STEMming the tide

This is a guest post from Michea Bonilla on a particularly timely subject: the value of non-STEM subjects and disciplines. There’s been a great deal of furore over the last few days regarding the “culling” of A-level subjects such as art history and archaeology. As a physicist (which is about as STEM as it gets), I find the continual elevation of STEM subjects over the arts and humanities to be dispiriting and immensely worrying from a number of perspectives, some of which I described in a post last year.

What’s particularly irksome is that fundamental scientific research — i.e. work which is done without an eye on the bottom line or the potential for the next new widget — is rather closer in ethos to the arts and humanities than it is to, for example, engineering or near-market R&D. Michea’s post provides an engaging, personal and important insight into their experience of the STEM vs non-STEM divide…

(P.S. I’m responsible for the title above so if you feel it misrepresents the post it’s me that’s to blame, not Michea).


So I wanted to start this off by giving you all a bit of my background, especially since I will be dicussing STEM and non-STEM degrees and the disservice we are doing to our children (and ourselves!) with the constant push for STEM while sometimes outright shunning anything else.

I am a 34 year old who holds two degrees, a Masters of Divinity (a religion degree commonly posessed by clergy) and an Associate of the Arts Oregon Transfer Degree with a focus in Sociology. Why an AA instead of an AS? Long story short, I was out of financial aid money and I had already racked up $30k in student loans due to having to change majors because of health issues. It was the only degree available that I had “completed” all of the requirements to get.

I grew up in a house that praised both STEM and non-STEM fields. My mother is a microbiologist and veterinary technician and my father holds two degrees, one in fish and wildlife (a STEM degree) and the other in economics. I grew up spending many of my weekends with my mother in the lab at the VMTH at UC Davis and developed an outright love for the biological sciences. To this day the smell of the gram stain chemicals will almost instantly bring a smile to my face because of my memories in the lab.

I excelled in school in science and in music, but struggled in math and English. I even received awards of Honors in Biology and Recognition in Chemistry from the Golden State Exam. I completed the course work required for the basic computers course in under two months my senior year and transferred into the advanced class at the beginning of the second semester.

So why is all of this important?

Because growing up, even though I knew that both STEM and non-STEM fields were necessary for a well rounded society I still had to deal with the constant comments about “throw away degrees”. The Liberal Arts degree jokes were a dime a dozen, and if you considered going into a field that was considered a liberal art or humanities, you were teased to no end. I even bought into the hype about how if I wanted to earn a decent wage and not be a burger flipper or working a minimum wage job my whole life I would have to get a STEM degree.

I was already pretty burnt out on school by the time I graduated in 2000 due to the introduction of the senior project and the fact that I was actually taking extra classes on top of my already full class load. While most students had at least one open period, I had -1 open periods. I actually had two classes at the same time (senior project and computers). I took two English classes that year because the school wasn’t willing to let me count my British Literature course as my senior English credit and my World Literature course as my junior English credit. I took math applications that year and learned how to apply math to real world situations, which meant I had a lot of extra work outside of school.

While I had wanted to take a break and get my head on straight, my family pushed for me to enter college through Solano Community College since my grades and test scores (ACT, SAT II, ASVAB) weren’t “good enough” for the colleges I wanted to go to. Never mind that I scored in the top 90th percentile for my ACT and the top 99th percentile in almost everything on the ASVAB…my grades were what shot me in the foot.

I enrolled in the fall of 2000 with my major listed as undecided and did my best to make my parents proud. I wanted to get a degree in either micro or molecular biology, but I was also really wanting to get a degree in literature or history. I was too ashamed to tell anyone that I wanted a degree in a field that was the source of “Would you like fries with that?” jokes and ridicule.

I dropped out of college due to fatigue in 2001 and spent the next four years working various jobs, including cooking jobs for Xanterra National Parks and Resorts. I constantly looked back at my failures in college and friends and family kept urging me to go back to school so I could get a degree and make decent money. Every time I brought up a degree that wasn’t in one of the STEM fields I was met with reminders about how those sorts of degrees weren’t worth anything and I would just be wasting my time. I was told that all the “good jobs” were in STEM and I needed to focus on one of those fields.

Another big push was to work in a medical field, which I decided to go for in 2005 when I entered training to become a phlebotomist and lab assistant. I got to intern at Kaiser Regional Microbiology in Berkeley, California and on Travis Air Force Base. I was happiest when I was able to work in the lab, but I learned early on that unless I had a masters or higher I would be nothing more than a grunt wherever I worked.

I began work as a phlebotomist in 2006 and found myself getting paid only a dollar or so more than when I worked as a cook (with no certifications, training, or well…anything). Sure, I had a job, but it wasn’t anything like everyone had been promising me.

Fast forward to 2013 and I have just completed my M:Div and am also enrolled in college at Rogue Community College. I find myself joking about my “throw away degree” and how I’m trying to get a degree in a field where I can actually make money and have a steady job.

I feel shame whenever my M:Div is brought up.

My parents remind me from time to time that my father was able to complete his masters in 4-5 years, and that I really should apply myself better.

I wound up spending four years at RCC due to mental health issues and having to go from full time to half time. I racked up $30k in student loans just to survive and appealed multiple times to have my financial aid extended after having to change my major not once, but twice (Early Childhood Education → Criminology → AAOT). When I graduated in 2015 I didn’t feel pride, I felt disappointed and like I had let people down. Sure, I had my degree, but it was pretty much useless outside of transferring to a university.

So…what does all of this have to do with STEM v non-STEM degrees?

A couple of months ago I found an article that discusses how we are doing a disservice to our children by shunning non-STEM subjects, especially literature and the arts. After reading it I looked at what was going on with my own daughters and I felt my heart sink.

My eldest had gone off to Job Corps to learn a trade, but she had been told by her counselor before she left school that anything outside of a STEM degree would be a worthless degree and she should either learn a trade or get a STEM degree.  She told me a few years later that at the time she’d wanted to tell that person they were full of sh*t, but she’d kept her mouth shut.

Currently she’s unemployed with certifications in culinary arts. People want experience, not certifications, where we live, so she is stuck either getting a minimum wage job to gain experience, or find a job in a different field than the one she’s trained in.

My middle daughter is the one suffering the most from this push for STEM degrees. She is very skilled in art and loves music, but she has been told that if she gets a degree in either of those fields, she might as well just throw her money away. Before she’d been told that she had planned on going into the music field and possibly teaching music.

Now, she doesn’t know any more and is just sort of drifting about as she finishes her final year in high school.

Because of the push for STEM classes, the board of education in Oregon decided that students had to take three years of math, but only classes listed at Algebra 1 or higher would count. Both of my step daughters (the two oldest) were moved around constantly when they were younger so they were still in basic math when they entered high school. This gave them a year to go from having trouble with basic addition and subtraction, to learning the quadratic equation.

Needless to say, they failed horribly, even with extra math classes and assistance.

One would expect that if a child failed a class, that the next year they would repeat it so as to get a passing grade. In the case of my daughters, they were just pushed into the next level of math. So they went from basic math to Algebra 1. My eldest decided to change her diploma to one of the “alternative” diplomas due to this very issue, and wound up wasting an entire school year. She was receiving grades on things like watching movies! That was how little these people thought of the children who opted to go for one of the alternative diplomas (either due to special needs or due to just giving up). Anything to keep those graduation numbers up!

Oregon offers the standard diploma, a modified diploma (which has “lowered” requirements in the core classes and double the amount of electives), an extended diploma (which only requires half the credits of a regular degree AND has lowered requirements), and an alternative certificate (basically you’re just a warm body that gets counted to help bring in money and you get to walk across the stage at graduation). The reason for this is that with the push towards higher levels of STEM classes and the push for students to go into STEM fields, students began failing to meet requirements to graduate.  Instead of reevaluating the situation and possibly changing the graduation requirements to meet those of another state (each state has its own requirements for graduation! There is no “federal standard”!), they decided to create new diploma options, many of which are little more than a piece of paper.

With a modified diploma you cannot get into a four year university. You have a chance at getting into a community college, but you’re most likely going to be making up for lost time with remedial classes and thus wasting your financial aid and being forced to take out student loans. Trade school acceptance is a crap shoot. You cannot enlist in the military for the most part, and you will find yourself having difficulty finding work since it is a “lesser” diploma.

With an extended diploma or an alternative certificate….yeah. You might as well just go for your GED.

We are cutting music, literature, art, and humanities classes at a frightening rate in our high schools while continuing to push for our students to excel in math, science, and English. We are forgetting that while it is good to have a focus on STEM subjects, and that STEM fields are important, so are the non-STEM fields.

