Stealth Creationists and Illinois Nazis

I’m having the sort of morning where I feel like lobbing a grenade at somebody, and the predictable outrage over yesterday’s story about a creationist paleontologist is as good a target as any.

The issue here is whether it’s appropriate for Marcus Ross to receive a Ph.D. for work in paleontology, given that he’s a young-earth creationist. His scientific papers are all perfectly consistent with modern understanding, speaking of events taking place millions of years in the past, but he himself believes the earth is less than 10,000 years old, and was created as described in the Bible.

The usual suspects are denouncing him, his degree, and the university that awarded it, saying that nobody should get a Ph.D. if they don’t sincerely believe in everything that modern science teaches. They’re afraid that Ross will use his doctorate to claim scientific authority for creationist tripe, and would deny him the degree for that reason.

I’m not so sure that’s appropriate. I think that argument is confusing the function of the Ph.D. degree with a license to practice science. I’ll attempt to illustrate this with a totally non-controversial and non-Godwinating analogy to the case of Matthew Hale.

Hale, as you’ll remember if you read the Wikipedia article linked above, is an Illinois Nazi. Literally– he’s the head of an avowedly racist group in Illinois, and is currently serving time in prison for soliciting the murder of a federal judge.

He’s relevant to this story because he has a law degree, but is not a lawyer. He went to law school, got the degree, passed the Bar Exam, and was denied admission to the Illinois Bar on the grounds of “gross deficiency in moral character.” Thus, he has no license to practice law, and is not a lawyer.

The legal profession splits apart the two functions that Myers and Rosenhouse lump together into the science Ph.D.. There’s an academic law degree, that’s a prerequisite for admission to the Bar, and there’s an exam to test the formal qualifications of a would-be lawyer, but there’s also a character component. People who want to be lawyers not only have to get the degree and pass the test, but they also have to have people willing to testify that they are persons of good character. If they’re not– if they’re con artists, shysters, or racist scumbags, they can be denied admission, and are forbidden to practice law. And even if they get through the admission process, only to later reveal themselves as persons of low character, they can be disbarred, and forbidden to practice law.

There’s really no equivalent process in science. Science is neither a guild nor a licensed profession. A Ph.D. is not strictly necessary to do scientific research (people make careers of it with lesser degrees), and a Ph.D. is not by itself sufficient to make one a scientist. Scientists are people who are doing scientific research, and that status is a sort of nebulous thing, subject to the consensus of the community. Lots of people with science Ph.D.’s are doing work that isn’t really science, and lots of people without Ph.D.’s are doing work that is unquestionably science.

What Myers and Rosenhouse are essentially arguing is that the Ph.D. should serve both of the purposes that the legal profession splits apart: it should be an academic degree awarded only to people of good character– which is to say, people who don’t have beliefs that they find annoying.

I’m not really comfortable with this idea. As I said above, a Ph.D. is not a license to practice science, and I don’t think I want to make it one. It’s an academic degree like any other, and merely testifies that the recipient has completed a certain amount of work at a certain level. It shouldn’t imply any endorsement of the character or personal beliefs of the recipient, either by the institution granting the degree or the community at large.

I can see some of the attraction of having a licensing sort of scheme, but I think that it’s too subject to abuse. I don’t doubt that there are numerous cases out there of people being denied access to various bar associations through the “character” clause because of their race or religion. I wouldn’t want to state that it couldn’t happen today.

“This isn’t the same,” you might say, “this is an objective matter of science.” Yeah, maybe. But once you open the door, how do you keep this from becoming a general assessment of the personal beliefs and character of every candidate? And are you going to institute some sort of disbarrment equivalent, where people who earn degrees without a hitch but have conversion experiences later in life have their doctorates taken away?

The Ph.D. is an academic degree, and that’s it. If people really wanted to keep Mr. Ross from becoming Dr. Ross, the time to do it was when he was admitted, or when he applied to join a research group (and it should be noted that the Times article makes it sound like he was perfectly up-front about his beliefs with the school and his advisors). Once he’s in, and has produced enough research meeting the general standards of the community to earn a Ph.D., I don’t think there’s any basis for denying him the degree, particularly not because of his personal beliefs.

The real problem here is the public perception that a Ph.D. is a license to practice science, and a certificate of authority. But the right way to fix that is by educating the public as to the reality of science, not re-shaping the academic system to fit the public misconception.

Comments

  1. #1 MartinM
    February 13, 2007

    I think your aim’s a little off. Rosenhouse’s entire thesis is essentially ‘who cares?’ Nowhere does he argue that Ross should not have been awarded his PhD; indeed, he says precisely the opposite.

  2. #2 J-Dog
    February 13, 2007

    You make some awfully good points. dammit! And don’t forget that many creationists are like “Dr.” Kent Hovind… a fake doctorate from a diploma mill – the creo believers can’t tell the difference anyway. IMO “Dr.” Ross will always have the quotation marks, like Hovind, because he is a YEC.

  3. #3 John
    February 13, 2007

    I’m happy to leave Dr Ross with no quotation marks, as long as he continues to point out that all the science supports the facts, and that his religious beliefs are completely counterfactual.

    As soon as he starts saying “I’m a scientist, and that means my counterfactual beliefs have merit”, then he gets the quotation marks.

  4. #4 Factician
    February 13, 2007

    You’re absolutely right that he should keep his PhD. Obviously real scientists won’t be fooled by him. But keep an eye out for popular “science” books published under the name Marcus Ross, PhD.

  5. #5 John Novak
    February 13, 2007

    Well, like it or not, the PhD in any reasonable discipline is a writ of authority, in the sense that demonstratedm certified knowledge in one field grants one the ability to speak authoritatively about it. Where a lot of people get confused is with the (often, not always) narrowness of specialization that a PhD grants.

    Aside from that, I pretty much fall into the same position as you do. Engineering has a quasi-organization called the Order of the Engineer that tries to turn engineering into a profession on the order of medical and legal practices, and it tends to rub me the wrong way, too. (They’re quite up front about it, drawing inspiration from Hippocrates for their oath.)

    I laud the sentiments of their Oath but every time I consider saying, something within me says, “Screw you. I can be a downright scumbag if I want, and still be an engineer. Engineering is a skill not an ethical stance. Moreover, I can be ethical without taking an oath, and I trust my ethics more than some organization’s.”

  6. #6 Jason Rosenhouse
    February 13, 2007

    Chad-

    Did you actually read what I wrote? I argued specifically that URI did nothing wrong in awarding Ross his degree. I said it was his business how he uses his degree. In other words, I argued unambiguously against the view you have attributed to me.

    My criticism of Ross is simply that it requires a certain lack of intellectual integrity to write a thesis you yourself do not believe in. As I just pointed out in a comment at my own blog, part of obtaining a degree is a public defense of your thesis. That means he had to publicly stand behind assertions he did not believe. That reflects very badly on him, but does not reflect badly on URI.

