Science is fascinating but how thorough is the process of testing and how trustworthy are the results? What do we do with dissenting voices and scientific claims that don’t agree?
These are some of the questions Layton Friesen asks of Dr. Henry Janzen, researcher in the field of soil science at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada | AAFC · Lethbridge Research and Development Centre. Dr. Janzen talks about the process his own research goes through before publishing, the role that skeptics have, and how scientists need the rest of the society when value judgements are required. He also talks about the parallels between his search for truth in science and in faith.
Layton Friesen: Hello everyone. I am Layton Friesen. I am the conference pastor of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference and today I’m really excited to be talking to Henry Janzen.
Welcome Doctor Janzen.
Henry Janzen: Well thanks Layton, it’s a pleasure to have this opportunity just to think with you about some questions and perspectives that are intriguing to me. So, thank you again.
LF: Thank you. Henry is now retired, I believe you are, from your formal position at the Agriculture and Agri Food Canada Research Center. Is that correct? in Lethbridge, Alberta?
HJ: That’s correct, I’m officially retired, although I still hold what they call, very nicely, an honorary research associate position, so it’s kind of an emeritus position. So, I’m still quite actively engaged, but have a little bit more freedom to do the things that are of interest to me.
LF: And you are a member of the Coaldale Mennonite Church.
HJ: That’s correct, yes.
LF: That is one of our most recent EMC churches, actually, so that’s another point of connection here.
So, you continue to do research even after your retirement from a formal position, which suggests that this is not just a job for you. Why is it that you find all of this so fascinating, even after you’ve obviously been doing this for decades? What is it that keeps you going even into retirement in research?
HJ: Well, I think what keeps me going is a fascination with questions. We live in an amazing world. We live in a creation that is astonishing in perplexity and grandeur. And when we look around us there are so many puzzles, so many riddles, so many fascinating things that excite us. And always, when I look around me, I think, “Well, I don’t understand this-what’s going on here?” “Why is this the way it is?” And so, all these questions keep bubbling up, and it’s those questions that keep me going, keep me looking, hoping to stumble on some partial answers at least. But that, I think is what’s drives me. It’s the search. And I might say as well that this is also what fascinates me about faith, and I see remarkable parallels between my faith adventure and my science adventure. In both cases I am searching, sometimes stumbling into ignorance, but always searching. And it’s the adventure, the questions that keep me going.
LF: Wow. And so even as you learn more and more and more about your own field, the mystery, the excitement of new questions never really goes away. You never get to a point where now it just all seems much more simple, and understandable, and satisfying? You’re kind of satisfied with that?
HJ: Oh yeah, absolutely, and in fact, the more I’ve studied and the older I get, the less I know, Or maybe, probably more accurately, the more aware I am of what I don’t know and what I would like yet to know, and that’s the driving motivation.
LF: And that really does have a connection to our relationship with God too, because it seems to me that the more, the closer we get to God, the more we see his mystery. I mean his transcendence, and just the fact that he is completely unsearchable and beyond our comprehension. We get to know that as we get to know God.
But today we’re talking about, not just science, in the kind of capital “S” sense, but the work of scientists. I think what I’m really curious about, in understanding better, is how scientists do their work. How do they gain understanding or how do they gain knowledge? How is this work contested and tested? So I’m looking at kind of the life of a scientist, the work of a scientist. That’s kind of what I’m really fascinated about and wanting to understand in this setting that we are in.
So just to begin with, you work in soil science I understand. Can you give us an example from your field in the soil sciences about an issue that is interesting, but is still somewhat controversial? That’s still somewhat being debated and contested among the soil science community. What would be an example of something like that, that we could start using as a bit of an example?
HJ: Sure, I could give a number of examples here, because of course, that’s the nature of research. We are posing questions or addressing questions that are at the edge of our understanding. And so, by definition almost, there is controversy.
Let me give you one example, and that has to do with what is now known as nature-based solutions to climate change. I am allegedly a soil scientist but have spent a lot of my career looking at the whole climate change issue. We know, for example, that the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is increasing, in large part recently because of increased combustion of fossil fuels. And we know that that may lead to unpleasant climate change. So, the question is, how can we reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations?
