Christian Martin Gaskell’s Shabby Treatment by Gnu Atheists

Martin Gaskell is a University of Texas astronomer who applied for a job at the University of Kentucky, but because of his open evangelical faith, he was denied it. The following is what the search committee chairman wrote in an email to the department chair:

If Martin were not so superbly qualified, so breathtakingly above the other applicants in background and experience, then our decision would be much simpler. We could easily choose another applicant, and we could content ourselves with the idea that Martin’s religious beliefs played little role in our decision. However, this is not the case. As it is, no objective observer could possibly believe that we excluded Martin on any basis other than religious…

This is the smoking gun e-mail that led the university to settle with Gaskell for $125,000. Here’s what the Huffington Post reported:

Manion [Gaskell’s attorney] said documents and e-mail communications turned over by UK in the case showed strong evidence of religious bias, including a professor who surmised that Gaskell was “potentially evangelical.”

“The fact that somebody could say that without realizing the implications, speaks volumes,” Manion said. “Because all you have to do is substitute any other label – potentially Jewish, potentially Muslim. Nobody would say that.”

And what has been the response of prominent gnu atheists to the settlement? Do they now admit the obvious (that Gaskell was wrongfully “expelled” or excluded from an academic position)?

To answer this question, let’s start with biologist Jerry Coyne. Since the out-of-court settlement Coyne has been silent. And when the news of Gaskell’s outrageous treatment first entered into the newstream, Coyne was anguished but ultimately non-committal, opening the question up to his readers as if there was grounds for a lot of confusion here:

I throw this open for debate:  is Gaskell’s form of theistic evolutionism sufficient to disquality him from a job as an astronomer? How seriously should his views have been considered?

As for PZ Myers, he has sounded like, well, PZ Myers. In December he dismissed Gaskell as someone who “was not expelled” and whose complaint against the University of Kentucky is “ridiculous”. Gaskell, according to Myers, also suffers from a “persecution complex” and has made public comments that identify him as “a confused and ignorant boob.”

After the settlement, Myers’s comment on Gaskell appears to have settled on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” principle: if Christians can compartmentalize sufficiently, they can be considered for academic jobs in the sciences:

Christians believe in something as absurd as the purple mongoose egg theory, this whole bizarre notion of incarnated gods dying to magically redeem us from a distant ancestor’s dietary error, but good scientists are capable of switching that nonsense off entirely in the lab, and are also aware of the impact on their credibility of espousing folly. . . . We have to be careful about letting personal disagreements on matters of taste intrude on our decisions; if the person has been circumspect about keeping them from poisoning a body of good work, I’m willing to accommodate them.

By circumspection, I take Myers to mean that the scientist who is a Christian basically shouldn’t speak his or her mind too much in public, essentially keeping closeted. PZ Myers can blog openly and with lots of latitude, but Christians looking for academic jobs should be more careful, not quite so exposed, more circumspect.

This, of course, puts the Christian in a double bind: if “absurd” religious beliefs make you unqualified for a job, wouldn’t hiding or dramatically toning down those beliefs make you dishonest, and so disqualify you for the job as well?

As for Richard Dawkins, he has been vociferous since the settlement, laying down the gauntlet:

If you want to insist that a [job] candidate’s beliefs are private, should be respected, and should be treated as irrelevant by an appointing committee, then you should at least be consistent. . . . Either you should say, “I don’t care whether his beliefs are based on religion or not, they are private and I refuse to take them into account.” Or you should join me in saying, “I don’t care whether his beliefs are based on religion or not, they affect his suitability for the job, and I am going to take them into account.”

To take Dawkins’s position seriously here is to make the power of academic hiring committees virtually unlimited: any idea expressed publicly by a job candidate becomes fair game in the holistic consideration of a candidate. If, for example, a hiring committee member regards the candidate’s expressed view on global warming “irrational,” it can be put in the mix of considerations even if the candidate is not going for a job as a climatologist. In other words, if there are no limits on the consideration of ideas then there are no limits, religious or otherwise. All ideas that speak to the quality of a candidate’s critical thinking (as judged by the hiring committee members) are fair game. 

