Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Wesley Elsberry and the OSC

Wesley Elsberry is a speaker and staff member of The NCSE a US organisation that despite its rather grand title “National Centre for Science Education” has as its main function organising opposition to creationism and intelligent design.

During the furore that erupted following the publication of Steven Meyer paper “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories” in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington the man at the storm centre – Richard Sternberg- of the firestorm called in the Office for Special Counsel (OSC) over allegations that the Smithsonian Institute (SI) were engaging in illegitimate practices to discredit him and make his work environment impossible for the continuation of his research.

The OSC investigated the situation and prior to it becoming clear that the SI were not officially the employer of Sternberg obtained copies of the fascinating emails that were flying around the museum and to and from other scientists from outside the museum. Some of these emails appeared in the final report of the OSC which basically upheld Sternberg’s complaint while pointing out that no action could be taken because the SI was not Sternberg’s employer.

Two of the statements in the report are the following:
1. “Eventually, they determined that they could not terminate you for cause and they were not going to make you a "martyr" by firing you for publishing a paper in ID. They came to the conclusion that you had not violated SI directives and that you could not be denied access for off-duty conduct. This was actually part of the strategy advocated by the NCSE.”

2. "In fact, members of NCSE worked closely with SI and NMNH members in outlining a strategy to have you (Sternberg) investigated and discredited within the SI."

Regarding these statements Wesley Elseberry said:

“I understand that statement (2) to be completely unsubstantiated, and in contradiction to the statement I previously quoted (1). I know that the statement I quoted, that NCSE advised against making a martyr of Sternberg, is correct. So thanks for pointing out that the OSC could not, itself, resist engaging in some whopper-telling of their own, undermined by their own report of NCSE's advice to the SI.”

So (as I understand it) Wesley Elsberry is saying that statement 2 is a false allegation against the NCSE. He is alleging that the OSC judge made a false allegation against the NCSE. Presumably Wesley has clear evidence that statement 2 is false.

When Wesley was challenged to put that evidence in the public domain to clearly demonstrate the dishonest character of the OSC judge he refused. When it was suggested that this made it appear that he did not have the evidence he made the following statement:

“I see that "PicoFarad" (his challenger) rejects the part of US jurisprudence that holds that parties are considered innocent until proven guilty. I'm not surprised.”

Does this innocence until proven guilty apply to both parties – the OSC judge (accussed by Wesley of telling a whopper) and to Wesley Elseberry or just to Wesley Elsberry? If you accuse someone of lying and refuse to present the evidence that you have for this can you be someone who really believes in innocence until guilt is proven?

38 Comments:

Blogger Lifewish said...

Presumably Wesley has clear evidence that statement 2 is false.

You can't prove a negative. There's no way that they can show the absence of emails that could be construed as supporting statement 2. On the other hand, if the OSC's statement is correct it should be very easy for them to support it with evidence, so the burden is on them to do so.

This is hardly rocket science. Testable claims are either falsifiable or demonstrable. If a claim is falsifiable then the onus is on the other person to falsify it. If a claim is directly demonstrable, the onus is on you to demonstrate its truth.

In this case, the claim of the OSC (that the NCSE had been playing silly blighters) is demonstrable if true. The contrasting claim of Elsberry (that the NCSE hadn't been playing silly blighters) is falsifiable if false. Therefore the onus is on the OSC to produce the evidence supporting their positive assertion.

2:16 pm  
Blogger Lifewish said...

I should add that I'd expect Elsberry, as a scientist, to at least try to falsify his hypothesis by doing a search for email of the sort described in point 2. However, on failing to easily locate any, he's entitled to ask OSC to put up or shut up.

3:17 pm  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Thanks for your second comment, Lifewish! I agree with what you said (reluctantly... it rather spoiled my post :-( ). I would like to ask Wesley if he is saying that none of the emails from NCSE can be read to give the impression that they were presenting "a strategy to have you (Sternberg) investigated and discredited within the SI"

3:52 pm  
Blogger Lifewish said...

One thing I'd note is that discrediting is only a bad thing if it's invalid. IIRC, there's some evidence that Sternberg did actually overstep his bounds as editor to publish this article (there were supposed to be two editors checking each article or something - I'll look it up if you're interested), which would be a valid reason for censure. Especially since the entire rest of the editorial team weren't keen on the article (again iirc and look-up-able).

Of course, the extent to which that would be worthy of discrediting is a matter of opinion, but I'd point out that the one person who can subvert the peer-review process is a journal's editor. He/she holds the journal's credibility in his/her hands, so it's in everyone's interest that abuse of that trust should result in pain.

6:50 pm  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Lifewish,
"..there were supposed to be two editors checking each article or something - I'll look it up if you're interested"

Yes I am interested!
My view is that he knew it was going to be highly controversial and that the Society members would not have voted him as editor if he had told them he may do something like this. The paper itself does rather stand out as different from the general character of the journal...at least on the ones available on the website.

