Peter Ridd and the penalty for dissent.

At the end of September last year, 2018, LibertyFest held a conference in Brisbane, Australia. One of the speakers was Professor Peter Ridd, latterly of James Cook University (a.k.a. JCU) in Queensland, Australia.

Ridd had been in a spot of bother with JCU, and here he is speaking about it.

Oh what a shame! He’s reading it.

I don’t necessarily blame him, because he has probably been instructed at some stage in his life that he should script his speeches: there is still a lot of that nonsense taught. But you only have to home in on the little asides when his eyes lift from the script and the man is actually talking with us, as distinct from regurgitating something he wrote earlier, to appreciate the lift in quality. He has an appealing personality, and that bloody script is hiding too much of it.

To make this speech shootable from the hip could not be easier. It consists of autobiography mixed with scientific data with which he has worked for years. Everything here, if he were answering questions in an interview, he could rattle off effortlessly.

Nevertheless it is still an absorbing story of how an academic hears and reads lies published about his specialist subject, and has the temerity to say so. As a result his university tries to gag him and when that fails it fires him.

I have had, for some weeks, this speech in my stock of to-do material; and what caused me to dig it out now was reading recently in the press that the court had awarded Dr Ridd $1.2m against JCU in damages resulting from unfair dismissal. JCU is appealing the judgement.

We are repeatedly told that the catastrophic alarm attached to climate change is shared by 97% of climate scientists. Awkward bastards like me check the data and of course find that the assertion is garbage. You are actually hard pressed to find a single climate scientist, not dependant for salary, mortgage, and/or pension on conspicuously toeing the line, who agrees with the alarm. But even without our checking the data, stories like this must raise everyone’s suspicion of the claimed consensus. How genuine can be consent when this is the penalty for dissent?

Robert Elliott Smith got algorithm

On 2 August there was posted on YouTube a speech by Robert Elliott Smith, promoting his new book, Rage inside the Machine. It is subtitled How to Stop the Internet Making Bigots of Us All. It was under the imprimatur of Talks at Google.

Robert Elliott Smith is quite a lot of name; so if no one minds I shall refer to him as Rob, which is actually what I call him. He is a trainee of mine, so at least I won’t have to bother with any script-reading nonsense. I know he will shoot this from the hip.

I approach this talk with the words of Albert Einstein ringing in my ears –

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

Rob’s book is about algorithms, on which he is expert. I am very definitely not, so I should make a good judge of his powers of explanation.

Nevertheless the Q&A which begins at 42:15 shows that his audience compromises people who got algorithm, in fact they seem to be Google employees. His dilemma therefore is how to set out his stall so that video-watching dumdums like me can grasp it while not alienating the experts in the room. He solves it in the first seconds by metaphorically tipping his hat to the audience’s expertise. It’s a simple device, but effective.

The other side of this dilemma is that I have urged him never to spoon-feed his audience, that people engage more thoroughly with your message if made to think. Therefore he will have to tread, between dumdum and expert, a path made narrow by the need to engage both without spoon-feeding either.

Having explained to the dumdums that algorithms are the ubiquitous electronic calculations that, for instance, cause us to receive targeted advertisements through our computers, he moves into where and why they make mistakes. In particular he addresses the interesting concept that algorithms are prejudiced. This resonates with me. My having turned seventy two algorithms have wrongly concluded that I am in urgent need of a range of geriatric products, thus causing me much hilarity but not helping the supplier client.

Obviously this comes down to the alchemy whereby incoming data are transformed into outgoing conclusions, and Rob addresses the prejudice question by comparing it to human prejudice. He is well-placed, being a native of Birmingham, Alabama, and having been born as the Jim Crow race segregation laws were beginning to collapse.

Thus we have a section describing his growing up surrounded by racial issues; and that subsequently morphs into drawing parallels with data juggling by today’s computers.

I felt he got slightly bogged down in the autobiographical details, which can easily happen, and he needed to be using broader brush-strokes there. But though a card-carrying dumdum, and a geriatric one at that, I still felt that I grasped the essential message that algorithms still in their infancy, relatively blunt instruments, are constantly being made sharper, and here are some concepts whereby the sharpening process can be improved.

What I find particularly impressive is how many comments, not only on YouTube but also LinkedIn where I first saw the video, come from those who got algorithm and now want to read the book. Ultimately the reaction of the market is far more important than my opinion.

And, much more than before, I got algorithm. Who could ask for anything more?

Ann Widdecombe devastates

This is the last of the speeches from the Oxford Union Debate on the motion This House Supports No Platforming.

For the motion we have heard from Robert French and Mariah Idrissi. We should also have heard from Naz Shah MP; but she upheld her devotion to the motion by refusing to speak unless Katie Hopkins was no platformed, which the Union refused to support.

Against the motion we have heard from Toby Young and Katie Hopkins. Now, closing the opposition case we have Ann Widdecombe. It took more than six-and-a-half years and more than 400 blog postings for Ann Widdecombe first to appear here, and she appears for the second time within seven weeks. That previous time she ranted for two minutes, let’s see what she can do in twelve.

