Science is Not Just a Game

Feb 22 2007 Published by under Science & Religion

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?

Well, no.

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.

32 responses so far

  • J-Dog says:

    Congratulations on the new digs! New digs, same old lying for Jeebus Creos...

  • Scott Belyea says:

    I agree with what you say, but I suggest (gently) that you're avoiding the question.
    Would you have denied him the degree? And if so, on what grounds?
    And given that he has the degree, would you take it away? And again, on what grounds?
    It's understandable to be indignant to the point of outrage, but would would you *do*?

  • Stew says:

    I knew someone who did pretty much the same as Mr. Ross. While at university I rented a room for the summer semester from a group of devoted christians, and at the time the novelty of this living arrangement seemed fortuitous. I thought that this was a good way to meeting different people, being that most of my friends had left town for jobs or family. I found that one of them was just finishing up his veterinarian degree, so one day i ribbed him about the number of dogs and cats he would need to spay and neuter to cover the impressive debt he had surely accrued. His response was that it did not matter, because the degree he had obviously worked so hard to achieving, was but a means other than to practising veterinarian medicine as I was about to find out. He went on to explain to me how difficult it is for just anyone to get into certain countries without some sort of professional standing. I asked him what he was talking about, and to which he replied, getting into a country such as New Guinea to missionary to non-christians is frowned upon and extremely difficult, if not impossible, and that this degree would be his ticket to ride. I was taken aback not knowing what to say or do, I did not believe a christian could be so deceptive or lie to such an extent. You see I knew many people at the time who were desperately inured to becoming vets, some to a point that besides acquiring the Bsc. needed to apply to the vet program, they gained one or even more degrees while waiting for there chance to be accepted. These people wanted to be vets so badly, not for the sake of the degree alone but because of the absolute devotion they had to the care and welfare of animals. This is also an important aspect of what the admissions panel is looking for in a person, although not the only one, when choosing a candidate for the few spaces available. One friend, who was turned down twice, earned two extra degrees before being accepted, a testament to how discerning the admissions panel can be, at least for most of the time and how earnst his desire was to be a vet. Right now he is a vet in a small town in the Yukon, doing, you guest it, spay and neutering dogs and cats, and at times covering the cost out of his own pocket - no large animals that far north you see. The christian, I guess he is out there somewhere, covertly slipping in and out of countries that dont want him there, so that he can convert the heathens. My friend should be given a medal, infact the CBC did a story about him, calling him a hero of sorts, the only vet to be found in that neck of the woods. I learned much that summer about christians and not just from this one character that I lived with that summer. Others in the house where equally ignorant and foolish, one in particular whose faith, or lack of from what I could tell, was causing him great distress and pain. Mr. Ross is no suprise, his duplicity is noted as is the seeming ease by which he demonstrates it. That summer I became a radical atheist.

  • jtdub says:

    Sorry for the unrelated comment, but:
    Welcome to ScienceBlogs!
    Another physics and astronomy blog will be good for the mix.

  • Koray says:

    Welcome to SB.
    If Ross believes so strongly in the young earth, as a scientist he should have pursued that idea and tried to change our perception of reality. If there's anything in that discipline that clouds our judgment and lets us conclude that the earth is much older, he should have attacked that.
    But that would have been rational.

  • First of all, professor Knop, welcome to ScienceBlogs. I sincerely hope you like the new setting and location, which will entice me to read your blog more often.
    Yet, Ross thinks he's just playing a game, and he learned the rules well enough to get a PhD out of this.
    I think that you are giving him far too much credit. He's not just playing a game, he's working a scam. He went through the motions only so that he could then take his degree to the creationists and say "Hey! I have credentials, so you are justified in the awe you experience before me! EVOLUTION IS TEH FALSE!!!1one" He's the worst sort of con-artist.
    I liked your post up until this point:
    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.
    I think this is an absurd misrepresentation of what is actually argued. I don't think anyone has argued that Ross is the exact same thing as, say, Francis Collins. I myself have never claimed that a religious person can't do brilliant science. My only claim on the matter is that the coexistence of science and religion in the same mindset is the coexistence of partition, not mutual support and harmony. Ross is an example of that, but only a very extreme example. I would never say that all religious people are like Ross

  • Patness says:

    Congratu-f***in-lations on the move. Glad I can see another of my favorite blotters on SB.

