Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Thursday, June 30, 2016

You say tomato, I say GMO

Between Istanbul, the Brexit, and Donald Trump, you might have missed the hot debate raging in the journal Trends in Plant Science on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Never fear, I am here to bring you up to date. The tiff started a few months ago when a Belgian team led by Stefaan Blancke published an article entitled "Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition.1" Blancke’s team addressed what they saw as a paradox. GMOs and other biotechnologies have revolutionized agriculture—simultaneously improving human nutrition and reducing environmental impacts of agriculture—but they are widely opposed by the public. Bernie Sanders wants them labelled, Jenny McCarthy wants them vaccinated, and the European Union has effectively banned anything that doesn’t have the genes it was born with (so to speak). If so many people from so many different backgrounds are skeptical, isn’t that good evidence that something isn’t right? Blancke and crew respectfully disagree.

They propose that one of the reasons GMO opposition is so widespread is because anti-GMO arguments happen to be intuitive and common sense. We are receptive to anti-GMO messaging because it is in line with our expectations and folk understanding of biology. GMOs seem unnatural (not what Nature/God intended) and disgusting (who wants to eat cornflakes with scorpion genes or chew tobacco enhanced with firefly juice?). While there is a large body of scientific evidence showing that GMOs are safe (in my favorite study they feed miniature pigs exclusively on genetically modified corn for a year 2) and despite economic evidence that GMOs could reduce malnutrition and poverty (1.4 million life years have already been lost over opposition to vitamin-a-producing golden rice 3), anti-GMO arguments make sense on a gut level and most of us conclude that biotech is dangerous and immoral.

An infographic from ecobayou.com on GMOs and "other facts worth knowing." I think we should close the borders until we figure out what is going on with papayas.


Nuff said surprised baby.

For example, consider the plight of the Enviropig. Researchers at the University of Guelph inserted some E. coli genes into Yorkshire hogs that let the pigs digest plant phosphorus. The modified pigs didn’t need phosphate added to their feed and they excreted 20-70% less phosphorus than unmodified Yorkshires. This was an important breakthrough because global stocks of rock phosphate are extremely limited (peak phosphorus is likely within the century and you can’t grow anything without phosphorus 4), and because nutrient pollution from pig excrement is a big problem in agricultural areas. After the initial gene treatment, the Envirpigs were raised normally for ten generations with no ill-effects for the pigs or the pig meat. However, after a decade trying to bring the piggies to market, it became clear that regulatory hurdles and cultural obstacles (nobody wanted to eat the unnatural beasts) were too great and the pigs were destroyed.

Based on an image search of "GMO foods" apparently syringes and food coloring are the main tools of genetic manipulation. I thought this image was particularly hypnotic from an article entitled OBAMA FIGHTS TO SPREAD GMO FOODS THROUGHOUT EUROPE.

But the point of this post isn’t to persuade you to stop worrying about GMOs and love Round-up-ready Russets. I’m interested in the clash of scientific ideas and egos. Enter Ivan Couée, a French researcher from my institute at the Université de Rennes. Couée found Blancke’s arguments simplistic and offensive and wrote a rebuttal entitled “Hidden Attraction: Empirical Rationality in GMO Opposition. 5” He accuses Blancke of framing the issue as a battle between rational scientists and the irrational public (kind of a non-starter in scientific outreach circles) and invokes the precautionary principle: a mix of “better safe than sorry” and “keep the cat in the bag” 6. Couée points out that many of the same arguments currently used by GMO proponents (feed the world’s hungry, reduce environmental impact of agriculture) were also used to justify widespread chemical fertilizer use during the “green revolution” after World War II. Nutrient pollution is now one of the most pressing environmental concerns (and the reason for my employment), second to loss of biodiversity but more urgent than climate change 7. Couée doesn’t actually say that GMOs are dangerous or bad, he just defends people’s right to be suspicious.

I know that percentages can be confusing, but I gotta think yellow squash and zucchini are getting a bad rep.

