Archive for Politics

“Conservatism is the new Punk Rock”. Discuss. – A Guest Post by Philip Moriarty

Posted in Politics with tags , on August 24, 2017 by Philip Moriarty

It’s been a while since I had a guest post on this blog so it’s a pleasure to present this, by Philip Moriarty, to add to your reading for the Bank Holiday Weekend. Phil and I have had a number of exchanges over the years about the possibility of him writing a post for In The Dark and I’m very happy that it’s finally happened!

Take it away, Philip Moriarty…

–o–

If the conversations and feedback I’ve had at recent “social media in academia” meetings are anything to go by, I suspect that the majority of my academic friends and colleagues will be unaware of the source of the quote above. Although ignorance is certainly the more blissful option here, those of us with any semblance of interest in diversity, equality, gender balance, and widening participation issues in higher education need to start paying attention to just why memes like the title of this post are gaining such wide traction online. That way we can learn a great deal about the origins of the hostility that academics, on either side of the political divide, are increasingly facing, both inside and outside (see also this) the lecture theatre. Forewarned is forearmed [1].

The  “Conservatism is the New Punk Rock” tagline was popularised earlier this year by a certain Paul Joseph Watson, of Infowars infamy.  Watson is a conspiracy theorist-cum-YouTube pundit-cum-Alt-Right talking ranting head who, when not being given a thorough dressing-down on Twitter for his amusingly uninformed bleating about ethnicity in Roman Britain [2], spends his time as editor-at-large of the aforementioned Infowars. He’s essentially a bargain basement Milo Yiannopoulos [3]; a self-styled “New Right” provocateur who believes that it’s the height of cultural cool to channel the casual seventies racism and bigotry of an Alf Garnett or a Bernard Manning.

And the problem is that Watson is dead right about this new breed of conservatism.

Generation Z. Plus ça change…

Oatmeal_Cartoon

It’s now achingly edgy in some teenage (and permateen) circles to espouse bigotry, to rail against “PC culture”, and — as the YouTuber ContraPoints pointed out in a recent online discussion — to echo the views of a stereotypically racist grandmother. Even the more moderate in those particular cliques appear to have adopted the mindset of an uber-reactionary lifelong Tory backbencher. Bizarrely, this is what passes for teenage rebellion these days.

To illustrate what I mean, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to ask you to forgo the conventional advice on reading comments sections online. (My apologies for this — we all know that online forums are where the touchingly naive “marketplace of ideas” concept goes to die.) I suggest that you take a look at the comments under the “Conservatism is the new Counter-Culture” video Watson uploaded back in February. Here are just three comments that I happened upon in a cursory ten second trawl through the thread:

PJW_1

PJW_2

PJW_3

All anonymous, of course, so we have no way of telling whether or not each claim to be a Millenial/member of Generation Z — which are both rather ill-defined in terms of the date-of-birth range that they span in any case — holds up to scrutiny. But there’s very good reason to believe that Watson and his ilk indeed appeal to large sections of those particular demographics. Putting the demographic diversity (or lack thereof) of his audience to one side, however, Watson and others like him have subscriber bases numbering in the hundreds of thousands to over one million. Watson himself recently passed 1M subscribers on YouTube. On Twitter, Watson has got some way to go before he reaches the lofty heights of, for example, a Deepak Chopra (3.18M and rising steadily; another one in the eye for the marketplace of ideas). But, nonetheless, he, and other “New Right” pundits like him, clearly appeal to a sizable audience.

A defining feature of Generation Z is that they are, if you’ll excuse the jargon, digital natives. I’m a couple of chapters into Angela Nagle’s brilliant Kill All Normies at the moment. If you’d like to get an insight into just how internet subcultures and communities have influenced the rise of the New Right (and the alt-right, and neo-Nazism, and anti-social-justice cliques etc…) I enthusiastically recommend both Nagle’s book and Whitney Phillips’ This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things [4]. (Be warned, however, Nagle’s book, while being critical of the new right/alt-right, doesn’t exactly go easy on those on the left of the political spectrum. It’s equal opportunities critique.)

Nagle and Phillips each highlight the importance of the meme culture of the internet, of the pervasive influence of message boards like 4chan, and of anonymity’s central contribution to online interactions.  But they also both focus on the key role of transgression: of pushing the boundaries, of ‘edginess’ in youth sub-cultures. It was ever thus, of course — each and every generation kicks against the pricks. And transgression of this type is key to understanding the rise of the “new right” among certain Generation Z sub-cultures.

