Monday, May 23, 2011

The Synthese Affair


As some of you may know, there has lately been a heated discussion about the attitude adopted by the editors-in-chief of the journal Synthese in the case of the 2009 special issue “Evolution and Its Rivals.” To get an overview of this affair, you can take a look at, e.g., this post and this post on Brian Leiter’s well-known blog. Since I think that Leiter and other scholars have adopted an extreme position (they are now demanding the resignation of the editors-in-chief), I’d like to say something here even though I’m not an important member of the “philosophical community.” (And just to be clear, I’m not a supporter of Intelligent Design.)

I do think that the Synthese editors-in-chief shouldn’t have inserted the disclaimer behind the guest editors’ backs. It seems to me that they have now paid the price for what they did, since lots of people know what they did, they have been strongly criticized in a number of blogs, and the issue has even been discussed in an article in the New York Times (check it out here). However, it also seems to me that Leiter is kind of obsessed with this affair and I wonder why. I ask myself: who is Brian Leiter to demand the resignation of the Synthese editors? If some members of the philosophical community aren’t happy with what the editors did, then they have of course the right to decide not to submit their papers to Synthese or not to review for them—Leiter has actually been asking people to do precisely this. But resignation is a decision that should be taken only by the editors-in-chief and the publisher—people should remember that there are contracts in play between editors and publishers. I think that the affair concerns the editors-in-chief, the guest editors, the authors, and the publisher. The rest of us can voice our opinions about the affair, including the opinion that the editors-in-chief should resign, but I don’t think we are entitled to actually demand that they do so or to insistently try to organize a boycott against the journal.

It is clear from what I’ve heard from scholars from North America that some people think that the cost of crossing Leiter is high. I confess I don’t care whether the price is high or low. Among other things, Leiter is a well-known Nietzsche scholar and the editor of the Philosophy Gourmet Report, and his philosophy blog is widely read. But so what? I think it’s silly that a guy takes himself to be the voice of the philosophical community and that he starts this kind of fierce campaign against a journal based on reasons that don’t seem to warrant such a campaign. He has been trying to organize a general boycott, but even though he has not succeeded, he continues to promote this instead of accepting that a lot of people don’t agree with him.

We should bear in mind that the papers against Intelligent Design were published without modifications in the special issue so that anyone can read them and draw their own conclusions. So there was no censorship. The affair doesn’t change my view of the journal either in itself or under its current editorship. One can see that the editors-in-chief behaved in a seemingly silly and disrespectful way. But it is stupid to believe, as some have claimed, that what the editors-in-chief did should lower our opinion of the journal. Synthese is a leading journal where quality is (as far as I know) the editors’ sole criterion of acceptance for publication, and they didn’t stop the publication of any of the articles in the special issue. In addition, I don’t think (again against what some people have claimed) that if you now publish a paper in Synthese, it will reflect negatively in your CV. Why should that be the case? It is plain to me that Leiter’s campaign, endorsed by a few dozens of scholars, is affecting negatively Synthese and this is a real shame.

I could say a few other things, but I think this is enough to make my point of view clear. I wish I could counterbalance a little bit the (apparently) extreme position adopted by Leiter and others, and I hope I’m voicing what other people think but perhaps don’t dare to say.


  1. I think the initial letter and getting people to sign the petition was all fine and reasonable, given the context and who was involved and what specifically happened.

    It was asked that they at least made an apology for what they did, as part of the petition, and to disclose threats or legal complaints, and to retract the disclaimer in future prints.

    Instead of even issuing an apology, which I think they ought to have given the specific details of the whole fiasco, they issued a non-response on some strange website that many would agree is just as bad or even worse than no response at all. Even the disclosure of threats were vague and dissatisfying. If they had apologized, I think that would have been the end of it, even in absence of substantive action on their part.

    It was through dissatisfaction with the almost insulting non-response that they got that Leiter begun to "demand" or loudly request that extreme position of not submitting or refereeing and until there are new editors.

