Michael Shermer’s Fact-Free Attack on ‘Expelled’ Exposes Intolerance of Darwinists towards Pro-Intelligent Design Scientists

­[Note: This article is a modified version of what was originally published on Evolution News and Views as a 3-part series, linked as follows: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.]

Scientific American has a long history of opposing intelligent design (ID), so it comes as no surprise that they have tasked their columnist Michael Shermer with the job of attacking Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Michael Shermer is the founder of Skeptic Magazine, who loves to boast about how evolution liberated him from belief in God. In fact, he does just that in his article attacking Expelled, opening it by saying: “In 1974 I matriculated at Pepperdine University as a born-again Christian who rejected Darwinism and evolutionary theory,” but when he “finally took a course in evolutionary theory in graduate school I realized that I had been hoodwinked.” In his book, Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, Shermer tries to convince the reader that he believes that evolution and religion are compatible, but ultimately concedes that, “were we to take a strictly scientific approach to the God question, we would have to reject the God hypothesis.”[1] It’s tough to take Shermer’s calls for peace between religion and Darwin seriously when he has elsewhere declared his view that “[t]here is no God, intelligent designer, or anything resembling the divinity as proffered by the world’s religions.”[2]

Shermer is interviewed in the documentary Expelled, and he basically denies that there is any persecution of ID proponents. Since the film provides extensive documentation of the discrimination faced by ID proponents in the academy, Expelled disproves Shermer’s one-sided skepticism. Thus, Shermer doesn’t like the film.

Shermer’s day job is literally being a professional skeptic. He makes a living telling people that they should be skeptical of religion. But Shermer virtually never applies his skepticism to modern Darwinian theory. This film shows that sometimes his skepticism against ID goes too far. Shermer certainly has a huge stake in the debate over this film — in fact, it seems that his entire worldview, livelihood, and de-conversion experience depend heavily upon the veracity of Darwinian evolution. It therefore comes as no surprise that in his review of Expelled, he paints evolutionists as the saints, and Darwinism as a pure and unadulterated religion.

Shermer’s General Approach to Handling Persecution of ID Proponents: One-Sided Skepticism, Denial, and Blaming the Victim

Having seen Expelled, Shermer now knows that his denial that ID proponents get persecuted serves as a foil for the impressive documentation of such persecution presented throughout the film. His response is not to amend his answer in light of the facts presented in the movie, but rather to issue even more forceful denials that there is any persecution of ID proponents taking place. Shermer’s method of dealing with these persecution instances is as follows:

  1. Ignore all the facts showing there was persecution;
  2. E-mail the persecutor and ask them if there was any anti-ID discrimination;
  3. Withhold all skepticism from the statements of the persecutors, and then trumpet their response as evidence that there is no persecution against ID proponents, blaming the victim for losing their job and then claiming those who feel there is persecution are just promoting a “conspiracy.”

Shermer’s record of consistently taking the side of the persecutors shows that he is part of the problem and is in no way an objective source to analyze this subject. For example, Shermer implies that Richard Sternberg’s credibility is diminished because he’s a fellow of the International Society for Complexity Information, and Design or because he “is a signatory of the Discovery Institute’s ‘100 Scientists who Doubt Darwinism’ statement.” (By the way, it’s over 700 scientists now, Dr. Shermer.) This shows that Shermer himself could be a potential persecutor of Darwin skeptics, for he isn’t interested in giving Darwin-skeptics equal treatment.

If only Shermer would turn some of his skepticism against the perpetrators instead of waging all of his skepticism against the victims. This is typical behavior of persecutors: Deny and blame the victim, telling them they are conspiracy theorists. This unwillingness to believe the facts fits perfectly with Shermer’s modus operandi: unyielding and eternal skepticism—unless it supports Darwinism.

Shermer Blames-the-Victim Case #1: Richard Sternberg

The conversation with Michael Shermer in the Expelled film revolves around the publication of Stephen C. Meyer’s pro-ID peer-reviewed scientific paper in the journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. The editor who oversaw the publication of that article was Dr. Richard Sternberg, who, according to investigations by both the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and also by subcommittee staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, subsequently was harassed, intimidated, and demoted because he broke ranks with the unwritten (or sometimes written) rule among Darwinists that you must keep ID out of science journals.

