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Cognitive Dissonance

I came across an interesting article yesterday morning, which raises a whole bunch of important issues from my perspective. The story deals with Marcus R. Ross, a geologist who recently completed a doctoral dissertation at the University of Rhode Island. The subject of his dissertation 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.” According to his supervisor, his work was flawless – a brilliant piece of scientific research. So far so good…

The problem is that Ross is a “young earth creationist” who believes that the earth is, at most, 10 000 years old. He simply operates with one epistemological model in the sphere of the secular academy, and a different one in the world of his religious beliefs.

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.”

Ross’s position is a peculiar one indeed, and he is coming under heavy criticism from some members of the scientific community. At issue is the fact that he is “using” the credentials earned from a secular academic institution to bolster his reputation in environments where he is espousing views that run directly counter to those accepted in his field. Ross currently teaches at Liberty University, a conservative Christian institution founded by Jerry Fallwell, where specific forms of creationism are presented as alternatives to the evolutionary theory that his doctoral dissertation assumed to be true. Ross has also “used” his credentials to argue for intelligent design in other writing and speaking contexts.

This strikes me as bizarre and troubling on so many levels. Epistemologically, I think that it is absurd to argue that the earth is millions of years old in your doctoral dissertation, and that it is not more than 10 000 years old in another context. I think that it is extremely problematic to go through an entire academic degree knowing full well that you do not agree with the conclusions that your research is supporting. To be frank, I think it’s immoral, especially if Ross earned this degree for the express purpose of “using” his credentials to give himself authority in situations where he would be arguing for the opposite view to the one supported by his research. Ross disagrees. When 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.”

This story is reminiscent of the phenomenon of atheists doing theology in, for example, the nineteenth century. For many people, myself included, this seems absurd. How can one’s entire academic life be spent studying something which one believes to be false? Many Christians felt (and continue to feel) offended at the suggestion that someone who doesn”t even believe in God can properly engage in theological study. It’s interesting to observe the uproar when the shoe is on the other foot.

The scientific community prides itself on being “objective.” Theoretically, it shouldn’t matter what Ross believes or how he uses his degree as long as he ‘does’ his science properly. The fact that the scientific community sees the problem here (and I think it is good and proper that they do) demonstrates that they are consistenly adhering to a specific worldview, and that this worldview commits them to the belief that the world is a certain way and not another (I am not suggesting that being a scientist is incompatible with religious belief in general—far from it!—only that it is incompatible with certain forms of religious belief). This is entirely proper. What is improper, and seems to border on cognitive schizophrenia, is arguing two wildly different things in two different contexts and seeing no problem with it whatsoever.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. That is a fascinating dichotomy, nu? It’s interesting that the creation science folks feel the need to find scientific rationale for their beliefs. This appears to be another example of the same. I have to agree, there is something intellectually dishonest going on here on some level. Interesting post. JMO —Doug

    February 13, 2007
  2. I think you’ve used the right word – immoral. And troubling… very, very troubling.

    February 13, 2007
  3. John Graham #

    It’s funny how Fundamentalism, with its assertions of bedrock truth, can veer when challenged into something more like complete relativism. Ross has presumably worked with a lot of *evidence* in preparing his thesis… and then he seems to turn around and say, well, it’s just a point of view like any other.

    But perhaps that’s doing him a disservice. The article doesn’t have much straight from Ross in it, and he seems reasonable from what little there is. I’d want to hear more from him about how exactly he perceives this cognitive dissonance. He understands the philosophy of science well enough to use it; what made him choose an alternative philosophy?

    February 15, 2007
  4. You’re right John, Ross seems like a perfectly reasonable man from what little article actually says about him – reasonable enough to get a PhD at least! As you say he seems to have a good grasp of the philosophy of science, and he seems to have fairly certain views about the nature of Scripture. I guess this is what worries me. How compartmentalized does one’s life have to be to operate and excel in a public field of discourse which one accepts as problematic in one’s private life? The fact that bright people can and do live with this radical compartmentalization strikes me as one of the more troubling aspects of postmodernity.

    February 16, 2007

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