In Oregon, we lump foreign language, the arts, and career and technical education (CTE) into one category. Children need three credits (years) to graduate with a standard diploma, but the school pushes for students to either learn a foreign language or focus on the CTE classes. Math, social sciences, and science require three credits each, English requires four credits, health (another science class) requires one credit, and physical education requires one credit. Children also have to earn six credits of “electives”.

We need literature, music, art, and all of the other fields. We are beginning to suffer as a society due to our children not learning anything more than a cursory once over of these subjects. Many children don’t read outside of what is required for school since reading for pleasure is seen as a waste of time in many cases. If a child starts showing interest in music or art teachers begin to try to steer them towards a field with a “better future”.

We have the science to prove that we need these fields, and that children need to learn about and immerse themselves in these fields; yet we are continuing to cut them from our curriculum at an alarming rate, replacing them with “elective” classes. When a child sees that their favorite subject is an “elective” versus a “core” class, they begin to look down on it. It happened to me, it happened to my husband, and it has happened to my kids.

To this very day I still have to fight that the social sciences are valid options for a field of study. I get told that if it’s not a “natural science” then it’s worthless. I get told that my preferred fields of study (psychology and sociology) are bullsh*t. Heck, people even grade the social sciences as some being more “science” than others, just to justify their attacks on certain fields.

If people are doing this with the social sciences, you can just imagine what they are doing with the arts and humanities fields.

We need to stop treating STEM fields as the high lord and master and remember that we need ALL fields of study to be able to be a well rounded society. We need to stop shaming people who wish to go into the non-STEM fields, and we need to stop telling our children that they won’t be able to be successful unless they go into either a STEM field or into the medical field.

In Praise of ‘Small Astronomy’

My colleague and friend, Mike Merrifield, wrote the following thought-provoking post, recently featured at the University of Nottingham blog. I’m reposting it here at “Symptoms…” because although I’m not an astronomer, Mike’s points regarding big vs small science are also pertinent to my field of research: condensed matter physics/ nanoscience. Small research teams have made huge contributions in these areas over the years; many of the pioneering, ground-breaking advances in single atom/molecule imaging and manipulation have come from teams of no more than three or four researchers. Yet there’s a frustrating and troublesome mindset — especially among those who hold the purse strings at universities and funding bodies — that “small science” is outmoded and so last century. Much better to spend funding on huge multi-investigator teams with associated shiny new research institutes, apparently.

That’s enough from me. Over to Mike…

A number of years back, I had the great privilege of interviewing the Dutch astronomer Adriaan Blaauw for a TV programme.  He must have been well into his eighties at the time, but was still cycling into work every day at the University of Leiden, and had fascinating stories to tell about the very literal perils of trying to undertake astronomical research under Nazi occupation; the early days of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) of which he was one of the founding figures; and his involvement with the Hipparcos satellite, which had just finished gathering data on the exact positions of a million stars to map out the structure of the Milky Way.

When the camera stopped rolling and we were exchanging wind-down pleasantries, I was taken aback when Professor Blaauw suddenly launched into a passionate critique of big science projects like the very one we had been discussing.  He was very concerned that astronomy had lost its way, and rather than thinking in any depth about what new experiments we should be doing, we kept simply pursuing more and more data.  His view was that all we would do with data sets like that produced by Hipparcos would be to skim off the cream and then turn our attention to the next bigger and better mission rather than investing the time and effort needed to exploit these data properly.  With technology advancing at such a rapid pace, this pressure will always be there – why work hard for many months to optimise the exploitation of this year’s high-performance computers, when next year’s will be able to do the same task as a trivial computation?  Indeed, the Hipparcos catalogue of a million stars is even now in the process of being superseded by the Gaia mission making even higher quality measurements of a billion stars.

Of course there are two sides to this argument.  Some science simply requires the biggest and the best.  Particle physicists, for example, need ever-larger machines to explore higher energy regimes to probe new areas of fundamental physics.  And some results can only be obtained through the collection of huge amounts of data to find the rare phenomena that are buried in such an avalanche, and to build up statistics to a point where conclusions become definitive.  This approach has worked very well in astronomy, where collaborations such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) have brought together thousands of researchers to work on projects on a scale that none could undertake individually.  Such projects have also democratized research in that although the data from surveys such as SDSS are initially reserved for the participants who have helped pay for the projects, the proprietary period is usually quite short so the data are available to anyone in the World with internet access to explore and publish their own findings.

Unfortunately, there is a huge price to pay for these data riches. First, there is definitely some truth in Blaauw’s critique, with astronomers behaving increasingly like magpies, drawn to the shiniest bauble in the newest, biggest data set.  This tendency is amplified by the funding of research, where the short proprietary period on such data means that those who are “on the team” have a cast iron case as to why their grant should be funded this round, because by next round anyone in the World could have done the analysis.  And of course by the time the next funding round comes along there is a new array of time-limited projects that will continue to squeeze out any smaller programmes or exploitation of older data.

But there are other problems that are potentially even more damaging to this whole scientific enterprise.  There is a real danger that we simply stop thinking.  If you ask astronomers what they would do with a large allocation of telescope time, most would probably say they would do a survey larger than any other.  It is, after all, a safe option: all those results that were right at the edge of statistical significance will be confirmed (or refuted) by ten times as much data, so we know we will get interesting results.  But is it really the best use of the telescope?  Could we learn more by targeting observations to many much more specific questions, each of which requires a relatively modest investment of time?  This concern also touches on the wider philosophical question of the “right” way to do science.  With a big survey, the temptation is always to correlate umpteen properties of the data with umpteen others until something interesting pops out, then try to explain it.  This a posteriori approach is fraught with difficulty, as making enough plots will always turn up a correlation, and it is then always possible to reverse engineer an explanation for what you have found.  Science progresses in a much more robust (and satisfying) way when the idea comes first, followed by thinking of an experiment that is explicitly targeted to test the hypothesis, and then the thrill of discovering that the Universe behaves as you had predicted (or not!) when you analyse the results of the test.

Finally, and perhaps most damagingly, we are turning out an entire generation of new astronomers who have only ever worked on mining such big data sets.  As PhD students, they will have been small cogs in the massive machines that drive these big surveys forward, so the chances of them having their names associated with any exciting results are rather small – not unreasonably, those who may have invested most of a career in getting the survey off the ground will feel they have first call on any such headlines.  The students will also have never seen a project all the way through from first idea on the back of a beer mat through telescope proposals, observations, analysis, write-up and publication.  Without that overview of the scientific process on the modest scale of a PhD project, they will surely be ill prepared for taking on leadership roles on bigger projects further down the line.

I suppose it all comes down to a question of balance: there are some scientific results that would simply be forever inaccessible without large-scale surveys, but we have to somehow protect the smaller-scale operations that can produce some of the most innovative results, while also helping to keep the whole endeavour on track.  At the moment, we seem to be very far from that balance point, and are instead playing out Adriaan Blaauw’s nightmare.

No cuts, no confidence at University of Leicester

A couple of weeks ago, Peter Coles, whose In The Dark blog I follow, highlighted worrying news about the “down-sizing” of the Maths department at the University of Leicester. Equally worryingly, the Condensed Matter Physics group at Leicester, which has a strong track record in nanoscience research, has been proposed for closure.

I would encourage you to sign the UCU’s petition against the cuts at the University of Leicester: No cuts, No confidence at University of Leicester



And so farewell. Leaving Labour.

I was going to write a post on my thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory at the weekend but in the reblogged post below Fr. Blackledge sums up a lot of what I’d wanted to say…and then some. I agree with his sound advice to Corbyn (although, unlike Fr. Blackledge, I’ll remain a member of the Labour Party).


So here’s my letter of farewell to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.

I was an entryist, really. I hadn’t been a member of the Labour party for years, but I decided to put up the money in order to vote at this leaderhsip election. Like 40% of those who joined for this purpose, I voted to try and vote you out. We lost, as you probably know… I didn’t vote against you because of your policies. I voted against you because you are unelectable.

I think the Labour party is dead and gone for a generation at least, possibly for all time. But Jeremy, I wish the best for you, I really do, so for what it’s worth, here’s my advice as a concerned bystander.

Have a vision, not a complaint. The strategy of pointing out how horrible the Tories are, and mumbling about “hope” and hoping people will vote for…

View original post 648 more words

Politics. Perception. Philosophy. And Physics.

Today is the start of the new academic year at the University of Nottingham (UoN) and, as ever, it crept up on me and then leapt out with a fulsome “Gotcha”. Summer flies by so very quickly. I’ll be meeting my new 1st year tutees this afternoon to sort out when we’re going to have tutorials and, of course, to get to know them. One of the great things about the academic life is watching tutees progress over the course of their degree from that first “getting to know each other” meeting to when they graduate.

The UoN has introduced a considerable number of changes to the “student experience” of late via its Project Transform process. I’ve vented my spleen about this previously but it’s a subject to which I’ll be returning in the coming weeks because Transform says an awful lot about the state of modern universities.

