On Having Your PhD and Eating it Too

On Having Your PhD and Eating it Too June 17, 2013

Young earth creationists are notorious for two things (among others):

  1. a handful of them have obtained a PhD in a relevant scientific domain, doing research the legitimacy of and basis for which they intend to repudiate as soon as they have the letters after their name, with the sole aim of adding legitimacy to the ideology that they adhered to before ever studying science; and
  2. they claim that the overwhelming consensus of those who have PhDs in biology, genetics, paleontology, geology, and other relevant scientific domains is wrong, and that these experts are untrustworthy.

They cannot have it both ways.

Either a PhD is indicative of expertise in an area, in which case laypeople ought to accept an overwhelming consensus of the experts where one exists (as it does in relation to evolution and the age of the earth); or it is not, in which case a few young-earth creationists having PhDs does nothing to support their cause.

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  • Lobi

    That’s an interesting point, I’m glad you made it. “Listen to Bob, he has a PhD in geophysics and is a young Earth creationist” – to which the reply should go “or listen to almost any other Bob with a PhD in geophysics, who is not a young Earth creationist.”

  • TomS

    I don’t agree with your analysis of “can’t have it both ways”. It seems to me more like a “reductio ad absurdum”, in that it says that if one accepts the argument from authority in support of evolution, then there is as much authority for denying evolution; therefore the argument from authority does not work.
    Myself, I don’t accept the argument from authority in either case. I prefer to point out, not that creationism doesn’t have the backing of smart people, but that all of those smart people haven’t been able to come up with an alternative. For example, there is no account for a nested hierarchy which does not involve common descent with modification.

    • Christopher

      First, a reductio ad absurdum is different from an appeal to authority.

      Secondly, the argument from authority fallacy precisely when the person in question does not have any skilled knowledge or training in the area they are claiming authority. A group of people with PhDs in geophysics do have the authority to talk about geophysics.

      To use a different example: imagine two people on a talk show discussing dental hygiene. On one hand, there’s a qualified dentist who talks says proper care of teeth include flossing, brushing, etc. On the other hand, there’s a person whose total exposure to dentistry comes from what can be found searching on Google and Wikipedia. The first person is not fallaciously claiming authority on the matter while the second is.

      Returning to James’s post, there is a major issue when a handful of people claim that all of their academic colleagues are wrong because there’s nothing special about the majority’s academic qualifications while at the same time saying that their minority opinion should be accepted because of the minority’s (same!) academic qualifications.

      • TomS

        A group of people with PhDs in geophysics do have the authority to talk about geophysics.
        Therefore, a group of people with PhDs in biology do have the authority to talk about biology? Even if those people are creationists?
        I would rather not get into personalities, like how smart people are, but concentrate on the content (or, in the case of creationism, the lack of content).
        BTW, I did not say that “reductio ad absurdum” is the same as “appeal to authority”. I was pointing to a similarity between “having it both ways” (not “appeal to authority”) and “reductio ad absurdum” (but not, to be sure, equating them).

        • Christopher

          It doesn’t matter if the group of people are creationists or not. Rather, if their expertise can be verified to be in the area they are speaking about (cf. Levi’s comment and his hunch that creationists tend to do their PhDs in areas that are not directly related to the creationists’ agenda).

          What I think James’s post gets at (to rephrase myself) is that creationists want PhDs to be proof of strong generalist knowledge and strong specialist knowledge, depending on the context they talk about it. When it’s about themselves, it’s strong generalist knowledge and therefore a reason to accept their statements uncritically. When it’s about ‘secular’ PhDs, it’s specialist knowledge and therefore a reason to be highly critical of anything the person says.

          Lastly, my apologies for misreading your post regarding the reduction ad absurdum. On re-reading your comment a few hours later, I don’t think we’re really disagreeing on things.

  • Christopher W. Skinner

    Good thoughts, James. Dead on as always.

  • Part of the problem encountered here is the persistent, popular myth of the “lone scientist” who finds the “correct” explanation for some phenomenon despite the “persecution” and scoffing from the “scientific community”.

    What the purveyors of this myth fail to convey is that there’s truly no such creature as the “lone scientist” and that every advance in any of the fields of scientific inquiry has been made on the shoulders of and in collaboration with many, many researchers who’ve gone before or are peers of the scientist who finally attains some conclusive result.

  • If I remember correctly from Ronald Number’s “The Creationists,” early in the YEC movement (back when it was mostly Seventh Day Adventists) there was an attempt to collect money to send promising students to get PhDs in geology or other related fields. It was eventually dropped because a lot of the people they sent stopped believing in YEC once they say the scientific evidence.

