Tuesday, February 20, 2007

What to believe

What do you believe and why do you believe it? There are many things we believe with varying degrees of certainty. A purely rational being will rank his beliefs based on the amount of knowledge he has.

But we are not purely rational beings. Our confidence in each of our beliefs does not necessarily follow from the evidence. This can be a good thing, though. A fixed belief system makes for a much more efficient and streamlined operating system--just not quite as flexible as the purely rational being.

If this is starting to sound like the religion vs. science debate, it is. The conventional wisdom (in the "science crowd") is that scientists base their beliefs on the evidence, while religious beliefs are based on blind faith. Furthermore, a scientist's degree of certainty in her belief is proportional to the amount of supporting evidence, while a devout person has near perfect certainty about highly dubious claims. (I always get a kick upon hearing creationists call "Darwinism" a religion) Of course, reality is full of shades of gray.

For one, there's the phenomenon known as compartmentalization. This is where someone can hold perfectly rational beliefs about one subject while believing completely unsubstantiated woo in another. And then there is the matter of "efficient operating system" that I mentioned earlier. If we only believed what we could personally confirm, our lives would be simple and narrow.

When the AP wire announces that archeologists have discovered 3K year old tombs in Egypt, I believe them just as surely as if I were there to see it. But I'm not; I've never even been to Africa. Blind faith? No. It's a little something called trust.

Trust is nature's shortcut for helping us evaluate information. We would never get anything done if we relied on personally evaluating everything. That's why we put our trust in others. Now this is not the same as the Appeal to Authority fallacy. The AtA fallacy is about ignoring the veracity of the claim itself in favor of the character of the claimant. Trust is just a shortcut. One should always be willing to re-evaluate beliefs based on trust. These beliefs can be perfectly rational.

That's because trust must be earned!

And as surely as it's earned, it can be lost. Young children tend to trust all authority figures blindly. But as they learn to think for themselves, their trust starts growing a price tag. Back to religion vs. science, when I was younger and attended Catholic school, I trusted the priests and brothers who taught me religion. But as I went learning how much of what they taught me was lies, my trust in them began to erode. Today, claims made by religious authorities carry about as much weight with me as a random phrase generator.

This brings me to the story of Marcus Ross Ph.D.

KINGSTON, R.I. — There is nothing much unusual about the 197-page dissertation Marcus R. Ross submitted in December to complete his doctoral degree in geosciences here at the University of Rhode Island.

His subject was the abundance and spread of mosasaurs, marine reptiles that, as he wrote, vanished at the end of the Cretaceous era about 65 million years ago. The work is “impeccable,” said David E. Fastovsky, a paleontologist and professor of geosciences at the university who was Dr. Ross’s dissertation adviser. “He was working within a strictly scientific framework, a conventional scientific framework.”

But Dr. Ross is hardly a conventional paleontologist. He is a “young earth creationist” — he believes that the Bible is a literally true account of the creation of the universe, and that the earth is at most 10,000 years old.

This story has been discussed at length here and here. Never mind for the moment his kooky beliefs about the age of the Earth. Let's talk about the inherent dishonesty in what he did.

In this situation we have an example of someone who carefully hid his true belief from the thesis committee, or at least went out of his way to give them an excuse to avoid facing up to the main problem. This is deceptive and antithetical to how science is supposed to operate (see Some People Defend Lying for Jesus). It opens a whole other can of worms. While most of us would agree that openly advocating a young Earth in your thesis would be grounds for failure, we couldn't fail someone who effectively lied about his "scientific" opinion. We put our faith in honesty and scientific integrity whenever possible. It's the default assumption.

But here's the rub. Although there wasn't anything in his thesis about a 10,000 year old Earth it wasn't the case that his examining committee was completely ignorant of Ross' true views on paleontology. In fact, they were aware of the history. They knew Ross was a Young Earth Creationist when they admitted him to graduate school and they had no reason to suspect that he had changed his mind.

The bottom line is that faculty of Rhode Island University gave a Ph.D. degree in geology to someone they knew to be a "scientist" who believed that the Earth is only 10,000 years old. Furthermore, they gave a Ph.D. to someone who they knew was deliberately misrepresenting his "scientific" views in his thesis. They had every reason to suspect that this misrepresentation was for the sole purpose of getting the Ph.D. since Ross knew that by being honest about his rejection of a old Earth, he would not graduate. This is a double whammy since not only was Ross ignorant of the basic principles in his field but also ignorant of the principles of scientific integrity.

His entire education is nothing but a lie as far as I'm concerned. And URI should be deeply ashamed for letting this happen. This is a major violation of trust! When I hear a Ph.D. geologist or paleontologist speak, I have certain expectations relating to that degree of their's. This is a sham! It wouldn't be much different if I went and became a minister.

Oh yeah, that's right. By the way, from now on you will address me as the reverend science pundit. I may not be a scientist (we all know that to be a pundit, no special credentials are needed--hence the moniker.), but I can perform rites.

And if I ever when I go back to school, it won't be at URI. I just don't think I can trust them.


donna said...

I have one of those, too. I can officiate weddings for people in California! heh. Not that I ever have, but I could.

The Science Pundit said...

I only heard about the Universal Life Church a couple of years ago when my sister's old pug died. She thought it would be nice to have a doggy funeral. Luckily, the Rev. Frank stepped forward--certificate in hand-- and saved the day by performing the service.