Non Placet: An Open Letter to the UCL Council Regarding My Resignation

To: Members of the UCL Council

Ex Officio
Professor Michael Arthur
Mr Omar Khan
Mr Lukmaan Kolia

Appointed
Mr Ven Balakrishnan
Lord (Tim) Clement-Jones
Dame DeAnne Julius (Chair)
Ms Nahid Majid
Mr Simon Melliss
Ms Lindsay Nicholson
Ms Vivienne Parry, OBE (Vice Chair)
Dr Gill Samuels, CBE
Mr Philip Sturrock, MBE
Baroness Jo Valentine
Baroness (Diana) Warwick

Elected (Professorial)
Professor David Attwell
Professor David Coen
Professor Nick Tyler, CBE

Elected (Non-Professorial)
Dr Martin Fry
Dr John Hurst
Dr Saladin Meckled-Garcia

2015-07-13

Dear Members,

I wish to inform you of my resignation of my doctoral studentship at UCL. Further, I hereby publicly renounce the Master of Research degree awarded to me by UCL in 2014.

In my open letter (5th July), I presented an analysis of UCL’s management of the case of Sir Tim Hunt. This analysis is not the most damning analysis possible (or extant), yet still it is damning enough. Hence, the following consists mostly of explanatory notes: not much new material is necessary.

The sacrifices by the high clergy of public relations at UCL in a bid to appease the gods of public opinion are absurd. Although these gods do not always judge rightly, they are perceptive, and are piercing through the haze in which the ritual has been shrouded.

It is strange to see the same lack of courage and obsession with publicity that I have encountered elsewhere in the organisation mirrored here, at an even higher level.

This is an environment in which I do not wish to work: one in which justice appears to be arbitrary, conducted without due process (in such a way as to actually devalue anti-sexism). One in which courage gives way to expedience. One consumed by predilections for publicity activities. The spirit of free enquiry withers in such surroundings. I realise that I am lucky to have the option to escape, while many of my colleagues are not so fortunate.

In closing, I would like to express my gratitude for the gym and libraries at UCL. I trust that I will find suitable replacements.

Sincerely,
Ben Champion

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The Tim Hunt Reporting Was False. Royal Society, Please Give Him Due Process

Further to my open letter…

Unfashionista

UPDATE: New photo  by journalist eyewitness Natalia Demina  – shows Sir Tim and the Koreans with him smiling just as journalist Timothy Dimacali’s photo did. Just look at the poor man – and remind yourselves that Connie St. Louis said ‘he wasn’t joking at all’ ‘everybody was stony faced’ and Deborah Blum wrote ‘Before his attempts to pass it of as humour he told his co-panelist something else entirely’ ‘I asked him if he was joking and he just elaborated. Sigh’

If you are a scientist or academic, please email, with your name and university,

Paul.Nurse@royalsociety.org,

President of the Royal Society, and

Michael.arthur@ucl.ac.uk

and ask them to state publicly that there is no evidence Sir #TimHunt ever made a sexist joke, or is a sexist. UCL Council meets on July 9th.

You may wish to point out that his statement on R4 Today was heavily edited and we do not know what…

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An Open Letter to the UCL Council

To: Members of the UCL Council

Ex Officio
Professor Michael Arthur
Mr Omar Khan
Mr Lukmaan Kolia

Appointed
Mr Ven Balakrishnan
Lord (Tim) Clement-Jones
Dame DeAnne Julius (Chair)
Ms Nahid Majid
Mr Simon Melliss
Ms Lindsay Nicholson
Ms Vivienne Parry, OBE (Vice Chair)
Dr Gill Samuels, CBE
Mr Philip Sturrock, MBE
Baroness Jo Valentine
Baroness (Diana) Warwick

Elected (Professorial)
Professor David Attwell
Professor David Coen
Professor Nick Tyler, CBE

Elected (Non-Professorial)
Dr Martin Fry
Dr John Hurst
Dr Saladin Meckled-Garcia

Dear Members,

On 15th June, UCL announced that it had accepted the resignation of Sir Tim Hunt “in good faith”, without a transparent inquiry into the background of his resignation.

