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Open thread on Synthese

This thread is for anyone to discuss the matter in anyway they like, so long as the Comment Rules (at left) are respected. I have closed comments on the other threads, but some think the issue needs more discussion. Also see the Status Page for links to other discussions ongoing.

Have at it, civilly.


  1. Nick Nick

    The issue of pressure from ID is reasonable and ought to be addressed according to the actual evidence that such pressure existed. I personally cannnot speak to such evidence. However, ANY treatment of this issue must not blindly ignore the way in which at least one and almost certainly two papers in this issue were published despite displaying an alarming amount of patently childish, ridiculous rhetorical garbage.

    Had I been involved in this issue, I would publicly demand that the senior editors make clear why they published their letter, but I would also demand that the guest editors tell us why they felt that such material belongs in Synthese.

    I’ll let Laudan speak for himself on this one:

    “I will limit my comments to a single paper by Robert Pennock from the issue in question. In the course of some twenty pages, he alleges that the work of a fellow philosopher is “almost willfully naïve and misguided,” that it “can only be described as histrionic and ill-considered” and that it ”continue[s] to muddy the waters to the detriment of both science and philosophy of science.” He goes on to endorse the proposal that the philosopher in question should be excluded from ‘the conversation of mankind’ because said author “ha[s] lost touch with reality in a profound and perverse way.” Those of you who have read Pennock’s paper will know that I am not a wholly disinterested party here, since all his barbs are directed specifically at yours truly.

    But I think I can lay aside self interest long enough to say that discourse of this sort has no legitimate place in any serious journal of philosophy (most especially the suggestion that those who disagree with Pennock should be excluded from ‘the conversation of mankind’). I cannot imagine any editor of any journal in the field who would not be appalled if he discovered that papers he had inadvertently published were rich in such jejune invective. Indeed, if there is any journal editor reading this blog who would not have taken a red pencil aggressively to such a text, I would be interested to know that.”

    The senior editors have done something wrong and something right. Anyone who thinks that the entire story is that they have only done one of these things is not acting responsibly.

  2. All,

    Just to clarify a few crucial points about the history of this fiasco, the guest editors edited the special issue, it was submitted to the journal, and one of the Editors-in-Chief accepted it for publication. Subsequently, after its contents had been published on-line, one of the contributors contacted Glenn Branch to explain that she was being subjected to pressure from the Editors-in-Chief who had received complaints from Beckwith and others, where, if she did not revise her paper, they anticipated adding a negative preface to the issue.

    Neither Glenn nor I had been directly contacted by the Editors-in-Chief about this. When I learned from him that one of our contributors had been contacted directly, I called the Editor-in-Chief who had accepted our special issue to object to their having gone to one of our contributors rather than coming to us. I regard that action as inappropriate and inexcusable, where I began an exchange with them (via email) in which I laid out the case for not requesting revisions and for not adding such a preface, which, I explained, would be insulting to our contributors and to us as guest editors as well as be setting a terrible precedent for the future. If they wanted revisions, they should have been requested when the issue was submitted, not after its acceptance.

    Laudan complains about the Pennock paper, but the Editors-in-Chief have never said anything to either of us about any article other than the one about which they heard LOUD AND CLEAR from Beckwith and his supporters in the ID movement. We could debate about the tone and texture of other papers, no doubt, where this subject tends to invite passion and rhetoric. If Laudan thinks we should have reined in Pennock, that’s fine. But until now, that has not figured at all in any of the discussion–and does not appear to have had any role to play in influencing the Editors-in-Chief in their actions. The question is not whether Glenn and I were flawless in our editing but the role assumed by the Editors-in-Chief in response to the complaints they received.

