Scientific and unscientific conclusions: now with pictures!

This is another attempt to get to the bottom of what's bugging people about the case of Marcus Ross, Ph.D. in geosciences and Young Earth Creationist. Here, I've tried to distill the main hypotheticals from my last post on the issue into flowcharts*, in the hopes that this will make it easier for folks to figure out just what they want to say about the proper way to build scientific knowledge..

First, here's the process that no one thinks is a good description of how to come to a scientific conclusion:


Believing something doesn't make it so. Science is an endeavor that is not concerned with what a person believes about the world but instead with what one can establish about the world, usually on the basis of emprical evidence.

The worrisome thing about the Marcus Ross case was that his YEC committed him to views (e.g., the Earth is at most 10,000 years old) that directly conflict with claims made in his disseration about the abundance and spread of marine reptiles which disappeared about 65 million years ago. He seems to be claiming not-P while believing P, and that seems a lot like lying. This is why I labored through the doppelganger-Ross post to try to work out whether it's even possible to build good scientific knowledge while believing (for completely non-scientific reasons) the opposite.

My commenters seemed divided on this. In the "unlikely it's possible" column, we have Brian:

... as a scientist, you're committed to the idea that the most parsimonious explanation is likely the truth.

and Larry Moran:

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.

and possibly David Harmon:

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!

since I take it the suggestion here is that a serious scientist ought to be able to set the YEC aside. These responses seem to fit with a picture of scientific knowledge production that looks like this:


For the record, if you'd rather switch the order of "Believe that P" and "Conclude P" boxes (and similarly with the corresponding not-P boxes), that's OK with me. The important feature here is that the empirical evidence, theories, and inferences lead to something you think is properly identified as a belief -- and that believing the opposite of what the data/theory/inference process directs you to believe would be an astoundingly bad thing to do.

Other commenters seemed willing to say that even if the real Marcus Ross is not someone they'd want to call a good scientist, doppelganger-Ross might be able to do good science despite his YEC beliefs. This group included Paul Schofield:

... 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. ...

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.

and Janne:

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

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

and Lab Lemming:

A person who can solve problems is a scientist. ... 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.

These responses suggest a picture of scientific knowledge production that looks like this:


The only difference between this picture and the last one is that there are no boxes that have to do with whether you believe P or not-P. In other words, what you conclude in this process is determined by the data/theory/inference process -- not by whay you believe. If this is a good picture of how scientists arrive at their conclusions, then it's at least possible for a scientist to conclude P (on the basis of the data/theory/inference process) while believing (for entirely separate reasons that he himself recognizes as non-scientific) not-P. Because "Believe not-P" isn't part of this process, it's not going to bring you to a scientific conclusion of not-P.

If you're a serious Popperian you might worry about those conclusion boxes, given the possibility of new data or updates in our theories or the persistence of the problem of induction. A real Popperian keeps riding the data/theory/inference merry-go-round. That's fine; read "Conclude P" as "TENTATIVELY conclude P" and, in the case of new information that could undermine that conclusion (and we promise, Sir Karl, that we'll keep looking for that information!), revisit the available data and theories to draw the best available inference. This is the kind of thing Larry Moran is pointing to with the possibility of "contrary evidence" above. However, he's acknowledging that actual scientists don't keep beating that (tentatively) dead horse as long as Popper makes it sound like they should.

Scientists, of course, are human. As such, they have beliefs, and there's nothing wrong with that. The question is whether there is, or ought to be, a certain kind of relationship between their beliefs and their scientific conclusions.

The sense I'm getting from some of the comments is that people are deeply suspicious that a person could come to the scientific conclusion that P if that person holds a belief that not-P. There are all sorts of efforts scientists take to remove bias from their scientific work, to shift the burden of proof so that they won't give an unfair advantage in their interpretation of the data to the view they're predisposed to believe. Sure, it's hard to completely remove your own individual biases, but that's why scientists build knowledge in communities. It doesn't become knowledge until you can persuade the others in that community of your conclusions, and how you do that is by displaying the data/theory/inference used to arrive at those conclusions.

Maybe whether a particular scientist working within the community can be sufficiently unbiased to contribute to the building of good knowledge is an empirical question. How the community would judge whether his conclusions were biased or unbiased, though, would probably come down to the data/theory/inference displayed to back up the conclusions. This is not to say that a belief that not-P couldn't be the relevant cause of the biased conclusions, but rather that that belief is not the thing the community needs to trip over to identify that the conclusions are biased.

