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Deceit and Tribalism at the Smithsonian

John on December 29, 2006 at 8:27 pm

A congressional investigation into the treatment of Dr. Richard Sternberg, a Smithsonian research associate who published a pro-ID paper in a scientific journal, has found that he was discriminated against:

The staff investigation has uncovered compelling evidence that Dr. Sternberg’s civil and constitutional rights were violated by Smithsonian officials. Moreover, the agency’s top officials—Secretary Lawrence Small and Deputy Secretary Sheila Burke—have shown themselves completely unwilling to rectify the wrongs that were done or even to genuinely investigate the wrongdoing.

The report goes on to note that the club of elite scientists at the Smithsonian had a particular concern with Dr. Sternberg’s religious views:

The email traffic also substantiates Sternberg’s concern about a viscerally anti-religious culture existing at the Museum. For example, on February 22, 2005, NMNH (National Museum of Natural History) Research Associate Sue Richardson sent an email of solidarity to Dr. Coddington regarding the Sternberg situation. She complained about the time she spent living in the “Bible Belt,” mockingly reporting that “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 Smithsonian’s effort to smear Dr. Sternberg (who holds two Ph D’s in biology) was found to be a coordinated effort between Smithsonian scientists and the National Center for Science Education, i.e. Eugenie Scott’s group:

Many of the efforts to publicly discredit Dr. Sternberg were done under the guidance of the National Center for Science Education, a private special interest group and pro-evolution advocacy organization. Early on in the controversy, the NCSE circulated a set of “talking points” to the BSW Council and NMNH officials on how to discredit both Sternberg and the Meyer article. The OSC investigation found that the “NCSE recommendations were circulated within the SI and eventually became part of the official public response of the SI to the Meyer article.”

The extent to which NMNH officials colluded on government time and with government resources with the NCSE to publicly discredit Dr. Sternberg’s scientific and professional integrity and investigate opportunities to dismiss him is alarming.

Some NMNH staff also sought (on government time and with government resources) to smear Dr. Sternberg’s reputation as a scientist within the scientific community. Dr. Lemaitre apparently conducted his own background research on Dr. Sternberg’s outside activities and affiliations, including his involvement with some religious-based organizations, in an attempt to stir up outside support for dismissing Dr. Sternberg from the Museum. Dr. Lemaitre forwarded his background research on Dr. Sternberg to scientists outside of the Smithsonian, eliciting the following response from a scientist at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands:

“This is truly frightening! I cannot believe it has come down to this. Scientists have been perfectly willing to let these people alone in their churches. But now it looks like 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.”

An absolutely absurd point of view, comparing a man with two Ph D’s to Muslim fanatics. In addition to this, the Smithsonian was putting out disinformation to friendly blogs:

Another prominent example of NMNH staff deliberately seeking to discredit Dr. Sternberg is Dr. Coddington’s letter to the pro-evolution blog Panda’s Thumb on February 3, 2005. Dr. Coddington was responding to the Wall Street Journal opinion piece that first publicized the investigation by the OSC into the Sternberg matter.

In Dr. Coddington’s letter, several claims were made that conflict with the Subcommittee’s review of NMNH staff emails and Dr. Sternberg’s recollection of events as explained in his OSC complaint. For instance, in the letter to Panda’s Thumb, Dr. Coddington stated: “Dr. von Sternberg is still a Research Associate at the National Museum of Natural History, and continues to have the usual rights and privileges, including space, keys and 24/7 access. At no time did anyone deny him space, keys or access.”

To the contrary, as has been detailed in this report, Dr. Sternberg was singled out for additional oversight and limitations not applied to other RAs. In fact, these restrictions were so burdensome that Dr. Sternberg knew he would not be able to continue his research with the same kind of freedom as other RAs.

The most serious issue (in my opinion) is the intentional attempt to discredit the publication of the initial pro-ID paper by Steve Meyer. Smithsonian scientists promulgated the view that Dr. Sternberg had somehow cheated the peer review panel to allow publication of the pro-ID piece in the first place. This is a major sin in the scientific community. They promulgated this idea despite knowing it wasn’t true:

From the very beginning of the Sternberg controversy, there was much speculation within NMNH and the scientific community as to whether or not Dr. Sternberg had followed proper procedures in having the Meyer article peer-reviewed. In numerous emails reviewed by the Subcommittee, NMNH staff and others in the scientific community, such as the NCSE’s Dr. Scott, alleged that Dr. Sternberg must not have had the article peer-reviewed, and, if he did, the reviewers must have been either incompetent or a supporter of intelligent design.65 All of these allegations were very damaging to Dr. Sternberg’s reputation within the scientific community as it is considered the ultimate demonstration of scientific irresponsibility to publish an article without proper peer review.

