Monday, November 14, 2011

On John Symons' Resignation from EiC of Synthese*

[NOV 16, 2011 UPDATE: As Gregory Wheeler points out in the comments below, as of today (November 16), there is an official announcement on the Synthese website that says among other things that John Symons "has decided to step down in 2012"]

I don't know if the news is in the public domain yet (it's not on their website), but, as journalists would say, I learned from "an extremely reliable source" [NOV 16, UPDATE: the source has now been revealed by Gregory Wheeler in comments to be Symons himself] that John Symons, one of the Editors in Chief of Synthese during the Synthese Affair, has resigned from his position as EiC. I do not know if this has anything to do with the way the crisis that followed the publication of the special issue 'Evolution and Its Critics' was handled by the other two Editors-in-Chief and by Springer but, given the evidence available to me, I find it hard to believe that it doesn't.

When I first heard of the scandal, I was very surprised that things had been handled so badly by a journal that was well-known for being well-managed and efficient, especially because Symons had always come across as a great and professional EiC in all my dealings with him. As more evidence came in, it became clearer and clearer to me that Symons had actually been sidelined by the other two EiCs. His resignation seems to confirm my suspicions.

In any case, Symons should be congratulated for the excellent job he did at Synthese in the years preceding the Affair and, if as I suspect and as it seems to be confirmed by his resignation, he played a marginal role in the Affair, that editorial debacle should not cast any shadow on his many years of excellent service.

I have claimed in the past that Synthese is headed towards losing its status as a truly international journal and to become more and more a journal for formal philosophers working in continental Europe. Unfortunately, this new development seems to confirm my prediction, as Synthese has now lost its only Editor-in-Chief who did not work out of a very specific geographic region.

(Btw, despite my being quite vocal about boycotting Synthese, it's nice to see that they still invite me to referee papers for them! But as I said, thanks, but no thanks!)

* The original title of this post was 'Synthese Editor-in-Chief Resigns!!!' and was (a seemingly failed attempt at) a joke on sensational news titles. Since some readers took exception to the title, in order to avoid any further misunderstandings, I decided to change it.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. There are many 'seems to confirm' claims in this post, most of which I find strange. People resign from such positions for all kinds of reasons.

    Confirmation bias? _Post hoc ergo propter hoc_?

    I am simply not aware of any evidence that connects the two events.

    (Is the confirmation just supposed to be subjective? Then I don't have any problem with the claims, but am not sure why they are important.)

    In any event, I second Gabriele's thanks to John for his sterling service to the community.

  3. DEM:

    On the basis of the fact that the two remaining EiCs (and most of the people who stood up to defend or excuse their conduct) operate out of a very specific geographical area.


    Actually, there are only two 'seems to confirm' in my post ;-D

    Sure, people resign from such positions for all kinds of reasons, but I have good reasons to believe this is not the case this time. Unfortunately, due to confidentiality considerations, I'm afraid I cannot divulge some of those reasons. However, this might suffice (unless you are the one affected by disconfirmation bias or you have forgot to take you philosopher's hat off): when asked that question directly, my source declined to confirm or deny that Symons had resigned over the Synthese affair. But why would my source do that if Symons hadn't resigned over that? If my source did not know, why not say I don't know and if s/he did know, why not just say 'no, it was over something else' or 'no, he just had enough of the job' or the old politician's favourite 'no, it's that he wanted to spend more time with his family'? Of course, as philosophers we are very good at cooking up the most fantastic alternative explantions of anyone's behaviour (after all, even if Symons himself told us, couldn't he be lying? Or couldn't he be deceiving himself over his real motives? Or couldn't we be all being deceived by an evil demon?) but to my mind none of those explanations are the best explanation.

  4. Gabriele,

    Cut the drama. John publicly announced his resignation from Synthese on Google+ last week and the question you put to your source is the very question you put to John in comments to his post.

