12 February, 2007

Wasting your life, creationist style

I suppose as a geologist I should feel angry and aggrieved about this newly minted PhD student:

…Dr. Ross is hardly a conventional paleontologist. He is a “young earth creationist” — he believes that the Bible is a literally true account of the creation of the universe, and that the earth is at most 10,000 years old.

For him, Dr. Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, “that I am separating the different paradigms.”

Later in the article is becomes fairly clear that his motivation for getting his doctorate is to use “the fact that he has a Ph.D. from a legitimate science department as a springboard [for pushing a literalist viewpoint].”

I can’t bring myself to be angry about this, though (even though I can understand why others might). Instead, I find it sad; a waste of half a decade or more of someone’s life. Getting through a PhD is no picnic at the best of times; in my experience it’s only your fundamental enthusiasm and interest in your subject that gets you through. Forcing yourself through the whole traumatic process when you believe, deep down, that every word you write, every measurement you make, and every conclusion you draw is fundamentally mistaken – well, let’s just say that I can’t see it doing wonders for your mental well-being.

Over at PZ’s (where this story came to my attention - see also Chad's take), a large proportion of the comments are debating whether the University of Rhode Island would be justified in withdrawing his doctorate - or even, given that they knew about his young-earth beliefs before he applied, whether he should have been admitted to the PhD programme in the first place. I’d have to unequivocally answer no, and yes, respectively. In the context of a PhD you can only be judged on what you have submitted, and his supervisor tells us all we need to know:
His subject was the abundance and spread of mosasaurs, marine reptiles that, as he wrote, vanished at the end of the Cretaceous era about 65 million years ago. The work is “impeccable,” said David E. Fastovsky, a paleontologist and professor of geosciences at the university who was Dr. Ross’s dissertation adviser. “He was working within a strictly scientific framework, a conventional scientific framework.”

“We are not here to certify his religious beliefs,” he said. “All I can tell you is he came here and did science that was completely defensible.”

Presuming that this is an accurate representation of his dissertation, it’s a no-brainer: he came, he followed the rules, and he advanced his field: so he earned his doctorate, however galling it may be that he has proceeded to use his qualification in the manner that he has – to add a veneer of scientific authority to flawed creationist arguments.

Besides, there’s something else interesting about this story: the fact that when push came to shove, to get his qualification he had to follow the ground rules of science. And when he did that, what happened to all those big, obvious, gaping holes in the scientific picture of an old earth and common descent that we hear so much about? Did he try, even slightly, to cast some light on those holes with his research? It doesn’t look like it to me. Rather than a bold assault on the evil Darwinian empire, we get some meandering about “working within a particular paradigm of earth history”. Likewise, despite his self-declared mission to destroy Darwinism, it seems that Johnathan Wells kept his powder dry during his time at Berkeley. In both cases, the choice to use the PhD qualification as a rhetorical weapon, rather than the PhD research, pretty much tells you all you need to know.


Brian said...

This is an interesting thing...on one side, you can say that he did the work required of him, so go ahead and give him the degree. If science goes down that highly subjective path of character evaluation, things could get ugly.

But, on the other hand...isn't this being dishonest in an academic setting? Many universities have fairly strict academic integrity codes.

I haven't yet read the original article...but it seems pretty obvious that he'll use this degree as both a weapon and armor against the naturalists.

Didn't the Enlightenment already happen?

Invisible Eye said...

Selected comments, with annotation, from "Believing Scripture but Playing by Science’s Rules" NYTimes 2-12-07

"His would be a life unexamined."
-- That surely follows. And a life that would be far more effectively examined in an echo chamber.

"I cannot think of any reason other than to cloak his religious beliefs in a false aura of scientific legitimacy."
-- The true aura is more stunning anyway.

"Mr. Ross even states, if we believe the reporter, that he tld lies in his dissitation and didn’t believe what he wrote in that paper."
-- Proving once and for all: the benefits of a Manichean viewpoint of Good vs. Evil aren't reserved for Religionists. Thank someone-or-other: when religion exits the Salon, we can still have good old-fashioned stonings out behind the barn.

"To my mind, the fundamentalist mindset of beliefs over facts is quite dangerous to understanding … everything."
-- I so agree: nothing more dangerous than an absolutist mindset that judges the entire universe by some arbitrary criteria.

"I guess if you believe in the virgin birth you can have 65 million year old fossils on a 10 thousand year old planet. You’re in delusional denial."
-- Crossing the Rubicon. As all threads must devolve into a unlicensed psychiatry.

