It’s been days since the public became aware that Chris Comer, an award-winning science educator in the Texas Education Agency, was fired for daring to forward an email announcement of a talk about why intelligent design isn’t science. Coverage of the story has hit the AP wires, the pages of USA Today, the New York Times, Nature’s news blog and many other sources. The Times editorial page even weighed in with concern over Ms. Comer’s firing.

The Disco. Inst., usually quick to complain about any academic personnel decision touching on ID in the least way, has remained totally silent. Actually, that’s wrong. They are incapable of silence. For the last few days they’ve been working themselves into a frenzy over a department of physics and astronomy not granting tenure.

No, it’s not a protest over Rob Knop leaving academia, nor of Sean Carroll’s tenure denial at the University of Chicago. It isn’t concern for John Wilkins. It surely isn’t concern for Chris Comer, nor for Steve Bitterman, an Iowan community college instructor fired for arguing that Biblical accounts of the Garden of Eden are not historically accurate.

It was all a protest over Guillermo Gonzalez, a founding member of the Wedge, a regular contributor to the magazine produced Reasons to Believe, an old earth creationist group. Gonzalez was denied tenure earlier this year at Iowa State University, and Disco decided to put on a show about it. Coincidentally, Gonzalez is featured in the DI’s forthcoming movie: “Expelled: No intelligence?.”

This whole song and dance is too absurd for words. Gonzalez had a poor record of grant-writing, a poor record of graduating students, limited telescope time, and his record of publication tailed off since he started working on his ID creationist book. He even submitted that book as part of his tenure file, yet he and the DI are shocked (shocked!) that his department would consider his ID work. At the very least they are shocked (shocked?) that his colleagues were unenthusiastic about that work.

If the Discovery Institute were truly interested in academic freedom, and were truly concerned about political interference with people’s ability to explore ideas, they’d be demanding that Lizzette Reynolds be fired, and that Chris Comer be brought back to replace her. But they’re too busy doing the hustle in Iowa.

Comments

  1. #1 Phil Plait
    December 4, 2007

    When I wrote about this today, I mentioned that I had looked over his publications. What I didn’t think to do, though, was look at the number of pubs versus time. It does look to drop off with time, which is rather the opposite of what you want; however, there could be lots of factors involved. The fact that the number does appear to drop around the time he was working on his book is interesting.

  2. #2 Larry Fafarman
    December 6, 2007

    Josh Rosenau said,

    If the Discovery Institute were truly interested in academic freedom, and were truly concerned about political interference with people’s ability to explore ideas, they’d be demanding that Lizzette Reynolds be fired, and that Chris Comer be brought back to replace her.

    “Academic freedom”? Comer was not an academic.

    The gag rule that Comer violated is neutral — it applies equally to Darwinists and critics of Darwinism. The gag rule that Gonzalez violated is one-sided — it applies only to critics of Darwinism.

    Lots of public officials and employees work under gag rules. Court employees are not allowed to give legal advice to litigants. California’s Brown Act prohibits members of a legislative body from privately communicating with each other to try to develop a consensus on something that they may later vote on. One of the biggest gag rules of all is when teachers are prohibited from discussing or even mentioning criticisms of Darwinism.

    Phil Plait said,

    The fact that the number does appear to drop around the time he was working on his book is interesting.

    Which book is that? He wrote “Privileged Planet” and was an author or co-author of an astronomy textbook.

    Why shouldn’t writing books count towards getting tenure?

  3. #3 N. Wells
    December 6, 2007

    Larry,

    Although good popular books and textbooks are fine achievements, in science in academia, popular books and textbooks tend not to count as much as a set of focussed and refereed journal articles, because (unless specifically demonstrated otherwise) they typically represent “scholarship of integration”, which is not rated nearly as highly as “scholarship of discovery” (i.e., ground-breaking research). Scholarship of integration is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t lead nearly as directly to grants, nor to new discoveries. Although textbooks do contribute to training graduate students, neither textbooks nor popular books contribute to the training of graduate students in research comparably to actively involving them in research projects. Nor do those sorts of books bolster the department’s reputation among other specialists as much as great research would.

    If the book is seen as ground-breaking, air-tight, and widely acclaimed, it will be taken as being much more supportive of tenure than a book whose conclusions are dubious and which lacks much hard supporting evidence. The latter wouldn’t be viewed as much of a contribution at all.

    In addition, note that people are hired to cover specific specialties within their overall field. Candidates for tenure will be assessed on their production in the specialty for which they were hired. If a Biology Department hires someone to fill the “plant genetics” hole in their program, and that person goes off and spends all his or her time writing a treatise on, say, rainforest ecology, or theoretical hydroponics systems for future space stations, that might well be discounted a bit as not being mission-specific. (However, again, it helps a lot here if the book is scholarly, ground-breaking, and widely acclaimed.)

