Saturday, May 17, 2008

Ph.D. Candidate Supports Teaching Children Non-Evidence-Based Information as Science- How Far Do I Take This?

At a scientific workshop I met with some graduate students late at night out on the beach. We were standing around, listening to the crashing surf and discussing... well I don't know what.

The topic turned to the recent "academic freedom" laws and I found myself in complete diametric odds with a Ph.D. candidate in our program. While I have been fighting these laws that permit opinion and pseudoscience to be taught along side with scientific evidence of evolution, this student supports this legislation 100%. He thinks (to paraphrase) that it is a great idea to allow anyone to teach children whatever they want, because science will sort it out and kids should be exposed to religious opinions taught as facts comparable to those that support evolutionary interpretations.

I'm not going to go through the 3 hours of often heated discussion on this matter. I feel that it is necessary to teach evidence and science in science class, not opinions of alternative, non-evidence-based concepts that solely exist to attack evolutionary theory. Period. Of course, this guy has rather strong political leanings that supersede his ability to implement logic and reason, hypothesis testing and data, in his decisions. This "scholar" also claims that climate change science is complete garbage, placing him in opposition to the conclusions reached by the National Academies of Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and tens of thousands of scientists worldwide. Here's a guy that can't see scientific evidence if it is inconsistent with his political worldview. This is unacceptable in a discipline that depends on weighing the quality of data and incorporating it non-selectively into a sound interpretation. He shows that he is unable to do this and should be disqualified from receiving any higher degrees in science.

He may be best served with a degree in Theology or Philosophy. These areas thrive on considering non-evidence-based concepts in resolving our collective worldview, and work independently of science.

I told him that I would do everything in my power to not allow him to receive an advanced degree. I absolutely will fight this vigorously. In his plan he will soon have the credibility of a Doctor of Philosophy Degree, conferred by my institution. With this new credibility he will go into the world and fight science and reason- the very basis of his degree!

The discussion got most heated when we discussed the age of the earth and I said that it was between 4.39 and 4.50 billion years old. In a sarcastic and challenging way he insisted that it was closer to 6 billion and that's what he believes and that his data are just as good as those I "choose to believe".

That's when the gloves came off. I told him that after the meeting we both would scan the peer-reviewed literature for papers estimating the age of the earth. If he could generate more articles that indicate 6 billion years than I can that support the 4-billion conclusion then I would resign. Likewise, if I can produce more proof of my assertion, I wanted him to resign. Sounded fair to me! This is science- the basis of the degree we are about to confer!

Of course this is when the whole thing blew up, I walked away and he made some snide remark as I left. Yes, he clearly respects those that are trying to foster his scholarship.

Now am I wrong to hold his feet to the fire that he created? Do I publicly challenge him in his thesis defense? I think so! If he is going to use a degree conferred by the institution I work for to defame scientists and attack science, then he deserves to be held accountable and possibly not receive the degree in the first place.

In a perfect world I'd get to influence the publication of the work associated with his thesis. I would write a review that recommends "REJECT because I think that flying monkeys from space should be included in his discussion of the data", because we want freedom to see all points of view, even if there is absolutely no evidence for them.

Maybe he'll change his mind. Unfortunately, here is a bright, generally nice guy that just doesn't understand science and the scientific method. How can we allow him access to an advanced degree, when he'll use that degree to fight science and reason?

Am I overreacting? I think not.


island said...

Am I overreacting?

No, except that scientists have also been publically exposed for allowing their unscientific personal prejudices to affect their interpretations of evidence, and even their willingness to look at certain evidence, so you need to work on getting every subject-related PhD rescended, as well, because your grad student isn't guilty of anything that scientists in the relevant fields aren't also guilty of:


Kevin M. Folta Ph.D. said...

I see your point. Since we are humans we automatically come with biases that shape our decisions. However, the job of a scientist is to do as best possible to set these biases aside.

This situation is on two levels. What I refer to is a major discrepancy in the conduction of basic science. This guy doesn't understand what evidence is and what evidence isn't.

What you suggest is simply that scientists introduce bias into their interpretations by poor examination of evidence or by ignoring or omitting evidence that is unsupportive. Both are wrong.

The difference is that the latter is almost always exposed in the literature upon additional analysis. You even state, "scientists have been publicly exposed"... And yes, anyone falsifying data or omitting data in their Ph.D. thesis may be subject to having a thesis/degree challenged.

