Doing Good Science

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Methodology versus beliefs: a comment from Marcus Ross.


Last week, we considered whether good science has more to do with what you do or with what you believe, exploring this issue using the case of Marcus Ross, a Ph.D. geoscientist and young earth creationist. Dr. Ross sent me a response to this post via email. With his permission, I'm sharing that email here:

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Hello Janet,

Thank you for your thoughtful piece yesterday in Scientific American. It has been quite a while since the New York Times piece in 2007, so I was surprised to it revisited. And I found your analysis of the events of my Ph.D. work far more considerate than many of the earlier reactions. It’s nice not to be referred to as a trained parrot, a textbook case of cognitive dissonance, or a variety of unprintable words!

This paragraph from your piece sums things up quite nicely:

“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…”

This is a good sketch of what I did, not only for the Ph.D., but for all of my geological education (which was conducted entirely at non-creationist, state schools; and like at URI, at each location I made it known to my advisors that I was a young-Earth creationist). I always felt that, since I was attempting to earn a degree from an institution which adhered to an ancient Earth and evolutionary explanations of life’s diversity, that I must show myself proficient in these areas.

One clarification which stems from Cornelia Dean’s original article: I never referred to a “paleontological paradigm”. That term is one she invented from her interview of me, but one I never introduced. Indeed, the term actually makes very little sense (does anyone speak of a microbiology paradigm?). In speaking with my students, I refer to the old-Earth and evolutionary paradigms, and I make sure to distinguish the two as well.

One issue that you bring up is whether I’ve essentially given up on interaction with the geological community, especially given my position at Liberty University. Let me assure you that such is not the case. In both print and in annual meetings, I do what I can to contribute to, and interact with, current geological discussions. My publication record is not extensive, but it includes papers in a handful of conventional geological journals, including recent geological papers in 2009 and 2010 and co-leading a field trip at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America (our largest professional association) last year with four other creation geologists. Even Steven Newton of the NCSE has written, more or less, charitably of my, and my creationist colleagues’, continuing interactions at society meetings over the past few years.

Nevertheless, despite my best attempts, and because of some of my old-Earth and evolutionary colleagues’ attitudes towards me, the road of interaction has been bumpy. I have had chapters of my (decidedly conventional) dissertation rejected from journals and special publications for no other reason than the fact that I am a creationist, sometimes in very explicit terms. Presentations at society meetings are viewed with deep suspicion that I will make creationist arguments (or even preach!) once given the lectern. I have, on two occasions, been “outed” as a creationist following my own presentation by scientists who wished to score points with their students and peers, and do damage to my reputation. But having been open about being a creationist my whole career usually blunts such shoddy attempts at a “gotcha” moment. The job description for my employment was gleefully mocked at a society presentation while I was in attendance. And this is from the more legitimate forms of scientific dialogue. Googling my name gets really ugly, really fast.

But such is no major deterrent to me, though it does impede my attempts to publish in conventional literature, for example. I value the contributions of my colleagues, and have enjoyed many constructive interactions, despite the occasional run-in with less pleasant sorts. In my classes here at Liberty University I introduce my students to the reasons why geologist think the Earth is ancient, or why various organisms are viewed as strong evidence for evolution. I do this so that they understand that these arguments are well thought-out, and to teach them to respect the ideas of those with whom they disagree. And I was grateful for your blog post because, unlike many others, you respect my position enough to treat it with courtesy. Thank you.



Marcus R. Ross, Ph.D. 

Associate Professor of Geology

Dept. of Biology and Chemistry

Liberty University

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

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