It’s become one of the defining debates of our time: can science and religion coexist? Or are they incompatible, destined to continue to drift apart and see each other as rivals? In this episode of the podcast Cracking the Echo Chamber, Sinai and Synapses fellowship alum Kathryn Robison (a Ph.D. student and Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Department of Political Science at The University of Alabama), makes the case that the two needn’t live in their own echo chambers. Rather, they can coexist in a meaningful way, both informing the other. But of course, it’s far more complicated than all that. As the hour progresses, they discuss the difficulties in reaching such a harmony, and how to overcome them.View Transcript
Brad Hirschfield: Welcome. I’m Brad Hirschfield, here with Elad Nehorai, and this is Cracking The Echo Chamber. Because there is always more to the story, and because the crack’s not only where the light gets in, it’s where it shines out into the world. Wisdom, after all, is a two-way street, and this is where we pave that road.
We’re joined today by Kathryn Robison. She – I am so excited that you’re here, I have to say, I can’t get to the bio without saying that – Kathryn is currently a PhD Student and graduate teaching assistant at the University of Alabama in political science, specializing in the fields of American politics and international relations, with an outside minor in communications, which means she studies the stuff that people fight about most, and how they talk about what they fight about most, which is why you are perfect for Cracking the Echo Chamber.
Her research interests specifically are in space policy and communication, both political and scientific. She previously researched the relationship of American Christian fundamentalists in the United States classroom, largely in relation to the teaching of evolution, and in the public school system, and we’re definitely going to talk more about that, and you also have, Kat, one new piece of news on that professional bio, which is –
Kat Robison: Yes, so in July I start a new position as the program coordinator for the University of Alabama’s Tide Together mentoring program. The program is for first generation PhD Students and Master’s students, if it’s a terminal degree or they’re continuing on to a doctoral degree, as well as for doctoral and master students who are women and minorities in STEM fields.
Brad Hirschfield: Wow, that’s amazing. Now, by first generation – forgive my ignorance – that means that you are the first person in a family to have earned that level of degree?
Kat Robison: First-generation in this sense means the first person to attend college, so not just a post-bachelor degree, but first person to attend college. And I’m actually a first-generation student, which is why I originally got involved in the Tide Together program, as first a mentee, and now I’m the Peer Mentor, and now I’m graduating up to a program coordinator.
Brad Hirschfield: Wow, that’s amazing, that’s like the old show, you know, I’m not only a customer, right, but I’m going to create the product, I’m a customer, but no, that’s really beautiful, this is kind of the ultimate give back, it sounds like.
Kat Robison: Yeah, mentoring is something that I’m incredibly passionate about, and this is an opportunity to meld my passion when in a professional context.
Brad Hirschfield: Wow. Why is mentoring so important to you personally? And then I’d like you to talk for a minute, even though I know it has nothing to do and yet everything to do with what we’re going to talk about today, why you think mentoring is so important in general. First, for you personally.
Kat Robison: I wouldn’t be where I am today without mentors in my life. I got my GED at 16 actually, so I’m a high school dropout who is now just a couple years away, and I have had and benefited from mentors throughout throughout my life, but specifically within my college career and at my Master’s. I did my master’s at Youngstown State University in Ohio, and in particular there were two professors there, Dr. Martha Pallante and Dr. Donna DeBlasio, who adopted me into their program – I was in a different program – and just became incredible professional and personal mentors, and got me into three different funded PhD Programs – so I got to choose where I went – and have just been excellent examples of what it means to rise to the top of your profession and give back.
Brad Hirschfield: Wow, that’s – I think you just defined what great mentorship is. I was going back to – it has to do with creating options and access, contributing your own personal expertise to the person you’re mentoring, and you use the phrase “they adopted me in,” that great mentoring, at some level, is an act of love, just as much as adoption is. It may not be romantic love, it may not be familial love in the classical sense, but it is an act of love, just like adoption is an act of making family, even though it’s not in the biological path.
So, I think that’s what you’re describing, and this is one of those moments where I wish this was a visual medium – I’m also looking in your face, and so I know that you don’t just think it, you feel it. So go from that personal experience for a minute, to why you think mentoring is so important generally, because clearly you benefited from it, but a lot of people benefit from things but don’t think deeply about what they mean in general for others, and I know you do, so could you talk a little bit about that?
Kat Robison: I’m happy to. I think of mentoring – first, there’s this really great video, so haven’t seen it you must watch. Randy Pausch – he gives his last lecture – he was a researcher at MIT and he passed away from pancreatic cancer, and he talks about, you know, “well, this is really my last lecture,” and we have lots of Last Lecture Series. And at the end of it, he says, “this has really been about, and my career has been about, making other people’s dreams come true.”