    You wrote:

    The usual suspects are denouncing him, his degree, and the university that awarded it, saying that nobody should get a Ph.D. if they don’t sincerely believe in everything that modern science teaches.

    I denounced neither his degree nor his university, and in fact defended both. I have denounced him for the reasons I have given. And while I’m flattered that Myers and I comprise the usual suspects, I’d appreciate it if you got your ducks in a row before lobbing grenades.

    MartinM-

    Thanks for the defense!

  7. #7 Chad Orzel
    February 13, 2007

    Did you actually read what I wrote? I argued specifically that URI did nothing wrong in awarding Ross his degree. I said it was his business how he uses his degree. In other words, I argued unambiguously against the view you have attributed to me.

    You’re right.
    It came across my RSS feed this morning, and I only skimmed it briefly. I misread the last couple of paragraphs, and inserted the references into a previously written post.

    Mea culpa.
    I’d edit your name out, but then the comments would look silly.

  8. #8 Scott Coulter
    February 13, 2007

    Chad,
    Given your recent travails, I’m surprised you haven’t made an obvious between admission to the Bar and getting tenure. Thoughts? I’m not an academic, so I might be a bit off-base.

    In any case, I’m quite encouraged to see that your position on this issue agrees so well with mine. I’ve been an agitator for Christians being more involved with science, not less, for a long time; and I’d sure hate to live in a world where self-identifying as a Christian would make it harder to earn a science degree.
    –sdc

  9. #9 Scott Coulter
    February 13, 2007

    urrr… grumble… make that “…made an obvious *analogy* between…”

    –sdc

  10. #10 Chad Orzel
    February 13, 2007

    Given your recent travails, I’m surprised you haven’t made an obvious analogy between admission to the Bar and getting tenure.

    I don’t think they’re all that analogous, because tenrue extends outside of science (faculty in humanities and social science also get tenure), and science extends outside the academy (there’s lots of research done in industrial and government labs).

    For law, the bar association is the only game in town. It’s illegal to act as a lawyer without being a member of the bar. There’s nothing at all similar for scientists.

  11. #11 Jason Rosenhouse
    February 13, 2007

    Chad-

    Apology accepted! Glad we got that straightened out. :)

  12. #12 ERIC JUVE
    February 13, 2007

    I wonder how many theology programs would accept an atheist as a doctoral candidate ?

  13. #13 Scott Coulter
    February 13, 2007

    Sadly, lots. There are, from an evangelical Christian perspective, plenty of largely non-Christian “theology” departments.

    –sdc

  14. #14 J Daley
    February 13, 2007

    (From the engineer’s creed)

    “As an engineer, with humility and the need for Divine guidance….”

    Maybe that’s why so many engineers are ID advocates.

  15. #15 Samuel Oliveira
    February 13, 2007

    The scientific community agrees with your statement:
    “Scientists are people who are doing scientific research, and that status is a sort of nebulous thing, subject to the consensus of the community.”

    Actually this is well defined in “the structure of scientific revolutions” by the philosopher Thomas Kuhn, for example:
    “A scientific community consists … of the practitioners of a scientific specialty”

    So, Ross behaved as a scientist to get his PhD (as far as we could tell). But he may not continue to be a scientist if he stop doing science.

    As mathematicians like to say, PhD is necessary but not sufficient to be a scientist.

  16. #16 quitter
    February 13, 2007

    I’m still going to disagree on this one. I don’t look at a PhD as a license to do science (I’ve published plenty of papers in grad school after all).

    My issue is a combination of two things. One, is the same complaint as Rosenhouse, that his behavior is fundamentally deceptive. Two, is that no one is arguing for a belief-test or a morality test (at least not a negative one). You can believe in whatever you want and still get a degree. But in order to get a PhD you should believe in the scientific method. Several things Ross said made me think that he simply doesn’t get science, like when he said data and facts were just “one paradigm” of studying paleontology.

    So while he can believe in Buddha, or a young earth, or the FSM and I could care less for granting his degree, it’s his incorrect understanding of the methods and basis of science that makes me believe he doesn’t deserve a PhD in the sciences. Facts and data aren’t just “one paradigm” of doing science, they are the paradigm. If he doesn’t get that, he doesn’t deserve a degree.

  17. #17 Chad Orzel
    February 13, 2007

    My issue is a combination of two things. One, is the same complaint as Rosenhouse, that his behavior is fundamentally deceptive.

    Who is he deceiving, other than himself? He appears to have been perfectly honest with his advisors about he beliefs. It’s not like he’s run a big con job on them– if they’re ok with it, that’s their business.

    Two, is that no one is arguing for a belief-test or a morality test (at least not a negative one). You can believe in whatever you want and still get a degree. But in order to get a PhD you should believe in the scientific method.

    That’s a semantic dodge. This is about his religious beliefs, plain and simple. He doesn’t believe in the scientific method in your view precisely because he does believe in his religion– if you set those up as mutually exclusive, then requiring belief in one amounts to punishing belief in the other.

    And that’s not even getting into the whole Kuhn-and-company debate about how science is really done. Some philosophers of science would probably say that Ross has a better understanding of how science is really done than you do…

  18. #18 bob koepp
    February 13, 2007

    Has anybody ever heard of the philsophic stance, quite common among physicists, called instrumentalism? It doesn’t require “belief” in “scientific facts,” just accepting them as useful analytic and calculational devices. And this isn’t even pomo — it was standard fare for ancient greek astronomers.

  19. #19 DragonScholar
    February 13, 2007

    You’ve put a good spin on what made me feel vaguely uncomfortable about the idea he didn’t deserve his PhD – when he at least did the legwork, even if he is a liar.

    Basically the PhD is, in the end, an award for academic and research work. It’s really not a test of character or belief (though those could help you pass OR fail it, depending). It really isn’t ABOUT the practice of how one uses it unless one has to be validated/certified by some organization.

    So, I am not comfortable with the idea he should be somehow de-PhDed for the reasons you state. You just state it REALLY well.

    I am of course completely comfortable with him being held up as a liar, a charlatan, and a self-deceiver.

  20. #20 Chris Noble
    February 13, 2007

    Maybe the scandal involving Jan Hendrik Schön is a better example.

    If Ross ever commits the same sort of fraud as Schoen then this might be grounds for revoking a PhD. I believe it depends on the charter of the university whether they have the power to revoke a PhD.

    Of course the chance of Ross publishing anything in peer reviewed journals is very small so this is unlikely to ever happen.

  21. #21 quitter
    February 14, 2007

    And that’s not even getting into the whole Kuhn-and-company debate about how science is really done. Some philosophers of science would probably say that Ross has a better understanding of how science is really done than you do…

    Wow. If I really believed that were true I’d just shoot myself in the head right now. Send those philosophers of science my way and I might just beat them to death with a pipette.