For now, I’m preparing for a module entitled “The Politics, Perception and Philosophy of Physics” (F34PPP) that I run in the autumn semester. This is a somewhat untraditional physics module because, for one thing, it’s almost entirely devoid of mathematics. I thoroughly enjoy  F34PPP each year (despite this amathematical heresy) because of the engagement and enthusiasm of the students. The module is very much based on their contributions — I am more of a mediator than a lecturer.

STEM students are sometimes criticised (usually by Simon Jenkins) for having poorly developed communication skills. This is an especially irritating stereotype in the context of the PPP module, where I have been deeply impressed by the quality of the writing the students submit. As I discuss in the video below (an  overview of the module), I’m not alone in recognising this: articles submitted as F34PPP coursework have been published in Physics World, the flagship magazine of the Institute of Physics.


In the video I note that my intention is to upload a weekly video for each session of the module. I’m going to do my utmost to keep this promise and, moreover, to accompany each of those videos with a short(ish) blog post. (But, to cover my back, I’ll just note in advance that the best laid schemes gang aft agley…)

How to sociably debate social justice

or Why We Should Feed The Trolls.

The following is a fascinating guest post by Hugh Dingwall. Hugh, aka “Objective Reality”, has posted a number of intelligent, perceptive, and compellingly-argued comments under previous posts at “Symptoms…”. I was very impressed by the quality of his writing, and by the careful manner in which he laid out his arguments, so I invited him to write a guest post. That post is below. I have never been happier to be told I’m wrong.  

[Note that (i) the title (and sub-title) above are due to me, not Hugh, so any criticism about the titling of the piece should be directed to me; (ii) Hugh’s points about safe spaces and no platforming are particularly timely in the context of this recent debate in academia: %5D

First off, thanks to Phil for inviting me to do this guest post, which I intend to begin by disagreeing with him about a couple of things.

Phil’s made it clear in a couple of different places, that he doesn’t agree with the idea of no-platforming (or blocking people), or with safe spaces. I get his reasons (and I think they come from a good place) but I think he’s wrong.

To deal with safe spaces first, this concept is usually portrayed by “SJW-slayers” as a way for a person to avoid concepts that challenge them, and this is, I think, what Phil (rightly) disagrees with. The problem is that that’s not what they are, at least in the forms that I’ve encountered them. The “safe spaces” I’ve come across have been areas, particularly on a university campus, where a marginalised group can go and (quite literally) be safe. The best example of this is the Women’s Room at my old university, which was established because there were a number of behaviours that male students engaged in that made female students feel quite (justifiably) unsafe. Since it was one room, with some paper resources if you needed them and a free phone (I know because my girlfriend of the time called me from there on a number of occasions) you could hardly use it to shelter your precious worldview. You could however, use it to call your boyfriend to come and pick you up when you’d had a distressing encounter with an arsehole at the student pub. This kind of safe space is, in my opinion, quite hard to argue against unless you’re the aforementioned pub arsehole – and is more commonly what defenders of safe spaces have in mind.

As regards no-platforming (the practice of preventing people from speaking on campuses because of their views), and relatedly blocking people you can’t be bothered with on social media, I again see Phil’s point. On the other hand, I remember how angry I was when my university played host to an Intelligent Design proponent. The issue wasn’t that my ideas were being challenged, or even that I thought this guy would convince anyone. I was angry that money (MY money – we have to pay for university in New Zealand (which this guy hadn’t when he attended but that’s another angry story)) had been spent paying him to lecture, when it could have been given to someone, even someone just as controversial, whose views weren’t provably false. It was an hour of my life I wasn’t going to get back, and the man had been paid for wasting it. He wasn’t going to convince anyone who wasn’t a closet-Creationist, and most infuriatingly, he didn’t even understand the theory of evolution that he claimed to debunk. (I should mention at this point that I dropped out of university, and while I was attending I was a Classics major – and I still had a clearer understanding of the theory than this guy who purported to be able to prove it wrong.)

To extend this logic to blocking people on social media, I think it’s important to know when a conversation has reached its useful end. I understand the principle that it’s good to be exposed to views you disagree with, but firstly, there’s no amount of David Icke I can read that will convince me that giant reptilians are a real non-metaphorical problem in the world. There’s a point past which a conversation with an Icke-believer stops being useful as a result. (The reader is invited to extend the logic to situations where political or philosophical disagreement devolves into mere fountains of bile). Moreover, I think that people whose goal is to harass or bully their intellectual opponents often use this idea (that you should always be open to defending your ideas from opposing views) as a way to try and argue that you owe them a continued conversation (even once they’ve begun abusing you or bringing in their followers to try for a dogpile) and that refusing them that conversation is a sign of cowardice. Which is bullshit – especially if you’re someone whose fame and/or status as a member of a despised group makes you a target for nastier-than-usual or literally-dangerous attacks, or if your opponent is a well-established internet presence who can call on a literal horde of faceless howling zealots to shout you down.

Finally, I’m not that keen on Rush. Though I acknowledge their technical skill, I’ve always been more of a psychedelia guy, and I have a special place in my heart for the British folk-rock explosion of the 70s (go look up Joe Boyd, and listen to basically everyone he produced, then work sideways from there, also the Grateful Dead, and Tom Waits).

[Editor’s note: Hugh’s criticism of Rush here is clearly an uncharacteristic lapse of judgement. He redeems himself by mentioning Tom Waits (whose, um, unique music I got to know via the fantastic Primus), so, much as it pains me, I’m willing to overlook the lack of enthusiasm for Rush. I’m sure Hugh will come round to their unique charms in the end.]

As you can see from the above, it’s entirely possible to disagree with people while remaining entirely civil. More importantly, it’s possible to disagree with people while acknowledging that they make good points, or have good reasons for the views they hold. (Reasons can be good even if you think they’re incorrect.) In philosophy, this is called “the principle of charity”. The idea is that to avoid strawmanning, you should ensure that you’re engaging with the strongest possible form of your opponent’s argument, given the things they’ve actually said. I find that it also helps to ask what people mean if you’re not sure, so you don’t end up talking at cross purposes.

Which brings me to the various discussions I had in the comments of Phil’s blog post “The Faith And Fables of Thunderfoot”.

The style of discussion I’ve indulged in above (and attempted to explain thereafter) is the way I talk on the internet if I’m interested in getting to the bottom of what people think, or making a genuine point. I’ll talk about the points that got discussed in that comments section in a bit, but first I want to talk about this style of discourse as opposed to trolling. See, I agree with Phil that trolling, while inherently somewhat mean-spirited, can be an art in and of itself (and some examples can be truly transcendent). However, the purpose of trolling is to keep your victim(s) expending energy for your amusement (and that of any onlookers). It’s not a form of argumentation, and if you put more energy into it than your victims do, you are a very ineffective troll. This is why I call bullshit on the likes of Thunderfoot and Sargon of Akkad when they claim to be “just trolling” as a way to avoid defending their arguments and/or actions. If they are trolls, then firstly we have no reason to accept their arguments as anything other than deliberately vexatious nonsense, and secondly (given the average length of their videos) they are very bad trolls indeed.

Pleasingly, there wasn’t much of that kind of conversation in the comments at Phil’s blog. Instead, two major points seemed to come up:

  1. People wanted to know how we could be sure that sexual dimorphism wasn’t to blame for the lack of women in STEM fields (this was the initial disagreement between Phil and Thunderfoot which led to the email exchange reproduced in the blogpost – I recommend going and reading it if you haven’t (otherwise some of this post may be quite confusing).
  2. People seemed nervous of adopting what might be seen as “feminist” positions, for fear that this might somehow be seen as implicating all men in a mass act of malice against all women, or that it might lead to them inadvertently endorsing some position that they deeply disagreed with.

To deal with the first point first (a novel idea, I know), the short answer is that we can’t. We can know very little for sure. On the other hand, it seems very unlikely that sexual dimorphism is to blame for women’s career and study choices. Phil goes into this in detail in this post here, but I’m not an academic (I’m a sound technician) and I want to talk about some other stuff as well, so I’ll just summarise the main points.

First off, I need to acknowledge that it’s not an inherently silly idea that sexual dimorphism might be to blame, as humans are a moderately sexually dimorphic species. Men* tend to be bigger, stronger, and hairier than women, who tend in turn to outlive them. It’s not totally outlandish to suggest that there may be brain differences as well. However, the evidence doesn’t bear this out, and as Phil points out in both the blogposts I’ve linked to, it’s very very difficult to decouple social factors from purely biological ones in humans. The evidence for social factors influencing women’s choices, on the other hand, seems to be pretty strong. It’s easily provable that society used to be much more sexist than it is right now. Most antifeminists would even agree with this proposition. I think it’s quite reasonable to argue that the recent (as in, last 50 years or so) influx of women into traditionally male fields is more likely to stem from an increased acceptance of women doing these kinds of jobs and studying in these fields than it is to be a result of evolution.

