Monday, April 25, 2011

More On The Synthese Controversy

There are several online petitions:

This one calls on the editors of Synthese to grant Forrest space in the journal to respond to Beckwith's piece.

This one calls on the editors of Synthese to explain the circumstances surrounding the publication of the Beckwith piece.

The idea here is that Beckwith's article was accepted the day it was submitted and appears not to have been edited for content or tone by the EiCs of Synthese. (And its tone is really, really heinously, brutally condescending. It has been suggested, and I am sympathetic to this idea, that Beckwith's piece is an instance of this sort of criticism--one so global and all-encompassing that it is not possible to respond effectively. Consider, for example, that the title of Beckwith's piece is "Or We Could Be Philosophers," which suggests falsely that being a philosopher is a genuine alternative to whatever Forrest was doing.)

This one objects much more strongly to the conduct of the Editors-in-chief, asking them to both apologize for and retract the disclaimer, and to "[d]isclose the nature of complaints and/or legal threats from Francis Beckwith, his supporters, and supporters of Intelligent Design that were received by the Editors-in-Chief after the on-line publication of "Evolution and Its Rivals" last year."

The idea here is that (as John Protevi says here) there is an "extremely high probability that the next time Professor Forrest testifies to the LA state legislature (as she often does in these matters, and no doubt will soon in the debate on SB 70, which would repeal the stealth creationist Lousiana Science Education Act or LSEA), some ID partisan will claim she has been "refuted" in the pages of a prestigious philosophy journal and that therefore her testimony should be discounted if not ignored."

Regarding this last one, Mark Lance, in comments here, writes:

We are told publicly that there were general objections to the tone of multiple articles, and that this prompted the disclaimer. But then only Beckwith is given an (apparently unrefereed, and unedited) opportunity to publish a rejoinder. Whatever the intent behind any of this, (a) it is hard to see why mere issues of tone would justify a special opportunity to respond, (b) hard to see in any case why others challenged in the special issue weren't as well given the opportunity to respond and (c) hard to see why oversight was not exercised regarding tone and misuse of the disclaimer in Beckwith's article.

Apart from the petitions, there has been some interesting commentary. For example, in comments here, Alex Malpass writes,

I am a guest editor of a forthcoming issue of Synthese [...] As far as I understand, there is no controversy surrounding our issue.

If the calls for a Synthese boycott (or a Synthese-special-issue-boycott) were heeded by the philosophical community, then we (i.e. myself, my co-editor, and each of the 6 contributors to the issue, none of whom are involved with the ongoing controversy) would be the ones to suffer.

I'm not a philosopher of morality, but would imagine it would be hard to justify why those associated with my issue should be so penalised.

I would like to simply request that those people calling for a boycott reflect upon the potential impact on us 'civilians' that would be the result.

How short-sighted can a person be? This is a controversy about how Synthese treats its guest editors. Malpass, his co-editor, and his six contributors should be first in line to participate in this boycott. They should be unable to contain themselves at the very thought of this boycott, because they are the ones who stand to be affected by these editorial shenanigans. It doesn't matter if there is no controversy surrounding their issue, it matters what editorial policies are in place in the event of controversy. And if I were a guest-editor I would be terrified, because (if the past is any indication) the EiCs would not tell me about the controversy if it existed; the EiCs would turn their backs on me and by disclaiming my issue; and they would lie to me about what they were doing. If I were guest-editing a special issue of Synthese, I would be much more worried about what the editors of Synthse were going to do to me than about the effects of a boycott.

In comments here, Philippe Huneman writes:

The allegation of professional misconduct – having published the disclaimer without either mentioning it to the guest eds. or having obtained their permission to include it , would not be regarded as so horrible, and I am sure, would not have led to any kind of call for a boycott if we had been in a context other than evolution and ID. In fact, if such actions had been denounced in another context as professional misconduct, someone would have raised their voice to say that we should give the EiC the benefit of the doubt and ask to have the full transcript of the interactions between them and guest eds. made explicit before making any further judgment. However, when someone condemns the disclaimer as a concession to Evil (ID), then of course many people will be horrified and incited to protest.