    Anyway, it’s not a semantic dodge. If you’re training someone for a degree there are things that are critical to know and understand and incorporate if you truly deserve the degree. If it’s your view that facts and data are just one way of doing science, and just pulling things out of your ass is another equally valid model, I wouldn’t give you a degree if I were your thesis advisor. That’s simply not ok. Screw postmodernism and references to Kuhn and all that crap. The paradigms might shift but the data stays true. Facts and data aren’t what are shifting in the paradigm shifts that Kuhn describes, it’s the interpretation and limits of those facts and data. This guy is describing facts and data as a paradigm. That just rubs me the wrong way.

    Anyway, I share an office with a exceedingly devout scientist who definitely operates in dissonance mode a lot of the time about origin questions. I have no religious tests, and she can graduate from our institution and I’m cool with it. But that’s because she’s a serious scientist, who doesn’t believe facts and data are just a “paradigm” and isn’t planning on using her degree to attack the scientific method or our field (although it’s not currently one that has biblical conflicts). She has legitimate scientific interests and wants to advance human knowledge by doing science.

    Finally, I have a question for you. If getting a PhD is just about doing the work and parroting the phrases, isn’t that just saying graduate students are nothing more than trained monkeys? I feel like a PhD is more than just running experiments, doing what your adviser tells you, and saying what your committee wants you to say. You’ve got to get the science, know it top to bottom, show that you understand how to design experiments, publish papers, and very importantly, advance knowledge in your field. What about the guy who’s in it not to advance knowledge of a field but to actively retard it? I’m still saying no, I wouldn’t graduate this guy.

  22. #22 MartinM
    February 14, 2007

    This is about his religious beliefs, plain and simple. He doesn’t believe in the scientific method in your view precisely because he does believe in his religion– if you set those up as mutually exclusive, then requiring belief in one amounts to punishing belief in the other

    The same could be said of teaching evolution in schools. There’s a distinction to be drawn between actively punishing religious beliefs and simply acting in a reasonable manner which happens to be inconsistent with some set of beliefs.

    That said, I don’t really give a toss what Ross believes. As long as he produces the goods, that’s enough for me. Science is more than just people. One could make a case for denying admission if another, more suitable candidate is available, but that’s another question altogether. Even a trained monkey has some value.

  23. #23 Opiwan
    February 14, 2007

    You’re getting linked to by Andrew Sullivan. Enjoy the traffic.

  24. #24 Barry
    February 14, 2007

    # 13 | Scott Coulter | February 13, 2007 02:38 PM

    (re: would a theology department accept an atheist as a student)
    “Sadly, lots. There are, from an evangelical Christian perspective, plenty of largely non-Christian “theology” departments.”

    And the ‘evangelical Christian’ perspective is worth what?

    By now, it would be just as reasonable to write off evangelicals as non-Christians, until proven otherwise.
    And that’s accepting the premise that ‘non-Christian’=’atheist’.

  25. #25 Jeff Tiller
    February 14, 2007

    I think the question is being framed incorrectly. My question would be Is it ethical to write and defend a thesis that you believe to be false? My feeling is that believing in your thesis should be a minimum requirement.

  26. #26 Matt
    February 14, 2007

    Didn’t the right thing happen in pretty much every aspect of this case? He didn’t lie to his department, the department required that he do science that was based on the state of the art, and he ended up at Liberty College, which is barely a real school. I mean, it’s not like he got a job at Harvard, right?

    Matt

  27. #27 Matt the heathen
    February 14, 2007

    I think Jeff Tiller makes the best point. Marcus Ross is an excellent technician, but not a scientist. He collects and processes data flawlessly, but his interpretation is flawed. If I, as a scientist, truly believe my data points to one conclusion, the scientific method requires that I outline that conclusion, even if it wasn’t the desired outcome of the experiment.
    Ross really isn’t practicing good science. If every scientist interpreted their data to give results that everyone expects, we’d get nowhere. If he doesn’t believe the conclusions he is writing down, he’s being dishonest, and I think that is enough to deny someone a degree.

  28. #28 Beren
    February 14, 2007

    You’re right to bring up the issue of the authority that the PhD holds in the public mind. But you know, the problem goes beyond the sciences.

    Plenty of people write junk history and get pretty good sales (or appear in History Channel shows) in part because they can put ‘PhD’ after their names. The non-specialist public (including many scientists, btw) just believes what these people write, but it really makes historians cringe. These charlatans are ignoring facts, discoveries, and even the methodology of their field.

    But as bad as that is, what alternative is there? If we imposed a review board that could take away your doctorate for false or misleading statements, we’d quickly sink into dogmatism. Sooner or later, some temporarily dominant, but false, position would be enshrined as ‘correct’, and then all those who sought to challenge it would lose their doctorates. When they eventually managed to prove their point, the whole field would be in shreds.

    It’s best to call the PhD what it is, as you do. It’s a recognition of work satisfactorily completed at a certain level. It’s not the only criterion for holding a job. To the extent that it confers a level of authority in the public mind, that’s something we need to challenge.

    Regards,
    Beren

  29. #29 gg
    February 14, 2007

    My concern with this case, and the others that will surely follow, is that it seems like an active effort by creationists to water down and weaken the standing of science in society. I’ve been reading for several days now scientists of all bents saying that all that matters for this student to get their Ph.D is, in essence, that he ‘told the committee what they wanted to hear,’ and that it’s ‘okay to hold antiscientific, completely unverifiable and experimentally invalidated views of one’s field of study – it’s just another paradigm of the world.’ (Not real quotes, just trying to summarize some of the sentiments I’ve read.) The first statement sounds very much like we treat science as religious dogma, and the second statement makes it sound like science is just a matter of personal opinion. These are both arguments that are made by ‘intelligent designers’ in trying to destroy evolution – the big difference is that here, we’ve got scientists making them.

    I’m not arguing that this student should have their degree revoked, but I’m afraid that there may be a new push to inject more of the fanatically faithful into the sciences, with the ultimate goal of relegating science to just another ‘point of view’. I have no clear idea of what should be done about it, but it’s something that people should really think hard about.

  30. #30 desider
    February 14, 2007

    In any scientific field, you need to be proficient in the
    tools of the trade even if you disagree with them.

    Spherical geometry came about from denying Euclid’s Fifth
    Postulate, that parallel lines never intersect. But you
    still need to work with Euclid’s Fifth Postulate in other
    geometric reference frames.

    If you’re a painter, you may hate live drawing and be antsy
    to get onto post-modernistic whatever, but it would be a
    crap school that didn’t require you to have basic
    proficiencies and awareness of artistic foundations.

    In any case, science and academia work on the merits of
    your work, not whether you have a PhD. Jumping genes
    were a loony concept that would have gotten most people
    thrown into a madhouse, but it turned out to be right.
    But that’s after a long period of proof, peer review,
    validation of results, and other processes.

    You want to try proving creation occurred in the last
    10,000 years? Go ahead. But you need proof, not just a
    pretty sounding write-up. Presumably the guy who got the
    PhD will understand that much of the world of science,
    more than pseudo-scientists with no training.

