Beauty and the Biased

A big thank you to Matin Durrani for the invitation to provide my thoughts on the Strumia saga — see “The Worm That (re)Turned” and “The Natural Order of Things?” for previous posts on this topic — for this month’s issue of Physics World. PW kindly allows me to make the pdf of the Opinion piece available here at Symptoms. The original version (with hyperlinks intact) is also below.

(And while I’m at it, an even bigger thank you to Matin, Tushna, and all at PW for this immensely flattering (and entirely undeserved, given the company I’m in) accolade…


From Physics World, Dec. 2018.

A recent talk at CERN about gender in physics highlights that biases remain widespread, Philip Moriarty says we need to do more to tackle such issues head on

When Physics World asked several physicists to name their favourite books for the magazine’s 30th anniversary issue, I knew immediately what I would choose (see October pp 74-78). My “must-read” pick was Sabine Hossenfelder’s exceptionally important Lost In Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, which was released earlier this year.

Hossenfelder, a physicist based at the Frankfurt Institute of Technology, is an engaging and insightful writer who is funny, self-deprecating, and certainly not afraid to give umbrage. I enjoyed the book immensely, being taken on a journey through modern theoretical physics in which Hossenfelder attempts to make sense of her profession. If there is one chapter of the book that particularly resonated with me it’s the concluding Chapter 10, “Knowledge is Power”. This is a powerful closing statement that deserves to be widely read by all scientists, but especially by that especially irksome breed of physicist who believes — when all evidence points to the contrary — that they are somehow immune to the social and cognitive biases that affect every other human.

In “Knowledge is Power”, Hossenfelder adeptly outlines the primary biases that all good scientists have striven to avoid ever since the English philosopher Francis Bacon identified his “idols of the tribe” – i.e. the tendency of human nature to prefer certain types of incorrect conclusions. Her pithy single-line summary at the start of the chapter captures the key issue: “In which I conclude the world would be a better place if everyone listened to me”.

Lost in bias

Along with my colleague Omar Almaini from the University of Nottingham, I teach a final-year module entitled “The Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics”. I say teach, but in fact, most of the module consists of seminars that introduce a topic for students to then debate, discuss and argue for the remaining time. We dissect Richard Feynman’s oft-quoted definition of science: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”.  Disagreeing with Feynman is never a comfortable position to adopt, but I think he does science quite a disservice here. The ignorance, and sometimes even the knowledge, of experts underpins the entire scientific effort. After all, collaboration, competition and peer review are the lifeblood of what we do. With each of these come complex social interactions and dynamics and — no matter how hard we try — bias. For this and many other reasons, Lost In Math is now firmly on the module reading list.

At a CERN workshop on high-energy theory and gender at the end of September, theoretical physicist Alessandro Strumia from the University of Pisa claimed that women with fewer citations were being hired over men with greater numbers of citations. Following the talk, Strumia faced an immediate backlash in which CERN suspended him pending an investigation, while some 4000 scientists signed a letter that called his talk “disgraceful”. Strumia’s talk was poorly researched, ideologically-driven, and an all-round embarrassingly biased tirade against women in physics. I suggest that Strumia needs to take a page — or many — out of Hossenfelder’s book. I was reminded of her final chapter time and time again when I read through Strumia’s cliché-ridden and credulous arguments, his reactionary pearl-clutching palpable from almost every slide of his presentation.

One criticism that has been levelled at Hossenfelder’s analysis is that it does not offer solutions to counter the type of biases that she argues are prevalent in the theoretical-physics community and beyond. Yet Hossenfelder does devote an appendix — admittedly rather short — to listing some pragmatic suggestions for tackling the issues discussed in the book. These include learning about, and thus tackling, social and cognitive biases.

This is all well and good, except that there are none so blind as those that will not see. The type of bias that Strumia’s presentation exemplified is deeply engrained. In my experience, his views are hardly fringe, either within or outside the physics community — one need only look to the social media furore over James Damore’s similarly pseudoscientific ‘analysis’ of gender differences in the context of his overwrought “Google Manifesto” last year. Just like Damore, Strumia is being held up by the usual suspects as the ever-so-courageous rational scientist speaking “The Truth”, when, of course, he’s entirely wedded to a glaringly obvious ideology and unscientifically cherry-picks his data accordingly. In a masterfully acerbic and exceptionally timely blog post published soon after the Strumia storm broke (“The Strumion. And On”), his fellow particle physicist Jon Butterworth (UCL) highlighted a number of the many fundamental flaws at the core of Strumia’s over-emotional polemic.   .

Returning to Hossenfelder’s closing chapter, she highlights there that the “mother of all biases” is the “bias blind spot”, or the insistence that we certainly are not biased:

“It’s the reason my colleagues only laugh when I tell them biases are a problem, and why they dismiss my ‘social arguments’, believing they are not relevant to scientific discourse,” she writes. “But the existence of those biases has been confirmed in countless studies. And there is no indication whatsoever that intelligence protects against them; research studies have found no links between cognitive ability and thinking biases.”

