How to Run a Conference
How to Run a Conference: closed-minded practices revealed
Madness season is here
Scientists waxing furious
To what end?
Certain invitees to a workshop on the Foundations of Physics received from the organisers letters withdrawing their invitations. The letter to Brian Josephson asserted:
"It has come to my attention that one of your principal research
interests is the paranormal ... in my view,
it would not be appropriate for someone with such research interests
to attend a scientific conference."
while a similar letter to David Peat asserted:
"It has come to my attention that you are the author of books on
Jungian synchronicity and quantum physics, and on connections between
Native American Indian thought and modern physics ... in my view, it is not appropriate for an author of such
books to attend a scientific conference."These letters illustrate well
the defensive, paranoid attitudes of members of the scientific community such as
those who pressed for this action to be taken; for such people, science equates to 'closed minded enquiry', in the light of which their action is in no way surprising.
addressees, Brian Josephson is a Nobel Laureate in Physics, and has in the past year given invited special lectures on his work at Freiburg
University's Institute of Advanced Studies (the Hermann Staudinger
Lecture), and Loughborough University (the Sir Nevill Mott lecture).
In neither talk was there more than casual reference to the
paranormal. David Peat has a Ph.D. in physics from Liverpool
University. He has collaborated with David Bohm with whose work
the workshop is concerned, and lectured on the subtleties of Bohm's ideas.
He coauthored with Bohm the book Science, Order and Creativity.
update of April 23 2010: A correspondent notes that this kind of thing, the 'exclusion of undesirables', happens routinely, but usually covertly. One suspects that the organisers, under pressure, sent out these strangely worded emails precisely in order that this unfortunate practice might come out into the open. The above extracts, relating specifically to individuals as such rather than simply imposing conditions upon their attendance, demonstrate clearly that certain scientists regard themselves as members of an exclusive club, not open-minded seekers after truth.
Politics and thoughtcrime
April 26, 2010: A communication has now been sent by the organisers explaining the background to the letters, which seems to have had a strong political element though this was not asserted directly. It was suggested (and there is no doubt much truth in this) that those in control are so prejudiced against the paranormal that belief in the reality of telepathy, etc. can disqualify one for consideration for a job. It was, fundamentally, to protect young researchers looking for jobs that the disinvitation letters were sent.
Such attitudes are pervasive. Scientists who have reason to believe that telepathy is real dare not state this publicly, since this admission could have disastrous effects on their career path. For example my Ph.D. supervisor and head of the Cavendish at the time, the late Sir Brian Pippard, told me once privately that he was quite sure that telepathy existed as his mother always seemed to have accurate knowledge of what was happening to his brother who was fighting in World War II. But
he did not tell of this publicly until well after his retirement, as after-dinner speaker at a parapsychology conference.
Orwell, in his book 1984, imagined a similar situation, in a totalitarian society where one could be charged (ref. Wikipedia) with thoughtcrime:
In the book, the government attempts to control not only the speech and actions, but also the thoughts of its subjects, labelling disapproved thought as thoughtcrime.
Thoughtcrime is alive and well in the scientific community today, as the politics that underlies this affair clearly demonstrates.
The situation has interesting ramifications. In 1991, Valentini, and Fotini Pallikari-Viras and I, realised independently that under some circumstances Bohm's quantum potential had implications for parapsychology. Pallikari-Viras and I developed this possibility, while Valentini developed the mathematics in his Ph.D. thesis and subsequently, but when he writes about it carefully avoids mentioning, as he must, these obvious implications of his work.
It goes without saying that such control from above is not good for science itself, or for the public image of science and scientists.
The article Some Questions for the UK Royal Society, concerned with a situation that is not totally dissimilar, may be of interest.
See also article and discussion, in the Times Higher Educational Supplement.
A discussion of the disinvitation issue, including a public statement by Valentini asserting that his letters to David Peat and myself should not have been made public, and responses to this by various people, can be seen here. A brief response to Valentini's statement, which he has posted in many places, is appropriate here:
Here are some more relevant links:
Posted by Brian Josephson, 20 Apr 2010, updated 8 May 2010
- It was unwise to send an email indicating an opinion, viz. that I and others should not be present at scientific conferences on account of our views, that has been widely condemned. The background to these emails is a matter of considerable public concern, as shown by the media interest in this affair. Under such circumstances, one should not complain that one's views have been made public.
- Valentini's institutional address is in the public domain: an internet search brings up immediately the Imperial College directory giving both his institutional address and his email address. There are no reasonable grounds for complaint that the former information was originally included on this web page.
- The statement "certain alleged 'invitees' were in fact never formally invited" is disingenuous given that some time before the disinvitation letters arrived we had all been asked by the organisers for details such as how long a talk we wished to give.
May 1st, 2010:
This web page will close, as it began, with some poetic thoughts, inspired by Laura Marling's Nature of Dust. The unidentified individuals who 'came in the night', intent on keeping this meeting kosher, remain in the shadows.
Rationality and Science
It's the nature of "must", and it's all around us
It's all about me, and it's all about shove
It's a dangerous mix if you don't get it right
They'll come and get you in the dead of the night
They'll come and get you, if it's not what they like
And then they leave ... and it's bad
It's all about power, it's all about fright
They'll come and get you in the dead of the night
And when they leave, and they do ...
Oh yes it's bad
Sure thing it's mad
Oh yes it's sad
© B D Josephson 2010