Monday, January 24, 2011

P. Z. Myers needing a designated logician on the Gaskell case

Oh my, it looks like we have really upset Internet atheist P. Z. Myers once again. At least that is what I conclude from all the snarling in his response to my opinion piece today in the Lexington Herald-Leader on the University of Kentucky's Gaskell Affair over at his blog "Pharyngula."

But maybe it's not a sign of his being upset. He does, after all do this all the time. Maybe its just a part of his genetic make-up to act this way. Or possibly it was something in his upbringing. I have heard of young children taken when they were young and raised by wolves. Although, in Myers' case, I'm not sure even the wolves would have taken him.

Myers' post seems to have been penned on the principle that a sufficient number of epithets and pejorative adjectives at some point constitute an argument.

No, wait. I'm sorry. I may have spoken too soon. After removing several layers of vitriol, and dusting away a large quantity of vindictiveness, I think I may have discovered some actual attempts to make a logical case against my arguments. Okay, so they're not exactly impressive, but let's see what we can make of them.

Here is Myer's main argument, such as it is:
He claims that the reason Gaskell was not hired was religious oppression, overt discrimination against him for the fact of being a Christian. A university in America would have virtually no faculty or staff if they had an unspoken policy of discrimination against the Christian majority in this country; there were believers on that committee, I'm sure, just as there are believers on every committee I've ever worked with at my universities, and the atheists are usually the minority. So to claim that this committee thought that the idea of a candidate going to church was grounds for exclusion is absurd.
Does Myers really believe that you have to have a policy of discrimination "against the Christian majority in this country" to run afoul of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Does he think the only way someone can sue for racial discrimination is because a university has a "policy," spoken or unspoken, against a whole racial minority?

Who's being absurd?

You violate the Civil Rights Act when you discriminate against one person. If you're black and a university discriminates against you, you don't have to prove there's a general conspiracy against blacks. All you have to prove is that they discriminated against you because you're black.

Let's just be glad Myers isn't an attorney. And for crying out loud keep him away from racial discrimination issues. No telling how many African Americans have been filing false discrimination cases.

The case showing UK discriminated against Gaskell because he was an evangelical Christian was a dream case for an attorney. The e-mail documents in the case referring to him as "potentially evangelical" by one committee member and other e-mails from other members of the committee with first hand experience of what went on alleging that he was, in fact, being discriminated against are about as hot as smoking guns get. It just don't get any better than this--or worse, depending on your perspective.
Gaskell's employment was questioned, not because he is a Christian, but because he is an evangelical Christian who used his authority as an astronomer to mislead the public about biology.
Where? What precisely did Gaskell say about biology in any professional capacity that was professionally out of bounds?

In fact, the whole rest of his post goes on under the assumption that Gaskell held some view in his professional capacity that violates basic tenets of biology. But he never says what this is.
He wasn't turned away because he was a Christian, but because he actively uses Christianity as an excuse to peddle falsehoods and doubts. And the objection wasn't to the "Christian" part, but to the "false doubts" part.
Myers' appears to be completely ignorant of this case. The e-mail from Sally Shafer that must have had the UK administration scared enough about the eventual outcome of this case to want to settle didn't say that Gaskell was a "potential peddler of falsehoods and doubts." It said he was a "potential evangelical."

That makes Sally Shafter a potential bigot. And it makes Myers' a potential ostrich, sticking his head in the sand and ignoring the actual evidence in this case. If this case doesn't constitute religious discrimination, then nothing does.

He should have just stuck with the epithets. They would have been more logically compelling.


Martin Cothran said...


What does "wrote approvingly" mean? That in order to get an idea of what the debate is about, you should actually be familiar with both sides?

Tualha said...

Hmm, my original comment seems to have disappeared! I wonder how that happened.

Martin Cothran said...