This gets the allegation of misconduct wrong. It ignores the crucial detail that the EiCs didn't just publish the disclaimer without notice; they published the disclaimer after twice giving an assurance that they were not going to publish any disclaimer. And that is misconduct no matter why they did it.

And it's not as though nobody has asked for the EiCs to explain their side. It's just that their "explanation" completely sidestepped all the important issues. And it is worth mentioning that the EiCs have not disputed any of the pertinent facts, except to deny that the disclaimer was the result of pressure from the ID movement. But they have not denied, for example, that they were subject to pressure by the ID movement, or that they gave assurances that they would not disclaim the issue.

He goes on:

So, in the event that some papers to be published in a guest-edited volume transgress the boundaries of academic politesse, what options do those who are ultimately responsible for the publication have for maintaining it? Notice that whatever action is taken, -- not to accept the papers , to write a disclaimer, or whatever - the disapprobation faced will be the same. Some people in the blogs recently said that the EiCs should not have accepted the papers, and that they did so was already indicative of their professional misconduct. But what if they had actually refused to accept them? Wouldn’t it have led to the same or an even more harsh campaign against them, with the same accusations of their having made concessions to ID people raised?

For crying out loud. The editors might have used the new-fangled and controversial tool known as the "conditional acceptance." If the EiCs thought the tone of any of the submissions was inappropriate, they should have said, "we will accept this only if you tone it down." Crisis averted.

Lastly, am I the only one who thinks it strange that Synthese would devote a guest-edited special issue to the topic "Evolution and its Rivals"? Because evolution has no rivals.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

I just want to know what exactly a boycott involves. Are we going to name and shame all the people with forthcoming articles in Synthese, who didn't withdraw their papers? As well as any one from now on who has a paper in Synthese? Maybe departments can automatically throw these people's applications into the garbage?

I'm totally for this boycott. It'll probably help my chances.

zombie said...

This is what happens when you let intellectual infants in your pool. They pee in it. I can't understand the point of an "Evolution and its Rivals" issue either. The implication is that we ought to take Creationism seriously as a rival account. That nonsense gets far too much credence already, without philosophy journals helping.

I think I'll ask to guest edit a special Synthese issue on "Phlogiston and its Rivals."

Jamie Dreier said...

Hm, no, "The Kinetic Theory and its Rivals", Zombie.

I would also like to know what the boycott involves. I've never submitted anything to Synthese and had no plans to, so a boycott by me would be extremely lame, if it's just a matter of declining to submit. I have never been asked to referee for them.

I'd also like to know what a boycott is intended to accomplish. Or is it purely symbolic?

Anonymous said...

@2:41--Yes, all of those things are going to happen. But no, it won't help your chances.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:41 p.m.: "Are we going to name and shame all the people with forthcoming articles in Synthese, who didn't withdraw their papers?"

That would be a secondary boycott, which needn't attach to a primary boycott (ie, of the journal itself).

Note also that secondary boycotts are illegal in many jurisdictions, so calling for one might be a bit imprudent.

Anonymous said...

Zombie and Zero: You really don't see the bigotry of your opposition to ID?!? All manner of nonsense is still debated in philosophy journals: solipsism, Spinozic monism, the Kantian Categorical Imperative. Bankrupt theories all, but special issues are still devoted to them. Why should ID be beneath consideration? How about instead of asserting mob power through boycotts, philosophers engage in the hard work of refuting ID -- to school boards, in philosophy journals. If Forrest did that, kudos - nasty-toned rebuttals only hurt the case of ID proponents. Why not give them the space and rope to hang themselves further. Claiming ID is beneath consideration just seems bigoted.

Mr. Zero said...

I just want to know what exactly a boycott involves.

Leiter has been asking people to refuse to submit or referee for Synthese, up to and including the withdrawal of papers currently under review. I don't think anyone has called for any shaming or anything.

You really don't see the bigotry of your opposition to ID?!?

No. Because ID isn't a philosophical theory; it's a political movement that attempts to dress creationism up like science so that it can be taught in public schools.

Issues related to ID, such as the various teleological arguments for the existence of God, etc, ought to be debated in philosophy journals. Totally. But 150 years of biological science says that ID itself, especially seen as an alternative to evolution, is not a serious subject. It's bogus.