I think he underestimated the response however...and I think the nature of the response was OTT.

7:06 pm  
Blogger Lifewish said...

OK, I've relocated the rebuttal that, at the time, appeared to be definitive - see here. I can't confirm much of it, but the bits that I can confirm appear to be kosher. In particular, note:

From the form letter he links to, which serves to outline the peer-review process, it is clear that more than one editor, at some point in the process, will be involved...but this was obviously not the case here, by his own admission.

Looking at the form letter in question, it appears that the managing editor is required to hand articles off to an assistant editor. However, in this case, the other editors have unanimously stated that they were unaware of the article. Sternberg's website confirms this.

This appears to imply that Sternberg took sole authority for publishing a paper when that was explicitly not supposed to happen. There does, however, appear to be an area of direct controversy - Sternberg says he consulted a Council member, whereas the Council unanimously asserts that they weren't aware of the paper. Make of that what you will.

Just to add to what I said earlier: the reason it's so essential that the editor be trustworthy is because they choose the reviewers. That means that an editor can easily fix the results of review by only picking reviewers who are going to give the results he/she wants. Which is of course completely unacceptable and deserving of some loss of credibility as a result.

9:23 pm  
Anonymous Deuce said...

A couple quick points here.

One, this isn't a court of law, but the court of public opinion. Elsberry is not actually "innocent until proven guilty" just because you are presumed innocent until proven guilty by a US court of law. If he's guilty, he's guilty, and we have to reach our conclusions by reasoning on what we've seen. We know that Sternberg filed a complaint because he believed he was being persecuted. We know that an independent party investigated these complaints, found that they were valid based on emails and things that they found, and reported such back to Sternberg. It is quite natural to expect Elsberry to provide evidence if he's going to accuse the investigator of lying when they came to a conclusion against his organization.

Second, Elsberry is being fundamentally hypocritical here. Was he adhering to his own "innocent until proven guilty" standard when he and a couple others released that NCSE smear piece accusing Sternberg of being a creationist shortly after the article's publication, and before anything else came to light? Or, just look at the debate style Elsberry advocates here. "Smear tactics are okay for me, but not for thee, even if the OSC backs you up" seems to be the working policy here.

2:47 pm  
Blogger Lifewish said...

One, this isn't a court of law, but the court of public opinion.

However, the logic behind "innocent until proven guilty" still holds. It's impossible to prove a negative - all you can do is strongly test the hypothesis that the accusation is false.

It is quite natural to expect Elsberry to provide evidence if he's going to accuse the investigator of lying when they came to a conclusion against his organization.

I'm guessing you meant "to refuse to provide", yes? That shouldn't be a problem though - if the OSC had some basis for making their statement, it should be easy for them to provide that basis so everyone can confirm that their interpretation was accurate and that Elsberry is lying.

And this is the problem. It would be absolutely trivial for the OSC to demonstrate the accuracy of their statement, but it would take massive amounts of effort on the part of Elsberry and the NCSE to give even a decent level of certainty that they were telling the truth. And even then people could claim that they just hadn't found or revealed the particular email that the OSC was referring to.

The only people who the NCSE could possibly ever convince of their innocence were those they had already convinced of their honour. And those people would probably accept the initial assertion without needing to see lots of evidence.

Was he adhering to his own "innocent until proven guilty" standard when he and a couple others released that NCSE smear piece accusing Sternberg of being a creationist shortly after the article's publication, and before anything else came to light?

I don't know which smear piece you mean so can't comment. Any chance of a link?

Or, just look at the debate style Elsberry advocates here.

From the article you linked to:

"If you want to drive a wedge between an audience of evangelical Christians and the professionals in the ID movement, you need a third approach: show that the ID advocate on stage with you has been lying to his followers. Show misquote after misquote; demonstrate error after checkable error, and make the audience understand that if the ID advocate claims that the sky is blue, their next step had better be to look out the window to see for themselves. Evangelicals do want to take Christ’s message to the world, but they also have a deep loathing of liars."

I'm still trying to understand the point of your comparison. The whole reason I have an issue with the OSC report is because it makes some fairly strong claims without providing the corroborating evidence. What Elsberry is apparently talking about here is making fairly strong claims and providing full evidential support.

That's a completely different ball game, and one that I personally don't see a problem with. If someone provides falsifiable reasons to believe that you're a liar, all you have to do is demonstrate that those reasons are false - they've misread it, or are confusing their sources, or whatever. If, however, they just say "I've seen stuff that leads me to believe you're a liar. No, I won't tell you or anybody what that stuff is", there's not a lot you can do in your defence.

By the way, I'd appreciate it if we could keep the instances of "proof by URL" and similar to a limit. Last time we got into a round of that on this blog, I spent about a day tracing a line of argument back through a couple of dozen pages of Center for Science and Culture website. The rule I personally try to play by is that URLs are fine for backing up a factual claim, or to show where I'm getting something from, but that "outsourcing" points of discussion is unhelpful.

4:55 pm  
Blogger Lifewish said...