  4. #4 Vagueofgodalming
    December 6, 2007

    popular books and textbooks tend not to count as much as a set of focussed and refereed journal articles

    Golly. No doubt that makes sense in a narrow academic context, but we live in an age where our collective survival is dependent on public understanding of science. If social status, job security, and financial rewards incentivise a process that keeps science abstruse and remote, is it any wonder that fake organisations like the DI flourish?

  5. #5 Patrick Quigley
    December 6, 2007

    Could we get a source for the claim that he submitted his book as part of his tenure file?

  6. #6 Larry Fafarman
    December 6, 2007

    N. Wells said,

    Although good popular books and textbooks are fine achievements, in science in academia, popular books and textbooks tend not to count as much as a set of focussed and refereed journal articles

    Your rules are arbitrary. Textbooks and even popular books can be important contributions to one’s field. I believe that the textbook that Gonzalez wrote was adopted by his department, which makes the denial of tenure especially strange. A faculty member has only so much time to do different things, e.g., doing research, supervising graduate students, teaching undergraduate students, and writing books. The overemphasis on research at elite research universities is why these universities are not good places to get undergraduate educations, despite these universities’ highly selective admissions and high tuitions.

    In addition, note that people are hired to cover specific specialties within their overall field. Candidates for tenure will be assessed on their production in the specialty for which they were hired.

    I don’t think that a university would be especially upset if a researcher hired for one specialty becomes an outstanding researcher in another specialty. University departments have their strengths and weaknesses in areas of research.

    Your arbitrary rules would put tenure-track faculty members in straitjackets, unable to make contributions to their fields in the best ways they can.

    (However, again, it helps a lot here if the book is scholarly, ground-breaking, and widely acclaimed.)

    So you admit that you have really said nothing at all.

  7. #7 N.Wells
    December 6, 2007

    “So you admit that you have really said nothing at all.”
    Have you stopped beating your wife yet, Larry?

    I’m agreeing with you that textbooks and popular books do constitute contributions to one’s field (assuming they are good). However, I’m telling you that in the current system, they don’t often count for as much as original research, because the system is set up to value scholarship of integration as much as scholarship of discovery. You dismiss this as “arbitrary rules”. Although it is often the nature of rules to be arbitrary, the emphasis on research in US universities stems from a decision after WWII that (for better or worse) the big land-grant and research-oriented universities should fill the role of the research engines in our society. In other countries or at other times, you might well utilize autonomous research institutes or for-profit corporate research labs instead, but the US decided that research should be a priority function for the universities. They’ve got the brain power, fairly cheap faculty labor, really cheap student labor, and university research allows graduate students to learn by doing. Thus, in our current system at “research universities”, in science, research comes first, graduate education is highly valued, and undergraduate education is slightly subservient. (Universities will usually sell all three as co-equal, like legs on a stool, but, ignoring the football teams for a moment, watch where the money is spent, who gets which facilities, and why we call them “research universities”.) You are welcome to consider this prioritization to be misguided, but it is how the system is set up.

    Good graduate students who want the very best education in science should aspire to the biggest and best research universities; good undergraduates wanting the best preparation in science are probably best off at smaller undergraduate colleges that emphasize teaching. That aside, although there are many great research scientists who suck at teaching, even undergraduates do get considerable benefit out of being taught by people who are actively researching at the forefront of their fields. When I was an undergraduate student, I used to believe that resaerch universities should make room for people who were fantastic teachers but who had never done much research. That was an opinion based on experience with good and bad teachers (read engaging teachers and otherwise) who varied in their research capabilities, but I didn’t know much about research. Since then, more experience has persuaded me that in science, the higher the level of the class, the more crucial it is to have teachers who are active researchers at the forefronts of their fields. Non-researching teachers get out of date, and don’t teach the important things about science, like how to do it.

    “I don’t think that a university would be especially upset if a researcher hired for one specialty becomes an outstanding researcher in another specialty.”

    Often no, provided that the researcher does in fact become outstanding (in a good way.) First, however, you are severely underestimating the difficulty of becoming sufficiently expert in a different specialty. It certainly can be done, but science long on fine researchers who have made laughingstocks of themselves outside of the specialty in which they trained. Second, if you only come up with something controversial and disputable, then the university and the department may become highly pissed off that you spent your very limited time pursuing something other than what they hired you to do. If your geology department’s petroleum geologist retools herself into an exceptional planetary geomorphologist, your department is potentially left with a big hole in its applied geology program that can negatively affect student recruitment, grant income, program focus, the department’s reputation in its strongest areas, and so on. This doesn’t have to be a big problem, but it could be, depending on circumstances.

