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Critique of Intelligent Design

Evolution vs. Creationism

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Creating a Martyr: The Sternberg Saga Continues

By Ed Brayton

Posted December 19, 2006

The Discovery Institute is promoting a new report from a conservative Indiana Congressman about the Sternberg affair. For those who don't recall, Richard Sternberg was the editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a journal loosely associated with the Smithsonian Institution, when they published the now-infamous paper by DI Program Director Stephen C. Meyer. This is very important for their PR campaign to position themselves as victims of persecution, but the facts of the case simply do not support the conclusions of the report.

Though the DI says that "The House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources has issued its official report" on the matter, this does not appear to be an official report of that committee. Rather, it appears to be a report from the staff of the committee to Rep. Mark Souder only. The report is hosted on Souder's website, not the committee website, and there is nothing to indicate that it is an official committee report.

The report has two parts: the report itself and an appendix, which contains the evidence upon which the report is based, primarily emails and letters from Smithsonian administrators, staff, Sternberg himself and the NCSE staff. If you take the time to read through the appendix, which is quite large, it doesn't take long to figure out what is really going on here. Comparing the evidence in the appendix to the conclusions in the report leads one to several conclusions:

1. What little ill-treatment Sternberg may have gotten (in fact, all of the comments expressing distrust and anger at Sternberg and urging his dismissal were made not to his face, but in private emails that he never saw) was largely self-inflicted, the result not only of his violation of procedures in regard to the Meyer paper, but in regard to several other instances of professional malfeasance and prior examples of poor judgement as PBSW editor.

2. The evidence does not support the conclusion that Sternberg was discriminated against in any material way. At absolute worst, he was greeted with professional mistrust and anger on the part of some of his colleagues, who were upset that his actions in regard to the Meyer paper brought disrepute to the Smithsonian and to them as associates. Disapproval and criticism, of course, are not the same thing as discrimination nor are they a violation of his civil rights.

3. Sternberg has grossly exaggerated several alleged instances of "retaliation" in the early days of the scandal. In particular, he claimed that he had his keys taken away, his access to the Smithsonian's collections taken away, and lost his office space. In reality, the keys and office space were exchanged as part of larger museum changes and he retains the same access today that all others in his position have.

4. The accusations, in particular, against the National Center for Science Education - that they conspired with Smithsonian officials to "publicly smear and discredit" Sternberg - are not only not supported by the evidence in the appendix, they are completely disproven by the emails contained therein.

5. All of that leads to the only possible conclusion: that this is a trumped-up report orchestrated by political allies of the Discovery Institute, particularly Rep. Mark Souder and former (I love saying that) Sen. Rick Santorum. They have put out a report that simply is not supported by the evidence and was designed, intelligently or otherwise, to support the disingenuous PR campaign that includes the attempt to position themselves as victims of discrimination.

Before we even look at these specific points, let's first review what we know about the situation that precipitated the entire controversy, the publication of the Meyer article, The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories, in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. We know that Sternberg was the editor of that journal and that the last issue for which he would be editor was the August, 2004 issue, the one in which Meyer's article appeared; his editorship was up after that issue, as was predetermined. We know that the Meyer article was on a subject that was inappropriate for the journal's normal focus, which is systematics. A few weeks after the article was published, the council of the Biological Society of Washington published a statement which said:

The Council, which includes officers, elected councilors, and past presidents, and the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings because the subject matter represents such a significant departure from the nearly purely systematic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 122-year history...Accordingly, the Meyer paper does not meet the scientific standards of the Proceedings.

We also know that Sternberg went outside the normal peer review procedures for the journal. Again, from the council's statement on the matter:

Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process.

Sternberg claims that he handled the entire review process because none of the associate editors were qualified and because he was the most qualified. On his webpage, he wrote:

Since systematics and evolutionary theory are among my primary areas of interest and expertise (as mentioned above, I hold two PhDs in different aspects of evolutionary biology), and there was no associate editor with equivalent qualifications, I took direct editorial responsibility for the paper.

But this simply was not true. Systematics (the study of taxonomy) is the subject of the PBSW and it is the subject of Sternberg's expertise, but it is not the subject of Meyer's paper. The primary subject of the paper is the Cambrian explosion and, ostensibly, bioinformatics as it pertains to the origin of the higher phyla. This is not the focus of Sternberg's research, nor does it have much of anything to do with systematics other than an obligatory discussion of how many phyla and sub-phyla originated during the Cambrian. The most appropriate reviewers, then, would be paleontologists. Among the associate editors at the time (and still today) was Gale Bishop, an expert in invertebrate paleontology. There were three other specialists on invertebrates among the associate editors as well, including current PBSW editor Stephen Gardiner, Christopher Boyko and Janet Reid, all specialists in invertebrate zoology (the Cambrian fauna was almost entirely made up of invertebrates). Yet Sternberg felt no need to let any of those people, all more qualified than him on the subject, even look at the paper, or even make them aware of its existence. He may not have been under any formal obligation to send the article to someone with a specialty in Cambrian paleontology, but that is both the professional and the ethical thing to do.