To summarise my overlong response to the second point (sorry): it's not a smear if it's true. The "smears" that Elsberry is advocating will work if and only if the claim is true. The OSC's smear, however, will have the same effect regardless of whether the claim is actually true.

4:58 pm  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

The real problem is that the OSC was not investigating the NCSE or Wesley Elsberry but the SI...they then found out that their investigation was pointless and they had no jurisdiction.... so unless Wesley Elsberry could and wanted to prove the OSC was wrong we are not going to see those emails... unless another court case opens which needs them. The only other possibility is the judge putting more of the material in the public domain which he used to get his statements from so we can see for ourselves which of the two parties is closest to the truth... but I am not holding my breath on this one!

5:28 pm  
Blogger Lifewish said...

so unless Wesley Elsberry could and wanted to prove the OSC was wrong we are not going to see those emails...

No, even if the OSC was wrong and he wanted to prove that, he couldn't prove them wrong. He could make public every email ever sent between the NCSE and the Smithsonian and it would still be possible for people to claim that he was concealing the email in question.

The only one who can clear this up one way or the other is the OSC attorney (not a judge, btw, at least as far as I can tell). And he apparently ain't talking. Until he does, I wouldn't consider reliance on his claim in future discussions to be in terribly good faith.

5:45 pm  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

I (reluctantly) agree with Lifewish here... but I would still like to look at the emails if Wesley will let me.... I would even promise not to say a word about them to anyone!

6:36 pm  
Anonymous Deuce said...

As Andy said, we're not going to (and shouldn't) see those emails until/unless this thing goes to court. We have to decide based on what we do know. For my own part, I'm not personally inclined to think that an independent investigator invented pages-long emails discussing strategy from the NCSE, and I think it's a little bit ridiculous and telling that the NCSE, a private educational advocacy group, should have been getting involved in the affairs of a small journal run by professional grownups at a government institution at all.

Anyhow, I don't have a link handy, but the creationist accusation was part of a review/denouncement that Elsberry, Matze, and Gishlick wrote on the Meyer article shortly after it came out (you can probably find it on Google). Here's the money quote though:

Sternberg happens to be a creationist and ID fellow traveler who is on the editorial board of the Baraminology Study Group at Bryan College in Tennessee. (The BSG is a research group devoted to the determination of the created kinds of Genesis. We are NOT making this up!) Sternberg was also a signatory of the Discovery Institute’s “100 Scientists Who Doubt Darwinism” statement. [3] Given R. v. Sternberg’s creationist leanings, it seems plausible to surmise that the paper received some editorial shepherding through the peer review process. Given the abysmal quality of the science surrounding both information theory and the Cambrian explosion, it seems unlikely that it received review by experts in those fields. One wonders if the paper saw peer review at all.

That's "Innocent until proven guilty" in action for you!

As for Elsberry's quote that I showed before, you are rationalizing. He doesn't say that if the IDist tells lies, you should point them out. No, he seems to take it for granted that repeated accusations of dishonesty is a good debate tactic. But let's take it one step further. Let's say you were actually in a debate with an IDist who made several genuine factual errors (not just different interpretations). How could you know that they were lying instead of simply wrong, especially if we're going by "innocent until proven guilty"?

6:42 pm  
Anonymous Deuce said...

I found the review by Elsberry et al here.

7:35 pm  
Blogger Lifewish said...

I (reluctantly) agree with Lifewish here... but I would still like to look at the emails if Wesley will let me.... I would even promise not to say a word about them to anyone!

It's admissions like this (where appropriate) that make you worth debating with :)

Regards the emails: yeah, it'd be cool to see them, on the other hand it's quite plausible that some of them contain stuff that, whilst completely irrelevant to Sternberg's situation, would be seen as "dirty laundry" if publically aired. I know I've said things about a whole range of people and groups in private that I definitely wouldn't want made public, regardless of how justifiable those views were.

I'm probably biased on this though, since I'm a long-time mortal enemy of the phrase "if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear" and similar daft truisms. See the NO2ID campaign for info on my current cause celebre (very relevant to brits).

As Andy said, we're not going to (and shouldn't) see those emails until/unless this thing goes to court.

Why not, when the attorney published a bunch of other emails (which were presumably equally confidential given the OSC's lack of standing)? It seems a little odd that this particular claim, that could be construed as doing serious damage to a third party, is completely unsupported when other, lesser claims are given a solid backing (although this may be a result of my preconceptions on the matter).

As for Elsberry's quote that I showed before, you are rationalizing. He doesn't say that if the IDist tells lies, you should point them out. No, he seems to take it for granted that repeated accusations of dishonesty is a good debate tactic.

I think you possibly misinterpret what he's saying. I read it as meaning "we have such a wealth of examples of major ID proponents lying, quote mining and generally playing silly blighters that all we need to do to win the debate is point this out to people".

