Who made that rule?

Fresh Air yesterday did an interview with science writer Kitty Ferguson, who has written a biography of Stephen Hawking. There was one bit where Ferguson was summarizing Hawking on how it all began (to put it as crudely as possible) and mentioned his saying that ‘god’ wasn’t necessary for it to begin. Terri Gross paused to discuss this idea, and Ferguson rebuked Hawking for mentioning it.

He was out of his depth, she said. It’s not his subject. He’s not “an expert.”


Who is “an expert” on this subject? What makes anyone an expert on this subject? What is the expertise involved?

I really don’t know. I don’t know what she thought she meant. Do people think there’s an actual body of knowledge that people have that qualifies them to say god is or is not needed? Does she just mean philosophers who understand the difficulties of causality?

If it’s the second, though, it seems dubious, because surely causality is central to what Hawking does. But if it’s the first it’s just nonsense.

This is one of the last resorts of the defenders of theism and the delicate feelings of theists: the idea that amateurs don’t get to say they see no reason to believe in god. But amateurs do get to go to church and become clerics and tell everyone what to do. Who made that rule?


  1. jamessweet says

    I don’t have a problem per se with saying someone is ought of their depth and not qualified to comment. But you also need to say why they are wrong.

    When amateur denialists weigh in on climate change, it’s all fine and good to point out that they have no idea what they are talking about. But you also have to point them to the facts.

    When “amateur theologians” such as Hawking or the gnus weigh in on goddy questions, you can’t just point out that we have no idea what we are talking about unless you can point to someone who does and what they are actually saying.

  2. doktorzoom says

    I’m sorry, I have this mental image of John Goodman yelling at Stephen Hawking to shut up–“You’re out of your element, Hawking!”

  3. Anteprepro says

    And yet theologians/Christian philosophers are rarely ever chastised for pretending that they are authorities on science when it is blatantly obvious that they barely grasp the basics. Go figure.

  4. FresnoBob says

    I’m often impressed by the audacity of ‘religious leaders’ who criticise gnus for not being theological experts, denouncing their criticisms rather than addressing them on the basis that they are unqualified, when they must know that the vast majority of their congregations would struggle to even name a theologian let alone illustrate his/her philosophical positions.

  5. says

    I don’t have a problem per se with saying someone is ought of their depth and not qualified to comment. But you also need to say why they are wrong.

    When amateur denialists weigh in on climate change, it’s all fine and good to point out that they have no idea what they are talking about.

    I have a problem with saying someone is out of her depth if there is no depth to be had. By the same token I have a problem with saying someone is not an expert if there is no expertise to be had.

    It’s not really possible to say anybody is “wrong” about “god” because it’s just made up to begin with. “god” is not even wrong, as the saying goes.

    With climate change, there are facts, there are data, there is evidence. “Wrong” has a meaning. With “god”…it’s just words.

  6. 'Tis Himself, OM. says

    Ms. Ferguson was referring to Sophistimacted Theologie™ which, as we all know, atheists are ignorant about.

  7. Irene Delse says


    And yet theologians/Christian philosophers are rarely ever chastised for pretending that they are authorities on science when it is blatantly obvious that they barely grasp the basics. Go figure.

    QFT. The pope talking about condoms spreading Aids comes to mind. Or that Iranian cleric pretending that women immodestly clothed lead to earthquakes.

  8. Martyn Hughes says

    @ ‘Tis himself, OM’.

    I could find no word ‘Sophistimacted’ within the dictionary.

    I, this atheist, will forever have to remain ignorant about that. It seems.

  9. Crow says

    Maybe if she thinks of religion as more of a “club” her statement makes more sense. I mean, she’s still wrong, but it might make sense from her POV.

    For instance, regardless of how much you’ve studied the Boyscouts of America, for instance, you’ll never be as much of an “expert” as someone in the club.

    Sure, outsiders can criticize them for their bigoted practices, but you won’t understand what the BSoA is really about unless you’ve participated.

    Likewise for religion? Again, I’m just speculating as to how she would rationalize this.

    This perspective makes it impossible for someone who doesn’t belong to the club to offer a dissenting opinion, a very convenient side effect.


  10. cpt banjo says

    Hawking’s statement is reminiscient of the remark attributed to French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simpon Laplace, who upon presenting a copy of his 5-volume work on celestial mechanics to Napoleon, was asked by the Emperor why he did not mention God anywhere in the work. He replied, “I had no need for that hypothesis.”