  • Bryan Lewis

    Where are they getting these PhDs? What are the requirements of their particular PhD program? These are honest questions. I wonder if it is much like the problem we sometimes encounter in biblio-academia. Many conservative institutions hand out degrees like candy, without making the student do the typical requisite course work that is typical for a PhD. Many of these young earth creationists simply may not have interacted with the very large body of knowledge and research which is typical for their degree.

    • AiG boasts (in all senses of the word) several PhDs from secular universities: Dr. Andrew Snelling (geology, University of Sydney), Dr. Danny Faulkner (Astronomy, Indiana University), Dr. David Menton (cell biology, Brown University), Dr. Terry Mortenson (history of geology, University of Coventry), Georgia Purdom (molecular genetics, Ohio State) and Dr. Tommy Mitchell (MD, Vanderbilt University),

      It’s a tribute to the White Queen’s advice to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

      • Levi

        There’s also Kurt Wise (paleontology, Harvard). Stephen Jay Gould was his thesis advisor, and to his credit defended Wise’s PhD even though Wise was openly a young-earther.

        I believe their PhD’s are legitimate. They either “played the game” (conducting their research with old-earth assumptions and only revealing their young-earth views after getting their PhD) or simply focused their research on an area of science where earth-age issues are inconsequential. My hunch is that the latter is more likely than the former.

        Because of their wooden interpretation of the creation narratives, young-earthers view it as a black-and-white choice between science and faith. So they have their Luther “Here I stand” moment(s) and believe their PhD ought to give them credibility in so doing — never once considering that their approach to Scripture might be flawed. Case in point… http://creation.com/kurt-p-wise-geology-in-six-days

        • Gary

          Looking at Wise, it is a pitiful story that cannot be argued with logic. “As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.” So it might be a “pity PhD”. I hate to be cruel, but “if all the evidence in the universe”…

          • TomS

            At first glance, “the scientific evidence points otherwise, but I choose to believe the Bible” seems to be a possible stance. But how many people apply this to geocentrism? The evidence for common descent is at least as persuasive as the evidence for heliocentrism; while the scriptural backing for geocentrism is at least as explicit as that for “fixity of species”.

          • Gary

            Just for clarification, the quote was from Wise. And evolution seems to be a hot button, not geocentric earth, because, as my wife puts it, her relatives aren’t monkeys. Mine are. (I like evolution, she doesn’t). Yes, I know… Common ancestor, not relative. Although I have a sister that I have doubts about.

          • TomS

            I agree. I tend to think that it is a matter of finding it yucky that one is physically related to monkeys, and then constructing a Bible-based argument to counter the obvious fact that we are related to monkeys, and finally saying that the Biblical argument trumps all science. The acceptance of heliocentrism seems to show that sometimes
            one can change one’s opinion based on science. When the science is (at long last) seen as not so yucky.

          • $14834813

            A position based on fear of knowing the truth is not a good position at all..I think it comes down to the fact that people are afraid of hell..”God is gonna get’cha.” That is why it is virtually impossible to talk with these people. Quote: “You can’t reason someone out of a belief that they were never reasoned into.” I don’t know who said that. I think it is a bit ironic for him to use that passage from Revelation. It can’t be referring to the bible, since it didn’t exist yet! It was a warning to scribes to be faithful in copying the text of Revelation.

        • “… simply focused their research on an area of science where earth-age issues are inconsequential.”

          That would be a little hard in the history of geology (Mortenson). 😉

          I suspect that most of them justify it by separating “man’s knowledge” (science) from “God’s knowledge” (Bible) and studying the first on its terms and reporting that to their professors, while keeping the second more or less secret (Wise perhaps as an exception) until they they have their degrees and can get some position, such as at AiG or a Christian school where they can give it full vent.

          • There is something suspicious about Mortenson’s degree. The institution that it is from does not seem to have a program in that area, and it is a relatively new university. It deserves to be looked into further. But be that as it may, it is in the history of geology, and not in geology. And so no one should mistake his expertise for being in the natural sciences.

          • James:

            There was some discussion of the validity of Mortenson’s PhD in the comments to this Panda’s Thumb post from 2008:


            It seems it probably was legitimate but no definitive answer was found at that time.

            His thesis title apparently was “British scriptural geologists in the first half of the nineteenth century.” Now, that would, I think, have to include William Buckland and Adam Sedgwick, both of whom abandoned the idea that there was geological evidence of the Flood. I wonder how he handled that? Unfortunately, you need to be subscribed to the university library to get access to it.