And mentoring is important professionally because no one can do it alone. And for me, I particularly think of it professionally in the context of under-represented people in professional fields. Women and people of color are underrepresented in most academic and business fields, and in order for them to succeed, they need someone who is there to encourage them. And so professionally, mentoring is important, because people, especially people who may be underprivileged or don’t have the skills, need someone to both encourage and also impart these skills, and also to recognize that yes, you should apply for something, because one thing we know from research, especially when it comes to women and other under-represented populations, is that a man will apply for anything, even if he’s only marginally qualified, and in fact my mentee this year, her name is Natalie Lima, she’s an excellent poet, she’s in the MFA program at Alabama –
Brad Hirschfield: By the way, you’re a poet also, and at some point in this conversation we’re going to get some of your poetry. Because, having read it, I think – it sounds obvious, because of course there are – there are some really profound and quite beautiful linkages between the poetry you produce and the way you’re talking right now. We’ll hold that for later.
Kat Robison: So Natalie, for her New Year’s resolution this year, she posted that she is going to apply to everything with the confidence of a mediocre white man. Not to pick on that, because I think – I teach and one thing that I constantly tell my students – I teach in a Southern university – that privilege is something that everyone has. That everyone has this advantage, so we shouldn’t think of it in terms of, like, guilt or shame or “I’m doing these wrong things,” but, people need mentoring, no matter if they’re a confident person with every advantage, coming from an Ivy League school, or if they’re coming from just your local state school. And what mentoring does professionally is it helps build the capacity of students and workers to reach for more things, and then also to be able to give back what they’ve been given.
Brad Hirschfield: So I think this is so important. You just put two big points on the scoreboard for the Crack in the Echo Chamber side of things, and it’s really – and I couldn’t have expected either one of these to happen, but the first was when you simultaneously kind of made fun of mediocre white men and then said, “but of course everyone has privilege.”
In my experience, the people who use privilege as a concept the most are angry at those “mediocre white men” and don’t believe they also have privilege, or they say “there’s no such thing as privilege, everyone has it the same, it’s really all basically equal.”
And I think most of us, if we could just calm down for a moment, know neither of those is true. There is privilege. What if one of the great tasks in life is not to necessarily be so angry at the privilege other people have, but to ask what privilege you have by virtue of being you?
And that just seems like such an interesting way to admit that privilege is real, and it does make a difference in people’s lives, but what if we need to begin scoring privilege in multiple ways, and trusting that we all bring things to the party of life that people haven’t always told us we bring, and if that’s what you’re describing. So that’s one. And the other piece is that you said, you know, “I do this mentoring because no one can accomplish great stuff alone.”
Kat Robison: No.
Brad Hirschfield: Right, and I think there’s whole swaths of the culture that take that for granted. If you can go back in time a couple of years, then-President Obama got in a lot of trouble when he actually told America “when you built a business you didn’t do that alone,” and people went crazy. Because, of course, the competing narrative there – and I really do think it’s a part of a healthy American narrative – is pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. And I always tell people, yeah, I really do believe that that’s true. But someone had to make the boots, right, you know they’re both true. And I would imagine your life when you talk about dropping out of school and getting a GED at 16 – there was a lot of bootstrapping and a lot of helping.
Kat Robison: Yeah.
Brad Hirschfield: And that it’s not – you did it alone, or you only did it because other people gave it to you, but that like most great things, the combination of working really hard and feeling ultimately personally responsible, and then the wisdom and the love and the expertise and the nurturing and the help of all the people come into our lives.
Kat Robison: I couldn’t have said it better.
Brad Hirschfield: So I mean really, that’s – we’re not going to, Elad, don’t worry, but we could stop here, and actually imagine a country (because you do policy work on the political science side). What would an America look like that knew how to really own that no one gets anything done alone-alone? And that part of the greatness of this country story is that model of “we can do it, we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps,” and that instead of being polarized, some people would be 51-49 one way, others will be 49 – heck, I don’t care, they can be 90-10 in each direction – but that we actually need both of those.
We need that, you know, that old model, the cowboy riding alone on the west in the prairie, taming the New World – and then also realizing, actually, you know, the same way someone had to make the boots you pulled on and someone had to make the horseshoe, and someone had to like – right, so we’re never in it alone, and we have to feel responsible, so for that alone, I’m really really glad that you’re here.
I am also glad you’re here, and the timing is perfect, because you have done some serious work in thinking about the relationship of religion to science and to public policy, and especially to religious – educational policy in our public schools. And because it is May, it is the beginning of litigation season, and it is the beginning of legislation season. Because if you don’t start to pass laws in May, how will you control what goes on in the classroom in September?
