From the monthly archives:

March 2023

Should academics fly at all?

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 29, 2023

Earlier this week, I was at a meeting to discuss the question whether my university should cut its ties with the fossil industry, or else impose additional conditions on working with partners from fossil industries. There was quite some agreement that the university should think hard about spelling out and endorsing a moral framework, and based on those values and moral principles work out what (if any) forms of collaboration would remain legitimate in the future. This led our vice-chancellor to ask the question what else such moral framework would imply for university staff. “Should we perhaps completely stop flying?”, he asked.

And then there is, once again, a very depressing IPCC report and we must radically change our modes of production and consumption if we want to leave our children (and our older selves) a planet that will remain safe for the human species. And it’s not just about the future, but about the present: urgent action is needed to lower the number of the deadly climate-related events that we have seen over the last years, from increases in wildfires to deadly floodings – that led poor people, who have made almost zero contribution to this problem, lose their livelihoods, and many simply died. So to me it seems obvious that what we change in response to climate change is a very urgent moral question.

Hence the question: Do academics fly too much? Should we simply stop flying at all?
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The meta-view from meta-nowhere

by John Q on March 28, 2023

Pseudo-objectivity about pseudo-objectivity

Jay Rosen coined popularised the phrase “the view from nowhere” (originally due to Thomas Nagel) to describe the default stance of political journalism in the US and elsewhere, often defended as “objectivity”. This is closely linked to the concept of the Overton window, which I wrote about recently in relation to the AUKUS nuclear subs deal

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In a passage near the crescendo of Book I of The Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume writes, “the intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another…[I] begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron’d with the deepest darkness, and utterly depriv’d of the use of every member and faculty…. [S]ince reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras.”  (He goes on to play backgammon.)

The delirium Hume ascribes to himself is the effect of human reason and a kind of second order reasoned reflection [“the intense view”] of it. (Recall also this post.) It’s important for what follows that the ‘contradictions and imperfections’ in human reason are not, what we might call, ‘formal’ contradictions and imperfections or biases in reasoning. It’s not as if Hume is claiming that the syllogistic apparatus, or — to be closer to Hume’s own interests and our present ones — the (inductive) probabilistic apparatus is malfunctioning in his brain. Rather, his point is that a very proper-functioning (modular) formal and probabilistic apparatus generates internal, even cognitive tensions, especially when it reflects on its own functioning and the interaction among different cognitive faculties/modules/organs. [click to continue…]

The United States Should Ban TikTok

by Kevin Munger on March 23, 2023

This is an unusual post from me, in that I’m far from unique in making these kind of arguments. Despite what I see as a growing chorus of thoughtful critics advocating for a TikTok ban, no one seriously seems to think it could happen. If TikTok is already un-ban-able, our capacity for democratic control is already lost. I am optimistic that this is not the case, and that this remains a stand worth taking.

In anticipation of the 2020 US Presidential Election, President Trump threatened to ban TikTok — and went so far as to sign an Executive Order to that effect.

This was a hastily conceived response to what is a genuine but complicated problem. The immediate polarization of the issue and the liberal framing that Trump’s motive was xenophobic have prevented the development of a more reasoned debate. TikTok is the first major social media platform developed by a geopolitical rival to gain widespread adoption in the United States.

Although President Biden rescinded Trump’s EO, his administration has continued to investigate the platform and is considering new regulations that reflect this novel challenge. There is no reason to give TikTok the benefit of the doubt. The major US platforms have consistently failed to be responsible stewards of the awesome power they have appropriated over our media and politics, and TikTok has demonstrated the same irresponsibility — except that they are far more vulnerable to pressure from the Chinese regime.

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The hierarchy of excuses

by John Q on March 20, 2023

I’ve lived through quite a few financial crises, some local to Australia, and others global. Invariably, the first failures are those of obvious shonks (Australianism?) who would probably have failed anyway. Then there are seemingly reputable institutions that turn out to have been shonky. Then there are institutions that played by the rules, but it turns out the rules weren’t good enough. After that, no one is safe and the government steps in to bail the bankers out.Of course, ordinary people pay the bill.

So, I thought I’d get a headstart on listing the hierarchy of excuses, explaining why this isn’t just an inherently corrupt system, doing its inherently corrupt thing. Here we go:

*Silvergate: jumped up crypto bank, not really a bank at all
*Silicon Valley: mismatched assets and liabilities, classic mistake, also woke
* Signature: more crypto, more mismatch, also Trump
* First Republic: all these midsized banks misused the 2017 deregulation
* Credit Suisse: turns out all those capital adequacy requirements could be gamed. And just to prove this, we’ll wipe out the bondholders who helped make the books look good, while bailing out the equity holders

