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Michael Shermer’s Fact-Free Attack on Expelled Exposes Intolerance of Darwinists towards Pro-Intelligent Design Scientists (Part 3)

Casey Luskin

[Note: For a more comprehensive defense of Ben Stein’s documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, please see: NCSE Exposed at]

In Part 1 and Part 2 I discussed how Michael Shermer’s review of Expelled applies one-sided skepticism to anything that challenges Darwinism, withholding skepticism of claims made by pro-evolution sources. When claiming that Richard Sternberg faced no discrimination after sympathizing with Darwin-skeptics, but simply invented a “conspiracy,” Shermer failed to scrutinize the blatantly false and contradictory claims by Darwinists trying to cover up what really happened. In that case, Eugenie Scott made private concessions that Sternberg did not do anything mortally wrong in his handling of the publication of Stephen C. Meyer’s paper on intelligent design (ID), and spoke as if Sternberg had been ousted. As I observed, Shermer’s methodology when dealing with the persecution of pro-ID scientists is as follows:

  • (1) Ignore all the facts showing there was persecution;
  • (2) E-mail the persecutor and ask them if there was any anti-ID discrimination;
  • (3) Withhold all skepticism from the statements of the persecutors, and then trumpet their response as evidence that there is no persecution against ID proponents, blaming the victim for losing their job and then claiming those who feel there is persecution are just promoting a “conspiracy.”

In this post, I will assess how Shermer uses this same methodology when accepting wholesale the explanations of Eugenie Scott and Iowa State University (ISU) President Gregory Geoffroy regarding why pro-ID astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez was denied tenure.

Shermer Blames-the-Victim Case #2: Guillermo Gonzalez
Shermer blames pro-ID astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez for being denied tenure at Iowa State University (ISU). Who is the expert that Shermer consults on Gonzalez’s case? None other than Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). Scott had many complaints against Gonzalez’s academic record, which I’ll scrutinize one at a time below.

First, Scott claimed that while at ISU, Gonzalez’s “publication record tanked” while at ISU. But as I explained here, according to the Smithsonian/NASA Astrophysics Data System, Gonzalez has published 34 publications since 2001 (the year he joined ISU) and his normalized publication score is 2nd among all astronomers in his department. As Rob Crowther observed:

[H]e peaks in 2003 but ends in 2006 just as high as he was when he started at ISU. Moreover, he outperformed all ISU astronomy faculty in normalized publications during that period. The one year that is obviously less happens to be the same year that he co-authored an astronomy textbook published by Cambridge University Press.

Not only that, but as explained here, Gonzalez led astronomers in his department in a normalized count of citations to his work in other scientific papers:

Gonzalez joined ISU in 2001, and for his publications since 2001 he has the highest normalized citation count of all astronomers in his department, including both tenured and untenured faculty! Moreover, despite the fact that he is much younger than many of the tenured faculty members in the department, he has the second highest lifetime normalized citation count among all astronomers in his department.

Given that Gonzalez apparently led all tenured ISU astronomers who voted against his tenure in both normalized publications and normalized citations since 2001, it’s hard to see what grounds they have for complaining about his publication record. If Gonzalez’s publication record went down at all during his probationary period at ISU, it still remained at an extremely impressive level that warranted tenure. If anything, this indicates that scientists should not be penalized for extraordinarily high academic achievements early in their careers if, like Gonzalez, they continue to produce outstanding publication rates during their tenure probationary period.

Next Shermer quotes Eugenie Scott claiming that Gonzalez “didn’t have very many graduate students, and those he had never completed their degrees.” First, this is a blatant falsehood, first promulgated by anti-ID groups in Iowa. As I explained to Iowa Citizens for Science when they made the same claim:

“Again, that statement is completely false. The truth is that in 2001, soon before Gonzalez left the University of Washington (UW) [to] join the faculty at ISU, he served as the primary advisor to a UW doctoral student in astronomy, Chris Laws. Gonzalez served as Laws’ primary scientific advisor over the course of Laws’ entire doctoral thesis, and Laws successfully graduated from UW with a Ph.D. in astronomy in December, 2004. Gonzalez also served on the committee of another Ph.D. student at UW, Rory Barnes, and this student also successfully graduated in 2004. You may want to also correct this false information as well and issue a retraction immediately.”

