Pennock


Robert Pennock’s Synthese piece is making the news, as a result of the controversial disclaimer than the Synthese editors put in front of the controversial guest-edited volume on intelligent design. As Brian Leiter rightly points out, Pennock’s paper is “both philosophically shallow and [has] rhetoric is not supported by the quality of the argument.”

Some people have asked me recently what I have to say about Pennock’s paper, since it’s been in the news recently, and since I’m one of the targets of Pennock’s paper. I have two responses: here I comment on the inappropriate tone, and here I comment on the key new argument of the paper, which is fatally flawed.

Also, here is what Larry Laudan has to say about Pennock’s piece:

I know nothing directly about such pressure, if any, as the ID forces brought to bear on the editors of Synthese. I have, however, read portions of several papers in the Synthese issue in question and, in my judgment, the statement from the editors dissociating themselves from some of the injudicious and scandalous statements made by some of the authors in the pertinent issue of the journal was not only in order but essential as a matter of professional ethics.

I will limit my comments to a single paper by Robert Pennock from the issue in question. In the course of some twenty pages, he alleges that the work of a fellow philosopher is “almost willfully naïve and misguided,” that it “can only be described as histrionic and ill-considered” and that it ”continue[s] to muddy the waters to the detriment of both science and philosophy of science.” He goes on to endorse the proposal that the philosopher in question should be excluded from ‘the conversation of mankind’ because said author “ha[s] lost touch with reality in a profound and perverse way.”

Those of you who have read Pennock’s paper will know that I am not a wholly disinterested party here, since all his barbs are directed specifically at yours truly. But I think I can lay aside self interest long enough to say that discourse of this sort has no legitimate place in any serious journal of philosophy (most especially the suggestion that those who disagree with Pennock should be excluded from ‘the conversation of mankind’). I cannot imagine any editor of any journal in the field who would not be appalled if he discovered that papers he had inadvertently published were rich in such jejune invective. Indeed, if there is any journal editor reading this blog who would not have taken a red pencil aggressively to such a text, I would be interested to know that.

Under the circumstances, an acknowledgement of fault of the sort that the Synthese Editors issued is not only natural but essential. That some of their fellow philosophers are now taking those same Editors to task for owning up to their lack of editorial oversight strikes me as a curious reaction, to put it mildly. By far, the more egregious error would have been if the Editors had said nothing to dissociate themselves from the feeble efforts at defamation in which the interim editors of the special number of the Synthese allowed some of their authors to engage.

Also, regarding the issue of the boycott, I think that, based on my best guess as to what really happened, the situation could have been handled better by the editors-in-chief, but they way they handled it doesn’t at all warrant a boycott. (This position is nicely argued for by John Turri here.) John Symons’ explanation of the disclaimer seems reasonable and prudent, given the inappropriate content of Forrest’s and Pennock’s pieces:

I’m speaking independently of my co-editors and the publisher here, but I’m sure they’ll concur with me fully: To be clear, the editors in chief of Synthese in no way “caved to the ID lobby” or to threats of lawsuits. Regular readers of the journal will find many instances of intemperate language and ad hominem in this issue which we regret and for which we take full responsibility. We are in no way shifting this responsibility to the guest editors. We failed to prevent this language going into print and because of this failure we felt the obligation to write this preface and to acknowledge that we compromised the standards of the journal.

Pennock’s problematic paper, “Can’t Philosophers Tell the Difference Between Science and Religion?”, has recently appeared the typically respectable journal Synthese. I’ve already criticized Pennock’s paper here and here, and I have nothing more to say about it.  But I did want to pass along this nice critique of Pennock’s paper, by Paul Newall.

As I said in my previous post, there’s a lot wrong with Robert Pennock’s piece ”Can’t Philosophers Tell the Difference Between Science and Religion? Demarcation Revisited”, in the new edition of But is it Science?. Here is just one of the problems. 

Pennock is famous (or perhaps infamous) for holding that claims about supernatural beings are untestable; Pennock says that the supernatural is inherently mysterious to us. I have a lot to say about why that’s wrong in my forthcoming book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design. Elliott Sober also has a nice argument that some some claims about supernatural beings are testable. Sober gives the example:

the claim that an omnipotent supernatural being wanted above all that everything in nature be purple.

This is a claim that’s testable — we can observe the world, see that not everything is purple, and conclude that the claim is false. But Pennock takes issue with this. He writes:

Might not all of nature now indeed “be purple” in its noumenal substance, irrespective of its accidents, as wine purportedly becomes blood without observable change in the miracle of the Eucharist? (p. 552)

Pennock concludes that Sober’s claim is not testable.

