In 1988 in the jungles of Belize, I discovered a new species of snake. It may have been the most venomous on the continent. But no such animal has reference to, or exhibits my name in any literature. The fact that I may indeed have discovered it and that it may be genuinely new to science, is not relevant without certain criteria, and very strict criteria at that.
When I was a theology student, I was very keen to, ‘more formally’ investigate miracles, and specifically, healing miracles. I had been a convert to such possibilities, (that they exist), and I had attended hundreds of healing meetings, plus crusades in Britain, Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia, taken testimonies in writing, as well as having prayed for people who asked for healings. During all of this time, I was wholly convinced by, supportive of and sympathetic to, the view that healing and other miracles actually occur today.
I laid out my methodology for examining the validity of healings, and I hit a brick wall. My professors were not happy. They were very happy for me to use literature as reference material, but not to investigate things, directly, myself. As it was a key belief and part of the community I studied with, and healings were a daily part of everyday life, and the principal had previously been a medical doctor, I found this odd.
The problem seemed to boil down to me interviewing and requesting confirmatory medical records. Even though it was entirely voluntary and I had safeguarding procedures and no direct access to records, only what a person chose to show me.
It was not a problem to do a similar investigation for ancestry investigations into people’s genealogy, or indeed other similarly or potentially private matters. In fact, it was ironic that when testifying about healings, (e.g. in churches or on the doorsteps), that a congregation were so often told about what the doctors said and what their records said, yet rarely were such things ever brought in. This would save anyone having to take them at their word. But to challenge or ask them to produce it was to challenge their honesty and integrity. It was the elephant in the room, the king has got no clothes, and the key missing factor in the whole verification system, that would save so much time over time-consuming testimony. It was as though a human patients’ voice or testimony was trying to speak more loudly or authoritatively than the horse/doctor’s mouth, which was interestingly, never actually available. The source/evidence was not available. To a scientist, historian or any researcher, this must seem crazy. The source is often all that is of interest or relevance. Whatever else is being said or done, is meaningless, without a basis from which to form or justify it. It is the complete opposite way round. Yet there is no reason why it needs to be, as the source is exactly the same sort of thing that any researcher can easily find and use to determine the answers.
I could have possibly used an example from other areas, but this was a noteworthy, personal, experiential example. It incidentally says nothing about God, religion or miracles (or the validity or otherwise of them) or the people involved, other than to point to the fact that there are people out there, who do not understand the value or point of verification or have double standards or who’s motives are poor. There are many people and groups of all kinds, religious and otherwise, who hold to different standards when it suits.
This ranges. Consider how strict you might like to consider evidence of one’s guilt in a crime versus one’s enemy; your account of an incident before the video evidence is known or shown, to how/if you might like to change it afterwards; whether we should properly test the strength of a rope prior to your bungie jump vs checking your flat earth or non-moon landing theory with equal rigour. We have biases for various reasons.
Suffice to say, that in my experience, mentioned, there seemed less than complete confidence in the medical evidence or doubt as to the conclusions compared to the testimony. This became an obstacle for me. Instead of me moving away, I was more intrigued to get to the truth, and this conflict moved me from being an assistant pastor, into another direction, of teaching, and a new concept of understanding life and purpose. Which is another story.
I went to a presentation by herpetologist, professor (and TV personality) Mark O’Shea on (no surprise), snakes. It was a wonderful presentation which focussed on the hard work a researcher does behind the scenes, which result in those research papers that gather dust and occasionally or very rarely, get browsed – and then just the abstract! Things that are not headline news or dramatic science revelations, but which hold up the fundamental principles of good science, research, methodology.
We probably don’t remember the director or producer of most films. Or the writer. Or the costume designer, or the stunt people. We don’t tend to recall the engineer, designer or builders of most buildings, but we know the star of a film and the name of a famous building or who owns it (as it is in big lights at the top).
