Summary

Expelled claims that Sternberg was “terrorized” and that “his life was nearly ruined” when, in 2004, as editor of Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, he published a pro-intelligent design article by Stephen C. Meyer. However, there is no evidence of either terrorism or ruination. Before publishing the paper, Sternberg worked for the National Institutes of Health at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (GenBank) and was an unpaid Research Associate – not an employee – at the Smithsonian. He was the voluntary, unpaid editor of PBSW (small academic journals rarely pay editors), and had given notice of his resignation as editor six months before the Meyer article was published. After the Meyer incident, he remained an employee of NIH and his unpaid position at the Smithsonian was extended in 2006, although he has not shown up there in years. At no time was any aspect of his pay or working conditions at NIH affected. It is difficult to see how his life “was nearly ruined” when nothing serious happened to him. He was never even disciplined for legitimate violations of policy of PBSW or Smithsonian policy.

The Claim

“The paper ignited a firestorm of controversy merely because it suggested intelligent design might be able to explain how life began.” (Ben Stein, Expelled)

The Facts

Expelled doesn’t even get the paper’s subject right. The paper was not about how life began; it was about the Cambrian Explosion, which occurred about three billion years later. The greater error is claiming that the discussion of ID generated the controversy. There was an understandable outcry from members of the Biological Society of Washington over the embarrassing publication of what they recognized as poorly-written, inaccurate science in their journal. The argument presented in the Meyer paper had previously been reviewed and rejected by scientists. Seeing this shoddy science in their journal indeed “ignited a firestorm”, but not for the reasons given in Expelled. For more on why the paper was bad science, see the review published on the Panda’s Thumb blog and the review in the Palaeontological Society Newsletter.

Proceedings of the Biological Society of WashingtonThe first question asked by BSW members was “how did this paper ever get published?” According to the Council of the Biological Society of Washington, Sternberg failed to follow proper procedure in publishing the paper: “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 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.” The BSW withdrew the paper in embarrassment, emphasizing that the paper was substandard science. It commented that the society endorsed “a resolution on ID published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2002/1106id2.shtml), which observes that there is no credible scientific evidence supporting ID as a testable hypothesis to explain the origin of organic diversity. Accordingly, the Meyer paper does not meet the scientific standards of the Proceedings.”

Though Sternberg claimed that he was the best qualified to handle the review process, science blogger Ed Brayton notes that this is not the case:

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. He may not have been under any formal obligation to send the article to someone with a specialty in Cambrian paleontology, but that is both the professional and the ethical thing to do.

The fact that Sternberg published the Meyer paper in his second-to-last scheduled issue as editor, and that he didn’t follow normal procedure, suggests that he knew that his actions and the paper would be seen as objectionable by his fellow scientists.

The Claim

“In October, as the OSC complaint recounts, [Sternberg’s supervisor] 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.” (Wall Street Journal editorial, linked from Expelled website)

The Facts

According to Coddington in a January 2005 communication, “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. 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.”

The Smithsonian wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal, observing, “Dr. Sternberg’s characterization of his work conditions and treatment at the Smithsonian is incorrect. He was never denied office space, keys or access to the collections.”

In a January 30, 2006, letter responding to Sternberg’s concerns, Smithsonian Deputy Secretary & Chief Operating Officer Sheila Burke explained:

“As you know, as part of an effort to enhance security at the Museum, all researchers were asked to return their keys in 2004, and were issued coded identification badges to provide access to non-public areas. The badge you were issued, which provides general access to doors and elevators, is still operative. If you have any problems gaining access to conduct your research, however please contact the Security office at NMNH. In accordance with NMNH policy, please return your old keys as soon as possible to your sponsor, Dr. Vari.”

In short, Sternberg has turned two bits of bureaucratic minutiae affecting an entire division of the museum – a switch from keys to ID badges and a routine shuffling of office space – into a conspiracy to undermine him personally.

The National Museum of Natural History

The Claim

“Congressman Mark Souder… uncovered a massive conspiracy within the Smithsonian to destroy Dr. Sternberg’s career [and was] continually stonewalled in his efforts to hold them accountable.”(Ben Stein, Expelled)

The Facts

The conclusions drawn in Souder’s report seem to be independent of the documents on which it is supposedly based. Blogger Ed Brayton examined the documents in detail and concluded, “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.”

We encourage you to read Brayton’s carefully documented discussion, and the appendix of allegedly supporting materials. You will learn, for example, how shocked Smithsonian Institution staff were at the publication of the Meyer paper: “All of us here at NMNH are appalled by the Meyer paper published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the BSW. I could not believe my eyes when I read it, and immediately resigned from the BSW,” wrote one scientist (Sues to Scott, 8/26/04). You will learn that this was not the first time that Sternberg published a paper in PBSW under suspicious and controversial circumstances (Ferrari to Sues, 9/8/04). You will learn that NCSE’s Eugenie C. Scott advised the scientists at the SI: “First, above all, we believe strongly that the discussion should not be a referendum on Dr. von Sternberg’s personal scientific beliefs, even though they clearly fall outside of the normal scientific mainstream. Obviously Dr. von Sternberg’s religious beliefs are also off the table. The focus should be on the fact that he allowed into the pages of PBSW a paper that was inappropriate for the journal in both content and quality” (Scott to Sues, 8/26/04, emphasis added). That the embarrassing publication of a shoddy research paper was the issue – not Sternberg’s religious orientation – is echoed by many other SI scientists, although you would not learn this from the producers of Expelled.

Also in those files, you will see that Sternberg violated standard rules users of museum collections must follow. A letter from the Chair of the Entomology department chides him first over missing library books (Coddington to Sternberg, 2/15/05):

At the request of SI Libraries, we recently attempted to find and return your more than 50 overdue library books, but several dozen apparently are still missing. If, perchance, you have removed those from the building, please return them immediately as we insist that all SI library books remain on the premises. If not, where are they? We have already checked WG 9 and Brian’s old office. You are welcome to check books out from our libraries, but they should remain in your designated work space.

He is also criticized for mishandling museum specimens. Such specimens are irreplaceable relics, and mismanaging them is a cardinal sin in the museum world:

My only other concern is that your old IZ work area seems to contain specimens from other institutions (Univ. Miami?), but we have no records of an incoming loan in your name. For obvious reasons, we like to be aware of non-SI material in the building, so please clarify the status of these specimens with Marilyn and/or Vic. If they do belong to another institution, the transaction should be recorded in our transaction management system.

The Claim

Sternberg’s “life was nearly ruined when he strayed from the party line while serving as editor of a scientific journal affiliated with the prestigious Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.” (Expelled)

The Facts

As stated above, Sternberg did not lose his office or his access to collections, he did not lose his job, he was not “fired” from the (unpaid) editorship of the journal (he had resigned six months before the publication of the Meyer article), and from the e-mails in the appendix to the Souder report, it appears that his colleagues were civil in their communications with him. The Smithsonian renewed his Research Collaborator status for another three years in 2006. It seems, then, that the worst that happened to Sternberg is that people said some unkind things about him in private email to one another. Since the same can be said of almost every person, it’s hard to see how this could be construed as “life ruining”. There is no evidence of any material harm done to Sternberg as a result of the publication of the Meyer article. And any damage done to his reputation would seem to have been self-inflicted.