Friday, 30 November 2007

Astrophysics and the Morality of Academic Prejudice

Returning tentatively to the Intelligent Design debate, there is another aspect to this which, like my last piece on the subject,, also leaves me feeling uncomfortable, but this time from a different perspective.

By and large, through out my life, I have tended to find myself in minorities. As a white man in Western Europe that might seem a silly thing to say but there are other areas of my background where I have not always been part of the greater number and because of that, occasions where I have felt uneasy or not in control.

There is a situation that been ongoing for a while within the astrobiological field that also touches on the ID subject and while I have no personal involvement, observing it has made me feel ill at ease. This time however I find myself in the camp of the majority with concern that a minority is being persecuted.

I am referring to the case of astrophysicist Guillermo Gonzalez who is an Iowa State University assistant professor of physics and astronomy and who also, in his spare time, is an advocate of Intelligent Design. His application for tenure at the University was declined and his supporters allege that this was because of his beliefs. The University counters that "he failed to meet the expectations for scholarly achievement for a faculty member in the department of physics and astronomy during the six years of his probationary, pre-tenure period of appointment" and that his advocacy of the "intelligent design" concept was not a factor in the decision to turn down his request for tenure.

There can be little doubt about Cuban born Gonzalez’s commitment to ID as he is a senior fellow at the infamous Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture as well as a fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information and Design, all dedicated, hard core ID propogators.

To be fair to the University, they do put up a good case. In essence, to get tenure, you need to prove that you can draw both money and prestige to the establishment and this you do by publishing peer reviewed articles and attracting sponsorship for research. This, they allege, Gonzalez has failed to do and further add that his telescope time and student tuteledge hasn’t been up to much either. Their final nail in the coffin to demonstrate that they are not academically prejudiced against him is that astronomy is one of their strongest academic programs and that over the past decade, four of the 12 candidates who came up for review in that department also failed to get tenure.

That seems a fair rebuttal and unless it can be factually disproved, seems to be conclusive. But Gonzalez’s supporters are not giving up and unless there are intervening developments, there is a strong possibility that this could end up in court.

Despite everything you still cannot get away from the suspicion that his beliefs are somehow at the back of it all. I have no wish to see them promoted in an academic setting but conversely, I don’t feel comfortable seeing his career progression hindered because of them either. The problem here is that the dispute crosses into personal belief as opposed to professional position and therein lays the dichotomy.

But, if pushed, I regret I hope the university prevail.

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