But there are good reasons we compartmentalize in hiring (or ought to). Here are a few: 

  • One’s philosophical axioms (starting points) are not subject to scientific verification, and yet we all must inductively arrive at some. For example, are we inclined to believe that, ultimately, the universe was (in Mark Twain’s words from Huckleberry Finn) “made or just happened”? How we answer such a question depends on factors related to things like individual temperament, intuition, and holistic guessing, not empiricism.
  • Human beings are contingent. In other words, when it comes to things like religion, each of us has a unique personal history. It is utopian (at best) and cruel (at worst) to expect the psyches of diverse individuals to arrive at roughly the same set of sensibilities surrounding non-empirical and emotionally loaded matters.
  • Reasoning is often tinged with unconscious bias. All sorts of impulses can hijack reason (such as eros, revenge, thanatos, maliciousness, group-think, and envy). This means that hiring committees should strive for limited and objective criteria in hiring (quality of academic work pertaining to the job, demonstrated teaching ability, etc). It’s a trade-off, obviously. It means that sometimes a person is hired who really is, say, mentally unstable (a genuine “whack job”). But you have to weigh this against the “whack jobs” already on hiring committees, and the power you are willing to accord to them. Institutions run better with sensible checks, balances, and guidelines. One of those sensible guidelines is to set limits on the range of things that a hiring committee can consider.
  • There’s strength in diversity. Human beings have always been quirky, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Like species variety in an ecosystem, there’s strength in institutional diversity; it helps the communal body resist group think.
  • In an internet age with lots of social media, we don’t want to discourage online expression. People in the academic job market, or with career ambitions, shouldn’t have to, in the name of pragmatism, leave off their First Amendment rights until they reach, say, tenure. They should have some plausible means of redress through the courts if their publicly expressed beliefs undermine their winning of a job (as happened with Martin Gaskell).

That’s my opinion. What say you?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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19 Responses to Christian Martin Gaskell’s Shabby Treatment by Gnu Atheists

  1. mary says:

    One’s expressed support for theistic intervention and intelligent design DO have bearing on an individual applying for a scientific position at a non-religious state university.

    Catholic university? No problem.

  2. mary says:

    From Ben Goren, at the above-linked article:

    “See, the thing is, Dr. Gaskell is doing the worst possible kind of science.

    “He’s stepping outside of his area of expertise and he’s making unevidenced claims based on the authority of a text whose accuracy has long been so thoroughly impeached it’s not even funny.

    “Had he been claiming reason to believe in the Philosopher’s stone and non-nuclear transmutation of base elements, the University wouldn’t have hesitated to disqualify him. Same if he had merely expressed dissatisfaction with quantum mechanics because it can’t explain the origin of mass (while hinting that Plato had it right all along).

    “The only reason he can get away with it the way he has is because of the popularity of this particular myth.

    “Now, don’t get me worng. Dr. Gaskell is welcome to claim or hint that a magic sky faery blew really hard onto some dust and in so doing instantiated abiogenesis on Earth. He’s also welcome to claim that the Earth is flat and that whether or not Venus is ascending up Uranus when you’re born determines the length of…the wrinkles on your palm.

    “What he can’t do is expect people to take him seriously when he does, and he also can’t expect a University to hire somebody for a science education position when nobody takes the person seriously.

    “Besides, if the University can’t discriminate on the basis of the scientific positions of its candidates merely because the candidate has slapped the word, “religion,” on top of them…well, just imagine the chaos that’ll ensue.”

    • santitafarella says:

      Mary,

      Your response and the quotes you offer convince me all the more that it is very good to have EEOP laws (equal employment opportunity laws that guarantee non-discrimination). It’s so easy to come under the spell of labeling people “crazy” and certain beliefs “crazy” to justify your own impulses to maliciousness. These laws, please recall, function to protect atheists as well. And taxpayers for state institutions are not just atheists—they’re mostly theists. The state is thus, in taking tax payer money, required to be neutral with regard to religion, and not treat employment seekers differently based on the religion that they profess. This is a reasonable part of a democratic social contract (where people’s money is being taken in taxation).

      Would you favor, for example, a box on an employment application designating one’s religious professions? (Are you a Jew? A Catholic? An Evangelical? An atheist? Do you think the Bible is the word of God? etc). If you wouldn’t put it on the application, you shouldn’t put it in the hiring committee’s deliberations.

      —Santi

  3. santitafarella says:

    Mary,

    As for your “let them eat cake” response (or, rather, let them apply for jobs at a “Catholic University”), you have it exactly the wrong way around.

    If atheists want to exclude religionists from academic departments, then let atheists start an independent university in which, like a Christian university, they can then hire and fire at whim. That’s the proper analogy.

