Category Archives: world affairs

Marking myself annoyed

First of all, let me apologise for the very long delay since my last blog post. As you all know, the world is going through a lot of turmoil right now. I was also busy and travelling a lot and so I’ve had neither time nor the energy to blog. But anyway, I’m back and have a number of posts in mind for the next few weeks.

Before I begin, let me say this: My heart goes out to the victims of the horrific terrorist attack at Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament the other day. All whose loved ones were injured or killed in this senseless act of violence are in my thoughts. I admire the efficiency and bravery of the emergency services and the bystanders who rushed to help. There is never an excuse to commit such vile crimes in the pursuit of some political goal. In the case of this brand of Islamic terrorism (if this is indeed confirmed to be the case), the actual political goal is also pretty obscure. Either way, it is a meaningless and evil act. We should stand united in the face of such evil. Don’t be cowed into giving up liberty and justice and never give in to hate and fear.

Having said this, let me get to the point. For several years now Facebook has had this feature where people “mark themselves safe” when a terror attack strikes. I presume it may also be used for natural disasters but if so I haven’t seen that yet. From the first time I saw this, during the terror attack in Paris, I found this rather tasteless and also far from helpful.

Back then, many people criticised Facebook as the feature was heavily biased towards white, western countries. Around the same time of the Paris attacks there were several other attacks in Turkey and the Middle East. Nobody got to “mark themselves safe” during those attacks. And in certain parts of the world terror attacks are a weekly occurrence. So the outrage over Facebook starting this feature for attacks in Europe is understandable. But I think it is misplaced: Facebook has always rolled out their new features in a geographically limited way and they typically start in the western world where they are based. There is also a related discussion to be had about in-groups and out-groups. And about our habituation to bad news: sad as it may be, even after this string of terror attacks in European cities they remain more newsworthy than those in Baghdad or Kabul where this seems to happen all the time. Since then, Facebook have expanded their use of this feature to non-western countries. Whether this was because of people’s complaints or they always planned this I do not know. But either way, it is no longer limited to the West.

What annoys me about this Facebook feature is something else however. To me it seems  demeaning and callous. I don’t think the emotional engagement we should have with such events and the concern we should feel for our fellow human beings should be condensed down to a button press and notification on social media. Perhaps I’m just an old fart who doesn’t comprehend the way the modern world works. I certainly don’t really understand dating via Tinder and a lot of the social media communication millennials get up to these days (snapstagram or chat roulette or whatever they’re called). And don’t get me started on the excessive hash tagging.

But there is a big difference: most of those other things are trivial or affectations. I have no problem with people looking for casual sex or even seeking a life partner via modern social media if this is what works for them. I may not understand the excessive selfie craze and glammed up pictures some people post of themselves emulating the growing ranks of celebrities who are only famous for being famous. But I don’t have a problem with that. It’s up to each and everyone how they want to spend their spare time and what they do in the pursuit of happiness. And of course I use social media too. I like using Facebook actually and use it often (some of my friends probably think too often, although they vastly overestimate how much time it actually takes from my life). Facebook is a great way to stay in touch with friends and family. I even got back in touch with some really old friends who I would not otherwise have any contact with now. So I don’t even feel that all of our social media contact is trivial. I have some very meaningful human contact that way and rekindled old friendships.

In contrast, this marking safe business seems deeply inappropriate to me. It trivialises the gravity of the situations. In my view, our emotional reaction to a situation like this should go beyond an emoji or clicking a “sad” button. You might say, to each their own. You don’t have to use this thing and can turn off notifications about this. But it’s not that simple. That’s not how social media work. The whole feature is designed around the idea that people mark themselves safe, thus spreading the word, and also ask their friends if they are safe. It creates a kind of peer pressure that coerces people into marking themselves “safe” causing a chain reaction that makes the whole thing spiral out of control.

You might also say, that is is a good and social thing to get in touch with your friends and loved ones. As I said, I use social media too. I am not Susan Greenfield, or any one of those people who think that staring into your phone or having social contact via the internet withers away our interhuman contact. Quite to the contrary in fact. I remember seeing this excellent cartoon about how smart phones are all about interhuman contact but sadly my google skills are too poor to find it. I most certainly disagree with this article – it is nonsense in so many ways.

