IRA FLATOW, host:
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow and for the rest of the hour, a look at how science and religion intersect. Can the two coexist? It seems that where science and religion do meet, there is usually cause for controversy.
I don't have to tell you about it. It's embryonic stem cell research, teaching evolution in schools - just two examples. But can science and religion find peace with each other, and can a believer be a scientists or a scientist a believer?
Well, my next two guests think so. Dr. Francis Collins is the author of the new book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. He's also director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. You may remember that he led the public effort to decode the human genome. He joins us from DAMU in Washington. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Collins.
Dr. FRANCIS COLLINS (Author, The Language of God): Thanks, Ira, nice to be here.
FLATOW: Nice to have you. Dr. Owen Gingerich is the author of the forthcoming God's Universe, which is due to hit store shelves in September. He is senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and research professor emeritus of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard University. He joins us from the studios of WGBH in Boston. Thank you for joining us today.
Dr. OWEN GINGERICH (Author, God's Universe): Good afternoon.
FLATOW: Let me ask each of you first - because you come differing backgrounds - Dr. Collins, tell us about your background. You write that people might assume you were born into a religious family, but that's not the case.
Dr. COLLINS: No. In the family I grew up, faith was not considered a particularly important part of daily life. And after I got to college and then went to graduate school in physical chemistry, I decided I had no use for anything that had anything to do with faith, and I became an atheist.
My own conversion occurred as a medical student, when after watching people lean on their faith for great support at times of considerable challenge - and many of them facing certain death - I got curious about what this was all about and how people could derive such strength from it. And seeking to shore up my atheism by having a better defense against that kind of faith, I accidentally converted myself.
FLATOW: Hmm. How long did that take?
Dr. COLLINS: About two years in a process that began with a logical investigation and ultimately carried me right up to the brink of making a decision about faith. But then, ultimately, you can't reason yourself all the way to faith. You can get there, to the sense of finding that faith is more plausible than atheism - and I will argue that atheism is the least rational of all choices, because it assumes you know enough to exclude the possibility of God - but ultimately, one has to make a decision about whether to believe or not.
FLATOW: And Owen Gingerich, you followed a totally different path.
Dr. GINGERICH: Yes, I grew up in a religious household, historically going back many generations. In fact, my four parental great-great grandfathers were all Amish ministers. My parents became Mennonites early on. I was brought up in that kind of a household.
Most people are unfamiliar with Mennonites. They believe in - put a lot of stock in the Sermon on the Mount. They're basically pacifists. They believe in Christian discipleship.
FLATOW: Mm hmm. And you write in your book, God's Universe: To me belief is a final cause. A creator-God gives a coherent understanding of why the universe seems so congenially designed for the existence of intelligent, self-reflective life. And you go on to say: I do not claim that these considerations are proof for the existence of a creator. I only - I claim only that to me, the universe makes more sense with this understanding. Do you find...
Dr. GINGERICH: I think that's...
FLATOW: Go ahead. I'm sorry...
Dr. GINGERICH: No, that's a very good summary of my beliefs and what I describe in this book.
FLATOW: Mm hmm. Do you find that doing science then confirms your belief in the creator?
Dr. GINGERICH: Well, I don't find scientific proofs, per se. It's very hard to prove the existence of God. Maybe that is even the wrong kind of question to ask, because God is the kind of ground of being, the sustainer of everything. You don't even ask whether God exists because God is not an object, and therefore it's the wrong question. So I find this a very important philosophical, metaphysical framework, but I don't find that the science is proving this. I'm just finding that it's compatible with this.
FLATOW: Dr. Collins.
Dr. COLLINS: I agree with what Owen is saying. If God has any meaning, God is outside of nature, not bounded by nature. And so while science is the only really reliable way to understand nature, science is relatively powerless to help us with the question of whether God exists, and if so, what he is like.
Arthur Eddington, a famous astronomer, tells a parable that goes like this. A famous scientist really wishing to understand deep-sea creatures designed a net with a three-inch mesh size and, after using that to discover many wonderful, marvelous creatures, concluded that there are no deep-sea fish that are smaller than three inches.
