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Bradley Monton on “Synthese affair” = anti-ID hit pieces in philosophy journal disclaimed

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Our favourite atheist philosopher Bradley Monton, author of Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design (Broadview Press, 2009), reflects on the Beckwith-Forrest-Synthese dustup which hit the New York Times last weekend. Noting that some philosophers have called for a boycott of Synthese because the journal’s regular editors disclaimed the tone of anti-ID pieces published in a special issue:

Regarding the issue of the boycott, I think that, based on my best guess as to what really happened, the situation could have been handled better by the editors-in-chief, but they way they handled it doesn’t at all warrant a boycott. (This position is nicely argued for by John Turri here.) John Symons’ explanation of the disclaimer seems reasonable and prudent, given the inappropriate content of Forrest’s and Pennock’s pieces:

I’m speaking independently of my co-editors and the publisher here, but I’m sure they’ll concur with me fully: To be clear, the editors in chief of Synthese in no way “caved to the ID lobby” or to threats of lawsuits. Regular readers of the journal will find many instances of intemperate language and ad hominem in this issue which we regret and for which we take full responsibility. We are in no way shifting this responsibility to the guest editors. We failed to prevent this language going into print and because of this failure we felt the obligation to write this preface and to acknowledge that we compromised the standards of the journal.

Many sources think that the initial decision to leave the entire edition to the Darwin-in-the-schools lobby group National Centre for Science Education was unwise, and that all else followed. But if Synthese stands its ground in repudiating the unscholarly tone and insinuations, it should soon be water under the bridge.

(Note: There was no ID lobby, except in the minds of certain parties. That became apparent a month or so ago, long before the Times story.)

I recently came across this affair, and commented in another blog. I'll reproduce it here. As an economist looking in from outside, I find this episode somewhat humorous. I think less of philosophy, but not for the same reason as Brian Leiter. Rather, it looks as if the journal took a strong position against a philosophic idea, but had qualms about ad hominem attacks, and so was insufficiently strong in its advocacy from the point of view of Prof. Leiter. When I first read of this, I thought Leiter's complaint must be that a philosophy journal had dared to have a journal issue that advocated for intelligent design. Instead, I found the opposite: the issue was entirely one-sided, but against intelligent design-- just insufficiently so for his politics. In economics, a leading journal wouldn't have a special attack issue like that in the first place. It might have an issue with articles on both sides, but not just on one side of a controversy. That's where I fault the editors. As for the editors' special comment denigrating the integrity of one of the articles, that raises a different issue, one very relevant to the author of the blog post above. If a journal's editors delegate editing to a special editor for a special issue, and they think he's going to publish a poor article that is well beneath the journal's quality (in tone or substance) what should they do? As for tone, I don't think there should be any question that they could override the special editor and ask for revisions. After all, if the special editor wanted to use a special font or citation system, the general editors would be able to override him, and a rude--- or even overly informal--- is something along the same lines. As for substance, that is trickier. There, too, however, I'd want the general editors to override the special editor. Readers and tenure committees will have some suspicion that special issues contain lower-quality articles. There is temptation by a special editor to publish all the papers from a conference he organized, or to publish friends' papers, even if they aren't all that good. The only way to deter that is for the general editors to have the threat of intervening. If the general editors publicly state a policy of not overriding special editors' decision, I myself wouldn't consider special issue articles as "real" articles of that journal. Eric Rasmusen

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