Saturday, January 22, 2011


Law Is a Dirty Business

Moral senseI never went into the lawsuit by C. Martin Gaskell against the University of Kentucky ... though I did note elsewhere that some of the claims for and against Gaskell might be exaggerated. It seemed to me that the University's actions were, at best, ham-fisted, and that it was legally in trouble ... a judgment confirmed by the six-figured settlement of the suit by the University and/or its insurance company.

But now I suspect the University is well shed of him at whatever the cost.

In an interview at DailyTech, Gaskell is quoted as gushing:

There is a good book covering this in great detail. It is called "Slaughter of the Dissidents" by Jerry Bergman. I'd highly recommend getting a copy to understand what goes on. The recurrent problem you'll find if you look at the cases documented in the book is that Christian biologists get fired or demoted not because of what they actually teach or do in their research, but because of who they are.
As Denyse (emphasis on the "Deny") O'Leary (the best proof that function does not evidence intelligence ... at least when it comes to "journalism") notes, Bergman's book is a piece with Expelled ... at least when it comes to "truth in advertising."

Bergman is, of course, a young-Earth creationist of the most clueless/dishonest sort ... which is well documented at the Talk Origins site and elsewhere.

Now, it's possible that Gaskell doesn't know that Bergman is a YEC ... which Gaskell disowns ... or that Bergman is pushing the same sort of bogus persecution complex that the Discoveryless Institute does. Certainly, as a person who may have experienced some real religious bias, you can't be surprised that he thought there might be something to what Bergman said.

But, really, if you are going to praise something to ... well ... high heaven ... you might be expected, as a scientist, to exercise a little skepticism, do a little due diligence and, at least, acknowledge that Bergman's case might not be all it seems to be.

But, then again, he may not feel the need to ... in which case, the University of Kentucky might have been justified in not feeling the need to employ him.


Update: It seems PZ had about the same reaction I did.

I don't know John, I think you might be a little unfair. Consider that a specific strategy of propogandists is to flood the marketplace with ideas in various forms, sometimes making it harder for people to go back and find the source material.
Throw in Gaskell's perception that he had been misused by the university and I think you have someone susceptible to the ideas in that book. Exactly the condition a book like that is designed to take advantage of.
Gaskell has been going through an emotionally-charged conflict. I don't know when he read that book, but it doesn't sound like he approached it as a casual reader.
Sure. I'd be willing to grant him some time to calm down but it was three years or more ago that this happened. And, yes, people can get so tied up in their lawsuits that it even affects their health (it's been shown that people with injury lawsuits have rapid "recoveries" once their lawsuit is resolved).

But, still, a scientist (and any rational person) should have some scepticism about claims like Bergman's and its not like it's hard to find out Bergman's background. Gaskell has, perhaps as part of his litigation strategy, attempted to portray himself as a rationalist and mainstream scientist. It's only fair to hold him to the persona he wants to display to the public.
I'm gong to disagree with you here John. I followed the links through to the Nature article and the Higher Ed.

I freely admit that only gives me a superficial knowledge of the case of course. It is too bad this didn't go to trial, if only so we could learn what happened.

That said, if the reports about the emails are accurate, I think it shows that Gaskell could easily have been deeply offended.

Is it unlikely that his perception of unfair persecution would lead him to question whether other sources of information may have been unfairly criticized? After all, as recently as this week his views have been associated with the idea of flat earth (higher ed article).

Wouldn't it be just as valid to point out that demonizing the religious views of someone who seems to fully accept science (but not atheism) might have - in this case - made them more likely to question criticisms of creationist-sourced material and make them more susceptible to that propaganda?

After all, the article you linked to on DailyTech - published yesterday and not three years ago - was Gaskell's attempt to answer what he felt was unfair characterizations of his views.

And, the article mentioned in those emails was contained on his personal website. They were his personal views. I realize you haven't commented on the specifics of the case, and we don't know a lot about Gaskell's ideas.

But as much as I dislike his views, I wouldn't support a university holding PZ's personal blog - where he mixes his atheist philosophy with posts on science - against him in an unrelated job examination.

And yet, the views Gaskell seems to have expressed on his personal site likely wouldn't be out of place in the home of Francis Collins. But in his opinion, they cost him a promotion and resulted in him and his family having to move from a community in order to advance in his career.

It's just not that hard to see where this is an emotional issue for him.

