L’Affaire Sternberg


Three years ago I concluded the my discussion of the Coppedge controversy—l’affaire Coppedge.

Judge: NASA firing of JPL employee wasn’t due to intelligent design advocacy

Employee’s firing was due to job performance, not religion.
by John Timmer – Nov 2 2012

Earlier today, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s staff were busy recounting their latest successes on the surface of Mars. At the same time, news broke that JPL’s lawyers were succeeding in the courtroom. In 2010, JPL was sued by an employee for religious discrimination after it asked him to (among other things) stop aggressively promoting intelligent design at work. A wrongful termination charge was added less than a year later after the employee, David Coppedge, was let go. But the judge overseeing that case has accepted the JPL’s arguments that Coppedge was let go for performance reasons as part of a larger cutback of staff.

That quote was from ARS Technica. I had my own concluding remarks:

The end of an affair? Only if you are optimistic. Creationist like to milk cases like this to portray themselves as martyrs for the true religion, all the while claiming that Intelligent Design is not religion. We may hear more from them about this business. In the Coppedge affair it would appear the creationists sought to demonstrate that, although Coppedge considered Intelligent Design to be real science, his supervisors thought it was religion, so the creationists really could have it both ways. Perhaps beside the point of the whole affair is that nobody has ever demonstrated any scientific merit for Intelligent Design or any other flavor of creationism, while about seven years ago a district judge in Pennsylvania ruled that the school board defendants in the case had been unable to make the case that Intelligent Design has a scientific basis. And, yes, the judge in the Dover case also agreed that Intelligent Design is solely a matter of religion.

C’est finis.

For another case it appears not to be finished. I call this case l’affaire Sternberg. I have touched on this previously. A particular instance was my review of the video starring economist, movie actor and television personality Ben Stein and titled Expelled:

In 2008 the word began to circulate, and there was a lot of excitement. I eagerly awaited the release of the video and purchased my copy through Amazon. It’s Expelled, starring movie and television personality Ben Stein.

As you can see, the subtitle is No Intelligence Allowed. If by now you are getting the idea this is going to be about Intelligent Design, then you can come up to the head of the class.

A personality featured in the video is evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg. The story in Expelled is that Sternberg suffered undue criticism and retribution for publishing a paper by creationist Steven C. Meyer in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington a scientific journal for which Sternberg was editor at the time. That was in 2004, and the story lingers. Here is an excerpt from the Expelled review:

Sternberg met with Steven C. Meyer, the author of a paper that Sternberg published in the journal of which he was editor. Apparently the two arranged to have the paper published in order to give Intelligent Design the prestige of having a paper published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Sternberg did not consult with others on the editorial board of the journal, but he selected the four reviewers, including himself. He has never revealed the identities of the other three reviewers, which I presume were fans of Intelligent Design.

At any level of reading the paper has no scientific merit. I have read it and found it to be at the level of an op-ed piece that might be printed in the opinions section of a newspaper. You can read it for yourself.

The editorial board was highly outraged, which outrage provided much of the fuel for the fire storm fanned in the video.

Sternberg did not lose his job. He was not employed at the Smithsonian. He was employed at the National Institutes of Health, and in his free time he was doing unpaid research at the Smithsonian. His job as editor for the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington was a voluntary, unpaid position. He announced his resignation as editor even before the paper in question was published.

A post by Jonathan Coddington on the Panda’s Thumb blog provides additional detail:

Posted by JAC on February 3, 2005 9:36 AM (e)

Although I do not wish to debate the merits of intelligent design, this forum seems an apt place to correct several factual inaccuracies in the Wall Street Journal’s Op Ed article by David Klinghoffer, “The Branding of a Heretic” (Jan. 28, 2005). Because Dr. von Sternberg has filed an official complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, I cannot comment as fully as I would wish.
1. Dr. von Sternberg is still a Research Associate at the National Museum of Natural History, and continues to have the usual rights and privileges, including space, keys, and 24/7 access. At no time did anyone deny him space, keys or access.
2. He is not an employee of the Smithsonian Institution. His title, “Research Associate,” means that for a three year, potentially renewable period he has permission to visit the Museum for the purpose of studying and working with our collections without the staff oversight visitors usually receive.
3. I am, and continue to be, his only “supervisor,” although we use the term “sponsor” for Research Associates to avoid personnel/employee connotations. He has had no other since Feb. 1, 2004, nor was he ever “assigned to” or under the “oversight of” anyone else.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. As for prejudice on the basis of beliefs or opinions, I repeatedly and consistently emphasized to staff (and to Dr. von Sternberg personally), verbally or in writing, that private beliefs and/or controversial editorial decisions were irrelevant in the workplace, that we would continue to provide full Research Associate benefits to Dr. von Sternberg, that he was an established and respected scientist, and that he would at all times be treated as such.
On behalf of all National Museum of Natural History staff, I would like to assert that we hold the freedoms of religion and belief as dearly as any one. The right to heterodox opinion is particularly important to scientists. Why Dr. von Sternberg chose to represent his interactions with me as he did is mystifying. I can’t speak to his interactions with anyone else.