Again, science is using a net that catches evidence of what is really going on in the natural world, but science does not have a net that can really tell us anything about other important questions, such as is there a God? What's the purpose of my life? What happens after we die?
Is it not immediately apparent that those questions are not scientific questions. And if you seek answers to those, you have to find them in another place. And that's what, in very much a strong way, drove me towards considerations of spirituality after having been living for quite some time in a very materialist perspective as a graduate student.
FLATOW: So you don't find that your science life impacts your religious views.
Dr. COLLINS: Oh, yes, it does. So Stephen Jay Gould, of course, had this famous argument: that the spiritual and the scientific worldviews are both valid, but they ought to avoid appearing in the same room or the same brain at any given instance because an explosion might occur - the non-overlapping magisteria model.
That doesn't work for me. For me, being a scientist who's also a believer is a wonderful, comforting, harmonious experience. So that as a scientific discovery looms into view - and we scientists have the chance to do that from time to time - it is both a remarkable moment of realizing that you've discovered something that no human knew before, but God knew it. And so you are both experiencing discovery and also a chance to glimpse just a little bit of God's mind. And for me that is just a privilege and a wonderful experience not to be missed.
FLATOW: Dr. Gingerich.
Dr. GINGERICH: I think the most important verse in Genesis I is that God created man in his own image. Male and female created he them. And what would that mean? I would say it's creativity, it's conscience, it's consciousness. And as Francis just said, by being a scientific researcher and discoverer, we are, in a kind of sense, linking ourselves with God because the rationality of the universe, the fact that we can find these regularities and so on, is part of this logical structure that is God.
Dr. COLLINS: (unintelligible)
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. I'm sorry, Dr. Collins. I didn't mean to jump...
Dr. COLLINS: You know, Galileo - who obviously got into some hot water here but who was also a strong believer as well as a wonderful scientist - wrote this wonderful sentence: I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forego their use.
So I agree with what Owen is saying. One of our greatest gifts in the image of God is an intellect and the ability to explore the natural world, God's creation. And I think God expects us to use that gift and is not threatened by what we discover.
FLATOW: Are there any bounds that you've put on your scientific endeavor because of your religious beliefs? And I would start out by talking about things like intelligent design, things like that.
Dr. COLLINS: So, in the book I talk a bit about intelligent design and about creationism. And as a believer and a scientist, I am quite troubled by particular interpretations of Genesis 1 or of the failings or positive revelations of evolution that pit believers against scientists in a way that, I think, is really unnecessary.
Intelligent design as it is currently being proposed is a very special kind of view about evolution, namely that evolution was not sufficient to account for some of the really complex molecular machines that we find inside ourselves, like the bacterial flagellum, for instance, which is a favorite example.
And proponents of ID argue that only the intervention of a supernatural force would make it possible for such machines to come into being, because they are constituted of so many subunits. And if you knock any one of them out, you lose the function, that evolution would never be able to put this all together since you wouldn't gain any advantage until the very last step.
That really flies in the face of what we're learning about how such machines are built up bit by bit from smaller subunits that had other functions. And so I fear intelligent design is a God of a gaps theory, which puts God in a box, makes, in fact, ultimately over the course of time, a theory that is likely to collapse before too many more years go by, and in the process does no damage to science but actually may do damage to faith.
FLATOW: That was my next question. Are they not hurting themselves more by -
Dr. COLLINS: Well -
FLATOW: I'm sorry. Go ahead.
Dr. COLLINS: Yeah, potentially. Although, again, let me say I don't question the sincerity of those who are promoting the intelligent design perspective or those who believe in young earth creationism. These are people who have really seriously attached themselves to something that they feel defends them against what they perceive as a very atheistic perspective that seems to be coming out of some quarters in science, a perspective which, I might add, is unnecessary and also destructive.
But in so doing, they have attached their wagon to a star. And it's not a star that's necessarily going to get them where they want to go, because young people looking at the evidence may soon conclude that if you're going to be a believer you have to basically deny scientific facts that are well substantiated. And that's a terrible choice to ask somebody to make and a totally unnecessary one.
FLATOW: Dr. Gingerich?
