Intellectual honesty in science: the Marcus Ross case.

By now, you may have heard (via Pharyngula, or Sandwalk, or the New York Times) about Marcus Ross, who was recently granted a Ph.D. in geosciences by the University of Rhode Island. To earn that degree, he wrote a dissertation (which his dissertation advisor described as "impeccable") about the abundance and spread of marine reptiles called mosasaurs which disappeared about 65 million years ago.
Curiously, the newly-minted Dr. Ross is open about his view that the Earth is at most 10,000 years old.

There have been interesting discussions in the comments on the linked posts about what precisely a Ph.D. signifies (that you have completed coursework and banged out a defensible piece of research, or that you are fit to enter a holy society of scientists?), about whether science is primarily concerned with facts or methodologies, about whether it is possible simultaneously to hold contradictory ideas in your head. Because those discussions are happening elsewhere, I don't want to replicate them here.
Rather, I'd like to examine whether it would be possible for someone like Marcus Ross -- a self-professed Young Earth Creationist (YEC) -- to write a doctoral dissertation in geosciences that is both "impeccable" in the scientific case it presents and intellectually honest.
I take it that the main worry about Dr. Ross's dissertation is that what he wrote was some distance from his actual views. Larry Moran writes:

Ross did not discuss his YEC beliefs in his thesis, Instead, he wrote his thesis as though he believed in an Earth that was billions of years old and as though species evolved and went extinct over periods of millions of years. In other words, Ross did not tell the truth about his true "scientific" beliefs when he wrote his thesis. I assume that he also didn't discuss his true beliefs during the Ph.D. oral exam when his examining committee questioned him on his thesis work, including his interpretation and its implications. ...
The Ross case gets complicated because he did not do what any honest scientist should do and defend his "scientific" opinion in public. There's nothing in his thesis about Young Earth Creationism. However, his real views were well known because he had been consorting with Young Earth Creationists for some time. ...
In this situation we have an example of someone who carefully hid his true belief from the thesis committee, or at least went out of his way to give them an excuse to avoid facing up to the main problem. This is deceptive and antithetical to how science is supposed to operate ... It opens a whole other can of worms. While most of us would agree that openly advocating a young Earth in your thesis would be grounds for failure, we couldn't fail someone who effectively lied about his "scientific" opinion. We put our faith in honesty and scientific integrity whenever possible. It's the default assumption.

If Ross wrote a dissertation that asserts something that he then disavowed elsewhere (and in such a short interval of time that clearly he must not have believed it when he asserted it in the dissertation or in his defense of it), that looks like lying. One might wonder how big a leap it is to go from, "These critters lived in these places until they went extinct about 65 million years ago (although actually they can't have lived that long ago since the Earth was created much more recently than that)" to "Here's the data from the isotope-dating of the fossils I found in these locations (although actually I didn't find any fossils so I just made the data up)." My suspicion is that Ross would not cross the line of actually making up data; what is the principled difference between crossing that line and making assertions that one does not believe?
One possibility is that Ross saw his dissertation as an exercise in presenting the inferences one could draw from the available data using the recognized methods of geoscience. In other words, here's what we would conclude if all the assumptions about the age of the earth, deposition of fossils, isotope dating methods, etc., were true. Given Ross's YEC, he presumably has reason to think at least some of these scientific assumptions are false. (They are religious reasons, not scientific reasons. If there were scientific reasons to doubt these assumptions, it seems like examining those could only lead to a stronger body of knowledge in geosciences, and that Ross could have made such an examination the focus of his doctoral research.)
Is it an obligation for a scientist who has concerns about the goodness of an assumption on which people in his field rest their inferences to voice that concern? Is it an obligation for that scientist to gather data to test that hypothesis, or to work out an alternative hypothesis that is better supported by the data? Or is it OK to keep your doubts to your self and just use the inferential machinery everyone else is using?
A shorter way of asking the same question: Does intellectual honesty in science just cover the way you use the inferential structure and the inputs (i.e., data) from which you draw your inferences? Or does it require disclosure of which assumptions you really accept when drawing your inferences and which you are inclined to think are mistaken?
Does intellectual honesty require that you disclose as well the fact that you don't actually accept this inferential structure as a good way to build knowledge?

