Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Should Being Religious Deny You A Job As A Scientist?

A very interesting article appeared in the Journal Science recently where a scientist, Martin Gaskell, was denied a job at the University of Kentucky (UK) "because he is an evangelical Christian".

From the Science article:
During the search process, a UK committee member discovered an article on Gaskell's personal Web site titled “Modern Astronomy, the Bible, and Creation.” The article, based on talks Gaskell had given, “appeared to blend science and religion,” according to a brief filed by the university.
And further:
In an e-mail to Science, Gaskell called himself an “old earth theistic evolutionist,” a label that deems evolution a tool God used to develop life. In his deposition and his e-mail, Gaskell says he is not a creationist or a subscriber to intelligent design, both of which, to varying degrees, discount natural selection. However, his lecture notes cite work by astronomer Hugh Ross, who embraces an old Earth, as geologists do, but rejects evolution as the guiding principle for life.
Now, all this has been taken to court so we will yet see how this plays out:
“It's a rather intriguing case,” says Ehrich Koch, an attorney in Minneapolis... “It appears as though what the court is saying is both sides have arguments, and they may be able to prove their case.”
The trial is scheduled to begin on 8 February. On 1 March, Gaskell begins work as a professor at the University of Valparaiso in Chile.

Now what are my views?  First of all, I do think someone who is unable/unwilling to teach, defend and research mainstream science is someone who universities should avoid hiring.  That said, it would be unfortunate if you were denied a scientific job purely because you happen to be associated with a religion.

This story hits home, not because I share fanatical religious views about science with fundamentalist Christians, but because I would never want to be denied a job because it was discovered... brace yourself...  I was LDS.   I have always defended (and believe!!!) good mainstream science from evolution to the big bang to, etc...  In fact, I have now over a dozen journal articles as a graduate student, or soon to be journal articles, on physics related to the big bang and believe and advocate every word of it.  Furthermore, on this blog I have always tried to defend good, mainstream science.  But, there is always the worry that some committee won't care and will just tag me as some "crazy Mormon" whom they would like to not have as a new hire.

And: from Newton who "wrote more on religion than he did on natural science" to today with prestigious members of the National Academy like Francisco Ayala or the human genome's Francis Collins, one thing history has shown is: religious people can make some darn good scientists!

And I for one intend to be a darn good scientist myself.

So what are your thoughts, both on this specific case, and in general on whether being religious should be grounds to not hire a scientist?


  1. From one perspective I can see how UK has a point. If they wanted to hire someone to teach science, and they thought that the person they were considering to hire would not teach science, no matter the reason, either through incompetence, lack of training or the wrong training, then they should have the ability to refuse anyone employment. As an example, it would be perfectly reasonable for West Point to refuse to hire someone who was a member of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors or would promote the Campus Antiwar Network. Or by extension, I would strongly oppose hiring a post-modernist philosopher to teach physics. It is all a question of whether or not he person is fit to do the assigned job. That is, if he were hired to teach science of some sort and he refused to teach it after being hired then that would be a serious failing on his part.

    On the other hand, if he was refused a job simply because they say that he was affiliated with religion, then that is a serious problem with the University, because that would mean they made a prejudiced judgement on his fitness for a particular job based on something that should be entirely irrelevant. They may as well refuse to hire him because of his fabulous blue sweater (actually I think it's a cardigan, but thanks for noticing!).

    I guess this all comes from a fundamental misconception that all religion is fundamentally opposed to science.

  2. Quantumleap42,

    I think you raise some good points and would be interested now in what a post-modern philosopher has to say about physics.

    Also, yes, I fear some may be victims to those who have the misconception that religion necessarily opposes science.

  3. JS,

    I probably would have hard time hiring a "crazy Mormon"; However, "regular Mormon" would be a different matter.

    The real issue is how do we separate "belief in a faith" and "belief in science"? Look at Feynman's way, and it will be all clear. If Gaskell's hypotheis of astronomy and bible can not be experimentally tested, it is kaput! I think that is what the courts will have to decide...