Dr. GINGERICH: I think it's very much a category or - I like an example given by John Polkinghorne, who's an eminent physicist and also an Anglican priest. He asks the question, why is the water in the tea kettle boiling?
Well, you can explain it by the heating going in the bottom, the molecules rushing faster and faster, some of them finally flying out the top. The water begins to evaporate. But you can also answer the question, why is the water in the tea kettle boiling? Because I want some tea.
Well, these are examples of what Aristotle would call efficient causes or final causes. Science works by efficient causes. Explaining how things work, that's where it's made its great success and that is the kind of answer that can get your spacecraft to Jupiter, for example.
Explaining it in terms of the molecules or explaining evolution in terms of DNA, genetics, mutations, selection, that's an efficient cause. A final cause may be that this is part of a divine plan for how the cosmos is supposed to turn out.
But I don't think you can swap one of these for the other. You can't replace the teaching of evolution in biology classes with intelligent design, even though at some level both may be true.
FLATOW: Talking with Francis Collins, author of the new book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Dr. Owen Gingerich, author of the forthcoming book God's Universe, on TALK OF THE NATION: Science Friday from NPR News.
I'm Ira Flatow.
Dr. Gingerich, if I read your book correctly, are you saying that our existence here on earth is that we are in a unique position in the universe, that you believe we are here, that it has taken a hand of God to put us here and that if we - that our search for life in other places may not turn out so well?
Dr. GINGERICH: Well, on the contrary, if we say that the universe is designed to be very congenial for life to form, then there's no reason that can't be true in many, many other (unintelligible) the universe seemed to know we were coming. Even Stephen Hawking in his book, A Brief History of Time, points out that this precise tuning of these physical constants, sometimes referred to as the anthropic principle, seems to have major theological implications.
And I think that's actually a fairly interesting argument that most people aren't aware of. Why should it be that the gravitational constant has exactly the value that it needs to in order for, after the big bang, actual coalescence of stars and galaxies and planets to have occurred instead of having things continue to drift off infinitely or else come back together quickly in a big crunch.
FLATOW: So you might answer that it's because God wanted it that way.
Dr. GINGERICH: Well, that's one possible answer. In the book I go through a bit of a Bayesian argument about mathematics and how you would arrive at a conclusion about that particular proposition. And I think actually, considering the options, it's a pretty good option.
FLATOW: And believing in the Bible, where lots of miracles happen, would I be wrong in assuming that you can believe that miracles can happen also?
Dr. GINGERICH: The big question, it seems to me, is whether you're willing to accept the reality of God as a supernatural being. That is the decision that all of us at some point are faced with having to make, although many of us try to avoid it as long as we can because maybe the whole question of faith makes us uncomfortable.
But once you've come to that point, as I did at age 27, of accepting the possibility, in fact, the reality, of God who is outside of nature, then that solves the miracle problem for you fairly quickly. Because if God is real, there's no reason that God could not occasionally stage an invasion of the natural world, which would to us appear as a miracle.
Now, don't get me wrong. I've never seen one. I don't think they occur on any sort of regular basis. They may, as C.S. Lewis describes, occur at those great ganglions of history where it suits God to make a point of some sort. They're not randomly shaken into human experience.
But I don't think one needs to say, even as a rigorous show me the data scientist, which I am, that miracles are impossible once you've accepted the idea that God exists.
FLATOW: Talking with Francis Collins and Owen Gingerich this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: Science Friday from NPR News. We're going to take a short break and come back and take some of your phone calls about God and religion.
So if you want to talk with Dr. Francis Collins or Owen Gingerich, Dr. Collins is author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, and Dr. Gingerich is author of the forthcoming God's Universe, due to hit store shelves in September. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about science and religion with my guests, Francis Collins, author of the new book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Owen Gingerich, author of the forthcoming book God's Universe, due to hit your store shelves in September.
Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Justine in Boise. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.
JUSTINE (Caller): Hi.
FLATOW: Hi there.
JUSTINE: I haven't seen anything saying that you can't study science and religion at the same time.
Dr. COLLINS: So that's great. I'm wishing that every other student who's at your position in their educational career could say the same thing. And I certainly agree with what you've just stated. There is no reason.
