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.

154 Comments

  1. Ian
    Jun 26, 2010

    Pamela,
    I’m a long-time listener to Astronomycast and a big fan, but I have to disagree with you on tis one. I assume you don’t believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Zeus, Thor or Brahma/Vishnu/Shiva. Why? Because there is no evidence to suggest the validity of the claims of their existence. But there is no more evidence for the existence of the Christian God then there is for these others. So you are simply being logically inconsistent to maintain a belief in the Christian God while rejecting all others on the same grounds.

    This culture “war” is not about whether science and religion can peaceably co-exist. It’s about who is right and who is wrong. And in that, there can be no tie.

  2. Ambidexter
    Jun 26, 2010

    Dr. Gay wrote:

    “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 telling me that they couldn’t even look at their astronomy book without getting mad.”

    Why did the students go complaining to Dr. Gay instead of the professor who gave the exam? The students weren’t looking to have the problem fixed or at least explained. They were looking for someone to agree that Christians are a downtrodden, persecuted majority in the US.

  3. Paul Caggegi
    Jun 26, 2010

    Dr Gay – I am a big fan of yours, of Astronomy Cast. I am a skeptic, and non-religious. I have absolutely no problem with beliefs held by scientists. You provide such great insight into discoveries in your field. You are a valuable asset to the pursuit of knowledge and learning. When I read your posts on your faith, I do not agree with other skeptics that these are articles that are put up for skeptical scrutiny, or an excuse to ridicule you. I continue to be a fan of your work. The fact you identify as a Christian is as trivial to me as the color of your hair – both have no bearing on what you have been able to contribute to the field. In what I have heard and read, you’ve never tried to shoehorn your discoveries into your faith, or vice-versa, so it is a moot point.

    I am so glad you appear in skeptical circles. As skeptics, we should be welcoming of all. We are not some “club” as (I hate to say it) some faiths try to be. We have no article of faith, but present a toolkit which allows us to think critically. What is done with that toolkit, or where it should be applied should never be part of the aim of giving someone those tools. I am a big proponent of teaching HOW to think, not WHAT to think.

    I am saddened that you get some much hate from both Christians and Skeptics, when both groups should be equally as welcoming of you!

    Still a fan,

    Paul Caggegi

  4. pamela Gay
    Jun 26, 2010

    You guys are making a ton of assumptions; none of them correct.

    First it was assumed that it was a cosmology class, rather then a cosmology lesson in an intro class for humanities majors. Then it was assumed it was an extra credit question, rather then a major part of their real grade. Then it was assumed that I must have told the students their prof was wrong instead of doing what I actually did, which was tell the girls they really should have asked for clarification during the exam, because while I agree they shouldn’t lie, writing about the 2nd coming of Christ on an astro 101 exam really doesn’t demonstrate they learned something. Now it’s being assumed they came to me because I was a Christian. No, they came to me because I was teaching the observational astronomy class they had co-enrolled in to get lab credit, and they figured if one prof wouldn’t fix their grade, maybe a different one would.

    Stop making assumptions.

    The point I was trying to make was simple: The culture war is effecting learning. If you insult someone’s religion with the classic “Anyone who believes in God is stupid” retort (or any of a million mocking comments), they will stop listening to you unless they are self-hating. (I appear to be self-hating.) If you want someone to learn, start with observable facts. Homeopathy can be tested. Vaccines can be tested. The moon hoax can be tested. Start with observation based facts and the scientific method, not with insults and a desire to remove their religious foundation prior to actually teaching them anything.

    Could you enjoy learning history from someone who started from the premise that anyone who was an athiest was stupid and incapable living a moral life – someone who failed a student who when asked “Discuss your favorite philosopher” discussed Nietsche articulately even though the class had only covered Decarte, Locke, Pascal, and Butler? I’ve answered questions on chem exams using quantum mechanics, and expected to get the answer marked right (and I did). If a prof writes a vague question (and all of us do this sometimes), we need to be prepared to take random answers or to throw out the question.

    As instructors, it is our job to guide our students in learning, and we make our jobs harder when we bring into the science classroom words like “belief” and we don’t leave the door open for students to actually have beliefs. Every time a student – these are teenagers who are often looking for reasons to hate authority – gets alienated, they stop learning. I don’t want an ignorant society, so I honestly feel we need to keep religion out of the science classroom, and let people fight the culture wars elsewhere (philosophy and religion classrooms, for instance).

  5. Lyra
    Jun 26, 2010

    If I had been the teacher, I would have given these students a “0/20 — see me.” Then I would have given them the option for a redo (exactly how the redo would operate would depend on the circumstances of the class). From where I stand, this whole situation is like putting forth a question, “3x + 12 = 15. Find X.” and getting a student who draws a giant arrow pointing at “X.” If these students really didn’t understand that in a science class you are supposed to offer a science answer, something has gone wrong. In college, these students should already know that exams are meant to measure how much a student has learned (as you mentioned to them). They should know that this isn’t what their teacher was looking for.

    That being said, I am deeply concerned about the astro program in your school if (as you described) a throwaway question that you say could have been answered in any manner at all is a major part of a student’s grade. Throwaway questions should not be a major part of a student’s grade. A student’s grade is supposed to reflect the amount he or she learned. If a professor is asking a question that has absolutely no restrictions on its answer, then that question needs to not be a major part of the student’s grade.