Comments are off for this post

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Is there really a difference between the intellectual dishonesty shown by Ross and that of the Danish scientist who invented data related to oral cancer research that won him many accolades, before he was exposed? As it happened, despite the fabrication, the research based on the Danish scientist's ideas continue today, because many in the field believe that the fabricated results have merit, anyhow. Or how about the scientist who stole a scientific idea from his colleague, and despite the fact that his theft was exposed, he is now enjoying the fruits of his dishonesty with much funding, speaking engagements and honor? Is such a scientist and his dishonesty different from Ross's?

  • Guyren G Howe says:

    IOW: Did he commit a thoughtcrime?
    We can't go deciding whether to hand out PhDs on the basis of what people think, because this is not an observable phenomenon.

  • J-Dog says:

    Pretending that the "Your dress looks nice" socially acceptable lie is on a par with "I am totally lying about what I believe" PhD thesis is en entirely different thing to me. The first lie is a social construct to oil the wheels of discourse, and Ross' lie is a science-stopper - in more ways than one.
    I would not hesitate to call him out here, or face to face as a lying weasel. I would not lend him money, or let him talk to or babysit my kids. I would not turn my back on him. You can dress up the pig all you want, but at the end of the day he's still a pig, and in this case a non-truth-telling pig.

  • Scott Belyea says:

    An interesting take on the issue.

    ...does it require disclosure of which assumptions you really accept when drawing your inferences and which you are inclined to think are mistaken?

    It seems to me that unless there's a documented requirement of "intellectual honesty" or "belief," then the answer is "no." And that requirement would seem to me to be wandering over toward the "statement of belief" side of things.
    (To nitpick at your choice of words, I don't see much sense in asking if I really accept my assumptions. They are ... wait for it ... assumptions.)
    I've never been a working scientist, but I think I can grasp why some are so upset at this case and at the "degrading of the currency" that it could be seen as depicting. However, it seems to me that this may be an area where the cure is worse than the disease.
    To take just one additional example - I get a degree with no hint of anything but proper "beliefs." A month later, I show up at the Discovery Institute and make it plain that I never did believe a lot of the stuff I said. Does the university rescind my degree at that point? Unless there was a "statement of belief" which included the notion of retroactive penalties for lying, I suspect that any action to take my degree would happen only over the dead bodies of the university's legal staff.

  • Mustafa Mond, FCD says:

    Given Ross's YEC, he presumably has reason to think at least some of these scientific assumptions are false. (They are religious reasons, not scientific reasons

    Cause might be a better word here than reason.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    A simple question by one of the members on his thesis committee could solve the dilema, a question that should be asked at the defense of any doctoral thesis: "Do you believe in the truthfulness of the hypothesis that the results of your research support?"
    If the student does not believe in his own results, how can he defend his thesis?

  • SteveG says:

    Wittgenstein uses the notion of a language game, Ross played the game -- writing what those in the linguistic communitiy would deem not only meaningful, but worthy of reward -- while not attributing any meaning to the game he played. Reminds me of the Thai Scrabble players who don't speak English, but have memorized what strings of letters are allowable in the game.
    The conflict comes in when we want to say that there is more than a game going on amongst those who are fluent speakers of the scientific language. We want to say there is more than mere conventional sense to scientific propositions and treating it as a game is to demean it or be dishonest.
    On the one hand, I am sympathetic to this especially since his motivation is no doubt to now use his credential to be a "scientific voice" for the creationists. That move is especially pernicious since it will appear that he arrived at his position as a result of doing science where the fact is that he learned how to do science without taking it seriously while holding this viewpoint -- the presumed causal claim will be false.
    But is it a matter of kind or of degree? Is this terribly different from what we all do to get tenure? We figure out how to play the game and do it safely so that once tenured, we can really begin to do interesting edgier work?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    I thought that those who play the game to get tenured are the ones who, once they get it, just sit on their behinds and do nothing. I do today what I have done before receiving my tenure, but better.

