Knowledge, belief, and what counts as good science: More thoughts on Marcus Ross.

Following up on my query about what it would take for a Young Earth Creationist "to write a doctoral dissertation in geosciences that is both 'impeccable' in the scientific case it presents and intellectually honest," I'm going to say something about the place of belief in the production of scientific knowledge. Indeed, this is an issue I've dealt with before (and it's at least part of the subtext of the demarcation problem), but for some reason the Marcus Ross case is one where drawing the lines seems trickier.

First, for the sake of argument, I want to set aside all questions of Marcus Ross's actual motivations in pursuing a Ph.D. in geosciences and plans for using that Ph.D. now that he has it. To get to the issue I'm after here, I'm going to assume a Ross-doppelganger who is not just "trying to get through" the process of satisfying a thesis committee, and who is committed to arguing in good faith. (I do not know what the case is with the actual Marcus Ross, but we're going to set it aside as irrelevant to my question, so please don't email me with personal testimonials on either side.) Also, let's stipulate that this Ross-doppelganger has made no special effort to conceal his religious beliefs (which include a belief that the Earth is no older than 10,000 years), but that he may not have felt any particular need to bring his religious beliefs up in the context of his scientific studies or research. (Whether intellectual honesty would require that he call attention to particular of his religious beliefs in a scientific context is something we'll get to.)

Are we clear on the character in my thought experiment? Good.

Our Ross-doppelganger wants to study geoscience. He is interested in the sorts of phenomena geoscientists study, the features of these phenomena they observe, the theories they construct to explain the phenomena, the tests to which they subject these theories -- the whole ball of wax. He applies himself to learning how to make good observations, how to use instrumentation and analytic methods of various sorts to generate further data, how to do good calculations, how to use statistical methods to get good measures of the statistical power of the results and the sized of the error bars. He has a thorough acquaintance with the geosciences literature and a firm grasp of the theories guiding research in his field (as well as keeping up to date with the new approaches described in the current literature).

His efforts make him someone who can make excellent observations in the field, work up data exactingly, and develop explanations that stand up to rigorous testing (which he can also perform well to evaluate his own explanations and the explanations of others).

It seems reasonable that this level of competence in a field requires mastery of a number of empirical and analytic techniques, a thorough understanding of the theoretical structure of the field, and a good grasp of how scientists draw inferences from data and justify those inferences.

Does it also require that he believe the theories of his field are true? Does it require that he believe that the patterns of inference at work in building geoscientific accounts of the world necessarily result in true claims?

The answer to the second question is pretty clearly "no". Scientists are well aware that their reasonable inferences can go wrong. Sometimes this is a matter of drawing inferences from a necessarily incomplete set of data (what with the problem of induction and all that). And sometimes it's because the theoretical structure within which the inferences are being drawn is not precisely right -- possibly because it's missing some important feature, or a little off on another. Of course, this means that scientists can draw perfectly good scientific inferences without having full faith in the truth of their theories.

Rob Knop has an excellent post about using theories that can't all be true in physics. In it, Rob writes:

All the time in science we have to behave as if we believe something is true, even though deep down we don't believe it really is true. Here's a concrete example: in Physics, we have two very excellent, very well-tested fundamental theories. For gravity, there is General Relativity (GR). For everything else, there is Quantum Mechanics (QM). Unfortunately, the two are inconsistent; if you try to do quantum mechanics where gravity is significant, you get nonsensical results.

This means that GR and QM can't both be right. And, yet, we soldier on, using GR every day to do gravity calculations, even though it probably isn't completely correct. We learn the rules and play the game so that we can get the results out. ...

[A]lthough we know that either GR or QM isn't the most fundamental description of reality-- most physicists assume it will be GR, rather than QM, that needs to get modified-- we do believe, and indeed know, that GR is an excellent approximation to what is going on for a wide range of situations. GR may not be "The Truth," but it does work for predicting the orbit of Mercury or the gravitational lensing of light around a cluster of galaxies. ... GR may not be the fundamental truth, but we really believe that there is mass there when gravitational lensing measurements tell us that it is there.

(I should note that Rob uses this example to set up a contrast with the real Marcus Ross. We're considering what to say about my Ross-doppelganger, so we'll have to see whather it's possible for him to avoid the pitfall into which Rob sees the actual Marcus Ross falling.)