  • Blaine says:

    Great to see you here in the collective! Welcome!
    Scienceblogs (and I) were in need of more of that physics kind of blogging.
    Cheers!

  • Mark C says:

    Let's look at this from another perspective: What does it say about the thought processes of someone who sees the evidence, learns the mechanisms, is taught the real theory (as opposed to the dime store creationist strawman version), and yet still clings to YEC?

  • llDayo says:

    Ed Brayton pointed me to this new blog. Allow me to be the first to comment on your new site! I too am interested in the universe outside of earth, even though I'm not very educated on the subject. I may not be a frequent commenter here, but I'll definitely be a frequent reader. Welcome!

  • David Heddle says:

    This is self-rightous crap. Ross was intellectually honest. There is no requirement in science that you affirm your premise, only that, once it is stated, you follow the scientific method, don't fabricate data, and don't misrepresent your analysis. Starting a problem from a premise you don't believe is actually rather commonplace. Have you never encountered: (Even granting this premise, one that I dispute, I can still demonstrate...) or ( I don't believe this premise, but I decided to run with it, maybe I'll convince myself I was wrong...)
    Ross's thesis was just as honest as your's--or I should say: your thesis could not have been more intellectually or scientifically honest than Ross's. His YEC views render him unfit as a scientist, unfit for employment at a non-YEC university, but he was perfectly honest in all ways.
    An example I used elsewhere: take the apocryphal Einstein who "didn't believe" quantum mechanics. Suppose, before Von Neumann, he recognized how to put the theory he didn't believe on firm mathematical footing. Suppose he even wrote: "I believe QM is garbage and unconnected to all physical reality, but mathematically it is kind of interesting, and here is how to put it on a firm foundation..."
    The scientific world would have welcomed his thesis, in spite of his incorrect dismissal of QM.
    If Peter Woit or another String Theory critic worked out an outstanding problem in String Theory, then he would get no due credit or would he have been intellectual dishonest because he actually thinks String Theory is so bad it is "not even wrong?" Nope, he'd get full credit in spite of his constant mocking of String Theory.
    The complaints about Ross, none of which also criticize the perfectly analogous case of Sam Harris who, wrote (in The End of Faith) that the Buddhist canon's understanding of the nature of consciousness far surpasses his own field of neural science (as well as psychology and cognitive science) are just garden variety bigotry. It is only because Ross has YEC views that gets people all aflutter with pious indignation---Harris's crackpot mysticism (and anything else, as far as I can tell) gets a free pass.
    Oh, btw, I'm looking forward to your blog posts.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Re: would I have given him the degree : I addressed this in the comments on one of Janet's blog postings.
    I guess I don't really like the answer, but the answer is yes. He's done what he needs to do, he's met the terms, he's demonstrated that he can play by the rules, so, yes, he should get the degree.
    But that still doesn't mean I have much personal respect for the individual. Once again, I do science, and most of us do science, because we're trying to understand the world. Ross did his science partly for fun (e.g. playing the game, he thought it was cool), but also to learn more about how science works so that presumably he can attack it later, and use his credentials to attack it. That makes him a serious jerk in my view, even if by the rules of our system he did earn and should be given the PhD-- and even if some of the science he did can contribute to and advance the field.
    -Rob

  • SLC says:

    Is Prof. Knop going to join the fun being indulged in by some of his fellow scientific bloggers and have at conservapedia?

