Skepticism

I’m Back… and I’m in Falwell, Inc.

I apologize for my long absence from Skepchick. After some nagging from Rebecca at a recent Skepchick get-together in Boston, I’ve decided to start blogging again on a regular basis! Now that I’ve survived MIT Differential Equations and my PhD qualifying exam, I really don’t have much of an excuse anymore. So, in the coming months you can look forward to many geological tidbits, tirades, and tantalizations as well as some musings on life, the universe, & everything. There will also be some boring descriptions of the daily life of a graduate student and some less-boring descriptions of the fieldwork I will be doing as part of my graduate studies. I will be heading to Oman (near Saudi Arabia) for a month in January to do mapping and collect samples for my PhD thesis, so stay tuned!

Now, you’re probably wondering about the somewhat strange title of this post. It’s true: I am back, and I am also in the 2008 book by Dirk Smillie titled Falwell, Inc.. That’s right: I am quoted on pages 179-180 of this book. I was completely unaware of my quotation in this book until  I was googling myself randomly  I was looking for an important reference earlier this evening. Apparently, Smillie was also using google when searching for information for his book. The quotation that he used was from a Skepchick post I made in February 2007 titled Young Earth Creationists are NOT Geologists, a post in which I ranted about how much I dislike Dr. Marcus Ross, a professor of geology at Liberty University, a conservative Christian college founded by Jerry Falwell. Dr. Ross is a young Earth creationist who believes the Earth is only 6,000 years old. My quotation was included as evidence that “geology students at other universities have it in for Ross, too.” Prior to my quotation, Smillie discusses how some geologists at Rhode Island University (Dr. Ross’s alma mater) believe that his diploma should be revoked, “one even suggested he be stoned to death with tribolytes.” I heartily agree (though I’d recommend trilobites, I’m not sure what a tribolyte is), and I’m honored that I was included as a skeptical voice in Smillie’s book. I am actually very impressed at how Smillie used my quotation in his book. He edited the blog post nicely, taking a sensible snapshot of my words without losing any of the meaning. If anything, he made my disorderly rantings more organized and straightforward. I have yet to read the entire book (though I guess now I’ll be ordering a copy!), but so far I’m pleasantly surprised by Smillie’s neutral tone. And happy that the Skepchick blog is actually read and has made it into print! 

Apparently, Dr. Ross is now aware of my post as well. His defense?

“Earning a PhD does not mean believing in everything it stands for.”

Actually, earning a PhD in geology isn’t about belief at all. Scientists don’t “believe” that the Earth is millions of year old. Instead, they use evidence (isotopes, cooling models, rates of various processes) to place reasonable bounds on the age of the Earth and work to refine their knowledge. However, there is excellent evidence (with appropriate error bars) that the Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. 

and:

“It’s incredible that people feel personally attacked by my mere existence.”

No, I’m not personally attacked by your mere existence. Shocked by it, yes. Willing to defend geology and science, yes. Wondering if Liberty College also teaches that the sun revolves around the Earth and that there are four elements (Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire), yes. But I’m not too worried about your existence as a geology teacher at Liberty. Just don’t apply for a job here at MIT or Woods Hole anytime soon– because, trust me, you are definitely not qualified for the position. Even if you do have a PhD in geological belief.

Evelyn

Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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36 Comments

  1. Welcome back, Evelyn!! You were sorely missed.

    My PhD qualifying exams are a dark, dark memory that I have largely managed to repress. Congratulations on passing yours!

    Ross is a twit. I’m very glad I don’t have to deal with an organized group of idiots trying to undermine Materials Science. Keep fighting the good fight.

  2. You’re spot-on as far as Ross and (Ugh…) Falwell go.

    I was born and raised 45 minutes (30 if you drive fast) from Falwell’s Institution of Insanity and Torturous Logic, so I had more than my fill of he and his odious ilk growing up. Even when I was religious I hated his repugnant ass.

    My small revenge came in my final year of college, when the theatre dept. at Averett U. went to Liberty to see the musical, “Once On This Island.” (Which was awesomely bad on numerous levels.)