In the current state of affairs, you can't simultaneously believe that GM gives a true account of the physical world and that QM gives a true account of the physical world. At most, only one of these theories can be true. And, it's possible that neither is true. Nonetheless, good physicists can work with both of them to make sense of data, to explain various phenomena, etc. This would seem to say that, strictly speaking, belief in the truth of a theory is not a requirement for use of that theory to generate good science. Philosopher Larry Laudan points out (in his book Progress and Its Problems) the useful distinction between accepting a theory and pursuing a theory.* Scientists can pursue all manner of theories that they take to be pretty far out, even unlikely to be true -- to see whether anything useful could come from working with that theory. Arguably, the willingness of scientists to explore theories that they don't accept (at least at the outset) can be very productive for science. Isaac Newton was not inclined to think action-at-a-distance was a good way to model reality, but pursuing what seemed like a nutty idea got us to a theory of gravity (whatever we mean by theory) that made sense out of Kepler's laws.

Here's another consideration: If scientists are serious about testing their theories, belief in those theories could be an impediment. This is part of why people like at least the spirit of Karl Popper's picture of the scientific attitude: scientific testing is looking for evidence against our theories, not evidence for them. We may love those theories to bits, but we cannot let our acceptance of them be unconditional -- they must prove themselves worthy of our love by standing up to a barage of tests. (Imagine an adaptation of Mr. Jealousy in which Annabella Sciorra plays the theory of Quantum Mechanics.)

Put another way, what makes scientific knowledge scientific is that believing in the truth of your claim contributes exactly nothing to whether other scientists will accept your claim. Scientific claims are supported with evidence of a certain sort (including empirical evidence, possibly fit with theories that are well-supported by empirical evidence, etc.). The insistence on testable claims is not just a step away from arguments from authority ("It's true beacuse I say it's true!") but also a step away from relying on your gut-feelings to make the judgment. Empirical science elevates the evidence of our senses over the deliverance of our gut. In a sense, this means that, as a matter of methodology, scientists have good reason to be cautious in their regard for what they're inclined to believe. That they believe it surely doesn't win the argument.

Now, back up a step. Our Ross-doppelganger has showed his skill in the pursuit of theories that other scientists in his field accept. Perhaps the Ross-doppelganger even accepts these theories in a Laudanian way -- he recognizes their problem-solving prowess compared to all the alternatives currently in use or development. But, he doesn't believe these theories. What he believes is what his religious instruction has taught him on this matter.

Assume for the sake of argument that the Ross-doppelganger knows his religious beliefs on things like the age of the Earth have no scientific credibility -- that they don't have empirical support, don't fit into the inferential structure in the right way, etc. Thus, he's not going to hold up his religious conviction as persuasive evidence that the science must be wrong. Let's also assume that the Ross-doppelganger will happily allow that the account of things that fits best with the empirical evidence is the account from the geosciences. In other words, from the point of view of offering natural explanations for natural phenomena, the geosciences are doing a good job.

Are you inclined to view the Ross-doppelganger as a good scientist? Can we trust the scientific knowledge he builds?

You might object, "How can he call what he's producing 'knowledge' if he doesn't believe it's true?" But if you're going to challenge the Ross-doppelganger on these grounds, you may have to challenge the physicists as well.

Here, return to Rob's analysis. When Rob writes,

GR may not be "The Truth," but it does work for predicting the orbit of Mercury or the gravitational lensing of light around a cluster of galaxies. ... GR may not be the fundamental truth, but we really believe that there is mass there when gravitational lensing measurements tell us that it is there.

I take it what he's getting at is that science involves a certain commitment to the reality of the observational data -- that there is a planet Mercury, that it does have an orbit, that there is light, there is gravity. Without some kind of acceptance that empirical data are real -- that we get them through certain kinds of interaction with the physical world -- there would be absolutely no reason to think it problematic to just make up data.

What seems less clear cut is what kind of commitment science requires to the causes behind the empirical data. There are some (Bas van Fraassen comes to mind**) who suggest that the task of science is accounting for the empirical data with empirically adequate theories, but that the "hidden causes" you might infer lay beyond those data are not the kinds of things you can establish with certainty. In other words, there are some scientific claims you can support with empirical data, and other scientific claims that fit really well with the data -- maybe better than any of the competing claims we've cooked up to date -- but about which it is possible, or even proper, to maintain a healthy agnosticism.

