SocraticGadfly: Claims of creationist/Intelligent Design "persecution" ring false

February 05, 2005

Claims of creationist/Intelligent Design "persecution" ring false

Creationists and their backers continue to peddle ideas of "censorship" as to why it, or its gussied-up daughter, Intelligent Design, can’t get a better hearing from scientists. The latest "proof"?

The case of Richard Sternberg, a research associate at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington. He wasuntil recently the managing editor of a nominally independent journal published at the museum, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, where he exercised final editorial authority. The August issue included typical articles on taxonomical topics -- e.g., on a new species of hermit crab. It also included an atypical article, "The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories."

The 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 and argues that, relying on only the Darwinian mechanism, there was not enough time for the necessary genetic "information" to be generated. Intelligent design, he believes, offers a better explanation.

Among people in the media lamenting Sternberg’s “persecution” is Dallas Morning News op-ed columnist William Murchison. (See note at bottom.)

Here’s what Big Bill says on the issue:

[T]he Smithsonian Museum of Natural History … has undertaken the disciplining of a staff member who allowed a peer-reviewed article on intelligent design to be published in the museum's Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. The errant staff member … has been called on the carpet and stripped of research space.

But, simply put, Murchison is all wet.

As documented here, here and here by Jason Rosenhouse, Meyer’s publication was not peer-reviewed and Sternberg’s insertion of it was not even signed off on by the rest of the journal’s editorial board, which, despite Sternberg’s claim, does not deal with evolutionary issues per se.

(The Biological Society of Washington, meanwhile, issued a statement that the article represented a "significant departure from the nearly purely taxonomic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 124-year history" and was "inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings." For a mainstream scientific critique of Meyer, see here.)

IDers and their ilk allege that Sternberg has lost research privileges, etc. at the Smithsonian as a vendetta for his religious beliefs. Sternberg himself has filed a religious discrimination complaint.

And, here (at comment No. 14871) is a thorough dissecting of such claims by Jonathan Coddington, Sternberg’s supervisor at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Although I do not wish to debate the merits of intelligent design, this forum seems an apt place to correct several factual inaccuracies in the Wall Street Journal’s Op Ed article by David Klinghoffer, “The Branding of a Heretic” (Jan. 28, 2005). Because Dr. von Sternberg has filed an official complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, I cannot comment as fully as I would wish.
1. 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.
2. He is not an employee of the Smithsonian Institution. His title, “Research Associate,” means that for a three year, potentially renewable period he has permission to visit the Museum for the purpose of studying and working with our collections without the staff oversight visitors usually receive.
3. I am, and continue to be, his only “supervisor,” although we use the term “sponsor” for Research Associates to avoid personnel/employee connotations. He has had no other since Feb. 1, 2004, nor was he ever “assigned to” or under the “oversight of” anyone else.
4. Well prior to the publication of the Meyer article and my awareness of it, I asked him and another Research Associate to move as part of a larger and unavoidable reorganization of space involving 17 people and 20 offices. He agreed.
5. I offered both individuals new, identical, standard Research Associate work spaces. The other accepted, but Dr. von Sternberg declined and instead requested space in an entirely different part of the Museum, which I provided, and which he currently occupies.
6. As for prejudice on the basis of beliefs or opinions, I repeatedly and consistently emphasized to staff (and to Dr. von Sternberg personally), verbally or in writing, that private beliefs and/or controversial editorial decisions were irrelevant in the workplace, that we would continue to provide full Research Associate benefits to Dr. von Sternberg, that he was an established and respected scientist, and that he would at all times be treated as such.
On behalf of all National Museum of Natural History staff, I would like to assert that we hold the freedoms of religion and belief as dearly as any one. The right to heterodox opinion is particularly important to scientists. Why Dr. von Sternberg chose to represent his interactions with me as he did is mystifying. I can’t speak to his interactions with anyone else.

Note: Murchison is a former full-time columnist for The Dallas Morning News but is now retired from the paper, while still writing as a contributor. He also teaches at Baylor, where leading ID advocate William Dembski is an associate research professor; he was also director of the Michael Polanyi Center there, until removed by university president Robert Sloan after Sloan put the center under more direct university oversight and Dembski loudly protested, accusing the administration of "intellectual McCarthyism" and Sloan himself of "the utmost of bad faith."
Note 2: Baylor President Sloan has agreed to step down, under some pressure from regents, and move into the position of chancellor, where he will primarily a fundraiser and not have academic oversight. It was Sloan who invited Dembski to Baylor.
Note 3: I e-mailed Murchison, pointing out the many errors or, at the least, overstatements about Sternberg in his column, including some of the links I have here as well as the URL to this post. I invited him to make a correction or, at the least, a "clarification." Should one be forthcoming (don't hold your breath), I will post it here.

Update, Feb. 8 – Murchison's response: Murchison said he saw the Wall Street Journal article about Coddington's comments, but his column had already published. However, he adds that it didn't matter anyway.

Here's the keys from his comment:
More to the point, it's he-said, she-said. Inevitable
investigation ... will establish whose account is the more accurate.

In any event, inserting Dr. Coddington's account into the New Testament wouldn't cancel out what we know in general about the almost desperate hostility to free inquiry practiced by the apostles of Mr. Darwin. (Emphasis added.)

Let's deconstruct this. First, for him, Darwinism is religion. Therefore it has no more empirical standing than any other religion, if that much. Second, it obviously has less empirical standing than the New Testament, as this is the obvious final judge of Coddington's account, according to Murchison. And he claims, by inference, to be open to free inquiry himself.

For people who doubt that the South (or Texas) is still the Bible Belt, think again.

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