But again, there is a difference: getting in touch with your loved ones is not the same as seeing a notification (or even requesting) that they “mark themselves safe”. It seems so cold, so removed from humanity. Of course, you worry about your loved ones. The clue why is in the word. You see on the news that some tragedy occurred and you want to know your friends and family are all right. Well then, pick up that smart phone of yours and send them a message or give them a call! The best way to find out if they are okay and letting them know you care about them is to speak to them. Several friends and family got in touch with me via phone or email or instant message asking if we are okay. And I certainly did the same. I have friends and family in Paris and in Berlin and I contacted them when the terror attacks there happened. On the day of the 7/7 bombings I contacted all of my London friends at the time. Even though I realise that the odds of any of them being caught up in these events are low, you also want them to know you think of them, find out how they feel, and give them some consolation and support. By all means, use social media for that purpose – it’s very good for that. But to me, reducing this down to one tap of your finger on the phone is sorely insufficient. I hardly says “I care” and in some ways it even seems to disrespect the victims and the plight of those people who actually grieve for their loved ones.

And then there is the practical side of this. The blunt nature of the algorithms behind this feature and the fact that people (quite rightly) don’t actually share all the details of their lives on Facebook causes some really stupid artifacts. Not only is Egham (home of Royal Holloway “University of London”) really, really safe, my department in actual London was also pretty safe from this terror attack (ironically enough, my department is right next to several of the sites of the 7/7 bombings, in particular the bus bombing at Tavistock Square). While I have walked across Westminster Bridge and past Parliament many times, believe me, it’s not where I spend most of my work days. And while of course it was possible that the terrorist didn’t act alone and other attacks might be happening (a common feature to IS and Al-Qaeda attacks), there were no reports of anything else happening at the time. But what if there had been other attacks? What if your friend marks themselves “safe” of the first one and then gets caught up in the second? Is there a way to “unmark” yourself again? And would that really be your first priority in that situation?

The even more bizarre artifacts of Facebook’s indiscriminate scatter approach are of course that it not only wants us to make sure people in Egham are okay but also those in galaxies far, far away. On the mark yourself safe page I saw several people who haven’t lived in London for years but are in the United States and other places thousands of miles away. Not everyone changes their personal details every time they move because that really isn’t always the most important thing in their lives. And of course, some people may have been in London at the time even though according to their “official Facebook records” they live somewhere else. They will fall through the cracks completely.

A much more severe side effect, however, is the distorted picture of reality this sort of thing produces. The tweet by Hanna Isotalus I already mentioned starts a thread elaborating on this problem. This whole business of marking yourself safe actually has the consequence of making everyone feel less safe than they are. While of course horrible and tragic for everyone who was involved, as I already said this attack was a pretty isolated event. By drawing this much attention to it by frantically requesting everyone who has anything to do with London mark themselves “safe” we actually vastly exaggerate its effects. The same can probably also be said about the intense news coverage of such events.

The casualties of terrorism in the western world have clearly declined considerably over the past decades. Admittedly, there are some spikes in recent years and most of those are related to jihadist terrorism. However, the actual reach of these attacks in Europe or the US is very small compared to the extent of fear-mongering and political agonising it causes. Also, not that it should matter but a very large proportion of Islamist terror happens in predominantly Muslim countries and most certainly a large proportion of the victims are Muslims.

This stands in stark contrast to the number of people injured and killed all the time by car accidents or – in the US anyways – by guns. It stands in contrast to the risks we are subjected to every day. Nobody seems to think to mark themselves safe every time they take a car or cross a road as if they’d unlocked some achievement in a computer game. I have yet to see a notification on Facebook from one of my many daredevil colleagues telling me “I rode my bike to work and managed to survive for yet another day”.

So as Hanna points out, you are safe. Marking yourself safe doesn’t make you safe. Take a step back (but omit the deep breaths – in London that is actually dangerous). Think about what this really achieves. By all means, contact your loved ones to let them know you care. While statistically they are not at risk, there is one distinct difference between accidents and terrorism. An accident happens by misfortune or neglect. Crime and terrorism are deliberate acts of evil. Talking to your friends and family who happen to be close to such things shows your support. And of course, please pay your respects to the victims, console the ones close to them, and honour the heroes who saved people’s lives and bring the perpetrators to justice.