Strumia’s diatribe is the perfect example of this bias blind spot in action. His presentation is also a case study in confirmation bias. If only he had taken the time to read and absorb Hossenfelder’s writing, Strumia might well have saved himself the embarrassment of attempting to pass off pseudoscientific guff as credible analysis.

While the beauty of maths leads physics astray, it is ugly bias that will keep us in the dark.

 

When is a skeptic not a skeptic?

I’m looking forward to giving this talk for the UoN Agnostic, Secularist and Humanist (UNASH) society (“Think Rationally, Act Compassionately“) on Wednesday…

UNASH.jpg

The ‘blurb’ is as follows…

Everyone is a sceptic these days. The death of expertise, as described so compellingly by Tom Nicholls in his recent book, has unleashed a tsunami of wilfully uninformed ‘critiques’ of everything from the shape of the Earth to the ability of women to do physics. This toxic blend of ignorance, arrogance, and unblinking credulity now fuels a very significant fraction of internet bandwidth. A little learning is indeed a dangerous thing.

In this talk, I’ll focus on the thorny problem of just how we counter the type of scepticism that brought the world Pizzagate, the ‘truth’ about 9-11, and an ever-expanding set of ever-more-ludicrous conspiracy theories. On the way, we’ll consider the style-over-substance rhetoric and pseudo-scepticism that internet gurus like Deepak Chopra and Jordan B Peterson exploit to woo uncritical audiences (of self-proclaimed sceptics.)

I’m hoping that some robust discussion and debate will ensue…

Breaking Through the Barriers

A colleague alerted me to this gloriously barbed Twitter exchange earlier today:

Jess-Cox.png

Jess Wade‘s razor-sharp riposte to Brian Cox was prompted by just how Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has chosen to spend the £2.3M [1] associated with the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics she was awarded today. Here’s the citation for the Prize:

The Selection Committee of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics today announced a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics recognizing the British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her discovery of pulsars – a detection first announced in February 1968 – and her inspiring scientific leadership over the last five decades.

In a remarkable act of generosity, Bell Burnell has donated the entire prize money to the Institute of Physics to fund PhD studentships for, as described in a BBC news article, “women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers.” 

Bell Burnell is quoted in The Guardian article to which Brian refers as follows: “A lot of the pulsar story happened because I was a minority person and a PhD student… increasing the diversity in physics could lead to all sorts of good things.”

As an out-and-proud ‘social justice warrior’, [2] I of course agree entirely.

That rumbling you can hear in the distance, however, is the sound of 10,000 spittle-flecked, basement-bound keyboards being hammered in rage at the slightest suggestion that diversity in physics (or any other STEM subject) could ever be a good thing. Once again I find myself in full agreement with my erstwhile University of Nottingham colleague, Peter Coles:

[1] A nice crisp, round $3M for those on the other side of the pond.

[2] Thanks, Lori, for bringing those wonderful t-shirts to my attention!


 

 

Atheism poisons everything?

I very much enjoyed Pascal Leroux‘s thoughtful, thought-provoking and eloquent discussion of the tribalism and polarisation that underpins what is perhaps best described as nu-atheism…

As Pascal highlights so well, and harking back to the theme of my previous post (and others), it’s amusing and frustrating in equal measure that those who would vociferously claim to be ever-so-rational, ever-so-reasoned (if not reasonable), and ever-so-logical in their analyses can’t apply that type of thinking to their own worldview.

Growing up in public

Cop on /kɒp ɒn/. Verb. (Irish, idiomatic). Exhortation to stop behaving immaturely. “Would yeh ever cop yourself on, yeh gobshite?”

Cop on (alt. cop-on ). Noun.  Common sense. “You could say that people need to have a bit of cop-on about their own safety.”


It’s not an idiom that I hear very often in England, but phrases like “Cop on, for feck’s sake” [1]  are riven into the fabric of Irish conversation. The closest direct ‘translation’ to British English is something like “Grow up, would you?”, but that doesn’t capture the tone of scorn and pillory in quite the same way.

When it comes to certain aspects of my blogging and YouTube activity, I’ve got to confess that I should have copped on much, much sooner.

Those of you who were previously subscribed to this blog and/or my YouTube channel will know that about eighteen months ago I took them both offline. I’ve been regularly contributing online elsewhere in the intervening period – for example, this, this, this, and this [2] — but since the end of 2016 have chosen not to write posts nor create videos for a personal blog or YT channel. Before I outline just why I curtailed my blogging and ‘vlogging’ (and there have been some bizarre and bonkers theories circulating in certain quarters online as to why I did this), I guess I should explain my reasons for restoring the Symptoms… blog at this point in time.