With parents who will be counted among the “normies” of the title of Nagle’s book — conventional, staid, boring, “virtue signalling” and, most of all, politically correct — what better way for the more aggrieved and brooding members of Generation Z to rebel than to reject PC culture? “Fuck your feelings” and all that. (Of course, the Right (New or otherwise) is just as sensitive and prone to signalling as the “PC” Left on very many issues. More on this soon but let’s not have ugly facts get in the way of a good narrative just yet.)

Like many who regularly read the In The Dark blog [5], I’m an academic — a physicist at the University of Nottingham.  (I used to blog quite regularly. Less so now). In common with practically all other UK universities, the majority of our undergraduate students are members of Generation Z. (This was made abundantly clear to me while I spent days answering the phone during the clearing period after A-level results were released last week. I entered a lot of date-of-birth details for applicants into online forms. My, but did I feel old.)  If, as Watson suggests, the New Right indeed has quite some cachet among Generation Z — and we certainly don’t need to rely on Watson’s YouTube content for evidence of this; hyperbolic paranoia about ‘leftist’ professors brainwashing their classes is rife out there [6] — we academics need to be rather less complacent and naive about the extent to which our continued focus on diversity and inclusion will be met with unalloyed enthusiasm by some undergraduate students. We should perhaps expect some resistance.

And that brings me to…

Inclusion Matters

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which funds the bulk of physics research in the UK, has very recently announced an innovative and welcome new funding scheme focused on furthering equality, diversity and inclusion in engineering and physical sciences research. Here’s how the EPSRC describes the call:

Funding of up to £5 million is available to support around ten inspiring applications with duration of up to 24 months to promote a more diverse, fair and inclusive engineering and physical sciences community. There is no limit on how large or small requests for funding can be.

(…listen carefully now and you too will hear the frantic rattling of keyboards late into the night as a certain hypersensitive online faction catches wind of this funding scheme. Of late, the Ghostbusters remake, superheroes on tins of pasta, and the announcement of a female Doctor have each been enough to drive the righteous anger of that faction to new heights as they bemoan the injustice of it all. The levels of distress caused by EPSRC’s allocation of £5M to diversity and inclusion in STEM could well be off the scale. Perhaps some type of helpline might be in order?)

All joking aside, while EPSRC is to be loudly applauded for establishing this funding initiative, the potential for a significant backlash is very high indeed. Too often, as academics we assume that all it takes to fix a problem is education, education, education. This is unfortunately exceptionally naive in political/ideological contexts, particularly, and especially, when it comes to the types of gender balance and diversity issues that EPSRC hopes to address. The James Damore/Google manifesto furore that broke out at the end of last month highlighted just how much sensitivity underpins the themes of the Inclusion Matters call.

I’m not going to go into a blow-by-blow dissection of Damore’s claims here. For one, it’s already been done by so many others much better than I ever could (here, here, and here. And definitely here. Oh, and here.) For another, a couple of weeks ago I spent a little over two hours chatting with my friend the “Ranting Feminist” (RF is, in fact, among the least ranty people I know) about Damore’s claim that the science backs up his position on the aptitudes and preferences of women in STEM fields. The science of course does no such thing — it’s equivocal at best and there’s a complete lack of consensus in many areas, as RF and I discuss in the video below. Moreover, Damore’s claim of “universal” traits, independent of culture and environment, is a remarkably uninformed, unscientific, and unconvincing position that can be readily rebutted when it comes to, for example, aptitude in maths.

(The slides I use in the video are here).

I refer to Angela Saini‘s Inferior a number of times during the discussion with RF. Beg, borrow, steal, or, better, shell out some of your hard-earned cash for Saini’s book. You will not regret it. It’s an exceptionally good piece of writing which provides a well-balanced analysis of the science (and the pseudoscience) underpinning gender differences. (I thought I was a major fan of Saini’s work until I met Jess Wade at the recent SciFoo conference at the Googleplex. Jess had bought up a supply of Saini’s book to hand out during the session she organised!) While I’m at it, I’ll also strongly recommend BBC2’s “No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?“, presented by Javid Abelmoneim. I watched Part 1 with my kids over the weekend and they were so engrossed they had to tell me to shut up because I was talking over the TV at one point. (Those who may be upset by the title of the BBC programme alone should perhaps pay attention to the trigger warning at the start of the discussion with RF above).

