Monday 31 May 2010

Postscript : Academic mobbing in cyberspace

Remarkably, if you scroll down to the end of the petition you find a couple of entries where people have signed up in order to warn others not to sign! It seems that the petition is really treated more as a blog. Academic Fraud by Evans is the the charge. This petition has nothing to do with Academic Freedom. This is a travesty and we hope Dawkins and Pinker come down very hard on Evans Look at the facts and and evidence-- we have been fooled Evans is a pariah from now on-- His outrageous fraud by Web 2.0 is beyond contempt. Violet Memills. Do NOT sign this petition. It is possible that the bandwagon of backlash against political correctness is being used to cover bullying and abusive behaviour. It is best to let the situation resolve itself without externally fabricated public pressure to judge one way or the other. UCC staff member

Sunday 30 May 2010

Academic mobbing in cyberspace

On 14th May 2010, an online petition was set up for supporters of Dr Dylan Evans, an academic at University College Cork.

The blog accompanying the petition stated that:


The article that caused offence was published in PLoS One a leading international peer-reviewed scientific journal. It was entitled "Fellatio by fruit bats prolongs copulation time". To read the full article, click on this link:

The article was covered extensively in the international press. See, for example, this piece in The Guardian:

In early November 2009, a lecturer at University College Cork showed this article to over a dozen colleagues. One of those colleagues later filed a formal complaint of harassment against the lecturer, even though in this particular case the article was shown in the company of third person, and was brought up only in the context of an ongoing academic discussion about the relevance of evolutionary theory to human psychology. The colleague displayed no signs of offense at the time, and indeed requested a copy of the article. Nobody else complained.

External investigators were appointed. Their report exonerated the lecturer. Despite this, the President of UCC has imposed harsh sanctions on the lecturer.


By the end of the day on 15th May, 1455 individuals had supported the petition. After online publication of documents relating to the case on 17th May (, and further blogs by Dr Evans, more critical commentaries began to appear, challenging whether this really was a case of an attack on academic freedom. Nevertheless, petition supporters numbered over 3700 by 29th May.

My goal here is not to argue the rights and wrongs of the case, which have been debated at length on the website

Rather, I am concerned by the way in which Evans was able to rally support from a large number of academics on the basis of a single blog.

My personal reaction on hearing of the petition was to check a few facts to see if there was another side to the story. The first point to emerge was that neither Evans nor his colleague worked in evolutionary biology or zoology. His post was in a Medical Education Unit in the School of Medicine, and his PhD was in philosophy. I then looked at the bat sex paper, which was conveniently published in an open-access journal. The abstract gave a graphic description of fellatio in bats. I thought that if a male colleague were to come into my office to show me the paper, I would find it rather embarrassing, unless it were in the context of prior discussion of animal sexuality. However, I'm of an age where explicit discussion of penises doesn't crop up much in conversation and I thought I'd run a straw poll past some more junior female colleagues. Essentially, there was broad consensus that interpretation of Evans' behaviour was entirely dependent on context. There were three ways it could be taken:

a) as a genuine attempt to use the bat paper as part of an ongoing academic debate;

b) as a jokey interaction– of the "wow, look at this wacky article" kind; this could be OK but ill-advised unless you knew the colleague well enought to be able to predict she'd find it amusing rather than embarrassing or offensive

c) an attempt by Evans to initiate a sexually explicit conversation with a female colleague, comparing bat and human behaviour in a way that could be construed as harrassment.

Reading the background material, it is clear that Evans presented the situation as (a), the complainant presented it as (c), (occuring in the context of prior inappropriate behaviour), and the university authorities decided to interpret as an instance of (b) – but inappropriate because the colleague did not feel comfortable with Evans showing her this material, hence they concluded he needed some counseling.

Now what interests me is that, if all the women I contacted could identify (c) as a possible context, why didn't the petition supporters see it? Note that neither I nor my straw poll respondents assumed (c) is what happened, but we all saw it as a possible scenario. Academics are supposed to weigh evidence and use their brains rather than emotions when evaluating evidence, yet here there seems to have been a collective failure to think clearly among those signing the petition.

To look at this further, I decided to analyse the responses to the petition in more detail. Here are some statistics.

Gender of signatories and proportions commenting

After removing duplicates, I found 3123 signatories.

364 (12%) were anonymous

293 (9%) had names that did not reveal gender.

Of the remainder, 79% had male names.

It would be interesting to know how this compares with gender ratios for other online petitions. It looks like a strong male bias, but it is possible that men are generally more likely to respond to online petitions than women, so we should be cautious in interpretation.

58% of the signatories just put their name to the document without adding further comment.

I classified the comments (N = 632) for the 1455 respondents who signed on 14th-15th May (would have liked to read all, but ran out of time!). Each comment was categorised according to any or all of the categories that applied.