I have no idea what became of your comment. We have had this problem several times with Blogger recently, and the only thing I know to do is to repost your comment that I got in my e-mail. Here it is:

PZ Myers: "Gaskell's employment was questioned, not because he is a Christian, but because he is an evangelical Christian who used his authority as an astronomer to mislead the public about biology."

Martin Cothran: "Where? What precisely did Gaskell say about biology in any professional capacity that was professionally out of bounds?"

In the 1997 version of his lecture, Gaskell, identified as being with the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Nebraska (i.e., using his authority as an astronomer), wrote approvingly of the following creationist books (i.e., misled the public about biology):

* "The Mystery of Life's Origins: Reassessing Current Theories", Charles Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley and Roger L. Olson

* "Evolution: A Theory in Crises [sic]", Michael Denton

* "Darwin on Trial", Phillip E. Johnson

* "Darwin's Black Box", Michael J. Behe

In the most recent version of Gaskell's lecture, he says instead:

"I don't have the inclination or space here to go into the biology issues which have been generating enormous controversy and many books in recent years. My first advice to someone interested in the Bible and biology issues is to talk to a Christian biologist or to a Christian geologist for geology issues. To sample the range of opinions Christian biologists and geologists have on the various issues I recommend looking at back issues of the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation (Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith) or some of the articles they have available on-line (see their website below). A number of Christian biologists have written books (e.g., Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, see, 'The Language of God' 2007, Free Press, $15)"

I think if Gaskell had actually changed his mind on the subject of creationism and was not just trying to hide the evidence of his views, he would probably have skipped this section entirely.

Martin Cothran said...

Here's the link to Gaskell's 1997 lecture. It didn't copy with the text:

Martin Cothran said...


Now maybe you can tell us why you misrepresent Gaskell as somehow endorsing the conclusions of these books (and if that's not what you're doing, then you need to explain what you mean by "wrote approvingly") since Gaskell says in the presentation about young earth creationism, "I don't believe it is the interpretation the Bible requires of itself and it certainly clashes head-on with science."

Tualha said...

Gaskell's descriptions of these books constitute a clear endorsement of their contents and cast doubts on the theory of evolution. Let's take them one at a time.

Regarding the Thaxton book, Gaskell wrote "I think this is currently the best college-level discussion of the scientific problems in trying explaining the origin of life as just 'chance.'" Clearly he thinks well of this book, if he considers it the best discussion of those claimed scientific problems. This particular book is not so much about evolution per se, but rather the origin of life, which evolutionary theory does not address. Nevertheless, Gaskell's choice of words clearly indicate that he rejects mechanistic explanations of how life first started on Earth.

On Denton, Gaskell wrote "Evolutionary theory is far from providing the answers to the question 'How did we get here?' and this book (written by a molecular biology researcher) presents a systematic critique (ranging from paleontology to molecular biology) of the current Darwinian model." Clearly, Gaskell thinks Denton did a good job -- a "systematic critique" -- of questioning evolutionary theory.

Re Johnson's Darwin on Trial, he wrote that Johnson "takes on the scientific evidence for Darwinian evolution, or rather the lack of it, in this very influential book" and cites Cornell professor William Provine as considering the book important and assigning it to his evolutionary biology students. Clearly, he agrees with Johnson that there is a lack of evidence for evolution. Oh, and Provine's evolutionary biology course? It's not a biology course. Provine teaches history of science.

On Behe, he writes that "[Behe's] examples of 'irreducible complexity' are particularly important" for casting doubts on evolutionary theory.

I think it's clear that (a) Gaskell thought well of these books at the time he wrote this, and (b) he thought they made a good case against the theory of evolution. And he used these arguments to persuade the public that there were major problems with that theory.

I overlooked another way in which Gaskell misled the public about biology. In the very same paragraph in which he called creationism bad science, he said "It is true that there are major scientific problems in evolutionary theory (see the reading list at the end of this handout), and that these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses..."