Which brings me to another point – there were a good number of appeals in the pro-sexual-dimorphism camp to what we might call “naturalistic” explanations, including a good deal of recourse to evolutionary psychology. Now, my good friend Daniel Copeland is convinced that there’s some merit in evopsych, and he is a very intelligent guy and makes a good case for the bits he supports. However, evopsych is probably one of the most abused theories I’ve ever seen. If you’re not familiar with it, the idea is that you can find explanations for bits of human behaviour in our evolutionary past, and sometimes you can discover those bits of evolutionary past by, for example, observing other primates. There are two problems with this – the first is that people who don’t fully understand it tend to just point to an aspect of human behaviour they wish to claim is immutable, and then invent an “evolutionary-sounding” reason for it. The more fundamental problem is that we’re not other primates, and even if we were, the world of animal sexual dynamics is hugely diverse.

There was a tendency in the early days of biology to assume that most animals would follow the family/relationship structure that those early biologists considered “natural” – dominant males, submissive females, and so on. The actual picture is much more complicated, and as I noted, we’re not other primates – we’re humans. Our whole thing is using technologies (including social technologies) to overcome our natural limits. That’s how come my wife can see, and my mother can hear. That’s how come we developed hugely complex social structures that let us live stacked on top of each other in cities without all killing each other (most of the time). There’s no reason to assume that even if there were a natural predisposition that led women to shun certain fields, we would allow ourselves to be bound by that. It’s not how we work. (Daniel Copeland wrote a nice blog post that goes into this in more detail.) We can also look at evidence (detailed in Phil’s post that I already linked) that shows that the steady decline of sexism globally correlates with a steady increase in women going into traditionally male fields both in science and the arts (there are far more female-fronted rock bands than their used to be, for one thing.) Obviously correlation is not causation, but it’s telling that these changes are far quicker than the sort of effect we’d expect from evolution, giventhe length of human generations.

And now to point number two. Again, I have some sympathy for this position. It’s completely wrong, but I get it. The issue is that while feminism is becoming quite broadly discussed (online at least), it’s not as broadly understood. This means that many people think that they are (or need to be) anti-feminist or non-feminist, when their views actually align with the majority of feminist theory. This is certainly the position I was in to begin with**. Then a very patient feminist lady on Facebook took the time to actually unpack what we were talking about, and I realised precisely how badly I had the wrong end of the stick.

The first issue I want to talk about here is terminology. Feminists use a number of words in ways which differ from a naive dictionary definition. This is (contrary to to what anti-SJWs would have you believe) not actually uncommon. In my own field as a sound engineer for a radio station, I use a number of terms which would be incomprehensible to someone who isn’t versed in sound tech, and a number of common words (for example “wet/dry”, “trim”, “bright/dark” and “dead/alive”) have quite specific meanings within that field. I’m sure Philip talks differently about physics to advanced students than he does to laypeople for the same reason. The advantage Phil and I have over feminists is that no-one misunderstands or willfully misuses our terminology against us. The terms that suffer the most abuse in discussions about feminism are, I think, “patriarchy” and “privilege”.

Again, since I’m not an academic, and I have already used a significant amount of virtual ink in this post, I’m going to summarise here. If you want really detailed discussions of exactly how these terms function, I suggest you go and check out people like Garrett, Chrisiousity, or Kristi Winters on Youtube. Patriarchy, as I understand it, refers to a social order which assumes that a specific sort of masculinity is the “default” gender identity, and judges all other in comparison (usually negatively). Privilege refers to the advantages (often small, at least when taken individually) that individuals accrue by being close to that default. In the Anglosphere*** the patriarchal ideal is rich, white, physically and emotionally dominant, heterosexual, and male – the more like that you are, the more privilege you have. The tendency is for one’s own privilege to be invisible (ie it just feels “normal”) so you tend to assume everyone can freely do what you can, unless you stop and think about it.

For example, I live in New Zealand. It is a small and fairly egalitarian country (we were among the first to give votes to women, and signed a treaty with our indigenous people rather than just murdering them all and taking their stuff, for example****) and seems reasonably enlightened on the surface. However, when I got married to a Samoan woman, I found that I was now conducting a field test into latent community racism. My wife and I can go into the same store within minutes of each other and get hugely different reactions from staff, because she is brown. When I am out alone with our daughters, I get approving noises from mums about how good it is that I as a Dad spend time with my girls, my wife gets asked if those little blonde girls are really hers. This was entirely invisible to me until that relationship opened a window for me into her world – in other words, a portion of my own privilege became visible to me in a way it hadn’t been. Here’s another example, in New Zealand, the majority of voters want decriminalisation or outright legalisation of cannabis. Our (Tory) prime minister has ruled this out, relying instead on “police discretion” to institute a sort of “de-facto decriminalisation”. The problem is that because people tend to use their discretion in slightly racist ways, this has led to disproportionately terrible outcomes for our Pacific Island and Maori minorities.

This is the result of an organic accretion of values over time – not a conspiracy. (White, straight) men have not conspired to create this system, though some men do work to preserve it because (presumably) they’re afraid of losing what power they have. This system also negatively affects some men – we are expected to be physically dominant and prepared to fight for family or country, and failure to do so can lead to terrible personal consequences. We are not generally assumed to have as deep an emotional life as women (because this is not patriarchally desirable) and this leads to terrible outcomes in mental health. We are expected to be hale and hearty and this leads to horrible outcomes in physical health. This is not a state of affairs that benefits us overall.

I use a pseudonym in lots of places on the internet because when I started out online (in the total wild west of pre-internet dial-up bulletin boards) that was just what people did, and I never thought deeply enough about the habit to change it. I don’t do it because I am afraid that people may harm me or my family because of my opinions. Anecdotally, my female friends are. Moreover, because I exist in a fairly privileged position (I am after all, a straight white dude from the wider Anglosphere) I don’t have to constantly justify my presence online, and my right to an opinion. Anecdotally, my female friends do. This means that I can get into arguments about feminism or other social justice causes on the internet without bringing the fatigue that results from a life of fighting sealions along with me, and I can be polite if the situation seems to merit it. (Also I am a pedantic and argumentative bugger.) While I think that it can be counterproductive to snap at people, I can totally understand why many women, POC, transpeople and so on do not have my level of patience with dudes***** who barge into conversations and restate very basic arguments very incoherently. This is because I have a privilege in terms of online discussion, which they do not.

Since you’re granted privilege by society on the basis of factors you can’t control, you can’t really get rid of it. All you can do is attempt to use it responsibly. One of the ways I try to do this, is by patiently and politely asking questions of antifeminists on the internet until they either make themselves look silly, or become more reasonable. That is, after all, what worked for me.


*I’m going to stick with the terms “men” and “women” here because a) I don’t think trans people are a big enough population to seriously throw out the averages as far as size and weight distributions, and b) the exact configurations of people’s genitals are largely none of my business. I’ll worry about my own genitals, and my wife’s, and that’ll do me.

**I had a deeply tiresome “pendulum” theory about how power moved from group to group in society, and it tied into the death of prog and the rise of punk and it was awful. I had a bit of an embarrassment-shudder just typing that.

***It strikes me as a better shorthand for “mostly-white, mostly-English-speaking countries” than “The West”.

****If any of my readers are Maori and about to get cross with me for oversimplifying and making it seem like NZ’s racial history is just peachy-keen – stop. I know it’s more complicated than that and that the government did plenty of murdering and nicking of stuff (sometimes by stealthy law-making) and that the situation is far from resolved. It’s also a better deal than many colonised indigenous peoples got (which is totally shameful, I know).

*****Let’s face it dudes, it’s usually us. Like, 95% of the time, at least.

For who’s a jolly good fellow?

It’s that time of the year again. The deadline for submission of applications for Royal Society University Research Fellowships (URFs) is today. I know four postdoctoral researchers who have submitted their proposal and now will wait anxiously for the next few months until they find out if they’ve been called for an interview. And then they’ll sweat a little more before discovering if they’re one of the lucky ~ 8% of those who’ve applied that have landed a fellowship.

A fellowship is increasingly seen as a rite of passage to an academic career (at least in many areas of physics). The bar for securing a lectureship has been raised dramatically since I was fortunate enough to be employed by the School of Physics and Astronomy back in 1997 (although it was still just the Department of Physics back in those dim, distant days). As I’ve said before — once or twice — I know for a fact that what I had in terms of “output” back in 1997 wouldn’t even get me on a shortlist these days; competition has increased dramatically.

