A week ago, a colleague pointed me to this New York Times article about Marcus Ross. Ross is an individual whom I personally have a hard time respecting, given what he's done. He's a Young-Earth Creationist who has managed to get a PhD in geosciences studying a species that vanished 65 million years ago... and all along maintaining as if he believed what he was doing.
This has been written about elsewhere in the blogosphere; I'll just point you to Janet's blog entry on the matter, and you can jump forward from there.
Here's my take on the matter: Ross is not intellectually honest, at least not given the ground assumptions that make science worth doing.
One of my hobbies is role-playing games. If I'm going to play an RPG, I learn the rules and mechanics of the system. Not because I really believe that anything in the world works anything like (say) the magic system of a game I'm playing, but so that I'll be able to play the game. I'll be able to speak the same language as the other players, understand how things will proceed, understand what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, and generally know enough of the ground rules to have a good time.
This, it seems, is the approach that Ross took to science. He learned the rules and played the game, but didn't believe that it was any more than a game.
As a scientist, I think that what I'm doing is real. We're not just playing games. I think that there is a real nature out there, a real Universe that may be understood, and that what we're trying to do is understand that Universe. We're not just operating within some "paradigm" -- fancy language for saying that we're playing the rules of some arbitrary game that we've set up. If that's all that we were doing, then there should be little or no public funding for science. However, the long and amazingly good track record of science in making things work make it very clear that what we're doing when we're doing science is very different from what we're doing when we're playing roleplaying games.
Yet, Ross thinks he's just playing a game, and he learned the rules well enough to get a PhD out of this.
This does not make me happy.
Now, let me step back and play devil's advocate (only to step forward again and point out that I think that my devil's advocate position is just a straw man). All the time in science we have to behave as if we believe something is true, even though deep down we don't believe it really is true. Here's a concrete example: in Physics, we have two very excellent, very well-tested fundamental theories. For gravity, there is General Relativity (GR). For everything else, there is Quantum Mechanics (QM). Unfortunately, the two are inconsistent; if you try to do quantum mechanics where gravity is significant, you get nonsensical results.
This means that GR and QM can't both be right. And, yet, we soldier on, using GR every day to do gravity calculations, even though it probably isn't completely correct. We learn the rules and play the game so that we can get the results out.
Is this not the same thing?
Here's the difference: although we know that either GR or QM isn't the most fundamental description of reality-- most physicists assume it will be GR, rather than QM, that needs to get modified-- we do believe, and indeed know, that GR is an excellent approximation to what is going on for a wide range of situations. GR may not be "The Truth," but it does work for predicting the orbit of Mercury or the gravitational lensing of light around a cluster of galaxies. And here's where it is different from what Ross is doing. Ross is merrily going forth playing the game of science while assuming disbelieving the theories he's working with at a level that would render his answers nonsensical. GR may not be the fundamental truth, but we really believe that there is mass there when gravitational lensing measurements tell us that it is there. Ross, meanwhile, doesn't believe the ages he measures when he's working in his lab.
Ross is not intellectually honest. To be intellectually honest is to admit that what you're doing is an approximation, but still a useful one. To keep doing it and carry on getting a PhD when you believe that what you're doing is a completely false approximation is... well, Janet said it best. It's lying.
To Ross, science is just another "paradigm" that lets people have intellectual sounding discussions. Great. Bully for him. I wonder how he explains that we were able to come up with things like the wheel, the lever, the light bulb, the transistor, and so forth... but no matter. Let's not try to get so down to brass tacks. He thinks he's playing an intellectual game, indulging in mental masturbation, and that's it. He's got to-- otherwise, in studying science and seeing how well it works, he would have had to question and ultimately discard his world view that suggests that it's at all reasonable to literally interpret scripture. Since he didn't, he lied just as assuredly as Kim Philby was lying when he claimed to be working for British Intelligence.
What's more, people like Ross really piss me off because it adds fuel to the fire of the radical atheists who say that anybody religious who is a scientist is lying, is compartmentalizing and pretending to believe science when they really don't. That's not true, but Ross is a poster boy for their arguments. Assuredly it does happen-- Ross makes that clear. But just as a cold spell makes it difficult to argue that global warming is happening, jerks like Ross make it difficult to argue that one can be intellectually honest, a scientist, and not an atheist, all at the same time.
(Note: this post was copied from my blog's former location.