One way obviously is to reduce combustion of fossil fuels, which is a hard thing to do. Another way is through what we call nature-based solutions. For example, can we plant more trees? Trees hold a lot of carbon, so if you have more trees and bigger trees, that means that there is more carbon held in vegetation and that carbon comes from the atmosphere.
Another way-another nature-based solution-one that I’ve been working on for decades now, is what is called soil carbon sequestration. It’s a terrible word but basically means, can we build the amount of humus in soil? Humus is the black material in soil that gives us its colour, its vitality, its fertility. If we can build up those reserves in the soil, they hold a lot of carbon, and so the more we can put away in soil, building the soil, we also extract CO2 from the atmosphere. So, the question is how much carbon can we store in soils globally if we put a lot of effort into it?
And here is where the controversy arises.
Some people would say, “Well, if we put concerted effort into building our soils, that will make a very significant dent in atmospheric CO2 increases.”
Other people will say “Well, yes, this is a good thing, but the effects may be more modest than other people.” So we have these debates and of course they have direct implications for policy. If this is a really good way of reducing atmospheric CO2, and highly effective, then we should enact policies to really advance that, right?
If it’s not effective, then maybe if it’s not as effective, then maybe we need to put more emphasis in other practices.
So that’s the debate. And actually, as it turns out, just this morning I published a paper. It finally came out after about, I think, about three years of work. Just this morning I got notification that it’s in, that it’s now published, along with some other co-authors that I’ve been working on.
So that’s the debate.
LF: So, we have the debate. In very practical terms, in the next, let’s say you were setting out your work for the next year or two. What would you set out to do as a scientist in order to contribute to answering this today? What are some very basic things that you would do in order to kind of gain some clarity or make your case or poke at that?
HJ: The first thing, probably, the first response to a debate, or what I would say an enlivening question, a pertinent question, is to listen very hard. Listen. And the way we listen in the scientific community is, perhaps attending conferences, but primarily for me it’s reading. So, I spend an awful lot of time or have spent an awful lot of time in my career simply reading, accessing what we call a scientific literature. And by scientific literature we mean the accumulated papers that have been published in scientific journals. And there is an endless trove of these papers, so we can spend many, many hours reading these papers. And so that’s the first thing-to try to understand, through reading, what other people have said. Understand the science that has been done. Look at the data that has been developed, the conclusions that have been drawn, and so on.
Having listened, then the next step is to draft some kind of a tractable question, and a question that I think I might be able to answer or make some incremental progress toward answering. Question or hypothesis is always the first step. And then, after that, then I would go out and set up some experiments or maybe just do some mathematical analysis in hopes of developing a, as I mentioned, an incremental response to that. None of us ever says, oh, I’m going to solve this once and for all. We say I’m going to try to make a little bit of progress toward answering this question, which I think is so vital and so pertinent and so fascinating.
And having done that, having framed out the question and then done some work-and that work may take weeks, it may take months, in many cases it takes years, I finally package up my findings, my insights, my conclusions, and I will draft a scientific paper.
And that scientific paper-and here I think it’s helpful for listeners to understand how a scientific study is published. Having drafted this paper, I will send it to a journal. And the editor will then look at it and say, “Well, this may have some potential.” And if he or she thinks it has potential, the editor will send my paper to peer reviewers. So, typically there are three people that the editor will send my paper to. These are experts in the field. I don’t know who they are usually. They’re anonymous to me, and they will examine my paper in great detail.
LF: Do they know who you are?
HJ: They often know who I am-not always-but typically they know who I am.
HJ: And they will read this, and they may come back and say, “Oh, Henry doesn’t have it right. Sorry, this is so flawed. We should just reject this.” Sometimes, and my hope always is, they will say, and often this is the case, “Well, maybe Henry has a bit of an inkling here that is worth pursuing, but he needs to think about these things. Here’s a weakness, another weakness, he didn’t think about this, or he made an error here, or he forgot to read this paper.” And so, I get back, after all of this from these three reviewers, sometimes pages and pages and pages of comments that I will then go through, revise my paper and this process repeats itself several times, sometimes, before finally, the paper is published.
