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On the Cybersyn Article Controversy: We Need Best Practices October 11, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Medina, Cybernetic RevolutionariesEvgeny Morozov recently wrote an article for the New Yorker about management cybernetician Stafford Beer (1926-2002) and Project Cybersyn, an ambitious early-1970s attempt to use information-handling technologies to manage the Chilean economy under Salvador Allende.  

Eden Medina published a fine book on the subject in 2011.  Morozov mentioned Medina’s book in his article, but only in an off-hand manner.  Historians, writing on Twitter and the SIGCIS message board, were incensed — the article, they believed, was, in effect, intellectual theft.  Morozov’s reply was a post on his tumblr describing his original research process, while acknowledging the importance of Medina’s work.

I’ll offer my own take up front: as a courtesy, Morozov should have acknowledged Medina’s book much earlier in the essay, and should have signalled to readers that it is an authoritative source on the subject. I reach this conclusion regardless of whether the essay was a proper book review or not (which has been a subject of some confusion, given that the essay was a “Critic at Large” piece, which appears in the book review section).  

My conclusion is drawn from my belief that Medina’s book constitutes a canonical source.  I will, however, refrain from joining my historian colleagues in their visceral disgust at Morozov’s essay, because this principle of the canonical source (as opposed to an originating source) does not actually exist.  I have just made it up now, and it would not be charitable to expect people to be bound to either a principle or a canonical status that nobody has ever agreed upon or even discussed.

My proposition: if there exists a large (i.e., book-length), thorough, deeply researched treatment of a topic — even if one disagrees with aspects of it or goes beyond it, and especially if it is recent (say, the last 15 years) — one is obligated, regardless of publishing genre or venue, and regardless of whatever replication and supplementation of research one has done, to acknowledge that canonical status clearly.

Now, for an examination of some particular issues in the case at hand…

My colleagues’ stronger objection to Morozov is based on the fact that they believe Morozov more or less derived his essay from Medina’s work.  It does seem to be the case that it was inspired by a reading of Medina.  Here’s how Morozov puts it in his tumblr post:

In a sense, I was lucky because there’s an excellent – and yes, entertaining – history of Project Cybersyn. It’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries by Eden Medina. It came out in 2011, so it’s not particularly “recent” to fit into the New Yorker’s slot. But we found a way.

I interpret this to mean that, while Medina’s book is fresh to the scholarly community, it was too aged for the New Yorker to review directly.  It could, however, feature within the context of a larger “Critic at Large” essay about Project Cybersyn, and its resonances with present-day problems of information-handling.

In his post defending his piece, Morozov makes a great deal of the extensive research he put into the essay, which I find exonerating, mainly because he follows the above quote with the declaration:

[Medina] was not my first entry point into Beer though. I had already read some of [Beer’s] books, essays, and interviews, as I’ve also been studying other like-minded cyberneticians – specifically, his older colleague Heinz von Foerster and one of his close early collaborators Gordon Pask…. I’ve also done a bit of work on the history of cybernetics so I didn’t have to waste time on establishing the basics.

The crucial point for me is that (as a historian of operations research and related areas) I would agree that Medina would not be able to claim to have done the basic originating spadework on Beer and Project Cybersyn, although it might appear that way to most historians because they themselves learned about these subjects from people they ordinarily read, i.e. Medina and Andy Pickering.

Rosenhead

Rosenhead

In fact, though, Beer and Project Cybersyn are pretty legendary within certain circles, and, in those circles, the basics of Beer’s career and Project Cybersyn have long constituted a kind of common historical property.  The essentials can, for example, also be derived from the writing of Beer’s protégé, radical operational researcher Jonathan Rosenhead, who wrote Beer’s obituary for the Journal of the Operational Research Society in 2003, as well as an essay in the 2011 Profiles in Operations Research volume from Springer.

Also, here’s a documentary on Project Cybersyn that appeared on vimeo in 2009, two years before Medina’s book was published:

Note that the creators were aware of Medina’s work, and offered a quick thanks at the end.

Now, none of this should be taken to mean that Medina’s extensive labor is unoriginal or anything other than top-notch, or that it can, in good conscience, now be acknowledged with only an off-hand mention (even if it is a crusty three years old). You could get away without citing Rosenhead, because of the brevity of his accounts, but, in my mind, you have to give Medina credit.

So, how should the issue be handled?

I share STSer Lee Vinsel’s dissatisfaction with Janet Browne’s declaration that the issue is “now resolved” to the effect that there is no foul on Morozov’s part because he was writing in a “highbrow” literary outlet.  Morozov, who has long worked as a writer, is presently a PhD student in Harvard’s History of Science Department, where Browne is department chair (and where I received my own PhD in 2007).  So, she would be eager to put the issue to bed.  But why should we accept this rote declaration?*  It’s not clear.

