Dem Bones

An article in today’s Times raises an interesting issue. The story concerns a Dr. Marcus Ross, who was recently awarded a Ph.D. in paleontology by the University of Rhode Island. His professors all seem to agree that he did good solid scientific work in the pursuit of his degree, but there is one curious wrinkle: the newly minted Dr. Ross is a young-earth creationist.

Dr. Ross apparently did his graduate work on the distribution of mososaurs in the Cretaceous period, a chapter in the Earth’s long story that ended 65 million years ago. However, he believes that the Earth is no more than 10,000 years old. How do you study all that science, all of the massively overlapping evidence of the Earth’s great age, and reconcile it with young-earth creationism? According to the article:

For him, Dr. Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, “that I am separating the different paradigms.”

He likened his situation to that of a socialist studying economics in a department with a supply-side bent. “People hold all sorts of opinions different from the department in which they graduate,” he said. “What’s that to anybody else?”

What nonsense. Theories of economics are normative arguments regarding the proper way to manage social systems, while on the other hand what we have in this case is a blatant contradiction about an objective fact, namely the age of the Earth. An economist might see that both socalism and laissez-faire capitalism have advantages, and try working in both paradigms to arrive at a synthesis. But whatever economic systems they may endorse, all economists must agree, for example, on the total current outstanding value of US treasury bonds, or the French gross national product for 2003. These are just facts; they aren’t “paradigms”. Even were there some dispute as to to the numbers — say, perhaps, that one source claims that there are two billion US one-dollar bills in circulation, and another says the number is only a million — we know there is only one fact of the matter, and we can’t believe both are right.

So what’s going on here? If Dr. Ross believes, as he says he does, that the Earth is only ten millennia old (how he could get all the way to a Ph.D. in paleontology and not have his faith in such hogwash dismantled by continuous engagement with the facts is another matter, but we will pass over that for now), then what is his purpose? To believe what he does entails that he must consider everything he has been taught to be utterly false. It takes a lot of work to earn advanced degrees; why did he bother, when to him it was all a pack of lies?

One possibility is that he is simply a curious person, who wanted to play in the scientific sandbox just for intellectual fun. But it’s hard to see how it would have been much fun to have to write papers, take tests, etc., in which he constantly had to deny the tenets of his religious faith; I would have thought that to the truly pious fundamentalist that would have felt downright apostatic.

A more likely answer, I think, is that he is a mole; that his motivation is to offer himself to the creationist community as a weapon against the scientists. The article mentions the possibility of such intellectual duplicity:

Asked whether it was intellectually honest to write a dissertation so at odds with his religious views, he said: “I was working within a particular paradigm of earth history. I accepted that philosophy of science for the purpose of working with the people” at Rhode Island.

And though his dissertation repeatedly described events as occurring tens of millions of years ago, Dr. Ross added, “I did not imply or deny any endorsement of the dates.”

Right. Now I’d be the first to say that one is free in this day and age to think whatever one likes (well, here in America, at least), and I certainly would not endorse a policy that vets students for heretical opinions before admitting them to our universities. But if the purpose of a scientific education is to produce scientists, what are we to do about someone like Dr. Ross, who feigns adherence to the principles of scientific inquiry, but actually relies solely upon the authority of an antique book of folklore for the facts about the Earth’s geological history? University degrees are relied upon to confer a measure of authority: if I have a degree in a scientific field, others will see that degree as a token of my inclusion in a community of experts, and will trust that my opinions represent with some fidelity the state of scientific knowledge in that field. In this case, however, it could be argued that Dr. Ross betrays his credentials, and it is quite reasonable for the paleontological community to be bothered by the idea of lending its imprimatur to those who might be out there wielding the badge of science and reason to further the cause of benighted ignorance.

Related content from Sphere

17 Comments

  1. bob koepp says

    There’s lots of nonsense out there about paradigms, incommensurability, etc, etc, — and hardly confined to religious nut-cases — that provides a patina of reasonableness to the changing of one’s stripes as convenient. Is it the inconstancy that is unsettling, or simply that one of the outfits being paraded is thought unseemly?

    Posted February 13, 2007 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Well, both, but also the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing aspect of it all.

    Posted February 13, 2007 at 11:57 am | Permalink
  3. the one eyed man says

    Uh oh, not another thread about sheep —

    Posted February 13, 2007 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  4. Andrew says

    My PhD is from URI. Ross’s advisor and his committee did themselves and the university a HUGE disservice by letting this guy through. This from the article is the fatal bit:

    “While still a graduate student, he appeared on a DVD arguing that intelligent design, an ideological cousin of creationism, is a better explanation than evolution for the Cambrian explosion…”

    There is no way that his committee could possibly have let someone pass a comprehensive exam on paleontology who states that ID provides a better explanation than evolution. Its just crazy.

