The Gonzalez Situation

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?

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    May 18, 2007

    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.

    I think that’s when the Mathematics Department encourages you to take a sabbatical in a soft room with lots of cookies.

  2. #2 Matt
    May 18, 2007

    Much like a drivers lisence isn’t carte blanch to do whatever you want with a car, academic freedom and tenure entail responsibilities. Or to put it another way freedom isn’t liscence. Freedom entails certain responsibilities.

  3. #3 David D.G.
    May 18, 2007

    Well said, Jason, and I like Matt’s added comment.

    Or, as someone else once put it, “With great power comes great responsibility.” ;^D Gonzalez has shown that he will not be treating that responsibility appropriately, so it only makes sense that he be denied that much power.

    ~David D.G.

  4. #4 Jonathan Lubin
    May 18, 2007

    This is one subject in which I’m not in exact agreement with Jason. As someone who had academic freedom for a long time and who also benefitted from tenure, I think that the two things are somewhat different, as are the qualifications for having academic freedom or getting tenure. There’s not enough room in the margin here to go into my full argument on the score, so I’ll leave it at that.

  5. #5 James McGrath
    May 19, 2007

    I actually believe that the university’s president issued a statement that Gonzalez was warned about his failure to meet tenure standards at each of his previous reviews. So, rather than this being an inappropriate response to a letter from his colleagues, the decision was a response to what anyone could reasonably expect from someone associated with ID: instead of doing science, Gonzalez (like all ID proponents) wants to redefine science to include what he actually believes. And as the Dover ID trial showed, even when research about ID is possible, proponents like Behe don’t do it!

    http://blue.butler.edu/~jfmcgrat/blog/

  6. #6 Robert O'Brien
    May 20, 2007

    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.

    There is nothing wrong with Guillermo Gonzalez’s teleological musings. Having already observed you cheerleading for the Rational [sic] Responders, despite their erroneous arguments from physics, I have no “faith” in any of your physics pronouncements.

    (BTW, Avalos is a mediocre academician who is fixated on running Guillermo Gonzalez out of IA State.)

  7. #7 Robert O'Brien
    May 20, 2007

    …instead of doing science, Gonzalez (like all ID proponents) wants to redefine science to include what he actually believes.

    That is a load of excrement. Where are your 55 publications in astronomy? There are at least that many listed for Guillermo Gonzalez on ISI Web of Knowledge.

    (You have none, of course, because you are venturing outside of your area of expertise.)

  8. #8 Tyler DiPietro
    May 20, 2007

    Why isn’t this chode-monkey banned?

  9. #9 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 20, 2007

    Tyler-

    As long as commenters don’t write anything libelous or excessively vulgar, I’m perfectly happy to let people like Robert bray. His silly and snide comments don’t do anything to help his case.

  10. #10 Blake Stacey, OM
    May 21, 2007

    Tyler, et al.:

    I added Robert to my ScienceBlogs killfile long ago. . . .

  11. #11 Nat Whilk
    May 21, 2007

    Jason wrote: “First, I’m not sure that academic freedom, a vague notion to begin with, really applies to non-tenured faculty.

    The AAUP, which considers itself the watchdog of academic freedom, thinks you should be sure that it applies to non-tenured faculty. Many of the institutions that the AAUP has censured (e.g. my own) have been censured because of their actions w.r.t. untenured faculty.

  12. #12 Nat Whilk
    May 21, 2007

    Jason: I’m wondering how far your intolerance for sympathizers of the Discovery Institute extends. Let’s take a case study. Jim Keener is a signatory of of the Discovery Institute’s “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism” manifesto and has spoken at more than one public symposium on ID. He’s on several editorial boards of applied math journals and was editor-in-chief of SIAM Journal on Applied Mathematics for several years. He has 74 papers indexed on MathSciNet (to your 7). This weekend, the NSF is helping fund a conference in honor of his 60th birthday. If he were 30 years younger and untenured, would you find it more appropriate to pink-slip him than to honor him?

  13. #13 Robert O'Brien
    May 21, 2007

    The AAUP, which considers itself the watchdog of academic freedom, thinks you should be sure that it applies to non-tenured faculty. Many of the institutions that the AAUP has censured (e.g. my own) have been censured because of their actions w.r.t. untenured faculty.

    Apparently, Jason thinks tenured faculty should enjoy a Brahmin-like status.

  14. #14 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 21, 2007

    Nat Whilk-

    You’ll have to show me where the AAUP says that universities are not allowed to hold it against you at tenure time that you have engaged in “scholarly activities” of which they disapprove.

    I can’t answer in the abstract your question of how far my intolerance for sympathizers of the DI extends. I would say simply that it is legitimate to count such activity against a person at tenure time. If the person had an impressive record outside of their pro-DI activities, and if I felt that such activities were not their main claim to fame, then I might be inclined to overlook it.

    That appears not to be the case with Gonzalez. As far as I know, he had no external funding, had graduated no students, and had done most of his solid scientific work as a post-doc prior to coming to ISU. His record at ISU appears to be undistinguished. Moreover, it seems clear that he not merely supports the DI, but has made that support the cornerstone of his professional life in the last few years. Altogether I can understand why ISU would not want to give him a lifetime job.

  15. #15 Nat Whilk
    May 22, 2007

    Jason wrote: “You’ll have to show me where the AAUP says that universities are not allowed to hold it against you at tenure time that you have engaged in ‘scholarly activities’ of which they disapprove.

    You’re moving the goalposts. You said you weren’t sure that academic freedom applies to untenured faculty; the AAUP says that it absolutely does: A tenure-track faculty member “should have the academic freedom that all other members of the faculty have”.