            Whoops, I was wrong, here it is:

            It is a mere 518 pages long, so it might take a while to digest. 😉

          • It might be worth reading, but it may be perfectly legitimate as far as its contents are concerned – the key thing that needs to be emphasized is that it is not in geology, but it is about historical geologists.

            Although there is no “History of Geology” program at the University of Coventry, and so I think this was a case of that institution accrediting a program at a religiously affiliated school. The supervisors do not seem to be specialists in the history of geology.

            He published the dissertation under the title Great Turning Point in 2004.

            We discussed this previously on this thread: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2013/03/answers-in-genesis-at-butler-university.html

          • arcseconds

            A work in the history of geology (or about historical geologists, for that matter) might well look at what arguments geologists found convincing, and why, in which case it would be very relevant to a discussion involving why we now know the Earth to be old.

            Of course, a work in this area might also not touch on that, and I’m not sure I’d necessarily expect a work on ‘scriptual geologists’ to do this.

            But it’s not it being history of geology that makes it irrelevant.

          • Bob O’Hara

            Perhaps a quick word about UK universities: Coventry Uni used to be a polytechnic, so wasn’t a full uni, and they tended to focus on more applied subjects. In the 90s they were allowed to become unis. So it’s a proper institution.

            We also don’t have PhD program[me]s. Mortenson would just have had to have found a supervisor (presumably at Wycliffe Hall, and could then do his PhD on whatever. In this case, looking at the abstract, 19th C YEC geologists. PhDs are just research: in my day there was no requirement to take courses.

          • Yes, I actually studied in the UK. My question was more about what Coventry’s status was when Mortenson studied there (since I knew they gained university status relatively recently) and whether Mortenson had a supervisor and examiners with expertise in the history of geology. I don’t think that the University of Durham would have let me do research in a topic that no one there had at least some expertise in so as to supervise my research (but I confess I never asked, having gone there precisely because of my interest in Christology and the fact that James D. G. Dunn was there).

      • Bryan Lewis

        Thanks for the info John.

  • Well said James McGrath!

  • Jorge

    James F. McGrath is expressing a falsehood – plain and simple. The prejudice oozes from his words. He begins with false premises – 1 and 2 – and from those false premises proceeds to create a false dichotomy.

    • If the premises are false, or I have posed a false dichotomy, you certainly have not shown that to be the case.

      And if, having been deceived by young-earth creationists, I am passionately concerned to keep others from being duped, and prejudiced in favor of truth and honesty and against lies and deceit, I do not consider that a bad thing.

      • Paul

        Hmmm! You seriously are not able to see the falsity of those premises?

        1.) Is it possible that some changed their opinion during or after their course of study? Could you study aspects of science (empirical and in the lab) and yet not accept that science can speak to origins (evolution is not empirical in the lab kind of stuff)? Let’s get specific. Could you study let’s say “The sex life of the African honey bee” and not accept evolution? You must have an astounding ignorance of the breadth of science and scientific inquiry to assert premise 1.

        2.) Believing that someone may be wrong in an area does not necessarily say that they are untrustworthy. I am surprised you take such a fundamentalist position that is evidently lacking in nuance. The YEC position would probably say that given the presuppositions of the philosophical naturalism the evolutionary position is the only conclusion. But they would question whether those presuppositions are true and seek to demonstrate that even within a philosophical naturalistic framework evolution is inadequate as an explanation. To say that they then tar the overwhelming majority of PhDs as being untrustworthy is exaggerated to the point of absurdity. I don’t know about you but I do not see a whole lot of value in trading absurdities.

        It seems that you claim to have been deceived by YEC’ers in the past. It seems to me that you have gone from being deceived by one group to being deceived by another.

        • I don’t think you’ve had much encounter with young-earth creationism. It does indeed trade in absurdities.

          • Paul

            So I assume you concede that your original two premises are false.

          • You have been doing a lot of assuming, but thus far none of it seems to be on target. I am not persuaded that you have understood the point made in this post. Are you trying to argue on behalf of young-earth creationists, and to say that it is a coherent stance to emphasize the credentials members of one’s own movement hold, while simultaneously dismissing the fact that there is an overwhelming consensus among those with such credentials that evolution occurred and that the case for it is solid?

  • lance Geologist

    My limited experience with YEC’s is that they try to misapply basic principles( thermodynamics, evolutionary theory, etc)and misstate theories. They then try to imply problems( due to their redefining basic theories or Laws) with the final answer to everything being ” God did it”. Very difficult to answer people who will not look at the problem, but instead solve the problem first by saying ” God did it” and then confirm their answer by ignoring the real world. . Very sad.