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Sternberg peer review controversy


Sternberg peer review controversy

The Sternberg peer review controversy concerns the conflict arising from the publication of an article supporting the controversial concept of intelligent design in a scientific journal, and the subsequent questions of whether proper editorial procedures had been followed and whether it was properly peer reviewed.

One of the primary criticisms of the intelligent design movement is that there are no research papers supporting their positions in peer reviewed scientific journals.[1] On 4 August 2004, an article by Stephen C. Meyer (Director of Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture) titled "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories", appeared in the peer-reviewed journal, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Meyer's article was a literature review article, and contained no new primary scholarship itself on the topic of intelligent design.[2] The following month, the publisher of the journal, the Council of the Biological Society of Washington, released a statement repudiating the article and stating that their former editor Richard M. Sternberg had, in an unusual manner, handled the entire review process without consultation or review from an associate editor.[3] The position of editor was unpaid and voluntary, and Sternberg had put in his resignation from it six months earlier.[4] Sternberg disputes the Council's statement and asserts that the paper was appropriately peer reviewed by three biologists who "concluded that [the paper] warranted publication".[5]

The same statement from the Council vowed that proper review procedures would be followed in the future and endorsed a resolution published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which states that there is no credible scientific evidence supporting intelligent design.[6] On September 18, the Discovery Institute issued a statement exulting over the publication of Meyer's paper in a peer-reviewed journal and chastising the National Center for Science Education for stating that the paper should not have been published.[7] The Biological Society of Washington's president, Roy McDiarmid called Sternberg's decision to publish Meyer's article "a really bad judgment call on the editor's part" and said it was doubtful whether the three scientists who peer reviewed the article and recommended it for publication were evolutionary biologists.[8]


  • Background 1
    • Richard M. Sternberg 1.1
  • The peer review process 2
  • Criticism 3
  • Smithsonian controversy 4
  • Notes and references 5
  • External links 6


Richard M. Sternberg

Richard M. Sternberg is an American evolutionary biologist who has completed a BS degree from University of South Carolina and has two PhDs; the first from 1995 in molecular evolution from Florida International University, and a second in systems science from Binghamton University. He did post-doctoral work between 1999 and 2001 at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) at the Smithsonian Institution,[9] on the phylogeny of brachyuran crabs.[10]

In February 2001 he began work as an invertebrate taxonomist for the National Institutes of Health at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, later becoming a staff scientist. The position allowed time for research work, and he continued at the NMNH, now as an unpaid research associate. Soon after starting work, he agreed to take on the unpaid position of Managing Editor of the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington,[4][10] a taxonomic journal which usually publishes descriptions of newly identified species. Also in 2001, he joined the editorial board of the Baraminology Study Group, a young earth creationist "creation science" attempt to identify and classify the created kinds mentioned in scripture.[11] He has stated that he is an outside critic and remained skeptical of their young earth beliefs.[12] Around this time he was sympathetic to historic ideas of structuralism of patterns in nature, but could not go from that to inferring the existence of a designer. He occasionally met proponents of intelligent design, and in 2002 presented a lecture on formal causation to the ISCID intelligent design group's "Research And Progress in Intelligent Design" (RAPID) conference.[10][13]

In October 2003 Sternberg resigned from being editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, with a commitment to edit issues over the coming year. Early in 2004 intelligent design advocate Stephen C. Meyer contacted Sternberg about a manuscript that he was thinking of submitting to the journal. Sternberg advised him he would have to become a member of the Society, and in a few weeks Meyer sent him copies of the manuscript with evidence of membership. Sternberg went ahead with the review and editing process,[4][10] and Meyer's article appeared in the journal on 4 August 2004. This was already scheduled to be the second last issue that Sternberg would edit.[2][4] In a statement issued by 10 October 2004 the journal declared that Sternberg had published the paper at his own discretion without following the usual practice of review by an associate editor. The Council and associate editors would have considered the subject of the paper inappropriate for publication as it was significantly outside "the nearly purely systematic content" of the journal, the Council endorses a resolution "which observes that there is no credible scientific evidence supporting ID as a testable hypothesis", and the paper therefore "does not meet the scientific standards of the Proceedings".[14]

