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Talkin’ ‘Bout my Paradigms

So, Dr. Ross the paleontologist (stop me if you’ve heard this one)... no, not the buffoon from Friends, though they do look eerily alike,
Behold for yourself!

Anyway, this Dr. Ross has created a huge hullabaloo in the scientific community. The New York Times concludes its report with these statements by Dr. Scott

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.

Specifically, she is speaking about the Evangelical-Young-Earth-Creationist views that Dr. Ross holds.

Despite these views the University of Rhode Island conferred upon a Ph.D. in geosciences for the impeccable (nice pun) done in his dissertation on

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.

His director is the one who called his dissertation without sin, further stating He was working within a strictly scientific framework, a conventional scientific framework.

Dr. Ross reconciles these differences, that is his scientific work with his Biblical Faith, stating

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?

What I call the Wheaton School of Lit Crit does something similar, they celebrate what they, IMHO erroneously believe to be postmodernism’s relativism, in order to read literature from what they call a world-view perspective… it’s all world-view, and the Christian world-view is one that reads literature always with a moralizing bent.

Whereas I don’t have a problem with someone going and getting a Ph.D. in geosciences to poke holes in it, it does seem that what Dr. Ross has done is some what duplicitous.

Then again, I’m a heretic and am baffled by Young-Earth-Creationsit views.



I wonder if Ross’s duplicitousness (or, dilemma, if we’re being nice) is the result of a faulty view of science that has persisted since scientific method gained dominance over other modes of scientific inquiry. Scientists (Ross and his advisor, here) seem to believe that all one need to do is to apply the scientific method to an object of empirical observation, and scientific truth (facts) will thereby be revealed. (Maybe this is what your saying about the “Wheaton School?”) They neglect the fact that they have some level of intentional responsibility toward their studies.

Meanwhile, those of us working in the humanities have no such sure-fire methodology for arriving at truth or producing facts in our field. So, we are forced constantly to account for our own assumptions, motivations, and positions relative to our objects of study. I can’t imagine what Ross’ diss. would have looked like if he had been required to be something more than an agent of scientific method.

well, and she did a damn better job than i!

i, unlike you g, don’t have the time to read and read and read online all day long!

i’ll get back to shaun’s very good comments.

Dude, Bloglines?

but, i still wouldn’t read em, they’d just pile up… and they’d make me waste more time than i already do

It all seems a tempest in a teapot to me. He paid his tuition, did his job, and did it well. He deserves the degree. What he does with it henceforth is his own business.

Insofar as the gatekeepers of that vastly controversial field of paleontology are concerned, of course, the fact that their teapot has been shaken up is a big deal. Were I your garden-variety paleontologist, I’d be annoyed that he can play my game as well as he does. I’d want my science to be fairly verifiable as fact and not as a jargon that can be mastered by a charlatan.

Jim Crace, when he spoke here last year, pointed out that for novelists it’s not necessary to become a dentist, or even to hang out with dentists, to write a convincing novel about dentistry. It is enough for a novelist to learn the language of dentistry enough to make it credible. Novels are never about dentistry anyway.

But of course, Dr. Ross ain’t no novelist, not so much anyway. As JTB points out, his game is less a game with science and more of one with his self: what kind of divided mind must he have that he can hold two oppositions in check so completely? I know the ability to do that is said to be a mark of genius, but I’m not sure this is what the truism intends.

That this also has potentially significant effects on science education spills the tea into the saucer.

Plus, you’re not supposed to be able to put on a paradigm as if it were an old coat. To such a gross misapplication of Hume I particularly call foul.

On a basically practical level, I’d have to say you’re right, JH. People have been using the authority conferred upon them by degrees at secular institutions to bolster their credentials at places like Liberty U. and Harding for a long time. And scholars have used various ‘approaches’ (Marxism…) to their subjects without acting on the political/ethical commitments that those approaches imply for just as long.

But on a philosophical level, I think Dr. Ross’ attitude toward science and religion (an attitude that I think is pretty common among undergraduates) poses a significant threat to both. At stake here is the ability of science and religion to make truth claims about the world. One cannot logically believe that the world was created by God 4,000 years ago and dinosaurs were roaming around on it millions of years earlier.
Ross’ attempt to have it both ways erases the possibility that either his religion or his science can have any substance whatsoever.

right, i don’t care what he does with it… but the dilemma, to be nice, is how it’s done.

i have no problems with the guy that does it, to do it and learn the science to then use the science against itself… than the guy who grabs on two paradigms and shuttles between the two.

