Nature on Gonzalez

And speaking of bad science journalism, here’s Nature‘s take on the Gonzalez situation:

He’s a young astronomer with dozens of articles in top journals; he has made an important discovery in the field of extrasolar planets; and he is a proponent of intelligent design, the idea that an intelligent force has shaped the Universe. It’s that last fact that Guillermo Gonzalez thinks has cost him his tenure at Iowa State University.

Gonzalez, who has been at Iowa State in Ames since 2001, was denied tenure on 9 March. He is now appealing the decision on the grounds that his religious belief, not the quality of his science, was the basis for turning down his application. “I’m concerned my views on intelligent design were a factor,” he says.

Advocates of intelligent design are rallying behind Gonzalez in the latest example of what they say is blatant academic discrimination. “Academia seems to be in a rage about anything that points to any purpose,” says Michael Behe, a biochemist and prominent advocate of intelligent design at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “They are penalizing an associate professor who’s doing his job because he has views they disagree with.”


And after three paragraphs of puffing him up, do we now get the other side? Do we now hear about the dramatic drop-off in his publication record in the last few years, his lack of any external grant, the fact that most of this wonderful work that is being described was done prior to his arrival at Iowa State, the fact that he hasn’t graduated any students, or the fact that he has aligned himself with anti-science groups like the Discovery Institute and anti-science publishers like Regnery? No. We get this:

But other researchers think that the department’s decision was entirely justified. “I would have voted to deny him tenure,” says Robert Park, a physicist at the University of Maryland in College Park. “He has established that he does not understand the scientific process.”

Oh, for heaven sake. Robert Park is the author of a terrific book called Voodoo Science, but I really hope this comment is out of context.

Gonzalez has a PhD in physics and has published papers in actual scientific journals. Okay? He understands the scientific process. It’s not that complicated. He has drawn some odd conclusions on the basis of some very bad arguments, certainly, but that is both a different criticism and not the reason for denying him tenure.

As I said in my previous entry on the subject, Gonzalez’s personal belief in ID is not the issue. His ID advocacy is a problem because he has hurt his department by actively supporting purveyors of pseudoscience and by giving every indication that his ID work was overtaking any serious scientific work in which he might have been involved. Those are serious negatives in a tenure application. In principle you might be able to overcome them with an extraordinary record in other respects, but Gonzalez does not have that.

We then get several more fawning paragraphs about Gonzalez, including a pull quote from his former supervisor describing him as one of the best post-docs he has ever had. Near the end of the article, we get another statement from Park:

But Park says that a researcher’s views on intelligent design cannot be divorced from the tenure decision. Anyone who believes that an intelligent force set the Earth’s location doesn’t understand probability’s role in the Universe, Park argues. Such a person is hardly qualified to teach others about the scientific method. “We’re entrusting the minds of our students to this person,” he says.

Please tell me this is an instance of poor phrasing, or of a quote getting garbled in transmission. As printed it sure sounds like Park is saying that anyone who believes in God is not qualified to teach science. I’m an anti-religion kind of guy, but that is way out of line. I suspect, however, that Park’s intention was simply to criticize the logic behind Gonzalez’s ID arguments. That, at least, would be a sound point, albeit one that’s totally irrelevant to the issue at hand.

We finally get something from the university in the article’s penultimate paragraph:

Eli Rosenberg, who chairs Iowa State’s physics department, concedes that Gonzalez’s belief in intelligent design did come up during the tenure process. “I’d be a fool if I said it was not [discussed],” he says. But, he adds, “intelligent design was not a major or even a big factor in this decision.” Four of twelve tenure candidates have been turned down in the past decade, he says. “We are a fairly hard-nosed department.”

So basically, in a lengthy article on this subject we get paragraph after paragraph puffing Gonzalez up, two brief inane comments criticizing Gonzalez, and absolutely no insight at all into the factors on which ISU based its decision. And this is in Nature! Where do science magazines find these guys?

Comments

  1. #1 Science Avenger
    May 23, 2007

    he is a proponent of intelligent design, the idea that an intelligent force has shaped the Universe.

    But that isn’t what it is. Intelligent design is the theory that an intelligence force shaped the bacterial flagellum, or the human eye, because they could not have (it is argued) come about any other way. And that of course is being kind, because what ID REALLY is, is a politically watered-down version of creationism, designed to elude the 1987 Edwards decision by removing all the overtly relgious elements and adding a lot of sciency jargon.

    I know this is old news to many readers of this blog, and really, it is a sign of our recent victories that the ID people have enacted this recent shift in terminology, but that’s no reason we should let them get away with it. Any time someone implies ID is science, they need to be stopped in their tracks and informed otherwise. It is politics first and foremost.

