A Letter: An Addition to the ‘No Platform’ Policy

To those of you who know me personally, and know of my general views, the following may not come as to much of a shock: I am attempting to create an addition to the Union’s ‘No Platform’ policy which would not allow science denialist speakers to be given a position to speak from within the University. I spell out what I refer to by denialist in the full letter written below.

For some the position may look like an outright attack on religion, and some have already decided that this is my position: ‘What exactly are you trying to achieve from all your scheming? Isn’t it enough that you strive to make every Christian’s life you ever meet complete hell anyway?‘ (message from Anon, Nov 14).  This isn’t true, if my interest were in attacking people’s beliefs then this would neither be the way to go about, nor would it be ethical (denying religious freedom is not at all my intentions). My interest is solely in ensuring that information presented to students, especially on the topic of scientific theories, is accurate and precise.

Scientific debate is a good and healthy thing, and is encouraged at all levels of education, but to debate both sides must have evidence. What I am trying to prevent is false inflation of evidence where there is either none, or where all the evidence is demonstrably false.

I believe in honesty and disclosure, which is why below I have included the letter I sent to the Union. Where possible I have provided links to what I am referencing, but in cases it is not possible. While I believe in disclosure I respect privacy, and the emails sent to me in reply, by the Christian Union, where probably not intended for public forum (though they are welcome to inform that this is not the case), so instead I have instead listed the date and sender, so if it is needed in the future I can present the emails I am referring to. My actions are out of concern, and I hope by allowing an open airing of my position you are all able to see that for yourselves.

I am also aware that this may go to an open vote, and I hope by making my position and intentions clear from the start I cannot be painted in a false light, or have my arguments straw-manned.

Thank you for taking the time to read the following.