What would Sagan say? The Cult of Peterson.

At about the 1:41:00 mark in the video above, we turn to a consideration of Prof. Jordan Peterson, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, who currently makes of order $50K per month via Patreon  for his YouTube videos. I’m not going to rehash my arguments about Peterson beyond those in the video largely because Eiynah has comprehensively analysed and dissected the Cult of Peterson in an important post. (Note the Reddit thread to which Eiynah refers where Peterson is described as a prophet.).

The sociology of Peterson’s YT/Patreon/Twitter following is truly fascinating and is part-and-parcel of the “edginess” and cachet of the New Right. Peterson — who, let’s be clear, is an intelligent, charismatic, and eloquent man [7] – largely gained his Patreon and YouTube following via his criticism of hate speech legislation in Canada and his associated often overwrought — or, at worst, histrionic — musings on the descent of modern academia into a Cultural Marxist Lowest Circle of Hell. But what’s remarkable is that Peterson is a Christian conservative who, while railing against the evils of postmodernism (and I’m certainly not a fan of a great deal of postmodern writing), has some very postmodern things indeed to say about the value of scientific truth vs religious/moral truth (or as he puts it, Darwinian truth).

It’s worth taking two hours of your time to listen to the podcast that Sam Harris did with Peterson earlier this year, where they focus on the meaning of truth. Harris repeatedly cuts Peterson’s exceptionally flawed and woolly thinking down to size.  Just like Chopra, and indeed in line with many of the postmodernists Peterson criticises at length, Peterson’s arguments about truth and the nature of reality are dressed up in obscure and impenetrable language — a triumph of style over substance. And yet Peterson attracts a large, and growing, audience of those who would class themselves as rational, skeptical, logical, and atheist in their thinking. Strip away the florid language, however, as Harris does, and the emperor clearly has no clothes.

Listening to Peterson flail around during his podcast with Harris, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Carl Sagan‘s words:

Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.

When so-called “rational skeptics” (including many STEM students) enthusiastically embrace the deep postmodernist thoughts of Peterson, it’s clear that the edgy transgressiveness of the New Right has trumped reasoned, logical argument. What does it matter if Peterson argues that the morality and ethics of a scientist studying smallpox defines the truth of the underlying biochemistry? (As he does. No, really — he does.). Let his post-modern views on science slide. What matters is that he’s edgily refused to use the preferred pronouns of transgender students. [8] So where do I sign away my Patreon bucks?

This cult of personality represents something of a challenge for universities, whose core “mission” should be to develop the critical thinking skills of the students we teach. Anyone who comes away from the Harris-Peterson exchange feeling that Peterson successfully argued his position in the face of Harris’ systematic skeptical scrutiny — and, remarkably, many do (just take a look at the comments thread under the YouTube upload of the podcast [9]) — is clearly putting their ideological biases and allegiances before reason, logic, and objectivity. (Ummm, now where have I heard that complaint before?)

“Nazi Punks F**k Off” 

Let’s bring this overlong post to a close by reconnecting with the spirit of punk. The parallels of the 70s punk movement with the rise of the New Right are striking — Paul Joseph Watson is closer to the truth than I suspect he realises.

The photo of the poster below has been circulating widely on Twitter over the last week.  (Kristi Winters, the author of the tweet in question, certainly gave that particular poster a massively large “signal boost” on Twitter — it’s accrued quite a number of retweets in just a few days). It’s a telling example of online culture bleeding into the offline “real” world (and vice versa). The clever visual simplicity of the poster accounts for its popularity and is yet another example of the increasing importance of visual content, rather than traditional text, online. Memes abound. (This is especially troublesome when it comes to how universities instill deep learning, analytic skills, and critical thinking in (some of) Generation Z, but that’s a whole other story.)

