Separation between Scientific Truth & Belief

Posted By Pamela on Jun 25, 2010 | 154 comments

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.


  1. I don’t think acknowledging the lack of evidence for something is enough to call oneself a skeptic, if you choose to carry on believing in it anyway. Or at least that doesn’t fit with anything I’ve seen of the skeptic movement.

    Also if you’re set an exam in a science class then it should be pretty obvious a question (even a badly worded one) about the end of the universe is looking for a scientific answer.

    (good post overall mind you)

  2. I’ve never commented before though I read here and love Astronomy Cast, but I had to come out of hiding and say thank you for this post. The science-faith culture wars disturb me greatly, and I am so glad to see people talking about the topic.

    I wish more folks on both “sides” could see that it is possible for the two to coexist.

  3. For some religious people who think they don’t like science’s conclusions, I find that saying that God must be very complicated, and then ask them if God created the universe as it is, shouldn’t we work to understand it as part of his message to us? If so, isn’t denying what we observe against God?

  4. I’m glad you brought this up. I recall some moderately uncomfortable Facebook talk over this a while ago.

    “skepticism is a proper subset of atheism: that is, not all atheists are skeptics but all skeptics are atheists”

    As stated, that is bad logic. You’re right.

    However, if you apply skepticism to religious beliefs, the only logical endpoint is weak atheism. Strong atheism is a different matter, but as you yourself have acknowledged, there’s no evidence. There’s only belief and the hope of existence.

    You can hope a god exists, sure, and I think that may be what you’re getting at, but you can’t do what most theists do and claim that a god really, actually, certainly exists despite the lack of evidence.

    You *can* be a skeptic and still have religious beliefs, but you need to apply skepticism selectively. Hell, I know “skeptics” who have odd alt-med beliefs, deny global warming and believe UFOs are visiting the earth right now. I know a few who will happily allow that 9/11 was a government conspiracy.

    None of these things necessarily detract from their specific skepticism on specific subjects, but their generic skepticism is out the window.


  5. Great post and thanks for sharing your thoughts so openly on such a potentially tense issue.

  6. Your stance on this is one of the things I really respect about you. I think that the problem of friction comes in when the religious or “scientific” sect regard their text as the complete and perfect description of what is.

    I went to a Catholic school (Christian Bros.) and I distinctly remember having numerous debates with the “Brothers” as to the origins of the universe. There was never the air that the universe was created by magic but rather that God used the physical world that we are just beginning to understand to create what we see here.
    We were taught that Genesis is an illustration not a perfect description. I think that fundamentalism is just that regardless of the banner it uses to justify itself and nothing more. Just as the early astronomers were astrologers so the early priests were the first physicists trying to understand the world and how it worked. No sane person should be using a c.3000 year old physics textbook

  7. “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.”

    Very well put, Pamela. To me, this is the difference between an open and closed minded person. I can’t see how you can categorically subscribe to one system and not the other. I believe that science and religion can not only co-exist, but perhaps are entangled.

  8. It is a bit frustrating that skeptics tend to use their skepticism as a case for hard atheism, you are not the first to try and point out that the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. (There is a fabulous episode of Skepticality with Hal Bidlack about being a “Skeptic of Faith” – #57)

    I can understand how a person can choose to believe one unfalsifiable (or not yet falsified) idea over another, humans do it all the time – and this is how I see someone’s belief in God. The problem is when someone takes it a step further and starts making claims about that God (for example, calling yourself a “Christian” has implications) – I don’t know how anyone that has taken the time to be critical of their belief (definition of a skeptic), can claim anything specific about the nature of that belief.

    I don’t think this makes you incapable of doing great work (you obviously do) – it only makes you inconsistent (just like the rest of us).

    Great post.

  9. I came across a great soundbyte the other day. I just drove from Nashville to British Columbia, and survived the drive by listening to audiobooks. One was “Interred With Their Bones”, by Jennifer Lee Carrell. One part of the plot took place in the early 17th century; a Catholic Priest (originally from England, but trained in Spain as there were issues with Catholicim in England in the late 16th century) was with a Spanish expedition in what is now Arizona.

    At one point, the priest lost his Bible. (There were conflicts with the natives.) This made many of the others who felt spiritually adrift without his leadership very nervous. He decided to tell them that another book he had was his own personal Bible, and that he would start using that. He could “read” from it by reciting passages from memory. He was disturbed when many of them wanted to touch the ‘bible” or some such, thinking that they were becoming too bound to the magical powers of a specific object.

