Academic freedom: where do we draw the line?

Currently there are two prominent controversies relating to ‘academic freedom’.  One is the case of Kathleen Stock, who has written a book that is critical of the concept of ‘gender identity’.   Professor Stock has been the subject of threats and anonymous vilification, and has been disowned by her university’s union.  The other is the case of David Miller, who has not just used his teaching position to declare that there is a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world, but has accused Jewish students in his university of taking part in it and being the pawns of a malign foreign power.

I think these two cases are rather different.  Miller’s embrace of conspiracy theory is odiously racist, but there are lots of objectionable positions that people take in British universities – among them, people who will happily argue for eugenics, racial inferiority, and survival of the fittest. The academic advocates for letting Covid rip have contributed to the deaths of more people than they could have if they’d gone into a lecture theatre firing a sub-machine gun.   If Professor  Miller had stopped at conspiracy theory,  I doubt that much would have happened.   The line he crossed was to level an accusation at a group of students within his university who should be “directly targeted”.  Miller claims, probably correctly, that this is not unlawful: defamation only becomes unlawful when it relates to identifiable individuals within a group.  But academic freedom is not unlimited, any more than any other sort of freedom.  It cannot be legitimate to threaten or invite people to attack those  who are subject to your authority: that is an abuse of power.

Kathleen Stock’s position is very different.  She has been accused of ‘transphobia’ for daring to take a different view from other people.  The statement from her local union branch comments that “Public discourses regularly devalue the lives of trans and nonbinary people, and appeals to both employment rights and academic freedom are often instrumentalised.”  Maybe so, but that has nothing to do with Kathleen Stock. I have read her book, Material Girls, and I did not see anything there which might suggest that trans people do not have the right to live their own lives in their own way .  She writes, on the contrary:

Trans people are trans people. We should get over it.  They deserve to be safe, to be visible throughout society without shame or stigma, and to have exactly the life opportunities non-trans people do.  Their transness makes no difference to any of this.  What trans people don’t deserve, however, is to be publicly represented in philosophical terms that make no sense.

Her main objections are to subjective claims to a gender identity, and from there to men who wish to occupy the same spaces as women.   (I think she dismisses the  social construction of gender rather too easily, and tends to conflate it with subjective self-identification – but so do her opponents.  Law, finance, culture and language are also socially constructed; that doesn’t mean they are subjective. Nor is gender.)  There is a discussion to be had, and if we cannot accommodate that discussion in reasoned terms, we will all be the poorer.

Work in progress

In the course of the last year, I’ve spent much of my time writing two books.  I have just sent the final copy of the first to Policy Press, who will be publishing it early in 2022. It’s called How to fix the welfare state, and it reviews a series of problems and issues in British social services. It’s a personal take on the welfare state; I had things to say, and thought it was time to say them. Each of the chapters in the book outlines the structure of services, the impact of some false and misleading narratives, and the real problems that need to be addressed. The book outlines where approaches to the services have gone wrong, and makes suggestions about what they need to do to get things right.

I can be reasonably confident that this won’t be my last book, because the second is virtually finished.  It’s a work of general political theory, called, for now at least, Government for the people. It looks at the way the role of governments around the world have changed to take on responsibility for public welfare.

 

The problems with behavioural genetics are far from being resolved

An article about behavioural genetics has attracted a certain amount of attention from people who believe this sort of thing.  The article, by Paige Harden, is trying to rehabilitate this research, which has an appalling record.  The study has been tainted by fabrication and fraud.  And, of course by mass murder.  (There’s a good history in Carlson, 2001, The Unfit.)

The search for evidence that genes determine behaviour has lasted about 150 years, and still has a long way to go.  No-one has been able to establish any real proof that any of our behaviour is genetically determined.  However, that last point is  disputed by the keepers of the faith.  Harden writes:

“A meta-analysis of results from 50 years of twin studies … concluded in 2015 that genes do, in fact, make a difference for these types of social and behavioural outcomes – for people’s cognitive ability, personality, sexual behaviour, educational attainment and income. In fact, this finding is so consistent that it’s long been enshrined as the ‘first law of behavioural genetics’: everything is heritable. That is, variation in every aspect of human psychology and behaviour, and variation in every social outcome that’s influenced by one’s behaviour, is influenced by the genetic differences among us. Despite making different assumptions from twin studies, GWAS [genome-wide association study] results converge on the same answer: which genes you happen to inherit from your parents makes a difference for socially valued life outcomes, such as how far you go in school.”