    The deliberations among the Editors-in-Chief took several weeks, possibly months, but I was eventually notified twice (by the Editor-in-Chief who had accepted the special issue) that the Editors-in-Chief had decided not to request revisions. He subsequently notified me that they had also decided against adding a negative preface. At that point in time, both Glenn and I believed that all was well. We were therefore shocked and chagrined to discover that such a preface had indeed been published in the hard copy of the journal. It is very difficult for me to understand how any professional academician, much less any serious philosopher, could not find fault with the actions taken by the Editors-in-Chief, which were duplicitous, deceitful, and professionally unethical. In my opinion, this is not even remotely “a close call”.


  3. Nick Nick


    Do you understand that someone might accept the critiques you make here and still see some positive value in what the editors did? Procedurally, this was clearly a mess. This was not the way to address the problem, and subsequent information has indeed been scant. But logically speaking this does not change the fact that there *was* a problem to address, and I would prefer to see some personal responsibility accepted on the part of those who actually decided to publish the Pennock paper. Anyone who thinks that it contains a shred of philosophical or dialectical merit is simply wrong, and its faults can be traced directly to its preference for inflammatory rhetoric. The same kind of rhetoric that the senior editors rightly complain about.

  4. In the absence of actual examples, it is hard to respond. Pennock’s paper was not raised in this context by the Editors in Chief, only Forrest’s. And much of the rhetoric Pennock is accused of using was in fact quoted (mentioned, not used) from other sources, such as Paul Gross. Unless you can show that (i) Pennock used the rhetoric, and (ii) it was unjustified, all this is merely a red herring.

    I agree that the language of some of the papers might be different to the uualy Synthese style. I am willing to bet this will also be true of other special issues. There is a single concern in this case: the EiCs did not specify the problem and did not give prior warning or chance to revise. All the rest is the ordinary argy bargy of academic debate.

  5. Nick,

    Your argument is purely counterfactual. How can they have intentionally performed a benefit when they were unaware of the alleged benefit they were performing? The answer, of course, is that they cannot. There is certainly room for argument about Pennock’s paper, where I may have been less affected by his language than others in the community, having been assailed so often for tackling research on controversial subjects, such as the assassination of JFK and the atrocities of 9/11. (See the posts on “Evolving Thoughts” for a few mild examples.) But Brian Leiter has spelled out the implications :

    “As an aside, I should add that my own personal opinion is that there is one paper in the volume that is both philosophically shallow and whose rhetoric is not supported by the quality of the argument, namely, Robert Pennock’s (I alluded to this long ago). But Mr. Branch reports that no objection was ever raised about Pennock’s paper by the Editors-in-Chief, only about the paper that targets longtime ID apologist Francis Beckwith; that, of course, supports the inference that the Editors-in-Chief caved into pressure from Intelligent Design proponents and friends of Beckwith, as originally alleged.”


  6. A response to Nick: If there really had been a serious problem to be addressed with one of the papers published online, the only legit options for the EICs would have been to retract the paper, to publish a notice clearly stating the reasons, and to give the other special issue authors the option to withdraw their papers under the circumstances.

    Now some people go around fishing for potentially objectionable language in the special issue, using this in support of the idea that there was some need to the add disclaimer after all. But pointing to any passage is irrelevant as long it is now shown that this passage motivated the EICs to add the discplaimer — which is impossible given that the EICs have refused to even specify which articles they deem to be problematic.

