Special Forces: Deprogram
I first met Guillermo Gonzalez in a hotel coffee shop in June 2005, the morning after the Smithsonian screening of The Privileged Planet. This controversial film, based on Gonzalez's book of the same name (co-authored with Jay Richards), advances the view that the Earth is one lucky planet in terms of sustaining life, as well as unusually well-located for exploring our galaxy.
Gonzalez is quite appreciative of this latter quality. Apart from his recent marriage, exploring the galaxy pretty much sums up his life. After all, it was not long after arriving in the United States as a young Cuban refugee that he first discovered astronomy. "People who are into astronomy get into it very early," he likes to explain. "It's such a beautiful science."
Gonzalez had more than an interest in astronomy; he had a gift. He quickly became a recognized expert in exoplanets—planets that orbit stars other than our sun. He published paper after paper, never realizing how much he was hated at Iowa State University—based solely on The Privileged Planet.
Why is this film so controversial? Partly on account of the false accusation, published by The New York Times, that it is anti-evolution. In fact, the movie says nothing about evolution and assumes standard origin dates for the Earth and the universe, both of which Gonzalez emphatically accepts. Yet, the Times article was enough to cause so many Darwin zealots to besiege the Smithsonian that the institution withdrew co-sponsorship of the film.
Anne Applebaum of The Washington Post weighed in on the debate, claiming that The Privileged Planet was a "religious" film, a view that Gonzalez says he doesn't understand. He recalls that he tried to reason with her, but "it was like talking to a wall, like talking to a post."
The Privileged Planet takes on the assertion of popular-astronomy saint Carl Sagan that Earth is merely a "pale blue dot"—both insignificant and wholly unremarkable. It clearly explains Sagan's arguments for such, and then provides overwhelming evidence that they are false. Gonzalez thought that in doing so, his film was merely setting the science record straight.
But no. For the secular elite, Gonzalez—a Christian—is a dangerous heretic. He was dissing St. Carl in his own church, the Smithsonian. To the elite, "religion" is okay if you just stupid-holler for Jesus. But it is dangerous if you provide evidence against materialism.
After our meeting, Gonzalez went back to Iowa State University and continued to study the exoplanets. He then applied for tenure. Despite his many publications, he was turned down. The university made an elaborate case that he did not qualify. As the controversy grew, even the university president got involved, assuring all that Gonzalez was justly denied. The only problem was that the university's case didn't make sense. For example, the fact that Gonzalez published an astronomy textbook was characterized as an unwise use of his time.
As it happens, official emails were exchanged prior to the decision. The Discovery Institute made a public-records request for the emails, and they were eventually published by Lisa Rossi of the Des Moines Register. This correspondence made it clear that the decision to deny tenure to Gonzalez (the equivalent of being fired in academia) was based explicitly on his support for design in the universe, not on his performance. One email read: "Do we do everything at secret meetings and then hope the Discovery Institute's lawyers don't subpoena our records?" Nonetheless, the Board of Regents for Iowa refused to consider the emails as evidence and turned down Gonzalez's appeal. So the brilliant young astronomer is looking for a job.
For me, the telling feature of this story is not Gonzalez's fate. Materialism eats talented children; that is its nature. No, the telling feature is the steady stream of mediocrities who write to me and demand that I recognize that Gonzalez does not deserve tenure.
As a journalist, I try to be evenhanded, but I struggle with a profound distaste for these people. It was not enough for them to watch a man's career destroyed because his research showed the flaws in their narrow, science-stopping materialist creed. No, they also feel the need to defame him. These people—not that they would know it, of course—are a standing indictment of materialism. Their vicious comments are their odious legacy, whereas Gonzalez's research is his. •
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