The frog at the bottom of the poster, for those of you again blissfully unaware of the relevance, is Pepe, whose tarnished history — in particular, its appropriation by white supremacists  — is described here. What’s more important in the context of Paul J Watson’s “new punk” aphorism, however, is that there are also those who use the Pepe symbol/meme online (alongside other in-group signalling such as the Kekistani flag and the appropriation of Nazi symbols and gestures) who are adamant that they are not neo-Nazi or alt-right sympathisers. Here’s a good example:

DHV6wUeW0AEJolm

The appropriation of Nazi symbolism and gestures, and the use of all those Pepe/ Kekistan memes clichés, is apparently edgy and transgressive, it’s pushing the envelope, it’s all about freedom of speech. And that type of posturing and signalling has, of course, definitely not got anything to do with the “identity politics” so despised by some on the Right. Nothing at all. Zilch. Nada. Definitely not. Because that’s how the “Regressive Left” behaves. The Pepe meme and the Kekistan flag “ironically” critique in-group dynamics and identity politics…by fostering and strengthening in-group dynamics, group-think, and identity politics. Right?

Yawn.

For something meant to be so “edgy”, this is all so tediously deja vu. The older punk generation did it all before back in the seventies. They could certainly teach the new breed a thing or two about the appropriation of Nazi symbols…

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That’s Siouxsie Sioux, of Siouxsie and the Banshees fame, at the front of the queue for the 100 Club in London for the first punk rock festival in 1976. You might notice that she’s proudly sporting her swastika arm-band. This is state-of-the-art edginess, seventies-style.

Siouxsie’s appropriation of Nazi icongraphy, and the use of an anti-Semitic lyric here or there, could never backfire, could it? It’s all just a bit of fun. You’d have to be a “normie” to take it seriously.

Well, let’s hear what Siouxsie herself has to say. The following excerpts from an interview back in 2005 are telling. Siouxsie at first sounds just like a member of today’s Pepe/Kekistan/”ironic Nazi” club:

For much of 1976, Siouxsie wore swastika armbands in an attempt to enrage the Establishment’s ‘we fought a war for the likes of you’ mindset. She succeeded, though today her naivety- what NME’s Julie Burchill decried as “making a fashion accessory out of the death of millions of people”-seems unforgivable. Siouxsie is surprisingly frank, if unrepentant.

“The culture around then,” she explains, “it was Monty Python, Basil Fawlty, Freddie Starr, The Producers- ‘Springtime For Hitler’.” She kicks out her leg in a mock goosestep. “It was very much Salon Kitty. It was used as a glamour thing. And you know what?” she sighs.” I have to be honest but I do like the Nazi uniform. I shouldn’t say it but I think it’s a very good-looking uniform.”

You shouldn’t say it for fear of upsetting the PC mob?

“Yeah. It’s almost like you feel like saying,’Aw, come on. Nazis – they’re brilliant.’ Political correctness becomes imprisoning. It’s very – what’s the word? It’s being very Nazi! It’s ironic but this PC-ness is so fucking fascist. In America they’re especially touchy about Nazis and it’s so Nazi! You go to LA and it’s so segregated. It’s very Nazi and the irony is they don’t get it. They don’t realise how Nazi they are about taking offence to mentioning the word Nazi.”

Let’s leave aside the issue of the comparable PC hypersensitivity of the right, and scroll down that interview a little to see just what effect Siouxsie’s penchant for Nazi memorabilia and “ironic” anti-Semitism had on the Banshees’ audience (and, subsequently, Siouxsie herself).

What about the accusation of anti-Semitism? Come on, there was that original lyric in “Love In A Void”: “Too many Jews for my liking”…

“That was a Severin lyric.”

You sang it.

“Yeah, I sang it, but I took it as it was meant, as ‘skinflints’. Obviously a lot of people didn’t get it that way, so it was changed.”

Sadly, not in time to prevent the Far Right from claiming Siouxsie as one of their own. Dismayed by the NF‘s attendance at gigs, she resorted to wearing a Star of David T-shirt as a middle finger to the BNP.

We reap what we sow.


 

[1] A major irritation in online communication is the exceptional and tiresome literal-mindedness that is often encountered. Subtlety and nuance are in very short supply. I’ve been “burnt” by this previously (on many occasions) so let me state here, for the record, that this is not a literal call to arms. [Add smiley emoticon to taste].

[2] There’s a rich seam of irony to be explored here in relation to Watson’s call for historical accuracy. This is someone who helped propagate the absurdly inaccurate nonsense of PizzaGate, which even Alex Jones, Watson’s boss at InfoWars, subsequently disavowed. Watson also regularly pitches in to disseminate some classic beyond-bonkers conspiracy theories.  He’s a rank amateur in the conspiracy theorist stakes, however, compared to Mr. Jones, whose hateful dismissal of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and the consequent pain caused to the parents of the murdered children, is truly despicable.

