Friday, October 28, 2011

Science is Not a Game

Janet Stemwedel at Doing Good Science has been blogging about Marcus Ross, the young earth creationist who earned a mainstream Ph.D. in paleontology. She's trying to pin down exactly what scientists and science-minded people think is wrong with what he did. Where exactly is that gut feeling of something not being quite right coming from?

One of the possibilities she examines is that, "It’s wrong for Ross to maintain his young earth creationist beliefs after the thorough exposure to scientific theories, evidence, and methodology that he received in his graduate training in geosciences". Here, however, she says that young earth creationism is a religious belief, not a scientific one, and scientists typically have all kinds of non-scientific beliefs. This seems like a weak argument to me, as Ross' particular religious beliefs directly contradict scientific ones. This isn't a case of a scientist simply not applying their training to certain belief; it's a case of irreconcilable conflict.

Still, I think that the problem here goes deeper than that. I would argue that when Marcus Ross was doing his dissertation research, he was not doing science, despite using completely standard methods. Ross is not a scientist. He only plays one on TV.

I make this claim because I think that science is defined by its goals, not its methods. The goal of basic research is to improve your understanding of the Universe and share this understanding with others. Janet Stemwedel has referred to the "inferential machinery" of science several times in her blog series, but this machinery (to the extent that a general scientific method even exists) is only a tool. We do experiments, make observations and carry out statistical analyses because doing so is a fairly reliable method of learning about the natural world. If carrying out Ouija board seances while standing on your head was a better way of learning about the world, graduate students would have to master inverted Ouija board use.

This is how we can distinguish Ross from real scientists. His belief in young earth creationism was fixed, so he can't be said to have believed the conclusions in his dissertation. Therefore, Ross' understanding of the world was not and could not have been improved by his work. His research was only a pantomime of science -- maybe a good pantomime, but a pantomime nonetheless.

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