The case of Richard Sternberg, the editor who allowed an article friendly to intelligent design to be published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. After the publication, he reported harassment at the Smithsonian, where he is a research associate, and an investigation was launched by the Office of Special Counsel.
Its pre-closure report was published in August last year and found in favor of Sternberg, although questions of jurisdiction prevented it from pursuing the matter. Now, the House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform have published their report (PDF), and that too finds in favor of Sternberg. Even more interesting than the report, though, is its appendix (PDF), containing the internal emails exchanged by Smithsonian employees regarding Sternberg. These emails revealed a work environment of vicious rumors about Sternberg, inquiries into his political and religious beliefs, attempts to have him fired, and hysterical fears about the "fundies" invading academia.
Deciding that a strong offense is the best defense, many ID critics have tried to counter the report by attacking Sternberg for having borrowed too many books from the library and accusing him of having mishandled specimens. Ed Brayton, a member of the anti-ID blog The Panda's Thumb, has written a post, claiming that nothing really happened to Sternberg and that whatever did happen was his own fault. Along the way, he also exhonorates his friends at NCSE from any wrongdoing, despite clear-cut evidence implicating them in the spreading of false rumors about Sternberg.
In his response, Brayton accuses Sternberg of exaggerating the harm done to him.
Sternberg has grossly exaggerated several alleged instances of "retaliation" in the early days of the scandal. In particular, he claimed that he had his keys taken away, his access to the Smithsonian's collections taken away, and lost his office space. In reality, the keys and office space were exchanged as part of larger museum changes and he retains the same access today that all others in his position have.
This struck a cord in me, as the appendix does show that a move was planned and announced to Sternberg before the Meyer article became an issue. So I contacted Sternberg, asking him to comment this. He replied:
The statement on my website concerning having to move from one space to another "for no good reason" is not related to the move referred to in Coddington's 28 July 2004 e-mail. I was asked to relocate from an office on the 1st floor of NMNH's west wing to Brian Kensley's former office on the same floor, and I gladly complied with it. So there is no dispute with Brayton or anyone else about the lack of connection between Coddington's e-mail re: the office move and what transpired after 4 August 2004. Instead, my website statement is referring to events that occurred after the move. Within days of relocating Marilyn Schotte informed me that Rafael Lemaitre was pushing the "space committee" to take the office away from me. She strongly suggested that I place most or all of the specimens that I had in the office back into the collections area, as Lemaitre was going to use that against me. That I did. Soon after that–meaning some days–Schotte told me that I could not keep the office, my name was also removed from the door, and to discuss my accomodations with Coddington. I was also informed that I should stay away from the Crustacea Division. I had one face-to-face meeting with Coddington on 13 October 2004. He outlined my options. At best, so Coddington told me, I could have a desk in the short-term visitor's area though my keys were to be turned over. Rafael Lemaitre was to have complete control over my research at all times. In addition, Coddington stated that should I accept a desk in the short-term visitor's area, anything that went wrong–say someone lost a manuscript draft or something went missing–would be blamed on me. Anyway, I had no use of the "Kensley" office space after late September. I was referring to the latter events on my website.
Now, I find Sternberg's account reasonable, but then again, I'm biased. But even assuming that he exaggerated this, that would not mean that all of his complaints are false. In fact, the appendix contains evidence supporting several of them.
For example, Sternberg reported that his perceived political and religous beliefs were investigated, a fact supported by the emails released in the report. One of the employees of the Smithsonian, Marilyn Schotte, reported conversations with Jonathan Coddington, one of Sternberg's superiors (page 27 in the appendix), in which Coddington asked her about Sternberg's religion and (possibly) his political views.