  • Rob Knop says:

    While it's not obvious whether or not the RI department did the right thing by giving him a degree-- and, indeed, it's difficult to think of a way it could have been denied without introducing VERY troublesome things to the department-- that doesn't stop my hesitation to condemn Marcus Ross as a dirty rotten liar as an individual.
    If somebody does good work and presents good scholarship in their thesis, then yeah, I suppose they should get the PhD.
    On the other hand, Marcus is not a good scientist. If he really believes what he believes, then he must also believe that horrible amounts of public funding were wasted on the grants and so forth that supported his graduate education.
    I rambled at length on this on my blog:
    Suffice to say that I have no respect for Ross himself, and think that he's contemptible. But I do agree that it would probably have been wrong for him to be denied his PhD on the basis that he didn't really believe any of what he was doing when he turned in his thesis.

  • Joe Shelby says:

    Intellectual dishonesty, or merely insincerity?
    Is sincerity a requirement for a degree? Being able to look at a problem objectively and find a scientific solution to it, regardless of personal belief, is generally valued in science. To produce work without the hint of bias is the ideal. As such, the degree is warranted.
    That the intent for the degree was insincere, in that he intends to use it to dupe followers through "argument by authority" (see, I have a degree, so I *must* be right) is certainly unethical, but the ethics was in the attitude, not in the work or the work process, the two places where it would warrant refusing the degree.
    That he likely shouldn't have been admitted to the degree program in the first place is a more likely debate to come to a satisfactory conclusion than the debate on whether after doing the reasonably good work, the degree should be refused.
    On the bright side, he's teaching at Liberty U. This means that he can only indoctrinate students who really have already been indoctrinated. His degree alone won't be enough to get YEC garbage published in real scientific circles. Thus, he's in no position to corrupt the uncorrupted. At this point, I say let him go, he's not worth the trouble personally. Address the admissions requirements a little more clearly, some compromise between "let 'em all in" vs "refuse anybody with a nutball belief system", and tweak that 'til it hurts. Again.

  • This is one of those way-out-on-a-limb cases about which I think it's impossible to generalize. The N is just too small. I can't imagine there are too many Marcus Rosses out there; there are certainly creationists in the sciences, but most are in fields where they wouldn't have to discuss the age of the earth or the origin of species in their dissertations.
    My own opinion: Ross earned his Ph.D. on the basis of his work alone, which is as it should be. However, if he really doesn't believe what he wrote, then I feel sorry for him. When I completed my dissertation, it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I'd set up a lot of experiments, reared a lot of critters, collected years' worth of lab data, and learned to apply a lot of statistical techniques -- and when it was all over, the work made biological sense, I'd discovered something quite unexpected, and when it was published, at least some small subset of other scientists would notice it and be as surprised as I was.
    Ross won't be able to do this. What he's done is the scientific equivalent of an unhappily arranged marriage or the birth of an unwanted child. He's completed a huge piece of work with the express intention of repudiating it. I can't imagine what that will do to him in the long run, but I wouldn't wish that experience on anyone.

  • Knax says:

    I find the fierceness and intense emotionality that the scientific community exhibits over cases like Marcus Ross a little disconcerting. Nobody is really shocked when Microsoft board members say that they would run a Mac if they had a choice. Nobody lapidates a Dunkin Donuts employee when they admit to drinking Starbucks coffee in their free time.
    True, many people would probably distrust a priest who does not believe in God. But I would like to believe that - as scientists - we see ourselves and our discipline in one line with Microsoft and Dunkin Donuts and not with religion.

  • hypatia cade says:

    I think a fundamental part of science is the ability to entertain multiple explanations for a set of phenomenon and choose the best explanation from among them that fits the available data. It seems to me that the ability to say IF I assume/believe in the young earth stuff, then X Y and Z follow from it. IF I assume/believe in geological history, then A, B, and C follow from it. Here's my data. They fit this theory better than they fit that theory...
    But what if I have this hunch that this is a spurious finding and I resolve to seek more data to support/refute the hypotheses..... We may all agree that it's a bit dumb to beat your head against a wall and that at some point one should seek a new theory. But entertaining ALL possible solutions, however implausible is part of applying the scientific process fairly. Refusing to talk to the other side in a civil manner is a problem for both sides.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Knax -- your analogy is flawed.
    Marcus Ross is like an exec at a computer company who asserts that computers don't really work. Or, perhaps, who asserts that computers are destructive to society.
    The analogy you give is more like the astronomer who believes in MOND writing papers about dark matter.
    Marcus is a guy who has a PhD in science but who says, implicitly, that the scientific method and mode of inquiry doesn't address reality-- that what he believes to be true is inconsistent with the scientific method. THAT is much bigger than somebody working for one company and choosing to use the products of another. He's the avowed anti-capitalist getting rich of off venture capital investments.

