Thursday, August 25, 2005

O'Reilly Just Keeps Topping Himself

FOX News blowhard Bill O'Reilly had Rick Sternberg on as a guest last night. Sternberg, you will recall, is the disgraced former editor of the Procedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Disgraced because he abused his position as editor to circumvent the journal's normal procedures to publish this piece of worthless anti-scientific garbage, by the Discovery Institute's Stephen Meyer.

A partial transcript of the segment is available here. Let's consider it in full:

BILL O'REILLY: In the “'Factor' follow-up” segment tonight. As you may know, there's a bitter debate over whether public schools should be allowed to teach students an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution, a concept called Intelligent Design.

That concept puts forth that a higher power oversaw the evolutionary process. And that's why man will never completely understand it.

One year ago, the editor of a scientific journal called Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington ran an article by Dr. Stephen Meyer of Cambridge University in England that stated intelligent design should be taken seriously as a theory. Well, since that time, Dr. Richard Sternberg's life has been hell. He joins us now from Washington.

Well, I just want to tell everybody that, you know, the federal government investigated your situation and found that you had been harassed because you allowed this article to be printed. I want to know what happened to you? What form did the Harris men take?

Note: That's exactly how things appear in the posted transcript, but I'm sure “Harris men” is supposed to be harassment.

O'Reilly was rather impressed by Cambridge University. Later he said:

O'REILLY: But the bottom line is they wanted to ruin you for simply running an article by a scholar. I mean, Cambridge University is one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

In light of this, someone ought to point out that Stephen Meyer is not “of Cambridge University.” He holds a PhD in the history and philosophy of science from Cambridge, but his current academic affiliation is with the evangelical Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is also the director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture.

That's a big difference, wouldn't you say? Not quite so prestigious after all. But if O'Reilly were to pay attention to so simple a fact he would not be able to bloviate with quite as much enthusiasm.

Likewise, O'Reilly can not afford to mention that the peer-review process used to support the publication of the Meyer paper was almost certainly corrupt.

And the real story of what “the federal government” (in this case the highly politicized Office of Special Counsel) found is substantially different from what O'Reilly describes. Over at The Panda's Thumb, Nick Matzke has a good summary of some of the odd points in the OSC's finding:

In essence, the OSC opinion, authored by Bush appointee James McVey, seems designed to give the religious right another talking point about how any criticism of ID or the ID movement’s actions amounts to religious discrimination by the evil secular scientific establishment, even though ID is allegedly science, not religion. Somehow, it manages to do this (1) while telling Sternberg that OSC doesn’t have jurisdiction, (2) without any contrasting opinion from the accused parties, and (3) without documenting any actual injury to Sternberg, who still has his unpaid research position, an office, keys, and access to the collections. The opinion is therefore a pretty strange document to read.

Let's return to the transcript. So what form did the harassment take?

RICHARD STEINBERG, FEDERAL SCIENTIST AND EDITOR: Well, it took a number of forms, Bill. First of all, immediately after the article was published, there was a very tepid reaction with a museum.

However, a number of outside groups and individuals began writing e- mails, letters of protests, phoning the museum, phoning my employer, demanding my ouster for this. Apparently, there was an unstated rule that you do not accept a manuscript for per review that counters Darwinism, or seriously counters Darwinism.

And furthermore, I was a gatekeeper. I allowed the paper to be peer reviewed and furthermore, I committed the terribly sin of allowing it to be published.

And so the retaliation that followed took the form of the spreading of misinformation, such that, you know, my degrees were in religion and philosophy, not in science, that there was actually no per review, that I had accepted money under the table. That I...

Apparently what happened is that many people, angered by Sternberg's obvious abuse of power, contacted the Smithsonian to protest. That's not harassment. In response to this we are expected to believe that the Smithsonian engaged in a systematic campaign of misinformation concerning points that are easily checked. That's ridiculous on its face.

No doubt what we are really talking about here are a handful of e-mails from his colleagues wondering how such an intellectually corrupt gentleman ever managed to emerge as the editor of their journal.

O'Reilly then summed it up for us:

O'REILLY: So they came after you viciously. And I know how that is; they do that to me every day. But who is behind this?

STERNBERG: Well, it was...

O'REILLY: Go ahead.

STERNBERG: It was a concerted — it was — the retaliation occurred in concert. It was between the officials of the Smithsonian Institution, curators, various administrators and the National Center for Science and Education, based in Oakland, California.

They — they orchestrated, for example, at least the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) orchestrated a repudiation of the article, actually helped the repudiation to be drafted. That is a statement of retraction. And then turned around and cited it on their web site as evidence, not so much evidence, but allowed them to strongly insinuate editorial malfeasance on my part.

They aided in drafting, for example, a statement by the council that oversees publication of the journal to suggest that somehow I had broken the rules.

O'REILLY: But the bottom line is they wanted to ruin you for simply running an article by a scholar. I mean, Cambridge University is one of the most prestigious universities in the world.