    Advocates of intelligent design are rallying behind Gonzalez in the latest example of what they say is blatant academic discrimination. “Academia seems to be in a rage about anything that points to any purpose,” says Michael Behe, a biochemist and prominent advocate of intelligent design at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “They are penalizing an associate professor who’s doing his job because he has views they disagree with.”

    This from the guy that, in his famous cross examination at Dover, redefined science to accomodate intelligent design and admitted making it friendly to astrology in the process, who first declared there were no peer reviewed books or papers dealing with the evolution of the immune system, then when having 50 of them piled on his lap, claimed they didn’t address the question he asked, even while admitting he hadn’t read many of them. Oh, and he claimed there were falsifiable experiments that could be performed on his hypothesis, but he chose not to waste the time doing so himself because “it would not be fruitful”.

    Of course, Nature didn’t bother to tell its readers that’s whose opinion on matters scientific was being presented as if it were worth heading.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    May 23, 2007

    I don’t quite grok your objection to Park’s comments. Surely you’d object to a physics professor saying that God pulled together the rocks and ice lumps necessary to make the primitive Earth, and then took a giant snooker cue and potted planet Orpheus into planet Earth to make the Moon.

    Furthermore, Gonzalez’s whole notion of a “privileged planet” is based on shoddy thinking and misrepresentations of probability. He deals out the cards, spreads them over the table and exclaims, “What are the odds this particular hand appeared out of the millions of possibilities!” While I think Park could and should have been given more time to explain what he meant, his basic point sounds fine to me. Why should Iowa State give tenure to a man who can’t do math?

    I’ve encountered a few theists who are, indeed, eminently qualified to teach science. Mark Chu-Carroll springs to mind. Hell, you could probably trust Francis Collins to get freshman bio basically right; just don’t give him a class on anthropology, philosophy, cognitive science or the evolution of the nervous system. But Gonzalez went way beyond what Chu-Carroll or Rob Knop would ever do: he ascribed to God what we can understand through reason. He enlarged the gaps in our knowledge with a crowbar of sophistry.

    Anybody who’s willing to do that has revealed serious limitations as a researcher and a teacher.

    Were I on a tenure committee, I would readily vote in support of a religious candidate, provided they met the necessary requirements of productivity, funding procurement, teaching skill and so forth. What they do on weekends does not, ideally, concern me or the hypothetical department to which we belong. However, a candidate who had devoted considerable time to promoting Velikovskian astronomy, Vedic astrology or Holocaust denial would get a definitive thumbs down. If you’re that willing to bend the facts in favor of your preconceptions, it will almost certainly influence the rest of your work, and your ability to teach the next generation of scientists is to say the least seriously called into question.

  3. #3 Tyler DiPietro
    May 24, 2007

    I would agree with Blake Stacey, I find nothing wrong with Park’s comments save their truncation and brevity. But to expand on Blake’s comment, I think it needs to be made clear that when inquiring into his potential limitations as a researcher, we’re not only invoking conpetence, but intellectual honesty. If I were on a tenure committee for a medical instution, I would very wary about getting saddled with a Peter Deusburg or Kary Mullis. Universities take enough of a risk with tenure as it is without giving a greenlight to an obvious crank.

  4. #4 Tyler DiPietro
    May 24, 2007

    I meant to write “possible truncation” above, sorry. :(

  5. #5 G. Shelley
    May 24, 2007

    Surely you’d object to a physics professor saying that God pulled together the rocks and ice lumps necessary to make the primitive Earth, and then took a giant snooker cue and potted planet Orpheus into planet Earth to make the Moon.

    In which case he would be suggesting an actual mechanism, something totally different to saying that god was involved at some stage

  6. #6 Blake Stacey
    May 24, 2007

    Tyler DiPietro:

    Agreed.

    G. Shelley:

    Which is worse, proposing a “mechanism” for a physical phenomenon which is straight out of a Bronze Age fairy tale, or giving a one-word answer which precludes further investigation? Both sound antiscientific to me. Since, as an astronomer, Gonzalez has a job description which covers the area where he says “Goddidit”. . . feh!

  7. #7 Reginald Selkirk
    May 24, 2007

    I have to say that you seem to have missed the “money quote” in the Nature article:

    Gonzalez, who has been at Iowa State in Ames since 2001, was denied tenure on 9 March. He is now appealing the decision on the grounds that his religious belief, not the quality of his science, was the basis for turning down his application. “I’m concerned my views on intelligent design were a factor,” he says.