    The quote was something to the effect that he was worried that they were replacing reasoned devotion with blind superstition.

    It’s very common amongst the hard atheists to claim that there’s no difference between astrology and the great world religions– that being a Christian is no different, effectively, from belving in the teapot orbiting betwen Earth and Mars. This is of course a horrible straw man put up by people who don’t seem to be able to accept that there is knowledge other than pure scientific knowledge, and that there can be reason, thought, and scholarship outside of the pure scientific method. But it’s very true. Just because you don’t undersatnd something doesn’t mean that it’s all crap. And there IS areal difference between the religious faith fo somebody like Pamela, and things that really are crap, like astrology or creationism.

  10. Also if you’re set an exam in a science class then it should be pretty obvious a question (even a badly worded one) about the end of the universe is looking for a scientific answer.

    The specific question here, though, was not a good scientific question. Before 1998, there really was no strong scientific evidence as for how the Universe would end. And, of course, even now, it’s very strongly in doubt, but many scientists would say that the most likely ending is the “heat death”, of everything becoming really spread out, and our local supercluster (the only things dark energy won’t eventually rip out of causal contact from us) using up nuclear fuel until everything is in some sort of cold uniform state (depending on the details of physics things like proton decay that we don’t really know about).

    Today, we can give a scientific answer. In 1996, some people could have given a reasoned scientific answer. But for students in a class– the best they could so is enumerate the “three possibilites” (open, flat, closed), and say that there’s no evidence which line we’re on. (Of course, we’re not on any of the lines that were taught in those classes.) But the question seemed to be phrased asking the students to pick one of the three. And that’s not scientific. It may have been designed to get the students to demonstrate knowledge about the three possibilities for the future of the Universe, but if so, it was a very poorly written question. It was asking them to make a choice that they simply could not make for good scientific reasons… and, once it’s done that, then it’s really made hash out of the things.

    Perhaps a better way to write the question would have been something like, “Given what we’ve studied about Cosmology, which of the possibilities for the end of our Universe do you find most compelling or most likely, and why?”

    Demanding that students read between the lines and ask a different question from what is written is very unfair.

  11. Well put (or as we say hereabouts, “Preach it, sister!”). “The modern culture wars between the New Atheists and Young Earth Creationists are getting in the way of teaching science.” Yes – how many of us find ourselves choosing words very carefully in classes so as not to trigger irrelevant reactions from either direction? Galaxies develop so they don’t evolve. One student walked up on the first day of an Astro 101 class to ask whether there would be any evolution in the course. I almost said that any appearance of new organs, gills, extra limbs, would be cause for expulsion from the class. On the first day of class I tell them that I’m a Christian who has no problem if the Universe is ~14 Gyr old – it is or it isn’t, and I am concerned not with what they believe on the matter but that they understand the relevant evidence. (Oh, and – Hi, Rob!)

  12. I am very warmed by your very literate and thoughtful essay, coincidentally because it parallels my own position exactly, I suppose. Very well said.

  13. Since when is there a test for the title, “Skeptic”. There certainly is no religious test!

    While I am certainly an atheist and consider myself a skeptic, I don’t think that atheist is either necessary or sufficient for considering yourself a skeptic.

    If a person were only to take up the mantle of skeptic for a sincere examination of a single important issue (like Homeopathy, Young Earth Creation or Anthropogenic Global Climate Change) wouldn’t that be enough?

    Instead of determining an acid test for being a valued member of the “skeptics movement” shouldn’t we be looking to encourage more people to use critical thinking in their daily lives? Isn’t the path to that goal through the application of critical thinking and the scientific method to one important issue as a start?

    Pamela, I think you’re wonderful for not only communicating the wonder and value of science to so broad an audience, but for so freely sharing yourself with all of us in such a personal and eloquent way.

  14. As the atheist of the Astronomy Cast team, I don’t find any compelling evidence to believe in God. And like Pamela, I certainly draw the line when a person uses scripture or belief to make evidence statements about the nature of reality.

    I think the weak atheism position is the only defensible one, and the one I typically take in an argument (tell me what you believe, and give me evidence on why I should believe it too).

    But Pamela is really a model of how the religious can interact with the rest of the world. She has private, personal beliefs, which are impossible to prove or disprove with evidence – you can’t help how you feel. And she has never used her religious beliefs to influence to science underpinnings of Astronomy Cast.

