Guillermo Gonzalez

I'm in an interesting position. Having so recently posted my own bitch and whine about how my tenure case is in trouble, suddenly we learn that Intelligent Design advocate Guillermo Gonzalez-- somebody who, frankly, has been viewed as a thorn in the side of astronomy by a large fraction of astronomers-- has been denied tenure.

I'm in no position to comment, but will do so anyway, because that's my way.

My own whine and rant suggests (or, anyway, states) that I think that the reasons my tenure case is on the rocks aren't the greatest of reasons. I know I'm a good teacher, and I know that I'm a good communicator and science outreach person. I know I'm a good researcher. I have external confirmation of all of these things. But I haven't gotten an NSF grant. Partially that's my failing, partially that's the fact that NSF grants in astronomy are extremely competitive. I have been directly told that my tenure case will be very, very difficult without a grant of the scale of an NSF grant. (The Dean's office makes noises about how it's a "myth" that tenure requires grants, but that's in direct conflict with the direct feedback I've received on my own case.) I think that Vanderbilt is making a mistake by tying this so tightly, given how much else I have contributed and can continue to contribute to the University, but there you have it.

Let me briefly mention another tenure denial case from a few years ago, because it will shortly become relevant. Sean Carroll was denied tenure at the University of Chicago, one of the most obvious cases of a boneheaded tenure decision on the part of a department or a University. Lots of people have speculated as for the reason; it was because he blogs, it was some stupid internal politics, it was because he wrote a textbook. Who knows. But let's take the last example. Sean wrote what is one of the best and is becoming one of the most popular introductory graduate General Relativity textbooks. In so doing, he almost certainly had to take some time (probably the better part of a year) away from publishing original research. And, yet, I strongly believe that he did far more to advance the cause of science in so doing than the vast majority of people do in ten years of original research. Whether or not this was a deciding or even an important factor in Sean's tenure case, the fact that people seriously speculate about it tells us something. Before we get tenure, we're supposed to be research-producing machines. It's not enough to do a lot, to do an impressive amount, a more-than-tenure-worthy stack of research. We must do that without pause, without stoppage, without distraction. This is despite the fact that academics are supposed to be so much more. We're supposed to teach. We're supposed to do service to the field. We're supposed to be thinking intellectuals. Sean's textbook is assuredly a part of the intellectual production of a working and excellent scientist who is contributing in a holistic fashion to the furtherance of his field. That it would be considered evidence that he's "not focused enough" to get tenure is just... odd.

Which brings us to Guillermo Gonzalez. Of course the creationist lobbies (including those of the intelligent design strip) are crying "bias," saying how unfair it is and how mistreated they are because their poster boy in astronomy didn't get tenure. The truth is, we don't really know the reason. Perhaps Gonzalez didn't have enough funding! Or perhaps he's a cat person, and there's a named-chaired professor in his department who's a dog person. Tenure decisions can be so capricious that it's often very difficult to draw conclusions in any given individual case what the reasons are.

But let's assume for argument that the cries of "bias" are right. Let's assume that Gonzalez didn't get tenure partly because of the publication of his popular-level book The Privileged Planet. This is a book that puts forward the argument that there is evidence for Intelligent Design in astronomy. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a creationist treatise.

I believe it is appropriate for Gonzalez to be denied tenure for publishing this book. In so doing, he not only embarrassed his department and his University, but actively worked against the cause of good science education in this country. This is the exact opposite of what Sean Carroll did; his book brings prestige to him and (now, unfortunately) to the University of Chicago, and furthered the cause of science education. Gonzalez hurt it. Intelligent design is widely recognized by the scientific community for what it is-- antiscience, an attack on science which is even almost acknowledged by its originators.

How much more do you need? Most of the arguments I've seen against those who claim "bias" are that we don't really know why Gonzalez was denied tenure. And that is true. But we should be arguing that, yeah, sure, if that was the reason, then it was a good decision. Gonzalez was not showing the judgment and behavior of a good scientist, and that's not the kind of person you want as a permanent member of a science faculty.

