Tuesday, February 22, 2005

World's World

In several recent blog entries (click here and here) I have reported on the case of Richard Sternberg. He was the fellow who, as editor of The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, decided to publish a pro-ID survey paper in his journal. As I have documented previously, he did this in contravention of the standard editorial practices of the journal, and has left real questions about the legitimacy of the peer-review process he employed in choosing to publish the article. Click here and here for the details.

Sternberg has now filed a complaint with the Office of Special Council alledging that the Smithsonian Institution has discriminated against him on the basis of his religious beliefs. Outside of the participants themselves, all anybody knows about the case is that Sternberg has levelled some accusations and the Smithsonian has denied them categorically.

But the right-wing media doesn't care about subtelties like that. They are perfectly happy to report as fact Sternberg's unsubstantiated side of the story. One of the most egregious examples of this is this recent article from World magazine. They have created an entire alternate reality for their readers. We consider it in full:

Science is typically praised as open-ended and free, pursuing the evidence wherever it leads. Scientific conclusions are falsifiable, open to further inquiry, and revised as new data emerge. Science is free of dogma, intolerance, censorship, and persecution.

By these standards, Darwinists have become the dogmatists. Scientists at the Smithsonian Institute, supported by American taxpayers, are punishing one of their own simply for publishing an article about Intelligent Design.

The author of the article, Gene Edward Veith, has only Sternberg's word for it that this discrimination ever took place. Despite this, he feels no shame in reporting these accusations as fact. He never even gets around to mentioning that the Smithsonian has denied the charges.

Veith now goes on to give a summary of the pro-ID article Sternberg published. Needless to say, he simply parrots the usual ID talking points about the Cambrian explosion, without bothering to mention that they are total nonsense. Veith then continues:

Mr. Meyer submitted his paper to the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a scientific journal affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of Natural History. The editor, Rick Sternberg, a researcher at the museum with two Ph.D.s in biology, forwarded the article to a panel of three peer reviewers. In scientific and other academic scholarship, submitting research to the judgment of other experts in the field ensures that published articles have genuine merit. Each of the reviewers recommended that, with revisions, the article should be published. Mr. Meyer made the revisions and the article was published last August.

Of course, peer review only ensures quality when the process is not corrupted by an editor seeking a preordained conclusion. As I argued in the links given at the start of this post, there is ample reason to believe that Sternberg did precisely that.

Whereupon major academic publications—Science, Nature, Chronicles of Higher Education—expressed outrage. The anger was focused not on the substance of the article, but on the mere fact that a peer-reviewed scientific journal would print such an article.

Total nonsense. In fact, the anger over the article was primarily related to the fact that it was utter dreck as a work of science. Meyer's arguments were so bad and have been so often refuted, that it is hard to believe that whatever review process the article went through was as above-board as people like Veith wish to claim.

That was the primary reason for the outrage. Secondary reasons were the fact that Sternberg clearly abused his authority as editor, thereby giving the once-reputable PBSW a major black-eye, and the fact that by publishing the article he gave science's enemies cover to push their agenda.

So the wrath of the Darwinists fell on Mr. Sternberg, the editor. Although he had stepped down from the editorship, his supervisors at the Smithsonian took away his office, made him turn in his keys, and cut him off from access to the collections he needs for his research. He is also being subjected to the sectarian religious discipline of “shunning.” His colleagues are refusing to talk to him or even greet him in the hallways.

Note the implication that Sternberg stepped down from his editorship of the journal because of the controversy he created. In reality he stepped down because his term as editor was up. Nonetheless, this has become a standard part of the right-wing version of this story.

More impotrantly, once again Veith has only Sternberg's word for it that his “supervisors” (in reality, as pointed out here, he has only one supervisor at the Smithsonian) have done any of the things attributed to them here. At the risk of being reptitive, Sternberg's supervisor has unambiguously denied all of these charges.

As for the shunning, I'm not surprised that Sternberg's colleagues believe he has betrayed them. He abused his authority as editor in a way that makes it more difficult for real scientists to do their jobs.

His supervisors also staged an inquisition about Mr. Sternberg's religious and even political beliefs. Mr. Sternberg, who describes himself as a Catholic with lots of questions, has filed a case alleging discrimination not just on the grounds of religion but “perceived” religion.