But don’t buy into this callous scheme of “marking yourself safe”. You’re just playing into the terrorists’ hands. You just spread the fear they want to cause, the hatred and divisions they want to incite, and it contributes to the continued erosion of our liberties and way of life. It strengthens the forces who want to undermine our freedom and respect for one another. All those far-right politicians may not know it but they are bedfellows of these Islamist murderers. Sorry for the cliche but it’s true: If we buy into this crap, the terrorists win.

Six flawed arguments for leaving the EU

As anyone who reads this blog probably knows, the UK will hold a referendum about its continued membership in the EU later this month, on 23rd June. I already discussed my views on this in my previous post, so I won’t go into any depth on that here. The discussion is raging, not only in the media but no doubt in many family homes and workplaces (would be curious to be a fly on the wall when Boris Johnson and his brother, science minister Jo Johnson, talk about this in private…). I do think I have said most that I can say about it already – but I keep hearing the same tired, naïve arguments over and over. So I’ll write something about it, one last time before putting my future career, my civil rights, and most likely my continued life in this country in the hands of voters. Here I address six flawed arguments for leaving the EU:

1. “It will change everything”

Actually, most likely nothing major will happen at all. By far the most likely scenario is that the UK leaves the EU, and then joins the EEA in which free movement of people remains in turn for having full access to the single market. EU citizens in the UK will retain the same rights they had previously. Parliament comprises a large number of MPs from Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, and one (I think?) from the Greens, plus a healthy number of Europhile Conservatives. This means that this outcome is essentially guaranteed, at least until the next general election (and even then it seems highly unlikely that this situation will change dramatically). Of course, the UK would nevertheless give up its rights to influence EU policy. Sounds like a rotten deal to me. Anyway, leaving this aside, in the remainder of this post I will pretend that a vote to leave the EU will mean also an end to freedom of movement, which is the illusory scenario the Leave campaign is  peddling.

(Update 11 June 2016: The above EEA scenario of course assumes that the UK is allowed to remain in the single market. Wolfgang Schäuble seems to think that isn’t going to happen. I don’t agree with Schäuble much about anything but then again he is also highly influential in EU politics so it’s difficult to know what to think about his argument.)

2.”We can spend the money we save on UK science”

One reason I and many scientists are vehemently opposing this nostalgic independence nonsense is that a great deal of British science funding comes from the EU and that science in the UK would suffer if that were lost. An oft-repeated counterargument to this is that by leaving the EU the UK would no longer pay contributions to European funds and could thus use those savings to spend on British science. This is based on false economy and wishful thinking. The UK brings in more science funding than it pays in, so it would have to increase its science funding. When was the last time a British government did that? Do you honestly think it is likely they will do that now? Of course this argument is not even taking into account the strain on the economy now. It also ignores the likely hit the economy will take after leaving which will reduce and quite possibly wipe out any potential savings. And it blatantly neglects the substantial cost that the UK must pay to leave the EU in the first place. None of these things suggest there will be lots of spare pennies to fund UK research and development. (For similar reasons I also don’t believe this money will be used for the NHS or building homes but that’s outside the scope of my post).

3. “We will be free of EU bureaucracy”

Science has always been collaborative and it is increasingly so in our age. We need international science projects and the EU science initiatives (which go well beyond EU member states) can facilitate this far better than any single national body could. So the UK will quite likely continue to contribute to those initiatives, just as other non-EU countries (like Switzerland) are contributing – without any say in its direction.

4. “Scientists can still collaborate”

Funding is a big factor in science and the cynics on the Leave side are probably right that it is one of the driving factors why all vice-chancellors and governing bodies of British universities want the UK to stay in the EU. But it’s not just about that. Because science is collaborative and international, universities and research centres are usually extremely multinational. This may be especially true in English-speaking countries and this ability to attract bright minds from all over the world is what boost British science output (e.g. a large proportion of research grants brought to UK universities are brought in by people who are not UK citizens). You do not help this by putting up barriers. Leave campaigners like to talk about “point-based immigration systems” that would allow the UK to hire people in professions it needs and that makes it possible for excellent students to come here. Sure, because the best thing is always to have more bureaucracy and paperwork! That will doubtless attract great applicants who could instead be free to move to Paris, Berlin – or Dublin.

