On Expelled, Expelled Exposed and Expelled Exposed Exposed!

Social Issues

If you know the movie Expelled, then you are probably also aware of the site Expelled Exposed, created by the NCSE. However, you may not be aware of the site “Expelled Exposed” Exposed! I had been waiting for some time for a rebuttal to the claims from Expelled Exposed, and apparently such a thing has been around since 2008. Interestingly, the rebuttal comes from the Discovery Institute and not from the producers of the movie. However, some of the scientists featured in the movie have written their own rebuttals.

“Expelled Exposed” Exposed! is quite the multi-part effort to demonstrate that the NCSE’s site is riddled with inaccuracies. The EEE’s site’s introduction sets the tone for the type of argument they will engage in:

As John West observed in response, “The basic thrust of [“Expelled Exposed”] seems to be the preposterous claim that pro-ID scientists never, ever face harassment, intimidation, or persecution. Not ever! Scientists who claim otherwise—such as biologist Richard Sternberg, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, and Baylor University engineering professor Robert Marks—must be cry-babies or worse. The NCSE’s approach is otherwise known as ’blaming the victim.’”

And so their rebuttal begins with a very inaccurate statement summarizing what the NCSE had to say about the movie. Expelled Exposed only focuses on the instances of persecution presented by the movie, concluding that the scientists in the film weren’t let go by their respective institutions solely because of their beliefs, but because of the quality of their work. They don’t discuss the plight of other ID-proponents, who may or may not have a more legitimate case regarding discrimination because of their religious beliefs. In response to the movie’s claim, via Ben Stein, that Intelligent design was being suppressed in a systematic and ruthless fashion, they say Intelligent design has not produced any research to suppress, [i]ntelligent design is scientifically unproductive, and [t]he issue is not the suppression of ID, but the lack of warrant for its scientific claims. For some time, the ID movement has confused such scientific scrutiny with persecution.

Much of the DI’s rebuttal is contained in an article that primarily responds to an article by Michael Shermer in Scientific American. Sadly, Casey Luskin, the writer of the DI article, frequently mischaracterizes Shermer’s criticisms, leaving his core complaints unaddressed.

There is a great amount to discuss pertaining to the information both sides present. I will begin by presenting information regarding the issue of Richard von Sternberg’s “expulsion” from the Smithsonian.

The Article in Question

A few of Dr. Sternberg’s collegues at the Smithsonian had several issues with his conduct there. The animosity against him came to a head with his decision as managing editor of the PBSW to include a paper by Stephen C. Meyer of the DI entitled The order of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories. The paper clearly advocates Intelligent Design, which upset many of the journal’s readers and the BSW. According to the Society (as Expelled Exposed reports), they were also upset 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. Sternberg disputes that the paper’s topic was outside of the scope of the journal (see the section titled Scope of the paper and the Proceedings on the page where he discusses the Smithsonian Controversy on his website).

The Society was also displeased about his handling of the paper’s review process. According to Expelled Exposed, the Society found that the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process. Sternberg explains his method of review by saying, Since systematics and evolutionary theory are among my primary areas of interest and expertise (as mentioned above, I hold two PhDs in different aspects of evolutionary biology), and there was no associate editor with equivalent qualifications, I took direct editorial responsibility for the paper. According to Ed Brayton, co-founder of the popular science blog Panda’s Thumb, Sternberg was not the most qualified to review the paper. In his comments on Sternberg’s experiences at the Smithsonian, he claims:

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.

It appears Sternberg did get the paper peer-reviewed, but both he and Dr. Roy McDiarmid, the president of the BSW refuse to identify the reviewers. Sternberg has this to say about them:

After the initial positive conversation with my Council member colleague, I sent the paper out for review to four experts. Three reviewers responded and were willing to review the paper; all are experts in relevant aspects of evolutionary and molecular biology and hold full-time faculty positions in major research institutions, one at an Ivy League university, another at a major North American public university, a third on a well-known overseas research faculty. There was substantial feedback from reviewers to the author, resulting in significant changes to the paper. The reviewers did not necessarily agree with Dr. Meyer’s arguments or his conclusion but all found the paper meritorious and concluded that it warranted publication. The reviewers felt that the issues raised by Meyer were worthy of scientific debate. I too disagreed with many aspects of the Meyer paper but I agreed with their overall assessment and accepted the paper for publication. Thus, four well-qualified biologists with five PhDs in relevant disciplines were of the professional opinion that the paper was worthy of publication.

In an email by Roy McDiarmid (which can be found in the appendix to a report about this issue conducted by the staff of former Rep. Mark Souder), he expresses overall acceptance but a few reservations about the peer-review process.

