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Gaskell vs. UK #4: Martin Gaskell on “The Gaskell Affair” (Guest Blog)

{Note by RJW:  I am delighted to have my first guest post by none other than Martin Gaskell. It seems appropriate with the time spent by this blog on the case to give Martin himself a chance to offer some commentary. I am grateful for his willingness to share his thoughts here.}

Now that the Gaskell v. University of Kentucky religious discrimination lawsuit over the 2007 search for a director of the MacAdam Observatory of the University of Kentucky (see posts 1, 2, and 3) has been amicably resolved to the satisfaction of both parties, I am free to talk about the case and related topics. There have been many blogs and tens of thousands of online comments about this. Addressing every point raised would be an overwhelming task, so here I just want to address what seems to be the biggest and most critical misunderstanding: my views on biological evolution.

I don’t give lectures on biological evolution
On January 21, the DailyTech blog said, “Martin Gaskell … has a keen interest in music. But reports of his keen interest in disproving evolution were grossly exaggerated.” I would put it even more strongly than that:  I don’t even have any interest in evolution! In fact, I don’t have any interest in biology at all (or chemistry either—sorry Robb!). {No problem, MartinRJW}.  If you look at a list of my publications, you simply won’t find any papers on biology (In the interests of full disclosure, however, I do have to admit that you will find a passing reference to some biological processes in this paper). Since I have no interest in biology I do not go around the country giving talks on evolution. The University of Kentucky (UK) statements about this have been misleading. For example, on January 11, their official spokesman, Jay Blanton, stated, “Dr. Gaskell’s public comments on biological evolution were well-known to the university community at the time of his interviews for the position. He had lectured on the topic at UK several years ago.” In fact, I have never given a lecture on the topic of biological evolution anywhere. The only public lecture I had given at the University of Kentucky (a lecture on astronomy and the Bible) had been 13 years earlier.  Not only have I never given any talks on biology, I’ve never been asked to give one, and I would decline if asked. Why would anyone want an astronomer to give a lecture on biology? If some group wants a lecture on biology and the Bible they will ask a Christian biologist.

I do have a standard talk I have given from time to time with the title “Modern Astronomy, the Bible, and Creation.” My lecture notes for this are available online. Unfortunately many people have been commenting on the case without actually reading what is in the lecture and what my views are. If you are interested in Gaskell v. University of Kentucky, do please read all of my notes in order to see what I actually say and to get everything in context. If you do this you should realize that biology gets minimal mention. There are just under 10,000 words in the lecture notes, and less than 200 of these have been evoked to try to argue to I am “anti-evolution”. That’s only 2% of the notes.

I don’t think that there are “major flaws” in evolutionary theory
Let’s look at the two most discussed passages in my lecture notes. The first is:

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.

This has been misquoted as me saying that there are “major flaws” in evolutionary theory.  The phrase I actually use, “significant problems”, is quite different from “major flaws”. In science, a “problem” is something to be solved. We scientists like problems!  As Robb said in a previous post, when a teacher assigns the problems at the end of a chapter this does not mean that the chapter is wrong! I had inserted my parenthetical remark about the existence of problems in evolutionary theory being “a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job” to try to make it clear what I meant by problems:  I meant the things that biologists and geologists get paid to work on. I have often served on panels for agencies such as NASA or the National Science Foundation to advise these agencies which research they should support. I’ve never seen a proposal for research in an area in which it was claimed that there are no problems or the problems were insignificant. Such research just wouldn’t get supported. Proposers go out of their way to demonstrate why their interests help solve significant problems.

In nearly every field, problems are bigger than they are made out to be in introductory courses. This should cause no surprise; it is not something unique to evolutionary theory. It is important to let students and the public know that there is uncertainty in science.

Rather than having my astronomer’s view on whether there are problems in evolutionary theory, let’s see what Dr. James Krupa, Associate Professor of Biology at UK, said when asked under oath about my statement above. Dr. Krupa works in the UK ecology and evolutionary biology group.

Q. Are there problems in evolutionary theory that remain to be resolved?
A. All science is continuing to answer more questions. That will happen in any branch of science forever. So when one -- if one claims that all issues in nature are now answered by evolutionary theory, we're still answering.
Q. So there are still problems to be solved in evolutionary theory?
A. Yes.

Notice that he says “all science” and “any branch of science”. He’s quite confident in saying that there are questions to answer in fields in which he does not work.

Let’s look at the other passage brought up as evidence for my supposed “anti-evolution” views:

… it should be realized that, despite some popular claims to the contrary, science has no satisfactory explanation of the origins of life yet. Note that the question of the origin of life is a separate problem from the question of the validity of some theories of evolution.

Anyone thinking that science already has a satisfactory explanation of the origins of life merely needs to look at the Wikipedia article on abiogenesis. (Wikipedia does not, of course, always give a reliable perspective on issues but it does at least provide a readily accessible place to start reading.)  Dr. Krupa was also asked about the passage just quoted. He replied “that is correct” and “research on origins of life is a separate research area from evolution … so that is correct.”

Another thing that has been brought up from my lecture notes is that I refer to books written by members of what is called the “Intelligent Design” movement (note the capitals). Here is what I say in my notes:

A discussion of the current controversies over evolutionary theory and how Christians view these controversies, is beyond the scope of this handout, but the now extensive literature discussing and reviewing books such as those of Phillip E. Johnson (“Darwin on Trial”) and of biochemist Michael J. Behe (“Darwin's Black Box”) will give you some of the flavor of the diversity of opinion of Christian biologists (and geologists).

The problem is that a number of people are focusing on what I refer to, rather than how I refer to them. The “how” is important. The thing to note here is that I refer to the literature discussing and reviewing the books. That is quite different from endorsing everything in a book. I am frequently asked questions about things in my field by fellow researchers. I will commonly give an answer such as “that was shown by Joe Doe in 1982”. That does not mean that I am endorsing everything Joe Doe says in his 1982 paper.

My views on biological evolution
My own views on the evidence for evolution should be obvious from my lecture notes. I state clearly that

The evidence is very good (and gets stronger every year) that all life on earth descended (i.e., evolved from) from a common origin.

Dr. Krupa was asked about the statement.

Q. And is it correct to say that the evidence is very good and gets stronger every year that all life on earth descended; i.e., evolved from a common origin?
A. All evidence right now indicates common origin.

I also very clearly state my own personal opinion of evolutionary theory:

I personally have no theological problem with the idea of God doing things in the ways described in modern theories of evolution.

Here is what Dr. Krupa said when asked about this:

Q. What do you think of this remark where he says, "This is probably a good place to state that I personally have no theological problem with the idea of God doing things in the ways described in modern theories of evolution"?
A. That is the views [sic] of those that consider themselves a theistic evolution [sic], and that's fine by me.
Q. And is that different from creationism?
A. It is different, yes. So all the denominations, Christian denominations in this country who accept evolution would classify themselves as theistic evolution [sic]. So they can accept the science of evolution and they can believe in God.
Q. So in this remark you would have no problems with Dr. Gaskell?
A. I have no problems with this comment.

Notice two things here. First, notice what Dr. Krupa says about my position of “theistic evolution”. He says, “that’s fine by me.” Then notice that states that it is different from creationism. (i.e., he is confirming that my viewpoint is not that of a creationist)

The chairman of the UK department of biology said I was not anti-evolution and did not identify any biological conclusions that he disputed, nor any deficiencies in my understanding of the scientific method.
The chairman of the UK biology department, biochemist Dr. Sheldon Steiner, reinforced this when he was asked under oath:

Q.  Dr. Steiner, at the time that you read this [the lecture notes], I believe you said that you didn’t think that Dr. Gaskell was antievolution; is that correct?
A.  That’s correct.

Furthermore Dr. Steiner was asked “And what scientific biological conclusions, if any, does Dr. Gaskell reach in this paper that you dispute?” He failed to identify a single one.

Dr. Steiner was also asked “Is there anything in [the lecture notes] notes which indicates that Dr. Gaskell does not appreciate or understand or has deficiencies in the scientific method?” He did not identify anything.

The director of the main anti-creationist organization in the US said that I was not anti-evolution and could be a good person for the University of Kentucky directorship
The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is a non-profit organization based in Oakland, California, which describes itself as “the premier institution dedicated to keeping science in the classroom and creationism out.” Based on information on their website, the NCSE considers theistic evolution an acceptable view. The NCSE director is Dr. Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist by training. She was told by the chairman of the UK search committee about the UK biologists’ opposition to hiring me. She was asked about my views and referred to my lecture notes. After reading the notes and investigating me further, Dr. Scott wrote that I was “accepting of evolution” and furthermore that I “could be a good person for the job.”

My 1997 lecture at UK was at the invitation of the Physics and Astronomy Department
Something that has not been widely realized in all the recent discussion about the lawsuit is that my 1997 University of Kentucky public lecture on astronomy and the Bible was at the invitation of the Physics and Astronomy Department. Some members of the department had read my lecture notes in 1996 or 1997, and, on the basis of these, decided to invite me because they thought my perspective on science and Christianity would be a worthwhile one for people to hear.