Here’s the truth of the matter: Before Meyer’s paper was published, the pro-Darwin lobby had long-claimed that ID was not science because it wasn’t in peer-reviewed journals. But once ID was undeniably and explicitly supported in a peer-reviewed scientific journal article, Darwinists panicked, and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) prompted the journal’s publishing society, the Biological Society of Washington (BSW) to attack the paper. The BSW gladly obeyed the NCSE, issuing a statement that Meyer’s paper should not have been published because ID allegedly is not science. If that doesn’t sound like circular logic, consider the proof that the NCSE orchestrated the whole thing, according to the findings of an investigation by subcommittee staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform (“Report”):

Early on in the controversy, the NCSE circulated a set of “talking points” to the BSW Council and NMNH officials on how to discredit both Sternberg and the Meyer article. The OSC investigation found that the “NCSE recommendations were circulated within the SI and eventually became part of the official public response of the SI to the Meyer article.: (Report, p. 22)

To attack Meyer’s article, Shermer cites the NCSE-inspired statement from the BSW stating that, “Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process. The council, which includes officers, elected councilors and past presidents, and the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings.” Shermer should have applied some of his famous skepticism here, because that statement is in fact a falsehood: Eugenie Scott herself admitted that “other editors have not always referred all articles to the Associate Editors, and because editors justifiably have discretion,” that therefore the BSW should not “come down too hard on Dr. Sternberg for errors in the procedure followed in accepting this article.” (See Report, pages 25-26.) Shermer conveniently spares the BSW from skepticism over Eugenie Scott’s behind-closed-doors concession, which contradicts the BSW’s public statement.

Moreover, Shermer and the BSW ignore that in less-politicized statements, Dr. Roy McDiarmid, the President of the BSW and a scientist at the Smithsonian, admitted that there was no wrongdoing regarding the peer-review process of Meyer’s paper:

I have seen the review file and comments from 3 reviewers on the Meyer paper. All three with some differences among the comments recommended or suggested publication. I was surprised but concluded that there was not inappropriate behavior vs a vis [sic] the review process. (See Report, e-mail from Roy McDiarmid, “Re: Request for information,” January 28, 2005, 2:25 PM to Hans Sues, emphasis added.)

So the truth is that Meyer’s paper WAS peer-reviewed, and that Darwinists have invented the claim that it was not peer-reviewed or that there was wrongdoing regarding the publication of the article. Shermer, the famous skeptic, seems unwilling to apply his skepticism to anything the Darwinists say about this situation, blindly accepting the denials from Darwinists that any discrimination against ID took place, instead blaming the victim.

Shermer should just drop his attempts to defend the Smithsonian, but he doesn’t, calling the attacks upon Sternberg part of Ben Stein’s “case for conspiracy.” So let’s review the findings of a congressional staff investigation to see if there really was any discrimination against Dr. Sternberg (who holds two Ph.D.s in evolution), or if Shermer is right and this is all just a conspiracy inside the heads of Dr. Richard Sternberg, Ben Stein, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, and a bunch of people working at Congress. The Congressional Staff Report found the following:

  • Congressional Staff Report: “Officials at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History created a hostile work environment intended to force Dr. Sternberg to resign his position as a Research Associate in violation of his free speech and civil rights.” As NMNH officials wrote in e-mails:

    “I suppose we could call [Sternberg] on the phone and verbally ask him to do the right thing and resign?” (Dr. Jonathan Coddington)

    “a face to face meeting or at least a “you are welcome to leave or resign” call with this individual, is in order.” (Dr. Rafael Lemaitre)

    “if [Sternberg] had any class he would either entirely desist or resign his appointment.” (Dr. Jonathan Coddington)

  • Congressional Staff Report: “In emails exchanged during August and September 2004, NMNH officials revealed their intent to use their government jobs to discriminate against scientists based on their outside activities regarding evolution.” As NMNH officials wrote in e-mails:

    “Sternberg is a well-established figure in anti-evolution circles, and a simple Google search would have exposed these connections.” (Dr. Hans Sues)

    “In a memo prepared on February 8, 2005, NMNH scientist Marilyn Schotte admitted that after publication of the Meyer paper, Dr. Coddington wanted to know “if Dr. Sternberg was religious.” Dr. Schotte further admitted telling Coddington that Sternberg “was a Republican.” Schotte even conceded that Coddington may have asked her whether Sternberg “was a fundamentalist” and whether “he was a conservative.” (Description of a memo is discussed in the Report)

  • Congressional Staff Report: “NMNH officials conspired with a special interest group on government time and using government emails to publicly smear Dr. Sternberg; the group was also enlisted to monitor Sternberg’s outside activities in order to find a way to dismiss him.” As one NMNH official wrote in an e-mail:

    “From now on, I will keep an eye on Dr. (von) Sternberg, and I’d greatly appreciate it if you or other NCSE specialists could let me [know] about further activities by this gentleman in areas poutside [sic] crustacean systematics.” (Dr. Hans Sues)

    (For more details, see National Center for Science Education Asked to Spy for the Government According to Congressional Report.)

Michael Shermer apparently has unlimited skepticism when it comes to the claims of Darwin-skeptics—he’s unwilling to believe any of their statements that they have experienced persecution. But Dr. Sternberg summarized the discrimination taken against him as follows:

I was transferred from the supervision of a friendly sponsor (supervisor) at the Museum to a hostile one…I was twice forced to move specimens from my office space on short notice for no good reason, my name plate was removed from my office door, and eventually I was deprived of all official office space and forced to use a shared work area as my work location in the Museum…I was subjected to an array of new reporting requirements not imposed on other Research Associates…My access to the specimens needed for my research at the Museum was restricted. (My access to the Museum was also restricted. I was forced to give up my master key.)

Rather than admit that any of this evidence exists, Shermer happily applies infinite skepticism to the persecuted, and withholds all skepticism from the statements of the persecutors: Shermer even e-mailed Jonathan Coddington, the chief persecutor of Richard Sternberg, asking him about the situation. It comes as no surprise that Coddington personally wrote back to Shermer claiming there was nothing to see here. In Coddington’s words: “Sternberg was not discriminated against, was never dismissed, and in fact was not even a paid employee, but just an unpaid research associate who had completed his three-year term!” This is consistent with Coddington’s prior behavior, as the congressional staff investigation’s report concluded, “Given the factual record, the Smithsonian’s pro-forma denials of discrimination are unbelievable.” So are Shermer’s denials.

And how did Eugenie Scott handle this situation? Unlike Coddington, Scott didn’t deny that Sternberg was ousted when she spoke to the Washington Post, but rather she admitted that there was an ousting of Sternberg, and tried to justify it:

[S]aid 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?” … Scott, of the NCSE, insisted that Smithsonian scientists had no choice but to explore Sternberg’s religious beliefs. “They don’t care if you are religious, but they do care a lot if you are a creationist,” Scott said. “Sternberg denies it, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it argues for zealotry.”

(Michael Powell, “Editor Explains Reasons for ‘Intelligent Design’ Article,” Washington Post, August 19, 2005, emphases added)

So there you have it: Everything that Jonathan Coddington denies, Eugenie Scott essentially admits—and justifies—because she thinks it’s permissible to persecute and investigate someone if they sympathize with the “creationists.” If Michael Shermer should be skeptical of anything, it is the contradictory claims of the Smithsonian and leading Darwinists like Eugenie Scott which expose the attempts to cover-up the unfair treatment of Dr. Sternberg.

Thus, we see Shermer’s method of dismissing the discrimination of Darwin-skeptics is as follows:

  1. Ignore all the facts showing there was persecution;
  2. E-mail the persecutor and ask them if there was any anti-ID discrimination;
  3. Withhold all skepticism from the statements of the persecutors, and then trumpet their response as evidence that there is no persecution against ID proponents, blaming the victim for losing their job and then claiming those who feel there is persecution are just promoting a “conspiracy.”

