Methodology versus beliefs: What did Marcus Ross do wrong?

We’ve been discussing whether good science has more to do with the methodology you use or with what you believe, and considering the particular case of Ph.D. geoscientist and young earth creationist Marcus Ross (here and here). At least some of the responses to these two posts seem to offer the view that: (1) of course what makes for a reliable piece of scientific knowledge is the methodology used to produce it (and especially to check it for error), but (2) the very fact that Marcus Ross is committed to young earth creationism, which means among other things that he is committed to the belief that the earth is not more than 10,000 years old, is a fatal blow to his scientific credibility as a geoscientist.

Either this boils down to claiming that having young earth creationist beliefs makes it impossible to use scientific methodology and generate a reliable piece of knowledge (even though Ross seems to have done just that in writing his dissertation), or perhaps to claiming instead that a person who holds young earth creationist beliefs and also uses standard scientific methodology to generate bits of scientific knowledge must have some ulterior motive for generating them. In this latter case, I take it the worry is not with the respectability of the product (i.e., the scientific knowledge claims), nor of the process (i.e., the standard sorts of evidence or inferential machinery being used to support the scientific knowledge claims), but rather of the producer (i.e., the person going through all the scientific motions yet still believing in young earth creationism).

I think it’s worth examining the general unease and trying to be more precise about what people think Marcus Ross might be doing wrong here. However, let the record reflect that I have not been surveilling Marcus Ross — not sitting in on the classes he teaches, not tracking down and reading his scientific publications, not following him to geological meetings or church or the supermarket. What this means is that we’re going to be examining hypotheticals here, rather than scads of empirical facts about what Marcus Ross actually does.

Possibility 1: Ross is using his geoscience Ph.D. to gain unwarranted increase in credibility for young earth creationist beliefs.

Ross teaches geology at Liberty University. Part of this teaching seems to involve setting out the kinds of theories, evidence, and inferential machinery (including accepted dating methods and the evidential support for them) that you’d expect students to learn in a geology class in a secular university. Part of it also seems to involve laying out the details of young earth creationism (which is not accepted as scientific by the scientists who make up the field of geoscience), the claims it supports, and on what evidential basis. Obviously, the claims of young earth creationism are bolstered by quite different evidence and a quite distinct (religious) inferential structure.

One approach to this pedagogy would be to bring out the important differences, both in the conclusions of geology and of young earth creationism and in the recognized rules for drawing, testing, and supporting conclusions between the two. Indeed, Ross’s comments make it sound like this is the approach he takes:

In my classes here at Liberty University I introduce my students to the reasons why geologists think the Earth is ancient, or why various organisms are viewed as strong evidence for evolution.  I do this so that they understand that these arguments are well thought-out, and to teach them to respect the ideas of those with whom they disagree.

If Ross is actually making it clear how scientific inference differs from faith-based claims, then is should be clear to any of his students who are paying attention that the science Ross studied in graduate school does not support his young earth creationism. Rather, the science supports the scientific inference. His faith supports young earth creationism. The two are different.

If, on the other hand, Ross were to mischaracterize the theories, evidence, and inferential machinery of geoscience in his classes, that would be bad. It would amount to lying about the nature of geoscience (and perhaps also of science more broadly).

In the same way, if Ross were to claim that the body of geological knowledge, or the methods of geoscience, or the empirical evidence recognized by geoscientists lent scientific support to the claims of young earth creationism, that would also be lying.

Ross (and his students) might still accept young earth creationism, but they would be doing so on religious rather than scientific grounds — something that a careful study of geoscience and its methods should make clear. If anything, such a study should underline that the rules for the scientific credibility of a claim are orthogonal to the rules for the religious credibility of a claim.

Possibility 2: Ross doesn’t intend to use his geoscience Ph.D. to gain unwarranted increase in credibility for young earth creationist beliefs, but it has that effect on his audience anyway.

You might worry that Marcus Ross’s status as a Ph.D. geoscientist lends extra credibility to all the beliefs he voices — at least when those beliefs are judged by an audience of undergraduates who are enamored by Ph.D.s. That’s a hard degree to get, after all, and you have to be really smart to get one, right? And, smart people (especially those certified to be Ph.D.-smart by Ph.D. granting institutions) have more credible beliefs than everyone else, right?

If Ross’s students are making this sort of judgment about his credibility — and they might well be — it’s a silly judgment to make. It would be akin to assuming that my Ph.D. in chemistry would make me a more credible commentator on the theories of Descartes or Husserl. Let me assure you, it does not! (That’s why I spent six additional years of my life in graduate school developing the expertise relevant for work in philosophy.)

Indeed, the kind of extra credibility young earth creationism might gain in the minds of undergraduates by this route speaks more to a lack of critical thinking on the part of the undergraduates than it does to any dishonesty on Ross’s part. It also makes me yearn for the days of robust teen rebellion and reflexive mistrust of anyone over 30.

We should be fair, though, and recognize that it’s not just college students who can be dazzled by an advanced degree. Plenty of grown-ups in the larger society have the same reaction. Uncritically accepting the authority of the Ph.D. to speak on matters beyond the tether of his expertise is asking to be sold snake oil.

