Category Archives: Society

Neutral standards for advertisers are not a blasphemy law

The right to offend religious sentiment is a necessary part of a free society where we are not subject to religion. So, when Humanists UK protest about a recent ruling by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, I might be expect to join in. But I’m not.

“Demi Lovato must have the right to blaspheme”, declares Stephen Knight, a writer I usually agree with. But a right to blaspheme is not the same as the right to display a blasphemous poster on an advertising billboard in a public place. I will strongly defend the publication of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, but that doesn’t mean they would be appropriate on billboards in Piccadilly Circus.

The standard for acceptable advertisements is tighter than for publication in one’s own magazine or on one’s own website. That’s because the public encounters adverts when going about their daily life. They aren’t opting in to seeing them, as they would be when picking up a copy of Charlie Hebdo. As a result, the Advertising Standards Authority requires that adverts not cause “serious or widespread” offence, taking into account “prevailing standards in society”. The threshold will, of course, be subjective, but the ASA take their role seriously, including the polling of public opinion.

The advert in question, for an album by Demi Lovato, depicts the singer in a sexualised pose while wearing bondage gear. That alone makes the advert questionable. According to ASA polling, objections to sexualised images are the most common form of objection to adverts. Then there is the album’s name, “Holy Fvck”, alluding to a swear word that many would regard as inappropriate for a public billboard. Further, the combination of these items with a crucifix, a symbol strongly associated with Christianity, would indeed offend people.

This perfume advert was banned by the ASA owing to the perceived sexualisation of a young model.

Perhaps that offence is the whole point of the album’s title and artwork, which would be absolutely fine in itself. “Corruption of youth” is, after all, the raison d’etre of rock music. But the ASA ruling is not an imposition of a blasphemy law, no-one is objecting to the album or to its art-work, only to its display on an advertising billboard. And in that the ASA is just upholding a generally applicable standard.

I reject the idea that religious groups have any special right to not be offended, but, equally, nor should offense to religious sentiment be discounted as less important than offense for any other reason. If the ASA would ban an advert because it is offensive to Manchester United football fans, then it is appropriate to ban an advert that is offensive to Christians.

Adverts by the fashion group French Connection UK were widely accepted but did arouse comment.

Humanists UK are calling this a “de facto blasphemy law”, and are petitioning the ASA that “religious offence should never be grounds to ban an advert”.

But do they think that offensiveness should never be a consideration in banning an advert, or are they asking for religious offence to be a type of offence that is specially disregarded?

I can’t agree with either. Yes there needs to be a threshold of offensiveness for adverts, and, since religious people are our fellow citizens, their sentiments should count equally to those of others. Traditionally, of course, religion has had way too much special privilege (and still does), but we shouldn’t now advocate for religious beliefs to be treated worse than other beliefs.

Provided that the ASA try to apply the rules neutrally — so that religious and non-religious forms of offence are weighed equally — I’m comfortable with their ruling that this advert fell on the wrong side of the line.

Why did Psychology Today publish woo?

Psychology Today sets itself high standards. “We are proud to be a trusted source for clinical and scientific information … we hold this content to the highest standards”, it says. “All expert author content is reviewed, edited and fact-checked for accuracy, objectivity and to ascertain that the author has relevant domain expertise”.

So why did it publish a recent interview of Jeffrey Kripal by Dinesh Sharma, a piece filled with what can be fairly summed up as “woo”.

Dinesh Sharma’s background is in the social sciences and Jeffrey Kripal is a theologian. The editor, whose job it is to uphold the above standards, was Tyler Woods, whose degree was in politics and English. None of them has any standing in the physical sciences, which might explain why the article goes badly wrong when it starts talking about physics. Let’s take it bit by bit.

Materialism has been waning in influence in the scientific community, …

Well, no, that’s not true. Materialism is the dominant paradigm in the physical sciences.

The decline of materialist philosophy has been rooted in 1) the belief in “intelligent design,” that God exists, …

Well that’s a bit of a give-away, right from the start. But no, that idea has very little traction in modern science.

