Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In the absence of information, rumors will reign

The title of this post has long been a motto of mine. Back when I was in a position where my opinions on such things mattered, I always favored complete disclosure and transparency over need-to-know parsing out of information. When people have more information than they need to make a decision, unexpected insights may arise from previously-overlooked combinations of data. When data is meted out parsimoniously, occasionally critically important information may be inadvertently (or intentionally, even maliciously) withheld, leading to decisions being made based on a skewed perception of the problem.

The James Randi Educational Foundation had its YouTube account suspended yesterday. Here is the announcement of this incident, in its entirety, from randi.org:

Our YouTube account has been suspended, which means all of the Randi Speaks and other JREF videos are temporarily unavailable. We're researching the problem, and will be back online as soon as possible. Thanks very much for your patience.
Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy is the president of JREF. Here is the announcement he made on his blog, in its entirety:

I’m getting lots of notes, comments, tweets, and emails about the suspension of the YouTube JREF account. We’re working on it with YouTube, and we’re hoping to have this resolved soon. Obviously, this is not something we’re going to go into details about until it’s resolved, so please don’t fret, and we ask for your patience. The support we’ve seen from everyone has been fantastic, and we appreciate it.
And that's it. That's all the official information that I've seen out there.

For those unfamiliar with the group, here is the information from the "About the Foundation" page from randi.org:

The James Randi Educational Foundation is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1996. Its aim is to promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today.

The Foundation's goals include:

  • Creating a new generation of critical thinkers through lively classroom demonstrations and by reaching out to the next generation in the form of scholarships and awards.
  • Demonstrating to the public and the media, through educational seminars, the consequences of accepting paranormal and supernatural claims without questioning.
  • Supporting and conducting research into paranormal claims through well-designed experiments utilizing "the scientific method" and by publishing the findings in the JREF official newsletter, Swift, and other periodicals. Also providing reliable information on paranormal and pseudoscientific claims by maintaining a comprehensive library of books, videos, journals, and archival resources open to the public.
  • Assisting those who are being attacked as a result of their investigations and criticism of people who make paranormal claims, by maintaining a legal defense fund available to assist these individuals.
To raise public awareness of these issues, the Foundation offers a $1,000,000 prize to any person or persons who can demonstrate any psychic, supernatural or paranormal ability of any kind under mutually agreed upon scientific conditions. This prize money is held in a special account which cannot be accessed for any purpose other than the awarding of the prize.
The JREF is the sort of organization that tends to step on a lot of toes, because they also tend to pull back a lot of curtains and reveal the hucksters hiding behind them. Hucksters, faith healers, cultists, snake oil salesmen - if you're peddling crap, rest assured that the JREF has your number, and will do everything it can to let people know it. So, naturally, there are a lot of people out to get them.

Only we don't know if that's what's going on here. Information is being withheld. The people who do know the "official" reason YouTube has suspended this account aren't talking, or at least aren't sharing any details. Every bit of official information that has been release on this matter is included in the first two quotes above. Anything beyond that is speculation.

And there's been a hell of a lot of that. P.Z. Myers (whose adventures trying to see a movie in which he was featured I wrote about just over a year ago here) wrote a post about this incident yesterday which has a decidedly different tone than the ones posted on randi.org or Bad Astronomy. It opens with this statement:

This is insane: YouTube has become an overzealous nanny, protecting kooks from offense, now banning the eminently respectable JREF.
But there is no additional information provided. When pressed for information in the comments, Myers responded

The reason for this particular event is irrelevant, given YouTube's history of bowing to the demands of creationists and other kooks. Might as well give up and concede it to them -- it's on the road to being another godtube.
...which is not the sort of response I would expect from a scientist, or a skeptic.

The pitchforks and torches immediately came out in the comments. Speculations abounded as to what had happened, and who had done it, and retaliatory strikes were taken against the people who were suspected of having done whatever might have been done. But the only additional information added to the pot was this statement, purportedly a quote from a private communication by James Randi himself:

Comment #162
Posted by: ozzy1248
March 30, 2009 9:54 PM

Update - Received word from JREF about suspension:

"Sean: there were a few complaints about Oprah material and some from Dean Radin, as well. YouTube shut us down pending our resolution of these problems. I expect we'll be back up very soon...
James Randi."

Hopefully we'll see them back shortly.
And that's where things stand, as of now, information-wise.

The comments fared a little better on Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy. with several of us arguing that we should remain patient as Phil had suggested, and several others taking us to task for waiting to act before we actually had anything more than speculation. Phil has done four additional posts since the one announcing the YouTube suspension, but has not provided any additional information.

In the absence of information, rumors have reigned. Scratch a group of fans of rationality and skepticism, and you might just find an angry mob underneath.

I'm hoping the people who know what is going on see fit to share this information sometime soon.

UPDATE, April 5, 2009: Phil Plait posted this to the JREF site on April 3:

The JREF YouTube Account is back online!
Written by Phil Plait
Friday, 03 April 2009 09:00

We're pleased to announce that our YouTube channel is back online.

Our account had been suspended by YouTube due to some copyright complaints on a handful of videos we had uploaded. The videos in question have been removed, the proper hoops have been jumped through, and YouTube restored the account. We are currently going though our inventory to make sure any videos that we even suspect might be in violation are removed. There are 200+ of them, so it'll take us some time, but we're on it.

I'd like to thank all our supporters once again for the outcry when this happened. But I'll also gently chide some of you: there were many rumors, accusations, and conclusions jumped-to when our account was taken down. As you can see, no one was attacking us, and no one acted unfairly - the complainants were within their rights, and YouTube acted according to their rules. In fact, when we started conversing with one of the complainants and with YouTube, everyone acted in a civilized and even friendly manner. The matter was resolved quickly and, I think, to everyone's satisfaction.

Because of this, I'd like to personally thank everyone involved with this as well.

So we're back on the air! You can expect to see more Randi Speaks soon, as well as our usual skeptical take on all things unskeptical. Thank you to everyone for your support and patience.

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