As the controversy heated up in the ensuing months and the allegations about Dr. Sternberg’s mishandling of the Meyer article remained unresolved, the BSW never issued a definitive statement about whether or not the peer-review allegations were true. Only in late January 2005, when Dr. Sues asked Dr. McDiarmid via email about whether the BSW was “satisfied that a proper review by specialists was undertaken,”66 was there any recognition that the article was properly peer-reviewed. Dr. McDiarmid replied to Dr. Sues: “I have seen the review file and comments from 3 reviewers on the Meyer paper. All three with some differences among the comments recommended or suggested publication. I was surprised but concluded that there was not inappropriate behavior vs a vis [sic] the review process.”

It is most disturbing that Dr. McDiarmid actually knew in late August 2004—soon after the controversy began—that the Meyer article had been properly peer reviewed. Dr. Sternberg states on his website that Dr. McDiarmid informed him in an email message on August 25, 2004, that, indeed, the peer reviews supported the publication of the article. Why then did Dr. McDiarmid not bring clarity to the situation early on in the controversy? It seems that Dr. McDiarmid would never have settled the question about peer reviewers had Dr. Sues not asked him the question in January 2005. He knew there had been no impropriety in August 2004, yet he chose not to disseminate this important information among NMNH staff or externally in the scientific community. And, even when Dr. Sues became aware of these facts, he, too, did not bring resolution to this ongoing question among NMNH staff.

In his official capacity with NMNH, Dr. Sues also improperly influenced the BSW in its publishing of a public disclaimer and apology of sorts regarding the publication of the Meyer paper in the Proceedings. While technically the BSW and NMNH are separate entities, Dr. Sues, the #2 scientist at the Smithsonian who had also secured Smithsonian funding for the Proceedings, emailed NCSE’s executive director Dr. Scott: “I met with Roy McDiarmid [the President of the BSW and a scientist at the Smithsonian] yesterday, and urged him to publish, in the next issue of the Proceedings, an open letter to readers from the Council of BSW that Meyer’s article does not represent views endorsed by BSW and that there was a clear failure of the editorial process.”68 Additionally, Dr. Sues forwarded a copy of the NCSE’s “talking points” in an attempt to influence two BSW (and NMNH) members prior to a meeting of the BSW (which also occurred on government time) to discuss the official response to Dr. Sternberg’s publication of the Meyer paper.

The official response that came out of the BSW Council meeting on August 27, 2004, was damaging to Dr. Sternberg’s scientific reputation because it claimed that Dr. Sternberg had not followed “typical editorial practices” as it was “published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process.”

Contrary to the statement issued by the BSW, there is evidence to suggest that all articles were not always reviewed by associate editors. Dr. Sternberg states on his website that, “As managing editor it was my prerogative to choose the editor who would work directly on the paper, and as I was best qualified among the editors I chose myself, something I had done before in other appropriate cases.” Dr. Sternberg states that he even consulted a colleague at NMNH who was also a member of the BSW on three occasions to “avoid making a unilateral decision on a potentially controversial paper ” “Each time, this colleague encouraged me to publish the paper despite possible controversy.”

The report concludes:

Since the treatment of Dr. Sternberg came to light in early 2005, evidence has accumulated of widespread invidious discrimination against other qualified scientists who dissent from Darwinian theory and/or who are supportive of intelligent design. In November, 2005, for example, National Public Radio reported that it had “talked with 18 university professors and scientists who subscribe to intelligent design. Most would not speak on the record for fear of losing their jobs. One untenured professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia wrote that talking to NPR would be, quote ‘the kiss of death.’ Another said, ‘There is no way I would reveal myself prior to obtaining tenure.’”77 In another case, the President of the University of Idaho issued a letter forbidding faculty from teaching alternatives to Darwin’s theory in science classes there.78 The widespread hostility of many scientists to criticisms of Darwinian theory makes further violations in this area by federally-funded institutions likely.

While the majority of scientists continue to support Darwinian theory, it is important that neither federal funds nor federal power be used to punish otherwise qualified scientists merely because they articulate a dissenting scientific viewpoint on this issue. Scientific controversies should be decided through research and open debate, not through on-the-job harassment at federally-funded institutions or the blacklisting of certain scientists because of their outside activities. Scientists such as Dr. Sternberg have a First Amendment right to express their skepticism toward Darwinian evolution without having to fear government-sponsored retaliation.

I couldn’t agree more. What happened at the Smithsonian with regard to Dr. Sternberg is not science and is little better than tribalism. Dr. Sternberg may be entirely wrong on the facts, but he did nothing wrong in publishing the paper. Since this was the whole cause of his shabby treatment, he deserves an apology not a demotion.

For the record, I accept the theory of evolution and for philosophical reasons I suspect we are unlikely to find evidence of intelligent intervention in the history of life on earth. Obviously, as a Christian I am nevertheless a “creationist”, something which makes me a mustache-twirling villain in the eyes of some materialists.

I hasten to add that I am also a life-long fan of the Smithsonian. Having grown up in Washington DC, I’ve spent literally hundreds and hundreds of hours walking the marble halls of the various museums. They truly are a national treasure of the first order. As I see it, that’s all the more reason the people running the institution should be held to a high standard of integrity and honesty. It seems clear from this report that many memebers of the National Museum of Natural History’s staff have not lived up to this standard.

[HT: One of the best blogs on the web, Magic Statistics]

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