… 2) unsatisfactory explanations for mental and conscious phenomena and the “mind-body problem”;

Granted, materialist science has not properly explained consciousness. But non-materialist conceptions have not done any better; they can’t explain consciousness either.

… and 3) recent developments in 20th century quantum physics.

Here comes the woo. We don’t fully understand quantum mechanics … therefore whatever woo idea the author wants to promote. The argument really is no better than that.

Thomas Nagle’s Mind and Cosmos is a recent example of the waning of the materialist paradigm.

That’s “Nagel” not “Nagle”, and it’s a book by a philosopher that was roundly panned by scientists who regarded it as showing that Nagel did not understand the science he was commenting on. The ideas he presented have pretty much no traction in science (though they are popular among theologians touting intelligent design).

The recent studies of psychedelic substances have shown that mind is irreducible to matter. The “mystical experiences” at the heart of individual transformations have led to an acceptance of the mind-altering power of psychoactive medicinal plants …

Eh? So plants — material things made up of chemicals — have the ability to alter the processes going on in the brain, and that’s an argument against materialism? Really? Yes, physical stuff (for example alcohol) can alter the state of a physical thing (our brain), and so affect how it functions. So?

To justify this, Sharma quotes Michael Pollan (a journalist with no scientific background), saying that:

… psychedelic therapy … depends for its success not strictly on the action of a chemical but on the powerful psychological experience that the chemical can occasion.

So a chemical can cause changes in the brain that have lasting effects. Again, where is the argument against materialism?

I [Sharma] reached out to a colleague, Jeffrey Kripal, an expert in the history of religion, to enlighten us on the connection between science and spirituality, mind and matter, …

I’m not convinced that that’s the right choice of expertise! But, anyhow, to the interview:

Sharma: You say Western knowledge systems are at a precipice of making a ‘flip’. This is actually the case in physics. But the new physics is being constrained within the domain of the hard sciences, not permeating the larger culture, due to the politics of knowledge.

This talk of a “flip” would be news to most actual physicists. And note that, despite the editorial boasts, neither of them has “relevant domain expertise” to discuss physics.

Kripal: I think we are at a crossroads. Our social and spiritual imaginations have not caught up with the quantum reality our mathematics, our physics, and frankly our technologies all use and suppose.

I’m not sure what that’s trying to get at. But it contains the phrase “quantum reality” to give an impression of profundity.

Sharma: Are you looking to “flip” the “materialistic paradigm” dominant in the academy since the enlightenment period?

Kripal: Well, yes, of course, but the book is not about me doing anything. It’s about a larger cultural, philosophical, and scientific shift that is happening all around us. I am just reporting.

No, there is no shift away from the materialist paradigm in science.

Sharma: I like your phrase, “science only studies the things it can study.” Thus, it can be defined by what is selectively excluded from the sciences?

OK, so what topics are selectively excluded from scientific study? No specifics are given, no justification for this claim.

Kripal: Science works so well because it gets to say what it will study, and what it will not. We are not so fortunate, or we are more fortunate, in the humanities. We study human beings, who never really fit into our paradigms or our models, …

But science also studies human beings! And they fit just fine into our paradigms of biology and evolution.

Kripal: What I am trying to say in the book is that human beings have all kinds of strange, quantum-like experiences, and we should not ignore or discount them just because they do not play by the rules of our scientific or humanistic games.

Again, using the word “quantum” to make it sound all sciency. And what actually is a “quantum-like experience”? And in what way is science supposed to be ignoring these “quantum-like experiences”?

Sharma: What are precognitive dreams that you think are prophetic or tapping into another realm of time?

Any actual evidence that deams are “tapping into another realm of time?” Kripal gives only a reference to woo-meister Eric Wargo: “Eric basically argues that there is no such thing as the unconscious; that the unconscious is consciousness transposed in time”. That is unevidenced woo, not science.

Kripal: … the biological sciences have a long way to go. They have real hang-ups around vitalism and teleology, for example. I think both of those are real mistakes—they might be pragmatic and useful mistakes, but they are still wrong.

