A lovely move: Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre, and other science notables go after Warwick University for “no-platforming” Maryam Namazie

September 27, 2015 • 12:12 pm

If former Christians who are nonbelievers were to be barred from speaking at an American or British University because they planned to criticize the tenets of evangelical Christianity—including opposition to evolution, women’s right, or gay rights—secularists would rise up in anger. Imagine, for instance, Jerry DeWitt or Dan Barker being barred from speaking at the University of Michigan’s secular society  for criticizing religion.

That’s pretty much unthinkable—unless the former believers are Muslims. In such cases their criticism of Islam becomes “hate speech,” universities cower before the threat of Muslim “offense,” and the speaker is often barred or disinvited.

Such was the case of Maryam Namazie at Warwick University in the UK. Invited to speak by the University’s Atheist Society (AS), the Student Union (SU) overruled them. The AS has appealed, and during the appeal the SU has disingenuously proclaimed that “the process for reviewing this particular speaker event has not been completed” and so claiming they never made a decision. The SU’s statement has been called “unpardonably misleading” by the Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists, and I have to agree.(See the exchange of emails here.)

Let’s hope the SU reverses its decision, but if it does so I suspect it would be not because the SU realizes it made a misstep, but because of outside pressure.

Some of that pressure is coming from outside notables, including doctor and science writer Ben Goldacre:

and science writer Simon Singh, who’s apparently joined the boycott:

Brian Cox hasn’t joined the boycott, but he stands with Goldacre and Singh (I suppose he has his own reasons).

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I’ll add my voice to the boycott, but of course the chance that I’ll ever be invited to Warwick University is pretty close to zero. But you can, like me, sign the Change.org petition asking that Namazie be allowed to speak at Warwick. Only 817 signatures are needed to reach the 5,000 they want, and it would be lovely if readers here could put it over the top. Even if you disagree with Namazie’s viewpoints, remember that this is an issue of free expression and censorship.

36 thoughts on “A lovely move: Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre, and other science notables go after Warwick University for “no-platforming” Maryam Namazie

  1. I really hope this model takes off like wildfire.

    All popular and sought-after speakers should join this. Take a stand, and refuse to speak anywhere that has policies in place that restrict free speech.


  2. I see that according to Brian Cox’s tw*tter feed he rejects the label “atheist”. Maybe he has his own reasons for this as well but unless he believes in god (which I very much doubt) that’s what he is regardless of whether he “rejects” it.

    1. Having been listening to all too many Infinite Monkey Cage podcasts recently (is that possible?), Cox doesn’t hide his lack of belief under any metaphorical bushels. So I’d guess he’s bogged in the agnostic-vs-atheist problem of “confidence in the non-existence of a god, but not to the point of certainty” mire.
      His equivocation on the boycotting Warwick question is compatible with a recently-signed but not yet announced contract, which is a cleft stick that people can get caught in perfectly honourably. The getting out leave stains, whichever way you go.

      1. I think he just doesn’t put a lot of importance on the broader question of if gods are possible, while being against certain bothersome god propositions. In Wonders of Life, page 9, after expressing “…a deep irritation with the intellectual vacuity of those who actively seek to deny the reality of evolution and the science of biology in general.” Professor Cox goes on to say:

        As someone who thinks about religion very little – I reject the label atheist because defining me in terms of the things I don’t believe would require an infinite list of nouns – I see no necessary contradiction between religion and science. By which I mean that if I were a deist, I would claim no better example of the skill and ingenuity of The Creator than in the laws of nature that allowed for the magnificent story of the origin and evolution of life on Earth, and their overwhelmingly beautiful expression in our tree of life. I am not a deist, philosopher or theologian, so I will make no further comment on the origin of the laws of nature that permitted life to evolve. I simply don’t know; perhaps someday we will find out. But be in no doubt that laws they are, and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is as precise and well tested as Einstein’s theories of relativity.

        1. That would put him in the box with what we still call in Scotland, “natural philosophers”. AKA physicists.

    2. He specifically does so for the same reasons as Neil deGrasse Tyson.

      I think that both of them are technically incorrect but I’m perfectly willing to let it go because of the colossal amount of public bullshit-busting that they both do!

  3. The apparent need to ape the personalized social media flak machine to counter that of the social justice warriors is a deplorable development, but maybe we have to get used to it. It becomes a sort of democratic process, but no-platforming and other techniques they use are hopefully not emulated.

  4. Signed and shared on Facebook and Twitter. I hope others will consider doing the same, whether or not they support Namazie’s views. Freedom of speech is essential to maintaining democracy.