In light of the increased authority non-scientists seem to grant those with scientific training even outside the areas of their scientific expertise, it might be reasonable to ask scientists to be explicit about when they are speaking as scientists and when they are speaking as people with no special authority (or, perhaps, with authority that has some source other than scientific training). But, if we think Marcus Ross has an obligation to note that his scientific training does not support his views in the realm of young earth creationism, we probably ought to hold other scientists to the same obligation when they speak of matters beyond their scientific expertise. Fair is fair.

Possibility 3: Ross is using his engagement with the community of geoscientists to make it appear to outsiders as though his young earth creationist views are scientifically respectable, even though he knows they aren’t.

This is a possibility raised by Donald Prothero’s account of “stealth creationism” at meetings of the Geological Society of America (GSA). Prothero writes:

Most of the time when I attend the meetings, there are plenty of controversial topics and great debates going on within the geological community, so the profession does not suppress unorthodox opinions or play political games. This is the way it should be in any genuine scientific discipline. I’ve seen amazingly confrontational knock-down-drag-out sessions about particularly hotly debated ideas, but always conducted in a spirit of honest scientific exchange and always hewing to rules of science and naturalism. To get on the meeting program, scientists must propose to organize sessions around particular themes, along with field trips to geologically interesting sites within driving distance of the convention city, and the GSA host committee reads and approves these proposals. But every once in a while, I see a poster title and abstract with something suspicious about it. When I check the authors, they turn out to be Young-Earth Creationists (YEC) who claim the earth is only 6000 years old and all of geology can be explained by Noah’s flood. When I visit the poster session, it’s usually mobbed by real geologists giving the YECs a real grilling, even though the poster is ostensibly about some reasonable geologic topic, like polystrate trees in Yellowstone, and there is no overt mention of Noah’s flood in the poster. But the 2010 meeting last year in Denver took the cake: there was a whole field trip run by YECs who did not identify their agenda, and pretended that they were doing conventional geology—until you read between the lines.

Marcus Ross was one of the leaders of the field trip in question, as was Steve Austin of the Institute for Creation Research. Prothero quotes his colleague Steve Newton’s account of this GSA meeting field trip:

Through the entire trip, the leaders never identified themselves as YECs or openly advocated Noah’s flood or a 6000-year-old earth. Instead, the entire trip was filled with stops at outcrops where the leaders emphasized the possible evidence for sudden deposition of the strata at Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs, without stating explicitly that they believed this sudden deposition was Noah’s flood in action. (There are LOTS of instances of local rapid and sudden deposition of strata in real geology, but they are local and clearly cannot be linked to any global flood). As Newton described it:

Furthermore, the field trip leaders were careful not to make overt creationist references. If the 50 or so field trip participants did not know the subtext and weren’t familiar with the field trip leaders, it’s quite possible that they never realized that the leaders endorsed geologic interpretations completely at odds with the scientific community. Even the GSA Sedimentary Geology Division had initially signed on as a sponsor of the trip (though they backed out once they learned the views of the trip leaders).

But the leaders’ Young-Earth Creationist views were apparent in rhetorical subtleties. For example, when Austin referred to Cambrian outcrops, he described them as rocks that are “called Cambrian.” It’s an odd phrasing, allowing use of the proper geologic term while subtly denying its implications. In one instance, when Austin was asked by a trip attendee about the age of a rock unit, he responded somewhat cryptically, “Wherever you want to go there.” Such phrasing was telling, if you knew what to listen for.

Subtext about the age of formations was a big part of the Young-Earth Creationist rhetoric on the trip. As we moved on to each field trip stop, a narrative began to emerge: the creationist concept of Noah’s Flood as explanation for the outcrops. Although no one uttered the words “Noachian Flood,” the guides’ descriptions of the geology were revealing and rather coy. For example, at the first stop—a trail off Highway 24 near Manitou Spring—Austin stated that the configuration of the units was “the same over North America,” and had been formed by a massive marine transgression. “Whatever submerged the continent,” Austin went on, it must have been huge in scale.

Here, a charitable reading of the field trip might be that the believers in geology were taking in the sights and interpreting the evidence with the (scientific) inferential machinery of geology, while the young earth creationists were taking in the very same sights and interpreting the evidence with the (religious) inferential machinery of young earth creationism. But, Prothero argues that there’s more than this going on:

Sadly, the real problem here is that YEC “geologists” come back from this meeting falsely bragging that their “research” was enthusiastically received, and that they “converted” a lot of people to their unscientific views. As Newton pointed out, they will crow in their publicity that they are attending regular professional meetings and presenting their research successfully. For those who don’t know any better, it sounds to the YEC audience like they are conventional geologists doing real research and that they deserve to be taken seriously as geologists—even though every aspect of their geology is patently false (see Chapter 3 in my 2007 Evolution book). And so, once more the dishonesty of the YEC takes advantage of the openness and freedom of the scientific community to exploit it to their own ends, and abuse the privilege of open communication to push anti-scientific nonsense on the general population that doesn’t know the difference.

