Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!!!

Wishing readers a very happy and productive new year --- see you in 2012!!!

The Queen's New Years Honours

No philosophers receive honours in a list notable for the large number of academics honoured. Special congratulations to Newcastle's Deputy Vice Chancellor, Ella Ritchie, who has been awarded an OBE -- well done!

UPDATE: The BBC has the story here.

The Nasty Party is Back

Polly Toynbee warns of what we can expect in 2012 from the Conservative-led coalition. Details here.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The APA-Eastern

Sadly missing the American Philosophical Association - Eastern Division meeting this year. What is the latest?

The biggest event of 2011

I was asked by Research Fortnightly for my view on the big event or story in higher education for 2011. My answer is here and states:

"The big policy event of the year was the unprecedented mass opposition to the inclusion of the “Big Society” in the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s delivery plan. This plan spells out the AHRC’s strategic research funding priorities and it clearly states that the AHRC will “contribute” to the government’s “Big Society” agenda. More than 4,000 academics and 30 learned societies signed petitions and published joint statements declaring almost universal condemnation. This led to en masse resignations from the AHRC’s Peer Review College. The campaign continues for the removal of the “Big Society” from the AHRC Delivery Plan."

Thursday, December 29, 2011

New books

New books received in December include:

Tony Blair, A Journey. London: Arrow Books, 2010.

Paul Cairney, Understanding Public Policy: Theories and Issues. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Alastair Campbell, The Blair Years: Extracts from the Alastair Campbell Diairies. London: Arrow Books, 2007.

Matt Cavanagh, Against Equality of Opportunity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide. Boston: Mariner, 2009.

Chris Mullin, A Very British Coup. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1982.

Chris Mullin, A Vier from the Foothills: The Diaries of Chris Mullin. London: Profile Books, 2009.

Chris Mullin, A Walk-On Part: Diaries 1994-1999. London: Profile Books, 2011.

William Poundstone, Priceless: The Hidden Psychology of Value. Oxford: Oneworld, 2010.

Steven R. Smith, Equality and Diversity: Value Incommensurability and the Politics of Recognition. Bristol: The Policy Press, 2011.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas...

Wishing readers a very Happy Christmas. Expect much more over the holidays soon....

Blame the private sector for the Eurozone crisis

Private sector debts --- and not public sector debts --- are to blame. Data and analysis found here.

Good news for government, bad news for students

The political ping pong that is education enters a new stage. Ofqual has called for a new exam paper in the wake of recent allegations and tougher scrutiny on exam marking. The good news for the government is that if student performance drops then blame can be placed at the feet of previous Labour governments. The bad news for students is that, if the allegations have any merit, many students have been steered toward some topics rather than others to improve their exam performance and now the exam may be changed.

It will be interesting to see if Michael Gove moves forward with fundamental changes to the exam system, such as ensuring that one body produces one test for all students (rather than multiple exam boards producing different tests used to evaluate all students on a common measure). Let us hope so.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Happy Hanukkah!

Wishing readers a very Happy Hanukkah and New Year!

"Us and Them", or more evidence in declining standards in government

The British government has been in talks with unions trying to find agreement on a new pension deal. Most accounts predict the deal will lead to public sector workers contributing much more and working longer for a much smaller pension. In representing the government's position in talks, Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander is reported to have offered this gem in his statement to Parliament:

"[. . .] : "The negotiations ... are now concluded. This is the government's final position. Us and the unions agree that this is the best position that we can reach through negotiations. [. . .]"

"Us and the unions"? While it was clear the Liberal Democrats were set to lost much support from their student base after recommending to Parliament that university fees become trebled in price, there's no need to reach these depths. What next? "We ain't gonna negotiate. Innit"?

The Leiden Rankings for Universities

. . . can be found here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tories cannot be trusted on the economy

A major issue in the 2010 general election campaign concerned the British economy. Was Labour handling the crisis well or could others handle it much better? We now have an answer.