Anonymous said...

Ah, but it's very silly to have the "primary boycott" without the "secondary boycott". If there is no shaming, then it makes much sense for me to submit stuff to Synthese now, especially if bunch of smart philosophers are all boycotting it.

On the other hand, if people would judge me more poorly for having a paper in Synthese, then the secondary boycott would indeed be in effect, even if people don't do it consciously.

Anonymous said...

I totally want to submit a paper to zombie's and Jamie's special issue(s). How about a special issue on "Gravity and Its Rivals," too?

Anonymous said...

While the title of the special issue does perhaps have the weird connotation that evolution (qua science) has rivals, the content of the articles surely shows that the connotation wasn't intended.

Whether Beckwith is in a position to make the accusation without hypocrisy is open to debate, but in other contexts I suspect that a non-trivial number of philosophers would accept that writing about matters of biography, institutional affiliation, and loose connections between a visible movement (in this case ID) and various fringe movements (in this case restorationism et alia huiusmodi) is not "doing philosophy." In fact when history of philosophy focuses on things like this it is apt to be called antiquarianism by a certain subset of M&E people.

More substantively, I wonder whether anybody here has read enough of his stuff to answer this question: Beckwith claims that part of his project is preventing arguments that are associated historically with some religious tradition (but which need not be premised on faith in that religious tradition) from being ruled out of the public square by a kind of guilt-by-association. If that's the case, it seems Forrest did indeed miss that point, as I saw it nowhere in her article, and it would appear that it's relevant to some of her charges.

wv: metsam
What you get, in addition to flotsam and jetsam, when you reject the law of excluded middle.

Anonymous said...

You really don't see the bigotry of your opposition to ID?!?
-Opposing something because it is not true, hell, not even false, is not bigotry.

All manner of nonsense is still debated in philosophy journals: solipsism, Spinozic monism, the Kantian Categorical Imperative. Bankrupt theories all, but special issues are still devoted to them.
-I don't think you know what "bankrupt" means as applied to theories. Hint: its not about you. Additionally, if ID is supposed to be philosophy, then it does not belong (except for the briefest of mentions) in science classes. If it is supposed to be science, then it fails scientifically, and utterly, and therefore is like seriously teaching about phlogiston in a course dealing with thermodynamics.

Why should ID be beneath consideration? How about instead of asserting mob power through boycotts, philosophers engage in the hard work of refuting ID -- to school boards, in philosophy journals.
-ID has been refuted repeatedly, and will have to be, not because it improves through criticism like a genuine scientific theory but because it is a political movement fundamentally. Its intellectual content is at best clever obfuscation.

If Forrest did that, kudos - nasty-toned rebuttals only hurt the case of ID proponents. Why not give them the space and rope to hang themselves further.
I think you slipped and meant "opponents." Anyway, kilometers, not inches, of epistemic rope have been given to ID proponents, but all they do is try to take political miles by injecting religion into public schools and science education. To mix metaphors.

Claiming ID is beneath consideration just seems bigoted.
-This again?

Anonymous said...

I fully agree that the editors acted poorly in at least two instances. I think action is needed, though I think a boycott may be a bit harsh. The one puzzling thing, to me anyway, is the harm that has been caused here. Elsewhere some have expressed sympathy for those who published in the special issue, suggesting that their papers and/or reputations are now 'tarnished'. Let's say you published in that issue. Now, is there any funding panel/tenure committee on this earth that will say: "No, you cannot get the money/job, because your article appeared in a journal that inserted a disclaimer concerning the tone of at least one article in that issue"?

If I knew beforehand that an article of mine would be published, and that a disclaimer concerning tone would be inserted that names me explicitly, I would still submit it. I would be annoyed at the disclaimer, but cannot really imagine caring deeply, feeling terribly wounded or being professionally harmed in any way.

Let me reiterate that I do think the editors acted poorly.

zombie said...