    Nature is saying that Gonzalez’s support of ID was about religious belief, not science. This is diametrically opposed to Gonzalez’s own view on the topic as of two years ago. PZ did a better job of picking up on this one.

  8. #8 Joe
    May 24, 2007

    GG’s much-touted 63 articles are primarily written based on his mentored research; even many of those published during his time at Iowa State. His independent scholarship consists of some literature reviews, a shoddy book, and 2-4 papers that may be original research. Look at: http://72.32.2.238/forumlive/showthread.php?p=2623600#post2623600 and scroll up and down a bit.

    His only grant was for writing the book, he seems to have had no students, and he had no time on a significant telescope. In all, his independent career does not bode well for future scholarship.

    Considering his lack of scholarship, and that his magnum opus “Rare Earth” was junk, the department can mount a strong defense. Tenure is about trusting the future to the guy, and it really looks like he will accept it as license to pursue creationism.

  9. #9 Larry Fafarman
    May 24, 2007

    How does Gonzalez’s record compare to the records of those who were and were not granted tenure in his department? He wrote a popular-market book, “Privileged Planet,” and co-authored an astronomy textbook now used by his department, in addition to satisfying the benchmark for the number of peer-reviewed papers (I agree that papers that he wrote before coming to ISU shouldn’t count because counting them would be unfair to tenure candidates who had little or no work experience before coming to ISU). How many of those who were granted tenure equaled or exceeded those achievements prior to the grant of tenure?

    As for his failure to get outside grant money, his department’s tenure guidelines do not even mention outside grant money as being a factor in tenure decisions, and I have heard that outside grant money is especially hard to get in astronomy.

    As for the fact that he hasn’t been an advisor to any PhD graduate, I presume that granting PhD’s in astronomy is fairly rare. If all tenure-track astronomy faculty members advised several PhD grads prior to being granted tenure, that would produce a huge glut of astronomy PhD’s. I presume that we have such a glut already. Also, he should not be held responsible for the work and progress of PhD students — they should be on their own to a great extent.

  10. #10 Robert O'Brien
    May 24, 2007

    …he had no time on a significant telescope.

    Yeah, with all those observatories in the plains of Iowa, he really had no excuse.

  11. #11 Another Jason
    May 24, 2007

    Joe,

    Considering his lack of scholarship, and that his magnum opus “Rare Earth” was junk

    Er, the authors of Rare Earth are distinguished scientists Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, and the book has been widely praised in the scientific community. The Rare Earth Hypothesis is based on a large body of diverse evidence suggesting that complex, intelligent life is probably very rare in the universe.

  12. #12 Robert O'Brien
    May 24, 2007

    Er, the authors of Rare Earth are distinguished scientists Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee…

    You didn’t expect Joe to actually know what he was writing about, did you?

  13. #13 SLC
    May 24, 2007

    This article from Nature, considered one of the most prestigious science periodicals, is totally incredible. It resembles something one might find on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, home of world class whackjobs. Hopefully, there will be some letters to the editor remonstrating with Nature about the reporter who wrote this story and setting the record straight.

    Re Joe

    I think Joe meant Privileged Planet, not Rare Earth.

  14. #14 Blake Stacey
    May 25, 2007

    Is anyone planning to write to Nature about this?

  15. #15 Joe
    May 25, 2007

    Thanks, I had confused “Privileged Planet” with “Rare Earth.”

    I have not examined the former; but the latter is an interesting essay on the possibility of finding an Earth-like planet in a Solar-like stellar system.

    Unfortunately, the authors (Ward & Brownlee) then veer into science fiction by claiming to know that such systems are the only places “complex” life can exist. In other words, they are extrapolating from the single data point they have (humans) to the limits of the universe. We don’t allow such extrapolation. In fact, we don’t allow researchers to plot any line (or curve) through one data point.

    W&B wrote a “just-so” story about the features of the Earth and the Solar system that they think allowed life to flourish here. They can’t show that any of their “requirements” are, in fact, required. Moreover, even if they are right about the role of (say) Jupiter, perhaps something else can serve its purpose. In addition, they overlook the fact that life is remarkably adaptable.

  16. #16 SLC
    May 25, 2007

    Re Joe

    NASA is preparing to spend megabucks on future missions to Europa to investigate the possibility of life in the apparent sea beneath the ice cap. If there is life on Europa, this would completely falsify the claims of both the Rare Earth and Privileged Planet books, as Europa doesn’t satisfy the requirements in either book.

  17. #17 Jolf_Moosenhoeger
    May 26, 2007

    Robert O’Brien’s comment about telescopes in Iowa is, as usual, silly and uninformed. These days, professional astronomers nearly always depend on scope time at other institutions or even in outer space. Instructions about where to point the scope are sent remotely, via computer, and the data is retrieved electronically.

