The Discovery Institute is currently making hay (again) over Iowa State’s decision to deny tenure to Discovery Institute Fellow Guillermo Gonzalez. They’ve held a press conference and issued a press release claiming to have proof that Intelligent Design was “the” issue that resulted in Gonzalez not receiving tenure. I’ve read the release, and I’m unconvinced.
For starters, their release relies heavily on fragmentary quotes taken from emails that they obtained through an open records inquiry. Given the notorious track record of the entire anti-evolution movement when it comes to quoting scientists, I’m somewhat reluctant to accept the quotes provided at face value, particularly since the DI has not made the full text of the sources available for examination. Even if all of the quotes the DI uses do accurately capture the spirit of the full emails they are taken from (and does anyone want to offer me odds on that), I still don’t think they’ve made their point. At most, they’ve demonstrated that Intelligent Design was a factor in the decision. Since people who were involved in making the decision have already said as much publicly, that’s not exactly a shocking revelation.
But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Intelligent Design was the overriding factor in the tenure decision. Heck, let’s assume that it was the only factor that came into play in the tenure process. Let’s pretend, in short, that the Discovery Institute has actually provided overwhelming evidence to support their argument. Let’s set aside the facts and evidence that the Discovery Institute’s using to support their claims, and look instead at the truly strange nature of the claims themselves.
Stripped down to basics, the Discovery Institute argument comes down to this: considering Guillermo Gonzalez’s Intelligent Design work when evaluating his application for tenure in an Astronomy department is inappropriate.
Let’s think about what that implies, shall we? The Discovery Institute has, repeatedly, trumpeted Gonzalez’s Intelligent Design work whenever anyone claims that there’s a lack of evidence to support their views. They believe, at least on paper, that the pro-Intelligent Design material that Gonzalez has published is not just science, but good science. How on earth could it be wrong for a science department to take that into consideration when they are evaluating his performance as a scientist as part of a tenure review?
The real answer to that, we all know, is that it’s wrong because the members of Gonzalez’s department didn’t think that his ID material was a factor that favored a decision to grant him tenure. But let’s pretend that the reasons that the Discovery Institute offered are actually their primary objections.
Their first “reason” is that judging Gonzalez’s Intelligent Design material is a violation of Gonzalez’s academic freedom:
The true reason his colleagues on the faculty wanted to eject Gonzalez is made clear by their private e-mails and other documents from the case. Their visceral intolerance towards intelligent design, and their litmus-test against anyone who supports the theory as unqualified to be a science educator, ensured that Dr. Gonzalez would not be evaluated fairly or impartially. In addition to their own rejection of intelligent design, Gonzalez’s colleagues fretted about the impact that his support of intelligent design would have on their department — their reputations, their ability to attract high quality graduate students, and perhaps to obtain research funding themselves.
These may seem like legitimate concerns. But universities like Iowa State contractually guarantee to protect their professors’ academic freedom, and academic freedom has meaning only if it is upheld even in circumstances when guaranteeing the right of free thought costs somebody something. If a scholar like Gonzalez is “free” only to advance popular, uncontroversial ideas, that’s no freedom at all.
If one were to accept the Discovery Institute’s reasoning (I hesitate to use the word “logic” here), the right to academic freedom would mean that academic departments are not allowed to evaluate the quality of the academic work that members of their own department produce. That’s quite simply an absurd claim. Tenure review is not supposed to consist of nothing more than counting articles – although that’s apparently the only metric that the Discovery Institute wants used in this case. Tenure review is supposed to include an evaluation of the quality – not merely the quantity – of the work that’s been performed.
It is clear from the fragments of email that the Discovery Institute released that Gonzalez’s colleagues believed – correctly – that Intelligent Design is not science, and that if Gonzalez believes otherwise it casts doubts on his understanding of science. They were not arguing that his belief in ID should be used against him just because he believes In ID. They were arguing that Gonzalez’s belief in Intelligent Design is evidence that he has an incorrect understanding of science.
If a tenure candidate at an astronomy department were to argue that the moon is made of green cheese, it would not be unreasonable for the tenure committee to question the candidate’s scientific credentials – and that candidate would be making a scientific argument that could be examined experimentally. Gonzalez doesn’t even have that much going for him.
The second argument that the Discovery Institute is making is even less valid than the first:
Moreover, ISU faculty complained about Dr. Gonzalez’s intelligent design work that was conducted completely outside of any relationship to ISU. First Amendment forbids a government entity like ISU from discriminating against an employee like Gonzalez on the basis not of his job performance but on that of ideas expressed outside the work environment. Dr. Gonzalez’s public comments and speeches as a citizen are clearly protected not only by academic freedom but by the First Amendment. Indeed, the ISU faculty handbook states that academic freedom “is the foundation of the university.” If only that were truly the case.
To demonstrate just how laughable the Discovery Institute claim that Gonzalez’s pro-ID work “was conducted completely outside of any relationship with ISU” really is, we need to look no further than the “Q&A on Guillermo Gonzalez Story“. This “Q&A” was authored by the Discovery Institute, and is one of the resources that they specifically refer to in their “coverage” of their new “revelations”. Right near the top of page 1 of the “Q&A” you will read this:
First, ISU had previously approved and administered a grant to Gonzalez, to help write this very book The Privileged Planet supporting intelligent design from the entirely mainstream and prestigious Templeton Foundation. That demonstrates that the university had already accepted the concept behind the book as the subject for legitimate scholarship.
So in one document we see the DI arguing that Gonzalez’s ID work was purely extracurricular, but in another document we have the DI arguing that Gonzalez’s ID work was part of his academic work at ISU. Let’s hear it for keeping the story straight, folks! Seriously, that should be game over for the “it wasn’t on-the-job activity” argument right there, but let’s take it a little further anyway. If Gonzalez was conducting his work on ID on his own time, and totally independently of his work at ISU, then why did the Discovery Institute mention Gonzalez’s ISU affiliation again, and again, and again, and again, and again on their website, while trumpeting his work as support for their views. They can’t have it both ways, particularly at this late date. It is completely unreasonable for them to use Gonzalez’s credentials to lend weight to their presentation of his argument when it is convenient for him, then argue that all of that was “extracurricular” activity when the time comes for Gonzalez’s colleagues to decide whether he should continue to hold those credentials.
The Discovery Institute’s basic argument is clear: Intelligent Design should hold a privileged position among the sciences. Work on Intelligent Design should be considered to be legitimate scientific work, because they say it is. It is not appropriate for people to examine Intelligent Design, decide that it is scientifically vacuous, and say so publicly. Doing so demonstrates ideological bias, which is wrong. That argument is nonsense, of course, but it’s clearly what the DI wants to see happen.