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Posted by on Mar 16, 2013 in Culture, Debate, Science | 22 comments

Disinviting speakers – the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate debacle

Jerry Coyne has a post about a recent debacle relating to the annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, a large public event hosted by the American Museum of Natural History. Speakers and topics are currently chosen by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The problem that’s come up is that Dr Tyson invited Professor David Albert as one of the panelists to take part in the debate, to be held on 20 March this year. That invitation was extended (and apparently accepted) in October 2012, but it was rescinded in early January 2013. If you look at the comment thread, scrolling down to near the end, you’ll see that Dr Tyson gives an explanation – that about two months after issuing the invitation he realised that he’d set up the debate in a way that was contrary to the event’s traditions. It was turning into a philosophical debate about broad and abstract questions, such as the nature or concept of nothingness, rather than a debate between working scientists on a strictly scientific issue. Indeed, the event has never previously included a philosopher on the stage.

Or something like that. I may have missed certain nuances, and I don’t wish to be unfair… so check for yourself to see how Dr Tyson explains his decision. The background is that Professor Albert had given an unfavorable review to Lawrence Krauss’s book A Universe From Nothing, and the two of them would have been part of a panel discussing issues related to the book’s thesis. Taking the explanation at face value, it appears that Professor Krauss was not involved in the decision and should not be blamed for it.

You’ll also see, immediately afterwards on the thread, a response to by Massimo Pigliucci. I think Professor Pigliucci is correct in this instance: the reasons given for the disinvitation were relatively weak, and it is too late to rely on such reasons after a speaker is already locked in. If such considerations are going to be relied on, it should be before speakers are approached, not after a speaker has accepted in good faith (and spent two to three months of living and planning on the expectation of taking part in the event).

Do I think that speakers should never be disinvited? No, that would be going too far. I can think of cases where it would be clearly defensible and other cases that are at least rather murky and grey. What if, between the invitation/acceptance and the event, the speaker says or does something sufficiently outrageous and dramatic to bring the event into disrepute? I think there could be cases where such conduct might be so serious that a disinvitation would be clearly defensible… while less serious cases might fall in a grey area with reasonable arguments on both sides. However, it should not be enough that the speaker has merely stated (even robustly) a position that the organisers object to and find offensive. If someone is disinvited on these sorts of grounds, I’d at least want to see an argument that the conduct was beyond the pale of what is accepted in a pluralist society where many opposing views are publicly advocated. Accepting an invitation certainly does not mean that you must, until the event takes place, avoid putting expressing opinions that offend the organisers.

What if misconduct by the speaker not previously known to the organisers comes to light? In a sufficiently serious case, the organisers might be justified in disinviting.

What if the organisers and speaker have agreed on a topic but later the speaker makes it clear that he or she insists on speaking on another topic? In a very clear-cut case, the speaker might announce unilaterally a determination to speak on something obviously different from what was agreed or understood. A greyer area might be if the speaker indicates a strong inclination to “twist” the meaning of the topic, so that it is very different from what the organisers reasonably thought they were agreeing to (or indeed, were asking the speaker to address in the first place). This can be a matter of judgment, but in some cases I’d think that the disinvitation was at least within the proper discretion of the organisers (even if I wouldn’t have made the same judgment call).

I’m sure there are other circumstances where a disinvitation might be warranted. Doubtless the categories of cases are not closed, but they would usually have something to do with the speaker’s questionable conduct (or revelations about it) after the invitation and acceptance. One exception, I suppose, might simply be some kind of financial exigency requiring the scaling down of an event (perhaps with a reduced number of speakers from what was first planned).

Nothing like any of this seems to have been the case with Professor Albert. What we are seeing is, apparently, just a change of mind about the nature of the event long after he had given his agreement to the invitation. This sort of thing should not happen – once an engagement is locked in, the speaker should be able to plan on the basis that it will stand, barring some unusual occurrence or some disreputable or unreasonable conduct by the speaker. Professor Albert appears to have been treated badly here, and this episode should stand as an example of how not to do things.

  • I agree with your condemnation, but I don’t think you’ve quite hit the nail on the head. I don’t see a change in the nature of the event. I just posted a long letter to Dr. Tyson on Coyne’s blog: link

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    The “questionable conduct (or revelations about it)” is an interesting issue.

