Informed opinion on the Gonzalez situation

Who best to talk about the Gonzalez tenure case? Since he’s an astronomer, how about another astronomer? Phil is unimpressed:

So when ISU denied Gonzalez tenure, I applauded them. Faculty members are de facto representatives of the University, and having one advocate for a provably wrong antiscientific load of crap… well, it seems counterproductive. Denying someone tenure on that basis alone is, in my opinion, perfectly valid, and in fact should be demanded.

It will feed their martyr complex a little more, but it’s true — when you’re trying to peddle weird pseudoscience and you don’t have the evidence to back it up, you don’t get to join the ranks of professional scientists.

And how about the opinion of someone who was there? Evil Monkey reports direct from Iowa, and he makes the point that Gonzalez’s grant record did not come close to that of his colleagues, and that’s counting an chunk of change straight from the Discovery Institute.

So Gonzalez brought in about 1/10th of the funds of his other colleagues, on average, at best. A good chunk of that went back to the University of Washington to pay a grad student, not ISU. The Templeton grant to write Privileged Planet would pay a portion of his salary, not fund research and advance the mission of his department. And the DI grant (having probably the most fortuitous timing I’ve ever seen) of $50k over 5 years won’t even pay a technician for two full years. The DI claims not much money is needed to do astronomy research, simply on a computer to crunch numbers (which is laughable as typically universities provide some computers to their professors). But somebody, be it a technician, a grad student, or a postdoc, has to be paid to collect data, which that requires salary, benefits, and ‘scope time. Obviously it does require serious cash, as his peers are pulling in over ten times the money Gonzalez is. By way of comparison, I coauthored a grant that netted $198,000 over the course of one year when I was a postdoc.

Poor Guillermo. What he should be doing is either writing grant proposals, or writing applications for jobs that have lesser requirements for bringing in external funds. Instead, he’s looking on as the DI digs a deep grave in which to bury his career.


  1. negentropyeater says

    In my view, the rare earth hypothesis is not pseudo-science. There’s quite some scientific litterature for and against. So, if Gonzalez wanted to focus his pre-tenure on this, why not ? But still, he should have focussed on getting the sufficent grants and publishing papers, instead he went on to write a book and help a documentary, nothing more than vulgarization, which detracted him from what he should have done in his pre-tenure.
    He made a clear mistake and is now paying for it. He should stop complaining, go back to his original ideas (Galactic Hospitable Zone and whatever constitutes scientific research), work hard, get real grants, publish and if he is worthy, he’ll get tenured one day.
    The more he lets the DI get involved, the worst it will get for him. Wake up Guillermo !

  2. Joe says

    @negentropyeater (#1)

    No, the rare Earth notion, as it pertains to “complex life” is pure speculation; and “life” was GG’s emphasis. (BTW, GG wrote “Privileged Planet,” “Rare Earth” was Ward and Brownlee’s (W&B) folly).

    W&B had an interesting notion- finding an Earth-like planet in a Solar-like stellar system would be unusual. Then, they insisted that features of our environment (e.g., the Moon, Jupiter etc.) are each required for “Complex Life.” That is an unsupportable extrapolation from their one data point- life on Earth. Moreover, it overlooks the adaptability of life, the possibility that another feature could replace Jupiter (the Moon, etc.), and the possibility that they are wrong in their speculation about requirements for life.

  3. ngong says

    But Gonzalez goes far beyond “rare earth”. He hypothesizes that life will only arise in regions where the universe is easily observable and discoverable. Thus he harps on the fact that the moon and sun have the same apparent size, allowing certain measurements to be made that would be more difficult otherwise.

    The unspoken underlying idea, I guess, is that God wants you to admire his work, so he won’t seed life in places where that’s difficult to do. A truly bizarre notion.

  4. negentropyeater says

    Come on, there are many areas of science that are highly speculative today. Anything which relates to areas where we have very little or no experimental data is highly speculative. It doesn’t necessarily make it pseudo-science. If you can build a quantitative model, define the type of future experiments that could support one or another hypothesis, propose areas of investigation, etc… If he thinks he can pass peer review, so be it. If he has nothing interesting to say, he should move on. That’s the way science progresses and he should follow the rules. That’s why a book is not an option.
    BTW, anything that pertains to Quantum gravity, String theory, Multiverses, Many worlds, abiogenesis, will contain many highly speculative aspects today but it still pertains to science and should define its own future.
    I think you will find that in general, cosmologists are more open to these kind of speculations.
    And I do see a big difference with Intelligent design, which is clearly pseudo-science.