  • ChemJerk says:

    I think the answer to Janet's last question is yes, but URI intentionally or ignorantly thinks the answer is no. If I recall correctly, Ross's YEC perspective was known before he gained admission. The faculty were either ignorant of or chose to ignore the epistemological issues at hand. While I have problems with URI granting Ross his degree, I ultimately respect their right to establish academic freedom as they see fit since no harmful act of academic dishonesty (e.g. falsified data) was committed.
    A few other points/questions: If I can expand/modify Janet's question a bit, I would ask if individual assent to widely accepted (i.e. 99.9+%) reality is required to begin work within a field of study? I may be overly conservative here, but I think the answer is clearly yes. Second, isn't there a Platonic issue buried within Janet's questions? If Ross does not believe the earth is 4.5 billion years old, then how can he claim to possess the knowledge presented in his thesis? If he doesn't possess the knowledge, then why was he awarded the diploma? Finally, it is likely that Ross was, not unlike the defendant in the Scopes trial, spoiling for a fight. I suspect that nothing would have made Ross and certain fundamentalist organization happier than for URI to have failed him.

  • Lab Lemming says:

    Janet, could you please check the references of your witch-hunters before quoting them?
    The quote "In this situation we have an example of someone who carefully hid his true belief from the thesis committee..." directly contradicts the interviews quoted in the NY Times article, where Ross's advisors say that they were aware of his beliefs, and had discussed them extensively, but were convinced that they did not inhibit his ability to do science or reduce the quality of his research.
    Belief is not a scientifically meaningful expression of confidence. Thus, it is irrelevant to research. For the long, sarcastic, obnoxious version of this argument, go here:

  • Magda says:

    The Conservapedia entry about the subject :
    "Marcus S. Ross is a Young Earth Creationist (YEC) who was awarded a Ph.D. in geology by the University of Rhode Island in December 2006.
    Ross' receiving his doctorate, which was publicized in a New York Times article, raised eyebrows in the notoriously bitter liberal academic community; as a group, liberals cannot understand why someone who openly believes that the earth is less than 10,000 years old could be judged an expert in earth science by fully qualified faculty."

  • Ronald says:

    More interestingly are I think the (moral) implications for Ross himself (and how he intends to defend them):
    - He lied excessively during his work (like peter denouncing christ ;-), how does he reconcile that with his christian faith?
    - Why oh why do you pursue something you evidently hold to be untrue? Is he a happier person now?
    - If there is a purpose behind it, it would obviously be to lend his "credentials" to YEC propaganda. But then he could just as easily have bought a doctorate from one of these sham universities: The general public does not know the difference, and scientists know better than to rely solely on someone having a Ph.D. So why this enormous effort for "nothing"?
    I think this man needs to see a psychiatrist urgently....

  • greensmile says:

    A far more complete report of Dr. M. R's writings, if any exist, would help one answer some of the questions you raise, Dr. Free-Ride. The man might have two completely separate calendars in his head one in bible-time one in science-time and the mapping between the two maintained by some poetic or schizophrenic juggling. But if, on the other hand, he turns out to be simply and strictly literalist and assigns greater veracity to bible stories than to radioactive decay rates,e.g., without resorting to any interpretation of the stories as metaphor [the usual way out for liberals who still like the moral frameworks built on religion] then yes, hard to avoid calling him a liar. The latter case would disqualify him or render questionable ANY result he obtains because it would mean he considers as "data" beliefs no excavation will ever find, no instrument will ever detect. That would be flagrantly operating outside the most lenient and inclusive view of what constitutes scientific method.
    He has put himself on the spot. There are these two different formalisms for construction of reality and he is only paying lip service to one of them...I will have to read his work to make my guess about which one.

