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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.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Beam me up Scotty

I know I'm mixing my metaphors here but it's becoming increasing difficult not to reach the conclusion that I have slipped into a parallel universe where rationality works in some different and completely incomprehensible way. 

If you are applying for British citizenship you have to get your application signed by two referees one of whom should  be an "acceptable professional person". Helpfully you are supplied with a list of acceptable professional persons. It is a very interesting list. For example, medical doctors are not on it and thus I assume not regarded by the UK Border Agency as "acceptable professional persons". However, if you are a Christian Science Practitioner that's good enough for UKBA. 

Run that by me again. If you are a qualified medic you are not an "acceptable professional person" but if you believe  that sickness is an illusion that can be corrected by prayer alone then you are just the sort of person that UKBA thinks  can be trusted to certify a citizenship application.

I can't even begin to get into the mind of the person who made that decision.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Portes on Brexit books

Here is a rather informative interview with Jonathan Portes in which he recommends five books (actually 4 and a blog) to read about Brexit. Definitely worth the time it takes to digest it.

Friday, 17 March 2017

The liberal London tribe: Parsons or Merton?

It will take me a little time  to decode the implications of  David Goodhart's latest piece in the FT.  I think he has just declared war on liberal tolerance, but maybe that is an overstatement. I find the following sentence very odd though: 

"In 2004 I wrote an essay about the tension between diversity and solidarity, based on what I thought was the uncontroversial assumption that people are readier to share with people with whom they have something in common."

The set of people that I  (and David) share nothing in common with is empty, so to make sense his "something" must be a matter of degree. But he says nothing whatsoever about when the threshold is crossed  that means that  sharing something can  for all practical purposes be regarded as  sharing nothing. It seems to me that the great virtue of of liberalism is that it gives us some guidance, albeit mainly formal,  as to where that should be.

Anecdote time. Once when I used to regularly travel on the London Tube I was sitting in the late evening in a relatively empty carriage. The only other occupant of my section was a rather sozzled business type who was sipping from a can of beer. At the next stop two teenage girls sat down. I guess they were tourists and they began talking to each other in Italian. The business type got up, went over to them, and aggressively started to berate them for having the temerity to speak Italian in his presence in his country. Clearly they were terrified so I told him to shut the fuck up and leave them alone. Miraculously he did. Perhaps nobody else being there made loss of face more bearable. I felt I was lucky. It could have got nasty.

So who shared what with whom? I don't speak a word of Italian and the girls didn't seem to have a word of English between them. But gratitude doesn't have to be expressed in words. We all understood what happened because we shared some basic notions of human decency, let's say we endorsed  good old liberal values to do with not gratuitously threatening young foreigners who are doing you no harm. 

Unlike David I do want to say that Falangist, sorry, I meant Faragist, complaints about nobody speaking English on the train should be seen for what they are. And what they are is very ugly. As a citizen you should have a reasonable expectation that the person that sells you a ticket speaks English, that the announcements on the train are in English and that the guard that tells you you have the wrong ticket speaks English (in some countries  German, English and French or German, English and Dutch). But you don't get to dictate what language the other passengers use when holding private conversations with each other. You bought a ticket to get from A to B not to have an aural experience that satisfies your prejudices.

And what did I share with my own countryman,  the aggressor? At that precise moment not much, but I'm prepared to believe that when not pissed he was an entirely adequate husband and father. Hell he probably even took good care of his dog.

By the way Goodhart's piece is also notable for referring to Talcott Parsons. I wonder if that is a first for an FT article? Perhaps though he might have got more mileage out of Robert Merton who, as far as I'm aware, first made the distinction between cosmopolitan and local roles and identities.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

When is a debate not a debate?

I watched the live feed of last night's debate between Jonathan Portes and Michael Gove about trust in experts. To be honest it was pretty tame stuff and a great example of why these things don't really work. Both participants were impeccably polite (which is a good thing) and neither really  sought to draw blood.

I sympathized with Portes  because Gove simply refused to be drawn and used the classic tactic of  essentially denying that what he originally said was actually what he meant. He then went on to cloak himself in a position that no reasonable person could object to and nobody was opposing i.e that you shouldn't accept an argument because of who has proposed it. It would clearly backfire to call him on this. When an opponent is putting on a conciliatory face it looks bad to go in for the kill. That's basically how bullshitters get away with it.

It looked to me as though  Portes was just thinking, yeah whatever, beam me up Scotty.  If an academic or other expert uses these tactics you  would just  conclude they  are not serious and you no longer need to pay them any attention. Their credibility would be shot. But for a politician this is a much more effective get out of jail card. Nobody expects them to be anything other than evasive and thus a successful show of evasion doesn't damage them it actually makes them look as though they are masters of the political dark arts. The bottom line is that the public expects politicians to play a political game and reward them when they play it successfully. That doesn't mean they necessarily like it, just that they understand how the game works and what it takes to win it. 

