God’s Bulldog: Francis Beckwith and the Synthese Affair

More academic infighting. And the Intelligent Design movement is at the center . . . again.

Its almost unheard of for an academic journal to publish a disclaimer in the preface of one of its issues. But that’s just what the journal Synthese did and it set off a firestorm that is still playing out.

picture-of-conflictIn January 2011 of this year, the journal Synthese published an issue titled, Evolution and Its Rivals edited by guest editors Glenn Branch and James H. Fetzer. The issue features articles critical of the Intelligent Design movement and of the intelligent design philosophy when applied to scientific research. The papers were published online prior to being published in paper which initiated a bit of a brouhaha with Francis Beckwith apparently leading the charge to get some of the papers revised before they went to print. The Editors-in-Chief ended up printing a disclaimer in the print version claiming that some of the articles “included in the special issue contained language that is unacceptable: neutral readers of the issue will find no difficulty in identifying such passages.”

Brian Leiter gave a detailed account of the events and appears to find, not surprisingly, the most egregious fault with the Editors-in-Chief of Synthese and calls on all philosophers to boycott the journal. Focusing more on the offense to the guest editors than on the content of what was published, Mark Lance and Eric Schliesser “invite discussion” on the issue by asking a series of questions about whether the response by Synthese actually addressed the issues at hand. Probably the most even-handed write up on the events was by John Turri on Certain Doubts. He says the ensuing criticism of the Editors-in-Chief seems overblown but that Synthese does appear to be in the wrong on some level and should issue an apology (he also links to the requisite poll on how the profession should respond).

Lightening Rod

The person that seems to be generating the most heat in this debate is Francis Beckwith. When it comes to the intelligent design movement it’s hard to find an issue where Beckwith is not making news. He has had a very interesting spiritual and intellectual journey and seems fearless in voicing his views and opinions with little regard for (and perhaps an eye towards) the attention it brings. Leiter, who apparently has had run-ins with Beckwith in the past, appears to have almost no tolerance for him and aimed a particularly large number of his sharp words towards the Baylor professor in his write up of the situation.

Indeed, it appears that Beckwith (along with Walter Bradley (mechanical engineering prof)) led the charge against Synthese. Beckwith wrote a lengthy response to one the papers in the Synthese issue written by Barbara Forrest and titled, “On the Non-Epistemology of Intelligent Design”. He claims that Forrest’s paper is not professional and is filled with ad hominem attacks and irrelevant and incorrect material. (Leiter reports that some of Beckwith’s supporters even called some of the claims in the Synthese papers libelous though I was not able to confirm that).

I read through Forrest’s paper and Beckwith’s response. Forrest’s paper is long and packed with references, partial quotes, and argument. She focuses a good portion of the paper on the epistemology of intelligent design and the implications that epistemology has on public policy and science education. She also has a lot to say about Beckwith’s views. Beckwith, in his response, attempts to show where Forrest gets things wrong with her philosophical analysis of the epistemology she addresses and also where she makes errors or misunderstands his views.

Playing With Fire

As Beckwith notes in his response, Forrest’s paper is a difficult read not because the content is challenging but because it’s poorly written (and edited). Of the 49 pages, 15 - 20 of them are probably unnecessary.The intrusion of constant references, partial quotes, and regular shifting of focus makes the paper a Volkswagen into which she has tried to stuff far too many claims. This is unfortunate because when she does stay focused on the epistemological problems, those portions of the paper are quite good. She calls out some rather serious challenges with the way the ID movement is being proffered as an alternate philosophy of science and the paper contains many ideas worth chewing on. If one has the patience to redact the noise, the reader will find ideas that have plenty of merit.

But it seems to me that she clearly had an agenda that went well beyond addressing epistemology and clouds the paper with seemingly irrelevant content about Beckwith and his motives. Reading the paper charitably, I believe Forrest was attempting to show how Beckwith’s personal views have important implications for  the political agenda of the ID movement and perhaps she’s right. But it muddies an otherwise interesting paper—commentary like that should be preserved for an accompanying article on a personal blog (for example, see here) or something and shouldn’t be a part of a paper for an academic journal. Certainly not for a journal of the caliber of Synthese.

If the Editors-in-Chief have any case it is on this point. A good editor would have cleaned the paper up considerably by removing a majority of the quotes and references (or at least footnoted some) and reducing the volume of the paper by half. They also would have completely cut section 6.2 (“Beckwith’s religious exclusionism”) as it adds nothing to her central argument as far as I can see. At the very least, with such a long and involved analysis of Beckwith’s views, it is academic courtesy to offer the person who is the object of those criticisms a chance to review and at least privately comment on the claims being made particularly if one’s goal is to get to the truth of the matter--something I hope philosophers are still interested in. If you want to get something right and you’re making a number of complex claims about a person’s views (not just about their published arguments), academic, and we might add common, courtesy would seem to demand a review of this sort. It doesn’t appear that Forrest ever reached out to Beckwith before publication. This is particularly unfortunate given the highly emotional—and many times toxic—nature of the conversation around intelligent design.

Which leads to another relevant point in my opinion. Regardless of whether the Editors-in-Chief were justified in finding fault with the quality of the articles published (I’ll set aside the important issue of whether or not they subverted the wishes of the guest editors in publishing a disclaimer), because the issue focused on the ID movement, any criticism would be suspect. It reminds me of the claim of some conservatives during the 2008 presidential campaign that an African American president would be made of rubber: any criticism, regardless of its merit, would automatically become a “black issue” and so nothing would stick.  Because of the toxicity of the topic, the Editors-in-Chief should have taken special care to ensure the publication was handled with the utmost editorial care.


Beckwith’s response was pretty much inevitable but I’m not sure why he published it or at least why he spent a number of pages addressing what he saw as personal attacks. Anyone who could decipher Forrest’s claims against Beckwith and who would take the time to research the myriad references seemingly would be fair enough to know that Forrest’s critique is not the entire story and so Beckwith’s paper isn’t necessary. Anyone who would take Forrest at her word about Beckwith probably wouldn’t listen to Beckwith’s response anyway so, again, his paper seems unnecessary. I found Beckwith’s paper too focused on his views on the matters at hand and less about the issues themselves. There is some good content in the paper to be sure and perhaps the sensationalistic nature of the events surrounding Sythese gave Beckwith the opportunity to introduce new readers to his material. But as a personal apologetic, I didn’t find his response all that effective.

Intramural infighting like this is mildly entertaining but, I think, a target of ridicule by those on the outside. Still, there is plenty of interesting content here and I hope the general reader will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff and avoid getting embroiled in the sideshow.

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