Stealth Creationists and Illinois Nazis

I’m having the sort of morning where I feel like lobbing a grenade at somebody, and the predictable outrage over yesterday’s story about a creationist paleontologist is as good a target as any.

The issue here is whether it’s appropriate for Marcus Ross to receive a Ph.D. for work in paleontology, given that he’s a young-earth creationist. His scientific papers are all perfectly consistent with modern understanding, speaking of events taking place millions of years in the past, but he himself believes the earth is less than 10,000 years old, and was created as described in the Bible.

The usual suspects are denouncing him, his degree, and the university that awarded it, saying that nobody should get a Ph.D. if they don’t sincerely believe in everything that modern science teaches. They’re afraid that Ross will use his doctorate to claim scientific authority for creationist tripe, and would deny him the degree for that reason.

I’m not so sure that’s appropriate. I think that argument is confusing the function of the Ph.D. degree with a license to practice science. I’ll attempt to illustrate this with a totally non-controversial and non-Godwinating analogy to the case of Matthew Hale.

Hale, as you’ll remember if you read the Wikipedia article linked above, is an Illinois Nazi. Literally– he’s the head of an avowedly racist group in Illinois, and is currently serving time in prison for soliciting the murder of a federal judge.

He’s relevant to this story because he has a law degree, but is not a lawyer. He went to law school, got the degree, passed the Bar Exam, and was denied admission to the Illinois Bar on the grounds of “gross deficiency in moral character.” Thus, he has no license to practice law, and is not a lawyer.

The legal profession splits apart the two functions that Myers and Rosenhouse lump together into the science Ph.D.. There’s an academic law degree, that’s a prerequisite for admission to the Bar, and there’s an exam to test the formal qualifications of a would-be lawyer, but there’s also a character component. People who want to be lawyers not only have to get the degree and pass the test, but they also have to have people willing to testify that they are persons of good character. If they’re not– if they’re con artists, shysters, or racist scumbags, they can be denied admission, and are forbidden to practice law. And even if they get through the admission process, only to later reveal themselves as persons of low character, they can be disbarred, and forbidden to practice law.

There’s really no equivalent process in science. Science is neither a guild nor a licensed profession. A Ph.D. is not strictly necessary to do scientific research (people make careers of it with lesser degrees), and a Ph.D. is not by itself sufficient to make one a scientist. Scientists are people who are doing scientific research, and that status is a sort of nebulous thing, subject to the consensus of the community. Lots of people with science Ph.D.’s are doing work that isn’t really science, and lots of people without Ph.D.’s are doing work that is unquestionably science.

What Myers and Rosenhouse are essentially arguing is that the Ph.D. should serve both of the purposes that the legal profession splits apart: it should be an academic degree awarded only to people of good character– which is to say, people who don’t have beliefs that they find annoying.

I’m not really comfortable with this idea. As I said above, a Ph.D. is not a license to practice science, and I don’t think I want to make it one. It’s an academic degree like any other, and merely testifies that the recipient has completed a certain amount of work at a certain level. It shouldn’t imply any endorsement of the character or personal beliefs of the recipient, either by the institution granting the degree or the community at large.

I can see some of the attraction of having a licensing sort of scheme, but I think that it’s too subject to abuse. I don’t doubt that there are numerous cases out there of people being denied access to various bar associations through the “character” clause because of their race or religion. I wouldn’t want to state that it couldn’t happen today.

“This isn’t the same,” you might say, “this is an objective matter of science.” Yeah, maybe. But once you open the door, how do you keep this from becoming a general assessment of the personal beliefs and character of every candidate? And are you going to institute some sort of disbarrment equivalent, where people who earn degrees without a hitch but have conversion experiences later in life have their doctorates taken away?

The Ph.D. is an academic degree, and that’s it. If people really wanted to keep Mr. Ross from becoming Dr. Ross, the time to do it was when he was admitted, or when he applied to join a research group (and it should be noted that the Times article makes it sound like he was perfectly up-front about his beliefs with the school and his advisors). Once he’s in, and has produced enough research meeting the general standards of the community to earn a Ph.D., I don’t think there’s any basis for denying him the degree, particularly not because of his personal beliefs.

The real problem here is the public perception that a Ph.D. is a license to practice science, and a certificate of authority. But the right way to fix that is by educating the public as to the reality of science, not re-shaping the academic system to fit the public misconception.