    I have no serious problems with the the language of Pennock’s article, or at least have not found such passages (and have taken notice that the EICs deem me for this reason to be scholarly incompetent: “neutral readers of the issue will find no difficulty in identifying such passages”). I feel that the content is what matters anyway. But since we are at it: Laudan’s complaint about Pennock’s article (which you refer to above) is a blatant instance of quote mining, where Laudan attributes views to Pennock that the latter did not assert. Laudan quotes 5 short passages, which are better seen as 4 since the 2 are parts from the same sentence (“histrionic and ill-considered … muddy the waters”).
    — One of them is not a statement directly made about Laudan: “philosophers who say there is no difference [between science and religion] have lost touch with reality in a profound and perverse way”. Yet Laudan suggests that Pennock simply asserted that Laudan has lost touch with reality. Laudan does not give the full quote , and Pennock’s actual claim is unobjectionable (as he refers to whoever seriously thinks that there is not difference between science and religion).
    — Another one is not a claim by Pennock about Laudan, by Pennock reporting the view of another person about Laudan: “Barry Gross … found Laudan’s treatment to be almost willfully naïve and misguided”. Again Laudan quotes only the “almost willfully naïve and misguided”.
    — One of Laudan’s passages is even taken from a quote in the article, where Pennock quotes Barry Gross. It was hard to belief that Pennock himself would have used the phrase “deserving an exclusion from ‘the conversation of mankind'”, but Laudan tried to convince us so after all.

    Laudan is seriously quote mining by selecting passages that are a few words long from Pennock’s article (some of which where quotes by other authors) and stringing them together in a different order, using Laudan’s connectives (“because”) and attributions. Nick copied Laudan’s assertion from another website, but omitted my objections to the alleged quotes that I made at this website right in response to Laudan. Laudan’s quote mine should not be reproduced, except at this site.

  7. Just for the record–and to tie up some loose ends–I want to thank John and Ingo for excellent observations about the use of selective quotation by Larry Laudan. I have been motivated to return to the special issue and to reread Pennock’s article, which I consider to be exemplary. He makes many excellent points about Laudan, where I am convinced that Laudan’s efforts to diminish the distinction between science and pseudo-science has proven to be a great boon to those who promote creationism, creation science, and ID. I suspect that this is the reason I recommended it be our opening article.

    Within the framework of inference to the best explanation (IBE), for an hypothesis to qualify as “scientific”, it must satisfy conditions of (1) derivability, (2) lawlikeness, and (3) exclusion of irrelevant factors, which cannot be satisfied by classic creationist hypotheses is any of their formulations. That (CC1) God created the world and everything therein exactly as we find it today; or that (CC2) He created life in fixed and unchanging forms; or that (CC3) He created life in all its forums using the laws of evolution are unable to satisfy those three conditions and therefore cannot qualify as “scientific”.

    Since “exactly as we find it today” is compatible with any arrangement of the geological, fossil, and DNA evidence, (CC1) does not imply one explanandum as opposed to another and is empirically untestable. That all life exists in fixed and unchanging forms is a testable claim, but (CC2) does not offer lawlike premises connecting God to that outcome. And if God created life in all its forms using the laws of evolution, as (CC3) implies, then the laws of evolution are enough to explain those forms of life and the appeal to God is irrelevant.

    Since most defensible measure of evidential support for one hypothesis in comparison with another is the probability of the evidence when we assume that they are true (known as “likelihoods”) since creationist, creation science and ID hypotheses fail to satisfy the requirements for qualifying as potential explanans, they have measures of support equal to zero by this standard. Which means that (IBE) appears to provide the foundation for a more sophisticated criterion of demarcation, which means that Laudan did not get it right.

    Indeed, even if the evolution of species, given the initial conditions on Earth, is highly improbable, that does not alter the consideration that an hypothesis with a low likelihood is still preferable to those with zero likelihoods, which produces the right result and appears to be fully justified based upon (IBE). I explain all this in RENDER UNTO DARWIN (2007), but if you want to find it, you will have to begin the book by reading the Appendix! My editor thought it was too heavy for the opening chapter, but it’s there, nonetheless. So the short answer is that Pennock is right and Laudan was wrong.

  8. Here is another article on the flap: “God’s Bulldog: Francis Beckwith and the Synthese Affair” by Paul Pardi at Philosophy News:

    • Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

      I am ploughing through Forrest’s paper at the moment and I am inclined to agree with Pardi’s comments.

