Gaps in Scientific & Religious Education

Gaps in Scientific & Religious Education

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Four years ago, I accepted a unique and non-traditional position combining academic research at the University of Chicago with public education & outreach at the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum. One need look no further than the results of the Third International Math & Science Study to recognize the pressing need to improve science education in the U.S., and I was ecstatic at the prospect of becoming part of a “new breed” of scientist taking more pro-active roles in general science education.

As a girl growing up in a non-academic, lower-middle-class, all-female household in the 1960s & 1970s, my own motivation to become an astronomer was inspired far more by informal, rather than formal, education, so I am well aware of the enormous potential influence of this mode of learning. Of course, I realized there would be much skepticism on the part of the academic community (“‘Real’ scientists stay in the ivory tower.”) and suspicion on the part of the museum community (“What are THEY [i.e. academics] doing here – why don’t they stay in their ivory tower?”), but alas, as a career-oriented mother-of-three, I’m used to living a somewhat schizophrenic life. As it’s turned out, the experience has been far more rewarding than I could ever have imagined.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing an exhibit project that I directed come to fruition. What an incredible experience! While it is immensely gratifying to publish one’s research in a well-respected journal, consider this: A typical research paper is read and cited by an extremely small segment of the population, and is understood and appreciated by even fewer people, but a 10,000 sq. ft. 3-dimensional exhibit at a major museum has the potential of reaching large numbers of people of different ages, cultures, and backgrounds. I say, “has the potential” because, as I have learned, creating an exhibit that can truly speak to many people of different abilities and backgrounds, is probably one of the most challenging endeavors, and humbling experiences, that an academic can attempt.

At the Adler, the process of exhibit development begins with establishing a team consisting of an astronomer (or an historian of astronomy), an educator, and exhibit designers & fabricators. The astronomer (or historian) directs the project and determines the content of the exhibit. Subsequently, the astronomer (or historian) works with an educator to outline a series of primary and secondary concepts that are to be conveyed in the exhibit in such a way that EVERYONE should be able to learn the “big message”, while those people who’ve had some exposure to the subject should be challenged to acquire a deeper understanding. The first thing you learn in working with educators, exhibit designers and developers, and other museum staff, is that there are a lot of intelligent, creative, non-academic types who know a helluva lot more than you do about many things outside of your field of expertise.

Respecting this is the first step in learning how to interpret your field for people outside of your discipline, whether they are non-academics, or academics in different fields of study.

Most important is the realization that eliminating discipline-specific terminology and jargon does NOT mean “dumbing down”. There are few scientific concepts (at least among the “big” ideas of science) that can’t be explained to someone outside your field through an appropriate use of analogies. And if you fail, consider first whether the failure might be due to your own insufficient understanding of the concept before writing off the other person as dim-witted!

Too often, science is presented to the public as an observation (or experimental result), with conclusions drawn from the observation, omitting even the most basic reference to the underlying scientific theory and concepts necessary to understand how scientists got from the observation to the theory; in other words, the process of science. At the Adler, we stress the need for explicitly incorporating the necessary concepts to enable visitors to understand for themselves how science works, and how basic concepts such as “light carries information” and “gravity pulls things together”, can be applied again and again in describing and understanding the cosmos.

Our major goal is to “de-mystify” science and the feeling that science is inaccessible to non-scientists. Our positions as “academic liaisons”, working with teams of people who bring in other talents (not necessarily to create an exhibit), can be used as effective models for other institutions to help improve the lines of communication between scientists and the public.

So where am I going with all of this? I personally see no reason why this “liaison” model couldn’t work for other academic disciplines, as well as discussion across academic disciplines. Increasing specialization in different fields might be pictured on something akin to an evolutionary tree, where children and people with little education form the trunk of the tree, and branches signify various levels of specialization in particular fields. Although highly-specialized people may have attained significant honors in their disciplines, it is a sad truth that they often (not always, but often!) have the most difficulty communicating both with the people “at the trunk” and “across the branches”, since these are the people from whom they are most distant and disconnected. It is difficult not to notice that much discussion across academic disciplines, for example science and theology, often involves far more “talking past each other” than “talking to each other”. It seems to me that some form of “academic liaisonship” will have to be established across disciplines before significant communication can take place. It is truly ironic that there is often such vehement disagreement between people who don’t understand enough of what the other person is saying to even identify “what is the same and what is different” – skills that are supposedly nurtured in early elementary school. Sadly, although education gives much lip-service to “inquiry-based learning”, individual disciplines are generally taught in a very compartmentalized fashion, with little attention given to the methods used by the discipline, and how these methods compare across disciplines.

