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Friday, February 16, 2007

Some People Defend Lying for Jesus

 
Judging by the number of different opinions on the Marcus Ross case, there appear to be a variety of standards for the Ph.D. degree at different universities. Several bloggers think that it's okay to lie in your thesis about which scientific facts you accept and which ones you reject.

The University of Toronto has a Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters that specifies how students and teachers are supposed to behave in an academic environment. Here's part of the preamble,
What distinguishes the University from other centres of research is the central place which the relationship between teaching and learning holds. It is by virtue of this relationship that the University fulfils an essential part of its traditional mandate from society, and, indeed, from history: to be an expression of, and by so doing to encourage, a habit of mind which is discriminating at the same time as it remains curious, which is at once equitable and audacious, valuing openness, honesty and courtesy before any private interest.
This mandate is more than a mere pious hope. It represents a condition necessary for free enquiry, which is the University's life blood. Its fulfilment depends upon the well being of that relationship whose parties define one another's roles as teacher and student, based upon differences in expertise, knowledge and experience, though bonded by respect, by a common passion for truth and by mutual responsibility to those principles and ideals that continue to characterize the University.

This Code is concerned, then, with the responsibilities of faculty members and students, not as they belong to administrative or professional or social groups, but as they cooperate in all phases of the teaching and learning relationship.

Such cooperation is threatened when teacher or student forsakes respect for the other—and for others involved in learning—in favour of self-interest, when truth becomes a hostage of expediency. On behalf of teacher and student and in fulfilment of its own principles and ideals, the University has a responsibility to ensure that academic achievement is not obscured or undermined by cheating or misrepresentation, that the evaluative process meets the highest standards of fairness and honesty, and that malevolent or even mischievous disruption is not allowed to threaten the educational process.
Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in those values. I believe that truth and honesty are essential requirements in a university environment. I believe that freedom of enquiry is threatened when a student misrepresents the truth and makes it hostage to expediency. I believe that students who violate the fundamentals of a university should not graduate, especially with the highest degree that the university can offer (Ph.D.).

Jason Rosenhouse put up a message on EVOLUION BLOG [Why is This in the New York Times?]. Jason says,
This is a complete non-story. By all accounts Ross produced competent scientific work. That he was effectively an actor playing a character reflects very badly on him, but does not reflect badly on URI. If he chooses to use his degree to lend credibility to asinine religious ideas that's his business. The rest of us will have to settle for bashing him for the things he now does. It's not the job of URI, or any other university, to pass judgment on the religious views of others.
It's not the job of a university to discriminate on the basis of religious beliefs. However, it is the job of a university to uphold minimal standards of honesty and accuracy. Ross misrepresents his position when he writes about 65 million year old fossils in his thesis. He doesn't believe that any of those fossils are more than a few thousand years old. He can't honestly discuss explanations for the extinction of marine reptiles at the end of the Cretaceous without revealing that he rejects any explanation that dates this event to the ancient past.

But apparently that's exactly what he didn't do. He misrepresented his true scientific opinion in his thesis. He did this deliberately because he knew that telling the truth in his thesis would probably mean it would be rejected.

John Pieret says,
Some people have questioned whether such a person is engaging either in a mammoth mental disconnect or deliberate deception and, in turn, whether he should be awarded the Ph.D. I think that that is a dangerously slippery slope to climb onto, given the relative risk posed.
The difference between "mammoth mental disconnect" and "deliberate deception" isn't as great as you might imagine. It only requires that before deceiving others you take the time to deceive yourself. In either case the candidate is guilty of stupidity for not accepting the scientific evidence and deception for hiding it. Universities should not award Ph.D.'s to students who are either stupid or intellectually dishonest; and they should definitely not award advanced degrees to students who are both.

This is a slippery slope. It's only asking for trouble when we excuse stupidity and dishonesty because it's part of a religious belief. You don't deserve a free pass through a university just because you get your ignorance from the Bible. Religious students should be subjected to the same rigorous standards as all other students.

No atheist student would get a Ph.D. in paleontology if he rejected all the evidence for an ancient Earth and claimed that our planet was built by aliens 10,000 years ago, and all species were created in just a few days. Such a student would be laughed out of the Ph.D. oral exam—if he ever got to it.

