Stern Response

Peter Coles (telescoper) on the Stern Review, published today. I’d certainly not quibble with any of his comments on the main recommendations of the report.

In the Dark

The results of the Stern Review of the process for assessing university research and allocating public funding has been published today. This is intended to inform the way the next Research Excellence Framework (REF) will be run, probably in 2020, so it’s important for all researchers in UK universities.

Here are the main recommendations, together with brief comments from me (in italics):

  1. All research active staff should be returned in the REF. Good in principle, but what is to stop institutions moving large numbers of staff onto teaching-only contracts (which is what happened in New Zealand when such a move was made)?
  2. Outputs should be submitted at Unit of Assessment level with a set average number per FTE but with flexibility for some faculty members to submit more and others less than the average.Outputs are countable and therefore “fewer” rather than “less”. Other than that, having some…

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I fecking love science

I’ve recently got a new laptop and while I was transferring/hunting for files from my old machine —  which served me so well for many years and has now been given a decent send-off — I came across the Word version of the article below. This appeared in a Times Higher Education article entitled “Me and my PhD supervisor: Tales of love and loathing” two years ago. I though I’d post it here because I’ve found myself discussing the value of swearing in science recently, and would have liked to link directly to the piece below. (The THE article doesn’t allow a direct hyperlink to the relevant section of the main article.)

My PhD was a masterclass in the art of swearing. I don’t mean that I was frustrated all the time: far from it. But regardless of whether my research was going well or if it was in a phase when nothing seemed to work, my supervisor, Greg Hughes, and I communicated almost entirely in expletives.

Some might argue that this reliance on swearing was a result of deficiencies in our respective vocabularies (and they’d have a point in my case). But I prefer to think that it reflected the extent to which we were both engaged with, and driven by, the research. Far from being the disinterested and dispassionate operators scientists are supposed to be, we both cared deeply about the interpretation of spectroscopic data, the best way to set up an experiment, and the issue of whether what I was seeing in a scanning probe microscope image was real (or yet another irritating artefact). And I gained a huge amount from our “robust” exchanges of ideas.

But it wasn’t just Greg’s remarkable talent for using the F-word as object, subject, (ad)verb and adjective in a single sentence that impressed me. His enthusiasm for research and teaching, his generosity with his time and his inspiring mentorship also played a huge role in convincing me, less than a year into my PhD at Dublin City University, that I wanted to be an academic scientist.

One lasting memory I have is of a particularly fraught experiment in the last year of my PhD. A considerable amount of the science I did took place at the now sadly decommissioned Daresbury Synchrotron Radiation Source just outside Warrington. Experiments at synchrotrons (particle accelerators that generate an intense beam of radiation invaluable for studying a wide range of materials) are scheduled around short allocations of “beam time”. This necessitates lots of long shifts in a cramped environment and often results in sleep-deprived, caffeine-fuelled scientists bickering about how best to sort out just why the blasted instrument has given up the ghost this time. Get the experiment wrong and it might be well over a year before you get the next allocation of beam time to attempt it again.

After a rather arduous 40-hour shift, I was about to leave for breakfast when Greg arrived. I barked out a list of instructions, including telling him to leave certain key parameters on the experimental kit alone. He would have been quite within his rights to take umbrage at the lippiness of a young and rather unkempt scientist with a fraction of his research experience. But instead, he nodded sagely and smiled. He later told me that it was at that point – when I was telling him what he should do, rather than the other way round – that he realised I deserved the award of a doctorate.

Ever since, I’ve used the willingness of students to robustly argue their case, and/or tell me why I’m wrong, as a benchmark for their PhD readiness. By that point, they may also find that they are swearing just that little bit more than when they started.

Ofsted’s Data Dashboard has been dashed

A couple of years back I wrote a post related to the pseudostatistics at the heart of Ofsted’s assessment of primary schools. This was picked up by the National Union of Teachers, who featured the post at their website. This in turn led to a meeting involving Ofsted representatives, teachers, and yours truly, where the problems with the approach to presenting data on school performance were discussed.

In that post, I highlighted the sterling efforts of Jack Marwood in critiquing not only Ofsted’s processes but the DoE’s approaches to education in general. Jack has tirelessly pursued the many problems underpinning the assessment and direction of primary and secondary education. You should follow him on Twitter and sign up to his blog — his posts are always informative and engaging.

And on the subject of Jack’s blog, a couple of days ago he posted an update on Ofsted’s notorious Data Dashboard (which has been the subject of quite some criticism from teachers and parents over the years). The title at the top of this post is a bit of a spoiler as to the outcome of Ofsted’s review of the infamous Dashboard but Jack’s post puts it all in context.

