What The LSE’s Apology Means For Free Speech

It’s been a long road. Yesterday evening, in a victory for free speech, the Director of the London School of Economics apologised for intimidation of the university’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society at their Freshers Fair. Promoting their society at the October fair, the society’s President and Secretary, Abhishek Phadnis and Chris Moos, were surrounded by 8 security guards, at the request of the students union, for refusing to remove t-shirts showing the popular cartoon Jesus and Mo. When they eventually did put on jumpers, the were assigned a guard each to follow them for the rest of the day.

As President of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies I’ve written before about the challenges many of our members face when legitimate criticism of religion is slammed and shutdown as “offensive” or even “racist”. Yesterday’s statement represents an important step forward in the fight for free expression on UK campuses for our member societies. Its significance will be felt beyond the LSE by universities and students unions across the country who resort too quickly to censorship in the face of religious sensitivities. To truly understand the significance of yesterday’s statement requires an understanding of just why it happened.

The decision of the LSE’s Director to review events on the day, going against the actions of his staff and students union, was a very mature and doubtless politically difficult one that should be applauded but it didn’t take place in a vacuum. The apology followed over two months of press coverage, public outcry and legal pressure.  The press coverage was unanimously against the LSE’s attempted censorship with comment pieces in every broadsheet. This was important, as part of the reasoning behind the intimidation was concern about potential outcry from religious students- we’ve shown that we will make a fuss too. A university concerned about its reputation will take note of that.

But I believe our most powerful and effective argument wasn’t reputational but legal. We are indebted to pro bono legal advice from David Wolfe QC, who helped the LSE ASH in drawing up their formal complaint, with input from no less than 3 professors of law. The 15 page document sets out in no uncertain terms the legal responsibilities of universities to ensure the freedom of expression of their students and to what extent this freedom can and cannot be curtailed. It took weeks to draft and makes very clear that the LSE got its decision wrong. We also made clear that we would, if necessary, take the matter to court. It was very likely this pressure that secured yesterday’s apology, after 6 weeks of consideration by the School.

The impact of this has already been felt elsewhere. I attended a meeting last week at another London university, the students union of which had told its Atheist Society they couldn’t criticise Christianity in their posters, using a bizarre interpretation of the Equality Act as their justification. The society stuck to their guns and, bolstered by the legal assurance already secured at LSE, argued the case that their free expression was being curtailed. The union backed down.

Universities will have paid close attention to the LSE’s behaviour. It is clear that the case for free speech has been made and won. While not quite a judge’s ruling, a more subtle precedent has been set; freedom of expression does not bow down to religious sensitivities. Well done to Chris and Abhishek for sticking to their principles and taking this to the end. Here’s hoping no more students have to.

Aid’s Scientific Revolution

There is probably no other question in economics that evokes such strong emotions and creates such a clear divide between left and right. To the left, the world’s poor are caught in a poverty trap; without the minimum resources to help them help themselves, they will never break out of this cycle. Aid, then, is clearly needed as a big push to kick things off. To the right, aid encourages dependency, distorts markets and props up nasty regimes – keeping the poor in their place. There is no sign of either side winning this battle. But subjecting individual aid projects to robust statistical analysis through randomised controlled trials (RCTs), modelled on medical trials, could provide a way out of the ideological mire.

So what is aid? Aid can come in many forms – such as military aid to help a country fight terrorists, or budgetary aid sent with no strings attached to bolster a government’s finances, or the cancelling of historic debts. Here we focus on a more altruistic form of aid – that sent to help the world’s poorest with little expectation of benefit to the donor, for example direct financing of mosquito nets or primary schools.

The moral cause for wishing to alleviate world poverty is a clear one. That one billion people live on this planet on less than a dollar a day while so many of us live in luxury is surely a moral outrage. The philosopher Peter Singer has compared such inaction to standing by a lake as a child drowns. Surely, he reasons, no person would give a seconds thought to diving in? Practically speaking, of course, giving aid is complex and costly yet the principle, he argues, is the same.
This metaphor succinctly encapsulates the argument for aid – that only immediate, decisive and potentially painful action, essentially diving in, can help the poor. The clear implication of Singer’s reasoning is that the solution is to get actively involved – but what if modern aid offers our metaphorical child little more than a faulty life ring? Or worse, what if aid actually helps to drag her down? This is the real question in the aid debate. This goes beyond rock concerts and emotive advertisements; is the obvious solution the right one?

