Lies of omission and straight-up lies

In a pair of posts over at Evolution News and Views, David Klinghoffer waxes hyperbolic about the 2009 demotion and 2011 layoff of David Coppedge from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (“NASA on Trial: Persecution of David Coppedge Was a Preview of Creeping Totalitarianism“, “NASA Versus David Coppedge: Most Reprehensible Case of Anti-Intelligent Design Persecution Yet?“). It does sound pretty bad, though:

It was back in 2009 that the mild-mannered team lead computer administrator on the Cassini Mission to Saturn was demoted, shamed, and later fired. His workplace offense? Lending out documentaries on DVD favorable to intelligent design.

Coppedge loaned out documentaries on DVD, highlighting relevant scientific evidence of design in biology and cosmology, to willing colleagues. That’s it! That’s all he did.

Shit, that really does sound like religious discrimination. Look, I’m an atheist, but I believe in religious freedom. Firing someone for their religious beliefs, from a government agency no less, is a pretty egregious (even “reprehensible”) violation of the Establishment Clause (“prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”). Assuming, of course, that we’re getting the whole story.

About that…

In Klinghoffer’s telling, Coppedge was fired for sharing DVDs, period:

That’s it! That’s all he did.

However, the court decision from Coppedge’s wrongful termination lawsuit, and even Coppedge’s own account, don’t quite jibe with this version. Klinghoffer doesn’t mention, for example, that everyone on the Cassini team knew that two team members were going to be laid off. According to Coppedge,

Well we knew that Cassini was entering its second extended mission and that there was going to be reduction in staff. And so we knew that there were going to be only three system administrators needed for the second extended mission.

Klinghoffer also doesn’t mention that customer complaints about Coppedge started five years before the layoff. From Coppedge’s own notes:

[Chin] claims [e]very office has complaints about me. Even my own team members were complaining…Office Mgrs thought I was rude, incompetent or uncooperative.

The three podcasts that make up the Discovery Institute’s interview with Coppedge flesh out his version of events a bit. In a nutshell, Coppedge’s supervisor had a problem with his distribution of intelligent design DVDs and retaliated with a negative performance review that “…set him up to be considered for layoffs.”

So the 2010 annual review was a very striking document, mainly because of its contrast with all the previous annual reviews I had had. I had never been accused of being technically incompetent before. There had been some statements about communications difficulties, but up until 2009, the blame was not put on me. They said Dave is going above and beyond what is required to deal with difficult customers. However in ’09 of course, after the instigating incident with my office manager, there was the first indication of me being at fault for communications problems. But boy all hell broke loose in 2010.

I was accused of sloppy work, of making mistakes even a junior system administrator wouldn’t make, of not being willing to take direction, of not being willing to acknowledge mistakes, and of being unapproachable and having a brusque personality, I mean you name it, just unbelievable.

So Klinghoffer’s version of events is, at the very least, grossly oversimplified, failing to mention either the negative performance review or the history of customer complaints. Furthermore, Coppedge’s claim that the 2009 performance review “…was the first indication of me being at fault for communications problems” contradicts his own notes, which indicate complaints going back to 2004.

The biggest problem for this bit of revisionist history, though, is that the annual performance reviews were not considered in the layoff process. From the court decision:

(Van Why) Tr. 235:6-8 (“Q. Okay. As part of the layoff process, do you look at employee ECAPS? A. No.”).

The whole narrative of Coppedge being fired because of a negative performance review is pure fiction. First of all, he wasn’t “fired”; he was laid off due to budget cuts. By Coppedge’s own account, everyone on the team knew that two system administrators would be laid off, but

I was singled out for having views that differed from the consensus view.

However, the court decision includes an extended discussion of how JPL decided which two system administrators to lay off. The five system administrators on the team were ranked in terms of their skills, and the two with the least relevant skills were let go. Coppedge had zero experience with supercomputers, a history of problems with interpersonal skills, and little experience with Linux and MYSQL:

4/12/12 (Coppedge) Tr. 226:4-6 (“Q. And isn’t it also true that Oscar Castillo had more expertise in the web server than you did? A. Yeah, he did.”); Id. at Tr. 181:17-25 (“Q. . . . What was your level of skill [on Linux], do you think, on that? A. Well, I actually had some experience with Linux. It wasn’t a lot. … I knew of about five machines out of over two 5 hundred that ran Linux.”); Id. at 223:7-21 (“… I would rank [my Linux skills] as minimal but not zero.”).

In terms of skills relevant to the extended Cassini mission, Coppedge was ranked fifth out of five:

4/12/12 (Van Why) Tr. 1:24-2:12 (“Q. …Looking at need and skills, you gave Mr. Coppedge a 5 which ranked him fifth among five SA’s. Why did you rank him fifth, Mr. Van Why? A. In taking a look at the information that we had gathered on each of the individuals, the needs and skills of Cassini moving forward dealt more with ITL web services, Linux, troubleshooting, good customer skills. And those are areas that David did not rank as high on.”)

Coppedge, of course, doesn’t believe that his lack of relevant skills is the real reason he was laid off. His take is that JPL let him go because his views “differed from the consensus view” and made up more legitimate-sounding reasons after the fact. There’s a good bit of testimony, including some from Coppedge himself, that doesn’t seem to support that take, though. His own notes document a history of complaints about his interpersonal skills stretching back five years before the demotion. His own testimony rates his Linux skills as “minimal but not zero,” and between the Discovery Institute interview and the court documents, I haven’t heard any argument that he had more relevant skills than any of the three system administrators who were retained.