At the same time, I’m really uncomfortable with historians’ rush to shame Morozov publicly.  Historians have rather ruthlessly used Morozov’s pre-PhD identity as a journalist to deny him any benefit of the doubt that they would ordinarily extend to one of their own.  In fact, some tweeters have used it to reinforce a portrait of him as an untrustworthy outsider (historians do have a propensity to be clannish).  

They are repulsed that academic norms of thorough citation have not been accommodated in other genres (despite the conclusions of every STS study ever on the translation of standards across sociocultural boundaries), and take it for granted that Medina and Pickering are the originating sources on Beer and Cybersyn, which must be acknowledged even in a watered-down version of academic norms that prevail in vulgar “highbrow” publications.  (The unfortunate implication is that if historians aren’t aware of it, it mustn’t count.)

Personally, while I agree that Morozov has sinned, I believe the sin is venial.  I think the prior existence of a substantial lore on Beer and Cybersyn does constitute an extenuating circumstance, and, for this reason, I have been forced to essentially invent a principle to express the professional discourtesy that I, like others, sense has taken place.

The fact is, we have no good guidelines for adjudicating issues of this sort.

To me, the whole episode points to a more general failure to have pointed, civil, and conclusive discussions about policies/best practices of attribution, as well as any means of ascertaining what constitutes something that is generally “known” and what needs to be attributed to a specific author.

One might, for instance, just as easily ask (to take a recent example from this blog) whether Simon Schaffer should have given a better sense of existing critical thought about the historical role of automata.  Personally, I think his argument was different enough that he was OK, though I do think it would have been ideal to have given some sense of the depth of existing thinking about them.

The point, though, is that we really don’t have any sort of guidance on issues such as these, and we foreclose the possibility of creating them if issues are simply declared “resolved”.

Given that some of our most senior scholars do have connections to the “highbrow” literary world, there is even a possibility that we could establish with their editors certain protections for when subjects we write about enter the less-well-documented forums of public discourse.  But that’s not something we can expect to happen implicitly or automatically.

And these issues do matter.  I am a member of the History and Traditions Committee of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences.  One of the other members emailed the rest of us last night to tell us about the very interesting article in The New Yorker on Project Cybersyn, which, he allowed, covered a lot of the same ground as the Rosenhead profile that he already knew about.  It would have been nice if more than a single breadcrumb had been left to lead him to Medina’s excellent book.

*In my opinion, historians have a bad habit of declaring issues they don’t want to discuss anymore resolved or passé, and counting on others to follow their lead on the pain of being passé.  Michael Bycroft and I feel this way, for instance, about the common claim that the internalism-externalism problem reached a satisfactory conclusion, and that we are now so beyond that.

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Comments»

1. J. D. Martin - October 12, 2014

Thanks Will, find this sort of sober evaluation (from both you and Lee Vinsel) very useful.

But I do think it’s too charitable to compartmentalize Morozov’s pre- and post-grad school identities. He’s someone who has cultivated, and contributes to cultivate, a public persona. I sympathize with the visceral reaction from some professional historians because Morozov’s pre-PhD persona remains his public persona. The rancor is as much about the form of Morozov’s work as about the content. The benefit of the doubt professionals extend to their apprentices is based on the apprentice demonstrating a good faith interest in the professional community’s standards and values. I’ll admit that I haven’t been following the case closely, but it does not appear as though Morozov has done so, in particular in the process of maintaining his public persona.

I agree with you that the norms in this case are not codified in any rigorous way, and that such ambiguity is a major cause of the currently flap. But I would go further to say that such ambiguity serves a useful function in all professional communities: mastering those unspoken norms is a shibboleth of community membership. That’s not to take a stand one way or another about whether this is the best way to do things, but empirically it’s a stable feature of professional communities, and Morozov’s disregard for it—real or perceived—is what understand to be behind the rancor.

Will Thomas - October 13, 2014

Thanks very much for the comment.

I find myself in disagreement on the significance of Morozov’s professional status. Leaving aside the fact that he’s presently in a PhD program, I don’t think the fact that someone has a media-intensive persona makes them very less likely to be interested in giving proper credit. The presumption seems to be that the woods beyond the walls of academia are filled with villainous thieves. In this view, Morozov’s defense isn’t worth entertaining, because, untrustworthy soul that he is, it cannot be anything other than a sad rationalization. The New Yorker itself has been cast as Mephistopheles.

Now, Janet Browne’s post on SIGCIS offers the opposite point of view, accepting the judgment of “the fact-checking process for which the New Yorker is justly famed.” Browne, of course, is well aware of the perils of working with dishonest actors. Personally, I think journalistic standards could use some tweaking to ensure that major sources, such as Medina’s, are given their proper due. Only people of Browne’s stature could make these contacts, so it would be nice to see additional concern.