Let’s take this apart.  The first thing to note is the claim that genes ‘make a difference’.  That is plausible enough, but it slides into a different argument as the article goes on: that “genes have causal power for people’s lives.”   That’s rather more than making a difference.  In the study she cites, the authors claim to demonstrate that genetics account for up to 13% of the variance in educational attainment.  Put that another way: at least 87% of the variance is not associated with the genomics.

The central problem with the claim that this has ‘causal power’ is that genes don’t actually determine development; they only establish a pattern.  The article that the author cites on the ‘laws’ of behavioural genetics comments:  “ Development is fundamentally nonlinear, interactive, and difficult to control experimentally.”  Just so – but it’s development that really matters.  Take, for example, the case of height.  That, according to Harden, is down to “the environmental and genetic accidents of one’s birth.”  Well, not quite.   Height is not set at birth. It’s the product of a phenotype – the cumulative development of a human body, conditioned by its genome, in its interaction with the environment.   There are exceptions, at the extremes – but they are exceptions. We know that people have been getting taller in every generation; that would not be possible if height were fixed by the genes.  We also know that people who are not well fed are liable to be stunted; that would be impossible, too.  Height is influenced by genes but is not determined by them.    And we should expect nothing more than that to be true of any developmental factor – such as weight, language development, sporting prowess or academic attainment.

The second problem lies in the idea of ‘heritability’.   In animal breeding, heritability is generally put down to genes, because the main differences between animals that matter to breeders are probably those conditioned at birth.  We don’t breed humans for their physical attributes, and there are a few other differences.  Human behaviour isn’t hard-wired – humans have fewer genes than most complex animals, and we should expect (and can observe) fewer inborn, instinctive behaviours.  The relative lack of fixed, instinctive behaviour is compensated for by a different mechanism: socialisation, mainly in families.  Families share a great deal, including a more or less common environment, language, cultural practice, leisure activities and diet.  Estimates for the heritability of obesity vary between 40% and 70%.  That does not mean obesity is genetically caused, only that it runs in families.  We cannot be certain for any individual whether their obesity is generated by a genetic blueprint, but there is a clue: obesity has been rising rapidly.   As the gene pool changes only very slowly over time, we can take it that the change is social.

Third, there is the reliance on twin studies.  For more than 50 years, twin studies have been an unfailing source of bad science.  The central assumption behind twin studies is that twins who are identical (monozygotic, or MZ) will manifest the same behaviours on that account; twins who are not identical will share 50% of genes, making them more like each other than ordinary siblings would be.  There are several problems with this.

  • Any similarities within families may well reflect similar environmental factors. That point is acknowledged by Harden.  Identical twins generally have social environments which are very similar indeed, and certainly more similar than fraternal twins. That’s why past studies tried to concentrate on identical twins reared apart – the problem being that (a) not enough twins are reared apart to make for a valid study, and (b) that even when twins are reared apart, social services agencies try to match their environments to the greatest possible extent.
  • Twins are not representative of general experience.  All twins have a different experience from other babies, and an experience which is similar to each other. They are typically born prematurely; they have to share the divided attention of parents, in a  different way to siblings; and because they have been born at the same time their environment and experience will be more alike than other siblings.
  • There is the common assumption of genetic similarity.  In most studies that is based not on hard genetic evidence but (believe it or not) on the impressions of the parent.  It should be no surprise that parents who think their children are more alike treat them as more alike.
  • Nearly all studies discard information about twins where one is disabled – a not uncommon issue – even though that disability means that children with the same genes clearly have different experiences.

