Monday, February 12, 2007

Science and Religion

The New York Times has an article on the tension between science and creationism and asks whether a University may deny a degree to a person who's fundamental beliefs contradict their professional ones:
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?
Answers: No, Yes and No, respectively.

Science degrees have to be awarded on the basis of the work alone.

The article presents the case of 3 researchers, a young earth creationist who believes that the earth is at most 10,000 years old, but studies reptiles which died out 65 million year ago; a Los Alamos geophysicist who also believes in young earth creationism and a science teacher working toward a doctorate in education, whose dissertation concerned teaching alternatives to the theory of evolution.

The first researcher separated his professional and religious views. No one would have thought he was a creationist by reading his papers:
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.”
The second studies the interior of the Earth, his views on evolution are as irrelevant to his work as his views on string theory.

The third is a different character altogether. Although the Times article barely mentions it, his Ph.D. was derailed for ethical reasons directly related to his work. He was attempting to "prove" the value of teaching creationism through fraudulent research with a committee composed of zero experts in his chosen field. Inside Higher Ed gives a better overview of that case:
Under Ohio State rules, two members of Leonard’s dissertation committee should have been in the science education division. But the three members of the committee were in the fields of technology education, entomology and nutrition. “A dissertation committee that lacks any experts in the field is, to say the least, suspicious,” said a letter three professors (Brian McEnnis, in mathematics; Jeffrey K. McKee, in anthropology; and Steve Rissing, in evolution, ecology and organismal biology) sent to Ohio State’s graduate dean, protesting the planned dissertation defense.

In the case of Leonard’s scheduled defense, the faculty volunteer was an assistant professor of French and Italian. When she realized the controversial nature of the dissertation, she withdrew.
The only troubling quote in the Times piece was from professor Dini of Texas Tech:
“Scientists do not base their acceptance or rejection of theories on religion, and someone who does should not be able to become a scientist.
Science doesn't need to be protected from fools. Creationism isn't science because it doesn't explain fundamental observations about our world. Evolution is science because it does.

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