I’ve not been a URF (or sat on a URF panel) but I’ve been an EPSRC fellow and have also been a member of EPSRC fellowship panels, so I’ve been on either side of the ‘divide’. I’ve been planning for a while to put together a list of tips/suggestions for fellowship applicants (based on my experience as a panel member), and given the day that’s in it, there’s no time like the present…

Have a mock interview.  I cannot overstate the importance of this. I’ve been rather surprised at the number of fellowship candidates I’ve met who had not sat down with colleagues prior to the day of the formal interview and had a dress-rehearsal. There is no better way to prepare than to have your colleagues, preferably those who have sat on fellowship panels previously (though this isn’t essential), give you a thorough grilling in advance. Quite a few universities now organise mock interviews as a matter of course but if yours doesn’t, don’t feel at all shy about approaching peers/colleagues/URFs/EPSRC fellows in your department and asking whether they’d be willing to do a mock interview with you.   (The same advice holds true for any PhD students who might be reading this and have a viva coming up soon…)

Assert your independence. Fellowship schemes targeted at early career researchers almost invariably are designed to select candidates who demonstrate original ideas, creativity, and the potential to develop an independent programme of research. There’s no better way to demonstrate your potential for independent research than being able to point to examples in your application (and in the interview) of where you — yes, you guessed it — acted as an independent researcher.

Although this may sound somewhat ‘disloyal’ , anything that can set you apart from your research supervisor’s/principal investigator’s ideas and goals is useful. Make yourself known in your research community by organising workshops or conferences; accept any (and all) opportunities for invited talks that come your way (regardless of how daunted you may feel); apply for grants where you can. Although I appreciate that opportunities for independent postdoc funding are thin on the ground (and this needs to change), keep your ear close to that ground and be alert to the possibilities of securing even small amounts of funding. The goal here is not to establish a £30M Centre-For-Universe-Leading-Cross-Disciplinary-Inter-Sectoral-Super-Duper-Science but to demonstrate that you can write a successful bid for funding).

Avoid boilerplate. There’s little point stating that your research has the potential to have a major impact on industry and that you’re going to work closely with your university’s Business Development and Innovation department — or whatever it’s called this month — to make this a reality unless you provide specific examples of just how you’re going to do it. Anyone can write non-specific boilerplate; it just irritates referees.

I’ve had my differences of opinion over the years with Athene Donald on the subject of impact but I fully agree with the points she made in an important blog post back in 2011 — Kidding Yourself (The Impact Saga Continues). Be specific. As someone who criticised the research councils’ impact agenda for many years, I’m obliged to say that, to their credit, public engagement alone is enough for a Pathways To Impact statement. This is particularly important if your research is on the fundamental end of the spectrum and far from application/exploitation/market. But, again, warm words and purple prose are not enough. Be specific about what you’ll do in terms of public engagement. (I should note that the Royal Society Fellowship scheme (like those of the European Research Council) is rather less focused on non-academic impact than are the UK research councils).

Papers in “those” journals matter. I very much wish that I didn’t have to include this point but, unfortunately, it’d be naive and rather disingenuous of me to avoid it. It’s not infrequently the case that members of panels tasked with reviewing fellowship applications outsource the judgement of research quality to the brand-names of the journals in which the applicants have published. I wrote about this problem at length previously for the LSE blog so I’m not going to revisit it here. I’ll just say this: In a perfect world candidates would be judged directly on their research achievements, rather than where they’re published. But let’s be realistic — this isn’t going to happen in academia any time soon. And yes, I’m indeed a hypocrite for pointing this out.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. The referees are looking for vision, originality, and novelty. They want to be excited by the scope of your project, not swamped by minutiae that mean little to anyone who isn’t one of the world-experts in your (sub-)(sub-)(sub-) field. You’re writing a proposal, not a comprehensive scientific paper. Aim to put across the bigger picture. This is particularly the case when your proposal is likely to be judged by a non-expert panel.

And, finally, keep an eye on the world outside those stereotypically gleaming ivory towers and dreaming spires. Don’t put your eggs all in one basket. Success rates for fellowships are exceptionally low, and the chances of securing a permanent lectureship (in physics at least) are anything but encouraging. If an academic career is your life-long ambition then go for it. But go for it with your eyes wide open and take the time to occasionally look outside the lab.

…and if you’re applying for a fellowship today, or any other day, I wish you the very best of luck.

In Defence of Carl of Swindon

As regular readers will know — thanks both of you for the continued support —  I’ve wasted too much time over the last couple of months on pointless, nigh-on-interminable spats with members of the less intellectually gifted wing of Carl Benjamin‘s (and Philip Mason‘s) fanbase. Oh, and with Mr. Benjamin and Dr. Mason themselves, of course.

I’ve said previously that I wouldn’t be writing any more extended posts on the Cult of Benjamin/Mason/Kirk et al. And I won’t. But I did promise that I’d respond to comments on my previous critiques. And I have. Repeatedly. At length.

Alongside the rather overwrought and over-sensitive ripostes from Mr. Benjamin’s more devout disciples, there were a small number of well-written and intelligent replies to my critiques and criticisms. These included the response below from ‘Kargoneth’, to whom my initial “Dear Supporter of Carl Benjamin” post was addressed.  It was refreshing to see that, unlike so many of Benjamin’s defenders — and, indeed, unlike Mr. Benjamin himself — Kargoneth clearly appreciated the sledgehammer satire and sarcasm in my original post.

I promised ‘Kargoneth’ that I’d make their response more visible by putting it on the “front page” of the blog, as it were. I thought it was only fair that they were given a right to reply that wasn’t buried in a lengthy comments thread. In any case, Kargoneth’s response is arguably the most thoughtful, and thought-provoking I’ve received and deserves to be widely read by Mr. Benjamin’s critics. While I don’t agree with many of his points, Kargoneth provides the type of intelligent response that Mr. Benjamin himself couldn’t muster in response to my e-mails to him.

[ Edit 14 Sept 2016: Disjunctive Media posted the following intelligent, perceptive, and very well-constructed response to Kargoneth a few days ago.]

Before Kargoneth’s post, however, and just to place my criticism of Mr. Benjamin in context (again), Disjunctive Media uploaded the video below last week. Note how Benjamin claims that telling a man he can’t get a girlfriend is equivalent to a rape threat to a woman.  It’s not often that I recommend reading a YouTube comments thread, but in this case it’s well worth taking a look below the line of Disjunctive Media’s video for sharp insights and pithy commentary on Mr. Benjamin.




I have been away for several weeks because I started a new job at the beginning of August, I’ve been busy with family and friends, and pretty much forgot about this. I started writing a response before my job started and eventually slipped from my mind. Thankfully, I saved the progress that I had such that I can now resume it. I have been thinking about how I would respond to your response. Much of this has already been written. I’ve been editing the existing text and attempting to finish it. It’s nearly 11:30 PM so I apologize for

I am not a fan of debates because I can’t think quickly enough on my feet (for example, I’ve been typing for three hours thus far while adding onto the ~120 lines/paragraphs (both from quotes of you and from those that I had already written for this response before the start of August)). Perhaps Carl doesn’t like debates. In that case, I am rather disappointed that he did not invite you to have a conversation with him instead of a debate.

I can’t promise that I will give you such a large response as this from now on. I don’t even know if I’ll respond beyond this message.

You have indeed caused me to question my own position. I find that I still agree with the overall points made by Carl regarding the absurd behaviours he highlights in his videos, but I try to look more critically towards his own behaviours from now on (though I can’t promise it will be as strict; I know that I am biased).

That said, he is not the only one pointing out similar absurdities to the ones that he mentions in his videos. The disdain of the general public towards feminists and SJWs is increasing; people are starting to get sick and tired of it, especially when it comes from governments and universities. Inevitably, the pendulum will swing in some other direction and new factions will form. One that is authoritarian and one that is libertarian. One that is dogmatic and one that is more open-minded. One that supports censorship and one that defies it.


[Edit by Philip Moriarty, Sept 4 2016: In the following I have italicised where Kargoneth has quoted from my post. No other edits have been applied.]

Hello again, Philip,

I watched your accompanying YouTube video and read this blog post and I will attempt to respond. I found 16:30 and onward in your video difficult to watch because I know that you are an honest person who genuinely cares about what you speak about. And I do have empathy for those that I respect and care about, including you, which is why I found it difficult to watch because I felt like I was being criticised by someone I look up to.

“Kargoneth’s comment is also very well-written, ”

Thank you. This one will be less formal and contain more emotional language. I am not a robot (though I frequently feel like one).

“… notwithstanding the utterly depressing lack of empathy and consideration for others it represents.”

Allow me to correct you: “… notwithstanding the utterly depressing lack of empathy and consideration for a specific individual it represents.”

