Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Nottingham University goes 'kerplunk'!

I have posted previously about the embarrassment that has emanated from Nottingham University over recent weeks. The Nottingham saga related to a student who had in his possession a printout of terrorist material. The student was studying terrorism. The material was printed (and freely accessible) from a US government website.

Why discuss this on a scientific integrity blog?

It reflects the same system malfunction which leads lawyers and Vice Chancellors to make unprincipled anti-academic comments about the most basic safeguards of academia in science. Do I, as an academic, have the right to see, discuss, and properly assess data (mis)represented in my name by a commercial company? Are doctors prescribing drugs allowed to see and discuss the most fundamental aspects of science underlying that prescribing decision? Does an academic studying terrorism have the right to assess and to see (and even to possess) the information he is studying? What exactly are the roles and obligations of a University and of academic leadership?

Now we have this from the Times Higher Education Supplement (17 July 2008):
Researchers have no 'right' to study terrorist materials, By Melanie Newman

"Academics have no "right" to research terrorist materials and they risk being prosecuted for doing so, the vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham has told his staff."...

Mr Sabir's personal tutor Bettina Renz, a lecturer in international security, and his MA supervisor, Rod Thornton, a terrorism specialist and former soldier, have both said they told police that Mr Sabir's possession of the document was legitimate given his research interests....

[Despite this, the University in a new letter] "warned Mr Sabir that he risked re-arrest if found with the manual again" and added: "The university authorities have now made clear that possession of this material is not required for the purpose of your course of study nor do they consider it legitimate for you to possess it for research purposes."...

"Since his release without charge, Mr Sabir has been accepted to study for a PhD in radical Islam at Nottingham under Dr Thornton's supervision. His doctorate application proposes an analysis of Islamic terrorists' military and political strategy "based on primary documents, including reports published by think-tanks and research centres and documentation published or released by Islamist groups (strategic and political statements, military manuals, group manifestos and charters)"....

"Mr Sabir insisted to Times Higher Education that he had downloaded his version of the al-Qaeda manual from a US government website and that it was still freely available on the internet"....

"He said he was now unclear what he could and could not legitimately research for his PhD, given the police and the university's warning"....

"Vanessa Pupavac, lecturer in international relations at Nottingham, said: "The university suggests it is illegitimate to study the operational or the tactical as opposed to the political or strategic dimension of al-Qaeda." Scholars were interested in both dimensions, she argued."...

Oliver Blunt QC, of the Anti-Terrorism team at Furnival Chambers in London, said that academics do have a "right" to "access" terrorist materials, whether for research or otherwise, as long as they do not "possess" them. (!) He said: "Once the researcher knowingly downloads or saves the materials that he is accessing, then he is in 'possession' of terrorist materials.
On the internet, what exactly is the difference between "reading", "downloading" and "possessing"?

The Vice Chancellor at Nottingham is quoted as follows
"There is no 'right' to access and research terrorist materials. Those who do so run the risk of being investigated and prosecuted on terrorism charges. Equally, there is no 'prohibition' on accessing terrorist materials for the purpose of research. Those who do so are likely to be able to offer a defence to charges (although they may be held in custody for some time while the matter is investigated). This is the law and applies to all universities." --- Colin Campbell, Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham University (THE, 17 July 2008)
The following from Professor Scott Lucas (University of Birmigham), an open letter to the Vice Chancellor at Nottingham
The problem was never the type-set pages of Mein Kampf; rather, it was in the use of those pages to justify bigotry, racism, war, genocide. The problem was never Marx’s Das Kapital or Mao’s Little Red Book or Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations or the Koran or the Bible. It was, still is, and always will be the manipulation of those texts to justify the taking of lives.

Vice-Chancellor, do you think that --- through your denial of texts to us --- that you make us safer? Do you think that, by denying us our ability to think, consider, criticise that you shelter us from harm? Do you think that you protect us from ourselves, prevent us from becoming extremists? If you do, you are reducing your staff, your students, your administrators, your trustees to no more than children incapable of judgement? You go in one step from being a proud university to a fortress of ignorance.

“There is no 'prohibition' on accessing terrorist materials for the purpose of research. Those who do so are likely to be able to offer a defence to charges.” Thus we are allowed freedom of thought under the caution that we are guilty before being proven innocent. Perhaps you know, Vice Chancellor, of other societies in other times who have also maintained their standard. Perhaps you know where scholars, students, citizens have been advised that they may read their books and then, as those books are burned, explain why they have not committed a crime. Read on

What has become of us, and why do the leadership of other universities remain silent?

