Posted by: Kevin | February 22, 2007

Religious Beliefs and a Ph.D.

What Would Jesus Do,
at His Ph.D Defense? 

Marcus Ross recently received his Ph.D. in geosciences from the University of Rhode Island.  His thesis was a relatively uncontroversial work on Mosasaurs, a species of reptile which went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period 65 million years ago.   The catch is that Mr. Ross doesn’t believe a word of his own thesis, because he is an avowed Young Earth Creationist.  He is now teaching Earth Science at Liberty University.

Here’s my beef with this situation.  He presented his thesis under false pretenses.  To use the religious term, He bore false witness before the Ph.D. review board.  His thesis, which by all accounts I’ve read was quite good, is based on currently accepted scientific methods.  Yet he believes that the Earth is at most 10,000 years old, which not only flies in the face of accepted science but disputes his thesis.  I don’t understand how you reconcile those two opposing views.

I’m not looking for some kind of anti religious loyalty oath from doctoral candidates in the sciences.  Many talented scientists are able to comfortably balance a belief in God with the pursuit of scientific knowledge.  However, I would expect that there be some kind of internal consistency between their beliefs and their scientific pursuits.  

One possible end result of this is that Mr. Ross can now lend his secular credentials to very unscientific works on Geology.  While this wouldn’t impact the work of any trained scientists, who will no doubt be ignoring Mr. Ross going forward.  It will increase the level of misinformation coming out regarding the Earth’s history and Evolution.

People are entitled to believe whatever they want.  They are entitled to ignore the sciences if that suites them.  I only ask that they then forfeit the right to speak as scientists.  For that reason, I object to what Mr. Ross has done and I strongly object to URI (yoU aRe hIgh) awarding him a Ph.D. 

Hat tip to the Bad Astronomy Blogger
Hat tip to Sandwalk
Original story in the NYT
Young Earth Creationism at wikipedia



  1. kevin

    i agree wholeheartedly that someone shouldnt espouse something just to get credentials. it is pretty sad that he wouldnt stand up for his beliefs about the age of the earth in his own PhD thesis.

    at the same time, while his actions are unexcusable, i think we have to remember that there is a huge problem for young earth scientists. they are ridiculed, they are fired, their works arent accepted into scientific journals. etc etc. and really its not a legitimate discrimination. because there is just as much evidence that the earth is only a few thousand years old as there is that it is millions.

    people most commonly cite carbon dating, but thats not even effective past about 5000 yrs. they also cite the fossil evidence, but this is all dated based upon the fallacious geologic column, which uses circular logic.

    ultimately, the dating of the earth comes from the theory of darwinian evolution, which necessitates an old earth. so in order to protect the theory, a large amount of scientists ridicule those who believe (regardless of their religious beliefs) in a young earth.

    and if you think that i am not a scientist and that there are no true “scientists” who agree with me, then check out there is the credentials of the scientists who are PhD’s in their respective scientific fields that all believe the earth is only a few thousand yrs old.

    so while marcus ross may be entirely messed up, so is the entire peer group of scientists. its no wonder (although wrong) that he would lie to get his PhD accepted.

    check out the evidence for yourself


  2. PB and J,

    I encourage you to read up on isotope dating. Carbon dating does become less accurate as fossils age, although it’s not 6000 years it’s 60,000. Fortunately, there are many other isotopes which can be used to date both rocks and fossils. Those dating methods clearly point to an old Earth.

    It’s also not clear to me how the geologic column employs circular logic. It would seem pretty straight forward that in areas where the rocks are sedimentary, the oldest ones will be at the bottom. That can then be used to determine relative age. Isotope dating can then be used to date various parts of the column to find actual ages and confirm that the relative ages make sense.

    If Young Earth Creationists are being fired from science teaching and research jobs, it’s probably because they aren’t teaching science. After all, if you’re going to challenge theories and ideas that make sense and are compelling (in the secular sense), you need an equally compelling and sensible reason to do this.

    YEC hasn’t provided that kind of compelling arguement because it violates one of the fundamental ideals of science. You don’t begin your research with the answer. Individual secular scientists have been known to do this too. However, their theories don’t last becasue there’s always someone else who will come along and point out it’s weaknesses. That isn’t possible when you attempt to mix religion and science.

    As for the website you referenced, if you want to convince me please link me to an individual study or paper based on YEC “science”. I promise I’ll read it.

  3. It is my opinion that a PhD review board has no business witholding degrees based on a canidate’s deeply held personal beliefs. No one can truly know the heart and mind of a person and so we must make our judgements based on the facts, not on unpublished statements or beliefs. Although there is always some level of subjectivity in the process of awarding PhDs, it should be based on the body of work presented. If the work truly does conflict with the person’s deeply held beliefs then that is for their conscience to wrestle with. Writing and defending a thesis is neither fast nor easy, and I can not fathom that any person could actually work for years generating research that directly contradicts their beliefs without feeling tortured about it. To a large extent, what he chooses to do with his degree afterwards is his own decision; we should not second guess a canidate’s sincerity unless they have already begun publishing writings that contradict what they’re presenting.

    You might think that a “rogue” PhD reflects badly on the university that awarded the degree, but I see no reason for it to do so as long as the original thesis lived up to the standard. Many PhDs will fail to make future contributions that live up to the quality of their original place of research, and though they may not be controversial, how is that situation radically different? The only difference between the “rogue” PhD versus the one who slips into the shadows and rarely gets published is the publicity. Sacrificing the freedom of personal, even controversial, beliefs because of potential bad publicity is folly.

    Where do you draw the line? Is it enough to only exclude those who believe in YEC? How about those who don’t believe in YEC but do believe in a pre-historic worldwide flood? Perhaps a belief in science-defying miracles of any kind is potentially dangerous to a university’s public image and science in general. The fact is that many spiritual beliefs can be said to directly contradict or conflict with a person’s scientifically based thesis, but the PhD panel should not be judging personal beliefs, they should only be judging what the person is willing and able to defend scientifically before them. I’m not a believer in YEC, but I do believe in a miraculous virgin birth of Christ. I would never think of trying to prove it scientifically though, so although that belief might be irreconcilable with any research I do in the field of human reproduction I don’t believe it has any place in judging my eligibilty for a science degree.

  4. Scott, I admit that I struggle with this one more now than I did when I first heard the story. On the one hand, good science is good science and by all accounts his thesis was good. On the other hand, there is such a thing as scientific integrity and what Mr. Ross did clearly violates that. I still think he shouldn’t have been awarded a PhD because he went so far over the line but I cant really tell you where that line should be.

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