      The paper could, with advantage, have been subjected to some rigorous editing. She presents a strong case against Intelligent Design on epistemological grounds but the section dealing with Beckwith tends to undermine it by reading, in spite of the scholarly jargon, as more personally antagonistic than perhaps should be the case for an academic paper. Reading between the lines you get the impression she really has it in for him.

      That said, I agree with John that the ultimate responsibility rests with the journal’s Editors-in-Chief. If they judged that a paper failed to meet the standards they require of submissions then they could have, and should have, insisted that it be rewritten or withdrawn. Publishing a non-specific disclaimer which tended to tar all the contributing authors with the same brush satisfies no one and offends some unnecessarily.

      On the other hand, perhaps they were threatened with a libel suit being filed with the British courts and this is further evidence of the chilling effect of the UK’s much-criticized defamation laws.

  9. bob koepp bob koepp

    Jim Fetzer –
    Larry Laudan might, indeed, get it wrong when he (1) rejects purported demarcation criteria between science an pseudo-science, and this might even (2) represent “a great boon to those who promote creationism, creation science, and ID.” But I hope you don’t expect him to be less than agressive in arguing for (1) just because it has (2) as a by-product. That would be rather like tarring your own efforts to get to the bottom of several assassinations and the 911 tragedy because they are frequently cited by bona fide conspiracy “nuts.”

  10. Bob,

    You have a nice point! The criterion afforded by (IBE) makes it apparent why ID proponents are advancing a theory that is non-scientific. What they offer is an analogy of the Intelligent Designer with the Human Artisan, where there are more differences than similarities. We know how the Human Artisan makes artifacts (using paints and brushes, hammers and chisels, often reworking and revising as they go). But how the Intelligent Designer brings about any of these alleged effects is a complete and total mystery. We need to know how this is done to take any of it seriously by relating the explanandum to the explanans, especially by means of laws, in the absence of which some may dervice psychological satisfaction but there is no scientific explanation.

    If Laudan were correct, as you imply, that those in the ID movement might have grist for their mill commits an appeal to pity. Just because there may be unfortunate consequences that attend establishing a certain point does not constitute evidence that undermines its truth. Laudan is wrong about the absence of a criterion of demarcation, if I am not mistaken, but compounds his rebuttal to Pennock’s critique by violating the use/mention distinction and faulting him for passages that Pennock is quoting but Laudan is citing as though they had been penned by Pennock. That was a serious lapse on the part of Laudan, for which I hope that he, like the Editors-in-Chiefs, will find the occasion to acknowledge and make amends, which would be welcome.

    The article by Paul Pardi at Philosophy News to which John Pieret invites out attention offers thoughtful reflections about the exchange between Forrest and Beckwith. During our interactions with the Editors-in-Chief, Glenn and I agreed that affording Beckwith the opportunity to reply in a subsequent issue was perfectly fine with us. Perhaps he and I should have exercised more control over our authors, where certain passages may be more intense than some readers prefer. My own tendency is to give authors considerable leeway, as these papers display, where this subject, unlike most philosophical topics, engenders passion on both sides and has ramifications that extend far beyond the confines of the classroom.

  11. Nick Nick

    Just saw these replies… sorry, I am not convinced. It is asserted that my argument is “purely counterfactual”… what could possibly be more “counterfactual” than calling for a boycott based on ID pressure for which there is no actual evidence?

    It is asserted that (one of) Pennock’s quotes is not about Laudan. This is utterly irrelevant to the criticism I made, which is that the paper is philosophically useless and that its uselessness can be directly attributed to its preference for silly rhetoric over argument. What can it possibly matter who is targeted here?

    Finally, James, I am grateful that you took the time to say what you think about Pennock’s article, because it confirms a prior suspicion of mine. Bob (above) is exactly right about this alleged virtue of Pennock’s piece. As if the truth of a philosophical position should be determined according to the effects it has in a given philosophical sphere. How utterly extraordinary that someone editing a high-ranking philosophical journal would take Pennock’s “argument” in this regard to be a reason for including it in the journal. I remain shocked at the Guest Editors’ unwillingness to take one iota of responsibility for this situation.

