Did Synthese bow to Intelligent Design pressure?

[Republished from Evolving Thoughts]

A while back I published a paper in a special edition of Synthese on "Evolution and its rivals". My paper was titled "Are Creationists Rational?" in which I argued that yes, in a bounded sense they are. I was very pleased to be invited to publish in this front rank journal by the special editors. However, when the printed version arrived, the editors-in-chief had inserted a rather nasty statement, a disclaimer in fact, bringing the academic standing of the contributions into disrepute. Although I do not think my paper was directly involved in this, I post below a statement about the disclaimer by the special edition's editors, Glenn Branch and James Fetzer. I fully support it.

RE: "Evolution and Its Rivals", SYNTHESE 178:2 (January 2011)

Dear Members of the Philosophy Community,

As the Guest Editors of a special issue of SYNTHESE, "Evolution and Its Rivals", we have been appalled to discover that the Editors-in-Chief added a prefatory statement to the issue that implies that the Guest Editors and their contributors have not maintained the standards of the journal. Our purpose here is to convey to you an explanation of the history of this special issue and the unusual problems we encountered in dealing with the Editors-in-Chief, in the hope that our reflections will place their statement in the proper context and guide you in future dealings with the journal.

The following statement was published in the printed but not the on-line version of this issue:

Statement from the Editors-in-Chief of SYNTHESE

This special issue addresses a topic of lively current debate with often strongly expressed views. We have observed that some of the papers in this issue employ a tone that may make it hard to distinguish between dispassionate intellectual discussion of other views and disqualification of a targeted author or group.

We believe that vigorous debate is clearly of the essence in intellectual communities, and that even strong disagreements can be an engine of progress. However, tone and prose should follow the usual academic standards of politeness and respect in phrasing. We recognize that these are not consistently met in this particular issue. These standards, especially toward people we deeply disagree with, are a common benefit to us all. We regret any deviation from our usual standards.

Johan van Benthem
Vincent F. Hendricks
John Symons
Editors-in-Chief / SYNTHESE

First and foremost, we deeply regret the decision to insert this disclaimer, which insults not only us but also the contributors to the special issue. It was inserted without our consent or approval, without our being directly notified by the Editors-in-Chief, and despite our having been assured twice by one of the Editors-in-Chief that it would not be inserted (as we will explain below). In retrospect, we perhaps should have warned the contributors when the proposal to insert such a disclaimer was broached, but it did not occur to us that the Editors-in-Chief would renege on their assurances that no disclaimer would be inserted. Nevertheless, we would like to take this opportunity to reiterate our sincerest apologies to the contributors.

The background to the disclaimer involves Barbara Forrest's contribution to the special issue, "The Non-Epistemology of Intelligent Design," which vigorously critiqued the work of Francis Beckwith. Shortly after the papers were published on-line in advance of publication by SYNTHESE in 2009, friends of Beckwith began to protest -- not to the Guest Editors, but to the Editors-in-Chief -- about Forrest's article, one even going so far as to claim that it was "libelous."

In response, the Editors-in-Chief discussed the matter with Jim Fetzer, who has an extensive history with the journal, including serving as one of its co-editors from 1990 to 1999 and editing six previous special issues. In preparation for this discussion, Fetzer solicited the opinion of another former editor of SYNTHESE, who regarded the paper as unproblematic with the minor exception of Forrest's mention of Beckwith's recent return to the Catholic Church, a matter that has not surfaced in any of the discussion that has followed.

The outcome of the discussion was that Beckwith would be allowed a chance to respond in a later issue of SYNTHESE (which he has now taken; his response has already been published on-line in advance of publication), but that "[n]othing is to be done to the special issue" (as Fetzer summarized his understanding of the discussion to the Editors-in-Chief, none of whom expressed any disagreement).

Subsequently, in September 2010, Forrest advised Glenn Branch that she had been asked by two of the Editors-in-Chief to revise her paper -- which, again, had already been published on-line -- on pains of an editorial disclaimer being added to the issue. This condition was not, as would have been appropriate, discussed with or even divulged to the Guest Editors. Branch passed this news on to Fetzer, who protested vehemently to the Editors-in-Chief; it appears that the third was not aware of the demand from the other two. In November 2010, the third Editor-in-Chief assured us that both the request for a revision and the idea of an editorial disclaimer had been dropped. (We should also mention that the publisher of the journal was by no means enthusiastic about the idea of revising an already published paper.) With that, we believed we had resolved any issues between the parties involved.

It therefore came as a complete -- and most unwelcome -- surprise to discover such a statement included in the printed edition.

Several of the contributors have informed us and/or the Editors-in-Chief that they would have withdrawn their papers from the issue had they known that they would have been published under the shadow of such a disclaimer. (Note that the disclaimer speaks of "some of the papers," in the plural, suggesting that Forrest's was not the only paper that is supposedly objectionable.) We ourselves would have reconsidered our proposal to edit a special issue on this subject had we any idea that such opprobrium might attach to our efforts, which have conformed to appropriate standards of scholarship and publication in general, and with the standards of SYNTHESE in particular, with which we are very familiar.

We are both shocked and chagrined that a journal of SYNTHESE's stature should have sunk so low as to violate the canons of responsible editorial practice as the result of lobbying by a handful of ideologues. This tells us -- as powerfully as Forrest's work -- that intelligent design corrupts. We regret the conduct of the Editors-in-Chief and the unwarranted insult to the contributors and ourselves as Guest Editors represented by the disclaimer. We are doing our best to make the misconduct of the Editors-in-Chief a matter of common knowledge within the philosophy community in the hope that everyone will consider whatever actions may be appropriate for them to adopt in any future associations with SYNTHESE.


Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.

James H. Fetzer
McKnight Professor Emeritus
University of Minnesota Duluth

(Institutions are listed for the purposes of identification only.)

It looks very much like Francis Beckwith's sympathisers' objections were unilaterally accepted without question by the editors-in-chief. One can only wonder why. Perhaps threats of legal action were made against the journal or the editors? If so, this action is execrable and should be withdrawn. The proper forum for academic dispute is in debate, not attack based on fear of litigation. Beckwith has his forum, and readers can decide for themselves whether they think he has a case. One wonders whether or not a similar disclaimer will accompany his contribution.

Is this what the academy has been reduced to? In the light of recent attempts to silence or discourage criticisms by certain allied political interests, this looks very bad.