5. “EU citizens already living here can stay”

Much of this referendum debate has focused on immigration. Recent years have seen unprecedented immigration of people from other EU nations (although this still only accounts for around half of overall immigration to the UK). It is not surprising that this could cause some issues and concerns. More people making demands on the health system, on housing, or on jobs may strain the country’s capacity. Stopping EU immigration dead in its tracks will perhaps relieve this strain – however, one question Leave campaigners steadfastly ignore to address is what happens to the people who are already here. Unless they all pack and leave voluntarily on 24th June they will still put a strain on the capacity for some time to come. One argument I often hear is “nobody will be kicked out”. However, non-EU citizens are being deported left and right, sometimes for ludicrous reasons and in ludicrous ways. Under the Reign of Terroresa May, neither having a doctorate nor a British spouse necessarily protect you from this. Unless some sort of special agreement is negotiated, the same rules will apply to EU citizens if the UK leaves the EU. There is a lot of conflicting information out there, the most insidious of which is blatant (but presumably lucrative?) scare-mongering by law firms pushing people to apply for citizenship. Now, I don’t think many EU citizens will be deported, especially not those who are already settled here. But Leave campaigners show an obvious disconnect: On the one hand, they seem to believe that by leaving the EU the burden on the NHS and housing is magically lifted. On the other hand, they (at least the sane ones) maintain that there won’t be any mass-deportation of the very people they blame for this burden.

6. “We will regain our sovereignty”

The UK still is, and remains to be, a sovereign nation insofar that such a thing exists in this globalised world. I wasn’t overly impressed by David Cameron’s performance in that cringe-worthy ITV townhall meeting but one compelling answer he gave is that voting to Leave the EU will give an illusion of independence from foreign powers whilst sacrificing actual influence on the world and European stage. I call this the Libertarian Fallacy because it is the same faulty logic that leads many self-declared Libertarians to oppose all sorts of policies in the name of “liberty” without achieving any individual freedom at all. It’s the reasoning that allows some to decry background checks on guns as tyranny but sees no problem with strict tests for driving licenses. It’s the cognitive dissonance in which citizen ID cards evoke the spectre of fascist dictatorship but nobody worries about the far less controlled surveillance via credit card transactions or online activities. Whatever utopian dreams you may have about a “sovereign” UK after EU exit, it will lose its seat at the table and have reduced sway in any decision-making process in Europe – and by extension also in the world. Perhaps it’s fine with many to be an isolated island in a big sea dominated by China and the US, and a new Russian empire rattling its sabres. Fine, not all nations need to be world players. Perhaps these big guys will even leave you in peace. But don’t think for a second that by leaving the EU Britannia will rule the waves again.

Uncertain times

On 23rd June 2016 the citizens of the United Kingdom (plus immigrants from Commonwealth nations and the Republic of Ireland) will vote to decide if the UK should remain a member of the European Union. Colloquially, this is known as the “Brexit” debate. I refuse to use this horrible term again, not only because it sounds like a breakfast cereal but also because it’s a misnomer: the decision is not about Britain but the whole of the UK.

Let me be straight: I am a strong and vocal supporter of the UK staying in the EU. As an immigrant (I also won’t use the offensive term “migrant”) from a EU country, a Leave vote would have direct consequences for my life in the country I called home for almost two decades. I would inevitably lose some of the rights I have enjoyed since then. The EU is what made it possible for me to study, live and work here, it allowed me to spend a year in yet another EU country during my studies, and it made my life easier in countless ways, not least of all the simplicity of crossing the borders. All of these things apply to all EU citizens so from a purely selfish perspective all of them should also support it. A lot of things we take for granted are a direct consequence of the civil liberties the EU guarantees.

The whole public debate surrounding this issue has been characterised by panic mongering and inane bickering from both sides. From deliberate obfuscations (“If we leave the EU every household will lose £4,300!”) to outright lies (“We pay £350 million a week to Brussels!”) both camps are painting nightmare scenarios of what will happen if the other side wins. Add to that all of the rubbish Boris Johnson dreams up on a typical day that is too delusional to even constitute a lie.