    But if you are going to extract tax money from religious citizens, you can’t turn around and then discriminate against them in hiring when they or their family members come to state institutions for employment.

    —Santi

    • TomH says:

      But evolution is true and we can’t have these religious nut jobs undermining truth, can we? (My devils’ advocate is coming out.)

      And how can you justify not excluding theists from science when theistic universities exclude non-theistic viewpoints? (See, I can debate from any PoV.) It seems that your criticism is ethical, when epistemic reasons for exclusion may be more critical. Do we really want to stifle science?

  4. I outlined my views on this fairly in my post: http://pointofcontention.wordpress.com/2011/01/30/religious-discrimination-in-hiring-a-two-way-street/

    but I will restate a little here:

    If an employer is willing to leave religion outside the company doors, then the employee should be willing to do so as well. If an employer is willing to let private beliefs stay private and not impact employment, then the employee should do so as well. If the employer is willing to ignore the fact that you privately believe that the Earth is 6000 years old, and willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that it will not impact your work as a Geologist, then you had better hold up your end and make sure that your belief that the Earth is 6000 years old does not impact your work as a Geologist.

    • santitafarella says:

      Phantom,

      Life is messier than this. And why can’t people just be out of the closet concerning their views? Why all this “don’t ask, don’t tell” nervousness? Can’t adults hear things? So long as it doesn’t interfere with the broad mission of the college, and the instructor is teaching the curriculum, then teachers should have a lot of latitude of expression (as should students). I like the First Amendment; I don’t want college administrators being too speech prescriptive with me (for example). Courts have addressed this issue and favored with teachers’ right to speech against what has been termed “the pall of orthodoxy” over the classroom.

      And your young earth creationist analogy is a straw man. A young earth creationist applying for a geology position is obviously directly (and absurdly) clashing with the discipline to which he or she wishes to practice science. I don’t support the hiring of YEC geologists for any state run geology department and I think it’s a travesty for religious colleges to hire them as well. In such circumstances, this goes to competence.

      Gaskell, by contrast, is a theistic evolutionist. He accepts all of the standard science—the antique age of the earth, etc—but he believes that God has played a guiding role in creation. And his work as an astronomer has no bearing on his views as to how biological evolution on earth occurred.

      —Santi

  5. I never suggested a dont ask don’t tell policy or anything akin to one. You can be as open about your religious views in the work place as you can be about any other affiliation. All I suggested is that if employees expect their religion to not affect their prospects of being hired, then employers ought to be able to expect religion to not affect your work. I suggest that the courtesy extend in both directions. If a geologist is personally a young earther, but collects his data, reports his findings, and otherwise conducts himself without deference to that view, then his religion should not come into play when being considered for a job.

    As far as the accusation of straw-manning is concerned, I did no such thing. Rejection of the scientific process, or special pleading to fit it around your predetermined world view, is a terrible trait for a teacher of science to have. Now I will say here, as I have elsewhere, that I believe the University made only a mistake of lacking information. When the professor was turned down for the job, the University was under the impression that he was anti-evolution and possibly evangelical. In this light they were certainly justified in passing him up. It turns out they were wrong, and his views were not what they thought, but this man wouldn’t be the first person to loose a job because the interviewer made a wrong assumption, it happens.

    So I support the university in light of what they thought the case was, but admit that better information would likly have lead to a different choice.

    • santitafarella says:

      Phantom,

      Your clarifications help. You said: “employers ought to be able to expect religion to not affect your work.”

      I agree. It shouldn’t interfere with the broad mission assigned to you in your work. But I want a lot of lattitude on the side of workers (as a general principle) against large institutions (like universities and corporations). I, for example, oppose speech codes on college campuses. I don’t want institutions too prescriptive and bureaucratic around the subject of free speech and the displays of messages on office doors (or the wearing of jewelry like crosses, or bumper stickers on cars driven to work, etc). I want some extension of trust in faculty and workers.

      At my college just a few months ago, for example, via a Human Resources memo, we were told to take down holiday displays (Christmas lights, trees), and the memo severely cautioned about the promotion of religion. There were no “Jesus is the reason for the season” banners anywhere on campus: we’re talking tinsel, greeting cards, and the word Christmas put up in a work station area here and there. As an agnostic, I opposed the ridiculous constraint on speech, as did a lot of people on campus. And these things can be two-edged swords. I don’t want Human Resources, at some future point, coming to my office door, for example, and saying, “Take down your quote by Nietzsche or Voltaire from your door. They are anti-religious figures, etc.”

