“Just another needless belch in the swirling online guffstorm”

I picked up my dog-eared copy of Charlie Brooker’s “Dawn Of The Dumb” (a collection of some of his articles for The Guardian) this evening, opened it at random, and lo and behold, I ended up on p.164 and started reading this article. I was struck by just how relevant it is to my previous blog post so thought it worth posting. In the book it’s titled “The Great Online Dick Fight” but online it has the rather more prosaic title of “Supposing…There’s Only One Thing Worth Debating Online“.

The paragraphs below, in particular, resonate with me with a high quality factor. (Practically a Dirac-delta-like resonance)…

There’s no point debating anything online. You might as well hurl shoes in the air to knock clouds from the sky. The internet’s perfect for all manner of things, but productive discussion ain’t one of them. It provides scant room for debate and infinite opportunities for fruitless point-scoring: the heady combination of perceived anonymity, gestated responses, random heckling and a notional “live audience” quickly conspire to create a “perfect storm” of perpetual bickering.

Stumble in, take umbrage with someone, trade a few blows, and within about two or three exchanges, the subject itself goes out the window. Suddenly you’re simply arguing about arguing. Eventually, one side gets bored, comes to its senses, or dies, and the row fizzles out: just another needless belch in the swirling online guffstorm.

Read the rest here.


Where Two Tribes Go To Roar…

(…or Why I Left The Twitter Trenches)

I was warned by colleagues and friends not to do it.

“You’ll definitely regret it”.

“I know what you’re like — you’ll get drawn into far too many pointless arguments.”

“Where are you going to find the time?”

In the end, I lasted a little less than 18 months. I deactivated my Twitter account last Sunday.

And breathed a huge sigh of relief.

No more petty playground barbs, ad hominem slurs, or tweenage memes (in lieu of any type of coherent argument) clogging up my timeline.

No more logging on to find fifty or sixty notifications, scrolling down the list and finding my faith in humanity chipped away just that little bit more.

And, in particular, no more of the spinelessness and hypocrisy of that particular subset of Twitter users who spend their time cravenly slagging off others from behind cosy anonymous cover. (More on this below – it’s a theme about which I’m just a little…obsessive).

I’ve received a number of e-mails asking why I deactivated my account. Some have thought, quite reasonably, that I left Twitter because I’d been “driven off” by Louise Mensch following a number of ‘debates’, i.e. slanging matches, on the subject of the Tim Hunt furore (and related themes).

No, I’ve not been Mensch-ed. Indeed, while I may vehemently disagree with the vast majority of what Mensch writes and deplore her vacuous vitriol, in one way (and one way only) I recognise a kindred spirit in her. She is obsessive. Even those who, unlike me, are on the right-of-centre of the political spectrum and could thus be considered to be Mensch’s allies have pointed this out: she spends an inordinate amount of time on Twitter, tweeting at a phenomenal rate and arguing seemingly continuously. (Of course, it’s rather easy to maintain a high tweet bandwidth if your wit and insightfulness too often fail to rise above the level of “LOL!!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!” but, then, Mensch is a columnist for The Sun — lowest-common-denominator bile and boilerplate are her newspaper’s stock-in-trade. It’s perhaps unfair to expect incisive insights/pithy Twittery from Mensch when her day job doesn’t require it.)

Nonetheless, Mensch’s tenacity and obsessiveness resonate with me; I am not the sharpest tack in the box but I can be single-minded, pig-headed, and, yes, obsessive. Those are qualities which, while not always the most laudable or attractive, are very helpful in science; Edison’s 99% perspiration maxim is especially apposite for scientific research. (On a slightly tangential point, I should note that, in my opinion, Mensch is invested heavily in the Tim Hunt furore (and other debates/arguments/slanging matches) because she genuinely cares about these issues. I don’t agree with her position but I think she’s genuine in her vitriol. This is not to say that there isn’t some aspect of self-promotion in her proclivity for Twitter but it seems to me that she’s in a different category to, for example, the self-aggrandising, unprincipled, hate-for-hire, human detritus that is Milo Yiannopoulos.)

In contexts other than scientific research, however, Mensch’s level of obsessiveness can, at best, be rather unseemly and a massive waste of time, and downright unhealthy at worst. What does anyone gain from the type of playground name-calling that is the signature characteristic of so many exchanges on Twitter? And I don’t mean just the spats with Mensch (although I’d imagine these account for a non-negligible percentage of the total); too often when the Left and the Right collide, the level of debate on Twitter descends to the gutter in the space of a remarkably small number of characters. Of course, the Left and Right  — and warring internal factions within both the Left and the Right [Note that the recent appalling sexism of some affiliated with a particular faction of the Left is one area where I do agree with Mensch] — vociferously disagree with each other in so many other fora (both real-world and online). But the 140 character/rapid response format of Twitter is particularly ill-suited to fostering any type of intelligent, thoughtful, or simply courteous debate.

