Philosophers and the tone argument

A recent issue of the philosophy journal, Synthese, focused on creationism and intelligent design; the articles I’ve read from it have so far all been anti-creationist, or at least recognize that creationism is in deep conflict with science. It’s all interesting stuff, anyway.

But there’s a problem. This issue was assembled with two guest editors, Glenn Branch and James Fetzer, and represents well the consensus view on ID and creationism. The editors-in-chief, however, published a disclaimer in the print edition.

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.

They actually used the tone argument! What’s also remarkable is that this is an academic journal, and if you read the papers, you’ll discover that no one is called a poopyhead, there is no broken crockery, and no rhetorical blood is spilled. It’s a gang of philosophers, for christ’s sake, people who can look on a flaming nitwit like Ray Comfort and ruminatively ponder the cognitive framework and perceptual concept-space of the crocoduck icon. Apparently, some creationists, like Francis Beckwith, were deeply offended at the criticism of their nonsense and screamed “libel!” at the journal, and the editors-in-chief covered their butts by disparaging their authors in print, instead.

One of the papers singled out for its wicked “tone” was the article by Barbara Forrest…and already your eyebrows should be rising. She’s one of the nicest people we’ve got combating creationism, who, while fierce, always goes after the wackos with a smile and good old Southern gentility. Here’s the abstract for her article. The rest of the article politely eviscerates the epistemology of intelligent design, but the tone is not at all excessive.

Intelligent design creationism (ID) is a religious belief requiring a supernatural creator’s interventions in the natural order. ID thus brings with it, as does supernatural theism by its nature, intractable epistemological difficulties. Despite these difficulties and despite ID’s defeat in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005), ID creationists’ continuing efforts to promote the teaching of ID in public school science classrooms threaten both science education and the separation of church and state guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. I examine the ID movement’s failure to provide either a methodology or a functional epistemology to support their supernaturalism, a deficiency that consequently leaves them without epistemic support for their creationist claims. My examination focuses primarily on ID supporter Francis Beckwith, whose published defenses of teaching ID, as well as his other relevant publications concerning education, law, and public policy, have been largely exempt from critical scrutiny. Beckwith’s work exhibits the epistemological deficiencies of the supernaturally grounded views of his ID associates and of supernaturalists in general. I preface my examination of Beckwith’s arguments with (1) philosopher of science Susan Haack’s clarification of the established naturalistic methodology and epistemology of science and (2) discussions of the views of Beckwith’s ID associates Phillip Johnson and William Dembski. Finally, I critique the religious exclusionism that Beckwith shares with his ID associates and the implications of his exclusionism for public policy.

That’s the worst the evolution advocates could do? I think it’s obvious that the decision to publish a disclaimer actually wasn’t motivated by a concern about the tone at all, but was actually a surrender to the ranting ideologues of the creationist movement. All we can conclude from it is that the management at the journal is craven.

Brian Leiter is calling for a boycott until the editors-in-chief apologize, which is a rather mild demand. Branch and Fetzer have made a very strong criticism of the journal:

We are both shocked and chagrined that a journal of SYNTHESE’s stature should have sunk so low as to violate the canons of responsible editorial practice as the result of lobbying by a handful of ideologues. This tells us — as powerfully as Forrest’s work — that intelligent design corrupts. We regret the conduct of the Editors-in-Chief and the unwarranted insult to the contributors and ourselves as Guest Editors represented by the disclaimer. 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.

Shame on Synthese. Let’s all hope the journal staff see their way to correcting their colossal mistake.

John Wilkins is maintaining and updating a list of comments on the boycott.


  1. says

    I have been fairly stunned by the attacks upon me from those who have never read any of
    my research or publications on JFK, 9/11, or Sen. Paul Wellstone. A prime example is Chris Davidson, who has shown an infantile disposition to attack me when he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

    It is true that I regard the weight of the evidence as favoring that man did not go to
    the moon rather than that we did, but I have never written about it or published any
    articles about it. I would have thought that philosophers benefit from not taking
    popular sentiments for granted.

    I wonder how many of you have actually studied the moon landings. If you visit my public
    issues web site,, you will find links to some significant
    studies about them. If you can continue to take for granted that they happened after
    reviewing them, I would be surprised.

    Chris distorts my views in ways that display he only knows of them on the basis of rumor,
    hearsay, and speculation. For example, while I support the study of the possible use of
    DEWs on the Twin Towers, I do not endorse it. And I have written about this in
    “Wikipedia as a 9/11 Disinformation Op”.

    I cannot think of a case where someone who claims to be a philosopher (I take it)
    displays the puerile attitudes and childish language that he has shown on the “Panda’s
    Thumb”. His tone is abominable, especially when the subjects being addressed are as
    serious as these.

    It is intriguing to me that Curt Cameron, who also misrepresents my views, notes that the
    last article in the special issue is a critique of studies by David Ray Griffin, who is
    perhaps the leading authority on 9/11 in the world today, but does not mention its author.

    For those who retain a modicum of rationality and are willing to consider my views on
    these controversial issues before you condemn them, as Davidson and Cameron are not, here
    are three easy pieces:

    (1) About 9/11, here’s a Powerpoint I presented at The National Library of the Republic
    of Argentina on 11 September 2009 as the principal speaker during an International
    Symposium on 9/11 Truth and Justice:

    “Was 9/11 an ‘inside job’?”

    (2) Here’s an overview of our findings about JFK, which I presented at a national
    conference held at the University of North Dakota in September 2008, where Theodore
    Sorensen was the keynote speaker and Judge John Tunheim, the head of the Assassinations
    Record Review Board, introduced me:

    “Dealey Plaza Revisited: What Happened to JFK?”

    (3) On the plane crash that took the life of Sen. Paul Wellstone, here is a one-hour
    flash lecture I presented at the University of Minnesota Duluth in November 2005 not long
    before my retirement in 2006:

    “The Senator Wellstone Assassination”

    Anyone who wants to learn more should visit “Evolving Thoughts”, where I explain how I
    brought together the best qualified individuals to ever study the death of JFK, where we
    discovered that the X-rays were altered, another brain was substituted, and the Zapruder
    film was revised.

    Chris and Cameron launch unwarranted attacks that beg the question (because they have
    never studied the evidence) and then commit ad hominem attacks on those of us who know
    better, which, if I may say as much, is disgraceful behavior for anyone who claims to be

    The government lies to the public all the time and, were it not for some of us being
    willing to conduct research and apply scientific reasoning to cases of this kind, we
    might never know the truth of the matter, even when the stakes for the nation could
    hardly be greater.

    I suggests to me that even the best minds on this forum are incapacitated from simply
    looking at evidence, no matter how extensive and detailed, when it conflicts with their
    most cherished beliefs about traumatic events in our nation’s history, no matter how

    Surely faculty, especially those who enjoy the privilege of tenure, should be encouraged
    to explore the most complex and controversial issues that confront our nation, not evade
    them. That Chris and Cameron appear to be so arrogant in their ignorance should be a
    lesson for us all.