Editor’s note: This evening, Jack Cashill will participate in a panel discussion following the 8 p.m. showing of “Flock of Dodos,” a documentary about the ID-Darwin debate, at the Avalon Theater in Washington, D.C.
In late December 2006, the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform issued an unflattering report on the state of affairs at one of the nation’s more cherished institutions.
One day students might study this report – damningly titled “Intolerance and the Politicization of Science at the Smithsonian” – as a turning point in the history of science. For the time being, however, the report and the scandal at the heart of it attract very close to no attention in the media, let alone in the nation’s schools.
Says Dr. Richard Sternberg, the Galileo of the Smithsonian scandal, “The press has not wanted to touch [the report]. Things like this aren’t supposed to happen.”
What did happen to Dr. Sternberg is shocking even by Washington standards. The damage done to his career is real, irreversible and symptomatic of the lengths the science establishment will go to suppress challenges to the most vulnerable of its paradigms, namely Darwinism and its derivatives.
For any number of uneventful years, the evolutionary biologist Sternberg was a member in good standing of that very establishment. Employed by the National Institutes of Health in association with the Smithsonian, he served as the managing editor of the Smithsonian-affiliated journal, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington.
In 2004, Sternberg chose to publish a tightly argued paper by the Discovery Institute’s Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, titled “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories.”
In brief, Meyer contended that neo-Darwinism has failed to provide a convincing explanation for the massive infusion of new genetic information into the fossil record a reported 570 million years ago.
Popularly known as the Cambrian Explosion, this relatively brief period of pre-history witnessed the emergence of most forms of complex animal life, seemingly without any evolutionary trail. To date, evolutionary biologists have made little progress in resolving the mystery of their origins.
Meyer took a stab at it, arguing deductively that only “rational agents” have shown the ability to design and organize functional, information-rich systems. “Natural selection lacks foresight,” Meyer continued. “What natural selection lacks, intelligent selection – purposive or goal-directed design – provides.”
Shortly before receiving Meyer’s paper, Sternberg had attended an in-service training module on the ethics of peer review. What Sternberg took away from the training is that the “peers” selected to review a given paper be neither prejudiced against the topic or partial to it for reasons of self-interest.
Although not himself an intelligent design (ID) theorist or an advocate of the same, Sternberg thought the subject worthy of discussion. He identified three fellow scientists who shared his open-mindedness, though none of them was an ID advocate, either. These scientists offered some useful revisions. Meyer incorporated them, and the paper was published in August 2004.
Given what has happened since, these scientists have chosen to remain anonymous to preserve their careers. After considerable review of the files, however, no one questions the legitimacy of the process.
In publishing Meyer’s paper, Sternberg had merely hoped to provoke a good discussion. He was “absolutely not expecting” the hell that rained down upon him with the paper’s publication.
Today, almost inevitably, the road to such hell is paved with e-mail. But even by the standards of the contemporary academy, the e-mail campaign to punish Sternberg was an impressively swift and catty one.
One zoologist colleague, for instance, asked their common department head, Dr. Jonathan Coddington, why the heretical Sternberg should be allowed to keep an office, especially one with “a name on it.” Prejudiced to the point of paranoia, the zoologist demanded that his own office “be re-keyed.”
Coddington handled the affair with all the courage and conviction of a Pontius Pilate. “At present I am not tossing him out,” he told his colleagues. “Do you want anything done?”
Coddington’s own plan was to meet with Sternberg and “hint that if he had any class he would either entirely desist or resign his appointment.” When Sternberg failed to take the hint, Coddington and colleagues settled on a bold plan of petty revenge, death by a thousand academic cuts.
For Sternberg to keep his research associate position, he would have to detail the exact research projects he would be working on, the papers he planned to write, their schedule of completion, the journals to which he would be submitting, a complete list of the specimens and materials he would be using, the catalog numbers for those specimens and materials, the times and dates he would plan to use them, and even his planned office hours.
Finally, yielding to the paranoia, Coddington asked that Sternberg relinquish his set of master keys. As the House Report notes, his colleagues were “very uncomfortable” with Sternberg having keys. “They were afraid that he might break into their offices, stealing or disturbing their materials.” The fact that Sternberg had worked there for the last five years without incident pacified no one.
