C. Martin Gaskell, Ph.D  (Source: Lexington Herald Leader)

  (Source: South Park Studios/Comedy Central)
Settlement leaves unanswered the question of whether universities can screen on evolutionary views

As we've written about extensively here on DailyTech, a wealth of fossilgenetic, and field biology evidence offers conclusive assurance that the process of evolution is responsible for producing modern life in all its wondrous forms.  Scientists have even observed it the lab directly.

However, some academics in various scientific have offered public criticism of evolution, not on scientific grounds, but on religious ones.  Some researchers who disavow evolution are now finding themselves the subject of reverse scrutiny.

A University of Kentucky lawsuit raises the thought-provoking philosophical question -- can a university pass over a candidate who publicly (and vocally) turns their back on science in the name of religion, in a field unrelated to their work?

The U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

But it offers no insight into legal discrimination by private firms.  Are universities, who receive much of their funding from the government (thus mixing private and public business), subject to different constraints?

The astronomer passed over, C. Martin Gaskell, left that question unanswered when he accepted a small $125,000 settlement [PDF] to drop his discrimination case.

The University of Kentucky and its attorney, Barbara Jones, have published a statement commenting that despite the settlement the university is confident it did no wrong.  They write:

The University is pleased that a quick settlement has been reached in this case. This successful resolution precludes what would have been a lengthy trial that, ultimately, would not have served anyone's best interests.

Importantly, as the settlement makes clear, the University believes its hiring processes were and are fundamentally sound and were followed in this case. The advisory committee for the position, members of the physics department along with our academic administration and the university’s equal opportunity office all appropriately worked through this hiring process in a manner completely consistent with other positions.

We are confident that a trial court and the members of the jury would have agreed at the conclusion of all the evidence.

But this settlement reflects a balance of our interests in defending our hiring practices with everyone’s desire to avoid lengthy litigation. That is how the legal process, at its best, should work.

The publication Inside Higher Ed reports that Professor Gaskell is now employed at the University of Texas and will soon be travelling to Chile to work at the Universidad de Valparaiso.

Despite commonly held beliefs, researchers are not all atheists.  A study by the Pew Research Institute finds that 31 percent of researchers are religious (say they believe in a God), with the highest numbers being in the field of chemistry (which 41 percent respond that they are religious).  Still, most of these religious researchers accept clearly proven scientific principles like evolution and scientifically derived estimates for the age of the earth and universe -- even if those principles clash with strict literal interpretations of their religion's holy book(s).

Updated: Jan. 20, 2011 4:20 p.m.-

Some readers wondered, why would we report on this story?  Well, the University of Kentucky case, had it gone to court would have been a landmark case for the world of university academia.  While it did not go to court, the story still provides an excellent example of some of the legal-ethical dilemmas facing the world of scientific research today.  Thus we feel it is newsworthy.

Secondly, for the record Dr. Gaskell claims to be closest to a "theistic evolutionist", e.g. he believes God created the universe with a discrete set of rules, including the laws of physics, and -- upon the origin of life -- perhaps evolution.  The lawsuit, however, deals with the fact that the University of Kentucky is claimed to have mistakenly believed Dr. Gaskell to be a creationist/intelligent design proponent and hired a less experienced researcher as a result.  Dr. Gaskell thus sued on the basis of religious discrimination, despite not actually holding the views he said were admittedly used to discriminate against him.

The scenario is made more confusing by the fact that Dr. Gaskell criticizes evolutionary theory in its current state.  He also defends intelligent design, despite supposedly not being a firm believer in the concept:

While discussing controversies and interpretations of Genesis I should mention something that has been much debated in recent years but is not an interpretation of Genesis: what is called "Intelligent Design". This movement, which is often erroneously confused with young-earth creationism, is just exploring the question of what evidence there is in the universe for design by an intelligence. This is really a general, non-religious question (although with obvious religious implications), and there is no opinion on the interpretation of Genesis. ... [I]t should be realized that, despite some popular claims to the contrary, science has no satisfactory explanation of the origins of life yet. Note that the question of the origin of life is a separate problem from the question of the validity of some theories of evolution. The evidence is very good (and gets stronger every year) that all life on earth descended (i.e. , evolved from) from a common origin. There is still a problem of the ultimate origin of life. A discussion of the current controversies over evolutionary theory and how Christians view these controversies, is beyond the scope of this handout, but the now extensive literature discussing and reviewing books such as those of Phillip E. Johnson ("Darwin on Trial") and of biochemist Michael J. Behe ("Darwin's Black Box") will give you some of the flavor of the diversity of opinion of Christian biologists (and geologists).

Dr. Gaskell also writes:

The main controversy has been between people at the two extremes (young earth creationists and humanistic evolutionists). "Creationists" attack the science of "evolutionists". I believe that this sort of attack is very bad both scientifically and theologically. The "scientific" explanations offered by "creationists" are mostly very poor science and I believe this sort of thing actually hinders some (many?) scientists becoming Christians. It is true that there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory (a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job) and that these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses...

Thus it is unclear what exactly Dr. Gaskell is -- a intelligent design proponent or an theistic evolutionist.  

About the only thing clear from his writings is that he is vocally critical of some aspects of the combined theory of evolution and abiogenesis in the sense that is agreed upon by many biologists, chemists, and paleontologists (particularly that life could evolve out of nonliving components without divine intervention).

Regardless of whether Dr. Gaskell is an intelligent design or theistic evolution proponent, the issue of a researcher in a field not related to evolutionary science who did believe in intelligent design or creationism seems to be one that will inevitably come to the courts at some point.  In this regard, this case was somewhat of a preview of such a future debate.

"So if you want to save the planet, feel free to drive your Hummer. Just avoid the drive thru line at McDonalds." -- Michael Asher

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