  11. ernie keller says

    Hawking is not out of his depth to say that science has no need for a god hypothesis. And if Ferguson thinks that Hawking is wrong she should give some indication of how expertise can be brought to bear. What kind of expertise stands above and outside science to force it to consider ideas it has no need of? Is there unscientific expertise concerning the origin of the Universe? And if it’s unscientific, what is it expert about?

  12. Nentuaby says

    Um. Leaving aside the basically flawed argument, Hawking IS an expert on the topic at hand…Something like THE expert, in fact. Pretty much your go-to for what is necessary for a universe to start.

  13. ernie keller says

    The complaint is more general than Hawking or a particular theory. It’s that science is leaving something out, something it’s not expert to judge, and the inference is that there is something to be expert in and someone who’s an expert. But I wonder how you can have expertise without standards for knowledge.

    Science and common sense are standards based, the hypothesis of divine creation rejects the standard and Hawking and other scientists have the appropriate standing as qualified experts to say this isn’t permissible. It raises the question of why some scientists don’t agree. What grounds do they have? Don’t the religious ideas of compatibilists have to pass muster with the science they assert is true, and if not why not?

  14. says

    Crow – heh. Yes I guess so, except she ought to be able to see the feebleness of that.

    I’m not sure it was actually “sincere” – it may have been a sop to the assumed wrath or grief of the listeners. There were plenty of people saying the same thing when Hawking was in the newspapers for saying god wasn’t necessary for the beginning. And what Nentuaby said – if he can’t say what he takes to have been necessary for the beginning, then who can? It seems so ridiculous…

    Fresh Air never disses religion though. Never. I sometimes wonder if guests are actually briefed beforehand – “no dissing religion.”

  15. cconti says

    Theology. Now, that’s a joke.
    “I think my immaginary entity has tentacles”
    “You heretic, he is a serpent shaped imaginary entity. Glory be with him, he has no tentacles or arms.”
    “You have a limited vision of god. The serpent you see is just one of the tentacles”
    FSM theologians before they discovered his noodliness.

  16. Wowbagger, Madman of Insleyfarne says

    Why would an expert on fact need to be an expert on fiction to call it fiction?

  17. screechy monkey says

    I think they’re following a flowchart.

    1. Is this atheist an expert theologian?
    If NO: Say “you’re out of you’re depth.”
    If YES: Really? And he or she’s an atheist? Um, ok, then go to 2 I guess.

    2. Was this person always an atheist?
    If NO: “Ah, I see. So what tragedy happened in your life to make you so mad at God?”
    If YES: “Wow, you’ve devoted your life to studying something that you don’t believe exists? Really? Are you SURE you don’t REALLY believe deep down?”

  18. sailor1031 says

    What Ferguson was meaning, I believe, is that Hawking is not a clergyman or a theologian and is therefore not qualified to speak about the existence, or otherwise, of doG.

    What Hawking was meaning was that modern theories of cosmology do not require doG because either the explosion of the original singularity was a natural process that did not require a doG OR the universe has always existed and periodically recycles in a natural process that again does not require a doG.

    Depends who you read but Turok and Steinhardt have an interesting book out on the cyclic universe. For the slightly older inflationary theory Guth has a book out. Both books geared to non-physicists.

  19. Uncle Matt says

    This woman calls herself a writer? I can only immagine the level of Christian bias, omissions, misstatements and out right deception she puts into print. If anyone can be concidered an expert on the origins of the universe, Dr. Hawkings is one. She, on the other hand is obviously not an expert at anything. The fact that an imaginary god and his delusional fan club receive special treatment and criticizing their ridiculous beliefs is off limits is absurd. These Christian morons have held back the progress of knowledge and mankind in general for thousands of years and have absolutely no right to force their insane beliefs upon the rest of society.

  20. Uncle Matt says

    Also, the fact tha on average, Atheist know more about religion than believers do. My source is The Pew Foundation.

  21. says

    Oh, come on, that’s like saying there can be an expert on the hunting of the snark. It’s silly to say that there can be experts on god. There isn’t one. There can be experts in theology, no doubt, and even in philosophical theology, but that is a different thing, and not a necessary prerequisite for saying that there is no god. But on the other hand, as sailor1031 says, Hawking is an expert in cosmology, and, if Laplace could say that he did not need the god hypothesis, surely Hawking is qualified to say that the assumption of god is not required by the theory. And it is surely pompous for Ferguson to suggest otherwise.

