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?