Peaceful Science Conversations in Real-Life Contexts

Hi all,

My name is Scott. I’m a recent (one month ago today, actually!) PhD graduate in Biostatistics. Despite the “Bio” appended to “statistics”, I am personally more inclined to mathematical statistics, and my dissertation would not have been out of place in a pure Statistics department.

Due to the pandemic and some other circumstances, I completed the majority of my studies online, and much of my interaction with others was limited to Zoom meetings with my advisor and research group. I am now preparing to enter the workforce, and am currently considering one final offer for a faculty research position, and one final offer to work as a statistician at a national lab.

Thus, I would like to ask folks here if they have any advice for conducting conversations related to faith and science in real-life, physical contexts. I unfortunately have very little experience with all of this, and thought that some here might. Thanks in advance.

As a brief disclaimer, I am a Christian, and have long wrestled with questions of the age of the earth, how to read genesis, evolution, Adam and Eve, and the like. I’m not even sure how I would describe my position at this point, but I appreciate the willingness of Peaceful Science to allow people to wrestle with these issues.


Nice to meet you @scott. I think the advice in this AAAS publication is really helpful. Have you read it yet?

We discuss it in our Mission and Values too:

Scientists in Civic Life by AAAS. The AAAS is the worlds largest association of scientists. They articulate evidence-based guidelines for engaging the public with science, advocating a trust-building model over a “knowledge-deficit” model of engagement. The data clearly indicates that it is not enough to be right, we also have to be trusted.


I appreciate the reply, and thanks for the welcome!

I have not seen that AAAS publication before, and I will look forward to reading it.

Hello Scott, and welcome to Peaceful Science! :slight_smile:

I too am a statistician (MS + PhD coursework) and have worked in biostatistics consulting for over 20 years. Congratulations on your achievement!

I find that religion rarely if ever enters into academic or professional discussion. Even if it did, it’s not going to change what we might do with resect to statistics. I am agnostic, and while you and I might argue over the age of the Earth (let’s not) that isn’t likely to come up in any sort of professional context. You are entering a profession where you will meet people from all over the world, and from all manner of religions, and we can all work together very nicely.

I know a biostatistician who expressed a sort of general support for Intelligent Design. When I asked privately their opinion of mathematical/statistical arguments for ID, they preferred the arguments about what evolution can accomplish (ie: The Edge of Evolution). Their faith was also important to them, and my impression is that faith is the primary influence on their opinion on ID, not the suspect mathematical methods you might have seen.

You might want to look up this book and blog by mathematician @Jason_Rosenhouse, who occasionally pops in here.


Hello Dan, thank you for the welcome and the advice! I must admit in my stretch of time lurking on this forum I had noticed that you are a fellow biostatistician, and as such I am particularly grateful for your insight.

I appreciate you sharing your own experiences, and I am glad they seemed to have been cordial as far as you describe. I am looking forward to interacting with many different kinds of people at my new job, and hopefully we are able to pursue meaningful work while having good conversation.

I suppose part of my worries lie in my own uncertainty, as I would describe my current thoughts as “OEC/EC/GAE-ish”, with probably more willingness to entertain fringe theories that are pretty much unverifiable thought experiments in any scientific, historic, or theological sense. I feel that I must have it “figured out” to be involved in any conversation like this, but this is probably just my insecurities speaking.

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I have worked in a lab that took in students (mostly summer internships) from BYU, and we had absolutely no problems. Every one of them was a great kid. I think you will find that the sciences are very welcoming to people of all faiths. Yes, there are a few exceptions, but that’s true in every profession. All I would suggest is that you discuss your faith as it comes up naturally in conversation. Work places usually aren’t the best places for missionary work.

The best approach might be to ask people to teach you what they know and what led them to the position they currently hold.


I appreciate the reply and the sharing of your own experiences!

I think your suggestion to ask questions and to listen is a very good one, and something I will try to keep in mind in all kinds of conversations at my new job.


It sounds like you are open to allow the data to update your prior assumptions. :slight_smile:


Ah, but if only generating a posterior from the data would result in a degenerate distribution in which there is no uncertainty…

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Now wondering if “generating a posterior” means pulling numbers out of…


In Bayesian inference, typically a prior distribution related to previous belief about the parameter(s) of interest and an empirical likelihood function based on the data at hand are used to derive a posterior distribution for the parameter(s) that accounts for the data.

In some circumstances, the posterior distribution can be derived analytically by hand, and thus we have the distribution. However, in many applications, this is either impossible or at least impractical. Thus, an empirical posterior distribution is often generated using a method such as MCMC. This will not completely define a theoretical distribution, but by generating enough samples that we believe to be representative of the true posterior distribution, we are able to perform inference.

Thus, in my usage above, I suppose “generating a posterior” could either refer to analytically deriving a posterior distribution, or using some sampling method to generate reasonable samples from the unknown posterior distribution. I hope this explanation is helpful if this was a general inquiry, but I apologize if this was not desired.

The comment itself was half a statistics joke, and half a musing about the amount of uncertainty we must all live with in our lives.

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Only if you are over fitting :slight_smile:

And it depends how you are parameterizing your model too!


I look at uncertainty as a good thing, it means there is more we can learn. :slight_smile:

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I wanted to thank everyone for the great advice and discussion.

The other day I accepted the faculty position, and I will be doing statistics for biomedical research within a medical school. I am excited to continue to pursue science and truth with the people there, and I hope to do so here as well.


This sounds exciting! Best of luck at your new job, and I hope you will visits us occasionally too.



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PS is cordial as long as you’re not YEC/ID. If you’re neither of those, I’m sure you’ll be welcomed with open arms.

I would take issue with that. Most people are cordial, most of the time, regardless of the beliefs of those they’re talking to. A few are habitually rude, and some become rude after extended contact with persistent obtuseness or mendacity of whatever stripe. It’s true, though, that some of the creationists who come here provoke that response, but there are others who do also. I might for example mention “Boris Badenov”, who is currently getting lots of abuse for the reasons mentioned.


Definition 1 of “cordial” from M-W online:

“showing or marked by warm and often hearty friendliness, favor, or approval”

No, I would not say that “most” opponents of YEC or ID here, certainly not most of the atheist ones, are “cordial” in the sense above. The attitude range among the atheists toward YEC or ID people is better characterized as ranging from “minimally polite” through “sarcastic” to “savage.” Among the Christian critics of YEC and ID, the range is less extreme, from “at least initially friendly and welcoming” through “normally polite” to “a bit sarcastic or biting,” but rarely “cordial.”

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Let’s face it: this is your personal experience, because you provoke such reactions.