The University of Kentucky had my lecture notes on a class web site.
I put my lecture notes on my own personal web page, never on a server at my then current university. However, UK astronomy professor, Dr. Gary Ferland, put my lecture notes on a UK class website.  When asked about this under oath he said:

A. I put it on my class website. I said that there is no conflict between science and religion. This is an example of a very deeply religious person who is a respected astronomer, and he had provided this file which I had posted. So I wouldn't -- I mean if there were anything -- if there were anything blatantly wrong, I would not have put it on my website.
Q. And when you say blatantly wrong, would that include denying the validity of the theory of evolution?
A. If he had left mainstream science, I certainly would not have put it on the website.

Some closing thoughts
The fuss over my views on biological evolution is strange because, as I said above, biology is not a subject that interests me. In my talks on Genesis when I get to the verses on biology I always joke (as I do in my lecture notes) “Yuk! Biology!”

A lesson from all this is: read things carefully and don’t jump to conclusions. If you hear something outrageous sounding about someone, check up on it. Prior to and during the Kentucky observatory director job search, one astronomer at UK had been telling people that Alan Sandage (one of the most famous astronomers of our time) and I both believed God had made life on the earth only 8,000 years ago. The UK astronomer could have sent both Alan Sandage and me a one-line e-mail asking whether this was true. I would have straightened him out in one word: “no!” Sandage was a Christian, but, like me, he did not believe God created life only 8,000 years ago either. This came up a dinner I and others had with Sandage some twenty years ago and Sandage was quite annoyed about people believing such things. The same mistaken UK astronomer also believed that the most prominent astronomer in another country believed in UFO conspiracies. I simply e-mailed the purported UFO believer and asked him if this were true. It was not. In fact, he had co-authored a book in his native language saying there was no evidence that the earth had ever been visited by UFOs.

Although I don’t work on evolutionary biology myself, I married into a family that does. My father-in-law was the famous marine biologist and naturalist Kenneth Norris (to get a perspective on what he was like, I highly recommend his recently published last book, Mountain Time). Ken read over and commented on my lecture notes. My wife, Barbara, was trained as a micropaleontologist and my brother-in-law, Richard Norris, was a graduate student of the famous Harvard evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould. Dick is now an internationally known professor of paleobiology at the Scripps Institution, UCSD.  He works on large-scale evolutionary trends and the mode of species formation.  If I were claiming that all those dead critters in my wife’s thesis or that my brother-in-law studies were only 8,000 years old I wouldn’t just be having scientific problems—I’d be having marital problems!

SDG

8 comments:

  1. So what exactly is meant by " but the real problem with humanistic evolution is in the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations."..?

    'Unwarranted atheistic assumptions'..? What exactly is 'unwarranted' about NOT instantly assuming that 'god' (for which there is absolutely ZERO evidence) did everything?

    Sounds like a creationist talking to me. You have no business teaching science if you believe in the supernatural and have a problem with people who don't.

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  2. "Although I don’t work on evolutionary biology myself, I married into a family that does. "

    I bet you have black friends, too?

    phht.

    your protestations ring hollow.

    I read ALL the emails that were potential exhibits. NONE of them, other than the hysterical accusations of the chairman himself, suggested the reason you were refused the job had to do with you being a christian.

    none.

    the media stating you were the leading candidate appears to be an outright lie as well. None of the committee, again, excepting the chair, thought of you as the leading candidate going into the final meeting; most indicated there was another person more suited to the outreach position.

    You modified your original lecture notes that were available online, though fortunately many of us cached the original. Why would you do that if you had nothing to hide?

    In my view, you took advantage of a REALLY stupid thing the committee chair at UK did to basically extort UK for cash. I suspect the chair even suggested that you do so!

    I understand times are tough, and you really never managed to get your shot at a faculty position in the US (which, by your publication record, you really should have gotten; unless there were other issues involved), and even flubbed THIS interview for a simple staff position, but seriously, you basically blackballed yourself at any uni in the US.

    for WHAT? really, I want to know. was it just for the money? Was it enough to start a new life in Chile?

    I weep for the loss and damage you caused with this. You set the stage for others to extort money from unis with similar fake religious persecution.

    I really do hope you can somehow manage to keep contributing to your prodigious researches in astronomy, as it is the only thing left of value you could possibly contribute to science and humanity as a whole, but I'm sure this episode will create quite a dent in your future publication record.

    sad to say, but you will face ten times the discrimination NOW, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with your religion, just as you not getting the staff position at UK had nothing whatsoever to do with it, either.

