It’s so important to be disinterested in science

There was quite a lot of kerfuffle over the weekend about a lengthy piece from Daniel Sarewitz in The New Atlantis, entitled Saving ScienceHere’s the subhead from Sarewitz’s article, which might possibly help explain what all the fuss was about:

Science isn’t self-correcting, it’s self-destructing. To save the enterprise, argues Daniel Sarewitz, scientists must come out of the lab and into the real world.

Them’s fighting words…

…and the gloves are off.

Actually, no, I’m not going to tear into Sarewitz (well, not too much) because, buried in the hyperbole, puffery, and wild overstatement, he in fact makes a few decent points, which, if somewhat less than ground-breaking in their insights, are helpful to bear in mind. Let’s deal with the less level-headed assertions first, however.

As And Then There’s Physics points out, the thrust of Sarewitz’s article would appear to be that science should be more like engineering, i.e. focussed on near-term (and near-market) goals. Sarewitz argues that the disinterest [1] that should be core to fundamental science, and to which scientists aspire, is a “beautiful lie” that has trapped the scientific enterprise “in a self-destructive vortex”, apparently insulated from the outside “real” world.  If only scientists would do what they’re told — by whom? (and therein lies the rub, of course)– then all would be right with the world.

I’m a physicist whose work is unashamedly, and firmly, focussed on the fundamental rather than the applied. (Nonetheless, I should stress that “ivory tower” stereotypes wind me up a great deal. Like very many of my colleagues, I spend a great deal of time on public engagement.) Sarewitz’s claims about the damage wrought by curiosity-driven science, as he perceives it, are frustratingly naive in the context of the university-industry complex. John Ziman, the physicist turned sociologist, rightly included disinterestedness as one of the core norms he laid out in characterising scientific culture and the scientific method. (It’s the “D” in his CUDOS set of norms). If exploratory research — science for science’s sake, if you will — is driven out in favour of the type of intensely focussed R&D Sarewitz is championing, then we compromise the disinterestedness that has underpinned so many key advances. But, more importantly, we further erode public trust in science.

Back in 2008, when what’s now known in UK academia as the “impact agenda” was in its infancy, I wrote an opinion piece for Nature Nanotechnology — I’m a nanoscientist — focussed on the type of concerns that Jennifer Washburn had raised about the corporatisation of universities (in her exceptionally important book, “University Inc”). Sarewitz is a professor of science and society; I am confident that he is just as aware as I am of the very many ethical quandaries, at best, and entirely unethical behaviour at worst that have arisen from science being too close to, rather than cossetted from, the “real world”. Some of these issues are described in Washburn’s book (and in that Nature Nanotech article), but a cursory glance at Ben Goldacre’s work, or a browse through David Colquhoun‘s blog, or a visit to the website of Scientists For Global Responsibility will also help demonstrate that sometimes it’s rather important to ensure that scientists are detached from the real world of the corporate bottom line.

My colleague here at Nottingham, Brigitte Nerlich, has also written a critique of Sarewitz’s piece in which she quotes Richard Feynman’s musings on the value of science. (As a physicist, I am contractually obliged to quote Feynman at least twice daily so it’s great to see that sociologists are also getting in on the act!)

…it seems to be generally believed that if the scientists would only look at these very difficult social problems and not spend so much time fooling with the less vital scientific ones, great success would come of it.

It seems to me that we do think about these problems from time to time, but we don’t put full‑time effort on them – the reason being that we know we don’t have any magic formula for solving problems, that social problems are very much harder than scientific ones, and that we usually don’t get anywhere when we do think about them.

Sarewitz’s argument is that scientific research should be tethered to “real world” problems and that, in doing so, science will be saved. Yet there has been a strong drive worldwide over the last decade or so to make academic science more focussed on near-term and near-market research of exactly the type Sarewitz prefers. Has this led to dramatic improvements in the quality of scientific peer review? Has it led to a reduction of the publish-or-perish culture? Or has it instead driven the development of a patent-or-perish and IP-protection culture that impedes, rather than improves, public engagement with science?

Feynman’s point that “we know we don’t have any magic formula for solving problems, social problems are very much harder than scientific ones” is exceptionally important in the context of Sarewitz’s article. Without the disinterestedness that is the hallmark of good science — that we teach to our undergrad students from Day 1 in the 1st year laboratory — scientific data will be consciously or unconsciously skewed. Real world considerations need to be put aside when acquiring and interpreting experimental data.

ATTP notes that Sarewitz’s article is peppered with entirely unjustifed claims about the validity of science as a whole. For example, Richard Horton is quoted (on p.18 of the article):

The case against science is straight-forward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.

This is credulously quoted, with nary a citation in sight, as damning of the entire scientific enterprise. If I’m generous, the source of Horton’s “perhaps half” estimate is most likely John Ioannidis’ oft-cited paper, “Why most published research findings are false” (which Sarewitz also discusses in his article). The “clickbait” of the title of Ioannidis’ paper is unfortunate because his article, as described in this insightful blog post, is rather more nuanced than one might expect. In any case, Ioannidis was focused on biomedical science and, moreover, on a particular type of methodological approach to research that is not the norm in other areas of research including, in particular, physics (and, more broadly, many fields of the physical sciences). Horton’s “perhaps half” is entirely unjustified and it is remiss of Sarewitz to not at the very least qualify Horton’s claim and point out the lack of evidence to support it.

This is not to say, however, that Sarewitz, Ioannidis, and Horton haven’t got a point when it comes to the deficiencies in peer review. There are indeed many problems with peer review and, having been embroiled in a lengthy and exceptionally heated debate for a number of years regarding the interpretation of artefacts in scanning probe microscope data, I have a great deal of sympathy with Sarewitz’s concerns about the exceptionally poor quality control that allows some flawed (or, worse, fraudulent) papers through the net.

But Sarewitz’s claim that “In the absence of a technological application that can select for useful truths…there is often no “right” way to discriminate among or organise the mass of truths scientists create” is, without putting too fine a point on it, bollocks. Science rests on reproducibility of results. One can argue that this doesn’t happen enough and that the “reward” system in science is now so damaged that studies which involve attempts to reproduce results are seen as effectively worthless in our “high impact factor journal” culture.  But that doesn’t mean that a real world application is required to discriminate between competing theories or interpretations; the literature is awash with examples where scientific theories and intepretations rose to prominence via careful experimental work that was far removed from any real world application.

On a similar theme, Sarewitz goes on to state that “..we have the wrong expectations of science. Our common belief is that scientific truth is a unitary thing…“. This is an important point and I agree with Sarewitz that there is a naivete “out there” about just what scientific results demonstrate. Science proves nothing. Moreover, in a political context, it is important for scientists to be honest and to admit that interpretation of data is not always as cut-and-dried as it is often presented.

But to argue, as Sarewitz does in his closing line, that “Only through direct engagement with the real world can science free itself to rediscover the path toward truth” is a remarkable leap of faith. Connection with “real world” imperatives too often produces science that is driven by the bottom line; science that is compromised; science that is biased. That’s the bottom line.

[1] “Disinterested” and “uninterested” are not synonymous. It’s a shame that I have to include this disclaimer, and I realise that for many it’s entirely superfluous, but I had to explain the distinction to a research council executive a number of years back.