But Pennock’s reasoning is misleading here. There are two ways to understand the thesis that a claim is testable. One way, the weak way, is to hold that one can get powerful evidence for or against the claim. The other way , the strong way, is to hold that one can get conclusive proof for or against the claim. Now, If one understands testability the strong way, then it turns out that virtually no scientific claim is testable — we don’t have conclusive proof  that we’re not brains in vats, and hence however the world appears to us via our scientific investigation could be false, because it could be the case that we’re brains in vats and the real world containing the vats is different from how the world appears to us. So the strong way is unreasonable. On the weaker way, then ordinary scientific claims are testable, even though we can’t get conclusive proof for or against them, just as the claim that everything in nature is purple is testable, even though we can’t get conclusive proof against that claim. Thus, on a reasonable understanding of what it is for a claim to be testable, Sober has provided a good example of a claim about the supernatural that’s testable.

Here’s another way to respond to Pennock. We could just change Sober’s example slightly, so that we’re talking about 

the claim that an omnipotent supernatural being wanted above all that everything in nature APPEARS TO US TO BE purple.

This claim is testable, even on the strong reading of testability. It follows that Pennock is wrong to hold that claims about the supernatural are not testable.

I’ve just finished reading Robert Pennock’s piece “Can’t Philosophers Tell the Difference Between Science and Religion? Demarcation Revisited”, in the new edition of But is it Science?. There is so much wrong in this piece, it’s hard to know where to start. If there’s a philosophy grad student out there who’s looking for a paper topic, let me know and I can give you advice on how to write a paper taking issue with Pennock. Perhaps I’ll talk about some of the philosophical problems with Pennock’s piece on this blog but that will have to be saved for another time. For now I just want to comment on Pennock’s offensive tone.

For example, Pennock writes:

Laudan’s and Quinn’s discussions of demarcation, which can only be described as histrionic and ill considered, and those of their careless imitators continue to muddy the waters to the detriment of both science and philosophy of science. (p. 540)

Laudan’s essay “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem” is standardly considered one of the most important essays in philosophy of science in the 20th century. Pennock may disagree with it, but his level of rhetoric toward it is unwarranted.

Also, Pennock approvingly quotes Paul Gross, who writes:

Larry Laudan presents in his jeremiad on McLean v. Arkansas a perfect example of a philosopher richly deserving an exclusion from ‘the conversation of mankind’. (p. 542)

To be honest, I find this highly offensive. Do I even need to explain why?

I could give many more examples, but here’s a final one for now:

When squinting philosophers like Laudan, Quinn, and their imitators such as Monton and George purport that there is no way to distinguish between science and pseudoscience or religion they bring to mind Hume’s observation that “generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous”. Unfortunately, in giving succor, inadvertently or not, to creation science and now to ID, such philosophers compound the error, making the ridiculous dangerous. (p. 569)

Pennock and I have major disagreements, but I’ll try my best to air these disagreements without calling Pennock things like a “squinting philosopher”, or saying that he’s “ridiculous” and “dangerous”. I think Pennock is mistaken about a lot of issues in philosophy, but I’ll try my best to explain Pennock’s confusions without resorting to this sort of offensive rhetoric. It’s disappointing to me that Pennock doesn’t feel the same way.

{bradleymonton.org redirects to this blog post of mine about Pennock’s attempt to explain why he sent me the threatening email telling me to pull my paper off the internet.}

Robert Pennock published an article in the online edition of US News & World Report where he says some critical things about me, culminating in the implication that I’m a “character assassin”. (Is calling someone a character assassin itself behaving like a character assassin? Just wondering.)

While my ultimate focus in the intelligent design debate is on the arguments for and against intelligent design, I do think what Pennock said is worth some reply. Here’s the relevant part from Pennock’s article:

So on what basis does Luskin accuse me of wielding the poison pen of name-calling and intimidation? …

I did indeed write to Bradley Monton about a paper in which he criticized the judge’s opinion in the Kitzmiller v . Dover case, but not for the reasons Luskin recounts. Posted barely a week after the decision came out, Monton’s manuscript contained basic factual errors. Most errors in philosophy are just ridiculous, but some can be harmful, if only to the philosopher’s own reputation or that of the profession. Monton would have been wiser to wait to correct his errors through the peer-review process or at least to include the standard disclaimer for unreviewed manuscripts that they should not be quoted, but that was his own business. The reason I asked Monton to take down the paper was that in one place he seemed to make a libelous insinuation about myself and others in the case. I took that apparent accusation very seriously. Monton wrote back to apologize and to say that he had not intended to suggest anything offensive to me or anyone in particular. He agreed that his sentence was written in a way that could have been misconstrued, however, and promised to remove it. As far as I was concerned, that was the end of the matter and I made no further objection to his post.

