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Faith and rationality in governance: Can Daniel’s story reconcile the two?

BY JOHN OLUWADERO

Transitioning from a career as a pharmacist to pursuing a doctorate in social policy might seem like an unusual leap to many. But at its core, both fields seek to provide interventions that promote well-being. In my time as a pharmacist across hospitals, communities, and public health practices, I saw the immediate effects of medicine. Yet, I yearned to address the underlying social issues that so often influenced health outcomes and well-being.

When asked about my career shift, I usually summarize it as a desire to enhance health outcomes through comprehensive social protection policies, especially those centered on food security and community resilience. However, the deeper motivation intertwines with the story of Daniel, emphasizing the balance of faith and reason in championing sustainable development and effective governance. This story serves as a testament that to truly care for those we love, we must wield both heart and mind.

You see, the world we currently live in often sets faith and rationality at odds, the story of Daniel in the Book of Daniel 1:8-16 serves as a powerful reminder that the two can coexist harmoniously. Daniel’s divinely inspired abilities to interpret dreams and visions are well-known, but what is equally remarkable is his methodological approach to understanding the impact of diet on physical health. This article explores how Daniel’s experimental methodology provides invaluable insights into the principles underlying modern-day Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs), bridging faith and rationality in ways that have profound implications for governance and policy-making.

Daniel’s Pioneering Study and Its Methodological Rigor

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Around 600 BC (over 2600 years ago), Daniel conducted an experiment focusing on the nutritional benefits of a non-meat-based diet consisting of pulse foods (i.e. seeds of legumes like beans, lentils, and peas) and water. By doing so, he not only drew upon his faith but also adhered to what would today be considered a rigorous experimental design. Although far removed from the sophisticated statistical analysis and research methods of today, Daniel’s methodological approach to understanding diet and well-being laid the groundwork for what we now know as Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs)

Context (Daniel 1:1-14): Daniel and three friends from the captured Israel royal family were chosen to serve King Nebuchadnezzar.  To integrate them into Babylonian society, Ashpenaz, the king’s chief of staff, was instructed to teach them the Babylonian language and literature. They were also given a daily portion of meat and wine from the king’s table to consume during their three-year training. It was a common belief at that time that a diet rich in quality meat and wine would contribute to one’s good looks.

However, being a devout Jew, Daniel objected to consuming the royal food and wine. Ashpenaz was concerned that abstaining from these luxury items would cause Daniel to lose his physical attractiveness. Daniel then proposed an experiment: he and his three friends would eat only beans and drink water for a period of ten days. At the end of the trial, if they appeared less healthy than those who ate the king’s food, Daniel would comply and eat the royal food. After the ten-day trial, Daniel and his friends appeared healthier and more nourished than any of the young men who had been eating the royal food. As a result, the chief of staff replaced the royal food and wine with a diet of beans and water.

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Austin Bradford Hill: The Modern Pioneer of RCTs

Fast forward to 1948, when British epidemiologist Austin Bradford Hill conducted the first RCT in modern medical research, focusing on tuberculosis treatment. Hill used a table of random numbers to decide whether patients should receive a combination of streptomycin and bed rest or just bed rest. This groundbreaking approach has since set the standard for how clinical trials are conducted, forming the foundation of evidence-based medical research today.

Principles of RCTs: A Lesson from Daniel

To qualify as a Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT), a study must meet specific criteria. Daniel’s experimental design provides valuable insights into the fundamental principles that define what we consider to be RCTs today.

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In an RCT, the hypothesis is formulated in advance and then rigorously tested. The criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of an intervention are predetermined, ensuring that the study is structured to adequately address the research question. This protocol also deters researchers from modifying the hypothesis based on the results. Daniel stated his hypothesis prior to conducting the test, that eating pulse foods (e.g. beans, lentils, and peas), and water will offer superior nutritional benefits for physical attractiveness compared to royal meat. The importance of transparently stating the hypothesis prior to conducting research has become a standard practice to maintain the integrity of the study and minimize the temptation to change the hypothesis post-experimentation.

Furthermore, RCT studies involve an experimental group that receives the intervention and a control group that remains unchanged. Both groups in Daniel’s study were chosen based on pre-defined characteristics; for instance, participants are “strong, healthy, and good-looking Hebrew young men, well versed in every branch of learning” (Daniel 1:4).

