Political bias

The BBC and especially its political commentator Laura Kuenssberg have been accused of left-wing bias by right-wing people, and of right-wing bias by left-wing people. Many such people do not apply that criticism solely to the BBC, but also to many other media outlets that fail to agree with them. For example, Another Angry Voice repeatedly criticise what they call the ‘mainstream media’; they claim that their views are not adequately reflected by any broadcaster or newspaper, despite, supposedly, being very popular. Far-right groups have similar people, such as Alex Jones’ InfoWars.

But if it appears to you that everybody else is biased against you, then what is more likely — that your opinions aren’t all that popular, or that the editors of the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Times and the Guardian are in some joint, secret conspiracy to silence you?

Pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.


  • Factual accuracy is not the same thing as being unbiased.
  • Misrepresentation of facts, particularly of statistics, does not count as factual accuracy.
  • To be clear, AAV and InfoWars are not simply left- and right-wing equivalents of each other. Despite both being biased, InfoWars does a lot more harm by actively promoting dangerous views such as the vaccine autism myth.

Cambridge’s image problem

The University of Cambridge has a reputation – occasionally deserved, but mostly inaccurate – of being populated by wealthy twits who wear suits everyday, dine daily in three-course dinners, and whose bedrooms are furnished daily by a personal maid, and are supposedly the best and most expensive bedrooms in the country (clearly absurd!).

Sitting by the bank, I hear punt guides repeat these fables once every five minutes. While they makes a good Daily Mail article or a tale for a punt guide, this reputation is harmful: it detracts from the academic merits of this place, which are to be lauded of themselves. And it puts people off coming here, if they are turned off by the idea of extravagant living. Worst of all, the myths about Cambridge’s fees and expenses cause perfectly capable people to turn away, not realising that Cambridge charges the same tuition fees as most other UK universities (for UK students), and has a number of bursaries, and probably lower costs of living than London.

Cambridge has many problems with its finances and its lifestyle (it would be nice to see the bursary system expanded, and it would be very good if students could have more respect for the city, and vice-versa). But the image problem is a problem that will need to be fixed, independently of the others. Very few of us come from aristocratic society or have anything to do with the most chauvinistic drinking societies, yet misconceptions about those things remain, and their effect is very real: partly because we embrace it ourselves, selling ourselves with a sense of mystique to our non-Oxbridge friends and referring to ourselves as ‘Hogwarts’.

Of course we cannot hope to change our image by stopping the Daily Mail from saying what it will say, or by banning punt guides from spreading misconceptions (or outright lies). But ordinary members of the university can help to get rid of this image, simply by not embracing it. This would not have to come with losing some of our beloved and less harmful traditions. Nor would it stop us from being the unique university that we are: our research and teaching rankings do not come from being associated with the Wyverns.

Anti-colonialism and Hong Kong democracy

Chris Patten gave an interview to the Guardian in which he described his regrets about not establishing sufficiently strong democratic institutions before the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, and criticised the anti-democratic positions of the Chinese government.

Some of the comments in response to that post call out the hypocrisy of a colonial governor calling for democracy, and point out the British Empire’s own poor record on democracy and human rights. While this may be true, it is a distraction: it doesn’t justify China’s actions.

If Western liberals are really concerned about democracy (as opposed to simple point-scoring against British colonialism and Conservative politicians like Boris Johnson and Chris Patten), then they must do more to speak up for Hong Kong’s right to vote, rather than keeping quiet and taking the ‘anti-imperialist’ view that this is an internal affair for China in which the West has no right to intervene. That would be echoing the propaganda machine of the PRC.

British Independence Day

Some Brexiters have suggested that June 23rd should become celebrated as Britain’s Independence Day. Simon Richards, head of the so-called ‘Freedom Association’ and a prominent Brexit campaigner, justified this just now on Radio 4. Apparently, Britain needs a national day to bring its people together. The fact that Brits don’t have such a day apparently makes us jealous of Indians and the African nations who all have national days of independence!

The etymological fallacy and related crimes

One of the argument techniques that I found most frustrating is the etymological fallacy, the idea that the meaning of a word or a symbol is determined completely by its origin, with no regard to its current usage or the particular context of the conversation. It is related to another common fallacy, which is to give a word a non-standard definition and then not sticking to that definition.

Like most fallacies, it is employed by people on all sides of an issue (and I welcome any further examples that you can think of). Etymological fallacies are often committed by self-identifying ‘rational’ people, who otherwise delight in picking flaws in other people’s reasoning. These people tend to see the world in black-and-white terms, and perhaps think that their arguments are impervious to criticism because they take an axiomatic approach. Such an attitude is nothing more than a cousin of Biblical literalism.

(Aside: Think of Professor Dawkins. Even their use of the self-label ‘rational’ is an example of the fallacy in action. I might rant some more about so-called ‘rationalists’ in the future. In the meantime, here is a caricature.)

The etymological fallacy does not only helps one invalidly arrive at a conclusion. What makes it particularly frustrating is that it can also shut down conversation completely. It is not possible to have conversations about complicated issues when the terminology are restricted to narrow definitions.

On the other hand, claiming that one uses words and symbols only according to their literal meanings is particularly insidious, because it is used to appeal to racists, without explicitly admitting that one is a racist. As such, it is a form of dog-whistling.

Continue reading The etymological fallacy and related crimes

Spreading the system

A new postdoc arrived in our lab this week, having come from China. In a one-party state that has such a strong control over its media, it’s unsurprising that he didn’t even know that an election was happening here, and he spent yesterday learning about the system. It’s a flawed system, but if the very act of holding an election means that people from countries like China are awakened to its workings and its benefits, then that is in itself a good thing, even if Theresa May did call it for dodgy reasons.

Some people complain of ‘election fatigue’, but we should take a step back and realise the privileged position that they are in, compared to billions of other people around the world.

Theresa’s pre-election patter song

Enter THERESA and chorus.

I seek power that your human rights I may impale,
And all th’intimate details of your life surveil,
Should the alt-right need placation, ban the Muslim veil,
And I’ll do this with the backing of the Daily Mail!

Yes she’ll do this with the backing of the Daily Mail!

That my Brexiteering actions shall not be derailed
We’ll lock saboteurs and judges in a trial-less jail.
Sans their nauseous interventions Britain shall prevail!
And we’ll do this in the name of the Daily Mail!

May she do this in the name of the Daily Mail!

If you hesitate to stop us, and we do not fail,
We will privatise the air and you will pay to inhale.
Yes the years to come will be quite a living Hell,
But I do this for the readers of the Daily Mail!

Yes she does this for the readers of the Daily Mail!