Spinning the Gonzalez Case
The propagandists of the Discovery Institute have done their best to turn Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez into a martyr. Dave Eaton, supporter of ID and former member of the Minnetonka school board, is also involved in the spinning effort. His arguments show that he has very limited understanding of tenure and promotion at a research university.
In a previous essay I argued that denial of tenure in the case of Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez was probably a reasonable decision by the faculty and administrators of Iowa State University. Here I examine the Gonzalez case again, but from a different angle: I'm interested in exploring how the propagandists of ID present the issues. It turns out, not surprisingly, there are many ways to misunderstand and distort a moderately complex issue like tenure.
Here, in no particular order, are 10 misrepresentations about the Gonzalez case. You'll have to decide for yourself whether they cross the line from honest mistake to outright fabrication.
1) Did Dr. Gonzalez have a research grant from NASA while he was at Iowa State?
The Discovery Institute is very emphatic about this point. From their web page entitled "The Truth about Research Grants, Gonzalez and ISU":
2. Contrary to some reports, Dr. Gonzalez did receive outside grant funding during his time at ISU: From 2001-2004, Dr. Gonzalez was a Co-Investigator on a NASA Astrobiology Institute grant for "Habitable Planets and the Evolution of Biological Complexity" (his part of the grant for this time period was $64,000).
This seems straightforward, but is misleading - Dr. Gonzalez did receive NASA funds while he was at Iowa State, but he did not win NASA funding while he was at Iowa State. That is, he did not join the faculty at Iowa State, then write a grant proposal to NASA, and then receive funding, as one might infer from the Discovery Institute's account. The Habitable Planets proposal was written and funded before Dr. Gonzalez went to Iowa State. His role? He was one of 26 co-investigators and collaborators. Need proof? Go here to see the proposal. The first page is reproduced below:
Notice the last name on the list, and the institutional affiliation.
Evidently, some of the grant monies were used to support Dr. Gonzalez's continuing work on the project for several years after he left Washington. There is nothing wrong with that, but the critical point is that while writing or co-writing a successful federal grant application as an assistant professor is likely to be a big plus in the promotion file, being part of a continuing project that began when the candidate was a post-doc is not. The former demonstrates leadership - the latter is routine.
2) How many papers did Dr. Gonzalez publish while at Iowa State?
The Discovery Institute has a web page entitled "ISU astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez's stellar publication record outshines colleagues". Here's part of what the page says:
Here's a breakdown of his [Dr. Gonzalez's] annual raw publications since coming to ISU according to the Smithsonian / NASA Astrophysics Data System:
So he peaks in 2003 but ends in 2006 just as high as he was when he started at ISU.
Wrong wrong wrong! They've used the database incorrectly. When the Smithsonian/NASA data system is used to search for papers by G. Gonzalez, most of the papers that come up are by scientists named G. Gonzalez other than the one formerly on the faculty at Iowa State. Evidently, G. Gonzalez is a pretty common name, but the propagandists at Discovery Institute didn't bother to check, so their numbers are wrong.
What's amazing about this error is that the correct list of publications is right at their fingertips: Dr. Gonzalez is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and could easily provide an authoritative list. In fact, he has: there is an accurate list of publications on a different Discovery Institute web page. The numbers given there agree with what I have found in Science Citation Index (which I actually know how to use).
For the record, the correct total numbers of peer-reviewed publications by year are:
The numbers are not quite what is needed for a tenure decision because, as I explained in the previous essay, what matters for tenure is papers coming from research done at Iowa State - you don't get tenure just because you used to be a great post-doc. When we subtract papers based on research done before his arrival at Iowa State and two review papers, Dr. Gonzalez's numbers look like this:
So, the Discovery Institute exaggerates Dr. Gonzalez's research productivity while he was an assistant professor at Iowa State by more than a factor of two.
By the way, the frequent claim that Dr. Gonzalez produced 350% more papers than required by the Iowa State tenure code is wrong - the productivity that matters is what was done at Iowa State, not the entire career. You don't get promoted in business just because you were an accomplished undergraduate, and you don't get promoted in the academy just because you were an accomplished post-doc.
3) Does Dr. Gonzalez's academic record shine above his peers?
The same Discovery Institute web page on Stellar Publication Record (cute title, no?) compares the number of Dr. Gonzalez's publications with that of other astronomers in his department, including senior faculty:
According to the information compiled in the memo filed in his appeal to the Board of Regents of the State of Iowa, he has published more than many ISU astronomers since 2006, and in fact leads all ISU astronomers who evaluated his tenure in normalized publications since 2006
Nonsense! The numbers are wrong, for the same reason described above: they claim that he published eight papers since 2006, but there were actually only two papers in 2007 and one in 2008. There is no explanation of "normalized publications", and in any case the comparison makes no sense - senior faculty could include highly productive scientists but also administrators who no longer devote much effort to research, and possibly very senior faculty who have slowed down and are approaching retirement. It's a meaningless comparison.