    An event organizer invites someone to speak without knowing that speaker
    personally. After the invitation has been issued, the organizer gains some personal knowledge about the speaker that gives the organizer pause. As an example:

    An invited speaker writes great books or has an engaging speaking style, but he/she occasionally enjoys drinking to excess when socializing with others, and is mean and insulting when drunk. The organizer personally witnesses this behavior after having issued the invitation. Then the organizer does some fact checking and learns that this behavior doesn’t always occur but, when it does, it has caused problems for other conference organizers. The organizer decides that this speaker is too great a risk and decides to cancel the speaking engagement.

    So…

    What public statement does the organizer make to explain the decision to disinvite the speaker? Would it be right to say, “Speaker X drinks too much on occasion and is nasty when drunk.” (I would certainly hesitate to make that type of negative public statement about someone.) If the organizer isn’t willing to be that open and honest about a personal issue which has come up concerning a speaker, wouldn’t any reason they give for disinviting someone probably sound evasive and be perceived as unsatisfactory?

    The problem, as I see it, with the “questionable conduct” issue is that not all questionable conduct is readily available public information, (nor should it be IMO). And, not everyone who engages in the type of conduct which can be problematic for conference organizers considers this conduct to be “questionable conduct” or a reason to disqualify them as speakers.

    IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: I know nothing about Prof. David Albert except that he was invited to speak at a conference, and now has been disinvited. Furthermore, I do not wish to imply that there are any personal issues concerning Prof. David Albert which might disqualify him as a speaker at conferences. My example is purely hypothetical!

  • MosesZD

    I’m on the opposite side. To me not being willing to cut your losses when you make a mistake is falling into the “sunk cost fallacy.” You see it in investing, you see it people who have bad cars, bad computers, etc. as they keep sinking money into their personal hoopde…

    I think the only thing that is owed, beyond any civil apology, is compensation (if any) for out-of-pocket expenses that were incurred and not refundable.

  • It’s hard to see Professor Albert as a money pit. He is qualified to participate in the panel. More qualified than Jim Holt and even Charles Seife, in my opinion. That’s what needs to be explained: Why is Albert being treated like a miserable mistake that is only going to cause problems?

    I think what is owed to Albert is a public apology and a public explanation which shows more respect for his standing. I guess monetary compensation might be appropriate, too, for any costs.

    There’s a deeper issue here that’s motivating me, and perhaps others, to give more of a crap about this whole situation. The thing is that Krauss, Holt and others see the connections between philosophy and science on the issue of nothing. They want to talk about them. Krauss has even gone on talk shows getting into supposedly theological implications of his work. Holt’s book is as much about philosophy as it is about science. Both Holt and Krauss DO talk about the philosophical dimensions of the science, but neither one of them can do so authoritatively. Holt is a journalist, not an independent, authoritative intellectual. Krauss, on the other hand, has a condescending approach to philosophy in general and, from what I can tell, has no interest in engaging in serious philosophical reflection. Fortunately, Holt is very friendly with the philosophical side, but I do not think he can defend or represent it as authoritatively as Albert. So, even though the event is intended to focus on science, there is every reason to expect a discussion that gets into broader intellectual areas. The American Museum of Natural History is aware of this and even draws attention to the public’s interest in “nothing” when advertising for the event. But they’ve only got a journalist (Holt, who we can regard as a non-professional philosopher) and a journalism professor (Seife) holding up the non-scientific end of the discussion. I fear philosophy is going to get badly mistreated. Albert is perfectly suited to bring an authoritative, sophisticated philosophical approach to the table. His absence will be felt.

  • If you didn’t wish to imply that Prof David Albert is an obnoxious drunk then you shouldn’t have implied it.

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    We can discuss the points that Russell has made in his post at a higher level and
    issues which are difficult to address without having this higher level discussion be about anything specifically to do with the situation that inspired the post.

    Furthermore, your response proves why my disclaimer was necessary. I am getting rather tired of seeing ugly, unsubstantiated accusations being made in comments all over the internet because people would rather pick fights than discuss issues.

  • RussellBlackford

    Let’s all assume good faith… but also be careful. Ardent, I take it that your general point is that there could be circumstances where an organiser has good reasons to disinvite someone, but also good reasons not to reveal them publicly – and there’s then a PR dilemma. Unfortunately, that’s sounds right. And unfortunately, the failure to reveal might also lead members of the public to draw nasty (if vague) inferences.

