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An Interview with Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez

By Mario A. López & Eduardo Arroyo Pardo

Guillermo GonzalezIntroduction.

Guillermo Gonzalez is an Assistant Professor of Astronomy at Iowa State University. He received his Ph.D. in Astronomy in 1993 from the University of Washington. He has done post-doctoral work at the University of Texas, Austin and at the University of Washington and has received fellowships, grants and awards from such institutions as NASA, the University of Washington, the Templeton Foundation, Sigma Xi (scientific research society) and the National Science Foundation.

Gonzalez has extensive experience in observing and analyzing data from ground-based observatories, including work at McDonald Observatory, Apache Point Observatory and Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory. He is a world-class expert on the astrophysical requirements for habitability and on habitable zones and a co-founder of the "Galactic Habitable Zone" concept, which captured the October 2001 cover story of Scientific American. Astronomers and astrobiologists around the world are pursuing research based on his work on exoplanet host stars, the Galactic Habitable Zone and red giants.

Gonzalez has also published nearly 70 articles in refereed astronomy and astrophysical journals including The Astrophysical Journal, The Astronomical Journal, Astronomy and Astrophysics, Icarus and Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. He also is the co-author of the second edition of Observational Astronomy, an advanced college astronomy textbook.

This interview was originally conducted in two parts by IDEA Center staffer, Mario A. Lopez, with collaboration from Eduardo Arroyo Pardo for the Pro-ID Spanish website, Organizacion Internacional para el Avance Cientifico del Diseno Inteligente (OIACDI) (formerly Ciencia Alternativa).

EA: Dr. Gonzalez, can you explain with the easiest words your field of expertise within astronomy and physics? In your opinion, which of all these matters is the most controversial one?

GG: I have expertise in two general fields within astronomy: quantitative stellar spectroscopy and astrobiology. The first involves the use of high resolution spectra to determine the basic properties of stars, such as surface temperature and chemical composition. The second is a multidisciplinary research program which attempts to determine which conditions are necessary for habitability.

In addition to these two conventional research areas, I also do Intelligent Design (ID) research in the physical sciences. This is by far the most controversial research I conduct. But, astrobiology research is also controversial. They are controversial, in my view, because some people don’t like the implications of the research findings.

EA: Have you intellectually evolved from the “standard way” of doing science? In other words, how did you come to the actual position?

GG: While those who reject ID as legitimate science would say I have deviated from the accepted or standard way of doing science, I would say that ID research I do is science. If science is a systematized method to discover truths about the universe through observation, then ID certainly qualifies as science. If, instead, science is defined by edicts from the governing bodies of scientific organizations, then ID does not qualify as science. So, I would say I am simply following the evidence wherever it leads. And, if that evidence leads me to conclude that the universe is designed, then I can only be honest and accept it.

I came to be a supporter of ID first from the evidence for fine-tuning in physics and cosmology and later from the evidence we present in The Privileged Planet.

ML: What was most influential for you in accepting ETI? What was most influential in changing your mind?

GG: The huge number of stars in our vast universe was the deciding factor for my original support of ETI. I changed my position on ETI when as a graduate student I began to examine the many factors relevant to a planet’s habitability. I learned that much must go just right for a planet to be habitable. To determine the probability of ETI, it is not enough to understand that there are vast numbers of stars and planets. It is also necessary to factor in the many “habitability factors”. Over the years the list of habitability factors has continued to grow, resulting in probabilities for ETI that continue to drop.

EA: Can you explain us the concept of “Galactic Habitable Zone”? Why do you think this is so relevant?

GG: The Galactic Habitable Zone (GHZ) concept describes how habitability varies with place and time in the Milky Way Galaxy. Two broad classes of processes define its boundaries: threats to life and planetary building blocks. The inner regions of the Milky Way are more dangerous, while the outer regions contain fewer planetary building blocks. As a result of these trends the region of greatest habitability takes the form of an annulus in the disk of the Milky Way.

The GHZ concept is relevant to both astrobiology and ID. The GHZ is another factor that must be included in any calculation of the probability of ETI in the Milky Way Galaxy. As we show in The Privileged Planet the GHZ is not only the most habitable location in the Milky Way, it is also the best location for doing astronomy research. This is part of a broader pattern of evidence for design we discuss in The Privileged Planet.

ML: Many others in your field or related fields have acknowledged that it appears as though a super-intellect may have “monkeyed with physics.” Why are your ideas so controversial? Aren’t they drawing similar conclusions?

GG: Yes, I am drawing similar conclusions to those cosmologists and physicists have been making since the 1950s. For this reason I expected that scientists in the physical sciences would be more receptive of my ID research. Indeed, several scientists have endorsed or positively reviewed The Privileged Planet. I think my work in ID has become controversial because of the general controversy surrounding the evolution/creation/anti-Darwinism debate. The same people and organizations who have strongly opposed creationism and criticism of Darwinism in the past now oppose ID. And, they often lump creationism together with ID and fail to distinguish between ID research in biology to ID research in the physical sciences.

