From Curiosity to Jesus: An Interview with John Medina

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John Medina Webcast

Most research scientists follow the academic track. Not Dr. John Medina. This graphics designer and animator turned teacher, scientist, and consultant says he is content to be a hired gun.

Medina underestimates the power of his own enthusiasm, though—which includes the conversational speed of a machine gun. “As a consultant, I just look at other people’s data,” he explains. “Then I’ll say, ‘Gee whiz, that is interesting! Let’s explore it some more!’ ” Just such a moment of brazen curiosity led to Dr. Medina’s address before the National Governors Association in 2000. His speech, “Why I Don’t Believe in the First Grade,” eventually led to the central concepts driving the Talaris Research Institute.

Dr. John Medina has spent most of his professional life working as a private consultant to the biotech industry, while at the same time holding academic appointments at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Seattle Pacific University. He has been the recipient of the Merrill Dow/Continuing Medical Education National Teacher of the Year award and author of several books including Clock of Ages and The Genetic Inferno: Inside the Seven Deadly Sins.

At a 2006 Laity Lodge retreat, Dr. Medina talked with about how he serves God in his scientific career.

You've been running Talaris Research for the past several years. Now that you’ve moved on, can you summarize your work there?

Let me tell you about the success that doomed my work at Talaris. We know that the amount of marital conflict goes way up in the first six months of having a baby. Having a baby is traumatic. We call it the fog of toddlerhood in the lab.

One of the best things we did at Talaris was to partner with John Gottman, famous for his marriage research using "the Love Lab." John was asking, "What would happen to a baby’s developing nervous system if he stabilized the marriage while the couple were pregnant?"

That experiment, the "Bringing Baby Home Project," worked like a son of a gun and doomed our other research efforts. When it worked, the board unanimously decided, "Nope, we're not going to do anymore research projects. We're going to start implementing."

Once the research ended, your role ended?

They asked me to help with implementation and marketing. But I'm a researcher, not a marketing guy. They already have all the marketing geniuses they need.

I still advise them once a month. But I have to stay true to myself—I believe in curiosity as opposed to success.

Tell me more about curiosity versus success. Those two ideas don't necessarily seem like opposites.

They can be mutually exclusive. They don't have to be.

Still, I have seen so many people get caught in the middle-class vortex. They get very successful, and then they lose their intellectual edge.

I see that especially in the sciences. Some people will accomplish certain goals, like getting tenure or even getting a Nobel prize, and they stop working. Can’t paint everyone with that broad brush, of course, but I have seen it happen too many times not to be afraid of it.

They must view their work as just a means to an end.

Right. Their pinnacle of success destroys their curiosity. That's what I mean.

Curiosity means more to me than I can tell you. It even influences my theology. If you are curious enough about your origins, you'll bump face-to-face with Jesus Christ—because nobody else is out there.

Curiosity has the strong ability to make you look at the world with wide-eyed wonder and say, "Man, how was this made?"

Who taught you to look at the world with wide-eyed wonder?

My mother. When I was little, she would track my interests. If I was interested in dinosaurs, she'd fill a whole room with dinosaurs. She was a fourth-grade teacher, so she had manipulatives and posters and toys. She'd cook dinosaur food. She even taught me how to make ugly noises with my armpits. My mother! Because she thought it sounded like dinosaurs. They're air breathing, and their cranial vaults might have made sounds like that. Isn't it great?

When I was sick of dinosaurs, down they'd come. And my mother would wait, lurking like the most wonderful vulture you'll ever want, watching for my next interest.

This happened for years until I got the message. Learning is everything.

When you are curious, you become fearless. You don't care what's out there. You just want to know.

But faith is about believing in something you can never know for certain. Do you think that is why our culture still considers science and Christianity to be mutually exclusive?

When I was fourteen, I thought that way too. I said, "Mom, I no longer believe in God."

She said, "All right." Like it was normal. Like I just stubbed my toe.

The next day she hands me this book. "John," she says, "You have now become an atheist. Is that right?"

I said, "Yeah mom, I don't buy this Jesus stuff."

She said, "Well, if you are going to be an atheist, do it the best you can. Here, son, is a book by Frederick Nietzche called Twilight of the Idols. Bon appetit."

Curiosity is everything, and she knew that God is fearless. She had absolute faith that I'd keep coming. She knew what I was going to run into.

You see, science is just one way of knowing. It is actually a fairly small sandbox. Every Christian needs to memorize Emmanuel Kant. Over 200 years ago, he said that if something is physical in nature, you may utilize the tools of this great sandbox called natural philosophy—the scientific method.

The instant something is not physical in nature, those tools collapse because you have introduced an uncontrollable variable. Not an uncontrolled variable. An uncontrollable one. That's key.

You spend your workdays testing the physical world. How does that affect your faith in the spiritual world?

The microscope is the biggest altar I have. I look through it and see the glory of God revealed in the nuclei of cells. I look at an FMRI, and I see this beautiful brain, this unbelievable, unfathomable way that we think about things. I collapse into a puddle of Psalm 139. "I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Even if I make my bed in shame, God is with me.

A great God has made this universe that we see. Why do we fight over something so beautiful? Science and Christianity are sometimes opposed because people are opposed, not because the ideas are opposed. That's something we should not forget.

Would you like to know the percentage of scientists that are actually religious?

I've heard that the numbers are much higher than you might think.

Forty percent of us are religious! The first study was done in 1916, and then it was done very recently by Edward J. Larson & Larry Witham. They asked the exact same set of questions. Physics was birthing itself very nicely in the early twentieth century. When Larson and Witham asked the questions again—nearly ten years ago now—biology was in full flower. But they got the exact same numbers. Still forty percent.

