Sunday, January 30, 2005

Sternberg, Again

For those who have forgotten, Richard Sternberg is the former editor of The Procedings of the Biological Society of Washington. He was the one who decided to publish a pro-ID article by Stephen Meyer. I did several blog entries at the time (see here and here) in which I documented that Sternberg did not follow the normal editorial procedures of his journal, and left a lot of unanswered questions about how above-board the review process for the article actually was. I also linked to a decisive refutation of the major claims of the paper provided by Alan Gishlik, Nick Matzke and Wesley Elsberry. I also pointed out that the editorial board of the journal, none of whom were told about the article before it appeared, unanimously condemned the decision to publish the article.

Well, he's back. According to this op-ed from The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Sternberg, who works for the Smithsonian Institution, has filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Council alledging religious discrimination. Let's consider a few excerpts from the op-ed:

The offending review-essay was written by Stephen Meyer, who holds a Cambridge University doctorate in the philosophy of biology. In the article, he cites biologists and paleontologists critical of certain aspects of Darwinism--mainstream scientists at places like the University of Chicago, Yale, Cambridge and Oxford. Mr. Meyer gathers the threads of their comments to make his own case.

As documented by Gishlik, Matzke and Elsberry (see here), many of Meyer's citations were inaccurate or distorted. He was also very selective in his choice of papers to cite. The fact that Meyer's paper was very bad as a work of scholarship is certainly relevant to assessing whether Sternberg has been treated unfairly.

Picking up where the last quote leaves off, we find:

He points, for example, to the Cambrian explosion 530 million years ago, when between 19 and 34 animal phyla (body plans) sprang into existence. He argues that, relying on only the Darwinian mechanism, there was not enough time for the necessary genetic “information” to be generated. ID, he believes, offers a better explanation.

Whatever the article's ultimate merits--beyond the judgment of a layman--it was indeed subject to peer review, the gold standard of academic science. Not that such review saved Mr. Sternberg from infamy. Soon after the article appeared, Hans Sues--the museum's No. 2 senior scientist--denounced it to colleagues and then sent a widely forwarded e-mail calling it “unscientific garbage.”

I won't rehash here the many reasons why the Cambrian explosion argument is a lot of nonsense.

I love the “beyond the judgment of a layman” line. It's a sleazy way for the writer, David Klinghoffer, to introduce scientific-sounding arguments without having to vouch for their legitimacy. Also sleazy is the description of the article as peer-reviewed, when we know the journal's normal editorial procedures were not followed, and a lot of questions remain about how honest the review process was.

The next part of the article, if accurate, is genuinely disturbing:

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Zoology Department, Jonathan Coddington, called Mr. Sternberg's supervisor. According to Mr. Sternberg's OSC complaint: “First, he asked whether Sternberg was a religious fundamentalist. She told him no. Coddington then asked if Sternberg was affiliated with or belonged to any religious organization. . . . He then asked where Sternberg stood politically; . . . he asked, 'Is he a right-winger? What is his political affiliation?' ” The supervisor (who did not return my phone messages) recounted the conversation to Mr. Sternberg, who also quotes her observing: “There are Christians here, but they keep their heads down.”

Worries about being perceived as “religious” spread at the museum. One curator, who generally confirmed the conversation when I spoke to him, told Mr. Sternberg about a gathering where he offered a Jewish prayer for a colleague about to retire. The curator fretted: “So now they're going to think that I'm a religious person, and that's not a good thing at the museum.”

If this account is true then I would agree that Sternberg has been the victim of bad treatment. His religious and political affiliations are nobody's business but his own.

There is no question that he abused his position as journal editor to promote a favored religious/political agenda. That is his offense. Whether it's a serious enough offense to merit professional sanctions I'll leave to others to decide. But it is his actions, and not his beliefs, that should be judged.

Having said that, I can understand why many who work at the museum would be suspicious of very religious people. The loudest voices representing Christianity right now are uniformly anti-science and anti-intellectual. Is it any surprise that the curators of one of the best science museums in the world would feel threatened by such people?

In October, as the OSC complaint recounts, Mr. Coddington told Mr. Sternberg to give up his office and turn in his keys to the departmental floor, thus denying him access to the specimen collections he needs. Mr. Sternberg was also assigned to the close oversight of a curator with whom he had professional disagreements unrelated to evolution. “I'm going to be straightforward with you,” said Mr. Coddington, according to the complaint. “Yes, you are being singled out.” Neither Mr. Coddington nor Mr. Sues returned repeated phone messages asking for their version of events.

But singled out for what? Was he being singled out because of his religious views, or because he abused his position as editor?

I find it hard to believe that a powerful museum curator would ever say something so blunt as what is described here, and I notice we have only the claims of Sternberg's complaint to support the veracity of Klinghoffer's description. I'll wait until we have more information before making a judgment.

Mr. Sternberg begged a friendly curator for alternative research space, and he still works at the museum. But many colleagues now ignore him when he greets them in the hall, and his office sits empty as “unclaimed space.” Old colleagues at other institutions now refuse to work with him on publication projects, citing the Meyer episode. The Biological Society of Washington released a vaguely ecclesiastical statement regretting its association with the article. It did not address its arguments but denied its orthodoxy, citing a resolution of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that defined ID as, by its very nature, unscientific.

Here, alas, I have no sympathy for Mr. Sternberg. I'm not surprised that old colleagues would now be unwilling to work with him. I know mathematicians who serve on the editorial boards of various journals. If one of them ever abused his position in the way Sternberg did his, I would not be inclined to work with them.

As I pointed out earlier, the Biological Society of Washington did not merely say the article was unorthodox. They pointed out that Sternberg did not follow the regular editorial procedures of the journal.

The rest of the article descends into more standard ID talking points. Read them at your own risk.


At 8:02 PM, Blogger Richard said...

Thanks for writing such an informative post about Sternberg & the WSJ's delusional story about religious & political persectuion at the Smithsonian.

I would point out that the material quoted about scientists questioning what Sternberg's religious or political affiliations were would be disturbing IF TRUE. But the accusations are contained in a complaint Sternberg filed. YOu can say just about anything you want in a complaint. It isn't like deposition where you can fry yourself if you make things up.

I'd guess that Sternberg cooked up that alleged conversation in order to strengthen his complaint & make sure it gets heard by the body he submitted it to.

On another front, did you notice that Klinghoffer in the WSJ article quotes nary a single scientist who disputes Sternberg's contentions? The article is all Sternberg, all the time. It took me all of .5 seconds & a google search to find your post here. Was Klinghoffer's mouse click finger disabled when he wrote his article? I call that Big Load O'Crap journalism which is typical of the Big Load O'Crap Journal.


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