Friday, 24 October 2014

A Quarter of A Million ...

... That's the number of total reads of Philosophical Comment that was exceeded the other day, since its humble start in late 2009.

Thank you!

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Next Step in Hungary's March Back to Dark and Brown Political Legacy: Official Historical Revisionism to Hide Pro-nazi Past

This was brought to my attention by my friend and colleague at the University of Gothenburg, distinguished political science professor, Bo Rothstein. As some of you may know, after a brief time of emerging out of its Soviet satelite past and joining the EU as a liberal democracy, Hungary has for some time been moving in an increasingly extreme rightwing, nationalist, anti-liberal and anti-democratic direction. Led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the Fidesz party, increasing assaults have been made on basic democratic principles – to the extent that the EU has been reprimanding some of the plans harshly, short of threatening of expelling the country from the union altogether. Earlier this year, Orban declared that he viewed China, Russia and Turkey as rolemodels to follow, and that he wants to abandon liberal democracy in favor of an “illiberal state”. This follows a process starting in 2002, of cooperating with openly nazi racist organisations and semi-militias over several years to deliberately dismantle and undermine Hungarian democratic institutions and freedom of opinion and speech, as well as weakening basic principles of ascertaining rule of law and legal security. Some further reports are here, here, here, here, here.

Therefore, it should perhaps come as no surprise that this march towards the darker regions of modern central European history is now being complemented by a historical revisionist agenda, aiming to hide Hungary's dirty past in this area. Bo's open letter (published as a Swedish debate article here) to the Swedish Hungarian ambassador describes it as it is – an image of the monument is seen above (view a larger version by clicking the image):

The lie that Bo here uncovers should come as no surprise, as one of the few things that have potential of tripping the populist far-right nationalist politics pursued by Fidesz is its obvious links to the nazi-past of Hungary. Hence, that past needs to be erased, and into the Hungarian collective mind should be installed a lilly-white version of the innocent maiden, where the blood stained hands of mindless butcher, selling out its country for a slice of the cake of the promised 1000-ear Reich, belongs. That's Victor Orban and Fidesz for you in so many words.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Dr Jean-Claude Worms of the European Science Foundation Threatens Critics of ESF Policy: He Should Resign or Be Sacked - Effective Immediately.

Obviously the European basic science funding flagship, the European Science Foundation (ESF) is in a sorry state if anything even akin to this can happen. I have the story from my math colleague here in Gothenburg, Olle Häggström's blog, and he refers further to Retraction Watch.

In short, astrophysicist Amaya Moro-Martin published an opinion piece in Nature, criticising current European and EU science policies (in particular funding cuts), among many other things mentioning the ESF as an peripheral actor in the dismantling of Portuguese science institutions:

There are too many examples to list, but here are some of the most prominent: since 2009, Italy has seen recruitment of scientists fall by 90% and the amount spent on basic research drop to nothing. In Spain, the amount of money spent on civilian research and development has dropped by 40%, and fewer than 10% of researchers who retire are being replaced. Since 2011, the budget of Greek research centres and universities has halved, with a freeze on hiring. Already reeling from budget cuts of 50% for universities and research centres, Portugal may now have to close half of its research units because of a flawed evaluation process supported by the European Science Foundation.

To this, the head of the ESF’s Science Support Office, Dr. Jean-Claude Worms reacts badly. But does he then send a reply to Nature, or even post a comment in the open commentary field attached to Moro-Martin's article? He does not. Instead, he behaves in astonishingly fable-like similarity to what you would expect by the animal suggested by his surname, sending the following letter to Moro-Martin (originally made public here):

Dear Amaya Moro-Martin,
The European Science Foundation hereby requests that you retract the following allegation contained within your opinion piece published on 8 October in Nature (Volume 514, Issue 7521). [Portugal may now have to close half of its research units] because of a flawed evaluation process supported by the European Science Foundation. The European Science Foundation refutes any allegation that the process was flawed and considers that the statement cited above is slanderous, as the independent work performed in the framework of the evaluation of FCT research units followed the best international practices. While the European Science Foundation is cited in your paper, it is highly regrettable that no one from our organisation was interviewed and no request for clarification made. In addition, and as you may be aware, the Portuguese national union for higher education has launched a formal legal action on the evaluation process, and this has not yet come to a conclusion. If your allegation is not publically retracted in Nature, the European Science Foundation will be compelled to take appropriate legal action.
Dr. Jean-Claude Worms
Head of Science Support Office European Science Foundation
That's right, a high representative and manager of a supposedly leading international science organisation is responding to criticism (the very blood of science) of this organisation's policies with threat of a libel lawsuit. This is not only way lower than any slimy worm would ever venture into the manure, it is formally completely unacceptable behaviour by a person in Worms' position of office. My colleague, Olle, is overly polite about it when asking the ESF chief executive, Martin Hynes, to have Dr. Worms' letter "retracted". My bid is this: Dr. Worms has conclusively proven that he has no place in any sort of science leadership position and should resign his office at ESF, effective immediately. If he does not, he should be be swiftly removed from this position of honour and trust, which he has so gravely abused.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Brian Leiter Announces He Will Step Down As PGR Editor After The 2014-15 Edition.

