Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Why eugenics is wrong

I really didn't think I would need to write a blogpost on this topic, but it seems eugenics is having a resurgence in the UK, so here we go.

The idea of eugenics deceptively simple. Given that some traits are heritable, we should identify those with beneficial heritable traits and encourage them to have more children, while discouraging (or even preventing) those with less desirable traits to breed. This way we will improve the human race.

Those promoting eugenics have decided that high intelligence is a desirable trait, and indeed it does correlate with things like good educational outcomes, earnings and health. It is also heritable. So wouldn't it be great to improve the human race by genetic selection for intelligence?

Much of the debate on this question has focussed on whether it could be done, rather than whether it should be. Many who would blench at enforced sterilisation have warmed to the suggestion that Polygenic Risk Scores can be used to predict educational attainment, and so could be used for embryo selection. However, those promoting this idea have exaggerated the predictive power of polygenic scores (see this preprint by Tim Morris for a recent analysis, and this review of Kevin Mitchell's book Innate for other links). But let us suppose for a moment that in the future we could predict an individual's intelligence from a genetic score: would it be acceptable then to use this information to improve the human race?

The flaw in the argument is exposed when you consider the people who are making it. Typically, they are people who do well on intelligence tests. In effect, they are saying "The world needs more people like us". Looking at those advocating eugenic policies, many of us would beg to differ.

The bad state of the world we live in is not caused by unintelligent people. It is caused by intelligent people who have used their abilities to amass disproportionate wealth, manipulate others or elbow them out of the way. Eugenicists should be especially aware that their advantages are due to luck rather than merit, yet they behave as if they deserve them, and fiercely protect them from "people not like us".

If we really wanted to use our knowledge of genetics to make the world a better place, we would select for the traits of kindness and tolerance. Rather than sterilising the unintelligent, we would minimise breeding by those who are characterised by greed and a sense of superiority over other human beings. But there's the catch: it's only those who think they're superior to others who actually want to implement eugenic policies.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Stemming the flood of illegal external examiners

On 21st January, the Times Higher Education published a short piece about Professor Eric Barendt, an academic lawyer at UCL, who had been told that he had to submit his passport to another University in order to be acceptable as an external examiner. He thought this was preposterous, and declined to do so. The reaction on Twitter indicated that passport checks were now widespread in British universities, and many academics were unhappy about it 

My sympathies are with Prof Barendt, and I've decided that I too will not agree to be an external examiner if I am required to provide my passport to prove I am eligible. In fact, a few days after this story broke, I was invited to be an external examiner, and agreed only on condition that I did not have to provide my passport. Alas, it looks like this means I won't be examining the thesis.

This may look like petulance: refusal to comply with what is not an burdensome requirement creates difficulties for a blameless candidate and their supervisor. So let me explain why I think it is important.

External examining is a highly skilled, high-stakes, onerous task for which one is paid not much more than the minimum wage. The going rate varies from institution to institution, but in my recent experience you may get around £180 to £240. You have to read and evaluate a thesis that represents 3 years' worth of work (around 40,000-50,000 words in my discipline), visit the candidate's home institution to conduct an oral examination that lasts around 2-3 hours, ensure that any corrections are done to your satisfaction, and write a report with recommendations. Nobody does this for the money. Rather, like so much in academia, the whole system survives by a quid pro quo: you know that when your own students need examining, you'll want to find external examiners for them. With a strong student, examining can have its own intrinsic rewards, but it can also be highly stressful if there are problems with the thesis. So overall, all of the academics involved in this process know that the external examiner is doing a favour for another institution by agreeing to take on this extra job.

When I first did examining, many years ago, arrangements for selecting examiners were pretty informal. Times change, and everything has got more official and bureaucratic. Many institutions now require external examiners to provide proof of their competence to do the job (a CV and/or list of previous candidates examined), and some have guidelines to avoid too much chumminess between supervisor and external examiner (no co-authorships, for example). I can see that these requirements, have a point in preserving the integrity of the examination system.

But the passport check is really the last straw. It's senseless on two counts. First, it implies that academic institutions classify external examiners as employees, even though they are doing a one-off task for which the pay is trivial. Second, as Prof Barendt noted, it means that they don't trust other academic institutions to do proper checks of right to work. Now, it may be that there are some dodgy places where this is the case, but it seems reasonable to assume that Higher Education Institutions recognised by the Office for Students will be compliant with the law on this point. What is weird is that when I protest about the passport check for external examiners, some colleagues say, "But if the institution didn't do these checks, they'd be liable for enormous fines". Well, given that is the case, then surely it's safe to assume that the institution that actually employs the external examiner will have done the checks. I can understand that institutions might want an option of conducting checks in rare cases where there was reason to doubt this was true. It's the mandatory nature of the checks that are otiose in 99% of cases that is so exasperating.

Some years ago, in a different context, I wrote a piece about expansion of research regulation in academic life. Many of the points I made there apply to this situation. Bureaucracy creeps up on us by a series of stealthy small steps, until we suddenly find ourselves engulfed by it. Yes, showing a passport is a trivial matter, but I think that if we don't resist this kind of thing, it will only get worse.

P.S. Eric Barendt has pointed me to a piece he wrote on this topic for the Oxford Magazine (2020, No. 416, pp 8-10). I don't think this publication is available online, so here is just a short quote from it concerning the legal aspects of passport checks - something that has been discussed on Twitter in response to this blogpost.
An employer breaks the law only if it employs an illegal immigrant, not because it fails to conduct passport checks. If it is confident it is employing a UK national (or other person with a right to work in the UK such as an EEA or Swiss national), then it has nothing to worry about. So an automatic request is unnecessary. It reveals what may be termed a culture of ‘over-compliance’ with government policy. Of course, it is a sensible, indeed a vital, step to take, if a university, or indeed any employer, has doubts about the immigration status of anyone it is contemplating employing, but common sense surely suggests it is quite unwarranted when it engages someone whom it ought to trust.
Another issue tackled by Eric's piece is whether it is reasonable for Universities to treat external examiners as employees:
... it is hard to see why an external examiner, particularly of a doctoral thesis, should be treated as an employee of the host university, when an academic reviewer of a book proposal is not regarded as an employee of the publisher which engaged him (or her) to review it.
It has been suggested on Twitter that if we are to be regarded as employees, we should be paid an appropriate wage, and the post should be advertised!