  5. PS - There is also a public announcement here: This link also includes news on how the journal's restructuring plans for 2012 are coming along.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Gregory,

    Your understanding of 'publicly' seems to be rather idiosyncratic. On google+ you can share things publicly (in which case your post is marked 'public') or only with people in some of your g+ circles (in which case your post is marked 'limited'). John decided to share that post with only the people in (some of?) his g+ circles (this is why on the top right corner of his post it says 'Limited' not 'Public') and many of the readers of this blog are not in those g+ circles (this post has had 1,240 views so far, John shared his post with about 80 people). Since John said that the news was official but decided not to share it publicly, I thought the most appropriate thing to do was to reveal the content but not the source (or his very telling phrasing of the news). But as I said you seem to have a different understanding of 'publicly'.

    As for the announcement on the Synthese website, you can see that the announcement is dated Nov 16 and my post is dated Nov 14. Btw, it's almost moving to see how they are taking great pains to put a positive spin on this and to bury the news that John resigned under the guise of "structural changes". They are clearly trying to take a page out of your average PR textbook. My favourite passage is by far "In order to keep pace with various challenges that have arisen concerning the proper management of a journal of this size, Synthese is making a transition to a new editorial structure", which in plain English reads "Since one of our EiCs resigned over the way the other two sidelined him in their (mis)handling of the Beckwith affair, we had to find a new EiC. However, to put a nice gloss over this unfortunate circumstances, we'll call it 'a structural change'."

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Anonymous,

    Unlike most blogs these days, IOAT has still a policy not to moderate comments (unless they are irrelevant or offensive). However, it's trollish anonymous comments like yours that, from time to time, prompt me to reconsider that policy.

    My personal policy, however, is not to engage in polemics with trolls like you, so let me just note that I haven't accused anyone of anything. I just reported that Symons resigned and speculated as to his reasons for doing so, give the evidence available to me (which may or may not be the same as the evidence available to you). I register the fact that an anonymous commenter who is not able to (or pretends not to be able to) understand what I said disagrees with my assessment of the evidence that is available to me.

  10. Gregory,

    Anyone who can read and understand basic English should be able to see that I drew a very clear line between reporting the fact that Symons had resigned and speculating that he has done so over the mishandling of the Beckwith affair. And anyone who can read and understand basic English should also be able to see that, in the post on Leiter Reports you linked to, Brian is not endorsing my speculation but expressing his opinion about the role played by Symons in the affair (an opinion that, btw, he has already expressed in the past).

    Since I assume you can read and understand basic English, I find it hard to believe that your allegation that I misled anyone was in good faith.

    Also, since we are being frank, let me say that I find it a very strange coincidence that most people who, like you, have done their best to try to stall, divert, or sabotage the debate over the Synthese affair happen to be people who could be suspected to act out of professional interest or cronyism rather than a genuine concern for truth and fairness.

  11. Thanks for pointing to Gregory Wheeler's past stance on the Synthese affair (which I was not aware of), Gabriele.

  12. I've deleted all my previous comments because you (Gabriele) haven't answered my main concerns. The reason is perhaps that you don't think that they're worth answering. However, since you accuse others of being biased, I'd like to ask you about the basis for your claims about Synthese as a journal. Like you and most people, I think that the editors' behaviour was silly. However, unlike you and Leiter and others, I do not think that what they did undermined the quality of the journal. No one ever explained why that should be the case. Did the editors exerted some kind of censorship? Did they reject papers on non-academic grounds? In addition, as I said in one of my deleted comments, you recently published a paper in the journal, reviewed for them, and edited a special issue. So I think you should be more impartial and stop confusing things.

  13. Gabriele,

    If I may say so, at the very least I think it wasn't elegant of you to write a blog post on something that John Symons shared over at G+ -- unless of course, you checked with him before posting, in which case none of what I will say now applies.

    On the G+ thread, you asked him whether it had anything to do with the affair earlier this year, and he said he'd rather 'talk over a beer' (which seemed like a very elegant way to reply to your potentially inconvenient question). In my modest opinion, what his reply should have told you is that he didn't want the topic to be discussed in the open (not even in the 'private' sphere of G+ circles), let alone on a blog post.

    Anyway, this has nothing to do with me, it's between you and him, but one moral to be drawn seems to be that one should be quite careful about what to post on G+.

