Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cryptic Letter from Synthese Editors in Chief

I find the letter from the EiC of Synthese rather cryptic and I don't think it should be satisfying to anyone who took the petition seriously. The petition is as follows:

"We, as members of the philosophical community, call upon the Editors-in-Chief of Synthese to:

1. Respond forthrightly to the allegations in the 'open letter' from Glenn Branch and James Fetzer, the Guest Editors of the special issue on "Evolution and Its Rivals" (their open letter is available here:

2. Apologize to the Guest Editors and the contributors for the unprofessional manner in which this issue, and the insertion of a "disclaimer," were handled.

3. Retract the "disclaimer" in a subsequent print edition of Synthese.

4. Disclose the nature of complaints and/or legal threats from Francis Beckwith, his supporters, and supporters of Intelligent Design that were received by the Editors-in-Chief after the on-line publication of "Evolution and Its Rivals" last year."

As to the first point, about the allegations made in Branch and Fetzer's letter, the EiC do come clean about some relevant aspects of the editorial process. They seem to acknowledge that the guest editors had good reason to think that no disclaimer would be included. Yet, they do not say why the guest editors or contributors were not informed about the disclaimer. They only say they were "unable to properly communicate" the final decision to the guest editors. Why "properly"? It doesn't seem that they communicated it at all, properly or improperly. And why not? Could it have been a legal issue? I find it strange.

Also about the first point, the letter from Branch and Fetzer also mentions pressure the EiC placed on Barbara Forrest to revise her paper after it had already been published online, but the EiC do not address this point in their response to the petition.

As for the second and third points, the EiC do not apologize or suggest that they are considering retracting the disclaimer.

Finally, they do not disclose the nature of the legal threats they have received, but they do confirm that they have received such threats. Most interestingly, they say that the "challenges" posed by these threats make it impossible for them to disclose the nature of the threats. And they make a point of saying that the threats do not come from Christian philosophers. They make this point twice, in fact. I don't see why it had to be made once. Perhaps they are telling us that Francis Beckwith did not threaten them with legal action. Does he count as a Christian philosopher? Maybe so, I don't know. But either way, somebody who works with him could have done it. Or maybe he wasn't involved in the threats. That was never much of an issue. Who cares if the threats are coming from philosophers? In fact, if the Discovery Institute or some such organization is behind this, then we wouldn't expect them to send philosophers to make legal threats and negotiate terms, would we?

I think we can draw some conclusions here: After the special edition of Synthese was published online, the EiC were threatened by legal action. These threats came from Christian ID supporters, probably executives or administrators of some kind. These legal threats were so imposing that the EiC (possibly under pressure from Springer) cut the guest editors out of the loop, published the disclaimer, gave Francis Beckwith unusual leeway in responding to Barbara Forrest, and are now under legal advisement not to discuss any of these facts openly, other than to say what is required to take full responsibility for their actions.

It is possible that they made some or all of these decisions before receiving any legal threats. They do not say one way or the other. But if they only received legal threats after any of these important decisions had been made, you would think they'd mention that fact.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of miscommunication and ignorance about the whole affair. Some PhD students and philosophy professors I talked to in Szczecin had gotten the wrong idea about what had happened and what the petition was about. There's also an attitude going around that the disclaimer was harmless and that "the Americans" are blowing it out of proportion. Also, I talked to Michael Devitt (CUNY) about it the other day. He didn't know about the petition until he got to Poland on Thursday. He said he doesn't follow blogs, and nobody had mentioned it to him before.