  15. As a non-believer, I have to applaud your sentiments, and I’m pleased to see most of the comments here are supportive. I personally believe that I can know nothing meaningful regarding the nature and/or existence of a creator. In other words, I claim a carefully studied and cautiously approached position of profound ignorance. Zealotry on behalf of either atheism or belief is at best irritating to me, and at worst, terrifying.

    Well said, and thanks.

  16. Pamela, I love this post. I am an agnostic atheist but have been various flavors of Christian in the past, including several years as a very conservative fundamentalist. I think this experience gives me a valuable perspective from both sides. If anything, it’s taught me that I can be completely convinced yet dead wrong.

    I agree that the New Atheists and the Religious Fundamentalists tend to talk past each other without listening, which totally frustrates me. Too many people assume that X necessarily implies Y and then Z. Humans are deeper than that.

    I think the world needs more reasonable voices like yours. More people who are willing to listen, consider, and then finally to speak in pursuit of better mutual understanding. I was already a fan, but I’m becoming even more so whenever you write posts like this one.

  17. Thank you for your well stated thoughts. This is something my husband has dealt with for years. He continues to struggle. I have listened to his thoughts and watched him cry. He started me listening to astronomy cast some time ago. He values your opinion as a scientist. I too value your opinion and add that you are compassionate, as well.
    Thank you, again.

  18. As the author of the post that inspired the post, I feel somewhat compelled to comment.

    To some extent, I think you’ve misrepresented what I said, or at least it’s implications. I am a skeptic of the academic school, and if you define skepticism according to that school of thought, all skeptics are atheists, or will be when they think about religion skeptically. That’s a category definition, and redefining the category to include all scientists doesn’t create a logical contradiction, it creates a conflict of definitions.

    But that isn’t particularly important. The important thing is that your position, as written here, is the unofficial position of the face of skepticism. It’s what many popular skeptics claim they believe. And I wrote my blog post because I believe that this claim is not an honest one.

    Mainstream skeptics have no problem mocking Christianity or any other religion. They enjoy it, and they do it often. So in what sense are they actually, actively supporting this position that skepticism includes religious people? It seems cruel and wrong to me to tell you that you are in the in-group, whatever that may be, and then mock your beliefs.

    And I think that if more skeptics acknowledged their true position, they might be more sensitive to how they treat you in particular and other religious allies in general. I could be wrong.

    The thing is, I disagree with you about science and morality. I think that good and evil are objectively discernable and scientifically explorable. I disagree about the nature of belief and the relative reasonableness of believing that other physical beings likely exist and believing that non-physical beings do exist. If I have a philosophical in-group, you aren’t in it, because we simply don’t share the same standards of belief.

    But I’m not a Christian. I don’t share your deeply held beliefs. If you’re right, I will burn in hell for all eternity. So I’m not in your philosophical in-group either.

    What I don’t understand is why that should somehow preclude us from being friends and allies. I don’t think that “skeptic” is some kind of badge or accolade, it’s just a philosophical position. You don’t have to be a skeptic to be wonderful.

  19. Oh, and one last thing: I’ve never heard a skeptic condemn you. Especially not me. Just in case that isn’t clear to your audience, allow me to quote from the blog entry in question:

    “If there were more people in the world like Pamela Gay, the world would be a much better place.”

  20. Just to clarify (and I’m updating my post), I quoted Seth’s post because he said something articulately that inspired me to write something in parallel, not in reaction. Seth wrote something that really touched me.

  21. Great post…it is dangerous when either side lets an issue polarize them and not realize that its a complex world out there. Both science and religon need to embrace complexity… thats the key to dialog.

  22. Have you not considered the possibility that people who belief in things without evidence get in the way of science education ?

    Once you accept that belief without evidence is not idiotic in the C21st century then how do you get to deny the creationists their beliefs ? They have no more evidence for their beliefs than you do for yours, and yet you think they are being unreasonable.

    The “New” Atheists, a bad term to use since it indicates an ignorance of philosophy as there is nothing new about “new” atheism) simply point out neither creationists, nor you have evidence for your beliefs about god.

  23. I’m afraid I have to say that this is a pretty silly post. There is a discussion ongoing at pharyngula about it and I made the following contribution.