I was encouraged by a recent article about an innovative group at the University of Washington that received a $1 million grant from the NSF to collaborate with a group of Seattle-area teachers to rework curricula in history and science in favor of process over product (“Path to process: NSF-funded project to enrich history, science curriculum”, by Steve Hill, University Week).

In the new curricula, teachers will ask students to compare and contrast the techniques an historian uses with those of a scientist in order to get at the intellectual processes that underlie both disciplines. Both “talk about an event and a cause and an outcome, but those words mean different things in different contexts.”

The idea is that in teaching across disciplines, the point of entry isn’t the theme, but a deeper level of helping students to analyze what they are doing when they think and build arguments in history and what they are doing when they think and build arguments in science. In other words, what makes those processes both similar and different?

The P.I. on this project (Sam Wineburg) says “The NSF called this project high risk, high gain. No one at the elementary school level has ever, in all the years of NSF funding, tried to look at multiple subjects across the elementary curricula and tried to exploit their differences and similarities in order to sharpen young children’s intellectual capabilities.”

What a shame that subjects such as philosophy and comparative religions are not taught at the pre-college level, using a similar technique! If they were, there would, at least, be far fewer people arguing from ignorance – in both science and religion. A few years ago, the journal “Nature” published an article highlighting a survey in which it was found that far fewer “greater” scientists believe in God, at least in any kind of personal God, than “lesser” scientists – where “greater scientists” were defined as those scientists who’ve been elected to the National Academy of Sciences [1]. The “interpretation” put forth regarding this disparity was that the “greater scientists know better”. The absurdity of this assumption-passed-off-as-a-scientific-conclusion would be laughable were it not for the fact that it should be a source of great embarrassment to the scientist who would make such a claim!

Seeking possible alternate explanations in the spirit of the scientific enterprise, let’s examine some of the personality traits that are compatible with, if not essential to, eventual election to the NAS, such as a very long-term single-minded pursuit of one’s career, often to the exclusion of being actively involved in many other areas of life – family, for example (Now there’s a good explanation for the predominance of men in the NAS – few women have stay-at-home-wives!). Is this life-style typically conducive to spending much time contemplating other mysteries of life? Is it conducive to the giving, often self-sacrificing, life-style espoused by many of the great religions? Could it be, just maybe, that personality, life-style, and, yes, even ignorance of other disciplines, combined with arrogance, might contribute to the metaphysical views of some NAS members?

I recall a particular conversation several years ago with a colleague, by coincidence a member of the NAS. The conversation took place in a restaurant following a colloquium. During dinner, there was much discussion about finding the physicist’s “Holy Grail” – the so-called THEORY OF EVERYTHING. By the time (alcoholic) drinks had been consumed, a dreamy look came over my colleague’s face as he confessed, “What I really want to know is, how does the electron know to obey Dirac’s equation?” I repressed an urge to suggest that if he really wanted to explore that question, he was in the wrong profession… As astrophysicist Sir Martin Rees eloquently points out in his contribution to the book “Many Worlds” [2]: “Theorists may, some day, be able to write down fundamental equations governing physical reality. But no physicist will ever tell us what breathes fire into the equations and actualizes them in a real cosmos.” For a scientist who begins his article by stating that he was “diffident about contributing to a volume with a theological slant, especially as scientists so often reveal themselves as naive in this arena”, Rees seems to have a wonderful sense of the limits of science, as well as a humble approach, from which others could learn.

