Dr. Jade Norris, a Senior Research Associate at the University of Bristol Medical School, spoke about the importance of freedom of speech and it’s decline in British universities at #Together’s ‘Can there be Science without Free Speech?’ conference.
Dr. Norris also occasionally writes for The Spectator and was a volunteer Special Constable for ten years.
Her speech focussed on the importance of free speech debate and inquiry in academia. “Universities are where some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs happen. And in recent years universities have also increased our focus on creating what is termed ‘the impact of research’ – so that is the real-world change that can be brought about by research findings. Looking at the issue of freedom of speech, debate and enquiry within our universities is crucial as what happens within these institutions ultimately affects us all,” Dr. Norris said.
You can hear Dr. Norris’ speech in the video below.
Transcript of Dr. Norris’ speech:
Thank you so much to Alan and the team for inviting me to join this panel today. As I’m a researcher at university I’m going to focus on the importance of free speech debate and inquiry in academia.
Universities are the places where some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs happen. In recent years universities have also increased our focus on creating what is termed ‘the impact of research’ – so that is the real-world change that can be brought about by the research findings. Looking at the issue of freedom of speech, debate and inquiry within our universities is crucial as what happens within these institutions ultimately affects us all.
I’m currently working on a clinical trial and a crucial part of ensuring that the findings of clinical trials are robust is to minimise what is termed ‘bias’. Bias can be introduced into a trial at any time: as the trial is being designed; as the data is analysed; or, as the findings are being published. Several steps are taken to minimise this bias. For example, in many trials we use something called blinding which means that if, for example, people in the trial are allocated to take either a placebo or an active medication neither they nor the researchers will know which medication that they’re taking. Blinding reduces bias because people’s perceptions about the relative effectiveness of each medication can’t bias the results of the trial because people don’t actually know which they’re taking. I’m giving this example because I think that bias is a useful lens through which to look at the issue of freedom of speech and inquiry in academia.
I think a very current form of bias, that many of us are experiencing, stems from the feeling that argument – a vital component of science – is being systematically moralised and almost a feeling of a kind of new puritanism on many factors which some have felt as a suggestion that you should be quite happy with having less for the good of ‘insert your crisis here.’ It’s not gone unnoticed that some of the loudest components of the need for us to accept having less and less and to spend more and more come from those who, on the whole, already have plenty.
I think that the moralising of so many different arguments has been eroding debate for years. I noticed in particular during the Brexit referendum when I was working at another university. ‘To Brexit’ was the morally incorrect thing to do and so it was frowned upon and not acknowledged as a choice in the run-up to a vote which clearly had two options. On the morning after the vote, I was quite astounded by the horrible way in which many academics spoke by about their fellow humans who just happen to have a different opinion to them and to use their democratic right to voice this. Of course, they must be stupid, evil, or immoral and clearly misled by more powerful but equally stupid evil and immoral politicians. It wasn’t even on their radar that they themselves could possibly have come to their opinion about this issue through the very same methods.
So, working nicely alongside moralising the argument is this demonisation of opposes, as Clare talks about. Many of us have seen this recently in the way that academics and scientists who have expressed concerns about lockdowns and other non-pharmaceutical interventions or NPIs [new product introductions] for the Covid pandemic have been treated. Clearly there are many harms of NPIs some of which will not be seen for decades to come but will have been predicted by many.
So, we have to ask ourselves why questioning voices are so ferociously shut down. And I think Laura Dodsworth‘s work on ‘the fear campaign’ used by our government sums this up nicely. But for the progression of science the danger of this situation is that it is causing a silence which interactions on social media only serve to amplify. Only the loudest drawing platforms, like twitter and YouTube, they are those who are quite happy with the status quo. When dissenting what voices are silent the perception is that this is just what everybody thinks, which in turn leads to more staying silent and the spiral continues.
The pressures on free speech at universities are therefore multifaceted. There is significant pressure to toe certain lines to get a permanent job, to attract research funding from funding bodies with their own agendas and there’s also the very real threat of being cancelled by students. Some of whom – now fuelled by the actions of the universities – view themselves as consumers who pay your wages. A phrase which has been received with a groan from the police for some time but seems to be quite encouraged in higher education. We’ve seen the extent to which this is not only stifling speech but making people who simply want to pursue their academic research feel that this is no longer tenable for them. This ultimately reduces the things that can be researched because they are viewed from the lens of whether they are the right thing to be researching.
As Alan mentioned, the framing of scientific research as ‘the science’ over the past 18 months or so, as opposed to the process of science, has enhanced this problem by making things unquestionable. It’s got to the point that any questioning of authority – which used to be the kind of position championed by most academics – is often now seen as a form of aggression. So, when students and staff cannot engage in a genuinely open and free debate, including about the pros and cons of shutting people in their houses for months on end, we really are in trouble. A recent interesting example is Covid status certification and that’s the reason that many of us know the #together campaign and why a lot of us are here tonight.
Prominent members of the scientific community, including some senior members of independent SAGE, wrote to the British Medical Journal some months ago about the perils of Covid status passports. They argued against their use in the UK citing the dangers of coercion, in reducing trust in science and medical professions, and entrenching existing inequalities in society. But since this argument started ‘hotting up’ again in recent months, this has gone awfully quiet. And this would indeed suggest that you can just choose the hot topic of the moment to be moralised.
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