Phil Plait – The Bad Astronomer

April 12, 2007

Phil Plait works in the physics and astronomy department at Sonoma State University. In the early ’90’s, he started, which has become a popular website focused on educating the public about astronomy and space science, especially as regards common misconceptions and pseudoscientific astronomy claims. In recent years, he has also been involved with debunking several more general pseudoscientific theories. In March 2006, Science magazine celebrated the Bad Astronomy website, praising Plait’s blog, begun in March 2005. This blog was also a finalist for the 2006 Weblog Award (the “Bloggie”). The author of one book, The Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait is also a regular contributor to many online publications, including The Huffington Post.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Phil Plait discusses science education, the need for the public appreciation of science, public investment in space science, and how such investment benefits society. He also addresses the question of science’s compatibility with religion, and explores social conflicts surrounding the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is a point of inquiry for Friday, April 13th, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also maintains branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood. Washington, D.C.. Toronto, Ontario, Canada. And Indianapolis, Indiana. In addition to 14 other cities around the world, every week on this show, we look at some of the big questions through the lens of scientific naturalism, focusing mostly on the paranormal, alternative medicine and secularism and religion. Before we get to this week’s guest, a public spokesperson for science and critical thinking skepticism, Phil Plait, he’s called the bad astronomer. Here is a word from this episode’s sponsor. 

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Our guest this week is popular online as a spokesperson for skepticism of the paranormal and of pseudoscience, especially as regards to space sciences. Phil Plait is an astronomer at Sonoma State University. His blog and Web site, Bad Astronomy dot com, is one of the most popular of its kind. It’s dedicated to clearing up public misconceptions about astronomy and space science. But he’s also been exploring more general topics in pseudo science in the paranormal. And maybe we’ll talk about some of those topics today. Phil Plait, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Hi, thanks. Great to be here. 

You started bad astronomy in the early 90s to combat some of the misinformation you saw reported out there about space science. But in the years since then, you haven’t only focused on that. You’ve branched out to be something as a spokesperson for the scientific outlook in general. And you’ve treated the paranormal in particular. 

Right? I didn’t set out to do that. And had I, I probably would have done things a lot differently. 

It was in 93, actually, when I wrote up my first Web page about misconceptions in astronomy, and that was about standing egs on end on the first day of spring. And golly, you know, the web hardly even existed then. It was there, but nobody used it. And then over the years, I just kept adding and adding to it. Now my site, bad astronomy dot com, it’s far larger than I ever expected it to be. And in the same time, you know, when you when you write up something about the Fox Moon hoax TV show where they claim that the Apollo moon lands are fake, I wrote up a page about that. When when you do that, you get some attention. And the next thing I know, I’m doing TV interviews, radio interviews and podcasts. Now, you’re in the in 2006 and 2007. And, gosh, you know, I just never expected this to happen. And yet it branched out from just straight astronomy, debunking ideas about what the misconceptions people have about it, how things behave in space and what’s out there and all that kind of stuff into a far more general skepticism in science and often just as an advocate for science. And it it cracks me up, pull it back and see where I am now and how I got here. It’s just sort of a random walk. And it was it’s kind of ridiculous. I get people asking me, how can I do this sort of thing? And I think, well, don’t do it the way I did. It just seems that all of all the possible outcomes. This was probably the least likely. But here I am. 

Phil, what do you think accounts for the popularity of it? Is it a lot of people are just into astronomy or a lot of people are into skepticism. It’s an interesting mix. The way you present it. You’re bringing skepticism to an audience that hasn’t traditionally been a skeptical audience. 