Exploding Shermer’s Cambrian Argument

While attacking Stephen Meyer’s article in Proceedings for the Biological Society of Washington, Shermer briefly discusses the Cambrian Explosion, a major topic in Meyer’s paper. Shermer states that the explosion is just an illusion because “according to paleontologist Donald Prothero, in his 2007 magisterial book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters (Columbia University Press): “The major groups of invertebrate fossils do not all appear suddenly at the base of the Cambrian but are spaced out over strata spanning 80 million years — hardly an instantaneous ‘explosion’! Some groups appear tens of millions of years earlier than others. And preceding the Cambrian explosion was a long slow buildup to the first appearance of typical Cambrian shelled invertebrates.” Is that correct? Prothero’s book is hard to take seriously because, as we shall see, it reads more like a polemic than a serious academic treatment. Consider these statements from Prothero’s book:

  • “[T]he creationist political pressure, propaganda, and lies are not restricted to public schools. In many smaller colleges — the professors are just as intimidated by creationist bullies who are eager to disrupt class.” (Prothero, p. 354; Note that Prothero provides zero documentation here of this anecdotal evidence.)
  • “If the fundamentalists continue to expand their political power, are we in for another Inquisition, with the religious fanatics suppressing and destroying books and evidence, and harassing anyone who doesn’t agree with them?” (Prothero, p. 355)
  • “Many scientists and authors have written how uplifting and liberating the scientific worldview can be for humankind, especially in comparison to the vengeful God of the Old Testament.” (Prothero, p. 358)

Prothero’s book is one with an agenda that clearly falls short of a calm, collected, objective scientific analysis. Incidentally, directly following the last quote from Prothero, he goes on to praise none other than Michael Shermer “the unreligious skeptic” for purportedly showing how religious people can accept evolution. You know, the same Shermer who wrote that, “[t]here is no God, intelligent designer, or anything resembling the divinity as proffered by the world’s religions.”

Regardless, if we want to understand the Cambrian explosion, we have to turn to serious scientific treatments, not Prothero’s polemic. So what do textbooks say? A 2001 invertebrate zoology textbook (that is a serious science textbook) states:

Most of the animal phyla that are represented in the fossil record first appear, “fully formed,” in the Cambrian some 550 million years ago…The fossil record is therefore of no help with respect to the origin and early diversification of the various animal phyla.

(R.S.K. Barnes, P. Calow & P.J.W. Olive, The Invertebrates: A New Synthesis, pages 9-10 (3rd ed., Blackwell Sci. Publications, 2001).)

In fact, Richard Dawkins conceded in 1986 regarding the Cambrian fauna that, “It is as though they were just planted there, without any evolutionary history.” (The Blind Watchmaker, 1986, pp. 229-230.) In another very serious treatment of the subject, John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry, leaders in evolutionary biology, wrote in 1995 that the “Cambrian explosion remains a puzzle” for Darwinian theorists despite the discovery of a some Pre-Cambrian fossils:

Some 540 million years ago, at the beginning of the Cambrian, there appeared an array of multicellular marine animals, including the major phyla that exist today: coelenterates, platyhelminths, annelids, arthropods, molluscs, echinoderms and others. Chordates are also present in the Cambrian: they are not known from the earliest deposits, in which only hard parts are preserved, but are present in the slightly later Burgess Shale, in which soft-bodied forms are preserved. Forty years ago, this sudden appearance of metazoan fossils was not only a puzzle but something of an embarrassment: the absence of any known fossils from earlier rocks was a weapon widely used by creationists. Today, the fossil evidence for prokaryotes goes back 3000 million years, and for protists some 1000 million years. The Cambrian explosion remains a puzzle, however, which has been only fitfully illuminated by the discovery of the enigmatic soft-bodied Ediacaran fauna, which had a worldwide distribution between 580 and 560 million years ago. There are still doubts about how these fossils should be interpreted (Simon Conway Morris, 1993).

(John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry, The Major Transitions in Evolution, page 203 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995).)