Diving In
Many would say yes. These aren’t just rock stars and actors – distinguished professors of economics such as Columbia’s Jeffery Sachs see aid as an essential way of unlocking the economic potential of the poor. In his book The End of Poverty, Sachs points to farming as an example of this – if farmers are donated fertiliser, they can massively increase their harvest, which in turn gives them money to be able to buy their own fertiliser next year, thus creating a virtuous cycle. For Sachs, the farmers are caught in a poverty trap (unable to buy the fertiliser they need to progress) and without an aid-based kick-start (free fertiliser) they will never escape from poverty. Sachs sees this poverty trap model applying to many other areas of development – sick, poor people cannot afford medicine, but whilst they are ill they are unable work, meaning that they get even poorer. But aid also has a larger role to play. It can help small, cash strapped democracies stay on their feet and provide for their people’s basic needs. It can also kick-start basic infrastructure such as roads and schools.

Sufficiently compelled by this call to action, I headed off with some other Imperial College students last year to witness just this type of aid – designed to kick-start economic progress – in rural Kenya. Herdsmen, caught by a severe drought, were encouraged to take up fishing. A British charity subsidised nets and boats for the fledgling fishermen, with the idea that the subsidies could be gradually reduced as the economy took off. Each boat would take ten fishermen and each fisherman supported around ten dependents, meaning 100 people were helped by just one boat. It seemed to be the perfect project.

Unforeseen Consequences
There are, however, powerful arguments against this kind of help. On a nationwide scale, the large and sudden influx of foreign money makes the local currency rise in value, suffocating exports. This was best documented in Holland when the manufacturing sector contracted, following the discovery of natural gas in 1959, earning the phenomenon the name Dutch disease. Furthermore, money given to poor country governments needn’t necessarily end up going to infrastructure or healthcare. According to Paul Collier of Oxford University, 40% of African military spending is funded by aid, unbeknownst to the donors. It is certainly no secret that the poorest countries often have the nastiest regimes.
Aid can also undermine democracy, making poor countries accountable to donors, not to their citizens. The old American maxim of ‘no taxation without representation’ too often works in reverse – no representation without taxation. When poor countries rely on foreign funds and not taxes from local people and businesses, the need to be accountable to citizens is reduced and corruption and inefficiencies can more easily set in. Somaliland provides an excellent counter-example – not recognised as a country by the international community, it cannot receive aid and in fact has seen significant improvements in accountability and reduced corruption as citizens demand more for their taxes. And lastly, we cannot forget the ethical implications of aid recipients relying on public services provided by politicians in wealthy countries for whom they cannot vote.

The Truth Lies in the Data
Where does this leave the Kenyan fishermen? They lack a mature manufacturing sector so that shouldn’t be an issue. But how could the other factors affect them? It is here that we get to one of the biggest problems with aid – the lack of good data on its effectiveness. In truth neither the left nor right perspectives can offer a good evaluation of such a program without first gathering data. This was exactly what we did in Kenya.

Through interviewing 200 of the fishermen, we were able to gain a clearer picture of how the subsidies were impacting the local economy. The results were surprising; the perfect picture offered by aid evangelists was found to be murky at best. Investment in boats turned out to be not only a surprisingly ineffective way of catching fish – as opposed to just tying nets to rocks and leaving them – but was also heavily biased in favour of the relatively rich fishermen who could afford to pay the unsubsidised half of the price. However, we also found that investment in nets, especially targeted at the poorest, was a very cost effective way of helping out, with nets paying for themselves after two months. This was not only interesting, it was also very useful. The data enabled the charity to refocus its efforts, saving valuable donations and improving the quality of life for the fishermen.

Our research is part of a bigger shift in the aid debate – its scientific revolution. In seeking out quality data, we were able to get to the heart of the issue. The apex of this is the use of randomised controlled trials (RCTs), in the style of medical trials, on aid projects. The idea is simple. Half of a population is given a form of aid (nets, extra teachers etc.) while the other isn’t. Those who do and don’t receive the aid are chosen at random and in such a way that they cannot affect each other so that the impact of the aid can be clearly demonstrated. Essentially like any lab experiment. The idea is simple and common sense to any science student but it is having a significant impact on a hitherto opaque world.