When Sternberg asked if the other research associates were being subjected to the same treatment, Coddington replied, “This is not about the other RAs. This is only about you.” He continued, “You are being treated differently, but you know perfectly well why you’re being treated differently.”
One obvious reason for Sternberg’s special treatment was what the House Report describes as “a general anti-religious culture existing at the Museum.” Once the Meyer article was published, Coddington and others began to probe into Sternberg’s background, asking around to see if he were a closeted “religious fundamentalist” or, God forbid, a “Republican.”
In an e-mail of solidarity sent to Coddington, Research Associate Sue Richardson openly complained about her own unhappy tenure in the “Bible Belt.” Wrote Richardson, “The most fun we had by far was when my son refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because of the ‘under dog’ part.”
The House report asks rhetorically, “Would similar expressions of disparagement have been tolerated by Smithsonian officials if directed at a racial minority?” That answer is obvious. A more pointed question would be whether Smithsonian officials would have tolerated comparable comments about Muslims or even Jews. That answer is obvious, too.
These same officials colluded with the National Center for Science Education, or NCSE, a pro-evolution advocacy organization, to discredit the beleaguered editor.
“I will keep an eye on Dr. (von) Sternberg,” wrote the Smithsonian’s Dr. Hans Sues to the NCSE’s Eugenie Scott, “and I’d greatly appreciate it if you or other NCSE specialists could let me [know] about further activities by this gentleman in areas poutside [sic] crustacean systematics.”
The extent of this collusion “on government time and with government resources” the House Committee described as “alarming.” Nor did Sternberg’s colleagues limit their pique to those who needed to know. Indeed, they sent word of his heresy to scientists around the world.
Wrote one Dutch scientist back to a Smithsonian colleague: “These people are coming out and invading our schools, biology classes, museums and now our professional journals. These people to my mind are only a scale up on the fundies of a more destructive kind in other parts of the world.”
Ah yes, “these people.” Some of them publish papers on intelligent design. Others fly planes into the World Trade Center. The earlier “von” remark suggests a comparison to Nazis as well.
In 2005, the NCSE undertook a more public battle than the quiet guerrilla war it was waging against Sternberg. Along with its legal allies, most notably the ACLU, the NCSE took its campaign to keep America’s public schools as free from scientific debate as the Smithsonian to a Pennsylvania town unprepared for the fight.
The NCSE had only to convince one judge of its righteousness, and this it did. In December 2005, Judge John Jones ruled that the Dover School District had somehow breached the United States Constitution by requiring that students “be made aware of the gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.”
As final proof of ID’s shortcomings, Jones cited the “complete absence of peer-reviewed publications supporting the theory.” Such peer review, the judge continued with a straight face, is “exquisitely important” in the scientific process. That decision cost the Dover Area School Board more than $1 million in legal fees, payable to the ACLU and its allies, and dissuaded many a district from bucking the well-oiled Darwin machine in the future.
That machine hailed Jones’ ruling as a “masterpiece of wit, scholarship and clear thinking,” and Time magazine listed the good judge as one of “the world’s most influential people” in the category of “scientists and thinkers.” But, in fact, Jones had lifted more than 90 percent of his discussion on ID virtually verbatim from the ACLU’s proposed “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law” submitted nearly a month before his ruling.
The NCSE and the ACLU would have known just how “exquisitely” the Smithsonian had handled peer review in the case of the Meyer article. They knew that there was not a “complete absence” of such articles, but merely a suppression of those that had been published. They obviously chose not to share that information with the judge.
Today, Dr. Richard Sternberg hangs on at the National Institutes of Health by his fingernails. “I have a position,” he says wryly.
When I asked whether, he would have published Meyer’s paper knowing what he now knows, he hesitates and says, “I am going to take the fifth on that one.”
As to the Smithsonian, its continuous refusal to take action in the Sternberg case prompted the House Committee to recommend congressional action to “protect the free speech rights regarding evolution” among those scientists working at federally funded institutions.
Such is the exquisite state of evolutionary biology today.
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