If you wanted to know whether John Smith was among the best college sprinters in the world, you would compare his record to his peers: other college-aged sprinters. It would make no sense to compare him to high school runners or participants in the Senior Olympics. Similarly, if you're going to evaluate Dr. Gonzalez's publication record in a meaningful way, the comparison group should be assistant professors in the same field of science at comparable institutions. I showed in the previous essay that Dr. Gonzalez's publication record is not as strong as that of assistant professors of astronomy at the University of Washington, where he received most of his training. The claim that Dr. Gonzalez's record as an assistant professor shines above his peers is unjustified.
4) Did Dr. Gonzalez discover two new planets?
According to a Discovery Institute web page:
... Dr. Gonzalez's work led to the discovery of two new planets...,
Here's a more complete description of the planetary discoveries: Butler et al. (Astrophysical Journal, 2000) reported the discovery of two new planets, noting that about 35 extrasolar planets had been found in the period 1995-2000. Dr. Gonzalez was not a co-author on the Butler paper, but the article does cite several of his publications as being helpful. Does this mean that Dr. Gonzalez did good scientific work? Sure. The authors of the 50 or so other papers cited by Butler et al. also did good work. Is this the sort of thing that is likely to help with the tenure vote? No - the cited papers were all published before Dr. Gonzalez came to Iowa State. It's the same issue over and over: he had a great post-doc, but where's the productivity from work done as an assistant professor?
5) What about the article in Scientific American?
Yes, Dr. Gonzalez co-authored an article in Scientific American. This is a significant accomplishment, but, like almost every other valuable part of his scientific career, it was written while he was at the University of Washington and based on research done at the University of Washington. Here's the description of authors from the Scientific American article:
6) Have Dr. Gonzalez's research articles really been cited in the scientific literature more than 1500 times?
The Discovery Institute says:
...All told, there were nearly 1,500 citations to his articles and research in science journals by the end of 2005.
The claim is accurate, but fails to mention that the lifetime citation record is overwhelmingly for research done while Dr. Gonzalez was at the University of Washington. The important criterion for tenure is whether research done as an assistant professor at Iowa State has had an impact on the field. In the previous article I document that the papers published by Dr. Gonzalez in the four years before the tenure decision had little impact. In particular, four research papers on which Dr. Gonzalez was senior author published in 2005 and 2006, the critical period immediately preceding the tenure vote, have been cited fewer than 20 times in total as of February 2010.
7) Were Dr. Gonzalez's appeals of the tenure decision denied for ideological reasons?
Dave Eaton, Iowa State alum and former member of the Minnetonka school board who tried and failed to get intelligent design into the science curriculum, has founded an organization called FreeGonzalez.com. The objectives are to publicize the Gonzalez case and to raise money to support Dr. Gonzalez's continuing research.
According to FreeGonzalez.com:
Dr. Gonzalez's appeals have been denied and his job at Iowa State ends May 15th, not because of the quality of his work, but because he refused to bow down to the ideology of the University.
Mr. Eaton offers no proof of the outrageous claim that Iowa State University is dominated by an all-powerful, unspecified ideology, so let's look at the particulars.
Dr. Gonzalez's first appeal was to the office of the president of Iowa State University, Dr. Gregory L. Geoffroy. Dr. Geoffrey, a former officer in the US Navy, has a Ph.D. in chemistry from Cal Tech. He was Professor of Chemistry and then Dean of Sciences at Penn State before coming to Iowa State. He is a member of the Iowa Business Council, and President of the Iowa 4-H Foundation. Now, does this sound like someone who devotes himself heart and soul to grinding a Darwinian axe? Do you think he might have picked up rigid and prejudicial views in the Navy or at 4-H, those hotbeds of philosophical materialism? Or perhaps his intolerance of ID came from heated discussions at the Iowa Business Council, or from the 200 research papers he published in professional chemistry journals before he became an administrator. Or, to return to reality, is it more likely that Mr. Eaton, who has zero experience with tenure decisions or any other important decisions at any university, simply does not know what he's talking about?
Dr. Gonzalez's second appeal was to the Board of Regents of Iowa State University, whose members include David W. Miles, President & CEO of WB Capital Management; Jack Evans, President of the Hall-Perrine Foundation, a private philanthropic corporation; Bonnie J. Campbell, former Attorney General of Iowa who now practices law; Robert N. Downer, a member of the Iowa City law firm of Meardon, Sueppel & Downer P.L.C.; Michael G. Gartner, chairman and principal owner of the Iowa Cubs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs; Ruth R. Harkin, United Technologies Corporation's senior vice president; Craig Lang, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation; and Rose Vasquez, a Des Moines attorney. According to Eaton and FreeGonzalez/com, all are slaves to some unidentified (presumably Darwinist or atheist) ideology.
