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Michael Shermer’s Fact-Free Attack on Expelled Exposes Intolerance of Darwinists towards Pro-Intelligent Design Scientists (Part 2)

Casey Luskin

[Note: For a more comprehensive defense of Ben Stein’s documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, please see: NCSE Exposed at]

In part 1 I observed that the famous skeptic Michael Shermer’s attack upon the movie Expelled over at Scientific American adopts the following approach when denying the persecution experienced by intelligent design (ID) proponents:

  • (1) Ignore all the facts showing there was persecution;
  • (2) E-mail the persecutor and ask them if there was any anti-ID discrimination;
  • (3) Withhold all skepticism from the statements of the persecutors, and then trumpet their response as evidence that there is no persecution against ID proponents, blaming the victim for losing their job and then claiming those who feel there is persecution are just promoting a “conspiracy.”

Shermer Blames-the-Victim Case #1: Richard Sternberg
The conversation with Michael Shermer in the Expelled film revolves around the publication of Stephen C. Meyer’s pro-ID peer-reviewed scientific paper in the journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. The editor who oversaw the publication of that article was Dr. Richard Sternberg, who, according to investigations by both the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and also by subcommittee staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, was subsequently was harassed, intimidated, and demoted because he broke ranks with the unwritten (or sometimes written) rule among Darwinists that you must keep ID out of science journals.

Here’s the truth of the matter: Before Meyer’s paper was published, the pro-Darwin lobby had long-claimed that ID was not science because it wasn’t in peer-reviewed journals. But once ID was undeniably and explicitly supported in a peer-reviewed scientific journal article, Darwinists panicked, and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) prompted the journal’s publishing society, the Biological Society of Washington (BSW) to attack the paper. The BSW gladly obeyed the NCSE, issuing a statement that Meyer’s paper should not have been published because ID allegedly is not science. If that doesn’t sound like circular logic, consider the proof that the NCSE orchestrated the whole thing, according to the findings of an investigation by subcommittee staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform (“Report”):

Early on in the controversy, the NCSE circulated a set of “talking points” to the BSW Council and NMNH officials on how to discredit both Sternberg and the Meyer article. The OSC investigation found that the “NCSE recommendations were circulated within the SI and eventually became part of the official public response of the SI to the Meyer article.” (Report, pg. 22)

To attack Meyer’s article, Shermer cites the NCSE-inspired statement from the BSW stating that, “Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process. The council, which includes officers, elected councilors and past presidents, and the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings.” Shermer should have applied some of his famous skepticism here, because that statement is in fact a falsehood: Eugenie Scott herself admitted that “other editors have not always referred all articles to the Associate Editors, and because editors justifiably have discretion,” that therefore the BSW should not “come down too hard on Dr. Sternberg for errors in the procedure followed in accepting this article.” (See Report, pages 25-26.) Shermer conveniently spares the BSW from skepticism over Eugenie Scott’s behind-closed-doors concession, which contradicts the BSW’s public statement.

Moreover, Shermer and the BSW ignore that in less-politicized statements, Dr. Roy McDiarmid, the President of the BSW and a scientist at the Smithsonian, admitted that there was no wrongdoing regarding the peer-review process of Meyer’s paper:

I have seen the review file and comments from 3 reviewers on the Meyer paper. All three with some differences among the comments recommended or suggested publication. I was surprised but concluded that there was not inappropriate behavior vs a vis [sic] the review process. (See Report, e-mail from Roy McDiarmid, “Re: Request for information,” January 28, 2005, 2:25 PM to Hans Sues, emphasis added.)

So the truth is that Meyer’s paper WAS peer-reviewed, and that Darwinists have invented the claim that it was not peer-reviewed or that there was wrongdoing regarding the publication of the article. Shermer, the famous skeptic, seems unwilling to apply his skepticism to anything the Darwinists say about this situation, blindly accepting the denials from Darwinists that any discrimination against ID took place, instead blaming the victim.

Shermer should just drop his attempts to defend the Smithsonian, but he doesn’t, calling the attacks upon Sternberg part of Ben Stein’s “case for conspiracy.” So let’s review the findings of a congressional staff investigation to see if there really was any discrimination against Dr. Sternberg (who holds two Ph.D.s in evolution), or if Shermer is right and this is all just a conspiracy inside the heads of Dr. Richard Sternberg, Ben Stein, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, and a bunch of people working at Congress. The Congressional Staff Report found the following:

  • Congressional Staff Report: “Officials at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History created a hostile work environment intended to force Dr. Sternberg to resign his position as a Research Associate in violation of his free speech and civil rights.” As NMNH officials wrote in e-mails:

    “I suppose we could call [Sternberg] on the phone and verbally ask him to do the right thing and resign?” (Dr. Jonathan Coddington)

    “a face to face meeting or at least a ‘you are welcome to leave or resign’ call with this individual, is in order.” (Dr. Rafael Lemaitre)

    “if [Sternberg] had any class he would either entirely desist or resign his appointment.” (Dr. Jonathan Coddington)