On average, once or twice a week over the last eighteen months I’d get an e-mail from someone who had followed a link to a blog post I’d written and been greeted by this. In parallel, I’d receive messages from friends and colleagues asking about the demise of the blog. The number of e-mail enquiries also spiked recently as a result of this very kind comment under a Sixty Symbols video I did with Brady Haran last month:

Comment

I’ve, of course, also received very many rather less complimentary comments and e-mails, including long expletive- and vitriol-ridden screeds repeating long-debunked ‘science’ on gender/race (repeatedly), as a result of my online contributions. More on the reasons for this below. (I tend to preface my response to that type of e-mail with some variant of this trigger warning, which I’ve used on more than one occasion in previous posts.)

Often I’d find myself cutting and pasting particular blog posts from the archive and sending them to those who’d contacted me by e-mail. This is time-consuming and just a little silly when I could just have made the posts available online. (And I’ll take this opportunity to say a massive thank you to all who contacted me over the months to offer their best wishes and support. I owe you all a pint or two, or whatever your preferred tipple might be. [3]).

So that’s one reason for resurrecting the blog. Another is that I just enjoy writing. A lot. I find it immensely cathartic and I’ve missed regularly putting virtual pen to virtual paper to organise my thoughts and, of course, to vent my spleen. On occasion.

And, yes, I’ll come clean — another reason is this:

Uncertainty-to-11

I plan to write a number of posts expanding on themes in this book after it’s published in August. For now, this preview covers some of the motivations behind writing the book:

Notwithstanding that embedded preview above, what I haven’t missed one little bit is video making. I hate, hate, hate video editing. For one thing, I have to watch and listen to myself drone on and on. This is about the least edifying experience I can imagine. I exist in a permanently caffeinated state so cannot sit still (or for that matter stand in one spot — I cover miles of floor during an hour-long lecture); this leads to lots of annoying presentational ‘tics’. Coupled with the many software crashes I experience when editing, video creation becomes an intensely irksome chore.

So, I’ll not be going back to a personal YT channel for debates and discussion (although I’ll continue to work with Brady Haran and Sean Riley, if they’ll have me, for Sixty Symbols and Computerphile. No editing in that case! I just hand over, to Brady and Sean, the unenviable task of cutting my long rambling explanations down to size.)

In any case, and leaving aside the irritations of the editing process, there are other very good reasons for eschewing YouTube ‘engagement’. Over to the wonderful xkcd

(This article highlights some of the reasons why, more generally, YouTube is “home to the most toxic comment section on the web“.)

But YouTube, of course, does not hold a monopoly on uninformed, knee-jerk, and semi-literate comments sections. As Philip Ball points out, the Guardian’s below-the-line commentary is far from the most erudite at times…

Yet despite the vacuity and vitriol of online commenting, for many years I ‘engaged’ energetically and frequently. As anyone who was subscribed to my YouTube channel knew, I spent  wasted an inordinate amount of my time addressing a significant number of the many hundreds of comments under the videos I uploaded. As I saw it, I was a publicly-funded academic and therefore I had an obligation to engage. (And, more importantly, it’s often a heck of a lot of fun to chat with those who are interested in and enthused by science).

Friends and colleagues told me time and time again not to get involved “below the line”; not to get drawn in; not to attempt to counter the many semi-literate and misinformed comments that are the mainstay of the lower half of the web. But I argued in return that, no, some exchanges were indeed helpful and could lead to productive discussion or, indeed, could produce crowd-sourced research data and ideas.

But therein lies the rub: some exchanges. Some. And that “some” turns out to be a vanishingly small fraction of the total.

For both my YT channel and the earlier incarnation of this blog, my approach to commenting policy was breathtakingly naive. I didn’t block in any way. I didn’t moderate in any way. Everything, other than pure unadulterated spam, was allowed through. Even this piece of vicious libel:

Anon1

and this more typical bile:

Anon2

If you’re questioning my sanity at this stage, I don’t blame you: Why didn’t I block, filter, delete, and/or incinerate those types of comment? As described in a post I wrote for the LSE Impact Blog last year, I had my reasons. Vacuous and vapid those reasons may well have been, but I convinced myself that there was a method to the madness.

There wasn’t.

Peter Coles, whose In The Dark I enthusiastically and regularly recommend, helpfully puts the numerical meat on the bones of my statement above re. the “vanishingly small” fraction of constructive comments in the context of his own blog:

If you’re interested, as of today, 28,781 comments have been published on this blog. The number rejected as SPAM or abuse is 1,802,214. That means that fewer than 1 in 60 are accepted.

1.8 M comments rejected. 1.8 million!

Moreover, when criticism, abuse, and even toothless threats (like that in the screenshot above) are directed at me I’m willing to take them on the nose. (And did. Regularly.) Abuse and threats directed at those close to me I was rather less willing to tolerate. (Hence the extended absence of this blog and the now-defunct YT channel).

Fortunately, I’ve copped on now. At long last. For all of the reasons discussed in that LSE Impact Blog post, there’ll be a much less laissez-faire approach to comment moderation at Symptoms… from now on. I’m adopting Peter’s strategy:

Since WordPress notifies me every time a  comment is posted, it is quite easy to remove this junk but I found it very tiresome (when there were several per day) and eventually decided to change my policy and automatically block comments from all anonymous sources. Since this requires a manual check into whether the identity information given with the comment is bona fide, comments from people who haven’t commented on this blog before may take a little while to get approved.

There are still comments on here which may appear to a reader anonymous (or with a pseudonym) on here, but these are from people who have identified themselves to me with a proper email address or who the software has identified through their IP address or information revealed by their web browser (which is probably more than you think…). I’m happy for people to comment without requiring they release their name to the world, and will do my best to ensure their confidentiality, but I’m not happy to publish comments from people whose identity I don’t know.

Just for those who’ll clutch their pearls tight and whine about freedom of speech (while entirely misunderstanding the concept) let me repeat a paragraph from Chuck Wendig’s great post, “Don’t read the comments: Comments sections are our own fault“. (I’ve cited this regularly before).

“And here you might say, ‘Buh-buh-wuh!’ And you’ll stammer out something about democracy and freedom of speech and censorship. But I’d ask you shift your POV a little bit. Look at a comments section like it’s the letter section of a newspaper… The letter section was not a free-for-all. They did not print the rantings of every froth-mouthed cuckootrousers who wanted to air his conspiratorial, hate-fuelled grievances with the world. They moderated those letter sections.”

Where Two Tribes Go To Roar: Reprise

OK, let’s now turn to address the pachyderm in the playpen. At least some of you reading this will likely be aware of a couple of rather-less-than-flattering videos about me that were made, very soon after I took my blog and YT channel offline, by a YouTuber who goes by the name of thunderf00t . As that linked Wiki article describes, ‘thunderf00t’ is a PhD chemist and researcher whose real name is Phil Mason.

As an important aside, I should stress that this information about Mason is available readily online — it’s been in the public domain for a long, long time. (Google “thunderf00t”, for example). I have been wrongly accused by some of supporting “doxing” — the release of private information — but this is something that I have never condoned and would never condone under any circumstances. I have only ever used information that is already in the public domain (with the individuals’ knowledge) in my interactions and arguments with Mason and others.

Of course, no amount of evidence supporting my point here (or on any other topic for that matter) will ever convince those who are viscerally opposed to my left-leaning stances on social justice, diversity, and equality. As Tom Nichols describes in “The Death of Expertise“, and I cannot recommend his book highly enough, evidence is all too readily dismissed or distorted when it doesn’t align with our ideological biases. (And we are all guilty of this to a greater or lesser extent. Yes, even you.)

Similarly, what I have always found striking throughout my time online is that those who claim vociferously to be solely driven by reason, logic, science, rational debate, and/or individualism — aka the Fuck Your Feelings (FYF) brigade — are often among the most hypersensitive, overwrought, tribal, and emotionally driven out there. The type of over-emotional response that the FYF tribe attribute to the big, bad bogeyman of “The Left” is equally, and often more, prevalent within their own ranks. (There are key parallels here with the deeply intolerant patriotic correctness of the right.)

As a telling example of this type of knee-jerk visceral reaction, I was amused that very soon after Phil Mason uploaded his videos about me, a video of a TEDx Derby talk I gave back in 2014 received a massive upsurge in downvotes (and abusive comments) over the space of a few days. That particular video had attracted a grand total of five dislikes over the course of the preceding two and a half years.

Does that TEDxDerby video mention social justice? No.

Gender balance in physics? No.

Anything vaguely sociopolitical? You guessed it. No.

It’s instead a video about the problems with YouTube edutainment and the associated culture of ‘soundbite’ education. Nowhere in that video do I even touch on any of the themes over which Mason and I have bickered; the downvoting had nothing to do with the content. It arose because of a highly charged and emotional reaction to me, not the themes discussed in the video. “He’s a damned dirty SJW.” (Those who would argue that YouTube, of all things, is a great example of the “Marketplace of Ideas” in action should pay attention here. Or, more simply, they could just pin that xkcd cartoon up on their wall for future, and frequent, reference.)

Similar reactions have ensued when Sixty Symbols or Computerphile videos to which I contributed have been uploaded over the last eighteen months. Videos with entirely scientific content — discussions of, for example, X-ray standing wave experiments, error bars, interatomic and intermolecular forces, the physical limits of computing etc. — often attract comments about me and my politics, not the science. That particular type of commenter is so invested in their dislike of me that they simply can’t get past their deep emotional reaction. They also want everyone watching the video to know about it — to signal to their tribe — so they post a comment, instead of simply ignoring the video. And yet these self-same individuals whine incessantly about “snowflakes” placing emotion over reason, echo chambers, and ‘group think’. As a certain right-of-centre British journalist is very fond of saying, you couldn’t make it up.

