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.