The power of thought?

Ponder this…

How much energy is associated with information? With knowledge? With thought?

Could we extract power solely from information, from a state of knowing?

In other words, is there a thermodynamics of information? (Don’t click on that link just yet if you want to avoid spoilers..)

These are the types of weighty question Brady Haran and I explored in the most recent video for Sixty Symbols, which Brady uploaded today.

Each time I receive the e-mail from Brady telling me he’s uploaded a video to which I’ve contributed, I get that familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach stemming from the worry that I might have screwed up the explanation of the physics and potentially misled those who are watching.

In a short(ish) video, we necessarily have to gloss over and/or omit lots of detail and, as a physics lecturer, this is always uncomfortable. (Deeply, deeply uncomfortable). Indeed, and as I described in a Physics World article a couple of years ago, for some time I decided to withdraw from making Sixty Symbols videos for precisely this reason. But as also discussed in that article, the ability to connect with an audience who are enthralled by, and enthusiastic about, physics, the intellectual challenge of explaining difficult concepts, and the sheer fun of working with Brady (our occasional spats notwithstanding) meant that I quickly saw the error of my ways. (As, of course, Mr Haran had predicted.)

Nonetheless, if there’s one topic that I find exceptionally difficult to put across in the short, snappy, “bite-size” YouTube format, it’s entropy. I had sworn off trying to explain the intricacies off this particular thorny concept in the Sixty Symbols style, but I keep getting drawn back to it, almost against my will — because it’s so damn interesting. When it came to thinking about thoughts, entropy and energy, we had to bite the bullet because entropy is at the very core of the information-mass nexus.

“One of the most heavily quoted passages in physics”

I’ve always been fascinated and intrigued by the connections between information, computing, and physics. Indeed, during the first two years of my physics BSc at Dublin City University it was not too infrequently that I found myself thinking that I should have done a computer science degree instead. (I’ve never been the best of mathematicians but I was a reasonable coder; discrete and numerical methods always “clicked” a little more with me than analytical maths. My mantra throughout my undergrad degree was “If I can’t see how to code this, I don’t understand it”).

I pop into DCU any time I’m in Dublin and on one of those visits I spotted the book below on a friend’s bookshelves and asked him whether I could borrow it. It’s a real gem, which I recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in the intriguing and multi-facetted role that information plays in physics. (Tony, if you’re reading, I am hugely sorry that I’ve held onto the book for so long. I’ll return it next time I’m back home – promise!)


The contents of, and motivation for, this captivating book are best described by the blurb on its back cover:

About 120 years ago, James Clerk Maxwell introduced his now legendary hypothetical ‘demon’ as a challenge to the integrity of the second law of thermodynamics. Fascination with the demon persisted throughout the development of statistical and quantum physics, information theory and computer science – and links have been established between Maxwell’s demon and each of those disicplines. The demon’s seductive quality makes it appealing to physical scientists, engineer, computer scientists, biologists, psychologists, and historians and philosophers of science.

Maxwell’s Demon: Entropy, Information, Computing” is a collection of twenty-five reprints on the subject of Maxwell’s demon (and related themes) prefaced by an engaging overview by Harvey Leff and Andrew Rex that synopsises the key developments in our understanding of the links between information, entropy, energy, and computing stimulated by that eponymous beast.

The demon was birthed by Maxwell in his Theory of Heat (1871) and “in one of the most heavily quoted passages in physics”, as Leff and Rex put it, described thus:


The Sixty Symbols video embedded above describes how the demon works (with my daughter Saoirse’s Living Dead Doll assuming the role of the fiend) but Maxwell’s pithy description above tells you all you need to know in any case. The demon keeps a careful eye on molecules in a box which is separated into two chambers by a partition/door. He/she/it opens a door to allow fast-moving molecules to pass into chamber B, while those moving more slowly are allowed to pass to chamber A. The key point is as I’ve underlined above: the demon works without expending work, establishing a temperature difference that could potentially be exploited, and thus the second law of thermodynamics is violated. (More on work, in the physics sense of the word, below).

I’ll note in passing that Maxwell’s careful qualifier re. the faculties of the demon, i.e. “would be able to do what is at present impossible to us”, is remarkably prescient in the context of the invention of scanning probe microscopy (SPM) about a century after the Theory of Heat was published. Probe microscopes now routinely allow us to not only see individual atoms and molecules but to manipulate them one at a time, and the state of the art in the field involves resolving the internal bond architecture of single molecules. (It is also worth comparing and contrasting Maxwell’s considered use of the “at present” proviso with Schrodinger’s rather more gung-ho statement in 1952: “We never experiment with just one electron or atom or (small) molecule. In thought experiments we sometimes assume that we do; this invariably entails ridiculous consequences…In the first place it is fair to say that we cannot experiment with single particles, any more than we can raise ichtkyosauria in the zoo”)

This version of Maxwell’s demon, which sets up a temperature gradient in a gas of molecules, is but one of a family of little devils. Maxwell went on to envisage a rather more stupid demon which didn’t need to keep account of molecular speeds, but instead simply opened the partition for molecules travelling one way and not the other. As Maxwell put it (p. 6 of the 1st edition of Leff and Rex’s book): “This reduces the demon to a valve”.

Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler

It wasn’t, however, until Leo Szilard introduced the “spherical cow” version of the demon in 1929 that the links between information, entropy, and energy started to become clear. Physicists love to reduce a system down to its barest bones; some of us are rather simple-minded beasts so we prefer to cut out any extraneous complexity and get to the heart of the matter. Szilard got rid of all of the molecules in the demon’s purview…save for one, lonely particle.  In other words, he considered a single molecule gas.  (Another note in passing: I made this spherical cow point in the Sixty Symbols video only to subsequently find that Sean Carroll also includes mention of the bulbous bovine in his wonderfully clear and pithy description of Szilard’s demon here.  I thoroughly recommend Carroll’s blog and books. He’s a fantastic science communicator, as his videos for Sixty Symbols highlight very well. (I can’t say, however, that I share Sean’s unalloyed enthusiasm for the multi-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.))

Szilard reduces the information overload of the original Maxwellian demon to a very simple problem for his incarnation of the devil: which side of the container is the molecule on? As described in the video, if Szilard’s (rather lazier) demon knows on which side of the container the molecule is found then work can be extracted, without having to put any work into the system in the first place. Another free lunch.

Ultimately, and after decades of debate, these violations of the 2nd law were traced back to an aspect of the problem that was too often overlooked: the information that the demon, of whatever type, has acquired. In Szilard’s case, this is one bit of information: what side of the container is the molecule on? It’s a binary problem.

A bit of energy

What’s great is that the simplicity of Szilard’s model means that we can use 1st year thermodynamics (or A-level thermal physics) to work out a formula for the energy (or, alternatively, entropy) associated with this single bit of information. In the video I simply write this formula down (Ebit = kT ln 2) but we can derive it in just a few lines…

The infinitesimal [1] amount of work, dW, done by a gas on a piston — in other words, the infinitesimal amount of energy extracted from an expanding gas — is given by

dW = PdV

where P is the pressure of the gas and dV is the change in volume of the gas. [2]

For Szilard’s demon the volume occupied by the ‘gas’ (i.e. the single molecule) changes by a factor of 2 as it expands: the demon observes which half of the box contains the molecule and acts accordingly. The volume changes from Vbox/2 to Vbox as the single molecule gas expands, pushing back the piston.

