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.