I wasn’t going to menshn this again, but…

I really was not planning to revisit the Tim Hunt debacle. I’ve already written a lengthy post about it (which led to quite a number of online debates and exchanges via Twitter, blog comments, and YouTube — some more ill-tempered than others). But my e-mail inbox filled up again yesterday afternoon with quite a number of messages pointing me to Louise Mensch‘s contributions to the story — of which I was more than aware — and, more importantly, alerting me to the fact that Evan Harris had weighed into the debate. (In case you were wondering about the title of this post, it was inspired by Mensch). Harris’ involvement had, for some reason, passed me by.

Evan Harris is someone for whom I have a great deal of respect. It was a great shame he lost his seat in parliament by such a small margin back in 2010 as he was a dedicated MP, the Lib Dems’ spokesman for science from 2005, and an extremely effective member of the Science and Technology Select Committee from 2003 until 2010. The scientific community in the UK owes him a debt of gratitude for his sterling work during that time. The fact that he’s a patron of the British Humanist Association also doesn’t hurt. (As this post might betray, I’m also a card-carrying member of the BHA).

So I was surprised to see that Evan had called Mensch’s version of the events “forensic” and that he adopted a position on the Hunt furore which was rather counter (to put it mildly) to that of Dorothy Bishop, David Colquhoun, and Sylvia McLain, all of whom Mensch criticises in her blog post (and all of whom I agree with on the matter of Hunt’s comments). Harris’ twitter timeline would also seem to imply that he is of the opinion that Hunt’s comments were merely a harmless/misjudged joke that was taken out of context and that the UCL and Royal Society overreacted:

The bit I find most perplexing and bizarre in all of this is that criticism of Hunt (and the loss of his honorary position at UCL) is interpreted so often in terms of infringement of free speech/academic freedom. I’ve posited the following scenario, which I’ve described in comments threads elsewhere, during various discussions with colleagues. I wonder what Harris’ (or, indeed, Mensch’s) response to the questions at the end might be?


I’m undergraduate admissions tutor for the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham. A couple of weeks ago I stood up in front of hundreds of potential applicants and their parents for two days running at our open days and gave talks about the teaching and research we do in the School and the various aspects of the physics courses available at Nottingham.

Let’s say that I made the following “gag” at some point during my open day talk (or, indeed, opened up with it):

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls in physics courses. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls taking our courses?

Now, seriously, I’m impressed by the strides made by girls in our physics courses over the years I’ve been at Nottingham. Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”

Then, when asked by a student during the Q&A session at the end of my talk to clarify my comments, I say:

“I’m really sorry if I have caused any offence. I was only being honest.”.

Would my Head of School be justified in calling me into his office, explaining why my comments weren’t entirely appropriate for that audience, and asking me to stand down from the Admissions Tutor aspect of my job?

…or would that be a violation of my academic freedom?

Yes, we’re all individuals

…or Why I Disagree with Telescoper: Religion Is A Diversity Issue

A few days ago, Peter Coles, aka Telescoper, wrote a typically punchy and engaging post on the question of where religion fits within the equality and diversity programme in higher education. (I’d have responded sooner but a workshop on Monday, a conference on Tuesday, and this last night meant that I’ve been otherwise engaged. I know that Peter will be especially interested in the latter).

Peter writes at the start of his post,

I gather that there are some who find the inclusion of “religion” to be somehow inappropriate…

I suspect that Peter may well be referring to yours truly. It could be entirely coincidental, of course, but shortly before his blog post appeared I sent Peter — who was a colleague here at Nottingham for quite a number of years — an e-mail highlighting both the STFC statement and the Times Higher Education article on religion as a diversity issue to which he refers. Only Peter knows whether his post was indeed prompted by my missive.

On very many issues, Peter and I are very similar in our views (at least going by what he posts online). I’ve learnt a great deal from Peter’s In The Dark blog over the years, particularly on the subjects of Bayesian statistics and jazz. And with regard to certain  key aspects of diversity and equality — I should note before I go any further that I am a member of our School’s Diversity Committee — Peter and I are in full agreement.