Now, if we want to determine the total work done by the molecule during this process then we integrate up all those infinitesimal “chunks” of work within the limits of Vbox and Vbox/2:Integral1

Fine, you might say, but how can we do the integration if we don’t know how the pressure is related to the volume? Not a problem. We do know how the pressure and volume are related. It’s the ideal gas law you may have learned in secondary/high school science classes,

PV = nRT

Here, P and V are once again pressure and volume, R is the universal gas constant, T is temperature, and n is the number of moles of gas.

But we’re only dealing with one molecule for Szilard’s engine so the ideal gas law is even simpler. We don’t need to worry about moles, so we don’t need the universal gas constant, and we can instead write for a single molecule:


The k in that equation is Boltzmann’s constant – it’s the universal conversion factor between energy and temperature. [4]

We now have an expression for P in terms of V, namely P = kT/V

Let’s plug that into the integral above:


Now, kT is a constant (because the temperature is constant in Szilard’s model). That means we can take it out of the integral, like this:


The integral of 1/V is ln V (i.e. the natural log of V). If we evaluate that integral between the given limits then we get the following:


But in “Logland” subtraction is equivalent to division of the arguments, so we have:

W = kT ln 2

And there’s our formula for the energy associated with a single bit of information. (In terms of entropy, the formula for one bit is even simpler still: S = k ln 2).

(There have, of course, been objections to the type of reasoning above. (Here’s one example from my fellow scanning probe microscopist, Quanmin Guo). Leff and Rex’s book details the objections and describes how they were addressed.

It from bit

In the video, Brady and I – with tongues very firmly in cheeks – consider the energy content of a “thought” (and those scare quotes are very important indeed): a simple image, whose total number of bits can be determined from the pixel density, assuming 24 bits per pixel. We then compare that “information energy” with the nutritional energy value of a Mars bar. [5]

I can already hear the disgruntlement of certain factions complaining about “dumbing down” and “clickbait” [3] but Sixty Symbols videos were never meant to be tutorials – they’re about piquing interest. If someone (anyone!) comes away from the video thinking, like I do, “Wow, those links between information, energy, and entropy are fascinating. I’d like to find out more”, then I consider that to be job done.

In any case, to begin to do justice to the topic would require a lengthy series of videos (or a 30-hour-long single video). (Or, alternatively, those interested could read Leff and Rex’s book.) But, Brady willing, we’ll hopefully return in a Sixty Symbols video some time to a consideration of Wheeler’s famous “It from bit” statement, Landauer’s mantra of “Information is physical”, and the central importance of data erasure. On this latter point, it turns out that what’s really important is not storing information, but erasing/forgetting it. The demon needs to be just like a stereotypical physics professor: absent-minded.

And if you’ve made it this far in this long-winded post, I think you’d agree that it’s now a case of too much information…


[1] Smaller than the smallest thing ever, and then some. (Hat tip to Mr. Adams). James Grime did an engaging video on infinitesimals for Brady’s Numberphile channel.

[2] For the experts among you, yes we should be careful to note when we have an exact vs inexact differential; and, yes, we should be careful with + and – signs regarding the representation of whether work is done on, or by, the gas; and, yes, we should also in principle take care to explain the difference between irreversible and reversible processes. I know. Let it go. The goal here is to put across a broad concept to a broad audience, and the minutiae don’t matter when explaining that concept. [3]

[3] Tetchy? Me?

[4] If you’re wondering how we replaced R with k, note that R = NAk, where NA is Avogadro’s constant. In other words, R, the universal gas constant, is a “mole-full” of Boltzmann’s constants.

[5] Some have gone further and used E=mc2 to assign a mass to a bit of information. In that sense, we could even ask what’s the weight of a thought. We didn’t want to do this, however, because explaining mass-energy equivalence correctly requires a great deal of care, and the video was already too long to include that type of nuance.



If I hadn’t failed my exams, I wouldn’t be a professor of physics

It’s that day of the year again — A-level results are released. The very best of luck to all students finding out their grades as I’m writing this. I’m admissions tutor for the School of Physics & Astronomy here at Nottingham and I’ve already received a number of calls from students this morning. It breaks my heart when students who really wanted to come here don’t get the grades they needed.

A year ago on this day I wrote the post below…

Symptoms Of The Universe

I started writing this post a little after 06:00 am this morning, the time at which schools and colleges were officially permitted to start releasing A-level results to hundreds of thousands of students across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. I vividly remember the stomach-churning sense of dread thirty years ago as I awaited my Leaving Certificate results (the ‘Leaving’ is the Irish equivalent of the A-level system), and empathise with all of those students across the country biting their nails and pacing the floor as I write this.

By far the best advice for A-level students I’ve read over the last week was an open letter by Geoff Barton, Headteacher of King Edward VI school, to his Year 13 students, published in the TES on Tuesday: “Worrying about A-level results won’t help. They are out of your control“. Barton’s article resonated with me for a number of reasons, not…

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Hanging out with Dr. Winters

Edit 20/08/2016 Further to the transcript of the email exchange at the foot of this post, Mr. Benjamin was in contact again. To his credit, he’s said that our e-mail exchanges can be made public. So here’s Mr. Benjamin’s most recent missive, and my response.

I’ve said previously that I wasn’t going to write any more extended posts (or make any more videos) about Messrs Benjamin, Mason, Kirk et al and their flocks. And I’m sticking to that. I did, nonetheless, promise to address comments (via YouTube and/or this blog) on the points I raised in those posts . (And I’ve stuck to that too!)

I had the pleasure of chatting with Kristi Winters in a Google Hangout yesterday evening about many of the aspects of the exchanges that both she and I have had with, in particular, Mr. Carl Benjamin (“Sargon of Akkad“, if we really must. Sheesh) and Dr. Philip Mason (“thunderf00t“. Sigh) over the last few months. The video of the hangout is below. I just want to briefly deal with three points related to that discussion with Kristi.

  1. Mr. Benjamin and Dr. Mason were both invited, more than a day in advance of the hangout, to join (see tweet below).  This invitation was repeated by Kristi, via Twitter, a number of times before the Hangout. Neither Mason nor Benjamin responded. Benjamin waited until the Hangout started and then claimed that he hadn’t been invited. I didn’t find this surprising; it’s typically immature and disingenuous behaviour from Mr. Benjamin.
  2.  To be fair to Benjamin, over the weekend he responded to an e-mail I had sent him. I include the transcript below the video.
  3. Finally, earlier this evening I was delighted to receive one of the most intelligent and perceptive comments about Mr. Benjamin that has been submitted at this blog. And that’s not because the person commenting agreed with my stance on Benjamin– far from it. The comment is here. And my response is here.


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 14 August 2016 09:59
To: ‘Carl Benjamin’
Subject: RE: So, I’ll take that as a no, then?

Dear Carl,

Thanks for your e-mail message. First, I’m rather pleased to see that, unlike another YouTube pundit/ideologue of your acquaintance (see first link in my previous e-mail message), an ability to respond in coherent and well-written English is not entirely beyond you. I also appreciate that your reply is rather more substantial than the childish and unconvincing “TL;DR” and “I was just trolling you” nonsense from Dr. Mason. This is promising.