This is following up on recent events reported here, here and, most recently, here.

Today, Brian Leiter posted the following on his blog, Leiter Reports:

... the Advisory Board and I have agreed on the following statement regarding the plan for the PGR:
The 2014-15 PGR will proceed as planned, with Berit Brogaard joining Brian Leiter as co-editor and taking over responsibility for the surveys and the compilation of results, with assistance as needed from Brian and the Advisory Board.  At the conclusion of the 2014-15 PGR, Brian will step down as an editor of the PGR and join the Advisory Board.  Berit will take over as editor until such time as a co-editor can be appointed to assist with future iterations of the report.  After 2014, Berit will have ultimate decision-making authority over the PGR.  Upon completion of the 2014-15 PGR, Berit will appoint a small advisory transition committee that she will consult on possible improvement, both substantive and operational, in the PGR going forward.
Of the 50 members of the Advisory Board, 45 voted in favor of this plan, none voted against, and 2 Board members abstained ...

There is more to read in Leiter's post, for those who are inclined, but this is the gist. A comment summing up the whole thing and putting into some slightly larger context can be accessed at the Daily Nous blog.

To this day, the September Statement, which initiated the process leading up to this conclusion has assembled 648 (!) signatories in North America and overseas.

Monday, 6 October 2014

On the Official Israeli Reaction to Sweden's Plans to Recognize Palestine As A Sovereign State

My country has just gotten itself a new government, a rather frail coalition between Social Democrats and the Greens. It will be very dependent on compromises both with the Left party (which had hoped to be in the government, but were kept out by the new PM Stefan Löfvén) and the center-right parties, especially the Center party and the classic liberal Folkpartiet. In view of that, it perhaps came as a surprise (although the intention had been revealed well beforehand, in 2012) that Löfvén in his installation speech declared that the new government aims to recognise Palestine as a sovereign state. The declaration also spread rapidly around the world, as this would mean that Sweden joins the seven EU members which have already taken this step; Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta, Poland and Romania, plus Iceland as European nation to have done so. Internationally, however, the move is not very unique, as 134 out of 193 UN member states have taken it already, and the UN general assembly recognises Palestine as an observer member state since 2012. The affluent "Western" world, however, is mostly absent on that list. These and related facts can be found here.

Now, it should surprise no one that the reaction from the Israeli regime has been one of strong disappointment. Likewise, a number of organisations and individuals openly supporting current Israeli policy in my country, e.g. regarding upholding an unlawful occupation, running de facto apartheid policies in the thus occupied territories, and systematically allowing likewise illegal settlements and land theft in said territories. Many of these also condone the recent indiscriminate and brutal military attacks on Gaza, as well as the day-to-day brutality there as well as in the West Bank. However, these domestic Swedish protest have so far been rather confused and unsystematic, saying simultaneously that the step is meaningless and will make no difference, that it will undermine the peace process (in which case it would, it seems, make a difference), and that it will strengthen the political influence of Hamas – the extremist militant islamist sect currently controlling Gaza territory (which, of course, will not happen if the peace process is undermined, since then Israel will use military force against Hamas, who haven't got a chance in terms of any relevant military parameter). In sum: so far an incoherent mess that makes no sense.