Blancke quickly riposted with my favorite feint in the whole exchange, “The Need to Understand GMO Opposition: Reply to Couée. 8” He explains that Couée sidestepped the issue of comparing the strength of the evidence of the pro and anti camps and goes on to say that the point of the original article was not to belittle the public’s position on GMOs, but to help scientists better understand why people don’t accept the science. He writes,

. . . we think that comprehending how concerns and beliefs about GMOs arise from untrustworthy sources facilitates, rather than impedes, the development of a conciliatory framework. In our experience, when scientists learn about the intuitive and emotive basis of public concerns, they do not put them aside as irrational. On the contrary, they tend to take a more lenient attitude towards GMO opposition, simply because they now better understand where it stems from and why it exists.

At some level, Blancke realizes that we have blown past the edge of science here. As with climate change and evolution, the problem isn’t with the strength of the evidence—public acceptance is limited by other factors (maybe some group therapy and a PR campaign). His goal is to help scientists understand the general public so they can frame their findings in a way that evokes trust rather than disgust. Feeding GMO corn to miniature pigs for another year isn’t going to convince people biotech is safe anymore than a shiny new climate model could convince skeptics that global warming is manmade. In fact there is a lot of evidence that no "traditional" interventions reliably change what people choose to believe (check out Konnikova's I don't want to be right).

And this is where we get to the all-important question: why do we believe what we believe. I think most of us believe our beliefs are justified by the evidence (otherwise we’d believe something else right?). However, I think that thinking this way overlooks how small our understanding is and how big the systems we live in are. There is no way we can have informed opinions of most the issues we are faced with. Our worldview is not the sum of consecutive rational considerations, we decide what is true with heuristic shortcuts and trusted information sources (family, friends, news outlets, social groups, religious leaders etc.). This is as true of scientists as it is of accountants or high-school teachers. As Bloom and Weisberg wrote in their 2007 article “Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science, 9

. . . rather than evaluating the asserted claim itself, we instead evaluate the claim’s source. If the source is deemed trustworthy, people will believe the claim, often without really understanding it. Consider, for example, that many Americans who claim to believe in natural selection are unable to accurately describe how natural selection works (3). This suggests that their belief is not necessarily rooted in an appreciation of the evidence and arguments. Rather, this scientifically credulous subpopulation accepts this information because they trust the people who say it is true.

And therein lies the beauty of Blancke’s argument (and Couée’s too). When you realize that your beliefs are built on the same kind of patchwork of evidence and trust as others, it is easier to accept alternative interpretations and perspectives. In the evidence-based model of public opinion, where you think strength of argument determines adoption, dissenting views are either threatening or frustrating (if your evidence is weaker you've got to change tack and if it's stronger than why don’t more people accept your position?). Understanding that our positions on GMOs, climate change, and evolution (not to mention virtually every other scientific or social issue) are primarily based on intuition and social dynamics takes the sting out rejection and makes you humble about your own beliefs.

A cool Pew Research Center study on differences in beliefs of the general public and AAAS scientists. The largest gap between scientific and public opinion was on safety of GMOs, where only 37% of U.S. adults responded yes versus 88% of scientists.

Intellectual humility doesn’t imply that all positions are equally valid or that it is impossible to compare the misinformation content of contrasting worldviews. Clearly not all evidence is created equal, and not all interpretations are equally justified. For me, intellectual humility means making room in your belief system for curiosity and wonder. Persistent curiosity prepares you to abandon incorrect assumptions and leads you to explore multiple dimensions of what is known, increasing the likelihood of an informed decision. Intentional wonder reminds you of how much we don’t know and helps you assess the strength of your conclusions. Intellectually humility makes you think twice before retweeting or sharing a link that promotes an opinion you are not qualified to evaluate. It reminds us that people will believe, or not, what we disseminate, based on our apparent trustworthiness, and that we are responsible for what we broadcast. Intellectual humility allows us to empathize and love people who see the world through a different frame. Like high-school debate, it lets you slip between belief systems, feeling out their coherence and blur, only to emerge more balance and complete.

But enough philosophizing! What does this mean about GMOs and the larger question of communicating scientific beliefs? Since Couée hasn't replied to the reply yet, I’ll let Dr. Blancke close this out with a couple paragraphs of counsel.

