Creationist Astronomer Sues University

Martin Gaskell is by all accounts an accomplished astronomer.  He applied for a job as the director of the University of Kentucky’s observatory.  On its face, his application was deemed to be the best of the bunch.  He was, however, denied the job and is now suing for religious discrimination.

By all accounts, Gaskell is a splendid scientist when it comes to the cosmos.  His science is considerably weaker when it comes to biology and geology.  In a public lecture titled “Modern Astronomy, the Bible and Creation,” which can be found here, Gaskell contends that science and Christianity are largely compatible and that science supports certain aspects of Christianity.  This statement, in particular, has caused Gaskell problems:

It is true that there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory (a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job) and that these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses, but the real problem with humanistic evolution is in the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations.

It is the latter that “creationists” should really be attacking (many books do, in fact, attack these unwarranted assumptions and extrapolations).

As should be apparent from this excerpt, Gaskell is a creationist who is advising other creationists on ways to attack evolution in ways that appear to be scientific.  When you are a scientist whose job description includes the teaching of the scientific method and public understanding of science, using your skills to advance a theistic agenda seems like a good reason not to hire someone.

Gaskell was not hired because of religious discrimination; he was not hired because of scientific discrimination.  There is no law against refusing to hire a scientist who espouses bad science in the service of religion.  When your religion spills over into science and results in pseudo-scientific statements, these kinds of things will happen.

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers has a longer piece on the whole matter, and offers these pertinent observations:

There is a difference between accepting a theory that is incomplete, like evolution, and a set of wacky ideas that are contradicted by the available evidence, like these various flavors of creationism that Gaskell is favoring. That calls his ability to think scientifically into question, and that is legitimate grounds to abstain from hiring him.

The record shows that what people were discussing was not his religion alone, but the way his religion has affected his job as a scientist and communicator of science, and the effect of hiring someone with such dubious views in a state already trying to overcome the embarrassment of being home to the Creation “Museum”. These are valid concerns. One of the faculty members who reviewed the case said it very well:

Another geology professor, Shelly Steiner, wrote that UK [University of Kentucky] should no more hire an astronomer skeptical of evolution than “a biologist who believed that the sun revolved around the Earth.”

When the most recent polling indicates that 40% of Americans believe that God created humans about 10,000 years ago, hiring someone with Gaskell’s views is problematic.  The world was a lively and diversified place 10,000 years ago: farming and pastoralism was taking hold in Mesopotamia and the Levant, Australia had been occupied for at least 30,000 years, Asians were making the transition from foraging to farming, the Americas had been colonized by successive waves of nomadic hunters from Siberia, Europe was filled with all manner of hunter-gatherers, and Africa was teeming with genetically diverse groups of people.

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2 thoughts on “Creationist Astronomer Sues University

  1. Ben

    I agree it would be a mistake to hire the guy if he denied evolution or believed the world was 10,000 years old. But I don’t think you’ve really got evidence for it in that quote.

    “It is true that there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory (a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job)”
    So he’s conceding to his creationist audience that science is an ongoing process with ongoing puzzles. That’s not much of a concession.
    “and that these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses, ”
    Don’t introductory courses in many fields tend to gloss over the bleeding-edge problems in order to make sure the fundamental ideas get across? Again, no biggie.

    “but the real problem with humanistic evolution is in the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations.
    It is the latter that “creationists” should really be attacking (many books do, in fact, attack these unwarranted assumptions and extrapolations).”
    And here I suspect he’s probably trying to convince “creationists” (the fact he’s put it in inverted commas suggests he himself is uncomfortable with the term) that if they want to argue, they should attack inferences about theism views drawn from science, not the science itself. It sounds to me like he’s doing science a service by getting creationists to stop attacking science by diverting them onto a religious debate. He may not be doing atheism a service, but why should that be relevant for hiring in an astronomy dept?

    Also problematic is that “creationist” has at least two meanings – 1) a person who believes (possibly as merely a religious conviction) that some prior entity like God caused the big bang, and 2) someone who denies evolution and thinks the world was created 6000 years ago in 6 days. So although that quote does imply Gaskell considers himself a creationist in some sense of the word, if it’s only in that first sense, how would it be relevant? I’ve read he emphatically does NOT deny evolution; indeed find it hard to believe that an accomplished astronomer could deny billions of years of time, so I suspect calling him “creationist” in the usual sense is unfair.

  2. admin Post author

    I agree that it would be nice to have more facts than what we currently have. Based on the current evidence, I think that last line — which has not been quoted by anyone — is by far the most damning: “It is the latter that creationists should be really be attacking.” This sounds to me like a call to arms from one creationist to another, and if the books to which you are referring include the ones by Dembski and Behe, the kind of “science” he is advocating is so far off-kilter that denying him a scientific position would seem reasonable. Gaskell is not simply an astronomer; he is a scientist. In the former position, his views may not matter much, but in the latter position they matter quite a lot. It is scientifically unreasonable — unscientific if you will — even to suggest that evolution has “significant problems” and thus invite even more pseudoscientific babble about a matter which should have been put to rest decades ago. Why even play to this audience?

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