I have never seen a more effective ethos-laden opening. Nor can I imagine one. This promises to be quite a speech. [If you clicked that link to my Glossary page, I suggest you keep the tab open…]

Need I even bother to point out that she shoots the entire speech from the hip? All proper speakers can and do, and this is very definitely a proper speaker.

Her structure is a clear narrative thread that takes in examples – mainly during her lifetime (which corresponds pretty closely with mine) – of speech kept properly free, despite offence and hurt; of those who improperly suppressed speech; and concludes with a few extremely abhorrent views which should never be afforded the protection of being silenced. And the brilliance is not restricted to what she says but how she expresses it. In giving examples, she paints very strong word-pictures to give maximum impact to the point she makes. Also she knows her rhetoric technique.

For instance, at 1:41 she launches into anaphora, and not any old anaphora, but one which echoes what is probably the best known example in English literature. Many might not be able to cite act 2, scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Richard II, but are still familiar with “this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty,” and so on. And that’s what Widdecombe echoes, sending her words deep into where we live. This is skill of a very high order.

There’s also humour, including a nice moment at 6:50. The official charged with the timekeeping passes her a note. She picks it up, reads it, and says, “Two minutes more? No I need at least five.” Her calculation is correct to the second.

In her peroration she homes in on something I raised when analysing an earlier speech, and about which I am particularly passionate: free speech is not just about people’s right to speak but more about people’s right to hear.

This must be a strong contender to be hailed as the best speech I have covered on this blog. She is devastating!

I am not in the least surprised to learn that the debate’s motion was resoundingly defeated. I congratulate The Oxford Union.

Mariah Idrissi and her mystery ally

The previous three posts featured Oxford Union debate speeches for and against the motion This House Supports No Platforming. Those speeches, herehere, and here followed a couple from students who were competitive debaters.

Today we hear from Mariah Idrissi, speaking for the motion.

She is clearly suffering from severe Hump. One of the fastest and most effective ways of combatting a hump and relaxing yourself is to relax your audience. There are many devices to achieve this, but they do not include the act of telling the audience you are nervous. Idrissi’s opening with a sing-song “No pressure!” is not a good idea. I know she is trying to make light of it, and maybe even get a laugh, but if I were advising her it would be out. She does get a sympathetic chuckle, but sympathy is not what she needs at this moment. She needs respect.

I find it significant that occasional shots of the audience, and other subtle indications, seem to tell us that she has one particular person in front of her who is willing her on, and perhaps even informally coached her and buoyed her up before the debate began. We will return to identify that person later.

Idrissi opens with criticising Katie Hopkins whose speech immediately precedes hers, and then turns to her own. She reads it.

There is no doubt that she worked very hard on this. As a piece of writing it is well constructed, and she has marshalled her arguments with care; but she is not delivering a speech she is a talking head.

In this respect and at this debate she is in good company, Toby Young was also a talking head, but he didn’t give the impression that his script was all that stood between him and drowning. You need only watch her reaction to attempts from audience members to interject to know how little she trusts herself to cope.

I feel very sorry for her. She is obviously very bright, has well-formed opinions – whether or not we agree with them – and should be able easily to command this audience rather than quail before it. I itch to help her.

So who did try to help her? Who is this mystery person that I believe was furiously trying telepathically to urge her on? When her speech closes the camera briefly dwells on one person warmly applauding and smiling her congratulations. You see it at 8:44.

It is the self-proclaimed “biggest bitch in Britain”, the one I called “the rudest person on the planet”. It is Katie Hopkins. She is proving that you can fundamentally disagree with someone without hating them, that we learn by listening to those with differing opinions.

That is why the free exchange of views and opinions is so important.

Katie Hopkins and the Lady in Red

The previous two posts featured Oxford Union debate speeches for and against the motion This House Supports No Platforming. Those speeches, here and here, followed a couple from students who were competitive debaters.

Today we hear from Katie Hopkins, speaking against the motion.

Whenever I hear Katie Hopkins speak I am assailed by two reactions –

  1. What a phenomenally accomplished speaker she is, and
  2. She must be the rudest person on the planet.

We’ll return to 1 but for the moment let’s deal with 2. No one hurls insults around in quite such an intemperate fashion unless either they lack the wit to insult soberly or because they intend the insults to be taken not entirely seriously. Hopkins manifestly does have the wit, so let’s watch through our fingers and try to enjoy the ride. In the course of this speech she does actually insult – soberly – just one person, one who is not present but should have been. That particular barb is not wasted.

I have previously on this blog noted that those with a natural facility for public speaking often have difficulty in sticking to the point because they have never needed to learn the disciplines that enable ordinary folk to shoot from the hip. Hopkins epitomises this. Whenever she seems to be getting to grips with the matter in hand, she suddenly disappears over the horizon astride an admittedly hilarious digression. And then …

At 10:50 a lady in red climbs to her feet, asking Hopkins actually to address the motion. The transformation is so magically instant that someone more cynical than I might suspect that she and her interjection had been planted.