    I predict Pamela will come to regret her post. It really does betray a staggering blind spot which PZ has mercilessly exposed.

    This thinking is part of the same continuum that leads to “teaching the controversy” or “equal time for all theories of origins”. The end game of such muddle is the gasthly rats nest of deciding what qualifies and what doesn’t, a problem wonderfully highlighted by the Dover trial. We’ve settled on science to make these distinctions because nothing divides the sheep from the goats as neatly as the rigorous application of the scientific method. Deep down, Pamela knows this applies across the board, and I’m betting we’ll see some furious backpedaling soon.

  24. Pamela, I’m a huge fan of astronomy cast and must say that I had no idea of your personal convictions prior to this post. You’ve done a good job of sticking to the science.

    However, regarding your anecdote of the professor’s poorly worded question and the student’s response, I quite disagree with you. The question was clearly poorly worded, but that should not give the student a free pass to put in any half baked idea that pops into their mind. I’m curious what you would have proposed as an alternative to awarding no points? How could a science professor award points to a question that reflects no mastery of the information presented in the course? To award any points would be ludicrous.

    P.Z. has a post discussing this, and I have to say, I think he nails it.

    Regardless, I can’t wait for the next Astronomy Cast!

  25. “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).”

    Now replace a few words:
    This is false logic. Being a skeptic does not preclude a belief in HOMEOPATHY. 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 HOMEOPATHY).
    Although I have no problem with religious people being skeptics, this does not mean that the skeptical community should tiptoe around religion any more than it should tiptoe around homeopaths because some skeptics may believe in it.
    I am very disappointed to see a fellow skeptic come to the side of students who were so thick that they decided they could give an unscientific answer in a science classroom, regardless of how poorly the question was phrased. If they had answered that they believed the universe would end imminently unless the Doctor could find a way to destroy the Dalek reality bomb, I doubt you would have any sympathy for them.
    Or perhaps you would, in which case you would be a lousy educator, however, unfounded beliefs or not, I hold you in much higher regard than to assume that.

  26. On the plus side I’m listening to your podcast for the first time. No one doubts you’re a great astronomer and podcaster; even those savaging you over on pharyngula.

    Hey! Did you plan this!?

  27. Sorry, you lose. You believe in God. That makes you an idiot, not a skeptic.

  28. This is lighting up the “Pharyngula” blog with a passion. Let me see if I understand this correctly. A student answered a question on a science exam with a religious answer. No credit was given, and you wrote a blog post regarding this travesty.

    There are multiple embarrassingly unintelligent points in what you wrote; it would be trivial to go point-by-point and illustrate each flaw. Unfortunately that would be way too long for a readable comment. So here’s one: You said, “they weren’t allowed to believe in the second coming of Christ, at least not if they wanted to get a good grade.”

    Who said they weren’t allowed to believe in whatever they want? These students’ beliefs in the Rapture does not translate into credit on a science exam. Rapture != Science exam credit, see how that works? Is it the professor’s fault that they believe something that does not reconcile with science? Your comment that the instructor does “not allow them to believe” is patently untrue and a brazen distortion of the facts.

    This is real simple: 1) They can believe whatever they want. 2) To get a good grade, they need to correctly answer questions on the material covered.

    Fun thought experiment: I am given a cosmology test, and I answer all questions with Biblical responses, based on my undergrad studies in Sunday School. In Dr. Pamela Gay Science 101, I would get partial credit without even knowing what the class was about. In other words, any Christian gets an automatic percentage for non-answers. Does she provide the same credit handicap to Muslims, Mormons, and Hindus? I happen to believe that the world will end when the Hindu turtle holding the earth topples over. Partial credit, yes?

    It’s appalling to think that you actually grade real students’ test results. “Exhibit A” for why religious people have a built-in conflict of interests when teaching scientific concepts. If they could keep their hands off the mysticism there would be no problem, but this discussion shows that might be difficult for them to do — here we have one PhD publicly stating that she would have given credit for Bible answers. *shudders*

    You ended this off-the-charts post with the statement: “But I am a human who can have beliefs, and having them doesn’t harm my ability to…teach science”. If a student can give a response of “Goddidit” and receive science credit, I wholeheartedly disagree with your assessment of your teaching abilities and neutrality.

  29. Suppose the question in the exam was “How do you believe the universe came into existence”
    And the answer was 6000 years ago , God created it in 6 days, how many points would you expect said instructor to have awarded? And if the students came to your office and said how angry they were and how they get angry when they see the textbook , what would your response be? And how does it differ from the example you are giving?