But the official Israeli reaction is more puzzling. First, Israel foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman (also here, here, here):

"he regrets that the new prime minister was in a hurry to make statements on Sweden's position regarding recognition of a Palestinian state, apparently before he had time even to study the issue in depth," Lieberman's office quoted him as saying, in a statement issued late on Saturday.
A surprisingly amateurish attempt to question the competence of the new government, while not offering anything substantial as a reason for criticising the decision. But perhaps that was before Lieberman was made aware that the new Swedish foreign minister is the highly diplomatically experienced ex EU commissioner and UN special representative, Margot Wallström, in light of which the allegation becomes nothing but laughable.  In addition, the Social Democrat party is well-known to host in its ranks many other super-diplomats, several of which have worked on the middle eastern scene, such as Jan Eliasson and Rolf Eckéus. And, as I said, the plan on aiming for a Palestine recognition was declared already two years ago, something one would suppose the Israeli foreign ministry to be aware of.

Next out comes Lieberman's boss, Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu, said to be:

"...opposed to any unilateral action that does not help to reach peace, but on the contrary just makes the prospect for it more distant," the premier's office said in a statement on Sunday.
 In distinction to Lieberman's rant, this statement at least tries to make an argument. The problem with the decision is apparently that it is "unilateral", apparently implying that a bilateral decision would be better. But what does this mean?

One interpretation is that BN questions any recognition of Palestine, which would not be followed by Palestine's recognition of Sweden. Indeed, that would be highly irregular, but this is hardly a very likely development, especially as the palestine Authority immediately reacted very positive to Löfvén's declaration.

Another interpretation is that the Israel PM holds that Sweden should not take its own decisions on which states to recognise, but first negotiate these issues with Israel (did anyone say "hubris"?). This would be an unorthodox idea of international politics and relations indeed, but hardly an idea that Israel subscribes to, unless it recently upgraded its foreign doctrines to claim the right to decide other sovereign nation states' businesses – which I seriously doubt.

A third interpretation is this: the problem is the unilateral situation of the Israel - Palestine situation. That would seem to follow from the principle of opposition to "any unilateral action". However, if that is indeed the position of PM Netanyahu, he should actually logically embrace and condone the Swedish plans. For if it is anything that would make the Israel- Palestine situation less "unilateral", it would be the wide recognition of a Palestinian state, as that would at the very least have Israel face a formally equal counterpart over the negotiation table. It would, moreover, make Israeli military actions currently used to prolong status quo more akin to formal acts of war, just as the rocket firing against Israeli territory by Hamas would be. That, my dear Benjamin Netanyaho, is more of a bilateral situation than the present one. Basically, this is also the reason that Löfvén and Wallström have stated in favour of their plan on recognition.

But will it promote a lasting and just peace?, one may ask. Hard to tell, of course, and for me personally this is the most relevant question. One may, however, make the following observation: More than four decades of Sweden not recognising Palestine's statehood has certainly not promoted anything in that direction. If anything, it has contributed to the ease in which a series of Israeli governments have been able to prolong their various illegal and/or inhumane policies, stated at the outset. This is at least some reason try another angle for a few decades ahead.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

First Ever Live Birth After Live-donor Uterus Transplantation in Gothenburg, and Six More Chances Awaiting

 So, perhaps some of you remember reporting and commenting somewhat a few years back (here and here) on the Gothenburg Live-donor Uterus Transplant Project at the Sahlgrenska University Hospital and Sahlgrenska Academy at my university, lead by Mats Brännström, and since then successful transplant-procedures have been reported (here and here), to be followed by attempts to establish pregnancies. Late yesterday night, the embargo was lifted on the Lancet article reporting the first live birth within this project, which is also the first such case ever. The child and the mother are reported to do well, albeit the article reports a few minor complications – in no way exceptional and dealt with in a routine manner. Six more pregnancies are reported to be under way in the project. Besides the article and general presentation video linked to above, here is a video telling the story of these recent events:

As Mats Brännström states in this documentation, the eventuality of uterus transplantation becoming a routine procedure for the small – though not insignificant – group of women for whom the procedure may be indicated lies far off into the future. The procedure is still highly experimental and requires outstanding skill and organisation (and has, in the Gothenburg case, been funded exclusively by research grants from private foundations). You may, of course, debate whether or not it should ever become more than that, if nothing else for reasons of priority, but this will depend on what the cost of a fully developed procedure would be, and, of course, how one values the outcome.

