Dawkins on Gaskell

Richard Dawkins takes a slightly harder line than I do on the case of Gaskell, the astronomer who didn’t get a job because his potential employers objected to his faith-based mangling of evolutionary biology. Dawkins regards that as entirely justifiable, and makes a good case.

A commentator on a website discussing the Gaskell affair went so far as to write, “If Gaskell has produced sound, peer-reviewed literature of high quality then I see no reason for denying him the position, even if he believes Mars is the egg of a giant purple Mongoose”. That commentator probably felt rather pleased with his imagery, but I don’t believe he could seriously defend the point he makes with it and I hope most of my readers would not follow him. There are at least some imaginable circumstances in which most sensible people would practise negative discrimination.

If you disagree, I offer the following argument. Even if a doctor’s belief in the stork theory of reproduction is technically irrelevant to his competence as an eye surgeon, it tells you something about him. It is revealing. It is relevant in a general way to whether we would wish him to treat us or teach us. A patient could reasonably shrink from entrusting her eyes to a doctor whose beliefs (admittedly in the apparently unrelated field of obstetrics) are so cataclysmically disconnected from reality. And a student could reasonably object to being taught geography by a professor who is prepared to take a salary to teach, however brilliantly, what he believes is a lie. I think those are good grounds to impugn his moral character if not his sanity, and a student would be wise to avoid his classes.

That’s all true. We’ve got a new wave of creationists like Wells and Ross who are going through the motions of graduate programs to earn degrees in subjects they intend only to repudiate, who basically lie their way through a program of advanced study, and I wouldn’t want to hire them or even trust them. Marcus Ross, for instance, wrote a whole thesis on Cretaceous paleontology while publicly professing at creationist meetings that the earth is less than 10,000 years old — who in their right mind would hire such a confused and deceptive fellow for a job which involves regularly dealing with geologic ages?

These aren’t minor, scientific disagreements, like hiring a paleontologist who emphasizes punctuated equilibrium or neutral theory in his analysis; those are legitimate scientific issues that will be resolved with evidence. These are people who throw out the evidence in favor of their religious dogma, and they are about as anti-scientific as you can get.

We’re about to re-open a search for a tenure-track position at my university. If Jonathan Wells applied, how far do you think he’d get in the review? We’d examine his application with the same impartial eye we do all the others, but the fact that he has demonstrated his incompetence in biology in his books and public speaking events, and has a known malicious intent to ‘destroy Darwinism’ means it would be round-filed very early in the process—and if you were privy to committee comments during the review, they’d probably involve lots of incredulous expletives. Would that be discrimination? I don’t think so. He’s patently unsuitable for the job.

On the other hand, many of the applicants to our position would likely be Christian with varying degrees of devotion — but if their work, the basis for hiring that person, showed no attempt to shoehorn personal and private ideas that I, for instance, find ridiculous, into their science, then it wouldn’t be an issue. Christians believe in something as absurd as the purple mongoose egg theory, this whole bizarre notion of incarnated gods dying to magically redeem us from a distant ancestor’s dietary error, but good scientists are capable of switching that nonsense off entirely in the lab, and are also aware of the impact on their credibility of espousing folly…if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be good scientists (or they’re Nobel prize winners who know they can get away with it now).

We have to be careful about letting personal disagreements on matters of taste intrude on our decisions; if the person has been circumspect about keeping them from poisoning a body of good work, I’m willing to accommodate them. The alternative is that we start rejecting applicants because we discover that they listen to 70s hair metal bands while they work, are fans of the New York Yankees, or put milk in their teacup before they add the hot water, all irrational and unforgiveable heresies. It’s all fine unless they join a Poison tribute band and start slopping dairy products about with manic abandon.