I am very empathetic towards those that I care about (friends and family). For others, my empathy varies greatly according to my opinion of them and according to my state of mind and a given moment.

I only have a finite amount of empathy (perhaps it is a personal failing) in that I have a finite amount of time that I can devote to caring about people.

Based on my opinions of them, some people deserve my empathy and some people feel entitled to my empathy (these are not mutually-exclusive). These form four possible situations:

a) a person deserves my empathy and feels entitled to my empathy
b) a person does not deserve my empathy and feels entitled to my empathy
c) a person deserves my empathy and does not feel entitled to my empathy
d) a person does not deserve my empathy and does not feel entitled to my empathy

Friends and family (generally) belong to (a).

Jess Phillips does not strike me as deserving of my empathy. I do not like her. I do not like her opinions. I do not like her actions. To me, Jess Phillips belongs to (b).

You, Philip, belong to (c), because even though I’ve never met you, I like you. I see you in videos. You seem familiar to me. It is merely an illusion, of course, that when you talk to the camera or to Brady/Sean it feels like you are talking to me. Nevertheless, this has caused me to care about you. Contrariwise, you do not feel entitled to my empathy because you do not know me (aside from the paragraphs of mine that you have read). It is for these reasons that Carl also belongs to (c) for me.

I have become sensitized to the demonization perpetrated by progressives towards their opponents (likely due to videos by people like Carl) and the mainstream establishment’s support of said progressives. I have also noticed the same demonization towards progressives from their opponents. It is a battle. The difference is that the progressives seem to have the political leverage at the moment and are trying to exert that leverage to quash their opposition (as one should expect from anyone with power). The pendulum has swung from the political right to the political left, and is continuing to swing in the direction of increasing authoritarianism.

“First, I will refer to “Sargon of Akkad” as Carl Benjamin throughout my response, because that is his name. … Moreover, given that Mr. Benjamin is in his late thirties and a father of two, I’m of the opinion that it’s a little more appropriate, particularly in the context of his odious behaviour, to refer to him by his given name. I hope you understand.”

So be it. I will do the same.

“I have watched a number of his videos (including this far-from-edifying performance from Mr. Benjamin [1]).”

It is good to know that you are not working off of hearsay.

To be honest, I recall finding that “debate” very uncomfortable to listen to. Not so much due to the content, but rather due its format. It would have been much more bearable if it was in the format of a written debate. Such a format would have given each debater the chance to review and address both the points and citations of the other.

I am terrible at “thinking on my feet”. I would much rather take the time to think about my response than to be put on the spot. I have little doubt that I too would give a “far-far-from-edifying” performance in Carl’s place.

“My decision not to link to his channel was entirely deliberate. … I would much prefer not to be responsible for driving any amount, no matter how small, of internet traffic to Benjamin’s channel.”

That is your decision. I would still link to the videos of someone that I despise if only to imply that “Please watch these videos of the person making an ass out of themselves and you’ll see why I despise them”.

“And you are justifying this? You are defending Mr. Benjamin’s decision to send a victim of rape a tweet which says “I wouldn’t even rape you?”.

You really think that’s appropriate and something that should be defended?


How about walking up to a woman who’d been raped and saying to her face, “I wouldn’t even rape you?” Would you do that? Is it defensible? Justifiable?

Or if a random person were to whisper in your ear on the Tube/subway/street (or send you a tweet out of the blue) stating “I wouldn’t even rape you”, would that be entirely acceptable behaviour? The type of behaviour we should encourage in a decent, caring society?

Or would you instead consider it to be rather threatening and disturbing?

And what if happening not just once, it happened 600 times? “I wouldn’t even rape you“. Over and over again.

Perfectly acceptable? Something we should encourage?”

I was unaware that Jess Phillips had been the victim of sexual assault ( Does this make Carl’s words more hurtful to her? Probably. Did he know that she was the victim of sexual assault? I don’t know (I don’t think so, based on his video).

Is it appropriate? No. Does it make Carl an asshole? Yes. It is insensitive? Yes. It is justified? That depends on one’s point of view. Should one

It could be an act of retribution for Jess Phillips laughing at the idea of that mens rights should be up for parliamentary debate. Men commit suicide far more often than women? HA! Men die younger than women? HA! Men beat by their wives are more likely to be taken away by the police than actually helped by them? HA! Male victims of domestic abuse receive a tiny fraction of government support when it comes to shelters? HA HA HA HA HA!

Could that be why? I don’t know.

You ask me to put myself in Jess Phillips shoes. To have such contempt for half of the human population. To only value them in as much as they can be of use to me. Fine.

Men. Pfft. Pigs. Animals. Scum. Rapists. Fucking rapists. Preying on innocent women. Why the fuck should I give them the time of day; they’d all rape me if giving half a chance (hell, one of them has already tried). What? One of the filthy fuck-barbarians is responding to me… What? He wouldn’t even have the indecency to rape me? Who the fuck does he think he is, talking to me like that. How dare he! This is outrageous! This is reprehensible! What a misogynistic troglodyte! What a brute! What a fucking ingrate! How dare he say such things to the likes of me!? I’m a politician! He doesn’t own me. I own him. The police should lock his fat fucking ass in a jail cell and throw away the key. That would make him learn his place. Oh! But I can use twitter to get him… that didn’t help… This twitter exchange is not going my way. I need to save face. I need assistance. Help! help! I’m being repressed! An evil man threatened to rape me!

That’s enough of that. My portrayal of her is of course coloured by my observations and existing opinion of her. Even if she honestly believes that she is a good person and doing good, she’s still acting like a regressive member of the nobility.

Suppose that the media villified you. Laws were biased against you. Courts were biased against you. Police were biased against you. It is really so difficult to understand why you might be just a little vindictive and lash out when a politician repeatedly demonstrates that she is biased against you, doesn’t give a damn about you, and will happily support other such biases against you?

“Let’s remove the tinfoil helmet for a second and look at this beyond the usual tediously naive and uninformed rants from Mr. Benjamin.”

No tinfoil hat is required.

Emma Sulkowicz – Carried a mattress around her university and to her graduation to protest the university’s failure to punish her alleged rapist, a fellow student, Paul Nungesser. The university cleared Paul of wrongdoing. I’m not going to go into the absurdity of a university acting like a court of law. Paul did not rape her, but that didn’t stop her professor from supporting her based solely on her accusations nor did it stop the university from giving her credit for it as an art project. Nungesser was humiliated and the mainstream media had no issues with publishing the debacle as if Paul was a rapist.

Professor Melissa Click – joined a student protest and, when confronted by a journalist with a camera that was documenting the event, yelled for some muscle to forcefully remove the journalist. Click has since been fired for attempting to suppress the freedom of the press.

Black Lives Matter – calling for the deaths of police officers due to a narrative accusing police of racial bias when it comes to black people being killed by police, despite the fact that at least as many white people are killed by the police (I hate this race-based language).

Gregory Alan Elliot – Accused of criminally harassing three women on Twitter because he disagreed with and criticized them. He was prevented by a court order from using the internet for three years before a judge finally ruled that he was not guilty. Because he was an artist this severely affected his income, affecting not only him but also his family.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – Cancelled an event where museum goers could try on traditional Japanese kimonos because they were accused of racism.

GamerGate – Demonization of all gamers by not only the mainstream press but even games journalists themselves, calling them “neck-bearded, basement-dwelling, misogynists that live in their mother’s basements” because some gamers happen to be jerks and when a conflict of interest is pointed out in the journalists

Diversity quotas, positive discrimination, reverse racism (call it what you will) – mandating that people that are seen to be a member of a specific group of people should receive preference over other people primarily because they are seen to be a member of said specific group and only secondarily because of their abilities

Matt Taylor – Humiliated and shamed by the media during what should have been the greatest moment of his career — landing a spaceship on an asteroid — for wearing a shirt given to him by his female friend. This lead to his eventual tearful online apology.

Earl Silverman – Had to run a men’s shelter out of his own pocket because the government gave him the runaround and refused to give him funding unless he also made it a shelter for women, despite the facts that women shelters are not required to give (and in fact are dissuaded from giving) shelter to men, there are already several women shelters, and there are no men-only shelters. Earl eventually committed suicide.

Anita Sarkeesian, Briana Wu, Zoë Quinn – Partake in dubious endeavours funded by the donations of other, refuse to address or even engage with their critics, demonize gaming and gamers themselves through smear campaigns through their friends in the media, and then when the inevitable backlash comes back in the form of demonization and smearing, claim to be innocent victims and shove their patreon accounts forward asking for donations (for what, who the hell knows), literally making them professional victims (they live off of the donations they get for playing the victim). Much like their most vocal critics, and some of the people that they themselves demonize, they make money off of the controversies that they are involved in and if their income starts to drop all they have to do is up their game, cry that they are even more harassed, and the money starts flowing again. The biggest names of both of the major worldviews in said controversies make money, some of them make it hand-over-fist. The difference is that the mainstream media, large corporate entities, and even the UN take the side of the women.

