The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

In this week’s eSkeptic, we present the first two of four articles debunking claims made in Ben Stein’s new documentary film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The first article is by Michael Shermer, Director of the Skeptics Society and author of The Mind of the Market. The second article is by Ed Brayton.

Expelled Kit

Ben Stein’s Blunder

In a new documentary film — Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed — the actor, game show host and financial columnist Ben Stein falls for the pseudoscience of Intelligent Design

by Michael Shermer

In 1974 I matriculated at Pepperdine University as a born-again Christian who rejected Darwinism and evolutionary theory, not because I knew anything about it (I didn’t) but because I thought that in order to believe in God and accept the Bible as true that you had to be a creationist. What I knew about evolution came primarily from creationist literature, so when I finally took a course in evolutionary theory in graduate school I realized that I had been hoodwinked. What I discovered is a massive amount of evidence from multiple sciences — geology, paleontology, biogeography, zoology, botany, comparative anatomy, molecular biology, genetics and embryology — demonstrating that evolution happened.

It was with some irony for me, then, that I saw Ben Stein’s anti-evolution documentary film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, opens with the actor, game show host and speech writer for Richard Nixon addressing a packed audience of adoring students at Pepperdine University, apparently falling for the same trap I did.

Actually they didn’t. The biology professors at Pepperdine assure me that their mostly Christian students fully accept the theory of evolution. So who were these people embracing Stein’s screed against science? Extras. According to Lee Kats, Associate Provost for Research and Chair of Natural Science at Pepperdine, “the production company paid for the use of the facility just as all other companies do that film on our campus” but that “the company was nervous that they would not have enough people in the audience so they brought in extras. Members of the audience had to sign in and the staff member reports that no more than two to three Pepperdine students were in attendance. Mr. Stein’s lecture on that topic was not an event sponsored by the university.” And this is one of the least dishonest parts of the film.

At the Crossroads of Conspiracy

Ben Stein came to my office to interview me about what I was told was a film about “the intersection of science and religion” called Crossroads (yet another deception). I knew something was afoot with his first question to me was on whether or not I think someone should be fired for expressing dissenting views. I pressed Stein for specifics: Who is being fired for what, when and where? In my experience, people are usually fired for reasons having to do with budgetary constraints, incompetence or not fulfilling the terms of a contract. Stein finally asked my opinion on people being fired for endorsing Intelligent Design. I replied that I know of no instance where such a firing has happened.

This seemingly innocent observation was turned into a filmic confession of ignorance when my on-camera interview abruptly ends there, because when I saw Expelled at a preview screening at the National Religious Broadcasters’ convention (tellingly, the film is being targeted primarily to religious and conservative groups), I discovered that the central thesis of the film is a conspiracy theory about the systematic attempt to keep Intelligent Design creationism out of American classrooms and culture.

Stein’s case for conspiracy centers on a journal article written by Stephen Meyer, a senior fellow at the Intelligent Design think tank Discovery Institute and professor at the theologically conservative Christian Palm Beach Atlantic University. Meyer’s article, “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,” was published in the June 2004 Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, the voice of the Biological Society with a circulation of less than 300 people. In other words, from the get-go this was much ado about nothing.

Nevertheless, some members of the organization voiced their displeasure, so the society’s governing council released a statement explaining, “Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process. The Council, which includes officers, elected councilors, and past presidents, and the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings.” So how did it get published? In the words of journal’s managing editor at the time, Richard Sternberg, “it was my prerogative to choose the editor who would work directly on the paper, and as I was best qualified among the editors I chose myself.” And what qualified Sternberg to choose himself? Perhaps it was his position as a fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design, which promotes Intelligent Design, along with being on the editorial board of the Occasional Papers of the Baraminology Study Group, a creationism journal committed to the literal interpretation of Genesis. Or perhaps it was the fact that he is a signatory of the Discovery Institute’s “100 Scientists who Doubt Darwinism” statement.

