In Christian communities, science news on COVID-19 arrives in a landscape already shaped by tricky contours, including not only broader societal skepticism toward science but also unique concerns about whether science conflicts with faith. Within that context, the science and faith engagement organization BioLogos, in conjunction with Christianity Today, hosted a livestream event aimed at providing Christians with a trustworthy source on the coronavirus pandemic: Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and an outspoken Christian. Collins addressed several questions on Monday, ranging from research on potential treatments and vaccines to ethics around triage and the origins of this new virus.
Since information proliferates through varying mediums and newsgathering methods can create conflicting narratives, the event centered on common questions arising among the general public. Though scientists have refuted it, many still question whether the new coronavirus could have originated in a lab. After all, there is a virology lab in Wuhan, China, where the virus first emerged. It turns out this idea holds more plausibility with Christians than with the general US population, according to a recent Pew Research poll.
About 36 percent of both white evangelicals and black Protestants believe that the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was made in a lab, either intentionally or accidentally, according to the March poll. Only 29 percent of all US adults surveyed agreed. Atheists are least likely to think the current strain was manufactured. Further, younger respondents believed this at higher rates than older respondents, as did Republicans or those more conservative politically.
Collins, who founded BioLogos in 2009, addressed this theory during the livestream event. “If you were trying to make a virus, you wouldn’t make this one,” he said. As scientists have studied the genetic sequence of the virus, they’ve noticed some properties that computer models wouldn’t assume could make it contagious. And yet it is. Therefore, it’s very unlikely a bioengineer would have chosen this route to make a virus. Instead, the virus resembles coronaviruses found in both bats and pangolins. “In this case, the bioterrorist was nature,” said Collins, adding that viruses have been mutating this way for centuries. He explains on his blog that scientists are still searching for how it began infecting people.
The story is an anecdote in a bigger landscape of how best to care for the sick, practice social distancing, and support a lagging economy. Yet it also illuminates how information is perceived, challenging us to think about how we evaluate truth.
Jim Stump, vice president of BioLogos, said that their staff considers how some in their audience may perceive science as something clouded with ideology. Some scientists have used public platforms to express disdain for religion.
He pointed out that science works independent of ideology. However, every area of knowledge is influenced by ideology. It’s not that people consciously evaluate information based on “ideas and values they are committed to,” said Stump, referencing Jonathan Haidt’s, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. “That might happen sometimes, but far more often it happens in the background of our thinking.”
However, human reasoning is “most often driven by the values of our group,” said Stump. “We cannot just plop the cold, hard facts down in front of people and expect them to accept those.”
BioLogos staff consider how to communicate science to Christians, some of whom may be skeptical about science. “Particularly in our age of social media, there is so much information available—and much of it conflicting—you must first establish trust with your audience. For us, that includes using scientists who share our values and faith in Christ,” Stump said.
“We are so grateful to have sincere believers like Francis Collins in influential positions where the science does not become mixed with an anti-Christian ideology.”
Meanwhile, as scientists continue to fight the coronavirus pandemic, communicating findings on where the virus came from is only the beginning of public engagement. Social distancing appears to be working in parts of the US as lower numbers of cases and deaths are predicted now than were originally feared, yet Collins cautioned viewers that this moment is far from over. Though there may be some relief this summer, most scientists assume the virus may thrive again in the fall. Thus, the primary hope in ending the pandemic is seen to be a vaccine.
Yet the public’s skepticism toward vaccines has grown, even among Christians. Last fall, a Pew survey found that 12 percent of US adults do not feel the benefits of the childhood vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella outweigh the risks—the number goes up for blacks (26 percent) and Hispanics (22 percent). A majority of white evangelicals (87 percent) see the benefit of the measles vaccine, but that percentage is lower on average than among all white Americans (92 percent).
Though science communication during the pandemic has more challenges ahead, Pew found that 79 percent of US adults surveyed say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is doing a good job—more than approve of other institutions, with the lowest approval given to the media and President Donald Trump.
In this moment, as Americans seem to value science institutions, Stump holds out hope that “people (will see) the importance of scientific research and results on things like vaccinations.” This trust will be needed when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available in the future.
Rebecca Randall is the science editor at Christianity Today.
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