Monday, February 12, 2007

Should a mainstream university grant a doctorate to a Young Earth Creationist?

That is the question people are asking in this NY Times piece about a recent geosciences PhD graduate from the University of Rhode Island - a well-regarded school in this field. Marcus Ross is a Young Earth Creationist who submitted his dissertation in paleontology in December and is now teaching at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. So is it bad thing that the U of RI granted this guy a doctorate? Should they have not let him graduate?

To treat this guy differently would have been wrong. I would be scared by the prospect of universities screening their graduates based on personal beliefs - that would be one more nasty development in the ongoing the balkanization of our culture. We're divided enough already. It would just give ammunition to anti-evolutionists, who would argue that we are using unfair, suppressive tactics because our arguments can't stand on their own.

I'm not worried about Creationists with PhDs because:

1. They're rare, and they will never amass enough numbers to seriously change the balance of the evolution vs creationism fight.

2. They won't have any impact on mainstream science - after grad school, they'll never publish anything that will change the way most professional scientists think about their field. They're not about to get tenure in a science department at Harvard.

3. They're really not more likely to get teaching jobs at public schools than Creationists without PhDs. A YEC with a PhD will probably raise more immediate red flags in the local science community than a less high-profile Creationist. I don't see how the PhD itself would sway anyone except those are are already determined to push Creationism, and for every one YEC PhD there are hundreds of PhDs supporting evolution.

People like this are already out there, but I don't see how they are much worse than Creationists with academic credentials in non-science fields. Has Jonathan Wells, with a PhD in developmental biology, been more of a threat than law professor Phillip Johnson? Articulate, educated leaders of the Creationist movement are going to keep popping up, generation after generation, whether we let them get reputable science doctorates or not. By banning them from graduate programs for their religious beliefs, we would be sacrificing our moral integrity for very little practical benefit.


If people like Marcus Ross do a good job and meet the requirements for a doctorate - that is, if they don't try rig their thesis committee to get away with substandard work, they should be cheerfully given their degrees. Who knows, some of these people may have their faith changed by their work - Ronald Numbers details several such cases, in his book The Creationists (this is highly recommended reading). Not many people can really live with that much cognitive dissonance for very long. And those who can should be allowed to take their degrees and go have a nice fulfilling career at academic holes like Liberty University.

10 comments:

Larry Moran said...

I would be scared by the prospect of universities screening their graduates based on personal beliefs - that would be one more nasty development in the ongoing the balkanization of our culture.

Excuuuuuse me?

In this case we're dealing with someone who personally believes that the Earth is only 10,000 years old but wants a Ph.D. in paleontology. Do you really think that should be irrelevant in a Ph.D. oral exam?

How would you feel about a graduate student who didn't believe in checkpoints but thought the yeast cell cycle was contolled by fairies?

Of course we screen our graduates based on their personal beliefs. If they believe stupid things that are contrary to science then they don't graduate. The only difference between Ross and the typical student who flunks a qualifying exam is that Ross' stupidity is derived from his religion.

That's the only reason why everybody has to walk on tippy-toes. That's disgusting. Stupidity doesn't get a pass in a Ph.D. program just because it's based on the Bible.

Mike said...

I don't think I'm advocating walking on tippy-toes - I really think people with insane beliefs should be called on it. But if we barred creationists from science grad programs, I can imagine a few disturbing scenarios:

- You have a grad student who does excellent work for 3 years, has a nice publication in the works, and then it comes out that he or she ir a YEC - do you then summarily dump that person from the program? Deny that person authorship on the paper?

- You have a grad student who is an excellent cell biologist who studies stem cell differentiation, but is an OEC - 'macroevolution' didn't happen, the earth was created through a period of long ages followed by catastrophes, etc., Should a person like that be denied entry to a grad program, or again, dumped when that student's personal beliefs become public?