    Posted February 13, 2007 at 8:39 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    It’s a very strange case, Andrew. The professor quoted in the article said the scientific work he did was “impeccable”.

    Posted February 13, 2007 at 10:27 pm | Permalink
  6. I don’t think that we’ll see many people like Marcus Ross, and we shouldn’t overinflate his significance. My view is that Creationism, and to some extent Intelligent Design, are more for internal consumption, not primarily for convincing opponents.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted February 13, 2007 at 10:52 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Hi Jeffery,

    You’re probably right about that; the cognitive disharmony required for what this man is doing is probably beyond most people. I thought it significant enough to comment on not least because it seems so unusual, and so difficult to understand.

    Posted February 13, 2007 at 11:59 pm | Permalink
  8. Andrew says

    I agree we should not over inflate his importance but we should also not avoid criticizing the people who enabled him. Individuals shouldn’t be discriminated against for their religious beliefs but I do not see this specific case as representing some deep philosophical dilemma. Again from the article:

    “[Ross] would not say whether he shared the view of some young earth creationists that flaws in paleontological dating techniques erroneously suggest that the fossils are far older than they really are.”

    This response is a far cry from “impeccable”. He certainly had the right to decline to answer this for the NYT reporter but his decision not to answer is an embarrassment for his advisor. I sure hope he did not manage to get through his entire PhD program without having to address it. If he did have a good enough answer for his committee, why did he not share it in the article?

    I am willing to be shown I am wrong but it appears that Ross was awarded a PhD in the interest of political correctness.

    Posted February 14, 2007 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  9. bob koepp says

    I’m surprised that people are making such a big deal about this. The ability of people to “compartmentalize” their lives and beliefs is hardly news, and I challenge one and all to identify any mere human who does not engage in this compartmentalization, at least to some extent. I’m not going to assume that Ross has any sort of philosophic sophistication in his approach to science, but if he did, he could simply embrace “instrumentalism,” the view that the products of science are not proper objects of belief, but simply useful analytic and calculational devices. That would put him in the same boat as many physicists — oh yes, and Dennett, too!

    Posted February 14, 2007 at 10:54 am | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Bob, I’m not sure that Dennett would represent himself as denying that scientific results actually represent an underlying truth about the world. But you are right that we all do some compartmentalizing; a sign of our chronic state of inner disunity, or as some would say, our waking sleep. You must admit, though, that this is rather an extreme example.

    Andrew, this is a difficult issue. Here, courtesy of my friend Jess Kaplan, is one columnist’s take on it; I’m inclined to agree. I would rather preserve academic freedom than start making people sign loyalty oaths, and it does indeed appear that Dr. Ross jumped quite legitimately through every hoop in pursuit of his degree. How he managed that without feeling that he was betraying his religion is either, as Bob says, a marvel of compartmentalization, or a deliberate dissimulation. I do agree, though, that a person like him might do some harm – not, of course, to the science itself, which in the long run answers only to the facts, but to those in the lay public who might, by giving credence to a creationist brandishing an advanced degree in paleontology, lie fettered in ignorance for another day.

    This is far from a black-and-white case, and fortunately, as Jeffery pointed out, guys like this are pretty rare. It might also be the case that some folks, having been exposed to a real scientific education, would turn away from creationist myths, which would be a salutary result. I suppose we can hope that rather than Dr. Ross becoming a weapon against the dissemination of scientific understanding, what he has learned will erode his faith in the mythology into which he has been indoctrinated, and that he will go on to weaken the prison of Biblical literalism from within.

    Posted February 14, 2007 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  11. Andrew says

    Bob,

    I find this situation worthy of comment for two reasons. The first is that it hits close to home. I am not thinking of my relationship with URI, this could have happened anywhere. I am thinking of the fact that as a biologist I may find myself in a similar situation and it is a valuable exercise to reflect on how I would deal with a student like Ross (and to have my position challenged by the likes of you, Malcolm and other commentators).

    The second more important reason is, in contrast to your point, this is more (or maybe much less) than an extreme case of compartmentalization. Ross does not appear to have any sort of philosophic sophistication in his approach to science. As a student he went on record very publicly in support of intelligent design over evolution. This demonstrates at least ignorance, at worst outright dishonesty about a topic directly related to his area of study.

    Malcolm,

    I agree with some but not all of what Orzel says in the post you linked to. A PhD is awarded to an individual in the name of a specific university by the consensus of a faculty committee. The comprehensive exam, administered by this committee, is a huge hurdle on the path to a PhD. At the risk of relying too much on a newspaper article for my facts and for reasons I’ve already stated, there appears to be grounds for his committee to have denied Ross his degree on the based on his understanding of evolutionary theory and methods use to determine the age of paleontological specimens.

