I imagine most readers of this blog are familiar with Jerry Coyne. If not, he’s a prominent biologist and atheist who maintains the blog Why Evolution is True. And apparently, he has taken to blocking commenters who disagree with him, even over substantive scientific issues.
First, some background: A conflict has been brewing over how to model the evolution of social behavior. At issue is a method called inclusive fitness theory, which emphasizes the role of genetic relatedness between interacting organisms. In 2011, Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and EO Wilson (hereafter, NTW) published an article arguing that inclusive fitness is a mathematically limited method, and that the role of relatedness has been overemphasized in the evolution of worker castes in social insects.
NTW’s article generated a strong response—most famously, a letter signed by 137 prominent researchers (also some talking bears). I happen to agree with Nowak, and have collaborated with him and Wilson on follow-up work. However, intelligent people can disagree on this issue, and I trust that science will sort it out.
Last week, a new critique of NTW was published in PLOS Biology. I won’t go into the substance of it here; Nowak and I have a forthcoming formal comment explaining where we think this critique goes wrong. Coyne, who supports inclusive fitness theory, summarized the critique on his blog.
Naturally, I wanted to participate in the discussion. I wrote a comment summarizing our forthcoming rebuttal and linking to my previous work on the subject. Initially, I got a message saying the comment was “under moderation”, which I thought was odd since I’ve commented on Coyne’s blog before. But the comment soon went through.
Then I noticed a factual error in Coyne’s post. Coyne says,
Nowak et al.’s paper, however, attacked this body of knowledge, claiming that kin selection and relatedness were not only unimportant in the
evolution of eusociality, but were unimportant in general.
This is a common misreading of NTW, which Nowak et al. addressed in their reply to the letter of 137:
One, we do not argue that relatedness is unimportant. Relatedness is an aspect of population structure, which affects evolution.
Pretty clear, right? I wrote a quick comment pointing out this error (which I believe to be an honest mistake).
But unlike my first comment, this one did not go through. I got the initial “under moderation” message, and then it never appeared. The next day I found myself unable to comment at all. The “under moderation” message stopped appearing; my comments would just disappear as soon as I hit “submit”. My initial comment still sits there, followed by thoughtful replies I would love to respond to but can’t. I’ve emailed Coyne twice to inquire, but have not received any response.
Soon after, I got an email from my collaborator Burton Simon, a mathematician who has recently been working on models of multilevel selection (an alternative to inclusive fitness theory). He said he’s been “virtually banned” from Coyne’s blog, where he used to comment under the pseudonym “Cooperator”. I asked him to elaborate and he said,
He apparently has a list of people whose comments aren’t automatically
posted. It goes into “moderation”, which I think means he has to
personally ok it, and he doesn’t always get around to it for one reason
And he’s never responded to any of my emails (maybe 3 altogether).
Interestingly, some dissenting comments besides mine made it through, although I don’t know if they also had to pass moderation.
Then my friend Blake Stacey linked me to a post on Daylight Atheism detailing other instances of comment-blocking by Coyne. In this case Coyne was defending Richard Dawkins against charges of sexism stemming from tweets that appear to blame rape victims for being drunk. (Coyne assures us that he knows Dawkins and Dawkins isn’t sexist, so… I guess that settles it?) At least three commenters report having comments deleted and/or being blocked for disagreeing with this post, or for suggesting that Dawkin’s tweets had anything to do with an accusation of rape-by-intoxication against Michael Shermer. One of the blocked commenters (Arthur) says
Jerry Coyne certainly does moderate the posts on his site. [I] posted a
comment critical of Richard Dawkins’s tweets, that was perfectly civil.
Jerry deleted the comment within 5 minutes, and continued to delete any
more that appeared from other posters that were similarly civil yet
I also appear to be banned from commenting on the site,
for that one comment. After eight years of having friendly banter on
everything from sport to cats.
I can’t read Coyne’s mind, so I don’t know exactly why he’s blocking people. Obviously, he has every right to moderate his blog however he chooses. But it hardly needs mentioning that censoring substantive disagreement goes against the principles of rational inquiry that Coyne espouses. Given that many people turn to Why Evolution is True for updates on evolutionary biology, this one-sided moderation also gives a false impression of unanimity that is bad for science. And of course, the damage is much greater when the censored commenters are pushing back against rape apology and victim-blaming.
Coyne’s comment-blocking also goes against the stated “Roolz” of his site, which specify
I try to use as light a hand as I can consonant with keeping an atmosphere of civility and sanity.
Please don’t assume that your comment was trashed, as I rarely do that (except from those sent by trolls).
Given the multiple reports of civil, substantive comments being deleted, it’s hard to take either of these statements seriously.