Friday, January 28, 2005

MCarthyism in the Scientific Community. ("Creeping Fundamentalism" Watch III)

As noted in Opinion Journal, Richard Sternberg, a research associate at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, suddenly found himself kicked out of his office, denied reseach space, and shunned by all his co-workers. His crime: publishing a peer-reviewed article laying out the evidentiary case for intelligent design in the August issue of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington.

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. 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."

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."

The new McCarthyism. Are you now or have you ever been a religious right-winger? After what happened to Sternberg, other workers at the museum worry about being perceived as religious.

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."

Sternberg was given the bum's rush, and now there seems to be a fear of being tainted by association with him.

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.

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.

Sternberg did file a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) that he was being discriminated against for perceived religious beliefs. Sternberg readily admits that he's Catholic and attends mass regularly, but calls himself "a believer with a lot of questions, about everything."

Unfortunately for Sternberg, he questioned the one thing that "thou shalt not question," and that's a firm belief in Darwinism. Or rather, he didn't, but the publication he edited did.

Opinion Journal notes ironically:

Critics of ID have long argued that the theory was unscientific because it had not been put forward in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Now that it has, they argue that it shouldn't have been because it's unscientific. They banish certain ideas from certain venues as if by holy writ, and brand heretics too. In any case, the heretic here is Mr. Meyer, a fellow at Seattle's Discovery Institute, not Mr. Sternberg, who isn't himself an advocate of Intelligent Design.

As I've said here before, what is science if it will not ask questions? A scientific theory that can never be challenged makes for "faith-based science."

But incidents like this will certainly have a chilling effect. Scientists will learn that they risk their careers if they dare depart from the groupthink that paralyzes the scientific community.

Meanwhile, a man's career is ruined simply because he allowed a proponent of I.D. to have his views heard. The new McCarthyism? Absolutely.


At 1:50 PM, Blogger Phil Dillon, Prairie Apologist said...

I came across your blog based on Guy's recommendation.

Realy good stuff. I'm going to make it part of my regular reading.

The "scientific" community is getting arrogant. The next thing you know and they'll be asking things like "Have you ever had any religious thoughts?" or "Have you ever asked a question like "why" rather than "how?"

I'd appreciate it if you take a peek at my blog when you get a chance. It looks to me that our subject matter is a bit different, but our approach is the same.

Thanks again for your good work. Keep it up!

At 6:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I do not wish to debate the merits of intelligent design, this blog 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. NOTE: This is my response, not that of the Smithsonian Institution.

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.

Sincerely yours,
Jonathan Coddington


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