Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Converting Non-Believers to Cosmology?

At the January 2010 AAS meeting, Western Kentucky’s Richard Gelderman
presented the fascinating results of a study where his team took a
group of teachers to the newly constructed and so far well-attended
Creation Museum near Cincinnati (REF 1, 2). He reported that after
attending a tour, he was disappointed to find that, although the
participating science teachers enthusiastically believed a scientific
story of creation more than a faith-based story presented by the
museum, these teachers could not sufficiently describe the scientific
evidence as to why they believed the scientific story over the
faith-based story. You can imagine that this generated considerable
discussion among the meeting attendees, particularly in regards to
whether or not science constitutes a belief system.

Upon reflection about how to better teach future teachers in our
ASTRO 101 courses, it occurs to me that there is a tremendous
difference between helping students learn WHY WE BELIEVE the
scientific story and HOW CAN WE KNOW, SCIENTIFICALLY. As professors,
we can easily teach our students to recite the evidence for biological
evolution and even cosmology simply by providing the stories to them
and demanding them to eloquently regurgitate it back on an exam. This
wouldn’t take too much effort on anyone’s part, albeit annoying
perhaps. And, students might even be able to remember the details of
their memorized stories years down the road, perhaps even to go on to
teach these stories to their children.

Yet, this approach to asking students to memorize a list of
evidence and the story of how we know something suffers from several
weaknesses. First, and most obvious, our students might not remember
the evidence down the road, as we tend to forget things that have been
memorized for purposes of a test. Second, memorized stories can morph
over time, evolving into something different over time. Third, Harry
Shipman and colleagues have written extensively about the nature of
beliefs and how they are well poised to interfere with students’
success in learning astronomy (REF 3). But, perhaps most important for
my nickel, thinking about science as a series of stories asks students
to CHOOSE between scientific-based stories and faith-based stories.
Certainly, as scientists, most of think our stories are more right
because they are based on systemically collected and community vetted
scientific evidence. But, for non-scientists, I submit that this
seeming dichotomy is more about making a choice than coming to an
evidence-based conclusion. To push this notion a little bit farther,
it seems to me that for students facing a choice between stories, the
possibility of some eternal damnation due to non-belief could be
considered to be more detrimental than simply failing a science
course, and could influence their apparent choice.

A potentially more powerful approach to thinking about helping
students better understand emotionally-vectored topics is to consider
HOW CAN WE KNOW rather than WHY WE KNOW (REF 4). In other words,
imagine an assignment where students were tasked to list, IF YOU WERE
WHAT EVIDENCE WOULD YOU ACCEPT? In other words, what about asking
students to propose what experiments they would conduct and what
variables they would need to know to develop a predictive mechanism
for cosmological evolution. I suspect that students might be able to,
using our scientific vernacular instead of theirs, galactic recession.
I doubt that students would spontaneously come up with neither
lithium abundance nor cosmic microwave background. However, it seems
to me that if students have struggled with the question, and even own
a little of the galactic recession, they might be more open to listen
to lithium abundance and CMB evidence. Unless we simply give students
the list of evidence before they have personally struggled to think
about what might be acceptable evidence, students are just as likely
to reject the scientific story as they are the faith-based story.
I propose that a focus on HOW CAN WE KNOW instead of WHY WE KNOW
might look very different across student groups. Consider that
students with different motivations, ethnic backgrounds, experience in
science, and perhaps even gender, might intellectually engage with HOW
CAN WE KNOW differently and emphasize different evidence. I really
don’t know how that might turn out. However, what I can be sure of is
that we wouldn’t be preaching a science story versus a faith-based
story introducing a dichotomy that might interfere with astronomers
reaching their teaching goals.

IMHO, Tim Slater,, University of Wyoming
– Cognition in Astronomy, Physics & Earth sciences Research CAPER
1. Gelderman, Richard (2010) Visiting the Creation Museum with
Teachers: Assessing Obstacles to Learning , presentation at American
Astronomical Society, AAS Meeting #215, #366.07, Washington, DC,
January 6, 2010, Abstract found online at:
2. Creation Museum’s web site is :
3. Brickhouse, N, Dager, Z, Letts, W. & Shipman, Harry (2002) Evidence
and Warrants for Beliefs in a College Astronomy Course, Science and
Education, 11(6).
4. Some of my thinking has been influenced by Oliver, Steve J. (2007),
Independent learning, Intellectual Independence and Reform,
Proceedings of Science at the Crossroads Conference, found online at:


Sanford said...

Science is based upon mathematics and empirical evidence. Mathematics is a collection of arbitrary consistent statements. God is not a scientific concept, as one cannot define the word and it is full of contradictions. Furthermore, Judaism rejects Christian cosmology, for in Judaism the Biblical account of Creation is merely allegory, as no people were present to observe it. See "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better" on amazon.

Mark Stock said...

It is fascinating to thnk about how we deal with such seeming contradictions between faith and science. Faith by definition implies or even requires a certain lack of evidence.

This makes debating the issue even more problematic! :-)