Gaskell presented this lecture to many Christian audiences. He told them that evolution is a theory with major problems. He referred them to these creationist books for further reading. No matter how much he said that creationism is bad science, he endorsed creationist views by so relentlessly attacking the only scientific alternative.

This is not what any scientist, no matter his field, should be doing. Should UK hire a biologist who espoused the geocentric theory of the universe? A physicist who promoted the stork theory of human reproduction? Should they hire such scientists for a position that involved public outreach? No, they should not. Nor should they have hired an astrophysicist who so industriously attacked the central theory of biology, regardless of what alternatives he did or did not promote in its place.

Martin Cothran said...


You are clearly misrepresenting what Gaskell is saying here. He clearly indicates in his presentation that he is an evolutionist. He says it several times in several different ways obviously trying to be diplomatic about it in front of an evangelical audience which doesn't agree with him.

Every case you mention here you put a creationist spin on. He is obviously saying in every case you mention that if you want to read one side in the debate, these are the best books to read. That says nothing about whether he agrees with them.

In fact, after recommending the Thaxton, Denton, Johnson, and Behe books (as examples of their respective positions), 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 (i.e., "theistic evolution")."

That's hardly an endorsement of the position of these books.

And are you really saying that no scientist should be hired who thinks there is any problem whatsoever with currently dominant scientific theories? That's not science: that's dogma.

If scientists took that view, there would be no scientific progress whatsoever. In fact, if that position had been taken in the past, Mendelian genetics would still be on the outside of mainstream science looking in, and Darwin's original view of natural selection would still be bearing all the weight of the theory.

No matter how much he said that creationism is bad science, he endorsed creationist views by so relentlessly attacking the only scientific alternative.

Sorry, that's just a foolish statement from someone who is trying to portray Gaskell saying what he never says.

He's clearly an evolutionist who happens to be a Christian. Get used to it.

Art said...

Regarding the Thaxton book, Gaskell wrote "I think this is currently the best college-level discussion of the scientific problems in trying explaining the origin of life as just 'chance.'"

I'm sorry. That's worse than saying that "The God Delusion" is the best college-level treatment of the nature of religion.

Martin Cothran said...


I'm sure Gaskell would be impressed with your recommendations on astronomy as well.

Art said...

Well, Martin, I would hope that if I was ever caught claiming that an old moon should have several hundreds of feet (or more) of dust on its surface, as was (and may still be) taught by A Beka as a "proof" of a young universe, Gaskell would send all manner of deserved ridicule my way.

Tualha said...

You're right. On a more careful reading, I see that Gaskell believes in theistic evolution, not creationism (and seems to believe in theistic cosmology, for that matter).

However, for someone who's not a creationist or "intelligent design" proponent, he sure talks like one. The 1997 lecture gives a definite impression that he has serious doubts about the theory of evolution, and recommends books that promote that view. The idea that there are serious, fundamental problems with the entire theory of evolution (as opposed to routine disagreements over details that scientists deal with every day) is a canard invented by creationists (or intelligent design proponents, who are just creationists in sheep's clothing) who want to "teach the controversy" and cast doubts on what is one of the best-supported scientific theories in existence. Perhaps that is why the newer version of his lecture doesn't cite those books; this view has by now been thoroughly debunked, but in 1997, it probably hadn't been -- it was too new. Darwin's Black Box, for example, was published in 1996. The more recent version of the lecture leaves out the books but still makes the claim.

I don't think he's referring to the kind of legitimate scientific disagreements that do exist; he doesn't qualify his statements in any way that would indicate that. An audience of biologists would know the difference; an audience of laypeople certainly would not, unless he made it clear to them.

It's disingenuous to claim that Gaskell's doubts about evolution are proper scientific skepticism. To the extent that he refers to legitimate debates over details, I doubt he has anything to contribute to those debates; he's not a biologist and I've seen nothing indicating he has ever participated in such discussions. To the extent that he claims there are fundamental problems with the theory, he is making a claim that originated with creationists, is not rooted in science, and does not stand up.