If the Ross-doppelganger acknowledges that the empirical data are what they are -- that this is what the world presents to our senses (and to the instrumentation we use to extend our senses) -- is he on solid scientific footing? Remember that he knows what to do with those data to draw proper scientific inferences, that he knows how to test his inferences against possible scientific objections, and so on.

Does the fact that he entertains as a possibility, albeit one that he acknowledges as scientifically untestable, that the empirical data are produced by a God who also made the world within the last 10,000 years -- even if this possibility plays no role at all in his scientific work -- disqualify him as a proper scientist and disqualify his work as properly constructed scientific knowledge?

If so, why?

*Acceptance in Laudan's account is similar to belief, but it's worth noting that, in contrast to some other kinds of belief we might have in everyday life, acceptance of a scientific theory is something for which Laudan thinks we can have rational grounds (on the basis of the theory's current overall level of problem-solving power compared to the available alternatives). Note also that as other theories are developed, it's perfectly possible that we will be presented with rational grounds for accepting a different theory over the one we had accepted.

**The full articulation of van Fraassen's view is given in his book The Scientific Image.


More like this

The only flaw with the GR/QM scenerio and the YEC/current-geological-science scenerio is that BOTH the GR and the QM are scientifically valid and mathematically accurate to within acceptable degrees of certainty.

Neither are "believed" in so much as supported by the evidence available at the time at which they are applicable. That they contradict at certain points is not, in itself, a problem of belief. Physicists who's fields reflect one or the other continue on as if the contradiction didn't exist, because at acceptable levels of certainty it doesn't. They're both science, and extremely accurate sciences in spite of the contradictions and funnyness that goes on when the very small works around the very big.


YEC is not only NOT VERIFIABLE by any standard at all (unlike, say, "angels" or supernatural gods), it CONTRADICTS all evidence utterly.

This is not a case of believing in one while ignoring the other merely because at acceptable scientific levels of accuracy, "it works". This is believing something that totally contradicts ALL evidence at hand, even without the philosophical hand-waving of "God made it *look* like it was 4 billion years old, but its really young".

The comparison is inapplicable.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 22 Feb 2007 #permalink

Joe, the point wasn't to suggest that YEC is like either GR or QM. Rather, the point was to ask whether using geological theories (which deep down, one doesn't believe) might be like working with GR (which deep down, one doesn't really believe).

I take it there's no case to be made here that YEC can be construed as scientifically supported belief. The worry is whether "good science" requires that you have a certain level of belief in the scientific theory you're using.

Does one really "not believe" in GR, or does one merely accept that GR is the best available explanation for the phenomena THAT ACTUALLY WORKS within that acceptable certainty. One can accept that GR is not "right" while at the same time accept that the better explanation eludes us, "but we're working on it" (which we are).

That's totally different from suggesting that one can accept that GR is not right by *believing* that "planets and stars spin on crystal spheres", the astronomical equivalent to YEC.

When a scientist says "I don't believe in GR" its completely different from when some "faithful" chap says "I don't believe in everything anybody has ever said about modern cosmology". They really are two different meanings to "believe" and the context remains key. The comparison has not resolved that contextual difference that changes the weight behind "believe".

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 22 Feb 2007 #permalink

Well, Janet, you're a philosopher, so you know that there are all kinds of tenable possibilities for empirical observations. The only thing that you can prove to exist is your own mind. Aside from that, there are all kinds of completely logical, if not incredibly likely, possibilities. The world could have been created 10 seconds ago. There is absolutely no way to disprove this hypothesis.

But as a scientist, you're committed to the idea that the most parsimonious explanation is likely the truth. There's all kinds of evidence that the world has been around a very long time. I can look at a sample of uranium and see that, on average, one atom decays into thorium about every ten seconds (and then through all the chains to lead). Then I can look at a piece of rock that should be all uranium, but 50% of it is lead. The most parsimonious explanation is that this piece of rock is billions of years old.

That's how scientists decide how the world works. Looking for empirical evidence to explain how things are the why they are. If I honestly believed that the world was created 10 seconds ago, and I would continue to do so no matter how many radiodating studies I did, I'm not being a scientist. I'm not actually looking for evidence about how the world really works. And as such, I have no motivation to be truthful about what I find, because it's all just a game anyway.

I think that's the real problem here. Science really relies on people being utterly open about their observations. That means being personally motivated to report the truth.