There are cogent comments from Edward Reid-Smith on the THES article
The situation seems to be that a small elite group is able to access and possess certain materials without being themselves "corrupted" or to be charged as terrorists .... Their decision is that others accessing and possessing the same materials will be "corrupted" or liable to be charged as "terrorists" whether or not they actually are terrorists. The 99.9% of the population not privileged will not be allowed to possess the material, and legislation will ensure that they are terrorised into not seeking knowledge about what "terrorists" actually think and do.....

The passing of legislation which leaves any community uncertain of exactly what is allowed and what is banned, presents an excellent tool for oligarchic dictatorship at whim. One may question whether non-specific legislation is the result of ineptitude, or because there is some strange pleasure to be gained from putting the populace in fear (i.e. terrorising?) seeking information.

Upper echelons of the university (businessmen) have decided that they know what constitutes "legitimate research material".

Certainly there are real and serious dangers in this world of ours. People who feel they have the right to blow other random individuals apart (or to act as apologists for others who do) are a part of that problem. Dealing with those dangers involves proper discussion as to what they are. That is what Universities are for.

A few other links about this story here, here, here. U-Tube video of Rizwaan Sabir here.

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Radagast said...

On a massively generic level, and just like every other human being on the planet (ie, no more deranged than any other person), a terrorist does what (s)he does because (s)he has a goal in mind, and perceives, whether through experience or delusion, that there is no other means of achieving that goal than through intimidation. One may not agree that a terrorist's goal is worthy of terrorism (and thus a country state, for example, dismisses negotiation as an option, largely because it perceives that it would send the wrong signal, or something, and also because one is big enough, and has enough resources to engage in an ever-escalating violent conflict), but the terrorist does. I would not test hallucinogenic drugs on unsuspecting civilians. But there are those who will.


Anonymous said...

You note "People who feel they have the right to blow other random individuals apart (or to act as apologists for others who do) are a part of that problem."

I think you should also note that people who like to drop bomb on other countries and occupy them are ALSO part of the problem, and I am sure anyone with a rudimentary understanding of 20th century world history can attest to that.

There is a difference between justification and explanation. There are a number of explanations for the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. There are similarly explanations for September 11 attacks or the Arab/Muslims (not to mention international) hostility towards US.

As you can see from the example below, justifications depend very much on WHO is making it.

Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price--we think the price is worth it.


Anonymous said...

Are you saying (anonymous above) that there *is* some excuse for blowing other random people apart (or for dropping bombs on other random people)?

There is none.

Or are you saying that this is justifiable only in retaliation, and how would you define this? Would it be reasonable for Africans to bomb the children of their previous European oppressors, for Jews to blow apart German children and half of Eastern European children, or for the meagre descendent of Native Americans to kill a few random children. Fortunately not much of this has happened, probably because most oppressed and abused people retain some degree of civility.

Radagast said...

Anonymous said:
"...Fortunately not much of this has happened, probably because most oppressed and abused people retain some degree of civility."

LOL. I would argue that there is very little civility in the world. Everybody can justify their actions, as Albright did, in the quotation provided. Albright is not available to scrutinize over her asinine belief (assuming it's truly held). But, then, most people's beliefs are really only superficial, and not terribly robust.

If a person decides that it is appropriate to oppress another person, then they should not be surprised when the latter retaliates. If a person believes that it is appropriate for others to die, in order to improve their own security, then they should prepare themselves for the worst, because people tend to get really upset, when they realize that that is the mindset of people who hold themselves up as being worthy, righteous and the best qualified to wield the power of life and death, over others. Why would one want that kind of power, I wonder? One wonders if any human being is sufficiently in control of themselves, such that they should be granted that kind of power. It is, after all, all too easy to dress up one's most grotesque decisions in the cloak of reasonableness.


Cetamua said...

Aren't we blessed to have authorities to protect us from dangerous knowledge?

Man! Think about it for a minute. Said authorities will study for us the terrorist phenomenon, sort out its genesis, motivations, operational modes, while we will be content to trust them 100% on everything they tell us they've found.

We did that in 2002-2003 here in the USA. We were told:"Trust us."

We are so lucky!