Can You Get A PhD In Cognitive Dissonance?

3 comments February 12th, 2007at 12:21am Posted by Eli

Maybe he prefaces every paper with “If evolution were real…”

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.

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?”

Isn’t this the very definition of Orwellian doublethink?

Those are “darned near imponderable issues,” said John W. Geissman, who has considered them as a professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of New Mexico. For example, Dr. Geissman said, Los Alamos National Laboratory has a geophysicist on staff, John R. Baumgardner, who is an authority on the earth’s mantle — and also a young earth creationist.

If researchers like Dr. Baumgardner do their work “without any form of interjection of personal dogma,” Dr. Geissman said, “I would have to keep as objective a hat on as possible and say, ‘O.K., you earned what you earned.’ ”

Others say the crucial issue is not whether Dr. Ross deserved his degree but how he intends to use it.

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.”

Today he teaches earth science at Liberty University, the conservative Christian institution founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell where, Dr. Ross said, he uses a conventional scientific text.

“We also discuss the intersection of those sorts of ideas with Christianity,” he said. “I don’t require my students to say or write their assent to one idea or another any more than I was required.”

But he has also written and spoken on scientific subjects, and with a creationist bent. While still a graduate student, he appeared on a DVD arguing that intelligent design, an ideological cousin of creationism, is a better explanation than evolution for the Cambrian explosion, a rapid diversification of animal life that occurred about 500 million years ago.

Online information about the DVD identifies Dr. Ross as “pursuing a Ph.D. in geosciences” at the University of Rhode Island. It is this use of a secular credential to support creationist views that worries many scientists.

Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a private group on the front line of the battle for the teaching of evolution, said fundamentalists who capitalized on secular credentials “to miseducate the public” were doing a disservice.

This makes me nervous to say the least. On the other hand, if he’s teaching at Liberty, he’s preaching to the choir (so to speak) – I don’t think he’s going to be luring too many students away from a belief in evolution there.

Oh, and it appears I was not too far off with my little jest at the top of the post:

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.”


Entry Filed under: Religion,Science,Weirdness


  • 1. SPIIDERWEB  |  February 12th, 2007 at 7:17 am

    How can he do that without his head exploding?

  • 2. Eli  |  February 12th, 2007 at 9:16 am

    I always thought I was pretty good at compartmentalizing, but I’m not in this guy’s league. It looks like he basically said, “I’m just going to pretend to believe this stuff so I can get my degree to make myself a credible authority”, but it’s amazing that he could go that far into it without ever actually believing it.

    Actually, it sounds like he *did* somehow manage to believe in it while he was working on it and then switch it right back off, which is even weirder.

    The story also talks about a creationist who studied under Stephen Jay Gould – wrap your head around *that*!

  • 3. healtheland  |  February 13th, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    Not nearly as strange as you think. Look, about 51% of the population is identifiably right of center. That would have to be the case for Republicans to have won pretty much every Presidential election since Eisenhower, especially since even when Democrats do win it is very close (Kennedy, Carter, Gore, even Clinton’s “mandate” was 40% of the vote in a 3 man race against two more conservative candidates). So, you have to assume that out of this 51% of the population, at least SOME of them are earning advanced degrees in areas other than basket weaving and at schools other than Taxidermy Tech. Meanwhile, our leading universities are overwhelmingly left – liberal. So you have lots of conservatives, including – gasp! – FUNDAMENTALIST CHRISTIANS earning advanced degrees in physics, medicine, economics, engineering, sociology, etc. from certified Marxists. So what they do is bite their tongues and say what they need to in order to get an A. For instance, did you know that Christian right leader James Dobson has a Ph.D. in child psychology from Southern California? Or that Jerry Falwell is a Yale Law School graduate? Lots of the leaders of the religious right have advanced degrees from Ivy League and other elite institutions. The notion that a person who has strong religious views is not qualified or intelligent enough to do well at an elite school is a canard – and a very recent one at that – advanced by the anti – religion crowd. Folks like that won’t tell you that Harvard was originally every bit as much a Christian university as Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University is now, or that great scientists like Sir Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal were what we now call “fundamentalist Christians”.

    So what this guy is doing is no different from what untold numbers of other Christians have been doing ever since our elite universities went leftist and secular a few decades ago. The only new occurrence is the attempt to ban Christians from college programs based on their beliefs, and the New York Times’ obvious support of it.

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