In the meantime, I want to condone Masts Brännström and his team, not least, for the example-setting openness and conscientiousness about the ethical ramifications of this project which has surrounded it from day one (this is one publication concentrating on this particular aspect). And, of course, I extend my congratulations for this success to the team and, not least, the patient.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Some Further Developments on Brian Leiter and the PGR, following the September Statement and the Advisory Board Letter that Urges his Resignation

This is following up on the events a week or so back, which resulted in two posts here and here. A string of unprovoked* harassments, bullying and threats towards various academic colleagues online by Brian Leiter, famous philosophy blogger and coordinator of the Philosophical Gourmet Report (a sort of home-cooked, informal ranking of English-speaking philosophy departments based on mutual appraisal or lack of such by said departements), finally led to a storm of protests. These were especially strong in support of Leiter's latest victim, Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins and documented in the September Statement (to date signed by 613 academic philosophers in North America and overseas and called a "smear campaign" by Leiter himself). This letter urges academic philosophers to recline serving the PGR with any type of input as long as it is linked to Leiter. As a subsequent reaction, 30 out of 56 of the PGR's advisory board – basically what makes the PGR radiate any sort of academic authority in the first place – wrote to Leiter, asking him to hand over the management of the PGR to new regime. A more detailed update to this request was sent on October 1, and today, Leiter posted a reply on his blog, where the essential info is this:

two of the options mentioned in the letter, both involving my immediate departure from the PGR, were unacceptable:  I have already invested hundreds of hours in correcting and updating the spread sheet with more than 550 evaluators, as well as the spread sheet containing more than one hundred faculty listings.  Any report based on that work is a report I have at least co-edited.

I have also informed the Board that I am still considering the third proposal, namely, proceeding with the 2014 PGR (with Brit Brogaard as co-editor) while simultaenously committing to turn over any future PGR to others.  I am also considering two other possibilities:  (4) proceeding with the 2014 PGR (again, obviously, with Brit as co-editor) and postponing any decisions about the future of the PGR until after the 2014 PGR and after the current controversy; or (5) simply discontinuing the PGR altogether.
My analysis: Leiter dares the gang of 30 (thereby daunting the gang of 613) to a game of chicken, where the opening play is "I do whatever I want with my baby". Possibly he does, the question is who actually cares about the baby in the long run, when he has had it drained of fat, so to speak. To be frank, although regularly having students and post docs who gravitate towards seeking foreign contacts, careers or training opportunities across the anglophone philosophy world, I never did, as my Canadian bioethics colleague Udo Schuklenk has made clear that he doesn't – classifying the PGR as a "gossip document", where "people affiliated with pre-selected programs evaluate the quality of people in pre-selected programs based on ... well, apparently, whatever criteria they choose to evaluate quality". To find good departments is easy, you look up what people publish in the field you're interested in, read it and assess it and check how it's flying in the collegial discussion, and possibly chart a bit how the seminar programs look like and what the funding situation looks like – easy enough these days.

I did and do, however, care lots about the horribly bad example set by Leiter's behaviour towards colleagues – in particular, women colleagues, as it seems – and the effects that this has on these persons. That was reason enough for me to sign the September Statement. Whether or not Leiter runs his PGR baby into the ground is not really any concern of mine, although I do think, as Udo seems to do, that it might actually do the English-speaking academic philosophy world a bit of good to get rid of at least one layer of the many layers of the mutual academic back-scratching club.

*) Addition on October 6, 2014: As can be seen by the comments below, Brian Leiter thinks that the word "unprovoked" here (as in my earlier posts) is factually incorrect. In light of the evidence he has provided and the further comments following Leiter's two posts below, I have nevertheless decided to let it stay, but with the following addendum: 

It is clear to me that BL felt strongly provoked by some complex process of events around the PGR and that he at the time, for some reason, saw Carrie Jenkin's blog post as part of what he  perceived as a "smear campaign" against him. Taking, BL's word for it, he later received information that he himself was among the philosophers, whose behaviour Jenkins distanced herself from in her post. However, to my eyes, this just confirms what I have written. The fact that someone is filled with strong negative and resenting affect, caused by some phenomenon, does not make that phenomenon into a provocation. The fact that Leiter in retrospect allegedly finds some information that, had he known it at the time, would have made the phenomenon into a provocation doesn't change this situation. But, I'd go some steps in Brian Leiter's direction and make the assumption that indeed Carrie Jenkin's had Leiter in mind as one of the philosophers she thought about as exhibiting unprofessional behaviour, and that Leiter at the time knew this to be the case. Does that in any way constitute sensible cause to do what Brian Leiter did? I cannot see how it would under any minimally reasonable standard of professional academic conduct. Thus, even then, no provocation for the actual actions of Leiter would exist – this is my position. I'm aware that Brian Leiter holds a different position on this matter, but that in itself is no reason for me to change my mind.