How Not to Defend a Tenure Denial

Meanwhile, the Gonzalez case continues. The President of ISU has turned down Gonzalez's appeal:

Because the issue of tenure is a personnel matter, I am not able to share the detailed rationale for the decision, although that has been provided to Dr. Gonzalez. But I can outline the areas of focus of my review where I gave special attention to his overall record of scientific accomplishment while an assistant professor at Iowa State, since that gives the best indication of future achievement. I specifically considered refereed publications, his level of success in attracting research funding and grants, the amount of telescope observing time he had been granted, the number of graduate students he had supervised, and most importantly, the overall evidence of future career promise in the field of astronomy.

As Ed Brayton has also noted, pretty much the same items everyone else has pointed to.

Sadly, here's ISU physics professor John Hauptman doing whatever constitutes the opposite of damage control:

The denial of tenure of an Iowa State University assistant professor who has studied the concept of intelligent design and has expressed his belief in it has stirred controversy about academic freedom and freedom of speech.

His tenure denial violates neither of those principles. I participated in the initial vote and voted no, based on this fundamental question: What is science?

A decent start! But the op-ed goes downhill from here.

The assistant professor, Guillermo Gonzalez, works in the ISU Physics and Astronomy Department in the area of astrobiology. He is very creative, intelligent and knowledgeable, highly productive scientifically and an excellent teacher. Students in my Newspaper Physics class like to interview him.

I have always been fascinated by his ideas, for example, that the first few millimeters of moon dust contain pieces of ancient Earth, the circling moon acting as a vacuum cleaner scooping up impact debris, or that numerous but precise and delicate conditions allow life on our Earth. Where else is life allowed? These are great questions.

They are great questions indeed. But this was supposed to be an op-ed explaining why Gonzalez's tenure application was denied. I'm still waiting for the explanation of that little point.

Hauptman now goes on, at considerable length, about what ID is and about how the Greeks invoked Gods to explain mysterious aspects of nature and how scientists don't think like that any more and how Galileo was an important figure in this regrad. Fascinating stuff. But I'm still waiting for the part about Gonzalez.

Eventually we come to this:

We are past this way of thinking about nature. If one person exemplifies this, it is Galileo, who argued that just thinking about what you see and imagining reasons are not enough. You must test your ideas with measurements, and your ideas (your “theory”) must not only agree with all previous measurements, but also predict the results of measurements that have not yet been made. Any single wrong prediction, and you must junk the theory.

Intelligent design is not even a theory. It has not made its first prediction, nor suffered its first test by measurement. Its proponents can call it anything they like, but it is not science.

Well said! But who cares? I want to know why the decision was made to deny Gonzlez's tenure. We are now three paragraphs before the end of the op-ed, and this is where Hauptman uncorks this:

I believe that the letter signed by 120 ISU faculty members criticizing intelligent design as not scientific was reprehensible, not because I do not agree, but because it was obviously aimed at Gonzalez. An assistant professor at a university has every right to pursue whatever investigations he or she so chooses to investigate. There must be no bounds, no restrictions and no penalties for research of any kind. This is the very meaning of a free university, and society that supports free inquiry. It is a very precious thread that weaves its way from Socrates through Galileo to us.

I see. When 120 professors express concern that their university is being associated with pseudoscientific gobbledy-gook, they are behaving reprehensibly. But a department denying tenure to someone who believes in the gobbledy-gook is perfectly fine. Makes perfect sense.

And you have to wonder what it means to say that an assistant professor has every right to pursue whatever investigations he or she chooses, if that person will subsequently be denied tenure for holding the wrong views about the nature of science. Apparently Hauptman doesn't see “You will lose your job!” as a restriction on the free inquiry of an assistant professor.

Hauptman concludes with:

I believe the comment that somehow this decision had something to do with the feelings of the community was also reprehensible, as are statements that this tenure decision is a denial of free speech.

It is purely a question of what is science and what is not, and a physics department is not obligated to support notions that do not even begin to meet scientific standards.

We can certainly agree with that last sentence. The trouble is that if this op-ed is taken at face value, Gonzalez was denied tenure solely for what he believes, and not for what he did. Anyone reading this is going to see confirmation of everything the Discovery Intstitute has been saying. It's a strange argument that denying someone tenure for what they believe is not a threat to free inquiry or free speech.