There is a great need to better elucidate the limits of science in interdisciplinary discourse. Of course, we’re asking some mighty big questions in science these days, and the limits of science are apparently not so clear-cut even among prominent scientist theologians of our time. In his 1990 J. K. Russell Fellowship lecture “God’s Action in the World”, Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne discusses “motivating belief that God is upholder of the world” by examining “what, for science, is the ground of its explanation” – “… the ground rules of science, and not at particular happenings.” He cites two examples of “aspects of the laws of physics which raise questions beyond physics’ competence to answer, issues that almost invariably raise in the mind the feeling that there is more going on here than has met the purely scientific eye.” Polkinghorne’s examples are:

(1) the efficacy with which we can use mathematics to describe the physical universe.
(2) the Anthropic Principle [3].

But aren’t these two examples different “beasts”? Whereas we can indeed speak of (1) as being associated with “the ground rules of science”, (2) may turn out to be yet-another-God-of-the-gaps “gotcha”. I refer to the apparent fine-tuning of fundamental physical constants to produce life in the Universe. The key here is that there is no APPARENT reason why these physical constants must take their empirically-determined values. The explanation of the anthropic principle could be “because God wills the physical constants to be what they are”, OR there could be a yet-to-be-found scientific explanation, as in the proposed “multiverse” hypotheses, that have been labeled “atheistic” by some religious scientists. The label “atheistic” is truly ironic since others prefer a “multiverse” on theological grounds!

In his contribution to the book “Many Worlds”, Fr. George Coyne writes [4]:

“An alternative to invoking a multiverse to explain the anthropic principle of course, would be to invoke God who fine tuned the universe with an intention that there be life. In addition to the fact that from the scientific point of view this is a purely arbitrary answer, from a religious point of view it provides an arbitrary God. God would be somewhat like a master cook whose pinches of salt, sugar, paprika, and other ingredients are just right to produce the pudding – intelligent beings. It appears that this inevitable inclination to a certain arbitrariness in the religious concept of God-Creator could be removed only if the appropriate cosmological model had built into it all that was necessary to explain scientifically the actual combination of physical laws and constants of nature that we observe.”

Are religious scientists being too quick to jump on the “Anthropic bandwagon”? Are we so certain that we have enough of the cosmological details worked out, despite recent discoveries that most of the Universe is in the form of some kind of not-yet-identified dark matter, and the expansion of the Universe appears to be accelerating for some not-yet-identified reason? Don’t discoveries such as these suggest a degree of caution is in order before we repeat the mistakes of history and attempt to force God into yet-another box (albeit a box that grows with the growth of our knowledge!) that reflects our incomplete human understanding of both nature and God?

Having concentrated thus far on the divide across academic disciplines (the “branches”), I will now focus on the non-academic community (the “trunk”). Just as widespread scientific illiteracy reflects the disconnect/divide between scientists, educators, and the general public, widespread theological illiteracy reflects a similar disconnect in religious communities. Since it is the tradition with which I am most familiar, I will use Christianity as an example. Just as there is a general misunderstanding of the scientific process among the public, there is an equally great disparity between mainstream Christian theology and what much of the public believes. I have repeatedly heard that advocates of “creation science” are a small, albeit vocal, minority; however, this claim just doesn’t concur with what I’ve observed.

In a statement on evolution and the science and religion dialogue by Audrey Chapman, Director of the AAAS program of dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion, Dr. Chapman points out that although 15 major religious organizations have written statements supporting the teaching of evolution in public schools, “religious communities typically do not do a good job of disseminating their views… nor have they disseminated widely their statements supporting the teaching of evolution thus the vast majority of their members tend to be aware of the vocal objections of creationists but unaware that their community disagrees very fundamentally with these claims. …in the absence of a more moderate religious voice, the media have come to equate creationism with the position of the majority of the religious community assuming that it is the only and necessary option for biblical theism. Media coverage of the `education wars’ in turn has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy by shaping public perception of the issue and the way in which the overwhelming majority of religious Americans relate to evolution.” [Editor’s note: Dr. Connie Bertka has been named Director of the Program effective October 7, 2002.]