Sincerely yours,
Jonathan Coddington

The matter of Sternberg having to surrender his keys to the Smithsonian lab is even more bizarre:


“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)


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.

And that was supposed to be that.

Not quite. Amazingly the topic was resurrected five years later with the publication of a new book by Steven C. Meyer, the author of the piece at the center of L’affaire Sternberg. Reviewing the book I received a tantalizing surprise:

Attention immediately turned to Sternberg, an obvious creationism sympathizer. More followed, and this is what Meyer has to say about the affair:

… The editor, Richard Sternberg, lost his office and his access to scientific samples and was later transferred to a hostile supervisor. After Sternberg’s case was investigated by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a government watchdog organization and by the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform, a congressional committee, other questionable actions came to light. …5

Meyer notes that senior administrators at the Smithsonian Institution questioned Sternberg’s colleagues about his religion and politics and instigated a campaign to damage his professional reputation and to get him to resign. Sternberg did not resign, but he was demoted.

Meyer gets some of that right, and that’s the unfortunate part-for Meyer. The problem is this pronouncement by Meyer reveals that Meyer’s infatuation with the truth is a sometime thing.

And that was supposed to be that.

Au contraire. Two years ago Steven C. Meyer came out with yet another book promoting creationism (Intelligent Design). That book is Darwin’s Doubt, of which I have a copy and have finished reading. Actually, I have finished reading up to location 7606, after which Meyer launches into a review of various critiques of the book. I will review the main part first, and then I will review Meyer’s critiques of the critiques. Here’s what Meyer has to say in his latest book:

The same year, I published a peer-reviewed scientific article about the Cambrian explosion and the problem of the origin of the biological information needed to explain it. 1 In the paper, I cited Axe’s results and explained why the rarity of functional proteins in sequence space posed such a severe challenge to the adequacy of the neo-Darwinian mechanism. The article appeared in a biology journal, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, published out of the Smithsonian Institution by scientists working for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Because the article also argued that the theory of intelligent design could help explain the origin of biological information (see Chapter 18), its publication created a firestorm of controversy.

Museum scientists and evolutionary biologists from around the country were furious with the journal and its editor, Richard Sternberg, for allowing the article to be peer-reviewed and then published. Recriminations followed. Museum officials took away Sternberg’s keys, his office, and his access to scientific samples. He was transferred from a friendly to a hostile supervisor. A congressional subcommittee staff later investigated and found that museum officials initiated an intentional disinformation campaign against Sternberg in an attempt to get him to resign. His detractors circulated false rumors: “Sternberg has no degrees in biology” (actually he has two Ph.D.’ s, one in evolutionary biology and one in systems biology); “He is a priest, not a scientist” (Sternberg is not a priest, but a research scientist); “He is a Republican operative working for the Bush campaign” (he was far too busy doing scientific research to be involved in political campaigns, Republican or otherwise); “He’s taken money to publish the article” (not true); and so on. Eventually, despite the demonstrable falsehood of the charges, he was demoted.

Meyer, Stephen C. (2013-06-18). Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (Kindle Locations 3830-3845). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

This is particularly galling. Imagine I purchased a book, a recent edition, about the history of World War Two. It’s by a famous author, but a couple of chapters in the author makes the claim that Poland attacked Germany, kicking off the hostilities on 1 September 1939. It’s a claim the author has made before, one which is thoroughly rebutted by multiple sources. Yet, the same author is making the same claim, ignoring the basic facts without any attempt to defend his variance with known history.

It’s not as though Meyer hasn’t had the opportunity to rebut the rebuttal. His own organization, the Discovery Institute, has put up a Web site just for the purpose of rebutting criticism of Expelled. Here is what Expelled Exposed Exposed has to say about l’affaire Sternberg:

Richard Sternberg:
Many of the false claims at “Expelled Exposed” about Richard Sternberg also seem to parrot the arguments of Michael Shermer, and thus the aforementioned response to Shermer provides rebuttals to many of the website’s claims: see “Michael Shermer’s Fact-Free Attack on Expelled Exposes Intolerance of Darwinists towards Pro-Intelligent Design Scientists.” “Expelled Exposed” makes the unbelievable assertion that “the worst that happened to Sternberg is that people said some unkind things about him in private email to one another.“ The rebuttal to Shermer documents the precise e-mails and evidence which show that, contrary to the claims of “Expelled Exposed,” Sternberg did experience harassment and persecution, including pressure to resign, investigations into his outside activities regarding evolution, and inappropriate restrictions on his research.

