Field of Science

A response to recent events on Sci Am Blogs

The re-post of my Feynman post on SciAm and the note attached to it have led me to write this response. Several readers have asked me what happened, so I will endeavor to clear the air and provide what I consider to be a complete story from my perspective.

Folks are welcome to comment and criticize any of the actors involved in the story. One reason I am writing this is because I think it raises several issues that are at the heart of blogging in the age of social media and under the umbrella of a larger organization.

Here's the gist of the story:

  1. I host a guest post on women in science and later, I write a post on Wade’s controversial book (these are 2 of almost 200 posts on a variety of topics I've written for SciAm).
  2. In response to criticism of the two posts on social media, SciAm issues a public statement. The blog editor asks me to run “controversial” posts by him. No specific guidelines are discussed (something I now regret not doing).
  3. I write a post about how my perception of Feynman has changed and how we need to judge historical figures in their entirety and understand the times in which they lived. I do not think the post was "controversial" in the least and therefore do not run it by the editor.
  4. The post elicits both positive and negative responses on Twitter, blogs and email. 
  5. The post is taken down because the editors find it "controversial" and think that I should have run it by them. I am told that it would be best to part ways with the network.
  6. SciAm resurrects the post with a note containing what I would consider an accurate, but incomplete, description of events.
SciAm is a strong network and I have much respect for their bloggers and editors, particularly blog editor Curtis Brainard. In fact, I am happy to note that they published a post debating the points raised in my original piece. In addition, the piece has also resulted in a spectrum of reactions on other blogs and on social media. This is exactly the kind of diverse give and take I expect a post to stimulate, and therefore I find the foregoing turn of events to be particularly unfortunate.

This episode does, however, raise bigger questions: 

  • Should a network support the airing of controversial views? How does it decide what exactly is controversial, especially considering that the perception of controversial content can be quite subjective?
  • How much should a brand care about opinions (particularly negative ones) on social media, especially in an age when waves of such criticism can swell and ebb rapidly and often provide a transient, biased view of content? How much and how should it let these opinions influence both its internal deliberations and its public responses?
  • If a network is averse to publishing what it thinks are controversial posts, should it communicate this fact to bloggers at the time of hiring? And in this regard, since the perception of controversial content is subjective, how exactly should it word these concerns to bloggers? By explicitly declaring certain topics to be off limits? By instituting a formal process of vetting for posts that are declared to be "controversial" by majority consensus?
  • Finally, if such policies are instituted, how does a blogging network foster an environment in which bloggers have the freedom to explore topics of interest?
I would love to see a serious discussion about these topics and hear people’s views. Meanwhile, I will continue writing (and occasionally covering “controversial” topics) here, so I look forward to the conversation.

19 comments:

  1. Wow - I'm just appalled by what Scientific American has done. Yes, of course they have a right to publish and not publish who they wish - this is not a "First Amendment" issue. (I know if I don't clear that point, somebody is likely to come along and strawman my argument that way.) But one wonders just what kind of editorial line Scientific American is taking to construe this post as "controversial", in fact, too controversial to publish without letting you go. Too nuanced? Failure to wholly condemn Feynmen as some kind of misogynist enemy of the people? Or just pissed off too many of the Twitter hoi polloi? And how is it that Janet Stemwedel's writing is somehow not "controversial" - I disagree mightily with much of what she's had to say on this and many other issues, and I'm sure I'm not the only one, and I don't see anybody trying to get her fired or dropped from any venue.

    Certainly Scientific American is free to take any editorial stance it wishes, but if it's going to take this Pravda-like line on anything remotely touching on the "gender and science" issue, then this is a failure of SciAm as a publisher and an institution, and one that raises questions about how much continued support it deserves from the science and tech community.

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  2. Wahhh! Waaahhhhhhh! Stop whining.

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  3. The only 'controversy' comes from a handful of twitter trolls that consider creation of a "Feynman bingo" an argument. Your argument was balanced, while twitter seems to want to lynch the memory of anyone who has a bit of game.

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  4. iamcuriousblue- because, as a rational individual, you realize debate is the best thing for ideas, not censorship. Stemwedel's articles make me nauseous, but would never dream of censoring it just because it reminds me of the rantings of a streetcorner apocalypse - proselytizing hobo. Those finding issue with the feynman article are political radicals looking to censor anything counter to their views, as they do not withstand rational scrutiny. This type of action is common to radical feminists, for example this youtube illustrates the mentality when a speaker came to the university that had some views that the local social justice warrior cult disliked. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4r7cwWegXCU They resort to simple slogans as opposed to rational discourse. This is, incidentally, why they congregate on twitter, where the short posts prevent any discourse beyond soundbites, and more indepth discussion is of course necessary for a real debate.

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    1. "... the local social justice warrior cult ... They resort to simple slogans as opposed to rational discourse ..."

      Indeed so. Fascist behavior by any other name will smell as sweet.

      Delete
  5. Any "controversy" here is just people getting really anxious about anything on the internet that conflicts with their world-view. It only conflicts with some idealized vision of Richard Feynman as a physics god. Everyone who knew him knows this **** is true. I thought the post was well-balanced, myself.

    The post was spot-on in its assessment of his Big Red Book as a physics text: it is next to useless. I started at Caltech in 1974, when Feynman was still very much in control of the undergraduate physics curriculum, and it was the text for Physics I. Even as a freshman, my thought was "This is a great story, but it isn't teaching me anything I actually need to know." The TA's struggled to fill in the gaps with the nuts and bolts, but on the whole, it was not very helpful.

    Sorry about being anonymous, but I don't have any of the bells and whistles. It's BDoyle.

