A recent exposé appearing in the Washington Post concerning evolutionary biology and academic freedom has set off a vicious ruckus that offers a fascinating window into the inner workings of post-modern academia. On August 19, 2005, Michael Powell reported on a disgraceful episode that led to the expulsion of Richard Sternberg from his post at the Smithsonian Institute. Sternberg had served as an evolutionary biologist for the Smithsonian and as an editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, which is a scholarly journal that publishes articles on topics concerning biology research.
Sternberg’s "crime", as noted by Powell, consisted of accepting for publication an article that challenged certain aspects of evolutionary theory.
"As editor of the hitherto obscure Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, Sternberg decided to publish a paper making the case for "intelligent design," a controversial theory that holds that the machinery of life is so complex as to require the hand — subtle or not — of an intelligent creator."
While the casual observer might consider the publication of controversial theories to be a tolerable — or perhaps even desirable — function of a scientist and journal editor, the casual observer would be betraying an almost comical ignorance of the zeitgeist of contemporary academia. Although the academic establishment loves to bask in its reputation for open-mindedness and "cutting edge" thinking, the reality is much more sinister.
Much to his dismay, Mr. Sternberg learned this bitter lesson first hand.
Within hours of publication, senior scientists at the Smithsonian Institution — which has helped fund and run the journal — lashed out at Sternberg as a shoddy scientist and a closet Bible thumper.
Sternberg sounds amazed as he relates the events.
"They were saying I accepted money under the table, that I was a crypto-priest, that I was a sleeper cell operative for the creationists," said Sternberg, 42, who is a Smithsonian research associate. "I was basically run out of there."
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel investigated the incident and detailed a strange and disturbing tale of persecution.
"The rumor mill became so infected," James McVay, the principal legal adviser in the Office of Special Counsel, wrote to Sternberg, "that one of your colleagues had to circulate your résumé simply to dispel the rumor that you were not a scientist."
The investigation found emails from a variety of Smithsonian insiders that expose the ideological environment there quite nicely:
A senior Smithsonian scientist wrote in an email: "We are evolutionary biologists and I am sorry to see us made into the laughing stock of the world, even if this kind of rubbish sells well in backwoods USA"
Another email stated, falsely, that Sternberg had "training as an orthodox priest."
One official even openly stated that Sternberg’s religious background was fair game.
"Scott, of the NCSE, insisted that Smithsonian scientists had no choice but to explore Sternberg’s religious beliefs. "They don’t care if you are religious, but they do care a lot if you are a creationist," Scott said. "Sternberg denies it, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it argues for zealotry."
Things were so heated that Sternberg was advised not to attend a press conference at the Institute.
"I was told that feelings were running too high, they could not guarantee me that they could keep order," Sternberg said.
What are we to make of this whole series of events?
As a disclaimer, I should note that I have no particular opinion on the matter of intelligent design vs. pure Darwinian evolution. While I do have some training in evolutionary biology, I simply have not kept up with the field sufficiently to dissect the contending theories in an informed manner.
What I find much more interesting is the social and political environment at the Smithsonian.
First of all, is it not an abomination that a man should be persecuted this way for merely accepting an article for publication (especially when the article in question was reviewed by three other scientists)? Even if the rank and file scientists totally disagree with the content and conclusions of the article, their behavior was still disgraceful. They functioned like KGB agents or Gestapo thugs. This story is an unfortunate example of a disturbing trend in our culture in which ideological zealots enforce doctrinal purity by intimidation and smear tactics rather than by open debate.
Secondly, this whole affair reveals an extremely disturbing disdain for religion on the part of the scientists in question. Again, merely because Sternberg accepted an article for publication, they attacked him for being a "crypto-priest" and a "zealot".
I contend that if Sternberg had been a practitioner of any other religion besides Christianity, heads would be rolling right now at the Smithsonian for this blatant bigotry. Can anyone imagine similar emails calling a Muslim scientist a "crypto-mullah" or a Jewish scientist a "crypto-rabbi"? Even worse, notice how Sternberg was referred to as a "sleeper-cell operative", thus implying that a practicing Christian is somehow equivalent to a suicide bomber.
Anti-Christian bigotry aside, this affair also points to one of the most profound social and political realities of our time: the huge cultural chasm that has opened between the bicoastal economic, political, and cultural elites on the one hand and the masses of Middle America on the other.
The cultural prejudice of our academic elites oozes from several of these emails, especially the one that states "even if this kind of rubbish sells well in backwoods USA."
To whom, precisely, is he referring when he mentions "backwoods USA"?
Someone should inform this gentleman that the folks in "backwoods USA" are the ones whose taxes are paying his salary.
Furthermore, given that the "sophisticated intellectuals" couldn’t even be trusted to behave in a civilized manner at the press conference, we can legitimately wonder just who the "barbarians" really are.
Modern academics often point to Galileo’s experience with the Inquisition as being the perfect example of why Christianity is incompatible with complex scientific thought (though this point is credibly disputed by Thomas Woods in his recent book, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization). But who were the "inquisitors" in this instance? Who engaged in smears and crude stereotypes? Conversely, who was persecuted merely for publishing unpopular ideas?
At least the Church gave Galileo a trial. Sternberg got the boot with no fair hearing of any sort.
In a truly open system, the establishment would heartily encourage the publication of articles such as this one. For all I know, intelligent design could be complete bunk, but at least it should have gotten an objective examination. If it turns out to be rubbish, then it will eventually be shown as such.
Unfortunately, modern academia is a cesspool of atavistic ideological fanaticism. Worse yet, it is a cesspool that is largely being funded by the very "bourgeois hillbillies" (i.e. middle class Americans with productive forms of employment) that academia so smugly disdains.
The primary reason that the establishment is able to get away with this contradiction is that the masses of Middle America are forced to fund academia through their taxes. If the professoriate had to approach the productive people of our nation for voluntary contributions, they would perhaps learn better manners.
Either way, it is long past time to pull the plug and drain this swamp. If the Smithsonian Institute wants to perpetrate intellectual pogroms, let them do it on their own dime.
Steven LaTulippe [send him mail] is a physician currently practicing in Ohio. He was an officer in the United States Air Force for 13 years.