    For a quick nitpick, I have to admit that I don’t understand what you think the difference between “think” and “believe” is. You have a problem with this professor saying, “How do you BELIEVE the universe will end,” but you say that you ask students if they THINK there is life on other planets. Would you be ok with the teacher asking “How do you THINK the universe will end,” instead? Do you really think it would be substantially different if you asked “Do you BELIEVE there is life on other planets?” Or in regards to both questions, do you think the students should get credit no matter what they write? Perhaps I am simply misunderstanding you.

  6. Kevin
    Jun 26, 2010

    I appreciate the overall point you’re going for here, but…. the story you give isn’t heping. It was a cosmology exam (for humanities majors or physics majors, who cares, it was an exam to test what students had learned regarding the science/state of the field of cosmology) , and the students can be expected to assume that the question referred to one or another cosmological scenario that can be supported with arguments consistent with current astrophysical understanding. They have no grounds for complaint, and deserved to get a zero for making no attempt to answer the actual question that they damn well knew was being asked.

    By the arguments above, any answer at all that anyone wrote (even vulgar answers, obviously facetious answers, or answers openly insulting to the professor) should have received full credit.

  7. Mark Thyme
    Jun 26, 2010

    Pamela,
    Again I say the whole exam example is a red herring. The gist of this post is not whose feelings were hurt or who thinks they are being “hated on”. The point is that a “belief” is the acceptance of something as a fact. If you do so, and you claim to be a scientist, you have to defend your “belief” (ie hypothesis). To sit there quietly and then later whine about the injustice of your fellow skeptics is absurd and the antithesis of the scientific method. In fact, a really good scientist would try to test and therefore DISPROVE his/her own hypothesis or take delight in being disproved because that means we are getting closer to truth (there is, of course no discovery of “Scientific Fact” as indicated in your post’s headline – that is not what science does). And yes, religious beliefs can be tested (eg the several scientific, double-blind tests of “the power of prayer”). This is what we should be teaching students – how to think and how to accept learning.

  8. Kevin
    Jun 26, 2010

    Sorry, edit to the previous comment – you never said they should receive full credit for this, and so I misspoke.
    However, I stand by the sentiment, that the students ignored the obvious intent of the question. If students who wrote about their religious beliefs have a legitimate complaint about receiving zero credit, then so does any student who wrote anything at all, and later refused to back down from “that’s what I really believe”. To try to pass off an answer not within the scope of the class represents that the student lacks an understanding, not necessarily of the material, but certainly of the intent of the question, which is arguably even worse.

  9. Sunny Day
    Jun 26, 2010

    “Could you enjoy learning history from someone who started from the premise that anyone who was an athiest was stupid and incapable living a moral life”

    I would have to ask how many times the Prof was going to drag the supposed Atheist lack of morals into each History Lesson? Then ask for the evidence.

    ” – someone who failed a student who when asked “Discuss your favorite philosopher” discussed “Garfield The Cat” articulately even though the class had only covered Decarte, Locke, Pascal, and Butler?”

    You misspelled “Garfield The Cat” as “Nietsche”. I fixed that for you and now your example is perfect.

    In Bizzarro-Pamela World you can answer a question on an Astronomy test with any old muck you can dream up?

  10. Sunny Day
    Jun 26, 2010

    “From where I stand, this whole situation is like putting forth a question, “3x + 12 = 15. Find X.” and getting a student who draws a giant arrow pointing at “X.””

    Marvelous!

  11. pamela
    Jun 26, 2010

    Kevin and Lyra: It wasn’t my test question. I agree that it should never have been asked because as asked any answer was acceptable. It was a bad question. I argue not that they or anyone else should have gotten points, but that having realized it was a dumb question, the prof should have discarded it.

    And Lyra, sometimes throw away questions are put in because as a prof you accidentally kill your students with something: A HW that was way harder than intended, an exam that was way harder than intended, etc… Questions that force them to write out complete sentences stating an opinion can be a way to make them earn the correction to a prior evil (the first time you teach a class, it is very easy to be way too hard). As was mentioned above, on pop quizes, giving points for someone writing their name, date, and the instructors name (you’d be surprised how many can’t do that) is a way to give attendance points to people who bothered to come, but didn’t bring a fully loaded brain.

  12. Kevin
    Jun 26, 2010

    Pamela,
    Yes, it was poorly stated. But if I got a question on a math exam that said “x+1 = 2, what is x?” and I answered “x is the 24th letter of the English alphabet, and is commonly used as the first independent variable in algebraic equations.”, I should receive zero credit, for either an utter failure to understand the scope of the class and intent of the question, and my appeals that the professor should have said “solve for x” rather than “what is x” would be laughed at.

  13. Dennis
    Jun 26, 2010

    Hi Pamela,

    Thank you (&Fraser) very much for Astronomycast. I’ve been listening since the beginning and enjoyed it all. I don’t know if you remember but we met in The Castle Inn in Cambridge acouple of years ago.

    I think PZ may be being a bit harsh. It is what he does.. I’m not sure why you should have to justify your personal beliefs if you’re doing talks on Astronomy. Skepticism is the journey. Atheism is a destination. You may have other evidence or have reason to accept other evidence and ultimately arrive somewhere else.. As it is personal, it’s not anyone else’s business.