I think there is a difference between someone who believes the cell cycle is regulated by faries (and I have to add that I agree that a young earth is in the same crazy realm as fairy cell cycle control), and then wastes everyone's time and money trying to prove it, and someone who thinks nutty things about the cell cycle but does good professional work in ecology.

My problem is with defining which beliefs should exlude a person from school. Should an econ department not accept a 21 year old undergrad with great grades, but with an avowed belief in Marxism? Should a Computer Science department not accept a Creationist if the prospective student expresses an interest in working in computational biology?

Things start getting messy quickly.

Larry Moran said...

My problem is with defining which beliefs should exlude a person from school. Should an econ department not accept a 21 year old undergrad with great grades, but with an avowed belief in Marxism? Should a Computer Science department not accept a Creationist if the prospective student expresses an interest in working in computational biology?

Things start getting messy quickly.


We make these decisions all the time. Your examples are trivial. Nobody would waste any time over them. But that doesn't mean we should bend over backwards to ignore stupidity when it directly impinges on the thesis work.

You can't just make the blanket statement that nobody should be denied a Ph.D. as long as they claim that their stupidity is based on religion.

If an atheist tried to pass a Ph.D. oral exam in paleontology by claiming that the Earth was only 10,000 years old then I'd have a problem. Wouldn't you? How could you possibly award a Ph.D. to someone like that?

Should it make any difference if they're a Christian? Why?

Mike said...

How are my examples trivial? Booting a student out of a grad program is not a trivial decision, nor is preventing a creationist computer science student from pursuing a legitimate problem in computational biology.

Let's say that Ross wasn't open about his beliefs until well into his fourth year. Up until that time, his work is excellent - indistinguishable from that of non-creationist students (which is what the NY Times suggests). He accidentally lets it slip to a fellow student that he's a creationist, and the faculty find out. They really should boot him without a second thought? So then we'd be initiating something like the US military's deplorable don't ask-don't tell rule.

I don't think this is that different from Mormon grad students who believe the Book of Mormon was written 2000 years ago by the Middle Eastern ancestors of today's Native Americans and Pacific Islanders. Should we boot such students out of the genetics department where I currently work? Would that be a trivial decision?

I'm not trying to advocate special treatment because he's a Christian - I wouldn't care whether he's a Christian or an atheist ot part of some weird New Age religion. Unfortunately, a lot of people in academia compartmentalize the way Ross says he does, although Ross is certainly an extreme case. Years back, when I was on my way to becoming an ex-Mormon, I had Mormon academics urge me to consider such compartmentalization. I can't do it, but some people do, and they still end up doing decent science.

The benefit of keeping such people out of grad school isn't worth instituting the kind of interrogation into someone's religious beliefs that would be necessary. It's one thing to probe a student's thesis and understanding in an oral exam; it's another to make that student defend his religious beliefs to his thesis committee.

Larry Moran said...

Mike,

Imagine an atheist student who's trying to get a Ph.D. in paleontology. The student believes that aliens visited this part of the solar system 10,000 years ago and created the Earth. Furthermore, the student believes that the aliens created all the species and then wiped some of them out with an asteroid about 5000 years ago.

Because this is an honest student, he writes all this up in his thesis and tries to explain away all of the scientific evidence that conflicts with his alien theory.

Do you think this student should be awarded a Ph.D.?

Now, imagine the same student only he doesn't reveal any of his true beliefs in the thesis. Instead he writes as though the Earth was 4.5 billion years old and species evolved. Outside of the campus he expounds his alien theory so there's no doubt about his true belief, and there's no doubt about the fact that he is lying in his thesis when he pretends to be defending a scientific theory.

Do you think this atheist should be awarded a Ph.D. in the second example?

Mike said...

The first example is about a student doing bad science.

The second example is not that different from many cases I know personally - conservative Christian students getting PhDs in biochemistry, doing fine thesis work, publishing good papers that depend at least to some degree on evolutionary assumptions, but knocking evolution in church on Sunday - not just listening to anti-evolution sermons, but actively advocating an anti-evolutionary viewpoint, and reading and sharing anti-evolutionary books - usually intelligent design or OEC.