  • Congressional Staff Report: “In emails exchanged during August and September 2004, NMNH officials revealed their intent to use their government jobs to discriminate against scientists based on their outside activities regarding evolution.” As NMNH officials wrote in e-mails:

    “Sternberg is a well-established figure in anti-evolution circles, and a simple Google search would have exposed these connections.” (Dr. Hans Sues)

    “In a memo prepared on February 8, 2005, NMNH scientist Marilyn Schotte admitted that after publication of the Meyer paper, Dr. Coddington wanted to know ‘if Dr. Sternberg was religious.’ Dr. Schotte further admitted telling Coddington that Sternberg ‘was a Republican.’ Schotte even conceded that Coddington may have asked her whether Sternberg ‘was a fundamentalist’ and whether ‘he was a conservative.'” (Description of a memo in discussed in the Report)

  • Congressional Staff Report: “NMNH officials conspired with a special interest group on government time and using government emails to publicly smear Dr. Sternberg; the group was also enlisted to monitor Sternberg’s outside activities in order to find a way to dismiss him.” As one NMNH official wrote in an e-mail:

    “From now on, I will keep an eye on Dr. (von) Sternberg, and I’d greatly appreciate it if you or other NCSE specialists could let me [know] about further activities by this gentleman in areas poutside [sic] crustacean systematics.” (Dr. Hans Sues)

    (For more details, see National Center for Science Education Asked to Spy for the Government According to Congressional Report.)

Michael Shermer apparently has unlimited skepticism when it comes to the claims of Darwin-skeptics–he’s unwilling to believe any of their statements that they have experienced persecution. But Dr. Sternberg summarized the discrimination taken against him as follows:

I was transferred from the supervision of a friendly sponsor (supervisor) at the Museum to a hostile one… I was twice forced to move specimens from my office space on short notice for no good reason, my name plate was removed from my office door, and eventually I was deprived of all official office space and forced to use a shared work area as my work location in the Museum….I was subjected to an array of new reporting requirements not imposed on other Research Associates… My access to the specimens needed for my research at the Museum was restricted. (My access to the Museum was also restricted. I was forced to give up my master key.)

Rather than admit that any of this evidence exists, Shermer happily applies infinite skepticism to the persecuted, and withholds all skepticism from the statements of the persecutors: Shermer even e-mailed Jonathan Coddington, the chief persecutor of Richard Sternberg, asking him about the situation. It comes as no surprise that Coddington personally wrote back to Shermer claiming there was nothing to see here. In Coddington’s words: “Sternberg was not discriminated against, was never dismissed, and in fact was not even a paid employee, but just an unpaid research associate who had completed his three-year term!” This is consistent with Coddington’s prior behavior, as the congressional staff investigation’s report concluded, “Given the factual record, the Smithsonian’s pro-forma denials of discrimination are unbelievable.” So are Shermer’s denials.

And how did Eugenie Scott handle this situation? Unlike Coddington, Scott didn’t deny that Sternberg was ousted when she spoke to the Washington Post, but rather she admitted that there was an ousting of Sternberg, and tried to justify it:

[S]aid Eugenie Scott, the group’s executive director[:] “If this was a corporation, and an employee did something that really embarrassed the administration, really blew it, how long do you think that person would be employed?” … Scott, of the NCSE, insisted that Smithsonian scientists had no choice but to explore Sternberg’s religious beliefs. “They don’t care if you are religious, but they do care a lot if you are a creationist,” Scott said. “Sternberg denies it, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it argues for zealotry.”

(Michael Powell, “Editor Explains Reasons for ‘Intelligent Design’ Article,” Washington Post, August 19, 2005, emphases added)

So there you have it: Everything that Jonathan Coddington denies, Eugenie Scott essentially admits–and justifies–because she thinks it’s permissible to persecute and investigate someone if they sympathize with the “creationists.” If Michael Shermer should be skeptical of anything, it is the contradictory claims of the Smithsonian and leading Darwinists like Eugenie Scott which expose the attempts to cover-up the unfair treatment of Dr. Sternberg.

Thus, we see Shermer’s method of dismissing the discrimination of Darwin-skeptics is as follows:

  • (1) Ignore all the facts showing there was persecution;
  • (2) E-mail the persecutor and ask them if there was any anti-ID discrimination;
  • (3) Withhold all skepticism from the statements of the persecutors, and then trumpet their response as evidence that there is no persecution against ID proponents, blaming the victim for losing their job and then claiming those who feel there is persecution are just promoting a “conspiracy.”

