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Pilot Project Offers Science Enrichment to Religion Reporters

Scientific advances produce both excitement and concerns within religious communities, and the nation’s religion writers are often tasked with interpreting these discoveries. To assist them, AAAS, through its Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program, has launched a one-year pilot project involving two activities, the first of which was a one-day science symposium held in conjunction with the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA) annual meeting in Philadelphia, 26 September.

The second element—a $2000 award for religion reporters—launched 1 August and will make it possible for up to 12 journalists to attend the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, DC.

The RNA symposium offered an introduction to the practice of science and how to report on it, followed by sessions on forefront scientific and technological advances in several example areas that beg the question: what does it mean to be human?  Writers were introduced to provocative breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and robotics, genetic engineering (specifically the CRISPR/Cas9 technique), and the search for life beyond earth.

This was the first time in RNA’s 66-year history that its annual preconference program focused exclusively on science, making it a landmark opportunity for AAAS to foster better dialogue about science with religious communities through work with journalists whose reporting expertise is an underutilized resource in facilitating dialogue between scientists and religious communities. 

How Does Science Work? A Brief Introduction to the History, Philosophy, and Practice of Science

The opening discussion featured Melinda Baldwin, lecturer in the history of science at Harvard University, and Rachel Gross, a science writer at Slate.

Rachel Gross

Rachel Gross | AAAS/David Buller

Both Baldwin and Gross described their passion for science and the questions that surround it. Baldwin had been a chemistry major in college, but became fascinated by questions about how science works. “Science was the water I lived in and it was a very obvious framework for asking big questions about who we are and how we fit into this universe,” said Gross, whose parents are scientists.

Previously a journalist at the Jewish publication Moment, Gross initially felt out of her depth reporting on religion. “This is what it’s like for most reporters coming into science writing without a background in it. It’s a whole new world,” she said.

And yet, the skills that make for good reporting are the same no matter what the journalist's beat: curiosity, fearlessness, skepticism, rigor, and humility. “There are more layers to science writing,” she said. “You have to take the technical jargon, distil it, and translate it.”

Baldwin focused her remarks on the institutions and practices that govern modern science. She posed a series of questions: Who are scientists? What do scientists do? Who pays for science and how do we know if it’s good science (quality science and ethical science)?

One of the big changes for scientific research since the scientific revolution has been the shift to “methodological naturalism,” Baldwin said. For an earlier generation of scientists—Isaac Newton, for example—it was both acceptable and expected to consider what implications scientific research might have for theology.

In the nineteenth century, a consensus developed among scientific researchers that theological analysis was outside the mission of science. “Their goal was to explain the natural world without reference to the divine or the supernatural,” Baldwin said.

“Some men of science during this period became explicitly atheistic and believed that there were only natural explanations for the way the world worked. That is to say, they were not only methodological naturalists, but philosophical naturalists,” she said.

In preparation for her talk, Baldwin asked a variety of scientists what they wished more people knew about scientific research. Most said that they wished more people understood that “science—even really excellent science—doesn't’t always result in straightforward answers.”

A scientist will talk about their research results in more limited terms than journalists and the general public might prefer. “To a non-scientist that can sound sort of wishy-washy or suspicious,” she said. “But scientists are trained to be extremely specific about what they’re concluding and why they’re concluding it. That doesn’t mean it’s bad science—it just means we’re getting a very thorough explanation of exactly what they’ve concluded.”

Baldwin closed her presentation with a discussion of science funding and the ethical parameters that govern the field.

What Does It Mean to Be Human? Implications of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics

Next, the program turned to the question: What does it mean to be human in light of advances in artificial intelligence and robotics?

Redefining ourselves is part of what we do as we learn new things about the world, said Robert T. Pennock, Professor of the Philosophy of Science and Computer Science & Engineering at Michigan State University. Humans are tool makers, and we’re evolving ourselves beyond biology through tools like smartphones, said Pennock. These kinds of tools are much more intelligent than we ever thought possible, he said. 

“In many of the things we previously thought of as human characteristics, now we’re getting robots that can do them as well or better," said Pennock. But what happens if they don’t do what we ask of them? "It is common to underestimate where technology will go." 

Robotics researchers typically talk about the medical applications of their work, but military applications are much more common, he said.

“Prosthetics and helping disabled veterans is one thing, but autonomous weapons that on their own do things without our control is quite another,” said Pennock. “We have to recognize that technology embodies moral choices.”

What Does It Mean to Be Human? Implications of Genetic Engineering

In this session, Douglas Lauffenberger, Ford Professor of Bioengineering, and co-founder and Head of the Department of Biological Engineering at MIT, explained the innovative CRISPR/CAS9 gene editing technique that made international headlines this year.

