Blog | Thursday, February 20, 2014

On faith and data

As a scientist with a brain naturally inclined to skepticism and analysis, I suppose my spiritualism may be best captured by: Keep the faith, but get the data. While some of my fellow skeptalytics, if I may coin such a term to catalog us, may be inclined to renounce that first clause altogether, thinking there is no need for faith, I am obliged to disagree.

We are all a mass of electrons spinning madly around their nuclear bonfires, with empty spaces inside every atom vaster in relative terms than those separating the planets and star of our solar system. That so implausible a thing as a caress is possible in such a world of empty spaces masquerading as solid surfaces where skin meets skin requires an embrace of the virtual realities perceptions devise, and thus faith in the prevailing illusion. Even the faithless have faith, if only in the reliability of the perceptions that get us through each day. To partake in the implausibility of this life is an act of faith.

With regard to an almighty, my personal faith is mostly in my own ignorance. The universe is so staggeringly vast and dizzyingly complex that to call it humbling would be like calling the Himalayas “tall” or the Pacific “big.” It is oppressive to contemplate how trivial we are in so colossal and intricate a construct. I can certainly understand the inclination to invoke designs other than our own to impart to us some importance we would otherwise clearly not possess.

But it helps me little in explaining the overwhelming complexities all around us to ascribe it all to an even more complex engineer of those complexities. If a Big Bang that seeded the universe is hard to contemplate, that much more so the perfect bundle that existed the instant prior, a fusion of every potential thing and thought, substance and sentiment to follow. We may shop the lexicon for labels as we choose, but something very much like “god” was implicated in that explosion, the source of all creation.

All I know for sure is how much I don’t know for sure. And that, really, is my topic here. This column is less about faith and more about missing data.

Religious faith, of course, is supposed to run in the absence of data. That, it seems, is the very test of faith worthy of the appellation. So the religiosity native to religion is understandable. Convictions born of faith in the absence of data are welcome, even encouraged, in houses of worship.

Still, the machinations of organized religion, the codification of faith into specific rules and regulations, scripted interpretations of the will of the almighty, might give pause to more than just we skeptalytics. The various notions of god that prevail in the world attribute to that entity mutually exclusive inclinations for everything from how best to get to heaven, to the right kind of headwear.

That the interpretations are mutually exclusive is self-evident. It is the very reason why there are different religions in the first place. And, of course, discordant knowledge of who, exactly, god is and what, exactly, god wants figures saliently among the goads to war throughout history, and to terrorism in the modern world. Admittedly, those same competing visions have inspired great art, great architecture, deep contemplation, and fervent compassion. But still, an incalculable sum of human suffering derives from our competing claims to absolute knowledge.

This is where I find myself troubled. We, of course, are rather trivial beings and all too fallible. So that we should bungle in any given context is a foregone conclusion. But across an array of competing attitudes and attributes, all major modern faiths do seem to agree that any god worth all the fuss is infallible.

How is it, then, that his/her/its radio is broken?

One must presume that a benevolent and parental kind of god, the very kind of god in which many of us invest our faith, wants the best for us. And since, as the saying goes, we are “all” god’s children, one might reasonably infer further that such a god wants the best for not just some, but all of us.

One might also allow, however, that free will does its mischief. Some of us are just disinclined to be good. Short of making us good by force, god, like any parent, must accept the liabilities of wayward children.

But what of the children who are not wayward, but rather misguided? If any given religion is right in all of its details (and if all of the details don’t matter, why, then, are there so many details? God either does, or doesn’t, care what kind of hats we wear), then every other religion is wrong. Since every faith is home to people who are good and fervent and ardent and kind—people eager to know the divine truth—it all begs a question. How can the correct divine signal fail to reach those eager to receive it? Worse, how can such people get the wrong signal and find it entirely convincing?

I don’t know the answer, but it shakes my faith. In science, we know darn well that we are missing data. Science is the struggle to know truths that are subtle, and at times stubbornly elusive. The only way to them is incremental, accelerated by the occasional epiphany courtesy of rare genius. Scientific truth comes together slowly, and along the way is riddled with fenestrations.

No surprise, then, that it is vulnerable to mischief and manipulation. Pieces of truth can be misinterpreted for, or misrepresented as, the whole. Sellers do this because it’s a chance to get on the gravy train. Pick the signal you prefer, cite the evidence selectively, and peddle, peddle, peddle.

No surprise then that we are sold mere grains of truth about science, and in particular, that area of science that matters most to me: The application of diet and lifestyle to health promotion and disease prevention. No surprise that we are sold mere grains of truth about grains and fats, fruits and nuts, feet and forks.

The surprise to me has always been that we buy them. Looking on as competing factions embrace divergent theories based on selective renderings of partial truths, I have long been surprised. I have wondered why people with good sense seemed to renounce its application when titillated with magical thinking about weight loss and health. I have lamented our tendency to accept at face value ludicrously exaggerated claims about single-ingredient scapegoats or saviors, and to infuse religious fervor into considerations of what and when make for the best breakfast. I have been forced to concede that perhaps desperation breeds gullibility.

But I have kept the faith that a larger, less partisan truth would ultimately prevail. I have clung to the conviction that truth is often immediately furtive, but relentless and ultimately indomitable. Seekers of truth are patient of necessity, obliged to be disciples of time. So far, I have kept the faith that eventually enough data would rally us to common understanding and common cause.

I do still hope so. But today I concede that in darker moments, my faith is shaken. Truths taken as divine are widely contested. If even an almighty signal fails to rise above the din of discord, how mad the presumption of hope for such lesser truths from we of such small voices. Maybe no signal can rise about the static in a universe where even god’s radio is broken.

I will cling to the faith that it isn’t so, but I sure would like to see the data.

David L. Katz, MD, FACP, MPH, FACPM, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care. He is a board certified specialist in both Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health, and Associate Professor (adjunct) in Public Health Practice at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is the Director and founder (1998) of Yale University's Prevention Research Center; Director and founder of the Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital (2000) in Derby, Conn.; founder and president of the non-profit Turn the Tide Foundation; and formerly the Director of Medical Studies in Public Health at the Yale School of Medicine for eight years. This post originally appeared on his blog at The Huffington Post.