  • I'm not a scientist--I studied Literature in college, but I wonder if Ross did what a number of us in the humanities did during the 80's and 90's: play the academic game in order to finish a degree and get out of there.
    In my field, the dominant discourse was all Derrida and Foucault, so that's what I wrote about, even though I sensed that it was crap. Because my professors were so enamored of this stuff, it just wasn't worth the headache to challenge it, so I played the game.
    I know that the standards and rigor are much higher in the hard sciences than in the humanities, but I wonder if this isn't what is going on with Ross. I do think it's fundamentally dishonest to do what he did, but i suspect there are a lot of people running around with non-science doctorates who wouldn't be willing to defend their theses except in relative terms.
    This, incidentally, is what led to the Sokal Science Studies hoax: some people (especially in the humanities) see how contingent their discipline is on interpretation and assume that all other disciplines are equally contingent. Perhaps Ross is just a postmodernist at heart, which, for a fundamentalist, would be a rich irony.

  • HP says:

    Why do we automatically assume that his stated YEC beliefs are sincere, and his PhD work is not? The academic community has not threatened Marcus Ross with eternal punishment and a solitary life without meaning or morality. His church on the other hand, has conditioned him to think that he must express YEC beliefs, or forfeit not only his community but his very soul. How sincere can a belief be, if it is not only counterfactual but sustained only through existential threats?
    It seems to me that Ross's YEC views are the product of self-delusion and conditioning. What does it even mean to "sincerely" believe something that is contrary to evidence and reason? Ross is clearly an intelligent and capable man -- he doesn't need censure, he needs deprogramming. Cf. Stockholm syndrome.
    Imagine a hypothetical situation in which Ross never expresses his YEC views. Not ever. Suppose he gets his PhD, gets a teaching position, continues to do "impeccable" original research and guides several generations of students in solid scientific practice. If that were the case, the idea of "belief" becomes nonsensical. Beliefs don't matter if you never act on them. Which is another way of saying that only actions matter. Ross's state of mind, his sincerity, is irrelevant. What matters is the damage his little stunt is doing to academia and the damage that he will do to students as a professor at Liberty University.
    I personally think that whole notion of "belief" as some quantifiable state of mind is generally meaningless. It's an epiphenomenon of language and a post facto shorthand for describing the cumulative effect of actions. But I'm not a philosopher, so I'm in way over my head on that one.

  • KeithB says:

    Could it also be that Ross is the kind of YEC that believes that the world was not created "fresh" 10,000 years ago, but created with the look of being old.
    Complete with pre-buried fossils, tree rings and navels on Adam and Eve. And that the creation was so convincing that even the isotopes in the rocks were set to make the Earth look old.
    In this case, he can completely accept the Scientific explanation and use it, since the only way to accept the 10,000 year old creation date is by faith. There is no evidence that support it.

  • paul says:

    Is it the doctorate in geology in particular that makes Ross's YEC craziness so troublesome, or would it be a problem for people getting doctorates in other fields as well (seeing as all science is fundamentally interconnected)? I've met creationists who did competent or even groundbreaking work in other fields by being able to compartmentalize their thoughts, so that the damage done by their creationist beliefs was minimal (I'm sure that's not how they thought about it).
    I think that this is more of an ethical matter for Ross than anything else: if he teaches courses at Liberty U. where he avers that modern geology is baloney, then he is stating that his own former work is wrong and nonfactual. It would be only proper for him to contact anyone who has received writings from him in the field of modern geology and ask that they be withdrawn.

  • Gvlgeologist, FCD says:

    I find all of this incredibly ironic. If Dr. Ross's work in his dissertation is "impeccable" and is in fact good, well reasoned research, it will probably be used by other, more honest researchers (although probably also read with a bit more skepticism than most research). That means that it will be referenced, and _used_ by other researchers to advance the scientific understanding of paleontology in general, and into marine reptiles in particular, contributing to the continued proof against YEC. Thus his own work may wind up helping to continue to disprove (yet again) the erroneous beliefs he has.
    In addition, it will undoubtably be referenced much more than any drivel he publishes out of Liberty U.
    I wonder how the administration at LU will like his publication (as a dissertation is) being used as an argument against their beliefs.

