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The Ordeal of the Adventist Scientist: An Interview with Alvin Kwiram


Alvin Kwiram took his bachelor’s degrees—one in chemistry and one in physics—at Walla Walla College and earned his doctorate from the California Institute of Technology.  He became a member of the chemistry faculty of Harvard University, and in 1970 moved to the University of Washington in Seattle, where he eventually became that university’s vice-provost for research, a position he held for over a decade.  In that role he was responsible for oversight of the research enterprise for the entire university, and was also responsible for the management of the university’s intellectual property, including patenting, licensing and ensuring that start-up companies complied with institutional policies.  Today the research portfolio of the University of Washington, at over a billion dollars per year, makes the University of Washington one of the top five universities in the US  for total external research funding.

In 2002 Kwiram took over as executive director of a national center for photonics, a position he held until his retirement in 2007.  In his retirement he continues to serve on several boards. The University of Washington recently honored him for his role in spearheading the creation there of a major institute for renewable energy research.

A member of the Green Lake Seventh-day Adventist Church in Seattle, Kwiram was, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, one of the group of Boston-area academics and graduate students who helped to create the Adventist Forum (then: the Association of Adventist Forums) and to found Spectrum magazine.  He was the organization’s first president.

You know what is going on in science as well as any Adventist. How would you describe the difficulties associated with being not only a scientist but also someone who, as an Adventist, trusts in God as maker of heaven and earth?

Historically, the Adventist church has been fairly circumspect in the way it has handled science and faith issues in official declarations, such as the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary and its statement of “Fundamental Beliefs.”  What is disturbing about the present effort to “tighten up the creed” is that it goes beyond what the Bible says. For a church that has long claimed the “sola scriptura” mantle, this is a dramatic departure. 

The mindset behind the present effort fails, unfortunately, to adapt to changing reality in much the same way that dogmatic thinkers have exhibited mental rigor mortis repeatedly in the past. Galileo is a nice parallel but there are many others in different fields. One case, from our lifetime, is reaction to the notion of continental drift set forth by Wegener. Thomas Kuhn (author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) has highlighted these tendencies pretty clearly. 

The position church officials are promoting regarding creation may well suffer the same fate as the Catholic Church’s action in the case of Galileo. Will it take the Adventist church 300 years as well to come to grips with reality on this matter?

However long it takes, the church will have in the meantime squandered countless opportunities to frame a more coherent world view and to give its members a strong foundation in faith and knowledge, one that that can help them speak to the larger society in a constructive manner. More tragically, it may drive countless numbers of individuals in future generations away from a life of faith, moral commitment and spiritual experience.

The difficulty seems not, then, to be uniquely Adventist. People who embrace the Bible as the highest written authority for the understanding of their faith have often had a hard time relating to the work of scientists.

When faced with a diagnosis of a life threatening disease, individuals leave no webpage un-scrutinized in search of a way to overcome the possibility of a foreshortened life. We grasp at every straw—no matter the level of validation; no matter whether the researcher who came up with the putative cure is an Adventist, or eats meat or drinks coffee. Generally, the patient has not even the most rudimentary understanding of the science behind the proposed procedure.  If the treatment sounds even remotely plausible the patient is ready to sign up.

But when it comes to a literal and poorly informed reading of a few lines in the Bible that suggests an idea learned at the father’s knee, no amount of evidence, however broadly validated, consistent and compelling, is accorded the slightest attention. Even worse, religious leaders are often willing to destroy the lives of faithful members for even considering the evidence. What does this say about a commitment to truth?

But many members and leaders who vilify the scientific community claim to be doing so precisely in the name of truth. 

The problem is that some who push most energetically for more restrictive language and greater thought control have little knowledge of even the most elementary scientific concepts. They seem unaware of centuries-long controversies on these various topics, and of how they were contested vigorously by people far more qualified than any of the present protagonists. It is discouraging and disheartening to see people with limited qualifications making pronouncements with great confidence on these subjects. But given a platform that provides a certain measure of artificial authority, they have undue influence on believers who have little or no understanding of the subject.

Of course, this is not limited to Adventists, or to the religious context. It is a general phenomenon. It is too easy to arrogate to ourselves the authority to declare what anyone else can think about a given subject, and then to vilify and demean those who hold differing views. Tobacco companies, for example, protested vigorously and deceitfully for decades that there was no scientific evidence for a link between smoking and lung cancer. 

Another critical example concerns climate change. Half the people of the U.S., which has the most advanced scientific enterprise in the history of humankind, seem to be opposed to the idea that our burning of fossil fuels is having an impact on the environment. They don’t believe that we are facing a crisis of unimaginable proportions. And again, certain authority figures keep encouraging skepticism, promoting misleading information, and making personal attacks against researchers, all the while ignoring vast swaths of evidence of the growing crisis.  

To return to the medical analogy, if someone discovers an unfamiliar skin spot, that person may rush immediately to the doctor. On the other hand, if someone has a huge disfiguring growth on the side of the face, that person may respond (now think climate change), “Well, who knows, this is probably just a temporary T-rex zit and will go away if I give it a chance. I’ve heard someone say that eating chocolates can cure zits so if things don’t improve a lot in the next year or so I’ll try that remedy. But for now, let’s just wait and see what happens.” 

If the analogy is silly, it still illustrates the mindset regarding climate change in this country. Whether in the secular or the religious worlds, we have unqualified authority figures failing to exercise normal investigative strategies to find the truth. 