What, we might reasonably ask, can twin studies prove?  The standard scientific approach is not to prove a hypothesis; it is to disprove it.  Identical twins cannot show us that something is genetically caused, because of confounding factors that cannot be controlled for.  What identical twins might be able to show us are the circumstances which are not genetic in origin, because if MZ  twins were to act differently we would know that the difference between them could not be attributed to their genes. There is  some presumptive evidence, for what it’s worth, that MZ twins can and do have different sexualities – the same in two thirds of cases, different in one-third.  If that happens at all, it isn’t genetically determined – though, being of a sceptical bent, I do wonder about the sampling and the lack of specific genetics which lie behind that finding.  I don’t expect behavioural geneticists to do the work to test this properly, because of course they are already convinced that everything is driven by genes.  Unfortunately, that presumption undermines the studies they make.

Fourth, there is the use of big data.  If we were serious about identifying genetic effects, we should be able to identify behaviours which exist only when a gene or set of genes is present, and which do not exist when those genes are not present.  We can do this with current genetic medicine – the same approach which last year saved my life; I know exactly which set of genes has malfunctioned, what it has done and what the best treatment is.  The GWAS research referred to might, in principle, be able to show something of the kind about behaviour – but the signs are not good.  Take the major study of genes and educational attainment cited above.  It processed data for 1.1 million adults and identified 1271 relevant gene clusters, that is ‘genome-wide significant SNPs’ .  A previous study, done on 294,000 adults, had found that they were able to explain only 3.2% of the variance.  In this study, the authors report that “A joint (multi-phenotype) analysis of educational attainment and three related cognitive phenotypes generates polygenic scores that explain 11–13% of the variance in educational attainment and 7–10% of the variance in cognitive performance.”

Taking that result at face value, what does it tell us? The most striking finding, which I’ve already pointed to, is that genetic analysis does not explain at least 87% of the variance, and in the worst case it did not explain 96%.  Genes may have an influence, along with lots of other things, but – if we trust the figures – it’s not a big one.

Now, let’s be a bit rougher on this research.  The first objection is straightforward:  association is not causation.  Even if the association was higher, it wouldn’t actually prove a causal link.  There has to be a specific generative mechanism, and that’s never been established.

Second, the stats weren’t developed to deal with numbers this big.  People often suppose that associations in bigger data sets are more reliable than associations in smaller ones. That’s not necessarily true; the larger the number, the more systemic imbalances can be amplified.

Third, this is a fishing expedition.  Whenever you deal with massive numbers of observations, there are going to be associations arising by chance.  The bigger the numbers, the more apparently significant associations there are going to be.  The claims in this study might, I think, be compared to the work on astrology, seeking to prove that people born under particular star-signs move into certain occupations.  Austin et al report, in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, no less (2006 59 pp 964-969) that people born under Gemini and Libra had increased mortality after infarcts treated by aspirin.  Make the sample big enough, and you’ll find some pattern.  Just don’t try to invest it with meaning.

Last, and not least, these associations might simply mask the real influences.   There are lots of other reasons why people might have higher or lower educational attainment – class, poverty, family background, language – and a comparison of educational attainment with selected elements of the genome doesn’t bother controlling for them.

Labour is found guilty of institutional racism

The Twitter-sphere is full of misinformation about the judgement of the Equality and Human Rights Commission about the Labour Party’s conduct towards Jews.  There are two rather serious misunderstandings doing the rounds.  The first is the mistaken claim that “the EHRC did not find that Labour was institutionally antisemitic”.  Here is an example, ‘liked’ by more than 1500 people :

 The EHRC report does not refer to ‘institutional racism’ at all.  However, the report does specifically and directly confine itself to actions which can be said to have been the responsibility of the Labour Party, as a collective organisation.   The methodology is explained in Annex 3.    It follows that report’s finding of unlawful conduct is, precisely, a finding against the Labour Party as an institution.  So yes, the Labour Party has been found guilty of institutional racism.

