Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Martin Gaskell and the University of Kentucky

The University of Kentucky just settled out of court a discrimination suit brought by Martin Gaskell who felt that he was denied a position because he was a Christian. Here is the story from Inside Higher Ed and here is the essay that got Dr. Gaskell into trouble. Two things come to mind when I read the story and the essay: first, the University of Kentucky acted shamefully in many ways during the whole episode and, second, if I had been relevant professors at the University, I would have been a bit nervous too.

First, the University:
But Gaskell says it was Kentucky’s biology department that sank his candidacy for the observatory directorship. Upon discovering his lecture notes online, several members of the search committee expressed curiosity, though not necessarily alarm. “Clearly this man is complex and likely fascinating to talk to -- but possibly evangelical,” wrote one committee member in an e-mail. “If we hire him, we should expect similar content to be posted on or directly linked from the department website.” Another, noting that he was aware of Gaskell’s religious disposition, responded, “Personally, I believe in freedom of religion, and have no problem with Martin as long as he does not use the classroom or official university sites as a pulpit.”
Gaskell says that the biology department, whose members had no astrophysical experience or training were allowed to influence the decision to hire him. Understandably, this was upsetting. There was, additionally, clearly some future projecting going on:
“[A non-committee member] suggested, in particular, that we might one day wake up to a [Lexington] Herald-Leader headline citing ‘UK hires creationist as Observatory Director,’” wrote one member of the search committee in an e-mail. “Such a headline would probably not be a fair representation of Martin’s personal views, which are not simple, but the headline could appear nonetheless.”
You cannot hire or not hire somebody based on something that may or may not happen that has little bearing on their position. One might just as easily say that they have a problem with hiring someone for a biology position because they go to church. God only knows what that church might teach some Sunday.

Second, Martin Gaskell. After setting up the various divisions within the church with regard to the teaching of evolution and the age of the earth, he uncorks this:
It is true that there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory (a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job) and that these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses, but the real problem with humanistic evolution is in the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations. It is the latter that “creationists” should really be attacking (many books do, in fact, attack these unwarranted assumptions and extrapolations).
What exactly are these “significant problems?” He does not say (nor, I will warrant, would he be able to). The first thing that comes to my mind when I read something like this is “Discovery Institute party line” and red flags go up. Here is a man who complains that biologists who have no expertise in astrophysics are having an influence on his hiring and yet appears to feel perfectly free to denigrate a science of which he knows nothing. Further, the statement isn't just wrong, it is pejorative, implying that biologists are pulling the wool over people's eyes when they teach it or practice it. That is uncalled for and unprofessional. He continues:
A discussion of the current controversies over evolutionary theory and how Christians view these controversies, is beyond the scope of this handout, but the now extensive literature discussing and reviewing books such as those of Phillip E. Johnson (“Darwin on Trial”) and of biochemist Michael J. Behe (“Darwin's Black Box”) will give you some of the flavor of the diversity of opinion of Christian biologists (and geologists).
Why has he mentioned no books by mainstream biologists, such as Kenneth Miller or Francis Collins? They are both Christians and well-respected in the field of biology. The only flavor you will get with the list Gaskell provides is “Intelligent Design”.

So, was the University of Kentucky right in denying him the appointment? likely not. It is not clear that his views on biology would have made the slightest difference in the performance of his duties as an astronomer. It is also true that he should have known that if he hung a big sign around his neck reading “Discovery Institute” that problems would arise.

While most scientists have taken to ignoring the young earth creation groups such as the ICR and AiG, the Discovery Institute is viewed as a real threat because of the thin veneer of “science” that it promotes as well as the their suspect practices (See Steve Matheson's open letter to Stephen Meyer of the DI) involving their portrayal of scientists and their promotion of debatable legislation damaging to the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools. It is not surprising that the biologists reacted the way they did.

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1 comment:

  1. So it appears that the fee to discriminate against Christians is $125,000 or so. Enough to make people think about it but no where near enough to deter the problem.
    Dave W