This, according to the journal's website, is the scope of Synthese:

* Spans the topics of Epistemology, Methodology and Philosophy of Science
* Explores symbolic logic and of foundations of mathematics relevant to the philosophy and methodology of science
* Concentrates on facets of the ethics, history and sociology of science which are important for contemporary topical pursuits

Philosophy of Religion ain't in there. ID doesn't fall under the umbrella of philosophy of science, at least not by any understanding of philosophy of science I have ever encountered. Because ID is NOT science, never has been science, and never will be science. It is also not philosophy. ID is religious dogma dressed up as science to disguise blatant and unconstitutional Christian proselytizing in public schools. Should creation myths be taught in schools? Sure. I think they should ALL be taught in schools. But not in science class.

And journals devoted to philosophy of science shouldn't pretend that Creationism is science or philosophy either.

Anonymous said...

I really can't get excited about this gigantomachia concerning Synthese.

What I want to know is this -- is it a good idea to submit a paper to a journal in late April early May, or should one hold onto it until september?

Anonymous said...

The ID/Science debate is something actually going on in our culture. How dare a journal actually devote an issue to something that is not completely academically useless. I agree the Editors handled the outcome of the topic rather poorly. But now some of the Scientific Zealotry coming out of this blog frightens me just as much as the other side. Judging which side is more 'infantile' or more arrogant is a tough call.

Mr. Zero said...

Hi anon 1:06,

I feel I must be misreading your comment. It seems like you're saying that it is a frightening form of zealotry (with a capital Z) to point out that evolution is true. Or to point out that the Discovery Institute is a political think-tank, not a biology lab. Obviously you're not saying that. Please advise.

Anonymous said...

1:06 here,
No, I wasn't trying to say that. I don't know what the hell I was trying to say. I guess I was trying to figure out how the debate shifted from questions about Editorial misconduct to the idea that there is something intellectual dishonest about even daring to dedicate an issue of a philosophical journal to a certain topic. I happen to find some of the rhetoric behind that line of reasoning quite frightening--even if I do agree with the arguments against the political side of the ID agenda. Sorry I didn't type it out so pretty the first time.

Anonymous said...

I've been in a nonestop state of pearl-cluthcing hystera over this, let me tell you. NONSTOP.


That being said, I don't know how seriously I can take all this, given the background of the atrociously bad editorial practices I suspect most journals really engage in.

Let me give a real, actual analogous case to explain what I mean. Ward Churchill makes some politically offense remarks under a pseudonym, and is damned and shamed for having unpopular political views that are unpopular yet protected by his right to free speech. Since a tenured professor can't be fired for that, an official investigation discovers he's been engaged in academic misconduct and fires him for that. Yet the misconduct he's been accused of is so profoundly pervasive in academia that if all academics were held to that standard, there'd be few professors left to teach anything. While that doesn't mean he acted rightly, it certainly means he's being held to a standard other people aren't being held to, right? And its obviously just because he said some stuff that's unpopular. That's a pretty minimal claim.

So the Synthese editors engaged in what seems to be bad editorial behavior. But until I have reason to believe they alone among top journals behave in this way, why shame them? My guess is that this entire issue -- had the Synthese editors made the "tone" remark in a different context, let's say, because a bunch of supporters of Some Politically Acceptable, Good and Famous Philosopher lobbied the editors to prefix a disclaimer to an already published volume by Some Guest Editors because an author in the volume used what they took to be an inappropriate tone towards Famous Dude -- and the issue was on something totally apolitical like, oh, I dunno, Empiricism and it's Rivals, or whatever your favorite boring, apolitical issue within the scope of Synthese's range -- and those Guest Editors wrote Leiter an email moaning about it, this would be a total non-issue. People would have a laugh about it, and say somehting like "Tone? Mother effers, I'll show you tone." and move on with their lives.