    Also relevant is Leiter's past with Beckwith and Beckwith's cohort (just search google for "leiter beckwith" and read some posts on Leiter's blog throughout 2009, 2010, etc, to see what I mean). Leiter has for a long time criticized Beckwith's "sleazy tactics" and influence gained trough them, and the Synthese affair is another success, yet Synthese stands by them. So you can at least understand why Leiter in particular might be particularly vocal about this issue.

  2. Hi Taylor,

    Thanks for your comment, which clarifies a couple of things. As I say in my post, I agree that the editors should have dealt with the situation differently.

    Now, I’m not sure that the editors are obliged to disclose threats or legal complaints. I also wonder what role Springer played in all this: when there is a contract, decisions are not always easy and perhaps one cannot disclose all the relevant information.

    Regarding this Beckwith guy, it seems to me that anyone with a decent philosophical background would just ignore him. It is true that the editors inserted that disclaimer, but they didn’t (as far as I know) endorse Beckwith’s position on Intelligent Design. The arguments against his view are still there in the contributions and one can still read them. I mean, the editors just said that they didn’t agree with the language or the tone of some of the papers, period. There was no censorship.



  3. Here's another question: who is Diego Machuca and why is he obsessed with me (see the Certain Doubts blog for his first intervention) and why does he feel free to misrepresent what's been going on so outrageously?

    What I actually wrote on May 21, after the petition signed by 470 philosophers failed to generate a satisfactory response, was the following: "It seems, at this point, that there are now two options, given the intransigence of the Synthese editors with respect to the core issues of misconduct. One option remains a boycott of the journal, by both contributors and referees. The second, which several philosophers have now raised (and one of whom, a distinguished senior figure in the fields in which Synthese publishes, has raised directly with the publisher), is to demand the resignation of the editors responsible for this mess. Right now, it would be fair to say, the stink of this affair hovers over what everyone agrees has been a very good and important journal in the field. Some philosophers feel that only a complete turnover in editorial management will suffice.
    I invite signatories to the petition to weigh in with their thoughts on what should be done now."

    That's the full extent of my alleged "demand" that the editors resign. Others have suggested it, I wanted to gauge what others thought about this suggestion, and about the boycott.

    The subsequent poll revealed, contrary to Dr. Marchuca's continued misrepresentation, that hundreds of philosophers agree with my opinion, including some 200who favor a boycott now.

    But what is particularly puzzling is the suggestion that I am not allowed to have an opinion about this matter and express it unless lots of other philosophers agree with me. Why should I be so constrained in my right to express my views?

    That you, Dr. Machuca, do not appreciate the seriousness of the editorial misconduct at issue or its consequences for science education in the United States does not mean I am "obsessed" and it certainly does not justify a blog purportedly about skepticism being turned into a forum for an irrelevant personal attack on me. Shame on you.

  4. Respectfully, Dr. Machuca, do realize that you have irritated Professor Brian Leiter? Do you have any idea what that means? If not, then you ought to march your digital tuchas over to the following link so that you can get up to speed:

  5. Well... let me just say that I was well aware of what was at stake when I wrote that post. I've already started writing my will... :-D

    Now seriously, shouldn't we have the guts to speak our minds? What the hell should we be afraid of?


  6. I find it a bit ridiculous that Leiter is going around shaming people for having a different opinion. I guess those who scream the loudest appear the most powerful? But if we have learned anything from the Academics and Lammenranta, is that disagreements are inherently irresolvable. And from his blog on politics, where every other entry involves him mud-slinging another blogger, it seems he fails to have proper awareness of this.

  7. Hi, I think that Aporia has been taking a really reasonable stance on the Synthese issue. But if there are particular issues (as was suggested) that anyone knows of which would properly inform any judgment about this specific case, could we hear more about exactly what those are, as they should apply to (or been applied by) the editors of Synthese? I'm not sure that I know what the exact appropriate standards that should govern editorial decision making in these contexts are. For instance: Is any after the fact kind of comment by editors always entirely inappropriate? (Now I'm making a general observation) It does however seem that Leiter's responses in these kinds of situations can be shrill if not actually bullying.