Joe, what does a belief matter to the work done? Surely what goes on inside your own head only becomes a problem if it goes beyond that and influences your work and writings. If I was to deny GR because I honestly accepted the Crystal Spheres hypothesis (don't worry, I have never even heard of this one before) would it really, honestly matter, so long as I didn't allow that prejudice into my work?

Lets be honest with ourselves, all scientists will have some prejudices. The whole point of peer review and standards of ethical conduct (including intellectual honesty in all its forms) is to minimise the impact of those prejudices.

In the case of the hypothetical here, the belief is kept entirely detached from the work produced (otherwise there would have been no way any PhD, or science fair sticker for that matter, could have been awarded). It would be no different to an atheist making an argument to Christians that referred to the bible. You may not believe it is true, but that doesn't stop you understanding the others viewpoint and using it to make arguments.

In this case you can see the paper written as almost a thought experiment. The same sort of view taken by the church with Galileo when his model made beautiful predictions but didn't fit with dogma. While such a stance is in no way scientific, it doesn't make the science done any less viable to those who do accept it.

There were no grounds to deny the PhD on the work done or the general religious beliefs held by this man. There may have been other reasons, such as straight up dishonesty in presenting data that he believes is false. But if he believes the data is real and his reading of it is the best that exists materially, then there is no real way to avoid admitting he did as much as any other PhD student in the way of science.

By Paul Schofield (not verified) on 22 Feb 2007 #permalink

One thing I haven't seen brought up in any of these discussions is "Last Thursdayism". Last Thursdayism is the recognition that God could have created the world last Thursday with all of the historical elements required to make the Earth (and Universe) look like it is 13 billion years old.

It is entirely possible that Ross could believe that the Earth really was created by God 6000 (or so) years ago, but with all the attributes to make it look like 13 billion years. In that case, accepting that 13 billion year age "for scientific purposes" would be a necessary part of learning more about the mind of God.

1) A basic part of being a scientist is being able to suspend your beliefs. Not your disbelief -- that's easy -- but your beliefs, and especially the ones you actually like!

2) The GR/QM confict is vastly overhyped. It applies solely under conditions which are not directly observable (even in principle, AFAIK), and in which one or the other theory may reasonably "forced out" by new findings or boundary conditions.

3) In the same vein, the ultimate test of a physical theory is technology -- that is, given the theory, can you use it to create devices or conditions which did not previously exist? Both GR and QM pass this test with flying colors. Besides the astronomical observations, relativistic effects become directly relevant when, say, building a GPS system. The system we're using explicitly accounts for those effects, and it works. QM becomes directly relevant when building very small electronic devices, such as those in the computer you're using to read this comment. That works too. QED.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 22 Feb 2007 #permalink

Does the fact that he entertains as a possibility, albeit one that he acknowledges as scientifically untestable, that the empirical data are produced by a God who also made the world within the last 10,000 years -- even if this possibility plays no role at all in his scientific work -- disqualify him as a proper scientist and disqualify his work as properly constructed scientific knowledge?

Since this is a philosophy blog the answer has to be no; entertaining the possibility that God made the world 10,000 years ago should not disqualify him. We have all taken enough philosophy to know that you can never prove anything so we always have to remain skeptical.

At some level we have to consider the possibility that there really is a Flying Spaghetti Monster or that water is created when little fairies push oxygen and hydrogen atoms together. The real question is how great a possibility do we accept before we label someone a kook? If a person really, truly believes in little chemistry fairies and then flies around the country teaching that to adult audiences, wouldn't we be a bit suspicious?

There's a big difference between the philosophical position of remaining open to all possibilities and the scientific position of recognizing the difference between facts and fantasy. When you're in a philosophy department you can speculate on whether the chair is real or not. It's fun to do that from time to time. But that doesn't work in a science lab where our goal is to explain the natural world.

The Earth is billions of years old. That's not a theory, it's a fact. (Where fact is defined in the Gouldian sense of something that's so well established that it's not worth questioning any more.) Yes, of course there's some place deep in our brains where we retain a smidgen of doubt, but the practice of good science demands that it stay down deep unless some contrary evidence comes along. We'll only dredge it up when we're playing with philosophers.

The silly notions of Marcus Ross are not this kind of skepticism. His nonsense ideas about Young Earth Creationism are front and center. They aren't remote possibilities at all. He rejects all facts in his field and he rejects all the established theories. He now teaches his "possibilities" to undergraduates at Liberty University.