Whether the premise is true or not is a flamewar for another day :P. However, given that premise, the approach he suggests appears to be acceptably honourable. It's not one I'd generally take because I prefer to engage on the issues (there's always the chance I might learn something), but in (for example) a spoken debate it's rare to have the available time to follow this ideal methodology.

I found the review by Elsberry et al here.

On reading the review I'd agree that Elsberry's assertion appears to be insufficiently supported. If in future he attempts to claim that Sternberg is a creationist without providing further evidence, I for one will confront him on this, and I'll do the same to anyone who attempts to use his comment as evidence that Sternberg is a creationist. That sound fair?

I can see how he drew that inference (do you know of anyone involved in baraminology who isn't a creationist? The very concept of "kinds" is a creationist idea), so I'd tend to class this under "innocent mistake" but I accept your point that it may very well be inaccurate. If you like I'll contact him to test this hypothesis.

8:27 pm  
Anonymous Deuce said...

I think you possibly misinterpret what he's saying. I read it as meaning "we have such a wealth of examples of major ID proponents lying, quote mining and generally playing silly blighters that all we need to do to win the debate is point this out to people".

My problem with it is that he wishes to turn misquotes and errors into lies. Note that this isn't meant to appeal to "people" in general, but to "evangelical Christians" specifically because they "have a deep loathing of liars". I consider that to be a kind of character assassination. He may (and probably does) really think they are liars, but it's still something I thought ought to be pointed out.

I can see how he drew that inference (do you know of anyone involved in baraminology who isn't a creationist? The very concept of "kinds" is a creationist idea), so I'd tend to class this under "innocent mistake" but I accept your point that it may very well be inaccurate.

Actually, both Sternberg and the baraminology group in question have confirmed that he's not a creationist or a baraminologist (both statements are on his site). The group just wanted someone who disagreed with them to critique some of their stuff, so they asked him and he obliged. He doesn't agree with ID, either.

I'll grant that Elsberry et al probably made an honest mistake, in that they really believed that he was a creationist when they wrote it. At the same time, I can't agree with you that it was an innocent one. A real person, who sounds by all accounts to be a perfectly decent guy, was seriously hurt by this episode. Also, there's plenty of other information they could have found that would have made the whole creationist connection untenable, such as his two PhDs in evolutionary biology, or his very impressive publication list. In fact, you'd have expected them to have found that stuff first, unless they were only interested in dirt.

As to this particular bit with Elsberry, I agree with you and Andy that we can't reasonably expect him to turn over all of the NCSE's emails to the Smithsonian. He may not have access to all of them, and they may be used in court. Also, you're right in that it wouldn't prove for sure that there wasn't any plotting against Sternberg going on in them (assuming for a moment that there wasn't), though it would support it some. While I do think the evidence is very strong against the NCSE and Smithsonian in this case, it's not on the basis of Elsberry not turning over emails that I think this. For these reasons, I also agree that Elsberry not turning over the emails is not a parallel situation to the OSC not turning over emails, so Elsberry isn't contradicting himself here (though I think Elsberry has again jumped the gun in accusing the OSC investigator of telling whoppers).

My only problem with Elsberry himself here (as opposed to the NCSE and Smithonian folks who slammed Sternberg collectively) is what I've said: he's tended to be quite trigger-happy when it comes to accusing others of lying or of being creationists (probably a side-effect of being politically involved in the fight against creationism for 20 years), but here he wants the benefit of the doubt extended to himself.

10:40 pm  
Blogger Ed Darrell said...

The "report" from the OSC doesn't exist. There is no such thing. Because OSC lacked jurisdiction, they legally could not issue a report.

So you should, in the sake of accuracy, point out that all of your allegations are unsubstantiated hearsay. That documents were released in violation of the law by a rogue lawyer at OSC does not make them valid, or fair.

Get the facts straight: Richard Sternberg alleged he was suffering "persecution." Inexplicably, instead of asking the Smithsonian's Inspector General to investigate, he asked another office that had no jurisdiction over either Smithsonian or Sternberg's employer, NIH, to look into the matter. It appears from all reports that Sternberg did this because he knew someone in OSC and knew he could get a political hit done on Smithsonian.

OSC's letters were met with the appropriate response from the Smithsonian, that Smithsonian's inspector general had jurisdiction. Under U.S. law, if OSC had found any evidence of wrongdoing, it was bound to send that information to the Smithsonian IG. In addition, Dr. Sternberg could have requested Smithsonian's IG to investigate, and they would have had to respond.

There was no allegation from OSC to Smithsonian's IG, which legally means that OSC found nothing.

Now, why are you repeating old canards from purloined and probably inaccurate stuff?

Tell us again how ID people are just interested in science, and not the politics. Good laughs are good things to have.

11:51 am  
Blogger Ed Darrell said...

Oh, and by the way, your allegations against Elsberry are slander. They deserve a retraction as well as correction.

Is there an ID ethical code?

11:54 am  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Ed,

Given the tone of the discussion that had taken place previously I am disappointed that you have taken the line you have.