It seems that Prothero has glossed over the real problems with evolutionary explanations of the Cambrian fauna in a book that hardly looks like a serious treatment of this subject. In the end, Shermer needs to apply some of his famous skepticism to his own sources. Moreover, Meyer’s peer-reviewer-approved argument still carries great weight. As Meyer explains, the explosion of new biological information in the Cambrian period is best explained by an intelligent cause:

Analysis of the problem of the origin of biological information, therefore, exposes a deficiency in the causal powers of natural selection that corresponds precisely to powers that agents are uniquely known to possess. Intelligent agents have foresight. Such agents can select functional goals before they exist. They can devise or select material means to accomplish those ends from among an array of possibilities and then actualize those goals in accord with a preconceived design plan or set of functional requirements. Rational agents can constrain combinatorial space with distant outcomes in mind. The causal powers that natural selection lacks—almost by definition—are associated with the attributes of consciousness and rationality—with purposive intelligence. Thus, by invoking design to explain the origin of new biological information, contemporary design theorists are not positing an arbitrary explanatory element unmotivated by a consideration of the evidence. Instead, they are positing an entity possessing precisely the attributes and causal powers that the phenomenon in question requires as a condition of its production and explanation.

(Stephen C. Meyer, “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 117(2):213-239 (2004).)

Shermer Blames-the-Victim Case #2: Guillermo Gonzalez

Shermer blames pro-ID astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez for being denied tenure at Iowa State University (ISU). Who is the expert that Shermer consults on Gonzalez’s case? None other than Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). Scott had many complaints against Gonzalez’s academic record, which I’ll scrutinize one at a time below.

First, Scott claimed that Gonzalez’s “publication record tanked” while he was at ISU. But as I explained here, according to the Smithsonian/NASA Astrophysics Data System, Gonzalez has published 34 publications since 2001 (the year he joined ISU) and his normalized publication score is 2nd among all astronomers in his department. As Rob Crowther observed:

[H]e peaks in 2003 but ends in 2006 just as high as he was when he started at ISU. Moreover, he outperformed all ISU astronomy faculty in normalized publications during that period. The one year that is obviously less happens to be the same year that he co-authored an astronomy textbook published by Cambridge University Press.

Not only that, but as explained here, Gonzalez led astronomers in his department in a normalized count of citations to his work in other scientific papers:

Gonzalez joined ISU in 2001, and for his publications since 2001 he has the highest normalized citation count of all astronomers in his department, including both tenured and untenured faculty! Moreover, despite the fact that he is much younger than many of the tenured faculty members in the department, he has the second highest lifetime normalized citation count among all astronomers in his department.

Given that Gonzalez apparently led all tenured ISU astronomers who voted against his tenure in both normalized publications and normalized citations since 2001, it’s hard to see what grounds they have for complaining about his publication record. If Gonzalez’s publication record went down at all during his probationary period at ISU, it still remained at an extremely impressive level that warranted tenure. If anything, this indicates that scientists should not be penalized for extraordinarily high academic achievements early in their careers if, like Gonzalez, they continue to produce outstanding publication rates during their tenure probationary period.

Next Shermer quotes Eugenie Scott claiming that Gonzalez “didn’t have very many graduate students, and those he had never completed their degrees.” First, this is a blatant falsehood, first promulgated by anti-ID groups in Iowa. As I explained to Iowa Citizens for Science when they made the same claim:

“Again, that statement is completely false. The truth is that in 2001, soon before Gonzalez left the University of Washington (UW) [to] join the faculty at ISU, he served as the primary advisor to a UW doctoral student in astronomy, Chris Laws. Gonzalez served as Laws’ primary scientific advisor over the course of Laws’ entire doctoral thesis, and Laws successfully graduated from UW with a Ph.D. in astronomy in December, 2004. Gonzalez also served on the committee of another Ph.D. student at UW, Rory Barnes, and this student also successfully graduated in 2004. You may want to also correct this false information as well and issue a retraction immediately.”