I agree strongly with this analysis – I’ve noticed much suspicion and fear of science in my own church, along with a general impression that the only choices are accepting the “atheistic” scientific paradigm of an evolving cosmos, or “scientific creationism”. Of course, the abuse of science by some scientists to promote particular ideologies doesn’t help this impression, but I think that a large part of the problem is also associated with the way theology is presented to students and congregations in Sunday Schools and churches (or more accurately, not presented). Just as many elementary school teachers (and often junior-high and even high school teachers) are not experts in the subjects that they teach, most Sunday School teachers, though perhaps well-versed in Bible stories, know little theology and theological history. This is in no way meant to disparage teachers. There are many excellent teachers who are extremely knowledgeable in methods of teaching and different learning styles of students – and this is exactly where many college professors often fail! So a way must be found to “marry” the content and the delivery of that content. To use an analogy with science, most Sunday School teachers are ill-equipped to demonstrate how theologians have gone from the “observations” of their field (e.g. Scripture, written history, and religious experiences) to the theory, or model (theology), which attempts to make sense of these observations. This had led to two terribly unfortunate results for religious communities and for U.S. society in general:

(1) Critically-thinking students (the ones who ask all the difficult questions in Sunday School) find themselves dissatisfied with their lack of answers and the way their questions are often dismissed. Such students tend to become equally dismissive of most, if not all, forms of religion.

(2) Wide-spread acceptance of “scientific creationism” among the public, even if this is NOT the official position of their church, threatens to erode the credibility of religious communities.

Both of these consequences are of great concern to me as a scientist-of-faith who is also the mother of three inquisitive young children. “Difficult” questions should not simply be brushed off with a “because it’s written here” response. As this year’s winner of the Templeton Prize, Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, has pointed out: “Faith is not demonstrable, but it is motivated. We believe things for reasons.” These reasons should be elucidated in religious education, and difficult questions should be encouraged and explored “in good faith”. Too often, people underestimate the abilities of young children to think abstractly, a skill important to both science and religion. Finally, we should never forget that an answer such as “I don’t know, let’s think about that question more” is no cause for shame, in science or religion, and is infinitely better than “because that’s the way it is”. It will also earn you a lot more respect from a smart child.

The Templeton Foundation should be highly commended for its efforts in sponsoring interdisciplinary research and discussion in science and religion, but if the only targets of this discussion are the “top branches” of the academic community, there will continue to be a disconnect across different disciplines and between specific disciplines and the public. If the “top branches” can’t communicate effectively, what hope is there for speaking to “Joe & Jane Six-Pack” (and all the little Six-Packs?!), to whom terms such as “epistemology”, “ontology”, and “quantum indeterminancy” are just a bunch of meaningless words spewed out by people who’ve apparently swallowed dictionaries? Let’s be honest with ourselves and admit that even at the top levels, across different disciplines, a similar problem exists because we don’t speak each other’s jargon, and we often don’t understand each other’s methods. I’m sure it would be a very sobering exercise to ask a random sample of people to define terms such as “evolution” and “chance”. I have little doubt that you would get answers as diverse as the people you queried – and I don’t just mean among the lay public. What we read into these terms depends a lot upon the usage in our own fields of expertise, and we don’t often think to question whether the usage is the same in a different field. For example, what we mean by the word “chance” in a mathematical sense is hardly the same as the connotations of “chance” applied in a metaphysical sense, and yet these meanings are so often used interchangeably!

The Templeton course program is a good first-step in interdisciplinary science and religious education, but I’m afraid it doesn’t reach a large enough audience, or emerge far enough out of the ivory tower, to adequately address the disconnect issues. If you direct all of your efforts at the college level, you’re too late. Even many ivory tower dwellers have come to realize this important truth. At a recent meeting, I was astounded to hear a fellow scientist exclaim to a nearby middle-school teacher that “teaching is the most important job in the world”.

And there’s an awful lot of truth in the adage, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” Sadly, most parents and teachers are ill-equipped to help their children explore their own “difficult questions”, and there are few resources to which they can appeal for help.