Parenting Boys, Parenting Girls

by Miriam Ronzoni on March 16, 2023

There are many reasons why I regularly worry about whether I might be devoting less individualised attention to my daughter than to my son. Some of these reasons are due to genuine, important differences between them, which are reasonable things for a parent to take into account and ponder about, although they do not obviously justify treating them differently. However, even the most uncontroversial “good” reasons (say, one child being ill,) interact with “bad” reasons (gender, first-born privilege, etc.) in ways that generate important complications and conundrums for parents, and thus present interesting questions. Still, I am not going to focus on those here. I had originally written a fairly detailed paragraph about my own “good” reasons, but then decided that my children are entitled to some privacy. So let me just stick to two of the most infamous “bad” reasons, even if that entails giving a partial view of our family life: the fact that one is a boy and the other is a girl, and the fact that the boy is also the eldest child. [click to continue…]

How to restore work-life balance in academia

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 13, 2023

There’s recently more and more discussion about what would happen if academics would stop structurally doing overwork, and instead work according to contract – which will in many cases mean 40 hours a week. It was the topic of a feature piece in Nature two weeks ago, and the topic has been discussed repeatedly by academics on social media and around the coffee corner. So what is the problem, and how can it be solved?

First things first. What does work-life balance mean and why should we have it? Clearly it doesn’t mean that one can never work outside office hours or work hard in a particular week, and then take it a little easier in another week. The issue is not to demand the right to work according to rigid hours. And I also don’t think anyone would protest if the unpaid overwork were very limited, say an hour or two per week. But in reality, we are talking here of unpaid overwork that easily amounts to 20-35% of one’s contractual hours (and one ends up working 48-55 hours a week structurally). The demand is to limit such massive structural overwork. [click to continue…]

Some time ago Dutch academics lost their civil servant status. But in its place the language of ‘tenure-track’ and ‘tenure’ has entered Dutch academic life increasingly with American job titles, although the route to a permanent contract with tenure is quite diverse. ‘Academic freedom’ is officially recognized by  article 1.6 of a regular law “Wet op het hoger onderwijs en wetenschappelijk onderzoek.” In principle, academic freedom should protect an academic (among other things) when she conducts unpopular research  or makes statements based on her expertise that may be displeasing to university administrators, the public, and politicians.

In the Netherlands academic freedom is legally seen as an extension of freedom of expression and is also constrained by some of the constitutional limitations on freedom of expression (especially the prohibition on discrimination). But because Dutch academic freedom falls under the freedom of expression, Dutch academic freedom also is highly constrained by all the limitations that Dutch employment law puts on freedom of speech in the workplace. In practice, a ‘tenured’ academic is no different than other Dutch employees with a permanent contract. {UPDATE: SEE BELOW FOR An IMPORTANT QUALIFICATION}

The full significance of this limitation on the attenuated nature of academic freedom has only become apparent this past week when a judge allowed the University of Groningen to fire Dr. Susanne Täuber, who was an associate professor in the department of Human resource Management and Organizational Behavior, because of a [and now I quote the judge’s verdict] “disrupted employment relationship.” (In the Netherlands, it’s not very easy to fire a permanent employee, and for those with a permanent contract a judge generally gets involved unless the employee and employer can agree to terms.) Unfortunately, the reason why the ’employment relationship’ was permanently disrupted exposes the hollowness of Dutch academic freedom. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: bridge

by Chris Bertram on March 12, 2023

Plimsoll Bridge

Can College Level The Playing Field

by Harry on March 10, 2023

Here, as promised, is a podcast we made at the Center for Ethics and Education based on interviews we did with Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson, authors of the excellent book Can College Level The Playing Field, which is an indispensable read if you want to understand the relationship between inequality and higher education, and inequality within higher education, in the US. (For CT discussion of a very poor quality review of the book, see here). Also I unabashedly recommend the whole podcast series!

The UK’s debased asylum “debate”

by Chris Bertram on March 10, 2023

In a democracy one might, naively, imagine that political deliberation would involve the presentation of the arguments that people think bear on the question at hand. That is, if someone is in favour of a policy they would present the arguments that they believe support it and if someone is against it they they would do the opposite. One of the surreal aspects of British parliamentary debate on refugees and asylum is that neither the government nor the opposition do anything of the kind, and nor, for that matter do the media do much to improve things.

Consider, that everybody knows that Rishi Sunak’s harsh denial of the right to claim asylum of those who arrive “illegally” is motivated by the fact that the base of the Tory party and a sizeable chunk of “red wall” voters are strongly anti-immigration and that Tory strategists are concerned about the “small boats” issue, both because they are worried that a lack of border control gives off a sign of incompetence and because they want to expose Labour as “weak” on “illegal immigration”. In the Tory press, refugees and asylum seekers are constantly demonized as freeloaders, economic migrants, and young male invaders who pose a threat both of sexual predation and terrorism. (The European far-right, including Italy’s Salvini, France’s Zemmour, and the German AfD, in praising the British policy, do so explicitly as keeping the brown hordes at bay.) Labour, on the other hand, while they have a poor record of support for refugee rights, at least stand for maintaining the current human rights framework and upholding the right to claim asylum as set out in the 1951 Convention.
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by Henry Farrell on March 8, 2023

[attention conservation notice: this post consists of lengthy opinionating with a smattering of thinly sketched arguments from psychological research, and a now-obscure science fiction novel. Also – if you really disliked M Night Shyamalan movies, even before the shtick became a shtick, you’re likely to be annoyed].