Were my dealings with Mason my finest hour? Most certainly not. I have much to be embarrassed about. The key exchange is here. Make up your own mind as to who was ‘trolling’ whom. I should have walked away much earlier because it was absolutely clear that it was going nowhere and was a pointless waste of time and effort. It was also petty and childish of me to continually pressure Mason into agreeing to publish the email trail. I revealed some fairly unattractive character flaws in that exchange.

The tribal nature of the online “SJW vs anti-SJW” wars [4] also underpinned my spat with Mason. For one thing, I deeply and bitterly regret my connection to this exceptionally childish video. Mason was absolutely right to pillory this. What he perhaps didn’t know was that I was not given the courtesy of seeing that video before it went online. I had absolutely no idea that the MP3 (of a reading of the e-mail trail) I naively provided would be used in quite that way. I was also entirely unaware at the time of the exchange that the death of Mason’s father had previously been shamefully used against him in other online spats. To clarify these points, and months before I took my channel and blog online, I had included this in a video response to Mason (but it’s of course entirely possible that he did not see that video.)

As noted in my earlier posts, Mason has gained a reputation online for cherry-picking, for quote-mining, and for ripping statements entirely out of context in order to cast others in the worst possible light. We can argue, as many incessantly do, about the extent to which these accusations are valid. (I would certainly argue that my views and character were misrepresented in his videos about me. But then I would, wouldn’t I?! See the blog posts linked above, particularly this, for a somewhat more nuanced and contextualised discussion of my views).

Character assassination, however, is not limited to one side of the ideological divide. Mason may have some character flaws (who doesn’t?), but is he a Nazi? No. Is he a sociopath? No. While I disagree fundamentally with his stance on sexual dimorphism (and his associated attitude to feminism) [5], demonising Mason to that extent — and, more broadly, demonising all those whose ideology and politics don’t align with the tribe, be it left- or right-leaning — is hardly in line with the empathy and consideration that those of us who espouse social justice would like to see in society.

For one thing, the accusation of sociopathy does not sit at all well with Mason’s admirable denouncement of the odious behaviour of a group of YouTubers who gleefully gloated about the murder of Heather Anable hours after her death:

I should note that although I never met Heather, I had exchanged a number of direct messages (DMs) with her via Twitter and Facebook. Heather was a kind, perceptive, smart, and empathetic person who was the very first to call out the type of tribalism that underpins so much online behaviour; she always tried to see the best in everyone.

It is to Mason’s immense credit that he took a stand and made the video above. Whatever ideological differences he and I might have (and, as should be abundantly clear by now, there are very many), that was a fundamentally decent thing to do. Mason demonstrated a great deal of integrity in uploading that video as he must have been aware of just how much opprobrium he would attract from the so-called “skeptic” community [6]. (I also strongly recommend Noel Plum’s careful and considered analysis of the subsequent fallout.)

As noted above, I am suitably shame-faced about descending into the mire online. This post by Robert Lea accurately, forcefully, and eloquently points out that it is far from a “good look” for academic researchers (at any career level) to conflate the professional with the personal and indulge in pathetic playground squabbles online…

Academia, ladies and gentlemen: challenging each other to pathetic toothless debates on a video sharing site for the benefit of their already partisan subscribers.

Ouch. Harsh but entirely fair. I, for one, have nonetheless learnt a number of memorable and sobering lessons from the spats outlined above. I’m fifty next month so at this point I’m long overdue to have finished growing up in public. I’m keeping out of the playground from now on. If, however, you see me pointlessly embroiled in some juvenile war of words in a comments section down the line, please don’t hesitate to tap me on the shoulder (virtually or otherwise) and tell me to cop on to myself…


[1] And, of course, the version with the other f-word. The bad f-word.

[2] My next blog post, “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but..?“, will expand on the themes outlined in that video, which ruffled a few feathers. There’s nothing quite like being told precisely how science works by someone who has never carried out research, published a paper, peer-reviewed a manuscript, sat on a review panel, written a grant application, attended a scientific conference etc… That special blend of arrogance and ignorance to which Tom Nichols refers is indeed ubiquitous.

[3] Thanks, in particular, to my friend Claudia Brown for taking the time to make this video.

[4] If you’re unfamiliar with the SJW pejorative, count yourself very lucky indeed. To get deep insights into the origin of that “SJW” term and, more broadly, the social justice wars online (and how those battles bleed offline), I recommend all of the following: Kill All Normies, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, and Alt-Right: From 4chan To The Whitehouse. (And, contrary to loud protestations from certain quarters, there are just as many “SJWs” on the right of the political spectrum as there are on the left. It’s just that a different type of “justice” is being espoused in each case…)

[5] On that sexual dimorphism issue, I recommend you stop reading this overlong post right now and beg, borrow, or steal — or better, shell out your hard-earned cash for — Angela Saini’s wonderful InferiorJess Wade wrote a great review of Saini’s book for Physics World last year. Here’s the closing paragraph:

“Inferior is an engaging and harrowing study that easily moves between eras, continents and disciplines. Saini is a meticulous researcher whose attention to detail is evident in her interviews with scientists behind some of the biggest results in neuroscience and psychology. Instead of writing around the issue of representation of women in science, Saini identifies what science has got wrong about women.”