We don't give Ph.D.'s to people who reject the basic concepts of their discipline. This wouldn't be an issue if Ross had written his thesis from a Young Earth anti-evolution perspective. Just like it wouldn't be an issue for a chemistry candidate if they advocated the Chemical Fairy theory in their thesis. We'd probably commit him before he even got to the final oral.

The complication with Ross is that he didn't put his crazy ideas in his thesis. It's why we're having this debate.

What he "actually" believes is of course rather unrelated to how his work should be evaluated.

Two examples: Assume he does believe geology as a field but he absolutely rejects evolution, DNA and other parts of modern biology. Or, if biology and evolution is too close to geology - he rejects medicine in favour of faith healing. He is rejecting science in favour of religion - just in a different field than what he's working in. Should he be ostracized as a geologist?

Or, he believes geology, he does good, solid work in it. Ten years later he has a [brainfart|epiphany], rejects science and the scientific world as evil, wrong and heretic. Should we now discard his earlier work in view of his changed convictions?

What matters is the quality of the work and the evidence he brings forth in it. The rest is really irrelevant.

Paul Schofield:

Ok, here's the real lack of integrity, sincerity, and honesty. He did real science, against all of his "beliefs" in order to get the degree. That he *had* to have done good science to get the degree is a given.


Now that he has the degree, he's now *NOT DOING SCIENCE* and he really had no intention of ever doing real science once he got the degree.

In Ross's real case (ignoring the hypothetical), he's now "teaching" at Liberty U (if I read one of the other SB'ers correctly - google just confirmed it). This means he's *teaching* non-science to a bunch of future non-scientists, and not only conditioning them against science (for them to condition their own kids with), but reinforcing their ignorant belief that his PHD gives him the authority tell them that the distorted view of science he'll really be presenting to them is accurate.

To quote his page @ LU: "He is greatly interested in issues surrounding the creation-evolution controversy and the intersection of geology with the Biblical events of creation and Noah's Flood."

That's not science, that's fiction.

Its not that he didn't do science to get the degree. It's that he got the degree in order to willfully contribute to the destruction of science in this country in favor of his distorted version of "Christianity".

btw, "Crystal Spheres" goes back to Aristotle and Ptolemy.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 22 Feb 2007 #permalink

"Now that he has the degree, he's now *NOT DOING SCIENCE* and he really had no intention of ever doing real science once he got the degree."

Strange - I don't remember signing anything around the time of my thesis defense where I declare I will continue doing science, only science, and nothing but science after graduation. I really would think I'd remember signing it if I had.

Look, a PhD is no moral stance. It's no declaration of fidelity to a cause, a statement of intent or a membership in a club. It's a journeyman's certificate - proof that you have shown competence in your field and have conducted and finished a piece of research meeting some standard of quality and size.

Whether you use your degree to do research, to defraud people with your impressive-sounding title or leave it behind altogether to pursue a career as a pianist in a house of ill repute has no bearing on what you did to receive the degree.

If people see the degree as a stamp of quality on activities that are not in line with the degree, then that is their fault for misunderstanding what the degree means - and even more the fault of otherwise reputable researchers that have encouraged this misrepresentation and misused it themselves to advance some pet cause.

Most PhD recipients are no longer in academia. This does not invalidate their degrees or research.

Also one important difference between historical sciences (geology) and basic sciences (physics) is that "laws" in historical sciences are more guidelines than actual rules. Most of them have exceptions. So it is considered healthy to not accept them blindly. Ross (real or theoretical) may be taking this overboard, but the view of the people who are actual experts in his field are that he managed to solve research problems.

A person who can solve problems is a scientist. Whether he does it slyly, deceptively, or dishonestly is irrelevant. Science is an outcome-based activity. If it works, it works. Whether or not he is delusional is irrelevant, as long as his work is transparent and reproducible.

This indeed a Pandora's box - Let me try to sharpen the question a bit more - say, if a person has multiple personalities among which one is the supporter of the scientific methodology whereas another is a fundamentalist, should that person be offered a PhD on an impeccable thesis ?

And how about this one - Quantum mechanics is widely accepted by physicists to be non-intuitive. Our "folk-physics" plainly contradicts the quantum mechanical reality (and for that matter even the relativistic reality).

I am almost sure that the "unconsciousness" of the best of our physicists simply does not "believe" in quantum mechanics.It will be indeed astonishing if our unconsciousness which evolved in a macroscopic world "knows" about QM. I think you can design experiments to show that when physicists talk , their brain "reasons" classically and only after that their "conscious brain" turns on to filter out things based on their knowledge.

Reality is non-intuitive. Our folk-biology knows no evolution and probably, our folk physics struggles against GR. Even the best of the scientists cannot change what the "irrational" parts of the human mind says. So, a certain amount of deliberate "lying"/going against our own intuitions is necessary for scientists because we have not been naturally selected to visualise the curvature of 4-d space-times or to grasp the enormity of geological timescales!

Should we rip off the Ph.D.s from our best physicists then ? Should we accuse them of being liars ? I hope most people here would be against that. So, to those who support denying Ross his Ph.D., I ask - what is the criterion that you use to distinguish between these cases?

By From so simple… (not verified) on 23 Feb 2007 #permalink


Thanks for the link. Turns out I had heard of it, but never under those terms.

Someones intentions in getting a degree can't count towards the granting of that degree. I am studying for my own degree in physics, and do intend to enter research afterwards, but many of my friends from my course have no intention on going into scientific fields after graduation. There was even talk of one going on to get a second degree in theology. Does this make them dishonest in taking a degree course in physics?

While that is a far less extreme case than this one, I don't really think the difference is enough to deny someone their degree. You never do know what someone is going to do later in their life. A person who graduates fully accepting of evolution and an old earth may well undergo a religious conversion where they feel that they must also reject the science they otherwise have no problems with.

I do have problems, big ones, with what he is doing today and the way he is using his PhD, but there was no viable reason for him to be denied the degree at the time it was granted.

By Paul Schofield (not verified) on 23 Feb 2007 #permalink

Janet, I think you have it right. There are all kinds of beliefs; religious, moral, political, etc. Some of these we make public, others we don't. The man did the work and that's that. His beliefs don't matter in this question. Neither does what he intends to do with his degree. We may not like it but that's what free speech is all about.

By nerdwithabow (not verified) on 23 Feb 2007 #permalink

I understand your (collective) comments. I'm sorry if I over-implied that getting a PhD in a science field is an automatic assumption that one will continue to practice true science after the degree.

I never really was on the side of "he doesn't deserve it", and really, being at Liberty it just means that he's preaching his "non" science to the choir of the already converted (and he can now add one more name to the DI's "list", as I'm sure he'll still *claim* to be a scientist even though we know he isn't). Though there's no help in improving science knowledge and science education through his present and future actions, there's little real harm he can do.


I agree, in the end, that he has his right to preach his non-scientific views, especially at a private college where constitutional requirements against establishment don't apply.

The best we all can do about it is exercise our right to continue to show the true facts of scientific knowledge in the hopes that we can at least keep a few more of those not exposed to his lies from falling into the darkness of pseudo-science and superstition. And do exercise our right to post about the truth of what he did and why (we think) he did it, within the limitations of libel laws in this country, in the hopes that we might deter a few from following his path of lying for Jesus to gain a certificate of authority in order to continue to lie for Jesus more convincingly.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 23 Feb 2007 #permalink

This is as much a lithmus test for philosophy as for religion, of course, to the extent the former also refuses to discuss reality.

In the current state of affairs, you can't simultaneously believe that GM gives a true account of the physical world and that QM gives a true account of the physical world. At most, only one of these theories can be true. And, it's possible that neither is true.

Philosophy is obsessed with truth and Truth, but IMHO seems to have a hard time adapting these concepts to science usage. Both theories are true or correct (gives correct predictions) within their areas of validity. They also describes elements of reality, like mass and particles.

Acceptance in Laudan's account is similar to belief, but it's worth noting that, in contrast to some other kinds of belief we might have in everyday life, acceptance of a scientific theory is something for which Laudan thinks we can have rational grounds

I would say that I trust theories and observations, i.e. theories give verified predictions and observations are repeatable. Of course, I may do that since I accept theories that are tested, avoiding the "problem of induction" as I understand it.

disqualify him as a proper scientist and disqualify his work as properly constructed scientific knowledge?