And so here we are, mid-May, and there are already, I think, by my count, 17 different major cases or bills pending right now, that are trying to change the nature of science education around the country. So we could focus on any of them, but two of them are bills that are going through the process in the House in Florida. And they’re going through in this House – it went through the Senate actually. And the goal is to give anyone – and I want to, as we think about this, not just parents – the ability to question teaching materials in a school and be guaranteed a public hearing with an “unbiased and qualified hearing officer.”
And the bills are framed in a way to give communities power, and to give individuals voice. Which in general, I would say, I think is a great thing. My problem is – and you can tell me if you think it is a great thing or if my problem’s legitimate – that almost all of the people who bring these cases, and certainly the sponsors of these bills, are doing it because they want to claim that creationism and evolution are on equal footing. One of them actually charged that the purpose and the importance of this legislation is that history texts are conducting “religious indoctrination” by teaching children that we are descended from apes.
Kat Robison: (laughs)
Brad Hirschfield: Okay, laughter means I’m shutting up now, have at it.
Kat Robison: Well, my first thought, when I listen to these – and I’m not familiar with the particular bills – but that these are a waste of taxpayer time and money, because there are Supreme Court cases that have already shot down the premise that creationism and evolution are on equal footing. And so I’m going to take a wild leap here and assume that the bills are sponsored by Republicans, which I hate to do because it is very dangerous, in my opinion, to broadly paint either party with any brush strokes.
Brad Hirschfield: Interestingly about – and I appreciate that. The people who are sponsoring them mostly align that way, but if you look, they tend to say it’s not about a party. What they tend to share in common is a deep cultural conservatism, and in almost all the cases – not all but like 90+ percent, and this is where your expertise comes in – a rooting in Evangelical Christianity. So it turns out the motivation behind this, which is why so much of this is about creationism and evolution, and the claim of religious indoctrination, is that when science is put on any kind of equal footing – forget different, equal footing with religion – it is seen as religious indoctrination, though not the way we would necessarily use it.
Kat Robison: Yes, yes. And the reason I bring up the fact that these are put forward by typical people we think of being the religious right – this movement that sort of came up with Reagan, this idea of the silent majority, and more Evangelical activism in American politics, is because the very point that they will not pass constitutional muster is a waste of something that – this party tends to say we don’t want to waste taxpayer money, we don’t want more government involvement, and yet this is something which is going to be – if they pass, it’s going to be something that takes these things that party platforms say they do not want to do.
The problem with these is, again, the Supreme Court has precedent, and typically the Supreme Court does not overturn precedents. Stare decisis is this legal term – you know, we don’t have to get into that, it’s very complicated.
Brad Hirschfield: The point is, especially, this court is not eager to make new law.
Kat Robison: Exactly, so but what this does is it sort of goes along with a thread that’s happening now where Christians in America, especially evangelical Christians, feel that they are more persecuted than other religions. Which is a very interesting framing that has occurred, and so these bills are happening in state legislatures, and a lot of them are actually written by groups like ALEC. And there’s legislative groups that write these bills, so you see them crop up in similar forms across the country, and they’re creating these bills as a way to say, “look, we need to protect religion, that we need to protect religious – you know, we need to protect our children from from liberal elitist influence.” And they see science as threatening to their religious –
Brad Hirschfield: Their religious faith. Their dogma, their doctrine, their positions.
Kat Robison: Exactly. they see science as is something that’s threatening. And what these bills say to me, as both a person of faith and as an academic, is that there is a problem with messaging. That some –
Brad Hirschfield: What do you mean?
Kat Robison: Because science is not a threat to religion, and it is false to say that it is. So often we forget that science, for most of science’s history, was a pursuit of the religious. It was a pursuit of truth, a pursuit of of closer communion with God. And so what has happened in the last century in this country is that religion and science have been bifurcated into separate zones, separate themes of life, separate areas of life. And as our scientific understanding has advanced, it has threatened our religious interpretation. And this creates a tension to where people are not comfortable with the questions that it brings up.
And of course this is my – I should preface this, that this is my opinion of what happens – is that there becomes, well, if my religious tradition is teaching that the earth was created in six days, and that the earth is only several thousand years old, if there is a piece of scientific evidence that says, “well no, we know the earth is four billion years old, we can use different dating techniques,” then that threatens my religion. And instead of saying, perhaps my interpretation is wrong, perhaps our understanding is wrong, there’s a tendency to just like, dig in, and say no, this is an attack.
And science is just talking about, you know, the best estimate we can make with the information available. This is the best interpretation of the scientific evidence. And that means it can change every once in a while. As we know, Pluto was a great example of this. When New Horizons went to Pluto, our entire understanding of of planetary geology on icy worlds changed, and it was exciting. Unfortunately, what has been happening in the Evangelical community, when our understanding of life on earth has changed, it’s scared them. And they’re not like, “this is exciting,” they’re like, “This is threatening to our religious world view,” because if this isn’t true, what else isn’t true?