Even though individual people may not always experience a personal advantage by purchasing and/or consuming GMOs, it will certainly help to inform the public that, for example, (i) Biotech corn contains less mycotoxins and is thus healthier than conventional maize; (ii) herbicide-resistant crops require less tilling and, thus, improve the soil quality; (iii) Biotech crops enhance insect biodiversity; (iv) Biotech crops help reduce poverty in India, and so on.

Finally, our approach suggests that people who are genuinely concerned about the environment may intuitively adopt strategies that have the opposite impact on what they set out to achieve. GMOs can be a formidable tool in the realization of a sustainable form of agriculture. By leading people to choose the wrong adversaries and to urge policy makers to take counter-effective measures, negative GMO representations may indeed exert a fatal attraction.

Actually, I'll let the folks at unexplainedmysteriesoftheworld.com have the last word: "So does all of this tampering with the environment disturb you? After all, at least scientists are not creating human/animal hybrid creatures, right? Wrong. The truth is that human/pig hybrid creatures will soon be legally grown inside of the United States. This is being publicly announced and almost nobody is getting upset about it."


References
1.         Blancke, S., Van Breusegem, F., De Jaeger, G., Braeckman, J. & Van Montagu, M. Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition. Trends Plant Sci. 20, 414–418 (2015).
2.         Chen, L. et al. Long-term toxicity study on genetically modified corn with cry1Ac gene in a Wuzhishan miniature pig model. J. Sci. Food Agric. n/a-n/a (2016). doi:10.1002/jsfa.7624
3.         Wesseler, J. & Zilberman, D. The economic power of the Golden Rice opposition. Environ. Dev. Econ. 19, 724–742 (2014).
4.         Elser, J. & Bennett, E. Phosphorus cycle: A broken biogeochemical cycle. Nature 478, 29–31 (2011).
5.         Couée, I. Hidden Attraction: Empirical Rationality in GMO Opposition. Trends Plant Sci. (2015). doi:10.1016/j.tplants.2015.12.002
6.         Arrow, K. J. & Fisher, A. C. Environmental Preservation, Uncertainty, and Irreversibility. Q. J. Econ. 88, 312–319 (1974).
7.         Rockström, J. et al. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472–475 (2009).
8.         Blancke, S., Van Breusegem, F., De Jaeger, G., Braeckman, J. & Van Montagu, M. The Need to Understand GMO Opposition: Reply to Couée. Trends Plant Sci. (2015). doi:10.1016/j.tplants.2015.12.001

9.         Bloom, P. & Weisberg, D. S. Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science. Science 316, 996–997 (2007).

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Joint Field Extravaganza

Two weeks ago we held the culminating event of the Interfaces project. 27 hydrologists, ecologists, and biogeochemists from 8 countries came to Rennes to test their scientific chops in the shadow of Mont Saint Michel. Interfaces is a Marie Curie ITN (Initial Training Network*) funded by the European Union. Besides having cool acronyms like EUROTAST, Chebana, and ACRITAS, ITNs have a goal of simultaneously doing cool science and equipping the next generation of researchers for international and interdisciplinary research. I'm one of three postdocs on the project and one of my responsibilities was to organize the Joint Field Experiment (JFE).

By train, plane, sedan, and van, our Interfaces family reunion started on Sunday April 24th. We rented three cottages in the polders, the coastal lowlands that were diked and drained in the 1800s.
An agricultural "stream" near our cottages behind the dikes.

We forgot that toilet paper wasn't included in our rental. Luckily there were 20 PhDs there so we found a solution.

On the subject of human waste, many scientists believe that nutrient pollution of freshwater and coastal zones is the most pressing environmental issue along with associated loss of biodiversity (check out the wiki on planetary boundaries). As we learn in second grade, we need safe water to drink and a whole host of bugs, fish, birds, and other critters depend on clean water for their survival. One of the goals of the interfaces project is to better understand how water moves across and through the landscape and how the elements it carries are transformed or removed to protect and restore aquatic ecosystems. We want to know where the water goes, how long it stays in the different compartments of the watershed (soil, aquifer, river etc), and what happens along the way.