Sternberg surely knows that Meyer is not affiliated with Cambridge University, but he happily ignores that fact here.

Meanwhile, we now have the National Center for Science Education implicated in the conspiracy. Their crime? They helped the editorial board draft the statement condemning the publication of the article. When the editorial board subsequently adopted a modified version of the statement, it was apparently unscrupulous in some way for the NCSE to make note of the fact. The horror of it all!

Of course, the only really important issue here is whether Sternberg did indeed violate the procedures of the journal, and whether the article he published was any good. He did, and it wasn't. Everything else is just politics and PR. O'Reilly's suggestion that Sternberg's critics came after him just for publishing a paper by a scholar is a bit rich coming from someone who boasts of running a no-spin zone.

We continue:

O'REILLY: They said look, you ought — you ought to take a look at this intelligent design and not just throw it out in the garbage.


O'REILLY: So they tried to ruin you for doing that. And I'm not — I'm not quite understanding, is this an anti-religion movement? I mean, what are they afraid of here? What's the bottom line on it?

STERNBERG: Well, it was — it's an attempt, I think, to suppress scientific dissent.

O'REILLY: Why, though? Why? Why? What is it in for these people who would be to brutal toward anyone who might want to just take a look at intelligent design?

O'Reilly's working real hard here, but, doggone it, he just can't figure out why the thinking world was so upset by the publication of Meyer's paper. What could it be? What possible reason could they have for being angered by the publication of a paper whose arguments are complete worthless garbage? Better get Woodward and Bernstein on this one.

And we may as well state for the record that no one objects to anyone looking at anything. The issue is having the basic scientific competence to know a bad argument when you see one; a skill Meyer and Steinberg apparently lack.

O'Reilly wraps things up by explaining the real reason people got so angry with Sternberg:

STERNBERG: There — there is a — I think it's religiously and politically motivated. It's a form of projection. You have groups like the NCSE and others who argue that the intelligent design advocates, the creationists, etc., are trying to suppress information, trying to hinder science. And — and ironically, quite the opposite appears to have occurred in this situation.

They felt that, you know, if, for example, the pros and the cons of the issue are placed on the scientific table, then essentially the whole edifice is going to unravel, and that simply cannot be allowed.

O'REILLY: Well, I think it's more than that. I think this is a concerted effort in a fascist way to punish anyone who might want to inject the higher power into any scientific discussion.

I mean, this is a real — let's get religion out of it completely and never deal with that aspect of it again.

Doctor, thanks so much. We're sorry you had to go through what you went through.

Fascist. Lovely.

O'Reilly started his program last night with his usual “Talking Points Memo.” For those who don't watch the show, this is where O'Reilly lays down the law, talks straight talk, explains what all right-thinking Americans should believe, cuts through all the bull, and tells it like it is. The title of the memo last night was: Are You an Extremist?. Here's part of what he said:

But I think we can safely establish some rules for the road here. An extremist is someone who rejects facts and holds on to opinions no matter what.

And later:

In my opinion, extremists have a neurosis. They really don't want to hear anything other than the conclusion they've arrived at, no matter what the evidence suggests.

That's how he started the show. About a half hour later he does a segment with Mr. Sternberg in which he omits every relevant fact that runs counter to his preferred narrative. It is almost a sure thing that he understands none of the scientific issues involved in the evolution/ID dust-up, but he is quite sure that scientific opposition to ID stems from religious bigotry and fascistic tendencies. The irony of his memo giving an almost perfect description of the ID folks is apparently lost him.

By his own definition, O'Reilly is an extremist. Even worse, he is a dishonest charlatan more interested in promoting his blinkered view of things than in getting at the truth. Worse still, millions of people not only watch him every night, but take him seriously as well.


At 7:59 PM, Blogger Robert O'Brien said...

"Disgraced because he abused his position as editor to circumvent the journal's normal procedures..."

Your description of Rick Sternberg is rooted in animus, not reality. Sternberg's description of his actions and the subsequent reaction of his fellow editors is completely credible and consistent with what I have heard about how academic journals operate.

At 10:06 PM, Blogger John said...

"the subsequent reaction of his fellow editors is completely credible and consistent with what I have heard about how academic journals operate."

# posted by Robert O'Brien : 7:59 PM

Well, at least you don't rely on anecdotes.

Seriously, regardless of this sleazy attempt to get some credibility for ID through the back door, I wish people wouldn't react to it like they did. It gives people like Rick Sternberg a national platform and people like Robert (above) to make an artificial case out of it. Better to simply destroy any and all psuedo-science with real science.

At 10:57 PM, Blogger Robert O'Brien said...

If you (and Jason) think that editors always adhere to the rules of their journal, then say hello to Tatu for me because you must be on Fantasy Island.

At 12:40 AM, Blogger JM O'Donnell said...

