Monday, February 12, 2007

Young Earth Creationist Geoscientist

The latest in a disturbing trend, a guy who recently earned his doctorate in geoscience at the University of Rhode Island wrote his dissertation on "the abundance and spread of mosasaurs, marine reptiles that... vanished at the end of the Cretaceous era about 65 million years ago," even though he is a Young Earth Creationist (YEC) and actually believes the Earth to be only 10,000 years old.

This kind of thing brings up a whole bunch of issues about the purpose of higher education in the sciences and what it means to earn such a degree. On the one hand, many argue that what this guy did is intellectual and academic dishonesty, in that he wrote a dissertation that he himself thinks is wrong, and thus he should not have been given the doctorate. On the other hand, others argue that not allowing it would essentially create a belief litmust test that students would have to pass in order to graduate, and that this is religious discrimination.

There are also arguments stemming from what people like this intend to use their degree for. In cases like these the graduate often uses the secular degree they earned as a platform for challenging, on religious bases, the very scientific field they earned their doctorate in. For instance, this guy is now teaching creationism at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, and in another famous instance, a follower of Reverend Moon got a doctorate in biology solely to use it to, in his words, "destroy Darwinisim" from the inside. Some argue that those intending to use their degrees in such ways should not be awarded those degrees, as they are essentially planning to commit a kind of fraud by using their secular degrees to lend legitimacy to their religious arguments against science.

I'm of two minds about this. Certainly, I don't think it should be the business of universities to impose some kind of belief test on students nor should they discriminate against students on the basis of religious belief. Nor do I think they can refuse to award degrees to those they suspect might use that degree in what I agree are fraudulent ways, even though it really, really pisses me off when creationists do that.

However, what, exactly, does the awarding of doctorate mean if the student is allowed to write a dissertation he or she thinks is wrong in order to graduate? Perhaps imposing some kind of belief orthodoxy is too much, but isn't it reasonable to expect the author of a dissertation to come up with a hypothesis that he or she thinks is likely, on the balance of the evidence, to be true? Is it really religious discrimination for the university to ask doctorate candidates, "Based on the evidence you have collected, do you believe the hypothesis you have presented to be true?" and expect them to say, "Yes"? Is it really all right to present a scientific argument that you think is factually wrong just in order to obtain the degree?

If university degrees are to have any meaning, I don't see how it can be.

As to the argument the guy in the article uses about how science and religion are "different paradigms," in this instance that's just complete bullshit. YECs are making a substantive truth claim about the world that is completely within the realm of scientific investigation: either the world is billions of years old, or it is 10,000 years old. Only one of these two hypotheses can be true. It's not like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or where Heaven is located. If the Earth was created 10,000 years ago, then there wasn't a Cretaceous. And YECs know that, which is why they argue so vociferously against any evidence indicating otherwise. In this case, scientists and YECs have competing truth claims that cannot be reconciled by relegating them to "different paradigms."

Anyway, all I know is that, in university Calculus II class, when I questioned something the professor was saying, she replied, "If you believe the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, you have to believe this." Being the smartass I am, I said, "Fine, then I don't believe the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus," after which the professor asked me to leave the class, since there was nothing for me to learn if I didn't accept the basic premises on which the class was based. (I didn't leave; I apologized and she let me stay).

Was she wrong? YECs would have us believe she was. But I'm not so sure. There's definitely an element of dishonesty to writing things you don't believe in just for the crass motivation of gaining a degree you can use to destroy the field you're studying, and while I'm all for freedom, I'm not sure we have the freedom to be dishonest in an academic setting for our own selfish reasons.

Or maybe we do. In which case I think I'm gonna go to seminary school! If it's okay for YECs to get geoscience degrees even though they think the Earth is only 10,000 years old, I should be able to go to seminary school even though I'm an atheist, right? Good for the goose is good for the gander, after all.


At 4:53 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

This is a very interesting topic. I have several responses. I meant to write a short one here -- but, as usual, I got carried away. Sorry about the length.

First, I don't believe a scientist has to be personally invested in the versacity of what he or she is researching. The point of scientific (empirical) research is to explore an hypothesis not in a vacuum, but in a specific context (given available evidence, under prevailing models, assuming the following axioms, etc.).