Prothero notes (as does Marcus Ross in his comments on this blog) that the research by young earth creationists that is well received by the geological community is completely conventional, using only the inferential machinery of geoscience and making no use of the assumptions of young earth creationism. But presenting work (or leading a field trip) with a young earth creationist subtext (i.e., possibly these observations can be interpreted as evidence of a really big flood of some kind …) to an audience of geologists, and then spinning a lack of loud objections to a conclusion you didn’t explicitly present as if it were endorsement of that conclusion by the geologists is a dishonest move.

Honest engagement with a scientific community means putting your evidential and methodological cards on the table. It means, if you want to know whether other scientists would endorse (or even accept as not-totally-implausible) a particular conclusion, you put that particular conclusion out there for their examination. All you can reasonably conclude from the fact that other scientists didn’t shoot down a conclusion that you never openly stated is that those other scientists did not read your mind.

Possibility 4: It’s wrong for Ross to maintain his young earth creationist beliefs after the thorough exposure to scientific theories, evidence, and methodology that he received in his graduate training in geosciences.

Learning to be a scientist means, among other things, learning scientific patterns of thought, scientific standards for evaluating knowledge claims, and scientific methods for generating and testing new knowledge claims. Such immersion in the tribe of science and in the activity of scientific research, some might argue, should have driven the young earth creationist beliefs right out of Marcus Ross’s head.

Maybe we could reasonably expect this outcome if his young earth creationist beliefs depended on the same kind of evidence and inferential machinery as do scientific claims. However, they do not. Young earth creationist claims are not scientific claims, but faith-based claims. Young earth creationism sets itself apart from the inferential structure of science — if its adherents are persuaded that a claim is credible on the basis of faith (e.g., in a particular reading of scriptures), then no arrangement of empirical evidence could be sufficient to reliably undermine that adherence.

To be sure, this means that a scientist like Marcus Ross who is also a young earth creationist has non-scientific beliefs in his head. But, if we’re going to assert that scientific training ought, when done right, to purge the trainee of all non-scientific beliefs, then there is precious little evidence that scientific training is being done right anywhere.

There are quite a lot of scientists with non-scientific beliefs that persist. They have beliefs about who would be the best candidate to vote for in a presidential election, about what movie will be most entertaining, about what entree at the restaurant will be most delicious and nutritious. They have beliefs about whether the people they care for also care for them, and about whether their years of toil on particular research questions will make the world a better place (or, more modestly, whether they will have been personally fulfilling). Many of these beliefs are hunches, no better supported by the available empirical evidence than are the beliefs routinely formed by non-scientists.

This is not to say that the evidence necessarily argues against holding these beliefs. Rather, the available evidence may be so sparse as to be inadequate to support or undermine the belief. Still, scientific training does not prevent the person so trained from forming beliefs in these instances — and this may be useful, especially since there are situations where sitting on the fence waiting for decisive evidence is not the best call. (Surely we have more complete evidence about what kind of president Richard M. Nixon would make now than was available in November 1968, but it’s too late for us to use that evidence to vote in the 1968 presidential election.)

If harboring non-scientfic beliefs is a crime, we’d be hard pressed to find a single member of the tribe of science who is not at least a little guilty.

Maybe it’s more reasonable to hold scientists accountable to recognize which of their beliefs are well supported by empirical evidence and which are not. A bit of reflection is probably sufficient to help scientists sort out the scientific beliefs from the non-scientific beliefs. And, to the extent that Marcus Ross wants to be a practicing member of the tribe of science (or even an intellectually honest outsider with enough scientific training that he ought to be able to tell the difference), it’s just as reasonable to hold him accountable for recognizing which sort of beliefs constitute his young earth creationism.

Being able to tell the difference between scientific and non-scientific beliefs is not only a more attainable goal for human scientists than having only scientific beliefs, but it is a much easier standard for the tribe of science to police, since it involves examining what kinds of claims a person asserts as backed by the science — something other scientists can check by examining evidence and arguments — rather than examining what’s in a person’s head.

These possibilities strike me as the most likely candidates for what’s bugging science-minded people about Marcus Ross. If I’ve missed what’s bugging you about him, please make your case in the comments.

Methodology versus beliefs: a comment from Marcus Ross.

