January Diary
The gulag, the Long Island Railroad, Chinese lit, and more


John Derbyshire

Discrimination in Kentucky     Creationism as a live issue has pretty much quiesced since the Kitzmiller decision. It’s been ages since I was invited anywhere to defend ol’ Chuck.

Not that anybody much has changed their minds, of course. People just aren’t bothering with the issue, having more important things to bother about — like, for example, FOURTEEN TRILLION DOLLARS OF NATIONAL DEBT. Once in a while it still rises to the level of newsworthiness, just barely. Rep. Jack Kingston made a doofus of himself over it the other evening, as noted by my SecularRight colleague David Hume.

And then there was the much more interesting — because ethically knotty — business of astronomer C. Martin Gaskell, who in 2007 was not hired for the directorship of the observatory at the University of Kentucky because, he claimed, of his religious views. In mid-January the university settled out of court, paying Gaskell $125,000 in order, they said, “to avoid the headache and expense of a trial.”

The ethical conundrum here is nontrivial. Great scientific or mathematical ability can certainly cohabit in the same brain with odd religious notions, Isaac Newton being the star exhibit here. The chair of the UK search committee (though none of the other four members) thought Gaskell’s qualifications “stand far above those of any other applicant.”

Richard Dawkins chimed in with a long, thoughtful piece arguing inter alia that wacky beliefs could be legitimate grounds for not hiring a candidate, and that wacky religious beliefs (e.g. Young Earth Creationism) should not be privileged over wacky non-religious beliefs (e.g. the stork theory of human reproduction).

A law that encourages you to say, “If a candidate’s private beliefs are based on religion I shall ignore them, otherwise I shall take them into account,” is a bad law.

It is a bad law because, while purporting to oppose discrimination, it is actually highly discriminatory: it discriminates in favour of religious foolishness and against non-religious foolishness.

I prefer to discriminate against both.

Dawkins’s piece comes with a saner-than-average comment thread.

Glenn Reynolds then took a swing at Dawkins . . . and no doubt there are many other comments around the web.

What to make of all this? In the first place, Gaskell’s notions don’t seem all that nutty. Certainly they are nothing like as weird as Newton’s — though to be sure, and quite properly, standards of nuttiness have tightened considerably since 1700. Gaskell is certainly not a Young Earth Creationist, as Dawkins comes close to implying.

But then, observatory director is not a cloistered research position. It has a considerable P.R. component to it. UK might reasonably feel they don’t want to be represented by a director who mutters peculiar things, even if only on his personal website.

And the libertarian voice pipes up: What’s with discrimination laws anyway? Why shouldn’t UK hire who they please, for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reasons? The counter to that is, I guess, that UK is a public university, in one of the more religious states of the Union.

And so on, pro and con. On balance I’m with UK here. I think they might reasonably expect some downside from having Gaskell as director of their observatory, and in any case the man seems like a crybaby, and in any-any case I think discrimination laws stink, even allowing for the public factor here. Ethically, though, the case is, as I said, nontrivial.


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