    I’m not religious, but is it wrong for a scientist to be
    inspired by the story of creation or the flood or Eden
    or some other snippet of the Bible? I’m sure Mendel, the
    founder of genetics and a monk, had more than a few musings
    on Biblical significance. But what matters in the end is
    the quality of his work. Shockley’s rantings on eugenics
    aside, his contribution to science are his work on
    transistors. If students want to go protest war in Iraq
    or El Salvador, why can’t they hold alternative opinions
    on the universe as well? And yeah, there are people who
    don’t like medicine or law all that much but go into it
    to make a good living. Should they be disqualified from
    practicing too?

  31. #31 Dave S.
    February 14, 2007

    I think as long as a person is using the scientific method, its no skin off my nose if they don’t believe in it. I don’t see how they reconcile it within themselves and their God, but as long as they’re doing good science I don’t see the problem. He’s only being dishonest to himself. Now if he starts babbling on about the usual Creationist nonsense, then refute as needed.

    It’s not like he was the first to do this. Jonathan Wells … Kurt Wise. The latter at least recognizes the difference between facts and belief. I’ll wait and see if the same holds true for this guy.

  32. #32 Christopher
    February 14, 2007

    I doubt very much the issue for the university considering awarding the PhD is whether the candidate is a man of “faith” or whether he is a man of “science.” Politics of this sort simply shouldn’t be part of the equation in any area of academia.

    Presenting and defending a doctoral thesis one does not believe to be true, however, strikes me as a different and very serious issue. I am under the impression that these things are supposed to be more than just exercises in sophistry. This isn’t a parliamentary debate contest, is it?

  33. #33 ChemJerk
    February 14, 2007

    Plato’s litmus test for universal knowledge argued that it is true, justified belief. Because his work was reviewed, I’m assuming Ross produced work that is true. For the same reason, I’m sure his work was justified. Unfortunately, Ross does not believe his own work is true. As a result, he does not possess knowledge of paleontology therefore he has not satisfied the essential requirement for earning a Ph.D..

  34. #34 DaveMB
    February 14, 2007

    I agree with Chad, except for his now-acknowledged failure to realize that the original poster he was attacking actually agreed with him completely.

    I’m a faculty member in computer science at a research-1 institution and thus participate in the process of granting Ph.D.’s. I was even the outside member for a geologist who has rewritten the very ancient geological history of northern Saskatchewan. Yeah, if you do the work, and the work is a significant contribution, you get the Ph.D. and what you do with it is your own problem. If this guy now goes around saying that his young-earth creationist viewpoint is informed by a deep understanding of mainstream geology and paleontology, bizarre as his viewpoint is we have to give him that — his understanding of mainstream geology was good enough for him to write a mainstream thesis.

    Where it gets interesting is if he were to apply for a mainstream job. If a search committee rejects him over his religion, is that discrimination? Or a legitimate judgement of his intellectual integrity — I’m not sure I could be confident of someone whose mind was so “essentially double” in the area I was hiring him to work in. Anyway, better that Liberty have him that some complete ignoramus who will teach The Flintstones as history.

    As for the theological school, I’d think that any graduate theological program that couldn’t grant a degree to an atheist, who sincerely wanted to learn what they were teaching and succeeded in doing so, shouldn’t be granting degrees at all. Different seminaries have different mixes of academics and vocational training, but even the latter (courses in church management and sermon writing, for example) ought to be open to anyone. Since I’d hold the theological school to that standard, I can’t help but do the same for the geology department.

    A nice blog, I will try to stop by more often.

  35. #35 Tom Wilkinson
    February 14, 2007

    Scientific advances occur, in part, when someone with an unconventional hypothesis marshalls enough evidence to build support for it. It is easy to view young-earth creationists as way out in left field. But the way to deal with them is to subject their ideas to the full scrutiny of the scientific method. In the long run, it might be better to invite them a little closer to the fire and let them make their case using established scientific principles.

  36. #36 pbl
    February 14, 2007

    Whenever you see a claim about what “the usual suspects” did, without specifics, there’s a pretty good chance that what follows is specious. I have yet to hear a respected authority denounce his degree or the university that granted it. But then, the strawman must fit the narrative.

  37. #37 Mike Saatkamp
    February 14, 2007

    Should we also have a license to speak on theological matters? Should a biologist need a license to comment or teach paleontology? Is a plummer allowed to have an opinion about her life? Get real. The guy earned his PhD. Silencing dissent is anti-science. Period.

  38. #38 Consumatopia
    February 14, 2007

    I think this whole controversy stems from a deeper deficiency in the scientific community. Scientists have collectively failed to proved the lay public with any way of distinguishing good science from science, other than becoming a scientist yourself. Keeping Scientist status as a “nebulous” thing is peachy keen for scientists–scientists are tightly connected to each other as a community, and are better qualified to evaluate each other’s work.

    But what are non-scientists like myself supposed to do? Now, you can just turn your nose up and say it doesn’t matter what someone who has neither time nor capacity to evaluate a scientific white paper on its merits, without reference to the social status of the paper’s author. And in my case, you’d be right–it doesn’t matter what I think. I’m a John Q. Public nobody.

    But what if I were a politician deciding what our nation’s policy for dealing with global warming should be? At that point “nebulous” starts to fall short.

  39. #39 Knemon
    February 14, 2007

    “I have no religious tests, and she can graduate from our institution and I’m cool with it.”

    That’s big of you.

    “we’d quickly sink into dogmatism.”

    Don’t look now …

  40. #40 PZ Myers
    February 14, 2007

    As long as you’re retracting dubious interpretations…

    What Myers and Rosenhouse are essentially arguing is that the Ph.D. should serve both of the purposes that the legal profession splits apart: it should be an academic degree awarded only to people of good character– which is to say, people who don’t have beliefs that they find annoying.

    That is not even close to what I said. This was a Ph.D. candidate who not only failed to understand basic concepts in his field, but was espousing weird, anti-scientific ideas that directly contradicted facts stated in his thesis. That a candidate believes in Jesus is annoying, but I agree that it should have absolutely no bearing on his suitability for the degree; if a candidate invokes Jesus as an explanation for his results, publicly and at scientific meetings disagrees with fundamental principles of his discipline, and then intentionally avoids any challenge of those ideas with his thesis committee, then there’s a problem. A real problem.

  41. #41 helmling@udel.edu
    February 14, 2007

    I agree w/ yr argument as far as it goes, but it needs to go farther: to the moment when Assistant Prof Ross applies for tenure. He’s pub’d the requisite amount; he’s gotten grants; but after he gets tenure, will his creationist beliefs remain separate from his credentialled research? And what abt his teaching? In the classroom, his “free speech” rights wd have legal protection.

    But that’s all in the future: right now he’s coming up for tenure. If you were voting on his case, wd you want a tenured creationist as a colleague doing research and teaching in yr department? Right now, I wd vote against–but I’m willing to be instructed and I await yr thoughts on the matter.