[3] Prior to the precipitous drop in his public speaking engagements prompted by his comments on paedophilia, Yiannopoulos was also very fond of trotting out the “conservatism is the new punk rock” mantra.

[4] Hat-tip and thanks to Karen Lumsden and Mark Carrigan for the recommended reads.

[5] Thanks, Peter, for this opportunity to write a guest post for In The Dark. Embarrassingly, particularly as I’m a big fan of your blog, it’s only taken me about three years to get round to it…

[6] I only wish I could routinely brainwash undergraduate students. There’d be a heck of a lot more Rush fans emerging from my lectures…

[7] One important criticism that can be levelled at both the left and the right of the online political spectrum is that there’s a strong tendency to demonise and indulge personal attacks. (And I’ve regrettably not been blameless here). For example, and despite my criticisms of Peterson’s arguments, I’m not at all comfortable with this. Peterson has spoken very movingly about his mental health issues in the past. I think we do our critiques of Peterson a disservice if we exploit those mental health issues to ridicule him.

[8] It’s similarly worrying when an academic feels that it’s fine to use a slur popularised by 4chan/8chan (which has subsequently diffused “overground” via the worst corners of social media). Steve Fuller has caught a lot of flak at this point for his lack of judgement in posting this a couple of days ago: “Academic Autism: Its Institutional presence and Treatment”. The use of “autistic” as a perjorative is exceptionally common among those edgy meme-driven teenage and permateen sub-cultures online. It’s immensely dispiriting that the slur has now been normalised to the extent that an academic feels free to similarly adopt the pejorative. Nonetheless, Steve has apologised more than once and I don’t think it’s at all helpful at this stage to castigate him any further. We all make mistakes and I, for one, can certainly not get on my high-horse when it comes to inappropriate language online.

[9] What the heck am I saying? Definitely don’t do this.

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The Quantum Mechanics of Voting

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 23, 2017 by telescoper

Now that I’ve finished a marathon session of report-writing I thought I’d take a few minutes out this Friday afternoon, have a cup of tea and pass on a rather silly thought I had the other day about the relationship between Quantum Mechanics (and specifically the behaviour of spin therein) and voting behaviour in elections and referendums.

Gratuitous picture of a Stern-Gerlach experiment

For a start here’s a brief summary of the usual quantum-mechanical context as it relates to, e.g., electrons (rather than elections). Being fermions, electrons possess half-integer spin. This attribute has the property that a measurement of its component in any direction has only two possible values, ±½ in units of Planck’s constant. In the Stern-Gerlach experiment illustrated above, which measures the spin in the vertical direction of silver atoms emerging from a source, the outcome is either “up” or “down”, not some spread of values in between. Silver has a single unpaired electron which is why its atoms behave in this respect in the same way as an individual electron.

The way this is often described in physics textbooks is to say that the operator corresponding to spin in the z-direction has only two eigenstates  (call these ↑ and ↓) ; the act of measurement has to select one of them, not some intermediate state. If the source is thermal then the spins of individual atoms have no preferred direction so 50% turn out to be ↑ and 50% to be ↓ as shown in the cartoon.

Once such measurement has been made, a given particle remains in the same eigenstate, which means that if it is passed through another similar measuring device it will always turn out to have spin pointing in the same direction. If you like, the particle has been `prepared’ in a given state by the act of measurement.

This applies as long as no attempt is made to make a measurement of the spin in a different direction, which is when the fun starts. If we start with a particle in the ↑ state and then pass it through an experiment that measures spin (say) with respect to the x-axis instead of the z-axis then the two allowed eigenstates are then not ↑ and ↓ but ← and →.  A particle that was definitely spin-up would then be forced to decide between spin-left and spin-right (each would have a  50% probability).

Suppose now we took our long-suffering particle that began with spin ↑ after a measurement in the z-direction, then turned out to be spin → when we measured it in the x-direction. What would happen if we repeated the z-measurement? The answer is that “preparing” the particle in the → state destroys the information about the fact that it was previously prepared in the ↑ state –  the outcome of this second z-measurement is that the particle that was previously definitely ↑ now has a 50% chance of being either ↑ or ↓.

