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KCL Libertarians’ Statement on ‘Endangered Speeches’ Event

We write to you at a paramount time where attempted censorship on campus is no longer looming in the shadows but is vividly on display in one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

This afternoon’s event entitled ‘Endangered Speeches’ is due to be hosted by the King’s College London War Studies Department, featuring a conversation between Dr. Joanna Williams, as its guest speaker, and Professor Michael Rainsborough who heads the War Studies Department. The conversation is advertised to assess the contentions surrounding the debate over free speech at university campuses. Ultimately, as outlined, the debate aims to ‘explore the dimensions of the debate’ and allow students to cultivate their own understanding and widen their perspective.

We are extremely concerned, but also unsurprised in light of recent events, that elements within the university have attempted to curtail Dr Williams’ free speech on campus and sought to pressurise the university to rescind its invitation and publicly apologise over dubious grounds. It seems that these individuals and societies would rather not have a debate at all, instead citing platitudes that they have the moral high ground, thus those who disagree with them should not be permitted to speak on campus. Disagreeing with Dr Joanna Williams is something we couldn’t encourage more, but rather than coming to the event and challenging her ideas within the Q&A, those seeking to cancel the event would rather the guest speaker not be heard at all.

In an absurd statement issued by the KCL Intersectional Feminist Society, but also backed up by 144 other students in a variety of departments across the university, the case was furthered that due to Dr Joanna Williams’ supposed opposition to women (despite, of course, being a woman herself), trans and non-binary people, students on campus will be put in danger of ‘harm’. As one line states explicitly, ‘not supporting women, trans, and non-binary people kills, and Williams knowingly endorses this.’ Without knowledge of who Dr Joanna Williams is, one could only assume after reading the statement that she believes in men ruling over women and the encouragement of the suicide of trans people. Not only is this deception, it is a vivid exemplification of a smear campaign to shut down discussion, force feed students only one given narrative and prevent them from hearing a different point of view. Make no mistake, this is no different from the procedure followed in academic institutions within the authoritarian regimes of the 20th century when an opinion that differed from the regime propaganda was espoused. In this way, those attempting to cancel this event are more in harmony with the ‘fascists’ they are supposedly trying to battle against than the supposed liberators they claim to be.

More importantly, we were extremely disappointed to learn that the Student Union, a body elected by students to represent students’ interests, came to the defence of those hell-bent on de-platforming Dr Joanna Williams. In a statement, the KCLSU expressed ‘solidarity’ with those restricting the free exchange of ideas on campus and expressed concern and disappointment at her potential presence. In truly ironic fashion, they claimed that this event ‘only serves as a platform for a harmful speaker, as opposed to truly addressing the issue of free speech on campus.’ If a Student Union doesn’t have the intellectual fortitude to fathom that harmful speech counts as free speech, we must be prepared for very dark times ahead. What kind of precedent does that set? When anything that is subjectively perceived to offend any single person becomes the litmus test for an idea to be shut down, what speech will be left to be heard? It is clear to see that the Student Union’s backing of this anti-free speech crusade will only limit the band of accepted speech, and that is severely dangerous. (To read the statement, follow this link: https://www.kclsu.org/news/article/6015/Statement-on-quotEndangered-Speechquot-event/)

In the interests of the future of students and our educational instructions that we all hold so dear, we call on the Student Union to retract its statement which aims to restrict students’ exposure to more ideas on campus. If this demand is not met, we will be forced to take further action within our rights as students by holding our representatives to account.

Whether you agree with Dr Joanna Williams or not, and we certainly do not endorse everything she stands for, free speech will soon dry up at the source if we do not stand up for the right of those who disagree with us to convey their ideas.

Join the battle to preserve free speech with our nationwide Free to Speak campaign (FaceBook, Twitter) and protect the free flow of ideas, no matter which side of the political spectrum they originate from, on university campuses. Free speech is already being curtailed on campuses, and it’s time we woke up before they come for your speech.

 

Danny Al-Khafaji – President of the KCL Libertarian Society and Director of Free to Speak

Georgia Leigha – Vice President of KCL Libertarian Society

Tamara Berens – Communications Director of KCL Libertarian Society

Danielle Kleinerman – Events Organiser of KCL Libertarian Society

Eberle Miller – Treasurer of KCL Libertarian Society

How to usher in a new golden age of science without spending a penny

Many years ago, the wise king Jafar of Serendip spared no expense in the education of his three sons. He called in the best tutors and scientists from around the world to prepare his sons to be rulers, but soon realized that books and teachers would not be enough. The sons would have to depart the kingdom on a journey of discovery in foreign lands to find knowledge and wisdom not contained in any book.

So begins the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, which through Horace Walpole gave rise to the term serendipity –  accidental but fortunate discoveries in science unrelated to the goal of the study. Although the meaning of the term in later years has shifted somewhat into implying a large degree of luck (perhaps a sign of envy from competitors), the process of incidental discovery is no mystery. In fact, it is inevitable that hard work and a deeper understanding of a complex system, along with new data and observations, opens new avenues and insights. There is no doubt that luck can be a major factor, as in the case of Alexander Fleming waking up one morning to find his agar plates contaminated by a mould which eradicated any nearby bacteria. That mould was later identified as penicillin, which brought on a revolution in medicine and finally swung the long battle between humans and bacteria into our favour. Similarly, Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity by leaving a photographic plate overnight in a box. In both cases, their hard work and diligence allowed them to capitalise fully on lucky circumstances which would have passed many of us by.