Nor was this the first time Sternberg's handling of a controversial manuscript an issue. There is also mention in an email from Frank Ferrari (p. 20) that this was not the first time Sternberg had published a substandard article after initially not following normal review procedures. Ferrari says:

What is troubling is the implication in the article that the manuscript was peer-reviewed. I doubt it was, based on my experience with Sternberg and the infamous Nizinski manuscript, which Sternberg also wanted to publish and also insisted had been peer-reviewed. Prior to publication, I asked him who reviewed the Nizinski manuscript, but he would not give me any names. When I insisted that the manuscript be reviewed internationally, the consensus of 4 international reviewers was rejection (sadly, Sternberg published it anyway).

There were also concerns raised in the emails in the appendix over complaints concerning his handling of numerous manuscripts during his tenure as editor of the PBSW. One colleague reported having emails from the authors of 17 different papers complaining about Sternberg's handling of their manuscript submissions.

Now, why is all of this particularly important in regard to this one paper? Because professional ethics would have demanded that this situation be handled with more transparency, not less. Sternberg knew that the Meyer paper - any paper advocating ID, for that matter - would be highly controversial (indeed, he admits as much on his webpage). It would be doubly so because of Sternberg's close connections with the ID movement and with Meyer specifically, indeed his close connection to the material in that specific paper. In October 2002, a conference called RAPID (Research and Progress in Intelligent Design) was held at BIOLA. This was a closed conference, only ID advocates were allowed to attend (Wes Elsberry was specifically refused admission for that reason).

At that conference, not only did Sternberg present a pro-ID paper, but Meyer presented on the exact material that went into the paper that was eventually published (see the full schedule here). It seems rather obvious that this conference was probably where the scheme was hatched to get this paper, which would otherwise almost certainly be denied if not sent to a friendly editor in a position to approve its publication without input from the journal's other editors, into the Proceedings. Indeed, Meyer has said as much, in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. That article requires a subscription, but this report says:

According to the article, Meyer "said he had chosen the journal because Mr. Sternberg attended a conference where Mr. Meyer gave an oral presentation advancing the same arguments. The two discussed the possibility of publishing the work."

So what does all of that tell us? It tells us that Sternberg had numerous complaints and problems over his handling of manuscripts, his decisions to publish substandard papers, his bypassing of normal peer review process and his decisions to publish papers despite negative peer reviews. It tells us that the paper almost certainly should never have been published. That much has been admitted by the BSW Council, who also point out that had the associate editors seen the manuscript, they would have rejected it as inappropriate as well. It tells us that Sternberg, despite knowing that the publication of this paper would be very controversial, indeed knowing that if it was reviewed by the associated editors or by other competent paleontologists at the Smithsonian it would almost certainly be rejected, conspired in advance to make sure it would slide through, and kept secret his connections to the author and the ID movement throughout the process.

Sternberg has attempted to argue that all of this is okay because, technically, he had the authority to do it. But having that authority does not excuse the professional and ethical misjudgments. If you know that the publication of a pro-ID paper in a Smithsonian journal is going to cause an outcry, and you have close ties to the ID movement and to the author of this paper specifically, the ethical thing to do would be to recuse yourself from handling that paper and allow someone without those personal and professional ties to the author and subject of the paper to decide whether it should be published. We know, because the BSW Council has told us, that the paper was inappropriate for the journal and that, had it gone to the associate editors, it would have been rejected. Sternberg knew that as well, and despite the obvious conflicts of interest inherent in the situation, he secretly shepherded the paper through to make sure it got in. This is flagrant breach of professional ethics that brought disrepute to the Smithsonian. Is it really so surprising or unjustified that he was subject to a few rude comments and treated brusquely by those who were embarrassed by his actions?

The emails in the appendix reveal much more than that, however. They also reveal that Sternberg was guilty of a good deal more malfeasance at the Smithsonian. For example, Marilyn Schotte (who is, I'm told, a close friend of Sternberg's) reports in an email (p. 27) about Sternberg's lack of responsibility in taking care of Smithsonian resources:

With regard to Rick's sense of responsibility as a Research Associate at NMNH, I know that he kept hundreds of specimens from the USNM collection in his office for a couple of years despite repeated requests from the curator-in-charge and the Collection Manager to return the specimens to the collection. He finally returned the majority (which he was not currently working on) and moved the remainder, a small collection into a temporary office. After six months of his absence from the museum, I returned all specimens back to the main collection and noted that 10-12% of them needed alcohol, so they were not being properly curated. I also saw overdue notices from the NMNH library on Rick's desk, unopened. He had over 50 books and periodicals checked out and ignored repeated requests to turn them in or renew them. After the third recall notice and a prompt from me via email, he returned a book needed by someone else and told me that he "notified the library staff about the others." The next day I queried the staff about those remaining overdue books and was told that Rick had contacted no one, and that the books and periodicals were still overdue.