So the point I’m making here is that I can’t simply go out and do a study and fling it out into the scientific community and say here’s my paper. It undergoes arduous review. That doesn’t mean that when a paper is published that it’s right. I still lie awake at night, worrying even about this paper I mentioned that is just coming up, I have sleepless nights thinking, “Oh, did I make a mathematical blunder? Why didn’t I say it this way?” Or I know all of the weaknesses-it’s fraught with weaknesses.
But I console myself by saying this little piece of paper is an installment in an ongoing conversation. It does not need to be final truth because it is not final truth, but that’s the process we go through. And so, I think people who may not be invested in the scientific community, might be reassured to know that the scientific process is fairly arduous. We’re pretty hard on each other sometimes, and we’re accustomed to that-to each other being frank and honest in our assessment of one another’s work.
LF: And what incentive do these peer reviewers have to give your paper a good working over? Why do they do that, or what motivates them to go into your paper and seek out all of its weaknesses and its flaws and point those out to you. What’s in it for them?
HJ: That’s a good question. Not a whole lot actually, and this is getting to be a problem in the scientific community because it takes a lot of time. And I’ve spent many, many, many hours also, in the review process, I mean I write papers, but I also am called upon to review other people’s papers, and there isn’t a lot of incentive, apart from the fascination of digging into a question, and it becomes almost motivating driving factor to weigh somebody else’s opinions. “What’s happening here? What’s going on? How does this story make sense? Or doesn’t it?”
And of course, I mean, let’s be honest, science is a human enterprise. And sometimes-and this is a hard thing-sometimes I may get papers to review that I disagree with profoundly and I have to tell myself, “Be careful here, Henry. You are, in effect acting as a jury member here, and it’s critical that you be objective.” But objectivity is not always an easy human attitude to take on.
So, it’s one of the reasons they select three reviewers, for example.
LF: Right. Do you ever get to a point where you’ve put your idea through this process that you’ve just described enough times, that you get to the point where you say, “I think we can put this to rest? Like we are basically beyond a doubt confident that what we have here is a pretty good approximation of the truth, and that we’re not even really open at this point anymore for taking a lot of other, you know, opinions on it or people’s perspective on it, like we’ve done our homework now and we can move on to other things.” Has that been your experience in in your career at times?
HJ: I think so. I think we reach stages where, for me the indicator, always, often is boredom. To me, I reached the point in some questions where I’m just not interested in that question anymore. Which tells me, I think, that yes, there are some remaining doubts or uncertainties, but maybe they’re not that relevant anymore and other questions intrigue me more.
LF: Right. Yeah, that’s interesting. So, I want to just talk about the larger scientific community as a whole-as it works. I think we know that there are always going to be sort of outliers. So, you have some doubts in your own mind, even when a thesis has been basically established. There are also people who remain unconvinced about even fairly orthodox scientific opinions, that for most people have been established, and these are kind of lone prophets that remain. And every now and then these lone prophets-they turn out to be right. I suspect not very often, but it does happen. How do you, as a scientist respond to these kinds of lone prophets who seem to have the basic credentials of a scientist but who still disagree with the majority. What role do they have to play and how do you respond to them?
HJ: That’s an interesting question and a hard one to address because you’re right, Layton. Skepticism is a virtue in science. And all of us, as hard as it is, need to be humble enough to recognize that sometimes that lone prophet may be right. It does happen.
Increasingly, though I think it’s fair to say that as science continues and proceeds, the questions get more and more complex, so that more and more science becomes a collaborative process. And so, I think it’s becoming more and more rare. I think-this is an opinion-but I think it’s fair to say it’s becoming more and more the case that a single person-that lone voice-may find it more difficult to make substantive revisions in the scientific narrative. We lean on each other. We lean on each other a lot, and so when I look at people who are perhaps offering views that are unorthodox or outside of the consensus, I hope that I offer them respect, but at the same time I will look at their results, their opinions, their conclusions in the context of the larger group that they might be working in. And always the question is, are these findings, have these findings been filtered through the peer review process?
