Sunday, February 18, 2007

Reconciling faith and academia - The Daily of the University of Washington Online

Reconciling faith and academia

February 16, 2007
By Celeste Flint

With midterms phasing out and scores pouring in, I’m sure most of us have at least considered challenging our grades. Amid these debates of what should pass and what deserves to fail, it leads one to question on what principles students should be graded. More specifically, should a student’s acceptance of the ideas taught in class have anything to do with their grades?

I was somewhat surprised at the attention The New York Times gave University of Rhode Island Ph.D. graduate Marcus Ross for writing a dissertation that, although it followed all the scientific principles taught at his university, he personally disagreed with. Ross’ ultimate goal in receiving the Ph.D. was to be a good paleontologist. However, because of religious beliefs, he just happens to disagree with Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Ross’ dissertation was accepted, but it’s frightening to think that professors from other universities openly and avidly disagreed with the decision because of Ross’ religious views. This discrimination doesn’t just affect those with religious beliefs, but anyone with moral, social and political values that differ from those of the educated elite.

I once took a sociology course at a community college, where I was among the more studious classmates. However, after looking over an essay exam, I noticed I lost a few points on a question with the only comment being that although I understood all the concepts well, I didn’t sound like I believed them. The truth is I didn’t accept half of the material. At first I laughed about it, as I was entertained by the teacher’s frustration, but still, I was discriminated against for holding different beliefs about society than the teacher did. The most frustrating part was that I understood the ideas better than the majority in the class who accepted them.

Although most professors respect differing opinions, especially if they are well-supported, I’ve seen and experienced several occasions when agreeing with the teacher was the ticket to a good grade. For Ross, his dilemma was equivalent to a socialist in an American economics course being told he couldn’t pass because he doesn’t uphold the values of capitalism. To master the knowledge of something doesn’t necessarily require one to believe it or to even think it right.

This fuzzy line is best defined by the misconception that a professor’s job is not just to teach ideas but to also indoctrinate students with them. The beauty of education and science is that it invites us to challenge our beliefs and the beliefs of others but being able to question popular and even scientific beliefs is contingent on knowing that they could actually be wrong. When professors indoctrinate students instead of teaching them, it closes the door to inquiry and exploration of ideas.

All things should be taken in moderation; the authority of a well-educated person shouldn’t be placed on par with an upset student. However, it is both arrogant and asinine to assume that because someone rejects popular and even scientific ideas, that they neither understand the ramifications of their beliefs, nor have valid and logical reasons for believing what they choose.

Michael Dini, an opponent to religious individuals like Ross in the scientific community, was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “Scientists do not base their acceptance or rejection of theories on religion, and someone who does should not be able to become a scientist.”

Although the argument that religious people take what they believe solely on faith can be true, people have been defending their beliefs with quality reason and rhetoric since the days of Plato and Aristotle. Don’t assume that because individuals value faith they can’t logically and even scientifically defend their beliefs. It wasn’t right when Galileo was made to recant his scientific ideas, so why should students be expected to recant their beliefs for the adoption of popular ideas?

Cheap blog post because this actually raised enough of an eyebrow and a mutter or two than I was once again "motivated" to reply...

Here's the full text of my comment on the site, any additional amendments are in italics.

It would appear that Ms. Flint has very erroneously conflated a number of issues that have absolutely no bearing with one another and does not necessarily support her argument.

Amongst which is the very first example she cites, the Dr. Ross incident. Here’s a fuller picture of what actually happened with regard to Dr. Ross and why his situation is so downright odd if not egregious.

He successfully defends his dissertation on geosciences (he's a paleontologist for goodness sake!) but is a YEC (young earth creationist) i.e. someone who believes that the world on which we reside on is between 6000-1000 years old based on a very literal reading of the Bible (Literal 7 Day creation in Genesis and a backward counting of the years based on who beget whom). His dissertation on the other hand repeatedly accepts and refers to events that happened tens of millions of years ago.

Therefore opposition to his receiving the Ph.D. is not simply because of his opposition to Evolution (which is merely a byproduct of his young earth beliefs) but simply because his own personal beliefs are so fundamentally at odds with his entire dissertation and field. One really wonders how he would respond to the question as to how much confidence he has in his results.

To be honest, it's a bit like David Irving getting a 2nd Ph.D. by demonstrating why the Holocaust is a historical event and in fact much worse than what was previously known.

Further, there is a very real problem of someone using this Ph.D. in a very misleading fashion by posing as an authority on a position that led to one’s Ph.D. in the first place. Some background here, he's affiliated with the Discovery Institute, doyens of Intelligent Design (To paraphrase Dr. William Dembski, John's logos reformulated in the idioms of the mathematics of irreducible complexity). And he will be cited as an authority on why apparently Evolution is bunk, notwithstanding the fact that his entire dissertation rests on and probably reaffirms the various hypothesis of the Theory of Evolution once again.