11 comments :

  1. Hear hear. Integrity should count towards what you are doing, especially if in the future you will be looked to as an authority on the topic of your doctorate. If you use your position of influence to convince lay-people of stupid ideas, you are guilty of what is equal to malpractice.

    If a medical doctor, after going through all the training and learning about how the body works, ends up convincing people that reiki can cure cancer, that person can potentially go to jail and at LEAST will lose his/her licence to practice.

    How is this any different?

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  2. First of all, do you have any evidence that Ross hid his religious beliefs or deceived anyone at all? Gould certainly knew about Kurt Wise's beliefs.

    Where do you stop? Doesn't Feduccia reject all the evidence that birds are descended from dinosaurs? Do we drum him out of the profession? What happened to that guy who used to be willing to defend academic freedom to the death?

    The Wises and the Rosses are few and far enough between that messing with the structure of awarding degrees in ways that might potentially turn it into a loyalty oath to the present orthodoxy is not worth the risk, as far as I can see.

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  3. John Pieret asks,

    First of all, do you have any evidence that Ross hid his religious beliefs or deceived anyone at all?

    I'm going by the New York Times article that quotes Ross. Ross said that he wrote his thesis in the "science paradigm." In other words, he disguised his true thoughts on the age of the Earth.

    Where do you stop? Doesn't Feduccia reject all the evidence that birds are descended from dinosaurs? Do we drum him out of the profession? What happened to that guy who used to be willing to defend academic freedom to the death?

    We stop when students hold a scientific viewpoint that's compatible with the evidence. In my university, we don't seem to have a problem with this. Lots of our students propose ideas that are out of the mainstream—some of them are ideas that I strongly disagree with but that doesn't make them wrong.

    Do you have trouble distinguishing truly loony ideas, like a 10,000 year old Earth, from legitimate differences of opinion? How do you handle that situation? Should we just hand out degrees to everyone for fear of making a mistake?

    I don't think so. I favor erring on the side of generosity so I''ll grant a degree to someone who I suspect of being a kook but I still draw the line at the most egregious examples of stupidity. I'm really shocked that there are people like you who can't tell the difference between something that is completely non-scientific and something that is just a difference of opinion.

    I'm a strong defender of academic freedom. Once you become a Professor you get to say whatever you like. That's why I would never fire Behe or Dembski for their opinions. Students do not have academic freedom in that sense. They are still being judged to see if they merit the privilege of academic freedom.

    The Wises and the Rosses are few and far enough between that messing with the structure of awarding degrees in ways that might potentially turn it into a loyalty oath to the present orthodoxy is not worth the risk, as far as I can see.

    I'm not "messing" with anything. We evaluate graduate students every single day. I'm only applying the same standard to Ross that we apply to every other student in my department. Apparently, other departments have different standards. Apparently, in other departments it's okay to give out a Ph.D. to students who advocate completely ridiculous, non-scientific concepts that contradict all the data in their discipline. From what you and others are telling me, you do this because you are completely incapable of distinguishing good science from bad science.

    That's quite a shock to me. I wonder how widespread this practice is?

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  4. Larry replies to John Pieret:

    I'm going by the New York Times article that quotes Ross. Ross said that he wrote his thesis in the "science paradigm." In other words, he disguised his true thoughts on the age of the Earth.

    From other quotes given in the blogosphere (which I'm not going to hunt up just now), it appears his department and exam commitee knew of his views. Presumably, however, he did his dissertation "straight". It's not clear to me that he can be said to have "disguised his thoughts".

    Apparently, in other departments it's okay to give out a Ph.D. to students who advocate completely ridiculous, non-scientific concepts that contradict all the data in their discipline. From what you and others are telling me, you do this because you are completely incapable of distinguishing good science from bad science.
    Well, part of the problem may be exactly that: Yes, those of us outside science sometimes indeed have trouble distinguishing between legitimate minority views and truly bad science.

    Take the Feduccia example: I know that his views on bird ancestry are in a (small) minority, that almost everyone else in the field thinks the evidence (with which I have a superficial acquaintance) is against him. But I can't tell from the outside how far into error he is. Is his just a less probable (but still plausible) alternative interpretation? Or does he ignore small items of evidence that would count against him? Or large ones? What level of reality-denial (if any) is he practicing -- where does he fit on the continuum from the accepted consensus to la-la lunacy? (Granted, he at least is not trying to subvert the whole process by dragging in magic as an expanation).