"That Jerry Falwell is Dr. Ross’s employer speaks volumes about the value of his words."
-- I too find knowing someone's employer a useful judge of character. That is why I believe only three women, one seeing eye-dog and two guys are getting into Heaven on Judgement Day. Unfortunately I'm not one of them... I work for The Man. The benefits are great though.

"As long as he makes both claims, he spews irrational nonsense and thus should be contemptuously ignored."
-- I prefer to pull a bit of a sneer when ignoring people... so that they know I'm not *really* ignoring them.

"Fairy tales may make you feel all warm and fuzzy, but they don’t reveal anything about the truth of our being alive"
-- Lucky Dr. Ross didn't have a double major in English Lit. He'd really be in trouble then, eh?

"Mutually-exclusive beliefs are inevitable, given how little we actually know about anything."
-- Heck why'd he go say that? I thought we were in a one-sided shouting match. Now you've ruined everything, and made us all feel bad. Meany.

"If he cannot withstand scrutiny in that combative setting, then he should turn in his “scientist” badge now... But if someone can prove me wrong scientifically, I’m all ears."
-- Him too. Same as above. Get your head in the game.

"Proof? 'Just you wait!'"
-- Once we have that proof, everything will surely be set arights.
-- Badges, I don’t got to show you no stinkin’(dot, dot, dot)

"Can’t honestly believe something is at most 10,000 years old and 65 million years old simultaneously."
-- You are right. Also, you can't believe all that "bicameral brain" hooey.

"Attempting to explain natural phenomina with it will eventually get Ross driven out of the scientific professions–for incompetence."
-- The wicked always get theirs in the end. That's the spirit.

"this guy has scammed the system, maybe to ‘earn’ a credential from a reputable institution, so he can go back to his ‘bible’ college and create mischief."
-- Personally, I think you are off-base. He is a graduate art student and this is his thesis project.

{{ Here skipping wealth of, uhm, material }}

"“Dr.” Ross is clever and diabolical. His intent is clearly to act as a trojan horse."
-- Mssrs Moriarity, Odysseus, please meet your host Dr. Ross. I'm sure you'll have so much in common. And might I say, Dr. Ross, what a lovely hollow volcano you've taken as your home?

CJR said...

Brian: as long as this guys' research makes verifiable and well-supported conclusions and is not falsified or plagiarised - and it doesn't seem to be by any account - I'm not sure where you could claim any breaches of academic integrity. It could be argued that Dr. Ross is lying to himself, but he hasn't 'lied' to anyone else in any meaningful sense.

Invisible Eye: I assume your point is that a lot of the commentry on this issue has been a little... shrill. I agree with your contention, but I'm not sure you needed to paste quite so many comments from the NY Times article to make it.

Invisible Eye said...

I was on a role.

Invisible Eye said...

Or rather, a roll.

Brian said...

Hmmm....i think this is one of those things that might have to be watched.

Perhaps this is all just a lot of hype over nothing. Plenty of scientists are able to separate their religious beliefs from their work. This is nothing new and he deserves the degree for the work he did.

But...if I were a strict young-Earthist/creationist I might be a little upset that he calls himself that. His work as a paleontologist has to be built upon previous work that establishes both the age of the ancient species and the fact that evolution has, in fact, occurred.

So, the situation is really reversed...he is simply a scientist that carries some personal beliefs with him. The creationists who are out there thinking he will be some champion of their cause to inject religion into science class (remember...this is the real issue, not what people "believe") should think twice before getting too excited. He has been inconsistent and dishonest with respect to their worldview. He can't take that back.

Lab Lemming said...

I strongly recommend not only reading the original article, but actually taking note of who is making the accusations and what there connection to Dr. Ross is. As far as I can tell, everyone who has actually worked with the guy has nothing but good things to say.

As for shrillness, I don't think the ridiculous factor has reached high enough.

I say shoot the fucker.

Brian said...

That's what I mean...I'm not knockin' Ross. Like I said, he deserves the degree for doing the work.

But, I don't think IDers should get too excited about his successful passage through a "Darwinist controlled secular institution",

guthrie said...

Brian, how much do you know about the science versus truthiness problem?
The whole point is that it is a PR smokescreen, and having one of their own get through university by ignoring his beliefs and acting in a proper scientific manner is par for the course. Its about all they have to cheer about.

The best thing to do is rememebr who he is, and then every time something by him comes up, point out the way he got his PhD and how he never really challenged anything, and also ignored his own beliefs.
After a while some people will realise they don't want to be associated with lying scumbags.