As some of you who follow my musings may have noticed, I'm sponsoring a student club at my school site called DEEP.
DEEP doesn't stand for anything in particular, but it sounded sufficiently short and mysterious that it could be a 'hook' for student interest. The purpose of DEEP is a little mushy: as a student-led organization, it's free to look at what it wants, to a large extent, untrammeled by the interests of adults and their institutions. However, in general, DEEP is a place where students can consider ideas and issues from philosophy and religion that are off the well-worn curricular track due to their esoteric or controversial nature.
Anyway, DEEP had its first 'field trip.' As it so happens, an organization I'm affiliated with, the Fresno chapter of Reasons To Believe, sponsored this earnest-looking young astrophysicist shown at right (Jeff Zweerink) in a recent appearance at CSU Fresno. The Fresno Bee described the event and Dr. Zweerink's other appearances in our neck of the woods in this article, which amounts to rubber-stamping an RTB press release. As the event was (happily) free, the total outlay for this field trip was gas and pizza, and (with some other adults in tow as chaperones/drivers) I took 12 students to the event. Of course, as you might imagine, this was a throughly Christian event: RTB is an old-earth creationist outfit founded by the astronomer and evangelical Christian Hugh Ross, and the event was co-sponsored by Campus Youth for Christ (CYC).
So, I shouldn't have been disappointed to realize pretty quick that the presentation had a lot more to do with the Bible (particularly RTB's interpretation of Biblical cosmology) than with science. My students picked up on the fact that Zweerink appeared to be rushing through his talk, and that there wasn't a lot of scientific 'meat' to the presentation. That was a little surprising for me, as RTB is very fond of introducing 'fine-tuning' arguments to buttress their claim that the 'cosmogenesis' of the 'Big Bang' is mappable to the Biblical Genesis. These arguments usually have to spend a certain amount of time explaining one or more of the constants that are supposedly 'fine tuned', often with some dramatic set of numbers that supposedly demonstrate the improbability of it all.
There was little of that, however. I've attended many presentations at RTB chapter meetings that provided far more scientific details than Dr. Zweerink's talk, and I have to wonder if the talk wasn't (ahem) 'fine-tuned' to suit the campus outreach agenda of CYC.
If that was the case, it didn't really work. There wasn't that much science in the presentation, but neither was there a firm commitment to the sort of 'my way or the highway' approach that many believers seem to crave. Dr. Zweerink often went out of his way to point out the limits of the sort of claims that RTB makes, and to note that RTB was willing to put its model on the table and compare its predictions with those of other models. This was definitely a bone for those of us who care about science and are turned off by any attempt to present models in science as 'revealed truth.' At the same time, I sensed that many of the 'true believers' in attendance were puzzled by this measured approach. They came looking for certainty, and they got a certain amount of fuzziness instead.
For what it's worth, I think Zweerink and other RTB spokespeople really do want to present a testable model. I've observed, for example, that Hugh Ross's model for human evolution has (ahem) evolved as new data has emerged, so they are making an attempt to keep up with the science. They sincerely want to have scientific integrity in what they do: however, many of them are fuzzy on the concept of what being testable may or may not prove. It is not enough to claim (correctly) that the 'Big Bang' and other details from astronomy are mappable to a transcendent creation, or (more controversially) that Bible verses as interpreted by Ross describe an expanding universe. One must show that other explanations are less probable, or (failing that) how the addition of a supernatural gloss adds anything to a scientific model that presumes natural causes. That would be an interesting (and likely fruitful) line of inquiry, but, for whatever reason, Dr. Zweerink didn't address that.
It will be interesting to sample the students who attended and get their impressions on this event sometime in the future. If they agree, I may share their reactions to the event in a future post.