First thing Monday, we toured the catchments so the different teams could figure out where to install their devices or take their measurements.  
After a coordination meeting Monday evening, we decided to focus on on two contrasting streams: the Petit Hermitage in the forest of Villecartier and the Chênelais in the corn fields and pastures. The differences in carbon and nutrient concentration (and number of cows) would let us test the streams' biological and hydrological capacity to remove pollutants.

Christophe and François sampling the pristine forest stream and the trampled agricultural one.

For the rest of the week, we split into eight teams and did some seriously big science (hoping to win bigly).

Team DTS (distributed temperature sensing) who used fiber optic cables and thermal cameras to measure stream temperature everywhere at once.
The Microbes, sampling and freezing bacteria and viruses like there was no tomorrow.

The He-Team, measuring dissolved gases with their tricked-out LaboMobile.

The Gassy Gravel Bars, sniffing for greenhouse gas emissions.
The Fluorescent Druggies, injecting everything imaginable to measure metabolism.

Team Nitrogen, fording every stream to quantify the most fabulous element.

The Lonely Diatom, looking for lost algae in the forest.

Team Groundwater, digging deep to pump you up.

We worked through the day (and sometimes through the night), installing equipment, downloading data loggers, recharging batteries, filtering water samples, and rushing along country roads to sample parallel injection points on the two streams.

Eliot taking some very precise stream length measurements preparing the deployment of the membrane-inlet mass spectrometer (MIMS) which gives real-time data of dissolved gas concentrations.

Marta, Zé, and Amalia got soaked but Guillaume managed to stay dry, sandwich and all. 

Besides the dunkings, the catastrophes were relatively pedestrian. Tamara got left in the forest, Christophe tweaked his back, one of the conductivity probes conked out, Hugo slept with the DTS for nothing, Astrid's fluorometer overwrote one of the injections, I accidentally stole François from Zahra, and the first liquid nitrogen freezing exploded everything.

In the spirit of the ITN program, Paul went interdisciplinary on us and started identifying local bones.

Watch out for the electric fencer.

Gilles did the shopping and we ate field-camp style. Nancy made burritos, Astrid made goulash, Gilles made moules, Hugo made crêpes, everyone helped with dishes, and Paul made the hand wash.
.

Turns out we unwittingly participated in a nationwide political action to add fluorescent dyes to streams to draw attention to water quality issues: Why are French Rivers Turning Fluorescent Green.


We'll miss you Pleine-Fougères. . .

Thursday, March 31, 2016

James Bondage?

This is a fragment of a post I came across tonight that I wrote four years ago after seeing Skyfall. A new Bond movie has come out since then, but since it did nothing to change my feelings on the subject, I thought I'd post my fragment. 
                                                                                                                                                              
November 2012 Fairbanks Alaska,

For my birthday yesterday Rachel took me to Skyfall. It was a long movie, which I like (I mean if you're going to spend $8 you want to get your money's worth), but I had a hard time letting go of my moral moorings.

I guess I just feel like most Disney movies are more socially progressive and compelling than this movie (and that's saying something). Lest you think I am just an action movie hater, I loved the last Batman, I thought the Avengers was great (if a little adolescent), and I left Spiderman and X-men (the first ones) in tears.

Bond and the Transformers are different.

For those of you who have seen the movie, can you think of a single female character who isn't either a mother figure or a love interest? Oh, actually, there is the Prime Minister. She rounds out possible female roles as the clueless and overbearing nag.

The Bond movies are great, plot driven adventures, but when that comes at the expense of portraying real human interactions and complexities, that's a huge bummer. There are plenty of opportunities for character development and thoughtful tension on the twisty-plotted Bond roller coaster but at each intersection, content is traded for hyperbolic thrill.

The most interesting character by far in the movie is Silva, the androgynous ex-agent terrorist. Yet here again the movie appeals to our knee-jerk response to his homosexual flirting with Bond rather than exploring how resentment not peace always flows from violence. To quote Dune (a novel also criticized for it's mostly male cast) "violence builds more violence and the pedulum swings until the violent ones are shattered."

Maybe Bond's character flaws don't matter. Maybe this is just entertainment, and anyway, if I want portrayals of complex real people, Bond certainly has issues. Maybe.

