Separation between Scientific Truth & Belief

UPDATE: People have been making a lot of assumptions about things that didn’t actually happen. I’m adding asterisk (*) places people have made assumptions and clarifying at the end.

I’d like to start this blog post by saying just one simple thing I know to be true: I am a scientist. I may spend my days writing software, teaching, and too often doing astronomy communications research, but at the end of the day I’m a PhD Astronomer trained to do research in variable stars and galaxy evolution.

That said, I’d like to say one more thing that isn’t contradictory to me: As much as I’m a scientist, I’m also a Christian.

Being both puts me in a rather horrible position in our currently divided culture. Right now, there are Christians out there eager to condemn me for knowing, based on mulitple-lines of evidence, that we live in a 13.7 billion year old universe (give or take 0.2 billion years). There are also skeptics out there actively condemning me for believing, without evidence that would hold up in any lab, that there is a God.

As a human, I don’t really like knowing that there are people out there actively hating on me because of what I know to be true and what I believe to be true don’t match what they choose to adhere to.

I wish I could put blinders on and focus on educating people about science without needing to address my philosophical detractors, but I can’t do that for one simple reason: The modern culture wars between the New Athiests and Young Earth Creationists are getting in the way of teaching science.

Here’s the problem, summarized quite nicely on Whiskey Before Breakfast (in a post that triggered what I’m writing now because he wrote something that recognized what it’s like for me at times.): There is currently a philosophy that “skepticism is a proper subset of atheism: that is, not all atheists are skeptics but all skeptics are atheists.” Since scientists, if they are good scientists (and I’d like to think I’m a good scientist) have to be scientific-method-employing skeptical thinkers, this philosophy than would profess that since all scientists are skeptical thinkers, and all skeptics are atheists, then (using set theory), all scientists must be atheists, and just as a non-skeptical scientist is a bad scientists, than a non-atheist scientist must also be a bad scientist.

This is false logic. Being a skeptic does not preclude a belief in a God. Being a skeptic simply means I have to admit that there are things I know are scientifically true and based on evidence (such as the age of the universe), and there are things that in the absence of sufficient data I may choose to believe in or not believe in (such as God).

In our classrooms, this distinction between what we scientifically know to be true (vaccines work), and what individuals choose to believe in without sufficient data (that life must exist somewhere else in the universe), has been lost in too many cases. This is harmful because it sours people to learning science.

Several years ago I had some students come to me with an exam written by another professor. This was an Astonomy 101 class for humanities majors. They had been studying the cosmology chapter of the book, and the final question on the exam – a throw away question with no right answer meant to get easy points – was, “How do you believe the universe will end?” (In similar situations I’ll ask, “Explain why you do or don’t think life on other planets might or might not exist?” *1 ) The word believe was the word on the exam. There were no further details to the question. It didn’t constrain the students to discuss only the theories taught in class. It actually asked, “How do you believe the universe will end?” This was back in the days before dark energy, before the 1998 discovery that the universe is accelerating apart. Back then we taught that the universe could be open — expanding apart forever — or that maybe it is closed and will someday collapse in on itself. I think we all hoped for a flat universe (that would certainly have made the math a lot easier). This professor had read the students’ answers and given 0/20 points when they described instead of one of these three scenarios the second coming of Christ. With that badly worded question, and those 0/20 grades, a professor placed a wall between himself and his students, preventing them from being willing to listen to the scientific facts that describe how a universe without interference will continue to evolve. To him there was no debate, they weren’t allowed to believe in the second coming of Christ, at least not if they wanted to get a good grade. (Had I been grading, I’d have realized I had written a stupid question and tossed it out)

This is an impossible situation for a student, and not even a rational one for a scientist. Sitting here as an astronomer, I have to acknowledge we could live in a universe that hasn’t yet collapsed to the lowest energy level, and it might tear itself apart doing so someday. I have to admit, we could live in a multi-verse where our universe and another will someday merge, destroying the reality we know. Or, as a person not wearing a teacher hat, I can admit there could be a God that decides to hit the cosmic endgame button (but I won’t teach that in a science classroom). While all these things could be possible, with people believing in the possibility of each, I know based on evidence that, if left alone to continue doing what it’s doing, our universe will expand forever and suffer a rather horrific energy death. Do you see the distinction? Given evidence, and a scientific scenario, I can know a true outcome. But there is still room to believe in non-contradictory possibilities.

Had that Professor simply acknowledged that it was a poorly worded question with no right answer, those two girls could have gone on to continue enjoying astronomy. Instead, I ended up with them upset and angry in my office*2,3 telling me that they couldn’t even look at their astronomy book without getting mad.

Negative emotions don’t exactly aid learning, and what could have been a positive learning environment was completely destroyed by equating scientifically testable hypotheses with beliefs.

Reality is complicated, and not all questions have answers provided by science. Life would be a whole lot easier if we could run an experiment to prove what is right and what is wrong; to do a chemical assay to assess good and evil. Science can’t do those things. Right now, it can’t even tell me if string theory is true. And in the absence of data, there is room for belief. I don’t have laboratory evidence of a God, but I choose to believe in one, and I will let others hold onto their beliefs as well. We also don’t know if aliens exist on other planets (although that one has a lot more hope of being solved with a telescope), and I choose to believe at least one other world in our great cosmos contains a technology loving society. What is key is I know what are beliefs, and I know what are scientifically based facts. In the realm of data, I am a skeptical thinker. But I am a human whose mind goes beyond the constraints of science to question, and to sometimes, without laboratory data, dare to believe.

I am a scientist: Give me evidence and hear me teach. Give me observations and watch me do research. But I am a human who can have beliefs, and having them doesn’t harm my ability to do science, to teach science, or to communicate science to you.

*(1) The actual wording of the question from last time I used it was “Part 1) Write out the Drake Equation and explain who values for each of the variables can be determined, Part 2) Considering the above, explain why you do or don’t think life on other planets might or might not exist?”
(2) I ended up with them in my office because I was their observational astronomy prof. This was the standard, Prof A didn’t boost my grade, so I’m going to see if Prof B raises my grade. I don’t remember if they knew before hand that I was a Christian. This is a common phenomena. I’m known as a prof who will listen, and at least once a semester someone comes in an tries to get me to go to some other prof to change a grade – this includes being ranted at about an English prof and an Engineering class.
(3) It has been assumed that I took the students’ side, and condemned my colleague to them. No, that would be unprofessional (there was no ethics violation and we all have academic freedom), and since it was a tenured professor, it could also have gotten me in a lot of trouble. I told them they should have asked for clarification during the exam, because while it was unreasonable for them to lie about what they actually believed when being asked what they believe, the fact that they didn’t demonstrate any content knowledge wasn’t useful. I start each semester now by telling my students I will ask at least one dumbly worded question each semester, because historically I know this is true. He or she who points out my dumbly worded questions earns my respect, and probably the adoration of their classmates.

156 Comments

  1. Adam Burner February 18, 2013 at 8:17 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this with us. :)

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