World's Fair

Do you believe in the Big Bang?

Writing about gravitational waves and the fact that waves from the big bang might still be bouncing around the universe (see January 10th post) reminded me of an odd science-and-religion overlap that happened in one of my classes recently. We were studying a play about Ralph Alpher’s work on Big Bang nucleosynthesis and cosmic background radiation (the play is called “Background” and is by Lauren Gunderson).

Anyway, one of the questions on the exam about this play was: define “nucleosynthesis”. The answer is that Big Bang nucleosynthesis is the formation of several different elements (including deuterium, helium, beryllium, and lithium) from protons and neutrons during the first 2-5 minutes after the Big Bang. What was interesting was that one student gave exactly that answer, then added “if you believe in the Big Bang,” while another gave almost the exact answer but wrote “after creation” rather than “after the Big Bang”.

In Biology, we often have to deal with this duality in the evolution vs. creationism debate when we teach, but this was the first time I’d seen it in this context entirely outside of the evolution debate, and it was rather surprising. Now these were neither bad nor sloppy students. Both got A’s in the class, and both are in the Honors College.

While I find the reflexive, non-thinking espousing of creationism (aka “intelligent design”, and now, of course: “academic freedom”) to be incredibly frustrating and annoying, this more sophisticated double-think is much more interesting. It seems to me that these are people who are actively trying to reconcile two contradictory reality frames in their life. It seems to me that this is the shifting ground where religion and science will have to somehow eventually meet.


  1. #1 Greg Laden
    January 12, 2010

    I could believe in gravity waves if people I trusted told me that they thought they were likely real. And that would be belief.

    I don’t believe in the big bang. I’m not a physicist but cosmology is an interest of mine and I’ve read quite a bit about the big bang. I know of the arguments for and against and in fact as a kid, I read some of this stuff as it was happening. I could probably explain the big bang to someone who knows little about it adequately and cold. I could give an intro-university level lecture on it with prep. So I’m prepared to say that the so called Big Bang Theory is an excellent model for early (very early) history of the known universe and as an explanation for major important phenomena we see today.

    But I don’t believe in things that I know somehting about. I’ll have to brush up on the current thinking on gravety waves, then I could avoid believing them and just get on with knowing about the science related to the issue.

  2. #2 Psi Wavefunction
    January 13, 2010

    One rather stark difference I find between chatting with [properly trained] scientists/science students and some of their humanities/philosophy counterparts (especially the ‘postmodern’ crowd) is the manner of conversation:

    Scientist: Evidence A suggests that B would be more likely to happen than, say, C.
    Non-scientist: I believe B. I don’t believe C.

    Of course, this is a rather polarised generalisation, but I have found some conversations to go as something very similar to that! Very difficult to communicate as we speak utterly different languages… I don’t find belief to be at all relevant to a rational discussion (I do recognise we’re all tainted with various irrational beliefs, but at least try to stay away from it), but my non-sciencey friend would consider belief (and consequence) more important than likelihood in the face of evidence!

    I wonder if others may have found something similar?

  3. #3 Ethan Siegel
    January 13, 2010

    Greg Laden,

    Are you serious that you don’t believe in the big bang? What gives?

  4. #4 Douglas Watts
    January 13, 2010

    I don’t believe in the Big Bang. I believe in the Steady State Theory. And I believe that all well-formed scientific questions begin with, “Do you believe …”

    After all, it’s what I believe, down deep, to me, that counts.

    I don’t need your steeenking science and data.

    It’s all about what I believe.

  5. #5 Douglas Watts
    January 13, 2010

    Ethan, I think Greg is being sarcastic.

  6. #6 csrster
    January 13, 2010

    I think he was being perfectly serious. As an astrophysicist I don’t believe in the Big Bang either. I just think it’s the best explanation we have for how the universe has evolved since some very early epoch (like the Planck time).

