Silly creationists, Universities are for scientists

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Dec. 4 2007 12:02 PM

Silly creationists, Universities are for scientists

With apologies to the Trix rabbit.

Back in May 2007, Iowa State University denied tenure to astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez. As it happens, Gonzalez is an advocate of Intelligent Design, which has been legally ruled to be not only religion, but actually just warmed-over creationism.

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Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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You can interpret that to mean that ID is wrong, wrong, wrong.

So when ISU denied Gonzalez tenure, I applauded them. Faculty members are de facto representatives of the University, and having one advocate for a provably wrong antiscientific load of crap... well, it seems counterproductive. Denying someone tenure on that basis alone is, in my opinion, perfectly valid, and in fact should be demanded.

Of course, the Discovery Institute, a creationist (un)think tank whose people distort science for a living, take an interesting view on this. They claim that ISU was biased, and that Gonzalez is a martyr.

Um. Scientists are, in general, biased against pseudoscience. It's a strength of ours, in fact. So I find myself agreeing in part with DI. How about that?

On the other hand, the martyr bit is silly. It's just maybe an eensy weensy bit possible that maybe Gonzalez simply didn't qualify for tenure. That happens, even to good scientists. The halls of academia are filled with assistant professors who couldn't quite make the cut. It's too bad, in many if not most cases, but that's the market.

Iowa State University President Gregory Geoffroy made a statement backing this idea up:

As part of this decision process, I appointed a member of my staff to conduct a careful and exhaustive review of the appeal request and the full tenure dossier, and that analysis was presented to me. In addition, I conducted my own examination of Dr. Gonzalez's appeal with respect to the evidence of research and scholarship. I independently concluded that he simply did not show the trajectory of excellence that we expect in a candidate seeking tenure in physics and astronomy -- one of our strongest academic programs.

This is vague enough to be open to interpretation. However, he goes on:

Because the issue of tenure is a personnel matter, I am not able to share the detailed rationale for the decision, although that has been provided to Dr. Gonzalez. But I can outline the areas of focus of my review where I gave special attention to his overall record of scientific accomplishment while an assistant professor at Iowa State, since that gives the best indication of future achievement. I specifically considered refereed publications, his level of success in attracting research funding and grants, the amount of telescope observing time he had been granted, the number of graduate students he had supervised, and most importantly, the overall evidence of future career promise in the field of astronomy.

In fact, to get tenure at most Universities, you need to show an outstanding record of research, publications, and grant-finding. We don't know the details of Gonzalez's record, but ISU seems to think it was enough to deny him tenure. I poked around looking at his publication record, and it looks OK. But that's not terribly meaningful; what matters is how it stacks up against what ISU wants, and what other faculty candidates have done. I don't know Dr. Gonzalez personally, so I can't give much more of an opinion on him than that.

On the Discovery Institute, though, I have plenty of opinions. One is that they are too dumb to know when they have lost (or they simply claim victory when they lose). They went to ISU to hold a press conference about all this. I don't know if Gonzalez is a dupe or a willing participant in all this, but I can guarantee this: his career as a professional and respected astronomer will be dead after this. Complaining about not getting tenure generally doesn't help the situation any; there are channels through which a prospective faculty member can travel. And getting DI to shill for you is not the best way to win friends and influence people in real scientific arenas -- DI is filled with buffoons, as has been shown repeatedly. If ISU didn't want Gonzalez before, he'll be radioactive to them now.

And it's funny-- after all the sturm and drang the Disco 'tute has invoked about how Intelligent Design isn't religion but science, isn't it fascinating that they are claiming that Gonzalez was denied tenure due to his religious beliefs? They call this "a clear First Amendment case" in their press release (which I won't directly link to due to it just being icky, but here's the URL: http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php? command=view&id=4343&program=DI%20Main%20Page%20-%20 News&callingPage=discoMainPage). Obviously, free speech isn't a worry when it comes to tenure proceedings, so they must mean religious beliefs.

So which is it? If Intelligent Design is science, then they have no case with Gonzalez being denied tenure due to his religious beliefs. If it's religion, then it shows (once again, ad nauseum ad infinitum) that the Disco 'tute is lying about their very foundational core, that ID is science and not religion.

Either way, this was a stunt, pure and simple. DI craves publicity, they desperately need it, and they know that the public has a short memory and won't remember their litany of humiliating defeats. And could it be a coincidence that the Presidential primaries are coming up soon in Iowa? By starting up a press machine now, they may be hoping to get some publicity on the Presidential front. Given how several of the Republican candidates admitted to being creationists, the DI may very well be right.

Huh. That's a first!