Thursday, June 07, 2007

On faith and tenure

And then there is the unfortunate case of the astronomer at Iowa State University who claims he was denied tenure because of his belief in "intelligent design."

Guillermo Gonzalez has apparently published a number of well-received peer-reviewed research papers on planet systems near heavy-metal stars. He is also an evangelical Christian who has co-authored a book called The Privileged Planet that makes the argument for our purposeful placement in the cosmos. This latter fact, he claims, was crucial in the tenure decision.

Tenure review is a private process, and one would like to think that the denial of tenure to Gonzalez was based entirely upon the quality of his published research and teaching. What he does on Sunday or with his private writing is, to a first approximation, irrelevant.

According to a story in Science, Gonzalez believes that the Earth's place in the universe -- just so far from just such a star in just such a neighborhood of the Galaxy -- is perfectly contrived for life, and therefore evidence of an intelligent designer. But of course, the opposite conclusion is equally tenable: Life exists on Earth because it is just so far from just such a star, etc. Make no mistake: Until someone can show how intelligent design can be the basis of a program of empirical research, it is religion, not science, and a person's religion is his own business. If Gonzalez is teaching intelligent design in the classroom, or invoking design in his published papers, then that is another matter.

Anyone reading a scientific research paper should not have a clue about the religion of the author. I taught science for 40 years, and any student of mine would have been hard pressed to say at the end of a semester what were my religion or politics. That is why science is a reliable way of knowing, and why scientists are so concerned about keeping religion out of the public schools. Tenure review committees can rightfully consider whether a person's religious beliefs (or lack thereof) undermine the objectivity of her science, but beyond that religion should be kept out of it. I would like to think that a highly-qualified atheist scientist who keeps her disbelief out of the classroom would have no trouble getting tenure at my own Roman Catholic college. And vice versa for Iowa State.

You can be sure that advocates of intelligent design are using the Gonzalez case as evidence that science is a closed shop.