When I was 18 years old and had recently graduated from high school, my good friend and I were invited to the Mars Symposium in Washington, D.C. We had been the winners of a JPL-NASA sponsored essay competition for high school students. My friend wrote most of our essay, which is to say that I don’t remember if I had anything at all to do with its quality. When we got to the symposium, as I recall, we were to sit on a panel with Carl Sagan in front of some 600 American and International scientists and educators. Unfortunately, Carl Sagan became ill and, again if I recall correctly, Dan Goldin, at the time head of NASA, took part in his place.
My friend who as mentioned above wrote most of our award-winning essay decided to write a poem as his presentation. That just meant I had to come up with something of substance to share and I remember writing a few notes down on a pad I found in our hotel room the night before the panel was to take place.
What should I say? What could I say? They were scientists and scientists know best; I was a high school graduate heading to UCLA to study (at least eventually) Political Science. Not quite their favorite kind of science. My friend went on to study Literature at Harvard. We weren’t exactly the type of students who would speak at a symposium of this nature and neither of us were too interested in the engineering required to get a lander to Mars and back (it doesn’t actually come back, does it?). The idea of space exploration was fascinating, but not because of the science. It was fascinating to me because of what it meant for humanity, for our sense of mystery, and, as a Christian, what it meant with regard to the immensity of God.
The time had come and my friend had finished his poem. It was my turn now to share my thoughts and here’s what I remember saying: “We have to bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities.” I went on to note something to the effect that space exploration and scientific progress do not only require scientific knowledge but ethics, philosophy, history, and yes, theology. In other words, I believed then, and believe more today, that there must be inter-disciplinary cooperation when it comes to understanding the most important things in life. How does this bear on COVID-19 and the shut-down?
I have read article after article and social media comment after comment about how we need to leave the heavy lifting to the scientists. At first I just laughed to myself, thinking how naïve and simplistic such reasoning is. Then I got a little frustrated. How many scientists have to disagree for us to realize that “science” is not what we think it is? The word science comes from a Latin word and means “knowledge”—but the science we are all talking about today is “projection” based on very little knowledge (no one is at fault here, it just happens to be the reality of our situation). This is not to knock what these wonderful men and women are doing. I am grateful for scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx. I am grateful for the amazing physicians, epidemiologists, nurses and more who are on the frontlines battling this virus. Truly grateful.
However, I do not believe that leaving all the decision making in such circumstances to the scientists is the sound approach. We need to bridge the gap between the sciences and humanities and everything in between. We need philosophers and historians, economists and educators to come together with scientists to think carefully about the decisions that we are making. We need to examine every angle and look from every possible perspective. Of course we want to save lives but if we are only thinking about lives today and not for the future, if we are not considering all the risks that go along with economic collapse, if we are not asking the difficult questions about co-morbidities and life expectancy, quality of life, etc., we aren’t basing our decisions on knowledge at all. We are taking only a sliver of the knowledge we have access to and making wide-ranging, world-transforming decisions based on only one kind of knowledge (that’s why I believe “science” is a misnomer here).
This is not to say that a task force made up of the best thinkers in numerous fields would come to a different conclusion than the one that has been come to already. I am not sure that would be the case. But as a pastor and historian, I would feel much more confident that we are making the best decision possible if we woke up from our simplistic reasoning that “scientists know best.” Scientists are people who have presuppositions and limitations. Scientists can be experts in particular fields. So are historians, pastors, philosophers, economists, and ethicists. But the tyranny of one field over all these others at a time of crisis appears to me to be simplistic and disconcerting.
I am no conspiracy theorist nor am I so naïve as to believe that there is no human evil involved in a variety of ways during this crisis. I am a pastor and historian who is saddened by the fact that so little accurate information seems available and so few careful thinkers appear to be involved in helping craft a way forward.
One final disclaimer—I do not believe I should be on a task force of great thinkers. One last thought—I am grateful that in the end the Greatest Thinker is not confused, has all and perfect knowledge, and His decisions can always be trusted. To Him alone be the glory.