The first thing I considered was whether the endorsement of the petition was qualified by any expression of uncertainty or hedging. Just 2% of respondents made such a comment (my italics, below), .e.g

1. " If this is true as presented, then it's scandalous conduct by UCC's HR department." Dr Steve Rossiter

2. "Looking at the situation as reported and the article, it looks like they were judging quite fairly" Ed Sketch

3. I am acquainted with the facts only as related in this petition, but I find it hard to imagine any extenuating circumstances that could render any other judgment than that this is an outrageous violation of academic freedom Daniel C. Dennett

However, a similar number expressed certainty about the events that had occurred, without giving any reason for the certainty (e.g. being present at the events, or having personal knowledge of Evans and trusting his integrity)

4. "I can see that such an article could be used deliberately to upset someone but I am convinced that this did not happen in this case" Professor Susan Blackmore.

5. Academic Freedom should not be impeded. I am sorry someone got upset about the article, but I am certain that it was a personal issue and not sexual harassment. Steven Platek

6. Dr. Evans' actions were obviously not harassment, nor were they some kind of implication of harassment. The colleague in question is kind of obviously being intellectually dishonest about their position, and is attacking the messenger rather than face the implications of the message. This is shameful behavior for faculty, and far worse to be implicitly sanctioned by the president of the college. Bryan Elliott

Academic freedom, political correctness and injustice

The most common theme in the comments was concern about an attack on academic freedom.

163 of 632 comments (26%) mentioned this explicitly. Five drew parallels with Galileo/the Inquisition

7. This action is absurd and shameful. It runs contrary to the principle of intellectual freedom and freedom of speech, to say nothing of common sense. Steven Pinker

8. It is unbelievable that scientific discourse is threatened in this almost theocratic way at a European Institution. These sort of censorship must stop now. Sincerely, Björn Brembs

9. That the president of a university wouldn't do everything in his power to promote academic freedom is offensive to me. I demand that Professor Michael Murphy be sanctioned immediately! Brian Neau

10. This was a ridiculous move by the HR and deeply worrying to the progress of science in general. It is no better than the persecution of Galileo for having the 'audacity' to suggest that humans occupy a planet that is not the center of everything. Have we progressed no further in our conceit since then? Benjamin Machanik

137 (22%) complained that UCC was affected by inappropriate political correctness, prudery, or religious sensitivity. Five mentioned creationism.

11. First the blasphemy law and now this! What's wrong with Ireland? Such ridiculous moralizing has to stop! Freedom of speech is the cornerstone to any free and democratic society, and protecting people's sensibilities over their right to free expression will only lead to oppression. Jeff Klinger

12. I have not heard both sides of this case, but I suspect creationist bigotry. I would be interested to know if this is true. D. Cameron

13. To use political correctness as a means to stifle free discussion is unpardonable. William Wright

Virtually all respondents appeared to accept Evans' account (subsequently disputed) that he had been exonerated by the external investigation but then sanctioned by the President of UCC. The injustice of this was mentioned in 46 (7%) comments.

14. I think what is really shocking here is that Dr. Evans has already been put on trial and exonerated. This is therefore not only a slap on academic freedom, but also on UCC's own rule of law and system of justice.


Virtually all the signatories accepted the account of the context given by Evans, but some went beyond it. The most common of these was the belief that Dr Evans and his colleague were researchers in a zoology department, with a specific research interest in evolutionary biology, although some seemed to think he was a student, or that the colleague who complained was male:

15. The proper course of action for the offended party is to publish their own study that refutes the claims of the article, or outlines the reasons for their offense. Dr S. Killings

16. As a fellow zoologist, I am appalled at your treatment. Emma Sherratt

17. Good heavens! Sanctioning a student because he showed a peer-reviewed scientific paper on biology? Vernon Balbert

18. It is astonishing to think someone would be offended by a biologist, of all people, using animal sexuality as an example in a debate. Russell Tanton

19. I support Dr Evans in his campaign to have his work openly discussed and published without the restriction on his professional activities. Patrick

The account by Evans, which maintains that the bat paper was produced in the context of an 'ongoing academic discussion about the relevance of evolutionary theory to human psychology' was interpreted by several signatories to mean that he and his colleague were in the throes of a public discussion of this issue when he produced the bat paper as evidence for his viewpoint. The subsequently published documents reveal this to have been erroneous; the complainant maintains that he appeared in her office with the paper out of the blue.

Accusations against the President of UCC

Professor Michael Murphy, the President of UCC, came in for considerable personal criticism. 116 (20%) of comments criticised him, some in fairly foul-mouthed and abusive terms (though it has to be said that these were in a minority).