Meyer’s article is the first Intelligent Design paper ever published in a peer-reviewed journal, but it deals less with systematics (or taxonomy, Sternberg’s specialty) than it does paleontology, for which many members of the society would have been better qualified than he to peer review the paper (in fact, at least three members were experts on the Cambrian invertebrates discussed in Meyer’s paper). Meyer claims that the “Cambrian explosion” of complex hard-bodied life forms over 500 million years ago could not have come about through Darwinian gradualism. The fact that geologists call it an “explosion” leads creationists to glom onto the word as a synonym for “sudden creation.” After four billion years of an empty earth, God reached down from the heavens and willed trilobites into existence ex nihilo. In reality, according to paleontologist Donald Prothero, in his 2007 magisterial book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters (Columbia University Press), “The major groups of invertebrate fossils do not all appear suddenly at the base of the Cambrian but are spaced out over strata spanning 80 million years — hardly an instantaneous ‘explosion’! Some groups appear tens of millions of years earlier than others. And preceding the ‘Cambrian explosion’ was a long slow buildup to the first appearance of typical Cambrian shelled invertebrates.” If an Intelligent Designer did create the Cambrian life forms, it took 80 million years of gradual evolution to do it.

Stein, however, is uninterested in paleontology, or any other science for that matter. His focus is on what happened to Sternberg, who is portrayed in the film as a martyr to the cause of free speech. “As a result of publishing the Meyer article,” Stein intones in his inimitably droll voice, “Dr. Sternberg found himself the object of a massive campaign that smeared his reputation and came close to destroying his career.” According to Sternberg, “after the publication of the Meyer article the climate changed from being chilly to being outright hostile. Shunned, yes, and discredited.” As a result, Sternberg filed a claim against the Smithsonian for being “targeted for retaliation and harassment” for his religious beliefs. “I was viewed as an intellectual terrorist,” he tells Stein. In August 2005 his claim was rejected. According to Jonathan Coddington, his supervisor at the Smithsonian Institution, Sternberg was not discriminated against, was never dismissed and in fact was not even a paid employee, but just an unpaid research associate who had completed his three-year term!

Who Speaks for Science?

The rest of the martyrdom stories in Expelled have similar less menacing explanations, detailed at, where physical anthropologist Eugenie Scott and her tireless crew at the National Center for Science Education have tracked down the specifics of each case. Astronomer Guillermo Gonzales, for example, did not get tenure at Iowa State University and is portrayed in the film as sacrificed on the altar of tenure denial because of his authorship of a pro-Intelligent Design book entitled Privileged Planet (Regnery Publishing, 2004). As Scott told me, “Tenure is based on the evaluation of academic performance at one’s current institution for the previous seven years.” Although Gonzales was apparently a productive scientist before he moved to Iowa State, Scott says that “while there, his publication record tanked, he brought in only a couple of grants, one of which was from the Templeton Foundation to write the Privileged Planet, didn’t have very many graduate students and those he had never completed their degrees. Lots of people don’t get tenure, for the same legitimate reasons that Gonzales didn’t get tenure.”

Tenure in any department is serious business because it means, essentially, employment for life. Tenure decisions for astronomers are based on the number and quality of scientific papers published, the prestige of the journal in which they are published, the number of grants funded (universities are ranked, in part, by the grant-productivity of their faculties), the number of graduate students who completed their program, the amount of telescope time allocated and the trends in each of these categories, indicating whether or not the candidate shows potential for continued productivity. In point of fact, according to Gregory Geoffroy, president of Iowa State University, “Over the past ten years, four of the 12 candidates who came up for review in the physics and astronomy department were not granted tenure.” Gonzales was one of them, and for good reasons, despite Stein’s claim of his “stellar academic record.”

For her part, Scott is presented in the film as the cultural filter for determining what is and is not science, begging the rhetorical question: just who does she think she is anyway? Her response to me was as poignant as it was instructive: “Who is Ben Stein to say what is science and not science? None of us speak for science. Scientists vary all over the map in their religious and philosophical views, for example, Francis Collins [the evangelical Christian and Human Genome Project director], so no one can speak for science.”