I will assume that you have not read the previous comments in which some of my errors and misperceptions have been pointed out and admitted... the bottom line is that I agree with Lifewish that the letter from McVay contains an unsubstantiated allegation aginst the NCSE which Wesley Elsberry has every right to demand evidence to substantiate. The onus is indeed on McVay to provide the evidence.... if the situation is indeed as you have outlined why don't the NCSE begin a court case to have this allegation withdrawn. We would get some light on a rather murky matter then.

I am not sure what you mean by a slander against Wesley Elsberry... please clarify.

All the best.

12:19 pm  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Clarifications...

1. The "final report of the OSC" is the closing letter of McVay to Sternberg available here

2. As I stated in the above account my understanding was that in the confusion about who was officially Sternberg's employer while working at SI the OSC was given at least some of the fascinating emails that were circulating between scientists responding to the situation following the publication of Meyer's paper. To my knowledge no-one has denied that these are genuine and that they provide evidence that at least some of Sternberg's concerns were well grounded.

It seems clear that had the SI officially been Sternberg's employer they would have been in trouble...even on the basis of the evidence that McVay presents in his final letter.

1:14 pm  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Ed,

You said,
"OSC's letters were met with the appropriate response from the Smithsonian, that Smithsonian's inspector general had jurisdiction."

If this is the case how did Mcvay get hold of internal emails?

1:15 pm  
Blogger Ed Darrell said...

McVay got the e-mails because the Smithsonian people had nothing to hide and had given him free access.

McVay's investigation was, at best, extralegal. His letter was unwarranted, and is not in any fashion a "report." In fact, his letter violates the law that sets up the OSC and other federal guidelines. As I noted earlier, he has a duty to report findings of wrongdoing to the appropriate authority.

Now, one may argue that he found no wrongdoing, and therefore has no duty to report (which is the case).

In that case, one must understand that he also has an ethical duty not to mislead, and to protect the parties involved. His letter lays out allegations. Under the legal processes of his office, such allegations may not be made public, nor may they be released to parties, without an opportunity for any party "accused" to reply.

The OSC letter is an exercise in irresponsibility.

The judge in the Dover case made the proper assessment of the affair, that it was a piffle. Sternberg violated the processes of the society for whom he edited the journal, and for that he received no reprimand, no retaliation -- he got nothing at all but some well-deserved public criticism explaining the problems.

You're making scurrilous allegations. I can only speculate why you make them -- certainly a key factor is that ID has no legitimate information to support it, so a teapot tempest that may be cast as even mildly scandalous is a godsend -- obfuscation that covers over the lack of ID information; and in this case, obfuscation that tends to cover over the academic sins of Dr. Sternberg.

You're disappointed that I point out the errors? Look, this entire discussion is crass. It's the epitome of "teach the controversy." You repeat scurrilous and unwarranted allegations, covering up the real story, and then you are "disappointed" that I don't participate in a point-by-point discussion?

Sternberg's allegations were unfounded. Even Sternberg failed to take them to the appropriate body to get action. As McVay's letter points out, if one reads it carefully, there was no action taken against Sternberg of any official nature.

Now, if you want to continue the discussion and make it "fair," let's look at the U.S. laws on research and academic fraud, and look at whether they would apply to the Meyer article and to Sternberg's actions, were there any significant federal involvement. We have in the U.S. laws that make it a crime to hoke up science. Shouldn't that be where the discussion is focused?

Do you want to look at the real problem, or do you want to continue your scurrilous and slanderous, off-the-point, fog-making discussion?

10:38 am  
Blogger Lifewish said...

My problem with it is that he wishes to turn misquotes and errors into lies.

I don't think this is the case. There are well-documented occurrences of key ID proponents making statements that, even in full context, appear to be outright mistruths. The classic example is Jonathan Wells. In the introduction to "Icons of Evolution", he wrote:

"During my years as a physical science undergraduate and biology graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, I believed almost everything I read in my textbooks. I knew that the books contained a few misprints and minor factual errors, and I was skeptical of philosophical claims that went beyond the evidence, but I thought that most of what I was being taught was substantially true."

However, in a statement made to fellow Christians, he said:

"Father's words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism. When Father chose me (along with about a dozen other seminary graduates) to enter a Ph.D. program in 1978, I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle."

Compare contexts as you will, I see no way of reconciling these two fundamentally opposing descriptions of events. If there is one, please inform me.

If Elsberry et al do harp on misquotes and acknowledged errors, I for one will be happy to lay into them over it. There are, however, sufficient genuinely dodgy statements made by the key proponents of ID, and more broadly by many of their supporters (as in the Dover trial), that I doubt this would be necessary.

Oh, and by the way, your allegations against Elsberry are slander. They deserve a retraction as well as correction.

Go easy on the slander accusations, Ed. Historically speaking, they tend to get in the way of rational debate.