The post has already answered this - the work is good if it can be tested and "believing in the truth of your claim contributes exactly nothing to whether other scientists will accept your claim". But doppelganger-Ross will likely make a bad scientist since he will lack motivation, publicly denounce his results and create conflicts with other scientists.

I'm very much with Janne on this one. It is hard to make a selection criteria for badly motivated PhD work, and the quality of the work is not the quality of the scientist. (Though such things as ethical codes and selection for excellence can help bar bad PhD candidates.)

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 23 Feb 2007 #permalink

Both theories are true (gives correct predictions) within their areas of validity. They also describes elements of reality, like mass and particles.

I forgot to add: Of course both theories are incomplete descriptions of reality.

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 23 Feb 2007 #permalink

I'd like to thank Janet D. Stemwedel for a deeper and more careful analysis of what has been more clumsily and noisily addressed elsewhere in the blogosphere. A great example of nicely structured hypotheticals.

I mostly agree with Torbjörn Larsson and Larry Moran. Ahcuah's point is or is not a dead end philosophically, but is at least a hypothetical that has received serious attention by, for instance, Bertrand Russell.

I agree that "belief" is a more nuanced construct in Academa than outside the Ivory Tower or the Steeple.

In a sense, most academics are trained NOT to question their own beliefs. At least before the rise of "Critical Theory" and poststructuralism, which is another subject.

Most scientists have a "naive metaphysics" based on technically obsolete but still popular Logical Positivism.

Thomas Kuhn makes the point that when scientists start arguing about metaphysics, and questioiningt their own paradigm, it is a social/psychological indicator that the paradigm is in crisis, and a herald of revolution.

The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection is NOT in crisis -- that is the Big Lie of Creationists and ID folks.

Hence the issue with Marcus Ross seems (to me) to involve his stance on the sociology of scientific revolution, as contrasted with theocratic revolution.

re GR QM: "Both theories are true..." Nonsense. Space-time is continuous. Space-time is discontinuous. These statements can't both be true.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 24 Feb 2007 #permalink

bob koepp: "These statements can't both be true."

I agree, as do most scientists who've puzzled over this.

However, in abstract Math, intuition and common sense can be misleading. Example: "It is possible for a set to be neither open nor closed, e.g., the half-closed interval (0,1]."

Wow, great post. I like the idea of pointing out that whether or not the Ross-doppelganger actually believes his conclusions should have no bearing on how those conclusions are treated in the marketplace of ideas. However, my problem with the argument presented is the mechanist conception of science it embodies: to paraphrase Erdos, that "a scientist is a machine for producing theories". ("A mathematician is a machine for producing theorems" in the original.) In the social context in which science is currently practiced, we expect that someone will put the best possible case forward for a theoretical claim because they believe that claim is true. Once that motivation to rhetorical excellence is withdrawn, the 'context of justification' becomes muddied. Although in theory, the beliefs of a researcher should have no bearing on how the research and conclusions are received, in practice, any suspicion of a 'hidden agenda' on the part of a researcher -- whether it be financial or ideological bias -- counts against his work, because we suspect the existence of deficiencies that we don't have the time or expertise to detect.

Another issue both the real case and the example of the Ross-doppelganger has to do with the job title he gets: "professor". Implied in this title is that someone actually believes what they are saying. If we view the role of 'professor' as that of an educator as well as of a researcher, students have the right to expect the extra motivation to excellence that belief would provide (or at least the absence of suspect motives that the absence of belief would indicate!). To try another example, imagine a business has need of a research geologist. Should they hire one who has professed beliefs in conflict with the generally accepted paradigm of his field, or an equally qualified one who has not? Can we really fault the business for choosing the latter?
The unspecified assumption of the Ross-doppelganger assumption is whether or not he ever, in any way, acts on his personal belief that the age of the earth is less than 10,000 years. If he does not, I claim that he is indistinguishable from a 'Ross-consistent' that believes everything he said in his thesis...

By Greg Nowak (not verified) on 25 Feb 2007 #permalink

Space-time is continuous. Space-time is discontinuous. These statements can't both be true.

Neither theory predicts that spacetime is discontinuous. What QM combined with GR predicts is that we can't probe dimensions less than the Planck length. The spacetime metric breaks down here.
But any discretization breaks Lorentz invariance.

For example, string theory compatible with both QM and GR suggest that spacetime must be continuous since branes sweeps continuous worldsheets.

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 25 Feb 2007 #permalink