  5. Nan says

    “I think you will find that in general, cosmologists are more open to these kind of speculations.”

    And they’re generally working in philosophy or theoretical physics, not astronomy.

    Gonzalez screwed up by ignoring the rules of the tenure game. He didn’t publish in the right places, he didn’t bring in enough grant money. He needs to suck it up, move on, and, if he’s lucky, he might manage to find a job that doesn’t involve asking customers if they’d like fries with their burger. (More likely scenario is he’ll end up on the faculty of a fine institution of higher ignorance like Bob Jones or Oral Roberts university, and they’ll brag about the coup they scored in hiring him.)

  6. Joe says

    @negentropyeater (#5)

    Whoa, I did not call it pseudoscience. In the past, I have called it “science fiction.” They start with a fact, Jupiter exists, and make a just-so story about its necessity for life; and then assert that as a fact. Heinlein would be proud.

    In the beginning … Ward and Brownlee were urged-on by (then) stealth creationist GG to their feeble conclusion that “complex life” must be rare. Astronomers of my acquaintance consider that a joke. That would be a shame since their considerations of the requirements for developing a Solar-like stellar system elsewhere is interesting ang possible testable.

    Ridiculing W&B “would” be a shame, except that they produced another silly book about the future of life on Earth. I forget the title; but it is another example of extreme extrapolation coupled with unsupported assertions of fact. Thus, their position in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame may be assured.

  7. CalGeorge says

    Guillermo decided that the planet was designed for us.

    ISU decided that its faculty was not designed for Guillermo.

    All’s right with the world.

  8. Graculus says

    IIRC, the “rare earth” hypothesis was fairly respectable… in the 70’s.

    The basic quewstion was “why are we seemingly alone”. After all, Sol is a third generation star, and there’s plenty of habitable planets about (even if “habitable” is rare, there are bazillions of stars, after all). If life was relatively common, why hasn’t another intelligent race beaten us to the galactic civilization punch? Rare Earth hypotheses were an attempt to find some physical constraints, some scientific explaination for the observation that we are, in this corner of the universe, alone. It wasn’t (and still isn’t) bad science or pseudo-science out of the box.

    We have discovered some potential constraints (life doesn’t necessarily lead to intellignece, 1st and 2nd generation stars lack heavy elements, etc), but the question is still valid, if somewhat less interesting than it used to be.

    Which, of course, has nothing to do with GG’s IDiocy.

  9. N.Wells says

    I thought it might be useful to go over some of the more obscure aspects of promotion and tenure. It matters where a book is published (the reputation of Regnery, where “Privileged Planet” was published, is barely above a vanity press). It matters how much critical review a book got before publication, and how many book reviews it has received since, by whom, where, and what was said about it. Popular books and textbooks do count as accomplishments, but rarely anywhere near as much as scholarly books / monographs, and they may even be viewed as detrimental if they appear to replace refereed articles or scholarly monographs. In science, referreed journal articles count much more than articles in conference proceedings (except in computer sciences, apparently, because they require publication prior to obsolence). A few significant journal articles can easily count for more than a book, because books are not assumed to present new discoveries, unless that is specifically documented. Being first author or sole author on an article counts for a lot, because that usually means you provided the main idea, did the most work, and/or made the key discovery. (In some sciences, being last author is also a good thing, because it means you ran the lab and provided the money and maybe the basic idea for the research, whereas in other sciences, last means least.)

    Dollars in grants matter, but only for the money coming to your university. More particularly, where the grant comes from is very important (competitive federal dollars count a lot, whereas non-competitivc soft money such as from the D.I. count very little), and how much overhead is carried. The Templeton Prize money is whacky, not mainstream, and so counts for very little in a scientific field. Neither the Templeton money nor the DI money is likely to have carried overhead funds. Candidates gains points if they were principal investigator or co-principal investigator, rather than tagging along on someone else’s ride. The rationale for counting federal dollars so much higher is that those grants are highly competitive, so getting one constitutes external and independent validation of the person’s research.

