Religion and PhDs

Religion and PhDs

Religion and PhDs

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Feb. 20 2007 10:42 PM

Religion and PhDs

Yesterday, I posted about a young Earth creationist getting a PhD in geoscience. There has been some misunderstanding about what I said, and what I didn't say. Some of that is my fault, though some of it isn't.

First, after reading the comments, I have to admit that I am unsure what can be done about this situation. I agree that a PhD must be granted based on the merits of the research, and not whatever belief system or lack thereof the candidate has. I did say (in the very first line!) that creationists should not get PhDs, and in the context it's understandable that people thought I meant we simply shouldn't grant degrees to them. I was going for an overly simplistic line to grab attention, and I shouldn't have. So then, should we deny a PhD to someone who is a YEC?

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Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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In reality the situation is more subtle than that. In that first line, I was assuming -- silly me -- that an imagined creationist candidate was honest, and open about their belief that the Earth was young before starting the research. If someone like that still proclaimed that same belief, while also turning in a thesis which is based on the Earth being old, then that would be quite the conundrum.

To get a degree, the work does not speak for itself! If it did, then we wouldn't have PhD defenses. There a reason they are called "defenses", after all. In that case, it is the duty of the committee to grill the candidate and make sure that they understand what they have done in the research (I have harrowing stories about my own grilling, to be sure).

If the candidate parrots the scientific understanding of the situation, and still proclaims themselves to be a YEC, then you really do have a situation. I'll admit, again, to being unsure what to do in such a case. Perhaps the department at URI should have thought of this before it got so far. Maybe they didn't know he was a YEC until it was too late. Maybe there was nothing they could have done at all.

In my opinion -- and I suspect a lot of scientists would agree -- someone who claims to be a YEC simply does not understand anything about science. If you think gravity is caused by pink underground unicorns drawing in golden marshmallows from the ether, then it is very clear that you are not cut out to be a scientist.

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In the end, in the very end, getting a PhD is all about understanding the science. It strikes me that if someone doesn't understand the science, they shouldn't get the degree.

However, enforcing that can clearly be a problem.

The real problem here is the fact that a YEC gamed the system, purposely. I think this is a major cause of lament by many of the scientists who have posted about this. I stand by my reasoning: Ross lied, through and through, to get a degree. It's galling, but I cannot see how they could have stopped him. I'm not sure how we can stop the next liar from doing the same thing. Creationists smell a weakness like this and they'll be all over, sensing their next "wedge". I'm not sure what to do, but I'd like to see the comments for this post sticking to that topic. If you disagree with my premise, please comment on the other post.

Now, on to some of the comments from that last post:

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It’s one thing to debunk the moon hoax, but another to argue that those of certain religious beliefs should not be considered for advanced degrees.

It's not that his belief is religious. It's that it's wrong. Demonstrably, completely, 100% wrong. And the only way for Ross to get this PhD granted to him was to lie, repeatedly, about it while writing his thesis (and for the URI committee to let him get away with it).

It is OK, and even encouraged, in science to have dissenting opinions. But that is not what this is about.

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Creating a system of PhD “thought-police” is a very steep and slippery slope. Where do you draw the line?

This is perhaps the core of the situation. Imagine a defense where the candidate clearly has no knowledge of the field he is working in. The committee would hand him his head (and certainly not the parchment). Now imagine a candidate who appears to have the knowledge, but extrapolates wildly, making claims totally unsupported by the evidence presented (I in fact knew someone like that when I was in grad school, but he was already a professor at the time). This situation is a bit more subtle, but again it's within the rights of the committee to tell the candidate to try again at a later date. A candidate who has some incorrect things in the thesis and who may not be able to answer the questions of the committee, but who does understand the basics of the field, may pass (that's close to my situation, even though I totally freaked during my defense).

So where does the YEC fall? I'm not sure. Discuss.

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You seem to have this fixed delusion that all creationists are hypocrites and liars and idiots.

Perhaps I should be more clear. Not all creationists are liars. They are all certainly wrong, but not necessarily liars. The ones I actively fight against are the ones who do indeed lie, twist the truth, distort reality, for their own ends. It's much like the Moon Hoax: I don't fight the audience, I fight the promulgator. In this case, the candidate was at least a hypocrite, and I think worse than that.

He goes on:

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You may deny this, but it’s written all over your blog! Half the time all you do is complain about Christians and saying how stupid they are!

I don't complain about Christians. I complain about creationists. As I have written, many times, it's the mainstream Christians who should be speaking out the most loudly about creationism. It's giving their religion a very bad name. You are conflating my fight against creationism with a fight against religion at large. Where have I said, ever, that Christians are bad?

Is Dr. Ross intellectually dishonest? Almost certainly. Is Dr. Ross academically dishonest? I don’t know that he is.

That again is the heart of this.

This is a very dangerous time for science, and for people who try to base their lives on reality. I hope that this case does not turn into Fort Sumter, but I'm also just as sure this won't be the last anti-scientific poseur to get through academia.