    Jason continues: “I can’t answer in the abstract your question of how far my intolerance for sympathizers of the DI extends.

    That’s why I gave you a concrete case study.

    Jason continues: “with Gonzalez. As far as I know, he had no external funding

    That would apparently put him in the same position as yourself.

  16. #16 Kevin
    May 22, 2007

    That would apparently put him in the same position as yourself.

    Posted by: Nat Whilk | May 22, 2007 09:26 AM

    so you got a hard-on huh?

    does academic freedom include the freedom to join up with religious kooks and promote anti-scientific ideas?

    if you have tenure = YES
    if you don’t have tenure = NOT if you ever want to get tenure.

    You quoted Jason : “As far as I know, he had no external funding,” and left out: ” had graduated no students, and had done most of his solid scientific work as a post-doc prior to coming to ISU. His record at ISU appears to be undistinguished. ”

    Is Jason up for tenure? Is his school a research school or a teaching school? He may be stuck at James Madison University Harrisonburg, VA as an Assistant Professor of Mathematics, 2003-Present forever ntil they tired of his endless writing about evolution and kick his ass out.

    Does anyone say about him “His record at JMU appears to be undistinguished?”

  17. #17 Ginger Yellow
    May 22, 2007

    “tenure-track faculty member “should have the academic freedom that all other members of the faculty have””

    And where is the research in which he takes advantage of this freedom?

  18. #18 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 22, 2007

    Nat-

    Unlike Gonzalez, I work at an undergraduate school in a discipline where external funding is not necessary to carry out my research. Some rather significant differences, don’t you think?

    As for academic freedom, isolated, unlinked quotes do not impress me. I would want to see what the AAUP mean by academic freedom. I’ll be very surprised if they say schools can’t hold it against a non-tenured faculty member when he engages in “scholarly activity” of which they don’t approve. That’s the only point at issue here.

    And you did not give me a concrete case. You rattled off a name and gave me a few isolated assertions. I responded with the principles I would use to assess cases of this sort.

    I will not be replying to any further comments from you.

  19. #19 Art
    May 23, 2007

    Jason, I think the idea of discouraging “scholarly activity” that is not approved, in a broad sense, is an affront to the concept of academic freedom, and it should not factor into tenure decisions.

    Of course, I must add an important caveat. Universiities are free to, indeed they are obliged to, reject incompetence. Anyone who proposes to pursue ID as a scholarly and scientific endeavor (I’m not saying Gonzalez proposed this, BTW) could justifiably be deemed to be incompetent for the sake of promotion. Thus, to “name names” in a hypothetical sense, if a 30 year old Keener were proposing, as part of the promotion process, to follow in Dembski’s footsteps and dabble in a mixture of simple math and very bad biology, it would not be unreasonable to show him the door.

    I think it needs to be stated repeatedly – all the DI’s whining on this matter amounts to an insistence on their part that ID be given a free pass in academia, that it is unfair to judge ID based on the merits of the arguments. The DI may cry discrimination or bigotry, but the fact is that ID as science does not measure up.

  20. #20 MarkH
    May 24, 2007

    My brother did a pretty good job covering the academic freedom issues over on denialism blog. He really doesn’t have a leg to stand on, and academic freedom (if you read Chris’s paper on it) is really far more limited than anyone thinks it is. I was a little shocked how little protection professors have.

    Academic freedom is really in the hands of the university and how they want to interpret it. It’s not a very strong right protecting professors except within a very narrow window of expression which is really to bad. But even if it were it still wouldn’t apply to this case, because as long as he pursued ID in the intramural setting, which he did, his peers are perfectly justified in evaluating that work and whether or not it is of value to the university. It’s perfectly ok for members of a department to say they don’t want this crackpot or that crank to be part of their department based on the credibility of the ideas they promote. It’s not an issue of academic freedom at all, because as usual, the IDers have no ideology what the terminology they’re using means.

    Their best shot would be with discrimination against ID as a religion, but since ID isn’t a religion according to them they’d be in a bind. It also isn’t a “religion” as much as theologic concept, so it would be additional hard to defend it as a form of discrimination.

    They don’t have a leg to stand on, they’ll lose their appeal, they’ll lose in court, and ultimately just embarrass themselves as more people start quoting Dembski on how he’d run a university.

  21. #21 MarkH
    May 24, 2007

    Wow, too much writing and I’m losing all sense of grammar. That would be the IDers have no idea what the terminology they’re using means. Bit a Freudian slip too.

  22. #22 Robert O'Brien
    May 24, 2007

    Wow, too much writing and I’m losing all sense of grammar.

    It does not make much difference when your post is vacuous.

  23. #23 entlord
    May 29, 2007

    Tenure is not absolute; years ago, one of the UNC sites had a infestation of Marxists in a certain department and the university dissolved that particular department during a reorganization. Since their department no longer existed, neither did their tenure. I think it was circa 1974 or so.
    Southeastern Seminary did dump all of its professors who refused to swear allegiance to biblical infallibility during the Reagan years, I think, during the great Fundamentalist Re-Reformation.
    Tenure is not the shield non academicians think it is; it is not a lifetime guarantee of employment though sometimes it is. AAUP has plenty of cases over the years over tenure denied or tenure revoked.
    At the present time, I could see why some departments might want to deny tenure to a Holocaust denier or an AIDs denier or someone who thinks the US would have won in VN if only the dirty unwashed hippies had not given Uncle Ho hope or someone who thinks the Great Spaghetti Monster individually programs each cell.
    Academic freedom does give some room for having eccentric ideas. However, in the 50s and 60s, trying to find a job while espousing Marx was pretty much a hopeless task.

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