Last week, we considered whether good science has more to do with what you do or with what you believe, exploring this issue using the case of Marcus Ross, a Ph.D. geoscientist and young earth creationist. Dr. Ross sent me a response to this post via email. With his permission, I’m sharing that email here:

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Hello Janet,
Thank you for your thoughtful piece yesterday in Scientific American.  It has been quite a while since the New York Times piece in 2007, so I was surprised to it revisited.  And I found your analysis of the events of my Ph.D. work far more considerate than many of the earlier reactions.  It’s nice not to be referred to as a trained parrot, a textbook case of cognitive dissonance, or a variety of unprintable words!
This paragraph from your piece sums things up quite nicely:

“It looks like Ross saw his dissertation as an exercise in presenting the inferences one could draw from the available data using the recognized methods of geoscience. In other words, here’s what we would conclude if all the assumptions about the age of the earth, deposition of fossils, isotope dating methods, etc., were true…”

This is a good sketch of what I did, not only for the Ph.D., but for all of my geological education (which was conducted entirely at non-creationist, state schools; and like at URI, at each location I made it known to my advisors that I was a young-Earth creationist).  I always felt that, since I was attempting to earn a degree from an institution which adhered to an ancient Earth and evolutionary explanations of life’s diversity, that I must show myself proficient in these areas. 
One clarification which stems from Cornelia Dean’s original article: I never referred to a “paleontological paradigm”.  That term is one she invented from her interview of me, but one I never introduced.  Indeed, the term actually makes very little sense (does anyone speak of a microbiology paradigm?).  In speaking with my students, I refer to the old-Earth and evolutionary paradigms, and I make sure to distinguish the two as well.
One issue that you bring up is whether I’ve essentially given up on interaction with the geological community, especially given my position at Liberty University.  Let me assure you that such is not the case.  In both print and in annual meetings, I do what I can to contribute to, and interact with, current geological discussions.  My publication record is not extensive, but it includes papers in a handful of conventional geological journals, including recent geological papers in 2009 and 2010 and co-leading a field trip at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America (our largest professional association) last year with four other creation geologists.  Even Steven Newton of the NCSE has written, more or less, charitably of my, and my creationist colleagues’, continuing interactions at society meetings over the past few years.
Nevertheless, despite my best attempts, and because of some of my old-Earth and evolutionary colleagues’ attitudes towards me, the road of interaction has been bumpy.  I have had chapters of my (decidedly conventional) dissertation rejected from journals and special publications for no other reason than the fact that I am a creationist, sometimes in very explicit terms.  Presentations at society meetings are viewed with deep suspicion that I will make creationist arguments (or even preach!) once given the lectern.  I have, on two occasions, been “outed” as a creationist following my own presentation by scientists who wished to score points with their students and peers, and do damage to my reputation.  But having been open about being a creationist my whole career usually blunts such shoddy attempts at a “gotcha” moment.  The job description for my employment was gleefully mocked at a society presentation while I was in attendance.  And this is from the more legitimate forms of scientific dialogue.  Googling my name gets really ugly, really fast.
But such is no major deterrent to me, though it does impede my attempts to publish in conventional literature, for example.  I value the contributions of my colleagues, and have enjoyed many constructive interactions, despite the occasional run-in with less pleasant sorts.  In my classes here at Liberty University I introduce my students to the reasons why geologist think the Earth is ancient, or why various organisms are viewed as strong evidence for evolution.  I do this so that they understand that these arguments are well thought-out, and to teach them to respect the ideas of those with whom they disagree.  And I was grateful for your blog post because, unlike many others, you respect my position enough to treat it with courtesy.  Thank you.
Marcus R. Ross, Ph.D.  

Associate Professor of Geology

Dept. of Biology and Chemistry
Liberty University

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Is being a good scientist a matter of what you do or of what you feel in your heart?

If the question posed in the title of the post seems to you to have an obvious answer, sit tight while I offer a situation in which it might be less obvious.

We recently discussed philosopher Karl Popper’s efforts to find the line of demarcation between science and pseudo-science. In that discussion, one of the things you may have noticed is that Popper’s story is as much about a distinctive scientific attitude as it is about the details of scientific methodology. I wrote:

Popper has this picture of the scientific attitude that involves taking risks: making bold claims, then gathering all the evidence you can think of that might knock them down. If they stand up to your attempts to falsify them, the claims are still in play. But, you keep that hard-headed attitude and keep you eyes open for further evidence that could falsify the claims. If you decide not to watch for such evidence — deciding, in effect, that because the claim hasn’t been falsified in however many attempts you’ve made to falsify it, it must be true — you’ve crossed the line to pseudo-science.

And, my sense from scientists is that Popper’s description of their characteristic attitude is what they like best about his account. Hardly any scientist goes into the lab Monday morning with the firm intention of trying (yet again) to falsify the central hypotheses which she and the other scientists in her field have been using successfully (to predict and to explain and to create new phenomena) for years. Hardly any scientist will toss out hypotheses on the basis of a single experimental result that does not match the predictions of the hypotheses. But scientists agree that when they’re following the better angels of their scientific nature, their eyes are open to evidence that might conflict with even their most trusted hypotheses, and they are ready to kiss those hypotheses goodbye if the facts in the world line up against them.

An attitude is something that’s in your heart.

Certainly, an attitude may exert a strong influence on what you do, but if having the right attitude is something that matters to us over and above doing the right thing, we can ask why that is. My best hunch is that an attitude may act as a robust driver of behavior — in other words, having the right attitude may be a reliable mechanism that gets you to do the right thing, at least more than you might in the absence of that attitude.

So, what should we say about a scientist who appears to practice the methodology as he should, but who reveals himself as having something else in his heart?