Lastly, while Ms. Flint highlights a potential problem with disagreeing with the preferred position and theories of the professor, there is still a huge distinction to be made between the social sciences (Economics and Sociology) and the sciences (Geosciences and Evolutionary Biology) insofar as the rigourness of scientific facts and theories are much less in doubt in the latter simply because one does not have to deal with humans and their nature. Therefore, while one might well quibble whether a particular theory is to be preferred in a non-science field (We could have loads of fun debating what the best form of government is), the same cannot be said within Science (Reality is what remains even when you choose to ignore it), especially where there is a stunning lack of evidence for either a young earth or creationism and a tremendous amount of evidence across a good many disciplines supporting the very old age of the earth and the universe and for Evolution.

Lastly, there is a reason it’s called faith and not reason, "quality reasons" or not. Recanting a belief is not the same as recanting reality despites the constant push for us to do so when we are asked to have "faith".

Dr. Ross simply could not defend his belief and got his degree by engaging in verifiable reality. If nothing else, we would keep that in mind.



At 9:54 PM, Anonymous rrrrrrrm said...

Hi, Shaun, glad to see you've touched on this issue. Many of your arguments are interesting, and I do agree with your arguments on "faith". However, what I see is simply the logical consequences of taking freedom seriously.

Dr. Ross simply defended his work to get his degree. His beliefs were not involved. In fact, it would have been unheard of to make his beliefs an issue. Interestingly enough, this is precisely because of the institutions of academic freedom and freedom of belief.

And where did this originate? Partly, perhaps, in the days of the religious wars in Europe. Previously, you had to swear allegiance to something to gain high office: God, the King, whatever. There were religious tests instituted in England to keep Catholics out. Slowly this came to fall away, partly perhaps because of the futility and counter-productivity of such measures.

Socially, it would seem the turning of the screw has come full circle. Previously, people feigned belief in a certain faith to gain high office. Now, people feign belief in a certain (non-religious) paradigm to do the same. It is the same modus operandi, only with different things at stake this time round.

To give a similar example, at the risk of being misunderstood, take a look at the "String Wars". This is a fairly recent attack on string theory, the main criticism being that it is not producing testable predictions. Worse, recent "advances" have produced a scenario of an infinitude of universes (or, in actuality, an infinitude of solutions) with no means to ascertain which universe, or solution, corresponds to our own.

I won't go into the (unfair or otherwise) comparisons with the theory of evolution, but anecdotally, people have been known to express the opinion that they don't believe string theory, but that they work in this paradigm anywhere (and oh, it's a good job).

Is this odd? Is this egregious? Perhaps the program (and it is a huge program) of string theory is producing implications that seem too far-fetched for our feeble minds thus far, and perhaps the experimentalists can't make use of much of the theory as yet, in part because of the lack of will to direct enough funds to conduct more experiments. But it is still good maths that has its origins in good science, and so people will still work on the program. The fun thing is, they now appeal to the maths, not to the physics, and so many of these people live in the maths departments.

Bottom line: this is still the issue of academic freedom/freedom of belief. By all means, attack the misleading use of credentials. But I humbly submit that questioning the award of the degree contributes to the undermining of the precious freedom that academics enjoy, a freedom that is currently being eroded by the very same people against whom you constantly rant.

At 10:27 PM, Blogger Shaun Lee said...

He's welcome to his degree and he's probably entitled to it by sheer virtue of his ability to compartmentalize and we'll call him on it when the time comes (he's working at some fundamentalist university so there's no real problem of "indoctrination" as of now"). So in that regard, I don't really question the granting of the award except insofar as the writer makes it out to be a lot more simplistic that it actually is.

The problem with analogizing to the "string wars" is that a) there is a huge background context to this debate and b) there is the conflation of faith and science that isn't present with String Theory. This is why I deliberately used the example of David Irving because I believe it to be on the same level of egregiousness i.e. the work done is in direct contradiction to the beliefs professed.

In addition to the string wars, I agree with what you say in a different context. It appears that in the social sciences and in the context of political science, refusal to validate (or at least write) in a particular theoretical framework puts you at a massive disadvantage, not least when seeking tenure. And that I believe (along with you) to be an egregious breach of academic freedom.

But here there is no belief that Dr Ross has to profess. The age of the Earth is empirically validatable. He deliberately chose to do so over his particular beliefs because he knew his beliefs are simply not defensible.

But I concede that there are huge practical problems into inquiring into a candidate's beliefs, much less making it a prerequisite for any form a higher degree. And on balance, I agree that it's not worth the risk much less the effort to do so for fear of eroding academic freedom.

I'm not so certain, on the other hand, whether freedom of belief gets a free ride. In a separate context, there is a Christian School that is suing UCLA for refusing to grant transferable credits to some of its students on the basis that the textbooks did not meet academic standards. In that situation, beliefs must bow to reality and it isn't discrimination so much in the negative sense but simply the enforcement of good pedagogical and education standards.


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