  30. As PZ says, if the answer had been ;

    “The universe will end in the Smurf Apocalypse, when Gargamel uses his powers to make all the stars explode to make a cosmic Smurf barbecue”,

    Would Gay or any of you who are defending her position then be arguing that it is an answer appropriate to the question? I think not, you would all give that person a 0 .

  31. Firstly i must say that as a sceptic and an atheist I do not hate you or think that you are an idiot as at least one of your moronic commenter’s thinks.

    However If i were a member of an astronomical society and asked you to come and give a talk on the end of the universe or how the world will end, I am certain that you would arrive and give an interesting astronomical talk and not a religious discussion of revalation and end of times.

    The two students you mentioned were either stupid or decided that they could take advantage of the poorly worded question to express their religious views in science class without consequences. In an astronomy exam, no matter how poorly worded the question I would expect an answer based on material obtained during tuition and not from church.

    Respect should be earned. Having followed you since the early days of Slacker Astronomy I respect your scientific views and your knowledge of astronomy. I even respect your right to hold your christian views.

    However revalation has no more place in an astronomy class than Creationism has in a biology class and i think your support of these two students was misguided.

  32. Dr. Gay,

    You are a scientist — a well-respected one and, by reputation, a good one.

    You are also a Christian, and — by your own description — Christianity is a vital part of your life and the way you understand the world.

    May I suggest? Apply the same intellectual rigor you know to be vital in your studies of the heavens to what you believe about Jesus.

    Specifically, start with a Theory of Jesus. Was he, as the Bible claims, the human incarnation of the god who created the universe, who was crucified and resurrected and all the rest of the story? Was he a mere mortal with a devoted following, as some Christian apologists suggest to skeptics? Or did he fit some other model, such as the bizarre one I heard once about him being a rebel commando leader when the Romans sacked Jerusalem towards the end of the first century?

    I am confident your theory will be self-consistent. That is, you would not propose that Jesus was a mere mortal conjurer / mentalist / inspirational speaker, but at the same time insist that those who believe in his divinity will gain salvation and life everlasting.

    As you full well know, a theory is only the beginning. Once you have your theory, the scientific method demands that the theory be tested by evaluating it against verifiable evidence. Short of building and using a time machine, there aren’t any objective experiments I can imagine to test a Theory of Jesus, but that shouldn’t faze you as an astronomer. Instead, you merely need to examine the historical record of ancient texts and artifacts — the terrestrial equivalent of the lightspeed-delayed observations you make through a telescope.

    But there’s a catch. The Bible is *not* the only source of surviving evidence from first-century Judea. There is, in fact, a wealth of evidence.

    Some of that evidence, mostly dating to the second century, is often cited by Christian Apologists as evidence for an historical Jesus, and usually just for the simple fact that it mentions him by name. Two of these that deserve special attention are Lucian’s account of the death of Peregrinus and the letters of Pliny the Younger. I encourage you to read them for yourself, but not just the one- or two-line excerpts Christian apologists typically quote. Lucian’s entire account is short, as are Pliny’s letters. Is your theory consistent with the way that those authors depict Jesus, Christianity, and early Christians?

    Next, there are (of course) many early Christian authors writing from the second century onward whose works are not included in the Bible — and not just the various heretics. (On the subject of heretics, the Ophites deserve a mention.) These early Christians were obviously much closer to the source; if your theory of Jesus significantly conflicts with what they thought of him, that might indicate a serious problem with your theory. In particular, read what Justin Martyr, the original Christian apologist, wrote in his dialogue with Trypho as well as his Aplogies. Be sure to read the whole of his First Apology, and don’t let your eyes glaze over in chapters 20 – 30. (Each chapter is but a paragraph; this isn’t “War and Peace” that you have to contend with.)

    But most important of all, it is of vital importance that you should examine the writings of the authors who were contemporaries of Jesus so you may gain their perspective on him and the events of the Gospels. For that, I can think of no better source than Philo. He was born in about 25 BCE and died around 50 CE; that is, he was an adult at the time of the Nativity and lived at least a decade after the Crucifixion. He was the brother-in-law (by marriage) of Herod Agrippa. Most of his writings survive to this day, including his account of his participation in a diplomatic mission in 39 CE to Rome to petition Caligula regarding the unjust treatment of Jews at the hands of the Romans. Again, be sure to actually read a representative sampling (if not all) of what he wrote so you may judge for yourself the significance and validity of his works as evidence on the subject.