I should stress at this point that I am certainly not suggesting for one femtosecond that I am any type of paragon of virtue in this context. I have certainly descended to Mensch’s level on a number of occasions (and one example is mentioned below). But that’s the point — being dragged down to that level is one damn good reason to quit Twitter.

There were two key catalysts, however, for my decision to leave Twitter. The first of these was an exchange with a Twitter user with the wonderfully witty and inventive handle of @SlagOffTwits.  @SlagOffTwits is one of that rather well-populated tribe of Twitter users which claims to be protecting freedom of speech and the opportunity to offend whomever and whenever they like. But they, errmm, “slag off twits” behind anonymous cover — an utterly dishonest, totally spineless, and amusingly hypocritical way to behave.

As I told @SlagOffTwits (and have repeatedly told others who similarly lack the honesty and basic decency to put their name to their slurs), I’m more than comfortable with being slagged off online. Indeed, I’m very used to it. I’d prefer if my points were met with coherent and thoughtful arguments, but if you can’t quite rise to that challenge I’m more than happy to listen to your slurs.

But here’s the rub. Slag me and others off openly and honestly. Have the backbone and integrity to put your name to your slurs. Otherwise you’re not even the playground bully — you’re the bully’s weaselly friend who cowers in the background.

So I explained this all to @SlagOffTwits and their responses followed the same tediously evasive and inconsistent pattern I’ve encountered so many times before…

[Edit 12:43 09/12/2015. I guess I should point out that in the following I am paraphrasing @SlagOffTwit’s and others’ arguments — they are not direct quotes. ]

“You’re not engaging with the arguments — you’re using your criticism of anonymity to scupper debate”.

No, that’s demonstrably incorrect. I have engaged with each and every one of your points. And each and every one of the points raised by others with whom I disagree. I don’t block or mute for precisely this reason. It’s entirely dishonest of you to argue otherwise. I can engage with each of your arguments and at the same time point out how spineless and dishonest it is to slag off others from behind anonymous cover.

“I have a perfectly good reason to be anonymous”.

Which is? Are you writing from a location where you’re under an oppressive regime? Are you likely to face the death penalty for what you write? If not, then explain just why it’s OK for you to “slag off twits” from behind anonymous cover. And, no, the fact that you’re frightened of how your place of employment might look on your views and/or your behaviour online is not a justifiable reason. That’s pure cowardice. Stand behind your views. (I may disagree vehemently with Mensch but at least she’s willing to keep her head above the parapet. (A very long way above the parapet…))

Strangely enough, I’ve not had any type of credible answer — from any of those who hide behind anon cover while screaming “freedom of speech…we’ll offend who the f**k we like…don’t be so sensitive” — to my question asking why their anonymity is necessary. They seem to get very defensive, touchy and, um, sensitive when I raise the matter.


“Your Twitter account isn’t verified. You could be anyone. Hypocritical for you to focus on my anonymity when your account isn’t verified”

It is very difficult to get a Twitter account verified if you are not a public figure. The likelihood of my getting a verified account is therefore slim to none (as no doubt you know). But that doesn’t mean that I can’t verify my identity. Here’s a link to a short video where I verify that this is indeed my account.

“But your Twitter account isn’t verified”.

I sent you a link to a video where I verified that it was my account and that my affiliation is the University of Nottingham. Moreover, here’s my University of Nottingham phone number. You can check online that this number is indeed the office phone number for Philip Moriarty. Give me a call.

“But your Twitter account isn’t verified”.

OK, this is getting tedious now — you’re dishonestly ignoring the responses I’ve given. As I’ve said, I can just as easily verify it via my University of Nottingham affiliation. Just phone the number.

[@SlagOffTwits departs from the usual script…].

“I’m now going to set up a false Twitter account in your name to show you how easy it is to have an unverified account. And I’ll tweet from it”.

I know full well just how easy it is to set up an unverified account. Please don’t insult my intelligence. In any case, I’ve told you how I can verify this account. It’s entirely dishonest and reprehensible of you to set up a false account in my name simply to evade my points about your cowardly use of anonymity. The fact that it’s very easy to set up any number of false accounts/sockpuppets and to steal an identity does not make it ethically defensible to do so! In fact, that you would stoop this low highlights your inability to defend your anonymity using credible arguments. It significantly strengthens my point that those who slag off others from behind anonymous cover are fundamentally dishonest and cowardly.