But perhaps the worry is really something like this: A real scientist ought only to believe conclusions reached through an appropriate data/theory/inference process. This would mean that scientific conclusions ought properly to smash any beliefs you have that contradict them. It would not be acceptable, on this view, to say, "I know my belief that P is not scientifically supported! I understand that there's no reason for anyone in the scientific community to take my belief that P as a scientific conclusion, and I have no intention of asserting it as such, whether to other scientists or to non-scientists. Yet, in my heart of hearts, I believe that P."

Again, there's probably an empirical question about whether it's really possible for humans to hold contradictory beliefs. But, must all of a scientist's beliefs be on solid empirical footing? Can any human actually live up to this standard (without simplifying the problem by believing very few things)?

Believe me, I understand the consternation around the actual Marcus Ross. I will be the first one to decry any arguments-from-the-authority-of-having-a-geosciences-Ph.D. offered to defend YEC, as well as any silly claims that his being a scientist and his believing YEC means that YEC constitutes a set of scientific beliefs.

But, it seems to me that the aim of the scientific enterprise is to find ways to draw inferences that move beyond the beliefs of any individual scientist. Leaving the "belief" boxes out of the flowchart doesn't seem to remove any of the steps required for building sound scientific conclusions. Scientific conclusions may well affect the belief structures of individual scientists, but that's a matter of their own personal growth, not required step in the construction of the shared body scientific knowledge.

*"You're using hand drawn flowcharts?!" exclaims my better half. Yes, I am. Now you all know what a Luddite I am. Please excuse me while I churn some butter.

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I like the hand-drawn flow-charts... I looks more like science, and less like marketing.

And I could say "more like real science, and less like DI Marketing".

The relationship between believing P and concluding P seems crucial, and it is largely determined by one's philosophical stance. For a scientist, the two acts might seem inseparable; as you describe, fusing the two is part of scientific discipline. In the Ross case, science seems to be a game, not a personal orientation, so the act of concluding P amounts to no more than claiming P, regardless of belief. So from a tribal identity point of view, Ross is no scientist. But not being a scientist should not disqualify anyone a priori from contributing to the enterprise of science, just make it more challenging. In case of Ross, that is not the enterprise he seems eager to contribute to.

1. After working very hard for several yers to get the Ph.D, the person may have been deranged.
2. Unfortunately the scientific data did not lie. But the Devil covinced him so. He belives it. But if he has a Ph.D he can profess to the world with authority that the earth is only 10,000 year old.
3. Can a University revoke a degree when found the person lied?

Two things to comment on:


The little smattering of psychology that I took in university suggests to me that not only can humans hold two logically conflicting beliefs at the same time but they do so very often. Example set of beliefs: (P1) smoking is bad for you, (P2) i am a smoker, (P3) i am a healthy person.

What happens when you put people face to face with the discrepencies in their belief systems is cognitive dissonance and some psychologists study how people deal with this situation. In the example above an easy way to reconcile the set is to quit smoking but more frequently people rationalize or use other avoidance techniques. they add (P4) i only smoke one cigarette a day so it's not that bad

Having said this my comment is that it is possible for a scientist to do work which suggests that some proposition P is true while believing not-P. I think it is highly unlikely because of the level of cognitive dissonance that produces. They would have to have some very large incentive to try to maintain both. The easiest thing to do is to stop believing not-P. I can see, however, that under exceptional circumstances, like when social pressure to believe not-P is very high, that a scientist might find rationalizations which allow her to come to scientific conclusions independantly of the rest of their psychological life ..


you said that in your second model you don't mind iverting the order of the believe-P and conclude-P boxes. If that's true then your second model is essentially the same as your third model. If you conclude-P and then you believe-P in that order then believing-P is clearly external to the whole process. Your two models become essentially the same. To the extent that holding a belief is something that one can have any choice over the two models are the same. One simply explicitly states that you have the option to chose to believe-P


Wow, great job Janet! After Wellington Gray's recent flowcharts being passed around the internet showing the difference between faith thinking and evidence thinking, I've decided to Digg and Reddit this stuff. This is some great simplifying we can use to talk to creationists and woo-woo's.

