Archive for September, 2009

What Books Would You Ban?

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

I have agreed to be on a panel for a program sponsored by the local chapter of the Progressive Libarians Guild during Banned Books Week.  I’m thinking of doing something to test intuitions by getting people to think about what they might be tempted to ban, censor, or remove from the shelf. I’m looking for examples to prompt the thought.

So what books would you ban? Any ideas?

-  Dan Lee

The Way to Address Controversy

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

On September 9, I contributed a posting on the controversy over the Taylor and Francis Groups refusal to publish a special issue of The Journal of Homosexuality. I called their treatments of the scholars involved shameful. I think Robert Wright’s handling of a controversy at Bloggingheads.tv stands in marked contrast to what we saw from Taylor and Francis.

Bloggingheads.tv is a video blog offering eight to nine split-screen dialogs (called diavlogs) each week between journalists, scholars, scientists, and others in the know. The editor in chief, Robert Wright, and his associates do an outstanding job of finding challenging pairings representing wide ranges of opinions and beliefs.

Most of the diavlogs concern politics and political punditry, but not all. Percontations offers weekly diavlogs encompassing philosophy and psychology, and Science Saturdays offers diavlogs on topics ranging from cosmology to linguistics, from chasing lightening to string theory.

Science Saturdays has been very successful in drawing both practicing scientists and accomplished science journalists. The participants clearly see their role as communicating the nature of science and scientific investigations as well as explicating the specifics of recent research.

All this merits mention on our Intellectual Freedom blog because of a recent controversy that arose when Paul Nelson, a young earth creationist, and Michael Behe, an advocate for intelligent design, were invited to participate in diavlogs.

To say the least, neither the viewers of Bloggingheads.tv nor the regular contributors to Science Saturday were pleased. Discussions of evolutionary theory and its place in K-12 science education are frequent on Science Saturdays. Giving a place at the table to proponents of pseudo-science felt like as a slap in the face to many. Two of the contributors to Science Saturday—Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer—have publicly disassociated themselves from Bloggingheads.tv and have vowed never to participate again.

The manner in which Robert Wright handled the controversy stands in marked contrast to how the Taylor and Francis Groups treated Beert Verstraete and his associates.  They were, you’ll remember, simply told that the publisher had decided not to proceed. No explanation for the decision was offered. The material was handled as though it had simply come in over the transom and not as an issue that the editors had been encouraged to compile. Verstraete was left feeling that they had deceived him, getting him to withdraw Bruce Rind’s article from an earlier issue while feigning interest in later addressing Rind’s research on “sexual intimacy between adult and adolescent males”.

Robert Wright, in contrast, came forward and offered his explanation in a Science Saturday diavlog called Mistakes were Made. Wright makes quite clear that he takes responsibilities for any mistakes. He is also clear about what he is and is not willing to do to address the controversy.  On the page containing his diavlog, he also provides links to Sean Carroll, Carl Zimmer, and other contributors’ statements as well as to the two diavlogs in question. Everyone gets to have their say. Nothing is suppressed.

Wright also articulates his policies on how such controversial topics will be handled in the future without yielding to pressure to ban such representatives of pseudo-science from Bloggingheads.tv. In fact, Wright explains that such people will appear when the context is appropriate. Intelligent design advocates and creationists (of either the young or old earth varieties) had not been invited in the past because they need to be paired with scientists who can discuss the foundations of evolutionary theory in a manner that is both accessible and absolutely solid. Bloggingheads.tv does after all want to have viewers and conveying the details that support evolutionary theory might well result in a diavlog that is more treatise than discussion. A diavlog that will be watched by no one benefits no one.

Wright also explained that both the controversial diavlogs were going to remain available on Bloggingheads.tv. After asking the participants to expend the efforts to record their discussions—discussions that were precisely on the topics they were asked to address—he wasn’t about to throw their work away. The controversy concerning the piece with Michael Behe broke out when Wright was on a meditation retreat and incommunicado. During this period, Behe’s interlocutor asked that the diavlog be taken down. The moment Wright returned he had that the diavlog restored to the web site; a request from one of the participants was not sufficient to have the piece suppressed.

Have a listen to the diavlog or a look at the supporting materials. I particularly recommend the piece by John Horgan.

–Paul Beavers

Intellectual Freedom in the News

Monday, September 21st, 2009

In an attempt to cut costs, an increasing number of colleges & universities are forgoing school-run email systems in favor of free email systems from Google and Microsoft.

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FCC chair Julius Genachowski said today that the commission “must be a smart cop on the beat preserving a free and open Internet”, taking steps to ensure that telecommunications companies would not be able to restrict file flow and network size.  Learn more & join the net neutrality discussion here.