The second claim, as expressed by serial provocateur Chris Williamson, is based in a related misunderstanding: that “Despite cries about ‘institutional anti-Semitism’ and an ‘existential threat to British Jews’, the EHRC based its report on a tiny sample of 70 complaints made over a three-year period. It only found two examples of supposed ‘unlawful harassment’ – out of half a million members.”  The report did not look at the conduct of members (let alone that of former members such as Mr Williamson).    The actions of individuals, former members, and members communicating to other members in an individual capacity, were expressly excluded from the scope of the inquiry (p 127). What the EHRC was looking for was something different: actions which could legitimately be said to be conduct of the Labour Party, rather than of individuals.  And that is what the report has condemned.

I think there is some cause for regret here.  The report’s careful and measured tone doesn’t really get the point over to people who have convinced themselves, over a period of years, that the accusations of racism were fabricated – an allegation that is racist in itself.  There are references in the report to the suggestion that complaints about racism were ‘smears’ – that was a major part of the two examples of institutional harassment – but there is not the warning that was needed to explain to people that if they continued to maintain that position, it would amount to further harassment.  The EHRC needed to say it in terms.

 

Grading students’ work

Reversing previous decisions about the grades awarded to students whose education has been interrupted makes some kind of sense, but only some.  The problem is that we expect grades to mean three somewhat different things, all at once.

In the first place, grades are given for achievement – reflecting the knowledge, skills and competencies that students have demonstrated.  This is problematic in the current situation, because even if the grades are given fairly, they will reflect the position of students who will have done several months less work or development than previous cohorts have done.

Second, grades are supposed to represent potential – not what students have actually  achieved, but what they might be capable of doing with further development.  If present achievement gave us a clear guide to the future, that might work – but it doesn’t, and there’s always been the suspicion that it says more about the preparedness of the school and the resources that school students are offered than it does of the abilities of the pupil.  This was a problem before the pandemic, and it will be a problem long after it.  The truth is that we only have very unreliable predictors of what students might be capable of – A levels, in particular, often make over-fine distinctions between very narrow bands across the grades, and are a weak guide to university performance.

Third, the grades represent opportunities, and impose limits on those opportunities.  If a student wants to study medicine, for example, the opening will depend more on high academic performance than it does on personal experience, sensitivity, commitment or interpersonal skills (the sort of thing that we used explore in interviews for social work places).

The emphasis on opportunity is the argument that has carried the day.   In Scotland, the decision will make it possible for more than 3000 students to go into a university course they wouldn’t otherwise have been admitted to.  Many people will look at that and say: why not?   But there is an objection: increased opportunities within the current system might just mean that people have more opportunity to fail.  The French system opens doors to everyone with the Baccalaureat, but it fails half the students after the first year.  In the UK, the institutions with the most liberal admissions policies are also likely to be the lower status institutions, and they may lose  up to 20% of their students as the course goes on.   It doesn’t follow that we’re wasting those students’ time, but  far too many university courses work on the principle that students must ‘sink or swim’.  I’d be more confident in the process if at the outset there were more engagement with students and more emphasis on developing the skills they’ll need to qualify.

My private thanks to the NHS

I didn’t join the final ‘clap for the NHS’.  On that day, I had gone for blood tests in the early afternoon.  The medical practice is 45 minutes away from the nearest hospital and labs, so analysis took a little time, but I was called back to go directly to to Victoria Hospital, in Kirkcaldy, within two hours of seeing the GP.

The care I received was exemplary.  It had first to be confirmed that I did not have Covid-19.   After that, everything worked as it was supposed to.  The GP identified the problem and took the necessary steps to deal with it, at great speed.  There was a coordinated response from a range of different consultants and specialities,  supported by specialist services in Edinburgh and Southampton.  The nursing staff in particular were thoroughly professional, warm, polite and good-humoured.  What I owe them all is immeasurable.

After the lockdown, will we be a better society? I doubt it.

Some accounts of the social changes taking place are highly optimistic about what they can mean for society.  We won’t make the same mistakes again, the argument runs.  We won’t pare public provision down to the bone.  We won’t close down social protection.  The response to the virus shows a sense of solidarity, of mutual responsibility, of common purpose.