In other words, yeah, I think the Synthese editors were bad monkeys, just like Ward Churchill was a bad monkey. But the point is *everyone else was being a bad monkey too, and no one care until the bad monkey-ing was booed by someone(s) who are powerful* and then everyone acts all righteous. So, like in Churchill's case, I think we are holding the Synthese EiCs to a standard no one else is being held to because what they did happened to attract the negative judgment of someone powerful (Leiter). It's not that I think they acted rightly or anything; I just think in the context of Anglo-American philosophy, its a bit ridiculous to boycott Synthese and live under the delusion that every other respectable journal would totally never do anything like this because They Are Respectable.
I simply can't believe that every other EiC for a major philosophy journal out there is behaving in a fairly professional, meticulous way. My guess is that most of them are engaging in egregiously bad behavior, doing all kinds of unprofessional stuff. And I think this judgment is justified by the way most philosophers behave any time they are charged with major responsibilities and given major power to discharge those responsibilities. (Seriously, people. Really. Read the What It's like to Be a Woman in Philosophy blog. People in positions of power in philosophy behave badly allllll time with no reprecussions. Good monkeys are, in my experience, a total minority, and often forced into bad behavior by the powerful Bad Monkeys if they ever want to get anywhere.)

Anyway, that's what I think. I'm off to go clutch my pearls s'more.

WV: badrous. Like Bad and Traitorous all at once. Like me.

Small Fish said...

The only acceptable way for Synthese or any journal about the philosophy of science to really talk about ID is in an issue devoted to science v. psuedoscience; philosophy v. pseudophilosophy.

Devoting an issue to Evolution and its Rivals legitimizes the rivals by definition. It treats them as raising worries serious enough to merit exploration in a journal dedicated to issues about the philosophy of science and scientific reasoning.

THAT is what is wrong here (as others have already said).

Mr. Zero said...

Hi anon 1:06,

When I said it was weird that Synthese would devote a special issue this issue, I was kind of kidding. I see that there is this controversy in our culture, and I think that philosophers have a contribution to make. My main problem with the special issue under discussion is the way the editors have behaved

However, I'm not totally kidding. It's demented and sad that there is this controversy. Debating evolution is like debating plate tectonics.

zombie said...

Plate tectonics?! Now I've heard everything.

If you'll excuse me, I'm off to finish my paper on "Phrenology: the epistemology of brain mapping without tears."

Anonymous said...

Yep, I see what you mean. I remember when J Phil ran a special issue and then screwed the guest editors by scolding them publicly after explicitly saying they wouldn't. And when Mind and PPR caved under pressure from a political lobby. Also when Phil Review gave a hack philosopher space without any refereeing to 'rebut' a paper they'd published. So, you're right, they all do it.

Anonymous said...


zombie said...

By the by, Zero, to answer one of your questions in the first post on Synthese. I asked a friend who happens to be guest-editing a journal (not Synthese) about the editorial process. He told me that all the papers selected by himself and the co-guest-editor were subject to review and final approval by the editor in chief. If that is SOP, then I imagine it's also true of the guest-edited Synthese.

Anonymous said...

I have a hypothesis. The EICs were lazy and didn't really look carefully at the guest edited pieces before they went out on the internets. Springer is really, really fucking fast to take a piece and get it up on its website. I think that the EICs just haven't owned up to the fact that each of them thought that the others had properly vetted the issue. Once it went up, they heard from the Beckwith crowd, actually read Forrest's bizarre detailed biography of Beckwith, and shit in their pants. They wanted to disclaim the issue without admitting that they had totally, totally botched their oversight duties.

Anonymous said...

I bet that anon 11-40 has nailed it.

Annony said...

"And its tone is really, really heinously, brutally condescending."

This may be true, but I think you've only got a right to say this (or nod along with it) if you've also read Forrest's piece on Beckwith. (I'm of course not saying you haven't.) It isn't for no reason that the piece prompted this fiasco.

CTS said...

I’m struggling to express my response to all this; so, I beg a bit of indulgence.
1. I have read many, many philosophical articles (and books) over the years that might well be criticized for their ‘tone.’ When did issues of tone become something that prompted journals to either a) reject work submitted or b) add demurrals to work published? The latter raises all kinds of questions about editorial oversight and competence, and is far more problematic than the first. That said, I have never found philosophers, as a group, to be averse to harsh treatment of competing views when accepting articles for publication or presentation.
2. What, exactly, is objectionable about the ‘tone’ of the article in question? I mean, to what might philosophers take objection – not to what might others take objection? Philosophy – like the sciences – can be a rough game. I don’t approve of or embrace this in all cases, but it does seem to a feature of much philosophical discourse. In class, today, some of my students commented that they found John Morreall’s treatment of Stuart Brown’s work on violence and civil disobedience to be “harsh.” It was, indeed, ‘harsh’ and somewhat ‘personal.’ Would Morreall’s article no longer be acceptable by major philosophy journal’s? I do not always like the ferocity with which philosophers sometimes wage intellectual battle. But, I hope the editors of journals and publishers of books have not become so timid that they think politeness or tonal propriety outweighs philosophical merit.

zombie said...

