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Monday, 30 July 2007

The Rationalists: Round Two

In an earlier post I mentioned the schism within The New Zealand Association of Rationalist Humanists (NZARH) between former spokesperson Paul Litterick and current spokesperson Dr Bill Cooke. NZARH contend that Dr Cooke was a Professor at The State University of New York at Buffalo. Paul Litterick maintains this is false. Litterick claims Cooke was never on faculty at this University and hence was never a professor there.

A few days latter Dr Cooke wrote to me and complained that I had not checked his side of the story before I posted. On this point he was correct and for that I sincerely apologised. He then proceeded to take issue with two points I had made: (a) My claim that Cooke had not been a professor at this University and (b) My claim that Cooke’s PhD was not in philosophy at all. Seeing I was remiss in not addressing his side of the story I shall do so now.

Turning first to (b) Cooke sent me a copy of his PhD and noted that it had written on it the phrase “Doctor of Philosophy”. I agree. A PhD is a “Doctor of Philosophy” that is after all what PhD stands for. However, this really misses the point of what I said. I never said that Cooke did not have a Doctor of Philosophy. I in fact explicitly stated that he had a PhD. What I said was that his PhD was not in Philosophy. Although the word “Philosophy” appears in the phrase “Doctor of Philosophy” it doesn’t follow that any one who has a Doctor of Philosophy has a qualification in philosophy. This is like saying that a person who has a Master of Arts is qualified as an artist. A person can successfully complete a PhD in physics, or history, or one of any number of disciplines and have little or no training in Philosophy at all. I know many Theologians who have PhD’s in biblical studies and little or no understanding of Philosophy at all.

Dr Cooke’s PhD was in Religious Studies. Moreover his PhD thesis was on the history of secularism in New Zealand. Hence Cooke is best described as a religious historian. He may well be a good one, but that does not make him a qualified philosopher let alone qualified to hold a Professorship in a Philosophy department.

Turning then to (a) here Cooke sent me a letter he received from the Dean of Arts and Social Sciences at The State University of New York at Buffalo which states that he has been awarded a professorship. This letter has since been published on the NZARH web page. This intrigued me because Paul Litterick claimed to have a letter from which denied Cooke was ever on faculty. Not content to rely on ‘he says she says” I wrote to the University myself. Here is the answer I received.

Dear Dr. Flannagan,

As I told Paul Litterick, Bill Cooke was
resident in Buffalo for a time as a fellow at the nearby Center for Inquiry. He
was given a courtesy appointment in our Philosophy Department so he could use
the UB library and facilities. At that time, the title that the Dean's Office
used for such affiliations was "Visiting Professor." Because this caused
confusion, since such people were not appointed to the teaching faculty, we no
longer use that title for fellows of CFI.

There is not any question
of fraud or misrepresentation on Dr. Cooke's part. He refers to the title that
he in fact was given.

I hope this clears up the

Carolyn Korsmeyer

This letter states that Cooke was given the title of “Visting Professor” so on this point NZARH and are correct. As Korsmeyer notes Cooke is not lying when he claims he was awarded such a title because this was the term used by the Deans office.

However, the letter also points out this was a professorship in name only. In most English-speaking countries, the term professor refers to a senior academic who holds a departmental chair, especially as head of the department, or a personal chair awarded specifically to that individual. In the US the term is often used of any University lecturer. However, in neither of these common senses of the term “professor” was Cooke a professor. In reality Cooke did not hold any faculty position at all. He was not a researcher, or a lecturer for the Philosophy Department. Cooke was merely a research fellow for a rationalist think tank in the same town. The title “Professor” was only a courteously title given to him so he could use the University Library.

Now when you hear that a person is a professor you normally assume that this means a lot more than that they have access to a University library. Korsmeyer appears to concede this. She notes that the name of the title was latter changed to avoid confusion. Apparently there was concern that people might mistakenly think that a person granted the title of professor was actually a professor in the normal sense of the word i.e. a senior member of faculty.