I have seen the review file and comments from 3 reviewers on the Meyer paper. All three with some differences among the comments recommended or suggested publication. I was surprised but concluded that there was not inappropriate behavior vs a vis the review process. Whether one would consider the reviews appropriate is another issue…

In an email from Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the NCSE, to Dr. McDiarmid she notes that the BSW has not talked much about the peer reviewers because the situation is more difficult to deal with [than addressing the appropriateness of the article’s content and its scientific quality], given the circumstances. It is not clear what she means by the circumstances but the email suggests that she’s referring to McDiarmid’s overall reluctance to divulge their identities. Scott clearly believes that the reluctance to name them belies the fact that Sternberg choose inappropriate reviewers, an issue she refers to as the elephant in the room. This strongly suggests that the peer-reviewers were probably proponents of ID.

Sternberg’s Time at the Smithsonian

Sternberg describes his position at the Smithsonian Institute as such:

I became managing editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington in December 2001 when the position was offered to me by the Council of the Biological Society of Washington (BSW). At the time I was finishing a post-doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History and entering on a new job at GenBank at the National Institutes of Health. In my position at NIH I am assigned to spend 50% of my time working as an curator of the NCBI DNA database and 50% of my time as doing research as a Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. I worked as managing editor of the Proceedings as an adjunct position to my research at the Smithsonian.

Expelled Exposed points out some interesting facts regarding his position there and eventual exit:

  • Sternberg was the voluntary, unpaid editor of PBSW
  • He gave is resignation notice six months before the Meyer article was published
  • After the Meyer article was published, 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.

This is where things get most interesting. Essentially, Sternberg claims that he was asked to return his keys, kicked out of his office, and was suddenly limited in his access to specimens. An email from his supervisor at the time, John Coddington, explains fairly thoroughly why those events took place. The email is entitled “Fwd:Re:Key” and can be found on page 48 of the Souder staff report appendix.

Coddington informed Sternberg in July 2004 about the merging of the Invertebrate and Vertebrate Zoology administrative offices and new scientists arriving at the institution which would result in relocating 17 people, including Sternberg. According to Coddington, [Sternberg] agreed on 29 July to move as soon as the Department had prepared the new Research Associate space, and further indicated that [he] wished to switch from [Invertebrate Zoology] to [Vertebrate Zoology]. Coddington also volunteered to act as Sternberg’s sponsor since his original one passed away soon after Sternberg’s appointment and [n]o other lnvertebrate Zoology research scientist offered to sponsor [him].

At the time, the Smithsonian was upgrading and streamlining various security measures which required scientists to exchange keys they were originally given for ID badges that would allow them to access only what they needed, since some keys that Sternberg in particular originally owned granted unnecessary access to much of the institution instead of to just what the researchers needed. So Coddington asked Sternberg to give him a description of the work he set out to do as well as what specimens and literature he would need to access in order to appropriate him with the proper keys. Somehow, this turned into the Smithsonian demanding him to turn in his keys, as if they were trying to prevent him from accessing what he needed.

On Nov. 1st, Sternberg informed Coddington that he was changing his research focus and so he would be vacating his new office. Coddington told him that as a result, the institution would need to reshelve any of the specimens left in his office after he left, which they did. Coddington also makes mention of more than 50 overdue library books of Sternberg’s as well as numerous specimens from other institutions that Sternberg failed to properly check in with the Smithsonian.

In January of 2005, the Smithsonian decided to recombine the Invertebrate and Vertebrate Departments, and so all of the working scientists previously in the merged department were reallocated to either one of the separate departments. Sternberg, as he requested, was assigned to Vertebrate Zoology and the chair of the department kindly offered to sponsor him. Coddington makes it clear that come 2007, Sternberg must seek renewal of his appointment if he wished to stay there. He adds, I apologize for the administrative changes, but I assure you it has absolutely nothing to do with you personally. In February 2005, Sternberg finally emails the person with whom he must replace his keys. According to a letter from Deputy Secretary and Chief Operation Officer Sheila Burke to former Rep. Souder and Sen. Rick Santorum, in May 2006, he had yet to actually return them.

The correspondence between Sheila Burke and the congressmen is perhaps the most telling in regard to the reluctance of ID-proponents to understand the lack of scientific merit of their theory. In their letter to Burke, they express disdain for the Smithsonian Institution’s bureaucratic stonewalling and lack of responsiveness in correcting what were clear actions of hostility and discrimination against Dr. Sternberg for his scientific viewpoints. They accuse the Smithsonian of not enforcing their anti-discrimination policies, citing their misrepresentations of Sternberg’s experience as evidence and claiming that there was no genuine [their emphasis] effort on the part of Museum management to ensure that Dr. Sternberg [was] treated fairly and protected from discrimination and hostility for his scientific viewpoints.

