ID hullaballoo over at Synthese

You can read the long version on Leiter’s blog, but here’s the shorter one. So Synthese, a highly-respected journal of philosophy, had some guest editors put together an edition on why arguments for intelligent design (ID) are so unscientific and shoddy. Then some vocal proponents of ID complained to the overall editors, who leaned particularly on one of the contributors, Barbara Forrest, to tone down her rhetoric. Eventually, the volume was published, with the overall editors inserting a prefatory “I’m sorry this is so unprofessional” note of apology. This has made many people in the academic community angry at Synthese‘s overall editors for not having the guts to stand by what they publish.

To my mind, it is sort of of curious to see so much fuss over this. I have read Forrest’s article, and I wouldn’t say it was unfair or unprofessional, though it is a rather long and tedious argument against a small group of shoddy thinkers who would be best ignored. I don’t respect ID enough to think it merits a high-handed smackdown in a scholarly journal. But – on the other hand – the topic of evolution vs. creationism in public schools is a significant one, so I can understand a group of scholars wanting to publicly expose ID’s faults and flaws. I wonder what sort of backlash the Synthese editors were fearing? Would it have been worse than what they’re getting? I doubt it.

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5 thoughts on “ID hullaballoo over at Synthese

  1. Huenemann Post author

    The story gets weirder and weirder. Now it’s posted over on a very popular science blog (P Z Myers’):

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/04/philosophers_and_the_tone_argu.php

    And the comments go on and on, demonstrating that, in general, the quality of the comment is inversely proportional to its distance from the original post. But one thing that gets pointed out is that James Fetzer, one of the guest editors of the contested issue (so, a good guy in this fight), thinks that government conspiracies were behind the Zapruder film and 9/11. Can’t say this whole kerfuffle is helping the reputation of philosophers among biologists.

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  2. Pingback: Boycott of Synthese Status Page | Evolving Thoughts

  3. Michael Thomas

    A completely outside perspective:

    If I am understanding correctly: 1) the editors hold the consensus view on the topic among academic professionals. 2) They held one of the authors to a standard that both by her and by other’s (including your own) is called excessive. 3) The disclaimer is being viewed as more unprofessional than the article could have ever been, even without the review process.

    So, much of this rests on the authority of the editors in the first place. I don’t really understand why the author was able to reject the comments or why the editors did not replace the article with the next best one if they truly felt that it was sub-standard. I would hope that editors are empowered to publish things that they endorse as consistent with the quality of the publication and their own reputation. This latter concern seems to suggest that the guest editors would have been better resigning from their post than putting in the disclaimer. Why did they not see this ex ante?

    The more I learn about the publishing process the more I see a role for competition. I a world of low-cost data transfer the enshrined endorsement of top journals is becoming harder to justify. It seems that alternative reputation mechanisms are working (Google scholar is one). In a world of citation impact ratings a mistake like this could be a great opportunity for an up and coming journal to unseat the top-tier status quo.

    My best diagnosis and cure is for an aspiring journal to build a reputation for having good editors who enforce reliable and sensible standards. This may be hard without a professional editorial position. Who both has the knowledge of the profession, of the craft of writing, and the time away from research to be such an editor? It is a tall order.

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  4. Huenemann Post author

    Michael – I think you don’t have the situation exactly right – here’s a quick summary, courtesy of Mohan Matthen: “Special Issue consisting of critiques of intelligent design; Editors-in-Chief correspond with author of Special Issue paper, demanding changes, after that paper has been published on-line; they make these demands without the consent of the Guest Editors; most shocking of all, E-in-C’s insert a disclaimer regarding the Special Issue.” At any rate, you are surely right that there must be a better way to share knowledge than our current system of academic journals.

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    1. Michael Thomas

      Ah, disputed final authority at the editorial level. At least the guest editors might survive this with their reputations less damaged. Bad move for the journal anyway you look at it.

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