But Bond has become a cultural icon and a lot of men consciously or subconsciously admire him. Is Bond a contributing cause or just a consequence of prevailing attitudes about the value of human life, our concept of sexual roles, and our paradigms of masculinity? Does it matter who we choose for our heroes?

In Sunday school today we learned that we must "lay down our weapons." I don't see how Bond movies move us in that direction but maybe I'm missing something. Maybe.

In any case, I hope these guys prefer their martinis stirred.

                                                                                                                                                              

For the record, Daniel Craig thinks James Bond is a deeply troubling character as well, even if "Less sexist than before." What do you think? Does it mean anything when we choose to consume entertainment that condones morally objectionable behavior or is it just a harmless consequence of our fascination with train wrecks?

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Bix's swamp

The bank falling into the water like the leaves that fell on it
The bank won't be a bank forever

An accidental brothers' haiku by Tom and Ben.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Biking across Luxembourg with a mass spectrometer

I'm in Luxembourg this month working on a top secret mass spectrometer.
We are trying to shrink this hot mess of vacuum chambers so it fits in a suitcase that you could take with you on a walk through the woods (or a bike ride across Luxembourg).We want to be able to plop the thing down next to a stream to measure how water isotopes change when it rains or gets dry. Water isotopes are rad because they can tell you where the water comes from and how long it has been in the catchment.

The most adorable mass spec shrinkers ever: Nuria, Veneranda, and Hung

Yesterday was my first day off and I decided to see how many countries I could bike through. The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is just under 1,000 square miles (think Rhode Island minus a couple Walmart parking lots) and is conveniently situated at the corner of Germany, France, and Belgium. I left after 11 and headed west towards Belgium.

I wasn't sure if this was a dove of peace or the proverbial "bird" at the Belgian border

The region used to be a major steel producer and the the border cities still bear the scars of strip mines, though they are now mostly replaced by strip malls. 

The Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology as seen from space. It is surrounded by piles of contaminated soil from the mining days (not to mention the abandoned smelters in the middle of the parking lot).

The countryside from Belgium to Luxembourg city was fabulous. Hardly any cars, great roads and lots of pastures, vineyards, and forest.

I didn't spend much time in Luxembourg city but I stopped at the American and German cemeteries just outside of town. Hillsides full of young soldiers.

The bike routing option on Google Maps includes less-traveled paths so I ended up on quite a few dirt roads, one of which took me through the middle of a 30 person hunting party (they didn't look happy and I didn't stop to take pictures).

Most of the time you could see at least two countries and here, coming up on the Moselle River you can make out the windmills on the German side, the nuclear plant on the French side, and Luxembourgish vines in the foreground. They call this area Le Pays des Trois Frontières.

I stopped to take a picture of the Germany sign (which they totally misspelled by the way) and noticed that my GPS was just turning over to 100.0 kilometers. Fun!

A little feast from the German supermarket to celebrate country number 4. I got a second coke for a homeless guy sitting on the bikerack but he took off before I got out of the store so I had to drink them both.

I broke a spoke on my rear wheel just outside of Fixem. Last year I bought a pair of cheap Chinese carbon wheels and they have been great except for funky spoke lacing on the rear wheel (radial lacing on the non-drive side that has resulted in three broken spokes). If only I had brought the mass spec I could have just fabricated a new wheel (or is that what a 3D printer does?), but instead I trued the wheel as well as I could and hobbled home with a wobble.



The unsung hero of this story is my wife Rachel who is keeping our the three small children alive back in France. Caspian finally learned how to walk and Ingrid and Henry are the cutest little siblings you ever did see. Here is a drawing that Ingrid did. I think you can make out the funky lacing on my rear wheel in the upper left drawing of a drawing.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Faith and a critical mind