Rich university students screaming and protesting that they have nothing to lose but their chains.

Graduates of gender studies courses disowning their families because they were taught that their families are oppressors (how remarkably similar to members of cults).

Women that graduate from women studies complaining about there not being more women in STEM (the irony being that if they really wanted more women in STEM they should have chosen STEM themselves).

Groups of online people that try to get the people that they disapprove of fired from their jobs by repeatedly calling their employers and complaining (i.e. social justice warriors). They will gladly harass the employers with accusations about the person being racist, sexist, bigoted, etc. The employer often fires the employee not because the employee has actually done anything wrong (especially since the accusations are often inflated or outright fictitious) but because the employer does not want their phone systems and email systems clogged by people making such accusations and it is easier to just fire the person to stop the influx. Rather ironic given that these same people are most often the loudest critics of online “harassment” but seem to have few issues with offline “harassment”. There are good reasons for anonymity. Especially if you have people that depend upon you (eg. (once again) the family of Gregory Alan Elliot).

The rise of cultural Marxism in the form of ideologies like intersectional feminism, patriarchy theory, the progressive stack.

The infantilization of women, blacks, university students, minorities, and anyone else who currently falls into the category of “oppressed person” in the worldview of intersectional feminists and other cultural marxists

The demonization of males, straights, whites, and anyone else who currently falls into the category of “oppressor” because they disagree with a cultural Marxist or someone that cultural marxists consider to be an “oppressed person”, or because, in the eyes of a cultural Marxist and due to guilt by association, they happen to fall into the same category as someone already considered to be an “oppressor”.

The list goes on and on and on, but there is a common theme here. Women are seen as victims and men are seen as oppressors. Non-whites are seen as victims and whites are seen as oppressors.

(The above points were from when I first started writing this comment (before the start of August). More examples have occurred since then, but the list is already long enough).

“I am, for example, a strong critic of the concept of safe spaces in universities.”


“As I also state in the “Preaching to the choir” post, I do not block, moderate, censor or edit comments here or elsewhere. (The only comments I remove are those that are clearly spam: “You are writing great. Please keep going. See my site…”).”

Glad to hear it.

“Moreover, I am firmly of the opinion that we do not “lock out” other points of view. We meet them head on, debate them, and show up the paucity of their arguments. (This is particularly straight-forward when it comes to Benjamin and his ilk). I discuss this at more length in a comment over at Steve Shives’ YT channel [2].”

Yes. This is why I am torn regarding Carl’s petition to suspend social justice courses. I see the harm that they cause so I want them to stop perpetuating their lies. I also despise censorship so I wouldn’t want their professors to be silenced. I do find that I agree with Carl in that these courses definitely need a large infusion of critical thinking and fact checking. Universities should not be propaganda mills.

Having written this, and watched your video, I have undergone a lot of introspection. You’ve made me realize that I too am subject to this “us-and-them” mentality, but I hope you can understand why I would be so cynical about a feminist politician decrying her harassment while continuing to fuel the propaganda about the very same thing.

– men that are the targets of false rape accusations by women are treated by the media and society at large with the same social ostracization and othering as convicted rapists (minus the jail time)
– there are little to no social or legal repercussions for false accusers
– men who are raped by women are laughed at or told that they should enjoy it or that they must be gay
– the raping of men by women is classified legally as a less serious crime than the raping of a woman by a man or even the raping of a woman by a woman
– feminists claim to speak for all women and that all women are the victims of misogyny but when confronted by women that disagree with them they will claim that the disagreeing women are the victims of internalized misogyny and can thus be ignored
– an entire group of people claiming (but not demonstrating) that they are victims can use their victimhood as a social and legal bludgeon against those that disagree with them
– a drunken women and a drunken man have sex it is the man that is held accountable
– police are less likely to intervene in criminal activities perpetrated by perceived minorities for fears of being called racists or bigots
– the mainstream media refuses to accurately report on events and choose to hide uncomfortable truths from the public
– a man and a women have consentual sex and the woman later regrets it she can accuse him of raping her
– it is claimed by feminists that men are much more likely than women to engage in domestic abuse when the fact is that men and women are approximately equally likely to engage in domestic abuse but nobody ever mentions this fact
– feminists can claim that 1 in 5 on college campuses will be sexually assaulted and the media will happily broadcast this “fact” when the statistics show that women are actually less likely to be sexually assaulted on a college campus than in the surrounding city
– signs saying “teach men not to rape” and “don’t be that guy” tacitly imply that all men are sexual predators and rapists are posted all over and people don’t even bat an eye, but if someone was to put up a sign that said “teach women not to lie about rape” people react with outrage
– social justice warriors consider all white people to be guilty of oppressing black people because some white people (not to mention black people) of the past were slavers, yet the same SJWs never acknowledge that many white people in the past were slaves themselves, never were slavers, and/or freed slaves, are blamed for slavery even if their ancestors never owned slaves or even actively fought against slavery
– the poor living conditions in some black neighbourhoods is entirely blamed on systemic racism by white people rather being a product of the culture of said neighbourhoods (i.e. gang violence, drug dealing, rampant crime, poor schooling, and broken families), yet not a word is spoken about the good living conditions in some other black neighbourhoods, the poor living conditions in not-entirely
– it is claimed by feminists (and even the president of the USA) that women earn 77 cents to every man’s dollar and this is evidence of a patriarchy but fail to mention that the reason for this apparent “gender pay gap” is that the most hazardous and back-breaking of jobs tend to pay much better than the safer and less physically-demanding jobs and that these jobs are filled primarily by men because most women aren’t interested in those jobs and most men are generally more willing to spend more time away from their families and children in order by working longer hours and farther from home than most women, such that the gap is more like women earn 97 cents to every man’s dollar when these factors are accounted for
– cultural appropriation, microagressions, intersectionality, patriarchy theory, rape culture, misogyny, and other buzzwords are bandied about willy-nilly and used as to support (often Orwellian) policies, rules, and laws

It becomes very difficult to be empathetic to what sounds like yet another instance of “the boy who cried wolf” (so to speak) on the part of Jess Phillips, when she cries misogyny. Should we really be surprised if, after continuously villifying a group of people, the villified people eventually try to fight back?

Of course, I’m sure this is the same thing said by feminists and SJWs. Everyone in each group believes that they are being attacked by specific groups outside of their own. The real question is, which beliefs are based on demonstrable evidence and which are not? I do not believe that feminists of the third wave have a worldview that is based on demonstrable evidence. I find that they have far more in common with dogmatic religion and pseudoscience.

In fact, this strikes me as eerily similar to the same battle that was going on ten years ago between atheists and creationists on YouTube, except that the creationists were replaced by the feminists and SJWs and the atheists have been replaced by anti-feminists. Thankfully, while the creationists eventually banded together, the feminists and SJWs have begun to turn on each other. Many creationists and feminists/SJWs disable YouTube comments and claim that they are persecuted by those that they bash over the head with their belief systems. Creationists and feminists/SJWs eschew demonstrable evidence in favour of statistics pulled out of their asses in order to continue believing their narratives. Creationists and feminists try to get their dogmatic belief systems taught in schools (unfortunately, the feminists/SJWs actually seem to have been successful).


P.S. I just watched your Computerphile video “Physics of Computer Chips”. Good stuff. I still love your enthusiasm. Keep it up!


Beware The Troll

I very much enjoy reading Kyle Baldwin‘s “Apples and Bongo Drums” blog and thought I’d reblog one of his posts here. I was a little spoiled for choice, however. (I recommend you visit Kyle’s blog and read his other posts). After some umming and ahhing, I decided to go with his “Beware The Troll” post from July. Let’s just say it resonated.

Over to Kyle…

Beware the Troll

Kyle Baldwin, July 25 2016


Once, Trolls were purely mythical creatures that lived under bridges and ate unsuspecting would-be bridge crossers. Or, if you prefer Tolkien mythos, Trolls were great big dim-witted creatures that can only be defeated by a combination of Hobbit stall tactics and sunlight petrification. Either way, it’s safe to assume that when these myths were being written, the total sum of actual death certificates that read “Cause of death: Troll” was nil.

That’s not quite true anymore.

If you’ve ever wasted a few hours scrolling through the YouTube comments section, and been left wondering where it all went wrong for the human race, there’s a good chance you encountered an internet troll or two. If you haven’t, then here’s a brief outline of what an internet troll is: an awful human being. More specifically though, it is someone who constantly posts in online forums with no purpose other than to disrupt conversations, provoke arguments, or just plain bully. They may hardly sound like the world’s biggest problem right now, and may even sound mostly harmless, but sometimes they’re a more insidious pest than my description does justice.