Sternberg continued in his job as a staff scientist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information until 2007, and continued hold the unpaid position of Research Associate at the NMNH, which was extended on 15 November 2006 by a further three year appointment as an unpaid 'research collaborator' at the NMNH. After 2007 Sternberg became a research scientist at the intelligent design Biologic Institute, supported by a research fellowship from the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, of which Stephen Meyer is a co-founder and currently director.[9][15]

Sternberg is a Roman Catholic "who attends Mass."[16] He subscribes to the process structuralism school of thought.[17] In 2005 he said he was not a proponent of intelligent design.[11] He has more recently described his position as one that "can accept all that is empirically valid in evolutionary biology, while not axiomatically dismissing the position that structures as well as their “real” instantiations have an intelligent cause", and asserts that the universe emanates from Nous (mind), so that his thinking "is compatible with intelligent design broadly defined."[9] Sternberg serves as a fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information and Design (ISCID), an intelligent design group.[18] He is also a signatory to the Discovery Institute's Scientific Dissent from Darwinism petition.[19]

The peer review process

Sternberg insists the paper was properly peer reviewed, and rejects the reason given by the journal for disavowing the article, saying:

A series of articles in Skeptic criticized the decision to publish the article. Michael Shermer disputed Sternberg's qualifications as a peer reviewer, stating that it dealt less with the areas Sternberg was qualified to review (systematics and taxonomy) than it did paleontology, for which many members of the society would have been better qualified to peer review the paper; at that time the Society had three members who were experts on Cambrian invertebrates, the subject discussed in Meyer's paper.[20] A follow-up article by Ed Brayton criticized Sternberg's decision to review the paper, given his ties to a known movement that opposes the theory of evolution:[21]

Doubts were raised whether the reviewers were evolutionary biologists.[8] According to an article by the Society of Academic Authors Meyer said the article grew out of a presentation he made at a conference attended by Richard Sternberg where they discussed the possibility of a paper for society's journal.[8] Observers have pointed to affiliations that in most circumstances would have disqualified Sternberg from reviewing an article on intelligent design.[22] They note that Sternberg is a Fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information and Design, a Discovery Institute-affiliated group dedicated to promoting intelligent design. Sternberg is also a signatory of the Discovery Institute's A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism statement "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged."[23]

Sternberg claims to have also checked with a Council member and to have followed the standard practice for peer review:

Of the four "well-qualified biologists with five PhDs" Sternberg identifies, one was Sternberg himself, contributing his double doctorate to the total he cited. Sternberg's claim of following proper peer review procedures directly contradicts the published public statement of his former employer, the publisher of the journal, that the proper procedures were not followed resulting in the article's retraction.[3] In previous years the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington had published yearly lists of all the people who had served as peer reviewers. That list is absent for 2004, the year of the incident. Sternberg has repeatedly refused to identify the three "well-qualified biologists,"[25] citing personal concerns over professional repercussions for them.


In a review of Meyer's article The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories, Alan Gishlick, Nick Matzke, and Wesley R. Elsberry claimed it contained poor scholarship, that it failed to cite and specifically rebut the actual data supporting evolution, and "constructed a rhetorical edifice out of omission of relevant facts, selective quoting, bad analogies, knocking down straw men, and tendentious interpretations."[22] Further examination of the article revealed that it was substantially similar to previously published articles co-authored by Meyer.[26]