Nonetheless, and somewhat more disappointingly, your capacity with the written word demonstrably doesn’t translate to an ability to interpret sledgehammer sarcasm and satire, nor does it mean that you don’t respond with stock boilerplate and non sequiturs. The latter is hardly surprising given your performance in that debate with Kristi Winters but I’d have thought that an e-mail exchange would allow you a little more time to consider your responses and provide a more substantive rebuttal. Indeed, this is why I suggested an e-mail “spat” at one point. Although this doesn’t seem to have facilitated more thoughtful replies from you, I’m still pleased that you seem happy to pursue an e-mail exchange. This could be instructive (for both of us).

Let’s deal with your points one at a time.

Honestly, Philip, I am not sure if you are a caricature of a critic.

“You’re not sure”, Carl? I really don’t know how much more I could signpost this, other than including an 80 point type disclaimer in one of those classic nineties flashing and rotating gifs at the top of everything I write (triggering, in parallel, a loud klaxon .wav at +140 dB)! I write the following and you miss the clear caricaturing and satire?

“You’re not even a worthless tosser without a semblance of a moral compass or basic human decency. I wouldn’t even want to lock you up.”

I spell it out in black and white and yet it still goes flying over your head? I know that there’s a certain subset of your flock who lack the ability to see the breathtakingly obvious satirical point I’m making in the following (also from that blog post)…

And if, after that, you still don’t see the problem with Benjamin’s hatred and bile, then you’re not even a useless, worthless, fucking disgrace; you’re not even a gutless waste of humanity who lacks any compassion or empathy for others. You’re not even the lowest of the low.

Not even.

….but my understanding has been that, while you’re clearly not the most accomplished intellectually ( ), you still had the edge on the more cerebrally challenged sect of your following. (You’ve got a living to make after all. How else are you going to monetise your punditry unless those members of the flock look up to you in some way? [1])

But I was clearly mistaken.

Indeed, even when satire and caricature are signposted with the equivalent of that 80 point spinning .gif I mentioned, you still fail to get it:

(I’m sure you don’t need me to highlight your “The Cuck” related tweetery.)

You present a single side of an issue…

I’m not certain if this is referring to my critiques of YouTube punditry like yours in general or just in the context of our specific case? If the former, your claim is demonstrably incorrect:  (Note in particular the criticism of Steve Shives’ blocking policy in the second half of this. More on blocking below).

If the latter, you’ll possibly remember that caricature/satire thing? Slightly less facetiously, you’ll find that my YouTube responses also directly counter your point. (Admittedly, there was no way you could have been aware of this, so I’ve included one of those responses below [4])

then attempt to condescend when you’re only telling half the story at best.  It’s embarrassing to see, and I assume unintentional, but perhaps there is more to it than that.

I refer you to my previous answers and the footnotes.

Your constant attempts to denigrate are actually amusing because you seem to have had no contact with literature on psychology, cult behaviour or gender politics.  

I refer you to my previous answers and the footnotes. (In passing, I’ll admit to similarly finding your “you seem to have had no contact with literature on psychology, cult behaviour or gender politics” statement rather amusing. “I don’t know…and I don’t care” was, I seem to recall, your rather telling retort in that debate with Dr. Winters. I will, however, give you kudos for your use of the qualifying “you seem…”. That was intellectually honest of you. Your perception is that I have had no contact with that literature. You’re incorrect, but at least you had the honesty to preface your comment with “you seem”.)

 I’ll begin demonstrating this by asking you to click this link: 

I’ll be totally up-front with you, Carl. When I read this I rather eagerly clicked on the link, thinking, given your previous comment, that you were providing a reference to a textbook or paper on one of the topics you listed (“psychology, cult behaviour, or gender politics”). I spent a little time on holiday reading about those three topics in the context of the cultishness of a great deal of YT punditry — with yours as a particularly instructive, and, dare I say, archetypal example —  and so was keen to see what type of “take” you had on the subject.

But, no. It was simply a list of Google links to articles/posts about Sarah Nyberg. Why do you make the assumption that I wasn’t aware of that controversy? That’s really quite telling, Carl.

Your linking to that list of Google hits does not in any way address the point I was making re. the hypocrisy of your blocking. It’s not the first time you’ve failed to see that the arguments you make re. “SJWs” – if we really must use that term, let’s at least not include the irritating superfluous apostrophe that seems to almost invariably accompany it — also equally well apply to your tribe:

This is a “meme” which is truly amazing in its lack of self-awareness and total vacuity. It’s nothing more than a dressed up, verbose, “Emperor’s New Clothes” version of a playground “NO, YOU!” retort. (And, yes, I’ll take any “Those in glass houses…” criticism of my use of “verbose” squarely on the nose. J).

Think carefully about why I might have chosen the particular example of Sarah Nyberg, Carl. And, in future, try not to project so much [2] when it comes to assuming how much research your correspondant may or may not have done.


[1] On a slightly tangential point, I’m a little more generous to your subscriber base than hbomberguy. He attributes the relatively low percentage of your YT followers signing your silly petition to laziness on the part of the non-signing subscribers. I’d actually credit them with a little more intelligence – notwithstanding their subscription to your channel, of course [2] – and assume that the reason they didn’t sign is that they realised that your petition was vacuous [2], self-righteous [2], pro-censorship and anti-academic freedom [2], and ‘virtue-signalling’ [2] .

And, yes, before you mention it, I’ve watched your video attempting to defend your petition. (It’s bad enough that you should submit something as poorly thought-out and counter-productive to your cause – and, yes, it is indeed a cause – as that petition. But it beggars belief that you’d then attempt to defend it [3].)

“Only the facts should be taught. Only the facts. Nothing but the facts”.

[Yes, this is paraphrased, not a direct quote. Shame that I need this disclaimer but I know how literally you and your fans can take things. See discussion re. satire above.]

So, if we were to consider your ‘argument’ in the context of physics, you’d shut down upper level quantum physics and string theory courses. You’d call a halt to discussion of dark matter and dark energy. You’d close down debate re parallel worlds or the Copenhagen approach to wavefunction collapse.

Because those aren’t facts, they’re interpretations of empirical observations and measurements. With QM in particular, we still don’t understand what’s going on even after a century of science in the field. If you want to flummox a physicist ask her to explain what’s meant by a wavefunction in non-mathematical language. (Here’s one attempt:  )

You have a breathtakingly naïve view of how university teaching works, Carl. [3]

As a rough analogy, I believe that you have some expertise in game development? I’m not a gamer (although I am (or at least was!) a reasonable coder; my mantra during my undergrad physics days was “If I can’t code this, I don’t understand it”). I wouldn’t attempt to ignorantly inform you about how game development and gaming works, Carl, without putting some effort into understanding the environment and the framework in which you were working.

So why do you think you’re qualified to tell universities “UNIVERSITIES” what happens on their courses when you clearly have put an infinitesimal amount of effort into understanding just how university teaching and learning work? (And, no, a Google search for keywords does not count for extensive research). And, of course, it’s not just universities in the UK you were petitioning but those in Europe, the US, Australia — it’s a truly international petition, isn’t it? Or perhaps it’s universal? Or multiversal? Wouldn’t want any type of thinking and discussion you didn’t like infecting any alien civilisations out there. [5])

[2] Satire? Or not satire? You be the judge. J

[3] Not satire.