This is a rejection of science by a theologian, who is rejecting science because he does not like it theologically.

Kripal: Life is not reducible to chemistry. Evolution evolves itself over and over again toward obvious goals (like the eye).

Eyes evolve multiple times because they are useful, not because they are a “goal”. This sort of theologically-motivated rejection of the scientific account of evolution started in Darwin’s day and is still rumbling on. It will likely do so as long as there are theologians. None of these critiques are ever found to have substance. Is this really what Psychology Today wants to be publishing?

Is science “plagued” by “rife” harassment and discrimination?

Given society-wide soul-searching over issues of race and gender today, many scientific institutions are conducting surveys to assess the prevalence of harassment, bullying and discrimination within their fields. In principle this is a good thing, since scientific institutions should, of course, be open to all, and the work environment should feel welcoming. But we also need a degree of rigour when designing and interpreting such surveys.

Nature is the world’s leading scientific magazine (though being a commercial product it also has a predilection for click-bait). A recent headline claims that science is “plagued” by discrimination.

The survey that led to this conclusion is summarised in this table.

So two thirds of scientists respond that they have not experienced nor seen bullying, nor harassment, nor discrimination — not even one incident — in the whole of their current job, a length of typically two to eight years. Does that amount to their institutions being “plagued” by such behaviour?

The survey does not distinguish between observing one such incident in, say, three years, and bullying being a weekly occurrence, and yet that would make a vast difference to the experience of the working environment (note, also, that the survey is worldwide, with most respondents being scientists from Western countries, but many being from other countries with different cultures, which complicates any interpretation).

OK, one might reply, but one-third of scientists have experienced at least one such incident, and surely that’s too many?

Yes, but we can then ask, how do we define “bullying” and “harassment”, what is the threshold? Where is the line between a fair-enough critical remark from a line manager, and “bullying”? Where is the line between a line manager reminding someone about a task, and “harassment”?

In the above survey the threshold is entirely up to the respondent. And that’s a problem since it makes the reporting very subjective. In the same way that the number of drivers exceeding a speed limit by 3 mph will vastly outnumber those exceeding it 30 mph, the number of incidents that only just cross the threshold will vastly outnumber the very serious incidents. So the rate of “bullying and harassment” will depend a lot on the adopted threshold. Without any attempt to define and standardise a threshold, such surveys lack value.

That is not to deny that, in some institutions, there have been very serious cultures of bullying and harassment that have gone on for years. But, that is different from occasional minor clashes that are inevitable when bringing humans together in a work environment, and we need to be clear which of these we are discussing.

One might reply that, if someone perceives an incident as bullying and harassment, then that means that it is. That’s a fair point, but in making policies about such matters we also need to be concerned with what is reasonable, and so cannot just take personal perception as the only criterion.

How people perceive interactions in day-to-day life can vary a lot from person to person, and — importantly — can tend to vary across different groups and different cultures.

The Royal Astronomical Society (the UK society for professional astronomers, of which I am a member) produced such a survey earlier this year. In reporting that bullying and harassment are “rife” in UK astronomy, Nature summarised the survey with this table:

Worryingly, this suggests that minority groups have it much worse, and that was certainly the tenor of the RAS’s own interpretation.

And yet, again, this survey is based on perceptions, and might there be systematic differences in how members of the different groups perceive things? Could members of the different groups tend to adopt a different threshold as to what counts as “harassment”? As the above speeding analogy illustrates, even a small difference in threshold would have a large effect on the reported rate.

Given the current “mood music” regarding matters race and sex in STEM and in wider society, it would not be surprising if, to some extent, narrative-based expectations then fed into perceptions.

Yet such questions are not being asked, either in the design or the interpretation of such surveys. It’s just taken as given that all perceptions and reporting are accurate and unbiased, such that the above tables are faithful representations of how things actually are.

The assumption is that if an incident was perceived as “bullying” then it was bullying, and if one group reports a higher rate then they are indeed being bullied more often. Such assumptions accord with the primacy nowadays granted to “lived experience”, and yet we know that human perception is often hugely unreliable and biased. That’s why scientific trials adopt, for example, control samples and double-blind procedures in order to minimise subjective human evaluations.

