Posted by: bridget | 12 February 2007

Undermining the Meritocracy

The NY Times has attacked the subject of religious people in the sciences. According to the tone of the article, religious types (especially creationists or those who believe in intelligent design) should be barred from secular higher education, especially Ph.D. programmes. This atheist disagrees.

“And, for some, his case raises thorny philosophical and practical questions. May a secular university deny otherwise qualified students a degree because of their religion? Can a student produce intellectually honest work that contradicts deeply held beliefs? Should it be obligatory (or forbidden) for universities to consider how students will use the degrees they earn?”

Those are not thorny questions. No, religious discrimination is not acceptable. If a candidate produces bad science, then a university should not admit him, regardless of the reasons underlying his mediocrity, whether said reasons be lack of intellect, ambition, or objectivity. Conversely, if religion does not stop a person from producing great science, then an institution has no basis on which to complain.

Yes, students can produce intellectually honest work even if they go to church on Sundays. We would hardly deny atheists the right to study comparative religion, and few people suggest that atheists cannot produce intellectually honest work on the flaws of Darwin’s theory. Likewise, religious affiliation is not a per se barrier to objective research.

Universities should not be legally obligated or forbidden from making various selection decisions, but they should consider the quality of the work that the student will produce – both as a doctoral candidate and as practitioner – not the characteristics of that person, whether racial, gendered, or religious. Science has long been a meritocracy where quality of work is measured by reason and intellect, not by any characteristic of the researcher. Discrimination, of any type, subverts this meritocracy.

Dr. Fastovsky and other members of the Rhode Island faculty said they knew about these disagreements, but admitted him anyway. Dr. Boothroyd, who was among those who considered the application, said they judged Dr. Ross on his academic record, his test scores and his master’s thesis, “and we said, ‘O.K., we can do this.’ ”

Exactly. That is how meritocracies work; science has long been the ultimate meritocracy, as experiments do not come out differently based on the characteristics of the scientist running them. This point is lost on our Ph.D.s in charge, though:

“But Dr. Scott, a former professor of physical anthropology at the University of Colorado, said in an interview that graduate admissions committees were entitled to consider the difficulties that would arise from admitting a doctoral candidate with views ‘so at variance with what we consider standard science.’ She said such students ‘would require so much remedial instruction it would not be worth my time.'”

Dr. Scott obviously thinks that every religious person has lacked basic science training. One may receive training, regurgitate it, but disbelieve its underlying premises. The best scientists are those who see the flaws in current theories and have the intellect to make a quantum leap forward in our understanding. Dr. Scott’s litmus test would exclude the very best of students and eradicate the rigourous debate that is the hallmark of excellence in American academia.

Research in science and engineering has long been judged by peer review of results. A student who fails to produce work that can withstand either peer review or, in the case of engineering, objective requirements of the design, will not long be a researcher. The gold standard in science is not adherence to dogma or the relevant zeitgeist, but production of peer-reviewed work. Religion (or lack thereof) has no place in that standard.

It is oft stated that the goals of science and religion are in opposition. That is hardly the case. Abstract string theory tells us that there are either eleven or twenty-eight dimensions, of which we experience only four. Decades ago, scientists learned that humans see and hear only a fraction of light and sound, respectively. Although the human brain is the most complex system in the known universe, it is an efficient system designed to not process most of the world around it. Science explicitly leaves open the possibility of a God.

Science and religion should each withstand the scrutiny of the other.  Products of engineering are held to various standards of weight, tensile strength, solubility, or the like. The Bible is, at least to this atheist’s knowledge, silent on nanotechnology. Scientific research is held to peer review and reason; if it cannot stand up to the latter, whether based on religion or not, then it is bad science. Reason and theism are entirely consistent, unless a man believes that the existence of his reason contravenes the divine.

Undermining a great meritocracy in the name of an ideological litmus test does nothing to improve either science or religion. Should the same barrier be erected against women, under the theory that they are likewise incapable of good research, any supporter of a meritocracy – or any liberal – would be enraged. This situation is no different.

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