We have two choices. Either we can be persuaded, without evidence, that the Regents of Iowa State, a group of accomplished lawyers and businesspersons, are guided by unflinching devotion to Darwin and/or atheism. Or, we can presume that Mr. Eaton has no understanding of the process of tenure at a research university. This is an exceptionally easy choice.
Note: The FreeGonzalez.com website suddenly disappeared in Feb 2010.
8) Has Dr. Gonzalez been blackballed?
Mr. Eaton was interviewed by the Discovery Institute in a podcast about the Gonzalez case. In it he says:
Once you are denied tenure at a public university it's kind of an unwritten rule that you are also being denied tenure at other public universities. Dr. Gonzalez has sent his resume out to many other public universities; not a phone call, not an e-mail, not one word back for somebody with this level of accomplishment. That's very clear that there is an unwritten blackball policy out there.
Mr. Eaton's imagination is rivaled only by his ignorance of academia. There is no unwritten rule, no blackball policy, no all-powerful ideology that controls higher education nationwide. There is instead a very simple explanation for the fact that no other research universities were interested in Dr. Gonzalez's inquiries - in spite of being a stellar post-doc, he was probably not qualified to be a tenured faculty member at a research university.
If Iowa State had made a serious misjudgment in the Gonzalez case, for whatever reason, and if Dr. Gonzalez were actually a stellar assistant professor, then other institutions would have raced to grab him. In academia we compete for the best faculty, and even steal them from other institutions when we can. Proposing that institutions of higher education are in collusion regarding hiring and tenure is like proposing that universities collude on football recruits and coaches. It's like claiming that banks or engineering firms or architecture firms nationwide have a blacklist and are governed by ideology instead of plain old competition. But of course Mr. Eaton, who has zero experience with higher education administration, would not know that.
9) Did most of the external reviewers in the Gonzalez case recommend tenure?
Indeed, 2/3 of the external reviewers who gave an opinion about whether Dr. Gonzalez deserves tenure said he should receive tenure.
Academic departments routinely ask leading scientists at other universities for their confidential assessment of candidates for promotion. Ten to twelve outside letters are typically included in a promotion file. While the letters in the Gonzalez case are not part of the public record, let's assume for the sake of discussion that Mr. Eaton and FreeGonzalez.com have access to the letters and have correctly reported the recommendations: 2/3 of those who gave an opinion favored promotion, which implies that 1/3 were opposed.
Is it persuasive that 2/3 of the outside reviewers recommended promotion? Definitely not - it simply demonstrates how ignorant Mr. Eaton and his associates are about tenure at a research university. As someone who has personally examined dozens of tenure and promotion files, I can state unequivocally that I have never seen a successful tenure case in which there were more than two negative outside letters. One negative letter is problematic; two is deeply troubling. In the Gonzalez case there appear to have been three or four letters explicitly advising against tenure.
When it comes to outside reviews, simple majority is not the determining factor. Promotion and tenure at research universities operates in some respects like senatorial approval of presidential appointments: a single objection carries great weight. This system is sometimes justified by the argument that some federal appointments, like tenure, are for life. When Mr. Eaton announces that 2/3 of the outside letters in the Gonzalez case recommended promotion, he actually demonstrates his ignorance of the process, and provides further evidence that the Gonzalez case was very problematic.
10) Is the book Privileged Planet an important scientific contribution?
In 2004, Dr.Gonzalez co-authored the book The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery, which presents empirical evidence for the hypothesis that the universe is the product of intelligent design. Supported by a research grant from the Templeton Foundation, the book has earned praised from such eminent scientists as David Hughes, a Vice-President of the Royal Astronomical Society, Harvard astrophysicist Owen Gingerich, and Cambridge paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris.
Sure, there were complimentary blurbs on the book cover, but has the book had any real influence in the scientific community? The citation record as reported in Science Citation Index speaks for itself: In 2004 two book reviews of Privileged Planet were published in the scientific literature, one in Nature and one in Space Policy. In 2005 the total number of citations of Privileged Planet in the scientific literature was zero. In 2006 the total number of citations was zero. In 2007 the total number of citations was zero. In 2008 there were two citations, one in Chemical Reviews (which refers to the book in passing, for terminology) and one in Earth-Science Reviews (which presents a vigorous attack on intelligent design). Privileged Planet might have enjoyed some success as popular science, but in the professional scientific community it is of no consequence.