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Methodology versus beliefs: What did Marcus Ross do wrong?

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We've been discussing whether good science has more to do with the methodology you use or with what you believe, and considering the particular case of Ph.D. geoscientist and young earth creationist Marcus Ross (here and here). At least some of the responses to these two posts seem to offer the view that: (1) of course what makes for a reliable piece of scientific knowledge is the methodology used to produce it (and especially to check it for error), but (2) the very fact that Marcus Ross is committed to young earth creationism, which means among other things that he is committed to the belief that the earth is not more than 10,000 years old, is a fatal blow to his scientific credibility as a geoscientist.

Either this boils down to claiming that having young earth creationist beliefs makes it impossible to use scientific methodology and generate a reliable piece of knowledge (even though Ross seems to have done just that in writing his dissertation), or perhaps to claiming instead that a person who holds young earth creationist beliefs and also uses standard scientific methodology to generate bits of scientific knowledge must have some ulterior motive for generating them. In this latter case, I take it the worry is not with the respectability of the product (i.e., the scientific knowledge claims), nor of the process (i.e., the standard sorts of evidence or inferential machinery being used to support the scientific knowledge claims), but rather of the producer (i.e., the person going through all the scientific motions yet still believing in young earth creationism).

I think it's worth examining the general unease and trying to be more precise about what people think Marcus Ross might be doing wrong here. However, let the record reflect that I have not been surveilling Marcus Ross -- not sitting in on the classes he teaches, not tracking down and reading his scientific publications, not following him to geological meetings or church or the supermarket. What this means is that we're going to be examining hypotheticals here, rather than scads of empirical facts about what Marcus Ross actually does.

Possibility 1: Ross is using his geoscience Ph.D. to gain unwarranted increase in credibility for young earth creationist beliefs.

Ross teaches geology at Liberty University. Part of this teaching seems to involve setting out the kinds of theories, evidence, and inferential machinery (including accepted dating methods and the evidential support for them) that you'd expect students to learn in a geology class in a secular university. Part of it also seems to involve laying out the details of young earth creationism (which is not accepted as scientific by the scientists who make up the field of geoscience), the claims it supports, and on what evidential basis. Obviously, the claims of young earth creationism are bolstered by quite different evidence and a quite distinct (religious) inferential structure.

One approach to this pedagogy would be to bring out the important differences, both in the conclusions of geology and of young earth creationism and in the recognized rules for drawing, testing, and supporting conclusions between the two. Indeed, Ross's comments make it sound like this is the approach he takes:

In my classes here at Liberty University I introduce my students to the reasons why geologists 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.

If Ross is actually making it clear how scientific inference differs from faith-based claims, then is should be clear to any of his students who are paying attention that the science Ross studied in graduate school does not support his young earth creationism. Rather, the science supports the scientific inference. His faith supports young earth creationism. The two are different.

If, on the other hand, Ross were to mischaracterize the theories, evidence, and inferential machinery of geoscience in his classes, that would be bad. It would amount to lying about the nature of geoscience (and perhaps also of science more broadly).

In the same way, if Ross were to claim that the body of geological knowledge, or the methods of geoscience, or the empirical evidence recognized by geoscientists lent scientific support to the claims of young earth creationism, that would also be lying.

Ross (and his students) might still accept young earth creationism, but they would be doing so on religious rather than scientific grounds -- something that a careful study of geoscience and its methods should make clear. If anything, such a study should underline that the rules for the scientific credibility of a claim are orthogonal to the rules for the religious credibility of a claim.

Possibility 2: Ross doesn't intend to use his geoscience Ph.D. to gain unwarranted increase in credibility for young earth creationist beliefs, but it has that effect on his audience anyway.

You might worry that Marcus Ross's status as a Ph.D. geoscientist lends extra credibility to all the beliefs he voices -- at least when those beliefs are judged by an audience of undergraduates who are enamored by Ph.D.s. That's a hard degree to get, after all, and you have to be really smart to get one, right? And, smart people (especially those certified to be Ph.D.-smart by Ph.D. granting institutions) have more credible beliefs than everyone else, right?

If Ross's students are making this sort of judgment about his credibility -- and they might well be -- it's a silly judgment to make. It would be akin to assuming that my Ph.D. in chemistry would make me a more credible commentator on the theories of Descartes or Husserl. Let me assure you, it does not! (That's why I spent six additional years of my life in graduate school developing the expertise relevant for work in philosophy.)

Indeed, the kind of extra credibility young earth creationism might gain in the minds of undergraduates by this route speaks more to a lack of critical thinking on the part of the undergraduates than it does to any dishonesty on Ross's part. It also makes me yearn for the days of robust teen rebellion and reflexive mistrust of anyone over 30.

We should be fair, though, and recognize that it's not just college students who can be dazzled by an advanced degree. Plenty of grown-ups in the larger society have the same reaction. Uncritically accepting the authority of the Ph.D. to speak on matters beyond the tether of his expertise is asking to be sold snake oil.

In light of the increased authority non-scientists seem to grant those with scientific training even outside the areas of their scientific expertise, it might be reasonable to ask scientists to be explicit about when they are speaking as scientists and when they are speaking as people with no special authority (or, perhaps, with authority that has some source other than scientific training). But, if we think Marcus Ross has an obligation to note that his scientific training does not support his views in the realm of young earth creationism, we probably ought to hold other scientists to the same obligation when they speak of matters beyond their scientific expertise. Fair is fair.

Possibility 3: Ross is using his engagement with the community of geoscientists to make it appear to outsiders as though his young earth creationist views are scientifically respectable, even though he knows they aren't.

This is a possibility raised by Donald Prothero's account of "stealth creationism" at meetings of the Geological Society of America (GSA). Prothero writes:

Most of the time when I attend the meetings, there are plenty of controversial topics and great debates going on within the geological community, so the profession does not suppress unorthodox opinions or play political games. This is the way it should be in any genuine scientific discipline. I’ve seen amazingly confrontational knock-down-drag-out sessions about particularly hotly debated ideas, but always conducted in a spirit of honest scientific exchange and always hewing to rules of science and naturalism. To get on the meeting program, scientists must propose to organize sessions around particular themes, along with field trips to geologically interesting sites within driving distance of the convention city, and the GSA host committee reads and approves these proposals. But every once in a while, I see a poster title and abstract with something suspicious about it. When I check the authors, they turn out to be Young-Earth Creationists (YEC) who claim the earth is only 6000 years old and all of geology can be explained by Noah’s flood. When I visit the poster session, it’s usually mobbed by real geologists giving the YECs a real grilling, even though the poster is ostensibly about some reasonable geologic topic, like polystrate trees in Yellowstone, and there is no overt mention of Noah’s flood in the poster. But the 2010 meeting last year in Denver took the cake: there was a whole field trip run by YECs who did not identify their agenda, and pretended that they were doing conventional geology—until you read between the lines.

Marcus Ross was one of the leaders of the field trip in question, as was Steve Austin of the Institute for Creation Research. Prothero quotes his colleague Steve Newton's account of this GSA meeting field trip:

Through the entire trip, the leaders never identified themselves as YECs or openly advocated Noah’s flood or a 6000-year-old earth. Instead, the entire trip was filled with stops at outcrops where the leaders emphasized the possible evidence for sudden deposition of the strata at Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs, without stating explicitly that they believed this sudden deposition was Noah’s flood in action. (There are LOTS of instances of local rapid and sudden deposition of strata in real geology, but they are local and clearly cannot be linked to any global flood). As Newton described it:

Furthermore, the field trip leaders were careful not to make overt creationist references. If the 50 or so field trip participants did not know the subtext and weren’t familiar with the field trip leaders, it’s quite possible that they never realized that the leaders endorsed geologic interpretations completely at odds with the scientific community. Even the GSA Sedimentary Geology Division had initially signed on as a sponsor of the trip (though they backed out once they learned the views of the trip leaders).

But the leaders’ Young-Earth Creationist views were apparent in rhetorical subtleties. For example, when Austin referred to Cambrian outcrops, he described them as rocks that are “called Cambrian.” It’s an odd phrasing, allowing use of the proper geologic term while subtly denying its implications. In one instance, when Austin was asked by a trip attendee about the age of a rock unit, he responded somewhat cryptically, “Wherever you want to go there.” Such phrasing was telling, if you knew what to listen for.

Subtext about the age of formations was a big part of the Young-Earth Creationist rhetoric on the trip. As we moved on to each field trip stop, a narrative began to emerge: the creationist concept of Noah’s Flood as explanation for the outcrops. Although no one uttered the words “Noachian Flood,” the guides’ descriptions of the geology were revealing and rather coy. For example, at the first stop—a trail off Highway 24 near Manitou Spring—Austin stated that the configuration of the units was “the same over North America,” and had been formed by a massive marine transgression. “Whatever submerged the continent,” Austin went on, it must have been huge in scale.