  14. DEM,

    I never claimed that the conduct of the EiCs "undermined the quality of the journal" (that would be a silly thing to say and, btw, I don't think Brian ever said that either). What I did claim is that this affair will (ultimately and in the long run) have repercussions on the quality of the papers published in the journal. The vicious cycle is already apparent. For a number of reasons, fewer people are currently submitting their work to Synthese: (i) some because they are boycotting it, (ii) others because they no longer trust its editorial policy and conduct (see, eg, David Wallace's comment at Leiter some time ago), (iii) others because, although they are not openly boycotting it, they don't want to be seen as condoning their conduct either (the speaker of a talk I recently attended took time to explain that a paper s/he had published in Synthese had been published online before the scandal erupted!), and (iv) others because they prefer to submit elsewhere until it becomes clearer whether a publication in Synthese is still worth as much as it used to be.

    Of course there is always going to be people who are willing to submit to Synthese and the journal still has a long back log of papers that were accepted before the scandal, but I think that overall fewer people will be inclined to send there their best papers until it becomes clearer what the damage to the reputation to the journal is. And this initiates a vicious cycle (especially for a journal that publishes so many papers a year): fewer quality submissions lead to fewer quality publications, which, in turn, lead to lower journal reputation, which leads to even fewer quality submissions. With their conduct the EiCs have basically dealt a deathly blow to the reputation of the journal and I frankly don't know whether the journal is ever going to recover (especially since now that Hannes Leitgeb has taken over as EiCs at Erkenntnis, Erkenntnis will easily supplant Synthese and will be seen as a much more reputable venue).

    Let me add, that, as someone who used to consider Synthese a very good journal, I am very saddened by this and by the lack of concern for the reputation of the journal displayed by its EiCs.

    I hope my position is now clearer to you and that in the future you'll make more of an effort not to misrepresent my views.

  15. Gabriele

    There have been significant recent changes in Synthese, including a new policy for special issues and a new group of Editors-in-Chief. The future of the journal need not be so dim!

  16. Otávio,

    First of all, let me congratulate you and wish you good luck (or at least better luck than John ;-)) as new EiC of Synthese.

    Second, I'd love it, if now that you are there, a resolution to this whole affair could be worked out (I'd start to referee again for you guys even tomorrow if you did! :-)), but a policy change and a reshuffle are not enough to restore public trust in the journal, as there are still serious questions about the other EiC's judgement and conduct during the affair and, possibly more importantly, the disclaimer is still going to be there and, as many have noted, might be used to discredit Professor Forrest were she to testify again against the scientific status of ID. Since you live in the US and you are a father, I would guess you care about the future of science education in that country and I'm sure you understand the political implications of that disclaimer. I sincerely hope that something will be done to bring some closure to this during your term as an Editor, for, IMHO, a journal that claims to be devoted to "Epistemology, Methodology and Philosophy of Science" should not pander or give in to supporters of ID on the basis of legal threats. Last time I checked arguments ad baculum were still not considered an acceptable form of reasoning in philosophy but this might establish a precedent.

  17. I won't discuss your (1) and (2), as clearly we have a different view on blogging ethics.

    As for (3), it makes no difference if your intention is to praise John or not, simply because it's based on the speculative conclusion that he resigned on account of the affair. Not saying it is impossible or implausible, simply that it is at this point speculation.

    As for (4), there was no change of heart on my part. What happened is that I grew increasingly frustrated noticing that there were no ethical limits to what some of the critics of the EiC were prepared to do to 'argue their case'. I still think that the conduct of the EiC was highly objectionable for a number of reasons (as I explained in a comment on a post at New APPS of September 29th). But as they say, two wrongs don't make a right, so I don't see why one could not be at the same time critical of the EiC's decisions *and* of the way their critics were arguing their case.

    And I have no idea what you mean by 'tactics' here; I've remained honest to my own convictions all along. If you see tactics here, then maybe you are smarter than I am, as I fail to identify them myself.

  18. "I prefer to go to sleep on that note rather than continue to engage in pointless and unproductive polemics with people that have no intention to discuss a resolution to this problem."

    Funny that I have the exact same feeling here (except for the going to sleep part).