Critics of Sternberg believe that he was biased in the matter, arguing that Sternberg's close personal and ideological connections to the paper's author suggest at least the appearance of conflict of interest.[27] They cite as evidence[28] Sternberg's presentation in 2002 of a lecture on intelligent design at the Research And Progress in Intelligent Design (RAPID)[29] conference where Stephen C. Meyer, the author of the paper Sternberg published, also presented a lecture.[30] The explicit purpose of the RAPID conference was to "form new collaborations among scientists seeking to do research on the interface between science and faith, particularly within the context of ID".[31] Only intelligent design advocates spoke at it, and at least one intelligent design critic was expressly forbidden to attend it.[32] It was organized and hosted by the International Society for Complexity, Information and Design (ISCID), a group dedicated to promoting intelligent design, of which Sternberg is a Fellow.[33] ISCID is affiliated with the Discovery Institute, hub of the intelligent design movement, where Meyer serves as the Program Director of the Center for Science and Culture.[34] Critics also note that Sternberg also sat on the editorial board of the Baraminology Study Group,[27] which studies "creation biology" and whose website is hosted by Bryan College, a conservative Christian school named after William Jennings Bryan, who famously opposed Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Trial.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a position statement describing the events around the controversy, said "Given these associations, Dr. Sternberg would appear to be, at very least, an advocate for 'intelligent design' and critical of standard peer review processes as they bear on the scientific assessment of the 'intelligent design' hypothesis."[35] Critics describe Sternberg's explanation of events, that a pro-intelligent design paper just happened to find its way to a publication with a sympathetic editor ultimately responsible for ensuring proper peer review and editing of his last issue, and that he decided it was appropriate to deal with the review process in person on a subject in which he has a personal interest, as improbable and that "people who want us to believe that the publication process outlined [by Sternberg and his defenders] was transparent and only had to do with science" are "disingenuous."[28]

Journalist Chris Mooney has compared the Sternberg controversy to that of a paper published by climate change skeptics Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas in Climate Change, where a sympathetic editor Chris de Freitas allowed it to be published, despite its lack of scientific merit.[36]

Smithsonian controversy

After the peer review controversy became public, Sternberg filed a religious discrimination complaint against the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, where he had an unpaid appointment as a research associate,[37][38] while employed by the National Institutes of Health.[39][40][41]

Sternberg claims that he was "targeted for retaliation and harassment" and subject to efforts to remove him from the museum in retaliation for his views in support of creationism. He continues to cite a letter by the United States Office of Special Counsel as supporting his version of events,[42] despite the fact that the Office of Special Counsel did not proceed beyond its initial investigation. Pim Van Meurs and other critics observed that the Office of Special Counsel lacked jurisdiction over the matter and so his claim was unlikely to proceed,[43] and that even though it made no official findings or conclusions, the response from the Office of Special Counsel provided Sternberg and the Discovery Institute putative evidence and talking points supporting their claim that the scientific community discriminates against intelligent design proponents.[44][45] In a Wall Street Journal op-ed article, Discovery Institute Senior Fellow David Klinghoffer[46] portrayed Sternberg as a martyr and victim of discrimination,[47] a tactic used often by design proponents.[48]

In response, Sternberg's supervisor at the Smithsonian, Jonathan Coddington, responded publicly disputing Sternberg's and Klinghoffer's depiction of events. Coddington states that Sternberg was never dismissed, nor was he a paid employee, and that he was never the target of discrimination, and remained serving at the museum up to that time.[38]

In August, 2005 the Office of Special Counsel dropped Sternberg's religious discrimination complaint against the Smithsonian Institution. It was determined that as an unpaid research associate at the Smithsonian, Sternberg was not actually an employee, and thus the Office of Special Counsel had no jurisdiction. James McVay authoring its opinion.[44][49]

In a November, 2005 National Public Radio report on the affair Sternberg stated "I'm not an evangelical, I'm not a fundamentalist, I'm not a young earth creationist, I'm not a theistic evolutionist". Sternberg said McVay "related to me, 'the Smithsonian Institution's reaction to your publishing the Meyer article was far worse than you imagined'." Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR's religion reporter, said Sternberg himself believes intelligent design is "fatally flawed."[50]

In December 2006 a partisan report was issued by Mark Souder,[51][52] on the basis of information he and fellow Republican representative and intelligent design advocate Rick Santorum (author of the pro-ID Santorum Amendment) had requested, calling into question the Smithsonian's treatment of Sternberg and repeating many of Sternberg's claims.[53][15][54] The report was commissioned by Souder in his capacity as subcommittee chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, written by his subcommittee staff, but published by Souder as an individual representative without it being officially accepted into the Congressional Record.[55] This is contrary to oft-repeated claims by the Discovery Institute and other design proponents that the report represents an official position by the Committee supporting Sternberg's claims of discrimination.

