When geoscientists attack

geoscientistOnce upon a time, I thought I wanted to become an economics professor. This delusion lasted from early high school until I took enough postgraduate classes to be convinced otherwise. I loved my field of study and I had fantastic professors. One way in which they were helpful was to counsel me to keep my private views on everything from monetary theory to the Coase Conjecture hidden. There is nothing so political as the academy. And generally speaking there's not a lot of room for people who express unorthodox views. They don't call it a university for nothing! So even though Keynesian theories no longer have exclusive sway in non-academic economic fields, they completely dominated my college. My professors, some of whom were extreme socialists and some of whom had enjoyed the forbidden fruits of Posner and Hayek, told me how to play the game. Basically that meant that I would just study whatever I was assigned and complete coursework in support of the approved theories. Once I received my Ph.D., I was to keep up the facade, more or less, until I was tenured. Only then could I reveal my personal views.

That is a long way of saying that Cornelia Dean had a fantastic idea for a story in today's New York Times. She found a geoscientist who completed his undergraduate and graduate schooling with great marks -- all while being a young earth creationist (which the Times puts in scare quotes).

For him, Dr. [Marcus] Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one "paradigm" for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, "that I am separating the different paradigms."

Ross says it's no big deal and even uses an economics department as an analogy. But as you might expect, other professors are enraged that the academy let an, er, non-believer into their hallowed halls.

Dean really handled the story well, characterizing and quoting each side charitably. Major kudos for that. She also nails the crux of the debate:

And, for some, his case raises thorny philosophical and practical questions. May a secular university deny otherwise qualified students a degree because of their religion? Can a student produce intellectually honest work that contradicts deeply held beliefs? Should it be obligatory (or forbidden) for universities to consider how students will use the degrees they earn?

She speaks with one professor who concedes it's a difficult issue but says that if an academic's work is good, his work is good. End of story. Others disagree, saying the issue is how Ross will use his degree.

Ross teaches at Liberty University and Dean explores how his classes are taught. He uses conventional texts but also discusses how they intersect with Christianity, he says. Dean gives a few other examples of the intolerance for conflicting views in scientific fields, including this one:

A somewhat more complicated issue arose last year at Ohio State University, where Bryan Leonard, a high school science teacher working toward a doctorate in education, was preparing to defend his dissertation on the pedagogical usefulness of teaching alternatives to the theory of evolution.

Earle M. Holland, a spokesman for the university, said Mr. Leonard and his adviser canceled the defense when questions arose about the composition of the faculty committee that would hear it.

Meanwhile three faculty members had written the university administration, arguing that Mr. Leonard's project violated the university's research standards in that the students involved were being subjected to something harmful (the idea that there were scientific alternatives to the theory of evolution) without receiving any benefit.

Dean talked to many people for her story and gives the reader a good understanding of Ross' academic history and the challenges he faced at various schools. To ascertain whether the academic field believes that Ross' religious views should result in his being ostracized, she spoke to many professors, including David Fastovsky, who is a paleontologist, professor of geosciences and Ross' dissertation adviser. By hearing from so many people, the reader gets a better feel for the contentious issues:

Dr. Fastovsky said he had talked to Dr. Ross "lots of times" about his religious beliefs, but that depriving him of his doctorate because of them would be nothing more than religious discrimination. "We are not here to certify his religious beliefs," he said. "All I can tell you is he came here and did science that was completely defensible."

Steven B. Case, a research professor at the Center for Research Learning at the University of Kansas, said it would be wrong to "censor someone for a belief system as long as it does not affect their work. Science is an open enterprise to anyone who practices it."

Dr. Case, who champions the teaching of evolution, heads the committee writing state science standards in Kansas, a state particularly racked by challenges to Darwin. Even so, he said it would be frightening if universities began "enforcing some sort of belief system on their graduate students."

But Dr. [Eugenie] Scott, a former professor of physical anthropology at the University of Colorado [and executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a private group on the front line of the battle for the teaching of evolution], said in an interview that graduate admissions committees were entitled to consider the difficulties that would arise from admitting a doctoral candidate with views "so at variance with what we consider standard science." She said such students "would require so much remedial instruction it would not be worth my time."

That is not religious discrimination, she added, it is discrimination "on the basis of science."

That last excerpt doesn't include all of the professors she spoke with, but it gives you a taste. Rather than painting one side as anti-religious extremists or the other as evangelical yokel sympathizers, Dean gives you real humans with real ideas. Not everyone agrees, but they have the opportunity to share their views. If only academia were as welcoming to opposing views as Dean's article!

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