I would call it neither postmodern, undergraduate, Wheaton, or whatever, what Ross has done here. The Oxbridge philosophy of pedagogy, which long predates all of the above, holds that your personal beliefs about whether what you’re espousing is actually true are irrelevant, so long as you argue your case well, and that you understand that you are doing it from a certain perspective. I’ve had several assignments where I’ve had to argue a position that both I and my evaluators disagreed with.

Of course, Ross has now left the realm of pedagogy. Assume for the sake of argument that he lands a spot at a university or a reputable research institute: if he continues to research and publish using an acceptable paradigm, and produces knowledge that is useful for his field, should a journal turn him down because of his personal beliefs? Ditto for teaching. If he gives his students a solid grounding in the discipline, should it matter that he moonlights for the Discovery Institute?

I call it relativism. It’s not that his work as a scientist is necessarily faulty because he’s a young-earther. The problem is that he believe that science and religion are separate games to be played with different skills and that, in turn, they have no bearing on each other. He, indeed, may continue to produce knowledge that is considered useful in his field and be published for it (as I think he should), but I find such field-centric (for lack of a better term) knowledge repugnant. The work that we do as scholars should come as a result of a commitment to it, not just a desire to garner academic laurels. Otherwise, its just sophistry.

As you allow, JH, there’s a difference between a theory of pedagogy and a subscription to a discipline; clearly that’s where the bigger question lies. Most of the professors who object to Dr. Ross’s story seem to object to the fact that he’s now in the discipline without actually being of the discipline, and they criticize his school for not being better gatekeepers of the discipline itself. The question you ask really rides on whether you avow that a discipline is something that begins with a willful commitment to it—thus making the discipline a sort of calling—or whether you assert a discipline is a sort of closed community, like the Masons. Of course in practice a discipline is both a calling and a closed community, and it’s the tension between the two that makes this controversial.

Shaun, it seems pretty clear you’re staking primary claim on the importance of an academic calling, but I’m also curious: do you object more to the fact that he’s a relativist in general, or that he is a utilitarian relativist?

That’s the thing though, I don’t even think he’s in a discipline. It’s not like being an MD or a lawyer. Being a scientist is a hazily defined thing that one can slip in and out of. There’s no governing body that says, “Ok, now you’re a scientist” or “You are no longer a scientist.”

Though I can clearly see by the quotes in some of the articles that some scientists would like there to be such a body. Or would like to be such a body.

Sure it’s a discipline. It’s true that most academic departments are not professionalized in the same way as medical doctors or lawyers, but those are trades in ways that teaching, or more broadly, paleontology, is not. That’s a quirk in the history of professionalization, not a deficiency in the definition of discipline.

Paleontology is a discipline to be sure, I’m just not sure merely earning a Ph.D means he’s in it.

Good question, HG. I don’t generally go in for moral or epistemological relativism, but I have no great disagreement with those that find knowledge and morality amorphous and thus conclude that shared versions of them may be impossible.

So, I’d guess I’d have to say that what really irks me is the utilitarian relativism that he is espousing, particularly in light of the fact that he is claiming equal commitment to two utterly un-relative paradigms — empirical science and fundamental Christianity. Tell me if this analogy holds: What Ross is doing would be similar to one of our profs. at HU teaching us how to ‘do’ Marxist/Deconstructionist/... criticism simply because that will get us into graduate school.

Yeah, that seems pretty much right. It is the Wheaton school of criticism in 2—only now, with more worldviews!

Oh, but I missed the eerie resemblance to Schwimmer…

I guess what burns me up about this guy is that the issue which occupies my time so completely in various guises is dismissed so completely with this facile “let’s ignore it and the problem will go away” solution. I can’t “separate the paradigms” like Ross, and because I can’t, I spend all my time meditating on the meaning of truth, and epistemological questions of how we come to know truth, and my central conviction that truth—whatever it is—will certainly not be self-contradictory. (Well, maybe not all my time. I do quite a lot of playing on the floor with blocks and talking baby talk nowadays too.) If Ross’ separation of paradigms is that easy, then it seems to me fairly obvious that he can’t wholly identify himself with either one. Greg’s right: this is exactly what’s problematic about it in my opinion.

I’d say that it’s precisely because he doesn’t see it as a problem—does he even see it as a contradiction?—that allows him to live so divided. Paleontology does not appear to be an epistemological question to him, nor does it even seem an historical one. It is instead a question of labor, something he does apart from his self that, while it sustains him, will pass into oblivion at the end of history. (In contrast, to see a discipline as a calling is to make it matter epistemologically to the self.) I find that stark division rather amazing, and while I don’t envy it or much respect it—It grates at my own awareness of what truth is and how it is revealed—I do marvel at it.

yes, jtb, i do little more than provide banal observations.