considered unfathomable by humankind. Why do we have to be stuck in the ancient past and live by some 12th century law in order to be considered as “good humans”? Of course, religious texts provide interesting insight into various philosophical questions that one can ponder over. However, they do very little to the understanding and practice of science in this day and age.

It is also often argued that we need religion to understand morality and differentiate between good and evil. Religion does not equal morality. One does not have to be a good human just to please an invisible supreme being or to go to heaven. Altruism and kindness can exist on their own.

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Talking about scientists with personal religious beliefs, I remember a wonderful conversation between Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss many years ago. I can’t help but bring up a part of their conversation while thinking about this topic –

Krauss: I’ve had people write to me and say “I’m a medical doctor and I don’t believe in evolution.”

Dawkins: That’s a disgrace. I’m not supposed to say that, especially in this country (referring to the US) because one’s private beliefs are supposed to be irrelevant. But I would walk out of a doctor’s office and not consult him anymore if I heard that he said that. Because what that doctor is saying is that he’s a scientific ignoramus and a fool.

Krauss: In fact, in that regard, it is interesting to me at the same time how people can hold beliefs which are incompatible with other beliefs they have. And in some sense, everyone is a scientist and they just don’t realize they are, and yet in the time of crisis, that’s when.. (breaks). The example I gave is when George Bush was president, he said intelligent design must be taught alongside evolution so the kids will know what the debate is all about. And it wasn’t a stupid statement at priori, it was ignorant because he didn’t realize that there’s no debate. And that’s fine. I don’t mean ignorant in a pejorative sense, I just mean he wasn’t aware.

Dawkins: Ignorance is no crime.. you just don’t want to consult a doctor who’s ignorant.

Krauss: What amazed me is that in the same administration, when the avian flu was going to be a problem and mutating to humans, president Bush said “We’ve got to find how long it takes before the avian flu will mutate into humans.” And what amazed me is that no one in the administration – not a single person said “It’s been designed to kill us, forget about it.”

Dawkins: That’s a very good point. This kind of split-brain business which you’ve been referring to, the most glaring example I know, is more in your field (referring to Theoretical Physics and Astrophysics) than mine. I was told by a professor of Astronomy at Oxford, about a colleague of his who’s an astronomer and an astrophysicist, who writes learned papers – mathematical papers, published in astronomical journals, assuming that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. But he privately believes that the universe is only 6000 years old. How can a man like that hold down a job in a university as an astrophysicist? And yet, we are told “Well, it’s his private beliefs, you mustn’t interfere with this man’s private beliefs as long as he writes competent papers in astronomical journals”.

Krauss: Well, I mean, as long as he doesn’t teach his private beliefs.

Dawkins: Well, let’s hypothetically suppose that he teaches absolutely correctly – that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. How could you want to take a class from a man who teaches one thing and believes in something that is so many orders of magnitude different?

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About believing in science.

My advisor once pointed out not to use the word ‘believe’ when someone said “I believe that..” during a lab meeting presentation. Back then, I didn’t understand what was wrong in saying we “believed” in something. I now understand. As scientists, we evaluate something on the basis of observation, experiment, and evidence. The evidence is dependent on the observations made and experiments performed. Therefore, something is either likely or unlikely to occur. It is either more probable or less probable. We don’t have to believe in evolution or the big bang theory. We accept the evidence that supports them. Believing in evolution or not doesn’t make it true. The evidence for evolution suggests that it is true. Belief is not a part of rational enquiry. Belief relies on faith and not on evidence.

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Completed my first MOOC – Understanding the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life

I am excited to have successfully completed my first ever massive online open course, “Understanding the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life” with distinction. Taught by Professor Peggy Mason at The University of Chicago, this 10 week course was one of the most interesting and engaging classes that I’ve been a part of. The best aspect of the course was how involved everyone was, including Dr. Mason and her student assistants. The lectures were well organized with weekly quizzes and corresponding lab videos (which included sheep brain dissection among many other things) and discussions related to current news revolving around neurobiology.

Coursera neurobio 2014
Statement of Accomplishment

It is motivating to be a part of a community that takes time out to learn something new. E-learning is an awesome platform to explore diverse subjects along with people from all over the world. It is also a great opportunity to learn from some of the best minds in the respective fields. I am already looking forward to my next course!

Back after an adventurous month!

Last month, I visited McDonald Observatory, a research unit of The University of Texas at Austin. The observatory of situated in West Texas, an area that experiences some of the darkest night skies in the continent. The location thus makes it perfect for astronomical research and star gazing during night times (along with experiencing the least white pollution due to its location). I attended three events at the observatory – solar viewing, twilight program and star party. The solar viewing program in the afternoon consisted of watching the majestic sun on a huge screen in real time. It was an informatory session that introduced the audience to the concepts of sunspot formation and solar flares. The session concluded with a tour of the 107 inch and the 82 inch telescopes. The twilight program in the evening was about “Modelling the Night Sky”, and was followed by a star party in the night. Many telescopes were set up for the public to view saturn, binary star systems, nebula, moon craters, and other celestial objects up close. It was magical treat for the eyes.