Science makes all kinds of stumbles. And science is not a democracy. It’s not like you have a question and then you have a vote, show of hands and the most hands, the option will the most votes is the winning one. Sometimes the minority is the winner, is pointing to the truth. But always, I think I still trust the process of peer review. Not that everything that’s peer reviewed is right, but in the long run it will lead us to some semblance, or some partial indication of the way it is.
LF: You know what, as you’re describing that, it does seem to me that there is a bit of a parallel there to the work of theology as well. The church has obviously worked through some major theological puzzles in its 2000-year history. You know, in the fourth century it was the Trinity. In the fifth and sixth century it was the deity of, or the relationship between the divinity of Christ and the humanity of Christ, and there’s been other ones that the church has worked through. And eventually the church just gets to this place where, you know, the doctrine of the Trinity is really not open for debate. Some basic things have been settled and this just becomes kind of the way church works. Does that mean that we’re not open to deepening our understanding of the Trinity or seeing aspects of the Trinity that we hadn’t seen before? No, absolutely, we’re always open to that. And there has always been development on these issues, but some of these basic questions, eventually they just sort of get settled, and the church moves on to build on that, and to deepen that, and maybe something similar happens with a scientific idea as well. But you’re never kind of formally closed to anything, but you do move on, and you say, OK, I think we’ve settled that, and now let’s try to deepen that or correct it or nuance it more than kind of rebuild the foundations of it as well, at the same time.
HJ: Exactly, and I even think we might even use the example of our local churches, where we’re wrestling with questions. And in all of our communities, we have those people, sometimes, who pop up, maybe offer a view that is not necessarily in keeping with the general philosophy of the local fellowship. And to be honest, we need those people. We need those people sometimes to jump up and say, wait a minute. What about this? That doesn’t mean that we always follow the way they are advising us to follow, but we need those voices.
But at the same time, we carry on in a spirit of trust, and I think that word is critical also in the scientific community. In my own very, very tiny little narrow of alleged expertise I have a bit of a sense of which voices are trustworthy and which ones might not be as fully immersed in having read all of the available material, for example.
And so, we proceed onward in a spirit of trust, always keeping our ears open to those other voices. As you point out very clearly, we don’t want to ever put on blinkers and blinders to voices that may not be in keeping with our own minds. We need those prophets. But also, we don’t want to be following every prophet and assuming that these lone, sometimes animated voices, are necessarily leading us in the right direction.
LF: Let’s move on to talk a little bit about the relationship between science and the non-scientific world which is where I live. And I want to ask you a question about whether the scientific community or the scientific process needs the wider public in a way, to help it frame questions or overcome blind spots and so forth. And maybe the best way to ask that question is, is there a possibility that within the scientific community a certain kind of groupthink can happen? Where all most scientists are kind of thinking in one way, but they actually need the questions and the queries and the criticisms from outside the scientific community to help them understand things better.
And I keep going back to the church, because that’s kind of where I work and in the church, it certainly is that way. I mean, as churches, we can become insular and we can take on a kind of groupthink where the church just has its own way of talking, and its own way of thinking, and sometimes we need outsiders, atheists, people of other religions to kind of pose difficult questions for, and kind of shake us out of our groupthink to where we actually start thinking more clearly about what we believe. Does a similar thing happen in the scientific community as well? Can the scientific community as a whole begin to groupthink? And if so, is there a place for us as non-scientists to be a part of this conversation as well, or don’t you really see that happening?
HJ: Well, certainly I think it’s a human instinct for us to gather into groups and into enclaves where we reinforce each other’s ideas. I think that’s a basic human incentive. We find people who think like we do, and we sort of, sometimes, even build fortresses around our way of thinking. Yes, I think that’s the case in science.