[4] +Benoit Perreault Sorry for taking so long to respond — I’ve been (and still am) on holiday with my family.

First, your arguments are based on a false premise — where or when did I ever suggest that I was cheerleading for Jess Phillips? I’m not a huge fan of Phillips’ rather combatative style of politics. For example, I joined the Labour Party to vote for Corbyn. Like Phillips, I’ve been hugely disappointed with Corbyn’s performance but her public pronouncements on Corbyn are not helping.

For example, compare and contrast Phillips’ “up front” style with the dignified resignation speech from the Nottingham South MP (and former Shadow Transport Minister), Lilian Greenwood:

Was Phillips correct to mock International Mens Day? No. Can I see why she laughed at the suggestion? Yes, for the reasons she outlines here: want to commend Philip Davies for changing the thrust of the debate from an international men’s day event to a debate about the significant and important issue of male suicide. It is a subject that deserves debate all by itself without being hitched to the idea of men’s day. He showed me a courtesy in amending the title and I doff my cap (or lady bonnet) to him graciously.”

But her remarks/smirking/laughing were, of course, tactless. Moreover, her statements re. the Cologne attacks were similarly tactless, incendiary, and basically wrong. I’m broadly in agreement with the writer of this piece (except I don’t share their “fandom” of Phillips. Diane Abbot can indeed be irritating but telling someone to f**k off is not exactly compelling, convincing politics, is it?) : )

So, I disagree with Phillips. But that’s not the point.

[Edit 18/08/2016: Actually, my respect for Phillips has increased as a result of this interview: ]

Here’s the point (for the n^n^(n+1)th time). Carl Benjamin claims that he is a proponent of reasoned, rational debate. He claims that he’s a proponent of free speech. He is neither. He is an odious, rather dim man who lacks basic common decency. It is despicable to send anyone, let alone a victim of sexual assault, a tweet which states “I wouldn’t even rape you” when he knows full well that the exceptionally dim subset of his follower base will dive straight in and mimic their Lord and Master.

It doesn’t matter whether I agree with Phillips or not — and, as I said, I don’t. Benjamin is a 37 year old man acting like a particularly immature, and rather unintelligent, teenager. As I’ve said before, the majority of teenagers and children put him to shame in terms of decency, honesty, integrity, and intellectual courage. (See, for example, the most recent edit at the top of this:

Benjamin claims to want to debate with reason and evidence. Yet, when it comes to it, his debating skills (and intellect) simply are not up to the job: Note his “I don’t know and I don’t care” statement highlighted in that video. There you go. That’s Mr. Benjamin in a nutshell. A willfully ignorant man. Moreover, that video shows up the remarkable paucity of Mr. Benjamin’s thinking. This is a very dim man indeed.

[5] Oh Zarquon, Carl, I’ve just had a really worrying thought. You know that electromagnetic waves propagate outwards at the speed of light, right? That means that any “SJW” thinking that’s been broadcast since the development of radio has propagated to, in principle, roughly a 100 light year radius. (Yes, before you jump in, I know the attenuation rate is huge and will have weakened the signal a great deal but these aliens are clever bastards. I’m sure they’ll be able to improve the SNR substantially).

That’s frightening, isn’t it? It means that the SJ contagion has potentially spread well beyond the solar system. Indeed, Alpha Centauri, our nearest star system (other than the Sun) is less than 5 light years away *and* it’s apparently got an Earth-like exoplanet. There may well be little blue, furry creatures there that are being exposed to SJW thinking and interpretation. How will they ever see the error of the ways without appropriate guidance?

I know, you need to petition NASA. Perhaps if they could ensure that your YT content was similarly broadcast? (That’s the problem with this digital stuff going down optical fibres — not enough intra- and intergalactic reach). In addition, just think of the untapped Patreon income from all those aliens who haven’t yet heard the word of Sargon. You could be minted (although currency conversion could be an issue).

I know that those evil SJWs have got a few decades’ jump on you but you’ve got to try.

You’ve got to try [2].

From: Carl Benjamin
Sent: 13 August 2016 13:03
To: Philip Moriarty <>
Subject: RE: So, I’ll take that as a no, then?

Honestly, Philip, I am not sure if you are a caricature of a critic. You present a single side of an issue, often unsupported by anything but your own contempt, then attempt to condescend when you’re only telling half the story at best.  It’s embarrassing to see, and I assume unintentional, but perhaps there is more to it than that. Your constant attempts to denigrate are actually amusing because you seem to have had no contact with literature on psychology, cult behaviour or gender politics.  You seem to fail to understand who it is you are even defending, and you seem to misunderstand your position relative to my interest in this, although I admit, the more unhinged you sound the more curious I become.

I’ll begin demonstrating this by asking you to click this link:

Make anything you like public.


To: Carl Benjamin
Subject: So, I’ll take that as a no, then?
Date: Sun, 7 Aug 2016 16:10:47 +0000

Hello again, Carl.

I didn’t get the courtesy of a response to my previous message asking whether you were happy for me to make our e-mail exchange public. I’d like to draw a line under this before the end of this week (i.e. today), so I’ll assume that I should take your non-response as a no?

That’s a real shame. It would have made an interesting companion piece to this:

Ah, well.

It’s also a shame that you didn’t agree to a debate. In addition to your farcical, vacuous petition – a wonderful demonstration of “virtue signalling” if ever I saw one — there’s so much more we could have covered, including this:

Wow. A proponent of freedom of speech and open debate who blocks those with whom they disagree? Surely not. That would have been fascinating to discuss.

As you may know, I’m a physicist. However, you and your flock – and others like you – have made me strongly consider a sabbatical in a social science research group to study the parallels between your group-think and that of religious faith groups. Thank you for the inspiration. (I was particularly amused that a devout disciple of yours continually made reference to this particular reading from the First Book Of Sargon:, failing, of course, to recognise that, as ideologues go, you’re no slouch yourself).

“Sargon’s Law”. Ranks right up there with Maxwell’s equations, the framework of special and general relativity, and the Schrodinger equation as a universal truth, don’t it?

Or maybe not.

As The Skeptic Feminist told you, any time you’d like to have an exchange of vies on their channel, I’m more than amenable. (Subject to availability. As I said previously, the rest of August is busy for me).


Philip Moriarty

Professor of Physics and Undergraduate Admissions Tutor

School of Physics and Astronomy

University of Nottingham

Nottingham NG7 2RD

Stern Response

Peter Coles (telescoper) on the Stern Review, published today. I’d certainly not quibble with any of his comments on the main recommendations of the report.

In the Dark

The results of the Stern Review of the process for assessing university research and allocating public funding has been published today. This is intended to inform the way the next Research Excellence Framework (REF) will be run, probably in 2020, so it’s important for all researchers in UK universities.