This debases justice to mere expedience. Moreover, official assessments made through an opaque and informal process create an environment in which meaningful discourse cannot be expected.

By setting a precedent of a fragile framework for justice, UCL’s present approach insidiously undermines victims of injustice and their supporters. A public relations campaign must not be allowed to replace a transparent, rigorous, and impartial investigation. This is, indeed, the essence of science.

I call upon UCL to grant Sir Tim due process, by

  1. issuing a public apology for its management of Sir Tim’s case,
  2. reversing its decision to accept Sir Tim’s resignation pending investigation, and
  3. conducting a transparent inquiry, to establish beyond reasonable doubt whether the removal of Sir Tim from his honorary position would be justified in a community of free enquiry and discourse.

Signed,
Ben Champion, EngD Student, Department of Computer Science, UCL

The Changing Nature of Revelation

Revelations of various kinds take place within a social context (time, place, etc.) Social contexts have changed over time, and I think the revelations have too.

Seeking a modern-day Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, et al., is meaningless unless one extracts the essence of their revelations: that which translates out of their social context. Simply pulling these characters forward in time is meaningless. A precisely repeated revelation would not be a revelation the second time.

For me, the point is to extract this essence and strip away the happenstance, in a non-naïve way. Since it is this essence that matters, why couldn’t revelations come even from self-professed atheists? And why couldn’t there be a distribution of revelations of different ‘sizes’?

 

 

The Corporation, Slavery, and Optionality

It has been said before that a corporation is a kind of “person” under the law. For example, see the documentary The Corporation (about 10:54 to 12:08). However, later on in The Corporation, the narrator asks what sort of “person” the corporation may be. Nassim Taleb has pointed out that this “person” does not have honor, or experience shame, or have many of the features of other “persons”.

In a similar vein, there is an inherent optionality in the “limited liability” corporation (or its international equivalents, for example the mbH of GmbH, but it doesn’t have to be in the name). Taleb noted that recognition of this optionality could be traced back to the time of the first joint stock companies (and to Adam Smith, I believe). With limited liability, the owners get the upside of the corporation, but not the downside (for a discussion of this and other ethical asymmetries see the works of Taleb, particularly Antifragile). The downside lands somewhere else.

It occurred to me that if a corporation is a person, it is not a free person: what free person is owned by other people? The corporation seems to be a slave.

The optionality of the corporation – for the owners – extends to slavery as well. Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin tells the story of a slave who is an ingenious inventor – but the fruits of his ingenuity go to his “owners” (while his suffering, presumably, is his alone):

This young man had been hired out by his master to work in a bagging factory, where his adroitness and ingenuity caused him to be considered the first hand in the place. He had invented a machine for the cleaning of the hemp, which, considering the education and circumstances of the inventor, displayed quite as much mechanical genius as Whitney’s cotton-gin. […] Nevertheless, as this young man was in the eye of the law not a man, but a thing, all these superior qualifications were subject to the control of a vulgar, narrow-minded, tyrannical master. This same gentleman, having heard of the fame of George’s invention, took a ride over to the factory, to see what this intelligent chattel had been about. He was received with great enthusiasm by the employer, who congratulated him on possessing so valuable a slave.

It is clear that a corporation cannot “suffer” in the same way. Nevertheless, on rewatching part of The Corporation, I discovered what might have been the germ of this idea of the “corporation as slave”: a discussion of how the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution was applied to corporations (8:40 to 10:50). Despite this interesting interpretation, ownership of a limited liability corporation was not deemed illegal, and the essentially free option remains.

WHO Consultation on Clinical Trials Reporting (#AllTrials)

I’ve decided to share my comments (due by Saturday, November 15th, 2014) on the WHO draft policy on public disclosure of clinical trials results.

You can read my annotated copy of the WHO draft policy (PDF), as well as my comments form (DOC) (with my personal information removed).

Perhaps they might give you some ideas for your own comments, but I would also be interested to hear your feedback before I have to submit my comments!

I drew largely on the AllTrials response in formulating my comments, so these are probably quite useful to read as well.

Thanks!

 

(Gender) Justice* and Via Negativa

I still feel a slight stranger to the social paradigm where nearly everything seems to be run as a media campaign; however, the collective attention grabbed by the HeForShe campaign seems an opportunity to exchange ideas.