Well, of course, I’m fabulously charming and a terrific speaker, something to do with it? No, it’s it’s hard to be objective about it because I’m so immersed in astronomy and I love it so much that it’s hard for me to be objective and say, well, maybe it is because people of astronomy. But I think people really do. When I go when I give talks about astronomy, when I write about it. I can see how people are engaged by it. You show them a picture from Hubble and they’re hooked. Right. And the problem with that is, is it’s a selection effect. It’s a positive reinforcement bias. When I’m giving a talk, the people who come to the talking, to people interested in astronomy, people who are more interested in collecting stamps, probably are going to show up. So it seems to be reinforcing in my mind that people like astronomy. But you’ll notice that when you go to regular magazines like Time magazine, Newsweek or whatever, when there is a big astronomical result, they do discuss it. And I think astronomy, more than almost any other science, touches on the grandiose philosophical topics like who? Who are we? How do we get here? Where are we going? Plus, it’s just a it’s just pretty pictures of the moon, pictures of galaxies, pictures of giant gas clouds. These are really pretty. And so people are really engaged by it. They want to know more. And the problem is what they’re getting from the media typically is garbage. These short articles don’t really talk about what’s really going on. There’s no depth to them. It just says here’s the latest finding. And what I try to do, especially when there’s a new Hubble picture or a new Chandra Spitzer picture or something from the Space Space Observatory, I like to dig a little bit deeper and say, why is this important? Why does this matter? Here’s a pretty picture. And the result is interesting. But what does this tell us about ourselves and where we are in science? 

Let’s focus on some of the bad astronomy, because that’s what got the ball rolling with you when you started out. I first met you years ago at a second conference in New Mexico when you gave a talk on this sort of stuff. I think it was your first skeptics conference. It was Jim Underdown. What are some of the biggest misunderstandings most people have out there about space science? You mentioned the moon hoax, but certainly that’s not the only kind of thing. In general, people misunderstand our place in the universe. Certain claims about space science. 

Well, people misunderstand everything about space science, and that’s a problem because what you’re getting in movies and TV reinforces a lot of these ideas that there is air and space and that you can go from one object to another really quickly. You’re getting getting from one star to the next. It’s just a matter of saying make it so or engage or whatever. And you’re there. One scene later. But, you know, really the nearest astronomical object to the earth is the moon. And on average, it’s under 250000 miles, a quarter of a million miles away. And it still takes three days to get there by rocket. And that’s not going to change anytime soon, even with the new rocket. NASA’s designing. It just takes a few days to get to the moon and to be able to go there and stop. If you’re just if you’re going past the moon to continue out onto this into the solar system, you might you might take a day to get there. But if you want to get there and slow down and stop an orbit or whatever it is, it’s three days. And that’s the nearest object. And the next nearest object is Venus. And that takes weeks, months. Trip to Mars is six months to get to Pluto. The New Horizons probe is taking a decade. It takes a long time to even get out of our solar system and to get to the nearest star. We take tens of thousands of years. And we have a miserable sense of scale. We humans, because we evolved to live in trees and on the plane, and the farthest thing away was the horizon. And our depth perception isn’t all that great. And so to understand the scale of space, you have to use analogies. And even our analogies fail, because if you say, well, if the moon is an inch away, the nearest star is 100 miles away or whatever it is. And even then, it’s like you don’t grasp it. And so the sense of scale is probably one of the hardest things to get people to understand. And the other problem is not just the media, but our educational system doesn’t really teach this stuff terribly well. In general, there are great teachers out there. They’re a great school system. But in general, we could do a much better job of teaching science. And so kids grow up not really understanding the stuff they don’t get. Why the moon always shows the same face to us. I’ve read a survey that said that half of the adults in the United States didn’t know that the Earth takes a year to go around the sun. These two things that the earth goes around the sun and it takes a year to do it, something like half. It may only be a quarter. I don’t know the exact statistic, but a frighteningly large fraction of people don’t know this. And that’s why pseudoscience like creationism and the moon hoax and astrology and psychics and homoeopathy and all this other garbage is so prevalent and such a all of these are multi-billion dollar a year industry. And if we could just get people to understand this stuff better, I think they they’d look back and say, oh, my gosh, what was I thinking about that? 

