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.


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.