Second, it’s worth noting that pre-tenure faculty typically aren’t expected to have as many graduate students as tenured faculty, because pre-tenured faculty are supposed to focus primarily on research. So even if they were accurate, Scott’s complaints here are of little relevance. Shermer should start applying some of his skepticism to the false claims of the pro-Darwin lobbyists like Eugenie Scott.

Finally Shermer asserts that Gonzalez lacks grants. But in its tenure guidelines, Dr. Gonzalez’s department does not even list grants as a criterion they consider for gaining tenure. Nonetheless, Gonzalez was awarded a $50,000 grant from Discovery Institute that allows him to collect more than enough observational astronomy data each year for the next 5 years to conduct a successful research program. In short, Dr. Gonzalez has precisely the money he needs to have a successful research program at ISU.

So if Gonzalez’s department doesn’t list grants as a requirement for tenure, what do its guidelines state? They state: “For promotion to associate professor, excellence sufficient to lead to a national or international reputation is required and would ordinarily be shown by the publication of approximately fifteen papers of good quality in refereed journals.” In this regard, Dr. Gonzalez has over 350% more peer-reviewed science articles than what his department ordinarily requires for indicating the type of reputation that demonstrates research excellence. Having observed this, one external reviewer summarized Dr. Gonzalez’s tenure application as follows:

Dr. Gonzalez is eminently qualified for the promotion according to your guidelines of excellence in scholarship and exhibiting a potential for national distinction. In light of your criteria I would certainly recommend the promotion.

Indeed, 2/3 of the external reviewers who gave an opinion about whether Dr. Gonzalez deserves tenure agreed that he should receive tenure.

Shermer ignores these accomplishments of Gonzalez, and continues his usual method of quoting the persecutor in their denials of discrimination as if that settles the case. Thus, Shermer writes, “According to Gregory Geoffroy, president of Iowa State, ‘Over the past 10 years, four of the 12 candidates who came up for review in the physics and astronomy department were not granted tenure.'” That is irrelevant, for Shermer forgets that Dr. Gonzalez’s academic achievements, whether good or bad, do NOTHING to negate the undeniable evidence of bias and prejudice against him in the department because he supports ID:

  • ISU Physicist John Hauptman explicitly admitted in an op-ed that he voted against Gonzalez’s tenure because of ID: “I participated in the initial vote and voted no, based on this fundamental question: What is science? — It is purely a question of what is science and what is not, and a physics department is not obligated to support notions that do not even begin to meet scientific standards.”
  • During tenure deliberations in November 2006, Dr. Gonzalez’s department chair Eli Rosenberg devoted a full third of his chair’s statement in Gonzalez’s tenure file to discussing intelligent design, instructing voting members of ISU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy to make ID a litmus test where Gonzalez’s support for ID as science “disqualifies him from serving as a science educator.”
  • In the summer of 2005, atheist professor of religion at ISU, Hector Avalos, e-mailed ISU faculty, inviting them to sign a statement calling on “all faculty members to … reject efforts to portray Intelligent Design as science” because of the “negative impact” due to the fact that “Intelligent Design….has now established a presence….at Iowa State University.”
  • ISU physicist Joerg Schmalian endorses a plan to release an anti-ID statement from his department, intending to send a message to Gonzalez: “If we go on record, we give Gonzalez a clear sign that his ID efforts will not be considered as science by the faculty.” Other faculty (see below) endorse such statements from Schmalian with an intent to directly target Gonzalez, with another scientist in Gonzalez’s department stating that ISU “is not a friendly place for him to develop further his IDeas.”
  • Two tenure-voting faculty in Gonzalez’s department had links to an NCSE anti-ID petition publicly denouncing intelligent design as “creationist pseudoscience.”
  • ISU physicist Bruce Harmon wrote in an e-mail, “As Joerg [Schmalian] says, I think Gonzalez should know that some faculty in his department are not going to count his ID work as a plus for tenure. Quite the opposite.”

It seems clear that ID did play a major negative and inappropriate role in Gonzalez’s tenure denial. Shermer ignores all of this evidence, finding ways to ignore inconvenient facts that make it clear what really happened at ISU. In his one-sided skepticism, Shermer is only skeptical of the claims of ID-proponents and never doubts the demonstrably false words of Eugenie Scott. Readers can decide for themselves whether Shermer and ISU are correct to claim that ID played no significant role in Gonzalez’s denial of tenure.