So what does all this have to do with voting? It is clear than an election (or a referendum) is very far from a simple act of measurement. During the campaign the various sides of the debate make attempts to prepare a given voter in a given state. In the case of last year’s EU referendum the choice of eigenstates was `Leave’ or `Remain’;  no other possibilities were allowed. The referendum then `prepared’ each voter in one or other of these possibilities.

If voters behaved quantum mechanically each would stay in their chosen state until some other measurement were attempted. But that’s exactly what did happen. Earlier this month there was a General Election. More than two parties were represented, but let’s simplify and assume there were only two options, `Labour’ and `Conservative’.

Now it is true that the `Leave’ camp was dominated by the right wing of the Conservative party, and the majority of Labour voters voted `Remain’, but there were a significant number of Labour Leave voters and a significant number of Tories voted Remain. While these pairs of states are therefore not exactly orthogonal, they are clearly not measuring the same thing so the situation is somewhat analogous to the spin measurement problem.

So along came the General Election result which `prepared’ voters in a state of `Labour’ or `Conservative’, with a slight preference for the latter whereas the earlier referendum had prepared a them in a state of `Leave’ versus `Remain’ with a slight preference for the former. From a quantum mechanical perspective, however, you can further argue that the General Election prepared the voters in such a way that should have erased memories of their vote in the referendum so the previous BrExit vote is now invalid.

There’s only one way to test this quantum-mechanical interpretation of voting patterns, and that is by repeating the EU Referendum…

The BrExit Threat to British Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on June 29, 2016 by telescoper

After a couple of days away dealing with some personal business I’ve now time to make a few comments about the ongoing repercussions following last week’s referendum vote to Leave the European Union.

First of all on the general situation. Legally speaking the referendum decision by itself changes nothing at all. Referendums have no constitutional status in the United Kingdom and are not legally binding. The Prime Minister David Cameron has declined to activate (the now famous) Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which would initiate a two-year negotiated withdrawal, preferring to leave this to whomever succeeds him following his resignation. None of the likely contenders for the unenviable position of next Prime Minister seems keen to pull the trigger very quickly either. The United Kingdom therefore remains a member of the European Union and there is no clear picture of when that might change.

The rest of the European Union obviously wants the UK to leave as soon as possible, not just because we’ve indicated that we want to, but because  we have always been never been very committed or reliable partners. In the words of Jean-Claude Juncker: ‘It is not an amicable divorce, but it was not an intimate love affair anyway.’

I don’t blame the 27 remaining members for wanting us to get on with getting out, because uncertainty is bad for business. Two years is more than enough time for big European businesses to write British producers out of their supply chains and for international companies now based in the United Kingdom to relocate to continental Europe. The current gridlock at Westminster merely defers this inevitable exodus. In the meantime inward investment is falling as companies defer decisions on future plans, casting a planningblight over the UK economy.

My own view, however, is that the longer the UK waits before invoking Article 50 the greater the probability that it will never be invoked at all.  This is because the next PM – probably Boris Johnson – surely knows that he will simply not be able to deliver on any of the promises he has made.

For example, there will be no access to the single market post-BrExit without free movement of people. There won’t be £350 million per week extra for the NHS either, because our GDP is falling and we never sent £350 million anyway.  All the possible deals will be so obviously far worse than the status quo that I don’t think Parliament will ever pass legislation to accept a situation is so clearly against the national interest. I may be wrong, of course, but I think the likeliest scenario is that the referendum decision is kicked into the long grass for at least the duration of the current Parliament.

That doesn’t solve the issue of BrExit blight, however. Which brings me to British science in a possible post-BrExit era. It’s all very uncertain, of course, but it seems to me that as things stand, any deal that involves free movement within Europe would be unacceptable to the powerful  UK anti-immigration lobby. This rules out a “Norway” type deal, among others, and almost certainly means there will be no access to any science EU funding schemes post 2020. Free movement is essential to the way most of these schemes operate anyway.

It has been guaranteed that funding commitments will be honoured until the end of Horizon 2020, but that assumes that holders of such grants don’t leave the UK taking the grants with them. I know of four cases of this happening already. They won’t come back even if we’re still in the European Union then.

Another probable outcomes are that:

  1. the shrinking economy will cause the UK government to abandon its ring-fence on science funding, which will  lead to cuts in domestic provision also;
  2. a steep decline in EU students (and associated income) will halt the expansion of UK science departments, and may cause some to shrink or even close;
  3. non-UK EU scientists working in the UK decide to leave anyway because the atmosphere of this country has already been poisoned by xenophobic rhetoric.

