The Gaskell affair

Yesterday I saw a Twitter link to  a New York Times article about an astronomer suing the University of Kentucky, claiming he was rejected as a job applicant because of his religious faith. This piqued my interest. When I got there I found it was someone I know reasonably well on a professional level – Martin Gaskell. Martin graduated from the Edinburgh astrophysics degree the year before me – 1975 – and is a well known AGN researcher. He is an imaginative and thoughtful scientist, and a pleasant guy, but a bit of an odd fish, so in some ways I was surprised and in some ways not. The job concerned had a research element but was mostly about constructing a new public/student observatory and outreach programme. Having done just the same thing in Nebraska, as well as having a strong research record, he was clearly the leading candidate, although not the only good candidate.  However, panel members discovered an article he wrote about the links between astronomy and the Bible . Martin is not a creationist, and believes in evolution, but says it has “problems”, and he cites some authors who write about intelligent design. Apparently the biologists more or less vetoed him, and most but not all of the panel were nervous about appointing such a person to a scientific outreach position. Even given Gaskell’s nuanced position, such nervousness is quite reasonable, although there seems to be no evidence that his beliefs have distorted his past work. He was asked about his religious views at the interview. Email exchanges after the interview leave it fairly clear, as far as I can tell, that he would have been appointed were it not for this issue.

The NY Times and myself are a little behind the times. Martin was interviewed in 2007. He issued a formal complaint in July 2009. Over a period of many months, the US District Court in Kentucky received a series of depositions which you can find collected at the NCSE website . On November 23rd, the court decided there was a formal case to answer and set a trial date of February 8th 2011. The story seemed to break publicly in a Kentucky newspaper on December 10th. Blog posts were appearing by Dec 13th – 14th – in Nature blogs, in Pharyngula, and in several knowledgeable and intelligent pieces by another AGN bod, Mike Brotherton, here here and here.

Legally, the situation seems simple but not yet clear. It is quite permissible for Kentucky to reject an applicant on the grounds that there is evidence he may not perform the required job well. But it is illegal to reject him on the grounds of his religion per se. The paper trail in the depositions has suggestions of both. So the trial has to decide which of these is the case. Difficult, but perfectly clear.

Unfortunately this is not what is happening on the internet of course. Gaskell has become yet another symbol in the American religious wars.  Naturally the Gaskell affair has been leapt on by evolution skeptics and even global warming denialists, but what really depressed me was the discussion on Pharyngula. These are the good guys right ? PZ Myers is a kind of hero, but I was bit shocked how right from the start in this post he set up Gaskell as a straw man, implying that he sued Kentucky more or less at random because of not getting a job, artificially claiming that it was because of an anti-christian bias. This ignores the public evidence that he had a prima facie case that was way more specific than this. Thats why the judge has sent it to trial. The comment stream that follows is, well, aggressive, on both sides of the argument. It contains lots of good points, as well as complete bollocks, but is so full of bile – “thats not what I said, dickhead !!” etc – that I find it hard to read.

I do actually feel, as Christopher Hitchens said, that religion poisons everything : not by evil intent, but simply by distorting the process of thinking. Somehow, atheists, and even non-theists, in the US have found themselves trapped into a religious war, where every episode is a symbol of a larger struggle. People are so frightened that the US will be dragged into a theocracy by the religious right that they are panicked into unreasonable behaviour.

Its important to get this right in a calm and factual manner. If Gaskell was rejected because of a reasonable lack of confidence in whether he would do the job well, he will lose the case. The end. Shut up. If he was rejected explicitly because of his religious faith, he has a strong case, and atheists should support him. If a precedent is set that individuals can be rejected employment because they are christians, then they can also be rejected employment because they are atheists.

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23 Responses to The Gaskell affair

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dave Williams. Dave Williams said: RT @e_astronomer: Blog comes back to life : http://bit.ly/hKOdEX The Gaskell Affair. Now to read STFC delivery plan… [...]

  2. “It contains lots of good points, as well as complete bollocks, but is so full of bile – “thats not what I said, dickhead !!” etc – that I find it hard to read.”

    Welcome to the internet. :-)

    “I do actually feel, as Christopher Hitchens said, that religion poisons everything : not by evil intent, but simply by distorting the process of thinking.”

    This is definitely the case.

    “People are so frightened that the US will be dragged into a theocracy by the religious right that they are panicked into unreasonable behaviour.”

    To all intents and purposes, it is a theocracy. Look at who determines what at what level and how this is based on biblical principles. Is there any member of Congress who is openly atheist?

    “If a precedent is set that individuals can be rejected employment because they are christians, then they can also be rejected employment because they are atheists.”

    I don’t follow you here. There are certainly other Christians employed in Kentucky, so this is a non-starter. The question is whether his faith makes him unsuitable for the job. If that is the case, then it is fair not to hire him, just like it would be fair to not hire someone who is an atheist were he to apply for a job as a priest or whatever.

