ADVERTISEMENT
Doing Good Science

Doing Good Science

Building knowledge, training new scientists, sharing a world.

Is being a good scientist a matter of what you do or of what you feel in your heart?

|

If the question posed in the title of the post seems to you to have an obvious answer, sit tight while I offer a situation in which it might be less obvious.

We recently discussed philosopher Karl Popper's efforts to find the line of demarcation between science and pseudo-science. In that discussion, one of the things you may have noticed is that Popper's story is as much about a distinctive scientific attitude as it is about the details of scientific methodology. I wrote:

Popper has this picture of the scientific attitude that involves taking risks: making bold claims, then gathering all the evidence you can think of that might knock them down. If they stand up to your attempts to falsify them, the claims are still in play. But, you keep that hard-headed attitude and keep you eyes open for further evidence that could falsify the claims. If you decide not to watch for such evidence — deciding, in effect, that because the claim hasn’t been falsified in however many attempts you’ve made to falsify it, it must be true — you’ve crossed the line to pseudo-science.

And, my sense from scientists is that Popper's description of their characteristic attitude is what they like best about his account. Hardly any scientist goes into the lab Monday morning with the firm intention of trying (yet again) to falsify the central hypotheses which she and the other scientists in her field have been using successfully (to predict and to explain and to create new phenomena) for years. Hardly any scientist will toss out hypotheses on the basis of a single experimental result that does not match the predictions of the hypotheses. But scientists agree that when they're following the better angels of their scientific nature, their eyes are open to evidence that might conflict with even their most trusted hypotheses, and they are ready to kiss those hypotheses goodbye if the facts in the world line up against them.

An attitude is something that's in your heart.

Certainly, an attitude may exert a strong influence on what you do, but if having the right attitude is something that matters to us over and above doing the right thing, we can ask why that is. My best hunch is that an attitude may act as a robust driver of behavior -- in other words, having the right attitude may be a reliable mechanism that gets you to do the right thing, at least more than you might in the absence of that attitude.

So, what should we say about a scientist who appears to practice the methodology as he should, but who reveals himself as having something else in his heart?

This question came up back in 2007, when the New York Times reported on the curious case of Marcus R. Ross. Ross had written and defended an "impeccable" dissertation on the abundance and spread of marine reptiles called mosasaurs which (as his dissertation noted) vanished about 65 million years ago, earning a Ph.D. in geosciences from the University of Rhode Island. Then, he accepted a faculty position at Liberty University, where he is an Assistant Director of the Center for Creation Studies.

Ross is a young earth creationist, and as such believes that the earth is no older than 10,000 years. He was a young earth creationist when he wrote the impeccable dissertation in which he noted the disappearance of mosasaurs about 65 millions years ago. Indeed, he was a young earth creationist when he applied to the geosciences Ph.D. program at the University of Rhode Island, and did not conceal this information from the admissions committee.

Some details from the New York Times article:

For him, Dr. 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.”

He likened his situation to that of a socialist studying economics in a department with a supply-side bent. “People hold all sorts of opinions different from the department in which they graduate,” he said. “What’s that to anybody else?” ...

In theory, scientists look to nature for answers to questions about nature, and test those answers with experiment and observation. For Biblical literalists, Scripture is the final authority. As a creationist raised in an evangelical household and a paleontologist who said he was “just captivated” as a child by dinosaurs and fossils, Dr. Ross embodies conflicts between these two approaches. The conflicts arise often these days, particularly as people debate the teaching of evolution. ...

In a telephone interview, Dr. Ross said his goal in studying at secular institutions “was to acquire the training that would make me a good paleontologist, regardless of which paradigm I was using.” ...

He would not say whether he shared the view of some young earth creationists that flaws in paleontological dating techniques erroneously suggest that the fossils are far older than they really are.

Asked whether it was intellectually honest to write a dissertation so at odds with his religious views, he said: “I was working within a particular paradigm of earth history. I accepted that philosophy of science for the purpose of working with the people” at Rhode Island.

And though his dissertation repeatedly described events as occurring tens of millions of years ago, Dr. Ross added, “I did not imply or deny any endorsement of the dates.”

