Cognitive Dissonance

There's an interesting story in the New York Times this morning about a young earth creationist studying paleontology

[Marcus Ross's] subject was the abundance and spread of mosasaurs, marine reptiles that, as he wrote, vanished at the end of the Cretaceous era about 65 million years ago. The work is "impeccable," said David E. Fastovsky, a paleontologist and professor of geosciences at the university who was Dr. Ross's dissertation adviser. "He was working within a strictly scientific framework, a conventional scientific framework."

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

This has predictably led to a bunch of people calling for him to be denied the degree, and denouncing the practice of creationists using academic credentials to lend themselves an air of authority. It's an interesting problem, though-- if he's done the work needed to get a Ph.D., and written it in a manner entirely consistent with accepted scientific beliefs, are there really any grounds for denying him the degree?

I would say no-- we're not the Bar Association, and there's no character requirement for getting a doctorate. He's done the work, and he can talk the talk, so give him the degree. To the extent that there's a problem at all, it's a scoietal problem-- too many people take the Ph.D. as a sign of real authority, when in fact, doctors of philosophy are as likely to be nutty as anybody else. But I would expect this to generate a fair amount of heat (though precious little light) in science blogdom.

More like this

From today's New York Times: There is nothing much unusual about the 197-page dissertation Marcus R. Ross submitted in December to complete his doctoral degree in geosciences here at the University of Rhode Island. His subject was the abundance and spread of mosasaurs, marine reptiles that, as he…
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,…
By now, you may have heard (via Pharyngula, or Sandwalk, or the New York Times) about Marcus Ross, who was recently granted a Ph.D. in geosciences by the University of Rhode Island. To earn that degree, he wrote a dissertation (which his dissertation advisor described as "impeccable") about the…
Larry Moran takes apart the Marcus Ross case in some detail. Ross is the young earth creationist who recently received his Ph.D. from the University of Rhode Island. In this situation we have an example of someone who carefully hid his true belief from the thesis committee, or at least went out of…

The question I would be interested in knowing an answer to is whether or not he actually believes the Earth is <10,000 years old, or whether he is just saying he believes it (or just believes he believes it).

I love it when Creationists get PhDs! Then you get all the fun of saying, "Look, Dr. ___ has a PhD in geology/microbiology/etc. Why cant he publish material that supports his world view? He/She is a trained scientist-- dont you think its weird they cant do any science?"
I also have a lot of fun ripping into Creationists with PhDs when they dont understand basic material, and they invariably dont. Dont revoke their degrees! That would take away all the fun and just reinforce their martyr complex!

I think it's fundamentally inappropriate to award a degree to someone who thinks that facts and data are just one "paradigm" by which to do their science. That's the problem.

This behavior is also just fundamentally dishonest. Getting a PhD under false pretenses so you can disparage the field, undermine science, promote obvious falsehoods and using the degree to give yourself a patina of legitimacy while you do it is just wrong. What if you had a physics PhD who was only getting a degree in, say, thermodynamics so they could use their PhD credentials to publicly attack the big bang theory?

So, I think on two counts it should be allowed. It's deceptive, and it's clear they fundamentally don't get science. Facts and data aren't just "one way" to do science. They are the way. If you don't like that, you don't get a PhD.

Michael Savage and Newt Gingrich both have PhD's.

That observation alone should shoot down the idea that a PhD is some sort of ironclad guarantee of intellectual worth.

By Dimitrios (not verified) on 12 Feb 2007 #permalink

I tend to agree. For a physics example... my dissertation involved both very light gluinos and strange quark matter stars, and I discussed them at length despite the fact that I don't particulalry believe that the gluino is very light, nor do I believe that most neutron stars are really quark stars.

Ok... it's not EXACTLY the same, but allowing the question of "belief" anywhere into the picture is, I think, a slippery slope.

I commented quite a bit on this on Pharyngula, and the thing that really sticks with me is the fact that the student admits that he doesn't believe the research he did himself. If question #1 from your Ph.D defense committee is, 'Do you believe your own conclusions?' and the answer back is 'No', I would think there's something very wrong with a degree being awarded for this work. And if they answered 'Yes' and lied, I would have issues with the person's credibility. Wouldn't we say it is academically indefensible to knowingly submit flawed research results to a contract monitor (for instance) just to keep the money flowing? Why would we think that this Ph.D graduate has any better credibiility?

Of course, there's no real way to test for this sort of thing, but I think we should denounce people who admittedly abuse the academic process. In practice, there are various benchmarks to be achieved for a degree, but in principle the goal of those benchmarks is to produce a good, rationally thinking, scientific mind.

I tend to agree. For a physics example... my dissertation involved both very light gluinos and strange quark matter stars, and I discussed them at length despite the fact that I don't particulalry believe that the gluino is very light, nor do I believe that most neutron stars are really quark stars.

The physics example I would go for would probably be Max Planck, who as I understand it was never happy with the quantum hypothesis. He introduced the idea as a calculational trick, but always hoped that people would find a better way of deriving the black-body formula.

(And didn't Schroedinger get fed up with quantum theory and go off to be a biologist or something?)

Should we revoke Planck's institutes because he never really believed his own most famous theory? If we do, can I have the money?

Chad wrote: "The physics example I would go for would probably be Max Planck"

I find that example to be a bit different than the student in question. Planck was a long established scientist who had, like many scientists of the time, serious concerns about the inconsistencies in the initial formulation of the quantum hypothesis. This was certainly a valid stance to take at the time (and there are still lingering questions to this day, regarding locality, etc.). Similarly, gluinos and strange quark matter stars are still topics which are not unreasonable to have doubts on, or even disbelief in. Reasonable people can disagree on these topics.