From Haeckel to Hitler

Even more disturbing than these distortions is the film’s other thesis that Darwinism inexorably leads to atheism, Communism, Fascism and the Holocaust. Despite the fact that hundreds of millions of religious believers fully accept the theory of evolution, Stein claims that we are in an ideological war between a scientific natural worldview that leads to the gulag archipelago and Nazi gas chambers, and a religious supernatural worldview that leads to freedom, justice and the American way. The film’s visual motifs leave no doubt in the viewer’s emotional brain that Darwinism is leading America into an immoral quagmire. We’re going to hell in a Darwinian hand basket. Cleverly edited interview excerpts from scientists are interspersed with various black-and-white clips for guilt by association with: bullies beating up on a 98-pound weakling, Charlton Heston’s character in Planet of the Apes being blasted by a water hose, Nikita Khrushchev pounding his fist on a United Nations desk, East Germans captured trying to scale the Berlin Wall, and Nazi crematoria remains and Holocaust victims being bulldozed into mass graves. This propaganda production would make Joseph Goebbels proud.

It is true that the Nazis did occasionally adapt a warped version of social Darwinism proffered by the 19th-century German biologist Ernst Haeckel in a “survival of the fittest races” mode. But this rationale was only in the service of justifying the anti-Semitism that had been inculcated into European culture centuries before. Because Stein is Jewish he surely knows that the pogroms against his people began ages before Darwin and that the German people were, in Harvard University political scientist Daniel Goldhagen’s apt phrase (and book title), “Hitler’s willing executioners.”

When Stein interviewed me and asked my opinion on the impact of Darwinism on culture, he seemed astonishingly ignorant of the many other ways that Darwinism has been used and abused by political and economic ideologues of all stripes. Because Stein is a well-known economic conservative (and because I had just finished writing my book The Mind of the Market, a chapter of which compares Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” with Charles Darwin’s “natural selection”), I pointed out how the captains of industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries justified their beliefs in laissez faire capitalism through the social Darwinism of “survival of the fittest corporations.” And, more recently, I noted that Enron’s CEO, Jeffrey Skilling, said his favorite book in Harvard Business School was Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (first published in 1976), a form of Darwinism that Skilling badly misinterpreted. Scientific theorists cannot be held responsible for how their ideas are employed in the service of non-scientific agendas.

Questioning Darwinism

A final leitmotif running through Expelled is inscribed in chalk by Stein in repetitive lines on a classroom blackboard: “Do not question Darwinism.” Anyone who thinks that scientists do not question Darwinism has never been to an evolutionary conference. At the World Summit on Evolution held in the Galapagos Islands during June 2005, for example, I witnessed a scientific theory rich in controversy and disputation. Paleontologist William Schopf of the University of California, Los Angeles, for instance, explained that “We know the overall sequence of life’s origin, that the origin of life was early, microbial and unicellular, and that an RNA world preceded today’s DNA-protein world.” He openly admitted, however, “We do not know the precise environments of the early earth in which these events occurred; we do not know the exact chemistry of some of the important chemical reactions that led to life; and we do not have any knowledge of life in a pre-RNA world.” Stanford University biologist Joan Roughgarden declared that Darwin’s theory of sexual selection (a specific type of natural selection) is wrong in its claim that females choose mates who are more attractive and well-armed. Calling neo-Darwinians “bullies,” the University of Massachusetts biologist Lynn Margulis pronounced that “neo-Darwinism is dead” and, echoing Darwin, she said, “It was like confessing a murder when I discovered I was not a neo-Darwinist.” Why? Because, Margulis explained, “Random changes in DNA alone do not lead to speciation. Symbiogenesis — the appearance of new behaviors, tissues, organs, organ systems, physiologies, or species as a result of symbiont interaction — is the major source of evolutionary novelty in eukaryotes: animals, plants, and fungi.” Finally, Cornell University evolutionary theorist William Provine (featured in Expelled) presented 11 problems with evolutionary theory, including: “Natural selection does not shape an adaptation or cause a gene to spread over a population or really do anything at all. It is instead the result of specific causes: hereditary changes, developmental causes, ecological causes, and demography. Natural Selection is the result of these causes, not a cause that is by itself. It is not a mechanism.”