(By the way, if you find yourself incensed by the closing sentence in that extract from Wade’s review please bear the trigger warning in mind before diving into the comments section.)

I refer to Saini’s book not infrequently in this lengthy chat with Claudia last year, which was uploaded shortly after the James Damore fiasco:

[6] As oxymorons go, it doesn’t get better than “the skeptic YouTube community”. See also #7 in these seven rules of engagement.

Welcome to the Bear Pit: When Public Engagement Goes to Pot

The last time I wrote about the importance of academics engaging with the public, I finished on this upbeat and sweary note: “…you’re an academic, FFS, why aren’t you involved in public engagement?” (It’s perhaps worth reading the blog post in question to put that call to arms in context).

This post is going to be a rather more cautionary tale. That’s not to say that I’m suggesting we academics shouldn’t continue to engage — or at least attempt to engage — with a broader audience than just our students, peers and colleagues. Indeed, although I have been a long-standing critic of the research councils’ impact ‘agenda’, it’s resulted in more thought being paid to how we communicate our research outside our academic circles and that is clearly a very good thing.

But…

Here’s a recent comment posted under a video I uploaded at my YouTube channel:

Anon1.png

That particular piece of vicious libelous abuse — spinelessly issued under anonymous cover, of course — is admittedly rather nastier than what’s usually posted. Here’s another, in the discussion section for the channel, which is a rather more common type of juvenile slur:

Anon2.png

I should stress that the levels of bile and vitriol I receive pale into insignificance against the torrents of abuse that many other YouTube video-makers — or, to use the jargon du jour, content creators — have to endure. I’ll get back to that very soon. First, however, I need to explain just why I’ve started to attract the type of comment above. (Regular readers of Symptoms… (both of you) will be well aware of the reasons underpinning the less-than-erudite feedback that has started to appear at my channel and here at the blog. Feel free to skip past the next section.)

There’s no justice. There’s just us.

If you haven’t yet encountered the pejorative “SJW” (social justice warrior) or its corresponding antiparticle, the “anti-SJW”, then count yourself very lucky indeed. There are battles raging across vast swathes of the internet where those who would identify as proponents of social justice (in the sense described by John Rawls, for example) are pitted against those who see progress towards social justice as being a direct infringement of their basic civil liberties — including, and especially, freedom of speech — that will ultimately result in the fall of western civilisation as we know it. Those who would classify themselves in this latter category tend to be incensed by the notion of political correctness.

I generalise, of course. And that type of sweeping generalisation is a major part of the problem. It’s exceptionally tribal out there. Many of those who claim – vociferously — that they’re independent, free thinkers too often gleefully succumb to mob mentality, labelling those who express opinions counter to theirs as The Other. (More on this towards the end of this post). Similarly, those who would claim that it’s the “left” who want to trample on free speech should pay attention to the opprobrium that Gary Lineker has attracted (including calls for him to be sacked) for this important tweet:

How did I get drawn into the “SJW vs anti-SJW” war of attrition?

I’ve been involved with making videos for YouTube since 2009 via Brady Haran’s channels (largely Sixty Symbols, but I’ve also enjoyed contributing to Numberphile and Computerphile. And I’ve even crossed the physics-chemistry trenches for an occasional Periodic Video).  That has led to quite a bit of online discussion in the comments sections for those videos, which, as I discussed in this Physics World article a couple of years ago, was largely intelligent, engaging, fun, and not infrequently made me reconsider just how I was teaching physics. More recently, public engagement via YouTube has even led to an undergraduate research project (with a publication to follow in hopefully the not-too-distant future).

Many of my colleagues (including postdoctoral and PhD researchers in the group here) thought I was mad for engaging in the comments sections of those videos. (They still do. But even more so now). For them, “below the line”, in just about any online forum, too often represents the condensed collective stupidity of humanity. No good can come of wading into those murky, and grammatically challenged, waters they tell me. But I’d in turn point out that I’ve gained quite a bit out of engaging online and have not had to tolerate any type of bile or abuse at all [1].

Until recently. Being involved with Sixty Symbols and Brady’s other channels has meant that I get invitations to different podcasts/events on a reasonably regular basis. One of these was something called the Magic Sandwich Show. A regular contributor to the MSS for a number of years was a certain Dr. Phil Mason (aka ‘thunderf00t’). On an episode of the MSS last year, he and I clashed on the question of the role of sexual dimorphism as a determinant in the gender balance in physics. I’m not about to revisit that lengthy saga here, you’ll be relieved to know. Here’s a summary.

