Private email, public mob

May 13, 2010

In your article "He didn't see that coming, or did he?" (29 April), a private matter between Brian Josephson and I was brought into the public domain in an improper, unhelpful and misleading manner.

The fuss stemmed from a private email that I wrote to Josephson regarding a conference that I am co-organising with Mike Towler. The email was an attempt to address a complex organisational problem. It was not a literal statement of my views about the paranormal, nor did it accurately convey Josephson's association with the conference. For the record: I am not in principle opposed to the careful and scientific investigation of alleged anomalies, whatever they may be.

Some ask why I apparently "disinvited" a participant - a step that would normally be a breach of basic etiquette, and about which the recipient could reasonably complain (privately) to the organisers. However, certain alleged "invitees" were never formally invited. Furthermore, the conference is not about the paranormal.

Some are trying to portray this episode as a sinister attempt to suppress radical ideas, while others see fit to make comments without knowing the full facts. In my view, these matters are the business of the conference organisers, no one else.

Josephson posted my email in full on his website (the details have now been removed). This encouraged a storm of protest from his associates in the form of a large volume of emails sent to all the conference participants and dozens of others, plus postings on various websites.

The internet is an evolving medium and one can query the suitability of standard constraints in this context. However, I suggest that we all take a deep breath and ask ourselves if it is wise to blur the distinction between private and public correspondence in this manner.

If my attitude seems old-fashioned, I can recommend a book by Lee Siegel, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.

Antony Valentini, Imperial College London.

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