Those words are not too strong for what was done to biologist Richard Sternberg, whose "crime" was merely to open up the debate on evolution to a proponent of Intelligent Design.
If anyone doubts that there is a totalitarian streak in some quarters of the scientific establishment, read this astonishing and appalling article in The Boston Globe. Let's say it again: science has ceased to be science when it turns theory into dogma and challenge into heresy. I can't help but think it betrays a deep insecurity, a fear that the very theory that is trumpeted as "fact" cannot withstand challenge -- a profound contradiction in terms.
As editor of the hitherto obscure Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, [evolutionary biologist] Sternberg decided to publish a paper making the case for ''intelligent design," a controversial theory that holds that the machinery of life is so complex as to require the hand -- subtle or not -- of an intelligent creator.
Within hours of publication, senior scientists at the Smithsonian Institution -- which has helped fund and run the journal -- lashed out at Sternberg as a shoddy scientist and a closet Bible thumper.
''They were saying I accepted money under the table, that I was a crypto-priest, that I was a sleeper cell operative for the creationists," said Sternberg, 42, a Smithsonian research associate. ''I was basically run out of there."
An independent agency has come to the same conclusion, accusing top scientists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History of retaliating against Sternberg by investigating his religion and smearing him as a ''creationist."
The US Office of Special Counsel, which was established to protect federal employees from reprisals, examined e-mail traffic from these scientists, and noted that ''retaliation came in many forms. . . . Misinformation was disseminated through the Smithsonian Institution and to outside sources. The allegations against you were later determined to be false."
''The rumor mill became so infected," James McVay, the principal legal adviser in the Office of Special Counsel, wrote to Sternberg, ''that one of your colleagues had to circulate [your resume] simply to dispel the rumor that you were not a scientist."
The Washington Post and two other media outlets obtained a copy of the report. . . .
A spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution declined to comment, noting that it has not received McVay's report.
''We do stand by evolution -- we are a scientific organization," said Linda St. Thomas, the spokeswoman. An official privately suggested that McVay[, who is a political appointee of the Bush administration,] might want to embarrass the institution. . . .
Sternberg's case has sent ripples across the country. The special counsel accused the National Center for Science Education, or NCSE -- a think tank based in Oakland, Calif., that defends the teaching of evolution -- of orchestrating attacks on Sternberg.
''The NCSE worked closely with" the Smithsonian ''in outlining a strategy to have you investigated and discredited," McVay wrote to Sternberg.
NCSE officials accused McVay of playing out a political agenda. ''I must say that Mr. McVay flatters us beyond our desserts -- the Smithsonian is a distinguished organization of highly competent scientists, and they're not marionettes," said 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?"
Sternberg has seen stress piled upon stress in the past year. His marriage has dissolved, and he no longer comes into the Smithsonian. When the biological society issued a statement disavowing the intelligent-design article by Stephen C. Meyer, a philosopher educated at Cambridge University, Sternberg was advised not to attend. ''I was told that feelings were running so high, they could not guarantee me that they could keep order," Sternberg said.
The scientific establishment doesn't have the power to physically burn heretics at the stake, but to the extent that it can, it is acting here like the Church of the Inquisition -- the enforcer of Truth-That-Must-Not-Be-Questioned -- ruining careers and imposing sentences of ostracism and sanctioned harassment. (The Smithsonian Institution is now refusing to cooperate with the Office of Special Counsel's investigation, citing jurisdictional grounds -- Sternberg was not officially an employee if the SI and therefore is not covered by the OSC's mandate.) This reminds me of a much smaller instance of censorship on the Left: NARAL erasing Michael Reynolds' constructive criticism, and any reference to it, from its website's Comments. In an open society committed to freedom of speech and thought, this kind of behavior swiftly and utterly discredits any institution that practices it.
UPDATE: Here's Richard Sternberg in his own words, describing the perfectly normal peer-review process that led to the acceptance of Stephen Meyer's article. Here's his homepage, updated just yesterday with the full text of the Office of Special Counsel's findings. Read this letter, which documents the completely false allegations of editorial and scientific misconduct that were leveled at Sternberg -- and never retracted -- and the attempts to find or invent a pretext for throwing him out of the Smithsonian. Sternberg concludes:
I'm a scientist, not a politician. I have a PhD in evolutionary biology and another PhD in theoretical biology, and have published more than 30 papers in peer-reviewed scientific publications (my vita is available on request). I have always followed the principle that scientists should be open to pursue all scientific questions and not be shackled by convention and authority. The reaction to the paper by some extremists suggests that the thought police are alive and well in the scientific community. [Emphasis added]
Sternberg is the one I identified in the comments to this post as possibly "that 'objective scientist' I was looking for." I think I may have just found the recipient of the Second AmbivaBlog Award. (Stay tuned -- it takes some research to do that right.)