[Around about this point I accused @SlagOffTwits of being one of Mensch’s acolytes. That was unfair both to Mensch and @SlagOffTwits and I retracted the statement and apologised to Mensch. As I said, I’m no paragon of virtue when it comes to Twitter spats].


I have participated in quite a few online debates over the years. One of the first, on the physics and possibilities of advanced nanotechnology, was over a decade ago and stretched to over 50 pages of discussion (although, technically, it was via e-mail, followed by posting of the documents online). This got rather heated in the later stages but I implicitly trusted my opponent, Chris Phoenix, to debate in good faith; I was entirely confident that he and I were of the same mind when it came to basic values like the importance of honesty and intellectual integrity in debate. The language was robust, sure, but Chris and I were never dishonest with each other. And, in the end, that debate with Chris — despite us being very much on opposite sides of the fence — was exceptionally productive in that it led to a £1.7M grant on the fundamental issues underpinning computer-controlled mechanochemistry. 

Similarly, in a variety of other debates, I have implicitly trusted those with whom I’m debating to argue their points honestly and not resort to grubby dishonest tricks like sockpuppetry, identity theft, or setting up false accounts, despite our sometimes very strong differences in opinion. And generally, I find that my values align with those of my opponents. But not when it comes to @SlagOffTwits and their tribe. There is a fundamental clash of values with regard to the central importance of honesty, intellectual integrity, and basic decency in debate. It is a monumental waste of my time to debate with someone who sees nothing wrong in dishonestly setting up a false account in order to evade questions about…their dishonesty.

Yes, there are many great things about Twitter, as this compelling post from Paul Coxon points out. And yes, I could in principle just block @SlagOffTwits and their ilk. But unlike many of those who claim to be all for free speech, I don’t block or censor. I value free debate. (Fascinatingly, Louise Mensch is all for freedom of speech…as long as she’s not being criticised. The…let’s be charitable and just say “cognitive dissonance” here is intriguing). Moreover, in my experience there any very many on Twitter who share @SlagOffTwits’ lack of honesty and integrity in debate; I know that at some point they’ll end up in my timeline and I’ll get drawn into another pointless spat with them because their dishonesty winds me up so very much.

So that’s one reason why I left Twitter. But the much more important reason is the following…

While I was involved in that spat with @SlagOffTwits discussed above I overheard the following exchange between my six year old son, Fiachra, and his big sister, Niamh:

Fiachra (whispered): “Niamh, why does daddy look so grumpy when he’s typing on his laptop? Does he not like working on his laptop?”

Niamh: “Oh, he’s on Twitter again. He’s always grumpy when he’s on Twitter.”

’nuff said.



(added 11/12/2015. 19:00)

Following an exchange in the comments thread below, @SlagOffTwits tweeted the following. Note that nowhere in the post above, nowhere in the comments, or nowhere online have I suggested that @SlagOffTwits “bullied me off” Twitter. I certainly mention bullying in one of the comments below but there has been no accusation that @SlagOffTwits “bullied me off” Twitter. It’s precisely this type of dishonesty that makes engaging with @SlagOffTwits and his/her ilk so infuriating.


EDIT (16/12/2015) Coda to the coda. Because the Tweet above is a direct link to the Twitter account, rather than a screenshot, I’ve just noticed that @SlagOffTwits has recently changed his Twitter profile picture from a cartoon to what appears to be his actual photo. Kudos to him for doing this. We need more of that type of honesty on the web.



Witch Hunt? A response to Thomas Basbøll

I wrote a long comment in response to Thomas Basbøll’s recent post but unfortunately his blog’s commenting system only allows a maximum length of 4096 characters. So I’m responding to Thomas’ comment here.

Thanks for writing this, Thomas, and for the generous (and thoroughly undeserved) kind words — “thoughtful” is certainly not an adjective that I’d use to describe myself too often!

Your post, however, seems to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what I meant by “crass and damaging”. Moreover, having read your piece now a number of times (and ruminated on it overnight), your argument appears disjointed, seems to lack self-consistency, and the logic throughout is less than entirely clear to me.

First, you argue that Tim Hunt’s joke was a “reductio ad absurdum” but then go on to say that Tim was “speaking candidly”. Just so I’m certain we’re not talking past each other, I’ll note that the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “candid” is the following:

“Candid (adj.). Truthful and straight-forward; frank

Is this the sense in which you meant to use “candid”? If so, in what sense was Tim being “candid” with his ‘joke’? It’s either a self-deprecating reductio ad absurdum or it’s a candid (and pithy) analysis of what Tim sees as issues with women in science. It can’t be both simultaneously. I’d appreciate it if you could clear this up for me — in what sense do you mean that Tim was speaking “candidly”?

The second false premise at the heart of your post is the idea that I can’t simultaneously consider Tim Hunt to be “a modest, insightful individual who passionately advocates the value of curiosity-driven science…personable, likable, and, indeed, often inspiring” and to find his misplaced ‘joke’ to be crass and damaging. Those two positions are not mutually exclusive so, again, I struggle to follow your logic here.

[Edit 22/11/015 08:44 UK time — Note that in resigning as Honorary President from the Association of British Science Writers, Colin Blakemore stated that he found Tim Hunt’s joke “appalling”. https://twitter.com/Moriarty2112/status/668339294969425920 . Note also Blakemore’s comment about the “silliness” of Hunt’s words “energising sexist extremists”. This was exactly the point I was making in this post.]

In both the post to which you refer, and in very many other tweets/comments/responses, I’ve argued that even if Tim’s comments were a joke, it was an exceptionally misplaced joke. And I stick by my position on this – the ‘joke’ was indeed crass and damaging.

Let’s just take one example of the context in which Tim’s joke was entirely unhelpful. As you’ll recall, Tim was a member of the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee. Do you know what the male/female ratio was for Royal Society Fellowship awards for the year prior to Tim’s comments at that conference in Korea? If not, here’s the appropriate link.

This is part of the context in which Tim, an FRS, made his joke. His joke is crass and misplaced even in the context of his surrounding comments. I know that in your next post you are going to tackle my analogy with the admissions tutor lecture  at length but I’ll note here that you have previously said (via Twitter) that you agree that my Head of School would have been justified in reprimanding me for my comments. This again seems like a position lacking in self-consistency — in one case you agree that the censure is justified and yet in another, much more public and much more influential, case it isn’t? (Note also that your previous (via Twitter) rather patronising dismissal of applicants for university courses as “less than adult” is not a particularly powerful counter-argument, for reasons I’ll explain in my response to your next post).

I have said (to Louise Mensch, among many others) that there have been large deficiencies in the reporting of the context of Tim’s speech. (However, all now agree (including Mary Collins) that those “39 words” were reported accurately — in the sense of the words themselves being quoted correctly). Nonetheless, Dan Waddell and Paula Higgins’ recent forensic examination of the Hunt furore clearly shows that the extent of spin and misinformation was not limited to one side of this debate.

I’ll quote your final paragraph in full:

What I don’t understand, I guess, is how someone like Phil Moriarty could be turned against Hunt so efficiently, so effectively, so viciously. Why didn’t Phil trust his experience-based personal opinion of Hunt and assume that the quote had been taken out of context and distorted? 

I’ll reiterate. You’re working on a false premise here and your logic is faulty. You assume that I have been “turned against” Hunt. First, I find the idea that I was somehow manipulated by nefarious “SJW” forces against my will quite amusing. (I know you don’t use it, but it’s interesting how the appearance of that “SJW” perjorative can be a very effective predictor of the quality of argument/debate that one might expect from a particular commentator. Use of “SJW” generally correlates well with a paucity of intelligent and considered argumentation/debate — it’s a lazy, tired slur that too often betrays a lack of thought.)

Second, I can respect Tim Hunt as a scientist — and, on the basis of a couple of short meetings, highlight his likability and decency — and still find what he said during that meeting to be crass and damaging. You argue that “Tim meant that it was stupid to say something that could be misconstrued that badly in front of an audience that, it seems, has a powerful incentive to thus misconstrue it.”  Where has either Tim Hunt or Mary Collins explicitly said this? Or is that just your interpretation? Mary Collins was quoted in “The Observer” as follows: “It was an unbelievably stupid thing to say”.

Is your interpretation here that Prof. Collins is suggesting “It was an unbelievably stupid thing to say” in front of that audience and that in front of other audiences (or “behind closed doors”) it would be fine? If so, I’d appreciate it if you could point me to evidence that this is indeed what Prof. Collins meant.

Third, even in the context of the surrounding comments, the “joke” is, if I can quote Prof. Collins again, indeed “unbelievably stupid”. It not only does a disservice to the Royal Society’s efforts to counter gender inequality but it does a disservice to Tim’s own efforts to improve the working environment for women in science.

Towards the end of the stripy controversy?

In the reblogged post below, Raphaël Lévy neatly sums up what I very much hope will be our final words on the stripy nanoparticle furore. As we say in our response to Ong and Stellacci’s recent Formal Comment in PLOS ONE (a response to our PLOS ONE paper, published last year):

“We remain firmly of the opinion that the experimental data to date show no evidence for formation of the “highly ordered” striped morphology that has been claimed throughout the work of Stellacci and co-workers, and, for the reasons we have detailed at considerable length previously, do not find the counter-claims in Ong and Stellacci in any way compelling. We have therefore clearly reached an impasse. It is thus now up to the nanoscience community to come to its own judgement regarding the viability of the striped nanoparticle hypothesis.”



Last week saw the publication in PloS One of Quy Khac Ong and Francesco Stellacci’s response to Stirling et al “Critical Assessment of the Evidence for Striped Nanoparticles” published a year earlier (November 2014, I am one of the co-authors).

The controversy had started with our publication of Stripy Nanoparticles Revisited after a three year editorial process (2009-2012) and was followed by a large number of events at this blog, on PubPeer and a few other places.

Here is a short statement in response to Ong and Stellacci. Since theirs  was a response to Stirling et al, Julian Stirling was invited to referee their submission (report).

We are pleased that Ong and Stellacci have responded to our paper, Critical assessment of the evidence for striped nanoparticles, PLoS ONE 9 e108482 (2014). Each of their rebuttals of our critique has, however, already been addressed quite some time…

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The Rhythm Method: Crowd-sourcing Drum Science

It’s always fun making Sixty Symbols/Numberphile videos with Brady Haran but the most recent filming brought together quite a number of my core enthusiasms — Rush, physics, drums, and noise (in all senses of the term) — and so was even more enjoyable than usual.

Brady uploaded the videos this morning (here and here). The first discusses a fascinating recent paper by Esa Räsänen and colleagues which focuses on the fluctuations in timing in the virtuoso drum pattern played by Jeff Porcaro in Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’ “. I’m not a huge fan of the song but Porcaro’s groove is certainly infectious. He’s also responsible for the fantastic drumming in this classic, among so many other others. (Please excuse the excruciatingly high cheese factor in that Toto video. It was the Eighties.)

Fortuitously, I read the paper by Esa, Holger and their colleagues at around about the time an e-mail arrived asking for suggestions for undergraduate projects. As Esa et al. state in the conclusions of their paper, there is particularly exciting scope to extend their analysis to other songs, drummers, and styles. So I proposed an analysis of fluctuations in drum beats as an undergraduate project and was delighted when two 3rd year Physics students at Nottingham, Easel Kandola-McNicholas and Adeel Bokhari, selected the project.

What we want to do is analyse the fluctuations in timing/rhythm for not just one drummer — as Esa, Holger et al. did — but for as many drummers as possible. Enter Sixty Symbols. While we could have stuck with an analysis of the Porcaro pattern — and, indeed, if you’re a drummer, please feel free to send us your version of “I Keep Forgettin’ ” to the address below — there’s another single-handed 16th note pattern which is very famous among drummers: Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”. Neil Peart is widely recognised as among the very best rock drummers in the world, and there are very interesting parallels with the Porcaro track in terms of the way the 16th note pattern is played, so, in many ways, “Tom Sawyer” is a natural choice. (My love of Rush is, of course, entirely coincidental…)

I put together this short video (using the wonder that is Aerodrums — see below) to show some examples of the 16th note patterns in “Tom Sawyer” and to explain what we need for the analysis.

Our aim is to publish the analysis and include the names of all those who contributed their version of “Tom Sawyer” (and/or “I Keep Forgettin’ “) in the paper. If you’re a drummer and you’d like to contribute please e-mail your WAV, MP3, or MIDI file (or any other appropriate file type) to drumsciproject@gmail.com. There’s no deadline — we’ll accept drum tracks for as long as it takes to get good statistics for the analysis. The more, the merrier.

By the way, Aerodrums are available here. I enthusiastically recommend them! I’m not a drummer and so Aerodrums are ideal for learning to play and for putting down rhythms when song-writing or demoing tracks. But they’re much more than this — in very many ways, Aerodrums are just as good as a real kit, as this impressive example of virtuoso aerodrumming shows…

[A huge thank you to the University of Nottingham BandSoc and, in particular, Jedd Bellamy-Carter for providing the practice room for the video and for all their help with equipment].

How to win friends and influence people: Your marketing department

(No. 41 of an occasional series).

I’ve lost count of the number of irritations which prompted me to vent my spleen on the subject of university marketing in this week’s Times Higher Education. There was, of course, the tagline poem and the Russell Group rap to which I refer in the piece. There’s also the excruciating “Dean of Eureka Moments” nonsense, similarly highlighted in the article.

But, somewhat more seriously, there’s this:


And this:


[Update June 02 2018 — My apologies for the links to a long-defunct Twitter account.]

That’s right. Software used for undergraduate “recruitment” describes students as “business objects”.

In a particularly galling coincidence, on the day the THE article was published I received an e-mail referring to applicants to degree courses as being dealt with by the “undergraduate sales team”.

