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The evolution wars enter
the "No Spin Zone"

By Jason Rosenhouse

Posted September 9, 2005

FOX News host Bill O'Reilly, who boasts that his show is a "No Spin Zone," had Rick Sternberg on as a guest last night. Sternberg, you will recall, is the disgraced former editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Disgraced because he abused his position as editor to circumvent the journal's normal procedures to publish a very bad ID paper, by the Discovery Institute's Stephen Meyer.

We consider the transcript in full:

BILL O'REILLY: In the "'Factor' follow-up" segment tonight. As you may know, there's a bitter debate over whether public schools should be allowed to teach students an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution, a concept called Intelligent Design.

That concept puts forth that a higher power oversaw the evolutionary process. And that's why man will never completely understand it.

One year ago, the editor of a scientific journal called Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington ran an article by Dr. Stephen Meyer of Cambridge University in England that stated intelligent design should be taken seriously as a theory. Well, since that time, Dr. Richard Sternberg's life has been hell. He joins us now from Washington.

Well, I just want to tell everybody that, you know, the federal government investigated your situation and found that you had been harassed because you allowed this article to be printed. I want to know what happened to you? What form did the Harris men take?

Note: That's exactly how things appear in the posted transcript, but I'm sure "Harris men" is supposed to be harassment.

O'Reilly was rather impressed by Cambridge University. Later he said:

O'REILLY: But the bottom line is they wanted to ruin you for simply running an article by a scholar. I mean, Cambridge University is one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

In light of this, someone ought to point out that Stephen Meyer is not "of Cambridge University." He holds a PhD in the history and philosophy of science from Cambridge, but his current academic affiliation is with the evangelical Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is also the director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture.

That's a big difference, wouldn't you say? Not quite so prestigious after all. But if O'Reilly were to pay attention to so simple a fact he would not be able to bloviate with quite as much enthusiasm.

Likewise, O'Reilly cannot afford to mention that the peer-review process used to support the publication of the Meyer paper was almost certainly corrupt.

And the real story of what "the federal government" (in this case the highly politicized Office of Special Counsel) found is substantially different from what O'Reilly describes. Commenting at the Panda's Thumb blog, Nick Matzke provided a good summary of some of the odd points in the OSC finding:

In essence, the OSC opinion, authored by Bush appointee James McVey, seems designed to give the religious right another talking point about how any criticism of ID or the ID movement’s actions amounts to religious discrimination by the evil secular scientific establishment, even though ID is allegedly science, not religion. Somehow, it manages to do this (1) while telling Sternberg that OSC doesn't have jurisdiction, (2) without any contrasting opinion from the accused parties, and (3) without documenting any actual injury to Sternberg, who still has his unpaid research position, an office, keys, and access to the collections. The opinion is therefore a pretty strange document to read.

Let's return to the transcript. So what form did the harassment take?

RICHARD STEINBERG, FEDERAL SCIENTIST AND EDITOR: Well, it took a number of forms, Bill. First of all, immediately after the article was published, there was a very tepid reaction with a museum.

However, a number of outside groups and individuals began writing e- mails, letters of protests, phoning the museum, phoning my employer, demanding my ouster for this. Apparently, there was an unstated rule that you do not accept a manuscript for per review that counters Darwinism, or seriously counters Darwinism.

And furthermore, I was a gatekeeper. I allowed the paper to be peer reviewed and furthermore, I committed the terribly sin of allowing it to be published.

And so the retaliation that followed took the form of the spreading of misinformation, such that, you know, my degrees were in religion and philosophy, not in science, that there was actually no per review, that I had accepted money under the table. That I...

Apparently what happened is that many people, angered by Sternberg's obvious abuse of power, contacted the Smithsonian to protest. That's not harassment. In response to this we are expected to believe that the Smithsonian engaged in a systematic campaign of misinformation concerning points that are easily checked. That's ridiculous on its face.

No doubt what we are really talking about here are a handful of e-mails from his colleagues wondering how such an intellectually corrupt gentleman ever managed to emerge as the editor of their journal.

O'Reilly then summed it up for us:

O'REILLY: So they came after you viciously. And I know how that is; they do that to me every day. But who is behind this?

STERNBERG: Well, it was...

O'REILLY: Go ahead.

STERNBERG: It was a concerted -- it was -- the retaliation occurred in concert. It was between the officials of the Smithsonian Institution, curators, various administrators and the National Center for Science and Education, based in Oakland, California.

