62A Vane Attempt

"Don't Need a Weatherman To Tell Which Way the Wind Blows" 

A Series of Innocuous Blogs for Vainglorious Edification.

Trouble With ID
July 30, 2009

In August, 2004 an obscure scientific journal called Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington published an even more obscure article titled, “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories” written by Dr. Stephen C. Meyer.  What followed was an explosion of outrage and political venality that would make the famous Scopes Monkey Trial look tame.  The article itself was fairly typical of peer-reviewed scientific publications.  It detailed the strange world of biological genotypes, genetic morphology and the near-miraculous ability of DNA to instruct chains of carbon atoms to assemble into complex amino acids, proteins and molecules.  The article would not have raised a single eyebrow in professional science were it not for its twist ending.  In his summation Dr. Meyer, credited with a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge University, suggested that perhaps there was a consciousness at work in biology.  He suggested the two words that cause certain men of science to tremble with anger and self-righteous indignation.  Those two words?   Intelligent Design.

The ensuing venal machinations would satisfy the authors of a hoary old soap opera.  Up until that time the subject of intelligent design had been relegated to the religious fanatic side of town.  The idea of some all-encompassing intelligence informing the building blocks of life to do the stunts necessary to create even a primitive organism, was and still is anathema to mainstream science.   Indeed the most fundamental and ridiculed descendent of intelligent design is called “Creationism;” a sure fire recipe for bible thumpers to thump and religious scoffers to scoff.  But of the many things worthy in this drama, the most fascinating is the subterfuge that followed publication of the article.  Never before had a peer-reviewed scientific journal published a paper that quantified intelligent design as science.  In fact mainstream academia categorically rejected any suggestion that ID was science by loudly exclaiming there were no peer-reviewed papers published on the subject.  A solemn prerequisite for professional science.

Dr. Meyer’s paper changed all that.  The suggestion of a heavenly influence on the hallowed ground of science demanded there be hell to pay.  Curiously it would not be the author of the offending article that would pay it.  The heretical Dr. Meyer was insulated from attack by his employment at a privately funded research institute.  Instead, bristling with anger and thoughts of revenge, the nation’s great biologists aimed their punitive arrows at the one target still in their scope - the editor of the journal that published the paper.  That gentleman’s name is Dr. Richard Sternberg, a scientist of estimable achievement with two PhDs in evolutionary biology.  Sternberg was at the time an employee of the National Institute of Health, a Research Associate at the prestigious Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History, author of published scientific papers, and Editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington.  While Dr. Sternberg admits to belief in “stirring the pot,”  he seemed wholly unprepared for the outburst of vehemence that would come his way.

So outraged were senior scientists at the Smithsonian Institute which provides support to the Proceedings publication, they set about to immediately discredit the paper, its publisher and the perceived attack on the foundations of science.  The Washington Post quotes Sternberg, "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… I was basically run out of there."  Confirming this claim was the United States Office of Special Counsel, an office established to protect Federal employees from reprisal crimes in the workplace.  In a letter written to Dr. Sternberg nearly a year after the incident, OSC noted, "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."

What’s important to keep in mind is the scale of the incident.  The publication in question has a circulation of perhaps two thousand highly specialized biological scientists.  The offending paper’s speculative suggestion is that present theory (Darwin’s selection/mutation, self organization, natural law)  cannot explain the extraordinary explosion of morphological novelty in the Cambrian Period.  Meyer therefore (with little factual reference) posits the notion that intelligent rich design offers a reasonable explanation.  Certainly not reasonable to the  preponderance of scientists.  But let’s remember that nearly eighty percent of the six billion people on earth subscribe to some form of faith tradition.  Many of us in our non-professional lives accept the idea that there is some entity, consciousness, or power greater than ourselves that plays an important role in our personal and spiritual growth.  That acceptance acknowledges the presence of intelligence unseen and largely unknown.  Even our most agnostic scientists accept the idea that we live in a vast cosmos brimming with extraordinary phenomena we are little aware of, and little understand.

The unfortunate outcome of the Sternberg incident is public humiliation for both parties.  Dr. Sternberg was demoted, ordered to surrender his museum master key, move to a smaller office, report to a hostile supervisor and provide detailed reports of his daily activities.  A Congressional Staff Report for Republican Congressman Mark Souder titled, INTOLERANCE AND THE POLITICIZATION OF SCIENCE AT THE SMITHSONIAN concluded: 

“It was important that neither federal funds nor federal power be used to punish otherwise qualified scientists  merely because they articulate a dissenting scientific viewpoint on this issue. Scientific controversies should be decided through research and open debate, not through on-the-job harassment at federally-funded institutions or the blacklisting of certain scientists because of their outside activities. Scientists such as Dr. Sternberg have a First Amendment right to express their skepticism toward Darwinian evolution without having to fear government-sponsored retaliation.”

Too often amidst demands for transparency there are knee-jerk reactions to challenges to authority.  Those ensconced in the highest towers of knowledge become intolerant of skepticism and unconventional thinking.  But ideas should be challenged on merit alone. Scientific theory relies on challenge, discussion and observation to determine viability.  There is no room for intolerance or reprisal.  Those who engage in such behavior must be held accountable for their actions.  Knowledge is no longer a tree around which a self-appointed few build defenses.  It is a tree growing openly in our metaphorical garden.  And its fruit is meant for all who come to it with an appetite for life.