Observers have said that facts of the case simply do not support the conclusions of the report nor is the report an official report of the committee.[56] They say that the Discovery Institute is using the report to portray Sternberg specifically, and design proponents in general, as victims of persecution. They also say the Souder report is a repackaging of the Office of Special Council's previous findings from August 2005 and contains nothing new, consisting of "the OSC findings restated and used as a form of evidence in and of themselves" and attacks the Smithsonian for "not accepting the OSC's findings at face value."[57] They cite as evidence of a biased motive behind the report the longstanding connections of the report's instigators, Congressmen Souder and Santorum, to the Discovery Institute, whose Program Director is Stephen C. Meyer, author of the paper Sternberg published. In 2000 Souder co-hosted a congressional briefing on behalf of the Discovery Institute intended to drum up political support for intelligent design and read a defense of intelligent design prepared by the Discovery Institute into the congressional record.[54] Santorum worked with the Discovery Institute's program director Phillip E. Johnson in 2000 and 2001 drafting the pro-intelligent design Santorum Amendment and in March 2006 wrote the foreword for the book, Darwin's Nemesis: Phillip Johnson And the Intelligent Design Movement a collection of essays largely by Discovery Institute fellows honoring Johnson as "father" of the intelligent design movement. Contained in the appendix to the Souder report is a letter from the director of the Smithsonian where it is revealed that Sternberg demanded that they give him a $300,000 grant to make up for his allegedly lost research time; he was turned down.[15] Sternberg's appointment as a Smithsonian Institution research associate was from January 2004 through January 2007. Research associates are not employees of the Museum and appointments are typically awarded for up to three years.

As one of the Discovery Institute intelligent design campaigns, the Institute conducted extensive lobbying and public relations efforts on Sternberg's behalf, including arranging for articles by Institute Fellows to be published in the mainstream press.[58][59][60][61] The April 2008 film featuring Ben Stein promoting intelligent design, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, included interviews with Sternberg and claims that his "life was ruined". Both Scientific American and the National Center for Science Education state that the film misrepresents key facts.[55][4]