No-one would take someone’s self-report of their own likability, agreeableness, leadership capabilities, sense of humour, alcohol intake, or charitable giving, as being reliable guides. And, in a personality clash or a minor dispute at work, both parties will regard themselves as being the one in the right, with the other party being the unreasonable one. This is just an inevitable feature of human interactions.

One of the few to begin querying the assumptions behind such surveys is Wilfred Reilly, a Professor of Political Science at Kentucky State University. He first asks his students at what rate they experience mildly-negative interactions with other people. Interestingly, he finds that white students and black students (this is the American South) report much the same rate. He then asks them what fraction of such incidents they think resulted from racial bias on the part of the other person. As expected the white students say few, but the black students say about half. Which means that black students are perceiving a racial element where — given that the overall rate is the same — there cannot be any. In short, black students are perceiving as racial “micro-aggressions” incidents that are just normal human interactions that happen just as much to whites.

The suggestion is backed up by personal testimony, for example a (black) South African who lived in the US reflects on her past attitudes:

The worldview that I had assumed was awfully cynical, as I filtered all my daily interactions through the lens of racial power dynamics. Any mistreatment that I perceived from strangers or friends I often interpreted as a diluted form of racism called a microaggression.

Thus we cannot assume, in surveys such as the above table from the Royal Astronomical Society, that “people of colour” tend — on average — to adopt the same threshold for labelling an incident as “bullying, harassment or discrimination” as white people. Nor can we assume that men in general are adopting the same threshold as women, or LGBT+ people (again on average) as straight people. And if we can’t assume that then we can’t treat the reported rates as being comparable. Though I’m sure they even raising this issue will be treated by some as heresy, an improper questioning of people’s “lived experience”.

Professor Reilly’s studies concerned race; a recent study from the University of California, San Diego, concerns sexual harassment. The authors (Rupa Jose, James H Fowler & Anita Raj) find that the rate at which women report sexual harassment depends on whether they are politically conservative or politically liberal. But do conservative women actually suffer less harassment, or is that because they tend to adopt a different threshold for what constitutes “harassment”? We don’t know. The study concludes: “Research is needed to determine if political differences are due to reporting biases or differential vulnerabilities”.

All of which means that we need a lot more thought and academic rigour in surveys of harassment and bullying. One can fairly reply that such surveys are relatively new and are a good first step. Yes, that’s true, but if we treat the outcome of such surveys as mattering — which we should — then we need to do them well.

Edinburgh University should value academic enquiry above ideology

Jonathan Haidt declared that universities could either be about seeking truth or about seeking social justice, but not both. Nowadays, with academics in the humanities and social sciences skewing heavily left, many have adopted Marx’s dictum: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”.

And so it is that universities are increasingly declaring contentious and ideological notions as orthodoxy, and then demanding assent. This will only get worse unless people speak up against it, so, as a university academic, here goes:

Like many universities, the University of Edinburgh now has a unit dedicated to promoting “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion”. And who could be against any of those? Note, though, that while declaring that it “promotes a culture of inclusivity”, Edinburgh’s pages make no mention of diversity of ideas or about including those who challenge orthodoxy. And yet surely both of those are necessary in a truth-seeking university?

Edinburgh then seeks to instruct us in a set of catechisms under the heading “Educate yourself”. And note that these are not just the webpages of an advocacy group composed of students at the university, this is official Edinburgh University webpages carrying their imprimatur.

In bold type we are told that: “We need to understand that transphobia is every bit as unacceptable as racism and homophobia”. [Update: since this post was written the page has been taken down.]

So what is “transphobia”?, well: “Transphobia is the hatred, fear, disbelief, or mistrust of trans and gender non-conforming people.” Hatred or fear of trans people? Yes, that is transphobia, and yes that should be deplored. Everyone, on all sides of such debates, agrees that trans people should be treated with respect and enabled to live their lives in dignity and safety.