    Promotion and tenure typically consider only output since the last promotion or hiring, although you can look farther back to look for a trajectory of productivity. Some evaluators will specifically exclude papers that that were already “in the pipeline” at the time of hiring.

    The trajectory of productivity during the evaluation can be far more important than the actual total output. Two trajectories look particularly awful: a decline over time, and nothing followed by a weak spurt right before evaluation. Consistent, continuous high output is best.

    Lastly, as noted elsewhere, academics are hired to work in specific areas and to contribute to the missions of the department and the university in specific ways. Although academics to a degree have a “license to stray”, they do so at their own peril if they stop contributing in the areas that justified their hiring. (If you switch areas and achieve grand success in the new area, all will likely be forgiven, but if your new work is regarded as poor and your conclusions remain tentative and unsupported, you’re dogmeat.) Whatever was entered on the paperwork at Gonzalez’s hiring, I’m pretty sure it didn’t say anything about contributing in the field of Intelligent Design.

  10. says

    Are there any good answers to the Fermi paradox? It is a very annoying question… Personally I’m hoping for hyper-intelligent, malicious, murdering robots. That would at least be interesting. For a very short while.

    And you’re welcome Moses. Shared misery is doubled misery, as they say :)

  11. Mike from Ottawa says

    “But somebody, be it a technician, a grad student, or a postdoc, has to be paid to collect data …”

    Data? Data? We don’t need no stinkin’ data.

  12. me says

    Anybody thinking about taking a tenure track, or who is early in such position, should print and frame what you’ve said and stick it right over their computer monitor at work.

  13. Ray S. says

    There’s plenty of info on the Fermi paradox; even Wikipedia has a useful intro to the issues and varied answers.

    I approach it a little differently. The crux of the paradox is the assumption that we’re mediocre as intelligent life forms go (perhaps influenced by people like Sherri Sheppard). Based on that assumption, other civilizations should predate ours. My question is, was there some equivalent Fermi, a member of the first intelligent civilization, who also postulated that they could not possibly be first?

    Another way to look at it, if we were to order all intelligent civilizations according to the date they first radiated radio signals, one was first, then another second and so on. Currently we are not aware of anyone earlier than us and there might not be. If we are first, we cannot infer that there will be no second. We have no idea yet how common life is in the universe and we have no idea how long a technological civilization might last. As someone said above, you can’t extrapolate from a single data point.

  14. Chuck C says

    I think Casey Luskin said it best:

    “Dr. Gonzalez is not teaching intelligent design in classes. The majority of his research is based on astronomy and cosmology. He has stellar reputation as cosmologist and astrologer. Why wouldn’t you want a great scientist like that on your staff?” Luskin said.

    (emphasis mine) :-)

  15. says

    The DI claims not much money is needed to do astronomy research, simply on a computer to crunch numbers (which is laughable as typically universities provide some computers to their professors).

    No telescope time?

    If astronomy research were that easy, why don’t we see more ID-friendly astro-cosmomilogical papers coming out of the Discoverup Institute?

  16. MartinM says

    I think Casey Luskin said it best

    Sadly turns out to be a typo made by the journalist who reported it, according to PT.

  17. says

    I will allow that the DI and the rest of the IDiots have some small complaint over the ISU claim that ID had nothing essential to do with Gonzalez’s failure to obtain tenure. There were obviously plenty of other reasons (scientific interest and effort seem to disappear in all IDists), but they’d have done much better to have said, ‘of course his being an IDist was a significant negative in the Gonzalez case.’

    No doubt they didn’t wish to make such a declaration because of potential controversy, but I suspect they’d have less controversy now if they’d simply related the facts as they obviously were, that Gonzalez wasn’t passed over simply due to ID, but, quite properly, pushing ID (including his own fuzzy “observability” nonsense) is considered to be opposed to the mission of both science and the university, and therefore quite unwelcome in a professor.

    Glen D

  18. Chuck C says

    Sadly turns out to be a typo made by the journalist who reported it, according to PT.

    Bummer. should known that was too good to be true.

  19. Jim says

    ngong wrote “The unspoken underlying idea, I guess, is that God wants you to admire his work, so he won’t seed life in places where that’s difficult to do.”

    I think the underlying idea is deeper than that. From the creationist viewpoint Earth must be the only planet in the universe with intelligent life in order to validate the Adam and Eve sinned/ Jesus saved us scenario. If intelligent life is common elsewhere, then Earth and Jesus become just footnotes in the universe.