Sometimes, serendipitous discoveries result in billion dollar industries, as in the case of a marker protein used in almost every microbiological experiment since the 70s, which was a consequence of a modestly funded study of luminescent jellyfish. Once the principles of the molecule were understood, industry quickly enhanced the product with an efficiency only a market economy can provide.

There are also some commercial enterprises whose primary products are serendipitous. One very interesting example of this is the Fraunhofer Institute, as you may recognise as the inventors of the mp3 audio format. Their main source of income is to perform research on a bespoke level for external clients, and as a consequence, they have amassed a considerable range of patents in virtually every field they operate in.

Previously, I have argued that public funding of science is a waste, and that the human and financial resources would be better allocated elsewhere (i.e. not allocated at all), so wouldn’t that imply that scientific advances would be halted when funding dries out? Perhaps not at all, as long as the resources of other actors were freed up and invested into research. One way to achieve this is by removing costly and inefficient regulations on industry. The best example of the massive overheads of regulation is the cost of developing a new drug. On average, US pharma companies must be prepared to gamble $2 billion for each new drug development. As bad as that sounds, it is actually worse since the drug may still not be approved or commercially viable. Most of this cost is due to draconian FDA regulations, which in the true spirit of statism are intended to protect the populace, but whose effects are instead to deny them risky but potentially efficient drugs.

Let’s say that regulatory costs were cut, freeing up a billion dollars per drug. What would pharma do with these extra funds? Most likely, they will invest it back into research and development. Some of these funds would even open up a sector of businesses who specialize in a specific field but who operate similarly to the Fraunhofer Institute. If for instance a drug company needed genetic screening based on fruit flies, it would be more profitable for them to outsource the study to a business specializing in it than to set up an in-house facility. The diligent fruit fly business would perform the study, deliver the results, and also potentially develop products of their own based on serendipitous discoveries, elevating them to proper pharma companies in their own right. And it doesn’t end there – perhaps the fruit fly business needs support from another business focusing on yeast, and perhaps that work leads to further discoveries and so on ad infinitum.

The economic gains of opening up the market for bespoke research companies similar to the Fraunhofer is a strong enough argument in itself, but there are also other benefits that are harder to quantify. First, scientific support companies have to produce real and replicable results in order to maintain their good reputation and gain more clients. As I have argued previously, academia does not. Second, the incentive to pursue a scientific career would be based on market forces rather than political decisions. Fewer scientists would be trapped in dead end careers and held back by the altruism prevalent in academia. Third, it would derail predatory academic journals, fraudulent results and politicised science, shifting the currency of research from publications, grants and ideology to actual concrete results.

The three princes of Serendip walk among us every day. They represent the inquisitive and creative nature of humans, but they are stifled by regulations, politics and the altruism of academia. Let them roam fully free and unfettered, and we will usher in a new golden age of science unlike anything in history.

 

 

Sean Hooper speaks tonight 13 November at the Two Chairmen.

End public funding of science

There are probably few careers which have been so romanticised by the entertainment industry as that of scientists. Wild haired avuncular lunatics in white coats work ceaselessly to prevent the destruction of the earth by asteroids, virii or the occasional zombie outbreak, or tirelessly spend long hours in spotless labs finding cures for every disease imaginable. They all have one thing in common; an altruistic and self-sacrificing drive for solving problems for the collective good. Their results are their own rewards.

Many postgraduate students experience a similar feeling of moral purpose. After all, it is a field where hard work returns results, and there is satisfaction in understanding how the world around us works in every minute detail. An advancement in a field, if strictly verified and repeated by the shared language of the scientific method, is a permanent achievement even if not entirely correct.

Now, if you were in Darwin’s shoes, backed by an ample family fortune and a very patient wife, you would be free to pursue your passion for science over the course of decades before finally publishing the Origin of Species. The immediate economic benefits of his work can be argued, but at the time there were few applications which would result in tangible financial gain compared to the work of Edison and Tesla, whose work was driven directly by investors who expected real products in return for their support. For Darwin, the fruits of his labour was more on a personal satisfaction level rather than financial gain.

The main problem with academia today is the primary goal of scientific investigation is something different from the Teslas and Darwins of previous years. The central theme of modern science is funding. Without it, nothing can or will be done. A researcher will receive funding by convincing a board of more senior scientists that her work is important. The primary way to prove your value is through your publications. Essentially, a project is started with a publication in mind. Often, this is already drafted out before experiments even begin, and as results come in, conclusions are updated and a target journal is decided. The choice of journal is also critical; a publication in a journal which is by consensus deemed to be high level, for instance Nature or Science, is considered to have higher impact than articles in other journals. You would maybe need several articles in lower impact journals to equal one article in Nature. When a journal is agreed on, then the authors must carefully select reviewers from their peers. The combined impact of all your publications will then strongly influence your ability to draw in funding from the granting authority.

