The Gaskell affair

December 20, 2010

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.


Obama and the last scattering surface

January 21, 2009

What a fine day. I saw Obama’s inauguration and attended a colloquium by Rashid Sunyaev.

The three hour East-West time difference was just right. I was able to catch the inauguration speech on TV and still get in to work before coffee. It was a beautifully crafted and well delivered speech. Emotional but not mawkish. Had just enough content to avoid being vacuous, but not so much that his freedom of action is blocked once real world compromises are needed. And very promising from a rationalist point of view .. he said “we will restore science to its rightful place”, mentioned “curiosity” as one of the “values on which our success depends”, and even mentioning “nonbelievers” is very unnusual in America. You can see Andrew Jaffe’s take here, and read the speech here.

Sunyaev’s talk was fascinating. He is of course just a tad well known for things like inventing the “alpha disk” paradigm for accretion disks, and predicting the Sunyaev-Zeldovich effect; but in 1970 he also predicted acoustic oscillations in the CMB power spectrum. I didn’t know this. Its in this paper, published in Russian in 1970, and in translation in 1972.  He said that Zeldovich almost stopped him stating that such observations could measure Omega, because obviously these fluctuations could never be measured ! So now he has a new wacky prediction : seeing beyond the surface of last scattering by looking for the imprint of emission lines produced during the preceding recombination phase. These should produce tiny wiggles in the high frequency end of the CMB spectrum; measuring them could for example tell us the pre-stellar abundance of Helium. Sunyaev said that expert opinion is divided on whether these wiggles can be measured, but the twinkle in his eye let us know the right answer…