Brad Hirschfield: Good. So this – I want to get into this little bit, because I think you’ve hit on something that’s very important. People don’t typically open their minds when they feel under threat. In fact – and you’re the scientist, not me – I think there’s a lot of biological evidence when we’re genuinely under threat, and I genuineness is I experience this as a threat whether it’s real or not, right. The only difference, in my mind, between perception and reality is that it’s harder to change perception. Right, so that is just the way it is – oh, Elad liked that, I got a snicker out of him, that’s a good day for me. You should feel free to jump in here at some point by the way.
So I think that simply telling people, “hey, this is no threat,” isn’t going to help, even though I happen to have views that are much like yours. That ironically, the bifurcation of science from religion did a disservice to both by taking wonder out of science for too many people, and by making people of faith feel under threat from religion as opposed to “My God,” literally, “you could pursue a deeper understanding of the world.” And when you said things like “oh my God,” if you’re a person of faith, not that you have to be, you would actually have an experience that both your soul and your mind were fully engaged.
And yet in the splitting, which I can understand was done for very good reasons, because the splitting of religion and science in part was a function of the splitting of religion and state, and since state sponsored religion had a couple thousand years of pretty ugly run for most people if they were in the minority, any minority, so I get it, but we’re going to have to come back and now address the fact that by dis-integrating people, we made the faithful fearful, and that in their fear, they often end up lashing out.
So, what would you suggest, because you’ve studied this phenomenon and this population, so we can deconstruct it, but it’s not going to make things better because the longer, as you said, people feel afraid, the more, you know, harshly they’re going to dig in, and telling them “well you don’t need to,” that’s like telling someone to calm down. It just doesn’t work, it’s not going to help.
So I’m curious, based on the analysis you’ve given and the picture you’ve drawn, assuming we would like to do better than simply shrilly screaming at each other about this, what might be a way to open this conversation rather than litigate it to death?
Kat Robison: I think conversation is the key. You have to be able and be willing to speak with each other. You cannot throw facts at anyone and change their mind. However, you can build relationships, so it’s about getting people of faith together with scientists and talking about, well, why do you believe this? Why do you feel this way? Why does it threaten you? What is it about this that makes you feel as if you need to dig in? Or, how is it that as a scientist I’m not communicating clearly enough, or I’m communicating a way that makes your religion feel threatened? Because I’m not speaking about your religion, I’m not making a religious or a moral judgment, I’m talking about a natural phenomenon within the earth or within the universe.
So it’s about creating conversations, and it’s not just between science and religion – this is the problem we have right now with our politics. We’re no longer speaking with each other. We have turned “compromise” into a dirty word. Our founders, which we also love to bring up and talk about, argued a lot with each other. I mean, the election of 1800, if you think this past election was anything, please, please read a history book and read about the election of 1800. It was very dirty. And – but they fought with each other, and they had real disagreements, but they were able to come to the table, they were able to have a conversation, and focus on what was important, and focus on making laws, and making a constitution, and drafting these documents that have withheld for over two centuries, that are the lifeblood and DNA of what makes America great.
And now we no longer like compromise, because if you reach across the aisle, you’re excoriated by your own party, sometimes by the press, so it’s the same thing with science and religion. Lots of scientists don’t see a conflict, and sort of – I think a lot of people paint science as like “oh, science hates religion and religion hate science” and most people, they’re not seeing them in conflict with each other, they’re seeing “science is applicable to this part of my life” and “religion is applicable to this part of my life.” For some people they overlap, for some they don’t. So it’s about being willing to come to the table to have a conversation.
Brad Hirschfield: So what do you say in that conversation? For me, it’s always important to try and imagine myself as the person I’m not, right, so I’m going to now inhabit that person. I come and say, you know, Kat, that’s all very nice, and you’re clearly extremely bright and you’ve got a very gentle spirit, so I’m going to sit here and not try and beat on you too much, but here’s my Bible. And my Bible, in Genesis, says “in six days the Lord God made the world.”
What am I to do with the claim that science says it’s not six days? And I am a young-earth creationist and proudly so. The best count I have is the world is somewhere between 5 and 6,000 years old, because I count the generations in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and I go from there into recorded history and it’s consciously is history. And that’s it, that’s the count. So, by definition, as gently as you say it, your science is in conflict with my faith, isn’t it?
Kat Robison: And this is where I have to come and say, there’s two options here. One, we’re never going to agree. And that’s OK. It’s OK to to be in conflict on this. But what I would like to ask is what happens if the world wasn’t created in six days. Does that change who God is?