    I do hope you aren't relegated to publishing astronomical observations in of all things, Rivista di Biologia!

    *shakes head sadly*

    what a waste.

    you've actually set BACK any reasoned discussion of the compatibility of science and religion.

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  3. In brief reply to Anonymous 2:

    You're entitled to your own opinion on this, but I feel obliged to point out a few things:

    "I read ALL the emails that were potential exhibits. NONE of them, other than the hysterical accusations of the chairman himself, suggested the reason you were refused the job had to do with you being a christian." - a significant number of lawyers would disagree. Most of the legal authorities I've heard thought he would win the case.

    "You modified your original lecture notes that were available online . . . why would you do that if you had nothing to hide?" - Because he changed his opinion? Seriously, expecting someone to stubbornly stick to a single theory their entire life is extremely unscientific. (For the record, the changes to the notes were made *before* the incident occurred.)

    "for WHAT?" - I believe he has stated several times that he wanted to bring religious discrimination in academia to the attention of the media.

    "I'm sure this episode will create quite a dent in your future publication record" - looks like he's published quite a bit since the "episode", actually.

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  4. - a significant number of lawyers would disagree.

    ...because they made money by doing so.

    are you seriously citing a lawyer on an authority on anything but basic law?

    that's a dangerous precedent for anyone to take. I truly hope you aren't really that gullible.

    Most of the legal authorities I've heard thought he would win the case.

    which, of course, is entirely irrelevant to whether the case was an honest one or not.

    did YOU read the emails?

    Because he changed his opinion?

    well, he certainly had nowhere to go but up, but if he did, then it would have to be he changed his religion too, in which case what IS his religion, exactly? It can't be Christianity, because nowhere in any of the emails is that word even mentioned.

    Seriously, expecting someone to stubbornly stick to a single theory their entire life is extremely unscientific.

    it wasn't a theory, it was a grossly ignorant opinion. I'm guessing you never read those notes, either.

    I believe he has stated several times that he wanted to bring religious discrimination in academia to the attention of the media.

    ...and then run off to Chile with the cash.

    uh huh.

    again, are you really this gullible?

    looks like he's published quite a bit since the "episode", actually.

    I doubt you will believe me, because YOU aren't a scientist, but I'm glad to hear it. I have seen real discrimation in academia, and it rarely takes the form of religious discrimination. Filing false establishment clause lawsuits to make a uni look bad though? that stuff typically has serious repercussions. I mean, seriously, think about it: say you were a software engineer with Microsoft, and you tried to sue the company for refusing to accept a bit of programming you wrote because it contained irrelevant references to God in the code. Even if you won the lawsuit, just how open do you think the hiring door would be for you as a software programmer after that?

    Seriously, if you have doubts about what I say, read those emails for yourself, they are available online at the National Center for Science Education, right here:

    http://ncse.com/creationism/legal/c-martin-gaskell-v-university-kentucky

    It won't take you more than an hour to pour through most of them.

    Gaskell is lying. flat out.

    and you believe him, obviously, but why?

    why do you believe him?

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  5. here is more information for you to digest:

    Gaskell has a bit of a history as an abrasive personality that doesn't play well with others:

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/12/martin_gaskell_was_not_expelle.php#comment-3003617

    So there's one thing that WAS an actual factor in rejecting him for an outreach position, and it is actually noted in the emails as well.

    Did you know that Martin was the adviser for the Intelligent Design Club at Nebraska?

    In his original lecture notes Martin explicitly thinks that the Book of Genesis is needed to round out the theory of evolution.

    so is that a religious, or practical, consideration when looking to hire someone for a job in SCIENCE outreach, do you think?

    If Gaskell, as he claims, thought there were problems in the theory of evolution, why didn't he specify them? Things like deciding which species concept to use are still even controversial, but hardly secret or complicated to understand. Yet, he didn't even bother, but immediately followed that up with a rail against "humanistic evolution", which of course has nothing to do with science.

    Moreover, why single out evolutionary biology? why not say, quantum mechanics or the germ theory of disease?

    that this doesn't ring bells with you should be a concern.

    It would be to anyone considering him for a science outreach program, that's for sure.

    If you really feel you don't have the time to browse through all the emails that were used as exhibits, then just read THIS ONE:

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/12/martin_gaskell_was_not_expelle.php#comment-3004269

    It's a direct response to Trolbert's (committee chair) accusations, and summarizes what the entire committee was thinking about Gaskell wrt to this position.

    it is VERY clear that the fact he was a CHRISTIAN was entirely irrelevant to why they decided against him as a candidate.

    the person you really should be focusing your attention on is the committee chair.

    how do you think Martin got a hold of the private emails to begin with?

