Pharyngula

Martin Gaskell was not expelled

Gaskell is an astronomer who applied for a job at the University of Kentucky, and didn’t get it. This is not news. The great majority of the people who apply for jobs in the sciences don’t get them, even if they are well qualified — the rejected candidates know just to pick up and move on to the next application, because it is so routine.

Not Martin Gaskell, though. Gaskell is suing the university for not hiring him, which is amazing: when I was on the job market, I sent out at least one hundred applications, and ultimately got hired for one, so I guess that means I missed 99 potentially lucrative lawsuit opportunities. Dang. Is there a statute of limitations on civil suits?

Of course, Gaskell has a predisposition: he’s a devout Christian, so that persecution complex is rooted deeply. He claims he was denied the job because he’s an evangelical Christian. I say he’s just inventing rationalizations…something else his religion has made him very good at. And the newspapers are helping him out.

No one denies that astronomer Martin Gaskell was the leading candidate for the founding director of a new observatory at the University of Kentucky in 2007 — until his writings on evolution came to light.

Wrong. I’ll deny it. The leading candidate is the one you make an offer to — and the identity of that person varies throughout the review process. You can talk about a “leading candidate” when you look at just the cover letters and CVs; you’ll probably have a different “leading candidate” when you’ve had a chance to read through all the letters of recommendation; it’ll change again when you do the phone interviews; it’ll change again when you’ve had the on-campus interviews; and it’ll change again as the committee hashes over the discussions before making the final offer. This always happens. It’s ridiculous to complain that it was somehow unfair that facts emerged during a fact-finding process.

I’m in the middle (nearer the end, I’m pretty sure) of a job search to hire a new faculty member here at UMM, so I know whereof I speak. It doesn’t matter that Gaskell was well qualified for the job, since most of the applicants were probably well qualified; making a hiring commitment is a big deal that involves consideration of a great many factors, including subjective personal ones, so you simply can’t complain about individuals not getting the job. It’s fair to look for systematic bias, though, but Gaskell can’t make a case there. He claims he wasn’t hired because he’s a Christian.

I don’t believe it. There is no pattern of discrimination against the dominant religious group in the country, and Gaskell knows it. If you look at one of the documents he has written about his beliefs, scroll down to the very end, where you’ll find that Gaskell has a long list of religious organizations, like the ASA, the Affiliation of Christian Biologists, the Christian Engineering Society, etc., etc., etc. It seems that being a Christian is not considered a de facto strike against the possibility of being a scientist or engineer.

The fact that some Christians are in the sciences doesn’t argue against the fact that they could be under-represented, and face an unfair uphill struggle to get jobs. However, being a Christian is not like being a woman: it’s not something that is necessarily obvious in a job interview. We don’t ask candidates where they go to church, and if we find out, we don’t care (not even me, the arch-atheist, will bat an eye if you let slip that you attend). Gaskell will have to show that the search committee was opposed in even a vague sense to hiring a Christian, and he can’t do that. Why? Because there’s a great big fat loomin’ obvious Problem with a capital “P” splatted putridly in the pages of his CV, and all of the concern in hiring him was with that, not where he went to church.

Gaskell is an evolution-denier. He’s an old-earth creationist, a theistic evolutionist who looks favorably on Intelligent Design creationism.

It’s evident in his public defense of the Book of Genesis, in which he goes on and on with unlikely rationalizations for a metaphorical interpretation. This is a fellow who says, “It is true that there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory (a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job) and that these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses“, and then goes on to endorse Josh McDowell, Phillip Johnson, Harun Yahya, Hugh Ross, and the day-age interpretation of Genesis, as if they are somehow not afflicted with these “problems”.

There is a difference between accepting a theory that is incomplete, like evolution, and a set of wacky ideas that are contradicted by the available evidence, like these various flavors of creationism that Gaskell is favoring. That calls his ability to think scientifically into question, and that is legitimate grounds to abstain from hiring him.

The record shows that what people were discussing was not his religion alone, but the way his religion has affected his job as a scientist and communicator of science, and the effect of hiring someone with such dubious views in a state already trying to overcome the embarrassment of being home to the Creation “Museum”. These are valid concerns. It’s also a fact that when hiring, we want to have people whose skills we can respect as colleagues, and Gaskell was not in a good position that way. One of the faculty members who reviewed the case said it very well:

Another geology professor, Shelly Steiner, wrote that UK [University of Kentucky] should no more hire an astronomer skeptical of evolution than “a biologist who believed that the sun revolved around the Earth.”

That’s the bottom line. I wouldn’t be at all surprised that Gaskell was exceptionally competent in the very narrow domain of his astronomical work, but faculty don’t get hired to do only one thing, and Gaskell himself is quite clear that he isn’t going to confine himself to talking only about his field…and unfortunately, it’s also clear that he was a confused and ignorant boob about all the other subjects he was happy to lecture about.