20. Professor Murphy, you are truly a moron. Individuals like you are going to be the end of human progress. Please give some bats fellatio. Thank you. Anonymous

21. This is truly bizarre. I don't know who is the more to be pitied - the colleague who took offence, or Professor Michael Murphy. Geoff Coupe

22. Mr. President, Have some cahones. Catherine Partyka

23. What is truly "upsetting," beyond the petty, prudish, and unprofessional behavior of the person filing the so-called "harassment" complaint in question, is the apparently craven, bureaucratic reaction by the UCC HR office and President Murphy, who are now the deserving targets of scorn and ridicule worldwide. James S. Hart

24. I am shocked by this example of PC gone nuts. Prof. Murphy needs to take a valium and rationally rethink his position. If one cannot discuss the sex habits of bats, or any other type of sex, in a scientific manner, we might as well all go back to caves. Alison Streight

25. The president should be ashamed of himself for penalizing someone for distributing scientific articles. Chuck Goecke

26. It is clear to me that the lead here is being taken from a position of weakness, rather than clear headed thinking, and calls not Evan's actions into question, but those of Prof Murphy. An enquiry into his suitability for this post is now necessary Annabel Huxley

27. Professor Murphy should be removed from his position if he doesn't understand science and is opposed to academic freedom. Jonathan Cornick

28. This is what happens when religious fanatics like Murphy are in charge of academic institutions. Science and scientists will always be the pawns of the religious fruitcakes. Just for being a fool, Murphy should be tossed out on his ear for sanctioning a scientist who has done nothing wrong in anyone's book. Good lord, almighty, what has become of us? Michael J. Raymond

Accusations against the complainant

86 (14%) of the comments attacked the complainant, who was accused of being prudish, unscientific, and malicious.

29. This smacks not merely of restraint of academic freedom but intimidation and bullying. Equally disturbing, what serious academic could possibly be offended by an article about the sexual behaiviour of animals? Unless UCC are replacing staff with nine-year-old schoolgirls in an effort to save costs... Nick Mickshik

30. If university professors and administrators are afraid of scientific evidence, they should not have the privilege of teaching young minds, nor should they be permitted to sanction the discussion of other scientists. Susan Pinker

31. If Dr Evans' colleague is so sensitive — due, perhaps to some dreadful trauma he suffered in the past — then he needs to consult with a mental health professional of some kind. Nelson Cunnington

32. If you want to censure someone, try doing so to the overly sensitive person who complained. Radar Pangaean

33. The only one who should have gotten any kind of scolding should have been the immature prude who found such material "offensive" in the first place. If anyone needs counseling, it's that individual. Anonymous

As noted above, a major concern expressed by signatories was that religious or political sensitivities might have stifled academic debate. An additional inference made by some signatories was that the complainant had made a malicious sexual harrassment charge because she could not win the academic argument about evolutionary biology.

34. Academic work is being stifled all because some toffee nosed prudish twat, who it seems is working in a similar area to Dr. Evans, couldn't handle the idea of fruit bats blowing each other. IT HAPPENS. DEAL WITH IT. But don't go complaining of fucking sexual harrasment when someone proves you wrong. Tadhg Murphy

35. This coddling of the so-called faint-hearted must stop, especially as the only reason for crying foul is the lack of a well reasoned argument. No one has the right to not be offended. Virginia Ford

36. Since the external investigators concluded that Dr. Evans was not guilty of harassment, we are left to speculate on the reason someone might find the peer-reviewed article upsetting enough to lodge a formal complaint. What a convenient method by which to stifle debate or suppress research one does not agree with. Robert Waite

Some implicitly criticsed the complainant for doing other women a disservice by using harrassment legislation to make a trivial complaint.

37. Let's not belittle the seriousness of harassment by applying it to any and all conversations that occur. Kelly Amodeo

38. This does not constitute harrassment, and framing it as such only dilutes the term "harrassment" and downgrades the suffering of real victims. Rose Strickland-Constable

Sex differences in issues raised

In general, the content of comments was broadly similar for male and female respondents. I wondered whether women would be less likely to criticise the (female) complainant than men, but this was not the case: 19.4% of comments criticising the complainant came from woman (comparable to the overall proportion of women signatories). Interestingly, women were rather less likely to criticise the UCC President: 8% of the criticisms against him came from women.


A large number of academics were persuaded to sign a petition in support of Dylan Evans, purely on the basis of information on a blog written by Evans. Although a few of those signing the petition expressed themselves in terms of mild concern, and hedged their comments with qualifiers about needing more evidence, the majority appeared certain of their ground, and expressed outrage at an abuse of academic freedom. Furthermore, some 14-20% heaped personal abuse on the President of UCC and/or the complainant, for their perceived bigotry, prudery and unscientific attitude. Reading the comments at times reminds one of cases where a pedophile is 'outed' by the media and attacked by a mob.

Why did so many rush to support the cause? The answer is surely that it was presented as a cause close to their hearts. The comments made it clear that the motivations for most signatories were ones that all good academics would support: freedom of speech, scientific knowledge unimpeded by political correctness, and fairness. However, for some signatories there appeared to be another argument they were all too willing to endorse, that someone who complains of sexual harrassment must be a hysterical prude. The failure to consider that there might be another side to this story is worrying, and the readiness with which some signatories embellished the story to fit such an account – accusing UCC staff of religious bigotry and worse – won't in the long run help the battle against political correctness.

As the blogosphere becomes an ever more important source of information, there will be more and more information out there that has not been through any kind of peer review. The role of academics as impartial evaluators of evidence will become ever more important. This sobering episode has taught us that we need to be especially vigilant when the information confirms our pre-existing prejudices.