The Scientific Method and Religious Faith

No branch of science has been more closely tied to religious beliefs than Astronomy. Once mankind figured out how to create the calendar through ths study of the stars and the Sun, they then wanted to figure out if there was something that the night sky was telling them. The Ancient Babylonians developed a complex study of the positions of the seven wandering objects relative to the background constellations, and connected their positions to significant events. Every major culture had beliefs as to why things happened in the night sky, but it wasn't until the Greeks began to pursue a natural explanation for celestial phenomena that scientific thought was brought to bear on astronomy. While Aristotle and Ptolemy were clearly in error with their geocentric model, they approached their study with scientific discipline.

As you move through the pages of this unit, just like the students in my classroom work through my lessons, one thing becomes repeatedly clear. Astronomy and religion have a tightly interwoven history from Aristotle's writings in 384 BC through the writings of Newton in the 1680s. The purpose of this page is to set the tone for your reading of the history of Astronomy.

1) You are entitled to believe in whatever personal faith you may hold to. This is a central right of the US Constitution, and indeed was a driving force that brought the early Europeans to settle in America. While Minnesota's former governor Jesse Ventura was quoted saying "religion is a crutch for the weak-minded," there are a great many prominent scientists who hold strongly to deeply personal matters of faith. I hope that nothing that I teach from a scientific perspective will offend anyone, nor would it undermine what you have come to believe. For example, I know of many people who believe in a literal 6 day period of creation. Some of these people believe that the Earth is very young. Others contend that it is very old. Both of the afore-mentioned groups believe that a supreme being created everything. While some flatly deny what scientific evidence seems to clearly indicate, others embrace the discoveries of science as insight into how the creation took place. There is room in this class for everyone's opinion, and I intend to be respectful of those opinions and careful in my presentations.

2) The Scientific Method is a process that follows time-honored steps. You are expected to know these steps.

a) A good scientist is one who observes the world and its surroundings

b) A good scientist asks questions about why things that are observed happen as they do

c) A good scientist offers a reason for the observation. This reason is called the Hypothesis. It is based on Inductive Reasoning. Inductive Reasoning is when you offer a potential explanation for an unknown event based on something that you know and that is also related to what your are seeking to explain. An example might be this: "I do not know why ducks fly in the sky in a pattern that looks like a "v." I do know that geese fly in a pattern that looks like a "v" because it minimizes the air resistance for the trailing birds in the flock. Since geese appear to be bigger versions of ducks, perhaps duck fly in a "v" formation for the same reason as geese." This is inductive reason and a reasonable hypothesis.

d) A good scientist then designs an experiment to test the hypothesis. This is the creative part of science. Effort is made to minimize the number of variables that are being tested, which means you try to test only one specific aspect of the question at a time.

e) A good scientist performs the experiment and gathers data. This discipline requires careful observation and meticulous note-taking. Everything needs to be written down because even the smallest detail might play a dramatic and important role in the observed phenomenon.

f) A good scientist studies the results of the experiment and makes a relevant conclusion based on the experiment results. This is called Deductive Reasoning. Deductive Reason is when you offer an explanation based on the evidence you have gathered relative to the hypothesis that you originally proposed. Does the evidence support or refute the hypothesis. It is NOT the place of the scientist to force the conclusion to match the hypothesis even when the evidence clearly indicates that the hypothesis is incorrect, and yet this has been repeatedly done through the years of science.

g) A good scientist will then retest the entire experiment, following the exact same protocol to see the the results happen the same way repeatedly. If so, then it is wise for that scientist to carefully analyze the data with greater scrutiny and apply the methematics of statistical analysis to the results. This involves looking at numbers like sample size, mean values, deviations about the mean, and range. Are the results within a narrow range of acceptable parameters or could random chance account for the observed results.

h) If all has gone well to this point, the good scientist will share the results with other members of the scientific community via a "refereed" journal. The term "referee" is sort of like the ref in a football game. Knowledgeable scientists well acquainted in a similar discipline to you will study your methods and results and give a thumbs up or thumbs down for publication. This insures that bad science is not spread among a public that is typically scientifically illiterate. I have plenty of personal stories that I could share about bad science that gets out in the news media before it can be properly refereed. The upside of sharing is that other scientists will try to replicate the results and then build on those results, perhaps taking the experiment to another level of inquiry.

IF YOU LEARN NOTHING ELSE FROM THIS COURSE, I HOPE THAT YOU WILL SEE IN THE PAGES OF THE COURSE HOW THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD WAS USED TO FURTHER OUR KNOWLEDGE OF ASTRONOMY AND HOW FAILURES IN THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD CAUSED MISUNDERSTANDING, MID-LEADING THINKING, AND EVEN GREAT EMBARRASSMENT TO THE SCIENTIST.

Concluding this page that began with a short discussion of Astronomy and religion, one cannot test for the existence of God nor can one test for the absence of God. Therefore, religious beliefs fall outside the realm of science. You can hold to your personal faith, but my job here is to teach how the method of science was used to generate the wealth of astronomical knowledge and what the experimentation and evidence seems to indicate is happening in space. If the science of Astronomy draws you closer to your God, pushes you away from your God, or has no impact on your faith at all, you are still expected to understand the nature of scientific inquiry and to become more literate in scientific thinking. I am excited to be your teacher, and hope that you will enjoy reading about the History of Astronomy!

Please move to to the Introduction for this History Unit, the Syllabus, or the Home page.


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