Astronomer Martin Gaskell was in line to be founding director of a new observatory at the University of Kentucky.
However, Gaskell is also a skeptic about some aspects of evolution, based in part on his Christian faith, and has expressed those doubts in lectures and writings. For example, he writes, the theory of intelligent design “is just exploring the question of what evidence there is in the universe for design by an intelligence,” calling it “a general, non-religious question (although with obvious religious implications). Because of those beliefs, the University of Kentucky “went in another direction” in filling the job of observatory director.
One search committee member, Sally Shafer, called Gaskell “fascinating,” but “potentially evangelical” in an e-mail to the chairs of the search committee and the Department of Physics and Astronomy….
An astronomy professor, Moshe Elitzur, told department chair Michael Cavagnero that he feared embarrassing headlines about Kentucky’s flagship university hiring a “creationist” in a state already home to the controversial Creation Museum.
And three UK biology professors consulted by Cavagnero vigorously objected to Gaskell’s hiring.
One, Jim Krupa, said hiring Gaskell would be a “disaster,” particularly because UK planned to use the observatory to promote science education among the general public. UK “might as well have folks from the Creation Museum get involved with UK’s science outreach” if it hired him, he wrote to Cavagnero.
Another geology professor, Shelly Steiner, wrote that UK should no more hire an astronomer skeptical of evolution than “a biologist who believed that the sun revolved around the Earth.”
Gaskell, who rejects creationism as unscientific, has since filed suit in federal court, alleging that religious discrimination cost him the job. The case is scheduled to go to trial in February.
Kentucky is no stranger to such controversies, which may explain why university scientists were so wary. As the Courier-Journal pointed out, it is already home to the Creation Museum (Motto: “Prepare to believe”). The state of Kentucky also recently agreed to provide tax incentives to a business group that wants to build Ark Encounter, an 800-acre biblical theme park featuring a life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark, 40 miles down the interstate from the Creation Museum.
Personally, while I have serious doubts about the viability of Ark Encounter as a business (its backers predict it will draw 1.6 million visitors a year and create 900 jobs), I don’t think the case raises serious church-state issues. It’s a for-profit venture, and the tax incentives it will use are available to other businesses as well. Its religious theme should neither qualify it nor disqualify it from state aid.
Gaskell’s case is a little different. I do understand why UK science faculty would be wary of putting an advocate of intelligent design in a high-profile job such as head of a university observatory. If Gaskell continued to act as a public spokesman and defender of intelligent design, his hiring would imply an endorsement of that essentially religious, non-scientific point of view by the University of Kentucky. Evolution is part of the fundamental bedrock of modern science.
The controversy may also help explain an interesting data point from a 2009 Pew poll of 2,500 scientists, conducted in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The survey reported that 55 percent of scientists identify themselves as Democrats; just 6 percent identify themselves as Republicans.
– Jay Bookman