Brad Hirschfield: And if I say yes, because you know, and that is a stretch, I’m not a Christian, but if I deny six days of creation I may as well deny his Risen Son. And then, what’s the point.
Kat Robison: It’s an excellent question, and what I would challenge you to do, as an Evangelical Christian expressing these beliefs, is to look at the words in the Scripture and to say, what does it actually say?
Brad Hirschfield: And I’m gonna push one last time, I know, I’m torturing you – I have looked. I don’t see it that way. I am convinced I am right, you were right the first time, we are going to disagree till the end of time on this. Do have anything, though, that would make me less angry? We’re not gonna agree. I’ve heard all your arguments. They’re very nice. I don’t accept them. But I’m tired of being angry. Because I think these are good people, and I don’t think most people want to go through life angry. I’m tired of being angry.
Do you have any way of talking to me about this so we really could disagree, and even if I lose the case, and my kid goes in and learns the “theory” of evolution, we’ll get back to that, sorry, I have to come back to myself occasionally, that I’m not going to sit at home raging at how you are corrupting them. What can you tell me?
Kat Robison: Because no matter what I tell you, God is still God.
Brad Hirschfield: What do you mean by that?
Kat Robison: I mean that God is bigger than any disagreement that we have together, and He is very clear on the power of forgiveness and compassion and care for your fellow person. And we may not disagree, we may disagree, we may not ever agree, but no matter what, God is still God and we can rely on that, and the God that you and I believe in is not a God who is advocating for anger against their fellow human.
Brad Hirschfield: Great. Jump in, Elad.
Elad Nehorai: Yeah, just had a thought, I mean, one of the things that I find interesting about this discussion is like, I also feel, though, that there is a deep – as much as we like, I personally have the opinion that religion and science can co-exist, but I do think that there is a deeply held philosophy among – like it’s an actual philosophy, I think, among a lot of people in terms of their belief that they can’t – like, what I mean to say is that this is an actual part of the structure of their religion, and I say this as someone who used to be more strictly on that side, as a religious person, and who later kind of grew to the viewpoint that you have in terms of their ability to co-exist. And what I found fascinating about that place that I came from is that a lot of people made the argument that the science was flawed. Kind of in the same way that I hear you saying that, kind of, their view of religion may be limited.
And I just – you know, part of the issue is I think what you said is so beautiful, in terms of going to the place of God, but I also think what’s hard is it seems to me is that people are speaking different languages, you know, and I think – so I don’t know if I have a specific question, but what I found fascinating about the beginning when you were talking about that we should have conversations, what it actually sounded like you were saying was that we should listen, you know, you kept saying all these questions, you would ask them. And in my experience from sitting down and talking with friends, that seems to me to be maybe the only way that you can even have a conversation, you know, just trying to understand where people are actually at.
Kat Robison: I agree, and I think listening is important, because in these conversations, you know, an evangelical Christian who has been socialized to think that science is attacking their religion is going to be defensive. And one way in which you can deal with that is to be willing to listen to what they’re saying, because they may have never been able to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t think science is attacking their religion. And just hearing someone’s concerns, you know, will then personalize science to them, will personalize a scientist, and that’s why, to me, at the end of the day, convincing someone that the Earth is four billion years old is not so important to me. However, being able to sit down and have a meaningful conversation with someone is important.
Brad Hirschfield: And I think it’s crucial. That’s the one piece, by the way, of even these laws, which do make me nuts, I’m sympathetic to. They’re rooted in people’s desire to have a voice, to be heard, and the two things I know is, no one ever says they’ve been heard too much or loved too much. And so I take it really – I mean, maybe you guys are the exception, you’ll say “Brad, you’re nuts, I’ve been heard plenty, I’m done and I’ve had plenty of love. I don’t need any more.” But I don’t know anyone who’s ever said “I’ve actually been heard plenty, I’m done, no need to listen to me any more ever again,” or “I’ve had enough love, let someone else have it.”
And so that’s the part that I’m really sympathetic to. And I think it’s not about fighting the law, it’s getting at what’s motivating it and opening opportunities. I want people to be heard. I want people to be heard, even about things that frankly I think are kind of batty, because I think there’s a wisdom even to the battiness, and I want them litigated in court if I can help it, I don’t want ta hearing officer deciding about it. Because I think, Elad, you’re right, these are two different languages, and they’re only in competition because of a misunderstanding, which has nothing to do with – one can be 100% true or 100% false, they could be 50-50 – it just turns out they’re ships passing in the night, I think, in so many ways.
And that’s a big piece of this, I think, is that the other thing I might say to that person is, it’s not that science is an attack on religion, it actually proceeds with different premises from faith. And so let’s assume for a minute everything they teach in that Earth Science class that your eighth grader is in is complete B.S. It’s totally bogus. How do you know? “Because I read Genesis, so that’s stupid it’s not it’s just not like that.” OK, maybe. But it wouldn’t matter as much if you didn’t think it was competing for the mind-space and heart-space that Genesis takes up.