    A similar PR dilemma can also arise when a staff member is dismissed from an organisation for some sensitive reason and the employer feels compelled to shut about why – for fear of defamation action or genuinely out of a wish not to escalate or to harm the person further.

    Can we agree that these unfortunate situations can theoretically arise while also agreeing that there is absolutely no reason to think that we might be seeing such a case at the AMNH? I do think Mike is correct that we need to be very, very cautious about hypothetical examples when there is a real example that we’re talking about.

  • RussellBlackford

    I’m not sure that anything is needed, beyond an apology and any compensation for reliance costs – so I don’t think you’re on the opposite side from me. At least not to that extent. But I do think this is a case where the apology is actually an apology for having done something wrong/having treated someone badly.
    As we’ve discussed on another thread, sometimes apologies are (quite rightly IMHO) made even in the absence of wrongdoing, but I don’t think this is such a case. I also agree with Jason that, in the circumstances, Professor Albert does not actually seem to have been a bad choice or a mistake.

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    I absolutely agree that these unfortunate situations can theoretically arise while also agreeing that there is absolutely no reason to think that we might be seeing such a case at the AMNH. It’s the reason why I wrote my disclaimer.

    My comment was meant to point out that perhaps we don’t want to be going down the path of questionable conduct at all in this specific case because it can, in fact, lead members of the public to draw nasty (if vague) inferences.

    Sorry, Russell! I looked at this issue in more general terms and felt there was danger in bringing up questionable conduct as a reason why we might choose to disinvite speakers when discussing a very specific occurrence. I apologize!

  • RussellBlackford

    No apology needed – I actually did want to talk a litle about what might or might not be acceptable reasons to disinvite someone – if only to say that none of the obvious ones apply here, but also because it may be of some general interest. So I don’t blame you for talking about the generalities. We do just need to be careful about what can be read into anything we say. Hopefully Mike is happy to accept what your explanation of what your intention was, and we can all move on from there.

  • Clare45

    I think it is simply bad manners to disinvite a speaker for any reason. It is the job of the conference organisers to be aware of the possible topics that the speaker will choose, or he/she could be asked to address a specific topic in advance. Having invited a philosopher to speak, rather than a scientist, you should expect a philosophical presentation. If half the audience walks out because they find him boring or irrelevant, that is up to them.

  • To take ArdentSkeptic’s example slightly further: suppose that, after the invitation is issued, the intended speaker becomes embroiled in a public controversy that is likely to draw unwelcome attention to the scheduled event. (I’m thinking partly of recent events at my own university, but possibly even more high-profile situations.) This is different from the ‘mean drunk’ example, in that it may be absolutely no fault of the invited speaker. But still, it risks overshadowing the event in a problematic way.

    (A danger here would be creating a perverse incentive for manufactured outrage on the part of those who dislike the speaker.)

  • RussellBlackford

    I don’t think you could absolutely rule out a situation like this – no one knows in advance what the utilitarian calculation might be in some case that has not yet arisen.

    Still, I’d be very loath to disinvite someone on a ground like that. Barring some terrible security problem beyond the resources of the convention to deal with, I’d say that as invited speakers we have a legitimate expectation that conference organisers will have our backs if we’ve done nothing wrong. IMHO, it should take quite a lot to defeat that expectation. Normally, I don’t think getting involved in controversy should be enough. We’d normally expect conferences to be aware that their speakers might get caught up in controversies. And yes, we’d want to be wary of having too many precedents for controversial speakers being forced out of events that they are committed to by people who dislike their views.

  • Jason Streitfeld

    I guess the hypothetical scenarios are more interesting to some readers than the reality of what happened here, but for those interested, here’s a little more on that topic: link

  • RussellBlackford

    Thanks for the link. Yes, it does sound as if they got into a philosophical discussion, as was always likely to happen, so it’s a pity Professor Albert was not there. I do hope the right lessons are drawn from this by the organisers, and I commend you for pursuing it.

