Sunday, February 18, 2007


Blame Canada

I'm afraid I've annoyed Larry Moran again (it's not my mission in life, honest, it just seems to happen).

This time it was over my lawyerly dislike of unclear criteria for taking action against a person's life and livelihood. The specific case involves Marcus Ross, a young-Earth creationist who, nonetheless, recently received his doctorate in geosciences at the University of Rhode Island based on a dissertation about mosasaurs, marine reptiles that disappeared 65 million years ago.
I opined that trying to deny him his degree based solely on his religious beliefs was obviously wrong and trying to judge his science by any criteria other than relatively objective judgments on his knowledge and ability (not inclination) to do the work, is a slippery slope not worth risking, given the relatively small history of abuse of the process of awarding advanced degrees. Larry disagrees.

I'm fairly sure Larry wouldn't like the idea that his phone could be tapped just because George Bush thought Larry wasn't sufficiently "sincere" about his dedication to democracy. I have no more faith in the idea of leaving judgments about who should get to have a Ph.D., with all that entails in a person's life and employment, to some vague idea about who is sincere about science and who isn't.

There are two famous Ph.D.s whose religious beliefs are in apparent conflict with the science they got their degrees in: Jonathan Wells and Kurt Wise. Wells, a Moonie who was told by his cult's leader to get a degree to attack "Darwinism," is a thoroughgoing dissembler who has done much damage to science in support of Intelligent Design. Wise has been called an "honest creationist" by no less a personage than Richard Dawkins. But the simple fact is that this is not a rampant problem.

Actually, it might be more of a problem for the creationists. Ronald Numbers, in his definitive history of American creationism in the 20th Century, The Creationists, documented the efforts of various creationist groups to "pump out" people with doctorates in relevant sciences and their failure to be able to do so. In no small part it was because people who conscientiously studied the subject often lost or at least greatly modified their belief in creationism.

Now Peter McKnight, columnist for the Vancouver Sun, has weighed in, more or less on my side, giving Larry a fellow Canadian to be annoyed at.

McKnight notes that National Center for Science Education executive director Eugenie Scott thinks that refusing degrees to people whose views "are so at variance with what we consider standard science," would be acceptable because it would amount to discrimination "on the basis of science" rather than because of his personal beliefs." However, McKnight points out that Ross's advisers described his work as "impeccable." McKnight concludes:

It's apparent, then, that Ross's personal beliefs really are the issue here. And, let's be honest, the personal beliefs of many important scientists throughout history can charitably be described as wacko. They include Pythagoras, who is arguably the most influential figure in the history of western thought and who was also a member of a cult that subscribed to bizarre beliefs; Nobel Laureate transistor inventor William Shockley, who abandoned physics for psychology and then promoted eugenics and the sterilization of the mentally handicapped, and Nobel Laureate, LSD enthusiast and AIDS denier Kary Mullis.

Indeed, that groundbreaking scientists harbour some odd beliefs seems more the rule than the exception. Yet the world would be immeasurably impoverished if such scientists were prevented from doing their work because of those personal beliefs.
McKnight agrees that it is the creationists who ultimately lose with this strategy:

... Ross's views present an even greater challenge to religion than to academic institutions. After all, there are only two ways to explain how Ross can simultaneously subscribe to two incompatible belief systems, and neither way is particularly palatable: Either Ross is dishonest, with little interest in witnessing what he believes to be the truth, or he is a relativist, with no belief in truth at all.
Taking note of the fact that Ross spoke of "paradigms" as if such an appeal explains his contradictory stances, McKnight says this "immediately brings to mind Thomas Kuhn, the physicist and historian of science who popularized the term in his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." To Kuhn:

... [P]aradigms are conceptual frameworks, since they define the way in which scientists view their subject and assess their theories ... Truth therefore becomes relative to paradigms, which means there is no objective way to determine which of two competing paradigms has a stronger claim to truth.

This opened Kuhn to charges of relativism ... he maintained until his death that science wasn't necessarily about getting closer to the truth. This provided a tremendous boost to postmodernists, who have used Kuhn's theory to deny the existence of objective truth.
But creationism, and the religion that demands it, is all about a "truth" that is supposed to be objective.

In accepting that Scripture merely presents one paradigm among many, and that the claims in the Bible are therefore no more or less true than the claims made in any other paradigm, Ross must abandon the belief that the Bible speaks the Truth -- not just the truth relative to a specific conceptual framework, but the truth that exists always and everywhere.

Consequently, while Ross might use his credentials to attack evolutionary theory, much to the consternation of science faculties, his philosophy represents a much greater threat to his own religion.
Apple, anyone?

Clarification: if you read Eugenie Scott's original comments in the New York Times story by Cornelia Dean, she was actually saying that she personally, if she were a professor in a relevant program, would not take a Young-Earth Creationist as a PhD. student.

This is a bit different than not granting a PhD once a student has been admitted and has fufilled all the requirements.

(I suspect the NY Times reporter was looking for Scott to say "don't give him the PhD," but Scott wouldn't go quite that far so Cornelia Dean used this other quote instead.)
Just a further bit of clarification: according to Dean (and assuming she is no more inaccurate than the average reporter), Scott was saying that "graduate admissions committees" were entitled to consider the difficulties that would arise from admitting a doctoral candidate with views “so at variance with what we consider standard science.”

You're right about Scott's comments being at least subtlety different from advocating outright refusal of degrees to people, as I had McKnight characterizing her (he actually said Scott advocated "refusing to admit" such people), but it is also more than just what Scott would personally do. It is at least a suggestion of concerted action to deny people like Ross the opportunity for advanced degrees in areas that outsiders consider to be at variance with the applicant's beliefs.
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