  19. I have to say Gabriele that the tone of your replies to Catarina is excessively hostile. I understand that you are not happy about the behaviour of two of the Synthese EiCs. I am not either. But gratuitously to talk in this manner about van Benthem ("wields an inordinate amount of power" etc) is frankly inexcusable. And to suggest that Catarina, of all people, is guilty of "professional interest and cronyism" is worse than that. I can only hope that whenever you wake up, you'll see that posts at 4 am are inadvisable, and you'll see fit to apologize.

  20. Otávio Bueno points to the new special issue policy, though no details are known about it and the question is whether it will provide more contractually sanctioned power of the EiCs and publisher over the guest editors (which was the problem in the past Synthese affair). Most importantly, the question is what kind of special issues will be approved by the EiCs in the first place. Gabriele plausibly predicts that in the future Synthese will move more toward formal philosophy (and continental European concerns), but the proof is in the pudding. Let's see whether and when Synthese will again publish special issues on science topics of societal relevance and that are politically controversial for some groups, as any scholarly relevant philosophy of science journal would.

  21. Gabriele, many thanks for the clarifications. Let me just say something about your point (ii): you, and other people, just have to understand that you are *not* mind-readers, and stop attributing intentions and states of mind to people on the basis of meager evidence like blog comments or what have you. I apologize if this sounds overly harsh, but this seems to me to be the source of much confusion.

  22. Gabriele, I am very happy that you have made concessions and apologies. Thank you.

    I still have a bone or two to pick. First of all, there may well come times when you find it hard not to believe something discreditable about somebody -- this happens from time to time. But a hunch or gut feeling is not good enough reason to put discreditable speculations up on the internet.

    Frankly, I think you are wrong about Catarina changing her attitude because she feared the consequences of alienating van Benthem. She herself has stated that she tired of the rhetoric used against the Editors of Synthese. I may not agree with her assessment, but I see no reason not to take what she says at face value.

    I just want to say, and only because a contrary suggestion has been made in public, that I find Catarina to be both courageous and utterly honest. She simply isn't the type you make her out to be. It's a shame to see such a fine person traduced.

    Finally, and less importantly, about van Benthem. I didn't say that you were wrong. I have no knowledge, belief, or opinion about how much power he has and whether he wields it. What I said was that it was gratuitous to bring this up. There was simply no reason to say it. Not every truth (granting for the sake of argument that it is so) has to be spoken.

  23. Ingo,

    I share many of your concerns about this (but more about it in a future post).


    As far as I can see, whether we want it or not, we are all mindreaders. Some of us may be better at it, some worse and I may belong with the worse one but we couldn't have any meaningful interactions with other human beings if we weren't always trying to "read their minds". I don't think I am alone among philosophers, linguists, and cognitive scientists in thinking so.

  24. Unless Catarina, Mohan, or Ingo want to reply to my replies, I am closing this thread.

  25. "What I expressed was my honest opinion as to the best explanation of the (admittedly limited) evidence available to me and I don't know a much better epistemic principle than that."

    I think this quote is spot-on on our disagreement. I think that the principle of inference to the best explanation can be tricky, and when the evidence available is meager, myself I prefer not to draw any inference at all. So maybe our disagreement is an epistemic one after all; I'm a cautious inference-drawer (as befits a logician/philosopher of logic).

    This being said, I think I'm done on this topic for now, so I'm happy for you to close the thread as you see fit.

  26. Although I removed some of my comments in this thread for the reasons explained here, I would still like to note that, since John himself in his g+ post said that the news was 'now public', and I didn't reveal who the source of the news was (until Gregory Wheeler revealed that in a comment) nor the very telling metaphor John used to break the news (which I believe provides more evidence for my interpretation of the situation), I do not feel that I have acted improperly in reporting the news, which, from what John said, seemed to be already in the public domain.

    Also, I would like to note that none of the above is meant to be a criticism of John's conduct (to the contrary, I have good reasons to believe that John played at most a marginal role in the mishandling of the Beckwith affair and that he resigned because of the way he was sidelined by the other two EiCs). Nor did I claim or in any way imply (as it has been suggested elsewhere) that John resigned as result of pressure from the blogging community or the boycott.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.