A friend sent me this message last week: 
So it's been a tough year for me as I try to reconcile my understanding of doctrine with what I learn about historical challenges within the church AND present day challenges casting doubt upon the church (including the most recent handbook changes).
My questions for you aren't really about specific issues with church leadership but rather how you manage thinking like a scientist AND maintaining a faithful perspective. . . how do you work in science, searching for truth objectively, AND maintain your faith when confronted with "anti-Mormon" information?
I've been asked versions of this question many times by fellow Mormons, people of other faiths, and people of no faith. Actually, just a few minutes ago a friend and colleague that I often discuss metaphysical matters with sent me an email with the following closing paragraph:
I just can't understand how an otherwise intelligent scientist like you can believe in such obviously fake and counterfactual stories in the face of reason and evidence pointing overwhelmingly to their fabrication by fraudster-psychopaths looking to dupe fools into giving them money, power, status and sex.
Both of these questions are about Mormonism specifically, but I think they would apply just as well to any religion or belief-system that goes beyond what we can know from the natural and philosophical sciences. I'll try to answer the questions generally (how can faith and critical thinking coexist) and specifically (why do I believe in Mormon doctrine faced with so much anti-mormon information).

First a little bit about me (because who doesn't love hearing about me). I love Mormon theology and consider myself fully Mormon. This is different than being an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, though I happen to be one of those as well (I was a translator just last week for Stake Conference in Nantes and totally butchered the callings and releases). I find Mormon theology transcendent and beautiful and I have had many spiritual experiences that I believe are encounters with God (see my post on coincidence for some specifics).

I love science and consider myself fully scientific. This is different than actually being a scientist, though I happen to be one of those as well. I am an ecosystem ecologist at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique in Rennes France. I love science because it solves problems and it reminds us to be curious, grateful, and careful. Science helped us figure out how to open our food barrel when we got dropped off in the Noatak without a wrench.

Lisle, Flinn, and Balser using science to open a bear-barrel containing 10-days of food. What they didn't know was that there was no coffee inside because they assigned a Mormon to do the shopping (talk about conflict between science and religion!).

When I was in high school my dad introduced me to the books of Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist and historian of science. Gould's solution to the problem of science and religion was to grant each its own sphere of knowledge that he called nonoverlapping magisteria:
The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives. The attainment of wisdom in a full life requires extensive attention to both domains—for a great book tells us that the truth can make us free and that we will live in optimal harmony with our fellows when we learn to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.
These boundaries work great for some issues and some faith traditions, but Mormonism flagrantly transgresses these limits with its claims of a physical God presiding over a natural universe, angelic visitations, and miraculous translations of actual text written on gold and papyrus. These, and many other Mormon beliefs collapse the distance between Gould's realms of facts and values, making for interesting dinner conversation and inviting factual investigation of Mormon claims. Gould himself acknowledges that there can be conflict:
This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man's land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult.
So then, how do I balance my training (and faith) in the scientific method with all of its replication, control, and formality with the messy and marvelous world of feelings and spirituality? The short answer is that I'm skeptical of everything and comfortable with uncertainty.

What strikes me about my friends' question is the assumption that real questioning, the kind where you might change your mind, is incompatible with maintaining faith—that to believe you sometimes have to disregard the evidence. I would not believe in Mormonism, God, or a spiritual world at all if I had to compromise or give up my critical thinking to do so. I do not "maintain" faith at the expense of questioning nor do I think that doing so leads to meaningful encounters with the divine. I try to use the same intellectual rigor and critical thinking to evaluate my spiritual conclusions as I do my scientific ones. I think we should regularly challenge our spiritual and scientific beliefs by asking:

  1. Am I making this up?
  2. Am I seeing what I want to see rather than what is there?
  3. What alternative explanations could account for what I think I experienced?
  4. What pressures or prejudices are influencing my interpretation?
  5. Is the strength of my conclusions proportional to the strength of the evidence or am I overstating my case?
  6. Am I making this up?

I believe that Mormon scripture uniquely encourages a critical and open-minded approach to faith, though I recognize that in practice, some Mormons are in family or community environments where they do not feel free to truly question. There are two passages in the Book of Mormon that come to mind on the interaction between believing and questioning: Alma 32 and Moroni 10. Alma says "awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith." He goes on to say that doctrines or teachings are like seeds and the best way to know if one is true is to give it an honest try and see what it grows into. Sure, you have to exercise enough trust or faith to start the experiment, but deep conviction or belief (what he calls knowledge) comes from careful observation and analysis of the experimental results. As written, these directions are very compatible with a scientific viewpoint, though in practice, if you have been told that only lazy or sinful people don't get the "right" answer, you certainly could come to the conclusion that belief is contradictory to reason. That brings me to the second passage, maybe the most famous in all Mormon scripture.