  • Rob Knop says:

    Re: conservapedia, oh, maybe. There are lots of other things I feel I need to make fun of.
    Besides, I may need to come out of the closet at some point and admit to being a former Republican. (Nowadays, I suppose if I had to label myself, I'd call myself some sort of libertarian, although there are lots of things with that label that I really don't like. Call me a Howard-Dean-Republican.) I even voted for McCain once (it was a primary, and the other choice was Bush), so I am more likely to go all hand-wringing about McCain and his stupid DI institute speech. (About which I've read nothing in the last day; when was/is it? Gotta dig for that.) Of course, I went hand-wringing about McCain several years ago when he caved on this, that, and the other thing. I was very sad when he caved on the "Bush wants to torture" issue. I really thought he'd stand up to the Republican Bandwagon on that, but, alas, loyalty to group seems to be more important than integrity.
    -Rob

  • Jason I. says:

    Welcome to SB, Rob. Glad to have you posting here. You've provided many thoughtful and humorous comments on other blogs that I read.
    I've read many of the posts about Marcus Ross, and I've struggled with how I really feel about this situation. One take on it is that Ross obviously did the work well enough to earn the degree. His personal belief system wasn't (and shouldn't have been) considered. Another take is that if he truly believes in YEC, then his entire student career in attaining this degree could be perceived as a lie. What does that indicate about his career from here on out? What it comes down to, I guess, is really two separate issues: should he have been given the degree, and is he an intellectually honest person? As far as the degree, from everything I've read, the answer is yes. He earned it. Regarding his intellectual honesty, I was ready to accept that he could be considered intellectually honest until David's comment above triggered this question from me: In the face of all of the incontrovertible evidence he must have encountered in his studies, and the 100% complete lack of evidence supporting YEC, how in the hell can he still believe in YEC unless he is willing to completely ignore cold hard scientific facts in place of his faith? This, to me, disqualifies him as a reliable scientist, and puts him on a level of intellectual dishonesty that would cause most people to have a nervous breakdown.

  • It is only because Ross has YEC views that gets people all aflutter with pious indignation---Harris's crackpot mysticism (and anything else, as far as I can tell) gets a free pass.
    Harris has been bashed for this among atheists for a while now, where the hell have you been?

  • Jake says:

    Suppose he even wrote: "I believe QM is garbage and unconnected to all physical reality, but mathematically it is kind of interesting, and here is how to put it on a firm foundation..."
    You also alluded to String Theory. My opinion on why String Theory still gets as much funding as it does, without any experimental results to date, is because it's mathematically interesting and leads to new and interesting avenues in topology, etc. Whether it's physically correct or not is immaterial so far.
    And my opinion on this YEC guy getting a PhD is pretty much a non-opinion. I couldn't care less what this guy does with his life, and it's not like he's a doctor denying germ theory or something like that. No harm, no foul, and it's none of my business.

  • David Heddle says:

    Tyler,
    What's your point? I didn't say Harris wasn't bashed by atheists. I said those bashing Ross for being intellectually dishonest (given that his personal views are not aligned with his research premise) don't bash Harris for the same reason. Whether they bash him for other reasons is irrelevant.

  • I said those bashing Ross for being intellectually dishonest (given that his personal views are not aligned with his research premise) don't bash Harris for the same reason.
    That's because what Ross was did a deliberate act of con-artistry so that he could brandish his credentials to other YEC's and give them more solace in their utterly delusional beliefs. That's a few steps beyond simply having a personal view that is no isomorphic to your research premise. Harris is just an inconsistent skeptic, which is intellectually dishonest in it's own right but not as bad as Ross.

  • David Heddle says:

    Tyler,
    One hundred percent wrong. Ross is completely honest, saying I'm a YEC, but I'll assume an old earth premise to write a thesis because I want, for whatever reasons that are entirely my business, a PhD.--nothing dishonest about that, nothing at all. Harris, on the other hand is the fraud: rationality is everything, religion is bad, oh--but eastern mysticism is the cat's meow--better than science in understanding human consciousness.

  • Panya says:

    Re: the Ross issue, I'm going to stick with what I said on Rob's first blog -- if this guy can support, mentally, what appears to be "two internally consistent models of reality" -- what's the difference between that and a madman? I'd also like to point out that there's an assumption I'm seeing here (don't know about elsewhere) that Ross /is/, in fact, going to take his shiney degree and run like mad horses over to all the Creationists going "Lookit lookit now they have to take me/us seriously!" -- WE DON'T KNOW THIS TO BE FACT.
    But believing that makes it a hell of a lot easier to condemn him, now doesn't it?
    Personally I think he's a jerk and I don't see how he didn't implode, studying a, um, a /thing/ that, with lots of evidence, directly contradicts what he claims to believe in his personal life. But as Rob said, he played the game, learnt the rules, so what can you do? The trouble with rules and regs and bars of achievement is that people learn how to rig the system and there is nothing you can do about it.