      I strongly believe that adults—which are what professors and college students are—can hear things and encounter diversity and make up their own minds about it.

      On YEC, I’m actually a bit harder on that subject than you. YEC is epistemically equivelent to Holocaust denial and aliens visiting earth in metallic UFOs. I think it’s perfectly reasonable, in the hiring of a geologist, to expect that geologist to understand and accept the converging lines of evidence that lead one to the conclusion that the earth is vastly old. It’s not an understanding that is ever going to be overturned in science—you’ll never see the NY Times announce in a banner headline, “Scientists conclude earth is 10,000 years old afterall!” You also don’t want to bring onto a history faculty a Holocaust denier. This isn’t religious discrimination—this is assuring the hiring committee that you can and do follow converging lines of evidence (as understood within your discipline) to at least minimally reasonable conclusions (a low bar, indeed).

      As for your cutting of slack to the University of Kentucky, I disagree with you. What they did in this instance is egregious. It was their responsibility, under so serious a charge, to get the facts right, and not bring religion into the equation at all. They were lucky he just went ahead and settled for 125k. He could have gotten considerably more (and would have deserved to).

      —Santi

  6. santitafarella says:

    Tom H:

    You said, “Old earthism is equivalent to Holocaust denial.”

    But to perk up the ear of a non-expert to such a claim, you would have to be a professor at Harvard teaching geology (or something equivelent). And you would have to have lots of other experts nodding in agreement.

    The reality is this: as a lay person, I’m not the one that you need to convince. Your burden is convincing experts. Just as the Holocaust denier has to persuade historians, you’ve got to persuade the community of scientists—including those most respected in their fields and who teach at the best universities.

    Your burden is akin to a physicist, trained in the sciences, who believes that Einstein’s relativity and Bohr’s quantum mechanics are not just in error at certain points, but completely and profoundly off-base, taking physics down unfruitful paths. To most astronomers, geologists, biologists, and anthropologists, it’s as if you are a physicist saying that Newton’s billiard ball understanding of matter is, at the ultimate level, correct, and needs to be recovered again for any real physics to progress. Or that Ptolemy’s system for planetary motion needs revival. Your colleagues, on such claims, would rightly regard you a lunatic. And so the vast majority of astronomers, geologists, biologists, and anthropologists in the world regard YEC to be a lunatic claim (just as the vast majority of historians regard Holocaust denial a lunatic claim). They are right to do so.

    And I would point out that I gave you an open opportunity to offer an alternative hypothesis for the formation of the Grand Canyon (in a previous thread) and you declined. I asked you to account for the layers and the animals found in the Grand Canyon in a plausible narrative counter to the scientific one on offer. If you cannot even do this for something like the Grand Canyon (and to a nonexpert like me), what makes you think you can persuade experts teaching at the best universities in the world?

    The strength of YEC (if it had any) would be in accounting for all of the evidence with a counter hypothesis—a counter narrative—better than the one on offer. But it obviously cannot do this. All it can do is snipe from the sidelines, picking off, via the raising of dubious reasons for doubt, the low-lying fruit of the gullible, the religious fundamentalist, the fanatic, and the inadequately read and educated. (The same audience, in other words, that the Holocaust denier wins converts from.)

    Arguments take place (and converts are won) among different audiences. The burden of YEC is to win converts from the best educated and most expert audiences: the various communities of scientists teaching at the best universities in the world. It took about 50 years, but (for example) plate tectonics ultimately won the day as a new and winning theory. YEC doesn’t even have a plausible theory for the Grand Canyon (at least it doesn’t have one that you think is plausible enough to offer me, as a lay person).

    —Santi

    • TomH says:

      Santi,

      It doesn’t require an expert in old-earthism to determine that no one has answered the RATE research compellingly. I am perfectly capable of evaluating the RATE argument and counter-arguments. I don’t need a geologist to evaluate it. It’s essentially a physics issue, in which area I retain some ability.

      Find me one single article that has answered RATE compellingly. Just one. Find me anyone who has conducted follow-up research on helium diffusion analysis of zircons under the proper conditions of temperature and pressure, since RATE used a vacuum for the helium diffusion analysis of zircons. The primary expert on the RATE research, who isn’t a YEC though he performed the experimental work, has no explanation for the results and admits that they support YEC conclusions.