The major grant-funding agencies for astronomy are the NSF and NASA. Both agencies have been placing increasing importance on the dissemination of scientific research – i.e. education. The exhibit I mentioned earlier was half-funded through an NSF grant. In addition to providing grants specifically for education, many research grants are now required, or strongly recommended, to have educational components. Scientists involved in public education often “display their wares” at meetings, and collaborate with educators to help evaluate what works and what doesn’t. At the Adler, teachers attend workshops to earn certification to teach astronomy or astronomy-related fields. The Astronomy & Education Departments work together to produce curriculum materials in a form that is useful to school teachers and addresses local and national educational standards.

To the best of my knowledge, the principal (possibly only?) grant agency for religious studies is the Templeton Foundation. Since comparative religions, and similar subjects that could potentially be taught at the pre-college level without violating the separation of church and state, are NOT generally taught in the public schools, there may be little way of plugging into formal education in this area outside of local religious communities. The burden may be on religious institutions themselves to better educate their parishioners. Sadly, this loses the interdisciplinary part of the process approach, unless the assistance of people from other disciplines can be recruited. There are certainly compelling reasons for religious communities to be scientifically literate – good stewardship, for one.

Just as it’s impossible to be a good parent without knowing something about your child, it’s impossible to be a good steward of the Earth without knowing something about how the cosmos works. Scientific and technological literacy can also empower the poor. And questions such as “If life were to be discovered on another planet, how would this affect our understanding of God?” at least deserve consideration by religious communities, given that we’ll begin to conduct surveys for Earth-like planets within the next decade. Interfaith discussion would greatly benefit religious communities as well. Contrary to the fears of many, interfaith discussion does not mean that everyone should accept a vague, watered-down, universally-the-same faith. Unity ought to be able to exist with, and benefit from, diversity, but the only way that we’ll ever begin to understand each other is to first establish our similarities and differences.

Returning to my first point, informal education can be a powerful way of reaching diverse audiences across many differences. This is also a place where institutions such as the Templeton Foundation and Centers for Religion & Science might contribute. Apparently, the fundamentalist group “Answers in Genesis” has already figured out the efficacy of this approach and is in the process of raising funds for a multi-million dollar “science” museum in Ohio with its own unique spin. This does not bode well for broadening the public perception of scientific and religious thinking… In his book “When Science Meets Religion”, Dr. Ian Barbour classifies different perspectives on the relationship and interaction between science and religion: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration [5]. While I found this to be a very useful summary of the “product” – the various positions held, I think it is time to ask how one reaches a position in the first place. Before a person can make an informed decision, it is necessary for that person to have some basic understanding of the assumptions and methods in scientific and religious approaches, and the historical development of these approaches. Informal education can take many forms – e.g., museum exhibitry, public radio and television, books, web-based outreach. I would very much like to see the process approach explored using one or more forms of informal education, with an emphasis on questions such as:

What are the underlying assumptions? (e.g. The rationality and orderliness of the cosmos form the basis for scientific investigation. These characteristics also form the basis for the Judeo-Christian understanding of God.) How are the “big ideas” developed? What types of questions concern each discipline the most? How are these questions approached? How are the methods used in science and religion similar? How are they different?

Presently, way too much of the science and religion discussion could be summed up in the “X-Files” slogan, “Trust No One”. I’d much prefer to move ahead in accordance with the other slogan: “The Truth Is Out There”.


[1] Edward J. Larson & Larry Witham, “Leading Scientists Still Reject God”, in Nature, vol. 394, p. 313 (23 July 1998).

[2] Martin Rees, “Life in Our Universe and Others: A Cosmological Perspective”, in Many Worlds, ed. Steven Dick (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press 2000), pp. 61-77.

[3] John Polkinghorne, “God’s Action in the World”, CTNS Bulletin, Vol. 10, No. 2, (Berkeley: CTNS 1990)

[4] George V. Coyne, S.J., “The Evolution of Intelligent Life on Earth and Possibly Elsewhere: Reflections from a Religious Tradition”, in Many Worlds, ed. Steven Dick (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press 2000), pp. 177-188.

[5] Ian G. Barbour, When Science Meets Religion, (San Francisco: HarperCollins 2000).