Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Synthese Problem

The philosophosphere has recently erupted into a major, and somewhat heated, controversy over Synthese, and in particular the special edition I mentioned here back in December. The subject was intelligent design theory, and the Guest Editors were Glenn Branch and James Fetzer. It came out first in a temporary online version (the one I linked to) and then a print edition. However, when the print edition came out, there was a disclaimer from the Editors-in-Chief saying that the edition did not meet the "usual academic standards of politeness and respect in phrasing." This was a surprise to the contributors and, apparently, to the Guest Editors, who set about giving their version of the events that led to it. It raises some serious questions that do need to be answered, but when I saw it the first time, I knew there was trouble brewing. With the exception of the fact that most academic philosophers are male, there is no creature on the face of the planet that more closely conforms to standard stereotypes of the melodramatic prima donna than a standard academic philosopher. Fortunately, I've been pleasantly at the behavior of the main parties involved -- for the most part -- but there really was trouble brewing. Part of the problem is that the Editors-in-Chief for Synthese, Johan van Benthem, Vincent F. Hendricks, and John Symons, all have excellent reputations, as philosophers, as editors and (as far as I have ever heard) as people. Part of it is that their disclaimer was very vague (as is their further statement), neither suggesting that all the papers were problematic nor saying which papers were. Also, contrary to some of the statements, some of the papers were problematic for the very reasons stated by the Editors-in-Chief. Most of the attention has focused on Forrest's paper on Beckwith, because that's where the Guest Editors have raised the issues of professional ethics. However, given that the Editors-in-Chief still insist on saying that several of the papers involved were the problem, it seems clear that this was not the only one they had in view. At the time the online edition came out, I thought Forrest's paper rather badly argued, but I actually thought Pennock's paper was much worse. And certainly Pennock's paper occasionally descended into a problematic tone; unless you're willing to call Larry Laudan to his face a "squinting philosopher" who makes "histrionic and ill-considered arguments" and "ridiculous" errors that border on "dangerous," you really don't have grounds to say that a professional tone was maintained throughout all the papers in the journal.

In any case, here are some things for those who are interested in catching up.

Branch & Fetzer's account of the problem. Some of it is unfortunately vague, but having been briefly in touch with Branch on the matter, I'm convinced that Branch, at least, is approaching the question soberly, so the questions about conduct that were raised at least deserve some kind of answer. (I only know Fetzer through some of his work, and have never corresponded or interacted with him in any way.)

A boycott was proposed, and John Wilkins is keeping the status page for it. It has quite a few informative links.

I won't be joining the boycott -- I think academic boycotts are usually misguided, in any case, for reasons I won't go into here; but it would be an empty gesture for me in particular, in any case, since Synthese is not a journal I would generally consider for publishing the work I do (they do philosophy of science, I do early modern philosophy), and even if I did, my output is so small-scale and involves so much nitpicking before things are ready that it would be extremely unlikely that I would have anything to publish there in the timeframe of a reasonable and effective boycott, anyway. But for an alternative view, John Wilkins gives his view of the matter, and it certainly is true that the questions of professional ethics raised by the matter are important.

The editors of Synthese have issued a statement. Unfortunately, it's mostly just an expanded form of the disclaimer, and so will satisfy no one. The big issues are matters of professional ethics; if the problem was simply miscommunication, they should have taken the time to clarify. I find it interesting that they suggest that the problem was "internal resolution" failed; this is probably where they would have done better to be more specific. Conceivably there are some who are just interested in taking sides, but as Wilkins notes in the post linked above, the real worry many people are having is over the claim that the disclaimer was due to external pressure, and this needs at least to be addressed, or there will be no end to the matter.

For my part I find it mostly perplexing; I sympathize with most of the contributors, and don't think the Guest Editors are making anything up; however, I think the evidence that the Editors-in-Chief did anything wrong from the professional ethics angle is at present pretty weak -- certainly nothing yet that couldn't be explained by unfortunate miscommunication. But I also wish the Editors-in-Chief were a bit more forthcoming about the matter, rather than trying out the aloofness strategy (which will backfire, I am afraid).

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