There is a famous ad on Youtube in which cat wranglers herd cats to a final destination (for slaughtering? really?) as a metaphor for providing IT services. What is underpinning that humor is that domestic cats are not, typically, herd animals. They do not get along in large groups, although they will form dominance hierarchies in pairwise interactions.
Academics are familiar with this cat herding problem. While some disciplines are composed of herd animals, most are not; their practitioners tend to be nocturnal solitary hunters. Which disciplines are which I leave to the reader as an exercise. But since many science bloggers are, in their inner selves, cats, it should come as no surprise that cat herding of science bloggers is a fraught enterprise. As Seed Media Group are finding out.
Likewise, at the same time, said cats are discovering that being a part of a herd brings obligations, limitations and Rules… and not merely at Seed. My former colleague Bora Zivkovic, who single handedly has defined science blogging, has left the building. He finds that he cannot be a part of a media group without being treated and acting ethically as a media person; that is, as a professional journalist. PalMD has also left, and even PZ Meinherr is thinking of upping stumps and moving. The total so far, 15 defectors.
Now I left Seed for personal, not corporate, reasons, and it is widely known that I am a moral black hole, but I feel that there is a number of, if not double standards, unexamined assumptions here. Are you really defined by your corporate umbrella? If you find that your employer is immoral in some way, does that impute to you immorality? If so, I am responsible for a host of things I had nothing whatsoever to do with, and so is everyone else. Can one act ethically (this is a bad term, because ethical behaviour can be good or bad) as part of a larger group?
It seems to me that ethical behaviour is in fact predicated on being a part of a group: if you lived like Robinson Crusoe, entire of yourself to quote Donne, then ethical behaviour would be impossible. You cannot follow rules that only you know, as Wittgenstein argued, or else you could never know if you had made a mistake. Being ethical is to be part of a community of rule followers. Even if, one might say, one is a cat.
Bora’s nuanced and careful apologia for his move bears close reading, but it seems to me that the Sciblings are discovering that to be part of something is to have to reconcile corporate interests with personal ones, and hence to balance one’s ethical obligations to the group, to ones own values, and to the wider society. Quelle surprise! It’s tough to be moral. Someone should write a book about it.
The fact is, when you communicate, whether you are a journalist or not, you have a responsibility in your communications, both to yourself and to the audience. You have to decide what to say or do, not your corporate masters, and you have to decide whether or not a given environment is congenial to you. If your corporate masters do not like what you say, then they will squeeze the channel tight and stop you. It’s all an interplay of interests, values, duties and privileges. And that is the way the world is, like it or not. Moral outrage is necessary some of the time, but it is not, I think, a useful tool in ordinary cases like this.
Now this is independent of the question whether you want to be tarred with a brush that is tarring your mothership, but even there you are an independent communicator. I wonder if this corporatist view that one is defined by one’s corporate entanglements underlies the objections some of these bloggers have to Templeton funding and so on. If you sup with the devil, and all that? Hell, I’m Australian. Am I responsible for Mel Gibson? How about “blackbirding” in the last centuries? Is it impossible to be moral and Australian? Surely not. Corporate affiliations do not override everything.
When bloggers blog, they say what they want to: that is rather the entire intent of blogging, corporate or not. You are responsible for what you say, not what others may say. Sure, I wouldn’t want to blog at Huffington Post, given their support of woo, but then I don’t have to. If you dislike Scienceblogs, leave, but so far all I can see is that the Sciblings have discovered the ethical dilemmas of herding cats.
As for Adam Bly and his team, they are in a business. And that means finding sources of income. I don’t begrudge them that, as we all like to eat, but while he has acted rather poorly as a manager, he probably didn’t expect he had to manage these cats. And it is, after all, his fire hose.
I do find the ethical dilemmas of some of the Sciblings to be more than a little hypocritical, given that they are the reason why I felt obliged to leave. Not, I hasten to add, PZ or Bora or PalMD. But it grates to read someone berating Bly’s team for a lack of ethics when they themselves feel entitled to attack and demean anyone who fails their purity test. I guess that, too, is the way of the world…
[Later: For a fun take, read this by one of the Frink Tankers]
[Even later: see also the musings of Ian Brooks at Nature Networks, dealing with the same issues]