There are a ton of things I’d love to talk to you about. And we want to, you know, cover the gamut with you. But you were talking just now about the topic of education. And we’ve had other people on point of inquiry making a similar point, that it is important that people learn about science. It’s important for them and not just for the scientists. But let me ask you, does it really matter if people don’t know planetary science, if people don’t have the right scales of reference in mind for these vast distances you’re talking about? I mean, our knowledge of the universe or the solar system, it doesn’t really impact our daily life for most people. I can see it being important to astronomers. To you, it’s very important. But accountants and lawyers, doctors, athletes, people like that. Do they really need to know planetary science and the kind of stuff that you’re talking about? 

You know, if there’s a lawyer out there who doesn’t know that and sell it as one of the moons of Saturn has water gazers coming from it, that’s OK. You know, it doesn’t matter to me if somebody doesn’t know specific details about planetary science. Because I don’t know all the details of planetary science. They found this hexagonal weather feature on Saturn’s North Pole. What the heck is causing that? Right. 

Yeah, it looks eerily like aliens did it or something. 

It’s a portal to another dimension, right? You know, I don’t know what’s causing. Our scientists don’t know what’s causing it. But if somebody doesn’t even know that that that’s out there, you know, that’s OK. It’s not that big of a deal. But I think that knowing a little bit about it is good. 

Now, one of the things one of the reasons we study the planets is, well, it’s just for the love of doing it. But it’s also to understand the earth better. And for scientists to look at Myers, to look at Venus, to look at these other planets and say, what can we learn about them with their older surfaces in their younger surfaces, they’re different weather pattern. We do comparative planet apology and learn more about the earth that way. Why does Venus have the runaway greenhouse effect on the Earth? Doesn’t it? Simply because Venus is closer to the sun. 

Venus and the Earth are about the same size, about the same density and the same gravity. And in fact, their carbon budget, the total amount of carbon that they each have is about the same. So why does Venus have so much carbon dioxide in its atmosphere and we don’t? 

That’s an important question, but not for the lawyer or the accountant. 

It’s not it’s not important for them maybe to know the details, but I think even they would support scientists learning about this and understanding so that we can know more. Global warming right now is one of the biggest debates going on in Congress, not in science. There’s you know, it’s it’s overwhelmingly understood what’s going on among scientists, but among the public it isn’t. And so, you know, the problem here is we have politicians purposely obfuscating what’s going on and industry purposely suppressing what’s going on. And so that makes it very difficult for the public to be able to judge this. Well, if scientists understood this better and underwhelm, of course, understood how to talk to the public better, this wouldn’t be as much of a problem. So if the public understood what’s going on with the science more, we wouldn’t be having this issue. We wouldn’t have Congress trying to legislate science and trying to suppress science in many cases. So I think this is important on a daily basis. But I’ll tell you a very quick story. When I was a teacher’s assistant back in grad school and there was a test and a student was coming up asking the question about something she didn’t understand. I remember this very clearly. 

She came up and asked a professor something and he was trying to help her to understand the question. And she got really upset. And she said, I even had to see why. I understand why I need to understand this stuff. I’m an English major and I turned to her and said, I’m an astronomy grad student and I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s plays. She just she glared at me. 

And my point was that I haven’t read all of Shakespeare’s plays and I’ve read most of them because I’ve taken English classes. But the point is, you know, a human is not one thing. A human is not an astronomer or a human is not a lawyer. Human is not a bricklayer. We’re complex, multi layered animals with these big curved up brains of ours. And we we want to learn about different topics. And so I know. Yeah, I know about astronomy. I know about other kind of scientists. But I’ve read Shakespeare. You know, I’ve read poetry. And I listen to music and I watch movies. And they don’t always have to be science fiction movies, although that’s my preference. But the point is, we can we’re multi-dimensional. We can understand things to make. 

Part of what makes us human is our curiosity and our ability to understand things about different topics. And I think to be a well-rounded human, you should know about this kind of stuff. If it doesn’t interest you, that’s okay, because not everything interests me. But I think that there are some things that people should know. They should know about the planets in the solar system. They should at least know that the Earth takes a year to orbit the Sun. I mean, when you’re talking about that profound level of misunderstanding about astronomical science in the public. Yeah, I don’t care if people don’t know there. There are volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon IO, but I do want them to know some of the basics of astronomy just so that they can understand how science is impacting their life on a daily basis. 