Rather trivializes the real Inquisition, don't you think? It's been wisely said that the first person to compare his opponent to the Nazis immediately loses the argument. The same could be said for bringing up the Inquisition.

Critics of Mr. Sternberg say that the article should not have been published because the American Association for the Advancement of Science has proclaimed that Intelligent Design is “unscientific by definition.” As Mr. Meyer points out: “Rather than critique the paper on its scientific merits, they appeal to a doctrinal statement.”

I'd be surprised if Veith could produce even one person who argued that the paper should not have been published because ID is unscientific by definition. ID is, indeed, unscientific, but that was not the reason the paper should have been rejected. Contrary to Veith's assertion, the scientific merits of the paper were severely and deservedly criticized in a variety of outlets. It was the poor scholarship and incorrect arguments in the paper that rendered it unfit for publication.

Historically, said Mr. Meyer, science has sought “the best explanation, period, wherever the evidence leads.” But now the scientific establishment is requiring something else: “the best materialistic explanation for phenomenon.” That rules out non-materialistic explanations from the onset, demanding adherence to the worldview that presumes the material realm is all that exists.

People like Veith and Meyer have no shame at all. The idea that science's reliance on naturalistic explanations is some recent contrivance to keep anyone from discussing the supernatural is ludicrous in a way I thought was beyond even an ID proponent. The point of science is today, as it has always been, to learn useful facts about the workings of nature. The way you know you have discovered something useful about nature is by testing your theories against data produced in the field and the lab. Naturalistic theories are precisely the ones that can be so tested. Supernatural theories can not be tested in that way. That's what the word “supernatural” means, for heaven's sake. As soon as the Meyers of the world can describe a method for testing a supernatural theory, scientists will embrace it.

Of course, ID proponents generally don't care that scientists have a job to do. They don't care that scientists are expected to come out of their labs with useful results, and that they use scientific theories as tools to help them do that. If they did, they'd be doing ID research to prove to the world that their ideas have merit. After all, every mainstream scientific theory began as a heresy against orthodoxy. And every one of those theories earned their acceptance in the same way, by producing useful results. Since ID is a sham as science, its proponents will never be able to produce the results that would win scientists to their cause. Consequently, they can only hope to promote their case by taking advantage of the public's ignorance of science.

David Klinghoffer broke the story of Mr. Sternberg's mistreatment in The Wall Street Journal. The attempts to discredit him, Mr. Meyer said, have resulted in hundreds of scientists from around the world requesting and downloading the paper (available from www.discovery.org/csc/).

Mr. Meyer said that many scientists secretly agree with elements of Intelligent Design but are afraid to go public. Critics tried to force Mr. Sternberg to reveal the names of the peer reviewers—which are supposed to remain anonymous—but he refused. Darwinists shifted the discussions to evolution as a worldview, while avoiding its admitted failures to account for what Darwin purported to explain, namely, the origin of species.

The virulence of the attempts to suppress Intelligent Design demonstrates the Darwinists' insecurity. “You don't resort to authoritarianism,” observed Mr. Meyer, “if you can answer it.”

More of the same.

This article provides an especially striking example of a certain pathology that is ubiquitous in the right-wing media. As they see it, journalism is not about learning the facts of a situation and reporting them accurately. Instead, journalism is about telling a story. For the right it is an article of faith that scientists are dogmatic atheists with the will and the power to crush anyone who dissents from orthodoxy. They are completely evidence-proof on this point. Veith can get away with this ridiculous article because he is writing for an audience that prefers the story to the facts.


At 6:28 PM, Anonymous Stephen Stralka said...

I just can't get over the constant repetition of this canard that the critics of Intelligent Design don't address the substance of the arguments. If you just look at what's on the Web, there are any number of sites, such as this one, the Panda's Thumb, Talk Reason, and so on and so on, that are filled with very long and detailed demolitions of the "substance" (such as it is) of Intelligent Design.

From where I sit, I see any number of people who are willing and eager to take up any book or article that comes along arguing for intelligent design, read it carefully, and tear it to pieces. The image I have in my mind sometimes is a school of hungry sharks, just circling around waiting for a drop of blood to appear in the water.

