In case you missed it, Intelligent Design’s biggest marquee martyrdom event, the denial of Guillermo Gonzalez’s tenure at Iowa State university, just blew out a few bulbs.
The Discovery Institute and several other Intelligent Design PR organs have recently been crowing about having blockbuster evidence of discrimination in Gonzalez’s tenure case. After a freedom of information request dislodged countless department emails from ISU, the Des Moines Register has given us a peek at their general content. And what’s in there? After all the rhetoric, not much. The picture remains pretty much as we left it: the vast majority of the problems raised with him were about his failure to thrive as an astronomer, and while his ID views were discussed and taken into account, this factor was both far smaller than the DI and Gonzalez have claimed, and done in ways that are, frankly, still quite legitimate.
The DI will, of course, count virtually any criticism of Gonzalez’s ID arguments as evidence of discrimination, and so to them the details make no difference. But the particulars can and do make a big difference.
A professor holding this or that belief, or even advocating it, means little if his work is solid. But when a professor has an already lackluster record of producing goodies for his department, it really IS relevant to ask how he spent his time instead, and from this wonder what the university might expect him to spend his time on after he wins tenure.
In the relevant seven years in his position at ISU, Gonzalez:
- did not win any significant research grants for his department (he won around 22,000, in a department that averaged around 1.3 million each)
- did not lead publish any significant journal work
- got only a single of his graduate students through a dissertation.
In terms of what is required to achieve tenured status, this record is nothing short of pathetic. Many scientists and professors I’ve known do far better than this and still fail to get tenure.
As an aside, it’s worth acknowledging that the Discovery Institute and other Intelligent Design PR organs have tried to carefully spin these facts away, tallying up articles that Gonzalez published under the auspices of other working groups and labs as evidence of his promise. But the bulk of their case pre-dates his time at ISU making it pretty much irrelevant to tenure considerations, which are very much a “what have you done/will you do for us” matter. Perhaps even more importantly, this cited work took place in a very different academic environment than the one he was being judged on. It’s one thing to produce good work off of the grants and labs of others, in collaboration with leaders and advisors. It’s a very different thing to run your own section of a department and see if you can deliver the goods under your own power.
So what did Gonzalez spend considerable amounts of his time and energy on? Writing and promoting a book and movie aimed at popular audience (The Privileged Planet) and generally playing the ID activist. Why should the university expect that, after giving him tenure, he would reverse this trend and start churning out research grants and grad students? Why shouldn’t they be able to legitimately take that into account? Heck, many university departments still look askance at professors who dare to have families, let alone consuming outside interests.
Reverse Ad Hominem Fallacy Revealed…
It’s also sort of amazing that while Intelligent Design wants to be taken seriously as an academic and scientific argument, it retreats almost immediately to crying victimhood in the face of criticism. This is very serious problem for their movement, and a terrible intellectual habit. Proponents of a real scientific idea simply must allow for the possibility that particular adherents just aren’t very good at advancing it: that their arguments are plain lousy. Just because it’s possible that there are good arguments for the existence of an Intelligent Designer does not mean that any given proponent has hit upon them, or argues them convincingly.
And yet, despite the claim that ID is not religious, academic criticisms of its arguments are treated de facto an attack on its adherent’s religious beliefs rather than on the quality of their ideas without any further questions asked. For instance, one of Gonzalez’s peers in his department describes his ideas on Intelligent Design as “vacuous.” The Discovery Institute treats this sort of thing as proof positive of dogmatic discrimination: end of story. But if Intelligent Design really were a scientific idea, then this move is flatly premature. We must entertain the idea that Gonzalez’s arguments themselves might well be of poor quality, and we must have that debate before we can conclude that criticism of his ideas are truly out of line.
Intelligent Design proponents, for all their bluster about desiring debate, seem extremely eager to skip right past these considerations. They seem to be committing a sort of reverse of the ad hominem fallacy: refusing to consider anything but the man or his beliefs. The quality of his arguments, or the arguments of any current Intelligent Design proponent, are basically treated as an irrelevant matter: simply assumed to be academically excellent… if the matter is even mentioned at all.
Those who really and truly think that there is something to Intelligent Design would do well to think long and hard about taking this sort of content-free “Expelled!” approach to the debate.
Or else people are quickly going to realize that it’s not the “planet” that’s acting all privileged. It’s just Intelligent Design demanding special kid-gloves treatment: you must listen to our science, but don’t you dare criticize it like you would any other scientific idea.