  22. says

    Re 20
    I prefer to use the term BOOB [a benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent being]. I also like the term BOO – benevolent, omniscient and omnipotent, and just a bit scary.

  23. says

    Let them say it, so long as scientists can tell religious people to shut up about evolution, stem cell research, or other topics religious people are not experts on.

  24. Richard says

    My comment on the Fresh Air Facebook page, after hearing the show:

    With all respect; for Ms Ferguson to say that Mr Hawking was “out of his league” to address the God concept… Nonsense!

    Does Ms Ferguson imagine that Mr Hawking is somehow disqualified by either his immersion in physics or his immersion in impaired physical embodiment, to effectively (to her hubristic satisfaction) address the issue of the God concept?

    She appeared simplistically as a believer in these concepts, who was eager to blatantly disregard the considered opinions of Mr Hawking on these matters.

    Shame on you, Ms Ferguson; your subject deserves a better observer, if you need to pollute his views with your own…

    Terry was characteristically wise to remain silent. Such respectful discretions are what places her among the best interviewers.

  25. klem says

    She made that rule herself adn she’s wrong. Anyone who is not an authority on anything can say whatever they want to say, one does not need to be an authority to say it. You don’t need to quote sources, just speak.

    Al Gore spoke up a few years ago though a propaganda movie and won a Nobel prize. Is he an aurthority on anthropogenic climate change? No, he’s an expert in propaganda movies. But most people continue to beleive hes an authority on ACC.

  26. Kate from Iowa says

    Hey Eric @23,

    The Hunting of the Snark
    Lewis Carroll, Henry Holiday

    ISBN 0393062422

    There’s an expert for any old crap you can think up.

  27. peterh says

    Every so often someone with the IQ of a doorstop shows up on Fresh Air. Terri Gross is to be commended for keeping her cool when she might easily be swept away by paroxysms of laughter.

  28. Roger says

    Theologians are experts on deciding whether ‘Two plus two is three’ or ‘Two plus two are three’ is correct.

  29. Kevin says

    You know, the thing is, Hawking is just following in the footsteps of other scientists who have looked at the evidence and found that they have “no need for the hypothesis” of a god in order to understand the workings of the cosmos.

    I don’t even think LaPlace started it — but he was certainly made famous by his statement.

  30. Kevin says

    I also feel the need to raise this additional point:

    This is about whose issue the origins of the universe belongs to. Is it a religious issue, or a scientific issue?

    Well, let’s see. Religion told us that an invisible fairy spoke magic words and poofed the universe into existence out of nothing. And later created all plants and animals de novo out of nothing; but made human males from clay, and human females from the rib of man.

    Science tells us a slightly different story. In fact, every single religious claim about the origins of the Earth, the solar system, the universe have been proved false. Every single religious claim about biology has been shown to be egregiously wrong.

    So, whose issue does the origins of the universe belong to?

    Who studies the cosmos? Scientists.
    Who studies the smallest of particles trying to tease out the fundamental forces of nature? Scientists.
    Who discovered that our universe began with a “Big Bang”? A scientist (and a priest).
    Who told the pope not to “go there” with an assertion that the creation account of Genesis was accurate on the basis of his discovery of the Big Bang? That same priest-scientist.

    Stephen Hawking is indeed an expert on the origins of the universe. He’s one of the pre-eminent experts in the field. If not him, who?

    What is religion providing us as counter-weights to the discoveries made by science? Name ONE SINGLE INSTANCE of a finding by science that was overturned by a religious “finding”.

    No. I’m quite sure that Hawking is indeed an expert on the issue, and those that claim otherwise do not have a firm grasp on the obvious.

  31. 'Tis Himself, OM. says

    Kevin #34

    Who discovered that our universe began with a “Big Bang”? A scientist (and a priest).

    To amplify your somewhat ambiguous comment, Georges Lemaître, the physicist who first postulated the Big Bang, was both a scientist and a priest.

  32. Roger says

    Georges Lemaître, the physicist who first postulated the Big Bang, was both a scientist and a priest.

    But could he be both a scientist and a priest at the same time?

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