Sternberg, Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back

Jonathan Witt

Recall that Richard Sternberg, former editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, permitted the publication of an essay by Stephen Meyer arguing that intelligent design was the best explanation for the Cambrian Explosion of animal forms. When it appeared, major science journals and media outlets launched a smear campaing against Sternberg, questioning his motives and claiming he violated the journal’s procedures. Sternberg, a man with two Ph.D.s in evolutionary biology and a distinguished record of scientific publication and achievement, eventually felt so much heat that he hired an attorney. Happily, one major media outlet, The Wall Street Journal, broke ranks by publishing an op-ed last week laying out Sternberg’s side of the story. In it, Sternberg’s supervisor, Jonathan Coddington, doesn’t come off so well.
There are two sides to this story, of course: Sternberg lays out his position here. One excerpt reads:

In the case of the Meyer paper I followed all the standard procedures for publication in the Proceedings. As managing editor it was my prerogative to choose the editor who would work directly on the paper, and as I was best qualified among the editors I chose myself, something I had done before in other appropriate cases. In order to avoid making a unilateral decision on a potentially controversial paper, however, I discussed the paper on at least three occasions with another member of the Council of the Biological Society of Washington (BSW), a scientist at the National Museum of Natural History. Each time, this colleague encouraged me to publish the paper despite possible controversy.

Sternberg also writes:

The Meyer paper underwent a standard peer review process by three qualified scientists, all of whom are evolutionary and molecular biologists teaching at well-known institutions. The reviewers provided substantial criticism and feedback to Dr. Meyer, who then made significant changes to the paper in response.

Coddington offers his version of events here.
Coddington does state something we find illuminating: “Why Dr. von Sternberg chose to represent his interactions with me as he did is mystifying.” It is mystifying if one insists that Sternberg is lying. But if Sternberg’s story is true, then his actions and behavior make perfect sense psychologically, and are reasonably motivated. The counterargument is to brand Sternberg a fundamentalist nut. But a reading of Sternberg’s site and the WSJ column reveals no such personality.
Another point we half agree with is Evolutionblog’s statement that the quality of the paper in question “as a work of scholarship is certainly relevant to assessing whether Sternberg has been treated unfairly.” It’s curious, then, that the blogger, Jason Rosenhouse, dismisses Meyer’s peer-reviewed article with a website critique (there has been no peer-reviewed critique of Stephen Meyer’s article), but Rosenhouse doesn’t mention this incisive defense of the Meyer’s paper published here and here at our website. Perhaps the blogger encouraged readers to review it at another post.

Jonathan Witt

Executive Editor, Discovery Institute Press and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Witt, PhD, is Executive Editor of Discovery Institute Press and a senior fellow and senior project manager with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. His latest book is Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design (DI Press, 2018) written with Finnish bioengineer Matti Leisola. Witt has also authored co-authored Intelligent Design Uncensored, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature, and The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot. Witt is the lead writer and associate producer for Poverty, Inc., winner of the $100,000 Templeton Freedom Award and recipient of over 50 international film festival honors.