The Conservative-led coalition with the Liberal Democrats put full blame onto Labour for Britain's economic problems. They argued that Labour had borrowed too much and that international factors were not to blame for the UK's economic predicament.

We are now 18+ months later and what do we see? We see the coalition government borrowing more money than under Labour. (Don't take my word for it: this is confirmed by The Daily Mail here.) We have seen unemployment, especially amongst youth, soar to levels not seen since before Tony Blair became Labour's Prime Minister. Additionally, we also face rising crime rates and future uncertainty. On the whole, the current government's economic plans are proving a failure with no credible plan for job creation on the table.

Ironically, the single biggest reason that the government claims has made recovery difficult is, erm, the international financial crisis. This is exactly what Labour had argued under Gordon Brown (and precisely what Osborne denied was a relevant excuse). Oh, how things change when you take office.

It's time to rid ourselves of the myth that the Tories can be trusted on the economy. The economy tanked under their leadership pre-Blair and the economy has become worse, not better, since the Tories took over from Labour. Britain needs a Labour government to put the country back on the road to recovery and financial health.

UPDATE: Further evidence that the Tory-led government cannot be trusted on the economy is found in the deeply worrying situation regarding reported billions in unpaid taxes. The figure may be as high as £25 billion and further details may be found here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Kim Jong-il has died

Details are here. Perhaps new reason for greater concern about the future of North Korea. However eccentric, Kim Jong-il has been leader for a long time and his antics had become predictable, however unwelcome. The secession is now under way to (presumably) one of his sons. This could begin an important moment in North Korea's history and an opportunity for positive change with greater global engagement. The world watched and waits.

Petition to UK government on higher education

There is a petition circulating that calls on the UK government to abandon its current plans and consider an alternative to how higher education may be funded. The petition can be found here. I note that you must be a British citizen (although you need not reside in Britain) to sign.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Thom Brooks on "After Fukushima Daiichi: New Global Institutions for Improved Nuclear Power Policy"

This essay is forthcoming in Ethics, Policy & Environment and the draft can be found here. The abstract:

"This comment argues for the importance of global institutions to regulate nuclear power. Nuclear power presents challenges across national borders irrespective of whether plants are maintained safely. There are international agreements in place on the disposal of nuclear waste, an issue of great concern in terms of environmental and health effects for any nuclear power policy. However, there remains a pressing need for an international agreement to ensure the safe maintenance of nuclear facilities. Safe nuclear power beyond waste disposal should receive more attention. Nuclear power policy is often a matter of purely state interest with national governments alone responsible for regulating the safe maintenance of nuclear facilities. It ought not be left to national governments alone to regulate the safe administration of nuclear power given the many threats to environmental safety and public health. This comment argues that global institutions may best address this problem. The comment concludes with recommendations on how nuclear power policy might be regulated."


Comments are most welcome.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Editor's Cut: The Future of Philosophy by Journal Editors

INSTITUTE OF PHILOSOPHY ONE-DAY INTERNATIONAL WORKSHOP


The Editor’s Cut

Friday 13 Jan 2012, G22/26, Senate House, 9.45 (for 10.15) - 18.30

The Editor’s Cut – A view of philosophical research from journal editors

This international workshop brings together philosophers and publishers to survey and discuss recent trends and promising lines of philosophical research, aided by the current perspective of today’s editors.