Science has a little bit of an advantage in that regard, in that there is enormous benefit to the person who thinks originally. In other words, if there is a consensus view on a subject and someone can come out and say whoa, whoa, whoa, that consensus view is wrong, that is seen in the end as something that is lauded, if that non-consensus opinion is shown to be, in fact, the way the world is. For example, if a scientist comes out and shows that what’s written in textbooks is in fact wrong, that’s something that is lauded. That’s how science works, but coming back, I will certainly agree that we are subject to inertia in the scientific community and in other places. We tend to follow the direction that we’re on, the trajectory that we are on and just keep going in that stream, and so we are sometimes caught in ruts and need outside influences to sort of shake us up, exactly like you mentioned Layton, in what has happened in theology.
So, is there a place for science and non-science conversation? Absolutely. Just this week, or I guess it was last week, I was talking about another subject that has captured a lot of public attention, namely that of soil health. There’s a great interest in enhancing what we now call soil health and one of the points that I keep coming back to is that we need people outside of science to engage us on this issue.
Many of the things that science, in this case the science of enhancing soil health, one of the things that we realize is that many of these questions involve value judgments. Science is not alone in being able to offer, in fact it cannot by itself offer, the final definitive answer. We need to engage people outside of science to assign values to things. For example, when we’re talking about soil health, we may say, “Well, this management practice is better because the yields are higher if you manage the soil this way.” Someone else may come back and say, “Well, wait a minute, but if you use this practice, that is not good for biodiversity,” and suddenly you have a value judgment and so you have to choose. And the example I sometimes offer is what is worth more, an extra bushel of wheat, or an extra songbird nest?
That’s not a science question. That’s a value judgment, and that’s where we have to go to society and say, OK, what do we do here? Scientists will say, “Well, we should use this tillage management practice, fertilizer technique, this seeding operation so that we get higher yields.”
We need science to say “Wait a minute, what about the songbird? Or what about the aesthetic appeal of that landscape? What about rural lifestyles?” And so on.
So many of the things that we wrestle with in science are not strictly questions of natural physical laws. They demand societal feedback, and we are not always good at engaging the larger society in our scientific quests, in part because we are so focused on data. And I think we’re learning, finally, maybe belatedly, that people are not persuaded by data alone. Data and statistics and experimental results no longer hold as much sway as they did at one time.
I think what we’re finding in science, and this applies also to faith, I think, what we need in science is to tell each other stories. It’s always stories that influence people both ways. I mean, Jesus knew that pretty well. We could learn that from our Christian faith. We don’t beat people over the head with more and more numbers and data and “Can’t you see my great experiment? Here are the results.”
That’s not so effective.
What we need is to find ways of telling stories that elicit return conversations that elicit questions, and other people’s questions that will then allow us to engage one another in mutually edifying conversations. And that is something that we’re only learning in science now, I think. We’re not very good at that. We’re really good at talking to each other in our science journals, but I’m sorry to say the papers that I write for science scientific journals are not going to be papers that you’re gonna be sitting on the edge of your seat reading or keeping you up at night. They probably will put you to sleep at night.
So, do we need the insights of the non-scientific community? Of course. Of course we do and it all comes back, I think to something again, a crucial element of Christian faith, and that is humility.
I think I have lots of interesting facts and data and findings that I could unleash on the world, but maybe they’re not so important after all. And maybe they are wrong and maybe I need to spend a little bit more time listening and less time speaking.
LF: Well, that’s really rich and to me, what it shows is that what we’re after here is not just trying to understand science, we’re actually trying to understand the world; we’re trying to understand the world which includes our human community, and the ways in which we interact. And that’s a really complex thing that we’re all trying to wrap our minds around. And so we need scientists to do the hard digging and in gathering data. But we also need teachers. We need counsellors. We need pastors. We need Christians in all fields who are weighing all of this and trying to live and finding new questions and running into problems and finding solutions.
It’s a really human effort to understand this place that God has created and has set us down into and that just includes all of us, and that’s a really encouraging picture that you’re depicting there.
HJ: And I might add to that is that we are all, admittedly, I think, overwhelmed sometimes or certainly facing uncertainty. Uncertainty is a crucial aspect, certainly, in science. For example, if I publish a paper with my experimental results, almost always I will be required, or I will be asked to calculate the probability that I’m wrong.