    Look, I know a bit of Martin's history, and he really did get kinda screwed at Nebraska. Indeed, they pretty much shut down the entire astronomy department! So, I understand he was desperate, but still, his actions in this case were clearly him giving up, and taking advantage of a situation presented to him to simply extort money.

    He doesn't care about discrimination. He's just bitter and took it out on the first group that gave him the opportunity to do so.

    In some sense, I understand why, but still... It was wrong, and it did tremendous damage to the very issue he claims to be wanting to address.

    It's entirely up to you, it's your blog, but I think trying to paint Gaskell as an "expelled hero", will only backfire in the end, and cause far more damage if your concern is REAL religious discrimination.

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  6. I'm Anonymous #3, to avoid any confusion. And this isn't my blog, I'm just an "innocent bystander."

    ...and then run off to Chile with the cash. uh huh. again, are you really this gullible?

    Gullible? No, I'm just willing to accept that most people tell the truth, unless proven otherwise. Unlike you, who are so stubborn in your beliefs that you cannot fathom any other motive besides money. Has it ever crossed your mind that maybe Dr. Gaskell is just an idealist?

    Sure, it could have been the money, but you're way out of bounds to call me "gullible" when there's no real evidence for that.

    it wasn't a theory, it was a grossly ignorant opinion. I'm guessing you never read those notes, either.

    I have read the notes, and while it was a ignorant opinion, he freely admitted that he was not a biologist. Everyone holds "grossly ignorant opinions" at some point in their lives. The fact that he wised up speaks well of his scientific character. He was willing to admit he was wrong - unlike you, apparently.

    In terms of what he believes now, there is absolutely no way you can say it was a "grossly ignorant opinion." Heck, UK's own biologist testified that there is nothing scientifically wrong with Dr. Gaskell's beliefs.

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/12/martin_gaskell_was_not_expelle.php#comment-3004269

    Yes, I've read that email. There are three things to remember:

    1. That's just one person's opinion of the affair.
    2. Cavagnero had previously written some significantly more damning emails, so in a way this could be seen as trying to cover his tracks.
    3. Most importantly, the legal issue was not whether religion was the only factor, it was simply whether it was a motivating factor. This email, in fact, proves that point; it notes that several people were considering Dr. Gaskell's beliefs on religion.

    http://ncse.com/creationism/legal/c-martin-gaskell-v-university-kentucky

    Thanks for the link, but I've already read every single email, deposition, and court document on there, and came to a very different conclusion than you did. Personally, I think you're blinded by bias, but speech is free, so carry on.

    Moreover, why single out evolutionary biology? why not say, quantum mechanics or the germ theory of disease?

    Because nobody is saying that the germ theory of disease proves God doesn't exist, while people do that with evolution all the time.

    It would be to anyone considering him for a science outreach program, that's for sure.

    For the record, he had been involved with many such science outreach programs at Nebraska, with exactly zero complaints.

    Did you know that Martin was the adviser for the Intelligent Design Club at Nebraska?

    Yes. If you know anything about faculty advisers, however, that means almost nothing - he probably just signed a paper and never spoke to them again. A lot of people will freely interface with people they disagree with, just to keep their brains sharp. (See above, the evolution professor who takes his class to a creation museum.)

    If Gaskell, as he claims, thought there were problems in the theory of evolution, why didn't he specify them?

    Because he's not a biologist. He's said that literally dozens of times.

    how do you think Martin got a hold of the private emails to begin with?

    ...court order, actually. (There was more to it than that, but that's where most of them came from.)

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  7. Thanks for posting this, I think it sets the record fairly straight.

    "'Unwarranted atheistic assumptions'..? What exactly is 'unwarranted' about NOT instantly assuming that 'god' (for which there is absolutely ZERO evidence) did everything? Sounds like a creationist talking to me."

    It sounds to me like someone trying to find "reds under the bed". I interpret Martin to be saying that he has no scientific problems with the theory of evolution as it has been defined by accepted science, but he has problems with people making unscientific statements about evolution - such as what you have made just here. As long as unbelievers make over-the-top unscientific statements as if they are scientific, believers will oppose them, as Martin has apparently done. You in fact have committed the "error" you accuse him of.

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  8. Good job with the post!! Your approach to the post is straight to the point!!

    ReplyDelete