Look, there are ways you can be an advocate of a generally unaccepted position in science and still be a good scientist. A lot of would-be science mavericks with wacky ideas like to point out that once upon a time continental drift was widely dismissed by the geology community... but today it is widely accepted. What happened? Well, the data eventually made it very clear that plate tectonics is how things work on this planets, and plate tectonics includes continental drift. The data eventually supported the theory. The thing is, there were real scientific debates about this, even before it was accepted. There was data, and there were ways to get more data.

Intelligent design is different. It's vacuous. It's offered as a "default explanation," when (at least in the eyes of ID advocates) science doesn't yet have another adequate for some sort of complex structure or seeming coincidence. There is no debate in science about it. The debate is entirely in the public sphere. And that's where intelligent design is different from continental drift. If, instead of making the case to scientists, instead of gathering data or proposing observations that could be made, "continental drifters" were writing popularizations to undermine the rest of geology, if they were trying to get society to "teach the controversy" to schoolchildren, if they were putting out a lot of scientific-sounding pablum to give politicians and the general public the impression that there was a real scientific debate where in fact there was none, scientists would have been rightly outraged at their tactics. As we are at the tactics of intelligent design.

Gonzalez showed bad scientific judgment, and was hurting the case of science with his popular book. It doesn't do astronomy, or science in general, any good to have that out there. If he was denied tenure because he's an intelligent design advocate, that was an appropriate decision. "Advocate" is the key here. You can believe whatever you want, but when you start to misrepresent science in order to support your position, you're in trouble.


More like this

The Discovery Institute is currently making hay (again) over Iowa State's decision to deny tenure to Discovery Institute Fellow Guillermo Gonzalez. They've held a press conference and issued a press release claiming to have proof that Intelligent Design was "the" issue that resulted in Gonzalez…
And speaking of bad science journalism, here's Nature's take on the Gonzalez situation: He's a young astronomer with dozens of articles in top journals; he has made an important discovery in the field of extrasolar planets; and he is a proponent of intelligent design, the idea that an intelligent…
Yesterday the Discovery Institute held a press conference at the capitol building in Des Moines, to announce Guillermo Gonzalez's plans to sue Iowa State University over their decision to deny him tenure. Supposedly the lawsuit will be filed pending the rejection of an appeal to the Board of…
It just makes it too easy to show your dishonesty. UD continues to harp endlessly about Gonzalez' tenure case as they have nothing else to do, like original research. But I have to give them a piece of advice. If you're going to cherry pick, either don't cherry pick the first line of an article,…

Thanks for this thoughtful post. I agree that we may never know why tenure was denied to Dr. Gonzalez. You make a good point about how scholarly contributions peripheral to the tenuring decision may harm you in the end. More than in Carroll's case, Gonzalez's situation resembles another highly publicized tenure decision - James Sherley's denial of tenure in Biological Engineering at MIT. The headline in that case (the validity of which I cannot evaluate) was a claim of racism, but underneath that situation was Sherley's controversial views about the morality of human embryonic stem cell research.

If you are interested, I just made a post on my blog summarizing that case.


100% dead on. IDers can cry McCarthyism when their people are rejected for their ideas, but some ideas are contemptible, embarrassing, and clear assaults on science.

The equivalent to me would be along the lines of accusing a church that refuses of ordaining Christopher Hitchens as a priest of bias or McCarthyism.

1. Prof Gerard Harbison has done an investigation and was unable to come up with any evidence that Gonzalez had received grant money from the NSF or from any other source.

2. I completely agree with Prof Plaits' commentary. Clearly, the faculty at Iowa State concluded that they did not need an Arthur Butz, Michael Behe, Brian Josephson or Peter Duesberg type on their faculty.