I think you see the difference. The field can sort out the evidence, but students first have to see the difference between evidence and opinion.

Thanks for your thoughts.

island said...

However, the job of a scientist is to do as best possible to set these biases aside.

I agree with you, but, as far as I can tell, this has never happened where the CrEvo debate is concerned, so I don't think that "public exposer" has the slightest effect on a scientist who circumvents or choose only to "explain-away" evidence that indicates "agency", because they *wrongly* read god into the evidence.

I'm here to attest that "ideological" predispositioning kills any and all viable avenues of natural scientific pursuit that carry an "appearance of design", so I see the creationists as a necessary evil.

Kevin M. Folta Ph.D. said...

I appreciate where you are coming from. I can tell you precisely where the ideological biases end. Evidence.

Scientists must be open to any explanation. My research program has some nice, yet unpopular, edges. We need to think outside the box to go forward.

Evidence takes us there. To be honest, there is zero downside in being open to creation in any scientific discipline. In fact, if anyone finds data that support that hypothesis it is the cover of Science and grants for life!

The problem comes that there is zero evidence that is independently reproducible and rigorous enough to eclipse established theory.

thanks for your thoughts.

island said...

I appreciate where you are coming from. I can tell you precisely where the ideological biases end. Evidence.

But that contradicts the point of my first example, that you seemed to agree was possible, which was about how unscientific personal prejudices adversely affect scientists interpretations of evidence, and even their willingness to look at certain evidence.

On that site are also a couple of more listed examples.

I can show you others first hand, as well, and I can even show you one case where a grad student attempted to prejudicially remove evidence from the Wikipedia.>Examples

island said... doesn't always like to cooperate with links:


Kevin M. Folta Ph.D. said...

All of your points and fail to make one distinction- What qualifies as scientific evidence?

This is a critical juncture. Yes, I will refuse to look at a lot of evidence, based on its quality. To
many this is ignorance and biased. However, our training teaches us how to trust a source.

A fortune cookie- don't trust it.

A note on the internet- don't trust it.

A single paper in a non-peer reviewed journal- not evidence.

A paper with peer review- good.

A series of papers in peer reviewed journals that use hypothesis-based evidence to expand a common concept- priceless!

It is what we think underlies compelling evidence. In science, that has explicit rules. Therefore, in a science class, we must present science as dictated by the rules within the discipline.

There is no contradiction. I agree, it is possible to assert one's biases, but they are quickly weeded from the system in the peer-review system. It isn't perfect, but it is the best we have and it ultimately works very well (just sometimes gets to the truth a little slower than it otherwise would).

makita said...

I should be shocked to read this, and I would like to attend that defense myself. However, the truth is, nothing about creationists shocks me anymore. The inability to think critically because of pre-conceived notions (indoctrinations), has far-reaching consequences if the individual in question is supposed to do research in science, especially in biology. I have an office-mate who does not believe in evolution, yet he works on phylogeny. Go figure! And he will get a PhD too.

makita said...

By the way Kevin, to address your question about whether to prevent the student from getting a PhD:

A geology student recently received a PhD, even though he publicly and openly claimed to believe the earth is 6000 years old. The outcry on the internet was impressive. However, for some reason, his adviser thought his PhD work was adequate, and the student successfully defended his dissertation.

I do think the student should be challenged. I wonder whether his inability to think critically has been apparent in his research program so far. He will likely be an embarrassment to your program, proudly wear his advanced degree, and claim he is an expert on such matters as global warming and evolution. This is disturbing to say the least.

However, in my experience the one person who truly determines whether a student graduates or not is the adviser. The rest of the committee tends to go along with that. So, unless his adviser agrees with you, I suspect the student will graduate shortly, regardless of what you will do at his defense.

Kevin M. Folta Ph.D. said...

I agree. The bottom line is that he clearly is unable to see why teaching non-scientific challenges to science is dangerous. However, he has no public record of holding these beliefs.

If he were to write a scientific opinion piece, a letter to the editor, etc, then it would be fair game to grill him on his philosophical leanings. However, this is science and therefore we need to play between the lines, strictly.

So to be intellectually consistent, if there is no evidence of his unscientific behavior, then we can't use it in formal adjustments.

I am talking with him soon and I think we'll straighten this out, at least to the point where he knows not to push it around those that will hold him accountable.