The Questionable Authority

Yesterday, Casey Luskin posted yet another article outlining still more of the Discovery Institute’s complaints about the Iowa State decision to deny tenure to DI Fellow and ID proponent Guillermo Gonzalez. This one complains about the characterization of Gonzalez as “having slowed down considerably” and “not started new things.” (That characterization appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week.)

I have no intention of getting into a debate over the precise merits of Dr. Gonzalez’s case, for a number of reasons. First of all, I’m one of those who believes that the effort that Gonzalez has put into undermining quality science education in the primary and secondary public schools is something that should be considered when looking into tenure decisions. Second, I am not an astronomer and am not qualified to judge the quality of his scientific work either before or after he joined the Iowa State faculty. Finally, I am not a member of his department, and I do not know what was involved in the tenure decision in this case.

I am, however, someone who has enough reading comprehension skill to recognize when someone is playing word games, and enough of a sense of integrity to be offended when it happens. In the case of this latest Gonzalez article, that’s exactly what Casey has done. Three times.

The first bit of clever wordplay comes from Casey’s characterization of the person he’s quoting in the following passage:

They managed to find one astronomer (who admitted he “has not studied Mr. Gonzalez’s work in detail and is not an expert on [Gonzalez's] tenure case”) who was willing to make the argument that Dr. Gonzalez’s production has “slowed down considerably” at Iowa State University (ISU), alleging that “[i]t’s not clear that he started new things” since joining ISU. What an incredibly false pair of accusations against Dr. Gonzalez.

If you look at the Chronicle article, you will find that the “one astronomer” is actually a not an astronomer at all. He’s a physicist named Jorge Hirsch, who was interviewed because he devised something known as the h-index, which is a tool for evaluating a researcher’s academic output. He was interviewed to get his comments about Gonzalez’s h-index, which was loudly trumpeted on the Discovery Institute’s website as the highest of the astronomers in his department. I just love how Dr. Hirsch can be referred to as the developer of the tool when they are bragging about how well Gonzalez measures up, but becomes “one astronomer” that “they managed to find” when he’s explaining why his tool might not be the most appropriate measurement device in this case.

Strike one, Casey.

The second bit of clever wordplay comes when Casey decides to latch on to the word, “things” in the phrase, “it’s not clear that he started new things.” In context, it’s clear that Hirsch is referring to Gonzalez’s research output, as measured with Hirsch’s h-index. Casey blithely ignores this, and proceeds to chastise “the astronomer they managed to find” (now rebranded as a “critic” of Gonzalez) for not taking notice of the introductory Astronomy textbook that Gonzalez co-wrote during his time at Iowa:

One of Dr. Gonzalez’s recent accomplishments at ISU that has received less attention is his co-authorship of a prestigiously published astronomy textbook, Observational Astronomy. Published by Cambridge University Press and also peer-reviewed, the textbook is used in Dr. Gonzalez’s own department to teach astronomy. Aside from his own department, universities internationally use Observational Astronomy, including University of Toronto, New Jersey’s Science & Technology University, University of Manitoba, Valparaiso University, and Franklin and Marshall College. Prestigious textbook authorship is a new avenue of scholarship for Dr. Gonzalez since he joined ISU. How can his critics sustain the claim that he has not “started new things” at ISU?

That’s pretty cute wordplay. Hirsch was clearly talking about research, but Casey decides to ignore context and use the word “things” in an absolutely literal sense. That gave him the opening to talk about Gonzalez’s “peer-reviewed” textbook. Unfortunately, textbooks (whether “peer-reviewed” or not, and “peer-reviewed” isn’t a phrase that is normally used to describe textbooks) aren’t really relevant when looking at how good a scientist is as a researcher.

The following is a very simple concept, but it is one that the Discovery Institute seems to have a great deal of trouble understanding. For their benefit, I’m going to try to explain it in the simplest possible terms:

A textbook is not original scientific research.

It’s a simple concept, but an important one. At research universities, hiring and tenure decisions are focused on a scientist’s potential as a researcher. The scientist’s potential as a teacher frequently – almost always – is secondary to their research skills. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing, and it’s one of the reasons that I no longer intend to make a career as a research scientist, but it is the way things really are at this point in time.

Frankly, I hope that the textbook was considered to be a point in Gonzalez’s favor when his tenure application was reviewed. At least some instructors feel that the book is good enough to use, and it does take considerable time and effort to write a textbook. Unfortunately for Gonzalez, however, none of that changes the fact that tenure decisions in research departments are usually based on research output, and an introductory textbook isn’t a venue for presenting original research.

Strike two, Casey.

Finally, we’ve got Casey’s analysis of Gonzalez’s scientific output. Casey, both in this article and in a previous one, refers to Gonzalez’s scientific output since 2001, “the year he joined ISU.” The reason that Casey refers to the “year he joined ISU” instead of the simpler, “since joining ISU” is because Gonzalez’s research really does seem to show a bit of a drop since he joined the ISU faculty. If you exclude the 2001 papers where Gonzalez was still affiliated with Washington, his normalized citation index drops by nearly half – from 144 to 81.

Now, 81 is a perfectly respectable total for something like that, and I wouldn’t presume to criticize the work itself – as I said before, I’m not qualified. It does seem to me, though, that 81 is not the same thing as 144. For starters, it’s not as impressive looking a number – it’s only made up of two digits, and 144 is made up of three. Really, the only thing that 81 has going for it is that it’s a more accurate view of the work that was done at Iowa State, as opposed to work that had been done earlier, but got published sometime during the year that Gonzalez started working there. (Wouldn’t it be nice if other jobs worked like that? I’d love to get credit at my new job for the hours I worked at the last one.)