  42. #42 John Farrell
    February 14, 2007

    Yes…but picking up on the thread another commenter had from above, let’s assume more creationists are going this route, some, like Wells for purely intellectually dishonest reasons. Aren’t a certain percentage of them surely likely to lose their creationism in the process of their studies as a result of the real science they are exposed to? I knew several undergrads in this boat when I was in college, all ex baptists in pre med, etc.

    Which is another way of asking, where else are creationists going to get the exposure they need to let creationism go?

    Just a thought.

  43. #43 Harry Sticker
    February 14, 2007

    Aside from whether URI did anything wrong (and I believe URI did not do anything wrong), is there something wrong with someone, who at the same time, believes:

    a. the earth is 10,000 years old
    b. the earth is 4.5 billion years old

    Is there some cognitive dissonance there?

  44. #44 Chad Orzel
    February 14, 2007

    In reverse chronological order:

    Harry Sticker: Aside from whether URI did anything wrong (and I believe URI did not do anything wrong), is there something wrong with someone, who at the same time, believes:

    a. the earth is 10,000 years old
    b. the earth is 4.5 billion years old

    Well, I think he technically believes only one of those…

    But yeah, I have a hard time imagining putting in that amount of work to get a degree in a subject you believe to be false. I’d really be happier if he was a research subject for a Psychology Ph.D. than a candidate for a paleontology Ph.D., but the way things are set up, he’s earned the degree.

    helmling: agree w/ yr argument as far as it goes, but it needs to go farther: to the moment when Assistant Prof Ross applies for tenure. He’s pub’d the requisite amount; he’s gotten grants; but after he gets tenure, will his creationist beliefs remain separate from his credentialled research?

    Since he’s apparently going to come up for tenure at Liberty University, I think the question is probably moot…

    PZ: That a candidate believes in Jesus is annoying, but I agree that it should have absolutely no bearing on his suitability for the degree; if a candidate invokes Jesus as an explanation for his results, publicly and at scientific meetings disagrees with fundamental principles of his discipline, and then intentionally avoids any challenge of those ideas with his thesis committee, then there’s a problem. A real problem.

    As I understood the story, he hasn’t attempted to promote creationism at any scientific meetings, or in any scientific writing. He apparently appeared in a creationist DVD, but that’s something he did on his own time, akin to promoting nutty political views on a blog somewhere, and I don’t think it should have any bearing.

    Don’t get me wrong– I’m not enthusiastic about this guy getting a Ph.D., and were I in that department, I probably would’ve argued against accepting him as a student. But they took him in knowing what he believed, and I don’t think they would have any grounds to deny him the degree, given the system we have. And I don’t think I’d want to see us put in a system where he could be denied a degree.

  45. #45 gg
    February 14, 2007

    Tom Wilkinson wrote:

    “In the long run, it might be better to invite them a little closer to the fire and let them make their case using established scientific principles.”

    That seems like a reasonable statement, and ideally it is true, but part of the problem is that many, if not most, of these creationists don’t make their case honestly. The book ‘Monkey Girl’, about the recent Dover trial (I learned about it from a PZ post – thanks, PZ!) illustrates very well that these people know they can’t win a real scientific argument – they simply want to discredit science to the mainstream by using the veneer of science. Unfortuately, it is much easier to demagogue an uneducated public with specious simplistic reasoning than to convince them of the correctness of scientific principles. In other words, you can only have a reasonable argument if both sides are being reasonable.

    John Farrell wrote:

    “Aren’t a certain percentage of them surely likely to lose their creationism in the process of their studies as a result of the real science they are exposed to? …
    Which is another way of asking, where else are creationists going to get the exposure they need to let creationism go?”

    Also reasonable, and certainly true in many cases, but if they haven’t gotten enough information to let creationism go by the time they’ve completed an undergraduate science degree, it seems unlikely that they will let it go in graduate school. In my experience, some people are just immune to rational thought. This is true of everyone to some extent (and I would say is part of the human condition), but it is a little troubling when one demonstrates irrational thinking at the foundations of one’s chosen field of study.

  46. #46 John Farrell
    February 14, 2007

    Tom, thanks for reminding me to put Monkey Girl on my Amazon list…now I can throw out the three huge stacks of printed pdfs I’ve kept from the actual Dover case…

    :)

  47. #47 gg
    February 14, 2007

    Chad wrote:

    “As I understood the story, he hasn’t attempted to promote creationism at any scientific meetings, or in any scientific writing. He apparently appeared in a creationist DVD, but that’s something he did on his own time, akin to promoting nutty political views on a blog somewhere, and I don’t think it should have any bearing.”

    I don’t think appearing on the DVD is akin to a scientist promoting nutty political views, really. If, as a scientist, I go on a rant about national security, that doesn’t really intersect with my scientific views, but his prosthelytizing for creationism is in essence a direct contradiction of the work he was doing at university. If I taught a class on special relativity, and then spent my free time talking about how SR is nonsense and Einstein is a fraud, one might at the very least claim that I am promoting a mixed and confusing message for the students.

    Again, I don’t have a great idea or strong opinion how to resolve issues like this in a Ph.D program, but it seems to be a quandry of real concern that everyone should think about long and hard.

  48. #48 David C. Weiss
    February 14, 2007

    A number of posters mentioned the cognitive dissonance involved in earning a degree in paleontology while being a young-earth creationist, but few have dwelt on the basic paradox of dishonesty involved in his work in earning that degree. To wit: if the man didn’t believe in what he was being taught, then each and every “scientifically accurate” paper he turned in was a form of lying, if not outright premeditated fraud. To play chameleon and turn in appropriate, acceptable course work while not believing a single iota of it is fundamentally dishonest. I do not for a moment support disallowing his degree or what employment he might gain from it, but I would, if I were an employer, question his moral character at this clear dissembling. My opinion is obviously an oversimplification of the case, but it’s my first emotional reaction to problems presented by it.

  49. #49 Adam
    February 14, 2007

    David #48: I don’t see the problem with not ‘believing’ in what you write. The standards by which we are judged are scientific, not psychological or personal. If someone produces good science, I don’t care if they believe it or not. For that matter, when I was researching in QM, it wasn’t an issue at all; most of us didn’t care whether the model was ‘true’, so much as that it predicted correctly. That’s the only measure that we apply to first order; if two models predict equally well, however that is measured and given observational and experimental constraints then until one is disproved, it doesn’t matter what you believe. Science is about making falsifiable predictions; why they do it is up to the scientist in question.

    I just don’t think that it is a matter of ‘moral character’ at all. Even if I did, not employing people because they lied would mean not employing people at all; the important thing is what they lie about, and writing science in which you don’t actually believe isn’t a big deal. We have other standards to measure the worth of the science.

  50. #50 Adam
    February 14, 2007

    Above, where I said ‘it doesn’t matter what you believe’, I should have said ‘it doesn’t even matter which one you pick’. My position is that at no point does it matter what you believe, just which theories best survive testing.

  51. #51 Chad Orzel
    February 14, 2007

    A number of posters mentioned the cognitive dissonance involved in earning a degree in paleontology while being a young-earth creationist, but few have dwelt on the basic paradox of dishonesty involved in his work in earning that degree. To wit: if the man didn’t believe in what he was being taught, then each and every “scientifically accurate” paper he turned in was a form of lying, if not outright premeditated fraud.