Lilian Greenwood explains why she resigned from Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet

I should have posted the link before now, but rather late than never. Lilian Greenwood is my MP and is someone for whom I have a huge amount of respect. Lilian’s speech to the Nottingham South Labour Party membership was honest, passionate (in the true sense of the word), and compellingly reasoned.

As I’ve noted previously, I’ve been bitterly disappointed in Jeremy Corbyn’s performance as Labour leader (and I’m saying that as someone who joined the Labour party to vote for Corbyn). That someone with the credibility and commitment of Lilian Greenwood was among the first to resign from the Shadow Cabinet speaks volumes.


Brady Haran, Doctor of Letters

A short blog post to say just how delighted I am that Brady Haran was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Nottingham earlier this week. It’s been my great pleasure to work with Brady on Sixty Symbols (and a number of his other channels) over the past seven years. Despite — no, make that because ofour occasional tête-à-tête on just how to put across a piece of physics for a broad audience, I always look forward immensely to Brady (+ camera + bag of accessories) appearing at my door.

Brady’s work, and his remarkable work ethic, have put Nottingham on the map — and then some — when it comes to public engagement and communicating science. As Mike Merrifield describes in the video below, Brady’s ever-expanding portfolio of videos has topped 400 million views./ That’s nearly 2 billion minutes’ worth of viewing worldwide. All of us at the University of Nottingham owe Brady a huge debt of gratitude and it’s wonderful that this has been formally recognised by the award of Doctor of Letters.

Brady is his usual modest self in his acceptance speech (starting at around the 6 minute mark below), but it’s no exaggeration to say that he has fundamentally and radically changed my approach to explaining science and, by extension, my teaching.

I have learnt so much from him over the years.

Thank you, Brady, and congratulations.






Preaching to the choir: The cult of online atheism

Christ, but it’s getting ever more embarrassing to identify as an atheist these days. To admit to my atheism means that, Zarquon forbid, I could potentially be mistaken for someone who subscribes to the rhetoric of any one of a number of vitriol-driven online nu-atheists including, in particular, the modestly monikered The Amazing Atheist.

The Amazing Atheist, real name Thomas James (TJ) Kirk [1], has a subscriber base for his YouTube channel approaching 1 million viewers. I didn’t know about Kirk’s channel, however, until my recent spat with another nu-atheist, Philip Mason, aka thunderf00t [1] (The “00” isn’t a typo or a screw-up with the text formatting, by the way. Mason prefers “00” to “oo”. Branding is of course very important for any online business, so let’s humour him.)

One result of the exchange with Mason, and the subsequent online discussion, is that I became aware of a variety of new YouTubers. (New to me, that is). Some of these I was really pleased to have found (see below); others, like The Amazing Atheist and the odious Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad [1], I was somewhat less delighted to have encountered.

One channel that very kindly mirrored the video I made to accompany the “Faith and Fables of Thunderfoot” blog post was chrisiousity. (This video is a great introduction to what Chris(iousity) is all about). Chris also contributed many intelligent and perceptive comments under the “Faith and Fables…” video. So I’m at a little bit of a loss to understand why it took me until the end of last week to subscribe to her channel. I’m extremely pleased I did, however, not least because I might otherwise have missed the insightful video below which she uploaded about The Amazing Atheist (TAA)’s recent diatribe (this time targeted at Steve Shives, who describes himself in his Twitter profile as follows: “Guy on YouTube. Liberal. Progressive atheist. Supporter of feminism and social justice. Weirdo with weird friends. Tries to do good.”)

It’s worth taking 45 minutes of your time to watch, or, as I did, listen to, Chris’ video. Her calm, measured tones contrast starkly with TAA’s overblown playing to the gallery. More importantly, Chris highlights fascinating parallels between the treatment of heretics over the ages and the opprobrium meted out to Shives and others like him who dare question the orthodoxy of TAA and his close-to-one-million-strong following.

There’s a PhD thesis — indeed, a series of PhD theses — to be written on the question of heresy in this context, but I want to focus here on just one aspect of TAA’s approach to criticising Shives (and, by extension, ‘SJW’s like him [2]). The last couple of minutes of Chris’ video, starting at about the 42:00 mark, are flat-out astounding. Chris includes a clip where TAA launches into a tirade which can be accurately summarised as follows: “I’ve got nearly 1 M subscribers. My message resonates with all those people. How great am I? I win. I win.

