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Hypothesis Testing

This material was originally created for On the Cutting Edge: Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.
Elizabeth Wright, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Course: Earth Science
20 students

The Activity

We discuss the scientific method. Then I present an image entitled "The World of the Ancient Hebrews," which shows "the heavenly seat of the Divinity," "the waters above the firmament," the stars, planets and the floodgates through a solid barrier, "the firmament," "the waters below the firmament," the solid earth, the waters below the earth, and "Sheol," and we discuss it as a hypothesis. Why would they postulate waters below the earth? What are the floodgates for? What is Sheol? (a shadowy sort of underworld, not to be confused with the later Christian conception of hell.)

How would they (the students) test this hypothesis, given modern technology? (They usually propose a space probe to look for the barrier between the firmament and the waters above the firmament.) We agree that this has already been done, and we would have to reject this particular hypothesis. This is the fate of most hypotheses.

But, I tell them, the ancient Hebrews got one thing exactly right: the earth is layered. If we remove the barriers and shake up the water, air and earth, what would we get? We agree on atmosphere, hydrosphere and solid earth. Why? They propose weight or density. Exactly! We discuss the layers of the solid earth and their densities. And what is the density of God or Sheol? No data, and no way to get any data. Therefore God and Sheol are outside the bounds of our (scientific) model.

This gets at the notion of hypothesis testing and letting the data decide, allows me to introduce the structure of the earth and the tools to discuss isostasy, and incidentally sets the boundaries between science and religion, which will come in handy when we get to evolution, which I ALWAYS try to do in my courses.