A Second Dimension to "Sternberg vs. Smithsonian"

This is a cautionary tale about the dangers of leaping to grand conclusions on the basis of hearsay. It started back with the publication of Stephen Meyer's article in the August 2004 issue of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, which we took note of in the post Meyer's Hopeless Monster. In that post, we considered the political ramifications of that publication, leading us to say then:

The important issue is whether or not the paper makes any scientific contribution: does it propose a positive explanatory model? If the paper is primarily negative critique, does it accurately review the science it purports to criticize? The fact that a paper is shaky on these grounds is much more important than the personalities involved. Intemperate responses will only play into the hands of creationists, who might use these as an excuse to say that the "dogmatic Darwinian thought police" are unfairly giving Meyer and PBSW a hard time. Nor should Sternberg be given the chance to become a "martyr for the cause." Any communication with PBSW should focus upon the features that make this paper a poor choice for publication: its many errors of fact, its glaring omissions of relevant material, and its misrepresentations of the views that it does consider.

But martyrdom of Sternberg has been a topic of discussion for the past week... and the person accused of martyring him, Jonathan Coddington, has spoken out in a comment posted to a thread here on Panda's Thumb.

The martyrdom of Sternberg was broadly announced in an opinion piece by David Klinghoffer published in the Wall Street Journal. Entitled "The Branding of a Heretic", the piece pounced upon Jonathan Coddington of the Smithsonian Institution as the villain of the story, claiming that in several ways Coddington wronged Sternberg, and further asserting that he did so because of his animosity to what he perceived as Sternberg's religiosity.

Klinghoffer's article makes many allegations for which there is no independent corroborating evidence. Yet there has been an outpouring of outrage on various weblogs and web discussion boards on the basis of Klinghoffer's article. Analogies linking the experiences of Sternberg and Galileo have sprung up like mushrooms after a spring shower.

Here at PT, we had little to say about Sternberg's complaint for the simple reason that there wasn't much information to go on, as we pointed out in Sternberg vs. Smithsonian. But that article apparently caught the attention of one of the principals in the dispute, Jonathan Coddington. He responded in the comments, offering a brief statement taking on several of the allegations made in Klinghoffer's article. I will reproduce it here:

Comment #14871

Posted by JAC on February 3, 2005 09:36 AM

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

I have confirmed via email correspondence that Jonathan Coddington at the Smithsonian is the author of the comment posted here at PT.

Klinghoffer and Coddington

Here are the various claims made by Klinghoffer that are disputed by various of Coddington's points made in his response above. I'll quote Klinghoffer and note the point or points from Coddington that dispute each allegation by "Cn", where n is the number from the quote above.

(Klinghoffer wrote:)

He has been penalized by the museum's Department of Zoology, his religious and political beliefs questioned.

[C1 and C6 dispute this.]

(Klinghoffer wrote:)

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Zoology Department, Jonathan Coddington, called Mr. Sternberg's supervisor. According to Mr. Sternberg's OSC complaint: "First, he asked whether Sternberg was a religious fundamentalist. She told him no. Coddington then asked if Sternberg was affiliated with or belonged to any religious organization. . . . He then asked where Sternberg stood politically; . . . he asked, 'Is he a right-winger? What is his political affiliation?' "

[C3 and C6 dispute this.]

(Klinghoffer wrote:)

In October, as the OSC complaint recounts, 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.

[C1 directly disputes this.]

(Klinghoffer wrote:)

Mr. Sternberg was also assigned to the close oversight of a curator with whom he had professional disagreements unrelated to evolution.

[C3 disputes this.]

(Klinghoffer wrote:)

"I'm going to be straightforward with you," said Mr. Coddington, according to the complaint. "Yes, you are being singled out."

[C6 disputes this.]

(Klinghoffer wrote:)

Mr. Sternberg begged a friendly curator for alternative research space, and he still works at the museum.

[C3, C4, and C5 dispute this.]

It is still premature to make judgments about this case. What is notable, though, is that we see that a second dimension does exist concerning the situation that Klinghoffer wrote about. The overwrought reactions (including those on a now-pulled thread on the "Free Republic" web site; see below) were based on taking the statements of the Klinghoffer article as gospel.

It seems that there is dispute over the facts in the case, and I hope that those in the "intelligent design" advocacy camp will take this opportunity to "teach the controversy" and make sure that Coddington's response is as widely disseminated as the initial media frenzy.

The Rush to Judgment

There's a few categories of sites that simply took Klinghoffer's opinion as authoritative on this matter. The sites listed below are a sampling.

The sites listed below took the Klinghoffer article and ran with it, deploying Galileo's ghost in so doing:

Others credulously repeating Klinghoffer:

And, for completeness, folks who accepted Klinghoffer's account but felt Sternberg was just getting his due. For my part, if Klinghoffer's account were correct (which is as yet disputed), it would be a large breach of ethics and a justified complaint.