Termites in the Groves of Academe
February 12, 2007
This story about a young earth creationist who managed to score a doctorate in geosciences from the University of Rhode Island raises two entirely different sets of thorny questions. The first set concerns the character of Marcus Ross, who believes the biblical account of creation is literally true (which of the two stories in Genesis he subscribes to is not specified) and that the Earth is at most only 10,000 years old, but managed to play it straight enough to finish a scientifically credible paper about the spread of mosasaurs about 35 million years ago. So, is Dr. Ross an accomplished liar and fraud? Is it possible to get a degree in an area of science you personally consider a Satanic lie without raising damning questions about your own ethics?
It’s revealing that Ross immediately went to teach at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, which makes belief in young earth creationism a requirement for employment. Apparently there are a number of other creationists who have managed the similar feat of getting respectable academic credentials by doing work that directly contradicts what they believe. One was even a student of the late Stephen Jay Gould, the bete noire of creationists, which makes me wish the old paleontologist could be contacted for his views via ouija board.
The other set of questions is for the other geosciences students at the University of Rhode Island. If I were in their shoes, I would seriously consider shifting to another university program. If Ross did the work then Ross deserves the degree, no doubt about that. But can there also be any doubt that his doctorate is simply another step in the creationist drive to robe anti-intellectual dogma in the garments of scholarship? Will any student Ross mentors be able to evade the suspicion that he is simply another Trojan horse built to smuggle religious frauds into respectable science? And would any other student attending the University of Rhode Island want to be associated with the university that helped promote religious quacks?
Back in my bright college days, I took a class that started with the teacher, Richard Hughes, asking for a show of hands on how many people thought the truth of a situation could never really be determined. Quite a few hands went up, which shocked me — if you really believe that truth is beyond human grasp, then what is there about journalism that would be remotely attractive to you? Why be a journalist if you don’t agree with the very basis of journalism?
But the comparison breaks down: journalism is not a heavily credentialed field. It’s hard to imagine a comparison with any other branch of academe. It would be one thing if a student from the Milton Friedman school of economics took a class in Marxist theory simply to test his beliefs against an opposing school of thought. That would be honorable, even admirable. But what would we make of that student if he went on to complete his doctorate in Marxist theory?
The comparison breaks down because scientific inquiry is predicated on rigorous intellectual honesty, and Marcus Ross, while observing the proper forms, has apparently tossed out the core meaning of the field. In science, one forms a hypothesis, tests it repeatedly, then goes on to form a theory based on the available evidence. Creationism cannot be science because by its very nature it meets none of the scientific norms. You can’t call upon the deity to replicate results in the field. Had Ross tried to earn a doctorate on the terms of his own beliefs, he would have been laughed out of the university. His is a doctorate in dissembling, not science.
Dr. Marcus Ross has mastered the trappings of science, but he will never be a scientist. His doctorate is real enough, but it will be used to promote unreality. Ross and his fellows are termites in the groves of academe, devouring their field from within. If the creationists cannot attain respectability by rising to meet the standards of science, they will work to lower the standards.
Their victory will be a hollow one, because real science will continue elsewhere even as they work to distort it here. If the religious frauds succeed in packing the halls of universities with their brethren, then America will be the loser as other countries take the leadership role America once held. All because a small sect of believers cannot bear to see their notions of reality challenged in any way. The egotism and arrogance of these people is astonishing to me.