Societies and Services Officer,

On Tuesday 5th November the Swansea University Christian Union (CU) held a talk from invited speaker John McIntosh. This talk was advertised on the CU’s event page as ‘A scientific talk on the The Human Body, Mind, and Matter…‘ (Lunch Bar, The Human Body, Mind, and Matter https://www.facebook.com/events/616951371694636/) but what was presented by the speaker was verifiably false information, as McIntosh tried to present Intelligent Design/Creationist material as scientifically valid, while dismissing the vast amount of evidence to support evolution by natural selection. I contacted the committee of the CU to express my concerns over having such material presented, especially within the context of those with a vested interest in reaffirming their beliefs, and with McIntosh’s ability to use his title of Professor to add false expertise and position to his words. I asked for them, in the greater protection of their members, to not invite members of this viewpoint to be given a platform.
The members of the committee said that they would continue to invite speakers of this view, arguing that they have a varied set of beliefs among their members, and that ‘macro evolution is less supported because it is not physically and scientifically observable‘ (email from Swansea CU, Nov 14). They also argued that presenting the view in this small situation was a fair response to the presentation of evolution throughout the educational system: ‘One professor and one talk is not an unfair opportunity for a different point of view to be expressed, no matter how wrong you believe that point of view is‘ (email from Swansea CU, Nov 14). However, these arguments are not valid in the discussion of scientific accuracy, and show a gross misunderstanding of the scientific method. I believe both of these, among with various conflating factors which I will go on to explain, are extremely damaging to the individuals exposed, and undermine the University’s image as a centre of learning.
My overall desire is for the Union to add the presentation of either demonstrably false, or inaccurate scientific information to their No Platform policy. The Union already recognises and appreciates the difference between free speech and speech from a platform. From a platform you are given greater credence to what you are saying, and you are also able to avoid criticism in the way a normal discussion. From a platform you are able to answer questions in the way you desire, and avoid questions that you are not comfortable answering. McIntosh did this successfully after his speech in which he did not directly answer a single question I presented, diverted the goal posts by stating that I had a biased and incorrect view of the world (without justifying why), and then moved on to questions from other members of the audience.
I do not wish to make this addition to the policy solely aimed at the CU, or at religious groups as a whole, they were just the case that made this relevant. I would consider the same policy of no platform to be applied to presentations on homoeopathy, anti-vaccine campaigners, and crystal healers (to name a few examples), the goal is to ensure accuracy above all else. An allowance of individuals to present demonstrably false information is damaging on three fronts when applied to scientific theories: it undermines the understanding of theory in question, it damages an understanding and appreciation for how the scientific method works (and its self correcting nature), as well as affecting individuals ability to think rationally about information presented to them.
When speakers like McIntosh present their position they undermine our current understanding of evolution. To ensure that what he is saying is at least logically consistent within his speech basic facts about evolution have to be completely ignored, or presented through a straw man argument. Throughout the talk McIntosh continually presented evolution as ‘completely random’ and asking how did certain parts of the human anatomy form ‘by chance’, or appearing fully formed all at once, despite these not being arguments evolution makes (a greater and more detailed overview can be found here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution). To deny the evidence of evolution, false equivalences must be drawn which give incorrect and inaccurate ideas of evolution, making it harder in the long run for people to engage with the idea, and gain a solid understanding. Given the importance of evolution in the understanding of modern biology and in appreciating modern medicine it is a damaging precedent to allow people to be misinformed.
Speakers and presentations that deny the validity of evolution, and other scientific theories, damage an understanding of the scientific method, and the nature upon which theories are developed and refined. The first issue is with the way those opposing scientific accuracy and their attack on the scientific method is their misuse of the word theory, positing it as an idea rather than a ‘widely-accepted explanation of and predictive tool for a particular aspect of the physical universe, which has been sufficiently tested and supported through repeated observations and experimentations; a critical component of a scientific theory is that it is testable and falsifiable‘ (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_theory). Alongside complaints on how the scientific method alters it views with new evidence, ‘as you well know the Big Bang theory has more than doubled its own estimation of the age of the universe in its relatively short lifetime in the public eye‘ (email from Swansea CU, Nov 13), it creates a distrust of science, and a belief that the views of science are opinions or beliefs held by individuals, and that there is a level of democracy to views. This flies in the face of reality, in which the value of a theory is held only by its accuracy and reliability in both explaining past events, and predicting future observations. Fostering a mistrust of science, an ignorance of the reality of the scientific method, and promoting a false equality of ideas is damaging for individuals going out into the modern world, where even basic scientific literacy is of growing importance.
The last major issue is the impact these false presentations have on the ability of members, exposed to such speakers, to rationally evaluate information. If lead to believe that all ideas are equal, and that scientific theories are just ideas, it damages the ability of individuals to critically and rationally analyse information. Compounded with a vested interest in reaffirming beliefs, it can allow some individuals to being misled, or prevent them from questioning what is being presented. The response from the CU states that they ‘do not believe there is any harm in encouraging people to think for themselves‘ but without implying how they could encourage people to think in a critical manner. Just having information presented to you, especially when it is false or deceptive, as if it were true, does not encourage people to think for themselves. In an ideal position everyone would be versed in how to analyse evidence, and the validity of evidence (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hierarchy_of_evidence), but this is not the case in practise. A vested interest in re-affirming beliefs, misunderstandings of false battles between faith and science (e.g. Christian’s cannot believe in Evolution), distrust of individuals from the opposing view (e.g. atheists, scientists), and a lack of scientific knowledge in general mean that not everyone is able to fully analyse information presented to them about science. This false view of critical analysis (that all ideas are beliefs) leads to individuals being susceptible to deception in the future. Whether in the form of media reports, or speeches form politicians, there is a need for rational and critical analysis of information, and with a skewed view of how to balance and understand information individuals can be lead astray, or away from the correct information, by those who wish to deceive.
By allowing a platform for those who wish to present demonstrably false information as fact we allow scientific theories, and the method by which knowledge is gained as a whole, to be undermined, and we damage the ability of members of the University to critically evaluate information. As a Union, and a University, [scientific] accuracy should be strived for at all avenues, and events and societies should be reflective of this as well. This letter and request is not written out of anger or spite, but from a position of concern. A concern that people are developing an inaccurate view of science, and critical analysis. The agenda being pushed here is an accuracy agenda, in which we believe all information being presented should be as accurate as possible.
Liam Dodd
If you have further questions, remarks, or commentary I can be reached within the comments of this blog, on Facebook, or on twitter @Audioworm.