ISU Professor Mistakes Prejudice for Academic Freedom

Robert L. Crowther, II

The Des Moines Register has published two differing views on ISU’s denial of tenure to Guillermo Gonzalez.
The first, by Discovery senior fellow David Klinghoffer, looks at the current state of academic freedom at ISU and finds few defenders left there.
The second is by a colleague of Gonzalez’s, professor John Hauptman, who admits that intelligent design was the reason he voted against giving Gonzalez tenure, yet somehow doesn’t perceive that as a violation of Gonzalez’s academic freedom.

First he he writes that:

The assistant professor, Guillermo Gonzalez, works in the ISU Physics and Astronomy Department in the area of astrobiology. He is very creative, intelligent and knowledgeable, highly productive scientifically and an excellent teacher.

Hauptman goes on to say that he appreciates Gonzalez’s ideas, and that students seem to like Gonzalez as well.
Hauptman also seems to stand up for Gonzalez’s academic freedom to research and write about intelligent design:

An assistant professor at a university has every right to pursue whatever investigations he or she so chooses to investigate. There must be no bounds, no restrictions and no penalties for research of any kind.

Ah, but there were penalties, namely being denied tenure. If Gonzalez is such an excellent teacher, and he has the freedom to pursue “whatever investigations he or she so chooses to investigate” why not vote to give him tenure?
Hauptman voted no precisely because Gonzalez is an intelligent design proponent, contradicting his own principle that there should be no penalties for such views.
Hauptman says this about ID:

Intelligent design is not even a theory. It has not made its first prediction, nor suffered its first test by measurement. Its proponents can call it anything they like, but it is not science.

And then goes on to conclude that:

It is purely a question of what is science and what is not, and a physics department is not obligated to support notions that do not even begin to meet scientific standards.

He is mistaken. Intelligent design has made predictions, and it is testable. In fact, Dr. Gonzalez’s own book, The Privileged Planet, makes predictions and has an entire chapter rebutting common objections, including the bogus charge that their argument is untestable. In The Privileged Planet, Gonzalez and co-author Jay Richards describe how to falsify their design argument. They suggest that there is a correlation between the conditions needed for life and the conditions needed for diverse types of scientific discovery, and suggest that such a correlation, if true, points to intelligent design. They write:

The most decisive way to falsify our argument as a whole would be to find a distant and very different environment, which, while quite hostile to life, nevertheless offers a superior platform for making as many diverse scientific discoveries as does our local environment. The opposite of this would have the same effect–finding an extremely habitable and inhabited place that was a lousy platform for observation.
Less devastating but still relevant would be discoveries that contradict individual parts of our argument. Most such discoveries would also show that the conditions for habitability of complex life are much wider and more diverse than we claim. For instance, discovering intelligent life inside a gas giant with an opaque atmosphere, near an X-ray emitting star in the Galactic center, or on a planet without a dark night would do it serious damage. Or take a less extreme example. We suggested in Chapter 1 that conditions that produce perfect solar eclipses also contribute to the habitability of a planetary environment. Thus, if intelligent extraterrestrial beings exist, they probably enjoy good to perfect solar eclipses. However, if we find complex, intelligent, indigenous life on a planet without a largish natural satellite, this plank in our argument would collapse.
Our argument presupposes that all complex life, at least in this universe, will almost certainly be based on carbon. Find a non-carbon based life form, and one of our presuppositions collapses. It’s clear that a number of discoveries would either directly or indirectly contradict our argument.
Similarly, there are future discoveries that would count in favor of it. Virtually any discovery in astrobiology is likely to bear on our argument one way or the other. If we find still more strict conditions that are important for habitability, this will strengthen our case.

Professor Hauptman needs to reconsider his positions both on intelligent design and on academic freedom. He can start by reading Klinghoffer’s op-ed which opens with:

Americans like to think of our university system as a haven for unimpeded truth-seeking, where tenured professors press the boundaries of knowledge, no holds barred. The picture is attractive but false when it comes to scholarly consideration of big questions such as: Is the universe meaningful?

The main point is that Gonzalez’s Privileged Planet argument is based on physical evidence, is testable, and relies on reason rather than appeals to religious authority. The crucial question is whether Gonzalez should have the academic freedom to posit a purposeful agent as the best explanation for certain features of the natural world, something that several prominent scientists have done.

Robert Crowther

Robert Crowther holds a BA in Journalism with an emphasis in public affairs and 20 years experience as a journalist, publisher, and brand marketing and media relations specialist. From 1994-2000 he was the Director of Public and Media Relations for Discovery Institute overseeing most aspects of communications for each of the Institute's major programs. In addition to handling public and media relations he managed the Institute's first three books to press, Justice Matters by Roberta Katz, Speaking of George Gilder edited by Frank Gregorsky, and The End of Money by Richard Rahn.