Monton has since become known as an ID apologist (from an odd atheist perspective), and I periodically get unsolicited E-mail from scientists and philosophers about his participation in their activities. Sadly, he is harming more than his own reputation. Just a few months ago I received a call from a member of Monton’s department at Colorado asking for my assistance in repairing damage to the department’s relationship with science colleagues caused by a talk he gave on the subject. I sympathize with the department, but can no longer give Monton the benefit of the doubt in the way I did when he posted his draft while still a graduate student. So far as I know, he hasn’t [as Pennock previously in his article accuses Luskin of having done] stooped to publishing out-of-context quotes from private E-mail without permission (no reputable publisher would allow that, in any case), but I was told recently that, like Luskin, he has been making personal attacks on me in talks and a series of Discovery Institute podcasts. I have turned the other cheek to this calumny as well. Again, who is the character assassin?

There’s a lot I could say here, but I’ll just reply to some select claims of Pennock.

(1) “Monton’s manuscript contained basic factual errors.”

I disagree with that claim. I think what Pennock has in mind is his accusation that I misrepresented his philosophical view. It’s true that, in discussing the decision of Judge Jones in my paper, I also discuss some of what Pennock said in the trial. Pennock was upset that I didn’t talk about what Pennock says in his 1999 book The Tower of Babel. The reason I didn’t, though, is that Judge Jones didn’t base his decision on what Pennock says in his book; Judge Jones relied on Pennock’s testimony in the trial. Now, you might think that it wouldn’t matter, but I am of the opinion that Pennock endorsed a view in the trial that’s different than the view he endorsed in the book. And for the record, I’m not the only one who thinks that; Sahotra Sarkar writes (in his paper “The Science Question in Intelligent Design”, forthcoming in Synthese) that ““Pennock’s testimony … goes against the more nuanced discussion of Pennock (1999).”

I go into all this in more detail in my book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design. (For the record, I’m just providing a partial defense.)

(2) “Most errors in philosophy are just ridiculous, but some can be harmful, if only to the philosopher’s own reputation or that of the profession.”

Let me address this implication that my paper did harm to the profession of philosophy. In fact, I think the judge’s decision did harm to philosophy, and to the extent that the judge’s decision was based on Pennock’s participation in the trial, Pennock’s participation did harm too. That’s a key reason I wanted to get my paper out – I wanted to mitigate the harm that the judge’s decision did.

There are two main ways that harm was done to the reputation of philosophy (to stick with Pennock’s terminology). First, a false view about philosophy of science was promulgated by Judge Jones. Jones made it sound as if philosophers of science agree that methodological naturalism is a constraint on science, whereas in fact I think this is highly contentious in the philosophy of science community – or, if it’s not highly contentious, that’s because most all philosophers of science are on my side.

Second, Jones – whether he intended to or not – was doing philosophy of science. The issue of what counts as science vs. non-science is a paradigmatic issue in philosophy of science, and Jones’s argument that intelligent design is not science is a philosophical argument. The problem is that it’s not good philosophy of science, and that’s why I wanted people to know that not all philosophers of science are on board with his reasoning.

(3) “Monton would have been wiser to wait to correct his errors through the peer-review process”

Actually, it’s standard practice for philosophers to post their papers online before their papers are accepted by a journal, and it’s standard practice for philosophers to post their papers online before their papers are even submitted to a journal. In fact, that’s the main point of the PhilSci Archive, where I posted my paper. The Archive calls what they’re running a “preprint server”, and they explain the goals of it well:

A preprint server is used by scholars to circulate new work. A preprint is an early version of new work often in preliminary form. The archive is intended to supplement or replace an older mechanism for circulation of new work. An author used to prepare multiple copies of a new manuscript and mail it to scholars for their information and for response. Greater circulation can be achieved by posting on the archive at no cost to the author.

That’s exactly what my paper was: new work, being disseminated for information and response.

(4) “Monton would have been wiser to … at least to include the standard disclaimer for unreviewed manuscripts that they should not be quoted”

I’ve posted lots of preprints online, and I don’t think I’ve ever put in a disclaimer that my paper should not be quoted. While I would imagine some authors put in such a disclaimer, I don’t recall seeing this on other papers posted on the PhilSci Archive.

(5) “The reason I asked Monton to take down the paper was that in one place he seemed to make a libelous insinuation about myself and others in the case.”

Note that Pennock didn’t ask me just to remove that one sentence, he wanted the whole paper removed. And “asked” sounds a little too nice; “commanded” is more like it, with a veiled legalistic  threat.

For the record, the part of my paper that Pennock thought was libelous is here:

If our goal is to believe truth and avoid falsehood, and if we are rational people who take into account evidence in deciding what to believe, then we need to focus on the question of what evidence there is for and against ID. The issue of whether ID counts as “science” according to some contentious answer to the demarcation question is unimportant. Of course, on this approach it would be much harder to get a federal judge to rule that ID can’t be taught in public school. But sometimes it is more important to be intellectually honest than to do what it takes to stop people from doing something you don’t like.