I wrote my book, Thinking collectively, about this kind of issue.  The book runs through a series of arguments for community and collective action.  But the starting point for that argument was a consideration of collectivism as a substantive reality.  Everything we do is conditioned by our relationships with other people, and organisations and groups are fundamental to the way we live.  Given that position, I’m not about to express surprise about the degree to which people have tried to help others in their community, or put themselves forward as public servants or volunteers – that’s exactly what we should expect.  It’s basic to who we are, and what we are.

The current process of social distancing is a threat to the social fabric.  It implies a degree of solitude, or isolation.  It implies a degree of dissociation from other people.  It depends on ‘atomisation’ – turning us into separate, distinctly individual units, centred on the household.   That threatens our engagement  with other people – how we do things, how we think about ourselves, and how we interact with other people.   It would be nice to think that all this will lead to everyone wanting to do the opposite when the restrictions are lifted, but there’s little reason to suppose that will be the case.  There are famous accounts of the atomisation of American society – David Riesman’s book, The lonely crowd, or Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.  That was the world we were heading towards before this crisis happened.  The problem with social distancing is, bluntly, that people may well get used to it.  The longer it lasts, the more likely it is to accelerate the process of individualisation, putting us at a distance from everyone else.   We should all be concerned.

 

HS2: the wrong project, from the wrong place, to the wrong places

I don’t claim to know anything about transport, though in a personal blog ignorance should never be considered an insuperable obstacle to inspired pontification.  I do however know a bit about regeneration, a bit more about economic development, and more about government planning failures than is healthy.

Let me offer three simple criteria.  First, all projects, minor as well as major,  have to add value.  If they duplicate facilities which are already there, any improvements they offer are marginal (in the economic sense) – not necessarily something to be dismissed, but something that needs to be compared with improvements in current provision to see whether the gain is actually worthwhile.  The London to Birmingham route already has some of the best services available in the UK, on both road and rail.  Most of our major transport links are aimed at London.  By contrast, there are large areas of the UK with poor communications and transport links.  That’s being identified with the “North”, though apparently for this purpose Birmingham (which arguably has  the best connections after London) is being treated as if it was in the “North”.

Second, projects have to serve  the largest number of people possible – that always has a massive impact on the cost-benefit analysis.  Part of that, the greatest gain,  relates to the marginal benefit.  The way to maximise the marginal benefit is to put any route into places which don’t at present have one – creating a new infrastructure, rather than developing an old one.  One of the standard objections from conservationists to new projects is that they create new demands, new traffic, and new lines of communication.  That’s exactly what we should want to happen.  As things stand,  we have been developing an infrastructure around airports – road access, car parks, transport routes, hospitality, business parks and so forth.  That is the sort of development that a high-speed rail link ought to be encouraging.

The other part, serving the largest number of people possible, implies finding a route that   will be accessible to the widest possible population.  For a high-speed rail network, that implies covering the longest distance possible, but it also applies a route that will be within a reasonably accessible distance – say 30 miles, or 90 minutes – of the largest number of people possible.  Putting these two issues together, if there is only going to be one high-speed line, that would imply a route well to the west of London.   I don’t have the information base to work out just what that would imply, but a route down the spine of the country would probably run from somewhere north of Southampton to somewhere north of Falkirk, with stops at something like 50-60 mile intervals.

Third,  avoid urban land.  That is partly because of the cost,  always a major part of any assessment of value.  Land is expensive, and land in cities costs more.  So a cost-effective high-speed route would not be running to and from the centre of cities, but  past them, using the less expensive green field sites wherever possible.  The other reason, possibly more powerful still, is that it this approach allows scope for development.  Putting in feeder routes is the next stage, for local action, but the advantage of avoiding city centes is that there is room for that kind of development.

The core problem with the HS2 project is not that its costs are increasing: that was built into the plan.  It’s the wrong development,  going the wrong way.

