Category Archives: Society

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:

Continue reading

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

Human rights rest only on human advocacy

Are human rights anything more than legal conventions? asks John Tasioulas, Professor of Politics, Philosophy and Law at King’s College London.

Isn’t the answer “obviously not”? Human rights are collective agreements, statements about what sort of society we want to live in, and of how we want people to be treated. As such, their justification and standing derives from the advocacy of people. Anything more than that is mere rhetoric, “nonsense on stilts”, as Jeremy Bentham explained long ago.

But, as with morals, people get unhappy about the idea that their feelings on the matter are all there is. People would really like human rights to be laws of nature, objective obligations that we ought to follow regardless. Wouldn’t that put them on a sounder footing? Continue reading

Attorney General Jeff Sessions scores 8 out of 20 on Religious Freedom

The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has issued a memo directing government bodies on how to interpret religious freedom. Unfortunately Sessions misinterprets religious liberty as granting religious people greater rights than the non-religious have. This is a violation of the deeper principle of treating all citizens equally, regardless of their religious views.

Viewed from the stance of equality we can properly understand religious freedom as a form of free speech. That is, you may espouse your religious views, and if you have a general right to do something you may do that same thing with added religious content. Further, the state may not treat you any less favourably owing to that religious content, but nor may it treat you more favourably.

From that perspective, let’s score Sessions’s memo, in which he declares 20 “principles of religious liberty”. Continue reading

Should Nobel Prizes go to teams?

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics has gone to members of the LIGO consortium for the detection of gravitational waves, namely to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish. But the contributions of many hundreds of people were necessary for the success of LIGO and so it can be argued that the restriction to three people is wrong and that future Nobel Prizes should go to teams.

Professor Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, told BBC correspondent Pallab Gosh that: “LIGO’s success was owed to hundreds of researchers. The fact that the Nobel Prize committee refuses to make group awards is causing increasingly frequent problems and giving a misleading impression of how a lot of science is actually done”.

Rees is right, of course, but would changing it be a good thing? It would mean that nearly all future Nobels in physics would go to teams, either simply to a named team or to a list of team members that could amount to hundreds.

I’m not sure this would be a good change. Continue reading