In light of this information I need to retract my earlier claim. Dr Cooke’s claim that he held a professorship at The State University of New York at Buffalo’s philosophy department is true provided one means by professorship an honorary title which gives you access to the University Library. Incidentally, by this definition I was a professor at the University of Otago last year. I was employed by the Theology department to do research and had access to University library and facilities. In fact by this definition of Professor I am arguably still a professor. Even though I am not on faculty, not teaching, nor studying at Otago, after I graduated I was given special rights to use the University library. Hence, provided this is all NZARH means to convey when it states it’s spokesperson held a professorship, there is clearly no deception on NZARH’s part in claiming this.

On the other hand if by claiming Cooke is a professor NZARH are attempting to suggest Dr Cooke actually had a professorship. i.e. he was a Philosophy lecturer or possibly a departmental chair then there comments are deceptive.

So the question is what does NZARH mean to convey when the claim Dr Cooke is was a Professor? Korsmeyer suggests he means only to refer to the position he was in fact given and suggests there is no deception. Litterick on the other hand thinks NZARH are trying to suggest Cooke held a faculty position in a philosophy department and is hence being dishonest.

I am not party to Cooke or NZARH’s intentions hence I will not comment on who I think is correct. Instead I’ll ask my readers, what do you think? When NZARH, an organization which promotes the philosophical critique of religion, claims that Dr Cooke was a philosophy professor do they intend to let us know that Cooke’s credentials include him being temporarily granted the right to use library at a state university? Or are they trying to pass their spokesperson of as having expertise in Philosophy of Religion which they know he does not?

A final thing, one of the main points in my previous posts was that NZARH have denounced Christian's for falsifying their credentials and hence if they were consistent should now denounce themselves. In light of this I want to ask another question: Suppose a Christian MP had claimed to have a doctorate when in reality it was merely an honourary doctorate, would NZARH consider him to be honest ?

See here and here for NZARH’s answer. A Dr Bill Cooke from NZARH seems to think it is not honest and calls into question the organization of which the Christian is a member.

I leave my readers to ponder the irony.


  1. I would say that as the Rationalists claim that Dr. Cooke was a visiting prodessor that they are guilty of deception seeing that the natural inference to take from the claim is that he was a member of faculty who held a chair.

    I would also add that Dr. Cooke is either suffering from a delusion or thinks the rest of the world is easily fooled if he thinks he can go from having a PhD to being a Philosopher. They are quite separate things. I'm going to assume that he isn't a fool and is thus trading on the notion that the rest of the population are, which doesn't look good for him and if the Rationalists are a party to this then it makes their situation even worse.

  2. Classic!

    I suppose as a married woman with a BComm I can, by Cooke logic, rationally assert that I am also an unmarried man!

  3. As I wrote over at the Fundy Post I've not really gone out of my way and solicited advice from academics from my Department (who are qualified Philosophers) and they think Dr. Cooke probably was mistaken initially, but now that the evidence is in the open that he is actively engaged in deception.

  4. As another holder of a PhD from Otago University (in Physiology as it happens) I agree that Dr Cooke is bearing false witness and trying desperately to gild what was never a lilly in the first place. I once held a teaching fellowship at Otago so I suppose that makes me a professor too by Cooke's logic.

    I have also been a visiting researcher at the University of Geneva, for a week (though I never had need of the library). Though I think my host, who is a real professor would not think well of me were I to try.

    Actually I think Cooke is a rather sad and pathetic individual if he feels the need to grasp at things like this to shore up his ego. As I have advised Paul on his site, I say leave him to parade around in his new clothes. We have pointed and mocked and told all that he is naked. Now since he is so far into his delusion he is beyond such reach I say we should turn sadly away and perhaps form a rival organisation. If I were back in NZ and not in exile I would be most keen to help.

    In Dundee


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