I guess what I’m getting at, though, is that you don’t have people from other professions arguing that everyone should learn about their fields. Why are scientists other than because of their own self interests? Why are they so big on having everyone appreciate their stuff? You don’t have movements and societ around the public understanding of masonry or the public understanding of accounting. You have scientists saying everyone should learn science. Why should everyone learn science other than just so they don’t misunderstand things like global warming? Sure, we should. We should know a little bit of science so we’re not deceived. But other than that, what’s the big deal? 

The big deal is that our world is becoming more and more science driven. And what I mean by that is huge decisions about our daily lives are being made based on science, medical science, for example. And when there are people out there specifically targeting the public’s ignorance about medical science so that they can make money. Oh, Kevin Trudeau, this guy who goes on TV all the time talking about cures the medical industry doesn’t want you to know this guy is wrong. 

OK? And he’s selling cures that are nothing of the sort. And if you are very ill and you buy his stuff, you buy into his stuff. You’re going to find that his stuff isn’t working. And in the meantime, you’re not getting the medicine you need. And the same is true about homoeopathy. The same is true about acupuncture and all these other quack medicine. If you don’t understand the medical science, if you understand the scientific method, you can be taken in by snake oil salesmen. And so people should at least understand the basics of how science works. So that that kind of coverage of science in general and I don’t care if it’s chemistry, biology, astronomy, zoology, whatever. People should understand the basics of science because they can get scammed otherwise. But there is this direct influence on their lives, especially in medicine as far as astronomy goes. You know, maybe it’s not it’s not as important as medicine. It’s not as important to say biology, because they are is out there who are trying to teach your kids that science is wrong and they’re trying to substitute their fundamentalist religion for science. It’s certainly knowing astronomy would help fight that because people would understand why we know that the universe is about 14 billion years old and not 6000 like the creationists are. 

And you said astronomy touches on the big questions in ways that sometimes medical science might not. It’s beautiful, you said, but it touches on the big why are we here? Questions as well. 

Right. I mean, from from the formation of the universe itself. My word. Is there a bigger question than how did the universe come to be? Why is there something rather than nothing? What’s going to happen a trillion years from now, 100 hundred trillion years from now? What’s the universe going to look like? How are planets formed? Is there life in space? Are there other other aliens out there? This is a question that everybody’s interested in. And in the past can literally in the past 10 or 12 years, we’ve discovered that there are planets orbiting other stars. And in 1995, the first planet orbiting another star was found. And this was a totally open question. The most fundamental question about other stars, do they have planets we didn’t know. And now we do. And we’re actually there was a recent detection of water vapor in the atmosphere of another planet. This is the first for that as well. So we’re we’re taking these steps towards answering this question. And in fact, in the 20th century, we started answering the question how the universe came to be. They discovered evidence for the big bang. And now there’s tons of evidence for the big bang. And no serious astronomer really questions that Big Bang models of how the universe form. And these may not impact your daily life, except Sagan mentioned this. Or it might have an Asimov I remember. Who was he said that. Imagine that the universe is teeming with life or imagined that it’s there. There is no alien. There are no aliens out there at all. Either way, that’s a very interesting thing. And I think that right there tells you a lot about humans if we’re the only life in the universe. Imagine how precious and small and rare we are. But if the universe is teeming with life, imagine what this brotherhood of species could be like for us. And these are these are fundamental questions that science is actually starting to answer. 

And these are the kind of questions that people are really interested in. And it gives you a sense of where we are. People want to label things. You know, when a kid first goes out and starts learning the names or the stars or what kind of rocks, there are the different kinds of insects and plants. They love it. They love going out, finding out what these names are and trying to find them all and name them themselves or whatever. We like to put things in categories and we have no category for us. Humans don’t fit in well with with the universe. We don’t know where our places in the universe. And that’s what that’s what science is trying to tell us. Science is a way of finding things out. It’s a way of not fooling ourselves. As Richard Feynman said. But it’s also a way of discovering the order of things and where things fit. And, you know, religion is is an attempt to do this as well. But science is using evidence and observation and discovery to do it. And I think if there’s going to be an answer to this question, we’re gonna be. We’re going to find it using the scientific method Jim Underdown. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can purchase a copy of Phil Plates book Bad Astronomy through our Web site. Point of inquiry, dawg. Phil, I want to talk to you about religion as we finish up. But before we get there, you just talked about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence or at least extraterrestrial life, life elsewhere in the universe. Where do you come out on that? Do you think there’s life out there, not just on this planet? 