NCSE-Sanctioned Discrimination?

But what does Scott’s organization, the NCSE, have to say about Gonzalez and ID? In fact, the NCSE has sponsored an anti-Expelled website, “Expelled Exposed,” that takes an intolerant mindset that justifies discriminating against Gonzalez because he supports ID.

The “Expelled Exposed” site says that Gonzalez’s “distracting work on an unscientific enterprise like intelligent design,” among other things, “make[s] it impossible for supporters to legitimately claim that the decision not to grant him tenure was unfounded.” When discussing Gonzalez, the NCSE site also argues that ID proponents do not deserve the protection of academic freedom, stating, “A scientist should not expect his colleagues to ignore his advocacy of a perspective that those in his field have overwhelmingly rejected.” In other words, when ID-proponents like Gonzalez come up for tenure, the NCSE thinks that ID should count as an automatic and absolute negative. Clearly the NCSE endorses discriminating against Gonzalez simply because he supports ID. We have seen clear evidence that Gonzalez’s Darwinist colleagues at ISU felt exactly the same.

Yet Gonzalez’s work on ID has clear academic legitimacy that deserves the protection of academic freedom. Indeed, the ISU faculty handbook says that “academic freedom is the foundation of the university.” Gonzalez didn’t teach ID in the classroom, but his book on ID, The Privileged Planet, was written using a grant from the prestigious Templeton Foundation (a grant which ISU accepted). Moreover, leading scientists, such as Simon Conway Morris, Owen Gingerich, and Philip Skell praised his book on ID. His book was even favorably reviewed by David Hughes of the Royal Astronomical Society. Even if some ISU faculty disagree with Gonzalez’s views on intelligent design, his work clearly has academic legitimacy that deserves the protection of academic freedom.

Gonzalez’s tenure debate has never been, as Lauri Lebo misrepresents it to be, a case where we have argued that “it is unfair to take intelligent design into consideration.” Intelligent design can be considered during tenure evaluations. The question is: how should tenure evaluating faculty respond to it? Will they count ID as an automatic and absolute negative, as the NCSE suggests they should, or will they consider the possibility that a commitment to true academic freedom requires that scientists be granted the right to hold such minority viewpoints? Scientists have every right to dissent from ID and express their views in disagreement with ID. The relevant question here is, will scientists be given the right to support ID? The NCSE unambiguously suggests that the answer to that question should be no.

As noted, the ISU faculty handbook claims that “academic freedom is the foundation of the university.” But ISU faculty in Gonzalez’s department chose to follow the NCSE’s approach, counting Gonzalez’s support for ID as a pure negative, failing to grant academic freedom for minority, dissenting scientific viewpoints that clearly have academic respectability. Academic freedom doesn’t just give scientists the right to agree with the majority viewpoint. If Lauri Lebo and the NCSE had their way, ID proponents would be dismissed simply because they support ID, taking away any academic freedom to hold such a minority scientific viewpoint.

Shermer extensively quotes the NCSE’s Executive Director (Eugenie Scott) regarding Gonzalez’s case, clearly showing that Shermer is taking the side of the persecutors, not the persecuted.

Shermer and Eugenie Scott’s Hypocrisy regarding Defining Science

Eugenie Scott’s misrepresentations about Guillermo Gonzalez are not her most incredible statements in Shermer’s review. In Expelled, Ben Stein makes the point that scientists should not reject intelligent design a priori by defining science so as to exclude ID. Stein never tells people how to define science, he just suggests that scientists should not rule out ID due to what they think science is supposed to be. In response, Shermer quotes Eugenie Scott as follows:

“Who is Ben Stein to say what is science and not science? None of us speak for science. Scientists vary all over the map in their religious and philosophical views, for example, Francis Collins [the evangelical Christian and National Human Genome Research Institute director], so no one can speak for science.”

This statement sounds reasonable, but it is both hypocritical and wrong on various levels.

