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Special Edition TNRTB: Astronomers Assess the Age of the Universe

Does the best scientific evidence point to a few-thousand-year-old cosmos or one that is a few billion years old?

A recent meeting of Christian astronomers sought to answer that question. During the meeting, Drs. Danny Faulkner and Hugh Ross presented the best case for a young and an ancient universe, respectively. A panel of evangelical Christian astronomers, mutually agreed upon by both presenters, evaluated the arguments to decide in which direction the evidence pointed. The panel’s report appears below and on Reasons To Believe’s website.

I would like to highlight one aspect of the panel’s assessment. A common perception is that results from a single experiment arbitrate between competing scientific models. Rarely does science operate so cleanly. Instead, as identified by the panel, scientific advance usually occurs through incremental gains in knowledge with meticulous cross-checking of assumptions and elimination of possible errors. The weight of evidence from multiple experiments, attacking the question from independent lines of reason (rather than a single line of evidence or result) leads to the correct answer. In this instance, the panel determined that the bulk of evidence available strongly affirms the antiquity of the universe.

The Panel of Astronomers’ Statement Follows

The following statement, prepared by the scholars whose names are attached, must be given in its entirety wherever it is reproduced. Copyright (held collectively by the authors), 2010

An Evaluation of Evidence for the Age of the Universe

A group of Christians professionally trained in astronomical research has reviewed presentations by Drs. Danny Faulkner and Hugh Ross, covering arguments on the age of the universe. We appreciated the civility and respect of the discourse on a topic often generating more heat than light within the Christian community. Our analysis concentrates on arguments made by the speakers dealing with astronomical data and calculations, rather than about Biblical interpretation or biological evolution, because the former are our areas of professional expertise. We do note that, for example, one’s view of Scriptural interpretation and theology will affect the range of models one would consider.

Our aim has been to assess the evidence for the age of the universe in the light of the arguments presented, using a standard scientific approach. Science seeks to make progress in understanding the physical world through inductive reasoning, rather than the watertight proofs found in mathematics. This means that scientific understanding advances through an enormous amount of focused, incremental efforts with many consistency checks in the context of a mutually accountable scientific community. Drawing sound conclusions about a general question such as the age of the universe cannot be done on the basis of one argument alone but requires many different independent experiments including tests that could falsify competing claims. Any conclusions, along with an evaluation of their certainty, are then made on the basis of the overall weight of the available evidence. There will often be some data that appear to disagree with the rest of the evidence; this does not automatically provide evidence for alternative hypotheses but often means that our theoretical understanding is not yet entirely complete.

Ross’s arguments provide solid evidence that the universe is billions of years old. He presents several independent arguments, based on a wide range of data, indicating that the universe and most objects in it are much older than ten thousand years. The light-travel-time argument is particularly strong in both its basis in physical principles and its simplicity. Faulkner does not present evidence for a universe thousands of years old but rather makes claims for isolated inconsistencies in the case for great age. While it is common scientific practice to look for holes in well-established theories, the new contrary evidence must either be very strong to counter the existing evidence for the theory or else be supported by a new theory that readily explains both the new evidence and the old. We judge that the “inconsistencies” pointed out by Faulkner do not meet either of these criteria. In some instances the observations are completely consistent with our current understanding of these physical systems in the context of an old universe; in others, while universally accepted interpretations don’t exist today and our knowledge is often still incomplete, such explanations are likely to be forthcoming as observations and theory progress. It is our professional judgment that the weight of the evidence overwhelmingly supports a universe that is billions of years old.

Gabriela Canalizo, Ph.D. (Associate Professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of California, Riverside)
Gerald Cleaver, Ph.D. (Associate Professor, Department of Physics, Baylor University)
Kyle Cudworth, Ph.D. (Director, Yerkes Observatory, Professor, The University of Chicago)
Pamela L. Gay, Ph.D. (Executive Director Astrosphere New Media Association, Edwardsville, Illinois)
Deborah Haarsma, Ph.D. (Chair and Associate Professor, Physics & Astronomy Department, Calvin College)
Bruce Hrivnak, Ph.D. (Professor, Department of Physics & Astronomy, Valparaiso University)
Stephen Kane, Ph.D. (NASA Exoplanet Science Institute, Caltech)
William Keel, Ph.D. (Professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Alabama)
Patricia Reiff, Ph.D. (Director, Rice Space Institute, Rice University)
Aaron Romanowsky, Ph.D. (Associate Specialist, University of California Observatories)
Matthew S. Tiscareno, Ph.D. (Research Associate, Department of Astronomy, Cornell University)
Rogier Windhorst, Ph.D. (Regents’ and Foundation Professor, School of Earth & Space Exploration, Arizona State University)
Donald York, Ph.D. (Professor, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Chicago)