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Was Richard von Sternberg expelled?

Richard Sternberg has two Ph.D.’s in biology and a significant record of published research related to evolution. He is a Christian and a supporter of ID. As editor of a small-circulation scientific journal, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, he accepted for publication a paper that advocated ID.Stephen C. Meyer. 2004. "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories." Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. 117(2): 213-239. The paper and the decision to publish it were publicly repudiated by the journal See also the AAAS statement on "Intelligent Design and Peer Review.", and Sternberg was severely criticized - some say chastised - for his role. Sternberg stepped down from the editorship. Expelled claims “The paper ignited a firestorm of controversy merely because it suggested intelligent design might be able to explain how life began...[Sternberg’s] life was nearly ruined when he strayed from the party line...”

This is a more turbid case, but the following seems clear. First, the film mischaracterizes the focus of the paper, which was not about the beginning of life, but about the origin of major new kinds of organisms. This is actually not just a minor point, because evolutionary theory doesn’t propose an explanation for life’s origin, nor do we even have an agreed upon theory from any scientific field outside of evolution. But we do have a virtually universally accepted theory for the origin of biotic diversity. That alone does not make it a correct theory, but it does mean that repudiating it is going to create a spectacular firestorm. But so would claims of geocentrism in an astronomy journal. Of course the challenge in science, as with forestry, is which fires to put out and which to let burn. But that is the second question again: should they be expelled?

Was Sternberg’s life ruined? We can’t assess that statement and it’s not clear from the film why Stein makes such a striking claim. What does seem clear from the public record is the following. After the article was published, rumors circulated that Sternberg was a young earth creationist. He’s not. Rumors circulated that Sternberg, contrary to standard policy for scientific publications, did not send the paper out for peer review. He definitely did. It was also claimed that Sternberg did not conform to the journal’s typical standards for seeking input from an associate editor. This is contested. Finally, it has been documented that communication between those associated with the journal and the Smithsonian Institution (involved in the journal’s publication) and/or the National Center for Science Education (a leading anti-creationist organization) inquired about Sternberg’s religious beliefs, political affiliations, and even discussed whether he should be terminated, formally disciplined, or made to resign.The Discovery Institute’s selective and interpreted citations of such communications can be found on their webiste, which also provides links to extensive original documentation. As far as I know,... And it was decided none of these things should occur.

So what actually did happen? Sternberg stepped down from his post as editor, but everybody agrees this has nothing to do with the article, and his term was set to expire before it appeared anyway. He was not fired or asked to resign at the Smithsonian. In fact, he didn’t even have a job at the Smithsonian to begin with (he is an employee of the National Institutes of Health). His was a courtesy appointment as a researcher, which was not rescinded. But after the term ran out, it was commuted to a lower prestige designation. From here the claims seem to get considerably more modest and also a bit more difficult to adjudicate. Sternberg claims his name was taken off his door, he had to move to worse work space, had to trade in his master key for another key, had to endure bureaucratic demands that others did not, and had his access to collections restricted. The Smithsonian claims some of this happened and some didn’t, but much of what did happen also happened to others for reasons of general policy, some even before the article came out. The worst case scenario - which does not seem altogether unlikely - is that Sternberg indeed experienced a hostile work environment. It seems clear that colleagues viewed him as having betrayed the standards and reputation (but not the policies) of the organization, they were ticked with him, and as is not uncommon in such situations, he was subjected to gossip and the diminution of discretionary professional courtesies.

If Sternberg used his position to get an article published, of tawdry scientific merit, but which he had a vested ideological interest in promoting, then this actually seems to be getting off easy. On the other hand, if he published something containing credible arguments for a position, however heretical, which he took pains to have thoroughly reviewed by competent scholars, then he has taken some regrettable lumps for being an iconoclast. Whether or not his life was ruined, the latter scenario would raise sobering questions about free inquiry. Which is the case? In terms of the review process, we know it occurred, but we don’t know if this highly controversial paper was assessed by an appropriate range of scholars, or primarily, if only, by sympathizers. Sternberg will not reveal their identities out of concern for piercing the “veil of peer review,” the promise of anonymity many feel is essential for candid evaluations. [However, he could ask if they would be willing to identify themselves.] With respect to the crucial question of whether the article was credible, well, that brings us back to the importance of question two: should they be expelled?

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