The Culture of Religious Intolerance in Science
Believing Scripture but Playing by Science’s RulesThe level of intolerance coming from some secular scientists here is stunning.
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.
Prof. Steven B. Case of the University of Kansas said it would be frightening if universities began “enforcing some sort of belief system.”
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?”
But not everyone is happy with that approach. “People go somewhat bananas when they hear about this,” said Jon C. Boothroyd, a professor of geosciences at Rhode Island.
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.
And, for some, his case raises thorny philosophical and practical questions. May a secular university deny otherwise qualified students a degree because of their religion? Can a student produce intellectually honest work that contradicts deeply held beliefs? Should it be obligatory (or forbidden) for universities to consider how students will use the degrees they earn?
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.
Michael L. Dini, a professor of biology education at Texas Tech University, goes even further. In 2003, he was threatened with a federal investigation when students complained that he would not write letters of recommendation for graduate study for anyone who would not offer “a scientific answer” to questions about how the human species originated.
Nothing came of it, Dr. Dini said in an interview, adding, “Scientists do not base their acceptance or rejection of theories on religion, and someone who does should not be able to become a scientist.”
A somewhat more complicated issue arose last year at Ohio State University, where Bryan Leonard, a high school science teacher working toward a doctorate in education, was preparing to defend his dissertation on the pedagogical usefulness of teaching alternatives to the theory of evolution.
Earle M. Holland, a spokesman for the university, said Mr. Leonard and his adviser canceled the defense when questions arose about the composition of the faculty committee that would hear it.
Meanwhile three faculty members had written the university administration, arguing that Mr. Leonard’s project violated the university’s research standards in that the students involved were being subjected to something harmful (the idea that there were scientific alternatives to the theory of evolution) without receiving any benefit.
Citing privacy rules, Mr. Holland would not discuss the case in detail, beyond saying that Mr. Leonard was still enrolled in the graduate program. But Mr. Leonard has become a hero to people who believe that creationists are unfairly treated by secular institutions.
Perhaps the most famous creationist wearing the secular mantle of science is Kurt P. Wise, who earned his doctorate at Harvard in 1989 under the guidance of the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, a leading theorist of evolution who died in 2002.
Dr. Wise, who teaches at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., wrote his dissertation on gaps in the fossil record. But rather than suggest, as many creationists do, that the gaps challenge the wisdom of Darwin’s theory, Dr. Wise described a statistical approach that would allow paleontologists to infer when a given species was present on earth, millions of years ago, even if the fossil evidence was incomplete.
Dr. Wise, who declined to comment for this article, is a major figure in creationist circles today, and his Gould connection appears prominently on his book jackets and elsewhere.
“He is lionized,” Dr. Scott said. “He is the young earth creationist with a degree from Harvard.”
As for Dr. Ross, “he does good science, great science,” said Dr. Boothroyd, who taught him in a class in glacial geology. But in talks and other appearances, Dr. Boothroyd went on, Dr. Ross is already using “the fact that he has a Ph.D. from a legitimate science department as a springboard.”
Dr. Ross, 30, grew up in Rhode Island in an evangelical Christian family. He attended Pennsylvania State University and then the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, where he wrote his master’s thesis on marine fossils found in the state.
His creationism aroused “some concern by faculty members there, and disagreements,” he recalled, and there were those who argued that his religious beliefs should bar him from earning an advanced degree in paleontology.
“But in the end I had a decent thesis project and some people who, like the people at U.R.I., were kind to me, and I ended up going through,” Dr. Ross said.
Dr. Fastovsky and other members of the Rhode Island faculty said they knew about these disagreements, but admitted him anyway. Dr. Boothroyd, who was among those who considered the application, said they judged Dr. Ross on his academic record, his test scores and his master’s thesis, “and we said, ‘O.K., we can do this.’ ”
He added, “We did not know nearly as much about creationism and young earth and intelligent design as we do now.”
For his part, Dr. Ross says, “Dr. Fastovsky was liberal in the most generous and important sense of the term.”