From the wild desert of the south, I travelled up north to the land of the midnight sun – Alaska! For the first time in my life, I saw – caribou, a wolf, moose, grizzly bears, dall sheep, orcas, humpback whales, puffins, murres, sea otters, bald eagles and many other animal species. The abundant and diverse wildlife of Alaska has left me stunned and speechless. Also, during the journey, I developed a deep admiration for the field of Geology. It was interesting to witness all the geographical occurrences that I once briefly learnt back in high school (and so easily forgot). Walking on glaciers and observing braided rivers triggered a sense of appreciation for all the geologists who battle extreme weather conditions to understand our planet better and discover its glorious history.

The last month has been a roller coaster ride across amateur astronomy, ecology, geography and surely lots of biology. I’m now back at school and ready to do some awesome science in the lab with a whole new perspective on the world. Photographs from my Alaskan adventure can be viewed on my photoblog, here.

MERS-CoV makes its way to Indiana

Earlier this month, the CDC officially announced the first confirmed case of MERS coronavirus in the United States. Interestingly, the virus was identified in a man who flew from Saudi Arabia to Chicago, and then traveled to Indiana – where he reported symptoms such as fever and cough at a Community Hospital in Munster, Indiana – not very far from where I stay. I have taken one of these buses to get to the airport in Chicago many times before. After having written about the transmission of the virus a few months back, and after having diligently kept track of its spread across the globe, I was amused when it ended up a few miles away from me (of all places!).

Another coincidence is that I was asked about the scientific accuracy of the transmission of MERS-CoV along the lines of the movie Contagion – in which a single infection of Nipah virus leads to a pandemic within weeks. Interestingly, Nathan Wolfe (about whom I wrote previously) was the ‘virus advisor’/consultant for the movie!

These are some really unusual coincidences that interconnected with my flow of thoughts and makes things very interesting while following up with the news from the world of popular science.

Maintaining laboratory notebooks

One of the first things that I had to do when I started my research in the lab was to create a lab notebook. What started off as a well-groomed, precise and perfectly organised record of my research procedures is now turning into a sloppy mess. Making daily entries of my work has become tiresome and I am slowly losing track of the orderliness while trying to keep up. But guess what? The *perfect* lab notebook simply does not exist.

Page from one of my first lab notebooks.
Page from one of my first lab notebooks.

Lab notebooks are supposed to be a documentation of our research. And no research is perfect. Numerous changes to protocols, adjustments in data and new developments in our exploration as we maneuver through the endless facts and figures are all an integral part of scientific research. A lab notebook which demonstrates all this translucently is ‘almost’ perfect. The essentials like dates, page numbers, goals, protocols, observations, calculations and the results are absolutely fundamental. However, so are the tiny side notes to show changes, end pointers to highlight significant steps, indicators to expose errors & oversights, etc. Further more, pictures of gels, protein expression, spectrophotometer results, blots, gene maps, overview diagrams, illustrations, and experimental designs add unique individual characteristics to each lab notebook.

The intention should be to establish a good record keeping practice, without missing out on any vital details that can be easily understood by all. One of the critical components that I found missing in many books was the answer to the question “why” at the beginning of every protocol/day. I consider this element to be important because many times, we find ourselves lose track of the purpose of a particular procedure or fail to see the larger picture while blatantly repeating steps for the zillionth time.

Another format that one can consider these days are ELNs or electronic lab notebooks. These could be great in terms of simplicity, effortlessness and all the features that accompany it. Images in-between protocols, adding graphs & tables, attaching external files, hyperlinks, organising experiments in different files, creating tabs for managing inventories, etc can all be incorporated into one project file. It is like maintaing an entire lab digitally on a personal computer! Hard copies of the documents can be printed out regularly to serve as an alternate backup. The efficiency of ELNs seems to be drawing a lot of attention from some of the new age scientists.

While this seems to be a new avenue to explore, I am going to give myself enough time and experience to outgrow the good old hardbound notebooks that are going to serve as my memory aid in the future.

Resources –

Hello!

I have always wanted to write about science. I am at a stage where learning something incredible at school or on the web makes me want to share it with other science geeks out there.

I am currently a Master’s student of Biological Sciences. I pursued my undergraduate degree in Biotechnology Engineering. I am interested in popular/current science that is focussed on immunology, virology, bioethics, and even art.

Though writing blogging is not new to me, science writing is particularly new and seems to be quite difficult (lot of research, data analysis, citation issues, etc) . The purpose of this blog is to improve my science writing, however, I will not limit myself to any specific theme. Please feel free to comment and/or critique.

Welcome!