This question came up back in 2007, when the New York Times reported on the curious case of Marcus R. Ross. Ross had written and defended an “impeccable” dissertation on the abundance and spread of marine reptiles called mosasaurs which (as his dissertation noted) vanished about 65 million years ago, earning a Ph.D. in geosciences from the University of Rhode Island. Then, he accepted a faculty position at Liberty University, where he is an Assistant Director of the Center for Creation Studies.

Ross is a young earth creationist, and as such believes that the earth is no older than 10,000 years. He was a young earth creationist when he wrote the impeccable dissertation in which he noted the disappearance of mosasaurs about 65 millions years ago. Indeed, he was a young earth creationist when he applied to the geosciences Ph.D. program at the University of Rhode Island, and did not conceal this information from the admissions committee.

Some details from the New York Times article:

For him, Dr. Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, “that I am separating the different paradigms.”

He likened his situation to that of a socialist studying economics in a department with a supply-side bent. “People hold all sorts of opinions different from the department in which they graduate,” he said. “What’s that to anybody else?” …

In theory, scientists look to nature for answers to questions about nature, and test those answers with experiment and observation. For Biblical literalists, Scripture is the final authority. As a creationist raised in an evangelical household and a paleontologist who said he was “just captivated” as a child by dinosaurs and fossils, Dr. Ross embodies conflicts between these two approaches. The conflicts arise often these days, particularly as people debate the teaching of evolution. …

In a telephone interview, Dr. Ross said his goal in studying at secular institutions “was to acquire the training that would make me a good paleontologist, regardless of which paradigm I was using.” …

He would not say whether he shared the view of some young earth creationists that flaws in paleontological dating techniques erroneously suggest that the fossils are far older than they really are.

Asked whether it was intellectually honest to write a dissertation so at odds with his religious views, he said: “I was working within a particular paradigm of earth history. I accepted that philosophy of science for the purpose of working with the people” at Rhode Island.

And though his dissertation repeatedly described events as occurring tens of millions of years ago, Dr. Ross added, “I did not imply or deny any endorsement of the dates.”

Ross pursued an education that gave him detailed knowledge of the theories the geoscience community uses, the questions geoscientists take to be interesting ones to pursue, the methods they use to make observations, to analyze data, and to draw inferences. He showed sufficient mastery of the “paleontological paradigm” that he was able to use it to build an additional piece of knowledge (the work contained in his dissertation) that was judged a contribution to his scientific community.

But, if he believed in his heart that the earth was thousands, not millions, of years old as he built this piece of knowledge, was he really a part of that scientific community? Was he essentially lying in his interactions with its members?

It looks like Ross saw his dissertation as an exercise in presenting the inferences one could draw from the available data using the recognized methods of geoscience. In other words, here’s what we would conclude if all the assumptions about the age of the earth, deposition of fossils, isotope dating methods, etc., were true. His caginess about the dates in the interview quoted above, and his professed belief in young earth creationism, suggest that Ross thinks at least some of these scientific assumptions are false.

However, assuming his rejection of the scientific assumptions flows primarily from his commitments as a young earth creationist, the rejection of the claims other geoscientists agree on is based in religious reasons, not scientific reasons. If there were scientific reasons to doubt these assumptions, it seems like examining those could only lead to a stronger body of knowledge in geosciences, and that Ross could have contributed to the field by making such an examination the focus of his doctoral research.

Is it an obligation for a scientist who has concerns about the goodness of an assumption on which people in his field rest their inferences to voice that concern? Is it an obligation for that scientist to gather data to test that hypothesis, or to work out an alternative hypothesis that is better supported by the data? Or is it OK to keep your doubts to your self and just use the inferential machinery everyone else is using?

Maybe people will answer this differently if the scientist in question is planning an ongoing engagement with the other members of this field, or if he is just passing through on the way to somewhere else. More on this in just a moment.

Here’s a shorter version of my question about the scientist’s obligations here: Does intellectual honesty in scientific knowledge-building just cover the way you use the inferential structure and the inputs (i.e., data) from which you draw your inferences? Or does it require disclosure of which assumptions you really accept (not just for the sake of argument, but in your heart of hearts) when drawing your inferences and which you are inclined to think are mistaken?

Does intellectual honesty require that you disclose as well the fact that you don’t actually accept the inferential structure of science as a good way to build knowledge?

Because ultimately, a commitment to young earth creationism seems to be a commitment that the data cannot properly be used to infer any claims that are at odds with scripture.

And here’s where scientists who might be willing to accept Ross’s dissertation as a legitimate chunk of scientific knowledge may have serious concerns with Ross as a credible member of the scientific community. The dissertation may stand (or fall) as a scientific argument that presents a particular array of data, describes accepted inferential strategies (perhaps even defending some such strategies that are themselves new contributions), and uses these strategies to draw conclusions form the data. Even if the person who assembled this argument was wracked with doubts about all the central premises of the argument, the argument itself could still function perfectly well in the ongoing scientific discourse, and other scientists in the community could judge that argument on its strengths and weaknesses — not on what might be in the heart of the person who constructed the argument.