To get at the truth of any matter you have to go to those who have thought deeply about the subject and have acquired the skills necessary to gain some insight into that reality. Then you have to test their views against other sources of comparable expertise, all the while keeping in the back of your mind the power of a reigning paradigm. It is not easy to do this. But it suggests that a healthy dose of humility is essential to avoid self-defeating error.  

Of course, if you only consult those who agree with your view and implicitly intimidate those who might have a different view, you have no chance to arriving at a legitimate outcome.

Facing up to reality just seems hard, especially when adjustments in your thinking may take a toll on what you prefer to be true or have long believed to be true.

This is the eternal challenge humans face. I know from firsthand experience how painful it is to come to the realization that a long held and cherished view is not really consistent with the ongoing development of human understanding. I think we have probably all experienced such adjustments in our respective world views, and we know how deeply wrenching such conflicts can be when they involve our own sense of self and our belief in the nature of God’s will. Therefore we have to be patient with those who hold other views and continue to engage them with understanding and a generous spirit.

Among the countless examples of such adjustments is the attitude of Christians on race. Within our own lifetime we have witnessed the struggle that good Christians have had in coming to grips with racism, and on these issues we are not yet out of the woods. Still, many in the Christian community have made that adjustment to a greater or lesser degree. But should we stone those who have not?  That would not reflect a New Testament response. Should we dismiss them from our fellowship? That does not seem especially redemptive. Destruction, denigration, vilification, ostracism are not the kind of responses we would ascribe to Jesus. They are not even the responses of civilized people. Education, empathy, tolerance and love are far more appropriate responses. Our understanding is not improved with superficial slogans or attempts at intellectual coercion.  

What is desperately needed is sincere, respectful, intelligent dialogue. But neither a few white papers nor a carefully choreographed conference will settle the issues. For humans, the dialogue must be perpetual. Engaging intelligently, with malice to none and charity to all, is a duty that we owe to ourselves, to our children and to society.

The people who claim to know better than the scientists do often say that it is scientists that are arrogant. Is there even a grain of truth in this?  

Scientists are human with the same propensities as others. I referred earlier to Wegener’s theories on continental drift. It was the professional geologists who vilified his work and his character, not the average citizen who was barely aware of the scientific dispute.  So, yes, scientists can be just as arrogant as anyone else. What saves them, generally and in the long run, is that their enterprise is predicated on testability. Eventually, the scientific process tends to prevail even if it may take a generation or three for new ideas to gain acceptance.  

In science a few observations may support a certain hypothesis, but new observations may demonstrate that the current hypothesis is inadequate. At some point as the accumulated evidence piles up, you either have to close your mind in order to maintain your erstwhile position, or you have to change your view.  Persons who close their minds in the face of overwhelming evidence usually do so because they are committed to a non-scientific paradigm that they do not wish to abandon.  Their position is a matter of ideology, not scientific evidence.  That may be benign unless it is used to impose restrictions on the thoughts or actions of others. Then it becomes a conflict of ideologies that has little to do with truth.

Can you say more, specifically, about the particular challenges scientists in Adventist institutions are facing?

The difficulty is that in their scientific exploration for truth, faculty in our institutions are constrained. As a result, from astronomy to zoology the intellectual process is corrupted.

What one would like to have is a community of faith that is exploring the challenges of the modern world and trying to help the next generation to respect science while continuing to value ethics, moral behavior, intellectual integrity, compassion, empathy and many other Christian virtues. Instead, we distort the process, encourage dishonesty and character assassination, and thereby drive our brightest young people to reject both Adventism and spiritual dimensions of their lives. 

In the developed nations, our young people are leaving the church in disheartening numbers. And that pattern will be repeated in emerging economies as higher education becomes a more universal value. This is tragic because the world needs more individuals who have a highly developed sense of integrity, fair play, high ethical standards, tolerance and compassion. 

As a non-scientist, I notice that almost no Adventist scientists—certainly almost no scientists employed in Adventist higher education—express themselves freely on these matters. This represents, it seems, real dysfunction in the community. How can the door to forthright conversation be pushed open a crack?

I have enormous sympathy and respect for the faculty in Adventist higher education who are put in an impossible situation. They have a responsibility to prepare the next generation for the challenges of a wider world than our forebears ever encountered, but are threatened with ostracism if they deviate from some notions held by those with limited understanding of the issues they are dealing with. They need greater freedom to explore ideas. Isn’t that what the search for truth implies? Their commitment to the church and their expertise need to receive a greater measure of respect in the church. There needs to be a context in which they can grapple honestly and freely with the enormous challenges facing society without fear of retribution.

That was the idea behind the Forum movement and Spectrum. The goal was to encourage serious conversation about the challenges facing the church in the modern world. But the countervailing forces have been overpowering and increasingly doctrinaire. Perhaps in the coming years, as enrollment in our academies continues to decline and our colleges continue to struggle with affordability challenges and even further restrictions on what can be thought and taught, a more prophetic generation may arise that will simply say, as some North American Unions have done on the issue of women in ministry, “Enough.” But it won’t happen in my lifetime. There is a vastly smaller constituency in the church for facing scientific issues honestly than there is for addressing the role of women in the church, and the issues are more arcane and difficult to articulate to the general public. It is not easy to be optimistic about progress in the short term.


Charles Scriven, who conducted this interview, is the Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum Magazine.



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