It's less an "aha, he really is a creationist" moment for me. For me, it's a question: did possibly unjust criticism of his religion cause him to find credibility in otherwise unreliable sources ?
Someone who fully accepts science couldn't help but be doubtful of a YEC, since so much of their argument is to deny the very existence of science. There is a concept in the law: falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. In essence, it means, if people are willing to lie about one thing, they are likely willing to lie about everything. It doesn't mean that you have to assume the person is lying but that it is proper to be skeptical of the truth of what that person is saying. That's what I think Gaskell was missing.

It's also doubtful the UK position was a "promotion." It was, as I understand it, an administrative position with no tenure and no real science to be done. I've thought all along that UK screwed up. But the UK administration doesn't run all of academia and Gaskell has no right to assume that what they did applies everywhere.

It's less an "aha, he really is a creationist" moment for me. For me, it's a question: did possibly unjust criticism of his religion cause him to find credibility in otherwise unreliable sources?

I don't think he's a creationist (a YEC, at least ... and I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as to being an IDer). I suspect, however, he has some agenda that makes him think that his cause (whatever that might be) is more important than being careful about the truth.

PZ lets everyone know about his opinions (some of which I think are wrong and have said so). But the last thing I would expect PZ to do is to try to whip up public sympathy based on (to say the least) dubious sources.
"It doesn't mean that you have to assume the person is lying but that it is proper to be skeptical of the truth of what that person is saying."

Sure, and from Gaskell's point of view he saw his professional peers mischaracterizing his views and scientific professionalism. No, he shouldn't automatically assume that his case is representative of academia - but it's not farfetched to believe that his experience is making him take a second look at previously valued sources. That's what a good scientist does too in the face of conflicting evidence.
We don't know, with the passage of time, if Gaskell will regret recommending that book. Right now he has a sympathetic view to it. How much of the blame for that should rest with him and how much should rest with the alleged discrimination by UK?

As an aside, if you're looking for critical reviews of that book, Google isn't much help. Yes, there's the evidence that it's associated with YEC organizations, but the first two skeptical links I saw were for a site call God4suckers and the other used the term "creatards" liberally. I doubt Gaskell would put much stock in those links.

"It's also doubtful the UK position was a "promotion." "

Well, I don't know what bearing that has, but the stories suggest it was more money and it was a position he desired.

" I suspect, however, he has some agenda that makes him think that his cause (whatever that might be) is more important than being careful about the truth."

And I agree that's a possibility (he could easily turn out to be an ID'er), but it's just as likely that he feels his professional reputation has been unfairly tarnish publicly and some of that came from the side where the truth you speak of comes from. From his perspective, an entire biology department contributed to the problem.

What we really need is a follow-up question concerning his recommendation of that book. For me it's too early to pass final judgement on that.
I followed the link to the 'Beyond the Morals of Lawyer' post and noticed:

"As Stephen Jay Gould of fond memory famously said:

A man does not attain the status of Galileo merely because he is persecuted; he must also be right."

but Gould quoted Robert Park who used a more elegant form:

"Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment, you must also be right."
Clearly Gaskell thinks he has enough information to believe he's right. That said, I don't disagree that the book he cites isn't reliable.

It's his motivation for doing so that I'm interested in - I don't think we know enough to draw a conclusion, and his motivation might qualify his citation.

I'm tempted to - respectfully - email him and ask.

I appreciate the though-provoking conversation though (except, you know, for the obvious outlier)
And, for the record, that outlier got removed while I was composing my previous post!
Washington Monthly has something on this:

It points to a news story that says Gaskell pointed students to ID sources.

Problem is, the story doesn't seem to be online anymore and what's quoted doesn't give sourcing for that information. There's a wealth of depositions at the NCSE website, but seems like a lot of work to go through them to see who is claiming that and on what evidence they're basing that claim.

Did he recommend those resources to students? Could be - he recommended the YEC book.
And if he did direct students to those resources, where did he do it - in the classroom or the public talks?

But if true, it would be - at the very least - another instance of being sloppy about sourcing and bolstering John's suspicions.
I thought I posted a link to a Washington Monthly post that supports John's suspicions, but it's gone. Did blogger hiccup or did I mess up the post?
For some reason your last two posts got caught in Blogger's spam trap (while DM keeps evading it). I've restored them.

It sounds like the supposed recommendation of ID souces is the one I adressed in the link in original post ("I did note elsewhere that some of the claims for and against Gaskell might be exaggerated"). I don't consider it definitive.
P.S. Is this the article you were refering to?
"For some reason your last two posts got caught in Blogger's spam trap (while DM keeps evading it)."

Guess I need to threaten your life!