Second, it’s worth noting that pre-tenure faculty typically aren’t expected to have as many graduate students as tenured faculty, because pre-tenured faculty are supposed to focus primarily on research. So even if they were accurate, Scott’s complaints here are of little relevance. Shermer should start applying some of his skepticism to the false claims of the pro-Darwin lobbyists like Eugenie Scott.

Finally Shermer asserts that Gonzalez lacks grants, but in their tenure guidelines, Dr. Gonzalez’s department does not even list grants as a criterion they consider for gaining tenure. Nonetheless, Gonzalez was awarded a $50,000 grant from Discovery Institute that allows him to collect more than enough observational astronomy data each year for the next 5 years to conduct a successful research program. In short, Dr. Gonzalez has precisely the money he needs to have a successful research program at ISU.

So if Gonzalez’s department doesn’t list grants as a requirement for tenure, what do their guidelines state? They state, “For promotion to associate professor, excellence sufficient to lead to a national or international reputation is required and would ordinarily be shown by the publication of approximately fifteen papers of good quality in refereed journals.” In this regard, Dr. Gonzalez has over 350% more peer-reviewed science articles than what his department ordinarily requires for indicating the type of reputation that demonstrates research excellence. Having observed this, one external reviewer summarized Dr. Gonzalez’s tenure application as follows:

Dr. Gonzalez is eminently qualified for the promotion according to your guidelines of excellence in scholarship and exhibiting a potential for national distinction. In light of your criteria I would certainly recommend the promotion.

Indeed, 2/3 of the external reviewers who gave an opinion about whether Dr. Gonzalez deserves tenure agreed that he should receive tenure.

Shermer ignores these accomplishments of Gonzalez, and continues his usual method of quoting the persecutor in their denials of discrimination as if that settles the case. Thus, Shermer writes, “According to Gregory Geoffroy, president of Iowa State, ‘Over the past 10 years, four of the 12 candidates who came up for review in the physics and astronomy department were not granted tenure.'” That is irrelevant, for Shermer forgets that Dr. Gonzalez’s academic achievements, whether good or bad, do NOTHING to negate the undeniable evidence of bias and prejudice against him in the department because he supports ID:

  • ISU Physicist John Hauptman explicitly admitted in an op-ed that he voted against Gonzalez’s tenure because of ID: “I participated in the initial vote and voted no, based on this fundamental question: What is science? … 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.”
  • During tenure deliberations in November 2006, Dr. Gonzalez’s department chair Eli Rosenberg devoted a full third of his chair’s statement in Gonzalez’s tenure file to discussing intelligent design, instructing voting members of ISU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy to make ID a litmus test where Gonzalez’s support for ID as science “disqualifies him from serving as a science educator.”
  • In the summer of 2005, atheist professor of religion at ISU, Hector Avalos, e-mailed ISU faculty, inviting them to sign a statement calling on “all faculty members to … reject efforts to portray Intelligent Design as science” because of the “negative impact” due to the fact that “Intelligent Design … has now established a presence … at Iowa State University.”
  • ISU physicist Joerg Schmalian endorses a plan to release an anti-ID statement from his department, intending to send a message to Gonzalez: “If we go on record, we give Gonzalez a clear sign that his ID efforts will not be considered as science by the faculty.” Other faculty (see below) endorse such statements from Schmalian with an intent to directly target Gonzalez, with another scientist in Gonzalez’s department stating that ISU “is not a friendly place for him to develop further his IDeas.”
  • Two tenure-voting faculty in Gonzalez’s department had links to an NCSE anti-ID petition publicly denouncing intelligent design as “creationist pseudoscience.”
  • ISU physicist Bruce Harmon wrote in an e-mail, “As Joerg [Schmalian] says, I think Gonzalez should know that some faculty in his department are not going to count his ID work as a plus for tenure. Quite the opposite.”