As textbook examples of argumentum ad populum go, it doesn’t get much worse than this. Someone who, let’s not forget, has the temerity to call themselves The Amazing Atheist, is crowing that the size of their audience has a key bearing on the validity of their position. Mr. Kirk, please stop identifying as an atheist, amazing or otherwise, if these are the depths to which you’re going to stoop; it’s deeply embarrassing for the rest of us. We attempt to argue that atheism is a rational choice, as compared to the myths and fables of religious faith, and then “The Amazing Atheist” acts like the worst type of self-aggrandizing televangelist, validating his message by pointing to the size of his flock. (I’ve got to thank TAA, however, for putting me in mind of this classic Suicidal Tendencies track. It’s been too long since I dusted that one down and gave it a play).

As of 2014, 3% of the US population identified as atheists, and 5% as agnostics. Look at those subscription numbers, as compared to the percentages of those who have faith in some sort of a divine being. We must be in the wrong, right? [3] We lose.

TAA’s tribalism, and the associated cult of ‘personality’, does atheism a deep disservice. But, and it pains me to have to say this, I cannot condone, on the basis of similar ‘tribe-centric’ arguments, Steve Shives’ auto-blocking of those he suspects might disagree with him (much as I agree with Shives on many other issues). TAA bangs on about this in his own, inimitable, high decibel manner in his video. If we cut through the hyperbole and drama, however, he’s got a point.

I am well aware of the type of abuse that is doled out by members of the Tribe of The ‘Foot, Akaad, TAA, et al. (Very many of these followers, of course, follow the example of their favoured iconoclasts [1] and are wrapped up in the cosy warm blanket of anonymity). I have only experienced an infinitesimal fraction of the vacuous name-calling that Shives and very many others have to experience, and even I can understand entirely the appeal of attempting to preemptively block those whose allegiance lies with #TeamAmazing, #TeamFoot, #TeamAkkad etc. But blocking only cedes the high ground of the debate to those who so often can’t begin to construct any semblance of a coherent argument. Once blocked, they’ll make a big song and dance of it. (Look no further than the video above for good evidence of this). Even if they didn’t have any type of credible argument to begin with, as is so often the case, by being blocked they gain an entirely undeserved credibility (especially within their tribe; they wear the block as a badge of honour).

When I had a Twitter account I didn’t block for precisely this reason (nor do I moderate/censor/delete/edit comments at this blog (other than removing obvious spam) [4])). And, yes, it was sometimes very time-consuming to address entirely vacuous tweets. But blocking is entirely counter-productive. I’ll reiterate: it cedes too much ground to those who are entirely incapable of constructing an argument. We should ignore the abuse and counter evidence-free arguments when they are put forward. (Moreover, I am firmly of the opinion that while Twitter has its upsides, it’s hardly the most appropriate platform for reasoned, credible debate. The 140 character + hashtag format is almost custom-designed to entrench tribal behaviour. So, for reasons I detailed at the time, I killed my Twitter account. (In any case, and as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m Irish. Communication limited to 140 characters fundamentally goes against the grain.))

To close, let’s return to the heresy theme that Chris(iousity) so aptly identified. This is a classic from Nine Inch Nails…


[1] Many of those who rant at length about “delicate flowers”, “safe spaces”, “professional victims”, and what they see as the over-sensitivity of those who have to face torrents of online abuse, have delicately hidden behind a pseudonym for some, or all, of their online ‘career’. As I’ve noted previously (with, I’m afraid, tedious regularity), those who feel the need to hide within the safe space of anonymity are in no place to complain about what they see as the sensitivity of others. (And, no, it’s not an “ad hom” to point this out. Please see footnote #1 at the bottom of “The natural order of things?“)

[2] I realise that there are those out there who are easily upset by the merest mention of social justice. My apologies. I should really have included a link to the ‘trigger’ warning at the start of “When Atheists Ape Creationists…” before now.

[3] Alternatively, consider this chilling factoid: One Direction has outsold The Beatles (at least in the US and, for all I know, worldwide. If this is indeed a worldwide phenomenon, please don’t feel the need to tell me. I really don’t want to know). Clearly this must mean that the former are more artistically and culturally relevant than the latter.

[4] …even when those who are vociferous supporters of freedom of speech ask me to censor a thread.




Chilcot Reactions

I’m reblogging this pithy summary of the Chilcot Report from Peter Coles (telescoper). As ever, Peter cuts to the chase…

In the Dark

At long last, the Chilcot Report on the UK’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq War has now been published. It’s a mammoth document which can obtain in full here. Even the Executive Summary is 150 pages long.

I’m going to put my cards on the table straight away. I opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and have never wavered from that opposition. I would feel vindicated were I not so saddened by the agony the invasion unleashed.

I’m not going to pretend to have read the whole document, or even all of the Executive Summary, but all the reaction I’ve seen suggest that it is unequivocal in its condemnation of the (then) Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Here is an example:


I sincerely hope that Blair’s reputation will not recover, and indeed hope that some form of legal redress can be sought against him. Attention in this…

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