– compiled by X. Avalos

Shameful Treatment of Scholars

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

A number of you will by now be familiar with this affair.  This is my personal take on the situation.

Dr. Beert Verstraete and Dr. John De Cecco guest-edited what was to have been a special issue of The Journal of Homosexuality. The issue addressed the theme of “Sexual Intimacy between Adult and Adolescent Males” and was built around a revised version of a paper by Dr. Bruce Rind of Temple University.  This paper was originally to have been published as part of an earlier special issue of The Journal of Homosexuality. Verstraete and De Cecco asked Rind to expand that paper and enlisted other scholars to contribute papers critiquing and reacting to Dr. Rind. They did so on the specific suggestion of Haworth Press, the publisher of the journal.

The issue of The Journal of Homosexuality in which the Rind paper was originally to have appeared addressed the theme of “Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West.” Beert Verstraete was one of the editors.  Rind’s research in pederasty has long been controversial and his contribution of an article, “Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity,” quickly became a cause célèbre in WorldNetDaily, a conservative news service. Haworth Press reacted to this by tacitly canceling the issue.  The academic community—including librarians—brought pressure to bear on Haworth, and they ultimately agreed to publish the issue without Bruce Rind’s paper.

Dr. Verstraete and the other editors of that issue were, however, encouraged to make Rind’s paper the center piece of a subsequent thematic issue. Indeed, John De Cecco, who was then the General Editor of the Journal of Homosexuality, agreed to edit the volume with Dr. Verstraete.  Though neither man seems to have realized it at the time, they were not promised publication. Once the manuscript was submitted, the Taylor and Francis Group (who had purchased Haworth Press in the intervening months) reviewed it and “decided not to proceed.” There was no hint that it contained inferior scholarship or that it had deviated from the original suggestion for the issue. Dr. Verstraete’s willingness to compromise on the earlier issue of the journal had led him to place faith in mere suggestions. What had been a source of anxiety to the publishers in 2005 was completely out of the question in 2009.

This is yet another instance of publishers that refuse to distinguish between scholarship that addresses controversial issues and those issues themselves. Dr. Rind’s scholarship on pederasty (or “intergenerational sex” or whatever terminology one might choose) addresses issues about which most of us have strong feelings and moral convictions. I have no reason to believe that I would agree with Dr. Rind’s conclusions. Indeed, I might even be angered by what I’d read. But that’s not to say Dr. Rind should be prohibited from researching this subject or publishing his findings. If such academic freedom is not available, research cannot advance on controversial issues. The freedom of scholars to take positions and draw conclusions with which others disagree—the freedom to challenge established points of view and our settled moral convictions—is essential.  Such challenges strengthen arguments and, yes, on occasions cause the modification and growth of settled points of view and convictions.

Of course, for-profit publishers have their eyes on the bottom line and like so many corporations are leery of controversy, especially when it touches upon hot button issues like pederasty. They are also adept at drawing fine distinctions between legally binding agreements and persuasive suggestions that could perhaps just conceivably be misconstrued. But—in my personal opinion—it is shameful thing to waste the efforts of so many scholars with such a ploy. I am also deeply concerned when a publisher of academic journals proves so lacking in courage and unwilling to stand on principle.

—Paul Beavers

Google Announces New Privacy Policy for Book Search

Friday, September 4th, 2009

Throughout the conversations taking place around the proposed Google Book Search Settlement, one of the issues consistently raised is the lack of any privacy guarantees in the proposed settlement. Many commentators have called for a formal statement of protections. After all, libraries protect reader privacy. Libraries are the source of most of the books in Google Book Search. Libraries are where many people will access both the corpus as a whole as well as the books they purchase access to. There is a natural expectation that the Book Search service should have equally strong protections even though Google’s standard privacy policy leaves a lot to be desired.

In presentations to library and higher education groups, Google has verbally stated that they plan to offer reader protections mostly because the recognize that librarians won’t buy the institutional subscriptions without it.  Today, Google announced their policy.

There are good things in the policy such as not requiring a Google account to view pages from books as allowed in the settlement, colleges and universities with institutional subscriptions will be able to authenticate their users so that Google doesn’t  need to learn the identity of users, and Google will not pass on book title purchase information to credit card companies. However, the policy doesn’t really go far enough.

The policy states “[s]pecial legal privacy protections for users may apply in cases where law enforcement or civil litigants ask Google for information . . .” rather than a full requirement of warrant or subpeona. Where state law requires such consideration, they will apply it. But the implication there is that they won’t insist on court reviewed orders where it isn’t required. I’ve had the FBI ask me for reader information. I’ve been able to tell them to come back when they have a warrant. I expect Google to do the same.

- Dan Lee