  7. #7 don
    January 13, 2010

    The Truth is: nobody knows the real truth. It’s all guess of logic- call it belief if you go with your gut, or your brain if you go A follows B. But in the end, the truth is you just don’t know. So wouldn’t the logical response to this to then quit trying to figure it out? Otherwise, isn’t this all as they used to say, “mental masturbation”. I’m taking my photons and getting out of here. Oh wait, should I grab the waves or particles.


  8. #8 A Greenhill
    January 13, 2010

    csrster: “As an astrophysicist I don’t believe in the Big Bang either. I just think it’s the best explanation we have for how the universe has evolved since some very early epoch (like the Planck time).”

    What are you guys talking about? If it’s the best explanation out there why would you say you don’t accept it? Too many holes? Well, duh… nobody thinks it’s complete. Cosmology is currently chock full of holes.

    When someone says “I don’t believe in the Big Bang”… they’re almost always NOT saying they don’t believe the universe has expanded for billions of years, or that the physics behind the theory is unacceptable… they’re saying they don’t accept modern cosmology at all, instead God placed each individual star in the sky during the 6 days of creation. Of course a majority of the people that reject the Big Bang also don’t know what a scientific theory is, or what the Big Bang Theory even says… most actually believe the Big Bang Theory is scientists’ answer to “how did it begin”… which it obviously is not. So when an alleged astrophysicist (ie csrster) comes around and says he rejects the theory, the ignorant masses assume he means he supports the 6 days of creation by Yahweh.

  9. #9 RickK
    January 13, 2010

    Greg was pointing out the difference between understanding that a model (like the Big Bang, like evolution) fits the available evidence, and “believing” in something on faith. The more you understand, the less you have to rely on faith. We understand how lightning is generated, so we don’t have to rely on faith in Zeus. Similarly, the more I look at the evidence (follow the citations, read the papers, look at the fossils, listen to lectures on genetics) the less I have to take evolutionary theory “on faith”.

    Don above takes what I believe to be a HORRIBLE path by suggesting that we should just not bother to ask the questions.

    2000 years ago it was pretty unrewarding for philosophers (natural or otherwise) to argue over the nature of stars. There simply wasn’t the technology or scientific foundation to learn much about them. Does that mean that mankind should’ve stopped asking questions about stars? Of course not.

    The TRUTH is that our knowledge of the natural world grows, in definitive, useful ways. Our understanding of our world and universe has grown ENORMOUSLY in the past few hundred years. And there is no reason to think that the next 100 years of progress in our knowledge will be any less impressive than the past 100 years.

    But only if we keep asking the questions, Don.

  10. #10 Ethan Siegel
    January 13, 2010

    As an astrophysicist, I totally believe in it. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

  11. #11 Vince LiCata
    January 13, 2010

    I believe that RickK is interpreting Greg Laden’s original intent correctly, but I also believe that this is too narrow a definition of belief. When I design an experiment, I believe that my model is right, and that the experiment will support it (or will disprove an alternate model). I believe this deeply, and strongly — the way someone might believe in anything they care deeply about, including standard-stock creationism — but my difference is that I test it, and that I change my belief (grudgingly sometimes) based on the tests. Since, epistemologically, nothing can ever actually be proven, all I can do is further solidify my belief in my model, but I have to believe. I’m just saying don’t co-opt belief away from scientists. It’s when beliefs cannot be tested that the interesting part begins (faith, love, string theory), and (separately) when beliefs will not be changed, regardless of evidence, that problems begin.

  12. #12 Vince LiCata
    January 13, 2010

    Ethan posted his comment while I was writing mine — and I agree with his take on this thread of comments too! Follow his link to some great Big Bang info and further notes on not taking “belief” away from scientists.

    But I do want to also point out that my original fascination at the student’s use of “if you believe in the Big Bang” was not related to this aspect of “belief,” however, but was because of it’s clearly intentionally implied creationist link — i.e. “nucleosynthesis occured IF you don’t believe creationism” is the double-think interpretation that fascinates me.