So, for example, if I say that this way of treating the soil is better than another way of treating the soil, I’m going to have to frame my results and do the necessary calculations, and these can be fairly complex calculations. To ask myself, well, what is the probability based on this the data that I have that my conclusion is wrong? And there is always a chance that they are wrong, and so we are required to always frame that.
But I think that extends as you say, to all of our human sphere. We all face uncertainty. All of our major decisions in life, I will say, have an element of uncertainty. The car that I buy, the job that I choose, the house that I purchase, the school that I choose to attend. We make these decisions. The person I’m going to marry. We make these decisions recognizing in the back of our minds that, at least in my case, I’m not quite sure about this, but I have to decide.
And so it shouldn’t come as a shock, I think, to people when we publish a finding in a scientific journal, for example, that there is always a lingering doubt. There’s always uncertainty. We have to face uncertainty and that is an important part of all of our human activities. Of all of our human decisions.
We’re, I at least, I’m rarely certain of the decisions I make.
LF: You know, and as you’re saying my mind goes to the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, which seems to be a bit of a picture of human beings, not as these heroic sort of gods who know everything and have access to all the wisdom of God. It’s a picture of human beings who are small, who have a very short life, who have a very limited knowledge of a few little things, and who are trying to make the best of it and more often than not, the writer comes back and says, you know what? Just enjoy your life; enjoy the life that you’ve been given and make a good life out of it. But don’t pretend to be some kind of, you know Greek god or something right? And to me there’s just a lot of wisdom in that mindset, when our own age tempts us to be kind of Titans or these big heroic movers and shakers who trot across the globe, you know, far bigger than who we actually are.
And there’s a certain kind of modesty, I think, in what you’re saying, that I think is healthy for all of us, and whatever field we’re working in.
I want to just conclude with one final question for you, and that is just some basic advice for someone like me? I’m not a scientist, obviously, but I often read in the newspaper, you know, scientists have discovered this, or there’s a study from the University of Alberta that’s showing this, and then I’ll read another one that says, actually, another researcher from UBC is saying that’s not true. And so often as a non-scientist I get kind of confused and I wonder, how can I even trust science when they clearly aren’t agreeing, and it’s being given to me in the newspaper as these things that seem to have a lot of authority.
What advice do you have for non-scientists who are sometimes told about science or given scientific reports in the newspapers, and especially when those newspaper reports come with a bit of a direction that they want, you know, now because of this report, now you need to go and do that, or now you need to go and, you know, change the way you live and yet… So, what advice do you have for non-scientists who are sometimes called to actually weight different scientific claims and make decisions upon them?
HJ: That’s an excellent question. I mean, I admit that in virtually all fields of science, I’m exactly the same way. I have a little bit of experience and expertise in a tiny, tiny little fragment of science, and so, for example, when I read studies about health or nutrition or astronomy, I’m just like everyone else.
What do I believe, and how do I know what I should believe, and more specifically, as you say, what do I do, especially on things like human nutrition? When one study says that eggs are bad, another says that eggs are good for you, what do I do? I do have a few thoughts on that.
One is to remember that science is a conversation. And what we are reading in a newspaper is little snippets of that conversation. You can imagine, perhaps, in my case I go to a soil science conference and I’m hearing hundreds of voices, always slightly, perhaps slightly different views and I get a bit of a sense of where the consensus is and where the middle ground is. When we are reading about these things in the newspaper, what we’re getting is maybe one or two little snippets, and that’s all. You can imagine you’re not necessarily getting the full conversation or the full grandeur of the diversity of the opinions that are expressed here. And very often, I think it’s fair to say, I’m not an expert on media, but my sense is, I have great respect for journalists because they have a very, very difficult job, but my sense is that sometimes they will gravitate toward the more polar views. So for the sake of fairness, they may go to one edge and offer this view, and then to be respectful they may go and offer a contrary view, and so what you get is this view that allows black or white, it’s two options, it’s a fork in the road, when in fact it’s a spectrum. And so that is helpful.