  • Rob Knop says:

    I'd also like to point out that there's an assumption I'm seeing here (don't know about elsewhere) that Ross /is/, in fact, going to take his shiney degree and run like mad horses over to all the Creationists going "Lookit lookit now they have to take me/us seriously!" -- WE DON'T KNOW THIS TO BE FACT.
    True, we don't know he's going to do that-- although he is now teaching at Liberty University, and likes to talk about different "paradigms" and so forth.
    And, we've seen ample use of creationists with degrees before as a tactic that not only intelligent designers, but young-earthers use to dissemble their way into the appearance of a genuine scientific controversy over the age of the species/Earth/Unvierse. As such, it's not too much of a stretch to assume that it's likely to happen again with this guy.
    -Rob

  • Blake Stacey says:

    According to the folks at Pharyngula, Ross is teaching his Liberty U kids all about "the inexplicable gaping holes of the scientific religion". It's N-th hand evidence, so on the Internet it must be true!

  • Steve Watson says:

    David Heddle writes:

    One hundred percent wrong. Ross is completely honest, saying I'm a YEC, but I'll assume an old earth premise to write a thesis because I want, for whatever reasons that are entirely my business, a PhD.--nothing dishonest about that, nothing at all. Harris, on the other hand is the fraud: rationality is everything, religion is bad, oh--but eastern mysticism is the cat's meow--better than science in understanding human consciousness.

    Whoa, David. Let's review what's going on in the two cases:
    Ross wrote a dissertation which (while internally consistent) is from his own POV an elaborate fantasy -- an exotic form of science fiction, as it were (though he expects and hopes that his audience will believe it). Whether that rises to the level of "con-artistry", I can't say (I keep waffling in my own mind), but it certainly seems beyond the usual level of "what-if?" play that's a routine part of learning, research and argument.
    Now to Harris: Almost everything I know is what's on or between the covers of my copy of The End of Faith. On the outside, I read that he's pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Inside, he expresses skepticism about the physicalist view of mind. Yes, it occurs to me that there may be conflict there (in fact, it even occurred to me in connection with the Ross affair). However, I don't know there is a conflict -- "neuroscience" is pretty vague, and I would guess there's all sorts of stuff you could study that doesn't depend on any particular theory of mind (even religionists with a transcendental account of mind acknowledge that the brain is doing something important w.r.t mental functioning). The devil, as they say, is in the details.
    So: unless you know more about Harris' dissertation topic, and how it plays with his mysticism (in which case, please share it), you have not shown that it is in any way equivalent (or worse) than what Ross did. (Though I do hope his examining committee asks the same sort of hard questions that PZ or Moran would ask of Ross).
    And for the record: I am among those atheists (though by no means a notably weighty voice) who have criticized Harris for his special pleading on behalf of his more outre ideas (as well as some of his misdirected anti-religious tirades), both in blog-comment land, and in flesh-and-blood gatherings.

  • David Heddle says:

    Steve Watson,
    All I know of Harris is from his book, which I have read, and from articles such as this one:
    http://alternet.org/story/46196/
    So no, I don't know if his views on mysticism are in direct conflict with his research, such as is the case for Ross, but I would argue that whatever difference there may be is a matter of degree.
    And I do think that Ross is more honest (or perhaps, more self-consistent) than Harris. Ross doesn't claim to be anything he isn't, while Harris is the poster boy for rationalism while also into eastern spirituality.
    I also agree that the Ross case is not the usual "let's play the devil's advocate" strategy--but again, I think it is a matter of degree, not a substantive difference.
    That's the problem with analogies; they are rarely a perfect fit.
    I think the hypothetical case of Peter Woit stumbling upon or purposely discovering and publishing a solution to a longstanding String Theory problem is a pretty close fit--he routinely mocks String Theory--and yet I don't think his publishing such research would result in charges of con-artistry. In fact, I think people would be amused that someone who thinks String Theory is a joke would publish a well received String Theory paper. (Again, this is hypothetical.)
    The bottom line remains that science in general, let alone a thesis (the completion of which is neither necessary--except as a practicality--or sufficient to make one a scientist) has never demanded that the researcher absolutely affirm his assumptions--only that they are spelled out and rigorously respected via the scientific method.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Woit's objections to string theory are qualitatively different from creationists' objections to evolution.
    Woit claims that string theory isn't good science, that it's not living up to the empirical requirements of science -- i.e. making testing predictions and surviving those tests. However, even though I haven't read his book, I suspect he agrees (like many) that it's good math.
    Ross and the creationists are much different. Even though they say this, they aren't really arguing that conclusions of an old Universe are bad science. They are effectively arguing that the very foundation and methods of science themselves are fundamentally flawed. Making that argument is the only way to know anything about science and still conclude that the Universe is

  • Blake Stacey says:

    Woit showed up in the comments at The n-Category Cafe, so you can sample his most recent thoughts without having to pay for the privilege. (I could've sworn he had another comment in that thread which isn't there now, maybe zapped for civility concerns or because it diverged too wildly from the topic at hand. Eh, no way to tell now.)

  • David Heddle says:

    Rob,
    Yes if you try hard enough you can always make an "Oh, but that's different" argument. In this case it doesn't ring true.

  • Rob Knop says:

    David-- not to you, perhaps. In any event, your "this case is just like this other hypothetical case" analogy rings seriously false.

  • autumn says:

    Woit solving a problem in string theory would fall either into "solving a math problem applicable to pure mathmatics, and interesting on that level", or into "I have ridiculed this theory but now see a problem that can be solved more elegantly using it than other existing theories, and therefore have at least conditionally validated its use". The first is an abstraction having nothing to do with physics, while the second would demonstrate good scientific method. If Woit, hypothetically, were to defend the second in a doctorate examination, his previous views of the theory would very certainly be scrutinized and dissected by the examining commitee.
    Wouldn't they?

  • raj says:

    Rob Knop | February 26, 2007 03:01 PM
    Woit's objections to string theory are qualitatively different from creationists' objections to evolution.
    Woit claims that string theory isn't good science, that it's not living up to the empirical requirements of science -- i.e. making testing predictions and surviving those tests.
    You're correct, and I'd take it one step further. As far as I can tell, Woit's objection to string theory is that he objects to the fact that the string "theorists" (how "string theory" can amount to a theory without any evidence whatsoever is beyond me) have received a disproportionate amount of attention, in the press, in the literature, and, most importantly, in funding, in comparison to the results that they have produced. And, he's probably correct. And, given the limited resources available to scientific research, the string theorist fad is probably draining resources from other investigations that could probably be more productive.
    I recognize that there are a lot of fads in science, including physics, and string theory is one of them. As far as I can tell, they have not produced anything that can be tested. At least Einstein, when he published his seminal GR paper in 1915, was concrete enough to provide something against which his theory could be tested, and, moreover, suggested several methodologies by which his theory could be tested.
    As far as I can tell, string theorists have done none of that. As far as I can tell, they have produced nothing but squiggles on a white board (or on paper). Lots of equations. Maybe signifying something, maybe not. But they haven't been able to suggest anything by which anyone can tell whether the squiggles signify anything, as far as I can tell.

  • David Heddle says:

    autumn,

    If Woit, hypothetically, were to defend the second in a doctorate examination, his previous views of the theory would very certainly be scrutinized and dissected by the examining commitee.
    Wouldn't they?

    Asked about? Certainly. Scrutinized and dissected? Not in the sense I think you mean it. (Of course, this is just speculation.) If Woit solved an outstanding problem in ST for another PhD, questions of the nature: "but you don't really buy this String Theory stuff, do you?" would surely be asked,--but not as a basis for rejecting the thesis. More because it would be irresistible not to ask--just out of amusement or curiosity. He would pass his exam on the basis of the work he presented.