The world before evidence-based medicine is hard to imagine – quack doctors of varying credibility combined folklore and pseudoscience to propose cures for just about any illness. Today, trials form the basis of medicine. Think of the 1991 discovery that folic acid reduces incidence of spina bifida, as a result of which 10% of the world’s flour is now fortified with the acid and thousands of such birth defects have been prevented. This same process is gradually taking place in aid. RCTs in Uganda have found that providing food in schools won’t increase enrolment, but it does boost attendance. RCTs across Africa have found that charging even a nominal fee for a malaria bed greatly reduces their use, contrary to the intuitive view that people only value what they pay for. Aid is experiencing its own scientific revolution.

The pioneers of this field are undoubtedly Professors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, who have been working in this area since the Lab’s founding in 2003. In their 2011 book Poor Economics, they outline the results of their RCT work. Their findings agree with neither left nor right, they simply find out what works. A new student union project at Imperial College called The African Development Project is dedicated to doing just this; involving science and engineering students in the evaluation of aid projects.

The potential of RCTs is very exciting indeed. They can provide no magic bullet – far too many such cures have been proposed in the past – but they do provide a way to go beyond the ideological warfare and change the aid debate for the better. Beyond simple moralising and abstract philosophising, scientific trials offer perhaps the most effective approach yet to understanding and tackling poverty. Its message is simple: find out what works, and then fund what works.

Exhibition Ode

This being my last of an excessive six years at Imperial, I can’t help but wonder, with more than a little panic, just how different life will be outside of the academic bubble. Excactly how I’ll gel with a world of 9-5s, responsibility, mortgages and early nights is uncertain. One thing I do know is clear: I’ll never again get to live in South Kensington. More precisely, I’ll never again get to live beside Exhibition Road. I’ll miss it.

Visiting London from Belfast with my family as a child, I would always insist on a visit here. In every way a future Imperial physicist, it was the Science Museum that leapt out for me and would fill up my precious London hours; a vast warehouse of discovery and invention – with whole rockets and World War II aeroplanes, hands-on exhibits and guided tours. I wanted to work there. I wanted to live there, or nearby. I ended up doing both.

Actually working at a museum; that’s a lot of fun. I spent a few months as a volunteer guide in the Science Museum’s 1001 Inventions Gallery (which looked at science during the Islamic Empire), mostly hovering around the display on numbers. Did you know that the numerals we use today were drawn so that the number of acute angles each has corresponds to the number it represents? Think of chubby, rounded zero. Or  the number one with its slanted cap. I imagine I bored the hell out of the hundreds of school kids who passed through, but it was an awful lot of fun.

Heading down the road from College, taking care to avoid the ever-earnest Mormon missionaries, gives a drive-by viewing of one of the finest buildings in London, the V&A. But this beauty is a war veteran ­– take a closer look and you’ll see that her newly restored side has ugly lumps missing, wounds inflicted by German bombers in World War II and left by restorers in memorial.  To get to know the museum, the ideal would be to spend whole days walking around, but for the exam-pressed Imperial student I offer the most convenient way to get to know the museum – my patented Study and Toilet Tour.

It is a little known fact that the V&A contains the National Art Library, a huge collection of mouldy old leather-bound books in plush surroundings with 100 desks for studying, open to all and free of charge, complete with comfy leather chairs, old fashioned desk lamps and a view of the museum’s large quadrangle. You can feel like you really did get into Oxbridge. Now for my Toilet Tour; go to this library to study instead of Imperial’s and take a map. Every time you want a toilet break, chose a different toilet on any floor you like and take your time walking there. I count eight toilets in all – it won’t be long before you’ve covered the entire museum, from the incredible collection of statues on the ground floor to the British Galleries on level 4. And lunch in the museum’s café is accompanied by a live pianist on Saturdays so you’ve no reason to leave the place at all, really.

Then we have the Natural History Museum, a temple to Darwinism and the natural world. The millennium old Giant Red Wood segment is worth catching, with the history of the last 1,400 years marked using its growth rings as a timeline. You’ll find it in the main entrance hall, a few floors up. Not forgetting the Darwin Centre – apparently if you flash your Imperial card, smile politely and imply you’re some kind of expert, they’ll let you in to see their giant squid. Now there’s a sentence that I never expected to write.

Exhibition Road is now pedestrianised, with the traffic/pedestrian distinction blurred and speed limits kept to 20 mph, much to the annoyance of drivers. Until two years ago, it was just a regular road, with none of those fancy benches and ‘Boris Bike’ stations. I’m glad for its makeover, because the truth is that it is more than just a road.

For such a busy part of Central London it’s pretty amazing to have places where you can sit in complete silence. For such an affluent part of the UK, it’s nice to have such a variety of people walking around. We lucky devils get to live here, for now. Make the most of it.