The notion that real scientists are scared of these clowns would be one of the greatest jokes in history if they weren't able to persuade so many Americans to take it seriously.

At 8:21 PM, Anonymous Aggie Nostic said...

Those in the right-media are political shills first and journalists second.

At 4:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jason: "Naturalistic theories are precisely the ones that can be so tested. Supernatural theories can not be tested in that way. That's what the word “supernatural” means, for heaven's sake."

Really? I've just checked a few dictionaries, and none of them gave that definition, or anything like it. Here's the relevant definition from Merriam Webster Online:
1 : of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially : of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil
I do wish ID critics would stop using bogus definitions which they invent just to justify methodological naturalism.
-- Richard Wein

At 9:59 AM, Blogger Jason said...


Perhaps I should have said “That's what the word `supernatural' implies.”

The fact remains, however, that supernatural theories can not be tested in any useful sense. If you believe otherwise, tell me how to do science starting from a supernatural starting point.

If you can not do that, then stop criticizing people for arguing that as a practical matter science can only deal with naturalistic theories.

At 8:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


It is clearly outside the realm of science to study anything 'relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe'. Science cannot attempt to study anything that isn't observable. Period.

At 11:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The fact remains, however, that supernatural theories can not be tested in any useful sense."

The onus is on you to support this claim. And then, if you want to reject ID on this basis, to show that the ID claims are supernatural. Otherwise you are simply doing what the IDologists accuse the science community of doing: dismissing their position out of hand.

Instead of attacking the ID position as being illegitimate--on a dubious philosophical basis--it is much more effective to attack the arguments which they use to support that position, since those arguments can be shown to be utter nosense. You yourself have done that extremely effectively. I just wish you would concetrate on the effective attacks and avoid the counterproductive ones.
--Richard Wein

At 11:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It is clearly outside the realm of science to study anything 'relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe'. Science cannot attempt to study anything that isn't observable."

It doesn't follow that something "relating" to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe (whatever that means) is necessarily itself unobservable. In fact, the examples given by the dictionary are often considered to be directly observable. And, even when not directly observable, their effects can be observed (those entities wouldn't be of any interest to anyone otherwise). If an entity's effects can be observed then it's by no means obvious that its existence cannot be inferred.
--Richard Wein

At 11:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first sentence of my last paragraph wasn't very well considered. I should have written: It doesn't follow that something existing beyond the visible observable universe (whatever that means) is necessarily itself unobservable.
--Richard Wein

At 12:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And science does study things which are not observable, such as electrons, dark matter and extinct species. The issue is not observability but inferrability. Strictly speaking, nothing is observed. Even things we see (or think we see) for ourselves are inferred from the nerve inputs to our brains.
--Richard Wein

At 1:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll take the onus (of proving that supernatural theories cannot be proven in any useful sense).

First, ID is necessarily supernatural.
1)ID claims that complex systems could not have come about without the intervention of an intelligence
2)If #1, then life on Earth was created/modified by some intelligence. But, as you say, that intellgence does not need to be divine. It could be aliens, or some other natural intelligent agent.
3)But, if it’s aliens (ie not supernatural agents), then they themselves cannot have come into being with the agency of some intelligence.
4)Ergo, at the root of the chain, there must be some non-natural intelligence. Non-natural, because it is a complex entity not created by natural means (which require a pre-existing intelligence).
5)Ergo, ID implies a supernatural agent.

Second, supernatural claims are unprovable in any useful sense.
1)It is impossible to ever completely rule out natural explainations, even for events which are currently inexplicable, since our knowledge cannot be known to be perfect.
2)Supernatural claims cannot be falsified, because their nature is to rely on non-predictable forces. One cannot prove that an omnipotent being does not exist, because such a being has by its nature the ability to completely conceal itself.
3)Ergo, every possible phenomenon has a multiplicity of supernatural explainations which cannot be ruled out, and simultaneously has the possibility of being addressed by non-supernatural explainations.
4)This isn't as solid a QED, but Im not sure what use such a multiplicity of supernatural theories would be when natural theories cannot be ruled out. Perhaps you could enlighten us, then, as to what use they could possibly have, given those constraints?


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