  12. Nick,

    The point about being “counterfactual” is that the Editors-in-Chief were affected by complaints about Forrest’s article and never uttered a peep about any other article until long after Glenn and I had issued our public statement about it. So your argument depends upon their having taken into account concerns about a paper that they did not take into account. Certainly, they did not raise it at any point in our deliberations, where I am the one who engaged with them in those deliberations and who was informed by one of the Editors-in-Chief about their concerns, which had nothing to do with Pennock at all.

    They were, on the contrary, very concerned about the complaints they were receiving from Beckwith and his supporters. I can’t imagine why you would think that this is fictional when I was being informed about it along the way. There was certainly nothing counterfactual about it. I am puzzled by such a remark, since it leave me baffled as to what you think has been going on here. They pressured the Editors-in-Chief, who went behind our backs to one of our contributors. We resisted and thought the matter was settled, only to discover that, contrary to our mutual agreement, the preface nevertheless still appeared.

    The passages that Laudan quoted were not authored by Pennock but by others he was citing and discussing. Since I am agreeing with Bob that the truth of an argument is independent of the effects it may have — and I say so quite explicitly! — I have no idea why you are foisting off upon me a view that I do not hold and have explicitly debunked (in the post prior to your own). We can of course disagree about these studies in various respects, but be assured that Glenn and I stand completely behind our contributors, who have done nothing wrong, as far as we can see, and are doing what we can to influence the Editors-in-Chief to set the record straight. I should have thought that you would applaud.

    Frankly, you do not appear to understand what I had to say about the appeal to pity, which was implicit in Bob’s remark. As I explained in my response, if Laudan were correct in his belief that there is no method for separating science from non-science, the fact that that result might lend its support to the creationism/ID movement would not make it wrong. If I am right, then he is mistaken, because a viable criterion of demarcation follows from reliance upon (IBE). The tenability of a philosophical position is always independent of its consequences, no matter how unfortunate. Pennock’s arguments for such a criterion are stronger than Laudan’s against it, which is why it was included in our special issue. It had nothing to do with such irrelevant considerations.


  13. Nick,

    I continue to be mystified by your insinuation that there exists “no actual evidence” of ID pressure exerted on the Editors-in-Chief, when Brian Leiter send them our initial statement, in which we laid out the history of this entire affair, which they have not denied. In addition, Brian has also written directly to John Symons, one of the three Editors-in-Chief, as follows:

    Reply 21 April 2011 at 18:11

    Brian said…

    John, I have reports from various sources that you in particular were subjected to aggressive lobbying by friends of Beckwith. Do you deny that? That is, do you deny that supporters of Beckwith lobbied you to do something about the Barbara Forrest article? Do you deny that at least one of those supporters alleged the Forrest piece was libelous?

    Yes or no?

    Do you deny that the Guest Editors were assured no disclaimer would appear?

    Yes or no?

    Can you identify which articles in this volume failed to meet professional standards?

    Professor Symons declined to answer these questions in a public forum, which is his right.

    While he has the right not to answer, this is not a legal proceeding and the only reason I can imagine for his declining to answer is that the answers to those questions would not reflect favorable upon him and the other Editors-in-Chief.

    In addition, SYNTHESE has already accepted and published on-line a reply from Francis Beckwith, “Or we can be philosophers: a response to Barbara Forrest,” Synthese (February 2011), which was accepted the same day that it was submitted: “Received 7 February 2011 / Accepted 7 February 2011”, which must be a new indoor record for processing a submission by this journal.

    All of this, of course, would be a remarkable coincidence were it not in response to the situation that has been generated by the three Editors-in-Chief buckling under to the ID lobby. That, alas, is what this fiasco is all about, which other philosophers have appreciated. The evidence, which you seem to be still unable to perceive, is there — and it is both abundant and compelling.


