Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cognitive tricks 2: dissonant paleontology

How do you grapple with evolution if you're a creationist?

Marcus Ross gained a doctorate in geoscience (paleontology), researching mosasaurs, marine reptiles that disappeared at the end of the cretaceous (65 million years ago). As a young earth creationist, he believes Earth was created less than 10,000 years ago. But his dissertation work was "impeccable", according to his doctoral supervisor David Fastovsky, who is apparently well-respected himself: Ross worked "within a strictly scientific framework".

This generated a bit of chatter when written up in a New York Times article last year.

Encyclopaedia Britannica defines cognitive dissonance as "the mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or conflicts are contradicted by new information". Wikipedia's headline gives it as the "uncomfortable feeling or stress caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously", further that the theory "proposes that people have a fundamental cognitive drive to reduce this dissonance by modifying an existing belief, or rejecting one of the contradictory ideas"... or, from Britannica, by explaining away, avoiding the new information, persuading themselves that no conflict exists, reconciling the differences, or "any other defensive means of preserving stability or order".

It is not clear whether Ross is in mental conflict, per se. His approach to the inherent contradictions? He treats each of evolutionary theory and creationism as "different paradigms" for understanding the past. Within the paradigm of his academic discipline, he appears to maintain a consistent analytical approach that is scientifically orthodox. However, he is on record - within fundamentalist Christian circles - as arguing that intelligent design is a "better explanation" for the Cambrian Explosion than evolution. [for interesting perspectives on this, one can look no further than two famous non-theistic scientists, Stephen J Gould and Richard Dawkins. Up to his death in 2002, Gould had opined that there were serious questions still to be answered about the apparently sudden explosion of radical biodiversity in the Cambrian Explosion whereas Dawkins, perhaps with the additional weight of more recent research, feels that that there is nothing in it that cannot be explained within existing scientific knowledge and theory.]

A lot of opinion has washed about on Ross' merits in being awarded a doctorate. Some academics felt that if he had done the work and demonstrated sufficient understanding, he deserved it, no matter whether he was mouthing requisite platitudes that he didn't believe. Others, of course, differed.

Yet how can you test what someone believes? If they are able to testably maintain consistency within the paradigm, what more can be done?

He currently teaches earth sciences at a Christian University (Liberty), claiming to do so entirely within the scientific (that is to say falsifiable) paradigm. He has also published an interesting analytical paper (here) which attempts to clarify the qualitative differences between the scientific paradigm and each of the received beliefs such as intelligent design and young earth creationism - as a series of discrete points rather than a continuous spectrum. Worth a read.

It is an interesting approach to a resolution of cognitive dissonance. I expect that each side will suspect him of leaching ideas from the opposition. I believe that if Ross is being entirely honest, that compartmentalisation - which might seem to be a successful response to his inherently conflicting conceptions - will not easily stand the test of time nestled within a single person, to the point where he will fall more clearly one way or the other. Meanwhile it will probably reduce his effectiveness in either world.

Dawkins, B (2004): An Ancestor's Tale. Phoenix, London.
Encyclopaedia Britannica (1988): Cognitive dissonance, v3 p434. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc, Chicago.
Wikipedia on Cognitive Dissonance
Wikipedia on Marcus R. Ross

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