Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Cool-aid, creationism, and the communist threat

A number of the internet’s shriller McCarthyist scaremongers have been getting their knickers in a twist over the recent New York Times article describing the paleontologist Marcus Ross. Dr. Ross has landed himself on the fanatical secularists’ blacklist for “using his secular credentials for promoting global communism witchcraft dangerous creationist ideologies and opposing the teaching of evolution in schools.

Exactly how has he done this? At the risk of attracting the fire of the witchhunters myself, let me suggest a blasphemous methodology. Let’s look at the evidence.

Dr. Ross is a self-proclaimed young Earth creationist.
Dr. Ross has had a life-long love of Mesozoic macrofauna.
Dr. Ross recently completed a PhD in paleontology at the University of Rhode Island, defended without mention or use of fringe religiously-based theories.
His advisor described his work as impeccable.
Another professor in his department has defended his science as “good. Great science.”
Dr. Ross has taken his PhD to Liberty University, a very conservative southern Christian school, where he teaches geology from a standard (secular) science text.
While a PhD student, Marcus Ross allegedly argued that a creationist approach might be applicable to some geologic events, like the Cambrian explosion. The details of his argument are not discussed.
There is no evidence presented (not even hearsay or evidence produced by torture) that declares Dr. Ross plans to use his new degree to confoundthe masses and achieve world domination.

I say, shoot the fucker.

But before you do, please try this simple test:

1. Get yourself hired as an adjunct to teach intro geology at your local Christian college.
2. Convince the deans there to let you use a standard textbook.
3. Go into the class with a holier-than-thou, smart-ass attitude and the same standard text book that Dr. Ross uses for his class.
4. In the same classroom time, impart a greater appreciation for, and a broader understanding of geology than Dr. Ross is able to do. After all, if we’re gonna lynch this guy, we’d better at least appropriate his faculty position while he’s kicking at the breeze.

I’ve got a six-pack of Boags that says anyone who reads this blog would fail this test. Abysmally.

Of course, the main charge against Dr. Ross is that, despite the complete lack of evidence, he is somehow going to undermine the teaching of evolution in schools. But it seems to me that his career is the best possible justification for the separation of evolution and religion. Consider:

-By keeping his science free of creationist ideas, Dr. Ross has produced professional level research.
-Working in this field for the better part of a decade does not seem to have had an adverse effect on his faith.

So, even devout creationists can benefit from keeping their religion and science distinct, and doing so does not necessarily have a deleterious effect on their religious beliefs.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think young Earth ideas are bizarre. I’m currently paying off my mortgage by determining how many billions of years old various minerals are. To me a young earth hypothesis means an Earth that is 4.530 billion years old instead of 4.567 billion. But if this guy can compartmentalize his beliefs and working hypotheses well enough to do good science, more power to him. Evidently, some folks disagree.

Inquisitor Eugenie Scott from the National Center for Science Education says that grad schools were entitled to reject non-mainstream students, as they “would require so much remedial instruction it would not be worth my time.”

I wonder if she says the same thing about the visually impaired? In any case, none of the people who actually advised Dr. Ross have mentioned remedial education, so I think that Ms. Scott is practicing good science, by making statements that are easily falsifiable.

Professor Michael Dini from Texas Tech (where do they find these morons?) is even more disdainful, having previously refused to write letters of recommendation for students who would not renounce communism and drink cool-aid on the stand. He was later quoted as saying that scientists “ought to make certain the people they are conferring advanced degrees on understand the philosophy of science and are indeed philosophers of science. That’s what Ph.D. stands for.”

Here’s a bit of scientific philosophy for you, partner:
“Belief” is not a scientifically meaningful measure of confidence.

In fact, from what I’ve seen of professional scientists, getting emotionally attached to a theory- believing, as it were- is a greater threat to scientific productivity than treating science dispassionately. And who could be more dispassionate than a believer in an unscientific religion?


sinuously said...

Ross shows a far better understanding of science than nine-tenths of his critics. He is capable of maintaining two internally consistent models of reality separately -- and he knows the boundary between those frames of reference better than most of his critics. He knows which set of assumptions will get him to a result. He knows their importance, better than his critics, who apparently think their own assumptions are, or should be, hard wired into every practitioner of the scientific method – or else.

The overall insistence that he picks one over the other is tremendously rigid on all sides -- and having picked the “wrong” one, based on his desires and not those of his critics, rather bizarre moral judgments are ensuing. You’d think he was being revealed as a sleeper agent for Al-Qaeda. It could not have been worse had he picked the reverse and had to face the wrath of the fundamentalists, safely, as one more anonymous researcher.

His current position may not be tenable, but that is, fortunately, only his problem. The general tenor of his secular critics seems tremendously immature. He is apparently not single-minded enough for them -- something so bizarre (in their reckoning) that only a conspiratorial explanation can exist.

In the end, he seems by far the more dispassionate party -- as you say. He knows the science (demonstrably), knows his particular brand of theology (apparently), and has made his choices. As a threat to science, that choice would barely register but for the reaction of reason's so-called friends. And fundamentalism needs a Galileo. Rationalists, it seems, are quite willing to create one. For them reason has been reduced to a lazy compulsion or a set of beliefs reinforced by peer pressure – unlike Ross, who is on top of the process all the way.

It is most disturbing. A reversal of roles is taking place, and the supposed secularists/rationalists have not one clue as to how they are contributing to their own loss of credibility. He seems a whole person, they come off as broken, mechanical, reactionary.

Chris R said...

What mainly seems to be getting people's knickers in a twist is that he does now seem to be using the fact he has a PhD, awarded for work which assumes an old earth, to give authority to 'scientific' arguments for a young earth (he is teaching at one of those places where you have to sign a statement affiriming your belief in biblical literacy, after all).

As you say, the work appears to pass muster scientifically, and I find the claims of academic dishonesty and calls to revoke his PhD and insititute the Secular Inquisition rather silly and oblique to the point; but such behaviour certainly leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

EliRabett said...

While not sure that there is a perfect answer, let me point out that a Ph.D. is a professional degree and to a significant extent the holder represents both the university and the profession.

EliRabett said...

Oh yeah, it's Kool-Aid, drunk the stuff myself.

C W Magee said...

Nobody at his home institution has a problem with him. The thing that really pissed me off about this is that, even though everyone who has actually worked with him has nice things to say, the journalist went halfway across the country to find some people who have never met Ross, who are in a field so different that they can't possibly peer-review his research, but who are none-the-less perfectly happy to demonize this total stranger just because of how they preceive his religion.

A lot of my extended family's from around Lynchburg. I am all too familiar with the local bootleggers-turned-televangelists, their ill-gotten gains, and the university that money built.

But here's the thing: Even gullible fanatical Christians live on planet Earth. As such, they deserve an opportunity to learn about their home planet. Who would be a better at teaching them than Dr. Ross?