9.45 Registration and Coffee

Morning Session: Chaired by Barry C. Smith (Institute of Philosophy)

10.15 Welcome and Introduction to the workshop

10.30 Thomas Baldwin (Mind)

11.00 Akeel Bilgrami (Journal of Philosophy)

11.30 Coffee break

12.00 Matti Eklund (Philosophical Review)

12.30 Luciano Floridi (Philosophy & Technology)

1.00 - 2.00 Lunch (own arrangements)

Afternoon Session: Chaired by Armen T. Marsoobian (Metaphilosophy)

14.00 Steven French (BJPS) & Michela Massimi (BJPS)

14.30 Vincent F Hendricks (Synthese)

15.00 Tim Mulgan (Philosophical Quarterly)

15.30 Robert Stern (European Journal of Philosophy)

16.00 Tea break

16.30 Panel discussion:

Chaired by Luciano Floridi (Philosophy & Technology)

David Bourget (Philpapers.org)

Thom Brooks (Association of Philosophy Journal Editors and Journal of Moral Philosophy)

Liam Cooper (Wiley-Blackwell)

Hilary Gaskin (Philosophy editor, CUP)

Peter Momtchiloff (Philosophy editor, OUP)

5.30 Wine reception

6.30 Close

Co-organised by Armen Marsoobian (Metaphilosophy), Luciano Floridi (UNESCO Chair in Information and Computer Ethics) and Barry C Smith (Institute of Philosophy). With the generous support of Metaphilosophy and Wiley-Blackwell.

Registration essential. Please visit:

http://philosophy.sas.ac.uk/d/f/EditorsCut130112prog.pdf

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The AHRC rewrites history

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has published online its "year in review" noting the most significant events in 2011.

A closer look reveals that -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- the "year in review" makes no mention of the single biggest story concerning the AHRC in recent years. The story is "Observergate": the Observer ran a story this past spring that alleged (a) the AHRC delivery plan includes several references to the "Big Society" and (b) the government put pressure on the AHRC to include the "Big Society". Both the AHRC and government swiftly denied that any pressure was put on the AHRC. Instead, their common position was that the AHRC had freely chosen to include the "Big Society" in its delivery plan without political pressure.

This made a potentially bad situation far worse in the eyes of many. The reason is simple. The AHRC's delivery plan presents its five year plan for strategic research funding priorities. The plan makes repeated mention of the "Big Society": this was a Conservative Party campaign slogan. For example, the AHRC delivery plan states clearly that it will "contribute" to the "Big Society" agenda of the government.

There was an unprecedented show of solidarity in opposition to the AHRC's delivery plan. More than 4,000 academics from the UK and abroad signed petitions calling on the AHRC to remove all mention of the "Big Society" without delay. Over 30 learned societies from across the arts and humanities published a letter in the Observer and Times Higher declaring that the "Big Society" should be removed from the delivery plan. This was then followed by the resignation of 50 senior members of the AHRC Peer Review College (including Fellows of the British Academy and at least one RAE 2008 Panel Chair) when the AHRC continued to refuse to remove the "Big Society" from its delivery plan. A few days later the AHRC CEO became the Chair of Research Councils UK (RCUK).

The connections between the AHRC delivery plan and "Big Society" are unambiguous. The plan states:

 * “Connected Communities will enable the AHRC to contribute to the government’s initiatives on localism and the ‘Big Society’” (sect. 2.4.4).



* “We will focus on issues such as the ‘Big Society’” (sect. 2.10.1).


* “The contribution of AHRC plans to the ‘Big Society’ agenda are described in Section 2” (sect. 3.10).


* “In line with the Government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda . . . the AHRC will continue to support the integrated programme of RCUK Public Engagement’ (sect. 3.12).
 
Perhaps it is unsurprising that the biggest AHRC-related news story of the year (and of the last few years at least) would fail to be included in the AHRC's own list of 2011 in review. This appears to be one further attempt to wish this story away and greet the unprecedented opposition with silence.
 
I hope that journos following this story will draw attention to this revision of history. The AHRC should never have included the "Big Society" in its delivery plan. The AHRC says that there was no political pressure put upon them to include the "Big Society" and ministers confirm this is true. There should then be no problem at all for the AHRC to agree with ministers that the delivery plan should be amended.
 
It is not too late for a change. It is time the AHRC corrected this without further delay.