  4. Ancient1,

    Well, I will try to avoid being the crazy kind. :)

  5. The underlying assumption here is the idea that religion and science are exclusive. That is a pure fallacy.

    While religious belief can, and does, sometimes interfere with objectivity, we can also claim that secularism can, and does, sometimes interfere with objectivity. In fact, it has been my experience that secularism often gets in the way of objective science because secularists more often than not never question their underlying assumptions, assuming that because they are secularists they "see" better.

  6. Wow! Great, complicated, difficult question. (Also, really impressive CV.) I think my basic reaction is that religious or other "weird" beliefs should not matter to hiring decisions. From that starting point, I think we have to lay down a lot of qualifications.

    (1) The content of the "weird" beliefs matter. If my religion tells me that the earth is flat, then that is bad news for my religion. Such a belief is not only wrong, it has been known to be wrong for a long time and there is lots and lots of evidence for its wrongness. If my religion tells me that God is a benevolent creator, it's hard to determine the empirical content of the claim, let alone construct experiments or observations to test it. In some (many?) cases, religious beliefs do not even have empirical content, so it is hard to see how having or not having them could matter to a scientist.

    (2) The proximity of the beliefs to one's area of research and teaching matters. It is one thing for a cosmologist to deny that speciation is due to natural selection. It is something else for a biologist to deny that speciation is due to natural selection. (The first is not good, I think, but the second probably disqualifies one from employment.)

    (3) It matters whether "weird" beliefs are held in good faith on the basis of evidence or not. Orthodoxy in science is established because researchers work in good faith by following observational and experimental evidence wherever it leads. So, there is a big difference between a scientist who believes that humans are importantly unlike other animals on the basis of differences in linguistic ability, numeracy, clothes-wearing, etc. (but is willing to consider contrary evidence) and a "scientist" who believes the same thing because the Bible (or other scripture) told him so (especially if he is unwilling to consider contrary evidence).

    I feel like I'm leaving something out. Maybe I'll think of more to add later. What do you think of this list so far? Does it agree with your experience as a scientist?

  7. @Euripides,

    I agree being secularist can cause scientific pitfalls in its own right. In fact, Fred Hoyle aparently was turned off from the big bang because he felt it sounded too much like Genisis.

    So there you do have secularism leading to bad science!

  8. Jonathan,

    As always, you have a very insightful comment. I think you covered some good bases and I don't know why a faculty search committee would care if someone thought God was benevolent.

    In fact, (and this is only my opinion) I would think if I was going to hire someone I wouldn't care if he/she worshiped smurf action figures as long as they produced a healthy amount of publications, citations, research grants and decent teaching.

    Also, I think you are right about the proximate to research area. For example, I don't think I would be upset to here a climatologist was not hired because they refused to believe that man-made global warming was real. But, in some ways, who cares if a string theorist does or not?

  9. Joseph:

    The two most intransigent groups (as an over generality) I've seen who place ideology over science are Born Again Christians and Born Again Atheists. As I mentioned, the problem is one of uncritical assumption based on the belief that flies in the face of scientific fact. Fred Hoyle's a good example.

  10. I am amazed that the university would even try to make a legal case that they could use religious beliefs to make hiring decisions.

  11. Great comments so far. I especially like Jonathan's comments. He nailed it. It is a crying shame, as you said, if the decision was based purely on religion. But I HIGHLY doubt it was (are people really that shallow?).

    As to your case, I wouldn't worry about being denied a job. Mormons are pretty well respected in my experience. We are considered honest, diligent, and don't have many of the problems resulting from alcohol consumption, etc. Also, truth be told, Mormon "doctrine" (whatever that even means), allows for a lot of wiggle room in beliefs (despite some protests to the contrary from the uber-orthodox). Shoot, Henry Eyring believed in an old-earth, evolution, etc. 6 decades ago during a time when MOST of the church still believed in a 6000-year old earth and evolution was blasphemy. And he was the General Sunday School President!


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