I’m guessing that Casey probably figured out the whole timeline thing before he wrote those posts, and picked his language in that nice lawyerly way to make sure that he couldn’t be accused of saying things that weren’t true. That doesn’t strike me as being particularly honest, though. Oh, and speaking of strikes, no joy in Mudville, Casey.


  1. #1 Ed Darrell
    June 1, 2007

    You’re gonna hear from the Shyster Lawyer Association about the “nice lawyerly way” phrase.

    One of the rules of case presentation is to make the case so that, on cross examination, you don’t come off looking like a liar instead of a lawyer. Your cross-ex shows Mr. Luskin didn’t do that.

    So,lay off insulting the lawyers! ;-)

  2. #2 sparc
    June 1, 2007

    I don’t know what these ID guys are on about: If you are working for MacDonalds you should not let your boss know that you prefer Burger King’s meat. And you should especially not tell him that MacDonalds ingredients are bad and their recipies contradict everything known about human nutrition. It won’t help much if you prepared the best burgers in town. The worst thing however, would be “friends” blaming your employer.
    It’s as easy as such.

  3. #3 Doc Bill
    June 1, 2007

    And when has Casey Luskin written anything even remotely honest?

  4. #4 mark
    June 1, 2007

    Casey honest?
    I just finished reading Myers’ post about Casey’s whine over Haeckel’s embryos. I concluded that Luskin is either incredibly, congenitally stupid, or else he’s a lying sack of monkey vomit.

  5. #5 John Pieret
    June 1, 2007

    As a past president of the Shyster Lawyer Association, I would only object to the modifier “nice” being used in connection with any member of our profession.

    As a human being (sort of) I object to the use of the modifier “clever” being used in connection with Casey Luskin in any context.

    As to the observation that “Luskin is either incredibly, congenitally stupid, or else he’s a lying sack of monkey vomit,” I believe that is best characterized as a false dichotomy.

  6. #6 Golfball
    June 1, 2007

    The stomach contents of monkeys would like to register a complaint against that last post.

  7. #7 Doc Bill
    June 1, 2007

    The Disco Inst’s distinguished jolly good fellow, John West, reports the following:

    “From 2000-2003, Dr. Gonzalez received a $58,000 grant from the Templeton Foundation. This grant was awarded as part of a competitive, peer-reviewed grant process, and his winning grant proposal had been peer-reviewed by a number of distinguished astronomers and scientists.”

    Sounds so sciency, doesn’t it?

    This grant was for Gonzalez to write “The Privileged Planet” which as we all know is an intelligent design creationist, coffee table ornament.

    So, the DI is proclaiming that the major grant that Gonzo received, in support of his bid for tenure, is a grant from a religious foundation to write a creationist astronomy book.

    The DI shoots and scores! Own goal!

  8. #8 ArtK
    June 1, 2007

    Quoth Mark:

    Luskin is either incredibly, congenitally stupid, or else he’s a lying sack of monkey vomit.

    That, my friend is a logical fallacy known as the “false dichotomy.” There’s no reason Casey can’t be both.

  9. #9 John Vreeland
    June 1, 2007

    Not that this is *ahem* scientific, but Google scholar only showed Gonzalez as the lead author on two papers from 2001-present. One was presented at a conference. Both were on star metallicity. Since you could count the authors on most astronomy papers with one hand (unlike particle physics, for instance) I thought the low number was significant.

  10. #10 SLC
    June 1, 2007

    Mr. Luskin can foam at the mouth all he wants. The bottom line is that Gonzalez was unable to obtain any grants to support whatever research he might be interested in doing (it is not clear if he even submitted any proposals) and showed no prospect of obtaining same if he were granted tenure. The bottom line is no money, no tenure. Period, end of story.

  11. #11 Ron Okimoto
    June 2, 2007

    If West is touting the Templeton foundation grant, why doesn’t he toot about the Discovery Institute fellowships that Gonzalez has been banking. According to the DI web page Gonzalez could have been getting up to $50,000 for a fellowship. If that is annually he could have gotten considerable funding from the Discovery Institute as a Senior Fellow over the years.

    I wonder if Gonzalez listed that under his research funding? Isn’t the Discovery Institute a legitimate research institute?

  12. #12 Lee
    June 2, 2007

    ENV is claiming the following as Gonzalez grant funding at Iowa. The one competitive research grant ended in 2004. The grant for writing a book – not a research grant – ended in 2003. From 2004-2007 he had no grant support. In 2004 he claims to have gotten $50,000 from the DI in 2007, for unspecified purposes.
    So he has been without a research grant for 3 years. His only current funding is from an organization that funds anti-science activities, and is not a competitive research grant. There is simply no evidence in this record that Gonzalez is able to support a research program with research grants.

    From 2001-2004, Dr. Gonzalez was a Co-Investigator on a NASA Astrobiology Institute grant for “Habitable Planets and the Evolution of Biological Complexity” (his part of the grant for this time period was $64,000).

    From 2000-2003, Dr. Gonzalez received a $58,000 grant from the Templeton Foundation. This grant was awarded as part of a competitive, peer-reviewed grant process, and his winning grant proposal had been peer-reviewed by a number of distinguished astronomers and scientists.

    Earlier in 2007, Dr. Gonzalez was awarded a 5-year research grant for his work in observational astronomy from Discovery Institute (worth $50,000).