    So creationists search for anything which makes the Earth unique and central to intelligent life. This of course is the exact opposite of science. It is assuming the conclusion based on religion, then cherry picking the data to support it.

  20. mothra says

    The ‘great’ thing about the Rare Earth hypothesis is that even the facts do not add up. Sure, Jupiter took multiple hits by Shoemaker-Levy-9 which would probably have annihilated multicellular life on Earth. But, Jovian planets in general bend trajectories of cosmic objects in a more normal path with respect to the sun which would increase the likely hood of collisions with inner planets. Cheap imperfect analogy using multiple trials: is one more likely to be squished by a car while crossing I 90 near Murdo, South Dakota, or while crossing LaSalle Ave. at Adams street twice in downtown Chicago? [ :)K

  21. Physicalist says

    N.Wells (#12): Great post. Useful both for those who aren’t familiar with academia, and for those who are (or will be) working to get tenure. Nice!

  22. raven says

    The problem with the Privileged Planet is that it is just a form of the anthropic principle and doesn’t prove anything. Some astronomers argue that for a stable, long lived biosphere, red dwarves, the most common star type in the galaxy, would last much longer.

    You could just as easily write a Gonzalez type book called the Unlucky Planet. I’m expecting tenure at ISU any day now.

    crosspost from PT:
    Is there overwhelming Astronomical evidence that our planet is not privileged? No. So please enlighten.

    The answer is probably Yes. Real astronomers have found that the nearest spiral galaxy, Andromeda will collide with the Milky Way in 2 billion years. Rather unusual.

    1. The universe is getting old. It is expanding and the rate of expansion seems to be increasing, Dark Energy.

    2. How often do 2 spiral galaxies collide in this day and age. At 13.7 billion years, this is a rare event. Which will be getting rarer in time as the universe expands.

    The outcome of 2 of the largest objects known colliding is speculative. But we know there will be many high energy gravitational, nuclear, and EM events. This could have serious negative consquences for us or our descendants. Some say we won’t be around 2 billion years from now. Some say the galaxy appears empty and our progeny could own it all. No one knows.

    But really, what is so privileged about being stuck in the middle of one of the largest collisions in the history of the whole universe?

    Someone could write a book called Unlucky Planet and be just as convincing as Gonzalez was.

  23. negentropyeater says

    Jim #26,

    what makes you think that Gonzalez is that kind of creationist ? There’s quite a number of Astronomers, Astrophysicists, Cosmologists that are theist (remember Lemaître ?) and I don’t know many of them who would say that finding intelligent life elsewhere would invalidate their belief.

  24. Pablo says

    Blake Stacey wrote:
    “No telescope time?”

    I had looked at the guy’s CV at one point, and this is the part that struck me: where is the telescope time?

    Getting enough funding to support personnel costs is one thing (he didn’t have that, either). But IIRC, the only telescope time they guy had was some shared time with his old labmates back at Washington.

    “The DI claims not much money is needed to do astronomy research”


    Good gravy, what audicity. Besides, what the hell do they know about what it takes to do research?

  25. MS says

    I certainly do not have the expertise in the field to have a truly informed opinion about this tenure decision, but I would imagine that at most serious research universities, bringing in 1/10 of the grant money as your colleagues would be sufficient in and of itself to deny tenure (fortunately my own discipline is more forgiving: there just aren’t million dollar grants for composers; $10,000 is a big deal).

    I would also point out that many people (including some friends of mine) have gone on to perfectly decent careers after a denial of tenure. My first appointment was a disaster: some of it was my fault, some of it was theirs, but bottom line, the job and I were not a good fit. I left after just two years. It was VERY difficult at the time, but I’m now a tenured full professor, making way more money than I would have made if I had stayed at the first school, in a department that is at least the peer of the one I left (and in a much more interesting place to live).

    However, regardless of whether or not he gets his act together I suspect Dr. Gonzaléz is never going to get a position anyplace other than at a small, explicitly fundamentalist college (I’m sure mainstream religious colleges like Baylor wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole). Even if his position had merit, NOBODY wants to hire someone who sued his or her last employer, and particularly in such a public and acrimonious fashion. Who needs the drama? I don’t know how crowded a field his is, but in mine any decent job gets 100-200 applications, of whom the vast majority have at least the stated minimum requirements. If you can take your pick, why pick someone with a reputation for not bringing home the bacon, embarassing his university, and then suing?

