Gonzalez Back in the News

Remember Guillermo Gonzalez? He was the astronomer from Iowa State University who was denied tenure earlier this year. The reason for the tenure deinal? Depends who you ask.

Gonzalez, you see, is a rising young star in the ID movement. He coauthored a singularly bad book entitled The Privileged Planet, in which he argued not simply that the Earth was designed, but designed specifically with the idea of human scientific investigation in mind. A truly idiotic idea, which explains why the book was published by Regnery (among their other authors: Ann Coulter and Jonathan Wells. Get the idea?).

At the same time that Gonzalez was making a name for himself with the ID crowd and willingly alligning himself with anti-science organizations like Regnery and Discovery, he was lagging in every other metric used to assess professorial performance. His career started in promising fashion with a number of noteworthy papers. But this work was done prior to his arrival at ISU, and it was clear that his ID advocacy was eating up an increasing amount of his time. His publication record at ISU was clearly lagging. He also had received no external grants or funding from scientific agencies, which is a big deal for a research university.

All of which adds up to a pretty strong case for tenure denial. And had the ISU physics department stated forthrightly that he was being denied tenure because his advocacy of ID pseudoscience was hurting the department and plainly hampering his scientific work, there might have been no reason for this blog entry.

But they didn’t, at least not primarily. Instead they publicly denied that Gonzalez’s ID advocacy played a significant role in his tenure denial. One member of the department, John Hauptmann, wrote an op-ed in which he argued, preposterously, that Gonzalez did not understand the scientific process and that was the reason for denying him tenure. I reported on this sorry essay here.

Well, the Discovery Institute used the Iowa Open Records Act to get hold of the e-mails sent back and forth among the physics faculty at ISU. They show — surprise! — that the faculty were concerned about Gonzalez’s ID advocacy and felt that he was hurting the department. Discovery’s version of events available here is cartoonish and ridiculous. Follow the link and you can read about how “secret e-mails” reveal a “campaign of ridicule and villification,” by the faculty towards Gonzalez. The quotes they provide show nothing of the sort, of course. They show only that the faculty was concerned about Gonzalez’s advocacy of dopey pseudoscience, and rightly considered that a factor in the tenure process.

But the evidence presented does show that the publicly stated arguments offered by ISU were not true. And now they have given themselves, and the scientific community generally, a big black eye. Instead of forthrightly stating the real and completely defensible reason for denying tenure, that Gonzalez was making a career of promoting pseudoscience at the expense of his real scientific work, they opted for obfuscation and dishonesty. They were clueless for stating things in e-mails that they would not have wanted to be public (even acknowledging this risk in one e-mail), and they were craven for not taking a blunt stand against ID nonsense.

This, you see, is why it so important for scientists to be aware of and familiar with the ID movement. I don’t think the ISU physics department had the slightest idea just how rotten and malicious the Discovery Institute is. It probably never crossed their minds that their e-mails, mostly innocuous in context, could be made to look like a conspiracy and a smear campaign. They probably never dreamed that their internal deliberations would be the subject of a press conference, and would be distorted beyond all recognition in the process. They probably viewed Gonzalez as someone with dopey ideas about science with which they did not want to be affiliated, as opposed to someone who was happily being used as a pawn in a political and religious campaign.

That professional scientists in the United States could be so clueless is really quite horrifying. Sadly, the stereotype of academic living in ivory towers has some truth to it.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    December 3, 2007

    I wouldn’t trust the accuracy of any quotation which has passed through creationist hands. In fact, the hunt for quote mines is already underway. . . .

  2. #2 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 3, 2007

    Quote mines are always an issue with the creationists, of course. But in this case I’ll be surprised if the full context of the e-mails they cite changes the picture in any substantial way.

  3. #3 Coin
    December 3, 2007

    But the evidence presented does show that the publicly stated arguments offered by ISU were not true

    I don’t think it does. What the evidence demonstrates is that ISU were concerned with Gonzalez’s pro-ID positions. It doesn’t follow this was their primary reason for the rejection. As far as I am aware, ISU never claimed that Gonzalez’s ID hobby was no deciding factor whatsoever in his tenure denial.

    The quotes the DI offers can demonstrate ISU was taking the ID factor into consideration, but without any view of the larger context I don’t see how the small series of excerpts the DI offers from what was surely a much larger body of emails could possibly demonstrate how prominent this factor that was in the decision.

  4. #4 Tyler DiPietro
    December 3, 2007

    I’m somewhere between Coin and Jason on this. I agree with Coin that the statements made by the ISU faculty are not really contradicted by the content of the emails. That being said, Jason is right that the ISU faculty didn’t adequately prepare for Disco’s sleaziness and should’ve been more forthright about the ID considerations.