If God decided to use this wonderful mechanism of evolution to create human beings in his own image, who are we to say that that was a dumb idea and it's not the way we would have done it. There is an obvious and compelling and very comforting harmony to be found in that particular synthesis.
FLATOW: Okay, Justine. Good luck to you.
JUSTINE: Thank you.
FLATOW: So, Dr. Collins, are you saying that God is outside of nature and you study nature as a scientist, but God then is outside of that realm?
Dr. COLLINS: I think in general that's true, although God can be anywhere he wants to, so God occasionally participates in nature, as well. But he's not bounded by it is what I'm trying to say.
FLATOW: And so you, as a scientist, you're not looking for an explanation from God to explain things you don't understand yet?
Dr. COLLINS: I think there are questions that I cannot answer through science that my faith helps me with, questions such as why am I here, what's my purpose. Science doesn't really answer that question to me other than if you take the very strict atheist position of saying, well, there's no point in answering that question because the universe is cold, heartless and pitiless and there is no point to your existence, which certainly has been put forward.
I don't find that particularly reassuring, nor does it fit with my own beliefs. So again, I think when one is seeking answers, you need to be very thoughtful about what kind of question is it. If it's a question about how nature works, and this is the same thing that Owen was saying a minute ago about categories, then science is the way to get the answer. If it's a question about why is there any nature at all, that's not something that science can help you with.
FLATOW: Would it, though, send you down a road that you might not investigate if you did not believe in God? In other words, open up a direction that you say, well, this is so impossible. It almost falls out of the category of a science.
And I'm going to say something that - I'm going to, you know, like extraterrestrials. Like, you know, I'm meaning life in outer space, intelligent life in outer space. You might say, well, this is sort of a silly thing as a scientist to waste my time on. But as someone who believes in God, I have no reason not to believe they may not be out there. Why not look at them, you know?
Dr. COLLINS: Yeah, I think in that instance you are asking a question about the universe, about nature, and it really is a scientific question. And believers may have a different significance attached to the ultimate discovery of other beings in the universe, the non-believers.
But it still, they are there in nature or they are not. And I'm not sure that faith leads you to make a priority decision. I mean, there are, of course, researchers that have been pursuing, for instance, is there a benefit to prayer, trying to apply the scientific method to see whether people who are prayed for do better than those who are not. I mean, there's a whole literature about that.
Dr. COLLINS: So you could say that's an example of a research program that's inspired in general by people who do believe and are seeking a way of demonstrating that belief matters. For me, that's -
FLATOW: How could - I'm sorry. Go ahead.
Dr. COLLINS: That seems like a bit of an odd investigation in that it presupposes that you can manipulate God in a research program by basically getting him to answer prayers so that they can be observed and that others can then believe. That seems to be turning both belief and science on its head.
FLATOW: How could you control that experiment? For people who are praying against you, you know?
Dr. COLLINS: Right. You don't know what those other confounding variables might be.
Dr. GINGERICH: There are those who aren't being prayed for in your experiment, but you don't know what their friends are doing.
Dr. COLLINS: Exactly.
FLATOW: Well you could say that's true of any experiment. Let's say you're just growing bacteria in a Petri dish. How would you control for God's influence on that bacteria?
Dr. COLLINS: Well, I think now we're getting a little bit into the land of the absurd. Why would God be bothering himself with such matters? Again, unless you're going to begin to postulate that God invades the natural world on a very regular basis, then you're pretty safe in using science to understand how nature works, and again I think -
FLATOW: But there are a lot of people who do think that God invades the world in a natural, you know, as an everyday course of life, don't you think?
Dr. COLLINS: Sure. There are people who say I got that parking space because I prayed for it and God made it happen. That flower is blooming, it's a miracle of God. He made that happen. Obviously, the one way to cheapen miracles - two ways, I guess - one is to say they can't ever happen, so therefore they're not worth talking about, and the other is to say that everyday events are miracles, which have a natural explanation, and I don't think we should make either mistake.
FLATOW: Of course, all this assumes that you know what God's plan is.
Dr. COLLINS: Oh, and of course we don't.