The Big Society is in Big Trouble

The Conservative Party used "the Big Society" as a central campaign theme. The idea is vague, but broadly that we should each ask much less from the state and more from each other. Civil society, not the state, should rise to the challenge of taking a more active part in policy and community relations. Oh, and we'll need a vibrant civil society to provide for free those public goods provided by the state because the state will be slashed. (Hence, many critics have understood the Big Society to be a euphemism for cuts in public spending.) (Note: don't get me started on the AHRC and Big Society.)

Never before has a governing party had so much trouble with its central idea. Everyone knew what the "Third Way" was under Labour. But not even the Tories seem to understand what the "Big Society" is in theory or, indeed, in practice. We have now seen about four so-called "Big Society tzars" come and go. Today, we learn further that many in the party still -- 18 months into government -- do not see how the "Big Society" might become implemented in practice. A central problem is its being too "vague" (or so we are told by party members).

All the more reason to question the decision by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to include several references to the "Big Society" in its five year delivery plan spelling out its strategic research funding priorities. The AHRC delivery plan is explicit: the plan will "contribute" to the "Big Society". It is curiosity that the AHRC would make this part of its delivery plan for strategic research funding priorities when the government can't find a tzar to lead on the idea and party members still don't see how it might work in practice.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Coalition cracks - too much to repair?

Some will say - at last! - deep cracks are forming in the coalition government. The issue was not the decision to raise VAT or slash public sector workers or treble student fees. No, the issue was Europe. Traditionally, Europe has been the issue that most divides the Conservatives and there are divisions to be found between many pro-European ministers, principally Ken Clarke, and Eurosceptic backbenchers. The fireworks on display over the Prime Minister's recent "veto" were not - perhaps surprisingly - on display between Tory MPs, but fired by Eurosceptic Tories at their Liberal Democrat coalition "partners". No wonder Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, (in an "unprecedented" move) missed the session: it's bad enough facing angry voters and angry opposition benches, but also most of the party with whom your party is in coalition? It's almost too much.

While many will point to the principled stance of Liberal Democrats (finally?) reasserting themselves in the coalition, there is perhaps another explanation for the sudden unease: one new poll has put UKIP ahead of the Liberal Democrats. If true, then perhaps a strong incentive for Lib Dems to speak out now -- instead of before on Trident, VAT, university fees, etc. -- is not mere survival after the next general election, but the possibility -- however faint -- that the Lib Dems may no longer the main alternative to Labour and the Conservatives. Lib Dems were always going to have difficulty differentiating themselves in future elections given their position in the coalition and UKIP may be benefitting.

Of course, it's all too early to tell. But, if you're a Liberal Democrat, it may not be too early to begin to panic.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Labour Party - Join Today

Readers may know that I am an active member of the Labour Party. British parties are unlike American parties for many reasons: one reason is that British parties must accept members, but a second reason is that British party members need not be British (and so my appeal is extended to both British and non-British citizens alike).

The Labour Party's membership website can be found here. While there is a small membership fee, there are many rewards. These include participation in the party's current policy deliberations and many (annual and regional) conferences. Members also have a vote -- and it does not matter if you are non-British.

The Tory-led coalition government has done enough damage to the country during its brief time in office. We are witnessing growing unemployment and higher crime rates alongside a reduced presence in Europe and the trebling of university student fees.

The Labour Party acts as the key opposition and now is more important than ever before to help grow our political movement to help safeguard Britain's interests nationally and abroad. Join today!

Doom, part 387,913, 201

There are many benefits to living abroad, but also many frustrations. One constant problem is the failure of US businesses and government departments to recognize that people living outside the United States cannot ring "800" numbers (and connect with the US or Canada).

I have lost count of how many times I have had to explain this. Many countries have "toll free" phone numbers that use the prefix "800": the US and Canada are not alone. These phone calls are free, but they are only free - and permitted - by people living in said countries. For example, a company with a "800" number in the UK cannot be contacted on this number from outside the UK. Likewise, a company in the US with an "800" number cannot be contacted on this number from outside North America. This makes sense: why think international calls would be free?

