Big Bang Belief

Astronomy magazine, to which I subscribe, asks on this month’s cover: Do you believe in the BIG BANG? 5 reasons you should. I was initially a little confused by the cover, in that with the exception of a couple of unregenerate Hoyle-loving solid-statists out there, probably the entire of the magazine’s 185,000-member subscriber base has probably already signed off on the whole Big Bang thing; it’d be like Parenting magazine having a cover story that asked if its readers believed in pregnancy.

But of course, the article is not for Astronomy’s regular readers, per se. It has a two-fold aim. The first is to lure whatever Creationists might be lurking near the magazine rack into opening up the magazine and getting a point of view on the genesis of the universe without the Genesis interpretation. I think this is sort of sweet, since I don’t really think most Creationists really want to challenge their beliefs; after all, Jesus didn’t tell them to question, merely to believe. But you can’t blame the Astronomy editors for making the effort.

The second aim is to give non-Creationist parents some reasonable ammunition at the next school board meeting, when some Bible-brandishing yahoo demands the science curriculum be changed to give equal footing to whatever damn fool brew of mysticism and junk science they’ve cobbled together this year to make an end-run around the separation of church and state, and someone rational needs to step in and point out what evidence exists to suggest the Big Bang actually happened.

In that case, the object is not to convince a Creationist of the veracity of the Big Bang; any Creationist who shows up at a school board meeting is already a lost cause in terms of rationality. The idea is to appeal to the school board members that the Big Bang is not interchangeable with the idea that God whipped up the universe in seven days or that the universe was vomited up by a celestial cane toad that ate a bad fly or whatever other pleasant, simple teleological shortcut one might choose to believe.

In this case, I again I appreciate Astronomy’s intent; it’s nice to know they believe a school board might be amenable to reason. Personally, however, I would skip the middleman preliminaries, which is what such an appeal to reason would be. I’d go straight to the endgame, which would be to inform the school board that if it went ahead and confused science and theology, I’d be more than pleased to drag in the ACLU and make it take all the tax money it was planning to use on football uniforms and use it to pay lawyers instead. I’m not at all confident of a school board’s ability to follow science, but I’m pretty sure most of its members can count money. And here in Ohio, at least, they sure do love their football.

Astronomy notes that based on an NSF survey, less than a third of Americans believe in the Big Bang. Part of the problem comes from most people simply not paying attention in science class — evidenced by the fact that only 70% of Americans believe in the Copernican theory, which posits that the Earth is in orbit around the Sun, and you’d have to be fairly ignorant and/or inattentive not to believe that. Another part of the problem comes from the idea that the Big Bang might somehow conflict with religious beliefs — that the end result of accepting the Big Bang as a theory is an eternity of Satan cramming M-80s behind your eyeballs and cackling, “You want a Big Bang? I’ll give you a Big Bang,” before lighting the fuse with his own pinky finger. But a large part of it also has to do with language itself, and how it’s used to confuse.

For example, the word “theory.” Commonly speaking, “theory” equates to “whatever ridiculous idea that has popped into my head at this very moment” — so people have theories about UFOs, alligators in the sewers, the Kennedy Assassination, the healing power of magnets and so on. The somewhat debased nature of the word “theory” is what allows Creationists and others to say “it’s just a theory,” about evolution or the Big Bang or whatever bit of science is inconvenient to them at the moment, implicitly suggesting that as such, it should be paid little regard.

However (and Astronomy magazine has a nice sidebar on this), the word “theory” means something different to scientists than it does to the average Joe. In the world of science, the initial crazy idea that you or I would call a theory is a “hypothesis”; it’s not until you can provide strong, verifiable evidence that the universe actually conforms to your hypothesis that you’re allowed to say it’s an actual theory. So to recap: Crazy idea = hypothesis; crazy idea + independently verifiable facts to back it up = theory.

The Big Bang is a theory not because it’s just this zany idea a bunch of astronomers thought up one night while they were smoking dope in the observation dome; it’s a theory because of a preponderance of evidence out there in the universe suggests this is how the universe was created — to the near exclusion of other hypotheses. It’s a theory to the same extent that gravity is a theory, and be warned that if you don’t believe in gravity, you’ll probably fall right on your ass.

“Believe,” incidentally, is another problem word, since its common usage is synonymous with “I have faith,” and faith, by its nature, is not particularly evidentiary. Someone who says “I believe in Jesus,” is declaring faith in Christ, whose nature is ineffable. One wouldn’t say that one has faith in the Big Bang — and rightly so.

Fundamentally, one doesn’t “believe” or have faith in much of anything as it regards science, since as a process science isn’t about believing at all. It’s about testing and verifying, discarding what doesn’t work, and refining what does work to make it better describe the nature of reality. For a scientist, a belief functions at the level of a hypothesis, which is to say, it’s an idea that requires testing to determine whether it accurately models reality.

Even at their current stage of understanding about it, it’s probably not accurate to say that scientists “believe” in the Big Bang theory, to the extent that there are still holes in the theoretical model that need to be plugged and scientists working to plug them (Astronomy magazine points out these holes, as it should, since doing so doesn’t expose the weakness of the Big Bang theory, but the strength of the scientific process). If it turns out that the Big Bang theory is ultimately incompatible with the data, it’ll have to be thrown out and something more accurate created to replace it.

Asking whether one “believes” in the Big Bang doesn’t really answer any questions — it merely suggests that the Big Bang is itself part of a faith-based system, equivalent to a belief in Christ or Allah or Buddha or whomever. This is another piece of semantic ammunition that Creationists and others like to use: That science is just another system of “belief,” just another species of religion. Not only is science not just another species of faith, it’s not even in the same phylum. Faith is a conclusion. Science is a process. This is why, incidentally, the two are not ultimately inherently incompatible, just as driving somewhere is not inherently incompatible with having a fixed home address.

If I were putting together a poll on the Big Bang, I wouldn’t ask people if they believed in it. I would ask them, based on the evidence, what model of universal creation best described its current state. I’d make sure I left space for the “I have no idea” option. I believe — and this is just hypothesis, not a theory — that the data from that question would be informative.

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