When geoscientists attack

geoscientistOnce upon a time, I thought I wanted to become an economics professor. This delusion lasted from early high school until I took enough postgraduate classes to be convinced otherwise. I loved my field of study and I had fantastic professors. One way in which they were helpful was to counsel me to keep my private views on everything from monetary theory to the Coase Conjecture hidden.

There is nothing so political as the academy. And generally speaking there’s not a lot of room for people who express unorthodox views. They don’t call it a university for nothing! So even though Keynesian theories no longer have exclusive sway in non-academic economic fields, they completely dominated my college. My professors, some of whom were extreme socialists and some of whom had enjoyed the forbidden fruits of Posner and Hayek, told me how to play the game. Basically that meant that I would just study whatever I was assigned and complete coursework in support of the approved theories. Once I received my Ph.D., I was to keep up the facade, more or less, until I was tenured. Only then could I reveal my personal views.

That is a long way of saying that Cornelia Dean had a fantastic idea for a story in today’s New York Times. She found a geoscientist who completed his undergraduate and graduate schooling with great marks — all while being a young earth creationist (which the Times puts in scare quotes).

For him, Dr. [Marcus] 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.”

Ross says it’s no big deal and even uses an economics department as an analogy. But as you might expect, other professors are enraged that the academy let an, er, non-believer into their hallowed halls.

Dean really handled the story well, characterizing and quoting each side charitably. Major kudos for that. She also nails the crux of the debate:

And, for some, his case raises thorny philosophical and practical questions. May a secular university deny otherwise qualified students a degree because of their religion? Can a student produce intellectually honest work that contradicts deeply held beliefs? Should it be obligatory (or forbidden) for universities to consider how students will use the degrees they earn?

She speaks with one professor who concedes it’s a difficult issue but says that if an academic’s work is good, his work is good. End of story. Others disagree, saying the issue is how Ross will use his degree.

Ross teaches at Liberty University and Dean explores how his classes are taught. He uses conventional texts but also discusses how they intersect with Christianity, he says. Dean gives a few other examples of the intolerance for conflicting views in scientific fields, including this one:

A somewhat more complicated issue arose last year at Ohio State University, where Bryan Leonard, a high school science teacher working toward a doctorate in education, was preparing to defend his dissertation on the pedagogical usefulness of teaching alternatives to the theory of evolution.

Earle M. Holland, a spokesman for the university, said Mr. Leonard and his adviser canceled the defense when questions arose about the composition of the faculty committee that would hear it.

Meanwhile three faculty members had written the university administration, arguing that Mr. Leonard’s project violated the university’s research standards in that the students involved were being subjected to something harmful (the idea that there were scientific alternatives to the theory of evolution) without receiving any benefit.

Dean talked to many people for her story and gives the reader a good understanding of Ross’ academic history and the challenges he faced at various schools. To ascertain whether the academic field believes that Ross’ religious views should result in his being ostracized, she spoke to many professors, including David Fastovsky, who is a paleontologist, professor of geosciences and Ross’ dissertation adviser. By hearing from so many people, the reader gets a better feel for the contentious issues:

Dr. Fastovsky said he had talked to Dr. Ross “lots of times” about his religious beliefs, but that depriving him of his doctorate because of them would be nothing more than religious discrimination. “We are not here to certify his religious beliefs,” he said. “All I can tell you is he came here and did science that was completely defensible.”

Steven B. Case, a research professor at the Center for Research Learning at the University of Kansas, said it would be wrong to “censor someone for a belief system as long as it does not affect their work. Science is an open enterprise to anyone who practices it.”

Dr. Case, who champions the teaching of evolution, heads the committee writing state science standards in Kansas, a state particularly racked by challenges to Darwin. Even so, he said it would be frightening if universities began “enforcing some sort of belief system on their graduate students.”

But Dr. [Eugenie] Scott, a former professor of physical anthropology at the University of Colorado [and executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a private group on the front line of the battle for the teaching of evolution], said in an interview that graduate admissions committees were entitled to consider the difficulties that would arise from admitting a doctoral candidate with views “so at variance with what we consider standard science.” She said such students “would require so much remedial instruction it would not be worth my time.”

That is not religious discrimination, she added, it is discrimination “on the basis of science.”

That last excerpt doesn’t include all of the professors she spoke with, but it gives you a taste. Rather than painting one side as anti-religious extremists or the other as evangelical yokel sympathizers, Dean gives you real humans with real ideas. Not everyone agrees, but they have the opportunity to share their views. If only academia were as welcoming to opposing views as Dean’s article!