In the words of Ms. Burke:

Dr. von Sternberg was associated with a controversial viewpoint, and other scientists reacted in strong disagreement to the expression of that viewpoint. While the tone of the disagreement between scholars may seem harsh, disagreement does not equal discrimination.

I encourage you to read the Congressional staff report appendix which documents the private correspondence between Sternberg’s colleagues and his superiors, as it is quite informative and quite amusing. Clearly, his colleagues were very displeased with his consistent disregard for Smithsonian Institute policy, which culminated in his pushing a pro-ID paper through a journal that he knew would not have made it if he actually shared it with appropriate reviewers, particularly non-ID proponents and experienced paleontologists that worked on the journal. Their emails describe how this was not the first time he attempted to do such a thing. Also, some of his colleagues became increasingly agitated with him the more they looked into his history of participating in the Baraminology Study Group, a group which subscribes to the Young Earth position that the world is a few thousand years old— a claim refuted by science— namely in the existence of fossils and rocks that date millions of years back, if not further. Sternberg and his congressional supporters insist on characterizing such criticism as discrimination. However, Burke is correct when she differentiates unfriendly disagreement with discrimination. As they and Eugenie Scott frequently point out, Sternberg is free to believe in ID/creationism, but the moment he tries to impose these views in the scientific realm, he becomes guilty of trying to fuse religious beliefs with scientific observation, and the two are very different ways of understanding the world. The Expelled Exposed site has a well written essay that more specifically describes what Intelligent Design proponents could do in order to demonstrate the scientific nature of their theory and how they have yet to do so.

Here are just a few key points to consider in what they have to say about Intelligent Design:

If mainstream science declines to accept intelligent design, it is the fault of the intelligent design advocates, who have not performed the research and theory-building demanded of everyone in the scientific enterprise.

Ultimately, intelligent design’s lack of success in science departments is the fault of the flawed and unscientific nature of intelligent design itself, not the result of bias in the scientific community.

The fundamental problem with intelligent design as science is that intelligent design claims cannot be tested. Scientific testing requires that there be some set of phenomena which are incompatible with your idea. No observation could possibly be incompatible with a claim that an “intelligent agent“ (whom everyone recognizes as God) acted to, say, introduce information into a system. Untestable claims are not scientific claims.

scientists commonly speak of the “design” of structures in an informal sense of “parts working together to produce a function,” as the “design” of the elongated wrist bones of a deer, which produces a leg capable of fast running. The study of structure and function is common in medical and other biological research; there is much utility in finding out how something works. This work can be done— and ordinarily is done— without making any assumptions of “design” in the intelligent design sense: that there needs to be a guiding hand purposefully assembling those parts.

Recognizing similarities between a machine and a biological structure does not prove that both structures are designed, only that there is a successful solution to a shared problem; there may be multiple solutions to a problem, from either an engineering or a biological perspective.

Teaching about intelligent design in higher education institutions is not forbidden, or censured, and in fact, new courses are added every year. Indeed, the intelligent design-promoting web site ResearchIntelligentDesign.org proudly lists100+ universities and colleges that officially include ”intelligent design in their lesson plans”. These courses generally examine intelligent design objectively and in an appropriate context, and their instructors do so openly. So intelligent design has, in fact, entered academia, although not quite in the fashion its advocates might prefer. What they seek, of course, is for intelligent design to be accepted as a valid scientific alternative to evolution. They have failed to make a convincing case for it, yet they seem to believe that they have an entitlement to a place in academia.

Again, I encourage you to read the entire essay, as it makes a very clear case for the work that Intelligent Design proponents have ahead of them if they would like to demonstrate the scientific nature of their theory. So, it appears that Sternberg’s case was sensationalized by Expelled as well as the people defending his case, in particular Rep. Souder and Sen. Santorum— whose findings are echoed by the Discovery Institute’s essays. Even though scientists frequently challenge evolutionary and Darwinist theories, ID proponents act as if this doesn’t occur. In customary fashion, the proponents of Intelligent Design confuse disagreement with discrimination. Somehow, it is difficult for them to understand that religious views are not scientific approaches. Recognizing a biological structure or design is not the same as recognizing a supernatural force. The Discovery Institute, however, will continue to try to confuse people about this and they have had some success.

What say you?