In the last chapter of the Book of Mormon, Moroni invites all those who read the book to ask God if it is true. He promises that God will manifest the truth of the book to those who ask sincerely. Specifically, he says that "real intent" is prerequisite to receiving this divine response. Ask any Mormon missionary and they will tell you that having real intent means that you intend to act on the response should it come. If we believe that real intent is necessary for revelation, we should ask hard questions about our church's history and present and be willing to change our beliefs based on the answers we get. I believe that much of the cognitive dissonance and intolerance in the church is due to people feeling that they have to set aside their spiritual convictions on an issue (gay marriage, Heavenly Mother, polygamy, etc.) because they do not feel they are compatible with what they are supposed to believe. I think this practice is morally objectionable and detrimental to progress of the individual and group. We should only accept the church's teachings or policies inasmuch as we receive a personal witness that they are true after critically evaluating them.



Green Canyon in Logan where I first really felt God and the Itkillik River on the North Slope where I first really glimpsed science.

So if scripture gives us permission to ask, why do so many Mormons or members of other groups (including non-religious groups) hesitate before truly questioning their beliefs and assumptions? Part of this is probably just group dynamics, but part of the fear to dissent comes from statements like the following, given by Wilford Woodruff at General Conference in 1890:
The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty
Though this statement is often quoted during General Conference, I do not believe it is true or in accordance with ancient or modern scripture. Contrast President Woodruff's declaration of prophetic infallibility with the Lord's description of His relationship with the prophets and apostles in the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants:
Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding. And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known; And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed; And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent; And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.
These two paradigms are universes apart. In the first, the prophets cannot make mistakes and are constantly controlled by God. In the second, they are weak and fallible, receiving guidance like the rest of us: from time to time and depending on their sincerity. If we subscribe to the first paradigm, accounts of mistakes in church history and experiences with current mismanagement threaten the basis of our testimony. However, if we accept that our leaders are, as the Lord says, the "weak things of the world," and that the doctrines and policies of the church are a work in progress, we can acknowledge and learn from mistakes.

I think that the historical context of President Woodruff's statement gives some insight into why the church has largely favored the narrative of prophetic perfection in post-polygamy Mormonism. President Woodruff gave the speech in question soon after announcing that the church would no longer practice plural marriage. He wanted to reassure church members that his decision to end polygamy was the will of the Lord and not a political concession. Some of the people that questioned the words of the prophet broke away from the body of the church and founded the fundamentalist groups that still practice polygamy today. The church was traumatized by that schism and perhaps has focused more on conformity and unity since then in an effort to avoid future splits. Ironically, I believe that this belief that prophets can't make mistakes and that the church should never apologize, weakens the body of the church and drives some people away.

Mormonism was founded on revolutionary and expansive principles including a virtual elimination of hell, a universal right to revelation, the sanctification of spiritual and carnal pleasure, and co-eternality with God. The restoration of the gospel started because a teenager was willing to ask with real intent if what he was being taught was true. I believe that we should skeptically investigate all propositions from all sources. I don't think the Lord ever wants us to check our critical thinking at the door and just accept what someone tells us, even if they are a prophet, seer, and revelator. This is a teaching of the restoration that some of us have forgotten (we learn in Section 129 that even if an angel shows up we have to check if they know the secret handshake before we can trust what they say!).

I believe in God because each time I ask if He exists I feel like I receive a response. I believe in Mormonism because when I read the scriptures in my secret places between trees and stone I feel the power of God in them and when I experiment on the words of church leaders I feel a renewed desire to do good. I am under no delusions that these beliefs are fully scientific but I find them in no way incompatible with my scientific training. They are reasoned, subjective interpretations of the evidence I have experienced in my life.

For a longer and more involved discussion of how thoughtful reason and faith can coexist and a treatment of specific issues in church history, check out John Dehlin's five-hour interview with Terryl Givens.