    I wore my Faith No More shirt (the album cover from “The Real Thing”), which got me more stink-eyes than I’ve ever had in a comparable two hour period.

  3. Your point is right on. Many say, “Well you believe in evolution”… it is correctly stated that I understand and accept the evidence of evolution. There is nothing to believe. I trust the data.

    The problem is that those that are non-scientists (or more accurately, the ANTI-scientists) consider our careful, conservative and scientific use of language to be wishy-washy and unsure.

    Keep on fighting the good fight. Congrats on passing the qualifier. I just graduated my 4th Ph.D. student in the last 2 years so I appreciate your struggles.

  4. Congrats on your quals! They are a bitch but it’s always great to be done.

    Liberty kids come up to our observatory twice a year for public night. Surprisingly, I can’t remember any problems they’ve had with the science we talk about, and some seem quite interested. Maybe there’s hope for them yet?

  5. @Evelyn: “Earning a PhD does not mean believing in everything it stands for.”
    “Actually, earning a PhD in geology isn’t about belief at all.”

    Carl Sagan couldn’t have said it better. I look forward to more of your posts. :-D

    I lived in a Bible Belt area (Springfield, MO. Home of the Baptist Bible College and The Assemblies of God* church, among others) for several years and am thoroughly sick of people that think like Falwell. I console myself with the idea that, if there is truly an afterlife, Falwell must be burning in its equivalent of Hell for all the damage he did during his life.

    For some reason, people like Falwell’s followers can’t see the difference between “religious-based belief” and evidence-based scientific belief. It’s like they have some kind of mental myopia that keeps them from focusing beyond their viewpoint. (These are some of the people that used to try to tell me that I was going to Hell for watching Star Trek, for example.)

    I think kevinf nailed it here, “The problem is that those that are non-scientists (or more accurately, the ANTI-scientists) consider our careful, conservative and scientific use of language to be wishy-washy and unsure.” They consider our language that way because they beleive in perfect certainty, which doesn’t exist. They have also been deliberately misinstructed in the use of the English language, such as what the words “theory” and “evidence” really mean.

    *Personally, if I were to worship a god, I would prefer that it come fully assembled. I can;t even put an Ikea coffee table together without farking it up. Can you imagine what my fully assembled god would look like?

  6. Welcome back! Although I’m new here so I didn’t know you existed. I’m glad of it.

    Googling yourself randomly is something every writer should do. I found one of my writings (an editorial on creationism for the newspaper where I worked at the time) had been lifted and posted on a creationist website; it spawned like a million “rebuttals.” Have you heard of John Baumgardner? Be very glad if not, he is a geophysicist at a respected national science lab who believes the earth is 6,000 years old and apparently spends his work time trying to show this — please explain how this was allowed to happen. If you ever get around to exposing him and his ridiculousness, Evelyn, please do! http://www.answersingenesis.org/Home/Area/bios/j_baumgardner.asp

  7. @Oakes: “I wore my Faith No More shirt (the album cover from “The Real Thing”), which got me more stink-eyes than I’ve ever had in a comparable two hour period.”

    So much for “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” eh? ;-)

  8. Evelyn,
    If you get bored and need a topic for a post, can you address the “mysterious” earthquakes in Central Arkansas that have “scientists baffled”?

    I’m not sure about baffled scientists, but I – a non-scientist – am confused about how you get earthquakes in the middle of a continental plate. I always thought you got them when the edges of tectonic plates rubbed against each other in a vile and lascivious way.

  9. ‘Many say, “Well you believe in evolution”… it is correctly stated that I understand and accept the evidence of evolution. There is nothing to believe. I trust the data.’

    That would make a good AI subject: What’s a good alternative to “I believe…”?

  10. @durnett:
    There are faults all over the Midwest. They aren’t as well-known to the public because they aren’t as spectacularly active as the ones in CA, for one example. I presume you’ve heard of New Madrid?

    If you do some Google searches on the subject for maps of Midwest faulting, you’ll see it looks like a can of worms down there…

  11. Never hurts to mention the difference between belief and a position based on reliable evidence…, again and again and again and again… . And I have some fossilized dinosaur feces you can have to throw in the mix with your trilobites!!

