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Us, them and the real issue

I think I need to clear the air a bit.

In the Synthese posts I have been defending the authors of the special issue to which I contributed. Some may think this has to do with my agreeing with them. I happen to, in the main, but I do not defend them and myself, or the Guest Editors of that issue, because of that. For my money, the boycott is not about defending territory. It is about defending the academic process. Intelligent Design proponents, if they meet the basic standards of academic discourse (evidence, reason and clarity) should be allowed to publish wherever they can. That is why the Beckwith paper should have been accepted if it met those standards.

Likewise, I do not care if it happens that the Synthese editors are inclined towards intelligent design, creationism or Platonic idealism. That is a decision they, as thinkers, have a responsibility for. This is not about tribal loyalties. They can believe what they like. What I object to, however, is the adding of a disclaimer that deprecates the papers published, motivated (it seems) by outside special interests applying pressure, without due academic process, and with the threat of litigation.

Had the editors given us a chance, either to revise or to withdraw our papers as our conscience dictated, then that would have been acceptable, if cause for a different kind of protest (one that involves walking elsewhere). But what we have here is an attack upon free discussion by a leading journal of a leading publisher. The next step would be to reject papers that could be seen as controversial, and since controversy is in the eye of the offended, that would have a “chilling effect” as the jurisprudentists say, upon academic debate. The nett effect would be a mediocritising of debate. Allowing external pressures, particularly those mediated by political and religious interests, to constrain debate is a constant threat to academic freedom, and in this climate, particularly in the United States, but also in several European Union nations and elsewhere in the world, one that betokens a larger problem. The next step is to threaten universities to take away controversial academics’ jobs.

I have seen universities both cave into this sort of litigious threat, and stand firm, depending upon the administration. One time I was asked to review a chapter for a book for a university press. I did so and rejected the piece, which the book editor had also done, as it was of poor scholarship and made little sense. The author sued the university, which, rather than telling the author to take a hike, settled out of court. I have heard of similar events since then.

In recent years we have seen a lot of political pressure brought to bear upon academe, especially in cases like global warming, evolution, vaccination and the like. Not merely jobs, but whole university budgets have been threatened. In the UK, several philosophy departments, among others, are at threat because the present (and past) government thinks that universities are only useful for producing employable graduates. If we as a profession do not protect ourselves, eventually administrations will also stop.

This might seem like a long bow to draw, a slippery slope based on very little, but it is not just what happened at Synthese that worries me. That is one case, and should be fought on its merits, but there are a worrying number of other instances in which philosophy is being, to some extent, muzzled. So that is why I am taking this on, apart from the unwarranted slur upon good work by Barbara Forrest.


  1. Jon Wilkins Jon Wilkins

    +1 to all that.

    By the way, I’m happy to add my name to the boycotters of Synthese, although it is largely redundant since our names are nearly identical, as well as largely meaningless, since they are unlikely to publish anything by me or ask me to review anything.

    Still, modulo your stance on empty gestures, do add me to the list.

  2. The general editors of Synthese have issued a response. This “response” just reasserts a vague complaint about the language of some of the special issue contributions, but addresses none of the main issues I identified earlier as objectionable. So let the boycott proceed. But in addition to compiling a list of those joining the boycott, it would be good if John could also make explicit to the Synthese editors what the major points of motivating the boycott are (similar to a petition text) — so that in the future the editors cannot ignore issues that are non-negotiable to us.

    There is more discussion on the boycott and the editors’ response at another blog, with one suggesting a stronger boycott that could involve not having one’s library subscribe to Synthese any longer.

  3. Nick Nick

    OK, I’m going to play devil’s advocate, here: what is Synthese doing publishing an issue that contains content like this:

    “Arguing with creationists is like weeding a garden, to switch similes–you can pull weeds all day and do a great job, but there will soon be more weeds, just like those you removed earlier.”

    “The most important element in the war is finding a venue in which we can engage the enemy on terms favorable to our side (or at least not rigged in favor of the bad guys.) ”

    And why was Roger Pennock allowed to call Larry Laudan a “histrionic” “squinting philosopher” whose arguments are “dangerous”?

    I’m going to go ahead and accuse you guys of deliberately avoiding the issue, here. The issue is that some of the pro-evolution papers in this issue took on a blatantly militaristic tone in what is supposed to be a high-ranking academic journal. Maybe the IDers pointed this out to the editors, maybe they didn’t, but what could it possibly matter who did? No content was censored whatsoever, but the editors did (correctly) point out that the tone was in places completely unacceptable. The only thing they can be faulted for is not kaiboshing the offending articles before they were published.

    No, really: If you want to fight a “war” with creationists, there are plenty of guns, knives and baseball bats to do it with. Keep the schoolyard us vs. them stuff out of Synthese. I applaud the editors, at least for their hindsight.

    • Yes, the question is indeed “what was Synthese doing?” Not, what were the authors doing? Not, what were the Guest Editors doing? The responsibility for allowing these articles to go to press in their present form is the Editors in Chief’s. They had the responsibility to see that language they deemed inappropriate was revised. They had that opportunity. They might also have targeted their complaints to the particular papers they objected to. Instead, they smeared all the contributors and refused (and still are refusing) to identify the inappropriate language. And they acted when they said they wouldn’t. And they did this long after the papers were accepted and put online.

      Let’s be very clear about this: this furore was created by the Editors in Chief. Had they acted in line with established practice, they would have objected to publishing the language they found uncivil. Now, instead, critics of evolution are claiming that all papers are uncivil. I have just been declared one of them. The EiCs may think I am insulated from criticism because a “neutral” reader can tell what is uncivil or not, but it is not likely that neutral readers are common enough to make a difference.

      The disclaimer needs to be retracted, and an apology made, and if they continue to have problems with any of the papers, they need to specify which ones, which language and tone, and then make a new disclaimer, apologising to those authors for not preventing them from publishing something inappropriate as editors are supposed to do.

      Publishing is a human activity and the reason we even have editors is to act as a filter against error and poor judgement. If they allowed what they claim to be poor judgement through, it is their shared fault, not just those of the Guest Editors and authors, and this disclaimer is a cheap way to wash their hands.

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