Monday, February 12, 2007

PZ gets something partly right…

Which is a bad sign for global warming proponents—after all, hell freezing over can’t be good for the cause.

PZ posted about one Marcus Ross, a YEC who was awarded a Ph.D. in Geosciences from the University of Rhode Island. Ross’s thesis is conventional—that is, it follows the accepted old-earth viewpoint—one that is clearly at odds with Ross’s personal views.

PZ complains that this is a sign that Ross was merely going through the motions, “lying” being another way that PZ describes it, just to satisfy his Ph.D. requirements. He does not think that Ross should have been able to make it through the program.

No, Ross was not lying. Solving a problem with a model you believe is wrong is not lying. Yes, Ross was going through the motions, but so what? (More on that, anon.) Finally, Ross deserves his Ph.D. every bit as much as PZ deserved his.

In truth, the Ph.D. process is a lot like a big homework assignment. It is not a statement of faith. Given no data, I won’t say all, I won’t even say most, but I am confident that many Ph.D. students “go through the motions,” granted not to the degree that someone like Ross did. In theoretical physics, your average graduate student (speaking from personal experience) inherits a point of view, a model, and methodology from his advisor, which he then applies to a new problem. Only the truly gifted graduate students create new models and paradigms of their own. By the end of their thesis work, many of the typical students, through the normal scientific process (which includes enduring criticism), will have come to realize that the models they are using have deficiencies. As a rule, they are not going to redo their calculations, they will “go through the motions” in order to complete their doctorate.

The bottom line: as I said, a Ph.D. is awarded for something like a really tough homework problem. The only basis for denying the degree is that the assignment was not completed properly. The student’s personal views on the value of his own thesis are irrelevant. If I do the world’s greatest string theory calculation—all the while thinking that string theory is a fraud, I still get my Ph.D.

When it comes to faculty positions, PZ has a better argument. PZ seems to agree that one cannot overtly discriminate on the basis of religious views1. However, faculty positions are not awarded based on generic scientific talent—i.e., selection is rarely (especially at a research university) based on the strategy of “take the best athlete available,” but on a need to fill a slot with a certain type of person. A typical scenario: a famous string theorist with a big grant has been awarded a faculty slot by the university in order to grow his group. It is perfectly reasonable for the search committee to “discriminate” against candidates who are not string theory proponents. The hypothetical candidate who, as a grad student did a blockbuster string theory thesis but was “going through the motions” would, at this stage, be excluded.

Suppose Ross were to apply for a faculty slot in geoscience at a research university. It would be out of bounds for anyone to ask: “are you a Christian?” However, it would be perfectly reasonable for them to ask: “Do you believe in an old earth?” 2 An answer of "no" to that question would be just cause for no further consideration of that candidate. It is to be expected that a geoscience department at a secular university to want no part of someone who advocates a young earth.

Ross has ended up at a YEC institution, Liberty University. From PZ’s perspective, this should be an open and shut case of “no harm, no foul.” From my perspective, I am saddened that there will be another voice, if the other science faculty from Liberty whom I have encountered are any indication, who will be teaching Christian students that mainstream science is the spawn of Satan. That is harmful to Christianity, and Liberty has done more than its share of damaging Christianity in this regard.

1 I wonder if PZ agrees. Has he answered a hypothetical scenario: Given these final two candidates for a faculty position: 1) Ken Miller, whose scientific credentials are much more impressive that PZ's (but has that nasty "moderately religious" baggage) and 2) someone with modest scientific credentials, like PZ, but who is a Sam Harris type (perhaps sans the penchant for Buddhist mysticism) atheist, which one would he choose?

2 In some cases, depending on the zealousness of the university’s equal opportunity office, even that question could be a bit tricky. I served on many faculty search committees at a state university. For some of the searches, we had truly Draconian restrictions. During the committee interview, each member of the committee had to ask exactly the same questions for each candidate, and the members had to ask their questions in exactly the same order. (We had a script from which to operate.) And your private interview was to follow the same model—no rabbit trails—although there was no way that could be enforced. Thus, unless you anticipated asking every candidate whether they believed in an old earth, you couldn’t ask the one whom you happened to notice praying before eating lunch. However, in practice, I doubt that this particular deviation would have raised the hackles of the EEO overseers.

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