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    January 13, 2010

    The old greg (before about five years ago) would have used the word “belief” in the context of the big bang, and part of me today wants to agree that that is too narrow of a definition of belief. And I use the word wrong, according to me, all the time.

    But then I started to date, and eventually got married to and reproduced with and everything, a science teacher and. In the context of the science classroom, she convinced me that the word “belief” needs to be defined using the narrower definition because it makes it easier to deal with creationists (students, fellow teachers, and admins).

    That is why in my comment I said I “believe in” gravety waves if, say Ethan says they are real, because I figure he’s a smart guy and I like his take on Dark Matter, so I’ll go along with him on gravity waves without really knowing enough about them to have a more valid scientifically informed opinion. But I feel that I know enough about the Big Bang to know that not only is it a theory that explains all the facts it is challenged to explain, but it has done better than alternatives and stood numerous tests, while the alternatives have not.

  14. #14 csrster
    January 14, 2010

    A Greenhill: I’m with Greg here. I don’t believe in the Big Bang _because_ the evidence for it is so overwhelming.

  15. #15 stripey_cat
    January 15, 2010

    One possible analogy might be “I don’t believe I have toes”. No, I’m not a frost-bite victim. I simply don’t need to “believe”, ie to have some sort of faith, in things I “know”, ie I can reach out and touch.

    A separate concept is that I don’t believe in a model. I think the model is a decent approximation, but I don’t need to believe it is necessarily true.

    I’m not entirely sure which approach people are taking here, but either or both together are very common uses of belief.

  16. #16 Jim Thomerson
    January 23, 2010

    I cringe when I hear “Scientists believe . . . ” As I understand it (having been raised a Southern Baptist) faith is something you have and hold unquestionable. God treating you badly, contrary evidence, illogic. etc. are irrelevant because your faith is the TRUTH. We scientists understand that we do not know the truth, whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the universe. So we think that some explanation is the best we have at the moment, but we expect we will have an improved explanation in the future (Science is the only reliably progressive human activity, you know. At least, Thomas Kuhn made a good case.) So I encourage us to expunge “belief” from the part of our vocabulary we use to describe what we think and do.

  17. #17 Maurice
    February 24, 2010

    The perfection and thought of design of The Creator is evident in everything and everywhere.The overwhelming beauty
    and ‘complex simplicity’of function of for example, the human body should humble us all. My God , The Creator,
    is The only God , and He lives forever’. His home is the Universe. It, as He , has always been. It, as He, did not start with a ‘big bang’.

  18. #18 Daeun
    South Korea
    June 10, 2013

    (English is not first language) I just want to know, in the Big Band Theory, it is said that it all started with “nothing”. How can elements and all sorts of things be created then? Out of nothing? Or is there other explanation for it?

  19. #19 David Beard
    El Paso, Texas
    October 9, 2013

    When I see science shows where they so often speak about the Big Bang theory, I see it as a simplified explanation of how everything got started, similar to the Adam and Eve story – we have to ask and have an answer to, when was the beginning of everything? The modern day answer, The Big Bang – OK, now we can move on to the next question. I think the only thing that really bothers me is when “scientists” (?) start putting numbers on it like, “the universe was as big as an orange in 10E-52 seconds”, or anything of the such. Let’s just say the universe started at some point, a long time ago and we are trying, as best we can, to understand what-we-can within our limitations of understanding – we can even call it the Big Bang, but let’s don’t go too far with it. So, next question, after the Big Bang what do we have ? – Dark Matter – really now – I may have to stick with Adam and Eve — it’s just simpler and cleaner and doesn’t need any nonsensical numbers and all in all, it works just as well as a starting point 🙂

  20. #20 Jens Mueller
    March 2, 2014

    Please help me! I too do not believe the Big Bang Theory. I believe an infinite universe can not come from a point of mass smaller than an atom.

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