Despite this public questioning of Darwinism (and neo-Darwinism), which I reported on in Scientific American [“Rumsfeld’s Wisdom,” Skeptic, by Michael Shermer; Scientific American, September 2005], Schopf, Roughgarden, Margulis and Provine have not been persecuted, shunned, fired or even expelled. Why? Because they are doing science, not religion. It is perfectly okay to question Darwinism (or any other ism in science), as long as there is a way to test your challenge. Intelligent Design creationists, by contrast, have no interest in doing science at all. In the words of mathematician and philosopher William Dembski of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a key witness in Stein’s prosecution of evolution, from a 2000 speech at the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Anaheim, Calif.: “Intelligent Design opens the whole possibility of us being created in the image of a benevolent God…. And if there’s anything that I think has blocked the growth of Christ as the free reign of the Spirit and people accepting the Scripture and Jesus Christ, it is the Darwinian naturalistic view.”

When will people learn that Darwinian naturalism has nothing whatsoever to do with religious supernaturalism? By the very definitions of the words it is not possible for supernatural processes to be understood by a method designed strictly for analyzing natural causes. Unless God reaches into our world through natural and detectable means, He remains wholly outside the realm of science.

So, yes Mr. Stein, sometimes walls are bad (Berlin), but other times good walls make good neighbors. Let’s build up that wall separating church and state, along with science and religion, and let freedom ring for all people to believe or disbelieve what they will.

The Richard Sternberg Affair
Intelligent Design at the Smithsonian Institution

by Ed Brayton

The intelligent design (ID) movement has long labored to inculcate two mutually exclusive falsehoods in the minds of the public: A) that ID is a purely scientific theory that has nothing to do with religion; and B) that any objection to ID is evidence of bias and discrimination against religion. False claims of martyrdom and persecution are among the most useful tools they have in spreading the second falsehood, which explains the message of Expelled, a new documentary purporting to prove that ID advocates are being persecuted and hounded out of jobs and whole careers for the mere sin of bucking the “Darwinian priesthood.” This article will examine the film’s central claim of persecution, that of Richard Sternberg.

Sternberg is a staff scientist with the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a project of the National Institutes of Health. From 2001 to late 2006, he was also a Research Associate in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). He is now a Research Collaborator in that same department. Both of those positions are courtesy appointments, unpaid appointments given to scientists that allows them access to the Smithsonian’s collections, but he was not an employee of the Smithsonian. But the crux of this story stems from his position as managing editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (PBSW), a peer reviewed journal associated with the NMNH.

The June 2004 issue of the PBSW, the last issue for which Sternberg acted as managing editor, included a highly controversial article entitled “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,” written by Stephen Meyer. Meyer, whose Ph.D. is in philosophy, is the director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, the nation’s most influential and well recognized center advocating Intelligent Design. That article proved so embarrassing to the Biological Society of Washington (BSW) and to the Smithsonian itself that the BSW council publicly disavowed it and said that it never should have been published. And that is where this saga begins.

Emails began to go back and forth among scientists and administrators at the museum asking obvious questions: how did this article get in there? Who had reviewed it? Were the regular peer review procedures followed? Who was Richard Sternberg? Was he a creationist of some sort? Did he have ties to the ID movement and the author of this paper? The answer to that last question proved most revealing.