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Mollie-great observations about the political influences in the university. Buried in a few news reports are chilling stories of how the media, the university, and grant-giving potentates have combined to shut up or destroy the reputations of those reputable scientists who don’t believe so-called global warming is MAN caused.
    I did have one professor who was very cynical and told us that the way to get ahead in the world of academe was through boot-licking and butt-kissing of the professors who were married to the latest conventional wisdom. He referred to B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees as Bullsh-t, Moresh-t, and Piling it Higher and Deeper.
    This was confirmed by my wife who had staraight “A” s all through high school and college when I asked her how to get such high marks from professors regularly. She said: “Stop arguing with them and tell them what they want to hear even if its clearly bizarre or downright stupid.”

  • evagrius

    I find it fascinating that some people can easily compartmentalize two contrary opinions or attitudes without any conflict.
    Of course, it could be that they are relativists who don’t see truth as unitary but existing only in context.
    But that leads to its own problem, mainly that either truth doesn’t really exist or that there are lower level and higher level truths etc;
    It’s reminiscent of the charge against Strauss, the mentor of some many neo-cons about the need to keep hidden from the masses the real truth so that the masses can remain controlled.

  • JM

    I too saw Dean’s story and thought it was interesting. I am in a geology program getting a PhD and know young-earth creationists (YEC) have applied here. From what I heard the faculty had some serious discussions about their applications but I never did hear what they concluded. The fact that they debated the YEC applications and did not immediately dismiss the applications indicates awareness of issues of prejudice.

    I would be interested in hearing more about a few assumptions that seem to come across in your article.

    1) Why is “nothing so political as the academy?”
    Seems like a good number of businesses or churches or political parties/governments that are very much my way or the highway. And the article is evidence that even when academics completely disagree with a viewpoint, in at least some instances they still graduate students who have competely different views. Of course the academy has politics, but so does all of human life.

    2) Extrapolating about the politicization of the academy from one discipline (social science) seems to be painting with an overly broad brush.

    3) All ideas should be equally treated to a fair hearing.

    Every field has ideas that have been discarded because the preponderence of the evidence is against those ideas (e.g., if physicists had to continually justify their formulations of gravity). And gravity works, engineers, architects, and others constantly use the scientific understanding of gravity to get things. (Another example might be the use of geological principles to find oil.) I would certainly not deny that all people, including academics, are often closed to opposing ideas and have prejudices. But people can be close to opposing ideas for good reason too (again, because of the evidence is heavily weighted against those opposing ideas).

    4) I think evagrius raised an interesting point about compartmentalization. I do wonder how one operates within a paradigm, as Ross calls it, that one totally disagrees with? How does someone do that while remaining true to themselves and remaining truthful, particularly as a Christian.

    Thanks for bringing up the story. I did think it was a well-done story and thought it was interesting that it made the front page of the paper.

  • Darel

    Wow, Mollie, you must have done grad work in the stone age. I received my Ph.D. in 2001 and it is very difficult to find any Keynesians in economics departments, much less actual Marxists. There are libertarians running amok (although the demands for the Mathematization of Everything means they don’t teach much Hayek to their undergrads) and neoclassical economics is the only acceptable ‘paradigm’ in almost every economics department in the United States.

    More to the point of the article, how does Ross as an individual work within two radically different “paradigms”? It’s one thing to teach them to students as viable alternatives or to have them represented in a single department. How they exist in a single mind is what I have a hard time accepting.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Good comments all around. Except for Darel who says I’m old.

    Just kidding.

    While I agree that it would be interesting to learn more about Ross’ handling of multiple views (Dean did mention it in the article) I think there is a parallel with being a reporter. As a reporter, I may have strong opinions on any number of issues. But when I’m operating in the world of mainstream journalism, my job is to write up a factual accounting of events and views. I think that people operate in different worlds all the time.

  • Jeff Kolb

    Hi Mollie.

    Interesting parallel b/n Ross’ “handling of multiple views” and journalism. But don’t you think that, as a journalist, it’s possible to communicate an accurate and fair account of a viewpoint with which you disagree, without causing any major dissonance. You may have to “operate in a different world” to the extent that is required to write a fair article, but you never really have to buy the other person’s argument. On the other hand, Ross seems to be saying that both theories are, in some essential way, true.

    I second much of what JM said above.

    It’s interesting to watch media coverage of science and to see how often scientific validity is equated with truth (especially truth as it applies to the broader, moral world). In my experience, there are a fair number of scientists who do not assign such global, moral weight to scientific validity. If, instead, one looks at scientific theories as tools for understanding physical reality, then Ross’ stance maybe isn’t so strange after all. Some theories are better than others. In my opinion, young-earth creationism is a pretty crude tool for understanding history, but if Ross has it in his scientific toolbox along with standard paleotology, then I can’t really complain.

  • Roberto Rivera

    I also second (third?) what JM wrote. Before giving an idea a fair hearing, it’s fair to ask whether it’s more like JM’s hypothetical denial of gravity or more like the misgivings about anthropogenic global warming. Stated differently, it is a disagreement over the interpretation of the data or a denial of the data (or at least its relevance) altogether?