    Also, consider what sorts of contemporary physical evidence you would expect to be left behind that would be in keeping with your Theory of Jesus. Be sure to compare it with the evidence left behind by other first century figures of comparable stature and influence.

    Almost finally, since by this time you should have a decent beginner-historian’s-level feeling for the First Century, how consistent is your Theory with the “big picture” view of the time? That is, what changes to the arc of history would you expect from a Jesus fitting your description, and does the actual arc of history reflect those changes?

    And, lastly, re-examine the Bible itself in light of your Theory and your now-broader knowledge of history. It is, after all, a collection of the most authoritative documents on the subject. Is your theory consistent with the Bible? Is the Bible consistent with the other evidence you have collected by this time? Are the different accounts of the same events in the Bible consistent with each other? How can you reasonably account for any inconsistencies you might uncover?

    I am confident that, if you perform the investigation I outlined above with the same intellectual rigor you apply to the study of galactic evolution, you will no longer be a Christian by the time you finish. Are you therefore prepared to honestly asses your most cherished beliefs? If your beliefs fail to stand up to critical analysis of the evidence, will you revise your beliefs the same way you would in light of new data from a new NASA telescope or CERN experiment?

    Do you have the same respect and expectations for yourself as the journals you publish in have for your astronomical work?



  33. Pamela,
    The word believe mean “to accept as a fact”. So, it’s an hypothesis. That means it’s open to debate. Either debate your beliefs or abandon them. That’s what science it.

  34. Just read “John Hulls'” comment above where he remarks regarding a “moronic commenter” who thinks Dr. Gay may be an “idiot.” After re-reading my post, I recognized that it might be MY comment he is referring to, as I seem to have the highest negativity ratio so far. Looking through my points again, it definitely sounds harsher than I intended, and for that I apologize. If it were my blog and someone had written my comment, I would be highly offended. Sorry.

    I want to add a more respectful addendum to my original post, specifically regarding my statement about Dr. Gay’s teaching abilities. It definitely was out of place to pass overgeneralized judgment regarding her ability to properly instruct her students.

    I stand by my original points, however, and still see major issues with the content of the original post. In his comment, John Hulls summarizes my sentiments wonderfully when he says “However revalation has no more place in an astronomy class than Creationism has in a biology class and i think your support of these two students was misguided.”

  35. I’m quite curious how many points the answer “the second coming of Christ” really should earn a university student on an astronomy exam, if not 0.

  36. Hirise,

    No I was not referring to your comment but that of P J Matzig

  37. John Hulls:
    >”No I was not referring to your comment but that of P J Matzig”

    Thanks for posting again to clarify that. I did later see that he had used the word “idiot,” which of course I did not (and never would).

    Regardless, it’s always a good reminder that topics can be debated without crossing the line into ad hominems and insults. And now, back to our regularly scheduled discussion…..

  38. I’m clarifying about the exam above. These were 101 students – non majors – and it was a throw away question meant to get them free points (I might ask about aliens in a similar way). The question should have been thrown out when he saw how people were answering.

  39. So if it was an extra credit question then they didn’t lose any points. And really what student is so upset over not getting the extra credit “that they couldn’t even look at their astronomy book without getting mad”? That sounds really immature.

  40. One more thing: you say he should have thrown out the question. Why? It’s extra credit so they weren’t penalized so by throwing it out he would have been punishing the students that were able to give a response based on the course content.

  41. No, it wasn’t an extra credit question – it was a question put on the exam that was meant to be easy. It meant that they lost 20 points out of the 100 points the exam was worth on an exam where someone else could have written “Flat – because I think most things tend toward the middle” and would have gotten full credit. It was just badly worded. My argument is that when you write a badly worded question, you should remove it from the exam. In dealing with the juxtapositioning of science to humans who are irrational, we need to be specific in how we word things.

  42. > 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.


    Science does offer methods for working with uncertainty. A good scientific answer to the question of alien life can be provided by probability statements, perhaps in a bayesian framework.

    As I see it, open questions are designed to test the application of appropriate methodology. Even a completely speculative answer based on totally unreasonable assumptions analysed appropriately is infinitely more useful than the “God did it” explanation.

