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A Peculiar Disclaimer

April 20, 2011

When Synthese, an academic journal that focuses on the philosophy of science, set out to tackle the combustible topics of evolution, creation and intelligent design in a special issue, some controversy was perhaps inevitable. Sure enough, the resulting edition of the journal -- “Evolution and Its Rivals” -- caused an uproar, including calls from some academics to boycott Synthese entirely.

But the anger wasn’t provoked by any of the articles in the guest-edited issue, which wrestled with questions including “Are creationists rational?” (answer: yes, in one sense) and “Can’t philosophers tell the difference between science and religion?” The outrage sprang from two paragraphs published in the front of the print edition: a note from the journal’s three regular editors-in-chief, apologizing for the content that followed.

“We believe that vigorous debate is clearly of the essence in intellectual communities, and that even strong disagreements can be an engine of progress,” the note read in part. “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.… We regret any deviation from our usual standards.”

The note did not name which of the articles readers might find offensive. The issue’s guest editors said the editors-in-chief were referring to “The non-epistemology of intelligent design: its implications for public policy,” by Barbara Forrest, a Southeastern Louisiana University professor who is a staunch critic of intelligent design. In the article, Forrest, a philosophy professor, “vigorously critiqued” Francis Beckwith, a professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University, said Glenn Branch, one of the two guest editors of the Synthese issue and deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, which promotes the teaching of evolution.

Beckwith, who studies the legal arguments in favor of teaching intelligent design, was previously a fellow at the Discovery Institute, best known for its promotion of intelligent design through its Center for Science and Culture.

After Forrest’s article was published online in advance of the print edition, the editors-in-chief agreed that Beckwith would be allowed space to respond in a later issue, Branch said. They also expressed their concerns to Forrest, he said, and raised the possibility of revising the article or inserting an editor’s note. But he was later told that no revisions would be required or editorial comment appended, he said.

When the digital edition was released online with a publication date of January 2011 and no note from the editors-in-chief, “it was a happy New Year,” Branch said.

Then came the print edition, with its disclaimer. The note blindsided Branch and his co-editor, James Fetzer, Branch said. “I’m appalled and dismayed,” he said. “I think the disclaimer insults the contributors, many of whom are friends and acquaintances, all of whom are philosophers whose work I respect.”

Brian Leiter, a University of Chicago law professor who directs the Center for Law, Philosophy and Human Values at the university and publishes a widely read blog, has called for a boycott of Synthese until the issue is resolved, asking scholars to refrain from submitting articles to or refereeing for the journal until the editors-in-chief apologize.

“They ought to explicitly retract their implication that something was wrong with the articles in that particular volume,” said Leiter, who suggested the boycott in a blog post Monday. “Alternatively, they've got to come forward and say exactly what was wrong with them.” The note was insulting to the guest editors and contributors, he said, and its inclusion suggested that the editors had given in to concerns of proponents of intelligent design.

In addressing the politically fraught conflict between evolution and intelligent design, Synthese ventured somewhat beyond its usual terrain: its articles usually address more arcane questions, including “Models and Simulations,” “Logic and Philosophy of Science in the Footsteps of E.W. Beth” and “Stance and Rationality,” all titles of special issues either published or scheduled for publication this year.

“For all this to hit the fan is really kind of stunning,” said Fetzer, who has previously guest-edited issues of Synthese that dealt with subjects including probability, rationality and objectivity.

And politics -- academic and otherwise -- lies just below the surface of the debate. Leiter, Fetzer and Branch, as well as John Wilkins, a philosopher at the University of Sydney, Australia, who is collecting names for the boycott, are all sharp critics of intelligent design and of Beckwith. (Fetzer is also no stranger to controversial theories; outside his work on philosophy, for instance, he is a proponent of the claim that the U.S. government is responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.)

The professors object to the disclaimer in part because it undermines the guest editors’ and contributors’ work, but also because it appears that the editors-in-chief “caved in to pressure” from advocates of intelligent design, Leiter said.

“I don’t think they acted with malice,” he said. Since the journal’s content is usually uncontroversial outside academe, the editors might not have realized what they were getting into, he said. “I don’t think they secretly supported intelligent design. They thought doing this would actually take some of the pressure off them, but that, I think, was a bad judgment call.”

On Tuesday, the controversy hit the philosophy blogosphere, with some arguing in favor of the boycott, others saying it was too extreme a step to take, and still others holding out for more information, including a statement from the editors-in-chief, who as of late Tuesday evening, had promised but failed to issue one.

Eric Merkel-Sobotta, executive vice president for corporate communications of Springer Science+Business Media, the journal's publisher, said via e-mail Wednesday morning that "the only comment we can give in this matter is that lively and robust debate around evolutionary theory is nothing new. Springer supports broad scientific discussion among peers through its journals, but does not, as a company, comment on debates between experts in a given field."

Beckwith, whose formal response to Forrest's article will be published in a forthcoming issue, wrote on his blog that he was "honored that these editors have chosen to distance their prestigious journal from the less-than-scholarly tactics of Professor Forrest." Forrest could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

How successful the boycott will be is still unclear. Wilkins, who is keeping track of the boycott on his website, Evolving Thoughts, said he had heard from roughly a dozen academics, including prominent philosophers, in support of the movement. But Leiter noted that it could encounter difficulties. Synthese, which was first published in 1936, appears on the "A" list of the European Science Foundation's philosophy journals, which helps determine research funding, he said. And other philosophers might see a boycott as an opportunity to play the odds and get published, hoping that they would have a better chance of being selected if fellow academics are withholding their work, he said.

Still, "If the editors don’t come up with a good explanation for what’s going on or they don’t disclaim the disclaimer, I think they’re going to see a drop in their submissions," Leiter said. "It won’t be total, but there will be some costs to this."

 

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