Editor Explains Reasons for 'Intelligent Design' Article

Richard Sternberg came under fire from Smithsonian scientists over an article questioning evolutionary theory.
Richard Sternberg came under fire from Smithsonian scientists over an article questioning evolutionary theory. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 19, 2005

Evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg made a fateful decision a year ago.

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.

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.

"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 Steinberg, 42 , who is a Smithsonian research associate. "I was basically run out of there."

An independent agency has come to the same conclusion, accusing top scientists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History of retaliating against Sternberg by investigating his religion and smearing him as a "creationist."

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which was established to protect federal employees from reprisals, examined e-mail traffic from these scientists and noted that "retaliation came in many forms . . . misinformation was disseminated through the Smithsonian Institution and to outside sources. The allegations against you were later determined to be false."

"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 Washington Post and two other media outlets obtained a copy of the still-private report.

McVay, who is a political appointee of the Bush administration, acknowledged in the report that a fuller response from the Smithsonian might have tempered his conclusions. As Sternberg is not a Smithsonian employee -- the National Institutes of Health pays his salary -- the special counsel lacks the power to impose a legal remedy.

A spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution declined comment, noting that it has not received McVay's report.

"We do stand by evolution -- we are a scientific organization," said Linda St. Thomas, the spokeswoman. An official privately suggested that McVay might want to embarrass the institution.

It is hard to overstate the passions fired by the debate over intelligent design. President Bush recently said that schoolchildren should learn about the theory alongside Darwin's theory of evolution -- a view that goes beyond even the stance of intelligent design advocates. Dozens of state school boards have attempted to mandate the teaching of anti-Darwinian theories.


CONTINUED     1           >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity