Daily Archives: November 11, 2005

Evolution, academic freedom, etc.

As most of you have probably heard, Dover, PA (site of the latter-day Scopes Monkey Trial) sent its pro-Intelligent Design school board packing in one fell swoop, replacing them with pro-evolution candidates. Meanwhile, the Kansas Board of Education has ruled in favor of teaching ID and has actually decided to rewrite the definition of science so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena. There are times when Middle America strives mightily to live down to the worst stereotypes bandied about by the liberal elites.

My column on the subject runs in The Boston Globe on Monday, but in the meantime, some of my earlier blogposts on the subject can be found here, here, and here.

In other news, Pat Robertson makes a monkey out of himself.

Meanwhile, Glenn Reynolds comments on an NPR story about the travails of Richard Sternberg, a staff scientist at the National Institutes of Health and editor of a small scientific journal loosely affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, who has found himself under fire for publishing a pro-ID article by Discovery Institute fellow Stephen C. Meyer (who has a Ph. D. in the history and philosophy of science). Sternberg, who has all the bona fides of a biologist, has repeatedly denied being an ID supporter. He also claims that he was subjected to all manner of persecution for publishing the piece, including false allegations of misconduct, denial of office space and access to specimens, and pressure on the NIH to fire him. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel apparently found these claims to be substaniated, though the Smithsonian’s Jonathan Coddington has denied them.

Glenn Reynolds says he is “deeply unimpressed” by ID, but appalled by the “scientific McCarthyism” deployed against Sternberg. Richard Bennett takes Glenn to task for giving credence to a phony claim of persecution:

I don’t know what motivates Reynolds to make martyrs out of the enemies of science, but it’s a completely unsavory enterprise, and the NPR story is silly.

I have read Richard’s earlier posts on the story and some of the linked materials, and so far, I’m not sure what to make of it. I agree that promoting pseudoscience is not the same as intellectual dissent. However, it seems to me that Richard’s acceptance of the Smithsonian’s denials is a bit too uncritical. Richard also claims that the Meyer article was not “properly peer-reviewed” (the office of Special Counsel has apparently found otherwise) and that Sternberg is associated with Young-Earth Creationism. This last bit, which certainly raised my eyebrows, is interesting. It seems that Sternberg is indeed an editorial board member of the Baraminology Study Group, a “Young-Earth creationist” organization. The BSG says that while Sternberg spoke at its 2001 conference and agreed to serve on its board, he has made it clear to the group that he is not a Young Earth creationist or any kind of creationist at all, and that Sternberg’s role is to provide a skeptical vetting of BSG materials.

As far as I can tell, Sternberg is a scientist who does not share creationist or pro-“Intelligent Design” views but believes in a dialogue with the “other side.” Personally, I think such a position is ill-judged; it promotes the appearance of a serious scientific debate or disagreement where there is none. I think it was rather infelicitous that Sternberg gave the ID’ers the gift of a peer-reviewed article in a “real” (if obscure) scientific journal as a notch in their belt. But still, is Sternberg’s unwise decision appropriate grounds for professional persecution? It should be noted that Wesley Ellsbery, of the pro-evolution website The Panda’s Thumb, has written that if Sternberg’s claims of retaliation (as recounted by David Klinghoffer in a Wall Street Journal op-ed) are correct, “it would be a large breach of ethics and a justified complaint.” So I think Glenn has a good point here. Let’s get all the facts on the table.

Update: Richard Bennett replies, conceding that he may have been too tough on Sternberg, but also notes that by his own admission Sternberg appointed himself to be the editor of the Meyer paper:

The fact that Sternberg appointed himself to edit Meyer’s paper raised some eyebrows and suggested an absence of impartiality. The peer-review process has been reviewed, and apparently wasn’t obviously flawed, but it would be interesting to know who the reviewers were even if it’s unconventional. If Judy Miller can testify about Libby with his consent, the peer-reviewers can go public on their own.

It’s possible that the reaction to Sternberg’s publication of Meyer’s paper was out of proportion, just as it’s possible that Sternberg’s description of the reaction is extreme, but the paper itself is so thin that its very publication in the Proceedings calls the editorial process into question.

Agreed. It would be helpful to hear from the peer-reviewers in this case.

Update: Richard Bennett links to a statement by the Biological Society of Washington, the publisher of the journal in which the Meyer paper appeared. The statement says that “contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor,” solely at Sternberg’s discretion. Richard believes this proves “Sternberg’s abuse of the review process.” Actually, this is more an issue of the editorial process at the journal; we still don’t know the story behind the peer review. Did Sternberg stack the deck by cherry-picking pro-ID reviewers who’d be likely to green-light the paper? I, for one, certainly want to know more.

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L’affaire Deignan: Free speech, academic politics, and the blogs

Inside Higher Ed covers a spat in the blogosphere that touches on some interesting issues of free speech and academic politics.

Paul Deignan, a graduate student in mathematics and mechanical engineering at Purdue who blogs at Info Theory, has run into some trouble with Bitch Ph.D. after challenging her in the comments thread on this post about the Samuel Alito nomination. Deignan is a conservative with strongly held “pro-life” views; Bitch Ph.D. is a leftist feminist academic. After some rather heated debate, Bitch Ph.D. banned Deignan from commenting on her site, but matters didn’t end there. Another poster, University of Northern Iowa history professor Wallace Hettle, took it upon himself to email Deignan’s dissertation advisors informing them that Deignan had been “‘trolling’ a feminist academic web site with disruptive and abusive comments” and hinting that it reflected badly on them, since he was linking to a homepage that listed them as his academic advisors. Deignan was apparently called in and advised to “refrain” until he’s graduated.

Deignan is now threatening to sue both Hettle and “Bitch Ph.D.” (partly because she has accused him of IP-spoofing to get around her ban) and to “out” the real-world identity of the latter.

Other blogs tackle this brouhaha here, here, and here (and in many other places).

What to make of this? Deignan’s numerous posts on his own site don’t exactly paint him in a positive light. He comes ascross as rather grandiose, egomaniacal, and prone to blustering; if he is, as he claims, concerned about his reputation and repercussions to his career, then he has certainly done more damage to himself than Bitch Ph.D. and Hettle have. He may well be an attention-seeker and, to be blunt, a jerk. His lawsuit threat against Bitch Ph.D. seems pretty ridiculous, and his stated intent to “out” her doesn’t earn him much sympathy, either (though I wonder if the people who are righteously outraged were equally appalled by Brian Leiter’s threat to “out” Non-Juan Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy a few months ago).

That said, a few other observations are in order.

Hettle’s behavior — tattling on Deignan to his academic superiors for exercising his freedom of speech in a manner Hettle didn’t like — is appalling, and smacks of just the kind of politically correct thought police that many conservatives believe is rampant in the “liberal” academy. Hettle later asserted that he took this action only after Deignan had sent him “threatening” email. However, a look at the chronology, compiled by Hans Gruber at Advocatus Diaboli, shows that Hettle’s initial claim to have reported Deignan to his advisors came before Deignan’s two emails to Hettle and, in fact, prompted those emails (which were perhaps somewhat obnoxious but hardly “threatening”). There is some question as to whether Hettle had actually emailed Deignan’s advisors when he first bragged about it. Either way, though, Hettle at least threatened to report Deignan to the proper authorities — clearly with the intent of causing him trouble — for nothing more than his comments in the thread at Bitch Ph.D.

It should be noted that “Bitch” and Hettle both claim that Deignan’s worst and more trollish comments were deleted from the thread at the time of his banning. Unfortunately, neither of them has given any hint as to what was in those deleted comments. (A pdf of the comments thread is posted at Heignan’s site, but it seems, at least at first glance, substantially identical to the one at Bitch Ph.D.)

Here is the post on the basis of which Bitch Ph.D. herself says, in the thread, that she is banning Deignan (the references to deleted comments didn’t crop up until later, during the brouhaha over Hettle’s running to tattle to Deignan’s advisors):

Actually, I am a researcher.

The question of the day, “Can pro-choice activists be drawn out into a rational discussion of the Alito nomination and issues even more to the core?”

The answer goes to determining character and capacity. I have marked the question as answered. Unfortunately, it looks like I will need to wait longer for my bet to come to fruition (fementation?–The $100 was in grape juice).

P.S. “Smart” people don’t worry about being called smart or proving smartness. We just think and ask questions with a point. And then we observe and think some more.

If we ask the right questions, then the results speak for themselves. In any case, the fun of it is in the chase.

Yes, I suppose you could argue that this is a flame dressed up in polite language, since Deignan is impugning the pro-choice activists’ character and their capacity to argue rationally about the Alito nomination. But the fact is that before this post, Bitch Ph.D. herself had not only permitted but engaged in overt flaming toward Deignan (whose worst “sin” until then had been to accuse her of “linking talking points w/o analysis” and making “exaggerated and misconstrued” points about Alito’s record). Here, for instance, is an earlier exchange between Hettle and “Bitch”:

Paul Deignan is a prolife troll.

It is abortion related threads that attract trolls, and in my experience the trolls always seem to be men. Wonder why that is?


No, Paul Deignan is an arrogant sexist who is determined to show how much smarter he is than the lady professor.

Which pretty much explains why trolls of that sort are always men.

And an earlier exchange between Deignan and other posters at the blog:

Oh Paul, if it weren’t for such smart and thoughtful trolls like you, how could we ever get across all these bridges to your brave new world?

It must be nice having one of those all expenses paid, live in a hotel at your think tank internships to keep you from the horrors of graduate school or the risk of having a woman boss in the corporate world. (and we all known how those corporate women bosses are …)

I’m a PhD candidate at Purdue.

You could find that out easily with a tiny bit of research (two clicks).

Pathetic.

Paul,
got any slaves?
or is your state not allowed to protect the “right” to own slaves?

I’m sure Paul is very familiar with two clicks … two clicks of his heels. Sig Heil!

This is about as blatant a display of “liberal” intolerance as I’ve ever seen. And it’s followed by a vindictive attempt to use outright intimidation to silence and punish Deignan for having the temerity to express anti-abortion views at a feminist website. To their credit, many posters at various sites who identify themselves as left-of-center have been quite willing to acknowledge that. It’s too bad that some liberal professors have chosen to defend Hettle’s exercise in left-wing “academic McCarthyism,” as Richard Bennett properly calls it.

Bennett makes another good point:

Feminists who support Bitch Ph. D. and her stances on women’s rights should support Deignan, because Hettle’s actions indicate a deeply patriarchal attitude. There was no reason for him to get involved in the spat between Bitch and Deignan; she was handling things in her own way and she’s fully capable of managing her blog. Taking the dispute into Real Life crosses a line, even when it’s your own dispute. When it’s somebody else’s, it’s completely absurd.

Scratch a “male feminist,”* and a lot of the time you’ll find a paternalist who wants to play knight in shining armor.

* Footnote: I here use the word “feminist” not in the sense of someone who believes in the fundamental equality of men and women, but of someone who believes that women in our society are an oppressed class.

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