Academic institutes will be more inclined to host scientists who receive ample funding, thereby improving their standing and also getting a substantial cut of the grant money. Successful researchers will be able to hire more PhD students to labor nights and weekends in order to produce more publications, and the carousel spins on. The science Ponzi scheme rolls on until all funds are spent.

It should come as no great surprise that this system of artificial success and consensus policy creates plenty of opportunities for abuse. Since the most important goal of a publication is to be published, there is a temptation for researchers to exaggerate their findings and downplay drawbacks of their methodology. After all, if their professional career relies on their work being recognised, who can blame them? Even worse, data is sometimes found to be false and unrepeatable, figures manipulated and conclusions misleading. In 2016, over 650 published articles were retracted either due to sloppiness or fraud. It is, for obvious reasons, difficult to estimate the degree of fraud in publications, and even more difficult to distinguish human error from a conscious attempt to mislead. However, a recent study of roughly 20,000 papers revealed that 3.8% of them contain images that were either duplicated or manipulated. Since these cases only comprise a small subset of the information contained in a publication, it is fairly safe to assume that the actual degree of error is much higher.

Another way to improve the chances of publication is to choose reviewers carefully based on their attitude towards you and your work. Benevolent reviewers can fast-track you to a successful publication, while reviewers who compete with you are given the power to delay, derail or even in some cases steal your work. The potential for political cabals of researchers reviewing each other is immense. Again, the currency of publications corrupts the end goal, which is to judge science solely by its end result, and not who the researcher happens to socialise at conferences with.

Alternatively, if you are not lucky enough to be involved in a network of allies, you can always create your own. In 2015, 64 papers were retracted when it was discovered that one researcher had created fake reviewers, along with emails, and in effect reviewed their own papers. At least no one can claim that intense pressure to publish stifles creativity. The discovery of similar schemes resulted  in 250 retractions in 2015, and has been been described as a trend.

These are just a few examples of how the academic system is fundamentally broken. There are without a doubt still scientists who, as Tesla did, work diligently towards advancements that would result in concrete rewards in a market economy, and there are assuredly still the Darwins who dedicate their life to their passion to understand nature and the universe. It is unlikely however that either would thrive in the academic environment of today. Darwin would not see much funding, based on his rather terse publication record, and Tesla would not have the political skill to survive in the modern cutthroat publication industry that public science has become.

Let’s do ourselves a favour and end this charade. It is a waste of both financial and human resources. It has even claimed lives, and shortened many others, all under the grand deception of ‘altruism’. In the next article, I will explain what we must do to once again shape a new golden era of science from the ashes of corruption and fraud.

Note. See Retraction Watch for continuous updates of academic fraud.

Sean Hooper

‘Kingsman’: a Brexit explainer?

So much has been written about the rise of ‘Populism’. Many commentators have speculated on its origins while others struggled to work out what it all means and why it has come out. Examples of this populist wave include Trump, the Italian Five Star Movement and the British vote to leave the European Union.

You might not think that Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman:The Secret Service, a gratuitous adventure in violence and comedy, could shed any light on populism. But think again.

Kingsman tells the story of ‘Eggsy’, played by Taron Egerton, a working class lad recruited into an international secret service called Kingsman. Independently funded, these super sleuths represent old-fashioned values of chivalry and are the epitome of the English gentleman. Before you rush off to a safe space, women can become Kingsman too. If you haven’t seen the film and are trying to work out what his type of agent would look like, then imagine Jacob Rees-Mogg with a martini.

The villains of the piece is Valentine played brilliantly, as always, by Samuel L Jackson. Valentine is a tech billionaire worried about global warming. He was donating large sums to research to deal with the problem but frustrated by a lack of results and politicians inability to act, he hits on another plan. Valentine reasons that the things that people do are over-heating the planet. If they can’t be persuaded to change heir behaviour then the only answer is to eliminate the problem, as someone recently said on TV, literally.

Valentine’s conspiracy to wipe out billions of lives to save the planet requires the help of the rich, politicians and Royalty. Not all agree, notably a Swedish Princess who, like others who resist, is kidnapped.

Valentine claims he cherishes humanity. To save it from itself, from its overpopulated ways, it needs to be culled while saving the elites who will create a new world. Meanwhile ordinary people get on with their lives, oblivious to the fact that others are making life and death decisions about them.

The forces stopping this are the gentleman, and gentlewoman, dedicated to being on the side of the people. It is no coincidence that the film also has Royalty objecting to this Malthusian plan.

The villains here are the people who think they know best, who are self-serving and selfish while claiming to be selfless.

Kingsman is an outlandish film. It is a homage to, and resetting of, the Bond genre. But it also reflects the spirit of the age: decisions that affect how people live are made by distant elites. Inevitably people kickback. They want to control their lives and are opting for politicians who are challenging the political consensus. That might not be the best option, as many of these politicians peddle Nativist theories and will undoubtedly be as addicted to power as their predecessors. But there is another alternative: freedom.

 

 

Alex Chatham

Alex has been an occasional blogger for Liberal Vision.