“Utilizing a modified bacterial protein and a RNA that guides it to a specific DNA sequence, the CRISPR system provides unprecedented control over genes in many species, including perhaps humans,” Science reported.

Douglas Lauffenberger


Douglas Lauffenberger | AAAS/David Buller

Lauffenberger showed a video animation of the technique, and provided a timeline of the research’s evolution, beginning in 1987 when the first reports of CRISPR repeats appeared in scientific literature. He noted its potential applications in the treatment of genetic disorders like Cystic fibrosis, Muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s disease, and Sickle Cell Anemia.

He also explained the difference between somatic cell editing--which makes changes that are not inherited by offspring—and germline editing—in which changes to egg, sperm, zygotes or embryos impact all the genes in the body and are heritable.

Although this type of genetic engineering has a lot of potential for both research and medicine, there are significant scientific and ethical challenges to overcome, Lauffenberger said. However, the scientific community has been proactive in urging caution, and germline editing is currently banned or restricted in much of the world, including in the U.S.

The major ethical debate about the CRISPR/Cas9 technique involves making heritable changes to the human germline and the potential for “free market eugenics,” turning future children into commodities by editing their genomes for intelligence, appearance, etc., explained Ted Peters, Research Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

According to Peters, there are four bioethical frameworks through which to consider the use of techniques like CRISPR/Cas9:  the Embryo Protection model, which views destruction of embryos for use in research as immoral  and unnecessary; the Nature Protection model, which opposes “the Frankenstein hubris to create a human life and increasingly to control its destiny”; the Medical Benefits model, which prioritizes the suffering of patients and long term global health benefits; and, the Professional Standards model, which prioritizes the values that inform professional ethics for scientists – honesty, fairness, objectivity, reliability, skepticism, accountability, and openness.

Peters advocated adoption of the “precautionary principle,” an approach derived from a 1992 U.N. Conference on the Environment that places a burden of caution on scientists for new discoveries whose potential outcomes are unknown. 

What Does It Mean to Be Human? Implications of the Search for Life Beyond Earth

The final session of the day took attendees out of the lab and into the sky with a discussion of what it means to be human in the context of the search for life on other planets. DoSER director Jennifer Wiseman, who is also a NASA astrophysicist, provided an overview of the science.

It’s an exciting time in astronomy, with new technologies that enable astronomers to see the universe in much more detail, said Wiseman. One of the hot new areas of discovery involves the plethora of planets recently found outside of our solar system, and the quest to find potential life-bearing worlds, she said.

“We know that star formation is an active and ongoing process, and we now know that planets form around stars, so planet formation is also a very hot topic in astronomy,” said Wiseman, illustrating her talk with images of star-forming nebulae and circumstellar regions.


Audience member asks a question at the Science for Religion Reporters program | AAAS/David Buller

Over the last few centuries, the sensitivity of telescopes has improved exponentially, she said. A variety of modern telescopes both in space and on the ground are used in concert by scientists to gather information.

“We’ve learned that the universe is active, not stagnant,” Wiseman said. Not only do new stars form, but old stars die. “They release their atmospheres, or even explode. They give off elements that they have forged. These can go into future generations of stars and planets,” she said.

The discovery rate for exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) has been increasing exponentially since the 1980s when there were no known exoplanets. This year, more than 1000 exoplanets have been discovered. Wiseman explained how astrobiology and the burgeoning analyses of exoplanet atmospheres are early steps in determining how common habitable worlds beyond Earth might be.

Reflecting on the implications of space explorations, Lucas Mix, researcher at the Harvard University Department of Organismic & Evolutionary Biology, said humans have always navigated by stories, and the search for life beyond earth “shapes the stories we tell about ourselves and our place in the universe." 

“We make these pictures of the universe and we can’t help but put ourselves in the pictures. When we put ourselves in the pictures, it tells us something about who we think we are,” said Mix.

Most religions are deeply invested in these kinds of framing questions, said Mix, who is also an Episcopal priest. Christians ask if humans are the only creations with will, souls, reason, and dignity. Catholics believe all creation will be redeemed while Protestant theology has tended to suggest only humans will be redeemed and everything else will pass away, he said.

Muslims ask whether humans are the pinnacle of creation, he said. Buddhists and Hindus ask about sentience and awareness, and whether humans have a unique ability for understanding about them.

Journalists have an opportunity to answer questions for people in the stories they tell. When it comes to simple facts about what has been observed, they can turn to scientists for information, Mix said. But when shifting from observations to possibilities, probabilities, and outright guesses, additional perspectives enrich the conversation.

The day-long symposium only highlighted a few areas in which science and religion intersect. The program closed with an invitation for the nearly 100 religion reporters in attendance to apply for the Science for Religion Reporters award, which will offer several days of forefront science exposure to this pool of journalists. The application deadline is November 1, 2015. Award recipients will be notified by January 4, 2015.