 

Sociology wanders off the path

I’ve recently read a couple of sociological works that make me wonder what people in the discipline think it’s about.  One was a collection of introductory readings by Giddens and Sutton, which seemed to be largely focused on people’s experience of life.  There’s a justification for this approach to sociology in Wright Mills’ book, The Sociological Imagination, but it’s never enough simply to say what life is like.   Now, this is in fairness an introductory collection: so how do you introduce people to a discipline?  It seems to me that any taster has to give people a sense of the approach, include something about  the analytical process involved, and perhaps convey a little  of the surprise   that comes of looking in ways that aren’t just a matter of ‘common sense’.  Descriptions of everyday life don’t cut it.  If you don’t generalise about social experience, and don’t analyse the concepts you’re using, you’re left with what Ruth Glass once called “the poor sociologist’s substitute for the novel”.

The other text was Mel Bartley’s book on Health Inequality, which had this to say about Talcott Parsons.

An influential school of sociology in the United States has long understood inequality in terms of a theory called “structural-functionalism”.  This school of thought was led by Talcott Parsons, who put forward a clear logic for social inequality.  According to Parsons, people naturally have unequal abilities.  Society needs its most able members to be attracted to the jobs that are (according to this theory) most important for its basic functions, such as law, medicine, science and senior management in industry  … Any society will offer high rewards to attract people into ‘functionally essential’ jobs.

Now, I can’t say that no-one has ever adopted such an asinine view of the world: Herbert Spencer, who was popular in the USA in the nineteenth century, argued for ‘survival of the fittest’.  But it’s certainly not true of Talcott Parsons, who as far as I know said nothing of the kind.  He was anti-racist and anti-fascist.  He may have been too favourably inclined to the US system of government as an ideal, but he argued that obstacles to equality of opportunity were dysfunctional and that the equality of citizens  was critical to social inclusion.  The view that’s being criticised here (properly understood as ‘Optimism’) has nothing at all to do with structural-functionalism.

Parsons was a terrible communicator and he’s a pain to read. Nevertheless, he did have something to say; I’d still get more entertainment value from being stuck in a lift with The social system than I did from Girl, Woman, Other.  Try this appreciation from Daniel Bell, which explains some of Parson’s central ideas in simple terms.  If you’re wondering how it relates to what Mel Bartley says about Parsons – it doesn’t.

 

Sumption on the rule of law

While Jonathan Sumption’s Reith lectures offer some food for thought, some of his claims are  questionable.  This is from this morning’s lecture:

Democracies operate on the implicit basis that although the majority has authorised policies which a minority deplores, these differences are transcended by their common acceptance of the legitimacy of its decision-making processes.

Well … up to a point, m’lord.  It’s true that democracies depend heavily on legitimate processes in order to deliver legitimate outcomes. But it’s also true that those processes are not enough in themselves to ensure legitimacy.  Majorities, and apparently legitimate processes, authorised policies by Hitler and Mussolini.  Sumption cites James Madison in another context; this is what Madison has to say about majority rule:

It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure…. In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects … In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger …

It’s fundamental to democracy that the rights of minorities are protected; if they are not, it is no longer a democracy.

Sumption’s view of the legal process, oddly for someone in his position, veers at times towards an ideal.

Law is rational. Law is coherent. Law is analytically consistent and rigorous.

If law was rational and coherent, it would be predictable.  We should be able to state with confidence what the law is as soon as we have seen an unequivocal statement in a statute, without waiting for confirmation from the courts.  Look at Sumption’s own comment on a Supreme Court decision:

The majority’s reason, however dressed up, was that they didn’t approve of the power that parliament had, on the face of it, conferred on ministers. Three of the judges thought that it was such a bad idea that parliament could not possibly have meant what it plainly said.

If the law was consistent and rigorous, it should be the case that the Supreme Court would deliver consistent, clear thematic judgements – but even when  they say they agree with each other, they can’t bring themselves to say the same things.

More fundamentally, if the law was consistent and rigorous, whether or not people’s interests are protected shouldn’t depend on whether or not they contest it.  Courts routinely rubber-stamp oppressive orders relating to debt simply because the debtors don’t make a submission. The big utility companies notoriously can afford to play the odds – losing a few cases they don’t seriously argue about because they routinely win so many without an argument.  The law, as Sumption says, has certain biases: “in favour of individual rights and traditional social expectations “.  But it also has a ferocious bias towards people who can afford to hire lawyers.