candid thoughts on the issues of the day.
My letter to George Deutsch
Published on February 5, 2006 By The Way In Astronomy
Update: No response from NASA was received. Mr. Deutsch has been been fired (well, technically he resigned). There is no indication that it had anything to do with my letter, but perhaps it had some effect. Overwhelmingly though, it probably was due to the fact that NASA found out that Mr. Deutsch didn't actually hold a college degree. I hope if he goes back to school, he takes some more science classes!


Recently there has been some controversy surrounding a young man named George Deutsch (george.deutsch-1@nasa.gov), who works as a Public Affairs Officer at NASA. He allegedly pressured a NASA climate scientists to not speak openly about the implications of global climate change and also allegedly tried to, for conservative religious reasons, add the word "theory" behind every NASA website mentioning the words "Big Bang." (For more details, see Nasawatch's recent article.)



Below is a letter I recently sent to George Deutsch and his superiors at NASA:



Dear Mr. Deutsch:



I am writing in reference to a memo issued by you allegedly saying the Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion..." You are indeed correct that the Big Bang is not a "proven fact." Indeed, any scientific theory can never be considered a proven fact.



In the words of Nobel Prize-winning U.S. physicist Richard Feynman, "Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty--some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain." ("The Value of Science," in "What Do You Care What Other People Think?", 1988) All scientists should know and understand this aspect of science, and children should be taught this lesson in school.



In regards to the Big Bang, this theory is currently the best explanation of the creation and evolution of the universe, based on scientific observations and our best understanding of physics. Although there are still many parts of the theory that are poorly understood, such as the rapid inflationary period beginning seconds after the Big Bang, the overall concept is the best explanation of several irrefutable observations (i.e. very, very nearly certain "statements"), such as the red-shift of galaxies and the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR). Indeed, NASA as well as other space agencies, are testing the Big Bang theory by making measurements with very sensitive spacecraft, such as COBE and WMAP.



As to whether the Big Bang theory should always be referred to as a "theory," we should defer this judgment to science writers. In my personal opinion, it is a waste of words to repeatedly say "Big Bang theory" when it is assumed that the reader understands that scientific models are never absolutely certain. For example, when we talk about gravity, we don't constantly write, "The theory of gravity predicts that an object at sea level will accelerate at 9.8 meters per second per second under the influence of the theoretical force of gravity" We just say "Gravity accelerates an object at sea level at 9.8 m s^-2."



Likewise, we can say "The Big Bang explains the creation and evolution of the universe as a continuous inflation of spacetime beginning from a singularity," omitting the obvious word "theory". In the minds of most scientists I know and respect, the general principles of the Big Bang are probably nearly as certain (i.e. backed up by scientific observations) as other theories, such as those of gravitation, the atomic structure, and plate tectonics. So just as we talk about these parts of science without constantly referring to them as "mere theories," the Big Bang can be discussed with the confidence of thousands (millions?) of independent measurements of an inflating universe and the omnidirectional CMBR.



I'm not sure what you are referring to when you allegedly say that, if the Big Bang is not referred to as a theory, "young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA." Is there another theory of the creation and evolution of the universe, equally backed up by scientific observations and debated with equal fervency in the scientific community? I am not aware of one.



You also allegedly state that: "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator." I am not exactly sure as to what you are referring to, but I am not aware of any declaration by NASA that the existence of the universe discounts so-called "intelligent design by a creator." Scientists do not generally comment on this matter because it is not easily confirmed nor excluded by measurements of the observable, physical universe. As both a devout christian and a young scientist, I do not see any conflict between the Big Bang and the creation and design of the universe by God. If you feel there is such a conflict, I would be happy to discuss in more detail the science and theology behind my failure to see any conflict.



In closing, I'd like to wish you the best of luck in your career at NASA and in Public Affairs. I hope this letter has in some way contributed to your understanding of the science which you are engaged in communicating to the public. As a public servant employed by taxpayers such as myself, I hope you will take this time to reflect on your vocation as an official in a secular government. I urge that you personally and publicly commit to communicating in an unbiased manner the findings of the scientific community to the U.S. public and the world at large, and let God handle the rest.



If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me.



Sincerely,









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