Friday, February 23, 2007

Ross, Kuhn, and Sokal

A couple very nice discussions going over at Adventures in Ethics and Science about Marcus Ross, the young earth creationist who has written what his advisor termed an impeccable doctoral dissertation about the population dynamics of a marine reptile that went extinct about 65 million years ago even though he thinks the Earth is only 10,000 years old. Here is someone who wrote a dissertation by learning to play the game well without actually believing in the soundness of the game he was playing. Indeed, it is perfectly clear that he learned to play the game in order to gain the credential so that he could then be cited as an expert who opposes the very science he is now accredited as an expert in. Dr. Freeride has very nice discussions about whether it is intellectually dishonest to do science you don't believe in and whether good science requires belief.

My thoughts are in a somewhat different direction. It is very interesting that he uses the language of Thomas Kuhn saying that paleontology is one paradigm for understanding the past and that scripture is another paradigm. For Kuhn, a paradigm is the basic intellectual structure that sits under the possibility of doing science. the paradigm defines the meanings of the scientific terms, contains the basic necessary presuppositions about the ways the world is ordered, determines what are acceptable questions to ask, what are the acceptable means of answering questions, and what counts as a legitimate answer. The paradigm is the lens through which the world is scientifically constructed. In order to have a meaningful picture of the world, you need to start from some paradigm and all discussion of the world can only occur in the vocabulary of a given paradigm. As such, cross-paradigmatic conversation is impossible since the concepts and terms are paradigm specific. Since we can't talk across paradigms, we also can't compare -- there's no extra-paradigmatic standpoint, Kuhn argues, and so no way to comparison shop. When a scientists gives up on one paradigm and moves to another, Kuhn argues, the basis cannot be rational since reason only exists within paradigms and therefore is akin to a religious conversion. By taking science to be one Kuhnian paradigm and scripture to be another, Ross is putting science and religion on an even par AS RELIGIONS.

This move is firmly entrenched in the new creationist strategy of portraying science and religion as coequal explanations of origins, but is clearly disingenuous in that Ross is in fact advocating, or at least allowing himself to be used by those advocating, for one over the other. The two are not really being set out as incomparable and Ross is contending that there can be good reason to prefer one over the other.

The move strikes me as more reminiscent of the Sokal affair. In 1996, Alan Sokal, a physicist who thought that contemporary trends in the humanities were intellectually vacuous, published a piece in the journal Social Text (a leading journal of the sort that Sokal disliked) that purported to be a post-modern critique of science from the inside. The article, however, was designed to be complete nonsense with a left-leaning political bias. The idea being that if the editors of one of the most prestigious journals of post-modernism couldn't tell legitimate deconstructive analysis from made up, meaningless drivel, then there really is no difference and all of it is garbage. Sokal, like Ross, studied enough to come across as playing the game in hopes of playing well enough to be able to be held as a legitimate player so that in the end the game itself could be discredited. In both cases, we have someone trying to play the intellectual equivalent of an undercover cop. In mathematics and logic, we employ a strategy we call reductio ad absurdum, to show something is false, we assume it is true and derive a contradiction. Isn't this just what Sokal and even more so Ross are doing? How can it be intellectually dishonest if we do something similar? Is it just that we are open about it from the start?

The obvious difference here is that while Sokal's piece IS nonsense, Ross' work isn't. Sokal merely intended his piece to resemble a bit of deconstruction where Ross intended for his to BE paleontology. Neither believe that their contributions are meaningful and both saw their moves as contributing to correcting runaway academic endeavors, but it does seem that Ross' work could remain within the corpus of legitimate work in the discipline. Both were trying to construct Trojan horses, but Sokal's version was a poseur, he never had nor deserved legitimate status in the club. Ross, on the other hand, does. He didn't merely learn to imitate the talk, he really learned to talk the talk -- he just thinks the talk is false. Does this give Ross more credibility or is it a case like that of Alice telling the Mad Hatter that you can't have more if you didn't have any to start with?