In November 2004, Sternberg filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), a branch of the Department of Justice empowered to investigate claims of discrimination by government employees. In a letter to Sternberg in August 2005, an OSC attorney named James McVay told Sternberg that they were closing the investigation due to a lack of jurisdiction; since Sternberg was not actually an employee of the Smithsonian they could not exercise any authority over decisions made in his situation. McVay’s letter admits that he was “not able to take statements and receive further paper discovery that would allow for final conclusions,” yet he still saw fit to go into some detail about his “preliminary conclusions” on why he thought Sternberg’s allegations had merit and how terribly he thought Sternberg had been treated. This was all quite unusual, of course; if the OSC could not complete the investigation, particularly when they could not take statements or get documents from the accused and had no authority over the situation, they should not have said anything at all about the substance of the allegations made in the complaint. Indeed, McVay’s letter was highly polemical, consisting mostly of unsupported rhetoric and boilerplate aimed at those evil scientists who don’t like creationism. All of this was highly inappropriate.

The ID movement immediately began to hold up Sternberg as a martyr, a man being persecuted not just for being an ID advocate (in fact, they initially — and falsely — claimed he was not one) but for merely being open-minded enough to give ID advocates a fair hearing. They even managed to get a sympathetic legislator, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Indiana), to use staff of the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources, which he chaired, to prepare an unofficial report supporting those allegations. That report came out in December of 2006 and it examined all of the allegations made by Sternberg and his supporters against the Smithsonian. It was released along with an appendix consisting of memos and emails sent back and forth between Smithsonian scientists and others in the weeks and months following the publication of the Meyer paper. But a close examination of the report’s arguments and conclusions reveal that most of them are flatly contradicted by the evidence in that appendix. Comparing the evidence in the appendix to the conclusions in the report leads one to several conclusions:

  1. What little ill-treatment Sternberg may have gotten was largely self-inflicted, the result not only of his violation of procedures in regard to the Meyer paper, but in regard to several other instances of professional malfeasance and prior examples of poor judgment as PBSW editor (in fact, all of the comments expressing distrust and anger at Sternberg and urging his dismissal were made not to his face, but in private emails that he never saw).
  2. The evidence does not support the conclusion that Sternberg was discriminated against in any material way. At absolute worst, he was greeted with professional mistrust and anger on the part of some of his colleagues, who were upset that his actions in regard to the Meyer paper brought disrepute to the Smithsonian and to them as associates. Disapproval and criticism, of course, are not the same thing as discrimination, nor are they a violation of his civil rights.
  3. Sternberg has grossly exaggerated several alleged instances of “retaliation” in the early days of the scandal. In particular, he claimed that he had his keys taken away, his access to the Smithsonian’s collections taken away, and lost his office space. In reality, the keys and office space were exchanged as part of larger museum changes and he retains the same access today that all others in his position have.
  4. The accusations, in particular, against the National Center for Science Education — that they conspired with Smithsonian officials to “publicly smear and discredit” Sternberg — are not only not supported by the evidence in the appendix, they are completely disproven by the emails contained therein.
  5. All of that leads to the only possible conclusion: that this is a trumped-up report orchestrated by political allies of the Discovery Institute, particularly Rep. Mark Souder and former Sen. Rick Santorum. They have put out a report that simply is not supported by the evidence and was designed, intelligently or otherwise, to support the disingenuous PR campaign that includes the attempt to position themselves as victims of discrimination.

Before we get to these specific points, let’s review what we know about the publication of this article. We know that a few weeks after its publication the council of the Biological Society of Washington published a statement that said:

The Council, which includes officers, elected councilors, and past presidents, and the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings because the subject matter represents such a significant departure from the nearly purely systematic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 122-year history … Accordingly, the Meyer paper does not meet the scientific standards of the Proceedings.

We also know that Sternberg went outside the normal peer review procedures for the journal. Again, from the council’s statement on the matter:

Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process.

Sternberg claims that he handled the entire review process because none of the associate editors were qualified and because he was the most qualified. On his webpage, he wrote:

Since systematics and evolutionary theory are among my primary areas of interest and expertise (as mentioned above, I hold two Ph.D.s in different aspects of evolutionary biology), and there was no associate editor with equivalent qualifications, I took direct editorial responsibility for the paper.

