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

Friday, 23 September 2011

Noises off

My guess is that it is a common experience to feel a bit like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard's play. You know, you are centre stage in the spot-light, but all the really important or interesting stuff is taking place behind you, just off stage, just finishes before you enter or only kicks off immediately  after you have exited. One of my Rosencrantz and Guildenstern moments relates to Satoshi Kanazawa who was appointed to replace me at  the LSE when I moved to Oxford. I remember at the time thinking it was an "interesting" appointment: let's say that already in 2002 the man had something of a reputation. I subsequently met him a couple of times at social functions and  he seemed to be perfectly pleasant (to me at least) not that this is evidence for or against anything in particular. Since then his talent for provocation seems to have become unbounded culminating last week in a very public wrap over the knuckles from his employer.
Before I get to my main point let me make my position very clear. Personally I'm convinced by the scientific critics of Kanazawa's more controversial papers and pronouncements that the claims he makes are false and that the intellectual craftsmanship is poor. In my view he is reckless in a way that suggests that his principal aim is to court publicity rather than contribute to understanding. If this is true, he would, of course, not be unique, either at the LSE or in academe in general. I can also understand that  what he writes may well genuinely offend and distress people. Personally I find some of what he has written distasteful not least because it seems to show little respect for the rules and procedures of serious science.
Now comes the however. I find the outcome of the LSE's  disciplinary hearing  a little odd, in fact, I find it worryingly authoritarian and quite against the spirit of a university as a community of scholars in which people engage in discussion to prove (in the old fashion sense) the worth of ideas without anyone telling them what they may or may not think. The principal findings of the hearing appear to be that: a) "...a number of people had been greatly offended by the blog"; b) "...some of the assertions put forward in the blog post were flawed and would have benefited from more rigorous academic scrutiny"; c) "...the author ignored the basic responsibility of a scientific communicator to qualify claims made in proportion to the certainty of the evidence"; d) "...the article had brought the School into disrepute".
I wouldn't for one moment want to dispute that any of these findings are true, what I would question however is whether they are reasonable grounds for taking disciplinary action against an academic. a) giving offence is not a crime. It may be bad manners, but if we are going to discipline people for that then to be consistent we would have to cast the net much wider; b) amounts to saying that he was wrong, OK, so let those who can say that they have never written anything that was later shown to be wrong cast the first stone; c)  if this is grounds for disciplinary action then I would respectfully submit that to avoid hypocrisy the LSE needs to construct a much bigger dock, one that will contain most of the members of some "disciplines"; d) seems to me to be a very dangerous argument to play with and in fact is little more than a fig leaf for those who are ultimately to blame. As I mentioned above, Kanazawa's reputation was well known before he was appointed. Why was this ignored by the selection committee? I have it on good authority that the relevant people were well informed.
Universities are places in which all sorts of intellectual conversations are conducted constrained only by the law and by the conventions of reason. As far as I can see Kanazawa has broken no law, nor infringed any clause of his employment contract. Some of his writing does, in my view, not adhere to the conventions of reason, but the appropriate responses to that are: 1) scientific criticism; 2) ridicule; 3) not bothering to read his stuff. Apart from amongst a collection of rather unsavory characters on the fringes of respectable academic opinion - you probably all know to whom I'm alluding - Kanazawa's reputation is now zero, his academic capital has gone down the pan. He may get a few gigs at events put on by crazies but  he is now persona non grata as far as mainstream academia is concerned. In other words he is already reaping what he has sown and no reasonable person can have any sympathy for him on that account. But it is not the business of universities to dictate what, where and when their employees write and the LSE's witless requirement that he refrain from writing anything for a one year period except in refereed journals seems to me to be an infringement of his human rights. It would certainly be interesting to see whether such a ban would withstand a legal challenge. Regardless of the outcome of such a hypothetical the "senior academics" who made up Kanazawa's disciplinary hearing need to ask themselves whether they really understand the idea of a university.

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