FLATOW: But you're assuming that God does not invade the natural world.
Dr. COLLINS: Well I think that, again, is an observation based on science, that the world behaves in a certain predictable way, by regular laws, which you can say God invented, but God chooses not to break them on a willy-nilly way. And so when you see something that looks like the breaking of a law, if you investigate it carefully, it usually turns out that we were misled by our observations and actually nothing miraculous has happened there. So again, the burden is very heavy, I think, on those who point to an event and say that was miraculous to demonstrate that it's so.
But my prior on that, in Bayesian terms, is not zero, it's still possible that in rare occasions there might actually be a circumstance where God decided to break his own laws. And certainly in my faith, which happens to be Christianity, there are very important examples of that, especially the resurrection.
FLATOW: What is your view on embryonic stem-cell research?
Dr. COLLINS: Well, here we go. So this is an area, I fear, where there's has been a lot more heat than light, and I think a lot of the problem is our terminology and our confusing of two very different ways in which pluripotent cells come about.
The union of sperm and egg is, obviously, a way in which we all came into being. The product of that, a single-celled embryo, has the potential of being a human being. Therefore, it has some moral status. We could argue about how much, but I don't think anybody would say none.
On the other hand, this process of somatic cell nuclear transfer, which holds much more promise for medicine because it produces a potent cell that is not foreign, it's actually the same as the person from which the original skin cell was derived to do the transfer, creates a cell that, it seems to me, is morally quite different. It's not something that happens in nature.
And yet have attached the name embryo to the product of both of those events, and we have, I'm afraid needlessly, tangled ourselves up in the political and ethical debates about what we should do about those two types of research.
FLATOW: And as far as those embryos that are sitting frozen, the 400,000 that some scientists are saying we need to do this research, what are your feelings about those?
Dr. COLLINS: Well, again, I'm a federal employee and a member of the executive branch. That's part of my job as being a director of one of the institutes at NIH, so I'm not the sort of person that generally comments upon this. But I will say if you look at the ethical comparison between using some of those frozen embryos to try to learn something that would help people versus discarding them - and ultimately there are hundreds of them, and it's not realistic to imagine that the majority will not be discarded - then if you believe that one of our ethical mandates is to try to alleviate suffering, it's pretty hard to say they ought to keep those in the freezer for all time or simply throw them away.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. There's our number. How do your scientist colleagues view you, Dr. Collins, and your religious beliefs? Are many of them as religious as you are?
Dr. COLLINS: No, but more than you might think. Robert Jastrow, the noted astronomer, began his own book, God and the Astronomers, with this rather famous sentence. “When a scientist writes about God, his colleagues assume he's either over the hill or going bonkers.” And I hope I'm neither of those.
But I take comfort in the fact that surveys would tell you that 40 percent of working scientists believe in a personal God to whom one may pray in expectation of an answer - 40 percent.
They're fairly quiet about it. I think there is sort of an unwritten taboo that you don't discuss this in scientific circles, but there's a lot of us who share that same view, including I might add, some prominent evolutionists over the course of the last century, like Asa Gray, who was the major defender of Darwin in the U.S., and Theodosius Dobzhansky, probably the greatest intellect of the early part of the 20th century in the area of evolution and who found no controversy or conflict at all between being believers and also those who clearly saw in evolution an answer to a lot of questions about how living organisms are related to each other.
FLATOW: Dr. Gingerich, any comment?
Dr. GINGERICH: Once, many years ago, I was on a ship where Christian Barnard, the famous cardiac surgeon, came on board. I was told I had to go to the captain's table because the captain needed reinforcements, and Christian Barnard turned to me as an opening gambit and said, do you believe in God?
Well that's not ordinary dinner conversation among strangers, and as Francis Collins just said, our religious beliefs are not normally corridor conversations in a scientific institute. So I feel a little bit exposed being on air this way, and I suppose Francis does, too.
FLATOW: But you just wrote a book about God.
Dr. GINGERICH: That's right, and it takes a little bit of courage to do that, I think, but then again, those were lectures of a very serious century old endowment, and I thought, well, I've thought about these questions pretty hard. It's time to put them down this way and see where the chips fall.
