February 14, 2007

Relax, everyone, this is actually good news

So the latest buzz (one could hardly have missed it) is about an article in the New York Times which recounts the tale of one Marcus Ross, a creationist who managed to get his Ph.D in Geosciences from the University of Rhode Island.

Now, it's not my way to recycle stories from other blogs but in this case what I find so interesting in reading posts from so many of my fellow ID critics is the near universal level of revulsion at Ross's disingenuousness. So let me make the contrast clear right up front by offering my reaction - I think it's great that Ross got his doctorate. It's a positive thing for all concerned, including his potential students. I wish more creationists would follow his lead.

Lost amid the hand-wringing over lack of intellectual integrity, lying, and outright fraudulence, not to mention some discussion of creating a system that would deny degrees to those of Ross's ilk, is the obvious fact that every time one of these guys comes along with his silly pseudo-scientific musings on evolution we all tell him to go learn something about the subject.

Well, that's what Ross did. And it's a good thing.

It's good for him, as he will likely be more measured in the promulgation of his creationism, just as someone like Jonathan Wells (despite his lack of honesty) is more measured than Ken Ham. It's good for his students at (*shudder*) Liberty University, who otherwise might have had an instructor that was scientifically ignorant. And it's good for the general debate environment, where surely an increased level of education among creationists can only contribute to the success of reason.

But the questions remain, can Ross be fairly charged of deceit in the attainment of his degree? Can he be a competent, honest paleontologist and still believe in a young earth?

Well, as for the competence issue: according to all accounts from the article it's clear that Ross's work in getting his doctorate was exemplary. There has been no doubt expressed as to his abilities, just his affinities.

And therein lies the problem. Are we justified in questioning his, or anyone's, philosophical proclivities in this context? There are plenty of scientists who embrace, shall we say, questionable ideas. What if Ross believed in ghosts, or faith-healing, or homeopathy for God's sake? Would we feel inclined to deride his integrity, perhaps even consider denying him a degree?

Ahh, "but those concepts do not constitute a direct contradiction with his field of research," you might rejoin. I'm not so sure. Consider that those beliefs, along with the assertion of a young earth, all invoke phenomena beyond the reach of natural law. As such, I would submit that all of these things are at odds with the foundational methodology of science itself. The contradiction goes to the heart of science, regardless of whether it directly opposes the details of any particular discipline.

So I am forced to wonder where it might end, where we would draw the line between forgivable eccentricity and forbidden irrationality. It's clear to me that we cannot draw the line anywhere but at the point where scientists and universities are separated from the business of policing thought and evaluating motives.

As creationism tries more and more to look like science while diluting the religious component of its message, the last thing we need is for science to start looking more like religion.


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