Monday, February 12, 2007

Litmus ideology and science

I came across an interesting article in the NYTimes today. In summary, it's about a man who got a PhD in geoscience, writing a dissertation about the spread of mosasaurs, which went extinct 65 million years ago. The man also happens to be a young Earth creationist, believing that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, and was created according to accounting in Genesis.

I have a few reactions to this article, which are probably not well organized at the moment, but which I feel like writing about right now anyway.

One, I find it absurd that people feel he shouldn't have gotten the degree simply because he doesn't completely believe it. (For example: "His creationism aroused “some concern by faculty members there, and disagreements,” he recalled, and there were those who argued that his religious beliefs should bar him from earning an advanced degree in paleontology.") If his work is a valid contribution to the field, then whether he disagrees with his own work due to religious reasons is irrelevant. Universities should not be in the job of making students pass an ideological litmus test. Educating about the science of evolution is not brainwashing. As long as the students understand the arguments and predictions therein, that's all that the university can really demand that they know of a given theory. Greater demands can be placed on the details of how their dissertation intersects with a theory, but disputing a theory is not sufficient cause to refuse a degree.

At the same time, I do draw a distinction between that and another related topic brought up in another paragraph:

Michael L. Dini, a professor of biology education at Texas Tech University, goes even further. In 2003, he was threatened with a federal investigation when students complained that he would not write letters of recommendation for graduate study for anyone who would not offer “a scientific answer” to questions about how the human species originated.

What sort of federal investigation would be at all reasonable? Letters of recommendation are personal, subjective evaluations of students. Any professor can hold any standard (s)he wants to write such a letter. If one of my professors felt that I'd be unqualified for graduate work because I'm a white male and there are too many of those in grad school already, that's his/her right. I may disagree, but I have no federal right to a letter of recommendation.

On the other hand, I do find at least one of the statements attributed to this man to be dishonest. ("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.”") Bull. It's in your dissertation thesis. If you don't refute it there, or at the very least clearly distance yourself from it by saying things like "Smith et al argue that these fossils are from..." or "One interpretation is that...", you are indeed implying endorsement of the statement.

I know that, long-term, I will have students in my evolution courses who disagree with evolution. For the most part, I must admit that I believe this is caused by some combination of misinformation about the reality of the biological arguments about evolution and a certain degree of doublethink on the part of the students. But it's not my place to dictate what they believe. My job is to teach the information and evaluate their understanding of it and ability to apply it. If they can do that but choose not to believe it--because they have alternate beliefs, or put less faith in scientific methodology than they do in appeals to other authorities, that in no way makes them less deserving of the mark they've earned.

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