Now what do I do when I come up with questions that affect the way I should respond to a scientific study? My thought, usually, is my first thing, is to find someone I trust. So if it’s a question of medical practice, I will go for example to my family doctor. Or in my case, I’m fortunate to have medical practitioners in my family, or people among my wider family, so I would do that.
Secondly, I spend a lot of time reading books. Not everyone likes that, but I find books a little bit more of a reliable source than Doctor Google. You can find anything on Google, and who of us knows what is right, at least if someone has taken the time to write a book and put the effort in and convince someone to publish it, I feel a little bit more secure. And so I spend a lot of time reading.
When I do go to social media and the Internet, and we all do nowadays, I look for the more reputable sources. For example, I’m more likely to go to a Soil Science Department in the university rather than somebody who is publishing information entirely on their own.
Again, it comes back to trusting group activities, just as we in the church, I think would gravitate, hopefully, toward perspectives that have been filtered through the community rather than listening to individual lone voices, so those are those are a few thoughts that come to mind.
And always it comes back to this point that we, that you’ve made a number of times, and I think that is worth repeating is to be, careful and cautious about assuming too much confidence in our own views and I work hard at that. I mean, it’s against my instinct to be humble in my own views, but I think in certainly in scientific fields that that is an attribute that is not easily attained but is very, very helpful.
In talks that I give I often quote TS Eliot, who says “in order to arrive at what you do not know you must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.” The idea being that when we are learning we are at the edge of ignorance and to move forward you have to leap beyond what you know into an area where, well, I don’t really know; we’re groping our way into some murky areas where we’re trying to uncover new insights, and I think that’s a helpful thing.
I think it was Augustine that said, we as Christians we need to be a little bit careful about assuming too much confidence in areas where we may not be fully adequately versed, because there is a potential for us all to project so much confidence in something where I may actually be errant, where I may not have full understanding, and that affects my credibility of my Christian witness.
Because someone may say to me, “Wow, Henry, you’re so confident about something that you’re obviously not very well versed in and where you’re obviously somewhat weak, why should I believe you when you tell me that Jesus rose from the dead?”
So I think we want to be careful. This is Augustine’s point way, way back; be careful, be humble, be engaging, be searching. But do it in a spirit of humility and modesty. That’s a hard thing for me.
LF: Well, thank you so much Henry. This has been a really, really rich conversation and I really enjoyed this, so, thank you for being with us today. I also want to just thank you for the work that you’ve done across your life in the sciences. And, you know, you’ve done this as a Christian, as a church member and I just want to thank you for that, and appreciate you for the service that you have been to the Christian community, as a scientist. We really value that, and we depend upon that in our lives as Christians and so thank you so much.
HJ: Well, thank you Layton. First of all, thank you for the chance to speak about these issues. Some of what I said is probably wrong. I ask for your forbearance and for the listeners forbearance. I recognize that as a weakness in me, but I also thank you because I think some of these questions you’ve asked are so pertinent to us as a Christian community because they affect our ability to be the salt of the earth, which is what we want to be. To be connected to people, and to be connected and relevant to those who are wrestling just as we are wrestling with some of these questions, and I’m thinking here especially about our younger church members and younger generations coming up. For them they are wrestling with these questions and I think the more we engage each other in addressing them, maybe the more our whole growing church community will become a place that they will find a home in. So, thank you very much.
LF: Right, yeah, thank you and I pray that that will happen.
HJ: And if anyone hears these words wants to engage me in a conversation, I’m available for that. You can find my email, I’m sure or and we can continue this conversation.
LF: Yeah, and I would especially extend that to any young EMCers here who are thinking of a career in science and are wondering, what are some of the possibilities and the hazards, to reach out to someone like Mr. Janzen and have some conversation about the issues that you’re facing, I think would be excellent. Alright then we will sign off for now, but thanks so much.
HJ: Thank you very much, bye now.
Henry Janzen, PhD, Honorary Research Associate with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Lethbridge, Alberta. In his career as soil scientist, Henry has studied the flows of carbon through land, seeking ways of managing those flows to enhance soil health, foster resilience, and withhold carbon from the atmosphere to limit climate change.