Sternberg also said that false rumors were being spread about him by both insiders and outsiders of the Smithsonian. This too has been validated by the report. In the above-mentioned conversation with Marilyn Schotte, Jonathan Coddington told her that Sternberg had a degree in theology. This was false: Sternberg's two PhDs are in Molecular Evolution and Theoretical Biology. In an email from Frank Ferrari (page 20), a previous incident between him and Sternberg is used to sow doubt about whether the Meyer article was even peer-reviewed. This too was false: Roy McDiarmid looked at the review file which revealed that, indeed, the article had been peer-reviewed, and that "there was not inappropriate behavior vis a vis the review process" (page 72). Misinformation was also being spread by people outside the Smithsonian: In an email to associate director Hans Sues, Eugenie Scott, director of the lobby group NCSE, claimed that Sternberg "is, in fact, a YEC [young-earth creationist]." This was also false, as the NCSE has later acknowledged.
But Brayton does not mention any these facts to his readers. First of all, they would ruin the message of his post, which is that Sternberg's complaints are completely unreliable. Second of all, the fact that Sternberg's colleagues were spreading false rumors about him will make it harder for Brayton to rely on their credibility when repeating their accusations of misconduct against Sternberg. Brayton even uses Ferrari's doubts about whether the article was peer-reviewed as an example of Sternberg's misconduct, completely omitting McDiarmid's finding that the article had been reviewed.
Regarding this alleged misconduct, Brayton repeats the accusations that Sternberg has mishandled specimens and that he had borrowed too many books from the library that could not be found in his office. As I said, we do not know how reliable these accusations are. In fact, Jonathan Coddington, who was much closer to all of this than either Brayton or I, acknowledged that Sternberg "hasn't (yet) been discovered to have done anything wrong, particularly compared to his peers" (page 42), and that he "has not mishandled specimens, which otherwise would be grounds to monitor him more closely" (page 54).
Brayton tries trivializing the hostile work environment at the Smithsonian, describing it as if Sternberg's colleagues were merely expressing their disagreement:
The evidence does not support the conclusion that Sternberg was discriminated against in any material way. At absolute worst, he was greeted with professional mistrust and anger on the part of some of his colleagues, who were upset that his actions in regard to the Meyer paper brought disrepute to the Smithsonian and to them as associates. Disapproval and criticism, of course, are not the same thing as discrimination nor are they a violation of his civil rights.
But Sternberg was met with more than disapproval and criticism. As I showed above, several false rumors were being spread about him, contributing to a hostile work environment. From an article on the harmful effects of workplace gossip:
Lies, rumors, and office gossip have always been an entrenched part of the workscape. … While there's no way to measure how common or destructive office gossip is, it's clear that it can wreak havoc in an organization, says Jane Weizmann, a senior consultant at Watson Wyatt Worldwide. … When left to fester, gossip can not only cause deep personal pain but also lead to turnover, conflict, and lawsuits.
As a victim of such false office rumors put it:
Being the brunt of malicious gossip "affects your ability to land meaningful work and get a promotion," she says. While there's no way to completely escape cruel rumors in the workplace, "at least some companies nurture a functional and productive culture," she notes. "There's nothing worse than feeling like you're living and working in a snake pit."
The many rumors about Sternberg's religious and political views certainly did contribute to the Smithsonian turning into an anti-theist snake pit. One employee bragged about how she had used her son to inflame her local school by making him refuse to "say the Pledge of Allegiance because of the 'under dog' part" (page 29). And another employee went even further, writing: "Scientists have been perfectly willing to let these people alone in their churches. But now it looks like these people are coming out and invading our schools, biology classes, museums, and now our professional journals" (page 66).
Finally, Brayton sweeps the accusation against the NCSE of having spread misinformation about Sternberg off the table, claiming that they "are not only not supported by the evidence in the appendix, they are completely disproven by the emails contained therein." As shown above, this is wrong, as Eugenie Scott told one of Sternberg's superiors that he was a young-earth creationist, a claim NCSE now recognizes to be in error. While the false rumor spread by the NCSE was probably the product of ignorance rather than malice, Brayton's brazen dismissal of any wrongdoing on NCSE's part is clearly untenable.
In conclusion, in Brayton's attack on Sternberg, he ignores relevant evidence from the report, repeats false accusations contradicted by the evidence, and downplays the real harm experienced by Sternberg in the form of a hostile work environment.