Ross pursued an education that gave him detailed knowledge of the theories the geoscience community uses, the questions geoscientists take to be interesting ones to pursue, the methods they use to make observations, to analyze data, and to draw inferences. He showed sufficient mastery of the "paleontological paradigm" that he was able to use it to build an additional piece of knowledge (the work contained in his dissertation) that was judged a contribution to his scientific community.

But, if he believed in his heart that the earth was thousands, not millions, of years old as he built this piece of knowledge, was he really a part of that scientific community? Was he essentially lying in his interactions with its members?

It looks like Ross saw his dissertation as an exercise in presenting the inferences one could draw from the available data using the recognized methods of geoscience. In other words, here's what we would conclude if all the assumptions about the age of the earth, deposition of fossils, isotope dating methods, etc., were true. His caginess about the dates in the interview quoted above, and his professed belief in young earth creationism, suggest that Ross thinks at least some of these scientific assumptions are false.

However, assuming his rejection of the scientific assumptions flows primarily from his commitments as a young earth creationist, the rejection of the claims other geoscientists agree on is based in religious reasons, not scientific reasons. If there were scientific reasons to doubt these assumptions, it seems like examining those could only lead to a stronger body of knowledge in geosciences, and that Ross could have contributed to the field by making such an examination the focus of his doctoral research.

Is it an obligation for a scientist who has concerns about the goodness of an assumption on which people in his field rest their inferences to voice that concern? Is it an obligation for that scientist to gather data to test that hypothesis, or to work out an alternative hypothesis that is better supported by the data? Or is it OK to keep your doubts to your self and just use the inferential machinery everyone else is using?

Maybe people will answer this differently if the scientist in question is planning an ongoing engagement with the other members of this field, or if he is just passing through on the way to somewhere else. More on this in just a moment.

Here's a shorter version of my question about the scientist's obligations here: Does intellectual honesty in scientific knowledge-building just cover the way you use the inferential structure and the inputs (i.e., data) from which you draw your inferences? Or does it require disclosure of which assumptions you really accept (not just for the sake of argument, but in your heart of hearts) when drawing your inferences and which you are inclined to think are mistaken?

Does intellectual honesty require that you disclose as well the fact that you don't actually accept the inferential structure of science as a good way to build knowledge?

Because ultimately, a commitment to young earth creationism seems to be a commitment that the data cannot properly be used to infer any claims that are at odds with scripture.

And here's where scientists who might be willing to accept Ross's dissertation as a legitimate chunk of scientific knowledge may have serious concerns with Ross as a credible member of the scientific community. The dissertation may stand (or fall) as a scientific argument that presents a particular array of data, describes accepted inferential strategies (perhaps even defending some such strategies that are themselves new contributions), and uses these strategies to draw conclusions form the data. Even if the person who assembled this argument was wracked with doubts about all the central premises of the argument, the argument itself could still function perfectly well in the ongoing scientific discourse, and other scientists in the community could judge that argument on its strengths and weaknesses -- not on what might be in the heart of the person who constructed the argument.

But, if, ultimately, Marcus Ross rejects the "paleontological paradigm" -- and the possibility that the data could properly support inferences at odds with scripture -- can he function as a member of a community that makes, and evaluates, inferences using this paradigm?

Maybe he could, but his career trajectory makes it look like he has chosen not to be a member of the larger community of geoscientists. Instead, he has positioned himself as a member of a community of "creation scientists". Whether Ross's ongoing work on extinct marine reptiles is of any scientific interest to the scientific field that trained him will probably depend on the methodology and inferential structure on display in his manuscripts.

Because methodology and inferential structure are much easier to evaluate in the peer review process than what is in the author's heart.

* * * * *

If you enjoyed this post, consider contributing a few bucks to a project in my Giving Page in the Science Bloggers for Students 2011 challenge. Supporting science education in public school classrooms will help young people get a better handle on what kind of attitude and methodology makes science science -- and on all the cool things science can show us about our world.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

EVERY ISSUE
EVERY YEAR
1845-PRESENT

Get All-Access Digital + Print >

X

Email this Article

X