Anyway, the correct term is libel :P

Regards the "report", we're reaching the point where we don't have enough information to proceed. I'll summarise the case for the NCSE and Elsberry and against Sternberg as I understand it (that's two separate arguments, but they overlap significantly and I've kinda lost track of which is which):

1) Elsberry was probably wrong to call Sternberg a creationist. However, there was some circumstantial evidence supporting this assertion:

a) Sternberg is on the board of the Baraminology journal thingy, which at that time had not published the statement that he wasn't a baraminologist

b) looking at Sternberg's publishing record, you see papers like this one. It explicitly attacks "neo-Darwinism", which last time I checked was a pejorative invented by creationists, and in the acknowledgements section lists two baraminologists plus Jonathan Wells. Obviously it's perfectly acceptable for a scientist to credit whoever he wishes, but this does strongly indicate that the interaction between baraminology and Sternberg was not all one-way, and that he's possibly not just an innocent bystander here.

c) Sternberg is apparently a long-time member of ISCID, an explicitly ID-supporting organisation. Again, this certainly should not be taken as a bad thing, but again it provides a strong indication that Sternberg isn't just the guy on whose desk the paper just happened to land.

2) There is some evidence that the paper in question wasn't published according to journal regulations. In particular, said regulations apparently state that at least one other editor will be involved at some point in the process. According to the journal's statement, none of the editors were aware of the paper or subsequently thought it was suitable for publishing in that journal. This is especially odd given that Sternberg wasn't actually managing editor of the journal any longer at the time (he'd been acting as a stand-in for months, and a replacement had finally been found).

3) The OSC had absolutely no standing to report on the actions of the Smithsonian. The report should not have been produced, let alone made public. If the OSC felt the accusations were justified, it should have forwarded the information to a party with standing to investigate, rather than making their conclusions public.

a) The fact that they didn't do so is extremely odd. This appears to be a clear instance of silly blighters on the part of the attorney who wrote the report.

b) It's also slightly odd that, of all the parties qualified to investigate the situation, Sternberg managed to pick the one that didn't have standing to do so. On its own, I'd be happy to put that oddness down to cluelessness about protocols on Sternberg's part, but the urge to connect the dots with the other oddnesses is becoming borderline irresistable.

4) Sternberg made some accusations that are directly contradicted by others. In particular, he stated that, in response to the paper, his supervisor was switched to one who was less sympathetic. We have a statement, purportedly from his supervisor, claiming that this is not the case. A more thorough examination is available here if anyone's particularly interested. Obviously without confirmation of the commenter's identity we can't confirm that there is indeed an issue here, but this does mean that a bunch of Sternberg's claims require more information to be considered substantiated.

5) The OSC report makes accusations about the NCSE which can only be demonstrated as being false by the OSC itself. These accusations are very harsh and providing them with no factual support is thus a rather unpleasant thing to do.

I'm not really comfortable discussing this much further for two reasons:

A) We're definitely hitting the point where our access to information about what actually happened (rather than hearsay) is going to seriously limit our ability to determine the truth of the matter.

B) Whilst investigating this, I noticed a couple of instances where I was unconsciously blurring the line between "I can see why they think that" and "that's justifiable". That's not a habit I'm happy to get into.

Obviously if anyone has any questions for me, about the above list of points or otherwise, I'll respond, but I'm going to stop butting in until I'm sure that I'm not getting partisan.

2:55 pm  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Ed,
You said,
"McVay got the e-mails because the Smithsonian people had nothing to hide and had given him free access."

You do not really believe that do you?

"McVay's investigation was, at best, extralegal. His letter was unwarranted, and is not in any fashion a "report." In fact, his letter violates the law that sets up the OSC and other federal guidelines. As I noted earlier, he has a duty to report findings of wrongdoing to the appropriate authority."

1. Letter/report to Sternberg or letter reporting his conclusions... semantic hair splitting in my opinion.

2. Extralegal or illegal?
In McVay's letter it seems to me that there was confusion about which was the proper body to conduct the investigation.

McVay claims that there was a "complicated juridictional puzzle regarding Sternberg's position as an RA."

RA's (which was what Sternberg was)are employees of the NIH...

"While the case was pending the Board decided the Fishbein vs DHHS case. This case exempts Title 42 scientists from Title 5 protections."

It was this case which meant that Sternberg was not granted the protections which he would have been prior to that case.

McVay states that unfounded allegations were made by SI employees to outside individuals which were admitted to be false but no efforts were made to retract.

Ed, given the evidence that is in the report are you entirely comfortable with the way it was dealt with?

5:07 pm  
Blogger Ed Darrell said...

No, I'm not comfortable with the way the OSC "report" was dealt with at all. It violates the law, it violates government ethics rules, and if the author was a lawyer, it violates the ethical canons of lawyers.

It is, alas, what we've come to expect from ID fanciers and supporters. Sternberg's action was repudiated by the society who own the journal, and by accounts of all others affiliated with the journal, Sternberg's actions fell well outside established guidelines and procedures. The Meyer article was not appropriate material for the scope of the journal.

