Science and the Law

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In 1633 the Roman Inquisition convicted Galileo Galilei (right) of heresy for publishing scientific information arguing that the earth revolved around the sun, “which is contrary to the true sense and authority of Holy Scripture.”

He was forced to recant his position and his entire body of work. He was under house arrest for the rest of his life. Virtually the entire world, even very religious people, however, eventually became convinced of the validity of Galileo’s argument, which forms the basis for contemporary astronomy.

This makes the predicament of astronomer Martin Gaskell all the more interesting. According to a piece by Peter Smith in the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal:

No one denies that… Gaskell was the leading candidate for the founding director of a new observatory at the University of Kentucky in 2007 — until his writings on evolution came to light.

Gaskell had given lectures to campus religious groups around the country in which he said that while he has no problem reconciling the Bible with the theory of evolution, he believes the theory has major flaws. And he recommended students read theory critics in the intelligent-design movement.

Now a federal judge says Gaskell has a right to a jury trial over his allegation that he lost the job because he is a Christian and “potentially evangelical.”

U.S. Senior District Judge Karl S. Forester of the Eastern District of Kentucky ruled that Gaskell may now have a trial. Gaskell argues that University of Kentucky violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans on employment discrimination on the basis of religion.

The university argues that not hiring someone because he expresses a belief in evolution is entirely valid. Presumably this is because the school might then have some reason to question Gaskell’s belief in the scientific method or just plain rationality.

As a scientific principle, evolution in the twenty-first century occupies roughly the same place that heliocentrism did in the seventeenth: unproven, but widely accepted among educated people.

Still, don’t expect this trial to matter much, either for employment law or the acceptance of the theory itself. According to popular legend, Galileo was forced by his trail to proclaim that he’d been wrong and the earth, indeed, was the center of the universe but he muttered “Eppur si muove ( And yet it moves)” as he was lead away.

The Church allowed some of Galileo’s works to be published in 1718 and officially stopped opposing heliocentrism in 1835.

Gaskell first began to study astronomy as an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh in the 1970s. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer