Guest Post: In defence of no-platforming

Every now and again in the comments sections under the videos I upload, there’ll be an insightful, perceptive and well-argued response (amidst many other comments which make Private Eye’s “From The Message Boards” look positively sane by comparison). The (non-italicised) comment under the line below was posted by Guido Bos under the “Science in a ‘post-truth’ world” video I uploaded for the Politics, Perception and Philosophy of Physics module a couple of weeks ago. 

No-platforming has been in the news throughout 2016 due, in no small part, to a certain beyond-narcissistic, self-aggrandising, rent-a-gob pundit who’s the current poster boy for the alt-right. I am, of course, talking about the legend-in-his-own-lunchtime that is  Milo Yiannopoulos.  Milo is, in essence, a bargain-basement Katie Hopkins. (Or perhaps that should be that Hopkins is a bargain-basement Milo? It’s a little difficult to tell when they’re both racing to the bottom at such a pace). His raison d’etre is simply to stir up as much controversy as possible in order to market what’s most important to him: Milo.

Yiannopoulos’ US speaking tour has generated torrents of controversy and he’s been barred from speaking at a number of universities. His most recent hate-filled diatribes against transgender people — where, in one case, he petulantly, aggressively, and despicably targetted an individual student —  have been designed, of course, to be as provocative as possible. Many student groups/unions have aimed to no-platform Yiannopoulos on this basis.

I have always had major misgivings about no-platforming. Not only is it troublesome in terms of locking out opposing opinions — of particular concern on university campuses where debate and discussion should be the lifeblood of everything we do — but it also can be immensely counter-productive when it comes to the likes of Yiannopoulos. No-platforming Milo and his ilk feeds directly into the culture of victim-hood and martyrdom that runs through the entire alt-right movement. They will exploit the ban as a draconian, Orwellian, monstrous attack on their freedom of speech.

Guido, however, makes some very important counter-arguments in his guest post below. It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. (And it’s really not too often I can say that about comments left under YouTube videos.) I’ll address the questions Guido puts to me at the end of the piece below in a future post. For now, I’ll simply note that targeting an individual student in the odious and cowardly way Yiannopoulos did at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee crosses an exceptionally important line.

I often see the concept of no-platforming framed entirely as “people not capable of dealing with ideas that contradict them”. And in a purely academic sense I agree this is bad. If there’s a dispute between two fields in say, a scientific field (STEM or social) one side shouldn’t just go “oh we should never listen to the opposition & ban ’em from our school!”. However in the cases where I’ve read about stories of no-platforming or speakers being protested, frequently the objections to the discussion have little to do with the substance of the debate but rather … side issues.

I want to say the categories I’ve seen in large part are:

[1] Unequal representation of views. A 1-on-1 debate in an academic setting on the earth being round or flat would be absurd for a simple reason: a flat earth is the most fringe, out there non-scientific belief ever. The very idea it’s worth having a big academic discussion on the possibility of the earth being flat would just be such a misuse of funding and resources. Would you agree that some positions are so inherently non-scientific and so fringe that providing them a platform would be ridiculous simply for what they are?

[2] Style over substance debates (in the ballpark of post-truth). A lot of evolutionary biologists advice against debating creationists/ID proponents for a general audience, for a simple reason: A debate where the rules and topic aren’t particularly tight greatly benefit the spread of misinformation/dirty tactics. While an open discussion on ideas is in itself fine, a lot of creation/id related debates end in that particualr side just trying to spread as much misinformation as is humanly possible, in as little time as possible.

I know many people who are uncomfortable with no-platforming (like Richard Dawkins) strongly hold the view [or held, not sure if it changed] that if the format invites for a clear spread of non-academic misinformation, giving particular people a platform will only result in misinformation. There’s a big difference between critically examining a singular selected claim by a creationist/id group and teaching students to critically examine counter arguments in an academic environment. (I’ve had to do that for a test, critically examine an ID pamphlet & point out the fallacies/misrepresentation of evolution) OR giving a platform to a non-academic viewpoint to basically spread their misinformation nearly unchallenged.