I may be in an overpopperian day, but I think that a box explicitly saying "Look for data that could challenge P" would be an important addition to the second & third charts, specially in order to extend the distinction to alties & other pseudoscientists, and not only fundies. Alties and some creationists can claim that they have seen some data. The problem is that they sift through 10000 pieces of information, pick the 100 that support their view, and then present these 100 as evidence (and, out of context, they may even sound convincing). They dismiss the 99% that doesn't fit (and sometimes they are even unaware of doing so!), mostly because they're not looking for falsification. In science, it's our pride and duty.

On the distinction between beliefs founded on evidence and beliefs held for other, non-evidential reasons, there's Kurt Wise, who got his degree under Gould:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.

Beliefs have different kinds of justification -- not different quantities, but different (quite possibly incommensurable) kinds -- and one makes choices about what kind of knowledge claim justification one will accept. Wise has chosen one, as has apparently Ross given his current employer. For some purposes they accepted one temporarily, overtly, (in order to get a Ph.D. from a secular institution), while for other and their main purposes they accept another that is clearly contradictory. The crunch for Ross will come when and if he uses the credential gained by accepting science's kind of knowledge claim justification to lend credence to beliefs he justifies on other grounds. That will be the test of his intellectual honesty. Any bets on how it'll come out?

I don't think that the "Conclude P" and "Conclude not-P" boxes should be termini. There should be "just to be sure" paths following from them too.

I think there should be some steps before your "Start: Question P?" box. Scientists don't pull their questions out of thin air. What they end up examining and why both have alot to do with the results they arrive at.

As several people have elaborated, functioning as a creationist geoscientist would involve a lot of cognitive dissonance, and require a goodly load of associated defenses. I think that in itself would represent a major handicap to someone's functioning as a scientist, but it might be possible.

But of course, that's only one of the two issues people are persistently concerned with. The other is basically "good faith", and the question is open enough that I think some people were resisting your attempt to set it aside in the prior post. First, we have the known record of various creationists forging or abusing scientific credentials. Then too, in light of the first issue... can a mind so divided be trusted about the very crux of their division?

By David Harmon (not verified) on 25 Feb 2007 #permalink

I've blown hot and cold over this case. I can see how you might earn a Doctorate on a particular subject, with a view to overturning the paradigm with a better scientific paradigm.

I suppose it is just possible to believe in a young earth where the evidence of an old earth has been planted. However I would have thought that a scientist would have wanted to prove or disprove this possibility. It would also lead to some dicey religious arguments about the consequences of a deceptive creator.

There, I've been as even handed as I can, but in the end the young man will be judged by his actions.

I have several problems with this analysis, but I hope that won't seem like an attack on philosophy as such. Philosophy gives us a lot to think about. ;-)

On the actual case itself I have no problem - I make the same conclusions as Janne, or more precisely Dr. X here. If Ross's work should be disqualified it should have been done before the PhD exam on the grounds that Ross will not make a good and truthful scientist.

The first problem I have was with "belief". I have seen, and forgotten, that it is used in two senses in english - for trust, and for conviction. Rather like for theory, the weaker term isn't appropriate here. I would say that theories gives us trust in repeatability of predicted observations, and that kind of trust counts as knowledge. In fact, already the trust repeated observations gives count as knowledge.

The second problem I have is with "the problem of induction". Science has a set of procedures that observably generates robust knowledge, and the alleged problem is seldom seen. When the terrain and the map doesn't agree, junk the map.

The third problem I have is with the specific diagrams. Real scientific knowledge production will not yield to any one diagram. So for the philosopher that raises a hypothetical "problem of induction" we could turn around the question and ask why the obvious "problem of description" (which ironically is a real problem of induction :-) isn't bothersome. The scientist answer would probably be as above: "e puor si muove".

I agree with dileffante. Without feeling like testability is the end-all of science the diagram is slanted away from testing towards a weaker and in the end nonfunctional descriptive science. Whether we call tested knowledge "a conclusion" or "a tentative conclusion" is irrelevant IMHO, it is a conclusion we will (have to) trust in.

The fourth (oy!) problem I have is with the conflated description the diagram alludes to. In the text there is a distinction between individual scientists and the scientific enterprise. Different entities will obviously use different approaches to knowledge, and if the individual doesn't need to trust her findings the enterprise relies on such a trust.

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

This entire article can be refuted simply by quoting one line from it - "Science is an endeavor that is not concerned with what a person believes about the world but instead with what one can establish about the world". How amusing then that the remainder of the article goes on to discuss how important this Geologists beliefs are, at length.

