Attending a scientific meeting virtually.
The gold standard of science information transfer is the peer-reviewed written word. But the slow pace of publication and the impersonal interactions involved have made other forms of scientific communication popular. With anywhere from 300 to 35,000 participants, scientific meetings are one way for scientists to comment on, criticize or improve each other’s findings quickly. And, while most of these meetings were cancelled last year due to the pandemic, this year some were mounted virtually. This summer for the first time I attended a scientific meeting while sitting at my desk, in my study, looking at my computer screen. It was a different experience.
Virtual scientific meetings
The American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) is an 80-year-old society of Christian scientists and others interested in the science-faith interface. Like many organizations, there is a Canadian branch/parallel organization, the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation. Membership is open to all who accept a few very basic statements of faith: the authority of the Bible, the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds, that God has made a creation that science can study, and finally that we have a responsibility to love it and others (at least those are my abbreviations).
Beyond these simple principles, members can differ radically on many issues around science and faith. Some members argue for theistic evolution, and others are young-earth creationists. Discussion of differences and how they relate to Christian beliefs forms a large part of meetings’ subject matter. But the debate is always (or mostly) carried out in a spirit of love and respect.
This year the ASA annual meeting happened virtually at the end of July. Origins (broadly defined), creation care, animal suffering and Christian science education were significant themes. Days started with devotions and Sunday morning included a worship service. Additionally, there were virtual social events, and the meeting closed with a bring-your-own ice cream social.
As might be expected at any scientific conference, the material at times was overwhelming and set off explosions in my mind. Sitting at a computer screen listening to exciting talks in the comfort of my study was almost as tiring as attending a meeting in person. I did not agree with everything, but it was a blessing to hear that many of my concerns about science and faith were common to others, even if we come to different conclusions. The only downside of this virtual ASA meeting was that I ordered over $500 in books that various speakers recommended.
Gifts from God in a pandemic
Amazingly, we have, in the last decade, developed the technology that makes these virtual meetings possible. The ASA meeting used a program that wrapped around Zoom, permitting people to interact (in chats, polls and with verbal questions in smaller sessions) and clarify what the presenter meant in their talk. While occasionally the technology was shaky, we could hear speakers from all over America and even Britain. Time zone differences became critical, but no one suffered from jet lag.
During this pandemic, we have all experienced the possibilities and limitations of this new technology in Zoom and YouTube worship services. We have learned that we cannot sing together in virtual meetings but can use taped and live parts to make for rich interactions with each other and with God. Similar technology can be used for education and streaming music performances (my wife and I have enjoyed listening to the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal). This is all a gift of God during the pandemic.
Organizations will no doubt continue using some of this technology even when we return to a more normal person-to-person life. I for one hope as church we hold on to what we’ve learned in using these newer tools and continue benefiting from them into the future.