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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

A Polarised PhD: The Creationism and Science of Marcus R. Ross

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A PhD thesis on the abundance and spread of mosasaurs and marine reptiles in the Cretaceous era sounds (with the greatest respect to the student concerned) pretty typical of the prosaic nature of research degrees, particularly in the sciences. Why, then, has this degree been creating such a stir in the press and across the blogosphere, since the findings were not particularly earth-shattering (no dinosaur destroying asteroids here), and the work of the student was "impeccable" and conducted "within a strictly scientific framework"? The answer is that the student in question, Marcus R. Ross, whilst studying an era 65 million years ago, does not actually believe that there ever was such a time: a “young earth creationist,” he believes that the Bible is a literally true account of the creation of the universe, and that the earth is at most 10,000 years old.

The question posed by The New York Times, which published an article on him, is "Can a scientist produce intellectually honest work that contradicts deeply held religious beliefs?" Cutting through all the fluffy reiterations of the ID vs. evolution argument on their message board, people from both angles seem to agree that you can, and I would side with them. Science PhDs ought to understand issues relating to the nature and philosophical grounding of their discipline. If they are to practice good science, then they must acknowledge that (in the gentlest version of the postmodern theory of science) theories will continually be tested, since they can never be fully and finally proved, although a theory can potentially be demolished (falsified) by a single piece of data that goes against it. If you drop a ball out of an aeroplane, you cannot prove that it will always fall, though if it flies upwards just once, there is something wrong with the law of gravity.

It is thus not intellectually dishonest to hold competing views, and it can indeed be highly productive; evolutionary theory itself was the outcome of Darwin's twenty year struggle to reconcile his belief in God with his witnessing fossils and finches which suggested to him that life developed itself over time rather than being made in a moment. Although in a more fully secular society that Darwin's, in which the "two cultures" seem increasingly polarised, Ross's views seem paradoxical, they need not necessarily be alien to the practice of science. And if Ross's examiners were satisfied that the science he conducted was rigorous and led to reasonable conclusions, developed through coherence with empirical principles established by reference to pre-existing epistemes, then to deny him his doctorate would have been a fundamental breach of his right to hold individual opinions. Indeed, though this seems a peculiarly paradoxical position for the science student, and hits the headlines, it would hardly be news if a creationist theology student was to argue that scientific ways of thinking provide the best system of understanding the natural world, and be awarded a thesis on that basis. Likewise the majority of non-fundamentalists practising religion do not feel that a knowledge of scientific fact in earth/life origins precludes automatically the possibility of god, or devalues religion as a sound moral system - it didn’t for Darwin, and it doesn’t today.

Nevertheless, Ross must have left his supervisor and examiners at Rhode Island University with a dilemma. As argued above, if they had rejected the science student as holding beliefs incompatible with scientific practice (no matter how good he is in the latter), then they would be accused of excluding him on the basis of their own dogmatically held faith, rather than on the empirical evidence of his scientifically-structured arguments. On the other hand, to allow the scientist to gain his doctorate would be to imply that, if university science departments can accommodate him on the basis that he has shown himself a capable empiricist (even admirably suppressing his religious beliefs in that practice), then they should be willing to deal with “sciences” such as ID on their own terms; they should treat its (largely) Christian exponents as pursuing empirically-derived theories, rather than simply dismissing them outright as following a religious agenda dressed in scientistic trappings. Ross had already produced a popular education video on why Intelligent Design is the best account of the Cambrian explosion; now he is a doctor on the subject.

However, as one respondent pointed out, "Negatives of a theory do not prove another theory, nor do they make them legitimate." ID highlights the flaws in evolutionary evidence, but does not provide evidence from its own perspective that bears an equal burden of proof to that which it has dismissed. A double negative does not add up to positive proof that ID must therefore be the right theory. If Ross is today a polarised personality, the positive of empiricism and the negative of creationism embodied within him, here's hoping that, as ID continually fails to discover hard evidence of its own, he becomes proof positive - the rational Doctor Jekyll - that the empirically derived framework is the only one in which to conduct science.

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Posted by Alistair at 5:47 pm


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