The student in question, however, disbelieves in an extremely well-tested, checked and double-checked and checked again 100+ year-old study of the age of the earth. Science has moved WAY past this topic. The only way I would find Planck comparable is if he had disbelieved in the validity of Newton's law for studying Earth-bound mechanics.

I think gg's got it.

It isn't a matter of being 100% sure in the science you're doing, because a lot of us aren't completely confident our explanations represent the totality of the data. You don't have to have absolute knowledge or absolute confidence to defend a thesis.

The bigger issue is, and I can't believe Chad's not bothered by it, is the kid describes facts and data as just one "paradigm" by which you can do science.

Sorry, right there, it's over. Not a scientist, doesn't deserve a PhD, we're done.

re: quitter.... The actual quotation is "For him, Dr. Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one "paradigm" for studying the past, and Scripture is another," which seems perfectly valid to me and is not the same as saying 'facts and data as just one "paradigm" by which you can do science.' Studying the past via nonscientific methods is entirely reasonable.

While creationist beliefs cause my stomach to churn, I don't see anything inherently inappropriate in rewarding a graduate degree to someone who's successfully completed the necessary work. Do you withhold a humanities degree from someone who's a bigot in their private life?

Unfortunately, when it comes to credentials, it is still the responsibility of the audience/public to read the "fine print," as it were, when determining whether to place one's faith in a particular point of view (pardon the pun)... This is nothing new.

I'm not wild about this guy getting a Ph.D. in a subject he doesn't believe in, so I'm partly doing this for the sake of playing devil's advocate (heh). At the same time, though, I'm not crazy about denying him a degree solely on the basis of personal beliefs.

Science is not a guild, nor is it a licensed profession. We don't require loyalty oaths, and we don't require character references before someone is allowed to act as a scientist. And I'm pretty happy with that state of affairs, generally speaking. The Ph.D. is an important credential, but you can be a scientist without a Ph.D., and having a Ph.D. doesn't make you a scientist.

The downside of this system is that there's really no basis for preventing people from passing themselves off as scientists. If you have the degrees, or even if you don't, you can claim to be doing science, and it's up to the community to judge whether what you're doing is good science or kookery.

If you want to argue that science ought to adopt some Bar Association-like scheme for licensing scientists, and preventing people who are kooks from claiming to be scientists, well, you can certainly make that argument. I'd probably oppose such a scheme, personally, as it seems a little too open to abuse-- in addition to keeping Illinois Nazis out of the legal profession, I have no doubt that the character requirements of bar associations have been used at times to bar people on the basis of race or religion.

If individual scientists want to impose their personal standards on the beliefs of their students, that's fine. I don't object to the guy in Texas who refused to write recommendation letters for students who wouldn't profess a belief in evolution, because that's his personal recommendation, and he has no obligation to write letters for anyone. On an institutional level, though, I don't see any basis for denying this guy a degree after he's done the work. If they wanted to bar him from the profession, the time to do it was when he applied to join a research group.

Yeah, I second Chad's motion. We can't, as a rule, withold degrees based on belief. Heck, if we had such a policy, we might have to rescind degrees from physics faculty who don't believe in {whatever crazy physics theory} and then those who don't believe in global warming, and then those who believe in extraterrestial, intelligent life, and then those who support the Bush administration (which is about as antiscience as Creationism), and so on.

I don't think you've quite got what we're saying. You can't deny the degree based on a belief, but we (or I at least) am arguing that you award the degree on a belief. That belief is in the scientific method, and the use of data and observeable phenomena to justify conclusions.

If the kid wants to believe in the FSM, that's ok. But if doesn't believe in the scientific method (he did say that facts and data are just a "paradigm" for understanding paleontology after all), then does he deserve a PhD? Isn't it important to protect all of our degrees from people who want them to subvert science, and denigrate the scientific method from the vantage point of a PhD holder? It's these issues of deceptiveness and the dismissal of the scientific method as just "one way" to do science that makes me think he doesn't deserve a degree. It's not "one way" it's the only way. And if you're going to be a PhD-granting institution, what's the point of giving out PhD's in the sciences to people who don't believe in the scientific method?

The world is full of scientists, even eminent scientists, who have believed all sorts of wrong and even wacky things about scientific topics, for scientific and/or metaphysical reasons. Einstein famously denied the probabalistic nature of quantum mechanics. Hundreds of physicists beaver away on string theory, which others believe is hogwash. Dr. Behe believes that evolution by natural selection is adequate to explain macroscopic morphological development, but inadequate to explain various microscopic structures and biochemical pathways; most would disagree. I've known at least one PhD particle physicist who is an avowed young-earth creationist and several others who at least dabble with metaphysics that I consider just as bizarre. Fred Hoyle and his entourage held fast to steady-state cosmology long after most had abandoned it for the best of reasons.

I've worked all my life in particle physics and astronomy, and have never felt that a PhD granted me any special claim to authority, inasmuch as I don't have one. But if I did have one, what I say about this or that wouldn't and shouldn't carry any more weight. The power of the scientific method is that error will out eventually, so that an enterprise carried forward by fallible humans, some of whom may even seek to subvert the whole enterprise, can nonetheless improve our model of the world's workings. In time, the fools and subversives and even the errors of the wise sink into deserved oblivion. What we need least of all is some sort of an inquisition to certify the doctrinal purity of those who would do science. The best antidote to junk science is good science well explained, and it is to those ends that effort should be directed.

The fault belongs to the degree granting institution. If the good doctor had a decent education, and effective professors, he would not believe that the earth is 10000 years old. I think the school should loose its accreditations and the good doctor's Ph.D should be considered worthless.