But, to come back to the identity question, let’s look at this from another angle. Thony Christie is another person who has adopted a public persona, the “Hist-Sci Hulk.” On his pathbreaking blog, The Renaissance Mathematicus, he debunks history-of-science myths, and offers reliable essays on renaissance/early modern science and mathematics based on the best available scholarship — which he usually doesn’t cite (though sometimes he does). Personally, given his quickness to strongly condemn people who write about the history of science before consulting the proper literature, I think it would be good to actually inform readers what that literature is. But neither I, nor anyone I know, have ever considered him to be in breach of ethics.

Now, I suppose we could come up with (ad hoc) reasons why Morozov’s practices are clearly unethical, while Thony’s are clearly OK, but, personally, I think the discrepancy in treatment mainly has to do with the fact that we like Thony. He’s not an “anointed” historian, per se, but he knows his stuff, and he makes the right enemies (reckless history-of-science popularizers), and he makes the right friends. That’s no basis on which to pass ethical judgments. Which is why you need policies — not necessarily rigidly codified, but not totally implicit and arbitrarily applied, either. In this regard, shibboleths are pretty much the opposite of policies.

Inasmuch as identity-based double standards seem to permit public shaming without any sort of formal hearing, they also serve to squelch conversations about internal ethics, since people who are insiders are given a very strong benefit of the doubt. Personally, I have a few ethical complaints against fellow historians, which I know not to even bring up because it would be considered extremely impolitic, and there aren’t any venues for handling such things anyway. (OK, one general point: it should be considered an egregious academic crime to sit on, and then neglect altogether to turn in, referee reports on book manuscripts, resulting in long delays in the publication of the most important thing to career advancement. It’s happened to me twice.)

In the case of Morozov, I have no real opinion of the guy, his persona or demeanor, his work, or his overarching intellectual project. But, here’s what I think has been denied to Morozov, but is owed to him, as would be owed to anybody, academic, student, journalist, or whatever: take his defense seriously.

Nobody seems to take seriously his argument that he knew a great deal about Beer’s work before Medina’s book ever came out, nor, because of the existence of Medina’s book, do they take his claims to original research seriously. If they hadn’t heard of Beer before Pickering and Medina, how on earth could this bozo have?

As someone who works in this general area of history, I would say “pretty easily.” I’ve never researched Beer intensively, but I first heard of him in 2004 or ’05, after I wrote this piece for OR/MS Today. A member of the OR community wrote me to tell me the story of how an old, peripatetic Beer showed up at his door unannounced one dark night. The implicit assumption in writing me was that Beer is a universal reference, and that sharing a story about him would be an appropriate response to an article that had nothing to do with Beer, simply because it was about history.

The point is, if you travel in OR/cybernetics circles, Beer’s exploits are a known, and well written about as well. Here, for example, is a chapter about Cybersyn from 1983! To my mind, you at the very least have to take Morozov’s claim seriously that he didn’t lift his understanding of Cybersyn directly from Medina, as good, detailed, and synthetic as her account is, and that the homework that he put into his essay matters. Given his labor, and given his experience with the topic, Morozov clearly feels that his essay was not a mere gloss on Medina, nor that he failed to give proper credit. I don’t think it was a conscious act of theft, nor is it at all clear that it was an act of theft at all.

Given that Medina didn’t invent the topic (only, evidently, for historians), and given the work that Morozov did on his own, it’s therefore not, to my mind, a clear and grave ethical breach to fail to single her out for recognition, since one doesn’t own a topic by virtue of being the foremost historian of it. (This is different from an academic essay, where a footnote reference needs to be given to the foremost historian, even if he or she is not the source of one’s own knowledge.)

All this said, I would like to emphasize that I do, in fact, believe that, given the quality and depth of Medina’s account, and given the fact that the essay was evidently originally conceived of as a review of her book, giving her a warmer, more prominent mention would have been the warranted, decent thing to do. But this comes down to “rather than putting your reference this way and down here, shouldn’t it really have been put this other way, and up here?” which is a legitimate complaint, but too fine a distinction to warrant the vitriol we’ve seen.

Here’s another way of putting it: let’s apply the journalistic norm of the “scoop.” Although a scoop refers to exposing something for the first time—and we’ve established that Medina did not do this—in terms of the public presentation of a topic, I think it’s fair to say that Medina scooped Morozov. In journalism, when you’re scooped, you have to give proper due to the original reporter, even if your own sources were leading you in the same direction.

Again, though, nobody’s ever said this is the way the “public essay” has to work, which is why these conversations are so important.


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