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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Editorial Independence

This morning my PA inadvertently opened a letter that had been delivered by mistake. It appears to be be intended for the letters page of Private Eye.
I feel I must write to protest. Last night, just as Mrs Buffton-Tuffton and I were settling down to our usual Sunday supper of boiled beef and carrots we were affronted whilst listening to Radio 4's Poetry Please by lines from the so called poet Rab C. Nesbitt (surely Rabbie Burns? - ed) which must call into question the BBC's long cherished editorial independence. I quote:

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.
I fear that the broadcasting of such dangerous 'humanitarian' nonsense can only raise doubts in the minds of our friends both within and outside the country about Britain's long standing commitment to keeping people in their place, unless, of course, that place is somewhere that we don't want them to be. It was all I could do to restrain Mrs B-T from shredding the wireless licence (shurely shome mistake? - ed.) with the minature assegai presented to me by my house boy on my retirement as District Commisioner of (name deleted - ed.) in 1963. To restore the balance can't we have something from that chappie who liked Mussolini - Cantos is what I think it is called?
I remain Sir your most obedient servant,
Col. R. H. Buffton-Tuffton (retd.)
The Old Glebe House
Lesser Cockswell

See Jim Malcolm perform Burn's song at


Disaster Emergency Committee Gaza Appeal


Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Blowing your own trumpet

There was a time when I often got asked to referee Research Council grant applications. Then for a few years I didn't get asked at all. I assumed that too much of the time I had made the "wrong" recommendation. Recently I was asked again and things have changed. Firstly one now does these things on line which is no big deal, but more surprisingly, at least to me, is that referees are required not only to evaluate the research proposal, but also evaluate themselves as evaluators! First you must rate yourself on several pro-forma criteria and then give a longer justification for your own self-rating. My immediate reaction to this invitation to waste even more of my time was: why would you ask me to evaluate a research proposal if you were unsure as to whether I would be any good at evaluating it? Moreover, why would I choose to evaluate it unless I had some relevant expertise? Referees give their time free and gratis, why would you make their job more onerous by requiring them to particpate in what amounts to a demeaning exercise in self-aggrandisement? Those with skill in blowing their own trumpets (and believe me there are many of these) will no doubt love it, but do we really want science to be controlled by people like that? This is what happens when academics are too pusillanimous or venal to resist the managerial takeover of British higher education.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Aneurin Bevan and Social Theory

My Christmas reading included the first volume of Michael Foot's biography of Aneurin Bevan which covers the period up to his appointment as Minister of Health in July 1945. The book is an unashamed piece of hagiography and is as much a testament to the fight for the soul of the Labour Party in 1962, when it was first published, as to the man that it is nominally about. Bevan was a born contrarian who spent as much time fighting the gutless hypocrisy of the leadership of his own party as he did the gutsier hypocrisy of the Conservatives. He was also an unashamed bon viveur and autodidact of extraordinary intellectual range and penetrating political insight who seems to have inspired unconditional love and hatred in almost equal measure.
I was particularly struck by a passage in which Bevan describes the Parliamentry performance of Stanley Baldwin:
"It is medicine man talk...It lifts the discussion on to so abstract a plane that the minds of the hearers are relieved of the effort of considering the details of the immediate problems. It imposes no intellectual strain because thought drifts into thought, assembling and dissolving like clouds in the upper air, having no connection with earthly obstacles. It flatters, because it appears to offer intimate companionship with a rare and noble spirit. It pleases the unsceptical, because it blurs the outline of unpleasant fact in a maze of meaningless generalities. Over and over again I have been amazed by the ease with which even Labour Members are deceived by this nonense."
Substitute 'empirical sociologists' for 'Labour Members' and you have an almost perfect description of the malign hold of 'social theory' over British sociology. It doesn't take much imagination to guess what Bevan would have made of the Third Way.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Purity, Danger and W. H. Smith

When I was an undergraduate one of my Professors was a great fan of Mary Douglas and was always urging us to read her Purity and Danger. Of course I didn't until much later and I then discovered a moderately interesting book about the social construction of order through the categorisations we use to pigeon-hole the mundane. Dirt, for example, is just matter out of place - which is a striking thought the first time you read it, but afterwards seems rather banal. But maybe that is the point. The categorisations we routinely use are in a sense the most powerful because they are the most banal. They just state what everyone knows and wouldn't think it worthwhile to question.
This stream of consciouness was prompted by something I saw in my local W. H. Smith (for non UK readers W. H. Smith is a large chain selling newspapers, books, stationary etc). Next to the rather full shelves labelled Biography - mainly containing the autobiographies of sportsmen and C list celebrities - were the equally full shelves of a section labelled Tragic Life Stories. Clearly market segmenters have identified a new type - one who gets up in the morning and rushes out to their local bookstore to fill up on the latest installment of human misery. I think there is something vaguely creepy about that.