Mark had doubts over the validity of several species of snake in certain countries or islands, and much of his investigations were not unlike any undertaken by a historian. Species accounts based on just one or a few isolated individuals, to him, sometimes warranted further investigation, based on the evidence. In a nutshell, he painstakingly found, in one case for example, that there was an unlisted ship that had arrived on an island from another location (which did have that species living there) and it coincided with an observation soon after. He also traced all individual sightings, world-wide, showing another layer of information and eventually, it became very clear, that the snake had arrived, inadvertently, by an unlisted ship, which he uncovered, which explained the odd and geographically isolated discovery.
He had no grudge to bear against anyone – in fact the events happened long ago, it just happened to be in a location in which he was studying other species. Like vertebrates, such is the hidden, unappreciated but vital backbone in this case, of science. This is a professor, a world renowned herpetologist, in his own time, going through library records and speaking to locals about transportation events, to uncover a mystery that will not be appreciated or even known by virtually anyone.
32 years ago, I didn’t know how to go about getting a possible new species identified or recognised or what is required. This was before the internet and my local source was the out of town, rural zoo and the Audubon society in the local city. Such was technology, I even had to book phone calls 2 weeks in advance from where I was, and I had no international directory. All local species were listed, and mine, albeit similar to two others, was not there, according to the description given, e.g. number/type of markings etc. I photographed it and trusted that at some time in the future, the truth/identity would be found.
Years later, I went to see someone at the natural history museum in London, and found that there were some pretty stiff criteria for having a new species confirmed and that that part of the world had been pretty well researched in the meantime.
For example, how could I demonstrate where the photo was taken, where (or when) the snake was found, if it was not a pet or imported, if it was not a deformed, known species? What genetic evidence was there and how could that be linked to this specimen? Where is this specimen now? Isolated species are less preferred, too.
My ignorance was natural, I was no scientist and I believed in miracles and that the earth was less than 10,000 years old, but I make no judgements as to whether any of these were factors in my failure to have officially identified a new species, whether it was a new species or not.
I should thank science for my failure to identify a new species. For its rigorous requirements. Science has to take the good with the bad, the rough with the smooth. It is just as important to miss a genuine find, because it lacked sufficient evidence, as to not wrongly verify a false find. I had no false motive; I didn’t bring a dodgy or false or wrongly labelled species into possible existence. I just didn’t meet the criteria or cut the mustard. There are many species out there that have been missed or didn’t cut the mustard, (waiting for another day), and there are very few wrongly identified species. Thanks to rigour.
How much more should the same criteria (or more) be used/applied for matters that are so much bigger, more serious, widespread, life changing and potentially surpass lifetimes and affect and transform lives?
Consider why such painstaking requirements are imposed or needed to find something, which is so relatively trivial and out of sight or interest to most, and which usually has no bias or rival or false motive involved. It is simply to find the truth/facts. And the deeper/wider we look, and more critical we are, the better. There is nothing to hide and generally, no reason for anyone to prevent investigations, if unbiased truth be the motive.
I appeal to any other sphere of life or topic area that falls into the realm of our tangible/testable dimension, of which the validity is potentially verifiable. Many things are much bigger, more important, life changing, serious and apply to more people, often with life-changing implications.
We apply strong verification processes to history, geography, archaeology, all sciences, genealogy, meetings, diary events, finances and accounts of who lived where and when, and so forth; and we all understand and accept and do not take it personally, to be so invasive, thorough and non-reliant upon mere testimony. Truth and fact, if genuinely and independently sought, have nothing to fear. Only doubt, pre-conceptions, bias, closed minds and motives have anything to fear or hide. And these are the very reason they need such scrutiny. If something is testable, e.g. it is something that occurs in our dimension and is recognised by science or a means of empirical testing, it should be open to testing, without question or interference. If something is not testable, it is untestable and belongs outside of the realms of verification and therefore nothing can be concluded about it.
So, hat’s off and raise your glasses to the often boring, laborious, out of sight, mostly forgotten and hidden efforts that form the basis and push the boundaries to what we know to be true. In any area of scrutiny, why would anyone want anything less?