Monday, February 12, 2007

suppressing the truth

Marcus R. Ross was profiled today in the New York Times. He's a scientist, of sorts. Apparently he's completing his PhD from the University of Rhode Island. Apparently he's also a young earth creationist. So how does this graduate student at the University of Rhode Island merit a profile in the New York Times? Because while studying the Cretaceous Period (that occurred 65 million years ago) he is maintaining that the earth is less than ten thousand years old.

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.”
On the one hand, scientists are appalled at the thought of giving Ross a PhD, despite the fact that he holds such radical (from a scientific standpoint) views. Several scientists in the article (though notably not his advisor) suggest that Ross not be allowed to graduate. There is no scientific evidence that the earth is only ten thousand years old. This is all inference from a book (the Judeo-Christian Old Testament), and scientists don't get their evidence from authoritative books, they get it from data. And by giving him a degree, isn't the University of Rhode Island claiming responsibility for him and his views? No. A PhD is not a license to pursue science in the way a law degree or a medical degree is. A PhD is an indication that you have undergone rigourous training, and that you have been able to create a body of work that is defensible to other scientists. Once you have a PhD, you are still allowed to be wrong (and certainly, there are scientists who hold views equally suspect as young earth creationism).

On the other hand, religious folk are worried that their views are being suppressed. The fact that scientists are even discussing witholding a PhD from a man simply for his religious belief suggests he is being censored. But what is the difference between censorship of a man who holds radical beliefs and failing of a man who doesn't understand basic concepts? I think an example we can all agree on is that the earth is a globe. Flat-earthers don't deserve equal time in geography departments, and we wouldn't think twice to deny a PhD in geography to someone who professed his belief that the world is a flat disc supported on the backs of turtles. To the public at large, there is a big difference between young earth creationism and flat-earthers. To the vast majority of scientists, there is none.

So, should we scientists worry that a young-earth creationist is going to bandy about his PhD from the University of Rhode Island as a way to bludgeon people into viewing young-earth creationism as a legitimate science? Yes, we should. Beware a raft of popular "science" books from Marcus Ross, PhD. But neither should we try to stop him. The best way to counter misinformation is with data.


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