Posted by Nick Matzke on August 19, 2005 01:22 PM

Update: The OSC letter is going up on IDist websites, so we presume it is legit to post it here. Right-click, Save As for the PDF.

Late today, a reporter called NCSE and, asking for comment, told us that the U.S. Office of Special Counsel had dropped Richard von Sternberg’s religious discrimination complaint against the Smithsonian Institution. The short version is that Sternberg, as an unpaid research associate at the Smithsonian, is not actually an employee, and thus the OSC has no jurisdiction. This was not particularly surprising, considering that PT contributer Reed Cartwright noted way back on February 2 that exactly this might happen.

Legally, this appears to be the end of things. However, as the Panda’s Thumb has documented over the past year (Meyer 2004 Medley, google search), the Meyer/Sternberg/Smithsonian affair has been a piece of politics from the beginning. The OSC’s opinion guarantees it will be politics to the end.

In essence, the OSC opinion, authored by Bush appointee James McVey, seems designed to give the religious right another talking point about how any criticism of ID or the ID movement’s actions amounts to religious discrimination by the evil secular scientific establishment, even though ID is allegedly science, not religion. Somehow, it manages to do this (1) while telling Sternberg that OSC doesn’t have jurisdiction, (2) without any contrasting opinion from the accused parties, and (3) without documenting any actual injury to Sternberg, who still has his unpaid research position, an office, keys, and access to the collections. The opinion is therefore a pretty strange document to read. (We will see if we can post it on the web; it contains internal Smithsonian emails, which may make it confidential.)

There are a number of other details worth discussing, so I am sure there will be more post-mortem of the Meyer/Sternberg affair here on PT. There is already a pretty obvious campaign by the religious-right echo chamber to spin Sternberg’s loss – see Klinghoeffer’s latest screed at the National Review, and this not-exactly-fair-and-balanced news piece from the Washington Times.

However, one particularly entertaining part of the opinion occurs when NCSE’s advice to Smithsonian staff is discussed. Among the Smithsonian staff, there was evidently a fair bit of outraged email discussion of Sternberg’s actions – Sternberg had, after all, just involved the PBSW and the Smithsonian in an internationally-noticed scientific scandal, and had guaranteed that the PBSW and Smithsonian would now have their good names put on Discovery Institute bibliographies and talking points for the foreseeable future. In NCSE’s limited contact with individuals at the Smithsonian, we gave our usual advice (also found in the PT critique of Meyer’s paper), namely: don’t overreact, and instead focus on criticizing the scientific problems with Meyer’s article and Sternberg’s editorial decisions. In the OSC complaint, this gets portrayed as some kind of scandal. Keeping in mind that these sentences seem to involve the dubious procedure of the OSC somehow reading the minds of a group of people, I quote the OSC opinion:

Eventually, they [the Smithsonian higher-ups] determined that they could not terminate you [Sternberg] for cause and they were not going to make you a “martyr” by firing you for publishing a paper on ID. They came to the conclusion that you had not violated SI directives and that you could not be denied access for off-duty conduct. This was actually a part of the strategy advocated by the NCSE. (OSC opinion, p. 5)

How devious of NCSE, recommending that Sternberg not be fired from his unpaid position! Even more devious, the Smithsonian appears to have taken this advice! Will the crimes of NCSE never cease?

We’re still awaiting the thank you letters from Sternberg and the Office of Special Counsel. I’ll let you know when we get them.