This was not true. Systematics (the study of taxonomy) is the subject of the PBSW and it is the subject of Sternberg’s expertise, but it is not the subject of Meyer’s paper. The primary subject of the paper is the Cambrian explosion and, ostensibly, bioinformatics as it pertains to the origin of the higher phyla. This is not the focus of Sternberg’s research, nor does it have much of anything to do with systematics other than an obligatory discussion of how many phyla and sub-phyla originated during the Cambrian. The most appropriate reviewers, then, would be paleontologists. Among the associate editors at the time (and still today) was Gale Bishop, an expert in invertebrate paleontology. There were three other specialists on invertebrates among the associate editors as well, including current PBSW editor Stephen Gardiner, Christopher Boyko and Janet Reid, all specialists in invertebrate zoology (the Cambrian fauna was almost entirely made up of invertebrates). Yet Sternberg felt no need to let any of those people, all more qualified than him on the subject, even look at the paper, or even make them aware of its existence.

The reason that this is important is because Sternberg knew that the Meyer paper — any paper advocating ID, for that matter — would be highly controversial (indeed, he admits as much on his webpage where he writes that he “recogniz(ed) the potentially controversial nature of the paper”). It would be doubly so because of Sternberg’s close connections with the ID movement and with Meyer specifically, indeed his close connection to the material in that specific paper. In October 2002, a conference called RAPID (Research and Progress in Intelligent Design) was held at BIOLA University (formerly the Bible Institute of Los Angeles). This was a closed conference — only ID advocates were allowed to attend. At that conference, not only did Sternberg present a pro-ID paper, but Meyer presented on the exact material that went into the paper that was eventually published. It seems rather obvious that this conference was probably where the scheme was hatched to get this paper published in the Proceedings. Indeed, Meyer has said as much, in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

According to the article, Meyer “said he had chosen the journal because Mr. Sternberg attended a conference where Mr. Meyer gave an oral presentation advancing the same arguments. The two discussed the possibility of publishing the work.”

Sternberg argues that he had the authority to publish Meyer’s paper. But having that authority does not excuse the professional and ethical misjudgments. If you know that the publication of a pro-ID paper in a Smithsonian journal is going to cause an outcry, and you have close ties to the ID movement and to the author of this paper specifically, the ethical thing to do would be to excuse yourself from handling that paper and allow someone without those personal and professional ties to the author and subject of the paper to decide whether it should be published. Thus, Sternberg’s decision to publish the paper without the normal peer-review process is a flagrant breach of professional ethics that brought disrepute to the Smithsonian. Is it really so surprising or unjustified that he was subject to a few rude comments and treated brusquely by those who were embarrassed by his actions?

In addition to that, the emails contained in the investigation provide powerful evidence that Sternberg vastly exaggerated the extent of the alleged retaliation in the aftermath of the controversy. For instance, he claimed that he had his keys, his office and his access to the collections taken away; none of those claims were true. In fact, even before the article was published, Sternberg — along with many other staff members and researchers — was informed that he would be moved to different offices because of a reorganization of the vertebrate and invertebrate zoology departments. In an email in July of 2004, Sternberg is informed, along with several others, about this reorganization and told that they would have to move offices.

Sternberg was moved twice. First, as a part of the larger reorganization that involved a couple dozen people. In fact, they remodeled a room just to make sure he and another RA still had offices and workspace. Sternberg knew about and agreed to that move in July of 2004, before the paper was even published, so there is simply no way to pretend that it was done in retaliation for anything. The second move, from invertebrate zoology to vertebrate zoology, was at Sternberg’s request and he remains there to this day. As far as the keys are concerned, Sternberg had a master key, which would have gotten him into anything, including private offices. As part of a larger crackdown on lax security, master keys were restricted to those who really should have them, and RAs certainly did not qualify. But Sternberg still had access to everything he ever needed access to for his research, which was never limited in any way.