I get the sense, though of course I can’t be sure, that Coppedge really believes he was the victim of retaliation for his distribution of intelligent design DVDs. There are some inconsistencies in his version of events, for example 2009 being “the first indication” of communications problems versus Coppedge’s notes from 2004, but nothing a little cognitive dissonance couldn’t handle.

In contrast, David Klinghoffer’s promotion of Coppedge as an intelligent design martyr strikes me as cynically dishonest propaganda. He weaves Coppedge’s case into a larger narrative about suppression of heterodox views by the scientific establishment (Creeping Totalitarianism! Reprehensible Anti-Intelligent Design Persecution!):

Taking advantage of his vulnerability, David Coppedge’s supervisors sought to hurt and silence him. They succeeded. And that, by fear of career and personal ruin, is how the scientific “consensus” against ID is maintained.

Klinghoffer’s omission of relevant information goes well beyond spin and into dishonesty. His articles at Evolution News and Views never mention that everyone knew layoffs were coming or that another system administrator was laid off at the same time. It doesn’t sound quite so sinister when you know that Coppedge was part of the 40% of system administrators laid off due to budget cuts, does it? Klinghoffer also fails to mention the history of complaints from “[e]very office..Even [his] own team members,” or that Coppedge was ranked fifth out of five in skills relevant to the extended Cassini mission. His claim that Coppedge was “fired” entirely for lending out DVDs doesn’t even match Coppedge’s version of events.

Coppedge might just be deluded, but Klinghoffer is lying to promote his “Anti-Intelligent Design Persecution” narrative.


  1. StevoR says

    Truth. Well writ.

    Of course, it’d be nice and much better if NASA in general and the Cassini team in particular had more funding and didn’t have to lay off anyone at all. But yeah. Given that that was NOT the case, Coppedge was the logical choice to be lose his job here.


    “One half of one percent of the federal budget funds NASA and they can’t afford this program?”
    – Gregory Cecil, Space Shuttle tile technician quoted on page 47, “Throttle down” article in ‘Air & Space’ magazine, Nov 2010.

    Historical note, as you can see that quote was from 2010 – although I very much doubt funding levels have improved since and may, indeed, have gotten worse since. The specific program referred to here was the Constellation one which was cancelled despite the successful first test flight of its Ares 1-X rocket seen here :

    This decision absolutely infuriated me back then and whilst its a moot point now still seems very much the wrong call to me still. To finally have something real actually flying well and then to cancel it, just .. Aaaarrrghh! But veering of topic, sorry.

  2. says

    Speaking of lies of omission, your article reveals you don’t know what you are talking about. If you want to know what happened, ask me. Get your facts right before speculating off the top of your head from isolated tidbits. Linux, for instance, was totally irrelevant to Cassini. 98% of our systems ran Solaris, where I was well qualified, and no conversions to Linux were planned for the 2nd Extended Mission. Castillo was assigned to the web server; it was his bag, not the job of the Team Lead, but I knew enough about it to assist. I was expert on most aspects of the work, having been on the team for 14 years, 9 of them as Team Lead, and was respected among the JPL System Administration community. I hired and trained other team members for years.

    The “complaints about interpersonal skills” stemmed from one alpha female (so termed by others) in 2004-2007 who was uniformly disliked by all the team, including my boss. She fought all of us, not just me (I was most in her line of fire). Things quieted down after she left, and I was in good standing with her replacement and our whole office until the DVD incident, contributing at weekly team lead meetings, and even acting as a Cassini outreach speaker and JPL tour guide. The so-called “ranking” was rigged to make me look bad AFTER our lawsuit was filed. Van Why was meeting with JPL’s lawyers before the ranking, and he lied to my face that he knew nothing about the lawsuit. Even so, there was no need for any layoffs, because we had reached Cassini’s RIF goal by attrition. But this was all part of a strategy revealed in discovery documents that were directly related to the DVD incident after one — just one — person complained (two other “complainers” were brought in by the HR investigator as part of her witch hunt). The “strategy” (their word) specifically included using performance reviews as a way to get me off the team: why? because my boss and the program manager thought I was “pushing religion” by sharing DVDs on intelligent design.

    There’s a lot more I could say, but in short, what happened to me was all tied to the DVD sharing, which was discreet and infrequent. I only shared them with people I knew. Margaret actually took the DVD with a smile and said “Looks interesting” before running to my boss a few days later after fast-forwarding through it at home. Deciding it had a “religious message,” she told my boss she felt “harassed” even though I never talked with her about it after she took it and was always cordial with her. I ask all of you: where is the religious message? Where is the harassment? Watch the whole DVD on YouTube:
    She felt harassed because of the CONTENT of the DVD, not because of anything I did. That is clear from hours of deposition and court testimony. All the other troubles happened to me even though I obeyed my boss and never shared another DVD after his tirade.

    Surely you realize that the job of defense attorneys is to make the whistleblower look bad. JPL’s lawyers were well funded by taxpayer money, and the judge ruled against me with no explanation, allowing JPL’s legal team to write the decision for him. If you care about free speech and individual rights, you should stand with me and decry this outrageous miscarriage of justice whether or not you agree with my position on intelligent design. If this could happen to me, it could happen to anyone holding an unpopular position.

Leave a Reply