I get this question a lot when I give public talks, and especially when I talk about things like the face on Mars, which I debunk, you know, showing that this giant rock on Mars looks like a face, but it’s not actually supposed to be a face. It’s just a random random erosion feature. But I always get that question. Do you believe in UFOs and you believe in aliens? And I say no and yes. And that always baffles people. Do I think there’s life in the universe? I don’t know. There’s no evidence for it. So I cannot say yes or no. And it’s not really a matter of belief. It’s a matter of does it exist or doesn’t it? And if you want to ask, do I think it’s out there? I would say that the odds are certainly in favor of that being true. We know how many stars there are in the galaxy. There are between 100 to 200 billion, something like that. We know that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, each with hundreds of billions of stars. So you’ve got quadrillions. That’s a big number. You know a lot of stars out there. How many of these have planets? Well, we don’t know that. But we’re starting to find planets around other stars and we’re finding that the conditions to make planets pretty easy. Now, it’s not easy to make Earths, but we know of one example. Earth does. And so we know it can happen. And so even if it’s a tiny fraction, a tiny fraction multiplied by quadrillions is a big number. And so it seems like a pretty safe bet to assume that there are lots of earths out there. 

So given the likelihood of life out there, do you think there’s much evidence that life has visited, that those kinds of life out there in the universe have visited us on this planet? It’s a numbers game that there’s probably or at least possibly life out there. But thousands of people each year report from the evidence of their own senses that aliens visited them. Do you think it follows that, that if it’s likely life is out there, that it’s also likely aliens are visiting us on this planet? 

Well, that’s actually two different questions. Have aliens ever visited us? Is one question and are they coming now in the numbers quoted by the people who claim to have been visited? And, you know, the Earth has been around for five billion years and roughly and that’s a long time and that’s a long time for life to have developed on another planet in the Milky Way galaxy. And you can imagine, I mean, the sun the sun formed five billion years ago, but the galaxy itself is well over 10 billion years. So if some star, just like the Sun formed a million years earlier, you can imagine life on a planet forming a million years before ours did. And here’s a long time. And if they developed interstellar travel and came here a million years ago, what evidence would there be? None. So if there are aliens out there and they they can go from planet to planet, maybe they have visited us in the past. I’m not going to going to say no. But that’s that’s an entirely different question than are aliens coming to Earth in in droves by the thousands. And, you know, a sexually probing people and carving the butts out of cows and doing all this other other stuff that people claim. And it doesn’t seem rational that we have explanations for things like this. People see Venus. They see the moon. They see satellite. This meteors all the time and don’t know what they’re seeing because they’re not familiar with the sky. And so there are tons and tons of UFO reports. What I show people what I say to people is there’s a group of people who are looking up all the time, and those are amateur astronomers. There are thousands and thousands of them in the U.S. alone. And yet they very, very rarely report flying saucers. And that’s because they know what they’re looking at when they see a satellite or Venus or whatever. And so you have to realize that the vast majority of sightings of these things are simply misidentified, mundane objects like helicopters and whatever. And so I think that discounts most of these right away for people who claim to have had a close encounter of the third kind, physical contact. You can show that there’s all sorts of psychological reasons why people think that some people you know, there’s this hypnagogic suggestions that you would just sort of half dream, half awake state you can be in where you swear things are real, but they’re not. You can affect the temporal lobe with magnetic fields. And it makes people feel like they’re in the presence of some sort of higher being. There’s all these sorts of things that seem to me to be far more likely what’s going on than aliens coming here, because they’re coming all this way. And yet we’re not seeing them except when they’re when they’re picking people up and they seem to do this half assed job of making people forget that they were there in the first place. It just doesn’t hang together. And that’s that’s one of the many reasons I don’t think that that UFOs are visiting us. 