    Yes and no.
    You could also say that this has only become an issue because he was too honest. After all, he didn’t have to tell his professors about his beliefs, and given that he’s obviously capable of writing perfectly coherent papers in the dominant paradigm, there’s no reason why they would’ve known he was a creationist.

    If he had kept his beliefs to himself until after he graduated, he would’ve sailed through, and nobody would’ve had a problem with it. And everybody would assume that he had some sort of mid-life conversion experience, and became a kook after getting the doctorate. Would you be any happier with that state of affairs?

    It seems to me that he did the right thing by telling people what his real beliefs were, and letting graduate programs make an informed decision about him. That’s fundamentally honest in a way that makes me hesitant to call the rest of it fraud.

  52. #52 David C. Weiss
    February 14, 2007

    Adam #49

    Let me quibble a little about your response. You may not have believed what you were taught about QM, but it wasn’t because you believed that the material was an utter, pernicious lie itself. The degree of his religious conviction that paleontological evidence was either fraudulent, a malicious lie, or “planted by Satan to test our faith” is the standard by which I deem his degree to be a form of fraud.

  53. #53 Randy
    February 14, 2007

    There are more PhDs and MDs selling snake oil than there are grains of sand on the beach. The public should know that and we should help educate them to critically evaluate everything spoken by the authority of the PhD forciing that PhD to back it up with evidence.

  54. #54 Adam
    February 14, 2007

    David #52: Well, you are right that I didn’t believe that it was a pernicious fraud, but I don’t think that it would have made any difference if I did. If I did feel that it was all Satan’s trickery*, no reason why I couldn’t work in it if only to understand it. Or for fun, or for any other reason, because so far as I am concerned, it wouldn’t matter why I did it, or what I actually believed, at all. The only thing that mattered was the quality of the results.

    *Let’s be clear: I didn’t.

  55. #55 gg
    February 14, 2007

    Adam:

    I don’t quite agree that it doesn’t matter what you ‘believe’ regarding your own research. (Let me emphasize, before people get hung up on semantics, that I refer to a more scientific ‘small-b’ version of belief, in that you think your results are correct and an accurate representation of the available facts that will for the most part hold up to scrutiny as a positive contribution.)

    We would certainly say it is unscientific and unethical to knowingly present false or misleading data for personal gain, be it to keep the money flowing, publish papers, or get tenure. Here we have a student who presented data he does not think is correct for the personal gain of getting a degree. The irony is that we’re sympathetic because we give more credence to his research than he does.

    As far as your QM analogy goes, of course scientists don’t have to have faith that their work is ‘absolute truth’, but I expect at the minimum that a person presenting their results considers them an honest step forward in understanding. If not, why are they wasting my time? Lots of people present models (such as in string theory) that they don’t necessarily expect to be THE answer, but they add to the discussion. The student in question here, though, apparently can’t even say that, since they deep down don’t consider ANY part of their chosen field of study to be valid. This might seem like a personal issue, except that this student has in the past and will apparently continue to prosthelytize on the glories of YEC and at least implicitly disavow their field of study, in the complete absence of any supporting evidence.

    At the very least, I feel like the student seriously gamed the system.

  56. #56 Adam
    February 14, 2007

    Also, because I do love a bit of shameless self-promotion, I made this post on the same issue yesterday, having first picked this story up on Sullivan’s blog (which is also how I found this blog, thanks to Sullivan linking it today). I pretty much said the same sort of stuff as Chad, including in passing a comment along the lines of his last statement; it is on us, to a large extent, to educate the public as to what a PhD means, how science works, etc.

    I had been hoping that the Cosmic Variance blog would pick up on this, but Sean (at least) is too busy. Which will teach him to have a real life (unlike me, who wrote my bit at 5ish am).

  57. #57 Adam
    February 14, 2007

    gg #55: I just don’t think that it matters. It would be unethical to put out stuff that you know to be false on scientific grounds, ie, material that fails the scientific tests. That’s is the standard by which they are judged and we are supposed to put out work ready to be subjected to those tests; if we put out work that fails every time, our reputation will suffer and rightly so, because the scientific endeavour requires a reasonably high standard of material put into the review process (which is why the whackjobs don’t get their stuff on the arxiv even, now) or the whole review process will collapse. To deliberately put out stuff that you know, if subjected to sufficient scrutiny, will fail is a bad show indeed. The only reason to do that is to hope that it won’t get noticed and that would be an example of scientific dishonesty.

    This Dr. Ross, though, put out work that passed scientific muster. He’s moved science forward by producing good work and that’s how the system is supposed to function. If Dr Ross can go through the whole system of producing sufficiently good work to get a science PhD, and still keep his own belief system intact, then fair enough; I imagine that most couldn’t, but I don’t think that there’s dishonesty in publishing work that you don’t believe, so long as it’s scientifically good work; that judgement, of scientific quality, is the only one that counts. So far as I am concerned, science is open to everyone that is prepared to produce scientific work of suitable quality and that’s all there is to it.

  58. #58 gg
    February 14, 2007

    One more comment:

    Chad wrote: “If he had kept his beliefs to himself until after he graduated, he would’ve sailed through, and nobody would’ve had a problem with it. And everybody would assume that he had some sort of mid-life conversion experience, and became a kook after getting the doctorate. Would you be any happier with that state of affairs?”

    Of course we don’t want people to lie their way through school, but it also doesn’t look good to have someone admittedly work their way through graduate school by supporting a thesis they disagree with because they think it’s what the committee wants to hear. That also sounds rather unscientific.

  59. #59 Adam
    February 14, 2007

    If you put forward work that withstands scientific scrutiny, that’s scientific. Indeed, I don’t personally think that it matters how you arrive at the work (stealing it would be bad, of course, but not necessarily unscientific; just bad). The testing is the thing.

  60. #60 gg
    February 14, 2007

    Adam wrote: “I just don’t think that it matters… This Dr. Ross, though, put out work that passed scientific muster. He’s moved science forward by producing good work and that’s how the system is supposed to function. If Dr Ross can go through the whole system of producing sufficiently good work to get a science PhD, and still keep his own belief system intact, then fair enough…I don’t think that there’s dishonesty in publishing work that you don’t believe, so long as it’s scientifically good work; that judgement, of scientific quality, is the only one that counts.”

    I guess part of what I’m driving at is that although his beliefs evidently don’t matter in terms of getting his science degree, getting that degree in itself doesn’t make him a good scientist. In other words, he did what he had to do to get his degree, but now that he has it he evidently didn’t really bring any science with him. The fact that he’s ended up at Liberty U. is good evidence that this is the case, and I would expect that he’ll never really publish good paleontology again or have to listen to anyone tell him that the Earth is older than 10k.

