Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Academic freedom

My visit to the House of Lords was to attend a meeting about academic freedom. You may be surprised at the suggestion that academic freedom is being threatened in the UK. However, in two particular areas academics are being threatened with being denied tenure or grants if they espouse non-orthodox views. This is apparently the case, even if their heterodox views do not impinge on their particular academic discipline.

One area is the denial of man-made climate change and the other is denial of random mutational changes and natural selection as the engine of species development.

Recently, David Irving was imprisoned in Austria on a charge of Holocaust denial. I have no sympathy for David Irving nor for his politics, but I am very much against a law that denies him the right to put forward an academic argument. There has been a proposal from the German Presidency of the European Union that this law should be extended throughout the Union. Were it to be so that would be a disgrace. We already have laws that prohibit the encouragement of the use of violence or racial hatred. That should be enough. Meanwhile, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 has extended the offence of incitement to racial hatred to cover religion, threatening to seriously undermine legitimate debate.

Last year academics from Israel were prevented from visiting UK universities because a ruling elite on a lecturer Trade Union had a political disagreement with the Israeli government.

Last year also, Christian Unions were barred from the use of the premises of some Universities because they did not allow non-Christians on their executive committees. No such ban was extended to Islamic, Buddhist or Hindu societies, nor to Socialist societies that barred Tories from taking power or Tory societies that barred socialists.

There is evidence of a new authoritarianism that wishes to silence any view but its own.

The sentence "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" is misattributed to Voltaire but was actually coined by Evelyn Beatrice Hall writing under the pseudonym of S[tephen] G. Tallentyre in The Friends of Voltaire, in 1906 as an epitome of his attitude. It is perhaps derived from one of his essays where he says "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too."

Because she opposes Camp X-ray, Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty, is often portrayed as a friend of terrorists as she campaigns for human rights, but in my experience she is not biased in favor of terrorist or government, but in favor of freedom. The earlier reference to opposition to the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 was hers.

It is a fundamental tenet of the scientific method that views that oppose the generally accepted must be heard. It is said that scientists change their mind one by one as they die off, but a true scientist realizes that all 'scientific fact' is contingent on the next experiment.

Here is how it is supposed to work. Following a series of observations, a scientist will put forward an explanation linking the observations together. This is known as an hypothesis. Karl Popper, the famous philosopher of science decreed that such an hypothesis must be testable by experiment; anything that was not testable was more metaphysics than science.

It is impossible to prove something to be true by experiment, but it is possible to disprove it. Experiments should be designed to give an hypothesis the toughest tests imaginable. Only when the hypothesis has withstood the tests does it gain the acclamation of a Theory. Even Theories can be brought down by experiment. As time passes and technology becomes more intricate, it is possible to design experiments that test theories in more stringent ways. The classic example is Newtonian physics which was supplanted by the ideas of Einstein as an understanding of nuclear physics emerged, but another would be the change from Flood geology to Old Earth theories as an explanation of fossils in the nineteenth Century in response to emerging theories of evolution.

Before I go further along this path I need to discuss the word 'paradigm', which will in my next blog.

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