I don't find anything objectionable about the "tone" of Forrest's piece. Her mistake, I think (and it's a mistake I have made myself), was in seriously and philosophically engaging with a position that is not philosophically defeasible. Doing so gives undeserved credence to such a position -- like the whole Birther controversy. Taking it seriously, even if to demolish it, creates the impression that it is worthy of taking seriously.

John Turri said...

I don't find anything objectionable about the "tone" of Forrest's piece. Her mistake, I think (and it's a mistake I have made myself), was in seriously and philosophically engaging with a position that is not philosophically defeasible.

Right, Zombie, that's never a good idea, though I must admit to being surprised that you put it that way. :)

I hereby nominate you for "Typo of the Month" award!

Anonymous said...

Two things: First, I think the damage to Forrest's prospects for effective help in court is done, and disclaiming the disclaimer isn't really going to help. ("Wasn't your article disclaimed by the very journal that published it?" "Yes, but the disclaimer has since been disclaimed." "But wasn't the disclaimer disclaimed only after a campaign led by folks who worried that the disclaimer would harm your ability to be an effective opponent of teaching ID science?")

As for why Beckwith's rebuttal might have been received and accepted the same day: I imagine the editors might think "Had the Forrest piece been less personal, a review process would have been required; however, it's only polite to allow someone free reign to respond when they've been attacked so forcefully." Now, the editors would be wrong here, I think, but this might nevertheless have been what they were thinking.

Anonymous said...

3:19 pm, 4/26.

Reread my post, please. The point is that no other journals editorial practices really get the critical eye *precisely because* the things you mentioned -political attention - occur. Leiter's campaign is also, Incidentally,, a form of political pressure. But you provided me with absolutely no reasons to think that most journals - even your favoritest, most loved ones - don't ennage in unethical editorial practices. (Rememberthat time you wanted to meet a powerful, important philosopher you admired and he turned out to be a total asshole who doesn't do his job but gets away with his atrocious behavior because he is a 'genius'?)

I'm sorry, but I think - having observed the way in which so many academic broadly and philosophers specifically behave, I think I have good reasons to believe as I do.

Sorry it took me so long to respond - I was off doing my grownup job and finishing off term. Glad to be back and snarling anonymously again.


Anonymous said...

I think evolution is (more or less) true, and I do not know of any evidence for ID. At the same time I like and respect the editors of Synthese and it does look like Leiter and his friends are acting like bullies.

This bothers me. Especially in philosophy, it is common for some philosophers to think that some other philosopher is an idiot. Fine, people are entitled to think what they like and some people are indeed idiots. But talk about boycotts is worrisome.

Ludwig Wittgenstein said in his preface to the posthumous book Philosophical Remarks, "I would like to say `this book is written to the glory of God', but nowadays that would be chicanery, that is, it would not be rightly understood."

Oops! Wittgenstein used the forbidden word "God"!

I hope no one is going to call for a boycott of all of Wittgenstein's works?

Have a heart, or if you have not got one, then have a sense of humor.

Anonymous said...


You don't seem to have even one substantive reply to the substantive criticisms of the Synthese editors. After lying to the special issue eds., they published an unrefereed hit piece against one of their refereed articles, and it was *obviously* because of political pressure. That's disgusting; it's morally corrupt.
But, you "like and respect" the editors of Synthese, so, okay, in that case no problem.

Ah, and you throw in that favorite Creationist trope: pretending that the opponent is "forbidding" the use of the word 'God'. Yes, that's exactly what Leiter is up to, you caught him. He wants a boycott of Nietzsche, too.