    I’m not sure how you think there’s no problem in publishing work that you don’t believe, but this may be a semantic issue with the word ‘believe’. As a physicist, the things I believe about the universe are inextricably tied up with the experimental and observational evidence that has been established, and will change as the evidence changes. This is what an ‘open-minded’ scientist presumably does, yet the student in question apparently will not allow their views on the age of the Earth to be shaken by any experimental evidence or, even stranger, can hold two completely contradictory views (and before anyone says it, no, this isn’t like holding paradoxical views on quantum mechanics – the age of the Earth is an easily understandable and unambiguous concept, unlike the question, “What is a particle?”). Furthermore, there are many subjects in science which are still on the frontiers and it is fine to hold an agnostic position on (such as string theory, for instance). I don’t think the age of the Earth is one of those.

    By the way, I would be sincerely and genuinely interested in an example of someone publishing work in which they don’t “believe”; that might help clear up my understanding of other’s views.

  61. #61 PZ Myers
    February 14, 2007

    As I understood the story, he hasn’t attempted to promote creationism at any scientific meetings, or in any scientific writing.

    Incorrect. He and Paul Nelson attempted to peddle this ridiculous Ontogenetic Depth idea at SDB. In that post I express some sympathy for the poor grad student who had gotten suckered into that crap; he seems to have been an eager and willing volunteer, so I retract all consideration for the guy.

  62. #62 Adam
    February 14, 2007

    gg #60: If I didn’t have evidence for the things that I believed, I wouldn’t try to publish them; even if I did, it wouldn’t get through the review process. I just don’t think that the scientific process cares at all about what the people engaged in it believe, but only about the scientific predictions they make, and whether they are falsifiable.

    You’re right that just because he has a PhD in science doesn’t mean that he’s going to do good science from now on, which is what ‘being a good scientist’ means, to me; that’s not a permanent state, though, it’s one that depends on your current work. He was a good scientist at the time, enough to get the PhD badge (wear it with pride!). That doesn’t mean that he’s a good scientist in what he’s doing now, any more than my 20+ year old boyscout athletics merit badge means that I’m as fit as I was then.

    That his PhD will be held up when he spouts creationist nonscience (a word that looks attractively like ‘nonsense’) doesn’t make me think that people like him, who did good science as a grad student, shouldn’t get a PhD in the first place. It says that we should be better at explaining how science works and, for that matter, the value/meaning/worth of a PhD. Of course, those of us with PhDs may not wish to demystify the qualification…

    In any case, Chad is completely right; there’s no judgement inherent in the award of a PhD except a technical one, based on the worth of the research and, in many countries, an understanding of the field on the part of the candidate. He did good work and apparently understands the field, even if he doesn’t agree with it, but there’s no more problem with that than there is with Lee Smolin sticking it to string theory, in my opinion (well, unless Lubos Motl and his ilk are right and Lee just doesn’t understand it; I’m hardly in a position to comment on that, with my one grad course in string theory some years ago).

    As for others publishing works in which they don’t ‘believe’, I can’t think of any (which obviously doesn’t mean that they don’t exist). Well, maybe ‘not believing’ isn’t so hard to find, but actively disbelieving is a different matter. But I’m sort of Popperian on what science is; I don’t think that it matters how or why the hypotheses are arrived at, so long as they admit to possible falsification (which means that they are scientific) and, to be successful, don’t actually get falsified (or, at least, tell us something interesting in the process of being falsified).

  63. #63 Jason Rosenhouse
    February 14, 2007

    Chad-

    You wrote:

    Who is he deceiving, other than himself?

    He is deceiving any future graduate student or paleontologist who tries to use his thesis as the foundation of future work. If I cite the conclusions of scientist X in my work, and then scientist X reveals that actually he didn’t believe his own conclusions and was just going through the motions to obtain a credential, wouldn’t you say that scientist X had behaved deceptively?

  64. #64 gg
    February 14, 2007

    Adam: “If you put forward work that withstands scientific scrutiny, that’s scientific. Indeed, I don’t personally think that it matters how you arrive at the work (stealing it would be bad, of course, but not necessarily unscientific; just bad).”

    A little nitpicking, but how you arrive at the work does relate to whether it is scientific or not. Democritus postulated the existence of atoms by philosophical musing, and although the idea is correct, his method wasn’t terribly scientific. That isn’t exactly what you had in mind, I think, but it’s not good to say that the process doesn’t matter.

    The ‘unscientific’ I was referring to, though, really referred to the spirit of the thesis defense. As I said previously, the way things turned out, one gets the feeling that the student had to censor his views on his chosen thesis topic in order to satisfy the status quo. This is the least charitable view of the proceedings one could take, but it is one which people conceivably could do.

  65. #65 Adam
    February 14, 2007

    gg: Democritus’ theory of atoms was unscientific because it wasn’t falsifiable, so far as I am concerned (that it was true says nothing about whether it’s scientific). I don’t think that it matters if you think your theory up in a dream (like Kekule) or by meticulous and tedious experimentation (like Millikan) or by any other method; if you can construct a falsifiable theory, it’s scientific. If it is then tested and it resists falsification, it’s a working hypothesis. As I say, I’m generally a Popper guy when it comes to this sort of stuff.

    My own thesis defense, I kept to stuff that I could defend with evidence (in my case, mostly mathematical in nature). I had some opinions that I couldn’t back up with evidence (relating to problems I didn’t solve), based on intuitions about the work, but they weren’t in my thesis because I couldn’t make the case.

  66. #66 Adam
    February 14, 2007

    Jason #63: he’s not deceiving anyone that uses his research. The research is good science regardless of whether he believes it or whether it was banged out on typewriters by a million monkeys in a room once they finish knocking off the complete works of Shakespeare.

    Anyone that uses his research and only wants to use it if the person that wrote it believed it might feel deceived, but we don’t write our research for those people, we write it for people who are interested in material, on the topic in question, that passed the scientific tests.

  67. #67 lgreene
    February 14, 2007

    As a grad student in medical biology, I guess what concerns me most is the amount of ignorance the public has about any PhD. I think about my kind but naieve mother and father-in-law who will call up to tell me about some new wonder drug, colon cleansing product or a UFO sighting cover-up that was verified by a PhD, and they are ON BOARD, NO QUESTIONS ASKED. They believe “Dr.” confers official and scientific sanction, period. What happens when this guy goes on Focus on the Family, or Hannity or Fox News as an “expert”, unopposed, on the “truth” about creationism? Hundreds of thousands of uninformed people will quietly absorb his garbage (which will not be challenged on these types of programs-can anyone say “Ann Coulter”?)then some time later vote in support of a Kansas-style curriculum hijacking by the religious right. No, we can’t stop him from getting a PhD, but scientists need to start being a LOT more proactive and respond quickly to people like him before he takes us all back to the friggin dark ages.

  68. #68 Adam
    February 14, 2007

    lgreene #67: I agree with you, on the subject of the public delusion when it comes to PhDs. Jumping on shifty snake-medicine peddlars with PhDs is part of it, but also we have to explain how science works and what a PhD actually means. Science is value-neutral but evidence-based. The fact that Dr. Ross can get a PhD doing genuine scientific work illustrates both of those.