As I say in the tweet above, this language is insidious. How often do we find ourselves talking about the “student market”, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to couch higher education in terms of the marketplace and marketing?

The THE piece was, of course, very deliberately provocative. Too often, marketing departments and central management, with no knowledge or understanding of the culture or “unique selling point” (to use the somewhat venal vernacular) of a particular discipline, rule the roost in universities. I received a number of e-mails following the publication of the THE piece from colleagues in a variety of universities who share my deep frustration with this nonsensical state of affairs. As you might expect, those who contacted me weren’t based in marketing departments.

I was very pleased, however, to see that Alan Charlesworth, a Senior Lecturer in Marketing replied to my provocation at the THE website with an impassioned defence of marketing as a discipline and industry. Alan’s carefully-considered and eloquently expressed points deserve a detailed response. Here it is.

 I’ll start by being very clear here: it was an act of God when I got a Maths O level back in the early 70s. I can’t add two fractions together, let alone do anything remotely associated with quantum mechanics or its like. I do not even know what ‘nanoscale science’ is. And I doff my cap to those who have mastered that – or any – science. 

You might be surprised to hear this, Alan, but I am not for one second suggesting that mathematical ability (and/or an aptitude for physics) is somehow better than natural ability/aptitude in other disciplines. I’ve written about this at length previously. Many physicists/mathematicians can do complicated maths until the (spherical) cows come home, but ask some of those accomplished scientists and mathematicians to write 500 words which are even semi-engaging/interesting (let alone gripping) and it’s a different story altogether.

I show the final year physics undergraduates at Nottingham the following slide at the start of a module I teach (which kicks off this year at 9 am tomorrow morning). It pithily makes the point about the importance of engaging writing.


Note that the second quote is from Leon Lederman in The God Particle.

[Your profile] is widely available on the Internet via Google – I hope you can appreciate the irony of your ability in self-promotion.

My profile is indeed widely available on the internet. I’m a publicly-funded academic and therefore am obligated, as I see it, to make that information available to the public which funds my work! Moreover, and as you allude to elsewhere in your comments, I have little time for internet anonymity.

But the rather interesting aspect of the “self-promotion” to which you refer — the stock-in-trade of virtually all academics in this impact-driven world (!) — is that I have no formal training in marketing. (I failed that marketing module due to a distinct lack of interest and engagement — see this post). Far from being ironic, your comment about effective self-promotion would seem to bolster my point about the “Emperor’s New Clothes” aspects of much of marketing. No?

The rather superior tone of your ‘lecture’ seems to be that Applied Physics is in some way superior to the discipline of the bleedin’ obvious that is Marketing. And – by definition – those who practice or teach Applied Physics are superior beings to those who practice or teach Marketing.

The superior tone was quite deliberate — I was aiming to make the article as provocative as possible. (A rather superior tone is also not infrequently present in missives from marketing managers).  Do I think that physics (of any particular breed) is superior to marketing, however? Well, I don’t see physics as “superior” to any other discipline. (I’ll again refer you to this post). But when it comes to marketing, it is clear that there is a great deal of unnecessary obfuscation and hyperbole.

So … if marketing is easy. No, scratch that. If EFFECTIVE marketing is so easy, how come so many people cannot master it?

I fully agree that there we are swamped by awful marketing, particularly that generated by universities (as the THE article spells out). But that’s not because marketing is conceptually challenging. Good marketing requires creativity and imagination. It’s somewhat like song-writing. Good songs aren’t created by signing up to Song-Writing 101 and slavishly following a methodology. Good songs arise exactly when the four very simple principles I outlined in the THE article are followed:

“Be different. Be distinctive. Be daring. Oh, and be honest. Above all, be honest”

I too have little time for ‘creatives’ and cringe more than you ever could at examples of bad practice in marketing – including all of those W1A-esque phrases. 

I’m very pleased we agree on this!

 But … the next time you buy anything – and I mean anything – give some thought to your buying process [sorry, that phrase is a bit trite – but then aren’t all of ‘our’ phrases? I should have said ‘buyer behaviour’ because at least that’s from a science of sorts].

Why did you buy that particular product, from that particular seller, at that particular location, for that particular price? Think it is your superior mental ability that helps you make that decision? ‘Fraid not, it is good old marketing practiced by good marketers which dictates what product you will buy, where you will buy it, when you will buy it – oh, and how much you will pay for it.

Marketing is just one aspect. Reviews, word of mouth, previous good/bad experience with products from the same supplier, cost,and functionality are all others. My decision to buy a particular product doesn’t depend exclusively on the marketing. There are a wide variety of factors.