Now really, is that libelous? In fact, I’m not even talking about Pennock at all. So what am I talking about? Two things:

(a) I anticipated that I would be attacked for not supporting the standard secular line on the Dover trial — that the judge made the right decision. People would point out that I was opening the door to having intelligent design be taught in schools. I was trying to forestall that sort of criticism by making clear what was important to me — what was important to me was endorsing the view that I thought was right, not saying what it would take to stop intelligent design from being inappropriately taught.
(b) In the aftermath of the last big trial about science/religion issues when philosophers got involved (McLean v. Arkansas), people like Quinn suggested that perhaps it is more important to say what it takes to get the right decision than to be intellectually honest. Here’s Quinn:
But frequently these good arguments fail to persuade or carry the day, and gradually one’s credibility and effectiveness wane. … Maybe this is a way in which we could manage to have our cake and eat it too. For a short period one might engage in giving bad effective arguments without being thoroughly corrupted. Then one could retreat back to the academy to wash one’s moderately soiled hands. After having one’s intellectual integrity restored and reinforced, one might then be ready to repeat the cycle. … So there may well be circumstances in which only the bad effective argument will work against them [the creationists] in the political or legal arenas. If there are, then I think, though I come to this conclusion reluctantly, it is morally permissible for us to use the bad effective argument…
(Quinn P.L., “Creationism, Methodology, and Politics,” in Ruse M., ed., But is it Science?: The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy, Prometheus Books: Amherst NY, 1996, pp.397-398)
In my mind, at least, that Quinn made suggestions along these lines is rather disturbing, and I wanted to publicly declare that I wasn’t on board with this sort of reasoning.
Moreover, Quinn isn’t the only one with this sort of opinion. Barry R. Gross is apparently on board as well — see his essay “Commentary: Philosophers at the Bar — Some Reasons for Restraint”, reprinted in the new edition of But is it Science?, edited by Pennock and Ruse. For example, Gross writes:
As a consultant, I objected strongly to the use of phrases like “natural law” to describe scientific laws, but with no success. Ultimately, and correctly, the counsels shaped the case, using the strategy and argumentation that they thought would win. Was this wrong? No. Given the boundary conditions and given the dynamics of impatient professional fighters aiming to win, what else could have been the outcome? And they did win. (p. 362)

I think that that counts as favoring getting the right decision over being intellectually honest, and I find that choice to be highly disturbing.


(6) “Just a few months ago I received a call from a member of Monton’s department at Colorado asking for my assistance in repairing damage to the department’s relationship with science colleagues caused by a talk he gave on the subject.”

The issue Pennock is talking about is when my biology professor colleague Michael Klymkowsky was unhappy with a public lecture I gave on intelligent design, and gave a talk in reply to mine. A grand total of about 40 people were at Klymkowsky’s talk, and I wrote a critical reply, and everything has blown over (without Pennock’s help). Klymkowsky is currently working with other philosophy professors on a grant proposal, and my philosophy department colleagues continue to like and respect me (as far as I can tell).

So who made this ostensible phone call? It turns out that a colleague of mine contacted Pennock in a benign way, and Pennock is misrepresenting the conversation in a way that makes my department look bad. The basic story is that because the intelligent design talk I gave in on my campus recently was (a) well-attended, and (b) generated some controversy, some people thought it might be a good idea to have another philosopher give a talk on intelligent design, from a more standard anti-intelligent design perspective, and Pennock was contacted about doing this. My colleague who contacted him says:

I certainly never said that Brad’s talk had done any damage. … I’m sorry that [Pennock] saw fit to use a private conversation in his blog post, and to misrepresent the content of that conversation.

One of the many ironies associated with Pennock’s piece is that he criticizes Casey Luskin for making public a private email from Pennock in a way that makes Pennock look bad, and yet by making public a private conversation with my colleague (and misrepresenting it in the process, no less), Pennock is doing the same sort of thing to me and my department.

(7) “can no longer give Monton the benefit of the doubt in the way I did when he posted his draft while still a graduate student”

Pennock’s email to me did not give me the benefit of the doubt, and I had been a professor at U. of Kentucky for years when I wrote that article (and I’m now a tenured professor at U. of Colorado at Boulder).

(8) “I was told recently that, like Luskin, he has been making personal attacks on me in talks and a series of Discovery Institute podcasts”

I don’t think I’ve been making personal attacks against Pennock, but I have cited his email to me as an example of the sorry level of discourse the intelligent design debate has reached. For the record, the times I’ve talked about Pennock in public have been recorded, so if you really care, you can listen to them here and here, and judge for yourself. But I hope that you have better things to think about, like the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments for and against intelligent design.

Finally, it’s worth reporting that I found out (on March 6, 2009) that Pennock is conveying concerns about me to the chair of my department. If that’s not an attempt at intimidation, I don’t know what is. Fortunately I have a fair-minded and supportive chair.

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