More facts about Richard Sternberg’s unfortunate story can be found on his home page at RichardSternberg.org as well as at the following links:



Unless the details are tucked away inside one of the sources linked—none of the link titles point that way—then the Discovery Institute and Meyer by implication are willing to let the facts lie as they fell.

You have to wonder at a story like l’affaire Sternberg. “Museum officials took away Sternberg’s keys.” No additional detail. A more credible story would have some detail. A more credible story would go like this: “Mr. Coddington approached me in the corridor near my lab at the Smithsonian on 12 December and told me to immediately hand over the key to my lab. I asked why, and he just told me to give him the key. He took the key and walked away. No explanation was given. Since that time I have been unable to access my lab space.” No such narrative has been forthcoming.

What has been forthcoming was “Museum officials took away Sternberg’s keys.” Repeated. The beauty of this statement is it is true on its face. Museum officials did take away Sternberg’s keys. This gives Sternberg, Meyer, and the Discovery Institute the cover of bare truth. Something like this gives certain people, Ben Stein included, the ability to stand before a video camera and make the statement with a straight face. The lie is what is left hanging in the room after the speaker has departed.

And I wonder why. Why give cover to this tiny lie, when the more massive hoax sits exposed for all to see. That hoax is that Intelligent Design is all about science and has nothing to do with creationism, nothing to do with promotion of a religious agenda.

My own review of Meyer’s latest book is forthcoming. His previous book, Signature in the Cell, was an easy task. It centered on intelligence and information, a topic about which I consider myself considerably more expert than Meyer. Darwin’s Doubt dives deeply into biology,,particularly phylogeny and other biologically obtuse topics, about which I am mostly clueless. In reviewing Meyer’s latest book I will rely completely on expert sources, sources that have from all appearances already stripped the veneer off Meyer’s most recent golden calf.

Keep reading. And may Jesus have mercy on your soul.



6 thoughts on “L’Affaire Sternberg

  1. John, I ran across your blog a week ago or so and I absolutely love what you do here. Thank you for many thought-provoking pieces and more than a few good laughs. I look forward to the next chapter in this epic saga.

    • Erik,

      Thanks for reading. I write about a bunch of stuff and I feel the need to write about what people want to read. I appreciate all readers, both those who agree and those who don’t. I’m going to follow up on the review of the Steven C. Meyer book, but most of my review is going to involve pulling from knowledgeable sources. Toward the end Meyer gets into an area where I have some expertise and can contribute.

  2. At almost the end of the original book (page 412 of 413):

    “… what is the thing or the entity from which everything comes? But unlike strict Darwinian materialism and the New Atheism built atop it, the theory of intelligent design affirms the reality of a designer — a mind or personal intelligence behind life. This case for design restores to Western thought the possibility that human life in particular may have a purpose or significance beyond temporary material utility. It suggests the possibility that life may have been designed by an intelligent person, indeed, one that many would identify as God.

    “… the theory of intelligent design does not seek to confine the activity of such an agency to the beginning of the universe, conveying the impression of a decidedly remote and impersonal deistic entity. Nor does the theory of intelligent design merely assert the existence of a creative intelligence behind life. It identifies and detects activity of the designer of life, and does so at different points in the history of life, including the explosive show of creativity on display in the Cambrian event. The ability to detect design makes belief in an intelligent designer (or a creator, or God) not only a tenet of faith, but something to which the evidence of nature now bears witness. In short, it brings science and faith into harmony.”

    It’s always been about “god did it” of course. Which should be considered creationism of course.

    Of course there really is no “gap” during the Cambrian for this “god of the gaps” fallacy.

  3. Mike,
    The revised edition has the same language. The last paragraph reads:
    “The theory of intelligent design is not based upon religious belief, nor does it provide a proof for the existence of God. But it does have faith-affirming implications precisely because it suggests the design we observe in the natural world is real, just as a traditional theistic view of the world would lead us to expect. Of course, that by itself is not a reason to accept the theory. But having accepted it for other reasons, it may be a reason to find it important.”

  4. “it suggests the design we observe in the natural world is real”

    Of course creationists “suggest” (and proclaim) that the design is real. They are simply wrong. There is no “design” and there is no need for a “designer” (who could also be called God). Of course it’s religiously-motivated anti-science propaganda. Millions of dollars over the last 20 years and they have nothing but propaganda to show for it.

    Apparently Meyer’s first article with the title “The Return of the God Hypothesis” was in 1999:


    Many talks before church audiences in the last few years with the title “The God Hypothesis”.

  5. Pingback: Signature in the Stone | Skeptical Analysis

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