Well, I guess it’s about time I weighed in on the Gonzalez situation.
Guillermo Gonzalez is an astronomer at Iowa State University, but he is best known as the coauthor (with Jay Richards) of The Privileged Planet, published by Regnery. Richards and Gonzalez present a novel, and especially vapid, gloss on the old fine-tuning argument. When I attended the big ID confab in Knoxville some weeks ago, one of the featured talks was by Richards, specifically discussing this book. I discussed some of the problems with their arguments here.
Gonzalez recently came up for tenure at ISU, and was turned down. Predictably, the ID folks are gnashing their teeth and rending their garments. Those damn Darwinian strom troopers strike again!
Now, I have no inside knowledge of why ISU came to the decision they did (and neither, of course, do the folks at the Discovery Institute.) For the purposes of this blog entry, however, I will assume that Gonzalez’s ID advocacy played a significant role in the school’s decision. Is that a bad thing? Is that an affront to academic freedom?
No, it isn’t. In my view it is perfectly appropriate to deny tenure to someone you reasonably believe is going to devote much of his career to the professional advocacy of pseudoscience.
First, let’s make one thing perfectly clear. The issue is not what Gonzalez personally believes. It’s not even the views he expresses in faculty meetings or scientific conferences. If the only problem were that Gonzalez holds unpopular views on certain scientific questions, then I would not see a sufficient reason for denying tenure.
But Gonzalez did considerably more than that. His book was published by Regnery, a virulently anti-science press. And he has thrown in with the Discovery Institute, an anti-science group that goes around the country accusing scientists of gross incompetence and worse. Gonzalez has actively lent his voice to organizations whose activites run directly counter to the cause of promoting scientific literacy in this country. How could any physics department not take that into consideration in making tenure decisions?
Tenure is not primarily a reward for past accomplishments. Unless you have something truly extraordinary on your CV (and very few academics do), you are not going to get tenure simply because of your past work. Rather, tenure committees are asking themselves whether you are likely to continue producing good work in the future. If you’re record suggests that your time will increasingly be spent promoting pseudoscience, then past accomplishments are not likely to help you.
It is possible that the committee saw in Gonzalez another Michael Behe. Earlier in his career Behe did good, if unspectacular, work in biochemistry. He got tenure accordingly. But now he is not simply an embarrassment to his department, but someone who actively harms the department by aligning himself with the Discovery Institute. This is an organization, after all, that tries to dsicredit scientists in general and biologists in particular. I see no problem at all with a physics department not wanting to be associatied with such a person.
So is this a threat to academic freedom? I don’t think so, for two reasons. First, I’m not sure that academic freedom, a vague notion to begin with, really applies to non-tenured faculty. The whole point of tenure is to give you academic freedom. You don’t have it straight out of graduate school. Essentially, tenure represents protection against those who would try to hurt you professionally simply because of the ideas you espouse or the research you choose to undertake. Your numerous pre-tenure years are where you prove yourself worthy of such protection. You have to earn academic freedom, and you earn it by establishing a solid record of strong work in your subject. You also earn it by not spending your pre-tenure years aligning yourself with groups hostile to the sort of work your department does.
The second reason is that academic freedom is not carte blanche to do whatever you want. Sure, researchers need the freedom to pursue unlikely or unpromising avenues of research without having to worry about their job if they don’t produce immediate results. But at some point your opinions are so at odds with the facts or your arguments are so easily refuted that no abstract principle can or should protect you. A mathematician who ran around telling people that there is a great conspiracy of mathematicians covering up the fact that 2+2=5 could not reasonably claim academic freedom when his department tried to get rid of him. Likewise for the arguments Gonzalez was pushing in The Privileged Planet.
No one would argue that the tenure system, especially at major research institutions like ISU, is perfect. Tenure applications get turned down all the time for bad reasons like office politics or personality conflicts. To me, though, it looks like in this case the department actually had good reasons to deny the application. They had a competent, but not especially distinguished astronomer who had actively aligned himself with anti-science groups and publishing houses and was promoting scientific arguments that most scientists regard as utterly foolish. Is that really such a bad reason to deny him a lifetime appointment?