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Herding cats, ethically

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]


  1. Brian Brian

    You cannot follow rules that only you know, as Wittgenstein argued, or else you could never know if you had made a mistake.
    What about the rule of not standing on sharp sticks because it hurts your feet? Or not eating the berries that make you feel ill?

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Are they rules, or learned practices? In order to express them as rules, you already need to have a language community.

      • Brian Brian

        The trouble is, Robinson Crusoe did come from a language community, so he could express them, even if only to himself. If he’d been a singleton, then yeah.

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          Yes, of course. I couldn’t think of another literary character that suited. But imagine Crusoe having lived there so long he had forgotten all his language…

    • Brian Brian

      Interesting. I have mind chatter going on in my head all day. None of it useful. Do you reckon if I got plonked on a tropical (has to be tropical for coconuts are well, coconuts) that mind chatter would stop (due to loss of language) ?

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        According to Fodor you’d still have mentalese, but on the view I hold, yes. You’d still know things, be able to solve problems and the like; but you would eventually not be able to express them.

        Of course, this is a philosopher’s conceit – your brain is already formed by the acquisition of language and it’s very unlikely that it would ever lose all language and still function, but per impossibile, that’s what would happen.

      • Brian Brian

        I see, I guess my current treatment of beer induced lobotomy is still the best option then. 🙂

      • Brian Brian

        Never liked Scotch except for 1 time when I tried 12 year old single malt at a distillery in the Highlands. That was drinkable. But if that was Scotch, then I’m not sure what that stuff my mates used to drink when I was a kid was.

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          Nothing that you could afford to drink when a kid could be Scotch. Or, for that matter, much more than flavoured ethanol.

  2. HP HP

    Cats are not herd animals or pack animals; they are territorial animals. It’s not their solitary nature that makes them hard to herd, it’s their need to remain in and defend their territory. Wild, feral, and domesticated cats are all known to share territories, and within that territory there are very definite rules of behavior to ensure social stability.

    If I may drive this metaphor into the ground until it whimpers in utter defeat, the dominant tomcat is just as subject to feline social structures as any quean or kitten or juvenile male. Kill too many kittens, and non-dominant cats strike off to form their own territory or join another. Show any weakness, and pretty soon you’re just an old tom with matted fur, torn ears and a broken tooth, lying in the sun, getting weaker by the day.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Territory, too, plays into this, both for academics and for bloggers. There’s a constant pissing around the perimeter that seems to go on here…

  3. ckc (not kc) ckc (not kc)

    It’s all an interplay of interests, values, duties and privileges.
    …and thus somewhat beyond the normal purview of science (sensu stricto)?

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Well you can study them, but you can’t justify them, scientifically.

  4. But since many science bloggers are, in their inner selves, cats,…

    We’s not Felis we’s Canis but of the lone wolf tendency…

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Lone wolves are usually dysfunctional… Yep, the analogy holds…

  5. I’m not worried about the herding cats problem. Seed has actually done a good job of not herding cats.

    My growing concern is that Seed promised us a nice barn to play in, for which they’d get a cut of the earnings (dang, cat analogy already falling apart), but they’re doing a poor job of following through on their obligations. The barn is getting a bit seedy, the littler cats aren’t getting fed (as a big cat, they’re keeping my checks coming), and every once in a while they try to sneak in a dog dressed as a cat.

    We all have a few responsibilities to each other. Seed isn’t living up to them right now.

    Oh, and I don’t blame you for Mel Gibson. Ken Ham, on the other hand…

  6. Am I responsible for Mel Gibson?

    Oh, and I don’t blame you for Mel Gibson. Ken Ham, on the other hand…

    Mel Colm-Cille Gerard Gibson, (born January 3, 1956) is an American actor, film director, producer and screenwriter. Born in Peekskill, New York,…

  7. RBH RBH

    I’m not sure it’s all down to ‘we can’t live with this unethical/corporate/whatever blog that Seed let PepsiCo buy to put under the ScienceBlogs masthead.’

    From what I’ve read and heard, a fair amount of the dismay and angst was due to Seed (which is a small concern in any real terms) not bothering to inform/consult with its main content providers (and revenue generators) before borrowing their credibility to sell to PepsiCo. Having myself been a manager in several contexts (military, private industry, and academia) that seemed to me to be stupidity on Seed’s part, and given a choice (which the SciBloggers all have; none depend solely on Seed for their daily bread)) who wants to work with stupid managers?

  8. Cromercrox Cromercrox

    Just heard that Zuska has left Sb. Allni need now is for Isis to choke on her own shoes and my penis happiness will be complete.

  9. Ben Breuer Ben Breuer

    Question: Has anyone recently (last hour, at 11 p.m., Central European Summer Time) tried to read Scienceblogs? Is their server down, or is it my computer? I just hope that the meltdown doesn’t throw them completely.

    Cromercrox, it seems to me that your “penis happiness” should be your charge alone.

    • Ben Breuer Ben Breuer

      Never mind, Scienceblogs still works.

  10. Isis the Scientist Isis the Scientist

    Henry, I wish you nothing but success and happiness.

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