Notes and references

  1. ^ Judge John E. Jones III: "A final indicator of how ID has failed to demonstrate scientific warrant is the complete absence of peer-reviewed publications supporting the theory...The evidence presented in this case demonstrates that ID is not supported by any peer-reviewed research, data or publications." (Ruling, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District 4: whether ID is science).
  2. ^ a b Intelligent design: The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories; Center for Science and Culture
  3. ^ a b Statement from the Council of the Biological Society of Washington at the Wayback Machine (archived September 26, 2007)
  4. ^ a b c d e
  5. ^ a b Statement from Richard Sternberg at the Wayback Machine (archived February 4, 2005)
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b c
  9. ^ a b c
  10. ^ a b c d
  11. ^ a b from Michael Powell, a Washington Post staff writer
  12. ^ BSG: A Creation Biology Study Group
  13. ^ RAPID schedule
  14. ^ Statement from the Council of the Biological Society of Washington at the Wayback Machine (archived September 26, 2007)
  15. ^ a b c Appendix to Intolerance and the Politicization of Science at the Smithsonian, United States House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, December 2006.
  16. ^ from David Klinghoffer, a Discovery Institute fellow
  17. ^ Process structuralism
  18. ^ ISCID - Fellows
  19. ^ A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^ a b
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ •
  26. ^ Meyer and Deja Vu Revisited, Wesley R. Elsberry, The Panda's Thumb, September 26, 2004.
  27. ^ a b Sternberg and the "smear" of Creationism, Andrea Bottaro, The Panda's Thumb.
  28. ^ a b Sternberg and the "smear" of Creationism comment, Andrea Bottaro, The Panda's Thumb.
  29. ^ RAPID conference attendees
  30. ^ RAPID conference schedule
  31. ^ American Scientific Affiliation Newsletter, Volume 44 Number 5, September/October 2002
  32. ^ ID paper continues to attract scrutiny, National Center for Science Education, September 10, 2004
  33. ^ The American Association for the Advancement of Science describes ISCID as a "virtual association created by ID advocates." Intelligent Design and Peer Review
  34. ^
  35. ^ Intelligent Design and Peer Review American Association for the Advancement of Science
  36. ^ Déjà vu All Over Again, Chris Mooney, September 13, 2004
  37. ^ Natural History Research Associates Alphabetical Listing 2004, Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History
  38. ^ a b Sternberg vs. Smithsonian, Jonathan Coddington, The Panda's Thumb
  39. ^ .
  40. ^ Association of American Physicians and Surgeons: Richard Sternberg
  41. ^ Barbara Bradley Hagerty. "Intelligent Design and Academic Freedom". NPR: All Things Considered. November 10, 2005.
  42. ^ Sternberg, Office of Special Counsel "Pre-Closure Letter"
  43. ^ Comment, The Pseudo-Science Amicus Brief in Kitzmiller, Pim Van Meurs, The Panda's Thumb.
  44. ^ a b Sternberg complaint dismissed, Nick Matzke, The Panda's Thumb, August 19, 2005.
  45. ^ Congressional Investigation Confirms Discrimination against Smithsonian Scientist Critical of Darwinian Evolution, Discovery Institute, December 18, 2006
  46. ^ Discovery Institute Fellows
  47. ^ The Branding of a Heretic, David Klinghoffer, Taste Commentary, OpinionJournal, The Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2005.
  48. ^ The "persecuted scientist against the establishment" hoax. Another plea often articulated by ID proponents is the idea that there is a community of ID scientists undergoing persecution by the science establishment for their revolutionary scientific ideas (Defending science education against intelligent design: a call to action, Journal of Clinical Investigation 116:1134-1138 (2006), doi:10.1172/JCI28449, A publication of the American Society for Clinical Investigation; 10226K PDF file)
  49. ^ The evolution wars enter the "No Spin Zone", Jason Rosenhouse, TalkReason.
  50. ^ Intelligent Design and Academic Freedom, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, November 10, 2005
  51. ^ Creating a Martyr: The Sternberg Saga Continues, Ed Brayton, Talk Reason]
  52. ^ Ben Stein’s Blunder, Michael Shermer, 17 April 2008, eSkeptic, ISSN 1556-5696
  53. ^ Intolerance and Politicization of Science at the Smithsonian, United States House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, December 2006.
  54. ^ a b Lame Ducks Weigh In, Reed A. Cartwright, The Panda's Thumb, December 15, 2006
  55. ^ a b Six Things in Expelled That Ben Stein Doesn't Want You to Know..., John Rennie and Steve Mirsky, Scientific American, April 16, 2008
  56. ^ Creating a Martyr: The Sternberg Saga Continues, Ed Brayton, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, December 19, 2006.
  57. ^ The Office of Sternberg Coddling Steve Reuland, The Panda's Thumb, December 20, 2006
  58. ^ Setting the Record Straight on Sternberg, Evolution News and Views, Discovery Institute, February 6, 2005.
  59. ^ Sternberg, Smithsonian, Meyer, And The Paper That Started It All, Discovery Institute, October 19, 2005.
  60. ^ Smithsonian Scientist Was Demoted for Views Critical of Darwinian Evolution, Evolution News and Views, Discovery Institute, December 15, 2006.
  61. ^ Breaking News on Sternberg Discrimination, Evolution News and Views, Discovery Institute, August 16, 2005.

External links

  • The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories, Meyer's paper that started the controversy
  • Sternberg's home page presenting his allegations concerning the controversy
  • Comments from Sternberg's Smithsonian supervisor, Jonathan Coddington in response to the Wall Street Journal editorial, from Panda's Thumb
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