    None of this has any bearing on whether a person with YEC views should be admitted to doctoral programs. If he/she can do the work and their dissertation doesn’t, in effect, deny the existence of gravity, that’s good enough.

    Like JM, I also think you (Mollie) understate the extent of politicization in other fields. In some ways, we are living in an age of commissars where groups are just as — actually more — interested in policing the ranks and imposing ideological conformity as they are in persuading those outside the fold.

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  • Diane Fitzsimmons

    I’m no scientist, so maybe mental compartmentalization is different in that field than in any other walk of life. But I see such “living in two paradigms” all the time.

    It’s how a second-grader speaks flawless English in school and then flawless Spanish at home; it’s how a cheating husband/wife can love both spouse and lover; it’s how I can operate in a workworld where my opinions (if voiced) on personal morality would “out” me as a conservative Christian.

    The question, it seems to me, is not whether one can do this, but rather is it ethical? It’s sort of like being a double agent. Whom exactly is one betraying — the science community for believing religion, or the religious community for adding to scientific knowledge? Or is it a betrayal at all?

  • evagrius

    I wouldn’t call language ability compartmentalizing. I wouldn’t call a lawyer defending a client he or she knows is “guilty” of compartmentalizing either. I wouldn’t call providing services such as social services to someone morally questionable to be that either.
    Someone being unfaithful in a marriage could be comparmentalizing…or not.
    But someone who has a two-sided view of “truth”, accepting both science and its foundation of sense perception and logic as a criterion for interpreting reality and a religious view that denies that that foundation is valid seems to me to have a problem, a problem that needs reconciliation.
    After all, there are many scientists who have no problem with either science and religion seeing both as complementary and indeed mutually supporting each other. The conflicts that might arise are in the moral sphere, not on what is considered “real” or “factual”.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    “Economics is called the dismal science because it was discovered by a Protestant clergyman.” –William F. Rickenbacker Jr.

  • Rob

    This strike me more as schizophrenia than compartmentalization. How does a YEC rationalize the reams of evidence supporting species development and change over eons? If they have mastered the concepts and data in their field, then they know there is a great amount of consistency and supporting evidence for the traditional (or in my view, rational) interpretation. Why in the world would someone enter a field which requires them to spend their entire professional life believing that everything they study is false evidence planted by God to confuse us?

  • Cole

    Just to nitpick, is that quote saying Adam Smith was a Protestant clergyman or that it was Malthus who discovered economics?

    Anyway, they should have gone with this guy, a geocentrist: http://homepages.bw.edu/~gbouw/

  • njones

    I would put two questions to Mollie:

    What would you say about:

    1) R.I.N.O.s or D.I.N.O.s (i.e. the California Governator and former Georgia Senator Miller, before he switched) and
    2) Heretic bishops (i.e. the Rt. Rev. Spong of Newark)

    In both cases you have someone who personally disagrees with key elements of things they should agree with (a party platform or the Nicene creed). I think we rightly call these people “hypocrites” and I think we could rightly call Dr. Ross a “hypocrite” too.

    If he was an old-earth creationist, it wouldn’t be an issue. If the age of the earth was only a peripheral issue in his research (like the other creationist who apparently did a math dissertation in paleontology), it wouldn’t be an issue.

    I also think he should get his dissertation. (The ad hominem fallacy tells us to judge the work and not the author.) But I worry about his mental state and his soul.

    What if an atheist went to a Christian college and got straight-As, then went to divinity school and wrote a dissertation defending the inerrancy of Scripture and then turned around and said “yeah, but I don’t believe any of it.”

    Whouldn’t we be right to accuse him of fraud?

    There is a whiff of intellectual dishonesty around Dr. Ross….

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I don’t have thoughts on these things. This blog is to discuss how the mainstream media covers religious issues. We attempt to stay focused on just that narrow coverage.

  • njones

    Hi Mollie,

    Given the “narrow” focus of the blog, may I suggest that you strike the first two paragraphs of the original post…

    The rest of your post does indeed focus on the news coverage, but the first two paragraphs try to make a broader (non-religion in the news) point.

    Admittedly my questions were in response to this broader point not in response to religious coverage in the news. But if you are going to raise an non-news tangent, I don’t see why you should refuse to address it if someone takes you up on it.

    “… there is nothing so political as the academy”

    What does that statement have to do with how the “mainstream media covers religious issues”?

    “… I would just study whatever I was assigned and complete coursework in support of the approved theories….”

    Again, what does that have to do with the article? You are making a broader point about the fairness of academics not about religious coverage in the news. I am trying to challenge you on that point.

    I’ve been a reader of this blog for a year and I understand you want to take a narrow focus but many of the postings do not do that (this one is a good example) so you can’t be shocked if comments sometimes go astray as well.