  43. Ok I see. When you said it was “meant to get them free points” I took that to mean extra credit.

    I agree that it would have been quite reasonable to strike the question, but I don’t think he was unreasonable to award no points.

  44. Andrew, what Dr. Gay is describing is a common pedagogical technique, especially in lower-level classes. When I taught at Mesa Community College, for example, I would sometimes give pop quizzes with the first two of ten questions being, “What is your name?” and “What section of the class are you in?” (or some variation on that theme). Believe it or not, I had students get those questions worng (such as by not answering them) and thereby cheat themselves out of a letter grade on the assignment (usually taking them from average to below-average, or below-average to failing).

    Dr. Gay, while I agree with you that the question could have been phrased better, I have to disagree with you that answering with a response from Christian eschatology deserved any credit. Would you have given credit to students who answered with a description of Ragnarök or the coming of the Great Arkelseizure’s handkerchief? If the question had been about Jupiter’s influence, would an astrological answer deserve credit? If I had asked of my computer science students what their favorite sort method was, should I have given credit to a student who replied with, “Kill them all and let God do the job”?

    In an academic course on astronomy and cosmology, the assumption is that tests will be of the student’s knowledge of astronomy and cosmology. Students so unable to compartmentalize their non-astronomic and non-cosmologic beliefs that they bring them into the classroom deserve to be judged accordingly.



  45. Pamela, one of the services that college should provide is dealing with unfairness and learning how to deal with professors you disagree with without crying to your helicoptering parents.

    I think you did a disservice for those students by not supporting your colleague, who perhaps poorly wrote a question (its real life, shit happens!), but was certainly in his rights to give a 0/20 for an answer to a question that didn’t show any knowledge of course materials.

    Really I think your anecdote was as much about the ‘grade inflation wars’, the self-esteem generation and really it didn’t have much to do the ‘cultural wars’ until you made it so.

  46. What some professor did is a red herring.
    Can we drop it and talk some substance here?

  47. I do have to ask – what religious beliefs would be acceptable answers?

    Any? All?

    Would an answer about Shiva be just as valid?

    More to the point, if you are concerned about the use of the word ‘believe’, how, exactly, do you determine what the student believes or does not?
    To put it another way, if a student who was a self-professed atheist, were to answer that question with “By the second coming of Jesus.” what grade should that student have gotten?
    Would your answer change if you had seen them leaving an evangelical church the prior Sunday?

    This is an astronomy class – an astronomy-based answer was clearly called for. People who argue with their professor by whining ‘But the question *could* mean…” get poor grades, and deservedly so.

    If they honestly misunderstood the question, then they should be upset at themselves for not getting that in an astronomy class, one is expected to learn about…
    really, do I have to spell it out?

    If, on the other hand, they thought that this would be a perfect time to ‘take a stand for Jesus’, then they should be happy with the consequences of the decision. If you rely on Jesus when you’re taking a test about the stars – or when deciding the best medical course for your sick child – bad things tend to happen.
    This information is not new, nor controversial.

  48. An astronomy professor writes a poorly worded exam question. A couple of students give a non-science answer to the question. They receive no credit because they failed to give a reasonable, i.e., scientific, answer to the question. Tthey weren’t penalized for “believing in the second coming of Christ,” they were penalized for giving non-science answers to a science question.

    Theologically their answer was incorrect. The Earth may be destroyed during the second coming (the Book of Revelations isn’t definite on this point) but there’s no reason to believe the entire universe will be destroyed. So the students gave the wrong answer regardless of whether the question was scientific or religious.

  49. In her post, Gay said, “In similar situations I’ll ask, ‘Explain why you do or don’t think life on other planets might or might not exist?'” In a cosmology class, even a 101 class, would she really be ok with students answering something along the lines of, “I think that there isn’t life on other planets because God made humans and our world unique.”? I have friends who hold this belief. What about, “I think there isn’t life on other planets because our planet is the only one with the right spirit.”? Or “I think there is life on other planets because I’ve been abducted by aliens.”? How about, “I think there isn’t any life on other planets because we haven’t found any on any other planets in our solar system.”? Or even, “There is life on other planets because I flipped a coin and it came up heads, and a HEAD is alive.”? If you’re going to put a 20 point question on a science test and you absolutely don’t care what people put (they can put ANYTHING), why have the question at all? Why not just give them 20 extra points?

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