The report also makes a big deal out of the fact that there was discussion in the emails of whether Sternberg should be asked to resign and that people raised questions about his religious views. But given that he had just snuck in a paper that argues for a religious rather than scientific explanation into a scientific journal attached to the Smithsonian, those are hardly unreasonable questions. No one ever so much as suggested that his religious views could or should be grounds for anything; in fact, the emails explicitly argue against that. The report seems to think that the mere fact that questions were asked about an obvious aspect of the situation, that this amounts to discrimination even if no actual action was ever taken against Sternberg at all. While there was much discussion of the situation, about what improprieties had taken place and about what they might do about it, including some discussion of whether they should ask Sternberg to resign his position, in the end nothing at all was done to him. The administration ultimately concluded that there was not sufficient cause to take any action toward Sternberg, and none was ever taken.

In fact, when his term as Research Associate was up, he was offered the opportunity to continue as a Research Collaborator. The report claims that they demoted him from Research Associate to Research Collaborator in retaliation, but the evidence is firmly against this conclusion. The fact is that his term as a Research Associate ends in 2007 (and would have ended with or without this controversy) and he does not have a sponsor to gain renewal of that position. His sponsor for the original RA position died two weeks after his last appointment began and sponsorship then fell, by default, to the department supervisor. But now that that RA appointment is expiring, he needs a new sponsor to get another such appointment and there is no one willing to be his sponsor. In reality, a large number of RAs were converted to RCs recently, not just him.

The difference between an RA and an RC is that an RA works more closely with Smithsonian staff, which is reflected in the fact that they have a staff sponsor. Sternberg no longer has one. This is not discrimination; he is being treated exactly like anyone else who doesn’t have a sponsor. They nonetheless offered him the opportunity to continue his work there as a Research Collaborator, a position which still allows him to have an office and full access to the collections he needs to do his research. But there simply is no discrimination there. Richard Sternberg to this day has the same access to the same collections that all people in his position have.

Now let’s look at another set of false accusations in the report, those made against the National Center for Science Education, a non-governmental non-profit organization. The report claims:

NMNH officials conspired with a special interest group on government time and using government emails to publicly smear Dr. Sternberg; the group was also enlisted to monitor Sternberg’s outside activities in order to find a way to dismiss him. In cooperation with the pro-evolution National Center for Science Education (NCSE), Museum officials attempted to publicly smear and discredit Dr. Sternberg with false and defamatory information.

Not only is this claim not supported by the emails in the appendix, it is flatly contradicted by them. The emails that Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the NCSE, exchanged were full of admonitions to Smithsonian personnel not to do the things they are now accused of conspiring to do. She urged them not to attack his religious views so as not to make him a martyr. Scott repeatedly tells them to focus solely on the questions of impropriety and see whether they can be proven. She also tells them that Sternberg should not be judged on the basis of his religious views or his creationist views, but solely on the basis of his work as a scientist. She says (p. 32):

On the other hand, his creationist views should not be the main focus of the criticism. First, if he can do good standard science, that’s all we care about. Newton did pretty good science, and had some pretty nutty additional ideas about reality, too. So if he keeps the nut stuff out of his basically descriptive work, that’s fine. His science should stand or fall on its own.

And in a follow up email she wrote:

I guess the big question is whether he is a good enough scientist to remain there. If his non-creationist work is good, then I think he deserves the job. If not, and if others are let go under the same circumstances, then let the chips fall where they may. But none of us are after this guy’s job. That isn’t the point of this exercise, in my opinion.

It should be noted that some of the content of those emails is disputed by Sternberg, as one would expect. Many of the situations come down to “he said, she said” and we have no way of knowing for certain which side is telling the truth. But given that we know that none of the actual instances of retaliation that Sternberg alleged in the beginning (the loss of keys, office space and access to the collections) ever took place, and we have strong evidence that Sternberg did improperly go outside the normal peer review process to sneak a substandard and inappropriate article in the journal on his way out the door, this certainly casts serious doubt on Sternberg’s veracity. And given that so many of the claims found in the journal’s conclusions are not only not supported by the evidence, but clearly contradicted by it, that certainly casts serious doubt on the objectivity of the staffers who created the report as well.