I want to finish up right now talking about the public investments in space science before we get to the big doozy, the big question about religion. Let’s talk about public policy, space science. It doesn’t get a big chunk of our national budget, but some people, oddly enough, maybe, maybe not surprisingly, astronomers argue that our investment in space science pays dividends like investment in other things doesn’t really pay. Can you give me some examples of why we should be, as a society, much more concerned about space science than we are now? 

Well, space science has a vast, vast impact on your daily life. 

People don’t even realize that you get up and you watch the Weather Channel on the local weather. What will where do you think those satellite pictures are coming from? Oh, satellites. Right. That’s space. That’s Explorer space. To be able to put a satellite in orbit around the Earth, you have to understand the near Earth environment. If I understand the radiation that’s going on out there, you have to understand gravity. You have to understand what affects the satellite can can be under when it’s up there. So hurricane prediction, tornado prediction. Although tornadoes are done from the ground a lot, you need to have a more global view of the supercell thunderstorm coming in. You get from satellite communications satellites. We have to understand how the sun works, because when the sun ejects a solar flare or what’s called a coronal mass ejection, which is basically a violent explosion from the sun that shoots subatomic particles. If those things hit us, they can have incredible effect on the earth. They can blast satellite. They can blown out of the sky just like that. I mean, not literally, but they can fry the satellite, destroy the electronic circuitry. These have effects on the ground. In 1989, there was an enormous power outage in Quebec because of a flare from the sun. It it really bollixed up the earth’s magnetic field and it induced currents in in transformer lines and in the ground itself and blew out capacitors in Quebec. It could cause a massive power outage all across the United States as well. People can die in power outages, right? There can be riots. Hospitals don’t have power. This could this could be a disaster if a really big solar flare hit it. We need to understand this stuff. Global warming, the ozone hole, how how the earth behaves under different conditions. These are things we need to understand to make sure that humans are gone in 100 years. 

And you’re saying we understand all that better because of space science? 

Yes. By going out into space and looking back on the Earth, by going to Mars and finding out what’s going on on Mars and what’s going on on Saturn and Jupiter, we learn more about what’s happening here. Now, I’m not saying that’s the reason we should do it, although that’s that’s certainly a major reason for my for my opinion. We can afford to do this and much more on the earth and in space just for the love of understanding things. But what we find constantly is the more we explore, the more useful we find this knowledge. And when you use your computer at home in one of the reasons you can’t is because NASA needed to develop faster computers for the Apollo program. And so there’s there’s a definite dividend in exploring space, because even though you don’t know what’s going to come out of it, something always does. And certainly for our own benefit, we should be we should be exploring it more. NASA costs a tiny, tiny fraction of the national budget, and yet we get a huge amount out of it. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get information about FILLES, other projects at bad astronomy dot com. So I want to end up by talking about skepticism and religion. There are well regarded scientists out there. Carl Sagan from astronomy. Years ago and now Richard Dawkins from the field of biology who make pronouncements not just about science, but about God, our place in the universe. The meaning of life. The big kind of hand-wringing questions. Let me ask you, as a skeptic, as a science advocate. You know, someone, a public spokesperson for the outlook based on the sciences. Do you think it’s appropriate that we director skepticism at religion and these other kinds of beliefs that cannot be studied in the laboratory? 