But, if, ultimately, Marcus Ross rejects the “paleontological paradigm” — and the possibility that the data could properly support inferences at odds with scripture — can he function as a member of a community that makes, and evaluates, inferences using this paradigm?

Maybe he could, but his career trajectory makes it look like he has chosen not to be a member of the larger community of geoscientists. Instead, he has positioned himself as a member of a community of “creation scientists”. Whether Ross’s ongoing work on extinct marine reptiles is of any scientific interest to the scientific field that trained him will probably depend on the methodology and inferential structure on display in his manuscripts.

Because methodology and inferential structure are much easier to evaluate in the peer review process than what is in the author’s heart.

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Set my blogging agenda!

“Doing Good Science” is a relatively new blog on a relatively new blog network. In my first post here, I said a little about the sorts of topics I plan to take up on the blog, but if you’re willing to step up to help DonorsChoose, I’m willing to give you more control of what I blog about — at least for the length of a post.

Until the end of the drive (October 22nd), if you make a donation of any size to my giving page, you get to assign me a blog post topic.

Is there a particular misconduct scandal you want me to examine? A matter of scientific methodology you want me to explore? An issue where the tribe of science and the larger public see the ethical landscape differently that you want me to write about? Make a donation, forward me a copy of the email DonorsChoose sends you to confirm your donation to my giving page, tell me what you want me to write about, and I’ll make it happen.

OK, you know the facts. You know what to do.

DonorsChoose #scibloggers4students: now occupying your social media.

A video communiqué from Science Bloggers for Students 2011:

#scibloggers4students occupy your social media

The drive runs through October 22, and a number of Scientific American blogs (Anthropology in Practice, The Artful Amoeba, Doing Good Science, EvoEcoLab, PsiVid, Science Sushi, The Thoughtful Animal, and The Urban Scientist … so far) are participating.

Here’s the Scientific American leaderboard.

Here’s my giving page.

If you can spare a few bucks, you can help bring school kids the books, equipment, field trips, or other goodies that will make their science education come alive.

Ada Lovelace and the Luddites.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day.

If you are not a regular reader of my other blog, you may not know that I am a tremendous Luddite. I prefer hand-drawn histograms and flowcharts to anything I can make with a graphics program. I prefer LPs to CDs. (What’s an LP? Ask your grandparents.) I find it soothing to use log tables (and I know how to interpolate). I’d rather use a spiral-bound book of street maps than Google to find my way around.

Obviously, my status as a Luddite should not be taken to mean I am against all technological advances across the board (as here I am, typing on a computer, preparing a post that will be published using blogging software on the internet). Rather, I am suspicious of technological advances that seem to arise without much thought about how they influence the experience of the humans interacting with them, and of “improvements” that would require me to sink a bunch of time into learning new commands or operating instructions while producing at best a marginal improvement over the outcome I get from the technology I already know.

That is to say, my own inclination is to view technologies not as ends in themselves but as tools which, depending on how they are deployed, can enhance our lives or can make them harder.

The original Luddites were part of a workers’ movement in England in the early 19th century. The technologies these Luddites were against included the mechanical knitting machines and looms that shifted textile production from the hands of skilled knitters and weavers to a relatively unskilled labor force tending to the machines. In the current economic climate, it’s not too hard to see what the Luddites were worried about: even if the Industrial Revolution technologies didn’t result in an overall decrease in jobs (since you’d need workers to tend the machines), there would be no reason to assume that the owners of textile factories would be interested in retraining the skilled knitters and weavers already in existence to be the machine-tenders. And net stability (even increase) in the number of jobs can be cold comfort when your job goes away.

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Drawing the line between science and pseudo-science.

Recently, we’ve been discussing strategies for distinguishing sound science from attractively packaged snake-oil. It’s worth noting that a fair number of scientists (and of non-scientists who are reasonably science-literate) are of the view that this is not a hard call to make — that astrology, alternative therapies, ESP, and the other usual suspects fall on the wrong side of some bright line that divides what is scientific from what is not — the clear line of demarcation that (scientists seem to assume) Karl Popper pointed out years ago, and that keeps the borders of science secure.

While I think a fair amount of non-science is so far from the presumptive border that we are well within our rights to just point at it and laugh, as a philosopher of science I need to go on the record as saying that right at the boundary, things are not so sharp. But before we get into how real science (and real non-science) might depart from Sir Karl’s image of things, I think it’s important to look more closely at the distinction he’s trying to draw.

A central part of Karl Popper’s project is figuring out how to draw the line between science and pseudo-science. He could have pitched this as figuring out how to draw the line between science and non-science (which seems like less a term of abuse than “pseudo-science”). Why set the project up this way? Partly, I think, he wanted to compare science to non-science-that-looks-a-lot-like-science (in other words, pseudo-science) so that he could work out precisely what is missing from the latter. He doesn’t think we should dismiss pseudo-science as utterly useless, uninteresting, or false. It’s just not science.