So Jonathan Chait wasn’t happy with the side-comment on his career incentives in my last post (see the tweet pictured above). Fair enough. But his alternative theory of how the attention economy works is one dimensional and self-flattering (which is not to say that it is entirely wrong). [click to continue…]

Burning Men

by Maria on March 8, 2023

My rather long short story “Burning Men” was published this morning by the Australian literary magazine, Westerly. It’s the first story I felt I was channeling, not writing. Burning Men is about a world where the cost of sexual violence is born by the perpetrators and how that changes everything. It burst out of the personal experience of deeply loving someone whose life was fractured by this kind of violence, and also from the mood music of brexit and covid.

It’s taken a year to find someone to publish this story, but I’m glad I kept trying. Westerly’s editor, Catherine Noske, ran deft fingers over every thread of it and pushed me to make it clearer and better.

Burning Men is a lot of things – a friendly satirist even tells me it’s LOL funny, which is marvellous – but much of its work is to be a vessel for rage. Sometimes I think rage is biohazard or radioactive material and needs to be carried and stored with extreme care, and labelled to prevent harm to the bearer and to others. (Although the story is not explicit it has a content warning, and I respect and share the need for people to choose if/when to read this kind of thing.) Revenge fantasy is necessary, but there’s more of it just about Liam Neeson avenging his wife or kid than about all the people whose lives have been blown apart by sexual violence. But I also think rage is fuel for the road, or maybe the lee lines and desire paths change travels on. I hope this story can help point the way.

“Late on Wednesday afternoon, just after a desultory PMQs in which the leader of the opposition failed once again to achieve cut-through, the Prime Minister sagged into the backseat of his car, sighed at a red traffic light on Parliament Square, and spontaneously combusted.”

Conservatives on campus

by Henry Farrell on March 6, 2023

There’s been a lot of grumpy commentary about this recent NYT op-ed by Adam S. Hoffman, a Princeton senior claiming that conservatives are being driven off campus. Its basic claims:

In the not-so-distant past, the Typical College Republican idolized Ronald Reagan, fretted about the national debt and read Edmund Burke. Political sophistication, to that person, implied belief in the status quo. … Today’s campus conservatives embrace a less moderate, complacent and institutional approach to politics. … many tend toward scorched-earth politics. But these changes aren’t solely the consequence of a fractured national politics.They’re also the result of puritanically progressive campuses that alienate conservative students from their liberal peers and college as a whole.

The story of this transformation, according to the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, starts around 2014, when Gen Z arrived on campus. The new progressive students were less tolerant of heterodox ideas and individuals. …For those on the right, the experience is alienating. … And those who challenge liberal pieties can face real repercussions.

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The UK abandons refugees

by Chris Bertram on March 6, 2023

The UK is a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, along with a number of other international instruments providing for humanitarian protection. The Convention provides that someone who is a refugee – a status that they have on the basis of their objective circumstances, having a well-founded fear of persecution on specific grounds and being outside their country of citizenship or habitual residence – must be granted certain protections by signatory countries. The most important of these is that they not be sent back to a place where they are at risk of persecution. The weakness of the Convention is that people cannot usually secure recognition as refugees by a country unless they claim asylum on its territory. Accordingly, wealthy nations seek to make it the case that those wanting protection cannot physically or legally get onto the territory to make a claim. That way, states can both vaunt their status as human rights defenders (“we support the Convention”) and nullify its effect in practice.

Today, ostensibly as a response to the “small boats” crisis, which has seen tens of thousands of people from countries such as Afghanistan and Iran arrive in the south of England after crossing the channel, the Conservative government has announced new plans to deter refugees. Those arriving will no longer be able to claim asylum in the UK, as the government will not try to find out whether they are refugees or not, they will be detained, and then they will be removed to their country of origin or to a third country (potentially breaching the non-refoulement provision of the Convention). The plan has been to send them to Rwanda, although because of legal challenges nobody has actually been sent and, anyway, Rwanda lacks the capacity. Even the plan to detain arrivals in the UK runs up against the problem that the UK lacks the accommodation to do so. In addition, people who cross in small boats are to be denied the possibility of ever settling in the UK or of securing citizenship. So as well as being a stain on the UK’s human rights record and a measure of great cruelty, the plans appear to be practically unworkable.

The government, echoed by the Labour opposition, blames “evil smuggling gangs” as the “root cause” of the small boats crisis. But, of course, the real root cause of the crisis are the measures the UK takes to evade its obligations under the Refugee Conventions, measures that make it necessary for anyone wanting to claim asylum on the territory to enter without the authorization of the UK government. People at risk of persecution, whether Iranian women protesting against the veil, or Afghan translators who worked with the British government, are not granted regular visas to hop on a flight, nor will they be able to get to the UK by road or rail. The UK has sealed these routes, making those who want to cross turn to the boats as a solution.
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