Here are the main recommendations, together with brief comments from me (in italics):

  1. All research active staff should be returned in the REF.Good, but what is to stop institutions moving large numbers of staff onto teaching-only contracts (which is what happened in New Zealand when such a move was made)?
  2. Outputs should be submitted at Unit of Assessment level with a set average number per FTE but with flexibility for some faculty members to submit more and others less than the average.Outputs are countable and therefore “fewer” rather than “less”.
  3. Outputs should not be portable. Presumably this…

View original post 491 more words

I fecking love science

I’ve recently got a new laptop and while I was transferring/hunting for files from my old machine —  which served me so well for many years and has now been given a decent send-off — I came across the Word version of the article below. This appeared in a Times Higher Education article entitled “Me and my PhD supervisor: Tales of love and loathing” two years ago. I though I’d post it here because I’ve found myself discussing the value of swearing in science recently, and would have liked to link directly to the piece below. (The THE article doesn’t allow a direct hyperlink to the relevant section of the main article.)

My PhD was a masterclass in the art of swearing. I don’t mean that I was frustrated all the time: far from it. But regardless of whether my research was going well or if it was in a phase when nothing seemed to work, my supervisor, Greg Hughes, and I communicated almost entirely in expletives.

Some might argue that this reliance on swearing was a result of deficiencies in our respective vocabularies (and they’d have a point in my case). But I prefer to think that it reflected the extent to which we were both engaged with, and driven by, the research. Far from being the disinterested and dispassionate operators scientists are supposed to be, we both cared deeply about the interpretation of spectroscopic data, the best way to set up an experiment, and the issue of whether what I was seeing in a scanning probe microscope image was real (or yet another irritating artefact). And I gained a huge amount from our “robust” exchanges of ideas.

But it wasn’t just Greg’s remarkable talent for using the F-word as object, subject, (ad)verb and adjective in a single sentence that impressed me. His enthusiasm for research and teaching, his generosity with his time and his inspiring mentorship also played a huge role in convincing me, less than a year into my PhD at Dublin City University, that I wanted to be an academic scientist.

One lasting memory I have is of a particularly fraught experiment in the last year of my PhD. A considerable amount of the science I did took place at the now sadly decommissioned Daresbury Synchrotron Radiation Source just outside Warrington. Experiments at synchrotrons (particle accelerators that generate an intense beam of radiation invaluable for studying a wide range of materials) are scheduled around short allocations of “beam time”. This necessitates lots of long shifts in a cramped environment and often results in sleep-deprived, caffeine-fuelled scientists bickering about how best to sort out just why the blasted instrument has given up the ghost this time. Get the experiment wrong and it might be well over a year before you get the next allocation of beam time to attempt it again.

After a rather arduous 40-hour shift, I was about to leave for breakfast when Greg arrived. I barked out a list of instructions, including telling him to leave certain key parameters on the experimental kit alone. He would have been quite within his rights to take umbrage at the lippiness of a young and rather unkempt scientist with a fraction of his research experience. But instead, he nodded sagely and smiled. He later told me that it was at that point – when I was telling him what he should do, rather than the other way round – that he realised I deserved the award of a doctorate.

Ever since, I’ve used the willingness of students to robustly argue their case, and/or tell me why I’m wrong, as a benchmark for their PhD readiness. By that point, they may also find that they are swearing just that little bit more than when they started.

Ofsted’s Data Dashboard has been dashed

A couple of years back I wrote a post related to the pseudostatistics at the heart of Ofsted’s assessment of primary schools. This was picked up by the National Union of Teachers, who featured the post at their website. This in turn led to a meeting involving Ofsted representatives, teachers, and yours truly, where the problems with the approach to presenting data on school performance were discussed.

In that post, I highlighted the sterling efforts of Jack Marwood in critiquing not only Ofsted’s processes but the DoE’s approaches to education in general. Jack has tirelessly pursued the many problems underpinning the assessment and direction of primary and secondary education. You should follow him on Twitter and sign up to his blog — his posts are always informative and engaging.

And on the subject of Jack’s blog, a couple of days ago he posted an update on Ofsted’s notorious Data Dashboard (which has been the subject of quite some criticism from teachers and parents over the years). The title at the top of this post is a bit of a spoiler as to the outcome of Ofsted’s review of the infamous Dashboard but Jack’s post puts it all in context.

Lilian Greenwood explains why she resigned from Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet

I should have posted the link before now, but rather late than never. Lilian Greenwood is my MP and is someone for whom I have a huge amount of respect. Lilian’s speech to the Nottingham South Labour Party membership was honest, passionate (in the true sense of the word), and compellingly reasoned.

As I’ve noted previously, I’ve been bitterly disappointed in Jeremy Corbyn’s performance as Labour leader (and I’m saying that as someone who joined the Labour party to vote for Corbyn). That someone with the credibility and commitment of Lilian Greenwood was among the first to resign from the Shadow Cabinet speaks volumes.


Brady Haran, Doctor of Letters

A short blog post to say just how delighted I am that Brady Haran was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Nottingham earlier this week. It’s been my great pleasure to work with Brady on Sixty Symbols (and a number of his other channels) over the past seven years. Despite — no, make that because ofour occasional tête-à-tête on just how to put across a piece of physics for a broad audience, I always look forward immensely to Brady (+ camera + bag of accessories) appearing at my door.

Brady’s work, and his remarkable work ethic, have put Nottingham on the map — and then some — when it comes to public engagement and communicating science. As Mike Merrifield describes in the video below, Brady’s ever-expanding portfolio of videos has topped 400 million views./ That’s nearly 2 billion minutes’ worth of viewing worldwide. All of us at the University of Nottingham owe Brady a huge debt of gratitude and it’s wonderful that this has been formally recognised by the award of Doctor of Letters.

Brady is his usual modest self in his acceptance speech (starting at around the 6 minute mark below), but it’s no exaggeration to say that he has fundamentally and radically changed my approach to explaining science and, by extension, my teaching.

I have learnt so much from him over the years.

Thank you, Brady, and congratulations.






Dear Supporter of Carl Benjamin,

Edit 09/08/2016  I was contacted by Mr. Benjamin by e-mail on July 30 re. this post. I initially was rather suspicious and assumed that the e-mail might have originated from one of Mr. Benjamin’s somewhat more devout followers, rather than Mr. Benjamin himself. (Our research group at Nottingham has had to put up with some deeply dishonest academic sockpuppetry and identity theft, in relation to a debate about the interpretation of the results of a series of studies on the properties of nanoparticles, so I now tend not to take e-mails arriving “out of the blue” at face value).

I did, however, respond to Mr. Benjamin. This led to an exchange which I’ll not, and indeed can’t, reproduce here because Mr. Benjamin did not give me permission to make the exchange public, despite a number of requests. (Those requests were simply ignored — I did not receive a response from Mr. Benjamin.) As my e-mail below describes, however, Mr. Benjamin was given three distinct options to debate. He turned down all three.


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 05 August 2016 04:57
To: ‘Carl Benjamin’ <——->
Subject: RE: Your e-mail

Dear me, Carl, but you really are beyond disingenuous, aren’t you? I didn’t expect anything less from you but it’s good to have my expectations so comprehensively confirmed. Thanks for that.

So, to recap, you’ve been given three options thus far.