    I think you are a great asset to the skeptics and it would be STUPID to create divisions based upon beliefs. Skeptics should be open minded and if there is one of them that says they’re right about everything, I should think that they’re not a skeptic.

    I am an atheist and have much respected friends who are Christians. I don’t understand their belief but they don’t push it and I don’t question it.. I have occasionally said negative things about religion which could have been rather offensive to them which I have felt very bad about afterwards (I am more used to being in the company of fellow heathens). I do apologise and I think it is accepted. I think they accept that I have a different worldview and it is inevitable that it will leak out from time to time.

    Please forgive us for this, it’s generally it’s the crazy creationists that make us lose perspective. They make us forget that not all religious people are irrational.

  14. Tom Wilson
    Jun 26, 2010

    Georges Lemaitre and Francis Collins did some pretty good science while maintaining their Christian beliefs. Cardinal Baronius’ famous quote “The Bible was written to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” points out that science and religion are two different epistemological systems. Science is about physics, religion is about metaphysics. As a fundamental tool of critical thinking, skepticism is an important element for both endeavors. Logical positivists suggest that nothing exists beyond the physical and therefore metaphysics is about nothing. They don’t even let the Christian off of first base by agreeing that there exists anything metaphysical to inquire about. It is true that Christians assert a reality beyond what we can touch, feel, measure and weigh. It is also true that skeptics apply Occam’s Razor to the whole question and assert, correctly, that parsimony is in favor of the current scientific explanation of how we got here and god is sort of left on the cutting room floor. Why then should a skeptic give a belief in God any consideration at all? And how can a Christian be a skeptic?

    My question is why should we care? There seems to be a war lately where skeptics assert that religious belief is inconsistent with scientific skepticism. That just doesn’t hold up. As I pointed out before, Lemaitre, Collins, and others, should I mention Newton, did very good science while believing in Christianity. I believe that this polarizing scientific fundamentalism (ooh that was fun!) is not helpful. Why can’t we just be very rigorous about what is good science and what isn’t? If a religious assumption sneaks into a scientific argument, fine, critique it as bad science, cast it out! But there is no need to declare war on religion or religious belief to do that. It also becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. “Religious people are ignorant of science”! Well, yeah, the polarizing rhetoric drove them from the table!

    I was very taken with Edward O. Wilson’s book “The Creation” where he endeavors to find common ground between fundamentalist Christian belief and scientific skepticism. The point he makes is that the creation is at stake, let’s find common ground and save the creation from what we are doing to it. I find that kind of Olive branch very refreshing, I agree with Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World” concept that in this highly technological age, it is important that a citizenry understand science and critical thinking to govern itself effectively. However, this doesn’t mean we must attack religious belief, it just means we must attack ignorance.

  15. Ben Goren
    Jun 26, 2010

    Dr. Gay, you wrote:

    “If you want someone to learn, start with observable facts. Homeopathy can be tested. Vaccines can be tested. The moon hoax can be tested. Start with observation based facts and the scientific method, not with insults and a desire to remove their religious foundation prior to actually teaching them anything.”

    If I may suggest, my lengthy post on the first page of comments is an attempt to guide you towards exactly how that sort of test should be applied to Christianity.

    You won’t like the conclusions you’ll make from a critical examination of the evidence — all the evidence, that is, including extra-Biblical, and not just the Bible passages favored by pastors for their sermons. But, then again, neither do homeopathy advocates like the conclusions from double-blind clinical trials of homeopathic “remedies,” instead latching on to a handful of studies of dubious qualities and even less impressive conclusions.

    There is, of course, also the theoretical underpinnings to consider. Avogadro’s Law tells us why we should expect homeopathy to be bunk. Those familiar with his work are not surprised at the ineffectiveness of homeopathy once the theory and practice of homeopathy is explained. Similarly, I think, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll acknowledge that there’s no known theoretical framework that can accommodate the Resurrection, Ascension, Heaven, the Second Coming, and all the rest — not to mention plenty of reasons to dismiss them out of hand, just as a chemist would dismiss homeopathy out of hand.

    After all, if Christianity were well-evidenced and plausible, why would you need “faith” to inform you of its veracity? And how is your own faith in Christianity any different from the self-delusion practiced by homeopaths, anti-vaxxers, and moon hoaxers? Unless, of course, you can offer the same thing those sorts of people consistently fail to provide: hard evidence and sound reasoning from a complete analysis of the known facts…but that’s something I’ve never ever gotten from a Christian on the core tenets of Christianity any more than I’ve ever gotten from a homeopath on homeopathy or an anti-vaxxer on…well, you get the picture.

    I guess what I’m driving at is, “Physician, heal thyself.”

    Cheers,

    b&

  16. Russell
    Jun 26, 2010

    Rob Knop writes:

    Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean that it’s all crap.

    That’s quite true. Many a crank who criticizes quantum mechanics doesn’t bother first to understand it. However, the fact that religious believers can’t explain their beliefs without, ultimately, appealing to faith does mean it’s crap. What distinguishes religion isn’t the content, but how believers explain their own belief, and what they write to buttress each other’s beliefs. Go buy any number of books from an inspirational bookstore explaining faith — Christian or other, doesn’t matter — and compare that to any introductory physics text, looking especially toward what each says about methods and evidence and reasons for thinking particular claims are true. That is why Christianity epistemologically is no different than crystal healing, Islam, or any other superstition.

