Wednesday, January 26, 2011


When do your wacky ideas get in the way of your job?

There’s been a lot of talk around blogland about the case of Martin Gaskell. Dr Gaskell is an astronomer, and was, in 2007, up for a position at University of Kentucky, where he would be director of the MacAdam Student Observatory. According to all reports, he was highly qualified, and would have been likely to get the job. They then, as we Internet technologists refer to it in very technical terms, Googled him, and found aspects of his religious beliefs that led them to hire someone else.

This, of course, is where the accounts begin to differ. Dr Gaskell sued the University of Kentucky on grounds of religious discrimination; the university said that it wasn’t his religion, in general, that was a problem, but his specific views on things like the age of the universe, things that have direct bearing on the job at hand, that informed their decision.

In November of 2010 (things don’t always move quickly in the court system), a federal judge ruled that the case could go forward, and a date was set for February. Last week — what has prompted the new interest in talking about it — they settled out of court, ending the legal proceedings. The University of Kentucky will pay Dr Gaskell $125,000, without making any admission of wrongdoing.

Paying to make the problem go away is common, but unfortunate: it leaves everything fuzzy. Dr Gaskell’s supporters will claim that they won, and that there was, indeed, improper discrimination against him. His detractors will say that he extorted money from the university. Neither is really true.

More broadly, though, this case isn’t just about Dr Gaskell, and settling with him leaves open the question of when a person’s beliefs — religious or otherwise — make it reasonable to rule that person out for certain jobs. And should religious beliefs have any more protection in that regard than beliefs rooted elsewhere?

Richard Dawkins, in a BoingBoing guest post, has given his opinion on the matter. I mostly agree with him, but I can’t say that unequivocally. Read his essay, either now or after you’re done here.

I’ll answer the second of my questions two paragraphs up before I discuss the first: No, I do not think the reason one believes what one does has any bearing on how we should treat that belief. If you believe, say, that people should be at peace with each other, and that war is always evil, it shouldn’t matter whether you’re a Quaker or you come by that from somewhere else. If you’re vegetarian, what’s the difference whether it’s because you’re Hindu or because you simply can’t bear to see animals die? If you believe that the Universe is about 6000 years old, whether you get that from the bible, from a science fiction story you once read, or from a private sense that came to you one evening, it’s all the same. We shouldn’t be any more critical of what you think because you learnt it in church... but neither should we be more tolerant of it for that reason, if it gets in the way of what we’re working with you for.

And that leads us to the other question: When is it acceptable to say that what you believe is inconsistent with the job we’re hiring you for? Can a vegetarian expect to get a job as the sole food critic for a small newspaper? There’s an obvious issue there, but, surely, a vegetarian Hindu couldn’t reasonably sue the paper and claim religious discrimination. You have to be able to do your job.

Of course, there’d be no reason to prevent a vegetarian from, say, being the director of a university astronomical observatory. It’s likely we’ll all agree on that point.

At issue here, though, is that certain beliefs can damage your credibility to the point that, while they might not stop you doing your job, they could easily make it impossible for people to take you seriously in it. Were I, for instance, to apply for a job as Internet technology advisor for a right-wing tea-party senator, I might very well be able to give sound technical advice while choking back my revulsion to the senator’s political agenda... but could the senator ever trust that I wasn’t trying to undermine her in some way, given what I’ve written in these pages? Of course not.

Where I have a little trouble fully agreeing with Professor Dawkins is about where we draw the line. Between beliefs that can live in the background without having any effect and those that clearly whack one’s job in the face, there’s a continuum, and we have to decide when there’s enough effect to matter.

To be sure, we often think of college professors as being a bit kooky. It’s clear to me that the University of Kentucky people made a reasonable decision in this case, and it bothers me that they had to agree to pay Dr Gaskell off. But other cases are bound to be less clear, and it may be fine to hire the professor with the nutty ideas sometimes... even if the students do have a laugh once in a while, he’ll still have enough credibility to teach them what needs to be taught.

Ideally, of course, I fully agree with Professor Dawkins: we want clear thinkers in our universities, and accepting people who support discredited or fringe ideas in areas not connected to their main expertise still pollutes the clear-thinking pond. We’d like to select, say, Holocaust denialists, moon-landing skeptics, homeopathists, and idiots who still think that President Obama was not really born in Hawaii, and make sure none of them are teaching at our colleges and universities. It’s a nice goal. In practice, though, we have that sort of situation all the time, and I’m not sure how rigorous I want to be in avoiding it. Should Stanford University have distanced themselves from William Shockley because of his ideas about eugenics? Perhaps, perhaps not.

What’s clear, though, is that we have to prevent every employment decision from being the basis of a religious discrimination suit. In this case, the judge who allowed it to go forward made the wrong choice. It only cost the university $125,000, but it’s set a precedent that makes me very queasy.


Call me Paul said...

This situation is an unfortunate result of the way our legal system works. It was cheaper for the University to pay the $125,000 than it would have been to successfully defend themselves against his lawsuit, and that's just wrong.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I really don't understand how a YECer can be an astronomer. What does he tell himself every day: my job is a lie - a damned lie? or My religion is a fiction?

There are plenty of jobs where one's being a YECer wouldn't matter much - librarian, gardener, bus driver, even English teacher. But astronomer director of an observatory? Never mind whether he should be hired (he shouldn't) - how could he possibly do the job well without being in some absolute sense crazy?

Barry Leiba said...

Paul: Absolutely!

Ridger: Agreed... though it's not completely clear that he's actually a young-earth creationist. In any case, the UKy people had reasonable concerns in that regard, based on things he'd said and written before.

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

It would be great if there could be a clear legal standard by which lines could be drawn, but these things can be very subtle. As a vegetarian, I wouldn't expect to be eligible for Barry's hypothetical position as the only food critic for a small town paper, but I'd be very angry if it disqualified me at the NY Times. Nor would I, as a pacifist, expect to be considered as a strategic advisor to the DoD. Yet in fact I long ago consulted for NATO on the safety of nuclear weapons command and control software, and I'm glad they could see that my pacifism was if anything a positive factor in that effort. If they had a rigid litmus test, I probably would have failed it for being insufficiently militaristic.

In this case, Dr. Gaskell seems to have staked out the most borderline position possible. ("I don't believe what the crazies believe, but I respect their beliefs.") I don't blame the university one bit for paying $125K to make him go away -- they could easily have spent much more fighting him with no guarantee of success.

데이빛 / Mithridates said...

The interesting thing about this case is that people with the largest bones to pick on this issue (on both sides) seem to want Gaskell to be a YEC creationist or something along those lines. It would make it easy to dismiss him for one, and to accept him for the other. There is also a lot of speculation: what if Gaskell was a vegetarian and wanted to work at a meat plant, what if he was a Muslim that wanted to work in a Synagogue, whatever people can come up with. But it's best to deal with the reality of what Gaskell is, because this is a real case and not theory.

I personally am entertained by the resurrection of conflict theory, but as someone who wants to see humanity become a spacefaring race as quickly as possible I'm not amused by the inability of qualified astronomers (name on 200+ published papers) to get jobs as astronomers. Luckily he now has a position in Chile where some of the clearest skies in the world are. Whatever the debate is, I want my astronomers behind telescopes and doing what they do best; the rest is secondary.