I hope the rest of your readers caught on to this glaring contradiction and are, unlike the author, able to excercise some objectivity in their thinking.

I've already commented strongly in favor of this analysis. I like the flowcharts, as an adjunct to the argument. However, I suspect that the most important thing left out from the charts is the interaction with other people.

This formally involves the publication process, with reading, writing, coauthoring, rewriting, interacting with editors, interacting indirectly with anonymous, referees, interacting with granting agency people, interacting with collagues verbally, interactcing with one's superordinates, subordinates, and coordinates (coworkers at the same level).

It is in this domain that I believe Marcus Ross has acted most unethically, albeit not illegally. It appears to me that he placed greater weight of evidence to interactions outiside this formal part of the Scientific Process, and instead gave priority to people with whom he interacted OUTSIDE that process, namely to preachers, churchgoing peers, Young Earth axe-grinders, Creationist political activists, and (indirectly) Jesus Christ.

Jesus was almost surely a historical figure, of immense significance to the history of civilization these past 2000 years or so, but, though a highly educated man (not only as a rabbi, but also equivalent of Grad School or Postdoc with the Essenes, probably learned Greek, probably read texts from other philosophies and religions). However, and this is a big however, Jesus Christ was not part of the Scientific Establishment, and not a scientist as such.

I have great respect for the historical Jesus, and read a lot about him and the interpretation of his translated edited speeches. I have great respect, for that matter, with Mohammed, Moses, Confucius, and Buddha. But, despite their descriptions of natural and supernatural theories, they were not scientists, as I understand Science.

Therein lies the unethical behavior of Dr. Ross, and the degree-granting and professorship-granting institutions have some complicity in this.

Again, this is what I believe. I have tried to explain where I went to arrive at this belief. It is not a scientific belief on my part, except in the sense of metaphysics and the philsophy of science.

Kuhn would argue that if one works without a scientific paradigm, one is not, in fact, a scientist. To the extent that Ross works from a theological paradigm and pretends to believe a scientific paradigm, then he is not a scientist, and is fraudulently pretending to be a scientist. Fraud, as I say, just short of illegality. But Not Nice.

The role of the "human" factor is not limited to "I believe" outside science, as in the case of YEC. In the scientific community itself there are those who, due to their dominant position (grant money, being first to propose a new hypothesis that many members support, padded CV), can lead the whole community awry (when new data give rise to doubts about his/her hypothesis), while, for personal reasons (keeping his/her dominance within the community, embarrassment for being the owner of a defunct hypothesis) will fight (many times successfully) against the few who dare to challenge his/her hypothesis and authority. True that Dr. Marcus Ross is by no means a leading authority in his field, yet, he has his own motives to not only ignore (believe not-P) his scientific findings (conclude P), but to promote not-P to many unsuspecting members of a community from which, eventually, some will become members of the scientific community, who will carry on Ross's gamesmanship.

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 26 Feb 2007 #permalink

S. Rivlin: Well-said. I accept that as a friendly amendment.

If, by the way, ID-activists succeeed in getting an Evolutionary Biologist fired, or non-promoted, or to lose a grant, then there is real $$$$ involved, hence real damages (in legal sense), and hence the possibility of actual Fraud (in legal sense).

We'd be putting it too strongly if we said that a scientist _had_ to endorse _all_ conclusions supported by science. I don't think, for example, that incredulity in the face of quantum mechanics makes one a bad scientist, or a non-scientist. (Consider Einstein's remark, in a letter to Max Born, that "[q]uantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing.") In fact, it seems to me that substantial progress in science is often made as a result of an individual pursuing a line of inquiry on the basis of a hunch.

Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi might have argued that your flow charts fairly represent piecemeal scientific research, conducted within the framework of an established scientific paradigm--what Kuhn called "normal science"--but not scientific revolutions, which are characterized by strong disagreements on fundamentals. During episodes of the latter kind, the very entities posited in the questions scientists ask, and the means by which one may study them empirically, may be credibly disputed by reasonable people, and hence personal commitments play a very big role. I'm not suggesting that the field of geology is in the midst of such an episode, so probably none of this applies to Marcus Ross. But if we're thinking about science in general, I think we'd want to allow for these commitments, even if they have no empirical justification, rather than dismiss them as inimical to science.

By Ori Livneh (not verified) on 27 Feb 2010 #permalink