      Then there’s the C14 work in RATE, which is also compelling. The only anwer to that work has been by begging the question using technical jargon.

      When we look at the history of old-earth arguments, we find that old-earthers have come up with one-smoking gun after another, each of which is found to be neither smoking nor a gun after some analysis.

      Imagine if someone with the intellectual honesty of Dawkins or Coyne, but with the appropriate expertise, should look at the RATE research. Do you seriously think that they would give an honest evaluation? And is the research community going to embrace the RATE results with enthusiasm or try to bury the results by ignoring them? What of the danger of ostracism for anyone who embraced the RATE results? What would be the result of going rogue against the herd? What’s this post all about, anyway? Following the herd? Or is it about the danger of herd thinking and political correctness?

      That’s real herderianism for you. 😉

      As regards Holocaust denial, is not akin to YEC in the slightest. The Holocaust had a lot of eyewitnesses to the events of the Holocaust. YEC similarly had an eyewitness.

      So, if anything is akin to Holocaust denial, it is old-earthism.

      • Really? Eye witnesses to YEC? Mind explaining that one? Not even biblically are there eye witnesses .. and the bible is about as solid a form of evidence as is the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

  7. Well I think we are mostly in agreement. I agree that freedom of personal expression should, for the most part, reign paramount. I only with to maintain that personal expression and professional expression are not the same. When you represent your employer professionaly you must accept that your freedom of expression is confined by the capacity in which you are acting. I also do not want all concievable personal expressions removed from the public workplace, but likewise do not want a science teacher using the excuse of “personal expression” to teach a text-book lesson and follow it up with a “personal” undermining of what they just taught.

    In short, the issue is certainly complicated and muddy, and much more so in the educational setting than in almost any other.

    As far as the University goes, I am willing to admit they made a mistake, but I would not call it egregious.

    Look here are the simple facts of employment. If an employer gets your resume and finds you to be qualified, and then google searches your name and finds a laundry list of undesirable traits (which of course may be all together flase), they are under no obilgation to call you in to verify, dencounce, or excuse what they found out about you.

    Would it be nice if they did give you the benefit of the doubt? Yes it would be. In that capacity I am saying it may have been nice for the university to double-check and give the benefit of the doubt, but not extending a courtesy is not the same as “egregious”.

    So, I think we are in agreement for the most part, except that I think you are holding the University to an unfairly high standard that would not be expected if we were talking about any stance or position other than religious.

    • santitafarella says:

      Phantom,

      I agree with you that the issue is not cut and dried.

      I’m not sure about the Googling of employment candidates. That would be a big no-no at my school. We go strictly by EEOP guidelines. It may be that people at other schools routinely do it in violation of policy. I would hope not.

      —Santi

  8. santitafarella says:

    Tom,

    I’ll look into this rate issue that you’re raising. My first impression, though, is that you’re latching onto one line of evidence that you think is compelling, but ignoring the overwhelming thrust of the other converging lines of evidence that favor an antique earth.

    Remember, it’s not enough (at least in my view) to find something that you think works in your favor on this matter. Instead, it’s accounting, in a plausible way, for all the things that don’t appear to work in your favor. And it’s more than just achieving a plausibile counter-narrative, your hypothesis has to do a BETTER job of explanation than the other hypotheses on option.

    But I’ll have a look at what you’re linking to.

    —Santi

  9. santitafarella says:

    Tom,

    You sent me to a 600 page document! I took a look at the introduction in hope of a summary. I would direct you to pages 24 and 25 of the document as suggestive of the folly that the project is engaged in. In that section of the introduction, you find an ad hoc attempt to account for the large amounts of radiation that must have dissipated in YEC time to match observations (it would have fried off the oceans and killed all animal life if the earth is as young as YEC posits). In other words, to make YEC match observations you’ve got to posit a miracle surrounding heat dissipation. The group is willing to go there.

    How does one win educated people to a hypothesis for which an ad hoc speculation including a miracle plugs the hole?

    If the universe is anything like that, then all bets are off. Posit and believe ANYTHING—and have no way of ever knowing if you’re even in the ballpark.

    Do you have some more digestable link, or perhaps a section of ten pages in the 600 page link, that you think provides a smoking gun argument that the earth is young?

    —Santi

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