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  6. Your list of bigger questions covers issues that the SA blogging network has not given serious thought to. They are being whipsawed by opinion on social media and make decisions not based on actually evaluating the post. They have never critiqued a “disturbing” post line by line but simply issue generalized statements and apologies. I’m sure other posts generate large negative responses that the SA blogging network chooses to ignore. This schizophrenic policy will continue to vex the blogs editor and whoever the unlucky author of the next “controversial” post might be.

    M Tucker

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    1. I agree; not all "controversial" posts seem to be treated the same so the network needs to have some well-defined guidelines. Thanks for swinging by here, and I hope to see you more often. I have always appreciated your comments on the old blog.

      Delete
  7. Radical types attempt to capture an institution and place certain thoughts and ideas out of the realm of allowed conversation rather than have a rational argument. This was apparent in the case of discussing the issue of women in science, for instance in my own field of mathematics. Even as a woman it was hard to put forth the point of view that there really is a lot of opportunity and support for women in math and no "persecution" apparent to any of us, so surely preferences and reality must account for the rest. The prevailing view had to be that there must be some subtle and omnipresent persecution, that we are all involved in it, etc etc... Got to be a real bore after a while...

    Anyway, hope you will continue here as before.
    PBear

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  8. Ashtoosh,
    were it a controversial position about something like Christianity or patriotism, I'm sure it wouldn't have been taken down. This incident may not reflect the actual views of SciAm, but it does reflect cowardice and a desire not to alienate a certain chunk of their readership. Similar to what happened with Henry Gee elsewhere. Or the letter to Nature that might have been published by accident, but was nonetheless a harmless mistake.

    I call this part of the readership the 'sci nerd' culture. I might be a nerd who likes science, but nerd culture generally is infected with a very superficial but outspoken progressivism. Without genuine concerns for wider social issues in the real life nerds are not part of, this takes the form of unthinking, faux moral outcry over any supposedly offensive triviality they come across.

    Sci is good, sci nerds are bad. And sci nerds make up too much of Sci Am's readership. So... free thought gets sacrificed to the herd instinct. The invincible bleat of the march of the sheep.

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  9. Wow. If I was you I would definitely part ways with SciAm (if you haven't already). When some public outcry occurred they had two choices; support you or not support you. Now you know where you stand.

    A second issue is that pointing out that a popular man of science was a both a bit of a player, and his behavior wasn't that far out of the norm 50 years ago, really isn't very controversial. Anybody that thinks this is a horrible perspective really doesn't have any problems and has a great life. At a certain point you have to tell people to deal with people who don't agree with you like an adult; you take it and move on.

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  10. No amount of rationalization will conceal the Orwellian nature of what is going on. Wade's book is not in a single library in my state.

    Crazy and sad.

    Came here from Steve Sailer's blog, btw.

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  11. Gutless.

    They should have the courage to allow heresies. I don't necessarily think your article is heretical, but it should have been supported. Your opinions are yours, and SciAm should not try to hide controversial things by silencing uncomfortable thoughts. Debate, rebut, regroup, go again. That would be a much more scientific approach to science blogging.

    Not interested in science when it becomes a secular faith, and now SciAm has driven away the last reason I had to pay attention to them. Feh.

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  12. SciAm has a balanced and nuanced "image" to protect, and SciAm gets attacked for even the slightest deviation by any of its content generators (AKA "writers"). This is far from the first such contretemps to cause a blogger to leave, and will certainly not be the last.

    I'd really like SciAm to resurrect NewScientist's "Daedalus" as the quintessential science non-conformist.

    Take the "controversial" bull by the horns and ride the damned thing! When a blogger turns a fart into flame, move it to Daedalus and feed it.

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    1. BTW, this will also let SciAm "editorial policy" toe the line(s) between the "First Amendment", the "Third Estate", and the "commons".

      SciAm really needs a playground for some issues to be thrashed out in a "come one, come all" arena that is separate from the primary SciAm content.

      That is, give (generally unintentionally) inflammatory blog posts a place to live, rather than a place to die.

      Delete
    2. Geez, i really need to stop replying to my own post.

      The thing is, SciAm is a huge part of how I became the person I am today. As is New Scientist. Starting in the mid- to late- 60's.

      These two publications got me thinking about Quantum Weirdness before I had learned algebra. They were the first, and for decades the only, publications to convert my "Oh, wow" view of our universe onto the printed page. Though I didn't understand the equations (as a pre-teen), I quickly learned that our Universe is Mathematical.

      I want (need) publications to inflame my emotions, to make me ask not only "Why?" but also (and more importantly) "Why not?". To make me disagree with you, and to come up with a cogent contrarian argument (in the comments, of course).

      Dammit, I need to read things that not only "inform" me, but also poke me in the soft spots, to force me to think, participate, and reply.

      What greater "real" service could SciAm possibly offer?

      Delete
    3. You *must* get back onto the SciAm blogger network. Do whatever it takes. Inhale "Mea Culpa"s ad infinitum. Live Humble.

      But never, ever, regret or retract what you wrote, how you wrote it, or why. Just agree to a "launch warning" review period. Let the Editors do their jobs. And nothing more.

      Did you notice that I haven't mentioned a word about Feynman? That's because I have no argument with you, only with SciAm.

      Delete
  13. Thanks for your comments, all. The great thing about the Internet is that there is always an alternative way, so I can simply transition to writing about "controversial" topics from Sci Am to here without skipping a heartbeat. Thanks for reading.

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  14. Recent Dawkins essay seems relevant:
    https://richarddawkins.net/2014/07/are-there-emotional-no-go-areas-where-logic-dare-not-show-its-face/

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