  1. A face-to-face meeting. You’re won’t do that, however, because you’re frightened that the big, bad…errmm…out-of-shape, middle-aged physics professor might do unspeakable things to your person. As I’ve said before, you’re happy to throw out bile, vitriol and abuse online but rather less keen to debate face to face with a critic sitting in the same room as you.  And yet you rail against “delicate flowers” and “safe spaces”? You’re nothing more than a bully and a hypocrite, Carl. (It’s a great shame that you refuse to debate because we could have covered that hypocrisy aspect in a great deal more detail in the context of your laughable petition). Pathetic.
  1. An e-mail spat. But you also won’t do that. I wonder why?
  1. A moderated debate on The Skeptic Feminist channel. But you also refuse that. I was hugely amused by your “rein his neck in” tweet. How, might I ask, are you going to rein my neck in?

So, no, I am transparently not trying to avoid discussion. I am very happy to put this email trail in the public domain, if you like, so we can confirm that openly. Let me know if you’re happy for me to do this.

And, once again, I’d appreciate it if you could stop lying. You’ve now turned down three opportunities to defend your pitiful petition, your cowardice, and your hypocrisy. The unwillingness to discuss these matters is entirely yours.


Edit 31/07/2016 This hilarious demolition of Mr. Benjamin’s farcical “Suspend Social Justice Courses” petition (to “UNIVERSITIES”, no less) was uploaded today. Grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and laugh yourself silly…


Edit 26/07/2016 Thanks to RobWilfred1977 for bringing my attention to the video below. (Rob’s full comment is here). This is the wholly unedifying spectacle of Mr. Benjamin, a 37 year old man and father of two, calling his mother and acting like an especially immature 12 year old. The video is arse-clenchingly cringeworthy; a deep singularity of cringe that would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic. The 37 year old Benjamin rings his — understandably perplexed — mummy (and the grandmother of his kids) ostensibly to tell her what he tweeted to Jess Phillips.

Except, of course, that Mr. Benjamin lacks the decency and honesty to tell mummy what he actually said. As Rob points out, who’d have thought it? Benjamin lying? Surely not. But, yes, it’s true. The reprehensible Mr. Benjamin removes the “even” from the statement: he changes it from “I wouldn’t *even* rape you” to “I wouldn’t rape you”.

Blatant dishonesty and gutlessness. Just when you think this little turd of a man can’t get any more odious, he somehow manages it…

Not even worthless.

Edit 22/07/2016 I was fully aware that those who jump to the defence of the odious Carl Benjamin – or “Sargon of Akkad”, if we must really refer to him by his tedious tweenage alias – are often not the most accomplished in terms of reading comprehension and their overall ability to grasp nuance, irony, and satire. But I didn’t appreciate just how far the original piece would fly over their collective heads. From a number of the comments and e-mails I’ve received, it would appear that it flew by somewhere in the stratosphere. I’ve therefore dumbed down the piece a little to make the satirical aspects obvious to the more obtuse of Mr. Benjamin’s fans. 


I’ll make no bones about it, I find your willingness to defend Mr. Benjamin’s hateful behaviour both saddening and sickening. (That’s the TL;DR version, just in case you are one of those who has an aversion to reading even moderately detailed arguments, and who tends to dismiss more than a hundred words as a “wall of text”. If, however, you are comfortable with parsing articles and posts that are somewhat more nuanced and considered than a grammatically garbled 140 character slur, please read on).

Since uploading a blog post entitled “Preaching to the choir: The cult of online atheism” a couple of days ago, I’ve received quite a few comments and missives from those who, like you, are very keen to jump to the defence of Benjamin. Many of these were incoherent, rambling (and, of course, grammatically dubious) diatribes, but a small number of those who posted comments, or e-mailed me directly, were rather more focussed and controlled.

Foremost in this latter category was a comment posted yesterday by “Kargoneth”. I’m going to respond to “Kargoneth”‘s defence of Benjamin on a point-by-point basis, as (s)he has neatly distilled the content, if not the tone, of the many Benjamin-related missives I’ve received. Kargoneth’s comment is also very well-written, notwithstanding the utterly depressing lack of empathy and consideration for others it represents.

In the following, “Kargoneth”‘s comments are in bold italics.

Hello Dr. Moriarty (Professor Moriarty? I don’t know which you prefer),

Hi, Kargoneth. Good of you to comment. I appreciate it.

Thanks for asking about the title. I much prefer Philip but appreciate that not all are comfortable to be on a first name basis. So whatever salutation you want to use is absolutely fine by me.

Regarding Sargon of Akkad, I would ask that you watch some of his videos directly rather than rely on second-hand accounts of his views. Your hyperlink for his pseudonym links to a Kristi Winters video, rather than his channel.

First, I will refer to “Sargon of Akkad” as Carl Benjamin throughout my response, because that is his name. Use of a tweenage pseudonym provides an aura of entirely undeserved mystique and, of course, allowed Mr. Benjamin to cower behind cover of anonymity for quite some time. (As you’ll know, he did not voluntarily reveal his identity. You’ll also be aware of my stance on the intellectual cowardice and fundamental weakness of those who hide, or have hidden, behind pseudonyms so that they can slag off and abuse others. I’ll not expand on that issue here, however, as I’ve gone into it at repetitive length previously.).

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.

I have watched a number of his videos (including this far-from-edifying performance from Mr. Benjamin [1]). My decision not to link to his channel was entirely deliberate. Kristi’s video provides a pithy overview of a Sunday Times article which, in a few short paragraphs, summarises Benjamin’s vacuous arguments. (I note that you repeat those empty arguments verbatim in your comment — see below.) Kristi also very helpfully provided links to photos of the Sunday Times article in the information under the video. In addition, I would much prefer not to be responsible for driving any amount, no matter how small, of internet traffic to Benjamin’s channel.

In passing, it’s worth noting that in that Sunday Times article, Benjamin himself refers to his behaviour as “childish”. I think that’s extremely unfair to the very many children who, despite their tender years compared to the middle-aged Benjamin, have a much higher degree of empathy and consideration for others, and whose moral compass is rather better developed.

This is the tweet to which Kristi Winters refers:

Sargon read an article by Jess Phillips wherein Jess states that she and other women are the targets of people tweeting that they will rape her (and the other women).

This is the portion of Sargon’s video where he read Jess’s article:


Sargon’s response to this was to tweet at her stating that he wouldn’t even rape her (a tweet for which other people created their own versions and sent them to Jess)

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?

Back and forth it went until Sargon stating he wouldn’t rape her somehow became a source of outrage fuel.

“…somehow became a source of outrage fuel…”

This statement beggars belief. I cannot fathom how a functioning human being like yourself, who is clearly intelligent enough to construct a well-written response to my post, cannot understand why Benjamin’s vicious response to Jess Phillips generated massive outrage.

Benjamin didn’t “even” tweet “I wouldn’t rape you“. That would be bad enough. He tweeted “I wouldn’t even rape you”.

Your comment, as I said, is written well. I therefore cannot believe that you do not possess the minimal reading comprehension skills required to appreciate just how important the inclusion of the word “even” is in that sentence.

“I wouldn’t even rape you”.

Sent to a rape victim.


The irony being that a tweets advocating raping and tweets advocating not raping somehow both lead to outrage on the part of his detractors (specifically, feminists/progressives)

There is no “irony” here. That a tweet advocating rape is unacceptable really doesn’t need to be said. But Benjamin’s tweet clearly isn’t some grand statement that advocates not raping women. You’re not that stupid. (Many others who have posted comments and contacted me clearly are that stupid, but from the overall tenor of the comment you posted, you don’t lack the intelligence to appreciate this basic distinction).