  26. negentropyeater says

    N. Wells (#12) : isn’t what you are describing a process that has limits ? First, it’s, I’m sorry, very American. I think in UK, France, and Germany for example, young scientists are more encouraged to undertake in their pre-tenure research, out-of-the-box ideas. Would Darwin, Einstein, Mendel just to name a few have succeeded to work on what they did in a pre-tenure job, if they had followed these limitations ?

  27. dkary says

    Just a quick response to raven (#29). While the MW and M31 are going to collide in the next couple of billion years, this is not that unusual. Collisions are one of the most important processes in galactic evolution, and almost any large cluster of galaxies has examples of these happening in the “current” (within the last billion years) universe.

    As for the effects, the most likey occurence is that our star will wind up in a very different orbit around the merged MW/M31 system. Of course, during the star-burst phase of the merger we would stand a pretty good chance of having nearby supernovas to contend with, but on these timescales the evolution of our own start will become an issue. My understanding is that within about a billion years the Sun’s luminosity should get large enough that the Earth’s own feedback systems will no longer will be able to control it, and the oceans should then start going into rapid evaporation and/or boiling. By that point, squid-kind will have to find some other habitable planet anyways.

  28. raven says

    Just a quick response to raven (#29). While the MW and M31 are going to collide in the next couple of billion years, this is not that unusual.

    I know that current models of galaxy formation involve collisions of smaller galaxies to make larger ones. Our galaxy is already large and is eating dwarf galaxies as I type. But how frequent is “not that unusual”. The numbers might exist but where and what they are is not obvious to a nonspecialist. Is the frequency of 2 spirals colliding at 13.7 Byr 1% or 50%. I suspect the lower number but am really just guessing based on eyeballing a few Hubble deep space survey photos and IANAA. At any rate as the universe expands these events will become ever fewer.

    The standard solar model implies that in 1-2 billion years, the sun will be too hot for us. Recent claims are that this is too optimistic and in 100 million years we might enter a runaway greenhouse. And a few billion years later, the sun will blow up. That is another chapter for the Unlucky Planet. This is why some astronomers say that long lived and common red dwarves would be better for a long lived, stable biosphere.

    I’m assuming that we or our decendants are in it for the long haul. If the galaxy is empty as it could be, we might well own it all when the spirals hit the fan. No one knows but that is what optimism is for.

    My point wasn’t that the Unlucky Planet (or Doomed Planet) wasn’t going to be a great addition to astronomy. It was that it was going to be as valid and convincing as the Privileged Planet. Which is to say, not much. LOL

  29. negentropyeater says


    Doomed Planet is worse than Privileged Planet.

    Demonstration :

    we do not know, today, of one planet that is more “priviledged” so far, than ours. (doesn’t mean that there aren’t many, we just don’t know of one)

    we do know today, of many planets that are more doomed , so far, than ours.

    Ok or not ok ?

  30. Joe says

    negentropyeater #34

    Misguided, again. The contributions of Darwin and Einstein were recognized shortly after they published. Mendel, somehow, was simply not noticed; although, if he had been, the facts of his work would have been obvious.

    It is not a matter of GG doing work that nobody understands nor appreciates; we understand and appreciate that it is mere theology; and not worthy of an appointment in a science department.

    You may argue that science has resisted change before; but GG is clearly not offering science.

  31. Sastra, OM says

    So everything had to come together just right for fragile carbon-based biology to survive, because of course not even God could help living things survive otherwise — hell, that would take a miracle!

    And we are on an Unlucky Planet — because of its history and circumstances, Earth just cannot support indestructible crystalline silicon Thought Forms, which are able to warp reality through Intergalactic Intentional Vibrations and can experience 18 levels of bliss. Damn.

  32. raven says

    Ok or not ok ?

    Whatever you prefer. When you see endless controversies in science it means that there is not enough relevant data to end them. So people just go in circles and repeat themselves. I’m out of time on this circle. Privileged Planet is just speculation and that probably has some merit. But one doesn’t make a scientific career out of speculation that can be neither proved nor disproved.