To avoid bias, RCTs also have a predefined duration. Daniel’s study was designed to last for ten days, in line with his request to be “tested for ten days on a diet of vegetables and water” (Daniel 1:12). This pre-established timeframe mitigates the risk of ending the study when results appear favorable.

Additionally, participants in RCT studies are usually ‘blinded’ ( i.e. unaware) to whether they are in the control or experimental group. The Bible did not record any evidence that suggests that Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, or other participants in the  ‘Babylonian Future Leaders Program’ (BFLP)’ were aware of Daniel’s arrangement with Ashpenaz, the chief of staff, in conducting the study. 

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Finally, in an RCT study an observer assesses the predetermined outcomes in both the control and experimental groups to evaluate the study hypothesis. In Daniel’s experiment, Ashpenaz, the chief of staff, served as this observer. After ten days, Daniel and his friends appeared healthier and better nourished than those who ate the king-assigned food, supporting the initial hypothesis (Daniel 1:14-15).

Reconciling Faith and Rationality Through Methodology

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As described above, Daniel’s approach was consistent with today’s methodological standards that prioritize a predetermined hypothesis, methodological rigor, transparency, and public disclosure prior to initiating any research trial.

While Daniel may have been driven by faith, his study was rooted in rational methodology. This offers a compelling example of how faith and rationality can coexist, as both can be channeled towards achieving an evidence-based understanding of complex policy problems. 

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Policy Insight:

The ultimate objective of research is to influence policy and inform best practices, as exemplified by the study conducted by Daniel and Asphenaz.  So after that, the attendant (i.e. chief of staff ) fed them only vegetables instead of the food and wine provided for the others. (Daniel 1:14-15)

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Message to young people

It is my 35th birthday today. Reflecting on the past 15 years I’ve devoted myself to fostering sustainable, community-based platforms for positive youth development. This wasn’t just a career choice; it felt like a divine calling. To me, working with youth is a ministry, a commitment driven by unwavering faith and optimism. My aspiration has always been to make a tangible difference in their lives. My journey led me to establish a community youth center at the University of Ibadan, catering to six adjacent communities, as well as outreach youth centers in three southwestern Nigerian cities. Through the BNI team, we’ve created a haven for children and young adults to experience healthy relationships, acquire vital skills, and access youth-centric services that empower them for a brighter future.

Yet, every interaction with these young luminaries reinforces a humbling realization: passion, while pivotal, is not enough. Faith requires action. To truly address the foundational challenges our youth face, we need to continually evolve, seeking new competencies and adopting evidence-based approaches.

The story of Daniel, a young man who lived over 2600 years ago, offers enduring methodological insights that remain relevant in today’s world of evidence-based research and public policy. According to Daniel 1:16, he was imbued with a divine gift by God for interpreting visions and dreams, yet he recognized that faith alone would not suffice in making persuasive arguments. This ancient lesson reverberates today: faith, or conviction, must be coupled with compelling, evidence-based argumentation. Daniel understood that mere belief was insufficient to convince those in authority; he needed to offer rigorously substantiated evidence that would manifest the veracity of his faith, thereby gaining the trust and approval of the chief of staff.

This account holds profound implications for the present day, emphasizing the imperative for a new cadre of policy analysts and researchers—our modern-day “Daniels.” We must possess the ability to adeptly interpret the visions, objectives, and aspirations that inform the decision-making processes within governments, organizations, and corporations. We can’t just come to ‘decision table’ with passion alone. It is not enough!  We must be well equipped with the skill set that is crucial for advocating evidence-based policies that can address the complex and ever-changing challenges and opportunities we face today.

Therefore, it is crucial for faith-driven young leaders to always substantiate their faith and beliefs with evidence as they engage in global discourse. This allows for a more nuanced, evidence-based approach to policy implementation, one that takes into account the specific needs and conditions of each society. In doing so, we honor the legacy of Daniel, whose wisdom in interpreting visions can inspire a new generation committed to thoughtful, data-driven governance.

Oluwadero is a doctoral student in the education and social policy program at the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration, University of Delaware



Views expressed by contributors are strictly personal and not of TheCable.
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