  • Blake Stacey says:


    I think that this is more of an ethical matter for Ross than anything else: if he teaches courses at Liberty U. where he avers that modern geology is baloney, then he is stating that his own former work is wrong and nonfactual.

    According to the kind of second-hand evidence which proliferates in the Internet era, he does. A student of his is quoted as saying,

    Dr. Ross teaches Creation Studies at Liberty University. I have taken the class. We spent several weeks discussing Evolution. We discussed BOTH the supporting evidence and the inexplicable gaping holes of the scientific religion. He was very knowledgeable on the subject matter.

  • Invisible Eye says:

    Defending Marcus Ross isn't just about religion versus science and it's certainly not about honesty versus lies.
    If we all were forced to disclose what we "really thought" about the topics we're forced to keep silent on, or deceive about in order to live, work and get along with others, I'm afraid there would be a lot of people out of homes, jobs and friends. This is not just the altruistic harmless lying about ugly hairdos. And keeping the facade up means the difference between life in a house and life in the gutter.
    Respecting those circumstances is the difference between civilized society and a witch hunt.
    True believers in everything they do in life can be real, real scary; especially when they expect the same from others who don't share their thoughts and great luck, and when they have the power and self-righteousness required to punish non-conformers. I'm afraid our society is good at rewarding that kind of personality (regardless of the content of their beliefs). As for the rest, equanimity has become grounds for punishment.
    People who are calling for Ross's degree strongly remind me of the former. If they had the power -- which many must certainly aspire to -- they'd be dangerous. Much more dangerous than Ross.

  • Recall that even Dr. Albert Einstein said in his own words:
    Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955) "Die Naturwissenschaft ohne Religion ist lahm, die Religion ohne Naturwissenschaft ist blind"
    "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."
    What this says in a NUTSHELL is that both the scientists and the so-call know-it-all physicists who lack knowledge of GOD and the Bible are just as guilty as the Bible believers and the Creationists for their lack of knowledge of SCIENCE. I believe that Einstein is saying that it goes both ways.
    Bible believers, Creationists and the so-called "learned church people" are all just as damaging to the Children of Faith who are attempting to understand the UNIVERSE, the Gifts of God and its CREATION, because of their lack of the knowledge of science. The believers are just as guilty as the Non-believers for their damaging and destructive arrogance to Powers of Faith.
    Take a look at the website:
    This is a testimony of a Scientist, a Physicist at NASA: A web-site that is dedicated to the scientists maternal Grandmother who instilled in him advance knowledge already embedded in the Bible during the time of his youth.
    Einstein: "Gott w├╝rfelt nicht!" "God does not shuffle the dice!" also "Rafiniert ist der Herr Gott, aber boshaft er is nicht." "God is slick, but he ain't mean." Einstein's own translation.

  • Drew says:

    Marcus Ross DID actually make known his creationist/young earth views throughout his schooling; he did not hide it. If he did not include this information in his Thesis, it's probably because it was not necessary to do so. "he wrote his thesis as though he believed in an Earth that was billions of years old and as though species evolved and went extinct over periods of millions of years." The point of his Thesis was to examine the cause of the Mosasaurs' extinction and how rapid that extinction was. If he used the general dates by evolutionary scientists, it's probably because that's the general standard. Many creation scientists, in their books, use the general dating standards of millions/billions of years since the general public understands it in that format. Although, even if Ross purposefully kept his creation/young earth beliefs hidden (which he did not) you can't really blame him, considering the fact that many scientists today who even hint at the possibility of the evolutionary theory being false end up losing their jobs, are denied recommendations, are denied tenure, etc. If you're interested in a further explanation of Ross's Thesis and his beliefs he was interviewed on Darwin or Design (iTunes podcast); the interview may still be available for downloading.

  • Drew says:

    Here's a link to a newspaper article on Marcus Ross; it contians some explanations of his reason for using millions of years in his thesis/dissertation.