The premise is different. Science is happy to be wrong.
Kat Robison: Exactly.
Brad Hirschfield: Faith, for many people, can’t tolerate that. That’s a whole separate show and a whole separate conversation.
Elad Nehorai: I was going to get started on that.
Brad Hirschfield: I know. Because I think for some of us, actually, faith’s ability to be wrong and to be revisited is actually what defines it as faith and gives us a lot of energy. But I accept that for some people, it can’t be. And the very notion that faith could be wrong means it’s corrupt, it’s false. But it comes from a different place.
So I wonder what you think about this idea when it comes to policy, and I want to at some point move us to the space stuff, cause I’m really interested in it. I’ve actually said that I have no problem with things like creationism being taught in school. But not in a science class. I don’t mind if kids are exposed to ideas that I don’t share. But the premise has to be the same. In the same way, I wouldn’t teach art in a geometry class.
Kat Robison: Exactly.
Brad Hirschfield: Because the definition of what an isosceles triangle is is different when you’re doing a geometric proof than when I take my kid into the arts, just like, make triangles. I don’t care if they’re triangles there, or they are quadrangles, frankly, if they experience them as triangles and it’s their artistic expression, and they want to call it that, great.
Kat Robison: Well, it’s a lack of humanities education in the United States we have. To me this is a symptom of that, so, and moving towards a focus and I say this as someone who is in science and loves science, but we have moved sort of this focus, again with the bifurcation, the humanities and the liberal arts are away from the STEM fields. One of the most important contributions that education in the liberal arts, in the humanities, makes, is the ability to critically think. We don’t teach history, we don’t really teach religious history in this country, because we’re very afraid of that.
Brad Hirschfield: We’re so afraid that it will be corrupt, is evangelizing the students. And I get it, oftentimes that is and I get in so much trouble when I go to some places, they say you’re opening a Pandora’s Box. I don’t know that we have a choice on some level, because I don’t want to fight religion versus science in the science class. It’s stupid. It’s a different premise. And even though my faith is rooted in a story that’s closer to the science class, so it’s easier for me to say. I have no problem, read that story where it belongs, which is not in science, because if I asked a person of faith, of this kind of faith, I should say, “can literal Genesis be an accurate and the Bible still be true?” And they’ll go “no, it’s a stupid question.” Great. That’s why in my mind, it can’t be taught in a science class, because in science, in fact, the more you can discover the things we used to think are inaccurate, the closer you’re getting to the truth.
Kat Robison: Exactly.
Brad Hirschfield: And so they’re just ships passing in the night. I feel like we never say that, we never give people the space to be heard on what they do believe, so they end up fighting in the wrong place about things that – that’s where they may not be in conflict. Whatever they look like to you is a matter of policy.
So I want to ask you kind of this one thing, because this was at the heart of what is actually going on right now in Florida. This is one of the people who is pushing one of these laws that would put religious theories of creation and evolution on a par with scientific theories, theory means, of evolution.
“The science here is not proven on either side,” the advocates said. “There are lots of scientists on both sides of that equation, creationism versus the theory of evolution. They’re both theories, and all we’re asking for us is both sides of the discussion, in a balanced way, be put in front of the students.” Now it’s pretty clear I think that’s wrong, yes, I own that, but you’re the expert, so talk to us about it.
Kat Robison: So a lot of this is unfamiliarity, as you are saying Elad, with the language. In science, theory does not mean a hypothesis. Theory does not mean an unproven, untested explanation. In science, theory means the accepted explanation based on all available evidence for the phenomena it’s studying. Whereas in common language, theory means “oh, I just think this might happen,” or, “I posit this might be it”. And so that creates a lot of confusion when you tell someone, oh, well, the theory of evolution, they’re like “well it’s just a theory so I can disregard it.”
Whereas it’s a lot more difficult to say, “well, the accepted explanation based on all available evidence for the evolution of life on earth,” you know, is a lot harder to say, than to say “the theory of evolution.” And it really comes to this idea that we do not have the appropriate language to cross between religion and science.
Brad Hirschfield: So I think that’s really powerful. Especially cause, as I said, we’re going to talk about how do people talk out of their bubbles. This is really an area of expertise for you, and you can stay in this field or in any area that’s important to you because, I think, in so many cases, we really don’t have the language that would help us get beyond these barriers. It’s not that they’ll be, you know, the birds will chirp and we’ll all agree at the end of the day, I don’t expect that. I’m not even sure, frankly, I want that, because I think the rubbing up against each other and disagreement is actually really generative and creates new ideas and new thinking. And I admit it, I like it.