  17. Jason
    Jun 26, 2010

    It saddens me to see how entangled our society is in faith. When a person openly admits to being a nonbeliever in religion, it may very well harm their relationship with friends and family. This creates a difficult situation for scientists, especially in the fields of biology and cosmology. Some will remain religious, but partition their religious ideas away from their scientific knowledge. Others will simply remain silent about the issue, and even “play along,” which is dishonest in my opinion.

    I was raised religious, and freeing myself from it was absolutely a slow and difficult process. I only became confident that the religious claims were wrong after studying the Bible from an unbiased viewpoint, and I only became passionate about the issue when I realized what a harm it was causing not just to science, but society’s ability to simply get along with one another. Claims which lack evidence will only divide us. I can’t say for sure whether or not there is a creator… But I find it troubling that one would either utterly ignore us in all our folly, or worse, endorse a system of worship which divides even further.

  18. Tom Wilson
    Jun 26, 2010

    Jason,

    “I only became confident that the religious claims were wrong after studying the Bible from an unbiased viewpoint.”

    Now who is being naive? The human condition is inherently to have a biased viewpoint.

    Do you really believe that only the faithful can be unfair in their harsh judgments towards those with a different belief system? Frankly, I detected quite a bit of acrimony between the Hoyle steady state folks and the George Gamow Big Bang Bunch. I bet Fred didn’t invite Ralph Alpher to lunch very often. The enemy isn’t the belief system it’s intolerance. Skeptics can be as intolerant as anyone, so can religious people.

    Rob,
    The difference between religious faith and “crystal healing and any other superstition” is the content. Mother Theresa comforted the dying pariahs of India. Gandhi brought about non-violent social change and following his footsteps, Dr. Martin Luther King led African Americans out of the slavery of Jim Crow and all of us out of the slavery of racism. These ideas and actions were not informed or inspired by a physics text-book nor were they performed by a Crystal Healing Charlatan.

  19. Bing
    Jun 26, 2010

    Wow. That astronomy exam is evidence against intelligent design.

    Anyway, I have taught critical thinking at the college level with a focus on woo for some time, and the one thing that has come up over and over as a barrier to learning is personal experience. Let me give you an example. I had a great senior engineering student who had put off his freshman writing class until the very end. He was a better student, a great contributor and an all-around dream student. One week we were talking about evidence, and I had chosen faith healers. He did not appreciate how I talked about faith healers, because he had SEEN them work in his church. In the spirit of inquiry which brings people to college, I asked him what his fellow congregation members had been cured of. He didn’t know. Did a doctor evaluate them before and after the “intervention”? No. Did he see a medical record any data that could have conclusively demonstrated that the only possible reason that someone had healed was because of a miracle (doesn’t it stop being a miracle when you can summon it at will?), he said no. And despite all of that, he had been convinced and being convinced in itself is very convincing. I suspect that he thinks he defended his position well. You can’t argue these emotions. I’ve stopped trying, I’ll just be happy if a couple of my former students vaccinate their kids, god forbid they should spawn.

    Tom,

    King is really not remembered for his religious sermons. He’s remembered for his political positions. As is Ghandi. Mother Teresa, as far as I can tell, was a pain junky and was about as useful to the dying as love crystals would have been. Don’t turn a blind eye (though I know this was not the point of your post) to the big naughty things that religion has brought with it either.

    It seems to me that if you start with the null hypothesis, if you build up an understanding of the world from what you can observe (to the best of your abilities), that there are certain forms of thought that you walk away from. Faith was one of these for me. I don’t press it in polite company however, because it makes me tedious.

    HJ

  20. Tom Wilson
    Jun 27, 2010

    “I’ll just be happy if a couple of my former students vaccinate their kids, god forbid they should spawn” (I certainly agree that it is unfortunate that this is the opinion that you have of your students.)

    “King is really not remembered for his religious sermons. He’s remembered for his political positions.”
    (By” King”, I assume you mean the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Baptist Preacher who said “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.” The same Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and Founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who based his entire non-violent philosophy and method on his religious beliefs.)

    “Mother Teresa, as far as I can tell, was a pain junky and was about as useful to the dying as love crystals would have been.” (That’s not skepticism, that’s cynicism. No she didn’t prevent them from dying but she prevented them from dying as an unloved, cast-off piece of dung. I assume there is good scientific method behind your ability to read into the hidden base motives of one of the most admired women of the twentieth century.)

    “if you build up an understanding of the world from what you can observe (to the best of your abilities), that there are certain forms of thought that you walk away from. Faith was one of these for me.”
    (Yes we can all see what an unbiased world-view you have constructed.)

    “Don’t turn a blind eye (though I know this was not the point of your post) to the big naughty things that religion has brought with it either.”
    (Nor should you turn a blind eye to the atrocities that have been justified in the name of science like eugenics which was used to justify murder on an unprecedented scale. In both cases, however, those perpetrating these acts are invoking the name and not the content of their justifying paradigm).