The Department of Education should receive some credit for trying to become more aware of this problem, but they have fallen for a simple error. Student loan holders using the MyEdAccount.Com website are offered  an "Overseas/International" number to contact them: 011-315-738-6634. If it is not already obvious, the prefix "011" is what Americans would dial if making a non-North American phone call. The problem is that you do not dial 011 when making international phone calls from any other country in the world.

Whoever dreamt this up knows enough to note that an American must dial "011" first when making an international call from the United States. That's the good part. However, you would dial "011" followed by the "country code" (the US country code is 1; the UK country code is 44) and telephone number. So I would have been perhaps more impressed if MyEdAccount.Com said the number began "011-1" because at least then they would acknowledge that overseas/international callers (a) must dial an access code (b) followed by the country code (even though the numbers are false). I suspect that the "correct" number to dial for all persons living outside North America is instead 001 315 738 6634.

The point of the story is you would expect business, loan providers, etc to have at least some international customers/users. There is then an interest - from a self-interested, business-perspective - in getting their contact information correct. Moreover, you would probably especially expect such (modest?) standards from body working with the Department of Education. Let's hope this is corrected soon.

Great news for coffee lovers

. . . as a new study suggests that coffee helps prevent depression.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Are we getting more selfish?

This is a recent article published in The Journal (Newcastle) by Tom Mullen on the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, and it includes an interview with me.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Robert Talisse on "Faith in Democracy"

Fantastic lecture that can be seen here.

Are examiners telling teachers exam questions in advance of tests?

This is one of the questions that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is investigating now. For the latest, see here.

UPDATE: And there is much more (and more worrying news) here. The right result is a major shake-up of how examinations are conducted in the country. The problem is that shake-ups often cost money so expect disappointment and vested interests instead of good policy judgement and the public good to triumph.

Interview with Mary Midgley

. . . can be found here (in The Journal (Newcastle)).

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Thom Brooks, "Global Justice and Politics"

This essay can be downloaded here and it is forthcoming in Fred D'Agostino and Jerry Gaus (eds), Routledge Companion to Social and Political Philosophy. The abstract:

"The history of political philosophy has been largely focused on the problem of justice within borders. Contemporary political philosophers have only begun more recently to draw greater attention to problems of global justice rather than to domestic justice alone: they are concerned about identifying a just international distributive justice. The most important issue has been how best to address severe poverty. Are there duties to provide support for those in severe poverty and, if so, who has these duties? What support may be justified? These are the most pressing and challenging questions confronting political philosophers today.


This chapter examines three different approaches to how global justice and politics might address the problem of severe poverty. The first approach argues that we have positive duties to assist those in need. They argue that we have a duty to assist where there are others in need irrespective of whether or not we contributed to their situation. A second approach claims that we have negative duties to those in need that arise because we have contributed to their severe poverty. Finally, a third approach argues that our responsibilities to those in need are not a matter of choosing between our positive or negative duties, but that these duties should be understood within a wider context of our remedial responsibilities. Our focus should be on identifying who has a responsibility to remedy suffering elsewhere and this requires a wider perspective to cover all cases. Each approach is considered in turn in a sympathetic analysis where the focus is on presenting each in its best light and allowing readers to judge for themselves which is most worth defending."

Philosophical Gourmet Report for 2011

. . . can be found here!

British Social Values Survey - the latest results

. . . can be found here -- fascinating reading.

Head teachers need not be teachers any more?

The government has now announced that headteachers need not possess any qualifications to teach any more. Their argument is that the government prizes autonomy over regulation.

However, it will surely be odd for the "head teacher" to be unable to teach given this potential lack of qualification. (It is also a matter for debate whether any hiring committee would choose to support candidates for such posts lacking such a central qualification.)