If you are in any way constrained by truth, facts, evidence and consistency, then you are going to have a tough time going head to head against a first rank politician. Debate? What Debate?

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Celebrating Coventry's Literary Heritage

The Guardian has a nice piece puffing a poetry event celebrating Coventry's "iconic" ring road. An unusual subject, I'll give you that, but if you had to sum up Coventry in terms of one structure the ring road would give the Cathedral a run for its money.  It also costs less to see now that the Cathedral has started to charge visitors six pounds a pop (in the post Christian age isn't it time for Cathedrals to be be declared national museums? The  John Piper windows and Graham Sutherland tapestry could be treated as part of the national art collection).

Coventry has never been particularly good at drawing its literary heritage to the attention of its citizens. Certainly my 18 year old self was unaware that it was the birth-place of Philip Larkin - the family home was demolished to make way for the ring road - and Cyril Connolly (who he? I would have said). Completely inexplicable was the neglect of a rather fine house (now a Bangladeshi cultural centre) in the Foleshill district that George Eliot lived in for nearly 10 years. As far as I know there wasn't even a plaque on the wall to mark the site.  It never seemed to occur to the city fathers that, if most of what you had has been destroyed you should perhaps make the best of what is left.

 We don't need to invent roots, just pay attention to the ones that survive.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Anti Anti Minotaur

I'm constantly amazed by what gets published in British sociology journals. Take this piece by Martyn Hammersley on Weber and value neutrality. My point is not to beat up Hammersley who has long been  one of the  rare voices of  rationality fighting against the forces of fashionable intellectual darkness. I agree with everything he says. My amazement is that there is a need to say it.

The first sentence of his abstract is surprising: "Weber's proposal that social science should aim to be value neutral is now widely rejected." Really? Not around here. But maybe all that shows is that out in the wild things are a bit different and I should be grateful that I inhabit a comfortable niche. 

The piece goes on to give  a more or less textbook discussion of Weber's views in much the terms it was put to me in lectures  almost 40 years ago when I was a first year sociology undergraduate. So what was then thought suitable for 1st year undergraduates is now, apparently, so rarefied that it is suitable for publication in a professional journal. 

It is bizarre, as is the view that Weber's prose is convoluted and unclear. No it isn't, unless you  happen to be a bit thick. Even as an 18 year old with no knowledge of sociology I had no trouble reading Weber. Yes, I had to read some bits more than once, but that just means that Weber writes very precisely and every word counts.  Precision is a good thing, right? His prose passes the test that when you read it more than once your understanding grows (cf Bourdieu).

I wonder what 1st year sociologists are required to read these days? Peppa Pig's Super Noisy Sound Book?

Friday, 10 March 2017

White Self-Interest

I know I should leave it alone, I know it's not wise to get involved in this sort of thing, but I keep being drawn back to wondering what on earth David Goodhart means by the term "white self-interest" in his recent FT piece (you can also find the text here).

So the gist of his argument is something like this: ethnic groups have interests; some of these interests are protected by law - predominantly the interest in not being  unjustly discriminated against; everyone (more or less) agrees that these interests are legitimate and that it is proper for the law to take them into account; whites also have interests; some of these interests are legitimate; one of these legitimate interests (the only one he actually mentions) is in not being made to feel uncomfortable "about their group no longer setting the tone in a neighborhood". 

Whether we take it literally or metaphorically this is quite a claim.

So where to begin. Firstly the idea of group interests. Certainly human beings have interests and if we follow Peter Singer so do animals, but let's stick to homo sapiens. 

I have lots of different interests which I share with  people who are similar to me in respects that have a bearing on those particular interests. For example I have an interest in not having the aircraft that will land at Heathrow's 4th runway fly directly over my apartment, an interest which a large majority of my neighbours share. I have an interest in the UK agreeing a deal with the EU about the post-Brexit  right to residence of EU citizens in the UK which I share with everyone else who is either married to or cohabits with a non UK EU citizen. I have an interest in the Mogden Sewage Works not stinking in the Summer which I share with a large number of people who live in East Twickenham. I have an interest in UCU negotiating a decent settlement in the next wage bargaining round which I share with all other UK academics (whether or not they are union members). I have an interest in the Arts Council for England restoring its funding to the ENO so that I,  and other resasonably well off middle-class people, can enjoy cheap live opera (I didn't say all interests were legitimate!).