  14. I have made another pass through this thread and can now see where Nick has misinterpreted me. He uncharitably — but quite plausibly — supposed that, in this passage, I was offering the consequences of the failure to be able to establish a criterion of demarcation as the reason why Pennock’s paper was accepted by Glenn and me for publication, given his interpretation of these two sentences:

    “[Pennock] makes many excellent points about Laudan, where I am convinced that Laudan’s efforts to diminish the distinction between science and pseudo-science has proven to be a great boon to those who promote creationism, creation science, and ID. I suspect that this is the reason I recommended it be our opening article.”

    But I was explaining why I recommended, not that it be ACCEPTED, but why it would be appropriate to use AS OUR OPENING ARTICLE (the first paper in the sequence as it would appear in the journal). Bob Koepp, quite rightly, has pointed out that, HAD THE ARTICLE BEEN ACCEPTED ON THAT BASIS, a fallacy would have been committed, with which I of course agree:

    “The tenability of a philosophical position is always independent of its consequences, no matter how unfortunate. Pennock’s arguments for such a criterion are stronger than Laudan’s against it, which is why it was included in our special issue. It had nothing to do with such irrelevant considerations.”

    But considerations that were irrelevant to the decision whether or not to ACCEPT THE PAPER were, in my opinion, entirely appropriate in deciding WHERE TO PLACE IT IN THE SEQUENCE. That decision, typically, is one made on the basis of pragmatic considerations, where its significance for the broader political landscape was the reason that I recommended placing it first.

  15. Orwin O'Dowd Orwin O'Dowd

    I am wildly unimpressed by endless non-commentary on the Wallace-Darwin theory of evolution, presented as such to the Royal Society at the explicit insistence of Charles Darwin. Richard Wallace was a proponent of intelligent design, and went on to offer the Society for Psychical Research the definitive refutation of animal magnetism.
    At issue is only whether the intelligence concerned is taken as “deus ex machina” (metaphysical mechanism); as imanent in Nature (Neoplatonism); or found in the play of exchanges constituting the economy of nature. Darwin quietly endorsed this third way, in a passing comment on Goethe, but was followed only by the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss.
    Evolution was wreaked by a new wave of metaphysical mechanism, to be rediscovered through cladistics and biogeography.

  16. James H. Fetzer James H. Fetzer


    An excellent thread here appears to have disappeared. I wanted to add a note in response to Robert Brandon’s question about whether we knew that the Editors-in-Chief were being lobbied by “friends of Beckwith” only as a matter of inference, to which the answer is that I had been informed (but in confidence) by one of the Editors-in-Chief that three parties had contacted them about the article by Barbara Forrest.


    Reviewing the thread, I discovered your question about how we knew it was “friends of Beckwith”. I was given the names of him and two others — one of whom was Dembski, the other far better known — all three of whom are targets of Forrest’s critique. So we knew that those who were lobbying the Editors-in-Chief were among those she was criticizing in her article — hardly the right persons to be offering advice and encouraging a reply and such.

    The crucial letter from Hendricks to Forrest has just been posted by Brian Leiter on his blog. In my opinion, this letter — to which I composed and sent a very lengthy, point by point, rebuttal, which I sent to the three Editors-in-Chief and reps of Springer — is especially striking not only because Glenn and I were not copied but because the third of the three Editors-in-Chief, John Symons, who had accepted the special issue on behalf of SYNTHESE, was not copied either! In my opinion, that was despicable conduct.


    • James, I am sorry – I have changed the method of commenting on the blog. I had thought that all previous comments were carried over (the comment you repeat is actually now on the original Synthese thread). I had already put you comment on the Status page.

  17. Marcel Kincaid Marcel Kincaid

    “Anyone who thinks that it contains a shred of philosophical or dialectical merit is simply wrong” — snort. How profoundly intellectually dishonest.

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