This non-scientist, non-academician thanks you very much for the well-written explanation of tenure. Of course, there is no need to explain why Gonzalez did not get tenure: he has only one oar in the water. Which makes me wonder just how much science is taught at the "Christian Colleges." "Good morning. Today's topic is Newton, and we will take up all of the things he misunderstood, and how he was in cahoots with the devil. Then, we will show that the letters in Einstein's name add up to 666. Let us pray."

This reminds me of the Boston legal episode about the crazy scientologist. These people literally want to victimize and keep everyone prisoner with their crazy and kooky ideas, which everyone has to respect and accommodate.

I believe it is appropriate for Gonzalez to be denied tenure for publishing this book. In so doing, he not only embarrassed his department and his University, but actively worked against the cause of good science education in this country.

That is nonsense, Rob. You embarrassed yourself with this post.

Not only is that just a gratuitous insult, but it's also wrong. It's not nonsense, I'm not embarrassed, and if you're paying attention, a lot of other science blogs are saying exactly the same thing.

I suspect that Gonzalez and some other credulous ID opponents don't think that they're working against the cause of good science education. But that, ultimately, is the goal of ID, whether they acknowledge it or not.


I don't much care what other blogs have to say on the topic; there is nothing wrong with Guillermo Gonzalez's teleological musings. Although, perhaps you would extend the inquisition to Owen Gingerich and John Polkinghorne.

By Robert O'Brien (not verified) on 20 May 2007 #permalink

there is nothing wrong with Guillermo Gonzalez's teleological musings

Sure there is. They're not science. Gonzalez failed to get tenure because he wasn't a good enough scientist for ISU. Hanging round with a bunch of anti-science losers like the Disco Institute shows that.

What a sorry, shallow analysis. You're conflating any reference to teleology with every ID argument and every sort of creationism, such that any musing about teleology is called "antiscience."

Gonzalez's design arguments are essentially the same ones made by Francis Collins in "The Language of God," essentially the same ones made by Owen Gingerich in "God's Universe," essentially the same ones made by Stephen Barr in "Modern Physics and Ancient Faith," essentially the same ones made by Simon Conway Morris in "Life's Solution," and so on.

Are all of these respected scientists "anti-science" simply because they relate their scientific endeavors to belief in God? Do all scientists have to be functional atheists? Is expressing any notion that the remarkable properties of life and the universe are consistent with belief in a designer-God -- even while accepting that life and the universe can also be explained at some level in terms of "natural" causes -- automatic grounds for ostracism by the scientific community?

By contratemps (not verified) on 25 May 2007 #permalink

I have, a perhaps naive, question - have anyone read his book? I looked at amazon and it mentiones the words 'intelligent design' but then, is there an exact definition of this? Of course, it is easy to equate ID with the crazy evangelist right in the states, but perhaps this is a little black and white. Would it still be called ID to have the belief that there is an 'intelligent mind' beyond the evolution of the universe? If so, does this by necessity mean that ones scientific judgment is biased? After all, even Einstein's belief in God had an impact on his scientific work (the cosmological constant).

So, to make it short. Exactly how is ID defined and when does it become anti-scientific in such a 'bad sense' so it should alter the tenure process.


I have, a perhaps naive, question - have anyone read his book?

I haven't read it -- there are too many other books worth the time that I haven't read yet, so I probably won't.

I have, however, looked through it, and read bits of it. It pretty much makes the party line discovery institute "explanatory filter" evidence for design argument.



contratemps --

You're using the "extremism" fallacy, or some such. Because one thing is rejected, you say that everything else that's vaguely related is rejected. The vaguely related things have not been commented on.

Intelligent Design as presented by the DI (including Gonzalez) is vacuous, for the reasons I describe above. It's presented not as an enhancement to or personal philosophical interpretation of naturalistic evolution, it's presented as an alternative to naturalistic evolution. It argues that a very well established theory in biology has to be wrong, and it argues that it has the default explanation, and it argues that it's doing science while doing all of that. That is all that I'm saying is anti-science right here.