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.”
Dr. Fastovsky said he had talked to Dr. Ross “lots of times” about his religious beliefs, but that depriving him of his doctorate because of them would be nothing more than religious discrimination. “We are not here to certify his religious beliefs,” he said. “All I can tell you is he came here and did science that was completely defensible.”
Steven B. Case, a research professor at the Center for Research Learning at the University of Kansas, said it would be wrong to “censor someone for a belief system as long as it does not affect their work. Science is an open enterprise to anyone who practices it.”
Dr. Case, who champions the teaching of evolution, heads the committee writing state science standards in Kansas, a state particularly racked by challenges to Darwin. Even so, he said it would be frightening if universities began “enforcing some sort of belief system on their graduate students.”
But Dr. Scott, a former professor of physical anthropology at the University of Colorado, said in an interview that graduate admissions committees were entitled to consider the difficulties that would arise from admitting a doctoral candidate with views “so at variance with what we consider standard science.” She said such students “would require so much remedial instruction it would not be worth my time.”
That is not religious discrimination, she added, it is discrimination “on the basis of science.”
Dr. Dini, of Texas Tech, agreed. Scientists “ought to make certain the people they are conferring advanced degrees on understand the philosophy of science and are indeed philosophers of science,” he said. “That’s what Ph.D. stands for.”
Consider, for example, Scott’s claim about “fundamentalists who capitalized on secular credentials to miseducate the public.”
She is claiming that scientists, when they get out of graduate programs, are obliged to use their honestly gotten credentials only to promote ideas that the majority of members of a discipline condone.
This is like saying that (for example) students who graduate from conservative theological seminaries are not allowed to decide they favor gay marriage. Or that graduates of highly reputable history departments are not allowed to write books claiming a conspiracy in the assassination of John Kennedy.
To state what should be obvious to tolerant people, individuals get to decide for themselves what constitutes “miseducating” the public.
Likewise, Michael L. Dini is admittedly discriminating against students who disagree with him. If a student can answer questions asked on exams, and write papers that pass scholarly muster, why should personal religious beliefs be penalized?
We teach public policy, and expect students to be able to write on the claimed virtues of markets as a device for allocating resources. This is as much the orthodoxy in economics as evolution is in biology. But it would never occur to us to penalize a student who merely expressed a preference for a socialist system.
It gets more and more bizarre. Consider the notion that subjecting students to creationist or intelligent design arguments is “harmful” to them, and thus violates a University’s rules on dealing with human subjects.
How would left leaning faculty react if conservatives claimed it was “harmful” to subject students to Marxist ideas? To feminist ideas?
In which context, “harmful” clearly simply means “ideas we disagree with.”
People like Scott would never claim that students who are Marxists should not be admitted to reputable economics programs because they “would require so much remedial instruction.”
But worst of all is Dini. Saying that people should not be allowed to get a degree in science unless they “understand the philosophy of science and are indeed philosophers of science” is simply a way of saying “you have to buy our philosophical orthodoxy, in toto, or we will deny you a degree.”
We have discussed issues like this with some of our colleagues in the physical sciences. They have no objection to exposing students to conspiracy arguments about the JFK assassination. They have no objection to exposing students to Marxist economics.
But the idea of exposing students to heterodox ideas about the history of the planet and the origin of species is a different matter to them.
It seems that scientists have deep-seated cultural biases. They don’t start with the idea “let’s explore the universe and see what we can find.” They don’t start by saying “maybe we can find some regularities in the universe and model them and explain things that nobody has an explained before.”
Rather, they start with the notion that science is the rational way of addressing any issue, and all else is “superstition” which must be banished.
Thus, their dogmatism about “science” has historically outrun their actual ability to explain phenomena.
Thus, they often lack the patience to actually debate those with heterodox ideas. They don’t think they should have to do that. And to protect people from heresy, they want to shut up the heretics.
There are exceptions like Fastovsky, Geissman and Case. But there is also a nasty streak of authoritarianism.