But “disbelief”? That suggests that you’re not allowed to disagree with claims made by trans people. So, if a trans activist asserts that “trans women are women”, and that they are “just as much women as any other woman”, then you are not allowed to reply: “Well actually, I consider trans women to be biological males who (in line with their genuine, innate nature) wish to live a female gender role”.

Asserting such things could well get you banned from Twitter, but surely they should be allowed in a truth-seeking university? After all, biological sex is real and important. When they transition, a trans person does not change sex, they change gender roles. And the fact of their biological sex can still matter in some areas of life (such as sport, where men are generally better than women so that the performance of elite women can roughly equate to that of the best 14- or 15-yr-old boys). And it really would be bad if a university had so lost sight of its truth-seeking role that it did not allow its members to say such things.

A university, as an employer, can reasonably request that — in work situations — members refer to each other using prefered pronouns. But it is quite wrong to demand adherence to anti-scientific ideology.

The orthodoxy-prescribing web pages continue:

In recent years, however, there has been a resurgence of transphobia in the mainstream and social media, which has fuelled increased transphobic hate incidents in society.

Notice how they give no citations or links to support this claim, as might be expected of university-imprimatur pages collected under the rubric “educate yourself”.

This has largely been linked to proposals to reform the 2004 Gender Recognition Act …

Again, this is assertion backed by no evidence. Have “transphobic hate incidents” really been linked to suggested changes to that Act?

Many people refer to these changes as giving trans people the right to ‘self-ID’, but it is, more correctly, a legally-binding ‘self-declaration’.

OK, though the distinction between “self-identification” and “self-declaration” is not clarified, and note that under self-ID the declaration is only “legally binding” until the next self-declaration.

This increased transphobia has been particularly severe for trans women, …

Again, no statistics, no evidence. All of this would be fine as the advocacy pages of a pressure group, but is such ideological contention really appropriate as the official voice of Edinburgh University?

… who have been the target of high-profile, celebrity campaigns that deny the trans experience …

The mention of “celebrity” is presumably a reference to J. K. Rowling, who Tweeted in support in Maya Forstater who was sacked for maintaining that biological sex is real. (And by the way, have Twitter really capped the number of “likes” on that Tweet at about 220,000? It seems so, and many Twitter users have reported that their “likes” mysteriously undo themselves.)

And no, no-one “denies the trans experience” in the sense of denying that some people do, as a very real part of their nature, identify with the gender role opposite to their biological sex, and may even feel themselves to be of the opposite sex. All that is being “denied” is that that actually makes them the other sex, and that a trans woman actually is “just as much a woman as any other woman”.

… and deliberately suggest trans women pose a threat to cis women by distorting statistics of male violence to imply it is a characteristic of trans women.

Note the accusation of “deliberate distortion” of statistics, an accusation not in any way substantiated. This webpage is a propaganda piece, not something that a university should put its name to.

And given mention of statistics one might expect some citations and links to what the statistics actually are. After all, some self-IDd trans women do pose a threat of sexual assault to women. And as far as I can tell (though I am open to correction on this) the statistics do seem to suggest that the propensity to sexual assault among trans women (that is, biological males) is more in line with that of men generally than that of women. And the rates of sexual assault by men are, of course, twenty times higher than those by women, so that matters.

For clarity, that is not suggesting that trans women are more likely to commit assault than men, but that their propensity is roughly in line with biological males generally, and thus much higher than that of women.

(And again, if Edinburgh have good-quality evidence that this is not the case then it would be helpful if their “educate yourself” pages linked to it. Because, you see, “educating” oneself is about familiarising oneself with actual evidence, not about uncritically imbibing ideology.)

A particular strand of feminism (gender-critical) voices concerns that recognising the rights of trans women will negatively impact the ‘sex-based’ rights of cis women …

It’s rather notable that they put “sex-based” in quotes. This is in line with radical “queer theory” that says that biological sex is not actually real, and that what is real is one’s inner “gender identity”. That is a highly contentious claim that flies in the face of science. Note also the loaded phrasing “recognising the rights of”, as though the rights being claimed were already established and agreed.