A few things I have in mind here are things like the “gish gallop” (100 things wrong with evolution on a single powerpoint slide, making it literally impossible to disprove all of em) But also: Phil Mason’s debate with Ray Comfort … like I’m obviously more on Mason’s side on the topic but … imagine if that conversation was held in front of a neutral audience of students not read up on the topic? A slick debater like Comfort would have far more sway than … whatever Mason was trying to do.

[3] Ethical concerns In a number of cases protests or demands for no-platforming had less to do with the particular topic and more with the ethics or background of the person in question. Say that a speaker gets invited to speak on engineering, but they’re infamous for basically talking online about how gay people deserve to burn & the person in question relates to certain countries having the death penalty for homosexuality.

If a school actively invites someone & students have issues with this not because of the topic, but because they have significant ethical concerns related to the background of a speaker, would you agree that it’s understandable/acceptable for them to at least protest this? (And for the school to switch speakers if they agree with the sentiment?) There are plenty of things you can fill in here, ranging from a speaker having white nationalist ties, just vaguely discriminatory twitter activity or a situation, we’ve actually had here in the Netherlands, where an actual murderer, gangster, and kidnapper was made the guest of a college tour program: )

Personally I’m not in favor of “Oh schools should just invite anyone, for any reason, at any time, with any background”, not necessarily because I think students shouldn’t be “challenged” but because I expect a level of quality control and respect. If a school I worked at/college I studied at decided to give an open platform to someone whose entire talk is about how “Hitler was right all along”, I’d be absolutely pissed. That has little to do with not wanting to be challenged & more with common decency. Anyway, I was curious (mostly based on those three points) if there are situations where you’d agree/argue that a speaker is indeed not qualified and that providing them a platform to speak would be a mistake? Where exactly would you draw the boundaries between “challenging” students & simply inviting people who don’t belong in an academic setting?

Thanks for reading and kind regards, Guido

Nano Does Nottingham Does Comics

Yesterday evening I spent a fun few hours at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio with my colleagues and friends Brigitte Nerlich, Shey Hargreaves, and Charli Vince. We were invited to a bimonthly event called Nottingham Does Comics. This does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a forum, and I quote, “by and for anybody interested in reading, creating, publishing, selling or studying new work and new horizons in the comics medium.”

My knowledge of graphic novels and comics unfortunately petered out quite some time ago but I was a huge 2000 AD fan when I was growing up (and well beyond when I stopped growing up). I have stacks and stacks of issues of 2000 AD in the attic, and a number of graphic novels on my book shelves at home. My favourite of the genre is the Dredd classic, America. A number of the Sláine volumes run a close (joint) second, however.

Given my lack of graphic novel expertise, you might ask why I was attending — and, indeed, speaking at — Nottingham Does Comics? All is revealed in the flyer below…


The script for Open Day is finished and Charli, who joined the team quite recently, is now relishing the challenge of bringing Shey’s engaging (and amusing) characters to life via her fantastic artwork. (There’ll be regular updates at Charli’s website). Shey and Charli described to the NDC audience just how they’re translating the research we do to the graphic novel format (in their own inimitable style). Brigitte, who has a long-standing interest in nano images, is documenting the process at the Making Science Public blog.

In addition to having the opportunity to plug Open Day we also got to hear about James Walker‘s fascinatingly innovative Dawn Of The Unread project. (That title alone was all it took for me to shell out for a copy of the …Unread compilation you can see pictured at the bottom of the flyer above). James’ talk was a thoroughly absorbing, and very funny, discussion of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the Dawn Of The Unread project. He touched on his concerns about the extent to which books (and libraries) are being pushed aside in favour of rather more immediate — and, too often, significantly more shallow — online sources. Let’s just say that James’ arguments on this theme resonated with me just a little. (I’ll expand on this in a future post).

We owe a big debt of thanks to both John “Brick” Clark for the invitation to speak about Open Day at the NDC event and to our host, Jessica Cormack, who made us feel right at home (despite some of us having a shocking lack of knowledge of the comics scene!). Thanks also to all at NDC for the hospitality. Oh, and the mince pies.

And I should of course thank those who have generously funded the Open Day project: the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (via the grant described in this post) and I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here.