That spat with Mason was my gateway to the Social Justice WarsTM . I’ve already spent too much time writing about the various YouTube channels which underpin a great deal of the bile and vitriol (see this blog, passim), so I’ll defer to Hank Green for a pithy summary of a key aspect of the problem:

Now, before the keyboards start a rattlin’ among a certain online ‘demographic’, am I saying that all who don’t identify with the social justice position are hate-filled teenage boys? No. Of course not. And I was at pains in this recent video to argue that we shouldn’t generalise:

But let’s not be silly here. There’s clearly a pattern of behaviour in certain online “communities” (and I use the term advisedly) that frequently results in certain channels being swamped by torrents of abuse. Let’s take a look at one prime example.

If you go down to the woods today…

There is a culture among subsets of the subscriber bases of certain YouTube content providers video-makers [2] of posting vicious bile and vitriol under particular videos. The videos in question tend, ever so coincidentally, to be those which that particular video-maker has recently targeted for critique. Here’s a particularly apposite case in point:

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That cartoon is the avatar for a YouTuber called Bearing. I have no idea as to his real name. To the best of my knowledge he has not ever revealed his identity and prefers instead to conceal himself behind the cartoon bear shown above (which he’s borrowed, apparently without attribution, from a show called Total Drama ).  

This ‘Bearing’ person has a tendency to make videos critiquing and criticising (to use terms he would prefer) feminist channels. Here’s a recent example. And here’s another. And another. It turns out that there’s a rather strong correlation between the amount of abuse these feminist channels/videos receive and whether or not they’ve been recently critiqued by the guy behind the cartoon bear. The comment section of a video selected by ‘Bearing’ for critique tends to be flooded with abuse, to the point where the video maker either deletes the video entirely from the channel or makes it private. Like this. Or this.

The most recent target of ‘Bearing”s criticism is [EDIT 18/12/2016Removed name of YouTuber so as to ensure her channel does not receive more abuse via this blog post. Henceforth referred to as “Jane Doe”]. “Jane” has not taken down her video but has disabled comments and likes/dislikes. Just to give you an idea of how vicious and pathetically immature the behaviour of this online mob can get, here’s a sample of comments under one of the other videos at “Jane”‘s channel…

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Note the response directly above from “032 Mendicant Bias”. They’re laudably trying to point out the despicable behaviour of the mob. One other person attempts to do this elsewhere in the comments. Note the response.

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(…and that’s not the end of ‘Sarah Benton’s diatribe. But what I’ve included of the comments here is already dispiriting enough).

As “Overlord Penmaeda” points out above, the video under which this bile has been posted has got nothing to do with feminism. Yet the mob is so incensed, they target her in any way they can.

As if the viciousness of the comments wasn’t enough, there’s this galling and deeply hypocritical comment (note the number of “likes”):

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A person cravenly hiding behind a pseudonym and an avatar, in common with the vast majority of those who post abuse, is whining about the perceived ‘cowardice’ of someone who uploaded a video where she doesn’t attempt to hide her identity in any way and speaks her mind. I think we can all see who the coward is in this case. [3]

It’s worth noting that the comment above wasn’t posted under one of “Jane”‘s videos. It was posted at ‘Bearing”s channel. Along with quite a lot of other vitriol along the lines of that above.

Now, the guy behind the cartoon bear argues that he is not responsible for what his subscribers do. He even laudably includes a disclaimer in the information under the videos he uploads.

First, having worked with Brady Haran for quite some time on YT videos, let’s just say that I’m not entirely convinced of the efficacy of including anything in the video information. In this video, for example, I misspoke towards the end. We included a correction in the video information. Yet I receive a steady stream of e-mails asking me about precisely that misspoken point.

But let’s give this ‘Bearing’ character the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that he’s sincere in the intention given in his disclaimer. Yet, strangely enough, every time he uploads a video criticising a feminist channel or video, shortly afterwards spiteful and vicious abuse is posted by spineless, faceless idiots at that particular channel/video. Most of us would notice this rather strong correlation. This ‘Bearing’ chap is clearly not exceptionally stupid so I find it somewhat difficult to believe that he too has not noticed the correlation, particularly as it doesn’t take very long to find comments like the following posted under those particular videos before they’re taken down:

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Now, the guy behind the cartoon bear argues that he’s not responsible for the behaviour of his subscribers. I agree. He can’t dictate what they should or should not do. But I, for one, would be appalled to think that any video critique I made would result in the subject of that criticism being targetted with vicious, spiteful abuse. I might be rather ashamed to have any type of connection between the critique I posted and that type of hateful behaviour. I would be particularly aghast to find that an especially cowardly and vicious subset of those who had subscribed to my channel were responsible for that anonymous abuse and that I was therefore indirectly the origin of the mob’s abusive comments.

But that’s just me.