They -- they orchestrated, for example, at least the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) orchestrated a repudiation of the article, actually helped the repudiation to be drafted. That is a statement of retraction. And then turned around and cited it on their web site as evidence, not so much evidence, but allowed them to strongly insinuate editorial malfeasance on my part.

They aided in drafting, for example, a statement by the council that oversees publication of the journal to suggest that somehow I had broken the rules.

O'REILLY: But the bottom line is they wanted to ruin you for simply running an article by a scholar. I mean, Cambridge University is one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

Sternberg surely knows that Meyer is not affiliated with Cambridge University, but he happily ignores that fact here.

Meanwhile, we now have the NCSE implicated in the conspiracy. Their crime? They helped the editorial board draft the statement condemning the publication of the article. When the editorial board subsequently adopted a modified version of the statement, it was apparently unscrupulous in some way for the NCSE to make note of the fact. The horror of it all!

Of course, the only really important issue here is whether Sternberg did indeed violate the procedures of the journal, and whether the article he published was any good. He did, and it wasn't. Everything else is just politics and PR. O'Reilly's suggestion that Sternberg's critics came after him just for publishing a paper by a scholar is a bit rich coming from someone who boasts of running a no-spin zone.

We continue:

O'REILLY: They said look, you ought -- you ought to take a look at this intelligent design and not just throw it out in the garbage.

STERNBERG: Right.

O'REILLY: So they tried to ruin you for doing that. And I'm not -- I'm not quite understanding, is this an anti-religion movement? I mean, what are they afraid of here? What's the bottom line on it?

STERNBERG: Well, it was -- it's an attempt, I think, to suppress scientific dissent.

O'REILLY: Why, though? Why? Why? What is it in for these people who would be to brutal toward anyone who might want to just take a look at intelligent design?

O'Reilly's working real hard here, but, doggone it, he just can't figure out why the thinking world was so upset by the publication of Meyer's paper. What could it be? What possible reason could they have for being angered by the publication of a paper whose arguments are complete worthless garbage? Better get Woodward and Bernstein on this one.

And we may as well state for the record that no one objects to anyone looking at anything. The issue is having the basic scientific competence to know a bad argument when you see one; a skill Meyer and Steinberg apparently lack.

O'Reilly wraps things up by explaining the real reason people got so angry with Sternberg:

STERNBERG: There -- there is a -- I think it's religiously and politically motivated. It's a form of projection. You have groups like the NCSE and others who argue that the intelligent design advocates, the creationists, etc., are trying to suppress information, trying to hinder science. And -- and ironically, quite the opposite appears to have occurred in this situation.

They felt that, you know, if, for example, the pros and the cons of the issue are placed on the scientific table, then essentially the whole edifice is going to unravel, and that simply cannot be allowed.

O'REILLY: Well, I think it's more than that. I think this is a concerted effort in a fascist way to punish anyone who might want to inject the higher power into any scientific discussion.

I mean, this is a real -- let's get religion out of it completely and never deal with that aspect of it again.

Doctor, thanks so much. We're sorry you had to go through what you went through.

Fascist. Lovely.

O'Reilly started his program that night with his usual "Talking Points Memo." For those who don't watch the show, this is where O'Reilly lays down the law, talks straight talk, explains what all right-thinking Americans should believe, cuts through all the bull, and tells it like it is. The title of the memo last night was: "Are You an Extremist?" Here's part of what he said:

But I think we can safely establish some rules for the road here. An extremist is someone who rejects facts and holds on to opinions no matter what.

And later:

In my opinion, extremists have a neurosis. They really don't want to hear anything other than the conclusion they've arrived at, no matter what the evidence suggests.

That's how he started the show. About a half hour later he does a segment with Mr. Sternberg in which he omits every relevant fact that runs counter to his preferred narrative. It is almost a sure thing that he understands none of the scientific issues involved in the evolution/ID dust-up, but he is quite sure that scientific opposition to ID stems from religious bigotry and fascistic tendencies. The irony of his memo giving an almost perfect description of the ID folks is apparently lost him.

By his own definition, O'Reilly is an extremist. Even worse, he is a dishonest charlatan more interested in promoting his blinkered view of things than in getting at the truth. Worse still, millions of people not only watch him every night, but take him seriously as well.

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