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NCSE Tries to Blacklist Synthese for Upholding Civility (Updated)

Casey Luskin

In January, we reported on the condescending, sneer-filled, inaccurate, and simplistic and outdated articles critical of intelligent design (ID) published in an early 2011 issue of Synthese. Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) was apparently largely responsible for organization the issue, which explains its attack on ID. As explained here, articles in the issue made comments like:

  • comparing ID to “an irrational set of beliefs” or “rational pathologies”
  • “Arguing with creationists is like weeding a garden, to switch similes–you can pull weeds all day and do a great job, but there will soon be more weeds, just like those you removed earlier.”
  • Called ID proponents “the bad guys” who need to be fought by Darwin lobbyists who should “Bash Harder”

There’s plenty more material in the issue like this, but you get the idea. Apparently such language was so distasteful to Synethese editor-in-chief Johan van Bentham (who gives no indication that he’s pro-ID) that he decided to include a disclaimer which disavowed the incivility invited into the journal by Branch, and stated:

Statement from the Editors-in-Chief of SYNTHESE

This special issue addresses a topic of lively current debate with often strongly expressed views. We have observed that some of the papers in this issue employ a tone that may make it hard to distinguish between dispassionate intellectual discussion of other views and disqualification of a targeted author or group.

We believe that vigorous debate is clearly of the essence in intellectual communities, and that even strong disagreements can be an engine of progress. However, tone and prose should follow the usual academic standards of politeness and respect in phrasing. We recognize that these are not consistently met in this particular issue. These standards, especially toward people we deeply disagree with, are a common benefit to us all. We regret any deviation from our usual standards.

Johan van Benthem
Vincent F. Hendricks
John Symons
Editors-in-Chief / SYNTHESE

More recently we covered Francis Beckwith’s reply to Barbara Forrest’s fallacious critique of him in the anti-ID issue of Synthese. Apparently Branch and his co-editor (a 9/11 truther conspiracy theorist named James Fetzer) are so incensed that Synthese would publish a disclaimer upholding civility, that they are now threatening to blacklist Synthese.

According to a recent Pandas Thumb post by John Wilkins (who wrote one of the more uncivil articles in the Synthese anti-ID issue), Branch and Fetzer have written a letter to the editors of Synthese protesting Synthese‘s publication of the disclaimer. The letter states, in part:

We are doing our best to make the misconduct of the Editors-in-Chief a matter of common knowledge within the philosophy community in the hope that everyone will consider whatever actions may be appropriate for them to adopt in any future associations with SYNTHESE.

Get the message? Don’t publish things that cross the Darwin lobby or we’ll try to blacklist you.

What Can We Learn From the Behavior of the Darwin Lobby
We can learn some things from this episode about NCSE / Darwin lobby behavior.

First, we now know that Branch and the NCSE would take issue with those who publish statements that uphold “the usual academic standards of politeness and respect.”

Second, we can see the intolerant mindset of folks like Wilkins, who feel that if Synthese publishes a statement upholding civility, as well as one paper that critiques Barbara Forrest, then means they “bow to intelligent design pressure.” This is incredible: Beckwith’s piece wasn’t even arguing for ID–it was simply responding to Forrest’s fallacious attacks on him and the ID movement. But Wilkins’ post shows how intolerant Darwin lobbyists are of ID proponents in the academy.

Third, we see that the NCSE / Darwin lobby feel they must enforce a rule where the academic orthodoxy doesn’t critique their own kind when it comes to evolution. The NCSE / Darwin lobby is so intolerant of criticism from their own kind that they are blacklisting people or groups who disagree with their methods. When that happens, they go after people personally.

The Real Moral of This Story
The NCSE / Darwin lobby wants the moral of the story to be that if you cross them, they will blacklist you. Those who are susceptible to being bullied and intimidated will hear that message. But the real moral of this story is something very different.

Branch and the Darwin lobby can be seen as lashing out in desperation against those who disagree with their uncivil methods. Their letter, and the Synthese disclaimer, is strong evidence of a rift between Synthese and Branch / Fetzer / NCSE because the Synthese editors are upset that Branch / Fetzer / NCSE invited multiple uncivil and less-than-quality papers on ID in Synthese‘s anti-ID issue. Beckwith hinted at this rift in his own article, which Synthese chose to publish:

Forrest’s assessment of my work is a professional embarrassment. So much so that the editors of this journal–not to be confused with the editors of the “special issue” in which Forrest’s article appears–have done something unprecedented: they have included in the front of the issue a disclaimer (Branch and Fetzer 2011, p. 170). They have distanced themselves from her literary misconduct, her article’s personal attacks and bizarre tangents into my religious pilgrimage that surround and embed her case against my work.

The editors at Synthese might be anti-ID, but they aren’t uncivil. Thus, I think we see evidence that the editors at Synthese are brave enough to call out the NCSE and the Darwin Lobby on its intimidation bully tactics.

The anti-ID issue of Synthese that was organized by the NCSE’s Branch and it took the Darwin lobby’s standard approach to ID: It was filled with uncivil and ad hominem attacks, simplistic arguments that misrepresented ID. As such, it was not compelling and persuasive. This is apparently evident to many reasonable scholars, including the editors of Synthese, but not those in the Darwin lobby, who have become so accustomed to their own uncivil and fallacious methods in rebutting ID, that they have forgotten (or turned a blind eye to) how weak their arguments actually are.

The punishment for the editors of Synthese is the same punishment that the NCSE has been using on the ID movement for years: They are being blacklisted by the Darwin lobby.

So perhaps the moral of the story here is what the NCSE wants it to be: If you oppose the unfair and uncivil methods of the NCSE / Darwin Lobby / Pandas Thumb crowd, then you’ll be subjected to their unfair and uncivil methods.

Only those who care more about truth and civility than their own good-standing with the Darwin lobby will find the courage to stand up to such tactics.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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