Of course, Popper wouldn’t be going to the trouble of trying to spell out what separates science from non-science if he didn’t think there was something special on the science side of the line. He seems committed to the idea that scientific methodology is well-suited — perhaps uniquely so — for building reliable knowledge and for avoiding false beliefs. Indeed, under the assumption that science has this kind of power, one of the problems with pseudo-science is that it gets an unfair credibility boost by so cleverly mimicking the surface appearance of science.

The big difference Popper identifies between science and pseudo-science is a difference in attitude. While a pseudo-science is set up to look for evidence that supports its claims, Popper says, a science is set up to challenge its claims and look for evidence that might prove it false. In other words, pseudo-science seeks confirmations and science seeks falsifications.

There is a corresponding difference that Popper sees in the form of the claims made by sciences and pseudo-sciences: Scientific claims are falsifiable — that is, they are claims where you could set out what observable outcomes would be impossible if the claim were true — while pseudo-scientific claims fit with any imaginable set of observable outcomes. What this means is that you could do a test that shows a scientific claim to be false, but no conceivable test could show a pseudo-scientific claim to be false. Sciences are testable, pseudo-sciences are not.

So, Popper has this picture of the scientific attitude that involves taking risks: making bold claims, then gathering all the evidence you can think of that might knock them down. If they stand up to your attempts to falsify them, the claims are still in play. But, you keep that hard-headed attitude and keep you eyes open for further evidence that could falsify the claims. If you decide not to watch for such evidence — deciding, in effect, that because the claim hasn’t been falsified in however many attempts you’ve made to falsify it, it must be true — you’ve crossed the line to pseudo-science.

This sets up the central asymmetry in Popper’s picture of what we can know. We can find evidence to establish with certainty that a claim is false. However, we can never (owing to the problem of induction) find evidence to establish with certainty that a claim is true. So the scientist realizes that her best hypotheses and theories are always tentative — some piece of future evidence could conceivably show them false — while the pseudo-scientist is sure as sure as can be that her theories have been proven true. (Of course, they haven’t been — problem of induction again.)

So, why does this difference between science and pseudo-science matter? As Popper notes, the difference is not a matter of scientific theories always being true and pseudo-scientific theories always being false. The important difference seems to be in which approach gives better logical justification for knowledge claims. A pseudo-science may make you feel like you’ve got a good picture of how the world works, but you could well be wrong about it. If a scientific picture of the world is wrong, that hard-headed scientific attitude means the chances are good that we’ll find out we’re wrong — one of those tests of our hypotheses will turn up the data that falsifies them — and switch to a different picture.

A few details are important to watch here. The first is the distinction between a claim that is falsifiable and a claim that has been falsified. Popper says that scientific claims are falsifiable and pseudo-scientific claims are not. A claim that has been falsified (demonstrated to be false) is obviously a falsifiable claim (because, by golly, it’s been falsified). Once a claim has been falsified, Popper says the right thing to do is let it go and move on to a different falsifiable claim. However, it’s not that the claim shouldn’t have been a part of science in the first place.
So, the claim that the planets travel in circular orbits wasn’t an inherently unscientific claim. Indeed, because it could be falsified by observations, it is just the kind of claim scientists should work with. But, once the observations show that this claim is false, scientists retire it and replace it with a different falsifiable claim.

This detail is important! Popper isn’t saying that science never makes false claims! What he’s saying is that the scientific attitude is aimed at locating and removing the false claims — something that doesn’t happen in pseudo-sciences.

Another note on “falsifiability” — the fact that many attempts to falsify a claim have failed does not mean that the claim is unfalsifiable. Nor, for that matter, would the fact that the claim is true make it unfalsifiable. A claim is falsifiable if there are certain observations we could make that would tell us the claim is false — certain observable ways the world could not be if the claim were true. So, the claim that Mars moves in an elliptical orbit around the sun could be falsified by observations of Mars moving in an orbit that deviated at all from an elliptical shape.

Another important detail is just what scientists mean by “theory”. A theory is simply a scientific account (or description, or story) about a system or a piece of the world. Typically, a theory will contain a number of hypotheses about what kind of entities are part of the system and how those entities behave. (The hypothesized behaviors are sometimes described as the “laws” governing the system.) The important thing to note is that theories can be rather speculative or extremely well tested — either way, they’re still theories.

Some people talk as though there’s a certain threshold a theory crosses to become a fact, or truth, or something more-certain-than-a-theory. This is a misleading way of talking. Unless Popper is completely wrong that the scientist’s acceptance of a theory is always tentative (and this is one piece of Popper’s account that most scientists whole-heartedly endorse), then even the theory with the best evidential support is still a theory. Indeed, even if a theory happened to be completely true, it would still be a theory! (Why? You could never be absolutely certain that some future observation might not falsify the theory. In other words, on the basis of the evidence, you can’t be 100% sure that the theory is true.)

So, for example, dismissing Darwin’s theory as “just a theory” as if that were a strike against it is misunderstanding what science is up to. Of course there is some uncertainty; there is with all scientific theories. Of course there are certain claims the theory makes that might turn out to be false; but the fact that there is evidence we could conceivably get to demonstrate these claims are false is a scientific virtue, not a sign that the theory is unscientific.