Exploding Shermer’s Cambrian Argument
While attacking Stephen Meyer’s article in Proceedings for the Biological Society of Washington, Shermer briefly discusses the Cambrian Explosion, a major topic in Meyer’s paper. Shermer states that the explosion is just an illusion because “according to paleontologist Donald Prothero, in his 2007 magisterial book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters (Columbia University Press): ‘The major groups of invertebrate fossils do not all appear suddenly at the base of the Cambrian but are spaced out over strata spanning 80 million years–hardly an instantaneous ‘explosion’! Some groups appear tens of millions of years earlier than others. And preceding the Cambrian explosion was a long slow buildup to the first appearance of typical Cambrian shelled invertebrates.'” Is that correct? Prothero’s book is hard to take seriously because, as we shall see, it reads more like a polemic than a serious academic treatment. Consider these statements from Prothero’s book:

  • “[T]he creationist political pressure, propaganda, and lies are not restricted to public schools. In many smaller colleges … the professors are just as intimidated by creationist bullies who are eager to disrupt class.” (Prothero, pg. 354; Note that Prothero provides zero documentation here of this anecdotal evidence.)
  • “If the fundamentalists continue to expand their political power, are we in for another Inquisition, with the religious fanatics suppressing and destroying books and evidence, and harassing anyone who doesn’t agree with them?” (Prothero, pg. 355)
  • “Many scientists and authors have written how uplifting and liberating the scientific worldview can be for humankind, especially in comparison to the vengeful God of the Old Testament.” (Prothero, pg. 358)

Prothero’s book is one with an agenda that clearly falls short of a calm, collected, objective scientific analysis. Incidentally, directly following the last quote from Prothero, he goes on to praise none other than Michael Shermer–the unreligious skeptic–for purportedly showing how religious people can accept evolution. You know, the same Shermer who wrote that, “[t]here is no God, intelligent designer, or anything resembling the divinity as proffered by the world’s religions.”

Regardless, if we want to understand the Cambrian explosion, we have to turn to serious scientific treatments, not Prothero’s polemic. So what do textbooks say? A 2001 invertebrate zoology textbook (that is a serious science textbook) states:

Most of the animal phyla that are represented in the fossil record first appear, “fully formed,” in the Cambrian some 550 million years ago…The fossil record is therefore of no help with respect to the origin and early diversification of the various animal phyla.

(R.S.K. Barnes, P. Calow & P.J.W. Olive, The Invertebrates: A New Synthesis, pages 9–10 (3rd ed., Blackwell Sci. Publications, 2001).)

In fact, Richard Dawkins conceded in 1986 regarding the Cambrian fauna that, “It is as though they were just planted there, without any evolutionary history.” (The Blind Watchmaker, 1986, pg. 229-230.) In another very serious treatment of the subject, John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry, leaders in evolutionary biology, wrote in 1995 that the “Cambrian explosion remains a puzzle” for Darwinian theorists despite the discovery of a some Pre-Cambrian fossils:

Some 540 million years ago, at the beginning of the Cambrian, there appeared an array of multicellular marine animals, including the major phyla that exist today–coelenterates, platyhelminths, annelids, arthropods, molluscs, echinoderms and others. Chordates are also present in the Cambrian: they are not known from the earliest deposits, in which only hard parts are preserved, but are present in the slightly later Burgess Shale, in which soft-bodied forms are preserved. Forty years ago, this sudden appearance of metazoan fossils was not only a puzzle but something of an embarrassment: the absence of any known fossils from earlier rocks was a weapon widely used by creationists. Today, the fossil evidence for prokaryotes goes back 3000 million years, and for protists some 1000 million years. The Cambrian explosion remains a puzzle, however, which has been only fitfully illuminated by the discovery of the enigmatic soft-bodied Ediacaran fauna, which had a worldwide distribution between 580 and 560 million years ago. There are still doubts about how these fossils should be interpreted (Simon Conway Morris, 1993).

(John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry, The Major Transitions in Evolution, page 203 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995).)

It seems that Prothero has glossed over the real problems with evolutionary explanations of the Cambrian fauna in a book that hardly looks like a serious treatment of this subject. In the end, Shermer needs to apply some of his famous skepticism to his own sources. Moreover, Meyer’s peer-reviewer-approved argument still carries great weight. As Meyer explains, the explosion of new biological information in the Cambrian period is best explained by an intelligent cause:

Analysis of the problem of the origin of biological information, therefore, exposes a deficiency in the causal powers of natural selection that corresponds precisely to powers that agents are uniquely known to possess. Intelligent agents have foresight. Such agents can select functional goals before they exist. They can devise or select material means to accomplish those ends from among an array of possibilities and then actualize those goals in accord with a preconceived design plan or set of functional requirements. Rational agents can constrain combinatorial space with distant outcomes in mind. The causal powers that natural selection lacks–almost by definition–are associated with the attributes of consciousness and rationality–with purposive intelligence. Thus, by invoking design to explain the origin of new biological information, contemporary design theorists are not positing an arbitrary explanatory element unmotivated by a consideration of the evidence. Instead, they are positing an entity possessing precisely the attributes and causal powers that the phenomenon in question requires as a condition of its production and explanation.

(Stephen C. Meyer, “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 117(2):213-239 (2004).)

In the final installment, I will assess Shermer’s lack of skepticism concerning the claims of Eugenie Scott regarding the discrimination against pro-ID astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



ExpelledMichael ShermerRichard Sternberg