  3. ian smail says:

    “just like it would be fair to not hire someone who is an atheist were he to apply for a job as a priest or whatever.”

    except that you might hope that the job description for a priest might mention the requirement to believe in the relevant deity, whereas:

    “constructing a new public/student observatory and outreach programme”

    …doesn’t strike me as the sort of job which would require an item in the job description defining the holder’s faith (or lack of)… and so it shouldn’t therefore be used as the justification for rejecting an applicant.

  4. [...] just when I thought career scientists couldn’t get any dozier, this flies past from an astronomer with his head in another galaxy: Legally, the situation seems simple [...]

  5. [...] just when I thought career scientists couldn’t get any dozier, this flies past from an astronomer with his head in another galaxy: Legally, the situation seems simple [...]

  6. Owen says:

    “It is quite permissible for Kentucky to reject an applicant on the grounds that there is evidence he may not perform the required job well. But it is illegal to reject him on the grounds of his religion per se.”

    I obviously would not condone anyone being refused a job because of their religion per se. However, this case is particularly difficult because it is possible that the candidate’s religious views could affect his ability to perform the role adequately. If the job description here is to relate scientific findings and promote the scientific method to the public – and it is deemed by the interview panel that the candidate’s religious views might motivate him to draw undue attention to issues such as ‘Intelligent Design’ when discussing creationism vs. evolution – then maybe they would be right to reject his application. If the candidate was only ever likely to highlight scientific problems with the theory of evolution, and these issues were raised in a manner proportional to their scientific merit, and motivated from a purely scientific standpoint, then this should not be an issue.

    • andyxl says:

      Owen – yes, you locate the borderline precisely. It is ok for a panel to have such concerns and raise them, and to come to a judgement based on the candidate’s response. But was that process followed properly, and judgements arrived at properly ? We should leave that to the court. But important general principles are raised.

      Phillip – the US is absolutely not a theocracy, despite the strong religious views of the majority of its population. Its laws, institutions, and public practices are robust, reasonable, and fair to those of all religions including none. It is something to be very proud of. Seeing something so good at threat is why atheists get so overheated I guess.

  7. Michael says:

    Gaskell’s former employer the University of Nebraska, had no problems with his religion concerning his work which was similar to the job at UK, neither did his next job at the University Texas. Both universities did not conduct a religious background check nor had discussions with candidates like Gaskell to see whether or not he would admit to being a creationist or not. He wasn’t a creationist but not enough for UK to hire him.

    Quite frankly, if UK feels evolution is so fragile that they worry exposure to alternative viewpoints is intolerable, then their beliefs are not worth believing. No scientist or University should fear openness about the evidence!

  8. Here

    http://www.mikebrotherton.com/?p=2649

    it says he has over a hundred refereed publications. On PZ’s blog, someone mentioned that it was just a one-digit number. I did an ADS search myself, and also just got a handful. What gives?

    http://adsabs.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/nph-abs_connect?db_key=AST&db_key=PRE&qform=AST&arxiv_sel=astro-ph&arxiv_sel=cond-mat&arxiv_sel=cs&arxiv_sel=gr-qc&arxiv_sel=hep-ex&arxiv_sel=hep-lat&arxiv_sel=hep-ph&arxiv_sel=hep-th&arxiv_sel=math&arxiv_sel=math-ph&arxiv_sel=nlin&arxiv_sel=nucl-ex&arxiv_sel=nucl-th&arxiv_sel=physics&arxiv_sel=quant-ph&arxiv_sel=q-bio&sim_query=YES&ned_query=YES&adsobj_query=YES&aut_logic=OR&obj_logic=OR&author=Gaskell%2C+M&object=&start_mon=&start_year=&end_mon=&end_year=&ttl_logic=OR&title=&txt_logic=OR&text=&nr_to_return=200&start_nr=1&jou_pick=ALL&ref_stems=&data_and=ALL&group_and=ALL&start_entry_day=&start_entry_mon=&start_entry_year=&end_entry_day=&end_entry_mon=&end_entry_year=&min_score=&sort=SCORE&data_type=SHORT&aut_syn=YES&ttl_syn=YES&txt_syn=YES&aut_wt=1.0&obj_wt=1.0&ttl_wt=0.3&txt_wt=3.0&aut_wgt=YES&obj_wgt=YES&ttl_wgt=YES&txt_wgt=YES&ttl_sco=YES&txt_sco=YES&version=1

    gives 9 and most are not refereed. Maybe they are
    in another field?