Here, a charitable reading of the field trip might be that the believers in geology were taking in the sights and interpreting the evidence with the (scientific) inferential machinery of geology, while the young earth creationists were taking in the very same sights and interpreting the evidence with the (religious) inferential machinery of young earth creationism. But, Prothero argues that there's more than this going on:

Sadly, the real problem here is that YEC “geologists” come back from this meeting falsely bragging that their “research” was enthusiastically received, and that they “converted” a lot of people to their unscientific views. As Newton pointed out, they will crow in their publicity that they are attending regular professional meetings and presenting their research successfully. For those who don’t know any better, it sounds to the YEC audience like they are conventional geologists doing real research and that they deserve to be taken seriously as geologists—even though every aspect of their geology is patently false (see Chapter 3 in my 2007 Evolution book). And so, once more the dishonesty of the YEC takes advantage of the openness and freedom of the scientific community to exploit it to their own ends, and abuse the privilege of open communication to push anti-scientific nonsense on the general population that doesn’t know the difference.

Prothero notes (as does Marcus Ross in his comments on this blog) that the research by young earth creationists that is well received by the geological community is completely conventional, using only the inferential machinery of geoscience and making no use of the assumptions of young earth creationism. But presenting work (or leading a field trip) with a young earth creationist subtext (i.e., possibly these observations can be interpreted as evidence of a really big flood of some kind ...) to an audience of geologists, and then spinning a lack of loud objections to a conclusion you didn't explicitly present as if it were endorsement of that conclusion by the geologists is a dishonest move.

Honest engagement with a scientific community means putting your evidential and methodological cards on the table. It means, if you want to know whether other scientists would endorse (or even accept as not-totally-implausible) a particular conclusion, you put that particular conclusion out there for their examination. All you can reasonably conclude from the fact that other scientists didn't shoot down a conclusion that you never openly stated is that those other scientists did not read your mind.

Possibility 4: It's wrong for Ross to maintain his young earth creationist beliefs after the thorough exposure to scientific theories, evidence, and methodology that he received in his graduate training in geosciences.

Learning to be a scientist means, among other things, learning scientific patterns of thought, scientific standards for evaluating knowledge claims, and scientific methods for generating and testing new knowledge claims. Such immersion in the tribe of science and in the activity of scientific research, some might argue, should have driven the young earth creationist beliefs right out of Marcus Ross's head.

Maybe we could reasonably expect this outcome if his young earth creationist beliefs depended on the same kind of evidence and inferential machinery as do scientific claims. However, they do not. Young earth creationist claims are not scientific claims, but faith-based claims. Young earth creationism sets itself apart from the inferential structure of science -- if its adherents are persuaded that a claim is credible on the basis of faith (e.g., in a particular reading of scriptures), then no arrangement of empirical evidence could be sufficient to reliably undermine that adherence.

To be sure, this means that a scientist like Marcus Ross who is also a young earth creationist has non-scientific beliefs in his head. But, if we're going to assert that scientific training ought, when done right, to purge the trainee of all non-scientific beliefs, then there is precious little evidence that scientific training is being done right anywhere.

There are quite a lot of scientists with non-scientific beliefs that persist. They have beliefs about who would be the best candidate to vote for in a presidential election, about what movie will be most entertaining, about what entree at the restaurant will be most delicious and nutritious. They have beliefs about whether the people they care for also care for them, and about whether their years of toil on particular research questions will make the world a better place (or, more modestly, whether they will have been personally fulfilling). Many of these beliefs are hunches, no better supported by the available empirical evidence than are the beliefs routinely formed by non-scientists.

This is not to say that the evidence necessarily argues against holding these beliefs. Rather, the available evidence may be so sparse as to be inadequate to support or undermine the belief. Still, scientific training does not prevent the person so trained from forming beliefs in these instances -- and this may be useful, especially since there are situations where sitting on the fence waiting for decisive evidence is not the best call. (Surely we have more complete evidence about what kind of president Richard M. Nixon would make now than was available in November 1968, but it's too late for us to use that evidence to vote in the 1968 presidential election.)

If harboring non-scientfic beliefs is a crime, we'd be hard pressed to find a single member of the tribe of science who is not at least a little guilty.

Maybe it's more reasonable to hold scientists accountable to recognize which of their beliefs are well supported by empirical evidence and which are not. A bit of reflection is probably sufficient to help scientists sort out the scientific beliefs from the non-scientific beliefs. And, to the extent that Marcus Ross wants to be a practicing member of the tribe of science (or even an intellectually honest outsider with enough scientific training that he ought to be able to tell the difference), it's just as reasonable to hold him accountable for recognizing which sort of beliefs constitute his young earth creationism.

Being able to tell the difference between scientific and non-scientific beliefs is not only a more attainable goal for human scientists than having only scientific beliefs, but it is a much easier standard for the tribe of science to police, since it involves examining what kinds of claims a person asserts as backed by the science -- something other scientists can check by examining evidence and arguments -- rather than examining what's in a person's head.

These possibilities strike me as the most likely candidates for what's bugging science-minded people about Marcus Ross. If I've missed what's bugging you about him, please make your case in the comments.

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

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