I just wish it wasn’t so damn nasty. And I think so much of the nastiness is what you’re describing. We don’t have the language, so we call it the theory of evolution, because there’s a humility in the best of science. And I get it, there’s plenty of arrogant science, just like there’s plenty of arrogant faith, but the best of science – we call it the theory of evolution, because in humility, while there is much evidence for it, I can’t prove 100% that it’s as real as my kicking a rock and my toe hurting (thank you, David Hume).
So I get that, but it may also be undermining u,s because it may have put evolution on a par with something which some. Not only have I not proven it, there is no test for it. In fact if there were a test for it, I would argue against the test, because it’s an act of faith. And now that’s how the theory of evolution, the theory of creationism end up on a par. So how do we create a new language in any of these fields so we can talk to people who aren’t in our bubble, who aren’t in our, forgive me, echo chamber?
Kat Robison: Well I think it’s not so much even about creating a new language, it’s about telling our story in their language. If you exist within a bubble, whatever the bubble is, if it’s academia, or professionalism or religion, if you want to communicate with someone outside of that bubble, it is incumbent upon you to learn the language of the people with whom you want to converse. Dava Newman, who is the former deputy administrator of NASA, also a great researcher in space suit technology, she said “Last year I was in Israel for the International Astronomical Congress, and we had a meeting for US students and young professionals, and we got to sit with her and also former NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, astronaut, a really great guy.”
Brad Hirschfield: Astronaut and great guy. Love that.
Kat Robison: And she said, someone asked her: “how do we communicate to our congressional representatives about the importance of science funding, science, space?” And she said “You must tell our story in their language.”
And it has stuck with me since then because it was a very eloquent way of saying something that I have been arguing for some time, is that if we want to be understood and heard by someone else, it is us who have to change. We cannot expect our audience to change for us, we must change for thee.
Elad Nehorai: You know what that reminds me of – did you see that Onion video of the, like blue collar workers, this blue collar guy who was like, a miner or something, he was talking about how he read 800 pages of feminist theory and that helped him understand like, why Trump was dangerous. And I just thought that was so perfect, because it’s such a like – what you’re describing, there was a such a great illustration of exactly what you’re describing.
Brad Hirschfield: Yeah it was perfect. Because people know what they have to do – Google this, it’s a miner who explains after reading 800 pages of feminist critique, he understood about Trump. And the weird thing is that what he is saying from these books is complete gobbledygook, and yet embedded in it there are some things which are demonstrably true, which you couldn’t possibly understand if you didn’t already have some appreciation of that other language. So it ends up, you talk right past an audience, and the only fear I have on that one is it sounds like “well, if miners were smarter they would understand feminist theory.”
And I think, and I want you to correct me if I’m wrong, you’re saying no no no, it’s not an up/down, smart /dumb thing. There is a wisdom on whatever side, and if you want to be heard by that side, you better learn the language and wisdom of that side, that echo chambers don’t crack from the outside, they crack from the inside.
Kat Robison: Mhm. No, I absolutely agree. If you want to be impactful, and this is, you know, the Republican Party has been incredibly successful at this. They have learned to speak the language of their constituents, even though many of their party elite do not represent their constituents. And it’s very important, if you want to be heard by someone, you don’t get heard by shouting.
Brad Hirschfield: So let me ask a question, because you do this, and I think here is where we start to get to more practical takeaways. What do you need, what do you think we need, to find the courage and strength to crack from the inside, without losing our integrity, because I’m not an apologist for that. This is where I don’t think when you crack from the inside you lose who you are, I actually think that’s where you find some of your best self, but that’s me and I might be nuts.
But where do you find the strength and the courage to crack from the inside and still be you and still have your integrity?
Kat Robison: I think you have to have a deep humility about who you are, and also a deep love and compassion for your fellow human, because…
Brad Hirschfield: Where do you go to get that. I don’t mean to cut you off, but someone will say, where do you, Kat, because you’re living on the growing edge of this tension. Where do you go to find that?
Kat Robison: I grew up in an Evangelical Christian household, Southern Baptist, so one, I understand this very very deeply. But for me, as a lover of space, there’s a very classic Carl Sagan quote that “we’re all star stuff,” and in order to find my compassion for people, especially people with whom I have deep uncrossable views and divides with, I look at them and I see that there was a moment in time in which this person and I existed together at the beginning of the universe in a hot star. And I have to pay homage to that, that cosmic brotherhood, sisterhood, personhood that we have together, and that’s where for me it comes in, and that makes me humble, because I am small in the grand scheme of things, and that makes me connected because we have shared matter with that person. So, that’s where it comes from for me.
