Setting the Record Straight on Sternberg - Evolution News & Views

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Setting the Record Straight on Sternberg

Unjust criticisms of Dr. Richard Sternberg have been flying around the internet since the story of his harassment by Darwinists became public when David Klinghoffer wrote about it in The Wall Street Journal little more than a week ago. Sternberg you will remember is the former biology journal editor under attack for publishing a pro-ID paper by CSC Director Steve Meyer. CSC Senior Fellow and Gonzaga law professor David DeWolf has written a response correcting the campaign of misinformation now being waged against Sternberg.


In "Shooting the Messenger Indeed," and the resulting followup, Balta argues that the treatment of Rick Sternberg as described by David Klinghoffer in the WSJ article is much ado about nothing. If anything, Balta argues, it is Sternberg who violated the canons of science rather than those who attacked him. Balta's points can be summarized in the form of questions:

  • (1) What is Meyer's piece doing in a journal of taxonomy?

  • (2) Shouldn't we be skeptical of Sternberg's claims based upon his association with known creationists?

  • (3) Was there any real peer review of the Meyer paper?

Let's examine each of these:

(1) What is Meyer's piece doing in a journal of taxonomy?
Balta states that the Meyer article "was completely out of place within that journal." This claim is based upon the observation that all of the other articles in that particular issue dealt with "new species" and that Meyer's article did not report any new data, but instead proposed an explanation for the origin of new information observed in the fossil record. This observation should be tempered by a review of previous issues of the journal, which include articles on the origin or evolution of new taxonomic groups.

This is only logical: a journal of taxonomy should include not only observations and data based upon existing taxonomic categories, but articles that discuss the basis for the taxonomy.
Moreover, the journal itself describes its mission (on the inside page of the journal) in broad terms:

"The Proceedings . . . contains papers bearing on systematics in the biological sciences (botany, zoology and paleontology)."
Surely an article on the origin of the phyla in the Cambrian fits within the broad mandate of a journal that includes paleontology - and systematics -- as a primary focus of interest.
It is not even plausible to suggest that the swift retribution against Sternberg was a result of a decision to include a paper that exceeded the editorial reach of the paper. As Sternberg himself wrote in a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education, it was not his scientific judgment that was called into question, but his political judgment.

The statement of the Council bears this out. Rather than identifying why the topic didn't fit in the journal or wasn't worthy on scientific grounds for publication, the Council simply asserted that there is no "credible scientific evidence" to support ID as an explanation for organic diversity, and then defers to an ex cathedra statement from the AAAS that ID is unscientific by definition. In Alice in Wonderland you have the verdict first and the trial later, but science deserves better.

(2) Shouldn't we be skeptical of Sternberg's claims based upon his association with known creationists?
The ad hominem attack -- that an argument from a bad man is a bad argument -- should have no place in science. But guilt by association, a la Joseph McCarthy, is even worse. Sternberg is condemned for having his name appear on the website of a study group composed of creationists. Sternberg shouldn't have to respond to this kind of attack, but for the record, let's see what Sternberg says about this relationship, and what the Baraminology Study Group ("BSG") says (both can be gleaned from Sternberg's website): Sternberg was invited to act as a reviewer of papers for BSG because one of their members "believed that it would be good to have a reviewer who did not share the mainstream BSG's young-earth position." It is one thing for a scientist to be punished for refusing to pay homage to the reigning paradigm; it is another thing for the long arm of political correctness to regulate those with whom he may consort. If Michael Ruse presents a paper at a conference on ID (which he has done), it is doubtful that he would be attacked. But when Rick Sternberg agreed to comment on papers generated by a group with which his disagreement is public, it was used as Exhibit A for the prosecution.

The method of science is to examine data, ideas, and theories, in a constant interchange questioning the accuracy of data and the merits of the interpretation of those data. It is a vice, not a virtue, that scientists naturally resist attempts to challenge the reigning paradigm. As Robert Conquest has observed,

"In principle, the scientific approach is to advance a general theory with a view to testing it against every possible sort of evidence that might tell against it. In practice, even in the hard sciences, there are reservations to be made. Even good scientists who have risen right to the top of their profession become attached to, and partisan about, the theory they have created or helped create, and obstinate in defending it. Second, their students and acolytes at a lower level, while in a general sense 'intelligent,' are inclined to an acceptance of the last generation's breakthrough and novelty, and treat them as a barely criticizable orthodoxy. This is particularly true when academic advancement becomes dependent on validating the last theory."