Not exacly the way to endear oneself to one's colleagues or to the management of a museum. Improperly handling specimens is a cardinal sin in a research institution like this. And in fact, the problem gets worse. In an email from his supervisor, Jonathan Coddington, Sternberg was informed of just how irresponsible he was in handling Smithsonian materials:

At the request of SI libraries, we recently attempted to find and return your more than 50 overdue library books, but several dozen apparently are still missing. If, perchance, you have removed those from the building, please return them immediately as we insist that all SI library books remain on the premises. If not, where are they? We have checked WG-9 and Brian's old office. You are welcome to check books out from our libraries, but they should remain in your designated workspace.

My only other concern is that your old IZ work area seems to contain specimens from other institutions (Univ Miami?), but we have no records of an incoming loan in your name. For obvious reasons, we like to be aware of non-SI material in the building, so please clarify the status of these specimens with Marilyn and/or Vic. If they do belong to another institution, the transaction should be recorded in our transaction management system.

So in addition to all the problems regarding his tenure as editor of the journal, and the questions surrounding the Meyer paper, there were also numerous problems with his responsibility as a Research Associate at the Smithsonian. Again, is it any wonder that he engendered some hostility from his colleagues?

In addition to that, the emails contained in the appendix provide powerful evidence that Sternberg vastly exaggerated, at the very least, the extent of the alleged retaliation in the aftermath of the controversy. For instance, he claimed that he had his keys, his office and his access to the collections taken away; none of those claims were true and all are clearly contradicted by the emails in the appendix. In fact, even before the article was published, Sternberg -- along with many other staff members and researchers -- was informed that he would be moved to different offices because of a reorganization of the vertebrate and invertebrate zoology departments. In an email in July of 2004 (p. 36), Sternberg is informed, along with several others, about this reorganization and told that they would have to move offices.

Sternberg was moved twice. First, as a part of the larger reorganization that involved a couple dozen people. In fact, they remodeled a room just to make sure he and another RA still had offices and workspace. Sternberg knew about and agreed to that move in July of 04, before the paper was even published, so there is simply no way to pretend that it was done in retaliation for anything. The second move, from invertebrate zoology to vertebrate zoology, was at Sternberg's request and he remains there to this day. As far as the keys are concerned, Sternberg had a master key, which would have gotten him into anything, including private offices. As part of a larger crackdown on lax security, master keys were restricted to those who really should have them, and RAs certainly did not qualify. But Sternberg still has access to everything he ever needed access to for his research, which was never limited in any way.

The report makes a big deal out of the fact that one SI staffer in particular, Rafeal Lemaitre, was strongly arguing that Sternberg should have his access removed and appeared to be very hostile to him. But as the emails show, his repeated requests for Sternberg to be punished were refused by his superiors, who in fact finally just told him to stop making such a big deal out of it. But given that Lemaitre is the curator of the very specimen collections (crustaceans, specifically decapods) on which Sternberg worked and with which he showed such a lack of responsibility, is it really so unjustified that he would show hostility toward Sternberg? And remember, having a colleague not like you or criticize you is simply not an instance of discrimination.

The report also makes a big deal out of the fact that there was discussion in the emails of whether Sternberg should be asked to resign and that people raised questions about his religious views. But given that he had just snuck in a paper that argues for a religious rather than scientific explanation into a scientific journal attached to the Smithsonian, those are hardly unreasonable questions. No one ever so much as suggested that his religious views could or should be grounds for anything; in fact, the emails in the appendix explicitly argue against that. The report seems to think that the mere fact that questions were asked about an obvious aspect of the situation, that this amounts to discrimination even if no actual action was ever taken against Sternberg at all. While there was much discussion of the situation, about what improprieties had taken place and about what they might do about it, including some discussion of whether they should ask Sternberg to resign his position, in the end nothing at all was done to him. The administration ultimately concluded that there was not sufficent cause to take any action toward Sternberg, and none was ever taken.

In fact, when his term as Research Associate was up, he was offered the opportunity to continue as a Research Collaborator. The report claims that they demoted him from Research Associate to Research Collaborator in retaliation, but the evidence is firmly against this conclusion. The fact is that his term as a Research Associate ends in 2007 (and would have ended with or without this controversy) and he does not have a sponsor to gain renewal of that position. His sponsor for the original RA position died 2 weeks after his last appointment began and sponsorship then fell, by default, to the department supervisor, Coddington. But now that that RA appointment is expiring, he needs a new sponsor to get another such appointment and there is no one willing to be his sponsor. In reality, a large number of RAs were converted to RCs recently, not just him.