OK, I don't have to labour the point. The interests I have are various and they are shared with only partially overlapping sets of people. Like every other citizen I also have interests, which have been given the status of rights. For instance the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of age, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, race, nationality, colour, ethnic origin, sex and so forth. These are not group rights as such, but rights that  the state guarantees to me as an individual and that I share with others by virtue of the characteristics we have in common. As a white, middlle-aged, straight male I have, at least formally,  the same interest in not being discriminated against as the proverbial one legged, black lesbian. NB I am not claiming that there is the same objective probability that someone will attempt to discriminate against me - that is a different matter and as a matter of fact quite implausible. The interests and the rights are universal and not group specific. 

I'm now struggling to think of those interests that I have and share exclusively with other whites in the UK. I'm struggling and failing. 

Consider this anecdote. In the 1990s I bought an apartment in West London in an area that was undergoing gentrification. A large freeholder was selling off the leases as and when their predominantly white older working-class tenants died. So the nature of the area changed. Out went the 10 year old Fiats and Renaults, in came the GTIs,  Mazda  two seaters,  the 4 wheel drives and the baby buggies. I remember vividly two elderly neighbours standing on their doorsteps, practically under my front window, complaining bitterly about how the neighborhood had changed, how they didn't know anyone any more, and how they hated all the yuppies that had moved into their street.

 I suppose these white people felt they had an interest in keeping people like me out of the area. I concede the interest. Was it a legitimate interest? No it was not. It was not their street, not even the bit of it that one neighbour tried to stop me parking on because they felt that it was their parking place, reserved for local people like themselves. The sort of society we live in does not recognize that sort of group interest in space no matter how entitled people feel. Likewise it does not, and should not, recognize as legitimate any interest I feel I have in not having individuals with different cultural preferences living next door to me, as long as those preferences do no significant direct harm to me. 

I have a legitimate interest in the young man who lives next door not bashing his drum-kit for two hours every evening when I am trying to sleep, but no legitimate interest in preventing the couple on the other side from praying five times a day in the privacy of their own home.

So far so liberal. Now comes the tricky part. Instead of thinking about white majorities and ethnic minorities let's think about existing citizens and immigrants that will become citizens. Do existing citizens (whatever their colour or ethnicity) have a legitimate interest in discriminating between the types of people that will be eligible to become citizens? It seems to me obvious that they do. The existing citizens are a political community and they get to make choices, some of those choices are about who gets to join the club. They will, of course, not all agree, but that is just part of the normal back and forth of normal democratic politics. 

It's not clear to me how things could be otherwise. Despite their differences the existing citizens share a large degree of commonality in their way of life, their political culture and so forth. Presumably they have some commitment to these things and an interest, not in keeping them completely unchanged, but in society developing along lines that are broadly consistent with them. That would seem to entail being concerned that new citizens also hold views, not necessarily identical to their own, but at least not incompatible in terms of broad principles. 

If you live in a secular, liberal state, you have a legitimate interest, if you are gay, in not admitting to citizenship sizeable proportions of people who, once enfranchised, will vote for stoning you to death. Likewise, if you are a woman you have an interest in not admitting people who believe in, and once they become citizens can lobby for, modesty dress codes and restrictions on what you can wear when you walk down certain streets. If you are an educated person you have an interest in controlling the number of new citizens who prefer that only the version of reality that is espoused in one or other sacred book is to be taught to children in school.

White interests? I don't know what those are. Shared citizen's interests? Those are easier to understand,  defend and rationally discuss.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

In Search of Giles Edward Michael Eyre. Postscript.

A couple of years ago I posted a piece on the author of a minor  World War 1 memoir who went by the name of Giles Edward Michael Eyre. I was intrigued as to who the author was and it turned out that he had led a somewhat colourful life. 

Searching here and there I managed to  find out quite a lot about him especially in the inter-war period.  However, inevitably, there were gaps and in particular I didn't discover much about his life immediately prior to WW1. Well, thanks to the wonder of the internet I now have a bit more information. A distant relative of Eyre, Mr Peter Gundy of Bulawayo, read my blog & got in touch. He had some very interesting information which casts more light on the character of Giles Eyre. 

 On 4th December 1913 he departed London for Brisbane on the Marathon.  We next catch up with him on the 27th May 1914 in the Victoria, Australia 1914 Police Gazette:

Good, Robert Hayes, plumber, Quambatook, reports stolen from his dwelling between Eight p.m., on the 20th inst., at half-past Elevem a.m. on the 21st inst., a silver English lever watch, key winder; a gold digger's magnifying glass; a sovereign; and a half-crown. Value £5 10s. Giles Eyre Varnier is suspected, as he was left in charge of the house, and when the complainant returned he was missing. Description :- English, emigrant, 18 years of age, 5 feet 5 or 6 inches high, medium build, dark complexion, dark curly hair, clean shaven, round shoulders; wore a grey suit and a tweed hat.