  21. Jason
    Jun 27, 2010

    Tom, you may be right that my use of the word “unbiased” was not the best choice. My point was that I think most religious people turn to page 1 and say “this is divine word” rather than “is this divine word?” Actually, I think most religious people probably haven’t really read the Bible at all. Considering what’s in the Old Testament, I truly hope that’s the case.

    Also, a system of belief without evidence breeds intolerance. The believer of such ideas has no rational means of supporting them, so historically they have been spread through indoctrination, fear, and violence. There can and will be disagreements and disputes among scientists. That’s just human nature. The scientists, however, have a peaceful way to resolve a debate: Provide the best evidence for an idea. The endeavor involved benefits humanity rather than harms it.

  22. eeanm
    Jun 27, 2010

    I think you kind of distorted the original story to make it more dramatic. Now with the clarification it sounds kind of like what I thought it was really about: typical poorly worded question + unsympathetic professor. I really don’t see the cultural war.

  23. Tom Wilson
    Jun 27, 2010

    Jason, your second paragraph is the key to finding common ground between us. It is not the epistemological or belief system that is the enemy here, it’s intolerance and ignorance. If we want to educate religious people about the wonders of our universe, from ULIRGs to Australopithecus, then it’s probably best not to start with “Well, first, your entire world view is totally bogus and completely incompatible with what I’m about to tell you.” This is not just because the approach is ineffective, which it is, it’s because it’s incorrect. While a vocal minority of Christian believers fall into the “young earth” category, many, perhaps most do not fall into this category. I think it is more important to find areas of common ground and exploit those than it is to engage in winner-take-all fundamentalism of any kind, scientific or religious. Remember the Big Bang theory (that was Fred Hoyle’s pejorative name for it) was first proposed by the Catholic Priest, Georges Lemaitre. Belief is not incompatible with rigorous scientific inquiry.

  24. Bing
    Jun 27, 2010

    re: My students. You are way out of your league, little man. Don’t even. And your snark is lame because it has nothing to do with anything I said. Big word-understanding fail.

    re King:
    And yet, Tom, he is remembered as a social reformer. I could give a flying flophouse about his religion. His motivation, religious or otherwise, does not enter into it. Social justice is not exclusively the realm of the religious. He could have been a plumber or a ghost hunter. Or a ghost hunter who was also a plumber. If it was primarily his priestly ministry he was remembered for, we’d be commemorating the weddings he performed.

    Re: Mother Teresa. What scientific method do you have that she acted out of love? (Here’s your petard. Go hoist yourself.) She loved setting up convents far more than she loved distributing antibiotics. I’m at a loss to come up with a better explanation for her actions. But love, as evidenced by any demonstrable act that would indicate it helped her charges heal, is right out. Are you really going to commit yourself to an ad populum?

    I never claimed to have an unbiased worldview, or even considered for a second that it was even possible for such a perspective to exist.

    RE: Eugenics. Ho-hum. There are amoebas on Enceladus who know that eugenics is not science but rank pseudoscience. Of course, almost all pseudoscientists think that they are not only scientists, but far more sciencey than scientists. (I’m reading Martin Gardners classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science right now, and he really hammers home that point.) There is no moral status of fusion (or evolution, for that matter) and it is not a moral or immoral thing to investigate the universe in ways that do not hurt people. But there are forms of religion that require things like the extermination of infidels, bizarre taboos, deeply ingrained social inequalities, and the snipping off of fun bits. It’s actually immoral to not do these things. You are comparing apples and tumors–eugenics and science are two completely different affairs.

    HJ

  25. Tom Wilson
    Jun 27, 2010

    Bing,

    You excel only in bile. Have a nice life!

  26. Tom Wilson
    Jun 27, 2010

    My first reaction was that your vitriolic responses were not worth responding to but I just refuse to let you intimidate me into silence.

    —–“My students. You are way out of your league, little man. Don’t even. And your snark is lame because it has nothing to do with anything I said. Big word-understanding fail.”—–

    I’m not the one who attacked your students, you are. I’m not sure what your last sentence fragment means but I’m pretty sure the “little man” comment is an ad-hominum attack that I dare-say has nothing to do with reasoned argument and everything to do with the rhetorical equivalent of a rabbit-punch. Since I see you are pretty egalitarian in your distribution of bile, I am not insulted but rather uplifted to be in the good company of those that you debase.

    —-If it was primarily his priestly ministry he was remembered for, we’d be commemorating the weddings he performed¬”—-

    Yeah, I get it. Dr. King is best remembered as a social reformer… by you. But what you don’t seem to get is that social reform was his ministry more than any wedding he ever performed. And yes, he strongly believed that the role of a minister was at the forefront of social change, he promoted this belief tirelessly. He delivered speeches encouraging pastors to be active and at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement as a moral imperative emanating from their Christian Faith. The first premise of Dr. King and everything he stood for was Christianity.

    —“Mother Teresa. What scientific method do you have that she acted out of love?”—-

    You’re the one who claims to know the internal motives of Mother Theresa, in fact your whole argument stems from your supposed clairvoyance. I simply pointed out that the people who were dying were treated with love and therefore better off because of her efforts. Perhaps my word should have been kindness which is more definable and observable. Do, I think that religious people have a monopoly on love and kindness? No. I also do not think they have a monopoly on justifying cruelty and intolerance in the name of their beliefs.