The passion behind the recent opposition to ID clearly comes from militant atheists. They see the conclusions of ID research as challenging their deeply held materialist beliefs, which they equate with science itself.

ML: You have paid dearly for being involved with the ID movement, has it been worth it?

GG: It has been difficult, but I would do it all over again. I have made a number of important discoveries in astronomy, but none can compare in importance to my research in ID. So, yes, it was worth it.

EA: Can you explain to the Spanish-speaking public how was your conflict with Iowa State University? Do you feel that there is some kind of academic prosecution within the American educational system?

GG: I was targeted for public criticism and condemnation beginning a few months after The Privileged Planet was published in March 2004. A small group of vocal atheist professors at Iowa State University (ISU) began to publicly criticize me in local newspapers and public forums on campus. I don’t mind criticism. In fact, I expect it. The criticisms reached a new level in June 2005 when a documentary based on the book was shown at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. James Randy, a prominent “skeptic”, orchestrated a national campaign to try to get the Smithsonian to cancel the showing.

Two months later, over 100 faculty at ISU, led by atheist professor of religious studies Hector Avalos, signed a petition statement condemning ID. Although my name was not mentioned in the petition, I was clearly the target; Avalos had been publicly criticizing me since the fall of 2004.

In the fall of 2006 I came up for tenure review. The physics and astronomy faculty voted against my tenure in November, and the President of ISU came down with his final negative decision the following spring. Since then, I have been appealing the decision, first to the President and then to the Board of Regents. Today, my appeal is still being considered by the Board of Regents.

Statements made by the chair and several faculty of the physics and astronomy department make it clear that my ID research (The Privileged Planet book, my work on which was officially approved by ISU when I arrived in 2001) was the determinative factor in denying me tenure. This is clearly an infringement of my academic freedom. The faculty let their prejudices against ID influence their votes on my tenure.

At this point, I think it is not possible for a known ID proponent to be hired in a science department at a major American university. There is overt viewpoint discrimination taking place at American universities.

ML: Will your conflict with Iowa State be included in Ben Stein’s upcoming film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed?

GG: Yes, I was interviewed for the film. My understanding is that my story will be included in the film when it is released in the spring.

EA: Can you explain a short synopsis of your work The Privileged Planet?

GG: In The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery, Jay Richards and I present evidence for design using data from the physical sciences. Specifically, we showed that the same conditions that result in the most habitable locations also produce the best overall settings for scientific discovery. We reached this conclusion after examining evidence from the atmospheric, geologic and astronomical sciences. The correlation between the conditions for life and the conditions for scientific discovery is improbable and it is not necessary. The correlation is what one would expect if the universe is designed for discovery, but not otherwise.

ML: Peter Ward, co-author of Rare Earth, called your work on The Privileged Planet “crap.” Considering that you were “instrumental in tying the various strains of the Rare Earth argument;” how do you feel about Mr. Ward’s comment? Has your relationship with him changed since your involvement with ID? Why?

GG: Peter Ward is a very emotional person, and he often reacts emotionally to ideas that challenge his. He ceased collaborating with me in 2001, immediately after learning that I was an ID proponent. He made very clear to me at that time his intense dislike of ID. This occurred long before my book was published, so he already had a bias against ID before reading it.

ML: What is your take on the multi-verse hypothesis? Does it have implications for the so-called anthropic coincidences?

GG: I consider myself to be a skeptic of the multi-verse hypothesis. I don’t see how one can have conclusive observational tests of other universes, or even of other domains of our universe. Nevertheless, I must remain open to possible existence of unobservable universes. If (and that’s a big ‘if’) a large number of other universes actually exist, then they could account for the observed anthropic coincidences. Whether they could account for the most impressive examples of fine-tuning would depend on how many other universes there are. In principle, this “self-selection bias” only accounts for necessary conditions for life. Of course, we do not actually know such universes exist, so this remains a speculative explanation for anthropic coincidences.

But, the evidence I present in The Privileged Planet goes beyond just fine-tuning of the necessary conditions for life. The evidence for the fine-tuning of conditions for scientific discovery cannot be explained by appeal to self-selection from multi-verses. This doesn’t mean other universes don’t exist, just that they cannot account for the particular properties of our universe. In other words, we live in an extravagant universe, one that has some properties beyond what is necessary for our existence.

ML: Apart from all of the ad hominem attacks, have you met any formidable challenge against your work in The Privileged Planet?

GG: In Chapter 16, The Skeptical Rejoinder, we presented what we considered to be the most important criticisms of our thesis (including some not so important ones). These are criticisms we either thought of ourselves or encountered from scientists and philosophers while we were still writing the book and speaking at public venues. We have not heard a criticism that we did not already address in the book. Probably the most frequent criticism has to do with the multi-verse hypothesis.

ML: Do you have plans in writing another ID related book?

GG: Right now I don’t have plans for another ID book. I might write a new version of The Privileged Planet with a chapter updating the science, somewhat like what Mike Behe did with Darwin’s Black Box.

In 2004 he co-authored The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery with Jay W. Richards.