    I’ve been doing a bit of reading. We all know how difficult it is to get a job in astronomy, how many good candidates apply for even unattractive jobs so it would seem to me that there is absolutely no excuse for compromising when hiring someone. A public outreach position in a scientific field filled by someone who openly and consistently denies rational scientific thought seems like a bad choice to me. One could adopt a policy of, shall we say, “don’t ask, don’t tell”, but in this case, the guy has been telling it on the mountain for decades, trying to convert Chinese school girls to Christianity. Give me a break.

  9. It seems that the discrepancies regarding the number of Martin’s publications are due to searching for “M. Gaskell” (gives a few) or C.M. Gaskell (probably more appropriate). Someone should mention this on P.Z.’s blog, as the comment there creates a bad impression. (I haven’t been able to get comments to work on P.Z.’s blog.)

    • andyxl says:

      Phillip – somebody else already made that correction, halfway down the very long comment stream on that post. Seeing the original comment by Coel Hellier was very much what first made me worried – a proper astronomer doing 5 minutes research, getting it badly wrong, and then shooting their mouth off in a fairly aggressive manner.

    • It’s not exactly difficult to find his homepage and follow the ADS link from there…

  10. [...] I thought I’d reblog the following post from Andy Lawrence’s blog would be of interest to readers here because it relates to a very important issue. If you would like to read the full article please follow the link to Andy’s original post… Yesterday I saw a Twitter link to  a New York Times article about an astronomer suing the University of Kentucky, claiming he was rejected as a job applicant because of his religious faith. This piqued my interest. When I got there I found it was someone I know reasonably well on a professional level – Martin Gaskell. Martin graduated from the Edinburgh astrophysics degree the year before me – 1975 – and is a well known AGN researcher. He is an i … Read More [...]

  11. daft_evader says:

    “If a precedent is set that individuals can be rejected employment because they are christians, then they can also be rejected employment because they are atheists.”

    FWIW there has been a slow trickle of job adverts posted on the AAS job register that make it pretty clear they would reject atheists. An example here: http://members.aas.org/JobReg/JobDetailPage.cfm?JobID=24720

    A difference is of course that the University of Kentucky is publicly funded, Wheaton College is not.

  12. bigdaddy says:

    bigotry for religous/sexual/race reasons is alive and well. In recent years it may have been forced underground, but intelligent interviewers can easily exploit (and hide) it.

    Some US education boards seem to be loosing the battle against the creationalists
    http://rackjite.com/archives/2724-Texas-Board-of-Education-Moving-Back-to-Creationism-One-Day-After-Vote.html

    But at least Kentucky seems aware at a board level. Of course at the interview it may only take one person’s hidden agenda to make the difference.

    I wish I had a publication record like C.M.Gaskell. Fortunately it is better than M.Gaskell (although not with some common spellings of my name)….

    I hope he can find proof but i suspect it will be difficult.

  13. Albert Zjilstra says:

    The statement that religion distorts the process of thinking is extreme, and in my opinion unscientific. (If there is such as thing as scientific opinion.) Are only scientists of the atheistic persuasion respected? Respected for what? Science is a game of discovery with clear rules. The quality of our work is judged on whether we stick to these rules . If religious beliefs become a reason to disqualify someone from working in science, this breaks these rules. If science discriminates on beliefs, it ceases to be scientific.

    An un-opinionated scientist does not exist. The challenge any scientist faces is not to make judgments based on opinions.

    An my opinion is that if the requirement for religious or anti-religious beliefs were not written into the job specification, Kentucky’s case could be very weak.

    Albert

  14. andyxl says:

    Albert – I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that being religious disqualifies anyone from being a good scientist. Martin Gaskell is a very good scientist, and in particular a much clearer thinker than many astronomers I know. Indeed, his religious stance is consistent with the fact that he tries to be a deep thinker, rather than the traditional observer cowboy type. However, believing impossible things before breakfast makes your intellectual life harder. Scientists can be very good at compartmentalising, so there is no sign this seeps into his research work. But reading his Bible and Astronomy essay is dispiriting. It too is insightful and well argued, but he has to tie himself in knots trying to make something that makes no sense make sense. Its Angels on pins.

    I also do not mean to suggest there is no room for spirituality in life. But for spirituality to be consistent with our improved knowledge of the world, you have to be brave enough to leave behind two thousand year old fairy tales.

    Anyway, not really the main point. Atheists and non-theists should defend religious freedom, so that no religious viewpoint (eg ID) can impose its views on the State.

  15. telescoper says:

    I just noticed an update on this story on Physics World:

    http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/44822

    Apparently the University of Kentucky does not admit any wrongdoing, but has settled out of court by paying $125,000 compensation.

  16. [...] little while back I wrote about the Martin Gaskell affair, and was shocked at the level of crudeness and vitriol on the Pharyngula blog. Who needs religious [...]

  17. There are some attention-grabbing points on this article however I don’t know if I see all of them middle to heart. There may be some validity but I will take maintain an opinion till I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we would like more! Added to FeedBurner as well.

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