    —-“RE: Eugenics. Ho-hum. There are amoebas on Enceladus who know that eugenics is not science but rank pseudoscience.”—-

    Besides the fact that those amoebas are probably on Europa, the same argument can be made by Christians to excuse all the “big naughty things that religion has brought with it.” The whole point of my last sentence was to acknowledge that the name of Science or the name of Religion can be invoked to justify horrible deeds but that this is a hijacking and does not accurately reflect the content of the hijacked paradigm.

    So to restate my argument:
    The difference between religious faith and “crystal healing and any other superstition” is the content. Mother Theresa comforted the dying pariahs of India. Gandhi brought about non-violent social change and following his footsteps, Dr. Martin Luther King led African Americans out of the slavery of Jim Crow and all of us out of the slavery of racism. These ideas and actions were not informed or inspired by a physics text-book nor were they performed by a Crystal Healing Charlatan.
    It is the content that distinguishes Christianity from Crystal Healing just as it is the rigorous, repeatable method which distinguishes science from pseudoscience.

    As I stated in an earlier post:
    Lemaitre, Collins, and others, should I mention Newton, did very good science while believing in Christianity. I believe that this polarizing scientific fundamentalism is not helpful. Why can’t we just be very rigorous about what is good science and what isn’t? If a religious assumption sneaks into a scientific argument, fine, critique it as bad science, cast it out! But there is no need to declare war on religion or religious belief. It also becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. “Religious people are ignorant of science”! Well, yeah, the polarizing rhetoric drove them from the table!

    That’s why I reconsidered and posted this. I refuse to let your vitriol “drive me trom the table.”

  27. Bing
    Jun 27, 2010

    Tom, you easily offended weirdo (it’s not an ad hominem when it’s a conclusion and not a premise), please point out where I said that a Christian, or any member of any other sect, can’t do good science. It’s OK. I’ll wait.

    And you are now officially the type of tedious I was talking about at the end of my first post. Anything I say to you will be misunderstood, because you have not yet gotten a word right and you will use it to further fuel your indignation. See? There. I just fueled your indignation. Didn’t even mean to (ok, maybe a little).

    (BTW, for all the great achievements that Newton managed while believing in God, he wrote more about biblical hermeneutics than he did about what we would now call science. What a colossal waste.)

    HJ

  28. Derek Colanduno
    Jun 27, 2010

    I have to ask then, are you actually a ‘Christian’ or just a believe in ‘God’?

    Because, those are two completely different things.

    I ask because we have plenty of evidence that pretty much most of what make the Christian faith, what it is…. pretty false.

    But, just a general belief in ‘God’ is something we will most assuredly, never be able to study, or find evidence for or against.

    But, almost everything that makes someone claim ‘Christianity’, has a ton of evidence against it.

  29. Tom Wilson
    Jun 27, 2010

    —“I’ll just be happy if a couple of my former students vaccinate their kids, god forbid they should spawn” —

    —“Mother Teresa, as far as I can tell, was a pain junky and was about as useful to the dying as love crystals would have been.”—-

    —“You are way out of your league, little man”—

    —“you easily offended weirdo” —

    —-“it’s not an ad hominem when it’s a conclusion and not a premise.”—

    And you are now officially the type of tedious I was talking about at the end of my first post.”

    —“I have taught critical thinking at the college level with a focus on woo for some time”—

  30. GreatBigBore
    Jun 27, 2010

    Hey Pamela,

    You said, “Every time a student…gets alienated, they stop learning.”

    I have to differ with you on this. Every time a professor ever alienated me — and there were many, as I am inherently an authority-hater too — it spurred me to argue with the professor, which more often than not forced me to investigate further. It definitely never stopped me from learning.

    If we have to coddle students in order to keep them learning, then we probably are on track for getting the ignorant society that neither you nor I wish to have.

    The point has already been made, but I didn’t see your response to it: would you have written this post if the students had received 0/20 for an answer like “The coming of the Great White Handkerchief to the nose of the Great Green Arkleseizure”? (Hitchhiker’s Guide)

  31. Jason
    Jun 27, 2010

    Tom, I respectfully disagree with your reply to me. I think belief is the opposite of rigorous scientific inquiry.

    I mean, I think we may be living in a multiverse where big bangs are forever producing countless universes. That seems to fit with the same reasoning on why our planet and solar system are suitable for life: Look how many there are! It also fits with the same reasoning on how life can even form to begin with. Across all planets suitable for life, how many different combinations can molecules randomly form until one set has the ability to copy itself?

    I don’t consider this a belief though. I can’t declare that other universes exist besides our own. I don’t have the evidence for that. I would be thrilled if one day we had the evidence to prove this true. Yet I would also be thrilled if one day we had the evidence to prove this false. This is where a religious view would separate.

    We’re all entitled to believe what we want to believe. And we’re not required to conform our beliefs along with the system of scientific inquiry. But when we foist an idea into the public or scientific arena, we can expect scrutiny. No claims can be fenced off and protected. It’s as simple as that.

  32. Tom Wilson
    Jun 27, 2010

    “But when we foist an idea into the public or scientific arena, we can expect scrutiny.

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Jason.

    My only real argument is that as long as the science is sound, I don’t really care about the beliefs of the scientist. My hope is that those differences can be put aside, my fear is that a strong anti-religious, scientific fundamentalism is, in the end counter- productive and unnecessary..