By contrast, “Creation Science” and “Intelligent Design Theory” don’t make falsifiable claims (at least, this is what many people think; Larry Laudan* disputes this but points out different reasons these theories don’t count as scientific). There’s no conceivable evidence we could locate that could demonstrate the claims of these theories are false. Thus, these theories just aren’t scientific. Certainly, their proponents point to all sorts of evidence that fits well with these theories, but they never make any serious efforts to look for evidence that could prove the theories false. Their acceptance of these theories isn’t a matter of having proof that the theories are true, or even a matter of these theories having successfully withstood many serious attempts to falsify them. Rather, it’s a matter of faith.

None of this means Darwin’s theory is necessarily true and “Creation Science” is necessarily false. But it does mean (in the Popperian view that most scientists endorse) that Darwin’s theory is scientific and “Creation Science” is not.


*See Laudan, “Science at the Bar — Causes for Concern”, in Robert T. Pennock and Michael Ruse, But Is It Science?

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If you enjoyed this post, consider contributing a few bucks to a project in my Giving Page in the Science Bloggers for Students 2011 challenge. Supporting science education in public school classrooms will help young people get a better handle on what kind of attitude and methodology makes science science — and on all the cool things science can show us about our world.

Introducing DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students 2011 (with a wag of the finger for Stephen Colbert).

I’m putting Stephen Colbert on notice

Now that that’s out of the way …

In the science-y sectors of the blogosphere, folks frequently bemoan the sorry state of the public’s scientific literacy and engagement. People fret about whether our children are learning what they should about science, math, and critical reasoning. Netizens speculate on the destination of the handbasket in which we seem to be riding.

In light of the big problems that seem insurmountable, we should welcome the opportunity to do something small that can have an immediate impact.

This year, from October 2 through October 22, a number of science bloggers, whether networked, loosely affiliated, or proudly independent, will be teaming up with DonorsChoose in Science Bloggers for Students, a philanthropic throwdown for public schools.

DonorsChoose is a site where public school teachers from around the U.S. submit requests for specific needs in their classrooms — from books to science kits, overhead projectors to notebook paper, computer software to field trips — that they can’t meet with the funds they get from their schools (or from donations from their students’ families). Then donors choose which projects they’d like to fund and then kick in the money, whether it’s a little or a lot, to help a proposal become a reality.

Over the last few several, bloggers have rallied their readers to contribute what they can to help fund classroom proposals through DonorsChoose, especially proposals for projects around math and science, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, funding hundreds of classroom projects, and impacting thousands of students.

Which is great. But there are a whole lot of classrooms out there that still need help.

As economic experts scan the horizon for hopeful signs and note the harbingers of economic recovery, we should not forget that school budgets are still hurting (and are worse, in many cases, than they were last school year, since one-time lumps of stimulus money are gone now). Indeed, public school teachers have been scraping for resources since long before Wall Street’s financial crisis started. Theirs is a less dramatic crisis than a bank failure, but it’s here and it’s real and we can’t afford to wait around for lawmakers on the federal or state level to fix it.

The kids in these classrooms haven’t been making foolish investments. They’ve just been coming to school, expecting to be taught what they need to learn, hoping that learning will be fun. They’re our future scientists, doctors, teachers, decision-makers, care-providers, and neighbors. To create the scientifically literate world we want to live in, let’s help give these kids the education they deserve.

One classroom project at a time, we can make things better for these kids. Joining forces with each other people, even small contributions can make a big difference.

The challenge this year runs October 2 through October 22. We’re overlapping with Earth Science Week (October 9-15, 2011) and National Chemistry Week (October 16-22, 2011), a nice chance for earth science and chemistry fans to add a little philanthropy to their celebrations. There are a bunch of Scientific American bloggers mounting challenges this year (check out some of their challenge pages on our leaderboard), as well as bloggers from other networks (which you can see represented on the challenge’s motherboard). And, since today is the official kick-off, there is plenty of time for other bloggers and their readers to enter the fray!

How It Works:
Follow the links above to your chosen blogger’s challenge on the DonorsChoose website.

Pick a project from the slate the blogger has selected. Or more than one project, if you just can’t choose. (Or, if you really can’t choose, just go with the “Give to the most urgent project” option at the top of the page.)


(If you’re the loyal reader of multiple participating blogs and you don’t want to play favorites, you can, of course, donate to multiple challenges! But you’re also allowed to play favorites.)

Sit back and watch the challenges inch towards their goals, and check the leaderboards to see how many students will be impacted by your generosity.

Even if you can’t make a donation, you can still help!

Spread the word about these challenges using web 2.0 social media modalities. Link your favorite blogger’s challenge page on your MySpace page, or put up a link on Facebook, or FriendFeed, or LiveJournal (or Friendster, or Xanga, or …). Tweet about it on Twitter (with the #scibloggers4students hashtag). Share it on Google +. Sharing your enthusiasm for this cause may inspire some of your contacts who do have a little money to get involved and give.

Here’s the permalink to my giving page.

Thanks in advance for your generosity.