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Environmental Science Front and Center at Denver Workshop

Denver Science Perceptions Workshop4

Public Agenda staff member Katie Barth records small group discussion at Denver Science Perceptions Workshop | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

Climate and renewable energy were front and center at DoSER’s second Science Perceptions Workshop, held in Golden, Colorado, August 15. The workshop drew a wide variety of local scientists, along with evangelical leaders from area churches, para-church organizations, denominations, and seminaries. Together the group considered scientific topics of concern in the Colorado region.

In a lecture titled, “Planet Earth Care: Does It Matter?”  Kennell J. Touryan, retired chief technology analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), discussed renewable energy and potential environmental impacts of shale gas exploration. Relating his topic to the science/religion interface that the group had gathered to discuss, Touryan said:

  • Science continually raises philosophical questions that go beyond the competence or purview of science.
  • Evidence of random chemical processes is not necessarily evidence for philosophical accidentalism.
  • In science, an unanswered question is far more important than an unquestioned answer.
  • In science, tentative conclusions should be stated in tentative form.
  • The confidence expressed in any scientific conclusion should be directly proportional to the quantity and quality of evidence for that conclusion.

Afterwards, Tissa Illangasekarea, distinguished chair and professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines led the group of 30 participants on tours of two laboratories in the Center for Experimental Study of Subsurface Environmental Processes (CESEP), which he directs. Here, a soil lab and wind tunnel are used to investigate complex subsurface systems and the environmental impact of their interaction with surface and atmospheric conditions.

Tissa Illangasekarea, Colorado School of Mines


Tissa Illangasekarea, Colorado School of Mines | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

The religious leaders, in particular, appreciated the opportunity to get an up-close-and-personal look at the work environmental scientists do. Casual conversation was rich as people from different walks of life took advantage of this unique opportunity to cross potential ideological divides and get to know each other.

“It was good to reach into the world of people who are opposed (and sometimes outright hostile) to my worldview, to understand and remember that each one is a person with very real needs,” a pastor said.  

During professionally facilitated small-group discussion, the roots of some disagreements began to emerge. A lack of shared vocabulary was one issue that participants considered. Another was the different lenses through which they and their respective communities sometimes view the world.

“It helped to hear perspectives from those who hold them rather than through third party interpretation,” said a scientist.

With a jam-packed schedule, some participants longed to dig deeper into areas of potential disagreement—like human origins and the philosophical limits of science and religion.

“We ought not too quickly congratulate ourselves simply for being able to talk to each other,” said a pastor. “I am always in favor of highlighting points of disagreement just as strongly as those upon which we agree. This helps us better understand the totality of one another’s understanding and framework.” 

As the day wound down and attendees lingered over dinner, however, men and women who may have begun the day thinking they had little in common found it difficult to part ways.

With the final regional workshop scheduled for September in Atlanta, Georgia, DoSER’s three-year Scientists and Religious Communities: Investigating Perceptions to Build Understanding project is quickly drawing to a close. There’s still much to learn and many new relationships to be forged in the coming months. We look forward to sharing insights from the project at the Perceptions: Science and Religious Communities National Conference March 13, 2015.