Free thoughts from the hive mind

There is a meme, perhaps more accurately described as a complex of memes, about Freethought Blogs. This complex is made up of at least one of the following statements:

  • FTB is run as essentially an extension of the egos of PZ Myers and Ed Brayton
  • FTB does not tolerate dissent, and enforces its repressive agenda through banning, mockery/ridicule, and flying monkeys (this being a descriptor of regular denizens of the Pharyngula comment threads)
  • FTB is run by (or home to, depending on who you ask) radical feminists
  • FTB is a leftist, ultra-PC, political entity
  • FTB spends too much time talking about things that aren’t material science and/or atheism
  • FTB is a hive mind that promotes a ‘party line’ of thinking that precludes disagreement on anything substantive

Now obviously, since I am part of Freethought Blogs, any and all opinions I have on the subject are irretrievably biased. It is in fact more than likely I am simply repeating instructions given to me from on high (in exchange for which I receive a monthly pittance that I give away anyway). However, given the recent nonsense that precipitated the ejection of one of our bloggers (Greg Laden left as well, but for an entirely different reason), I thought you might be interested to hear an insider’s perspective. You will have to judge for yourself, based on my history, if I can be thought of as a reliable narrator.

Freethought Blogs is not a hive mind

Imagine you wanted to start a blog network. Wanting to create the best one you could, you reached out to those bloggers who you thought were smart and entertaining and (perhaps most importantly) would say ‘yes’ if you asked them. Now, imagine you asked them to pick other bloggers that they liked. And so on for three or four more iterations. You know what you’d end up with? Something that looks eerily similar to a hive mind. You know why? Because people who know what the hell they’re talking about tend to respect and admire other people who also know what the hell they’re talking about.

Calling Freethought Blogs a ‘hive mind’ is about as accurate as calling the JREF a ‘hive mind’ for doubting psychics, or calling the National Academy of Science a ‘hive mind’ for accepting the evidence behind evolution. Yes, we agree on a number of issues for which there is a great deal of popular dissent. That’s because we know what the hell we’re talking about. We also (usually) avoid making wild swings at topics about which we know nothing, which brings me to my next point.

Thunderf00t was not evicted for disagreeing with the feminist position*

When Thunderf00t was fired, I could practically hear the simul-gasms of a thousand anti-FTB trolls, crowing at the ultimate public vindication of their central thesis: FTB will silence you if you disagree. It may surprise you to learn that FTBloggers disagree with each other all the damn time. On our blogs, no less. We revel in free-wheeling discourse – it makes us who we are. The key to discourse, however, is that disagreement between sides has to be intelligent. If you advance a position and all you have to defend it is absurd stereotype, distortions of fact, and a snarky tone, you’re not exactly going to get very far with this crowd.

So let’s make something abundantly clear here. Thunderf00t was fired for the following reasons:

  1. He was a shitty blogger
  2. He was ludicrously wrong and ignorant about a topic for which there was abundant information right in his back yard – a topic, incidentally, that lies well outside his usual bailiwick
  3. He was a shitty blogger
  4. He was a gaping asshole when his wrongness was pointed out to him, and replied to criticism with an ever-widening spiral of transparently absurd arguments, culminating in a bizarre last-gasp attempt to introduce “data” into the debate (which, as a scientist, would have so embarrassed me that I would have quit, thus obviating the need to fire me).
  5. He was a shitty blogger
  6. He was creating an atmosphere in which it was impossible for anyone else to function without having to deal with his shit all the time
  7. He wasn’t a particularly good blogger (one might say he was shitty)

You’ll note that nowhere on that list appears the fact that he disagreed with PZ Myers or our Skepchick overladies. Nor is it because he allowed people from ERV (and if you don’t know what that refers to, I suggest you don’t bother finding out – stupids gonna stupe) to comment on his blog. Nor is it that he was some kind of maverick that threatened the very foundation of the FTB network. Nor was it anything else that doesn’t appear on that list above.

Including Thunderf00t on FTB is not evidence that we aren’t a hive-mind

One of the memes coming from people who support FTB went something like this:

“FTB isn’t a hive mind – they had Thunderf00t on there! Clearly they embrace dissent”

As tempting as that argument is to make, it’s completely without merit. The existence of a single token asshole doesn’t suddenly invalidate claims of groupthink, just as the presence of a single female board member doesn’t invalidate claims about systemic sexism in a company. Plus, y’know, he got fired.

We’re not a hive mind, but including one person who is wrong about feminism doesn’t qualify as evidence of that fact.

Booting Thunderf00t is not evidence that we oppose ‘free’ thought

One of the more pathetic (and yet nonetheless popular) rejoinders floating around is that since FTB didn’t tolerate Thunderf00t’s brattiness, we are in contradiction of the principles of free inquiry. It may shock anyone who has used this assertion to learn that ‘freethought’ doesn’t mean ‘whatever dumb shit pops into your head and tumbles out of your mouth’. If I came out as a closet creationist tomorrow, you’d better believe there would be some monumental backlash against my ideas – not because it’s an echo chamber, but because creationism is fucking silly. Thunderf00t ran afoul of the exact same phenomenon.

As tempting as it is to label the feminism that many of us FTBorg share as an inviolable ‘dogma’, such a statement is simply a histrionic false equivalence, born of the same brain fart that gave us “atheism is just another religion, man!” We accept feminist arguments when and because they correspond well to observed reality, and we reject the fringe elements that contradict our general humanism. That is entirely in sync with the tenets of free thought.

There will always be those who would rather concoct vivid fantasies in which the backlash they receive for their stupidity is caused by the nefarious machinations of a nebbish biology professor from Minnesota (and his willing horde of sycophant blog commenters). I suppose there is no disabusing those who can’t see that the reason people are telling you that you’re wrong is simply because you’re wrong. I have no hope that this post will change the mind of anyone who would rather see the collusion of The Bilderblog Group or some other weird conspiracy theory.

What I do hope, however, is that when this latest scandal blows over (as someone else says something stupid), we will have learned that demonstrating an admirable capacity for rational thought in one area does not necessarily mean it carries over to anywhere else.

If I were a more polite person than I am, this is where I would say something like “I wish Thunderf00t all the best in his future endeavours”, but I don’t. I don’t even care enough about the guy to wish him ill. I have no wishes for him whatsoever, and I imagine that his future endeavours will be about as relevant to me as they were before he moved to FTB.

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*For the record, I had no foreknowledge or input into the decision to boot TF. If the decision were mine, I’d like to think that I would have just let everyone else figure out just how shitty a writer and thinker he is (outside of his area of expertise, that is), and stop reading him over time. However, I don’t have to manage FTB as a network in toto (just my own little piece here), so I don’t really understand the pressure that Ed was under.