Brad Hirschfield: I mean the amazing thing to me is, you did it off of Carl Sagan. And I feel like you couldn’t have described better one of the fundamental – no pun intended – truths that speak to me about the story of the creation of Adam and Eve. Whether there was an Adam or was an Eve, and I definitely don’t think if there was it was 5,000 years ago, I don’t think that’s the way the world works, though I do believe the stories from God, I want to be clear. Is that means that every single one of us has the same parent. And that’s, by the way, not me that’s that’s rabbinic sages who lived in time of Jesus, and one of their takeaways is that the reason the story is told the way it is is that no human being can look at another and say “your father or mother is greater than mine,” because we all have the same father and mother.
And I don’t know if – I don’t believe that’d be biologically true, but again, that’s an accuracy question. I think there’s a truth to it that we can get a lot of strength from, but since you mentioned space, I’m not letting you go without a little bit of space, a little bit of poetry, right. You were happily working in this very complicated – and it’s not going away anytime soon – of public policy and political science with evangelical Christians, it’s part of your life story and then space happened. So why space?
Kat Robison: So I’ve always loved space because I grew up – it actually comes from almost a moment of tragedy. It does come from a moment of tragedy. My first birthday was when the Challenger mission exploded 72 seconds after launch on January 28th 1986, and every year on my birthday, on the news, was a remembrance. And so I was always interested. I wanted to know about space, wanted to know what was going on, and during my undergraduate I sort of got back involved with the community through NASA tweet-ups and met a great community of people who just were space enthusiasts, who were across the political spectrum, in fact, which is really a great thing about space, is that takes it – it brings in everyone. And so when I first went back to school, because I didn’t go back to my undergrad until I was 23, I had intended to study one thing. And I actually have two degrees, one is in anthropology, and I did all biological anthropology, studying, like, “How did humans become bipedal?”. I even worked in the lab with one of my professors one semester doing actual research on lumbar lordosis.
Brad Hirschfield: Which is?
Kat Robison: Which is this is the curvature of the lower spine, which is something that helps us very efficient walking. And also, then through an interesting lecture that I heard about Turkey’s role during the Holocaust in offering citizenship to former citizens of the Ottoman Empire, added a second major in Near Eastern Studies, which is a very interesting sort of mix of of non-related but surprisingly related things. But one thing I got a lot of pushback from, from my church, was like “why are you studying evolution? That’s not real.” And I was just like, “what do you mean that’s not real, like, I don’t even understand.”
And that got me interested, when I was applying to grad school actually, into science communication. So my master’s focused a lot on science communication and the study of what was relationship between religion and science, how do we even curate or talk about science in the United States.
And then when I was applying to PhD Programs, I got into three different programs in three different fields, none of which I had a previous degree in, so it was communication and American studies and political science, and my advisor at the University of Alabama, Dr. Derek Frazier, convinced me that political science was the way to go, because it could most easily address these science communication questions. And about six months into my degree he was like you know “every example that you use is space.” He’s like “why aren’t you just studying space policy?” Like that’s a great question, why am I not just studying space policy? Because the communication around space touches all areas of science communication, and so that brought me into looking at space policy, and where I am now, which is sort of deciding what’s the exact facet on which I will focus my dissertation, because I have several projects that are in different areas of space policy that I’m working on right now.
But I love space ever since I can remember, and now I am incredibly lucky and blessed that I get to study it and get paid to do it.
Brad Hirschfield: I love that part of the answer, addition to the poetry of Sagan and your own personal narrative, is a kind of spirit of discovery, and I think for most of us, especially us non-scientists, you know, political science is cool and I actually do more of that kind of stuff, but I don’t know if I think of it as discovery. But I hear space and I’m like, that’s the stuff of discovery.
And I want – as we move to the close here – to ask you, if I can, to read one of your poems that for me is very much connected to a spirit of discovery. In this case, self-discovery and renewal. And the poem is called “Her.” And why should I read it when the author is with us?
Kat Robison: well I’m happy to read this, which is a treat, I very rarely read my poetry to anyone.
Brad Hirschfield: For us too.
having lived this day
i am not the same she
that this morning awoke
different than how I was
the moment my eyes closed.
Brad Hirschfield: So. Thank you for that. I want to ask you one question, having just read that very brief, very poignant poem about change – dare I say it – evolution. But based on this conversation, I think I know the answer. With all that change going on, that awakening and going back to sleep and reawakening, do you ever experience a loss in integrity in the midst of all that change?
Kat Robison: I’m always me.
Brad Hirschfield: I want to thank you, Kat Robison, for helping us crack the echo chamber, and especially today, for that spirit of discovery and change, and always being ourselves. Thank you so much.
Kat Robison: It was my pleasure to be here, thank you so much.
Brad Hirschfield: I’m Brad Hirschfield, and this has been Cracking the Echo Chamber.