    You do seem a bit unfair, however, in your comment that Professor Krauss apparently compared his own philosophising to the work of Mozart. Going by the Engspurdishabic review, he didn’t say quite that, and a more charitable interpretation is open: i.e., he was suggesting that such “futile” debates on highly abstract subjects are almost like works of art; they have aesthetic value, analogous to that of music, and need no other justification. I wouldn’t read anything more egotistical into an unscripted comment like that, or even, necessarily, into a scripted one.

  • Jason Streitfeld

    Hi, Russell. I don’t see a lack of charity on my part. Your “more charitable” reading is that Krauss was only saying that such discussions as his were akin to such works of art as those by Mozart. It’s a comparison, isn’t it? And it’s a comparison between the discussion he was having and the work of Mozart. What you don’t like is that I drew attention to the arrogance of his comment. But the arrogance is there. The question is whether or not it is offensive.

  • RussellBlackford

    He was comparing such discussions as he is now involved in – not specifically his own contribution to the discussion. And surely the main point was that it has analogous value (i.e. aesthetic value) rather than that his contribution to this particular discussion was at the same level of aesthetic excellence as a work by Mozart. I think it’s too much to draw the latter conclusion unless he quite explicitly made that boast (“My contribution to this debate was as good as Mozart’s Symphony No. 39!”). If he did, it wouldn’t be offensive as far as I can see (who should be offended… Mozart?), though it would certainly seem boastful and egotistical… arrogant if you will (which we might regard as showing a morally defective character, mightn’t we?).

    So sure, he made a comparison, but just how much to read into such a comparison is at best pretty murky, especially when the wording was apparently unscripted. We should always be wary about what we read into unscripted comments, in particular, IMHO, and especially if we are making judgments of moral character. I’m sure many of my own unscripted comments when I’m speaking in public don’t come out the way I’d like if I could edit them.

  • Jason Streitfeld

    Ah, I see why we might be disagreeing. Yes, I am sure he did not intend to put himself above the other panelists who were present. I’m sure he wasn’t talking only about his own contribution to the discussion. I see how my wording could give the wrong impression. However, my point remains. Unless Krauss explicitly distanced himself from his comment–unless he made some effort to show humility–then the implication is clear.

    If Krauss did balance his comment with an explicit sense of humility, then I will retract my comment with an apology. (Personal humility, concerning his particular value in relation to the rest of the panelists; or, more importantly, professional humility, concerning the value of scientists and journalists in relation to that of professional philosophers who deal with such topics for a living.) However, I’m guessing that didn’t happen. I see no evidence of humility in his public discussions of the philosophical issues. I would be very surprised to find evidence of humility this time around.

  • FYI, I corrected the misleading phrasing on my blog (and credited you for the assistance.) Thanks!

  • Agreed.

  • RussellBlackford

    Fair enough!

  • Another FYI: The video is up and I just finished watching it. The review I linked to earlier misrepresented Krauss’ comment. I’ve updated my own post as follows:

    Krauss mentions Mozart (and Picasso) when asked a different question–not about relevance, but about the practical applications of the discovery that particles can come out of an unstable “nothing.” Krauss first replies that none of his own scientific work has practical applications, and that he’s fine with that. He then compares his scientific work to a Mozart symphony or a Picasso painting, which can be interesting and beautiful even if it has no practical function. He says, “the ideas of science are among the most beautiful intellectual discoveries that humanity’s ever come up with.” But he then goes on to explain that, in fact, the spontaneous emergence of particles in a vacuum is integral to quantum mechanics and modern technology.

    Later on, a different person does question the relevance of their discussion, but that question is focused more on whether or not the panelists have ignored an important why-question at the expense of the how-question. Krauss responds that the why-question unjustifiably assumes intentionality. He doesn’t say anything about Mozart or the aesthetic value of their discussion at this point. (Also interesting, another of the physicists on the panel, J. Richard Gott, says that science deals only with how-questions. Holt disagrees and defends the need to ask why-questions, denying that they imply intentionality.)

    So Krauss did not compare his or anybody else’s amateur philosophizing to the works of Mozart. He compared his own scientific work to the works of Mozart and Picasso. But I’m sure he didn’t mean to suggest that any of his particular insights or contributions were nearly so valuable or beautiful. He was clearly making a more general point about whether or not science needs to have a practical application in order to be justifiable and worth pursuing. That’s a much more interesting point.

    I have a few things to say about the debate. I’ll put up a new post when I have more time.