    Time on the great scopes is very limited, so astronomers must submit a project and get it approved. I know astronomers in my university are jubilant when they get a few hours on a great scope to work on their project. The fact that Gonzalez didn’t get any scope time probably means either he couldn’t think of a project, or it was considered so bad he didn’t deserve the time.

  18. #18 Mark
    May 26, 2007

    BACK TO BASICS

    Really now. Let’s get back to the original arguments and the basics of this issue.

    In all times and all cases, those who have a premise that the JudeoChristian god invented the universe ALWAYS fall back to that premise whenever there is an unknown. All mysteries at all times are ‘god’. Always.

    Then science came along and slowly but surely started debunking those claims by offering proofs and evidence.

    The vast majority of people who read and follow the Evolution vs. ID/Creationism arguments have forgotten that very important first step. The god-botherers have a premise. They look for evidence to satisfy that premise. They don’t propose hypotheses and try to disprove them. They are only looking for evidence for their preconceived notions.

    All of their preconceived notions have had 300+ years of scientific investigations to debunk every single claim. Today in the 21st century it is no different.

    There is a lot of history behind science. A lot of it. Just as with anything else people stumble. There are frauds put forth – the vast majority of which are eventually discovered and thrown out.

    There is NO equivalent in the religious world for that. None. They have claims and premises which they will NEVER relinquish. But science is there to point out the folly of their non-knownledge…. their non-understanding of the universe.

    It doesn’t take too much thought to discover that religionists’ claims about the universe are totally and utterly without a foundation. Their house of cards exists solely within their belief structures. It exists only in their faith. It exists in their Bronze Age mythology – all of which was cobbled together by hundreds of people over hundreds of years. In millennia past there was no such thing as scientific investigation. They ONLY had myths that could be passed on from mouth to mouth to expain their culture, their language, their very existence. Today it’s different. We have pierced the veils of the microscopic and the macroscopic with instruments that wouldn’t have even been conceivable decades ago.

    To allow any religionist to perpetuate their blatant reversal of what we ALREADY know is exactly like allowing a dictator to run your personal and political life. We already know better than them. We have data which underlies our understanding of the universe.

    They only have their false premises. They only have their lies. And they have banded together to ‘convert’ you to their way of thinking and believing. Don’t let them. Tenure is NOT appropriate for a person who follows a religio/political version of Origins rather than a version that is based on sound evidence and observation. That is science. Religion is not science and will NEVER be.

  19. #19 AJS
    May 27, 2007

    How is this any different from the case of a university refusing tenure to a professor of electronics who believed ardently in the “magic smoke theory” rather than the “received wisdom” that such devices work by the movement of charged particles?

  20. #20 Reginald Selkirk
    May 28, 2007

    According to that ultra-reliable news source, The Discovery Institute (suppressed giggle), Gonzalez is not appealing on grounds of religious discrimination:

    The reporter is not correct to say that I am appealing on the grounds of my religious belief. That is absolutely false. I specifically told a representative of the President’s office last week that I am not appealing the tenure decision on the grounds of religious discrimination.
    .
    Regarding the second quote [that "He considers himself a 'sceptic' of Darwin, and says that his Christianity helps him to understand Earth's position in the Universe"], it is not something I said. I said something like, “ID research can have positive religious implications”. The way he phrased it, it might be interpreted to mean that I employ my Christian beliefs to force fit the data into a Christian mold. My ID research is strictly based on observations; it does not depend on any religious assumptions, Christian or otherwise. Neither do we discuss religious aspects in our Privileged Planet book.

    If Nature got that wrong, then it is indeed very bad reporting, and I expect someone should demand a correction.

  21. #21 Reginald Selkirk
    May 28, 2007

    How is this any different from the case of a university refusing tenure to a professor of electronics who believed ardently in the “magic smoke theory” rather than the “received wisdom” that such devices work by the movement of charged particles?

    This is reminiscent of Behe’s Puff of Smoke (PoS) theory, but Behe already had tenure when his advocacy of PoS came to light; thus an opportunity to answer your question was lost.

  22. #22 Salvador T. Cordova
    May 29, 2007

    And this is in Nature! Where do science magazines find these guys?

    Brumfiel is anti-ID. I know that from my personal interactions with him.

    He has an undergrad in Physics, and then studied Science Journalism at Johns Hopkins.

    I think he tries to set aside his personal views and report things accurately. For example, he did a fine job with this report: Who has Designs on Your Students Mind? (Cover Story).