    When they (any they) want to teach any religious belief as science, I will be right there with you opposing it. That’s not good for science or religion!

  33. Tom Wilson
    Jun 27, 2010

    Hi Bing,

    I got to thinking about what you said about the “easily offended” thing and while I don’t agree with the weirdo part, though my daughter may, as I look over my posts and am honest with myself, my tone was inflammatory and for that I apologize.

    And by the way, it is not an ad-hominum fallacy unless it is a premise but it is an ad-hominum attack. Calling someone, little man and a weirdo are definitely ad-hominum attacks.

  34. Robert Meinhofer
    Jun 27, 2010

    It looks to me that most of the commentators missed the point of the article, and simply took the opportunity to take a swipe at Pamela.

    They must also be very smart because their posts have such a high word cou

  35. Will Phelps
    Jun 27, 2010

    I’ll have to agree with Robert, there is a lot of missing the point here. What is it with humans that we can not seem to live and let live?

  36. Stuart
    Jun 28, 2010

    Are you people for real?

    Pamela has written thousands of pages on scientific topics, she has recorded hundreds of hours of podcasts, sat on dozens of panels, and the best evidence you have to impeach her is that she thought a test question was poorly worded. That’s it??? Has Pamela EVER stuck the supernatural into a place where science belongs? Who cares what reason she sticks onto the nanosecond before the start of time, until you have some data, hers is no less valid than yours. And based on her previous writings, I imagine when the data comes, she will follow the data, just like she always has.

    Have you ever had a meal with Dr.Gay? I have had several, and let me tell you, she has never even hinted that she wanted everybody to hold hands and say grace

    And several years ago, I was drafted to run an errand for Dr.Gay, and I can assure you , her car radio is set to the St.Louis NPR station, _NOT_ WGOD (And based on the leaking fuel pump she had at the time, being prepared for the hereafter was a high priority even for this atheist.)

    Why don’t you people go find something useful to do… I hear there are thousands of Galaxy images that need classifying.

  37. John M.
    Jun 28, 2010

    Interesting how all the die-hard uber skeptics here continue to trot out the same tire old slogans that all boil down to nothing more than “God is invisible! I won’t think about stuff that’s invisible!” When the fact of God’s invisibility is clearly laid out and dealt with in nothing less than the Bible itself. Yes, it requires faith. So what, so does believing in Hannibal or Alexander . We have no physical evidence they existed either, just secondhand accounts.

    And no, you don’t have some duty to society to tear down religion because it’s eeeeeeevil. Yes, it’s caused some conflict but not nearly as much as political ambition and a host of other things.

    Right on, Dr. Gay, you’re the most rational person here.

  38. Craig
    Jun 28, 2010

    A wonderful article. Like yourself, Carl Sagan was a true sceptic. He never made fun or ridiculed anyone. He never publically attacked anyone either. Over the years, I have found myself turning away from certain websites run by certain people, as I find the level of smugness, facetiousness and the attacks on people because of their beliefs rude and unacceptable.

  39. Owen
    Jun 29, 2010

    Thank you for this post, Dr. Gay.

    I have a degree in physics. I work at Fermilab as an Accelerator Operator. I am a skeptic. I am a Christian. I do not see a problem with this, but many of my friends and family do (albeit from opposite sides of our socially constructed fence.) It is difficult sometimes, but I do not feel so alone now.

    I think that to say more would be to echo things that you have already written. Simply know that you have made my day a bit brighter. Thank you, again.

  40. John Sanford
    Jun 29, 2010

    I am an Atheistic Skeptic and also a Humanist, though I’m becoming more and more cynical due to our society’s ever increasing divisiveness. Pamela, you have my wholehearted support in believing what you want to just as I feel the support of many that hold my beliefs (or lack of therein). I am fully aware there are people whom just can’t understand my position just as I am at understanding others. I find a form of comfort in this difference. I consciously use this observation to remind me how different each of us is and how important it is we find those things we have in common. Unfortunately many are unable to accept valid observations of the facts, unable to avoid polarizing opinion. Sure, I get my feathers ruffled occasionally but I always return to that position of holding the line on solving the ultimate equation until someone can critically explain the quantity and quality of “Infinity.”

  41. Cthandhs
    Jun 29, 2010

    Thank you Dr. Gay. I love the work that you do, and you certainly don’t deserve to be attacked for your beliefs or anything else.

    Being a Christian or a Deist in Skeptic culture is similar to my experiences being a feminist in nerd/gaming culture. I find myself often in the position of apologizing for “mean” people of my gender/belief set, and listening to tedious stories about how hard it is to be a member of the predominant class in the sub-culture. I am asked constantly to explain or prove my beliefs, and am left with the feeling that I should conform or leave.

  42. Kyle C.
    Jun 30, 2010

    Pamela, I’m so sorry that people seem to have taken this as a chance to criticize your beliefs when they really didn’t even enter into the equation in this case as far as I can tell.