A media campaign is a rather constrained form of expression. Substantial real content is thrown out to streamline the campaign. I wouldn’t really trust a media campaign to do more than get people thinking and talking. A media campaign creates an opportunity, but it really needs to ignite something else.

I watched Emma Watson’s speech (the really meaningful part of the campaign), added my name on the website, and used my Facebook and Twitter accounts to publicize the campaign. (Note: I expressly IGNORED the response of the “traditional” media. This is actually a wider personal strategy: the signal to noise ratio seems just way too low.)

I also read some criticism of the campaign and Watson’s speech. Some of it is valid: as I said above, I don’t trust media campaigns with very much – I think they are flawed and lacking in content. This is not the point! I probably never would have read the critics if they hadn’t written a critique. That is the whole point (intended or unintended) of a media campaign.

I get the impression that many media campaigns are just media campaigns, producing noise but no real response. (By the way, petitions are just a kind of media campaign directed at politicians). At the end of all this, I am asking myself what my personal next steps could be. What can I actually do, concretely speaking? It still isn’t at all clear. What is actually needed to fight injustice (in this case, specifically against women)? Part of my reason for writing this article is to hear your answer to my question: “what next?”

My thinking here (as in most of my thinking about probabilistic, philosophical, and practical problems) is inspired by Nassim Taleb (website, twitter) and contributors to his Facebook page.

My starting point is the observation that, in complex systems, solutions that work tend to be simpler than the problems they solve: otherwise, the ever-growing complexity causes problems of its own.

Injustice (in particular against women, but this article can and should be read more generally) is an extraordinarily complex collection of problems with causes diverse, hidden, and distributed (in the systems theory sense). Thus the above observation certainly applies.

By way of introducing the next idea, suppose you were a smoker. (I hope you aren’t, but if so, you are indirectly funding my present research studentship!) Stopping smoking is far more potent than any of the “positive” things (exercise, healthy eating, medications, …) that you could pursue. The generalization of this idea is the via negativa heuristic (see also Book VI of Antifragile) Roughly, the heuristic is: look first for the benefits from removing the harmful, rather than those from adding the beneficial (which encumber a system with more complexity and hence potential unforeseen problems).

I am pondering how this might apply to the present case. I happened to run across (again) the everyday sexism project (note: some of these stories make very harrowing reading). I also recalled Nassim Taleb’s experience in modifying people’s antisocial behavior by photographing them (but destroying the photos – it was being photographed that counted). This is via negativa because it is removing the perpetrator’s sense of immunity or anonymity. If the act of making people know they are being watched doesn’t work, then there is recourse to the law (in that case ONLY do I think retaining recordings is necessary and justifiable), and if the law can’t help, then the law must be reformed. As with any crime, I of course prefer that it didn’t happen in the first place.

This is exactly the kind of thing that I can make into a personal action strategy. Smartphones make it easier than ever to be a witness rather than a bystander.

Just for clarity, I would not expect to routinely make these recordings public (or share or even keep them). In the vast majority of cases I envisage them only as a tool for calling people out on a one-to-one level. Only in very serious cases would I consider sharing, even with law enforcement agencies. Then, only after a complete lack of success with the authorities (and their complaint channels) would I ever consider making the video public. Vigilante justice is not the point. And in any case there is no justice if the victim is harmed further.

The obvious next thought is: who is already doing this? This idea (in a way) just extends the everyday sexism project. If someone is already doing this, I would like to hear about it. Now is a good time to take advantage of the media campaign.

Just to make it clear, and to reformulate what I’ve already said above: I see this as only part of the solution**. I write primarily to invite further discussion.


* I use the term “(gender) justice” because

  1. as I mention elsewhere in this article, my comments can be read to apply to other types of injustice, and
  2. “gender equality” still strikes me as a term that is more than a little odd.

** Interestingly, I would argue that a very recent campaign, on Twitter as #SREnow, is in fact via negativa although it was not obvious to me at first glance. It is sold as extending and improving the curriculum for sexual health and relationships education; however it is really about debunking rampant misinformation obtained from other sources.