Was that your question? Or are you asking me whether I'm satisfied that, concurring with the recommendation of NCSE, after determining that Dr. Sternberg had stabbed the scientific community in the back, they determined that backstabbing was not against the law, and not within the bounds of Smithsonian to discipline, so nothing was done against Sternberg? Yes, I'm gratified that scientists failed to seek revenge which would have been justified in a more fair world, but which was denied them by the rules.

Sternberg failed to follow the rules. The other scientists did. It's a sad situation. I'm gratified that the aggrieved scientists didn't make it worse.

7:17 am  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Ed,

Sorry... a badly worded question. Permit me to have another attempt.

If the following points are conceded:
1. The emails in McVay's letter are genuine.
2. All the allegations (whether substantiated or not) that McVay makes are accurate.

Are you entirely comfortable with the way Sternberg was treated?

In other words..if it was really like McVay portrayed it ... are you still entirely comfortable with how Sternberg was treated?

9:40 am  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Ed,
You said:
"It violates the law, it violates government ethics rules, and if the author was a lawyer, it violates the ethical canons of lawyers."

I am not familiar with US law can you specify?

McVay claims that he was originally working under the provisions of 5.U.S.C $$ 1214(a)(1)(A), 1216(a) and 2302(b)

McVay claims that it was the settlement of the Fishbein v. DHHS case which meant that the Sternberg case was outside the protections provided by the OSC.

McVay claims therefore that if the Fisbein case had gone the other way he would have had authority to complete his investigation.

Where exactly was McVay legally wrong?

Where exactly was he morally wrong?

9:53 am  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Lifewish,

"There are well-documented occurrences of key ID proponents making statements that, even in full context, appear to be outright mistruths."

Can you provide the full references to the Jonathon Wells quotes. As they stand I see no necessary contradiction.

10:00 am  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Lifewish,
"There are, however, sufficient genuinely dodgy statements made by the key proponents of ID..."

Is there a directory?

I think in a rhetorical battle both sides are going to try and squeeze the best mileage out of their resources and then accuse the other side of dishonesty.

This is helpful. Usually the truth is somewhere in between in my experience.

There have been counter examples I am sure.... or are you suggesting that one side is generally of a noticeably higher moral calibre?

10:05 am  
Blogger Lifewish said...

Can you provide the full references to the Jonathon Wells quotes. As they stand I see no necessary contradiction.

Yup, no problem. The bit about him being out to destroy Darwinism from the start is here. The bit about him having been taken in by it for almost his entire academic career is, sadly, not on the web - it's in the foreword to Icons of Evolution, apparently (can't confirm this - I don't have a copy of that book). If you have it, I too would appreciate confirmation that the quotation is factually and spiritually accurate.

From the quotations themselves, there appears to be a blatant contradiction - did he or did he not accept current evolutionary biology in grad school?

Is there a directory?

I don't know, I'll check. Most of the examples that I've seen and remembered are instances of ID people admitting that ID is inherently religious, despite having denied it elsewhere. Dembski's comment about ID being the logos of St John in the idiom of Information Theory comes to mind. And I thought I posted a list of instances of quote-mining at one point (or possibly not, I'm losing track).

There have been counter examples I am sure.... or are you suggesting that one side is generally of a noticeably higher moral calibre?

There probably have been counterexamples. I personally feel that the moral weight in this case is fairly firmly against the mainstream IDists, but I'm aware that that's probably a biased opinion.

There is, however, a fairly strong argument (more analysis available on request) that ID itself could be considered a deception - cobbled together from spare parts and canards* in an attempt to wipe out Darwinism a la the Wedge document. So far ID hasn't made any directly falsifiable claims, and even many of its other claims have been indirectly falsified. Its maths is a shambles, its theology is simplistic, its predictions are nonexistent. And yet it still tries to get its ideas taught to unsuspecting schoolchildren.

* We still have people making daft comments about the second law of thermodynamics - there was a post to that effect on Uncommon Descent about a week ago. I don't know if this means that the ID movement is reverting to old-time Creationism or what, but it sure gives the impression that some of its main proponents are clasping at straws.

4:40 pm  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Lifewish,

This is the first page of Icons:

Preface
D
uring my years as a physical science undergraduate and biology graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, I believed almost everything I read in my textbooks. I knew that the books contained a few misprints and minor factual errors, and I was skeptical of philosophical claims that went beyond the evidence, but I thought that most of what I was being taught was substantially true.
As I was finishing my Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology, however, I noticed that all of my textbooks dealing with evolutionary biology contained a blatant misrepresentation: Drawings of vertebrate embryos showing similarities that were supposed to be evidence for descent from a common ancestor. But as an embryologist I knew the drawings were false. Not only did they distort the embryos they purported to show, but they also omitted earlier stages in which the embryos look very different from each other.
My assessment of the embryo drawings was confirmed in 1997, when British embryologist Michael Richardson and his colleagues published an article in the journal Anatomy and Embryology, comparing the textbook drawings with actual embryos. Richardson was subsequently quoted in the leading American journal Science as saying: "It looks like it's turning out to be one of the most famous fakes in biology."