First, as I noted, in the movie Stein never says “what is science and not science.” Stein simply says that there should be academic freedom for these ideas, and scientists should not be excluded because they hold unpopular views. This is an important point, because as noted in above, both Shermer and Scott imply that Richard Sternberg’s reputation should be diminished because he has sympathized with various groups that are critical of neo-Darwinism.

Second, Eugenie Scott says that, “none of us speak for science,” but it’s highly hypocritical for her to suggest that people should not speak about the definition of science. Not only did Scott bless Judge Jones — a non-scientist — in his efforts to define science in the Kitzmiller ruling, but she constantly purports to speak for science. To give just one example, she writes in an article entitled ‘Science, Religion, and Evolution,’ that “science restricts itself to explaining the natural world using natural causes. This restriction of evolution to explanation through natural cause is referred to as methodological materialism, materialism in this context referring to matter, energy, and their interaction. Methodological materialism is one of the main differences between science and religion…There also are philosophical reasons for restricting science to methodological materialism, having to do with the nature of science itself.” In fact Scott cites herself as an authority for defining science! She cites “Scott, 1995” and “Scott, 1998” to justify these statements.

Eugenie Scott clearly thinks that she can speak for science, she just doesn’t like it when other people have opinions about science that differ from her own. This sounds like a familiar theme among the Darwinists who are interviewed in Expelled.


But what else does Shermer have to say? Shermer does not dispute the admissions by Darwinists in the film that scientists lack a natural chemical explanation for the origin of life. Shermer also claims that there is no persecution because some critics of natural selection — like Lynn Margulis or William Schopf — are embraced by the scientific community. But these critics are fully within the mainstream Darwinian mindset: they wholly reject intelligent design and they believe that unguided processes built all of life’s complexity. So they don’t threaten the core of neo-Darwinism, making it unsurprising that Shermer finds they have experienced no persecution.

Shermer also gives a fairly incomprehensible rant about Expelled’s discussion of the evidence that Hitler relied upon Darwin. I see no need to respond to Shermer directly on this because Shermer’s arguments made little sense, and besides I’m no expert on Nazis or the Holocaust. (Erudite treatments of this question, with all the important caveats and expected quotations from Darwin and other experts, have been provided by Richard Weikart, a professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, at “Re-examining the Darwin-Hitler Link ” and “Darwin and the Nazis“.)

I may not be a historian, but I am a lawyer (and a half-Jewish lawyer at that), and I have some training about how to evaluate the credibility of witnesses. As a lawyer interested in finding credible witnesses, I find it compelling that the person in Expelled who makes the most forceful argument that Hitler made reliance upon Darwin was the curator of a museum in Germany dedicated to remembering the horrors of the Nazis, who has no apparent personal agenda in the debate over Darwin. She is an expert, a neutral third party who has no reason to take a particular side, and who seems to have no stake in the debate over Darwin. Yet she is the one arguing that Hitler needed Darwin. I’m no expert on questions about whether Hitler relied upon Darwin. But if Hitler didn’t rely on Darwin, then it seems that curators of Holocaust remembrance-museums in Germany must also be in on the big conspiracy to make it seem that he did.

(Important note: Denyse O’Leary rightly reminds us of the context of this debate: “Does that mean that typical modern-day Darwinists have anything in common with Hitler? No, of course not. But it does mean that we cannot understand Hitler without understanding the role that Darwin, especially as Darwin was understood in Germany, played in his thinking.”)

In the end, what does Shermer really have to say against the movie? He calls the film “dishonest” because some Pepperdine biology professors complained that it brought in students as extras for a scene where Ben Stein gives a speech to…students. A movie that used extras? Shocking.

If Michael Shermer should learn any lesson from this episode, it is this: Rather than levying unrestrained skepticism against anything that challenges Darwin, he should start using some of the skepticism that made him famous upon the claims of people on his own side in this debate.

References Cited:

  1. Michael Shermer, Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, page 122 (Times Books 2006).
  2. Michael Shermer in What We Believe but Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty, page 38 (John Bockman ed., Harper-Perennial 2006).

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.