But, as a certain former Professor of Public Understanding of Science based at a university somewhat south of Nottingham has said, a “flabbiness of the intellect afflicts otherwise rational people when confronted with long-established religions“. I was rather disappointed to see lazy age-old arguments — comprehensively rebutted time and time again but they keep on coming — about the perceived value of religious faith pop up in Peter’s post. He argues that many smart people he knows are religious. Sure. And very many smart people believe very many silly things indeed (including, as Peter himself points out, Issac Newton). So what?

I agree entirely with Peter that everyone should be free to believe whatever they like. Of course. Who could seriously argue with that? I, for one, have always been particularly keen on Douglas Adams’ wonderful Great Green Arkleseizure creation myth (and the impending Coming Of The Great White Handerkerchief), although my children are rather more taken with the Flying Spaghetti Monster. (Heretics.) There’s a whole smorgasbord of myths out there to choose from — knock yourself out for all that I care.

But the freedom to believe in whatever you choose comes with a proviso. A big proviso. Believe whatever you like… as long as your beliefs do not denigrate others. Even then, you’re still of course entirely free to place your faith in whatever belief system you like. But don’t expect not to be challenged about it. However much we might skirt around this issue in order not to offend anyone of faith, it’s clearly the case that religion too often embodies offensive and divisive beliefs.

Here’s one example. (I wrote about this at length, as is my wont, here.)

Here’s another.

And here’s another.

Frustratingly, the Equality Act 2010 gives special provision to religious faith. It actively bolsters the type of bigotry embedded at the heart of many faiths, as the British Humanist Association has highlighted.

Some are more equal than others.

Throughout history, religion has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a world which has moved on in terms of womens’ rights, LGBT rights…human rights in general. Religious faith generally acts to impede progress towards a more equal and diverse society — it is divisive and tribal at its core.

Of course, I’m not saying anything startlingly new here. And many of you may well dismiss everything above — if you’ve got this far — as Dawkins-esque in its stridency. But it’s no use lazily dismissing Dawkins as a fundamentalist, as Peter does. Ad hominem slurs are easy. Let’s instead play the ball…

Although I’ve got two copies of The God Delusion on my shelves — I bought myself a copy the day before a graduating PhD student got me the book as a thank you present (unbeknownst to me, of course) — I’m certainly no cheerleader for Dawkins. A hell of a lot of what he’s said over the last few years has been appallingly stupid, exceptionally damaging, and sexist to its core. But as regards his views on religion, dismissing the well-reasoned arguments in the following video as “fundamentalist” is not, it must be said, the most powerful of rebuttals.

Similarly, for those of us who have sat through countless hours of scripture readings during various religious services, his character reference for the Judeo-Christian god is clearly spot on. Even a cursory reading of the bible will confirm that.

[God is] a vindictive bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser , a misogynistic, homophobic racist, an infanticidal, genocidal, phillicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully

Peter argues that it’d be unprofessional and simply inappropriate to challenge religion in the context of, for example, the STFC summer school. I largely agree. Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve managed to get through a considerable number of scientific conferences without once standing up and criticising a speaker for their religious beliefs. Indeed, by my reckoning, this is true for all of the conferences I’ve attended. I’ve also sat through very many weddings, funerals, and baptisms and bitten my tongue. Hard. In fact, I’m godfather for children of friends and relatives. Hypocritical? Yes, but, like Peter, I’m just as capable of being the soul of discretion and not challenging religious faith every waking moment. (Well, OK, “soul of discretion” is perhaps just a little bit of a stretch.)

But Peter misses the point. First, it is not necessarily the case that criticism of religion would be inappropriate at a scientific meeting, including that STFC school. What about a throwaway, off-the-cuff remark on the ludicrous claims of creationism in the context of our understanding of the evolution of the universe? Offensive or not? To whom? And who decides?

But it’s the broader aspects of including religion within the diversity agenda in higher education, highlighted by the THE article, which are my key concern. I’ve repeatedly heard it said that, for many, their religious faith is as immutable as their race. For all of the reasons discussed in this powerful article, this makes no sense at all. The idea of immutable faith particularly, and especially, has no place within a university. Universities are about challenging ideas, concepts, values, and beliefs. Immutability is simply not an option.

Homophobic Christians are fond of saying that they hate the sin, but love the sinner. When it comes to religion as a diversity issue, I respect people of faith, but will always disrespect their faith.