Saturday, December 16, 2006

L'affaire de Sternberg, Part Eighty Million

Ah yes, Richard von Sternberg. The Discovery Institute's poster boy for fake martyrdom. The case that just won't go away. Rather than go into a lengthy discussion about the affair, I'll just give background links: here, here, here, here, here, here and here. Now the latest shot has being fired by Rep. Mark Souder (R - IN), whose office has released a "report" accusing the Smithsonian of having politicized science and violated Sternberg's rights. Souder, by the way, is an ally of the Discovery Institute and is on record as an ID advocate, in case anyone is wondering about his objectivity.

The Souder report is a dishonest political hatchet job of the worst kind. Having read the appendix that accompanied the report, it turns out that basically all of Sternberg's material claims are false, and that the report's conclusions are totally unfounded and without evidence. I'll review the most important of Sternberg's claims below, which can also be seen on his web page and the outrageously dishonest piece by David Klinghoffer published in the Wall Street Journal.

Sternberg claimed that his keys had been taken away an an act of retaliation. What really happened is that the Smithsonian changed over to a badge system and had all employees relinquish their keys. Sternberg was given a badge that gave him access to all areas for which he was authorized. Additionally, Sternberg was in possession of a master key that Research Associates (RAs) were not supposed to be in possession of; Sternberg himself agreed that this was unnecessary and inappropriate and agreed to return the key. There is not one shred of evidence that anyone tried to take away a key from Sternberg in order to hinder his work.

Sternberg also claimed that he was denied office space and/or moved from one office to another, presumably, again, as an act of retaliation. Yet the emails make it abundantly clear that there was a general restructuring going on that affected numerous staff and RAs, and that Sternberg was merely one of the many who were affected. In every email discussing the moves, Sternberg's name appears next to one or more others who are also being moved around. This change couldn't possibly have been instituted for the purpose of negatively affecting Sternberg since it involved a large swath of the staff.

And finally, Sternberg claimed that his access to the collections had been restricted. What happened instead is that procedures for handling specimens were updated that affected all RAs, Sternberg included. The email in which the change in procedures is announced was sent to several others besides Sternberg. It may have well been the case that Sternberg himself precipitated the updating of the rules, but it wasn't because of the Meyer paper. It was because Sternberg had an atrocious track record in his handling of specimens, keeping large numbers of them strewn about his office, not caring for them properly, and not returning them when asked. He currently has access to anything he needs, assuming he hasn't destroyed it already. I might also point out that his handling of library materials was if possible even worse -- he had more than 50 overdue library books that were never returned in spite of repeated requests (they were sent back to the library after Sternberg vacated his former office), and there were "dozens" more unaccounted for.

That pretty much does it for any material harm that Sternberg may have suffered -- quite simply, there was none. The Souder report however makes a big deal about the "loss of reputation" that Sternberg apparently suffered as witnessed in the emails. Putting aside the fact that private emails aren't going to impact a person's public reputation (until they've been made public), surely the Souder staff should know that a reputation is something one earns, not something one is entitled to. The Smithsonian staff and administration have every right to have a negative opinion of Sternberg, and to voice their belief that Sternberg acted inappropriately when he published the Meyer paper. Ironically, the Souder report tries to commit the very crime that they falsely accuse the Smithsonian staff of committing, namely the quashing of dissent. As much as I hate the term, I'd have to say that the report is an example of "political correctness" run amok. Scientists are henceforth expected to keep their opinions to themselves, lest ID advocates have their feelings hurt.

In the end, the appendix attached to the Souder report not only fails to support any of the report's conclusions, it directly contradicts them. Sternberg suffered no harm as a result of the row he created when he inappropriately published the Meyer paper. Indeed, the emails paint a picture of the staff doing what they could to accommodate him in spite of a long history of causing problems, both with his mishandling of the collections and library materials and his bad editorial practices. On several occasions the emails make it clear that as long as Sternberg's non-creationist work is sound, he gets to stay. And contrary to Sternberg's dishonest and/or paranoid rantings, not only were there no "efforts to remove [him] from the museum", he was accepted for an appointment as Research Collaborator through the year 2009.