And it would seem that those gender-critical feminists have a fair point, don’t they? A doctrine that all that matters is a self-report of ones “gender identity” would indeed “impact the sex-based rights of women”, in those situations (such as women’s sports and women’s prisons) where women have a legitimate and reasonable expectation of sex-based segregation.

… and that predatory men will exploit the proposed right to self-declaration to access women-only spaces or to gain advantage in sports and the workplace. This effectively makes trans women the focus of blame for the actions of predatory men.

Well no, it makes the rules, the self-ID doctrine (not “trans women”) the focus of blame for the actions of predatory men. And again, it’s a fair point, isn’t it? Under self-ID, what is there to stop a predatory man adopting a trans persona in order to obtain ready access to women’s spaces? For that matter, what is there to stop a narcissistic man of mediocre sporting ability adopting the persona of a trans woman in order to play against rather easier competition, and so indulge his self-image as a winner?

Gender-critical feminists have also criticised trans women for perpetuating stereotypes of femininity, another example of harmful gate-keeping of another person’s gender presentation. […] none of us should be commenting on other people’s dress choices and external features or assuming gender identity on that basis …

But, once again, the gender-critical feminists have raised a fair point. If we are to deplore feminine stereotypes, so that we don’t associate “female gender” with styles of dress or mannerisms or appearance, and certainly not with activities or job roles, then what is “gender” actually about?

The whole point of trans ideology, of course, is that ones gender is not associated with biological sex or reproductive anatomy — and nor is it associated with any feminine stereotypes (perish the thought!) — so what is left? The trans activists can only answer that it is associated with an inner “gender identity” what we just know or “experience”.

But this makes no sense: if one does not anchor the terms “man” and “woman” in objectively real biological sex, then how can one even define the terms “man” and “woman”? The trans activists try the feeble: “a woman is anyone who experiences themselves as a woman”, but that just gives an endless recursion and answers nothing.

Again, this whole web page would be fair enough if it were the advocacy claims of a pressure group, but the role of a university and its academics would then be to carefully and dispassionately scrutinise each claim for truth and consistency — and yet here the claims are being presented as orthodoxy to which university members are expected to assent.

While concerns for women’s safety are valid, there is no evidence that trans women pose any more danger than other women.

Well, some studies claim such evidence — though I recognise that this link is to an advocacy group, but if Edinburgh have better evidence then perhaps they could present it? Isn’t that how proper discussion proceeds?

This type of ‘reasonable concern’ is used frequently by trans-hostile groups, such as ultra-right wing campaigners and certain feminists.

One notes the quotation marks around “reasonable concern”, implying that this is just a cover story. One notes the smear tactic of grouping feminists with the “ultra-right wing”. And yet, I’m willing to bet that the majority of moderate, centrist-minded people would accept such concerns as reasonable.

Another ‘reasonable concern’ is alarm at the increase in gender identity services for children, despite evidence that early support for individuals reduces psychological problems and suicide in later life.

And again, there are no citations or links to support that claim. And evidence dragged reluctantly out of the Tavistock clinic owing to the Keira Bell case is that pubery blockers make no overall difference to psychological well-being. This is not settled science, with the only studies having a small number of patients and lacking controls, so it should not be presented as though assent is mandatory.

There is considerable misinformation about what happens in gender identity clinics, deliberately circulated to create fear and moral panic.

Come on, there is no way that a university should have this sort of stuff on its official webpages. The UK high court has recently ruled that concerns about gender-identity clinics are well-justified and has halted puberty-blocking drug treatment in under-16s, calling it “experimental”.

Having said that, it is reasonable, in the face of so much misinformation and hostility, for people to have concerns and to seek information and reassurance. This is different to the use of ‘reasonable concerns’ by transphobic campaigners where accurate information is rejected or distorted in a similar way to the strategy of Islamophobes and anti-Semites.

Oh come on! This reads like an undergraduate activist having a tantrum. Sure, let the undergrads spout activist speak, but the official University Edinbugh pages should be written by grown-ups, especially if they are supposed to be statements of university policy.