My own dissertation was a highly disputory treatise on why a specific group of algorithms don't really do what people think they do. If you'd asked me at the end whether I believed they were a bad class of algorithm, I'd have to have said, "Well ... if you buy the following commonly believed argument then I think it is clear the algorithms do not do what is expected -- but I'm not sure I buy the premise to begin with."

That's not dishonest.

Could the geologist not have said something similar, "I don't believe that dating methods X & Y are valid, but if they were valid then the following must be true." In science we suppose all the time without being invested in whether the supposition is, in fact, true. Just so long as we are clear about the context going into the research.

As to academic integreity, most programs have some exceedingly vague requirement that you maintain some exceedingly vague degree of what is exceedingly vaguely referred to as "academic honesty". So there's a basis for tossing people out if we believe that they are not operating in good faith with respect to the principles of the area of academic study to which they have committed themselves. Of course this is highly subjective; the line is very fuzzy; and (unless you are caught cheating) I doubt anyone is ever removed on these grounds. One would hope it could only happen in very, very severe and obvious cases.

I will say this: Anyone that enters a scientific field with the intention of dismantling currently grounded positions is in murky waters indeed. On the one hand, this is exactly how science works ... we assume that all we know is flawed and that new science will correct older science. So, in that sense, it is a good position to hold.

On the other hand, a good scientists is neutral to the truth. We should base our hypotheses on what is known, and not simply on what we believe. Taking a position based solely on belief and "shopping" around scientifically until you can find some kind of disputation of contemporary knowledge in order to justify your belief is clearly intellectually dishonest. I don't want to police people's motivations, but I very much hope most scientists don't willfully do this.

On the flip side, many years ago my wife and I had a conversation about whether or not it would be reasonable for someone like me (an empirical, Huxleyan agnostic) to pursue a Doctorate of Theology and find a teaching position at a seminary. My argument was that a lot of theology is systematic (in fact, there's a whole area of study called "systematic theology") and a lot of Christian theologans entertain a variety of theological ideas in which they don't necessarily believe. Is it necessary for me to believe in Christiantiy at all, then?

My wife argued that there's some fundamental nature of theology that I would miss because I did not believe. This is no doubt true; we are human and we all have blind spots. I argued that there would be fundamental areas of theology that I would be predisposed to see more clearly. I believe her position is that I would lose more than I would gain. Perhaps.

But the question of honesty was the more interesting part of the conversation. I could, of course, maintain integrety by always being forthright about my beliefs, but that would significantly reduce the probability that I would make it through the fairly rigorous process that (at least) ECLA Lutherans go through to get that far.

I could keep my beliefs circumspect (they are, after all, my personal beliefs), but in this context it would surely be dishonest since I already know what their assumption about my beliefs would be.

I could simply lie about what I believe until I made it to my goal; however, that would clearly be fraudulent (by definition) ... and I don't think I could manage to keep the charade up that long.

An even more extreme question is: What are the ethics of my pursuing ordination as a Christian clergyman despite being an agnostic?

Of course this was an intellectual exercise: I was never really interested in doing this, which is a point in this discussion, as well. To some extent the processes are self-selecting. It is difficult for a fundamentalist Christian who disbelieves in prevailing, commonly accepted scientific bases (e.g., carbon dating) to get through the educational levels to get a scientific Ph.D. with any kind of integrety. I imagine the size of the pool of people that have the stamina for such an education, the cognitive skills to accomplish it, and ability to be persistently dishonest for such a long period of time is a very small group, indeed.

Likewise with agnostic Theologans. It turns out there are some, actually ... but not many. Again, there is an element to which the group is self-selecting.

As I've argued in the past, Science is a process and a body of knowledge arrived at by that process. The underlying system that produces the knowledge by means of the process makes use of people ... and people are flawed. Because I believe that the system is very effective, I am confident science can weather such aberrations.

The only real regret I have here is this person's unfortunate goal to distort the scientific education of others based on their own views (as opposed to providing students with the positions of the established community of scientists). To teach unestablished, unvalidated information as science is dishonest ... and should be dealt with by the academic community accordingly. Professors should be able to express their learned opinions, but in the context of the well-grounded principles of their field.

To do otherwise is to have an agenda beyond that of simply educating the student.


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