The Klinghoffer article marks a new stage in the debate over the respectability of ID. In the past the complaint was that ID hadn't made it into peer-reviewed publications. While this criticism has problems of its own, there is no question that the publication of Meyer's article was a bitter pill for ID critics to swallow. Instead of saying, "Okay, score one for ID. But it's still 84,702 to 1," the defenders of neo-Darwinian orthodoxy raised a series of bogus objections to avoid even the appearance of a debate. And they are making it clear that "giving aid and comfort" to ID proponents will be treated as an act of treason, with suitable penalties. On the one hand, Balta assures us that "It's entirely fine for a scientist to believe in something other than Evolution, and its entirely fine for them to believe in ID." But in the next breath he appears to approve of Sternberg's treatment. Even those who disagree (vehemently, perhaps) with Meyer's conclusions, or with Sternberg's editorial judgment about the merits of the article, should be troubled by the price that is being exacted from those who dissent.

(3) Was there any real peer review of the Meyer paper?
In Update 2 following the initial posting, Balta acknowledges that there was peer review of the article, but he questions whether or not the reviewers actually recommended publication, and suggests that they were handpicked to reach a foreordained conclusion.

First, it is common knowledge that the review process is normally kept confidential so that the reviewers can be candid in their assessment and the merits of the work rather than the identity of the author will be the focus of the review. It is clear from Sternberg's website (, and from the public statement of Roy McDiarmid, that the paper was recommended for publication by four reviewers. Balta assumes that, given the obvious (to him) lack of merit in the paper, the only reason for publication would be an unrepresentative sample of scientific opinion. But Sternberg had enough integrity (and enough of an impulse for self-protection) that he carefully chose the reviewers for their competence in the field. Apparently the reviewers were of the opinion that the paper did advance the cause of science by raising important questions about the neo-Darwinian explanation for the origin of information in the Cambrian Explosion. They could easily have fallen prey to the loyalty toward orthodoxy that Conquest spoke of above. But to their credit they recognized the scientific merit in questioning even widely shared beliefs about the proper conclusion to be drawn from the data. Sternberg's own response, drawn from his website, is a fitting summary:

I've received four kinds of responses regarding the Meyer article. The first is one of extreme hostility and anger that the peer-review process was not barred to a "creationist" author--no questions asked (a minority view). The second is what I'd term the herd instinct: this response arises when some key people (often members of the first group) are upset. Some people, once they begin to feel the heat from individuals with strong opinions, feign being upset too or actually become upset, for fear that they'll seem to be a "supporter" of an unpopular or despised position. Many of these individuals initially displayed no concern or qualms about the paper until some loud voices displayed their discontent. Those in the third category don't really care about the issue one way or the other, because it doesn't impact their research. In terms of population size, groups two and three are by far the largest. The fourth group consists of those who found the paper "informative," "stimulating," "thought-provoking," (real quotes I've heard from colleagues about the paper), including some who are in agreement with some of Meyer's ideas. Many members of the third and fourth groups have told me that in their opinion sooner or later the design issue will have to be debated in a reasoned manner.

Sternberg was targeted not for any scientific judgment, but for his political judgment. In his post, Balta relies upon the Panda's Thumb blog for the conclusion that Meyer is mistaken in his analysis, and for that reason his work should not have been published. But perusing the followup comments on the Panda's Thumb website, it is obvious that this is not a case of pathetically poor scholarship. It is a case of outrage that the dike separating good science from bad science has been breached. The principle that a scientist can disagree with the prevailing view without fear of reprisal apparently does not apply to neo-Darwinism.

As a Chinese paleontologist was once quoted in an article in the Wall Street Journal, "In China we can criticize Darwin but not the government. In America you can criticize the government but not Darwin."