    “Your arbitrary rules would put tenure-track faculty members in straitjackets, unable to make contributions to their fields in the best ways they can.”
    You’ve got that backwards. People are hired to work in their areas of strength, as that is where they are most likely to make their best contributions. Universities may therefore want them to focus in those areas, to make the best use of their limited time.

  8. #8 N.Wells
    December 6, 2007

    Vagueofgodalming said, “Golly. No doubt that makes sense in a narrow academic context, but we live in an age where our collective survival is dependent on public understanding of science. If social status, job security, and financial rewards incentivise a process that keeps science abstruse and remote, is it any wonder that fake organisations like the DI flourish?”

    This is not a narrow academic context as much as a very broad social / governmental dictate.

    Public understanding of science is important. On the other hand, so is scientific progress. I agree with you and Larry that there are big public benefits to great text books and improved education of the public. However, the emphasis was long ago placed on (for example) producing effective new vaccines, as opposed to having the general public understand how effective vaccines would work, if we had them. We could probably do a better job of balancing the two needs, but the system has been consciously directed toward making scientific advances, so that is what gets emphasized.

  9. #9 N.Wells
    December 6, 2007

    Sorry, at the beginning of the response to Larry, I meant to say that our system is NOT set up to value intergration as much as discovery.

  10. #10 Larry Fafarman
    December 6, 2007

    Patrick Quigley said,

    Could we get a source for the claim that he submitted his book as part of his tenure file?

    The astronomy textbook is almost certainly part of the tenure file. It would have been stupid not to include it.

  11. #11 RBH
    December 6, 2007

    The fundamental error the Disco ‘Tute folks and their defenders are making is to imagine that the award of tenure is a sort of merit badge for past accomplishments. It isn’t. It is a bet on a person’s likely future accomplishments. And Gonzalez is a bad bet in that respect. For example, given Gonzalez’ abysmal record of bringing in extramural funding for research, he would be unable to support Ph.D. students, pay research assistants, or pay for telescope time, and hence his likely productivity in his specialty in the future would be severely compromised. He’s a bad bet from that perspective, and that alone is sufficient grounds to not tenure him.

  12. #12 D. H. Strong
    December 7, 2007

    Flat-Earth Larry is a typical anti-science, anti-education rightwingnut, incapable of reason or reality, and it’s useless to try to explain logic or rationality to religio-whackos. They’ve been trained not to come right out and admit that they’re bible-brainwashed, but those who have a major stake in the money and power of dumbing down America (what THINKING person would vote for proven fascists, or let them get away with high crimes and treason?) take full advantage of paranoid schizophrenics who are deeply frightened by science.

    The so-called “gag rule” is applied solely by, and for, the fascists, in order to enforce their political and personal agenda. For example, in government agencies during the 2000 election, it was perfectly okay to forward e-mails containing scurrilous lies about President Clinton and obscene jokes about Vice President Al Gore, but it was prosecuted as “misuse of government equipment” to forward e-mails containing plain facts about wartime-deserter Bush — because six-figure management had their sights set on the promised tax handout.

    It is not a “gag rule” to prohibit teaching first graders that 2 plus 2 equals anything they want it to be. It is not a “gag rule” to prohibit teaching that evolution is a scientific fact and creationism is a lie, any more than it is “gagging” teachers to say that they must say that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are real as “presenting all sides of the debate.”

    If Larry still believes in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, sorry for having to enlighten you, guy, but you have to pay your own credit card bills.

    A college, or even advanced high school, class in comparative religion would examine at least a dozen creation mythologies, and how each of them relate to the survival of the culture at the time. But you would not get a biology class credit for it.

    A good fantasy book about elves and gods and humans springing full-grown from the foreheads of whatever might make a great bestseller. But it doesn’t count as research, and it doesn’t count towards tenure, unless your university has a “How to write a best-selling fantasy novel” department and endowed chair.

    I’m all for Carl Sagan types trying to present the real universe in terms that Joe Six-pack Larry can understand. Dr. Paul “SETI” Shuch has done more for engaging the public in space exploration than the butt-kissers at NASA ever have, or ever will. But Sagan and Shuch were/are also real scientists. Real research, real discoveries, real advancements, are what science is all about.

    By the way, the church has ALWAYS been anti-science, and ALWAYS the last to accept what even the general public knew, from fire to round Earth to germ theory to atomic weapons to the moon. Scientifically literate people tend not to send their paychecks to the evangelical mafia.

  13. #13 Karla
    February 3, 2008

    I do not understand the mean spiritedness of the comments. How can such an attitude be illuminating? I am a Christian. I came to this site to get the other side of the Gonzalez story. It is my habit to try to find balance in an effort to ferret out truth. My visit here has been disappointing and I will not return.

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