Faith in Action – Episode 7

Helen Johnson – Faith in Science


Sargeant: Hello, I’m Richard Sargeant, and this is Faith in Action, a podcast about how faith affects the way we live and work today.

Science is intrinsic to the way we understand the mechanics of the modern world, but it’s often been seen in tension with faith, even though some of our greatest scientists have also had a personal faith. With me to explore the role of faith in science is Helen Johnson, a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Helen, what do you, what are you researching at the London School?

Johnson: My field is in the mathematical modelling of infectious diseases. So, we’re interested in computer simulations of how infections spread. And that might be affected by how people meet together, the networks which they form, the frequency with which they meet. In some ways, it’s affected by the biological properties of virus and bacteria, so it spans several different fields. And the idea is, by looking at this computationally, we can predict what they’re likely to do in the future, and plan vaccines, screening, intervention programs.

Sargeant: Fantastic. So, what the flu is going to be like next winter?

Johnson: Something like that, but that’s a particularly tricky example, and what we would tend to do with something like flu, actually, because it mutates so quickly, is we will look at Australia and New Zealand and their winter, and then we have less of a time delay before we come to our winter. So, that’s how we would plan a flu vaccine.

Sargeant: And how did you get into this? Where did you start?

Johnson: Well, in fact, I actually started, my undergraduate degree was in physics, and that was the, it’s applied maths, we love to look at differential equations and that sort of thing, and looking at flows, it’s the same maths that deals with how the oceans work, how the weather can be understood, how financial markets operate. A lot of things work on those same sorts of patterns, and we use the same methods and techniques.

Sargeant: So, what have you done most recently with your research? What have you predicted?

Johnson: Most recently, I’ve been working on human papillomavirus, which is the virus which leads to cervical cancer. And since 2008, in the UK, we’ve been vaccinating 12 and 13 year old girls against HPV. The two most prevalent strains give rise to the majority of cancers, and those are the strains against which we vaccinate. That poses various questions, because then you say, well, how often do we need to screen women, given that they’ve been vaccinated? How will it change the profile of people who are suffering from disease? Are people who don’t turn up for vaccination or opt out of it the same people who don’t attend screening? If so, does that matter? Are they high-risk people who are disenfranchised with the health system, or are they low-risk people who justifiably say, I don’t think I’m at risk, I’m not going to worry about it? So, it, these are important questions if you think, well, we’ve got 90% vaccine coverage. Have you actually got the 10% that you really need to get and covered, or to reach?

Sargeant: And do people that you come across believe vaccinations are not a good thing?

Johnson: It is something we’ll consider. Why do people refuse vaccine? And there have been really worrying trends. I live in Wandsworth borough, where a lot of people have turned down the MMR vaccine because of the fears of connection with autism, and it is one of the hotspots for measles in the country, and it’s a horrible disease which causes lasting effect.

Sargeant: So, evidence and the weight of research is clearly important to you, and you’re a Christian as well?

Johnson: I am a Christian, yes. I don’t have a dramatic story of coming to faith. I grew up in a Christian family. I never had a tension in that with, my family are all scientists too.

Sargeant: Why do you think people see some kind of conflict between science and religion, Richard Dawkins most popularly, perhaps?

Johnson: I think my colleagues, actually, have very little time for the new atheism. Dawkins is not held in high regard.

Sargeant: Why is that?

Johnson: Because they don’t consider him to be consistent or terribly well-reasoned. I think it’s fair to say that they would say that he has a story he wants to tell, and then he fits everything to it. So, they tend not to be fans.

Sargeant: I wonder, in your experience, is there any difference between scientific disciplines as how people look at faith. Between biology, or physics, or chemistry, or even the social sciences, economics? Do those different branches of science relate to faith in a different way because of their professional traditions?

Johnson: That’s an interesting question. I mean, I always used to joke, I was at Imperial College, the biologists would say, well, there are gaps in biology which we can’t really understand, but they can be explained by chemistry, some sort of magic, but the magic is in chemistry, and the chemists would say, yes, yes, well, we understand many of these things, but there are some sort of magical little bits which can be understood by physics, and the physicists, were quite often Christians, many of them were – I don’t think that’s the professional tradition. I think it is about the way people tend to choose a field which fits with the way they think about the world. I think physicists have a tendency towards the philosophical. They tend to think in a way which is fairly abstract, you know, being able to hold fairly abstract ideas, particularly in the sense of dimensions and very large-scale things, and I think it’s not difficult for a physicist to incorporate god into that understanding.

Sargeant: Are many people in your lab at the London School Christian, or have a faith?

Johnson: No. No, at the moment, there aren’t. There are amongst my colleagues very strongly-spoken atheists, with whom I have great relationships. They’ve been very, very rich relationships over many years, and they’ve been, they’ve been very challenging to me because, often, I see my strongly-spoken atheist colleagues acting great Christian love and compassion. Sometimes I’ve been quite grumpy at the same time. I think it’s really in a case of increasing friendship that there’s a relaxation about being able to comment or tease or question each other, and that’s something which I have really valued. I think it keeps my faith quite fresh. It makes me question myself, and I’ve had many conversations out of that, whether it’s been cancer in the family, or people worrying about death or failure, where they’ve kind of said, what do you think about this, and these are the very same people who’ve been quite happy to stitch me up over lunch in the past, and I value those relationships tremendously, because there’s the freedom to do both.

Sargeant: You chose to send your daughter to a Jewish school with a synagogue? Tell us about that.

Johnson: It was a good nursery school which was nearby. This was a good start, and I thought it would be something which would be enriching for all of us as a family, to understand a bit more about the basis of our faith and its earliest history, and it’s been a wonderful experience. She’s only been there a couple of months. They have a parenting for faith discussion group, which I’ve been along to, and have been the only Christian there, very warmly-welcomed. And that has been interesting to see how they practice their faith. I say in many ways they are more comfortable and confident to question than we are. There’s a very strong sense of identity. We are Jewish, we are god’s people, and therefore, we can question everything. And in many ways, I think they are happier with the relationship with science as well.

Sargeant: Helen, if you have faith in science, what do you think in the next five, ten years you might be able to see achieved through human epidemiology and the modelling of diseases?

Johnson: I think there are some things which are preventative. I think there are some problems which are looming, which I can see the sort of threat of antibiotic resistance that makes me feel a little bit uneasy. This is something which modelers are going to be really important in looking at and understanding the strains, resistant strains and how they spread, and trying to contain that. I mean, to be honest, epidemiology is a little bit of a firefighting exercise in a different way from other branches of science, although physics might be really trying to explore and understand, and I think there, I’m pretty excited about sort of our understanding of dark matter and some experiments which are going on there to understand what is this, you know, great gaps of matter and energy in the universe and we have no idea what they are. I mean, that’s a different sort of excitement. Epidemiology, by its nature, is always on the back foot, but it works.

Sargeant: Well Helen, on the front foot, thank you so much for joining us.

Johnson: Thank you very much for having me.