It seems clear that ID did play a major negative and inappropriate role in Gonzalez’s tenure denial. Shermer ignores all of this evidence, finding ways to ignore inconvenient facts that make it clear what really happened at ISU. In his one-sided skepticism, he is only skeptical of the claims of ID-proponents and never doubts the demonstrably false words of Eugenie Scott. Readers can decide for themselves whether Shermer and ISU are correct to claim that ID played no significant role in Gonzalez’s denial of tenure.

NCSE-Sanctioned Discrimination?
But what does Scott’s organization, the NCSE, have to say about Gonzalez and ID? In fact, the NCSE has sponsored an anti-Expelled website, “Expelled Exposed,” that takes an intolerant mindset that justifies discriminating against Gonzalez because he supports ID.

The “Expelled Exposed” site says that Gonzalez’s “distracting work on an unscientific enterprise like intelligent design,” among other things, “make[s] it impossible for supporters to legitimately claim that the decision not to grant him tenure was unfounded.” When discussing Gonzalez, the NCSE site also argues that ID proponents do not deserve the protection of academic freedom, stating, “A scientist should not expect his colleagues to ignore his advocacy of a perspective that those in his field have overwhelmingly rejected.” In other words, when ID-proponents like Gonzalez come up for tenure, the NCSE thinks that ID should count as an automatic and absolute negative. Clearly the NCSE endorses discriminating against Gonzalez simply because he supports ID. We have seen clear evidence that Gonzalez’s Darwinist colleagues at ISU felt exactly the same.

Yet Gonzalez’s work on ID has clear academic legitimacy that deserves the protection of academic freedom. Indeed, the ISU faculty handbook says that “academic freedom is the foundation of the university.” Gonzalez didn’t teach ID in the classroom, but his book on ID, The Privileged Planet, was written using a grant from the prestigious Templeton Foundation (a grant which ISU accepted). Moreover, leading scientists, such as Simon Conway Morris, Owen Gingerich, and Philip Skell praised his book on ID. His book was even favorably reviewed by David Hughes of the Royal Astronomical Society. Even if some ISU faculty disagree with Gonzalez’s views on intelligent design, his work clearly has academic legitimacy that deserves the protection of academic freedom.

Gonzalez’s tenure debate has never been, as Lauri Lebo misrepresents it to be, a case where we have argued that “it is unfair to take intelligent design into consideration.” Intelligent design can be considered during tenure evaluations. The question is: how should faculty respond to it? Will they count ID as an automatic and absolute negative, as the NCSE suggests they should, or will they consider the possibility that a commitment to true academic freedom requires that scientists be granted the right to hold such minority viewpoints? Scientists have every right to dissent from ID and express their views in disagreement with ID. The relevant question here is, will scientists be given the right to support ID? The NCSE unambiguously suggests that the answer to that question should be no.

As noted, the ISU faculty handbook claims that “academic freedom is the foundation of the university.” But ISU faculty in Gonzalez’s department chose to follow the NCSE’s approach, counting Gonzalez’s support for ID as a pure negative, failing to grant academic freedom for minority, dissenting scientific viewpoints that clearly have academic respectability. Academic freedom doesn’t just give scientists the right to agree with the majority viewpoint. If Lauri Lebo and the NCSE had their way, ID proponents would be dismissed simply because they support ID, taking away any academic freedom to hold such a minority scientific viewpoint.

Shermer extensively quotes the NCSE’s Executive Director (Eugenie Scott) regarding Gonzalez’s case, clearly showing that Shermer is taking the side of the persecutors, not the persecuted.

Shermer and Eugenie Scott’s Hypocrisy regarding Defining Science
Eugenie Scott’s misrepresentations about Guillermo Gonzalez are not her most incredible statements in Shermer’s review. In Expelled, Ben Stein makes the point that scientists should not reject intelligent design a priori by defining science so as to exclude ID. Stein never tells people how to define science, he just suggests that scientists should not rule out ID due to what they think science is supposed to be. In response, Shermer quotes Eugenie Scott as follows:

“Who is Ben Stein to say what is science and not science? None of us speak for science. Scientists vary all over the map in their religious and philosophical views–for example, Francis Collins [the evangelical Christian and National Human Genome Research Institute director], so no one can speak for science.”