The differnce between an RA and an RC is that an RA works more closely with Smithsonian staff, which is reflected in the fact that they have a staff sponsor. Sternberg no longer has one. This is not discrimination; he is being treated exactly like anyone else who doesn't have a sponsor. They nonetheless offered him the opportunity to continue his work there as a Research Collaborator, a position with still allows him to have an office and full access to the collections he needs to do his research. I'd say that's pretty generous given his track record of irresponsibility in handling their books and specimens. But there simply is no discrimination there. Richard Sternberg to this day has the same access to the same collections that all people in his position have. Aside from being treated rudely by some colleagues, much of which was clearly justified, absolutely nothing actually happened to him.

Now let's look at another set of false accusations in the report, those made against the National Center for Science Education. The report claims:

NMNH officials conspired with a special interest group on government time and using government emails to publicly smear Dr. Sternberg; the group was also enlisted to monitor Sternbergs outside activities in order to find a way to dismiss him. In cooperation with the pro-evolution National Center for Science Education (NCSE), Museum officials attempted to publicly smear and discredit Dr. Sternberg with false and defamatory information.

Not only is this claim not supported by the emails in the appendix, it is flatly contradicted by them. The emails that Genie Scott exchanged were full of admonitions to Smithsonian personnel not to do the things they are now accused of conspiring to do. She urged them not to attack his religious views so as not to make him a martyr. Genie repeatedly tells them to focus solely on the questions of impropriety and see whether they can be proven. She also tells them that Sternberg should not be judged on the basis of his religious views or his creationist views, but solely on the basis of his work as a scientist. She says (p. 32):

On the other hand, his creationist views should not be the main focus of the criticism. First, if he can do good standard science, that's all we care about. Newton did pretty good science, and had some pretty nutty additional ideas about reality, too. So if he keeps the nut stuff out of his basically descriptive work, that's fine. His science should stand or fall on its own.

And in a follow up email she wrote:

I guess the big question is whether he is a good enough scientist to remain there. If his non-creationist work is good, then I think he deserves the job. If not, and if others are let go under the same circumstances, then let the chips fall where they may. But none of us are after this guy's job. That isn't the point of this exercise, in my opinion.

In addition, she urged them to focus not on his views but on the real questions of impropriety surrounding the publishing of the Meyer article and his poor judgment:

If there are repercussions for von Sternberg from the article, they should be because of his poor judgement in publishing it (your comments about editorial "fairness" are well taken). Therefore, this incident should be handled carefully, I believe.

Clearly, she is urging great caution and arguing that they should not consider his views at all, but only his professional behavior, in handling the situation. The section of the report dealing with the NCSE, beginning on page 22, in fact contains not a shred of evidence, indeed not even an accusation, in support of the claim that the NCSE had, along with Smithsonian officials, "attempted to publicly smear and discredit Dr. Sternberg with false and defamatory information." Despite the vastly overblown accusations contained in the executive summary, the report itself only alleges that an SI official asks Genie Scott to send them any further information they find about his associations with creationist groups and that their "talking points" were distributed widely at the SI and became part of their response. There is not so much as a hint of any "false and defamatory information" or any attempt to "publicly smear and discredit" him by the NCSE. Like so much else in this report, the evidence just doesn't support the rhetoric.

We should note that some of the content of those emails is disputed by Sternberg, as one would expect. Many of the situations come down to "he said, she said" and we have no way of knowing for certain which side is telling the truth. But given that we know that none of the actual instances of retaliation that Sternberg alleged in the beginning (the loss of keys, office space and access to the collections) ever took place, and we have strong evidence that Sternberg did improperly go outside the normal peer review process to sneak a substandard and inappropriate article in the journal on his way out the door, this certainly casts serious doubt on Sternberg's veracity. And given that so many of the claims found in the journal's conclusions are not only not supported by the evidence, but flat contradicted by it, that certainly casts serious doubt on the objectivity of the staffers who created the report as well.

We should also note that the fact that the paper was substandard, poorly reasoned and full of questionable claims has been well-established. A lengthy and detailed critique of the paper was published at the Panda's Thumb, written by Alan Gishlick, Nick Matzke and Wesley Elsberry. They were hardly alone in their critique. The paleontologist Ronald Jenner likewise criticized the quality of the paper, saying that it reads "like a student report" and calling it "an inadequate review" because "readily available papers that depart significantly from his conclusions are omitted without excuse." The Discovery Institute promised a detailed, 6-part response to the first critique, but never got beyond part one; it seems even they aren't terribly interested in defending the validity or quality of the actual paper.