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New York Times Article Refutes Conspiracy Theories About Why Synthese Opposed the Disrespectful Methods of Intelligent Design Critics

Casey Luskin

We’ve recently discussed how earlier this year, some leading intelligent design (ID) critics organized an issue of the philosophy journal Synthese using mockery, motive mongering, guilt-by-association, and other fallacious arguments to attack intelligent design (ID). For example, ID was called “irrational,” or alternatively a “rational pathogology.” It was also called a “threat” which academics should “combat,” or a “weed” which academics should “pull.” (Another suggestion offered to oppose ID was: “Bash Harder.”) ID’s actual arguments were routinely misrepresented and rarely engaged. (If you want to see more of what I’m talking about, see here, here, or here.) We also observed recently that the head-editors of Synthese (who didn’t organize the issue) had high academic standards, and thus felt compelled to include a disclaimer as follows:

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

So who exactly produced the anti-ID of Synthese? Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) co-edited the anti-ID issue of Synthese with philosopher James Fetzer, whom the NY Times has reported is a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. They wrote a letter to Synthese‘s head editors, expressing their apparent displeasure at the unwillingness of Synthese‘s head editors to toe the party line and pretend that the uncivil style of argument found throughout the anti-ID issue of Synthese is acceptable when used for the purpose of opposing ID.

While Branch says he doesn’t share Fetzer’s 9/11 conspiracy theory views, it is noteworthy that those involved with the anti-ID issue immediately invented a conspiracy theory to explain why Synthese included the disclaimer. They theorized that the only way a respectable academic journal like Synthese would disclaim the incivility of leading ID critics would be if there were some conspiracy that involved pressure from ID proponents.

For example, the author of one of the more uncivil articles in the issue, John S. Wilkins, subsequently wrote a post on PandasThumb asking, “Did Synthese bow to Intelligent Design pressure?” and suggesting that “[p]erhaps threats of legal action were made against the journal or the editors.”

Similarly, Barbara Forrest (who also contributed to the anti-ID issue) proposed a conspiracy theory to explain why the editors of a respected scholarly journal might find distasteful her arguments that focus heavily on scrutinizing the religious beliefs and motives of ID proponents (or in the case of Francis Beckwith, the religious affiliations of those who aren’t even ID proponents). Forrest, who once testified before a legislative body that “the Discovery Institute is watching your every move,” apparently believes that William Dembski was behind some kind of campaign to turn the journal against her.

Now, however, the New York Times has picked up on this story and recently reported that there was no evidence of such pressure from ID proponents like Dembski, nor were there legal threats. In fact it seems that the few who did complain about the lack of civility in the issue did so independently, and were not even necessarily proponents of intelligent design:

Dr. Forrest said this week that she suspected that intelligent design theorist William A. Dembski “was involved in this, because his work was mentioned” in her article, too. Reached by phone, Dr. Dembski said that he had not contacted Synthese and knew of no specific campaign to influence the journal.

“I presume there was some pressure put on them, but where that came from I do not know,” Dr. Dembski said.

Three philosophers have, however, admitted to contacting the editors who issued the quasi-apology for Dr. Forrest’s article. One is the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, of Notre Dame, who recalled sending an e-mail to the editors two years ago.

“I thought her article didn’t measure up to the usual academic standards of Synthese at all,” he said on Thursday. “It was heavy on character assassination and innuendo and light on anything Beckwith ever said.”

In May 2009, the Calvin College philosopher Kelly James Clark also wrote to Synthese. “I reject intelligent design and I don’t think it should be taught in the schools in the U.S.,” he said in an e-mail dated May 5, 2009. Like Dr. Plantinga, Dr. Clark accused Synthese of “character assassination.”

Dr. Beckwith, the article’s subject, also wrote to the editors in 2009.

“For a couple of days, I was really depressed,” he said by telephone. He was baffled by what he felt were ad hominem attacks, and what he saw as guilt by association. (He says he has nothing to do with Christian Reconstructionists, for example.) He wrote a letter to the editors, but said he never asked anyone else to complain on his behalf. “I don’t know these guys well, but to have philosophers of that stature come to your defense — I was blown away by that.”

(Mark Oppenheimer, “Debate Over Intelligent Design Ensnares a Journal,” New York Times (May 13, 2011).)

So it seems that the reason that the editors of Synthese disclaimed the uncivil methods used in their journal by Forrest and other NCSE-led ID critics wasn’t because of some nefarious conspiracy involving pressure originating with ID proponents. It simply was because the arguments of the ID-critics were uncivil, and that was inappropriate for the journal, and distasteful to the journal’s editors–and other academics–who aren’t even pro-ID.

Why People Invent Conspiracy Theories
People often invent conspiracy theories when they feel dejected and disenfranchised, but are unwilling (or politically unable) to admit the possibility they are wrong. Such theories are often an attempt to save face by inventing opponents who can then be blamed.

Apparently imaginative (and as far as I am aware, totally and completely false!) conspiracy theories about censorious pressure and lawsuit threats from William Dembski or other ID proponents are easier for these ID-critics to believe than it is for them to simply accept that perhaps their methods were distasteful to the average scholar who believes in civil, well-reasoned academic discourse. But given that the whole issue was co-organized by an NCSE leader and a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, perhaps their conspiracy-theorizing and unwillingness to admit incivility and error isn’t that surprising.

A commentator in the UK’s Guardian wrote that the anti-ID academics who created the issue have been “swept up” by a “near hysterical tone” in their bid to attack ID. Is it that theory really so hard to believe?


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.