His tweet was sent to mock, belittle and intimidate Phillips.

The 600-odd other tweets that were sent following Benjamin’s hateful tweet also had nothing to with advocating not raping women, but were all about mocking, belittling and intimidating Phillips.

If you really  can’t see that distinction, how about considering this statement:

“You’re not even a worthless tosser without a semblance of a moral compass or basic human decency. I wouldn’t even want to lock you up.”

Is that advocating that we shouldn’t incarcerate those pitiful individuals whose lives are so empty that they gain a great deal of pleasure out of intimidating others online, or is that a statement with a rather darker and more threatening tone?

The entire twitter exchange reached sufficient absurdity  

You find it absurd that so many were outraged by Benjamin’s pitiful attempts to threaten Phillips?

Try, for one second — just for one second — to get beyond parroting the groundless, vacuous idiocy of Mr. Benjamin and his ilk, and think for yourself. Have the integrity to put yourself in Jess Phillips’ shoes for a moment or two. Try to empathise. It’s a basic human characteristic for all but the sociopaths among us.

And if, after that, you still don’t see the problem with Benjamin’s hatred and bile, then you’re not even a useless, worthless, fucking disgrace; you’re not even a gutless waste of humanity who lacks any compassion or empathy for others. You’re not even the lowest of the low.

Not even.

Just pixels on a screen, remember. I’m just exercising my freedom of speech.

Don’t be so sensitive.

 I’m sure [Benjamin] would be happy to have a discussion with you if you laid out your position. You both seem to be reasonable people.

That you’d refer to someone who said “I wouldn’t even rape you” to a rape victim – or to any woman — as “reasonable” is, for all of the reasons above, saddening and sickening.

From my point of view, Sargon is an advocate of freedom of speech and a staunch critic of the silencing tactics and one-sided policies employed by universities, students unions, the media, and even governments. While many his videos often contain sarcasm, mockery, and jokes, these tend to be there to add some emotional texture to his videos (otherwise most of them would probably just be him speaking in a constantly-frustrated/exasperated tone, given the topics he discusses).

“…universities, student unions, the media, and even governments”. Let’s remove the tinfoil helmet for a second and look at this beyond the usual tediously naive and uninformed rants from Mr. Benjamin. (As I’ve said once or twice before, it’s really important to try to think for oneself, instead of mindlessly parroting the views of others).

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…”). 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].

I am also, of course, an advocate of freedom of speech. But consider if I said the following to you..

You’re not even a worthless prick. You don’t even have the modicum of empathy to understand the extent to which Benjamin is devoid of basic human decency and compassion.

Do I have the right to say that?


Should I say that?

Well, I’ll leave you to mull that over. (And while you’re mulling it over, you might find it helpful to consider the central point Stewart Lee is making in the video below).




Edit (20 July 2016) — I’ve just realised that, given the inability of so many posting comments under that video to grasp the point Lee is making (“whooosh” is a massive understatement), and that some of Benjamin’s subscribers/followers clearly are not, um, over-endowed in terms of their critical thinking faculties, it’s probably best if I also embed another Stewart Lee video which makes the point somewhat less obliquely:



The Parable of the Seething Sargonite

And once, in those times, there was a devout and righteous Sargonite who was known across the land as falcoshin. He was truly blessed by the faith and loved the Lord Sargon with all his heart and soul.

Upon that land there came a heathen, an abominable unbeliever who blasphemed against the Lord Sargon. This made falcoshin sorrowful and vexed, and he vowed to force the heathen to recant his blasphemy. “Thou shalt not sully the name of the one true Sargon who teaches that freedom of speech and freedom of opinion are sacrosanct. Thou must accept the teachings of Sargon or thoust will feel His wrath”.

But no matter how falcoshin defended the Lord he loved so well, the unbeliever would not accept Sargon into his heart. The heathen spoke of empathy and respect for others, the very vilest blasphemy. But falcoshin stood steadfast because he knew his faith did not rest on human wisdom, but on Sargon’s power.

Yet falcoshin became ever angered by the heathen’s heresy and he said unto the blasphemer: “No, I shalt not listen to thy blasphemous words. I shalt not read thy postings. Thou must accept the teachings of Sargon. THOU MUST.”

Now, while falcoshin was especially blessed with the faith, he was a few sheep short of the flock in matters of the mind. And so he called out to the Lord Sargon: “Sargon, thou must smite the unbeliever. Bring down your tribe upon him and teach him the error of his ways”.

But falcoshin, in his rage, had forgotten the first and most blessed commandment of Sargon: “the true path of enlightenment is one of rational hard logic with no feels”.

And so the Lord Sargon did not bring down his tribe.

And falcoshin was saddened. And on the fifth day, he called out with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

Thus endeth the lesson.


[1] I’ve been a judge for the national Debating Matters competition for A-level students for quite a few years. Let’s just say that Mr. Benjamin’s debating skills are substantially less developed than those that were on display in any of the school debating competitions I had the pleasure to judge.

[2] Here’s the comment in full:

“Hi, Steve.

First, it’s great to meet your acquaintance, if only virtually! Thanks for responding so quickly and for the kind words. I can understand entirely where you’re coming from — and we agree so very much more than we disagree on so many issues — but I guess that I’m such a pig-headed, stubborn, argumentative sod I’m not willing to cede that ground to those whose only argument is “Oh. He blocked me”. I don’t want to give them the satisfaction!

More seriously, I think it’s dangerous to attempt to shut down debate. I understand entirely your point that those who leave vacuous (and vicious) abuse at your site, or direct it to you via your Twitter feed, aren’t debating, but the problem is that by locking them out we give a credibility to their abuse that just isn’t deserved. Those of us with a modicum of intelligence will see the abuse for what it is. Better to have it in the open and to highlight the paucity of their arguments than to censor them. And I know that’s easy for me to say — I’ve had a tiny, tiny fraction (at most) of the abuse you’ve had to receive.

There are two examples from the UK that might help explain my position (one relatively recent, the other not so recent.)

1. An obnoxious, hateful (and hate-filled), publicity-hungry hack who goes by the name of Katie Hopkins — that she referred to refugees as “cockroaches” tells you all you need to know — was a member of a panel at Brunel University last year. The students there coordinated a protest whereby they waited until Hopkins was introduced, stood up en masse, turned round so that their backs were to Hopkins, and filed out of the lecture theatre. I think this was precisely the wrong thing to do, especially in a university setting. They should have debated Hopkins and demolished her bigoted, ignorant views.

2. Back in 2009, there was a great deal of controversy when Nick Griffin, leader of the far-right British National Party, was invited onto a weekly BBC political debate show called “Question Time”. (There’s a Wiki article here: )

Many argued that Griffin shouldn’t have been invited on. I was instead of the opinion that it was precisely the right thing to do. And in the end, Griffin’s performance on QT was embarrassing. He damaged his reputation and that of the BNP irreparably — see the section headed “Other reactions and analyses” in that Wiki article.

Much better to let them be hoist by their own petard then make them martyrs for “free speech”.

All the very best, Philip




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