Sunday, May 13, 2007


Out of the Blue

Guillermo Gonzalez, an assistant professor of astronomy and physics, whose book, The Privileged Planet, argues for Intelligent Design, has been initially denied tenure by Iowa State University.

According to the article in The Ames (Iowa) Tribune:

... Gonzalez has come under criticism by the mainstream science community for incorporating the theory of intelligent design into his work.

Opponents maintain that proving intelligent causes or agents is not science but rather the study of theology and philosophy. Some also have accused Gonzalez, an openly non-denominational Protestant, of thrusting religion into science.

In the summer of 2005, three faculty members at ISU drafted a statement against the use of intelligent design in science. One of those authors, Hector Avalos, told The Tribune at the time he was concerned the growing prominence of Gonzalez's work was beginning to market ISU as an "intelligent design school."

The statement collected signatures of support from more than 120 ISU faculty members before similar statements surfaced at the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa.

The faculty statement contended, in relevant part, that claims such as Gonzalez's:

... that the position of our planet and the complexity of particular life forms and processes are such that they may only be explained by the existence of a creator or designer of the universe ... are premised on (1) the arbitrary selection of features claimed to be engineered by a designer; (2) unverifiable conclusions about the wishes and desires of that designer; and (3) an abandonment by science of methodological naturalism. ...

Whether one believes in a creator or not, views regarding a supernatural creator are, by their very nature, claims of religious faith, and so not within the scope or abilities of science. ...

While I think Gonzalez is completely wrong about Intelligent Design and that the faculty statement is completely correct, I am not at all sure how, despite those objections, his denial of tenure squares with the following from the university's "Professional Policies and Procedures":

Academic freedom is the foundation of a university because it encourages the unfettered inquiry, debate and learning that characterize an active community of scholars and students. Consequently, Iowa State University grants academic freedom to all members of the faculty, whether tenured or not. This means that the university supports full freedom, within the law, of expressions in teaching, investigation in research, and dissemination of results through presentation, performance, and publication. As a consequence, no faculty member shall be judged on any basis not demonstrably related to professional performance, so long as the exercise of this right does not result in situations that are illegal, that violate faculty-approved university policies, or that interfere with the faculty member's ability to perform his/her duties at the university.

With freedom comes responsibility. In the exercise of academic freedom, faculty members may discuss without limitation any topic related to their professional area of expertise in the classroom, at professional meetings, or through publication. They may not, however, claim the right to discuss persistently in the classroom subject matter that has no relation to a course, nor may faculty members represent themselves in extramural utterances, publications, or activities as speaking for the university, unless they have been specifically empowered to do so. When acting as citizens, faculty members are free from any institutional limitations imposed by this policy.

If the Tribune story is correct, Gonzalez has clearly met the "publish or perish" requirements for tenure. Assuming that Gonzalez's book and advocacy of ID is in furtherance of his religious beliefs, his advocacy for that would seem to fall within his academic freedom outlined above, unless he was teaching it in his astronomy classes as if it is science or was claiming he spoke for the university.

If there isn't something more to this story, it doesn't present a good impression of the integrity, intellectual or otherwise, of Iowa State.

Via Red State Rabble.
Update: Iowa State has put up an explanation of its tenure procedures at its website and has explained the decision not to grant tenure to Gonzalez as follows:
Why was tenure not granted to Guillermo Gonzalez?
Dr. Gonzalez was evaluated for tenure and promotion to associate professor by the tenured faculty in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. That evaluation was based on an assessment of the excellence of his teaching, service, scholarly research publications and research funding in astronomy, using standards and expectations set by the department faculty. The consensus of the tenured department faculty, the department chair, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the executive vice president and provost was that tenure should not be granted. Based on recommendations against granting tenure and promotion at every prior level of review, and his own review of the record, President Gregory Geoffroy notified Gonzalez in April that he would not be granted tenure and promotion to associate professor.
President Geoffroy is also the person who will hear Gonzalez's appeal.

Stories such as this make me wonder about the future of science. When inquiry leads in a certain direction, the investigation should be made no matter what the conclusion... if it doesn't bear fruit, then so be it, but inquiry should not be quashed simple because it doesn't fit with what we WANT to believe...

it's like searching for treasure but avoiding the part of the map that has an 'X' on it because we like 'W's better.
Well, I'd disagree that Gonzalez is doing science but the idea that there can be a litmus test of ideology, including that of holding a certain vision of what science is or should be, in order to be in academia, fills me full of dread. It's not like my version of science has an extensive record of winning such fights.
The scientific method when adhered to will automatically strip out that which isn't or can't be true. When we artificially try to influence the outcome by censorship of thought, or evidence, we attain the results we want, but not necessarily the truth of the matter. And that isn't science.
Without taking a position on the particular decision -- I don't know enough -- I can say that based on 20 years of experience with faculty hiring, retention, promotion, and tenure decisions that the last -- tenure -- is a different animal from all the others. To appoint someone to a tenured position is a forward-looking decision. It is a bet that the person will professionally contribute to the department, university, and discipline over a lifetime career. It is not a reward for accomplishments past like the others; it is bet on accomplishments to come.

Very good people don't always get tenure. A recent case in point is Sean Carroll, cosmologist and Cosmic Variance blogger. He recently failed to get tenure at the University of Chicago. Rather than having a socio-political organization agitating for petitions and letters of indignation directed at the U of Chicago, he went out and got another job, as a Senior Research Associate in Physics at CalTech no less.

The differences between his situation and that of Gonzalez are impossible to assess on the information available, but Carroll's situation does illustrate the fact that tenure decisions are not automatic and even very good people do not always get it at their first institution.

... tenure decisions are not automatic and even very good people do not always get it at their first institution.

I'm willing to accept that but Iowa State will still have to go some to show that there is more to the decision than Gonzalez's religious beliefs. If it doesn't it will still look bad.
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