Oh, and some others…

As for those hiding behind pseudonyms and avatars, lacking the courage and integrity to stand behind their slurs while they complain about others being “delicate flowers”, they shouldn’t think for one minute that “words on a screen” can’t have real world impact. Others might also want to bear that in mind.

Freeze Peach

I have long had a policy at my blog and YouTube channel that I wouldn’t moderate, censor, or edit comments in any way. I describe my motivations for this stance in the second half of this post. A recent article by Hank Green (yes, him again), Stop Screaming In My Home,  and discussions with friends and colleagues have made me reconsider that stance.

Just as for the feminist channels described above, I have recently seen a sharp increase in the number of dislikes for videos (posted years ago) that have nothing to do with my criticism of that certain clique of YouTubers and their views. Similarly, comments related to my spats with Philip Mason and others have been posted under entirely unrelated videos focussed on physics, or music, or both. This is juvenile behaviour.

I’d use a slightly different analogy to that Hank Green outlined in his article. To me, it’s like trying to give a lecture to undergraduates while there’s a bunch of particularly immature kids sitting in the corner of the lecture theatre shouting out “Hey Mr Poopy Head” every minute or so. They’re not there to give constructive criticism — they’re there simply to be disruptive. Free speech doesn’t come into it.

Moreover, I have long been a critic of reducing any type of activity down to simplistic numerical metrics. Usually I’m bemoaning the use of h-indices, impact factors and the like in academia, or the pseudostatistics of primary school assessment, but much the same arguments hold for likes vs dislikes for a video. Moreover, when a 37-minute-long video can receive a number of dislikes within a couple of minutes of being uploaded, one has got to start to question the validity of the “data”. And, sure, the number of likes far outweighed the dislikes in that case. But so what? Those figures reveal nothing about the quality — as opposed to the popularity — of the video. And if the data are being contaminated by noise, I’d be a pretty poor scientist to not attempt to remove that noise.

So from now on, I am shutting down the likes and dislikes for all videos which are not related to the themes discussed above, for the reasons discussed above. Similarly, if comments are posted under a physics-only video related to the themes discussed above, then I will screenshot that comment, remove it, and instead include the screenshot in a (continually updated) post here at the blog [Edit 09/11/2016 I decided instead to simply append the comments in question to this post. See below.] . That way I can sift out irrelevant comments and also have a rather helpful record of the, let’s say, less erudite feedback posted at the YouTube channel.

The Mob Rules

In the “Reacting to Reactions to Reasonable Questions…” video embedded above, I spend quite a bit of time responding to comments from Noel Plum. While Noel and I quibble about certain topics, on the subject of online bullying and posting bile/vitriol/abusive comments I think we’re broadly in agreement. Noel’s recent comments regarding psychological damage (in this recent video) would appear to chime rather closely with my thoughts on the issue. I look forward to having a discussion with Noel on this, and other, themes when he and I can both carve out some time for an online chat.

There’s another reason I wanted to bring up Noel’s recent video, however, and it relates to something I alluded to above: the mob mentality. In the comments section under Noel’s video there’s an hilarious thread which runs to, when I last looked, 75 comments debating whether or not I should be called a “social justice warrior”. The pathological need to label me and put me in either the “SJW” or the “anti-SJW” camp is farcical in the extreme (and Noel interjects at one point in the thread to point this out.)

“He’s definitely an SJW. Burn the heretic. Stone him. Run him out of town. He’s one of them, I tell you. One of them.”

And with that, I’ll leave you with a classic, and rather pertinent, Rush track…

[1] Actually, that’s a little bit of a fib. We did a video on the physics of a game called Portal 2 a while back where I pointed out that the momentum of the main character isn’t conserved. The morning after that video was uploaded I opened up my e-mail box to find a number of missives from rather irate Portal 2 players who castigated me in no uncertain terms for deigning to critique the game in the mildest possible way. And this was despite the fact that I had actually praised the game. The extreme sensitivity took me aback.

[2] My back is now hurting badly from having to bend over backwards to the extent I do here so as not to generalise.

[3] I find that even exceptionally mild criticism of anonymity tends to lead to a significant number of comments about “doxing“. For the record (and for the n^nth time), I am not suggesting for one second that anyone be “doxed”, nor that the apparently sacrosanct right to anonymity be in any way compromised. I am simply pointing out just how spinelessly hypocritical it is to hide behind cover of anonymity to slag off another person, while all the while whining about how much that person is a “delicate flower” because they decide they’d prefer not to read hateful anonymous abuse.


The Whining Wall

I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

As noted in the post above, in the following section I’m going to append screenshots of the less ‘insightful’ and/or relevant and/or spam comments I receive.

My erudite pseudonymous friend Enkidu has the honour of the inaugural whine. They seem to have a rather weak understanding of just what is meant by censorship. Here are their words of wisdom for all the world – well, that infinitesimally small subset of the world that visits this blog – to see…

enkidu1

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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.