It doesn't matter how sophisticated we've gotten. Forty per cent of my colleagues believe in God. So I'm not the only one.

So scientists have just gotten bad press?

Some of my colleagues make the same mistake many of my Christian friends do. They may say there is no God, for example, but they will use the tools of science to do that.

Then all of us in the back of the room will say, "What? How do you know that? Have you empirically tested it? You are being as silly as Yuri Gugarin, the first man in space." He went up and reports to Pravda. "I went up in my capsule; I looked around in space;"—he had a little window—"I did not see a God, therefore there is no God."

For those scientists, the sandbox of science has become too big.

See, good scientists don't care what they believe! They just want to know what's out there. We need to be as honest as the data. If the data doesn't allow a conclusion, then we shouldn't claim we can make a scientific conclusion.

I did some consulting for Boeing, and they call this idea the Medina Grump Factor.

What is the Medina Grump Factor?

A willingness to stay critical, to stay only within the confines of the data and not overinterpret or misinterpret the findings.

Some people take behavioral data, look at the statistics, and say, "Now, let's go ahead and apply it." Well, who says you can apply it? Apply what?

Application itself is an important question. For example, we know that you need to repeat something in 90 minutes or it goes away. We know that. How does that apply to the classroom? Does it immediately mean we need to repeat things every 90 minutes? No! If you repeated everything for 90 minutes all day long, maybe it would confuse the kid. We only know that in a single subject, in a laboratory setting, if you don't repeat an idea in 90 minutes, it goes away. Therefore, we should do an experiment that will test it. Let us create a school where we repeat everything for 90 minutes. Then we can look at retention rates.

You see?

Now that begins to pass the Grump Factor.

What happens when the Grump Factor meets Christianity? Is Christianity a testable hypothesis?

Yeah! You should test everything you read in the Word, all day long, every day, until you are dead. Actually, the Bible itself says, "Test me. Prove me. See if I'm right" (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).

But faith is outside the realm where we can do controllable experiments. We're outside the sandbox, so we have to apply a different set of ways of knowing. There are deeper ways of knowing.

There are two types of evidence. One is the empirical-based experimental kind of evidence. The other will always be testimonial or relational.

Christianity solves something that no other religion in the planet does—at least that I've seen. Jesus never said, "I have the way, the truth, and the life" as if it were an iPod or a toy or a set of rules.

A lot of religions present the truth as a set of rules. But then the rules begin to rival the god. In one sentence, Jesus solves that problem.

He doesn't say, "I have the way"; he says, "I AM the way" (John 14:6). He doesn't have the truth; He is the truth.

If you want to get closer to the truth, you don't get closer to a set of ideas. You get closer to a personality, Jesus, and he's omnipotent! Christianity is a relational truth. You can't have a personal relationship with a Bible. You have a personal relationship with the crown prince of the universe. You have one with Jesus Christ.

And we are called to be Jesus when we go into our workplace.

You are also called not to be a jerk. You are also called to keep your head on your shoulders.

Earl Palmer says, "If you are going to be a good doctor, be the best doctor on the planet." So many of us aren't, and that's how we get these strange ideas like Intelligent Design. Forgive me, and I know that's a can of worms. We put all these weird things onto the gospel—I call it Gospel 2.0. We try to upgrade the gospel, but the gospel needs no upgrading.

You are now guiding many future researchers and doctors and psychiatrists. What vision do you hope to pass on to them?

I want them to be curious! I don't want them to fall in love with their own opinions. I want them to be curious about what is out there—it's so phenomenally interesting and so phenomenally bigger than they are. They should realize the intellectual tools God has given them are an unbelievable stewardship issue for them.

They need to, with great seriousness, understand the nature of that gift.

Curiosity again. What does curiosity teach us about God?

If you don't have a sense of wonder, then your God is too small.

I think of my journey with God as if I'm on a rocket ship approaching another planet. When I'm young, I can see the whole planet so I think I have it all figured out. But as I get closer to the planet—as I get closer to God—he gets bigger and bigger. One day, I can't see the whole planet anymore. I get clearer on some details, but I also realize he is bigger than I thought, and I know less than I thought.

This is what I think C. S. Lewis means when he says, "Further out and further in" in The Last Battle.

Would you say that curiosity is the road to success?

It is ultimately the road to God. That is what I would call success. Too many people think success is a monetary issue. More money isn't success, though. It's just additional resources.

Here's how I gauge success: The closer you get to Jesus, the more you allow him into your addictions, the more you allow him into all your behaviors, the more you allow him into every part of your life, that is the real definition of success.

Then it doesn't matter how many resources you have because you will integrate all of your resources into everything you do. And you will do everything with God.

What encouragement do you have for scientists who want to "do everything with God"?

Be the best scientist you possibly can, then your scientific colleagues will tolerate you and your Christianity. They may even be drawn to you.

Also, be the most godly person you can in the workplace. That doesn't necessarily mean go evangelize. If you tell them you are "born again," they think they already know you. They don't know you at all.

But if you are self-centered, if you treat your graduate students roughly, if you are willing to fudge on particular pieces of data simply because you want to get a grant, I would say your light is not shining.

Be the best scientist and the most godly behaviorist.

Scientists look for authenticity, not perfection. There's a difference, you know. You can even be failing—have your own personal quirks and whatnot. Let your department watch you grapple with your own demons, with the things that bother you, and successfully integrate your faith in the midst of all those difficulties. That is just as powerful a witness as if you were some Mother Teresa sitting around in the lab.