2020: A tale of two deaths

Amidst the high numbers of Covid-related deaths in 2020, two non-Covid deaths have stood out:

One incident started when a black, 46-yr-old male attempted to pass a fake 20-dollar bill (he had previous convictions for crimes including armed robbery). The shopkeeper judged that the man was high on drugs, and, being concerned that he was unfit to drive, called the police. Floyd resisted arrest, wrestling with the officers, and refusing to get in the police car while repeatedly saying “I can’t breath”. At that point he was not being restrained, so whether the words related to the effect of drugs, or were part of a charade to evade arrest, is unclear. Eventually he fell to the ground and was kept there by a policeman placing his knee on Floyd’s neck, while he continued to repeat “I can’t breath”. He suffered a heart attack and died. Continue reading

Definitions, loyalty oaths, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

Gavin Williamson, the UK’s Secretary of State for Education, is demanding that universities sign up to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism:

A “definition” is (quoting Oxford Dictionaries) an “explanation of the meaning of a word or phrase”. And dictionaries give clear and succinct definitions of anti-Semitism: Continue reading

Is peer review biased against women?

In astrophysics, time-allocation committees allocate the time available on major telescopes and satellites. Facilities such as the Hubble Space Telescope are often over-subscribed by factors of 4 to 10, and writing proposals that win time in peer review is crucial to people’s careers.

I’ve recently had my first experience of serving on a “dual-anonymous” time-allocation committee, in which all the proposals are reviewed without knowing the proposers’ names.

The trend to dual-anonymous review started with an analysis of 18 years of proposals to use Hubble. The crucial data showed that, over more than a decade, the success rate for proposals with a woman as principal investigator was lower (at 19%) than for proposals led by men (at 23%). That 20% difference in success rate then disappeared when proposals were reviewed without knowing the proposer’s names. Continue reading

Twitter bans, misgendering and free speech

I am the latest to fall foul of Twitter’s attempts to impose a particular ideology by labelling any dissent as “hateful”. I Tweet only occasionally with only a small number of “followers”, and so a month-old Tweet of mine would be seen by almost no-one unless they were deliberately searching for Tweets to be “offended” by.

The Tweet that supposedly amounted to “hateful conduct” is this one, which I reproduce here in the (slight) hope that doing so might irritate the sort of person who reports such Tweets:

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The European Court guts free-speech protections

Just as Ireland votes to repeal its blasphemy laws, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favour of Austrian blasphemy laws. They’ve upheld the conviction of a woman who was fined for calling Muhammed a “paedophile”, a reference to his marriage to Aisha, which according to mainstream Islamic tradition occured when she was six, and was consummated when she was nine.

I presume that the underlying logic goes like this. In keeping with trendy modern thought, they analyse everything in terms of power structures. Muslims in Austria are mostly a relatively recent immigrant community and are non-White, therefore they are “oppressed”. The convicted woman is a member of the Austrian “Freedom Party”, who are opposed to immigration, are regarded as “far right”, and are mostly White. Therefore they are the “oppressors”. And it’s the job of a Human Rights court to support the oppressed against the oppressors, so that’s how they ruled.

The convoluted excuse they came up with is that Muhammed continued to be married to Aisha when she was an adult, and indeed had sexual relations with other women, and therefore was not “primarily” attracted to under-age girls, and therefore the term “paedophile” is an unjustified insult. (Never mind that the vast majority of people who rightly get called “paedophiles” also have sex with adults.)

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Theos Think Tank have been polling about religious violence

Theos Think Tank have been asking people whether they regard religions as violent. By their own admission, they didn’t entirely like the results.

Nearly half (47%) agreed that “the world would be a more peaceful place if no one was religious”. Fully 70% said that: “Most of the wars in world history have been caused by religions”.

Faced with that, Theos’s Nick Spencer took some comfort from the fact that “only 32% agreed that religions were inherently violent”. Only? So one-in-three British people thinks that religions are inherently violent and this merits an “only”? Continue reading