Smithsonian "discriminated" against scientist

Officials retaliated after publication of a paper supporting intelligent design, a Congressional report claims

By | December 22, 2006

A recently released Congressional report accuses senior officials at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) of having harassed, discriminated against, and retaliated against research associate and journal editor Richard Sternberg for allowing publication of a scientific paper supporting intelligent design (ID) in 2004. According to the report, NMNH officials sought to discredit Sternberg and force him out of his unpaid RA position after he allowed an article by Stephen C. Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, to be published in the August 2004 Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a peer-reviewed journal of which he was managing editor at the time. While legally separate from the NMNH, Proceedings is governed by a council that includes NMNH scientists and receives public funds from the museum. Meyer's article, which used information theory to support the argument for intelligent design in biological complexity, sparked controversy. It was the first pro-ID article to be published in a refereed publication, raising concern among some scientists that it might be used to enhance the academic argument for intelligent design. The Congressional report, prepared by the staff of Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), chairman of the Government Reform subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources and released Dec. 11, supports Sternberg's claims that NMNH supervisors investigated his political and religious beliefs, sought to discredit him, and aimed to force his removal as an RA by creating a "hostile work environment" after the article was published. The report suggests legislation is needed to protect the free speech of scientists at the Smithsonian and other federally funded institutions. "While the majority of scientists embrace Darwinian theory, it is important that neither Federal funds nor Federal power be used to punish or retaliate against otherwise qualified scientists merely because they dissent from the majority view," the report states. Sternberg, who is also a staff taxonomist at NIH's National Center for Biotechnology Information, said he is "thinking hard" about whether to file a discrimination lawsuit. "I do not think any Federal government employee should be discriminated against on the basis of their outside activities or their intellectual views, concerning theories of evolution or any other subject," Sternberg told The Scientist in an email. The report says NMNH officials and scientists discussed among themselves in emails whether Sternberg "was a Republican," "was a fundamentalist" or "was a conservative." It also references an Aug. 26, 2004, email from Hans Sues, NMNH associate director for research and collections, to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) seeking help in trying to determine whether Sternberg had misrepresented himself as a Smithsonian employee, as opposed to an RA, because doing so would have constituted grounds for his dismissal. NCSE spokesman Nicholas Matzke said his group was not part of an effort to dismiss Sternberg. "A lot of people at the Smithsonian were mad because their journal was dragged into a political issue. We wanted them to focus on the science and not persecute or discriminate against Sternberg on religious grounds," Matzke told The Scientist. "We advised them not to fire Sternberg," he said, "and they eventually followed our advice." NMNH public affairs director Randall Kremer denied that Sternberg had been harassed or discriminated against. Smithsonian and NMNH officials investigated Sternberg's allegations and found "no basis for his complaints," Kremer told The Scientist. "Sternberg still has an office here, and he has full access to the research facility," Kremer said. "If he feels people are hostile to him, it's his feeling. It's all in the eye of the beholder." Sternberg's appointment as an RA expires in January 2007. NMNH officials had previously offered to renew the position, but have since changed the post to that of research collaborator, which is a role for someone "less academically qualified," Sternberg said. "If this is a mistake on their part and they want to renew my former position as research associate, I will accept. Otherwise I will not." Sternberg filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the federal agency that investigates and prosecutes prohibited personnel practices, in late 2004. OSC staff attorney James McVay reported in an 11-page letter having found evidence to corroborate complaints of religious and political-affiliation discrimination and retaliation. "It is also clear that a hostile work environment was created with the ultimate goal of forcing [Sternberg] out," McVay wrote. However, because Sternberg was an unpaid RA and not a Smithsonian employee, the OSC lacked jurisdiction and did not pursue the matter. In August 2005, the subcommittee staff initiated its own investigation, resulting in the current report, which largely corroborates the OSC findings. In an email to The Scientist, NCSE's Matzke asserted that both investigations were politically motivated, with Souder being "the leading ID supporter in Congress" and OSC chief Scott Bloch having been "widely criticized for using the OSC office for right-wing culture wars." Ted Agres Links within this article: "Intolerance and the Politicization of Science and the Smithsonian," Staff Report, U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform, National Museum of Natural History Richard Sternberg T. Stokes, "Intelligent design study appears," The Scientist, Sept. 2004 S.C. Meyer, "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories," Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 117[2]:213-239, August 4, 2004. Republished online Aug. 28, 2004. Stephen C. Meyer Center for Science and Culture I. Ganguli, "Beating Up Intelligent Design," The Scientist, March 1, 2006 J. Giles, "Peer-reviewed paper defends theory of intelligent design," Nature Published online: Sept. 8, 2004; doi:10.1038/431114a G. Flores, "Journals and intelligent design," The Scientist, Feb. 28, 2005 ' "Appendix to Intolerance and the Politicization of Science and the Smithsonian" (Cited email on page 31) National Center for Science Education Office of Special Counsel OSC "Pre-Closure" letter to Sternberg Scott Bloch