So why do it? It's yet another move towards the privatisation of education (and not merely higher education) in the United Kingdom by the coalition government. If teaching qualifications were no longer necessary, then the potential pool of applicants expands widely. It will become possible for those in business with no experience in the classroom to become the head teacher of local schools.

Individual lifestyles to blame for 40% of cancer cases

The BBC story can be found here. An excerpt:

"[. . .] Nearly half of cancers diagnosed in the UK each year - over 130,000 in total - are caused by avoidable life choices including smoking, drinking and eating the wrong things, a review reveals. Tobacco is the biggest culprit, causing 23% of cases in men and 15.6% in women, says the Cancer Research UK report. Next comes a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in men's diets, while for women it is being overweight. The report is published in the British Journal of Cancer.
Its authors claim it is the most comprehensive analysis to date on the subject. Lead author Prof Max Parkin said: "Many people believe cancer is down to fate or 'in the genes' and that it is the luck of the draw whether they get it. Looking at all the evidence, it's clear that around 40% of all cancers are caused by things we mostly have the power to change." [. . .]

"The Research Bust"

. . . from The Chronicle of Higher Education here.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Thom Brooks, "Global Justice and International Affairs"


I am delighted to see the publication of my new Global Justice and International Affairs in the new Studies in Moral Philosophy book series. The contents:

INTRODUCTION

Thom Brooks, "Introduction"

PART I: SOVEREIGNTY AND SELF-DETERMINATION

Joseph H. Carens, "The Integration of Immigrants"

Nicolaus Tideman, "Secession as a Human Right"

PART II: COSMOPOLITANISM AND NATIONALISM

Michael Green, "Social Justice, Voluntarism, and Liberal Nationalism"

Burke A. Hendrix, "Authenticity and Cultural Rights"

Patti Tamara Lenard, "Motivating Cosmopolitanism? A Skeptical View"

Igor Primoratz, "Patriotism and Morality: Mapping the Terrain"

PART III: GLOBAL POVERTY AND INTERNATIONAL DISTRIBUTIVE JUSTICE

Gillian Brock, "The Difference Principle, Equality of Opportunity, and Cosmopolitan Justice"

Lisa L. Fuller, "Poverty Relief, Global Institutions, and the Problem of Compliance"

Tim Hayward, "Thomas Pogge's Global Resources Dividend: A Critique and an Alternative"

Gerhard Overland, "Poverty and the Moral Significance of Contribution"

Jonathan Seglow, "Associative Duties and Global Justice"

PART IV: WAR AND TERRORISM

David Lefkowitz, "Partiality and Weighing Harm to Non-Combatants"

Gerhard Overland, "Conditional Threats"

Eric Reitan, "Defining Terrorism for Public Policy Purposes: The Group-Target Distinction"

Friday, December 02, 2011

Clarksongate: freedom of speech or political correctness?

I was interviewed this morning by BBC Radio York on the subject of Jeremy Clarkson's recent comments on Wednesday's strikes. The interview can be found here (from 16 mins).

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Brilliant brief essays on inequality

. . . can be found here at The Boston Review. Highly recommended!

Jeremy Clarkson calls for the execution of public sector workers on strike

No, really:



Clarkson: "I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families. I mean how dare they go on strike when they have these gilt-edged pensions that are going to be guaranteed, while the rest of us have to work for a living."

The irony is that Clarkson is a highly paid television presenter working for the publicly-funded BBC and, well, may likely have a much better pension than most in the country.

The BBC has issued a swift apology and the story has (unsurprisingly) made headlines today. I expect there will be more on this story soon.

The BBC apology can be found here. Clarkson has not yet apologized for his comments. On Clarkson's likely pay package, see here.

UPDATE: One of the trade unions involved in yesterday's strike, Unison, has called on the BBC to sack Clarkson and Unison is considering possible legal action. Details are here.

UPDATE 2: Clarkson has apologized at last.

UPDATE 3: My interview on "Clarksongate" with BBC Radio York can be found here (from 16 mins).