British science may “endure” after BrExit but it definitely won’t prosper. What is the least bad solution, if we cannot remain?

Answers through the comments box please!

 

 

 

No Science Please, We’re The Government

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on April 18, 2016 by telescoper

Scary news. A government ban on state-funded scientists using their research question official policy is set to come into force on 1st May 2016. I knew about this before but was under the misleading impression that the effect on academic research had been clarified. It has not. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether this is just poorly-drafted legislation or a deliberate attack on academic freedom, but it will be very damaging not only to scientists but to academics in any field that might influence government policy. Indeed it runs counter to the logic of “impact” as defined in the Research Excellence Framework, which actually rewarded researchers who had ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’.

I think this proposal is completely idiotic and more than a little sinister. If you agree, you can help stop it by signing the petition here. I have just done so.

Here are more details from the petition website:

The Cabinet Office has announced that a new ‘anti-lobbying’ clause will be included in all Government grants from May 2016. This is an attack on academic freedom as it would stop grants for university research being used to influence policy-makers. It is bad for the public interest and democracy.

The announcement by the Government on Saturday 6 February can be accessed here.

It does not mention that Government grants for research in universities and research institutes would be covered by the new clause.

The Government should ensure that grants from the higher education funding councils and research councils to support research are exempt from this new clause.

There are currently over 14,400 signatures on the petition so the Government is obliged to respond. If it reaches 100,000 signatures, which I hope it will, then the Government will have to consider a debate in the House of Commons.

 

UPDATE: 20th April. I don’t know if the petition (which is now over 28,000 signatures) played any part in this, but it appears that the government has (partially) backed down. There is supposed to be an exemption for researchers funded by HEFCE, at least, but I’m not sure exactly what the form of words will be.

 

Fear, Risk, Uncertainty and the European Union

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2016 by telescoper

I’ve been far too busy with work and other things to contribute as much as I’d like to the ongoing debate about the forthcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Hopefully I’ll get time for a few posts before June 23rd, which is when the United Kingdom goes to the polls.

For the time being, however, I’ll just make a quick comment about one phrase that is being bandied about in this context, namely Project Fear.As far as I am aware this expression first came up in the context of last year’s referendum on Scottish independence, but it’s now being used by the “leave” campaign to describe some of the arguments used by the “remain” campaign. I’ve met this phrase myself rather often on social media such as Twitter, usually in use by a BrExit campaigner accusing me of scaremongering because I think there’s a significant probability that leaving the EU will cause the UK serious economic problems.

Can I prove that this is the case? No, of course not. Nobody will know unless and until we try leaving the EU. But my point is that there’s definitely a risk. It seems to me grossly irresponsible to argue – as some clearly are doing – that there is no risk at all.

This is all very interesting for those of us who work in university science departments because “Risk Assessments” are one of the things we teach our students to do as a matter of routine, especially in advance of experimental projects. In case you weren’t aware, a risk assessment is

…. a systematic examination of a task, job or process that you carry out at work for the purpose of; Identifying the significant hazards that are present (a hazard is something that has the potential to cause someone harm or ill health).

Perhaps we should change the name of our “Project Risk Assessments” to “Project Fear”?

I think this all demonstrates how very bad most people are at thinking rationally about uncertainty, to such an extent that even thinking about potential hazards is verboten. I’ve actually written a book about uncertainty in the physical sciences , partly in an attempt to counter the myth that science deals with absolute certainties. And if physics doesn’t, economics definitely can’t.

In this context it is perhaps worth mentioning the  definitions of “uncertainty” and “risk” suggested by Frank Hyneman Knight in a book on economics called Risk, Uncertainty and Profit which seem to be in standard use in the social sciences.  The distinction made there is that “risk” is “randomness” with “knowable probabilities”, whereas “uncertainty” involves “randomness” with “unknowable probabilities”.