Avatar of: PvM


Posts: 1

December 22, 2006

Seems that the Scientist took the PR from Souder and swallowed it hook line and sinker. And yet, if they had studied the appendix, they would have realized how ill founded the accusations really are.\n\nOn Pandasthumb, Ed Brayton explains:\n\n

December 23, 2006

This is the second time that The Smithsonian has taken a position contrary to that of most Americans. The first time was that incredibly biased and historically inaccurate diatribe about the Enola Gay and Hiroshima. Darwinism is not a fact, merely a theory - as he himself titled his work. Intelligent design is also a theory to some people. I believe that a Reaserch Associate should be judged on his or her work and not upon his or her political or religious outlook. Those members of the Smithsonian's staff who do not subscribe to this ideal should really look for work in a McDonald's, where their insular prejudice will not harm anyone.
Avatar of: Leon Brooks

Leon Brooks

Posts: 1

December 23, 2006

I have to tell you that most Australians would be wondering what all of the fuss was about: can the man do his job? If so, let him do it. If not, fire him.\n\nThis business of leaning on him over non-hurtful unpaid extra-job work simply because some people disagree with it is exactly the opposite of what science is supposed to be about. It axes the science and goes for the politics.\n\nPut the poor blighter back where he was: if you have something to say, then by all means submit an article to Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington for publication.

December 23, 2006

People can write novels, but not publish novels on scientific journals
Avatar of: Ian C. Colquhoun

Ian C. Colquhoun

Posts: 5

December 23, 2006

Events at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and the uproar surrounding the case of Richard Sternberg should not be considered in isolation. The larger context of controversies over claims of the validity of Intelligent Design (ID) "theory" is relevant here. Particularly informative is the legal decision by Judge John E. Jones (Dec. 20, 2005) in the case of Kitmiller et al. vs. Dover Area School District et al.: "... we first note that since ID is not a science, the conclusion is inescapable that the only effect of the ID Policy is the advancement of religion." (pp. 133-134). ""In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents." (p. 136 -- see \nTo suggest that ID is a theory in the same way that evolution by natural selection is a theory is an inherently weak argument; it actually draws on a post-modernist, political correctness outlook, where all views are of equal merit (see the commentary "Oppressed by Evolution" by Matt Cartmill, 1998; Discover 19(3): 78-83; Cartmill is a professor of anatomy and anthropology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and is a past-president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists). \nSuch "all views are valid" perspectives are simply not scientific. A couple of other particularly salient articles on this point are:\n"15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense" by John Rennie, 2002; Scientific American 287(1): 78-86 (Rennie is editor of Scientific American); and,\n"Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology" by Liza Gross, 2006; PLoS Biology 4(5): e167.DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040167 (PLoS Biology is an open access journal that is freely available at:
Avatar of: Kathryn Hedges

Kathryn Hedges

Posts: 1

December 24, 2006

Could Richard Sternberg have been so naive as to believe his colleagues would not object to his publishing an article supporting Intelligent Design? Getting a job at a journal that is clearly in opposition to one's views and then publishing an article contrary to the standard editorial viewpoint is just asking for trouble. That's like publishing an article in an American history journal suggesting that the slaves should never have been freed, then wondering why people assume you're a racist.\n\nIf he finds mainstream science personally offensive, why is he trying so hard to stay in an unpaid role where he is surrounded by unbelievers? Of course, if he'd simply resigned after the initial furor, people might think he was satisfied with his role in promoting ID: hit and run propaganda.
Avatar of: Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell

Posts: 1

December 26, 2006

Thomas Kuhn popularized the notion of how science progresses in his seminal work, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". Kuhn's basic thesis was that scientists representing the dominant view ascend to positions that control the scientific journals and, from those positions, block opposing views from being published resulting in an entrenchment of the dominant view. While providing a measure of stability to scientific knowledge, this type of internal politics stifles the progress of science by prevnting novel views from emerging into the scientific debate. We are clearly able to see this dynamic in operation in he current controversy over Evolution and Intelligent Design. What is new in the dialigue today is the influence being brought to bear by external politics and the judicial system. Rather than using their influence as the dominant scientific view, contemporary proponents of evolution are increasingly using the political process and the judicial system to suppress the opposing view.
Avatar of: Daniel Miller

Daniel Miller

Posts: 40

January 9, 2007

If the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington is a refereed journal, how did this article ever get past the referees? If it was not, in fact, sent out for evaluation or printed despite negative evaluations, then there is no question that the person responsible for having it printed was totally and completely out of line and needs to be relieved of his/her responsibilites. Using the legal system, such as the govenment is now doing, rather than fact and evidence, to push a nonscientific, religious viewpoint, is part and parcel of the whole ID strategy.
Avatar of: Robin Stenecker

Robin Stenecker

Posts: 1

January 26, 2007

I don't know if the Smithsonian did what is said they did but I wouldn't be surprised. Those who accept Darwinism without question have, like Darwin, a problem not just with real science, whose goal is the truth, but with a reality that contradicts their pseudoscience, which is really a religion with Charles Darwin as god. Darwin himself formed his theory in anger against the God of the Bible, thinking he knew better than God how reality should be. Human pride is responsible for this totally destructive philosophy of false reality.

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