[Note: The subject of animal rights is complex, and I won’t get into the intricacies of it here — except to point out that those who are calling Christopher Filardi a “murderer” (for euthanizing a bird) believe perforce — by extension — that the domestication of animals is slavery, and that zoos are a form of imprisonment or interment camp, and that pet-ownership as well is a form of slavery. Also, when PETA in particular refers to Christopher Filardi as a murderer, what then are they engaged in when by their own admission they euthanize thousands upon thousands of healthy animals a year? Answer: by their own brand of reasoning, they’re engaged in mass murder.]
The ornithologist Christopher Filardi has recently been hounded into hiding for publicly practicing his science — which is to say, he carried on what has been the standard practice in the natural sciences for centuries now: he euthanized a kingfisher to collect it as a sample for his museum.
The overwhelming majority of his detractors belong to the Party of Science — id est: members of groups like Earth Liberation Front, which among many, many other things committed a clear-cut act of terror (for which they were convicted) by firebombing the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington, where Dr. Filardi was once a graduate student.
The New York Times wrote a good article about all this, and here is a small excerpt:
While the expedition was still underway, the museum released the first photographs of the bird, which seemed to be mugging for the camera. The mustached kingfisher became a viral celebrity, under headlines like ‘ridiculously gorgeous.’
It wasn’t until the public realized that Dr. Filardi had ‘collected’ the bird—killing it for the museum’s research collection—that the adulation turned to venom…. While Dr. Filardi was still on the mountain, almost entirely off the grid, the rage spread. Tens of thousands of people signed petitions that condemned his actions, and thousands more signed a petition calling for him to be fired, or even jailed…. [!]
He descended from the mountaintop into an inferno of hate. ‘If they wanted to make me feel horrible and more than a little frightened for my family or welfare,’ he told me, his voice strained, ‘it worked.’
‘More than a little frightened.’
Yes, indeed, it is more than a little frightening to be harassed in this way — i.e. online through social media — not primarily because you fear for your safety, but because what you suddenly see before you is an extreme and hostile Borg-like presence that has lost some vital part of its rationality.
[Filardi] wrote an essay for Audubon explaining the many steps he’d taken to ensure that the taking of a single kingfisher would not cause harm, including a survey of the population, which he estimated at 4,000—a ‘robust number for a large island bird.’ He highlighted the role the bird played in conservation efforts: After his findings were presented to tribal, local, and national officials, they resolved to protect the area from being mined or logged. His essay received over 900 comments, the most up-voted of which called him a murderer.
[I]t has led him—and many other ornithologists with whom I spoke, almost all of whom asked me not to use their names—to be extremely cautious about attracting any kind of attention. Many research expeditions are no longer being publicized; in some cases, there is a total blackout on media. (Ibid)
But reasoning with a mob, online or off, is of course futile; and there comes a point — such as when members of the maddened mob sign you up via your email for ghastly satanic-seeming websites — when you know beyond the shadow of any doubt that these people will stop at very little, if anything.
The most paradoxical part is that “science” has never been more en-vogue, and yet it’s “science” used as just another dogmatic ideological shibboleth (such as “The Party of Science”) politically driven to the hilt and repeated and reproduced endlessly, until in no time at all it becomes devoid of actual meaning, if it ever had any to begin with, and that is by no means certain. So that now real science, which is a method of observation and gathering evidence carefully and painstakingly, in any and every endeavor (including economics), must be conducted in secret. (Read Sumantra Maitra’s article: “Campus Repression Is So Bad That Academics Are Now Holding Conferences In Secret.”)
This kind of reaction should remind us of previous superstitious taboos against practices like dissecting cadavers, activities that were scientifically valuable but emotionally repugnant to an ignorant mob and obscurantist authorities. In this case, the main push came from precisely the kind of left-leaning activists—particularly PETA and the animal rights crowd—who so often like to pose as advocates of science.
The comparison to a pre-scientific era only seems more appropriate the deeper you probe this case. We already see historical scholarship having to be conducted in secret, just as in the days of the monasteries, in order to avoid attack by a hostile outside world. Now the same thing is happening to science.
There is a lesson here about the psychology of online mobs, and a warning that in an era when science lives by social media it can die by social media.