These students may not be quite as extreme as Ross or our hypothetical atheist student, but more or less they do the same thing - work in using a paradigm that conflicts with their religious beliefs. Purging these students from the system would require an extensive interrogation of all potential students' religious beliefs - or maybe we can rely on denominational profiling, questioning only those who admit to being conservative Christians.

They are fulfilling the requirements for a degree that were spelled out for them when they entered grad school. I do think it's absurd for someone to do good science and not believe any of it, but I don't see why that should disqualify a student from graduating. It's not the same thing as faking data. If they prove their ability to do satisfactory science, then they should be granted their degree.

Larry Moran said...

They are fulfilling the requirements for a degree that were spelled out for them when they entered grad school. I do think it's absurd for someone to do good science and not believe any of it, but I don't see why that should disqualify a student from graduating.

Here's part of the Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters at the University of Toronto.

What distinguishes the University from other centres of research is the central place which the relationship between teaching and learning holds. It is by virtue of this relationship that the University fulfils an essential part of its traditional mandate from society, and, indeed, from history: to be an expression of, and by so doing to encourage, a habit of mind which is discriminating at the same time as it remains curious, which is at once equitable and audacious, valuing openness, honesty and courtesy before any private interest.

This mandate is more than a mere pious hope. It represents a condition necessary for free enquiry, which is the University's life blood. Its fulfilment depends upon the well being of that relationship whose parties define one another's roles as teacher and student, based upon differences in expertise, knowledge and experience, though bonded by respect, by a common passion for truth and by mutual responsibility to those principles and ideals that continue to characterize the University.

This Code is concerned, then, with the responsibilities of faculty members and students, not as they belong to administrative or professional or social groups, but as they cooperate in all phases of the teaching and learning relationship.

Such cooperation is threatened when teacher or student forsakes respect for the other—and for others involved in learning—in favour of self-interest, when truth becomes a hostage of expediency. On behalf of teacher and student and in fulfilment of its own principles and ideals, the University has a responsibility to ensure that academic achievement is not obscured or undermined by cheating or misrepresentation, that the evaluative process meets the highest standards of fairness and honesty, and that malevolent or even mischievous disruption is not allowed to threaten the educational process.


Perhaps you could comment on whether you agree that intellectual honesty is important?

Mike said...

Intellectual honesty is critical, but by expelling Ross, the university would have held him to different standards than are applied to all other students and faculty. He didn't fake his data and he didn't lie to his professors about his research. We don't usually pass or fail students about whether they personally accept the subject matter we're testing them on. In science we tend to take it for granted that the students believe it, but in other fields it's obvious that this assumption isn't necessary for intellectual honesty. A sociology student may be required to write a paper or do a research project based on theories of race or gender prevalent in a given field, theories that the student wholly disagrees with. Is that really dishonest? What about a thesis committee member hearing dissertation based on a theory reasonably well accepted in the field, but one with which that committee member disagrees? Would that committee member be dishonest for voting to pass the student? Are lawyers, by definition intellectually dishonest because they have to argue positions they don't agree with? Should an atheist not be able get a degree in theology, even is that student is interested in the subject?

Ross is an extreme case; such extreme cognitive dissonance is weird, but I don't see how Ross violated the standards of honesty other scholars are held to.

Larry Moran said...

Ross is an extreme case; such extreme cognitive dissonance is weird, but I don't see how Ross violated the standards of honesty other scholars are held to.

I'm really sad to hear you say that.

Mike said...

Larry,

I'm sorry you're disappointed, but I still don't understand why you think my examples are wrong or irrelevant. If Ross should be expelled, should the Mormons in my genetics department be expelled? If not, how is the Ross case different?

Is Ross' case different from my social sciences example?

Do you really think that what Ross did is the same as making up data? If so, why? If not, why is it just as bad?