Yes, that's the link, but the link from there to the news story is broken. Without that, I don't know what the evidence is for that assertion. It might be in the depositions listed at the NCSE.
I don't know what the evidence is for that assertion.

The one I discussed came from a handout that was also at Gaskell's personal website, I believe.
Oh, the handout? I got the impression he was listing things without necessarily endorsing them. I only see this as evidence of his personal view:

"“The Answers are not in yet”. This is part of my own viewpoint. I believe that God has not yet revealed everything to us in the Bible (see Deuteronomy 29:29 and I Corinthians 13:9-10,12) and I know that we don't know all the answers in science yet. "

I don't know when he added it, but the disclaimer at the end reads: "The obvious disclaimer: my inclusion of a web link here should not be construed as my endorsement of every opinion in every link or article on every web site!!"

I'm more interested in this sentence from the article that's no longer online, but that seems to have been quoted a few times:

"Gaskell had given lectures to campus religious groups around the country in which he said that while he has no problem reconciling the Bible with the theory of evolution, he believes the theory has major flaws. And he recommended students read theory critics in the intelligent-design movement."

What was this based on? Is it accurate or, as you said, "some of the claims for and against Gaskell might be exaggerated?"

I can't tell without the story - which I just found. Their search engine differentiates between news and archives, which they charge for. The linked story is from December and only the abstract is free, but a January story repeats the sentences. From there I see the reporter is just writing a summary of other people's views. He doesn't point to any specific evidence that he's endorsing the viewpoint.

From your link to Daily Tech, Gaskell complains his views on evolution weren't properly explored:

"When you say that there are problems with evolutionary theory, but that creationists' theories are poorly formed, did you mean that you think the current consensus on evolution is wrong?

Dr. Gaskell:

[Note: I'm referring to a quote from the professor included in our prior piece, linked above, pointing out that evolutionary theory has "significant" unanswered issues.]

Or [did you mean] merely that certain aspects of it (e.g. natural selection v. cataclysmic events/random drift) aren't fully understood at this time, due to lack of direct observation?

Dr. Gaskell:
Right. The debate over neutral evolution, for example, something that is has been a topic of heated in the field. The wide range of views on the origin of life is another example."

Sorry about this long post. I'm just finding it interesting.

But anyway, I think we're back to interpreting why he spoke highly of a YEC book. Was he revealing that he secretly endorses religious attacks on science or is he now more sympathetic to them because of this experience?
John, I've received a reply from Dr. Gaskell, but since it's a personal email I'm hesitant about sharing it publicly.

If you're interested, I could forward it to you for private consumption.
Sure. Send it to JTPieretATgmailDOTcom.
Here's what I can share on the blog - I went through the depositions last night.

One thing that bothered me here was how the current version of "Modern Astronomy, the Bible, and Creation" on his website now seems to hold a more benign view of evolution than the views of someone who would recommend Bergman's book.

So while going through the depositions to check on Gaskell's reply to me, I looked out for a copy of the text and, I was right. The current version conflicts because it's been changed since the UK flap erupted.

He still says his viewpoint is that the answers are not in yet, but his previous version is far more sympathetic to Intelligent Design. And remember, this is the version in a deposition from January of 2010. The notes are marked as having been last updated in November of 2005. Same month of the Dover decision as I recall.

As an example, there is this passage from his current version: "... but the real problem with humanistic evolution is in the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations. It is the latter that “creationists” should really be attacking (many books do, in fact, attack these unwarranted assumptions and extrapolations)."

Not necessarily an unreasonable statement - it's what John does at times. But his original version said this:

"... but the real problem with humanistic evolution is in the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations. It is the latter that “creationists” should really be attacking. There are quite a few books which do a good job of attacking these unwarranted assumptions and extrapolations (e.g., the books by Phillip Johnson)." (emphasis mine)

A one-time reference to an ID book I could give the benefit of the doubt to until I learned more about the motivations. Multiple recommendations, I think not.

And from the deposition, we know why he changed it. It's not because he changed his mind, it's because he was intimidated by the idea it might affect his chances of future employment.
Same month of the Dover decision as I recall.

Actually, the decision was in December 2005 but anyone who followed it at all could see the writting on the wall, particularly when it came to the judgment of the academic community.

The referrence to Johnson's books (and the change in the reference) is telling.

Johnson's books range from the (unconvincing) "we're just a minority scientific view" to the explicitly theological "science is antithetical to faith" sort. You can't read them and fail to miss the anti-science.

Thanks for the effort you've expended and the evenhandedness with which you've approached it.
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