Funnily enough, when they get caught doing something that would compromise the journals credibility (as in this case), it's time to do something about it.

Rick Sternberg just found out the hard way that you don't push nonsense through that has no science in it at all.

At 12:49 PM, Blogger Jason said...


I'm afraid it's not in dispute that Mr. Sternberg circumvented the journal's normal procedures. The governing council of the BSW made that explicit in their statement on the subject. You can read about it here:

You should ask yourself how it even occurred to Meyer to submit a general attack on evolutionary biology to a journal that normally deals with systematics and taxonomy.

Sternberg humiliated the BSW and dealt a severe blow to the credibility of their journal. I have no doubt that the other editors were furious with him for doing that. That's not the same thing as a systematic campaign of harrassment and misinformation by a cabal of Smithsonian employees, which is what Sternberg alleged on nation-wide television.

As for journals not following their procedures, I think you will be hard-pressed to find an example where the normal procedures were not followed for the purpose of ensuring that a highly controversial paper avoids its proper scrutiny. If you do manage to find another example, then I will show you a corrupt journal. Usually when an editor is confronted with a paper he knows will be controversial, he bends over backward to ensure that the other editors know it's coming. What he does not do is blindside his colleagues the way Sternberg did.

It is not I who am motivated by animus, it is you who are motivated by blind faith.


As I said in my blog entry, I think the two really important issues are the quality of the paper itself, and whether the process by which it was published was above board. I regard the question of the paper's scientific merit as having been answered. It's arguments were simply wrong.

Anytime you address ID in any way at all you give them a platform for their specious arguments and fallacious claims. But you can't just ignore clear editorial malfeasance simply because you are afraid that pointing it out will give the Sternbergs of the world a platform.

At 11:57 PM, Anonymous Merlin said...

The fossil record does not support evolution, information theory makes evolution look bad, etc., and you are not open minded enough to actually deal with the issues raised by scientists who question your orthodoxy? I'm impressed.

At 12:00 AM, Blogger Jason said...


First of all, it is not my orthodoxy, but the orthodoxy among experts in the relevant fields.

Secondly, virtually every day I deal with the scientific assertions made by critics of evolution. As do countless other scientists.

The fossil record supports evolution overwhelmingly, and I'd be amazed if you could give a coherent description of anything related to information theory. Please do some hoemwork before commenting.

At 5:01 AM, Anonymous snaxalotl said...

there's a video of the interview on the page. You can download it if you clear your browser cache, play the video, and examine your cache for the 3.38 megabyte .swf file. I happen to find bill hilarious.

At 7:05 AM, Blogger hotrockhopper said...

You always need to be suspicious of people who claim false associations with universities. It suggests they're trying to claim undeserved gravitas, doesn't it? I was surprised to see him claiming to be at Cambridge, as I'm sure we would have heard more about this here if he was (I'm just finishing up at Cambridge). My first thought was that he might be at APU, as they sometimes say things like "when I was at university in Cambridge..." Much as I'd love to believe that studying here gives you instant cachet in scientific circles, what he's claiming is just dishonest.

At 9:12 AM, Blogger Robert O'Brien said...

Blind faith in what, Jason? The principle of giving people the benefit of the doubt?

At 9:16 AM, Blogger Robert O'Brien said...

"You always need to be suspicious of people who claim false associations with universities."

Bill O'Reilly was the one who claimed Stephen Meyer was at Cambridge instead of correctly identifying him as a Cambridge alumnus; Stephen Meyer wasn't even being interviewed.

At 9:38 AM, Blogger An Enquiring Mind said...

That's exactly how things appear in the posted transcript, but I'm sure “Harris men” is supposed to be harassment.

No doubt it was one of those rushed transcripts that you always read about at the end of the transcript.

At 10:16 AM, Blogger An Enquiring Mind said...

And another thing or two:

If'un I'm gonna waste an hour watchin' the cable snooze channels at 8 P.M., then this here post gives me one more reason to watch Countdown With Keith Olbermann instead of O'Lielly.

These here inept deity theorists remind of the cranks who pop every now and then and claim they have proved Einstein "wrong." The only difference between the Einstein is wrong crowd and the inept deity theorists is that the Bushies and their sock puppets ain't gonna give any credence to the Einstein is wrong crowd, because if'un they did their noo-key-lur weapons ain't gonna go boom.

At 6:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"[original:] That's exactly how things appear in the posted transcript, but I'm sure 'Harris men' is supposed to be harassment.

[response:] No doubt it was one of those rushed transcripts that you always read about at the end of the transcript."

That is the sort of error contemporary computer speech-to-text systems make. It would not surprise me if a TV station wanting quickly done transcripts of a show would use such technology.

At 8:43 PM, Anonymous sanjait said...

I'm not familiar with how peer-review and journal editing works. Can one person really sneak a piece in without anyone else knowing? I would have guessed these decisions are made by a board of editors.

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