    I gave my reasoning above and it is clear and based on what data we have. If you don’t want to read Unlucky Planet and see the movie adaption, Doomed Planet, it is OK. LOL

  33. negentropyeater says

    Joe, my post#34 was a comment in response to N.Wells’ very interesting and more general description of the American tenure process.
    It was not refering to GG’s issue, which as I explained, relates mainly to his strategic mistake to write a vulgarization book on, in my view, a perfectly acceptable teleological subject, instead of focusing his efforts on scientific endeavours.
    I suggested that he could have, instead, focussed his efforts on trying to develop further the rare earth hypothesis, which, in my view does constitutes science, even if speculative. Being an Astronomer, he could have focussed on the particular apects which relate to that field.
    Afterall, it is a question, that, I guess many people have, are we a rare planet ? (define rare, in terms of what, which criterias, which areas of observations should we focus on in order to help answer the questions).

    Of course, if you start first with, “we are a rare planet” before even suggesting a method to answer the question, that’s bogus.
    And if you start by saying, “we are not only rare, but someone priviledged earth”, that’s religion.
    But asking a precisely defined question and defining a method to try and answer it, why not ? If he can get grants and publications with it as a subject what’s the problem ?

  34. James Hanley says

    First, it’s, I’m sorry, very American. I think in UK, France, and Germany

    Yawn. It’s “very American,” so therefore it’s bad. Whereas in Europe…

    Sorry, that post didn’t rise above simple Eurocentric jingoism. America is far from perfect, even in academia, but the negative contrast with Europe is so trite, so predictable, and so pointless.

    Just as dumbass neoconservatives in the U.S. assume everything American is superior to everything European, so shallow folks across the pond and their sympathizers here think everything European is superior to everything American. Or, to sum up, your thought process doesn’t really differ from George Bush’s, you just begin at different premises.

  35. Graculus says

    Sure, Jupiter took multiple hits by Shoemaker-Levy-9 which would probably have annihilated multicellular life on Earth. But, Jovian planets in general bend trajectories of cosmic objects in a more normal path with respect to the sun which would increase the likely hood of collisions with inner planets.

    Actually, if you removed the capitals and go back to the 70s… one of the hypothesis is that having more frequent impacts to empty a lot of niches was one of the factors that was bruted about. A “rare earth” hypothesis that is actually the opposite of the “Rare Earth” hypothesis.

    The fact is that we are alone in our little corner. Maybe it’s just because we are on the wrong side of the galactic tracks, maybe it’s just plain luck, or maybe we are among the first… but it’s still a question that science can legitimately ask.

    As for the Fermi Paradox… A few years ago Scientific American had a pretty good article on “is there anybody out there?”. Taking the speed of light as an absolute barrier, and positing interstellar travel at only 1/3 c (something that is foreseeable even to us), and also positing that each colony would have to be established for at least 50 years before being able to make the next jump, a civilization would have every habitable planet in the galaxy colonized within 2.5 million years. So, if we aren’t the first, then we are no more than a million or so years behind the leaders.

    Of course, the brothers Strugatsky (in Definitely Maybe) put forth a hypothesis that would explain why no civilization has ever reached this point. The Homeostatic Universe, where, whenever a species gets uppity enough to actually get ahead of entropy, the universe smacks them down.

  36. negentropyeater says

    James #43, point granted. I guess I overreacted. Both systems have pro and cons.
    I agree that there is too much American bashing. Not always deserved, but quite symptomatic.

  37. dkary says

    Raven asks an interesting question: how common are collisions between big galaxies like ours. Alas, I can’t claim to have the numbers to hand (maybe some of the folks over in Phil’s neighborhood can help us out with this one), but I can say that how common it is depends on where you are. Near the centers of big clusters they are far more common than out in a small grouping like ours, and still less common in a spaces between the groups.

    However, it’s important to remember that expansion of the universe is something that is more important to the spaces between clusters and groups rather than within them. The mutual gravity of the galaxies in a group like ours overwhelms the expansion, which is why we’re headed towards M31 regardless of what the rest of the universe is up to.

    Of course, our time here is limited anyways do to changes in our star. As raven points out, long lived red dwarf stars do have some real advantages over G stars like our Sun. Now, if it wasn’t for those pesky flares and the fact that you have to get really close before you get much heat from them.