  5. Done. That was easy. But I suppose now I will get more messages in my e-mail. Right now I must get 20-30 emails a day from Democratic and Republican causes saying things like ‘Can you believe this???’, or ‘The latest outrage!’. These I filter out.

  6. The student union prioritised the coddling of the fragile-minded over the critique of ideas, making an error which was strongly criticised, and rightfully so.

    Ben Goldacre, although just in his criticism, is being unreasonable and disproportionate in his position never to speak for the University. Cox disagrees with the position:

    – Brian Cox ‏@ProfBrianCox Sep 26
    @thei100 Incorrect headline. Why would I ‘boycott’ a university because of the actions of the (independent) student union ?

    – Lynsey Hopkins ‏@lynseyhopkins Sep 26
    @Dannythefink @ProfBrianCox @bengoldacre @thei100 the University isn’t the same entity as its *independent* Students’ Union
    – Brian Cox ‏@ProfBrianCox Sep 26
    @lynseyhopkins @Dannythefink @bengoldacre @thei100 I know that ! That’s why I haven’t mentioned the university at all!
    [Cox does not “go for” the University]

    Indeed, Maryam herself intends to speak at the University:

    – Maryam Namazie
    I intend to speak at @warwickuni – it’s just a question of when.

    Boycotting the University appears to be a just response to the SU’s decision – it is a noble stand to take, putting pressure on the SU to change its mind and sends a strong message to other SUs. However, a boycott of unlimited duration is disproportionate: the tenure of the SU individuals is short, and come next election the SU could be replaced by more level-headed individuals when it comes to free speech (a likely scenario considering the backlash); the individuals themselves have left the door open to a reversal of their own decision; many individuals from Warwick decry the decision – particularly ‘WASH’, who Maryam has praised for helping in her fight. A boycott which lasts for however long this arbitrary ‘offence’ policy is continued makes much more sense.

    Jerry, you too state your intentions to boycott the University, although you did not state any duration. I do hope that in this regard you do not side with Goldacre – I am a student at Warwick and a big fan of your books and this enlightening website.

    One further point: a point concerning consistency. Goldacre is a “Senior Clinical Research Fellow at the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, based at Department of Primary Care Health Sciences at the University of Oxford”. Why did he not boycott the University when their abortion debate was aggressively shut down by students? http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/11239437/Oxford-students-shut-down-abortion-debate.-Free-speech-is-under-assault-on-campus.html

    And what about boycotting LSE for their censorship of ‘Jesus and Mo’? http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2013/oct/08/censoring-atheists-lse-oppression-religion

    Or Southampton? https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/hilary-aked/so-much-for-free-speech-southampton-university-and-proisrael-lobby

    Or for the treatment of Tim Hunt by UCL? Although this is less to do with censorship, the actions actually came from the University itself:

    1. Yes, of course I would speak at the University (of course, I won’t be invited there and never have been) should they rescind their refusal to allow Namazie to speak. Continuing to boycott them wouldn’t make sense. And they have rescinded their policy (see above) so all is well).

  7. Signed and commented: “…a number of flags have been raised.” Really? A much larger number of flags have now been raised concerning who’s running U Warwick.

    1. I found that free speech is listed in the preamble of the Human Rights declaration, and even if they chickened out we have this weakened form:

      “Article 19.

      Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

      [ http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/ ]

  8. Signed – please be aware that this was a decision taken by the apparatchiks at the Students Union and not the academic management of the Uni.

    1. Yes, and that explains Cox’s tweet – he’s not “boycotting Warwick” because the university is not involved (so the title of the post is inaccurate). It is the Union, an autonomous body (or rather, some of its staff), that took this decision.

    2. A point I was just about to make too – which is sufficient explanation for Cox’s position, once I think of it. It’s definitely bed time.

  9. I’ve been wondering about the reasons for the Student Union’s attitude. It certainly is, as has been pointed out, a confusion about being liberal in a racially sensitive society. Also, fear of retaliation from militant Islamists.
    Another reason might be the anti-free-speech people might be afraid the Islamophobes will be encouraged to inflict violence on peaceful Muslims. If speakers denounce aspects of Islam, the red necks, skinheads, and neoNazi elements will use this as an excuse, and people could get killed. I don’t think this is the principle reason, but it may play a part for some of the censors. I have not read their line of rationals so I don’t know if they have claimed this position.

  10. Good for Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh and Brian Cox!

    I note from Ben’s tweet, “I will never talk for Warwick”, he wasn’t specific about whether he meant Warwick Uni (who didn’t do anything) or Warwick Students Union (who committed the gaffe).

    Hopefully as per ashdeville’s comment, the SU have come to their senses.


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