Quambatook is about 200 miles North-West of Melbourne and in 1914 had a population of about 500. It's difficult to know why Giles Eyre would land there. The town is on a railway line so perhaps he was just leading the life of a roguish drifter.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Fake News

The Guardian is running a story today about sexual harassment in UK universities which they headline as being 'at epidemic levels'.  It's topped off with as stock photograph of Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre which, given the flimsy factual content of the piece, I would say is malicious if not strictly defamatory.

Before I go any further let me say that I in no way wish to imply that sexual harassment in universities, or anywhere else, is anything other than a serious matter, which, if proven, should be dealt with in the way that the law stipulates and that organizations, including universities, have a duty to take complaints about harassment seriously (which I believe they do). I'll say more about this below, but first I just want to look at the facts.

Through a FoI request the Guardian has established that between the years 2011-12 and 2016-17 students made 169 allegations against academic and non academic staff and that a further 127 allegations were made by staff about another staff member. So let's put this in context, starting with the student complaints. There are roughly 2.25 million students at UK universities. Let's say for simplicity that we have 5 years of data (the 2016-17 year isn't finished yet so let's big the rate up by reducing the denominator a little).  That gives us 11250000 person years and a rate of 1.5 student complaints per 100,000 person years. Is that a lot or a little?

Let's take something which we know has a high incidence rate among students - schizophrenia. Universities are not a cause of schizophrenia, but because the rate of first presentation  is high among 20-24 year olds, lots of newly diagnosed schizophrenics are university students. Among 20-24 year-old  UK males the incidence rate has been estimated to be between 20 and 45 per 100,000 person years. So compared to serious mental illness, the prevalence of allegations of sexual harassment on campus doesn't look particularly alarming. But, hang on, the Guardian says it is an epidemic, so what exactly is an epidemic?

Well that depends on the underlying base rate of the disease we are considering. But take for instance flu. In the UK a flu epidemic is declared when the rate of GP consultations about flu related symptoms reaches 1000 per 100,000 consultations. Now that is a lot.

Even if every single complaint by a student of sexual harassment was well founded it would still not be reasonable to call a rate of 1.5 per 100,000 person years an epidemic. This is  fake news and all the worse for being much less transparent than the more obviously made up stories trumpeted by the Daily Hate Mail and the like.

OK, now for the caveats and anecdotes.

I haven't said anything about the staff on staff complaints. Does it happen? Yes, of course, but the Guardian presents no evidence whatsoever that rates of harassment are worse in universities than in any other working environment and it seems completely implausible to believe that they are. So this is, again, fake news.

In my 30 year career in academia I can honestly say that I've only ever known 2 cases of sexual harassment allegations  in departments I've worked in (and none I should say in my present department). One was a staff on staff allegation about an unwitnessed incident said to have taken place at a private, off campus, social event in the home of the accused. A complaint was made, in the first instance to the HOD, who in my opinion quite correctly, declined to take the matter any further. It's completely unclear to me why a private off campus matter between two colleagues should be a  legitimate concern of an employer. If what was alleged to have happened actually happened - and knowing both of the parties involved it is within the bounds of possibility - then that was a matter for them to sort out. Sometimes adults do  and say stuff that is unwise. What was alleged broke no laws and was a bit embarrassing for those concerned  but there was no reason for the employer to get involved.

The other case involved a member of staff who was 'overfamilar' with the female undergraduates. This basically amounted to spending a lot of time in the student bar and making some of the undergraduates feel 'uncomfortable'.  I have no trouble  believing that the combination of  mid-life crisis, alcohol and lots of attractive young undergraduates could have led this individual to do and say things that were, in the circumstances, unwise.  But though he might have been obnoxious - at least to some - he did not do anything illegal and there was no evidence that refusing whatever advances he might have made had any consequences. Everyone involved was an adult and they all chose to associate with each other.  I believe that in this case the person concerned was warned to be more careful about how they conducted themselves.

Sometimes the boot is on the other foot. It is not unknown for staff to be sexually harassed by students or for students to offer sexual favours in return for grades. I've no personal experience of either, though  a colleague who worked at a American university did once relate to me an 'A for a lay' story. Given the puritanical ethical codes of American universities my colleague immediately realized that he was in trouble. After rejecting the  brazen offer, he  immediately went to his Dean and reported what had happened. As it happened the Dean was realistic and  advised my colleague never ever to have a meeting with a female student with his office door closed. He was also told that an allegation alone, whether or not it was true, would be sufficient to ruin his career.

Perhaps we need a longer term perspective on all of this. I'm struck how different things used to be when speaking to older colleagues who began their careers in the 1960s. So you think The History Man is fiction? You don't know the half of it!

Sex is everywhere. Unwanted sexual advances are a small part of life: everywhere. UK universities are nothing special. I expect better of the Guardian.