Hopkins is a different woman. She stops stalking the aisle, returns to the dispatch box, and begins seven minutes of astonishingly well argued case against the motion. I suddenly realise that she is conscious of the failing I highlighted above. She knows her speaking lacks discipline because now she is using paper to keep herself on the rails. She doesn’t look at it much, she doesn’t need to, but just enough to put across her message unerringly and with magnificent power.

Furthermore, to my delight and unlike her predecessors, she addresses the motion from the viewpoint of audience members and their right to hear.

After the comedy-relief, this turns into an outstandingly good speech…

…thanks to the lady in red.

Toby Young: a journalist speaks

The previous post featured an Oxford Union debate speech for the motion This House Supports No Platforming. It was the first speech following a couple from students who were competitive debaters; and the speaker was Robert French. Today’s offering followed it; is in opposition to the motion; and is delivered by Toby Young.

Bald opening – good.

Almost immediately after registering that point, I sense that I see a reason. Young is speaking like a journalist’s article. You don’t see articles opening with “Ladies and Gentlemen”, or simpered thanks for being invited, or any such time-wasting preambles, instead they come straight to the point. Young has come to the point, which happens to be taking issue with something that was said earlier. I find myself wondering how his delivery style might vary when he reaches his prepared message.

I get my answer: he picks up his script and begins reading it. My heart sinks.

He reads very well, with plenty of expression, but not as much expression as if he’d known how to structure the message for speaking (as opposed to reading) and trusted himself to do without a script. The message is well-conceived, well-put, well-argued, but travels here like a high-powered car with the handbrake on. I find it frustrating: this man has so much more personality than is being revealed here. He has the skill to commit an argument to paper in a way that will absorb the reader (I’d be happy with half of that), but not the skill simply to stand and speak in a way that will absorb a listener to the same extent.

If he reads these words his reaction is likely to be that he hasn’t had any complaints heretofore, and I’d believe him. This shortcoming is so widespread that audiences don’t expect better. But better is very easily achieved. He’s good enough, but he could be brilliant.

Though his message is well-argued, I have to take issue with one thing. Like others he addresses the motion through the rights of speakers. But it represents a double tyranny.

No Platforming denies not just those who would speak but those who would hear.

I have a mantra – it’s even on my business cards – Communication is not what you say, it’s what they hear. I am obsessed with audiences, for a wide range of reasons which I will spare you, but the speakers in this debate seem to be overlooking them.

I think that the only time Toby Young mentions the right of the audience in this matter is when quoting others. And that’s a pity.

No platforming: a lawyer speaks

In May 2019, the Oxford Union conducted a debate with the motion, This House Supports No Platforming.

It happens with some of their debates that speakers take part who are students that debate competitively. It is good experience. The posted videos of their efforts are accompanied by caveats saying that what they say might not reflect their own views. It’s a laudable system, and I have been known to critique them here, but I have decided against it with this debate: the subject is too important to be camouflaged by such matters, and we have enough speakers without them.

Nevertheless there is one more competitive student debater than there should have been. Naz Shah MP had been booked to speak for the motion, but dropped out. You can read about it here. Therefore we shall hear from just two proposition speakers against three opposition speakers. After the two opposing positions had been opened by students, the first for the proposition was erstwhile Chief Justice of Australia, Robert French.

It’s a nice light-hearted opening, and well received by the house. Then he turns to the matter in hand.

He’s a Judge. I mention that because of the way he conforms to stereotype, opening his observations by examining how No Platforming has been officially defined. It Is a useful contribution suitably early in the proceedings. He also lays down the marker that probably both sides of the aisle can agree that certain extremes could correctly be excluded, so this is likely to be a debate as to what constitutes acceptable extremes. We shall see whether he is right.

He cites an obviously dismissible extreme in the case of unlawful speech, but then refers to its “penumbra”, a grey area, around that. I regard legality as binary, therefore not possessed of a penumbra.

This is very obviously a lawyer speaking. It is helpful in some respects, but tiresome in others. Lawyers are often sufferers from what I call bureaucritis and he is no exception. It’s a mental condition that has difficulty accepting that common-sense and life-learning often outstrip pure scholarship. He repeatedly declares that there are judgements to be made, and that in this case the University needs to make them. It doesn’t seem to occur to his bureaucratically indoctrinated mind that the audience, or potential audience, is  better equipped to make them.

As far as I am concerned the market will make its own decision, and the market is always right. On these occasions I recall when the late Christopher Hitchens paused in a speech about freedom of expression, and invited each member of his audience to consider whether there was anyone to whom they would happily entrust the right to decide what they should be allowed to hear or read. It went very quiet.

As this debate progresses we shall be hearing from Toby Young, Katie Hopkins, Mariah Idrissi and Ann Widdecombe.