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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Peter McKnight on the Marcus Ross Issue

One week ago I commented on an opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun. Peter McKnight wrote in support of giving Marcus Ross a Ph.D. in geosciences. I disagreed (Peter McKnight of the Vancouver Sun Weighs in on the Marcus Ross Incident).

I sent Peter a link to my blog and he replied. We've exchanged emails. I then asked permission to post his original message to see what kind of feedback it gets here. Peter has just given permission so here is his letter.
Hi Larry,

Thanks for notifying me of this. It is a worthwhile discussion you're having, but I still don't agree with you.

You say there's plenty of evidence there is something wrong with Ross's science, but you fail to say what that evidence is. Indeed, what you're really saying is that there's something wrong with him - that is, with his belief.

This might be, but it doesn't mean there's anything wrong with his science or his understanding of science. You say doctoral students must understand basic concepts and ideas and think on their feet and defend their ideas etc. Where is the evidence that Ross failed to do so? I assume he did exactly that in his oral exam.

It seems that you want nothing less than Ross's assent to an old Earth theory, which is, of course, a matter of belief, not understanding. And rather than launching into a discussion of epistemic conditions for belief, let me just say that I, for example, understand intelligent design theory quite well I think, and yet I don't believe a word of it.

And one need not be a postmodern relativist or a fundamentalist Christian (which, I've argued for a long time, amount to the same thing) to refuse to accept that that scientific theories are literally true - if by true we mean correspondent with reality. There are, after all, pragmatist philosophies of science that suggest scientific theories are "true" in so far as they work, but that they aren't true in the sense most people give to that term. I assume you reject these philosophies of science, but surely you wouldn't deny a student a doctorate because he doesn't subscribe to the correspondence theory of truth.

Look, I think Ross is dishonest, but I don't know that for a fact. For all I know, maybe he really is a radical relativist, who believes science and religion present two incommensurable paradigms. But either way, he's doing enormous damage to his religion, and it was the point of my column to make that case.




  1. If Ross were to state or argue that the best efforts of science were insufficient to support an old earth as a scientific conclusion, then I would agree that he must lack understanding of the evidence and/or be unwilling to be convinced by any amount of evidence due to his religious beliefs. (This seems to me to be how virtually all YEC's think.) If he believes in a young earth as a scientific conclusion, he had best be prepared to defend that conclusion during his exams against all of the evidence to the contrary. If he couldn't do so adequately to his committee's satisfaction, then they certainly should deny him a Ph.D.

    On the other hand, if he believes in a young earth as a religious or philosophical position only, accepting the scientific conclusion of an old earth as the correct one based on observable evidence, then it becomes difficult to deny him his degree. Perhaps he just feels that his religion provides a higher form of truth than what science does. You and I might both agree that he would be very wrong on that score, but it doesn't change that it is a philosophical disagreement we would have with him and not a scientific one.

    Generally, I agree with McKnight here. I would want to have seen some evidence during his candidacy that would allow me to tell which of those situations apply to him before concluding that he did not deserve his doctorate, in spite of my belief that he was basically scamming the system to get a degree. My guess is that either his committee dropped the ball and didn't probe the question of his beliefs (perhaps being afraid of lawsuits) or they did and just concluded that he is a 'radical relativist' as McKnight calls it.

  2. I have stated my opinion on this many times, so it is probably no surprise that I agree with jasontd.

    That doesn't mean I agree with McKnight though. In the same manner that we should not let religion make special pleas, we should not let pragmatists or postmodernists make them. A YEC compartmentalist will not make a good and truthful scientist, and a 0EC (no Earth age) compartmentalist philosopher won't make one either. It is best for all if they are culled early.

    It also seems McKnight may misunderstand the evidence and believes it is a theory. Dating procedures of rocks makes their age pretty solid observations, since there are few assumptions involved in verified models of observed radioactivity. A few procedures are even selfcalibrating, efficiently removing most assumptions.

    It is analogous to that I have a theory that I have a mother that was old enough to birth me at the time, but I have data that tells me her and mine current age.

  3. I think McKnight is right on the money. Seems like you are turning science into a kind of religion with the sort of "loyalty oaths" I hear scientists asking for with respect to Ross's case.

    What is so unusual about a guy being able (and willing) to operate in two different areas? If he can do the work and show his mastery of the material within the framework of science he deserves a PhD. If he has some odd personal views in addition to that, so what? (Doesn't everyone?) Don't become the thought police. Science stands up pretty well without that being necessary.

    Perhaps it would be worth discussing the issue with some of your colleagues in the philosophy department.

    " point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conception only as cultural posits. The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience." -- W V O Quine

  4. On the other hand, if he believes in a young earth as a religious or philosophical position only
    A proposition about the empirically accessible, physical world cannot be "a philosphical position only". That's a totally incoherent, self-contradictory concept. Which in turn renders your argument incoherent.

  5. P.S. for trinifar: Quine's extreme version of sceptical empiricism has little support among contemporary philosophers and zero among scientists. I don't think it any longer deserves to be taken seriously as a philosophy of science, if it ever did. Quine cannot escape some measure of guilt, in my opinion, for the later intellectual sins of postmodernism, no matter how unsympathetic he would have been to the pomos themselves.

  6. For all I know, maybe he really is a radical relativist, who believes science and religion present two incommensurable paradigms.

    Unless Ross is different from almost every other YEC I've ever encountered (since I first read in 1990), I am very skeptical that he is a radical relativist (except perhaps as an occasional rhetorical refuge). Nor do I find it likely that he would go for the NOMA-style compatibilism of "incommensurable paradigms". The ICR/AiG types claim that they are, in fact, doing science AND that their science is superior to ours AND that it just happens to historicize their favorite myth cycle. YECs firmly assert that natural science took a wrong turn sometime around 1800, and has been going down the wrong road ever since.

    The whole "alternate paradigm" trope (also marketed as "different worldviews", "different assumptions", "seeing through Biblical glasses" etc.) is really an attempt to explain just how the majority of the world's smart and educated scientists can have been that badly wrong for the last two centuries. As I have encountered it, it is one or both of:

    1) The Low Road: A naked accusation of bigotry and narrow-mindedness against the "evolutionist" scientists.

    2) The High Road: A conceptual appeal to something those who didn't sleep through high school geometry (ie. all the engineers and science lovers in the audience) will remember: that the theorems you derive depend on the axioms you start with. Just as you can diddle one or more of Euclid's Postulates and derive a different (but still internally consistent) system, you can shift between "uniformitarian/old earth/evolutionist" and "catastrophist/young earth/creationist" assumptions and interpret the data validly in each way. (This is however inconsistent with the claim that YEC is the TRVTH, and in practice the rhetorical High Road tends to devolve into the Low Road).