This statement sounds reasonable, but it is both hypocritical and wrong on various levels.

First, as I noted, in the movie Stein never says “what is science and not science.” Stein simply says that there should be academic freedom for these ideas, and scientists should not be excluded because they hold unpopular views. This is an important point, because as noted in Part 1 and Part 2, both Shermer and Scott imply that Richard Sternberg’s reputation should be diminished because he has sympathized with various groups that are critical of neo-Darwinism.

Second, Eugenie Scott says that, “none of us speak for science,” but it’s highly hypocritical for her to suggest that people should not speak about the definition of science. Not only did Scott bless Judge Jones — a non-scientist — in his efforts to define science in the Kitzmiller ruling, but she constantly purports to speak for science. To give just one example, she writes in an article entitled “Science, Religion, and Evolution,” that “science restricts itself to explaining the natural world using natural causes. This restriction of evolution to explanation through natural cause is referred to as ‘methodological materialism’, materialism in this context referring to matter, energy, and their interaction. Methodological materialism is one of the main differences between science and religion … There also are philosophical reasons for restricting science to methodological materialism, having to do with the nature of science itself.” In fact Scott cites herself as an authority for defining science! She cites “Scott, 1995” and “Scott, 1998” to justify these statements.

Eugenie Scott clearly thinks that she can speak for science, she just doesn’t like it when other people have opinions about science that differ from her own. This sounds like a familiar theme among the Darwinists who are interviewed in Expelled.

But what else does Shermer have to say? Shermer does not dispute the admissions by Darwinists in the film that scientists lack a natural chemical explanation for the origin of life. Shermer also claims that there is no persecution because some critics of natural selection — like Lynn Margulis or William Schopf — are embraced by the scientific community. But these critics are fully within the mainstream Darwinian mindset: they wholly reject intelligent design and they believe that unguided processes built all of life’s complexity. So they don’t threaten the core of neo-Darwinism, making it unsurprising that Shermer finds they have experienced no persecution.

Shermer also gives a fairly incomprehensible rant about Expelled‘s discussion of the evidence that Hitler relied upon Darwin. I see no need to respond to Shermer directly on this because Shermer’s arguments made little sense, and besides I’m no expert on Nazis or the Holocaust. (Erudite treatments of this question, with all the important caveats and expected quotations from Darwin and other experts, have been provided by Richard Weikart, a professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, at “Re-examining the Darwin-Hitler Link ” and “Darwin and the Nazis“.)

I may not be a historian, but I am a lawyer (and a half-Jewish lawyer at that), and I have some training about how to evaluate the credibility of witnesses. As a lawyer interested in finding credible witnesses, I find it compelling that the person in Expelled who makes the most forceful argument that Hitler made reliance upon Darwin was the curator of a museum in Germany dedicated to remembering the horrors of the Nazis, who has no apparent personal agenda in the debate over Darwin. She is an expert, a neutral third party who has no reason to take a particular side, and who seems to have no stake in the debate over Darwin. Yet she is the one arguing that Hitler needed Darwin. I’m no expert on questions about whether Hitler relied upon Darwin. But if Hitler didn’t rely on Darwin, then it seems that curators of Holocaust remembrance-museums in Germany must also be in on the big conspiracy to make it seem that he did.

(Important note: Denyse O’Leary rightly reminds us of the context of this debate: “Does that mean that typical modern-day Darwinists have anything in common with Hitler? No, of course not. But it does mean that we cannot understand Hitler without understanding the role that Darwin, especially as Darwin was understood in Germany, played in his thinking.”)

In the end, what does Shermer really have to say against the movie? He calls the film “dishonest” because some Pepperdine biology professors complained that it brought in students as extras for a scene where Ben Stein gives a speech to…students. A movie that used extras? Shocking.

If Michael Shermer should learn any lesson from this episode, it is this: Rather than levying unrestrained skepticism against anything that challenges Darwin, he should start using some of the skepticism that made him famous upon the claims of people on his own side in this debate.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



ExpelledGuillermo GonzalezMichael Shermer