Saturday, August 20, 2005

Intelligent Design and the Smithsonian

The New York Times

Intelligent Design and the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Institution can't seem to disentangle itself from the clutches of the anti-evolution crowd. Earlier this year, the Smithsonian's natural history museum discovered to its dismay that it had agreed to be the host and co-sponsor of a movie intended to undercut the theory of evolution and make the case for "intelligent design," the idea that an intelligent agent had a hand in designing the universe. Only after intelligent-design proponents started chortling on the Internet about their stunning coup in co-opting the Smithsonian did museum officials reverse course and withdraw their sponsorship, while allowing the film to be shown.

Now comes word that a little-known government office has accused the Smithsonian of retaliating against a scientist who slipped an article promoting intelligent design into an obscure journal that has only very loose connections to the Smithsonian. That judgment, by the United States Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency set up to protect whistle-blowers, is the latest twist in a case that started with the publication of the article last year in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington.

The article contended that evolution theory could not account for the great proliferation of life forms during the so-called Cambrian explosion some 530 million years ago, and that an intelligent agent was the best explanation. It set off an uproar among evolutionary biologists and was later disowned by the professional society that published it.

The editor who authorized publication, Richard Sternberg, filed a complaint contending that he had suffered reprisals. In an 11-page letter not yet officially released, the Office of Special Counsel said it had found support for his complaint but was dropping the investigation because he was not an employee of the Smithsonian, just a research associate.

E-mail notes show that several scientists and managers at the Smithsonian were extremely embarrassed and eager to push Mr. Sternberg out of his research niche, and that some dug around for material to discredit him. That may lead critics of evolution to see Mr. Sternberg as a martyr.

But those who see no place for intelligent design in the realm of science - and that includes us - will ruefully give him credit for maneuvering a brief for intelligent design into a peer-reviewed scientific journal, although how rigorous that review was remains a point of contention.