For example, Jessica Laney, a 16 year old Floridian girl, took her own life after being on the receiving end of online bullying, which included messages telling her to go kill herself. There’s also Charlotte Dawson, 47 year old New Zealander and TV presenter who committed suicide after years of online harassment – harassment carried out under the Twitter banner #diecharlotte. These are just a couple of highly publicised examples, but cyberbullying related deaths are becoming increasingly common, to the point where they no longer make headlines. One study shows that suicide ideation is strongly linked with cyberbullying, and we’ve not even touched on how many cases of clinical anxiety or depression can be linked back to online abuse. The exact numbers for cyberbullying related long-term mental health issues is unclear (unsurprisingly), but it is very well documented that bullying leaves permanent scars, and according to one study, as many as 43% of students will get to enjoy being cyberbullied during their lifetime.

If you thought lone trolls were a nuisance, you clearly don’t know much about 4chan. This is a little dark corner of the internet where trolls like to meet up, hang out, pick a target, and make casual rape threats (amongst other things). It’s a misogynist’s paradise, it’s a mob, and it has a way of achieving its goals through “hacktivism”. Wonderful.


Luther, staring into your soul, daring you to be a troll on his watch.

To be fair, for the most part trolls are just people who get a kick out of causing a bit of mischief by derailing a conversation, or by mildly irritating people with political bait. But there are also those who take it many steps further, and the internet is the perfect platform for all their trolling desires. Further, comments sections seem to bring out the utter worst in people in ways that would never happen in the non-virtual world. Why does this happen, and is there any way to prevent it? … Other than the brand of anti-troll vigilante justice Luther endorsed, of course.


What feeds the Trolls?

In 2004, John Suler coined the term the “online disinhibition effect”, which, in a nutshell, states that people are willing to behave differently online than they would in reality. This isn’t really a single effect, but rather a collection of different factors and psychological effects that add up to make trolling inevitable. List time!

  1. I am no one. Probably the most obvious factor is that commenting is often completely anonymous, and anonymity gives a sense of security against any reprisals. You might be able to find a mister B. Kaldwin and give him a piece of your mind, but Prince_RobotIV? Who even is that guy?
  2. I am invisible. This is similar to the above, but also adds the fact that the form of communication – text – does not deliver tone, facial expressions or emotion. They are just words on a screen that could be interpreted a hundred ways, and concern over appearance is lost entirely. Further, a troll can pretend to be any age, sex, race or species he/she/it wants if it serves their purpose better. Not only do you not know who or where I am, but you don’t know what I am. And that gives me power.
  3. LOL BYE. The fact that conversations online are asynchronous – one can leave and come back to a conversation at any time – lowers inhibitions by allowing a person to go away and take all the time they need to think of the perfect cutting words. It also gives the troll the opportunity to blurt out something and not worry about a reply until they’re ready to log back in. Very unlike real life. This also means you can throw in an inflammatory remark on a popular YouTube video, grab a box of popcorn, and watch the ensuing mayhem.
  4. You’re who I say you are! This is a slightly abstract aspect, and is the most subconsciously active of the list yet. When you read a comment, although you don’t see, hear or smell the person on the other end, your brain automatically assigns characteristics to them. Usually, for some reason, people imagine that the commenter is male, white, and less intelligent than you. This is particularly the case in political arguments, where as soon as a disagreement begins, you imagine the other person as the pure stereotype of your political nemesis, and slowly, but surely, you begin to feel vindicated in displaying your ire.
  5. Want to play a game? Suler observed (alongside criminal lawyer Emily Finch studying online identity theft) that many people see the online realm as a form of escapism, and interacting with other commenters is nothing more than a game. Games have no real consequences, so what’s the worst that could happen? That girl won’t really think I want her to kill herself! That would be mental!
  6. You’re in my world now. This is kind of obvious when you think about it, but surprising to the uninitiated – the hierarchy of the online world follows its own rules. Even if you know the status of a person in the real world, it has little bearing on their perceived status in online communities. Instead, in the online realm, their online following is what gives them authority in chat rooms. To put it simply, a vocal twitter user who has many online followers but no power in reality, has more “cyber power”, and is feared as an authority figure in cyberspace over a prominent politician who only occasionally tweets (and especially if the tweets are of his own name – I’m looking at you Ed Balls).

Add all these effects together, and you get a worrying reduction in social inhibitions online. Politicians are still debating how to grapple with this surprising consequence of giving everyone a cyber-voice, and we’re left with the question:

Do we just accept them?


The troll face. If you see this in your inbox, it may be too late for you.

The good news is that research suggests that trolls are in the vast minority. The bad news is that YouTube comment algorithms create the perfect troll feeding grounds. When you leave a comment, there are two ways in which it will find its way to the top of the pile – lots of thumbs up, and lots of replies. It is far more heavily weighted in favour of number of replies, though, and this is the crucial factor that makes trolls so visible – people can’t help but to reply to a comment they strongly disagree with.

The simplest solution would be to just learn when people are trying to get a rise out of you, and ignore … but that’s really difficult. Replying is reactive (as opposed to the far more passive ‘thumbs up’ option), and trolls, almost by definition, exist purely to illicit reactions in others. They’ve found their craft, honed their skills, and have become very adept at it. No matter how many times I hear the phrase “don’t feed the trolls”, when I read something outrageous, I just can’t help but want to send a snarky “Oh YEAH? Well let me tell you, sir/madam, that I think your specific politics are WRONG!”.

Trolls get the most replies, their comments find their way to the top, and suddenly they seem like they are the majority – we’ll call this troll-bias. Recently, a few YouTubers have begun requesting that their viewers leave a “+” reply to all comments that they agree with, to offset this troll-bias. It’s a clever response, and it does indeed seem to already be making comment sections far more pleasant places.

With regards to other forms of cyber-bullying, there aren’t easy answers, sadly. Forum moderators can take comments down, but usually they act after the harm has been done, and as Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed highlights, no number of moderators could hold back the tide of hateful comments that come with the Twitter mob.

Stricter laws should be implemented, I think. It’s not okay to tell someone to “go kill yourself” – no amount of free speech rights should leave the door open for that kind of behaviour. The online world though is multi-national, so how do we ensure safe spaces when laws aren’t always universal? It’s also, as I pointed out above, almost entirely anonymous! The ever-watchful, and infinitely creepy NSA might be able to automatically respond to a person openly asking Facebook how to build a dirty bomb (not that they ever do!), but a local police force is not going to be able to do much about a string of hateful comments coming from 4chan/b/.

School bullies have existed for as long as there have been schools, and, so far, no one has figured out how to stop them from growing like weeds. Now, our school bullies have the internet at their fingertips, and the online disinhibition effect in their heads, and it’s a bit scary. So what do we do when a troll doesn’t even recognise his victim is a person? Teach them.

Lindy West, an online activist and vocal feminist, was accustomed to online abuse – anyone who writes about feminism is an easy target for the more misogynistic trolls out there. But then one day, a specific troll took a different tactic than the usual rape/death threats, and decided to impersonate her dead father. Sickening, right? Usually, she would follow her peers’ advice and ignore the trolls, but this time and she decided to write a piece about it. The troll read the piece, realised there was real person on the other end of his abuse, apologised to her directly, and changed his ways. The troll decided he’d had enough and came out from under the bridge.

The answer, then, has to be in education. First educate police forces to take online abuse seriously (because they are often woefully inadequate at this so far), and educate youths to understand that not only is bullying a crime, but the people on the other end of comments are just that – people. They’re not tropes of your political nemeses, this isn’t a game, and you are not absolved of all responsibility by your anonymity.

And if that doesn’t work … Well, there’s always the Luther approach.

Note: the author of this blog in no way endorses vigilante justice.

Trollface image attribution: By Azzy10 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons,

Luther (Idris Elba) image attribution: By DFID – UK Department for International Development –, CC BY 2.0,

Gender balance, one woman at a time

I’m reblogging this post by Debbie Hayton (@DebbieHayton) who has a very interesting perspective on the question of gender balance in physics.

Debbie Hayton

What can be done to increase the number of women in physics? This question keeps committees busy and researchers funded, but the solution seems as elusive as squaring the circle. Four years ago, however, I did my bit: I transitioned from male to female. As this also meant that the number of men in physics was simultaneously reduced by one, it was, as they say in football, a “six-pointer”.

I hasten to add that I didn’t transition in order to improve the male-female ratio among physicists; that really would have been a remarkable thing to do. However, it did mean that when my wave function collapsed into the F state, I was able to conduct some controlled social observations in my work as a teacher. I’m the same person and I’m doing the same job, but in a different gender role.

After a degree, PhD and postdoctoral research I trained…

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