    And given that it is a continuum (a view with which you may disagree), where does one draw the line? To drag in another example: you think that Miller and Collins are fooling themselves (and their audiences) with their TEist compatibilism -- would you deny them their degrees? If not, what is qualitatively different between them and Ross?

    (Note: as a non-academic, I don't think I'm entitled to an opinion on whether the Rosses and Wises of the world should get their sheepskins or not. I'm just trying to understand the issues).

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  5. On re-reading the above, I realize that I've probably answered most of my own questions. But I'll let the comment stand anyway, in case Larry would enjoy eviscerating it ;-), or on the chance it might clarify things for someone else.

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  6. I''ll grant a degree to someone who I suspect of being a kook ...

    So you're volunteering to be on the committee for every Ph.D. candidate in the world? The issue isn't what line you draw or even what line I'd draw between mere "kooks" and the "truly loony," it is how to have a system that can tell the difference. I've seen occasions when you've abandoned reason in your reaction to religion. Why should anyone trust your objectivity on the subject?

    Students do not have academic freedom in that sense. They are still being judged to see if they merit the privilege of academic freedom.

    So, basically, you are telling the true loons that it is perfectly okay to lie because, if you do it well enough and long enough to get tenure we won't throw you out for the same things we'll deny you entry into the hallowed halls to begin with? What was that about "responsibility to those principles and ideals that continue to characterize the University"? Or is "university" just another name for "good ol' boy network"?

    As to how widespread the practice is, you may only need to sample the faculty lounge.

    Come back when you have a better criteria than it "it looks like good science or bad science to me." We don't accept that from creationists and I'm not willing to just accept your word on it either when it comes to the lives and livelihoods of people who have yet to be shown to have done any harm.

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  7. See, this is one reason why I think ethical codes are useful. In some cases, where the narrow criteria of a contingency (correct science in a PhD) isn't capturing the ethics that we deem useful (truthful scientists), it could help.

    I do however think that it is hard to do enforce this unambiguously. Yes, if it is obvious that a prospective scientist is immediately going to reject his own PhD work because of non-scientific concerns, it should be quite straightforward to deny the PhD, or future employment et cetera, on basis of the code if the system allows for this. But in other cases it will be like any law or regulation - the individual verdict will be more or less fair and useful.

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  8. Larry, You say No atheist student would get a Ph.D. in paleontology if he rejected all the evidence for an ancient Earth and claimed that our planet was built by aliens 10,000 years ago, and all species were created in just a few days. Such a student would be laughed out of the Ph.D. oral exam—if he ever got to it. But then what if the same student produced a thesis that doesn't say so as in the case of this Ross? The academy evalutes written submisisons and oral answers, assuming that the candidate is voicing what he has learnt and concluded from his studies If the candidate says something but believes something else the system has no way of comparing the two. Because the secular academy has no place for an idea such as belief. So much as we might criticise with Ross's ignorance, there is nothing we can do about his thesis. All the honour codes are about fraudulent research and study.

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  9. Shiva says,

    But then what if the same student produced a thesis that doesn't say so as in the case of this Ross? The academy evaluates written submissions and oral answers, assuming that the candidate is voicing what he has learned and concluded from his studies.

    The intellectual environment in a university is based on trust and honesty. You are correct to assume that students who violate that trust by lying will get away with it; provided they are good liars.

    If I were on Ross' oral exam I would have asked him point blank whether he believed that marine reptiles went extinct 65 million years ago. I would have asked him to summarize and critique the evidence for that date.

    If he had lied effectively and pretended that he truly believed the 65 million year old date then I would have voted to pass him in spite of my suspicions.

    However, I might have kept notes of his responses for future use. :-)

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  10. But now, whenever Ross speaks or writes, will he identify which paradigm he is engaged in? How am I to know if he is telling what he believes to be the truth, or just saying what he thinks I want to hear? I certainly would not want to hire a consulting geologist, hydrologist, or engineer who presented such a problem.

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  11. Mark says,

    But now, whenever Ross speaks or writes, will he identify which paradigm he is engaged in? How am I to know if he is telling what he believes to be the truth, or just saying what he thinks I want to hear?

    Not to worry. I don't think he's going to be using the science paradigm very often from now on. It's already served its purpose. :-)

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