Should employers be blind to private beliefs?

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(Reflections inspired by the Gaskell debate in Kentucky)

The University of Kentucky has caved in and agreed a settlement, out of court, with the allegedly creationist astronomer Martin Gaskell. For a brief account of the case see [here]. The detailed legal documents are [here], and a range of views are to be found [here] and [here]. Briefly, Gaskell was rejected for the position of Director of a new university observatory, and he sued the university on grounds of religious discrimination. The university has now settled to pay him off with $125,000, while declining to admit wrongdoing.

On the face of it, Gaskell's allegation is ludicrous. You go up for a job and somebody else is preferred. It happens all the time. One candidate wins, the rest are disappointed. End of story. In this case, however, it was not the end of the story. There is good evidence that Gaskell was the top candidate on other grounds. The chairman of the search committee wrote an email to the chairman of the department, which included [the following]:

If Martin were not so superbly qualified, so breathtakingly above the other applicants in background and experience, then our decision would be much simpler. We could easily choose another applicant, and we could content ourselves with the idea that Martin's religious beliefs played little role in our decision. However, this is not the case. As it is, no objective observer could possibly believe that we excluded Martin on any basis other than religious...

A smoking gun, it would seem, and one that smokes out an important general question: is it a good law that says a candidate's beliefs are private and should be ignored when making appointments, in the same way as colour or sex should be ignored (unless one wants to make a case for positive discrimination)? The chairman of the search committee actually said that Gaskell was "breathtakingly above the other applicants", which is as clear an admission of negative discrimination as a lawyer could want. My own position would be that if a young earth creationist (YEC, the barking mad kind who believe the entire universe began after the domestication of the dog) is "breathtakingly above the other candidates", then the other candidates must be so bad that we should re-advertise and start afresh.

Martin Gaskell claims, however, that he is not a full-blooded YEC although he has "a [lot of respect] for people who hold this view because they are strongly committed to the Bible", so I want to leave his particular case on one side and look at the general principles. First, is it always wrong to discriminate against holders of certain beliefs when appointing? Second, should it make a difference if the beliefs are based on religion? Is it a good law that deems religious belief a peculiarly private matter, to which we should be conscientiously blind when appointing a candidate to a position?

Let's look at some possible scenarios, beginning with some absurd extremes.

1. A doctor believes in the stork theory of human reproduction, rejecting the sex theory. He applies for a job as an eye surgeon in a teaching hospital, is rejected because of his beliefs, and sues the hospital on grounds of discrimination. His lawyer makes the case that, since he makes no pretence to be an obstetrician, his views on obstetrics are irrelevant to his (breathtakingly superior) ability to operate on eyes and teach ophthalmology.

2. A flat-earther applies for a professorship of geography. He promises to keep his private beliefs to himself, and undertakes to adhere closely to the round earth theory in all his lectures. He is universally agreed to be a brilliant teacher, breathtakingly above the other candidates in his ability to get the (erroneous, in his view) round earth theory across to students.

I suspect that most of my readers would discriminate against both these job candidates, although some might feel uncomfortable doing so because the word 'discriminate' carries such unfortunate baggage. A commentator on a website discussing the Gaskell affair went so far as to write, "If Gaskell has produced sound, peer-reviewed literature of high quality then I see no reason for denying him the position, even if he believes Mars is the egg of a [giant purple Mongoose]". That commentator probably felt rather pleased with his imagery, but I don't believe he could seriously defend the point he makes with it and I hope most of my readers would not follow him. There are at least some imaginable circumstances in which most sensible people would practise negative discrimination.

If you disagree, I offer the following argument. Even if a doctor's belief in the stork theory of reproduction is technically irrelevant to his competence as an eye surgeon, it tells you something about him. It is revealing. It is relevant in a general way to whether we would wish him to treat us or teach us. A patient could reasonably shrink from entrusting her eyes to a doctor whose beliefs (admittedly in the apparently unrelated field of obstetrics) are so cataclysmically disconnected from reality. And a student could reasonably object to being taught geography by a professor who is prepared to take a salary to teach, however brilliantly, what he believes is a lie. I think those are good grounds to impugn his moral character if not his sanity, and a student would be wise to avoid his classes.

But should this all change, if it can be shown that these eccentric beliefs are based upon religion? Should religiously inspired beliefs be privileged, protected against scrutiny, where other beliefs are not? If the eye-doctor's belief in the stork theory, or the geographer's flat-earthism, or the astronomer's belief that Mars is the egg of a mongoose, turned out to be derived directly from a holy book or 'faith tradition', should that weaken our objection? Let's look at a couple more scenarios, real ones this time, not hypothetical.

3. A senior colleague at Oxford told me of an astronomer who, on religious grounds, believes the universe is less than ten thousand years old. This man holds down a job as a competent cosmological theorist (not at Oxford, I hasten to say). He publishes mathematical papers in learned journals, taking it for granted that the universe is nearly fourteen billion years old and using this assumption in his calculations. He bottles up his personal beliefs so successfully that he is capable of performing calculations that assume an old universe and make a genuine contribution to science. My colleague takes the view that this YEC is entitled to a job as a professor of astronomy, because he keeps his private beliefs to himself while at work. I take the opposite view. I would object to employing him, on the grounds that his research papers, and his lectures to students, are filled with what he personally believes to be falsehoods. He is a fake, a fraud, a charlatan, drawing a salary for a job that could have gone to an honest astronomer. Moreover, I would regard his equanimity in holding two diametrically opposing views simultaneously in his head as a revealing indicator that there is something wrong with his head.

4. I have [previously written] about the similar case of the geologist Kurt Wise, so will not rehearse it again here. Although well qualified with a PhD in paleontology from Harvard, he published the following disarmingly ingenuous confession:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.

I would discriminate against both these religious men if I were on the search committee for a university job, on the same grounds as I gave for my hypothetical examples above. The fact that these particular anti-scientific beliefs happen to be grounded in religion should make no difference. Religious beliefs should never be privileged over other beliefs, simply by virtue of being religious. Either a particular belief is relevant to eligibility for employment or it is not. Whether the candidate got it from a religious 'tradition', or simply made it up, is immaterial: a traditional or scriptural belief was originally made up too - just longer ago. If you want to insist that a candidate's beliefs are private, should be respected, and should be treated as irrelevant by an appointing committee, then you should at least be consistent. You should also be blind to whether or not those beliefs have a religious provenance. Either you should say, "I don't care whether his beliefs are based on religion or not, they are private and I refuse to take them into account." Or you should join me in saying, "I don't care whether his beliefs are based on religion or not, they affect his suitability for the job, and I am going to take them into account." 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.


Image: "The Brain in the Sistine Chapel," photoshopped from the Michelangelo original and shared in the Boing Boing Flickr Pool by Boing Boing reader Tom Blackwell of Otley, UK. From the image description:
An article written in the Journal of the American Medical Association describes the shape as an anatomically accurate picture of the human brain, including the frontal lobe, optic chiasm, brain stem, pituitary gland, and the major sulci of the cerebrum. (...) Some say the meaning of the brain in the Sistine Chapel is not of God giving intelligence to Adam, but rather that the intelligence and observation of the human brain lead directly to God without needing a Church at all. Others interpret it as a metaphor for atheism: God is an invention of the human mind, and it is actually mankind that is giving life to his imagined 'creator.'