    There is a gray area between knowledge and belief but nothing I have read suggests to me that this case is in it.

    Posted February 14, 2007 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Hi Andrew,

    Well, you’ve got your finger on the nub of the issue here. Two scenarios need to be distinguished:

    A) Ross, during his time at the university, kept his religious views out of his work, and answered every question according to the scientific paradigm he was working within. He may have made other statements elsewhere, but at the university he kept his head down and stuck to the science.

    B) Ross made no secret of his views, and declared, on examinations and in the papers he wrote, that he actually believed that ID and Genesis were better accounts of the data, and that the fossil record was likely misinterpreted, and that the actual age of the Earth is a paltry 10,000 years. His professors took all this in and granted him the degree anyway.

    If B), then URI is guilty, as you say, of a major academic lapse. But the professors quoted in the article said Ross’s work was “impeccable”. (You probably know them personally; perhaps you could ask them?)

    If A) — which is, I think, the assumption that Orzel was making — then it is much harder to assign any culpability to the school. This is the more difficult case.

    Posted February 14, 2007 at 2:29 pm | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    By the way, the comment thread on the Orzel post is quite a good discussion, and makes many of the same points we are raising here.

    Posted February 14, 2007 at 3:35 pm | Permalink
  14. Philip Gosse (1810-1888) the eminent marine biologist was such another as Ross. He I think subscribed to the Ussher chronology which dates the earth back to Monday the 1st. of Jan. 4004 BC. Life which includes science is full of such sports. He, Dr.Ross, may well do good work and when he says ‘it looks as though it’s 400,000 years old’ really mean it ! Mustn’t we avoid the excessive rigour of Dennett in ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ who suggests that you couldn’t possibly be a good scientist and a religious person.

    Posted February 15, 2007 at 9:41 am | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says

    Hi Michael,

    Lots of good scientists are religious; in discussing this question last night with my father, a noted scientist himself, he said that he thought that most of the scientists he knew were religious.

    Young-earth creationism in a paleontologist is rather another matter, as is Biblical literalism, both of which insist on a set of claims that are simply at odds with the facts. To the extent that you allow yourself to be persuaded, by the force af an ancient book of folklore, to deny the truth as revealed by actual examination of the evidence, you aren’t being a scientist.

    Posted February 15, 2007 at 11:45 am | Permalink
  16. Andrew says

    Malcolm,

    Sorry for dropping out of this, the week got quite busy. This thread is getting a bit old but I’ll make one more comment. I do not know either of the two faculty members mentioned in the article. As to your A and B options, I do not see the demarcation as being so straightforward. You simply can not go off campus and make pronunciations about how ID is superior to evolution in explaining observed changes in the fossil record and then come back to campus and pretend you did not say it. Those comments should have been fair game at both his comprehensive exam and during his oral defense. Earning a PhD is more than simply having good hands in the lab and being able to write well.

    I also don’t really fault URI. The university cedes an enormous amount of authority for awarding advanced degrees to the faculty. There are, of course, many details we do not know but on the face of it, it looks like his committee gave Ross a pass on some tough issues. While I consider myself a microbiologist, technically my degree is in Oceanography. During my exam, I was asked some tough about the tidal cycles in the bay I studied. While not directly related to my work, these questions were fair game under the exam rules. What if I had said that I understood the current theory was that the gravitational pull of the moon was the primary force driving the tides but I myself believed that Descartes 17th century vortex theory which involves compression of the ether by the passage of the moon overhead is really what drives the tides? I’d have been run off campus on a rail.

    Ross was treated with kids gloves.

    I personally am not so interested in the compartmentalization that Ross had to do in order to survive. He is obviously a very smart but confused individual. I am much more interested in the compartmentalization that his advisor had to employ in order to evaluate his student in such a narrow way as consider his work impeccable while knowing that the student did not really mean or understand anything he was saying.

    Posted February 16, 2007 at 10:24 pm | Permalink
  17. Malcolm says

    Andrew, I don’t know. It really is a difficult case, and there are different ways of looking at it. One way would be to look at the student as a customer of the university; he pays a lot of money to receive an educational service. He is graded on the work he produces, and on the depth of his understanding of the material. If, as the professors seem to think, he understood the material perfectly well, and did “impeccable” work, then on what grounds would you refuse him a degree? One is, after all, entitled to one’s opinions, even if they are the most palpable rubbish.

    Posted February 16, 2007 at 11:24 pm | Permalink