We should also note that the fact that the paper was substandard, poorly reasoned and full of questionable claims has been well-established. A lengthy and detailed critique of the paper was published at the Panda’s Thumb web site, written by Alan Gishlick, Nick Matzke and Wesley Elsberry. They were hardly alone in their critique. The paleontologist Ronald Jenner likewise criticized the quality of the paper, saying that it reads “like a student report” and calling it “an inadequate review” because “readily available papers that depart significantly from his conclusions are omitted without excuse.”

Here’s the bottom line: Richard Sternberg went to great lengths to sneak a substandard and inappropriate paper through the peer review procedures of the journal he was editing. His actions, unsurprisingly, caused a great deal of embarrassment to his colleagues and some of them were quite angry about it and wanted him fired. But despite a few harsh words contained in emails that he never saw prior to filing his OSC complaint, ultimately nothing discriminatory or retaliatory ever happened to Sternberg. To this day, he retains the same access to the collections at the NMNH that he had prior to this incident. The worst thing that happened to Sternberg was that his clearly unethical actions were met with the disapproval and criticism of his colleagues, which is a far cry from violating his civil liberties.

Skepticality: The Official Podcast of Skeptic Magazine
Scott Sigler

Scott Sigler

The Profit of “Free”
& the Insight of the Blind

This week on Skepticality we talk to two good friends, both skeptics and podcasters making an impact in their areas of expertise.

Author Scott Sigler sent a shot across the bow of mainstream publishing when, after first giving away his novel Ancestor for free as a PDF, the printed retail version then broke the top 10. As a result, Scott earned himself a seat at the table and a deal with Crown books. We talk to Scott about his new novel Infected — released on April 1st and already a bestseller.

Slau's 'The Weight of Words' cover

Slavko Halatyn (aka “Slau”)

Slavko Halatyn (known to his many fans as simply “Slau”) has enjoyed a rich career as both a music producer and award-winning recording artist. Derek talks with Slau about his work with other artists (like skeptical favorite George Hrab), being an early adopter of podsafe music — and the links between his career, his world view, and his becoming legally blind at the age of 21.

Pertinent Links

SUBSCRIBE to Skepticality
within iTunes

DOWNLOAD Episode #75 (51MB MP3)

SUBSCRIBE to the Skeptic RSS feed

Dr. Craig Stanford

Dr. Craig Stanford will be speaking on Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 2:00 pm

the next lecture in our Spring season…

Beautiful Minds:
The Parallel Lives of Great Apes & Dolphins

with Dr. Craig Stanford

Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 2:00 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech

Apes and dolphins: primates and cetaceans. Could any creatures appear to be more different? Yet both are large-brained intelligent mammals with complex communication and social interaction. In the first book to study apes and dolphins side by side, Maddalena Bearzi and Craig B. Stanford, a dolphin biologist and a primatologist who have spent their careers studying these animals in the wild, combine their insights with compelling results that teaches us about another large-brained mammal: Homo sapiens. Noting that apes and dolphins have had no common ancestor in nearly 100 million years, Bearzi and Stanford describe the parallel evolution that gave rise to their intelligence… READ MORE about this lecture >

READ MORE about other upcoming lectures >

Important ticket information

Tickets are first come first served at the door. Sorry, no advance ticket sales. Seating is limited. $8 Skeptics Society members & Caltech/JPL Community; $10 General Public. website banner

Every week, we’ll be adding new content to and we’ll announce those additions here. You can also stay up-to-date by subscribing to the RSS feed.

new this week on

Skeptic Magazine App on iPhone


Whether at home or on the go, the SKEPTIC App is the easiest way to read your favorite articles. Within the app, users can purchase the current issue and back issues. Download the app today and get a 30-day free trial subscription.

Download the Skeptic Magazine App for iOS, available on the App Store
Download the Skeptic Magazine App for Android, available on Google Play
Download the Skeptic Magazine App for iOS, available on the App Store
Download the Skeptic Magazine App for Android, available on Google Play
SKEPTIC • 3938 State St., Suite 101, Santa Barbara, CA, 93105-3114 • 1-805-576-9396 • Copyright © 1992–2024. All rights reserved • Privacy Policy