    The point is, as an instructor, if you write a poorly worded question and get an unexpected response that does indeed answer the question you cannot simply say “Wrong, you should have known what I meant.” For example in an introductory astronomy course the following question appeared on my exam (it has been a long time so wording is not exact), “If the human race is continue surviving indefinitely we must explore and colonize other solar systems”. I said true. He was looking for false because we had discussed in class the possibility of adjusting the Earth’s orbit when the Sun becomes a Red Giant. He wanted us to remember this discussion and answer by what we had concluded in class. I pointed out that regardless the Sun will eventually become a White Dwarf, cool, and no longer provide any energy. At this point we would have to leave the solar system. He looked at the question, noted that he said indefinitely instead of referencing the Red Giant phase and threw out the question.

    In Pamela’s post the instructor had asked what do you believe? The students responded with what they believed. By marking their answers wrong, the instructor essentially said “your belief is not valid”. And I agree that scientifically it is not valid. But that is not what he asked. Had you asked “Which of the theories discussed in class…” or “Choose either an open, flat, or closed cosmology and discuss the implications for the end of the universe. Why did you choose this cosmology?” Yes it is a lot of extra wording to elicit the response that you want but remember these are students not the scientific community. A higher level of care is needed.

  43. Kyle C.
    Jun 30, 2010

    Sorry I meant to say “Had he asked…” I know that this was not Pamela’s questions. As far as the other typos…please ignore them!

  44. Jordan
    Jun 30, 2010

    Why does the belief in God constantly get broken into a false dichotomy? Believer vs Athiest.
    I am not so concerned with the range of people who believe there may be a God (up to those who are 100% sure God exists); but I resent the fact that everyone on the other side (from those who are in the middle and are not sure, up to those who are 100% sure there is no God) are automatically given the athiest label.

    In my mind this spectrum if a matter of faith and not science. If you are taking a scienitific approach to the question (which borders on being an untestable hypothesis), the only logical place to be is in the middle, since there is as much evidence proving Gods existance as there is disproving it. Zero.

    To me, a hard core athiest which 100% denies the existance of God is using as much faith (or anti faith?) as their equivalent on the opposite side of the spectrum.

    I guess I would follow the thoughts of Carl Sagan “My view is that if there is no evidence for it, then forget about it. An agnostic is somebody who doesn’t believe in something until there is evidence for it, so I’m agnostic.”

    Skeptism is about science and critical thinking, not faith.

  45. Dana Bostic
    Jun 30, 2010

    Pamela,

    I just wanted to add my opinion that from an outside reader, you have been an inspiration to me. I write a few articles for GeekDad a year and one of the biggest reasons I decided to do that was you. I have listened and read your podcasts and blogs for years. I am not sure it was the first podcast I started listening to, but it was definitely one of them.

    I am also proud to say that I have been an amateur astronomer and Christian since I was very young. Two degrees and many years of work later, I will tell you that I completely agree with most of what you have written. It can be very difficult to stand up for your beliefs and just as difficult to stand up for your science.

    Continue your work, it has been inspirational to many of us.

    Dana

  46. NH Baritone
    Jun 30, 2010

    I find it puzzling that in Kylie Sturgess’ podcast, Token Skeptic, Dr. Gay implores us to aim our criticism directly at Young Earth Creationist Christians rather than at Christians as a whole, yet she has omitted labeling her own belief system. Christianity is admittedly diverse, but beliefs among many of the faithful are abhorrent. Does she include herself in this number?

    For example, many (perhaps most) Christians vociferously oppose gay marriage, women’s reproductive choice, and school-based secular sex education while simultaneously endorsing censorship, erosion of the separation of church and state, and efforts to convert every non-Christian to Christianity.

    Christian faith has been used to bolster & justify each one of these stances, but this does not mean that every Christian automatically adheres to them. Until Dr. Gay clarifies the impact her Christian faith has on her approaches to such ethical matters, we will not know enough to understand what her reprimand of skepticism implies.

  47. Kyle C.
    Jun 30, 2010

    Hi Baritone,

    I have to say I don’t follow your post. As I read it the point of the blog was to say that rigid “atheist vs. religion” viewpoints have presented situations that make teaching science to a diverse group of students more difficult; we certainly don’t need more difficulty in that arena. People’s views on abortion, gay rights, and the other areas you mentioned are not a strict function of religion (and I can’t see how you say most Christians oppose gay marriage). You are essentially saying that, in general, Christians have one set of ethics and non-Christians another. Further without knowing whether Pamela accepts “Christian ethics” or “skeptical ethics” we can’t know whether her comments on atheist-Christian conflicts affecting the classroom are valid. If I am misrepresenting your view please correct me but that is what got out of your previous post.

    For me, I don’t care if Pamela has a basement full of kidnapped children her point that outside battles of any kind should not have an effect on the teaching of science in the classroom is valid and all educators should be cautious and make sure that personal bias’ do not enter into teaching/grading policies. (Though if there is a basement full of children maybe someone should let them out!)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Is Pamela Gay’s christianity pertinent to a discussion of Skepticisim? « Griffith University Society for Skeptics and Freethinkers Weblog - [...] Pamela wrote the following post here: [...]
  2. Faith in the science classroom « Reasoning with Uncertainty - [...] should one handle a faith-based answer on a cosmology exam? On the one hand, Pamela Gay argues that dismissing…
  3. Episode Twenty-Seven – On Separation Between Scientific Truth And Belief – Interview With Dr Pamela Gay | Token Skeptic - [...] Truth and Belief’. This is a very current ‘news’ item online, involving a blog-post written by Dr Pamela L.…

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