On the question of “buyer behaviour” as a science, let’s just say that I’m unconvinced. Psychology plays a major role in any type of social behaviour and the reproducibility of studies in that field, as shown recently, is hardly at the “gold standard” level.

Don’t believe me? You think it is you that makes those buying decisions? Think again. How do you find out the attributes of products to make your buying decision? Where do you go to buy it – or order it for home delivery? Presumably you will seek best value for money so you may look for the lowest price. All of that information will be delivered to you by marketers – not rocket scientists – in a space, time and manner that is attractive to you. 

No. Some of that information will be delivered to me by marketeers (see above). Moreover, you’re assuming that I uncritically accept what the marketeers have to say. This is precisely the point I was making in the THE article. Universities universally claim that they teach their students “critical thinking” skills. And then they use cliched marketing taglines, assuming that students can’t see through the guff. It’s hubristic in the extreme to think that it’s only marketing that’s responsible for the success of a product. (And university degrees are not products in the sense understood by marketing — this is at the core of the problem).

Still think it is so easy. OK – when you have decided to buy a certain product from a certain seller it means that seller’s marketing is better than that of their competitors. If it was so easy, all marketing would be equally good – or bad – wouldn’t it?

So the marketing is always more important than the quality of the product? Hmmm. There are certainly examples of where a poorer quality product has achieved market dominance via canny marketing. But that’s exactly the point – it’s been through canny and inventive marketing, not the cliched #CorporateUniBollox peddled by universities.

 At the same time as you look down on my discipline, you also quote two marketing academics who are critical of some practitioners of ‘their’ discipline. You see, we too recognise bad marketing. Maybe ‘good’ marketing is like football referees: you do not even notice the good ones, bad ones spoil the game.

I agree entirely. Some marketing out there is inventive and compelling. But an awful lot of it — I would claim the overriding majority, and particularly that related to universities — is sub-W1A  boilerplate.

 If your students go to work in the private sector their salary will depend – primarily – on how many customers buy the product on which they work. Hmmm, I wonder whether they would rather work for a business with good, bad or indifferent marketers? 

My point is not that there aren’t examples of good marketing. Of course there are. Many of us still have deeply irritating jingles from adverts back in the 70s burned into our neural pathways to this day. (“Do the shake’n’ vac and put the freshness back..“). My point, however, is that universities are not household cleaning products and there is a subtle and delicate balance between advertising/marketing a course and damaging the perception/prestige of the university.

 Marketers tend not to do ‘anonymous’, so: my name is Alan Charlesworth. Although in a previous life I did actually work for a living, I am now a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at a UK university – which I will not name as these views are mine and not necessarily those of my employers.

Kudos to you for commenting openly, unlike others in that thread (and in so many other threads). I have lots of issues with online anonymity and it’s always refreshing to exchange comments with someone who doesn’t hide behind a pseudonym.

If any VC was so daft as to give me the responsibility for the marketing of his/her university, you would actually like to work there.

You know what, Alan? I believe you. As I said above, there are good examples of marketing, and good examples of marketers, amidst the ocean of trite, tedious, cliched guff. The very fact that you wrote a lengthy response on university marketing without mentioning “excellence” once is a clear demonstration that you’re a cut above the rest!

Thanks again for commenting and all the very best,


We are anonymous. We are legion. We are (mostly) harmful.

This revelation appeared in my Twitter timeline earlier this week:

On the same day, Nature News published a fascinating interview with Brandon Stell, the founder of PubPeer who has revealed his identity to the world:

I’ve waxed lyrical about PubPeer a number of times before, going so far as to say that its post-publication peer review (PPPR) ethos has to be the future of scientific publishing. (I now also try to include mention of PubPeer in every conference presentation/seminar I give). I’ll be gutted if PPPR of the type pioneered by PubPeer does not become de rigueur for the next generation of scientists; our conventional peer review system is, from so many perspectives, archaic and outdated. I agree entirely with Stell’s comments in that interview for Nature News:

Post-publication peer review has the potential to completely change the way that science is conducted. I think PubPeer could help us to move towards an ideal scenario where we can immediately disseminate our findings and set up a different way of evaluating significant research than the current system.

But one major bone of contention that I’ve always had with PubPeer’s approach, and that has been the subject of a couple of amicable ‘tweet-spats’ with the @PubPeer Twitter feed, is the issue of anonymity. I was disappointed that not only was it just Stell who revealed his identity — his two PubPeer co-founders remain anonymous — but that there are plans (or at least aspirations) to “shore up”, as Stell puts it, the anonymity of PubPeer commenters.