9:58 pm  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Lifewish,
From the quotations themselves, there appears to be a blatant contradiction - did he or did he not accept current evolutionary biology in grad school?

The piece in Icons is a general point about the general reliability of textbooks in physical sciences as a backdrop to the specific problem with Haekel's embryos.

One can have a general confidence in physical science textbooks yet have a particular problem with evolution.

I would be happy and thankful to endorse Well's point about the general reliability of physical science textbooks yet continue to be a long time sceptic about macro-evolution.

In this particular instance Well's words can be taken to mean a general confidence in textbooks which is shaken by (at best) serious sloppiness in biology text book authorship.

It is NOT necessary to take Well's words here as a statement to the effect that he swallowed macro-evolution entire throughout his further education experience.

Thus I would say that your primary example of dishonesty is in fact a good counter example of anti-ID quote mining. ;-)

(I am only going on the bits of data I have here ...there may be more damning data that I am not aware of on this story.)

If you have further data I would be very glad of it as I am feeling like doing a blog post on this one.

10:11 pm  
Blogger Lifewish said...

Thanks for the transcription.

The piece in Icons is a general point about the general reliability of textbooks in physical sciences as a backdrop to the specific problem with Haekel's embryos.

One can have a general confidence in physical science textbooks yet have a particular problem with evolution.


Surely that would come under the heading of "I believed almost everything I read in my textbooks"? I read that paragraph as saying that he assumed the contents of his textbooks (presumably including those referring to evolution) to be correct, modulo minor errors.

If this reading is correct, that would certainly be incompatible with the idea that he entered grad school in order to help destroy Darwinism, since, on rereading of the quote and its context, it appears very clear that Wells equates Darwinism with anything other than microevolution. For example:

The papers, including one by James Fowler of Emory University, took it for granted that the fall of Adam and Eve was a fiction rather than a historical fact. They made this assumption because Darwinism had presumably proven that the human species originated as a slowly evolving population rather than as two created individuals who disobeyed God.
...
I responded that the paper-writers, by basing their theological reflections on implications of Darwin's theory, were relying on bad science. I explained that Darwinism doesn't fit the evidence, and concluded that the paper-writers had sold out to a passing fad.


So, in one version of the story he explicitly states that he considered his textbooks to be broadly accurate, presumably including evolution (you really can't get through a biology course these days without coming across it).

In the other version he explicitly states that he entered grad school with the sole goal of helping destroy belief in macroevolution.

That appears to be a pretty darn big contradiction

1:28 am  
Blogger Ed Darrell said...

Andrew said: In McVay's letter it seems to me that there was confusion about which was the proper body to conduct the investigation.

I don't know why Sternberg or anyone else would be confused about it. If there is wrongdoing in a federal agency, that agency's inspector general has jurisdiction and ability to quickly correct things.

Sternberg had a political friend at OCS, I suspect, and they hoped to be able to make a case for jurisdiction. It's a case of spin gone wrong.

Sternberg's failure to take the case to the proper authorities is evidence of his intent to avoid genuine scrutiny, I think. The failure of OCS to make a referral is legal proof of the lack of a case on Sternberg's part. The OCS letter is a violation of the OCS law, government and legal ethics.

6:05 pm  
Blogger Lifewish said...

Sternberg's failure to take the case to the proper authorities is evidence of his intent to avoid genuine scrutiny, I think.

In Sternberg's defence, I should note that the letter claims that it was only a court case decided after Sternberg contacted the OSC that determined that the OSC had no standing. I currently have no idea how to confirm or refute this statement.

I agree completely with the rest.

1:35 am  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Given that Sternberg says that he had been told that senior people at the SI were investigating his political and religious beliefs it is possible that his confidence in the internal procedures may have been seriously shaken hence his appeal to an outside body...

If the Fishbein v. DHHS case had gone the other way would McVay have had proper legal powers to investigate?

Up to the Fisbeib v. DHHS case termination did McVay have proper legal powers to invexstigate?

8:01 am  
Blogger Ed Darrell said...

Regardless how the HHS case went, the Smithsonian's inspector general is the first line of defense against retaliation, against wrongdoing, and to investigate wrongdoing inside the agency. The inspector general is separate from the agency, so that fear of internal procedures is no response. The inspector generals have greater powers, and a much longer, better record than OCS.

There is no good, rational explanation for why Sternberg did not take his claim there other than he thought he had no claim. There is no good explanation for why OCS made no referral, other than they OCS realized there was no claim, and the letter from OCS to Sternberg was a mistake, a violation of the law.

11:13 pm  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Ed,

Thank you for bearing with me on this one...you are a patient man!

Prior to the DHHS case decision (and following it if it had gone the other way) would Sternberg have had a legitimate choice to use OSC if he personally had greater confidence in it than in the SI inspector general?

12:09 pm  

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