Theology of Evidence-Driven Research

I wanted to go through the exercise of attempting to develop a theology of my vocation. Several years ago, I read Darrow Miller’s book, Lifeworks, in which he challenged readers to do this, and since then I have wanted to jot down how that might look for me. My intent is not to write this to justify or self-congratulate my work, but rather I believe it is a worthwhile exercise to think through the principles that drive our work and different goals of that work, and as a result, hopefully, bring focus on the right goals and motives, and talk about the theology that shapes our work with you.

I believe one of the core concepts that undergirds the purpose of work is the creation/cultural mandate (Gen 1:26-28, 2:15): We are called to join God in the continuing project of creation, and furthering the work of creating and innovating for the sake of building a better world. We join God in every aspect of this mission, from technology, to health, to ecology, to economics, reflecting the heart of a creator God, who created a world of beauty and purpose, by continuing to build with beauty and purpose. My job is focused on the medical/health and technological pursuits of this mission.

There are different aspects of my work. I am a software developer, so I spend my work hours programming. However, I also work on software designed to accomplish something specific. I work for a company (Doctor Evidence) that does analysis of clinical medical studies for the purpose of evidence-based decisions. I thought it might be more interesting to focus on the theological principles that speak to and intersect with the goals of our industry and what our company (should) hope to achieve within this field (this post is not really focused on the technology I work on to accomplish those goals). Here is my attempt…

Research

An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.
Proverbs 18:15

The Bible repeatedly upholds the virtue of seeking truth. And this is and should be the driving force behind research, to understand, to gain knowledge, to discover the nature of reality, to uncover what we have not yet understood. I believe the pursuit of truth is not something we should presume to be easy, as if we can sit back and declare truth based on our own intellect. The pursuit of truth and understanding requires hard work and careful investigation. It involves thinking through questions and problems. It involves learning from the work of others, researching prior efforts, and building on that.

Evidence-Based Research

Taste and see that the LORD is good
Psalms 34:8

Research is the discipline, the starting point of seeking truth, but ultimately truth is about discovering reality, and determining if our ideas really match with reality. This means that we do not simply settle for ideas that sound good, but we seek to actually test those ideas against reality. We (not our company, but those we work with) run in experiments against the real world (with patients), to see if our ideas are really true or not. Evidence-based research and decision-making, means looking beyond our conclusions that may sound logical and good, and checking them against the hard-reality of experiments and studies. It means letting our decisions be based on real data, rather than just our intuitions or even logic. A genuine pursuit of truth begins with humility: we may be wrong, so let us test our idea.

Seek to Disseminate Information

But seek the welfare of the city
Jeremiah 29:7

Knowledge, just for our its own sake, puffs up (1 Cor 8:11), but when knowledge, that is valuable for others, is sought and shared for the sake of others, this is following in the path of love for those around us. When we do research, and share our discoveries, we can, God willing, seek truth not for our own pride, but for the benefit and welfare of our society. It is exciting to be in a place where we can help reveal things that will actually help the sick and hurting around us!

In capitalist society, many jobs offer compensation in proportion to their benefits that they can bring to their customers. However, research can be unique in that may bring a fair compensation from a paying customer, but that same knowledge can then be limitlessly and freely shared with others who may benefit as well. In other words, research brings benefits to society that vastly outweigh the natural compensation that markets may offer the researcher. It is my hope that our research/analysis can and will do that.

This actually intersects with our technology practices as well. As software engineers on our team, when we write individual software components that we believe could be of value to and reused by others, we try to open source these components, make them freely available for others to use. This often does require extra effort; for software components to be reusable, we have to put extra time into make sure they are well-documented and tested for others to be able to efficiently use them. However, I believe this pursuit is something of value, in seeking the welfare of our community of software developers, aside from our efforts in medicine.

Ruthlessly Counter Biases (randomized and blinded trials)

The heart is deceitful above all else.
Jeremiah 17:9
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age,
let him become a fool that he may become wise.

1 Corinthians 3:18

Humility in our pursuit of knowledge should drive the next principle as well. We recognize that even in earnest pursuits of knowledge through research and experiments, that we are still prone to biases, and that confounding variables can still skew data. We must relentlessly look for and seek to work against biases in our research.

In our industry, that means that the preferred approach to studying treatments is through randomized control trials, an experiment where have researchers have intentionally limited themselves from their own selections biasing experiments. Through randomization, researchers eliminate sources of biases by handcuffing themselves from any designs that would introduce additional confounding factors.

Most RCTs go further and are “double-blind” experiments, where not only are the patients randomized, but they are “blind” to which treatment they are receiving (an intervention or placebo), and even the researchers that are assessing the outcomes are “blind” to which patients are receiving treatments, to further prevent biases.

Of course, there are still many ways biases can be introduced (like reporting bias). One of our goals with our software is to help identify when and where factors like funding or study design may introduce biases so we can know where to focus on eliminating them. There is much work still to be done.

Meta Analysis

In an abundance of counselors there is safety.
Proverbs 11:14
And I went…in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain.
Gal 2:2

As honest, careful, and earnest as our research and efforts may be, we are still finite in our ability to measure, assess, and determine reality. Scriptures wisely instruct us that the pursuit of truth is a collective effort. And this is certainly the case in the world medical research. Any given study may be useful, but there is much more insight that can be gained by a looking at as many studies that address a question as possible. By looking at numerous studies, and combining their results, we can evaluate questions and create recommendations that are far more robust, less prone to any individual bias, and more reliable than any single researcher or study could provide.

Helping to create this type of analysis of numerous studies, or “meta-analysis” is one of the principal goals of our software that we build. Furthermore, our goal is to facilitate continuous meta-analysis, create an analysis that can easily be updated and re-executed as new studies are performed and become available.

Transparency

For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed
that will not be known or brought out into the open.

Luke 8:17

Finally, the pursuit of knowledge and truth is something that should be done with transparency. If we simply claim to have done a good job with research and analysis, but fail to show others how we came to our conclusions, we are not showing our claims as verifiable. Any honest effort at showing new claims must be done in such a way that others can examine and critique the claims, and how we arrived at them. This is something we should, and hopefully do pursue in all our work, clearly showing every step, and every calculation that we made to arrive at our results, so they can be examined and verified by others.

Again, my intent with this is not pride or vindication in what we are doing. Examining our goals, from a Biblical standpoint, should help sharpen my aspirations as an engineer, and be a reminder of where I can improve my efforts. And hopefully this is an encouragement to others to look at the goals and efforts you make a work, and how they can align with God’s mission.

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