  69. #69 Mike Haubrich
    February 14, 2007

    helmling@udel.edu “But that’s all in the future: right now he’s coming up for tenure. If you were voting on his case, wd you want a tenured creationist as a colleague doing research and teaching in yr department? Right now, I wd vote against–but I’m willing to be instructed and I await yr thoughts on the matter.”

    I think that as a professor at Liberty “University” he isn’t going to have a problem being a creationist when it comes to tenure.

    My concern is that he may be preparing to write some books as a “PhD” that dispute the age of the earth, a la Jonathan Wells using his “PhD” for credentials.

  70. #70 Chad Orzel
    February 14, 2007

    He is deceiving any future graduate student or paleontologist who tries to use his thesis as the foundation of future work. If I cite the conclusions of scientist X in my work, and then scientist X reveals that actually he didn’t believe his own conclusions and was just going through the motions to obtain a credential, wouldn’t you say that scientist X had behaved deceptively?

    Only if the conclusions aren’t true, or don’t work.
    It’s paleotology, not Peter Pan. It either works or it doesn’t, whether or not you really believe.

    If he said something false about the distribution of moasaurs (which I believe was his research topic), that would be deceptive, and if people went on to construct new theories using his findings without checking them, then they would have been deceived. If what he says about the distribution of moasaurs is accurate, though, it doesn’t matter whether he really believes it or not.

  71. #71 llewelly
    February 14, 2007

    … a UFO sighting cover-up that was verified by a PhD, and they are ON BOARD, NO QUESTIONS ASKED.

    Forgive me, but on reading this I imagined a 3-eyed alien arriving at the domicile of a kindly middle-aged couple, and saying: ‘Glad to meet you. I’m Dr. Moriarty, and I’m looking for some human subjects for my next experiment. I have a Ph.D., and I think you should climb aboard …’

  72. #72 Jason Rosenhouse
    February 14, 2007

    Chad-

    But you know things aren’t really as simple as, “Either it works or it doesn’t.”

    In paleontology, even more so than many other sciences, there are questions of intepretation. Arguments gain or lack credibility in part based on how many experts you can find to endorse them. It is perfectly reasonable to write something like, “A growing number of paleontologists believe X,” and then to list a pile of references to establish that fact. If, in fact, the assertions in those references do not represent the best current judgment of the authors, but rather represent assertions tossed off solely to impress others, then a deception has been perpetrated.

    What if the next person to read Ross’ thesis is not an expert on Mosasaurs, and therefore is not someone qualified to assess the fine points of Ross’ assertions. Perhaps he is writing on some issue tangentially related to Mosasurs and consults Ross work to try to get the latest thinking on the subject. That person needs to have confidence that what he is reading really does represent the considered opinion of a competent paleontologist, and not the random assertions of someone concealing his real beliefs solely to gain a credential.

    You say that as long as what he says is accurate, it doesn’t matter whether he really believes it. This gets things backward. When we are working outside our field of expertise, our confidence that the statements are accurate stems from the fact that an expert in the field apparently believes it.

    Any time we rely on expert opinion on a subject about which we are not ourselves experts we need to have confidence that the experts are simply applying their expertise, and are not responding to ulterior motives. The fact is that scientific research requires a certian amount of trust in the people working in fields different from your own. If we really followed your principles, that trust would completely break down. We would constantly have to worry, “Is this statement really the considered opinion of an expert, or is this one of those statements he just tossed off to please others?&rduqo;

  73. #73 Adam
    February 14, 2007

    You should worry about whether an expert believes that it passed the scientific tests, rather than whether they believe it. And if he’s not doing science anymore, he isn’t a scientist anymore. It’s only a PhD, it’s not the Mantle of Wisdom.

  74. #74 Jason Rosenhouse
    February 14, 2007

    Adam-

    Ross, in fact, doesn’t believe that his assertions regarding the dates in his thesis have passed the scientific tests. And the issue here is whether Ross has done something deceptive, not whether the field of paleontology will survive his poor conduct. I’m baffled that people would deny there is something deceptive about publicly defending ideas you do not believe.

  75. #75 Adam
    February 14, 2007

    Jason #74; I thought that he believed that the work he did was correct according to the paradigm in question. That’s all it takes.

    All it takes is that you think that it’s true within the framework. It wouldn’t matter if he’d said ‘if we believe …’ and enumerated the science assumptions, followed by ‘then, we can say …[thesis]‘. In fact, that’s exactly what we do when we make scientific statements, except we don’t say it explicitly.

  76. #76 Chad Orzel
    February 14, 2007

    What if the next person to read Ross’ thesis is not an expert on Mosasaurs, and therefore is not someone qualified to assess the fine points of Ross’ assertions. Perhaps he is writing on some issue tangentially related to Mosasurs and consults Ross work to try to get the latest thinking on the subject. That person needs to have confidence that what he is reading really does represent the considered opinion of a competent paleontologist, and not the random assertions of someone concealing his real beliefs solely to gain a credential.

    First of all, my impression is that his thesis work was all done under the supervision of somebody who isn’t a creationist loon. One would hope that they checked his work, given that their reputations are also on the line, here.

    Second, his work was presumably published in peer-reviewed journals, and looked at by referees who aren’t crweationist loons. One would hope that they checked his work, as that’s kind of an essential part of the process.

    Finally, after Jan Hendrik Schoen and Hwang Woo-suk and the Bogdanovs and all the rest, anyone who blindly accepts whatever they read in a journal without cross-checking the results against the rest of the field richly deserves the object lesson that they’re bound to get sooner or later. There are people out there who are really being deceptive, and just plain making shit up and publishing results that they know are completely false, rather than just working in what they regard as an artificial paradigm.

    Let’s be clear about this: Are you accusing him of actual scientific misconduct? Do you have any reason to believe that his results were falsified or fabricated? If not, I don’t see why his thesis work is intrinsically any less reliable than anything else you find in a research journal.

  77. #77 Russell Blackford
    February 15, 2007

    Well, apart from thinking that this is just one more dismaying case where a kind of epistemic relativism being relied on to protect religious belief, I’m basically with Jason (and with you).

    I.e., I think it’s a bit of a storm in a teacup.

  78. #78 a r liboff
    February 15, 2007

    I am unsure about other fields, but Ph.D. degrees in physics usually require a preliminary exam, often including an oral component, where general questions are asked of the candidate. Having both been subject to the preliminary examination, and later having supervised the examination of others, it is difficult to understand awarding the Ph.D. to anyone whose comprehension of the specific scientific field is greatly at odds with accepted truth.

  79. #79 Adam
    February 15, 2007

    This guy, though, appeared to fully comprehend what you call the ‘accepted truth’.

  80. #80 Terry Hamblin
    February 16, 2007

    Being able to defend what you don’t believe in is a highly prized skill and a very lucrative one, as a million lawyers in America can testify.

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