The truth of the matter is this: nobody has a damn clue what will happen if the UK leaves the EU. There is no precedent for a country leaving the bloc. Some European countries like Switzerland, Norway, and Liechtenstein are not EU members so they can give us an idea of what the relationship between the UK and the remainder of the EU could look like in the future. However, these are all also very different countries than the UK. They have far smaller populations, have very different economies and societies, and they have existed outside the EU whilst the UK has for decades been an integral, albeit reluctant, member. The only thing Liechtenstein has in common with the UK is its national anthem. The only thing we do know is that most of these countries have a relationship with the EU that permits free movement of people. Since one of the main arguments put forth in support of leaving the EU is “regaining control of our borders,” it actually seems very unlikely that any dramatic change in border control can be achieved this way. Nevertheless, we can’t know what will happen.

This is why it worries me and why it should worry you also. The future is very uncertain and leaving the EU will be a very big risk. The doomsday scenarios painted by either side are extreme and frankly also insulting our collective intelligence. Anyone who tells you what terrible consequences a Leave or Remain decision will have, is either lying or – at best – completely delusional. In any case, you shouldn’t listen to them. The Remain camp have one thing going for them though: they support the status quo and voting to Remain is the conservative decision. Whatever propaganda Leave proponents may spout about it, it is unlikely that any of their horrors are becoming a reality if the UK stays in the EU. Rather, things will presumably not really change much from how they are now. Voting Leave is by far the riskier and more radical thing to do. That said, I doubt it will have disastrous consequences either. The initial negotiations will be difficult and cumbersome. The process of leaving will also cost a lot of money, at least in the short run, money that won’t be saved by not paying into EU coffers (for one thing because the UK will continue to pay while these negotiations take place). For science and technology, I believe the consequences will be painful as it will make it much harder to access large European research grants (which the UK also cannot simply make up for by no longer paying in) and – what is worse – the added bureaucracy and administrative burden of turning skilled workers from EU countries into immigrants from overseas, which will stifle collaboration to some extent. So no, leaving the EU will probably not to ruin the UK. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that it won’t have bad consequences.

As far as I am concerned, I recently I started the process of naturalisation to become a British citizen. I had originally wanted to complete this before the referendum so I could vote in it. I held back on this for ages because for many years my country of origin did not allow dual citizenship (guess which supernational organisation is to thank for that being possible now?) and also because it’s damned expensive. Now I am too late to get there before 23rd June. If the UK stays in the EU, I will most likely finish the process. This place is my home and I am tired of being subject to taxation without representation. I feel it’s about time I can fully shape the future of this country with my votes.

Of course, gaining citizenship will be far more useful if the UK indeed leaves the EU. People like me would most likely lose the right to vote in other elections we could vote in until now. It is far less clear how residence rights will change. As I already said, if the UK remains in the EEA, free movement rights are unlikely to be affected at all. But if “control of the borders” is “regained” this would change. Will our automatic permanent resident status be carried over? It does seem improbable that we would suddenly be asked to apply for visas or indefinite leave as such a change would result in complete chaos. It is quite likely though that some additional bureaucratic hurdles would be erected because that’s just what governments do. But honestly, I don’t think I’ll go through with naturalisation if the UK leaves the EU. Melodramatic as it sounds (because screw it, this whole debate has been plagued with melodrama and over-emotional rhetoric) a vote to Leave is a statement that people like me are not really welcome in this country. If the UK votes to Leave, I will most likely choose to leave the UK.

But don’t get me wrong. I do think this referendum is a good idea. For one thing, it is democratic. More importantly, I don’t actually think that Britons will vote to Leave. The polls suggest a close race but the Remain camp has been steadily ahead. As the graph below shows,  the fewer people answer “Don’t know” in a poll, the farther the Remain vote is ahead of the Leave vote. It is probably simplistic to interpret too much into this because this must depend on the particular poll but it could support the interpretation that people vote conservatively. Undecided voters are unlikely to choose the radical option on referendum day.

In my view, this referendum is actually way overdue. If the Leaves have it, then yes, the British will have spoken that European integration has gone too far for them. But if the Remain votes win this will hopefully finally put to rest a common Eurosceptic assertion that the UK originally only “voted to join the Common Market.”  It is about bloody time that this discussion moved into the 21st century.

EuroPolls
Difference between Remain and Leave votes compared to the percentage of Don’t know votes. (Polls without Don’t know votes have been removed). Source: Poll of Polls