Dr. COLLINS: It's a bit like taking a public bath, I suppose, but I think Owen would probably resonate with this, as well. When you look around us today, particularly in the United States, there seems to be such a battle going on, with the extreme positions dominating the stage. Some of those extreme voices come from our own colleagues who pronounce in shrill tones that evolution and other discoveries of science have rendered God no longer necessary and that any thinking person should now become an atheist.
On the other pole, one hears pronouncements from fundamentalist perspectives that science can not be trusted if it disagrees with an ultra-literal interpretation of Genesis, and anybody who disagrees with them is not a true believer.
These are troubling times, and if there are those of us who have not arrived at either of those extremes but actually inhabit the middle ground in a very comfortable way, for whom the spiritual and the scientific world view are not only compatible but complementary and comforting, should we not be speaking up about that?
Because a society in the future that abandons science or abandons faith is not a society that's necessarily a healthy one. And if we have the chance to try to preserve both of those in a healthy way, then I think we have some obligation to do so.
So yeah, there are risks in being outspoken about this, and certainly Owen and I have encountered some negative reactions about it - although not much. I think most scientists are respectful, if perhaps in some instances a bit puzzled.
FLATOW: We're talking about science and religion this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: Science Friday from NPR News.
Dr. GINGERICH: I agree with what Francis has just said. We're looking for a kind of middle road between two fundamental extremes. You can have fundamentalist scientists who are so absolutely sure they understand it all and who are hard-core atheists, and you can have fundamentalists on the religious side who are prepared to take a literalist reading of the scriptures that has not been born out historically.
And it was for these people who are open-minded and willing to think about these questions, not from an extreme viewpoint, that I've written my book for. A couple of colleagues on the Harvard faculty read the manuscript beforehand. They were both skeptics. They both said yes, this is a book that should be published. So I was very grateful for that.
FLATOW: And did you think it was time to speak out, like Dr. Collins thought, or it was just something that this came about in the natural flow of your writings?
Dr. GINGERICH: Both, actually, because I have been speaking about these issues for some time, but I think there needs to be a kind of a middle voice in this, and I've tried to represent that field, and I know Francis does, as well.
FLATOW: Dr. Collins, where do you go from here? It seems to be a very interesting book. Do you start a new, you know, new line of writing here at all?
Dr. COLLINS: Oh, I still have a day job running all the consequences of the success of the Human Genome Project, which is a wonderful array of scientific explorations into how the genome works and increasingly bringing that to the practice of medicine at a prodigious rate that is really gratifying.
So I'll keep up my scientific enterprise as my main activity, but I certainly hope that this book will trigger some conversations around the country, around the world, that maybe wouldn't have happened before. If that happens, then that will have been a success. That's all I really hoped for.
FLATOW: Well, one last question about something you said before about you would not like to live in a world that doesn't have faith. Do you think that atheists don't have faith?
Dr. COLLINS: Well, they certainly do. In fact, I think they probably are required to have more faith than many people who believe in God, because they have to have faith in their own intellect's ability to know so much that they can exclude the possibility of God categorically, which seems to me the greatest statement of faith, or perhaps hubris and arrogance, that one could imagine.
So yes, faith, but in what? But as I look about myself and the culture we live in and the world we live in, a world without the kind of noble intentions that arise, many times, out of people's hearts in the consequence of their faith, a world that misses out on a Mother Teresa or an Oskar Schindler, a world where science has to go on in a completely materialist way, does not sound like the kind of world of wonderful humanity and nobility of humankind that I hope will be evolving over the many decades to come.
FLATOW: All right. You've got the last word. We've run out of time. I'd like to thank both of you. Francis Collins, author of the new book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. He's also director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at NIH in Bethesda. Dr. Owen Gingerich, author of the forthcoming God's Universe, due to hit store shelves in September. He is research professor emeritus of astronomy and history of science at Harvard University. Thank you both, gentlemen, for taking time to talk to us.
Dr. GINGERICH: You're welcome, thank you.
FLATOW: Have a good weekend.
Dr. GINGERICH: You, too.
Dr. COLLINS: Thank you.
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