Well, I disagree with the premise of your question. First of all, I think skepticism can be applied to anything. Skepticism is just saying what evidence is there for your claim? It’s not necessarily doubting the claim, although, you know, it does kind of end up being that. But it’s more like saying, what’s the evidence for this? What is what is the most likely cause of what we’re seeing? And so when somebody says to me, intercessory prayer works when when when a group of people pray for sick people, statistically, the sick people get better than if they’re not prayed for. And I say to myself, well, that’s a religious claim. But any time somebody makes a claim, it can be investigated. And so if there is a claim that intercessory prayer works and many people have claimed that you can test it, this is easy. This is a simple double blind experiment that that people should have been able to learn how to do in high school and college. And what’s happened is that over and over again, when the experiments have done correctly, intercessory prayer shown not to work. It’s no better than random chance. And I predicted that when in fact, when the investigations into intercessory prayer were going to come out, I predicted that people would say, you can’t apply science to God. And I keep telling them, yes, you can, because if you claim that I can pray to God and something will happen, that’s an outcome. You know, there’s a physical outcome from religion, but if that physical outcome doesn’t happen, then I’ve shown that your claim is wrong. And so in a sense of the work, we can show this very it’s not even a question. We can show this very fundamentally, if you’ll pardon the pun, but doesn’t work. So you can certainly apply science to religious claims. If somebody claims that God created the universe and then backed off, created the rules and, you know, and then then said, I’m going to let the universe unfold as it will. That’s the sort of religious claim that’s very difficult to test. And it may be impossible to test, but as soon as you make a physical claim that is testable you it not only should you know, can you apply skepticism and scientific thought to it, you should because you should not let people be fooled. And a religion a lot of religion is based on on things that we know is not true. And I’m not saying every religion is like that or any specific religion is like that. But I will say, for example, offering up creationism again, creationism makes a lot of claims. It says the universe is 6000 years old. The Earth is 6000 years old. But we have a lot of evidence that shows a fascist a bunch of malarkey. And I can say unequivocally, without any doubt and very firmly that creationism is totally wrong. Young Earth creationism, we know that the Earth is older than 6000 years and creationists want to base this on religion. And so there is a time again where you can you can investigate religion scientifically and show that this specific flavor of religion is absolutely wrong. I say that as firmly as I possibly can. And, you know, it decreases could ever come up with any evidence that is at all credible. I will revisit this question, but every single time I’ve investigated creationist claims about astronomy, they’re totally wrong. 

Fill in your years of applying science, the scientific method. These skeptical approaches to these questions in the years that you’ve applied to these religious claims. Have you concluded in a more general sense about the compatibility of science and religion? Do you think that they can coexist? Or are you one of the skeptics who say they can only co-exist where religion changes to fit the science? 

Well, like I said, wherever religions make a claim about physical reality, then there there is certainly an overlap between science and religion. I actually strongly disagree with Stephen Jay Gould, who said that they are non overlapping magisterium. Right, that their religion deals with one one thing in science deals with another. I think that’s absolutely wrong. Religion and science do deal with many of the same questions. You know, why are we here? And there may be a religious answer that there may be a very different scientific answer, but they both have both fields do cover that question. Where are we going? How did we get here? There’s definitely an overlap between, say, fundamentalist Christianity, which says that God breathe life into Adam, whom we created from dust versus science, where we talk about a biogenic or a biotic creation of biotic molecules, which eventually evolved to become humans over billions of years. Those are two very different claims. And one is based on evidence and one is based on faith. And I’m telling you, you know, if you just want to accept something is being real versus ignoring all of the evidence against it, that’s your option. But I think you’re not facing reality. And that’s what science is all about. Science is all about investigating what’s real and what isn’t. I think if religion would stick to philosophy. Philosophy. How to live your life to be a good person. And into that sort of thing? I think that would be fine. But science is certainly within its field to investigate things about. Is there a God? How did the universe form? Can you. Can you resurrect somebody after their being dead for three days? Do these sorts of questions can be answered by science and I think should be investigated? May not be easy. I mean, how do you tackle the question? Is there a God? You can find a lot of evidence against it. But to try to find evidence for it is very difficult. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. And I think there is no knowledge forbidden to man. There’s nothing we shouldn’t try to investigate, at least because we’ve got these big brains and we’re very curious and there’s a whole universe out there for us to investigate. 

And I think that’s just tremendously exciting. I wake up every day and I breathe life into me just to think that there’s so much out there we don’t know but that we may yet understand. 

That is so eloquently stated. Thank you very much for being on point of inquiry, Phil Plait. 

Well, thank you. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. One of the inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing, contributors to today’s show. Who did? Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.