Science Ignorance and Religious Ignorance – a Bad Mix

Contributed by: Edward Devinney, Ph.D., Visiting Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Villanova University

For a long time, I’ve felt that the US has been heading to a new Dark Age. It started in 1970, when I attended a neighbor’s sponsored opportunity for a Florida US congressional candidate. A main theme was cutting wasteful spending. Of course, the National Science Foundation received special mention, with a supposedly egregious example: a “grant to study the circulatory system of a pig.” At question time I noted that if all of NSF’s small budgets were cut, it would have no significant effect vs. say cutting one percent of military spending. Anyway, I asked the candidate why it might be useful to study the pig’s circulatory system. He demurred, and blanched when I told him it was because of the pig’s great similarity with humans.

Science ignorance has come a long way since that isolated candidate. Now we have scientific ignoramuses in key positions on Congressional science committees. A few years ago, Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) a member of the House Energy Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, in hearings on Climate Change, quoted Biblical sources to prove that mankind couldn’t change the climate – only God could. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, a physicist and Nobel Prize winner, testified at that hearing – but what did he know? Recently Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), a physician and member of the House Science Committee, was videoed informing a church gathering that he’d learned “as a scientist” that “evolution, embryology and the Big Bang” are “lies straight from the pit of Hell.” In this last election, he was re-elected, running unopposed. He has now indicated some interest in running for the Senate seat vacated by Saxby Chambliss (R-GA).

Recently, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) answered a reporter’s question on the age of the universe: that he didn’t know the age of the Universe; that it was a matter for theologians; and that there are “multiple theories” about it that should be taught in schools. This is (literally) idiotic. Cosmologists know the answer based on multiple scientific sources and actual data. But Sen. Rubio did say he was not a scientist. Indeed. But he is on the Senate Science Committee, God help us.

Notes to Dr. Broun and Senator Rubio: The Bible provides an inspiring account of creation by an omnipotent God. But this account is not a scientific theory, nor is cosmology a matter for theologians. There is one cosmological theory of the Universe’s history – the Big Bang. In one of the most dramatic scientific discoveries of the twentieth century, the faint afterglow of the cosmic fireball that marked the beginning of the Universe in a Big Bang was in fact detected, in 1966. The Universe’s age, in particular, has been determined at 13.7 billion years by actual measurements — not the result of coordinated lies from the whole astronomical community. The age so determined is slightly greater than the ages of the oldest stars and estimates of the Universe’s age based on other astronomical data. Theoretical cosmologists also have ideas about how the Universe came into being – from a physical point of view.

So, does this threaten a belief in God? Well, aren’t we just reading the Book of Nature to find out something about how He did it? In cosmology, like all of science, science answers the “how” questions; it does not speak of “why”; it does not provide meaning. For that, we turn to religion, and belief.