Controversy at Philosophical Psychology Leads to Editor’s Resignation

In December 2019, the journal Philosophical Psychology published an article calling for scholars to take more seriously genetics-based approaches to research on race and intelligence. Yesterday, an editor of the journal announced his resignation. What happened?

The article in question is “Research on group differences in intelligence: A defense of free inquiry,” by Nathan Cofnas, a graduate student at the University of Oxford. It appeared along with a note from the editorsCees van Leeuwen (University of Leuven) and Mitchell Herschbach (California State University, Northridge), defending its publication.

Once the article was published, it was met by objections to its quality and to the editors’ decision to accept it, criticisms of its “wholly imagined confirmation of a hereditary basis for racial differences in IQ,” and a petition calling for a response from the journal’s editors.

A group of scholars—Rasmus R. Larsen (University of Toronto Mississauga), Helen De Cruz (Saint Louis University), Jonathan Kaplan (Oregon State University), Agustín Fuentes (University of Notre Dame), Jonathan Marks (UNC Charlotte), Massimo Pigliucci (City University of New York), Mark Alfano (Macquarie University), Lauren Schroeder (University of Toronto Mississauga), and David Livingstone Smith (University of New England)— authored a reply piece, “More Than Provocative, Less Than Scientific: A Commentary on the Editorial Decision to Publish Cofnas,” and submitted it to the journal for consideration for publication.

But they became dissatisfied with how their submission was being handled, as they describe in a post published on Professor Pigliucci’s  Medium page:

Soon after the publication of Cofnas (2020), we, a group of 9 philosophers and scientists, co-authored a commentary that pointed out clear unscientific elements and informal fallacies in Cofnas’ piece, which we argued both disqualified the paper’s academic worth but also strongly suggested that it had been incompetently reviewed…

Our commentary was written in a respectful tone and in line with academic precedence and the responsibility we assume as scholars, such as addressing serious shortcomings in published articles and editorial decisions. Further, we intentionally decided to refrain from calling for any particular editorial action (e.g., such as correction or retraction), since this would, to some extent, go beyond our role and responsibility as academics.

The commentary was submitted to Philosophical Psychology on January 22, 2020.

Days before our submission, editor Van Leeuwen issued a detailed public note on Facebook responding to the rising academic uproar against Philosophical Psychology. In this open message, Van Leeuwen defended the editorial decision against various vocal criticisms. He also reiterated a recommendation previously addressed in the editor’s note, pledging to publish commentaries in Philosophical Psychology that would point out exactly “what is empirically and normatively controversial about Cofnas’ paper”.

From reading this message, we felt assured about the integrity of the editors and anticipated a swift and fair treatment of our manuscript….

On March 4, precisely 41 days after our original submission, we received a rejection from Philosophical Psychology, though the editors were committed to re-consider our manuscript if we revised it according to their proposed changes…

The primary reason the editors gave for their rejection was that we had addressed shortcomings in both Cofnas’ paper and the editors’ note…. As the editors stated, they did not think their journal was “the appropriate place to be debating with the editors”, and they requested that our commentary was revised to focus exclusively on Cofnas’ piece….

After a few days of deliberation, our group decided to send an email on March 9… respectfully declining the editors’ questionable proposal on the premise that there is, in fact, plenty of precedence in academic philosophy where journals allow for criticism of editorial decisions, and that their editors’ note could reasonably be seen as an appropriate target of criticism. We further criticized the editors for failing to appreciate that Cofnas’ piece was based on, and promoting, scientifically refuted ideas, suggesting that it would be academically and morally unacceptable to keep debating these wrong and harmful ideas in the journal.

Meanwhile, discussion of the issue had been flaring on social media.

Today, in an email, Cees van Leeuwen announced his resignation from his editorship of Philosophical Psychology, owing to the fact that others at the journal had successfully pushed to permit publication of the reply piece:

After 25 years at the journal, I am resigning as editor of Philosophical Psychology.

The reason is the imminent publication of a commentary bypassing editor moderation. While my co-editor and part of the editorial board felt that a stream of insinuations and personal attacks on social media left them with no better choice, my resignation should be seen as taking a stand for an independent, non-partisan forum for philosophical debate. The journal has witnessed forceful clashes of opinion in the past, and I hope this will continue in the future. But efforts to enforce ill-motivated slogans upon the journal’s pages should be kept at bay, in particular when they are dressed in a cloak of social justice.

I continue to support emphatically the very cause of antiracism these activists pretend to support, for which catfights within the academic establishment are as remote and ineffectual as they could possibly be. My only concern is that they will be grist to the mill of our detractors in and outside of academia.

I would like to express my gratitude to those who have contributed as reviewers to the journal, and my confidence in Mitchell Herschbach, the incumbent editor, and Taylor & Francis, the publisher, to steer the journal through its current turbulence.

Cees van Leeuwen

Professor Herschbach confirmed via email that the journal is proposing to publish the piece by Larsen et al as a “letter to the editor”, rather than as a commentary on Cofnas’s article.

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