I don’t like these definitions at all. For one thing they both involve a reference to “randomness”, a word which I don’t know how to define anyway; I’d be much happier to use “unpredictability”.In the context of BrExit there is unpredictability because we don’t have any hard information on which to base a prediction. Even more importantly, perhaps, I find the distinction between “knowable” and “unknowable” probabilities very problematic. One always knows something about a probability distribution, even if that something means that the distribution has to be very broad. And in any case these definitions imply that the probabilities concerned are “out there”, rather being statements about a state of knowledge (or lack thereof). Sometimes we know what we know and sometimes we don’t, but there are more than two possibilities. As the great American philosopher and social scientist Donald Rumsfeld (Shurely Shome Mishtake? Ed) put it:

“…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

There may be a proper Bayesian formulation of the distinction between “risk” and “uncertainty” that involves a transition between prior-dominated (uncertain) and posterior-dominated (risky), but basically I don’t see any qualititative difference between the two from such a perspective.

When it comes to the EU referendum is that probabilities of different outcomes are difficult to calculate because of the complexity of economics generally and the dynamics of trade within and beyond the European Union in particular. Moreover, probabilities need to be updated using quantitative evidence and we don’t actually have any of that. But it seems absurd to try to argue that there is neither any risk nor any uncertainty. Frankly, anyone who argues this is just being irrational.

Whether a risk is worth taking depends on the likely profit. Nobody has convinced me that the country as a whole will gain anything concrete if we leave the European Union, so the risk seems pointless. Cui Bono? I think you’ll find the answer to that among the hedge fund managers who are bankrolling the BrExit campaign…

 

 

Could the SNP block a Labour Budget? No.

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on April 26, 2015 by telescoper

Interesting post about the constitutional limits on the ability of the SNP to influence UK budget setting.

Public Investigations

The SNP are claiming they can ‘block Labour budgets’, ‘end austerity’ and ‘stop Trident’. Their problem however is simple – most of what they say is based on assuming that Westminster works the same way as Holyrood does for budgeting – and it doesn’t. There are huge ‘constitutional’ and practical obstacles to implementing the sort of radical challenges to Government tax and spend decisions that the SNP and others seem to be mooting. The first set of problems is that in the Westminster parliament only the Government can propose taxation or spending measures. These can be defeated, or amended, but only by cutting spending or lowering or removing taxes – not by increasing either.

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Science Is Vital, So Don’t Let It Be Strangled.

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on March 15, 2015 by telescoper

The General Election looming on the horizon could prove to be a watershed for scientific research in the United Kingdom. In the period immediately following the 2010 Election there was a great deal of nervousness about the possibility of huge cuts to spending on research. One of the most effective campaigns to persuade the new government against slashing funding for science on the grounds that scientific research was likely to be the principal fuel for any economic recovery was led by Science is Vital. I have written a few posts about this organisation.

The scientific community breathed a collective sigh of relief in autumn 2010 when the UK Government announced that research funding would be “ring-fenced” and maintained in cash terms for the duration of the Parliament. Things could have been far worse, as they have been in other parts of the public sector, but over the years the effect of inflation has been that this “flat cash” settlement involves a slow strangulation as opposed to a quick fall of the axe.

A recent piece in the Guardian includes this picture, which speaks for itself:

Science_spendingThe United Kingdom now spends less than 0.5% of its GDP on research, and this fraction is falling rapidly. We are now ranked last in the G8 by this criterion, way behind the USA and Germany. Why are we in this country so unbelievably miserly abou funding research? Other countries seem to recognize its important, so why can’t our politicians see it? We should be increasing our investment in science, not letting it wither away like this.

It seems to me that much more of this squeeze and we’ll be needing to close down major facilities and start withdrawing from important international collaborations. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is particularly vulnerable, as such a large fraction of its budget is committed to long-term projects. It’s already trimmed funding for other activities to the bone, with research grants under particularly intense pressure. Will the ongoing Nurse Review of the Research Councils spell doom for STFC, as many of my colleagues think? Will be research funding  be transferred rom universities into research institutes?

Anyway, it seems an appropriate time to advertise the latest campaign from Science is Vital, which involves writing to candidates (including incumbent MPs) in your constituency to Tell Them That Science Is Vital. You might consider including some of the following, or others suggested by the website. If you’re a scientist, describe why your research is important. Here are some suggestions. If there is a local research institute in your constituency, explain how important it is to your local economy (how many people it employs, for example). If you’re a patient, or someone who cares for a patient, say how important you think research into that disease. Ask your candidate or MP to endorse the Science is Vital campaign to increase public funding of science to 0.8% of GDP. And if you do write, remember that the economic argument for investing research isn’t the only one…