I am not a fan of internet anonymity. At all. I understand entirely the arguments regularly made by PubPeer (and many others) in favour of anonymous commenting. In particular, I am intensely aware of the major power imbalance that exists between, for example, a 1st year PhD student commenting on a paper at PubPeer and the world-leading, award-winning, scientifically decorated and oh-so-prestigious scientist whose group carried out the work that is being critiqued/attacked. Similarly, and in common with Peter Coles, I personally know bloggers who write important, challenging, and influential posts while remaining anonymous.

I also fully realise that there are are extreme cases when it might not only be career-theatening, but life-threatening for a blogger to reveal their identity. However, those are exactly that: extreme cases. It’s statistically rather improbable that all of those pseudonymously venting their spleen under articles at, say, The Guardian, Telegraph, or, forgive me, Daily Mail website are writing in fear of their life. (Although, and as this wonderful Twitter account highlights so well, many Daily Mail readers certainly feel as if their entire culture, identity, and belief system are under constant attack from the ranked hordes of migrants/PC lefties/benefit claimants/gypsies/BBC executives [delete as appropriate] swamping the country).

I am firmly of the opinion that the advantages of anonymity are far outweighed by the difficulties associated with fostering an online culture where comments and critique — and, at worst, vicious abuse — are posted under cover of a pseudonym. For one thing, there’s the strong possibility of sockpuppets being exploited to distort debate. Julian Stirling, an alumnus of the Nanoscience Group here at Nottingham and now a research fellow at NIST, has described the irritations and frustrations of the sockpuppetry we’ve experienced as part of our critique of a series of papers spanning a decade’s worth of research. In the later stages of this tussle, the line separating sockpuppetry from outright identity theft was crossed. You might suggest, like PubPeer, that this type of behaviour is not the norm. Perhaps. But our experience shows just how bad it can get.

Even in the absence of sockpuppetry, I’ve got to come clean and admit that I’m really not entirely comfortable with communicating with someone online who is not willing to reveal their identity. I’ve been trying to get to grips with just what it is about anonymous/ pseudonymous comments that rankles with me so much, having been involved in quite a number of online ‘debates’ where the vast majority of those commenting have used pseudonyms. When challenged on the use of a pseudonym, and asked for some information about their background, the response is generally aggressively defensive. Their standard rebuttal is to ask why I should care about who they are because isn’t it the strength of the argument, not the identity of the person making the comments, that really matters?

In principle, yes. But the online world is often not very principled.

Ultimately, I think that my deep irritation with pseudonyms stems from two key factors. The first of these is the fundamental lack of fairness due to the ‘asymmetry’ in communication. Dorothy Bishop wrote a characteristically considered, thoughtful, and thought-provoking piece on this issue of communication asymmetry a number of years back (in the context of the debate regarding the burqa ban). The asymmetry that’s established via anonymous commenting means that those who are critiquing an author’s (or a group’s) work are free to comment with impunity; they can say whatever they like in the clear knowledge that there’s a negligible chance of their comments ever being traced back to them.

Stell and his PubPeer co-founders claim that this is actually a key advantage of anonymity — those who comment are not constrained by concerns that they’ll be identified. But if their arguments are sound, and expressed in a polite, if critical, manner, then why the heck should they be concerned?  After all, it’s long been the case that “old school” journals — the APS’ Physical Review family of titles being a notable example — publish critiques of papers that have previously appeared in their pages. Those formal critiques are published with the names of the authors listed for all the world, or at least the readership of the journal, to see.

We should aim to change the culture so that critiquing other scientists’ work is seen as part-and-parcel of the scientific process, i.e. something for which researchers, at any career level, should be proud to take credit. Instead, the ease of commenting online from behind cover of a pseudonym or avatar is encouraging a secretive, and, let’s be honest, a rather grubby, approach to scientific criticism. I was therefore particularly encouraged by this announcement from The Winnower yesterday. It’s a fantastic idea to publish reviews of papers from journal club discussions and it’ll help to move the critique of published science to a rather more open, and thus much healthier, place.

The second, although closely related, aspect of anonymity that winds me up is that it essentially (further) depersonalises online communication. This helps to normalise a culture in which those commenting don’t ever take responsibility for what they say, or, in the worst cases — if we consider online communication in a broader context than just the scientific community — fail to appreciate just how hurtful their abuse might be. I’ve often seen comments along the lines of “It’s all just pixels on a screen. They should toughen up”. These comments are invariably made by those hiding behind a pseudonym.

As ever, xkcd has the perfect riposte…

This splendid poem also makes the point rather well. “Cuts and bruises now have healed, it’s words that I remember.

Anonymity contributes to a basic lack of online respect and too often can represent a lack of intellectual courage. When we criticise, critique, lambaste, or vilify others online let’s have the courage of our convictions and put our name to our comments.