  5. #5 Coin
    December 3, 2007

    Well, I’ll definitely agree with Jason that the ISU faculty would absolutely be in a stronger position now if they’d from the beginning made a strong argument along the lines of “Gonzalez’ ID positions constitute a legitimate reason to consider him inappropriate for tenure”.

    And I think this argument– which at least some of the ISU faculty apparently agree with– would have served them well even if the ID positions weren’t the reason they ultimately did deny him tenure!

  6. #6 Chris Hallquist
    December 4, 2007

    I’m with Coin–they said it was a minor strike against Gonzales. It looks for all the world like the big issue was that his publishing record dried up. ISU does probably deserve to be faulted for not making that clear, though. And who has access to the e-mails right now? I suspect once their full contents come out, it would look even worse for Gonzales. Wanna bet they contain things like the truth about his publishing record, and other big reasons for not giving him tenure?

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    December 4, 2007

    Can somebody who knows about such things file a request with the Ministry of Information to get the complete file? I mean, that sounds like the sort of thing the NCSE should be doing already.

    Tyler DiPietro:

    That being said, Jason is right that the ISU faculty didn’t adequately prepare for Disco’s sleaziness and should’ve been more forthright about the ID considerations.

    As James Randi has pointed out, scientists are used to an adversary which plays fair, and consequently they’re not well-equipped to deal with human deception. This is bad enough when you’re dealing with some poor housewife who has convinced herself she really can read minds, but the Discoverup Institute is far worse — an agency of professional liars.

  8. #8 SLC
    December 4, 2007

    I don’t see what the big deal is here. Gonzalez was denied tenure because he brought in no outside funding, other then the small Templeton grant, to support a research program. That’s the same reason that Rob Knop failed to get tenure at Vanderbilt. Period, end of story.

  9. #9 Steve Aldrich
    December 4, 2007

    Another excellent post! I’m very much enjoying (and learning) from you’re blog. I recommend it to others. Keep up the great work!

  10. #10 heddle
    December 4, 2007


    He coauthored a singularly bad book entitled The Privileged Planet, in which he argued not simply that the Earth was designed, but designed specifically with the idea of human scientific investigation in mind.

    Actually no–at least that’s not how I read it. In my reading, the PP argues that the planet was designed for life, and observability comes along for the ride. You make it sound as if they postulate two independent design requirements–but they actually argue a tight correlation. In a sense, their argument is slightly anti-ID, or at least not as pro ID as it could possibly be. The truly hard core ID position would be that there are two independent supernatural designs: habitability and observability. The PP argued, in effect, that you don’t get to count those as two miracles, just one.

    In fact, the observability correlation can be postulated scientifically. Regardless of whether the planet is privileged, it can be argued, quite agnostically, that the same things that make a planet habitable will also make it good for observations (but not vice versa.) That may not be right–or it may be (in my opinion) rather obvious–but it can be postulated without ID baggage. (Example: low stellar density means low ambient radiation which is (a) good for life and (b) good for observation.)

  11. #11 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 4, 2007


    That’s a serious hair your splitting. According to the book jacket:

    They demonstrate that our planet is exquisitely fit not only to support life, but also to give us the best view of the universe, as if Earth were designed both for life and for scientific discovery.

    Is that not what I said?

  12. #12 heddle
    December 4, 2007

    No (I assume you read more that the jacket?) it is not what you said, as I understood it. Yes, they argue that the planet is exquistely fit for life and observation–but one of the main themes of the book (and I would say the only novel scientific theme) is the correlation between the two. Your comment, unless I misunderstood, implied that, in effect, they argued that God designed the planet for life and then, as a bonus, he also designed it for observability. That is not what the PP stated.

  13. #13 Richard Wein
    December 5, 2007

    David (Heddle)… I haven’t read PP, but your comments seem to confirm the problem I’d noticed from reading reviews: if “observability” (the suitability of the Earth for scientific observation) is correlated with habitability (the suitability of the Earth for intelligent life), i.e. “observability comes along for the ride” with habitability (to borrow your words), then how does the alleged fact of observability add anything to the long-standing argument from habitability? PP’s argument would appear to be just this: the extraordinary habitability of the Earth shows intelligent design, and, by the way, we get observability as a side-effect of habitability.

  14. #14 Richard Wein
    December 5, 2007

    P.S. Perhaps PP’s argument is that the existence of the (alleged) correlation is itself evidence of ID in the laws of physics, i.e. such a correlation could only plausibly exist if the laws of physics were designed to produce it.

    Does PP make such an argument? Or is the nature of the argument left vague, as is usually the case with IDists?

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