  12. @Evelyn: We got them while on vacation in Montana with the kids about six years ago. We discovered a great little fossil and rock shop on the side of the road that was owned by a fantastic gruff and lively little old lady. She had some reasonably priced corprolite and we could not resist getting some. This lady had the most fascinating story of some very rare fossilized dinosaur eggs that she had loaned to either to Harvard or Yale and when the university closed its museum the items were donated to another museum with no notation of their original ownership. She was engaged in quite the battle to get her amazing eggs back. I recall we even signed a petition on her behalf.

    Some people have stories that are full of shit. We have shit with a story!

  13. PhD in Geology? Well I suppose someone’s got to do it. Congrats on the qualifier, we don’t do that in the UK so I don’t know how tough it is (Grad student selection is based on a combination of likeability and tea-brewing capabilities)

    Of course all the Cool Grad Students are doing Phyisical Chemistry these days. All the excitement of Chemistry combined with all the Maths-fun from Physics. Work for me and I’ll give you a Lab Coat AND Coffee Mug, GRATIS

    As for Dr.Ross. Well I actually don’t think he should have his PhD “revoked”. Firstly, he earned it for a piece of work which was jugded by his Scientific Peers to be “Of Substancial Merit”, PhD’s are awarded for the work jugded by the quality of the science they contain (by your peers using the scientific method) NOT by the strength of the PhD student’s belief in the Scientific Method. i.e. it is perfectly resonable for someone to learn what is required by the scientific method to get a PhD then go and produce a piece of work fitting that criteria, even if they don’t actually believe a word of what they wrote.

    Secondly. You can’t retrospectivley take away a persons qualifications just because eventhing they’ve done since graduation has been incorrect (willfully or otherwise). If we started taking back PhD’s on the basis of poorly recieved papers or incorrect experimental techneque/reporting or for just being plain old wrong 99% of PhD would have been revoked by now.

  14. @evelyn – Wow, I’m relatively new here and didn’t realize there was a geological skepchick! Way cool! I teach geology at a community college in South Texas – not an easy task sometimes. I really look forward to your posts! Great quote, BTW! The section of the Falwell book you posted also had some amazingly bizarre excerpts from a microbiology text used at Liberty. Unreal!

    @durnett – I think the current explanation for the New Madrid earthquakes is an old continental suture or failed rift in that area. It probably connects to the activity around Charleston periodically as well. The faults are deep and release over longer periods of time than those we are more familiar with in California and Alaska.

  15. @Steve DeGroof: One of my pet peeves: using a word that has two or more meanings in a debate/intellectual discussion and interchanging the meanings at will. I have had the ‘believe’ discussion with a few different people. There’s the faith flavor (having more to do with blind trust) and there’s simple statement of conviction that something is true. It can really muck up a perfectly good discussion to interchange the two. Damn semantics.

    I think the phrase ‘believe in’ does tend to imply more of the faith flavoring than one might intend. In the end, though, it’s hard to get away from using words that could be interpreted to imply something faithy or otherwise opinion related…I believe, I trust, I think. Perhaps the necessary thing is to pull oneself out of the statement altogether…something like ‘The evidence for evolution speaks for itself.’ If one were feeling defensive and/or a bit snarky, the statment ‘My opinions, thoughts, and beliefs on the matter are immaterial’ could be added.

    I am very interested in what the best way is to get around this and other semantic issues that kill intelligent debates.

  16. @PopeCoyote
    The reason that the news is calling the recent seismic activity in Arkansas “mysterious” is bacause it doesn’t appear to be part of the New Madrid system. The Hot Springs area has geothermal activity ( hence “Hot Springs”) and a long-dead volcano, but no recorded seismic activity and no known fault systems. So people are asking questions. Is this a new extension of the New Madrid fault. Is this a seperate fault? Is this magma shifting and not a rift at all? The irresponsible sensationalists ( that’s me!) are hoping for a new volcano!

  17. @durnett – wow, that is interesting. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for volcanism for you. Good luck! ;)

    @QA – the yellowstone system is part of a magma plume that is separate from all that. But what the heck, volcanism for everyone! :D

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