If you are going to write an op-ed defending the tenure decision, you say, “Look, this guy is actively promoting rank pseudoscience and happily affiliating himself with anti-science organizations like Regnery Publishing and the Discovery Institute. At the same time he has become active in promoting pseudoscience, his productivity by all of the normal standards by which academics are measured has dropped precipitously This was not a difficult decision.”

That's an argument for denying someone tenure. What Hauptman wrote, by contrast, is a long-winded, internally contradictory mess.


More like this

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…
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…
The Discovery Institute is currently making hay (again) over Iowa State's decision to deny tenure to Discovery Institute Fellow Guillermo Gonzalez. They've held a press conference and issued a press release claiming to have proof that Intelligent Design was "the" issue that resulted in Gonzalez…
This week's Nature has a short report on the Gonzalez tenure affair. It has an interesting admission from Gonzalez. 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…

I read the full editorial myself just a few hours ago, and I had exactly the same horrified response.

~David D.G.

By David D.G. (not verified) on 04 Jun 2007 #permalink

How long will it take for the DI to ask for Hauptman's tenure to be revoked for having written this?

By valhar2000 (not verified) on 04 Jun 2007 #permalink

Hauptman really said Gonzales was 'highly productive scientifically?' ??!? 'There are no penalties for research of any kind?' On what planet???!? Research that doesn't get cited in other scholarly publications is penalized. Research proposals that don't bring in grants are severely penalized. ID had nothing to do with it. If Gonzales had his poor research and funding record because he'd been busy saving starving babies in Darfur, he still wouldn't have gotten tenure in any serious astronomy department.
I'm becoming so cynical about this so-called debate that I'd check Hauptman's bank account for sudden, mysterious deposits.

By hoary puccoon (not verified) on 04 Jun 2007 #permalink

I believe that the letter signed by 120 ISU faculty members criticizing intelligent design as not scientific was reprehensible...

Absolutely. Hector Avalos is a creep and a dunce for his role in that.

By Robert O'Brien (not verified) on 05 Jun 2007 #permalink

So I'm not seeing what is wrong with Hauptman's article. Nothing he said about Gonzalez is wrong, and he's correct to point out that a department of physics has every right, even expectation, to turn away someone who is proposing to pursue ID as a career. He's also correct to point out that it was, and is, inappropriate for a group to try and sway a decision such as this in the manner that was done. Not that the letter signed by the 120 was particularly wrong, taken literally, but the timing was suspicious and its intent obvious.

If I'm in Hauptman's place (perhaps on one of the P&T committees), I look at the unsolicited opinion of the 120 as I would any other unsolicited gripes, complaints, glowing criticism, and other random input (say, a barrage of letters from a hypothetical political advocacy group in, say, Washington state) - I ignore it, and try my darndest not to form a less than flattering opinion of people who are acting inappropriately. Heck, I would be inclined, in light of such developments, to bend over backwards and give Gonzalez every benefit of the doubt.

And I look at Gonzalez' intent to pursue ID as a career* as an appropriate reason to deny tenure. For the reasons Hauptman gives.

So, what's the problem?

* - I'm assuming that this is why Hauptman mentions ID in relation to this case. I am not privy to any information that states that this is in fact where Gonzalez intimated his career was going.

Art is the only one who gets it, who understands. Most people don't have a clue what academic freedom means or what science is. I never mentioned this: the only numbers in GG works are the page numbers. This is not science, call it what you want, but it is not science.

By John Hauptman (not verified) on 25 Aug 2009 #permalink

John Hauptman -

I'm surprised that after two years you want to revive this issue.

The problem that Art seems unable to detect, despite my having spelled it out for him in the opening post, is that there is absolutely nothing in your op-ed that says Gonzalez's work was substandard. On the contrary, you specifically said that he was highly productive scientifically. As far as I can tell from this op-ed Gonzalez was denied tenure solely for what he believes and not for anything he did. If all I knew about this issue came from what you wrote, I would be standing shoulder to shoulder with the Discovery Institute decrying the bigotry of academic science departments.

Your crack about GG's works not being science is flatly at odds with your earlier statement that he was highly productive scientfically. And given that your own discussion of academic freedom in the op-ed was utterly ridiculous, for reasons I explained in the post, you have no business passing judgment on other people's understanding of the concept.