Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A second helping of banana pudding...

And following right on the heels of my last post, I read today that there is a controversy forming around Martin Gaskell, an astronomer who claims that he was denied a post as the director of an observatory at the University of Kentucky because he doesn't believe in evolution.

Gaskell, who is known (among other things) for giving a lecture called "Modern Astronomy, the Bible, and Creation," is quoted as saying that the theory of evolution has "significant scientific problems" and includes "unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations." However, now that his views have come into the public spotlight, he seems to be backpedaling like mad, and has made statements that he is "not a creationist," and that the assertions of people who claim that the earth is only a few thousand years old are based upon "very poor science."

I find even that statement inaccurate -- the claim that the earth is only a few thousand years old isn't based upon science at all.  But we'll let that go by.

What I think is rather extraordinary about this man is how he wants it both ways.  He clearly has beliefs that run contrary to the views held by the vast majority of scientists, and yet he wants those same scientists to take him seriously.  "Wait," some of you may be saying, "there have been other scientists whose views were considered heretical at the time, who went against the mainstream views of their peers, and who were vindicated in the end."  That is certainly true.  The most famous of these, Alfred Wegener, who described continental drift long before the modern theory of plate tectonics was developed, was in fact so vilified by his peers that he assuaged his despair by joining an expedition to the arctic, and promptly froze to death in Greenland.

The difference between Wegener and Gaskell is that in Wegener's time, the actual evidential support for plate movement -- especially deep-sea magnetometer data -- was unavailable.  Wegener's ideas were solely based upon the shapes of the continents and the geologic similarity in mountain ranges on opposite sides of the Atlantic.  This was suggestive, certainly; and in hindsight, he proved to be correct.  But at the time he had no idea of the mechanism involved, and when asked by his fellow geologists how continents could move in solid rock, he said, "I dunno, beats the hell outta me."  (Well, he probably didn't say exactly that, but that was the gist.)  In the case of evolution, on the other hand, we have a model that explains the phenomenon elegantly and simply, an understood mechanism by which it works, mountains of evidence from every branch of biology, and exactly no evidence that supports any of the competing theories.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the death of Darwinian theory have proven to be great exaggerations.  A scientist who disbelieves in evolution today is not a maverick who is steadfastly bucking the tide of conventional thought and championing a contrary model; (s)he is ignoring one of the most completely researched and thoroughly understood ideas in all of science.  As I've said before, we know far more about the mechanisms involved in evolution than we do about those involved in gravitation -- and no one is going around saying "gravity is just a theory" and expecting that one day it'll all prove to be a great big lie, and we'll all begin to float.

I find it a little ridiculous that Gaskell thinks his being bypassed for a job as director of an observatory is unfair, when he apparently takes the biblical creation story literally (whatever his statements to the contrary, his writings and lectures make his views fairly clear).  How on earth could he be expected to fulfill his role as director of an observatory when his opinions on the origins of the universe run clear contrary to those of 99% of working astronomers?

Perhaps turning the situation around will illustrate the point. 

Suppose I were to apply for a job as a Christian minister.  (Stop laughing, it's just a thought experiment.  Just play along, okay?)  I go to the interview by the church committee, and in answering their questions it comes out that I'm an atheist.

The committee then recommends against hiring me, of course.  Would I be within my rights to claim discrimination?  How dare they refuse to offer me the job based upon my beliefs?  Of all the nerve!

It's really the same thing, but Gaskell, of course, doesn't seem to see it that way.  His attitude is that his beliefs should have no bearing on his qualification for the job of observatory director.  I think he is very far wrong about that.  You cannot fulfill your role as the director of a major science institution -- which includes the responsibilities of education and outreach -- if you disbelieve in a fundamental part of the science, and therefore in the role of evidence in establishing scientific theories.  Once again -- you are free to believe the earth is filled with banana pudding, but don't complain if you don't get hired as chairman of the geology department.

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