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breaking news from the world of ideas

by Rob Lownie
Thursday, 5
January 2023

Study finds science is becoming less innovative

There has been a precipitous fall in the number of new discoveries

A new paper published this week provides evidence that the progress of science has considerably slowed over the course of the last few decades. The research — authored by American academics Michael Park, Erin Leahy and Russell J. Funk — builds on a previous study, ‘Are ideas getting harder to find?’, which claims that “research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply”.

The findings of the Nature report go against our expectations of scientific research as a process in which prior knowledge facilitates new discoveries, and where disciplines endlessly branch out into further sub-disciplines. Park, Leahy and Funk write that “relative to earlier eras, recent papers and patents do less to push science and technology in new directions”, and attribute the “decline in disruptiveness to a narrowing in the use of previous knowledge”.  ...  Continue reading

by Rob Lownie
Monday, 19
December 2022

Who could replace Elon Musk as Twitter’s new CEO?

The tech entrepreneur may be stepping down sooner than expected

Yesterday Elon Musk ran a Twitter poll asking whether he should step down as head of the social media company. By voting’s close this morning, 17.5 million people had weighed in, with over 57% of them saying that Musk should indeed relinquish his position (presumably that of CEO, while he would remain owner).

If the tech entrepreneur is as good as his word to “abide by the results of this poll”, Twitter will need a new chief executive. Here are the potential runners and riders for the job:

1. David Sacks

The investor and founding member (alongside Musk) of PayPal has been a key figure behind Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, pre-empting some of his friend’s more eye-catching decisions in charge. A partner at Craft Ventures, Sacks also shares the Tesla chief’s outspoken approach on anything from Covid to Ukraine, as well as a bullish stance on free speech, telling UnHerd last month that he hoped Musk’s takeover would “inspire other people to push back against these authoritarian tendencies in the West”. If Musk does cede control of Twitter, at least nominally, he would likely hand over to a trusted lieutenant like Sacks. ...  Continue reading

by Rob Lownie
Friday, 16
December 2022
Campus Wars

University of Edinburgh cancels gender identity film screening

The shutdown of the event is another case of students stifling campus debate

A cancelled film screening on Wednesday night at the University of Edinburgh is another sign that the institution has become increasingly hostile to open discussion on campus. The Edinburgh branch of Academics for Academic Freedom (AFAF) had organised a showing of Adult Human Female, a documentary released this year which challenges gender identity politics, but saw their event picketed by student activists. Earlier this week the trade union UCU Edinburgh demanded the showing not take place in a University building, describing the event as “a clear attack on trans people’s identities”. ...  Continue reading

by Rob Lownie
Wednesday, 14
December 2022

Sir Jeremy Farrar becomes WHO’s Chief Scientist

The professor publicly dismissed the lab leak theory in 2020

The World Health Organisation announced yesterday that Sir Jeremy Farrar will become its new Chief Scientist, beginning the role in Spring 2023. He succeeds Soumya Swaminathan, who stepped down from the position last month.

Currently the Director of the Wellcome Trust, Farrar was previously a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), the body chaired by Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty that recommended the use of several lockdowns to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as an appointee to the expert advisory committee for the UK Government’s Vaccine Task Force.  ...  Continue reading

by Rob Lownie
Friday, 9
December 2022

Meghan and Harry are right about the royal briefing war

Courtiers are the real power behind the throne

Yesterday saw the release of the first three episodes of Harry and Meghan, and with it a climax to the royal briefing war which had given the programme so much publicity. In the Netflix series Prince Harry claims, “There’s leaking but there’s also planting of stories […] It’s a dirty game.” Though he doesn’t name the dirty players, it’s not difficult to imagine who he is referring to

Underhand tricks? Isn’t this more the preserve of politicians, rather than the Crown? Really, though, Britain’s two metonymic palaces — Buckingham and Westminster — are far closer in their media strategy than we might imagine. Most indicative of this is how many royal PR bigwigs previously worked in Whitehall, and indeed vice versa: the current head of the Civil Service, Simon Case, was previously Private Secretary to Prince William and before that held the same position for David Cameron. ...  Continue reading

by Rob Lownie
Wednesday, 7
December 2022

ChatGPT is not politically neutral

The new AI chatbot espouses an all-too-familiar Left-liberal worldview

Since its launch last Wednesday, the AI language model ChatGPT has attracted more than a million users, scores of opinion pieces, and some very well-founded concerns. The chatbot may be among the most sophisticated of its kind, and was developed by OpenAI, the tech company — which was also behind the exhaustively-memed image generator DALL-E — founded in 2015 by a group including Elon Musk and Sam Altman.

ChatGPT (standing for ‘generative pre-trained transformer’) was created through the use of reinforcement learning from human feedback to better mimic real responses and speech patterns. A side-effect of this attempt to make AI more lifelike is that the chatbot may have inherited a very human fallibility: namely, that of political bias.  ...  Continue reading

by Rob Lownie
Wednesday, 16
November 2022

Kemi Badenoch: Beware the new authoritarians

The politician warned that too many young people want to ban everything

International Trade Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities Kemi Badenoch has warned of the rise of “new authoritarians” who “want to stop everything and ban everything”.

Speaking at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, the minister argued that young people were prone to this way of thinking even if their sentiment is “coming from a good place”. “They are trying to create safetyism,” Badenoch said, “a world where nothing bad happens, and they see liberty as a challenge to that when, actually, liberty is the thing that protects us all.”

 ...  Continue reading

by Rob Lownie
Friday, 4
November 2022

Are Ukrainian weapons falling into criminal hands?

A Finnish police chief claimed that guns are illegally circulating in Europe

On Sunday a story appeared in Finnish outlet Yle, claiming that criminals in several European countries have seized military equipment intended for troops fighting in Ukraine. Working off preliminary “signs”, National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) Detective Superintendent Christer Ahlgren told Yle that “weapons shipped to Ukraine have also been found in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands.” He added: “Ukraine has received a large volume of weapons and that’s good, but we’re going to be dealing with these arms for decades and pay the price here.”

Ahlgren’s claim comes in light of Europol’s warning in July that ‘the proliferation of firearms and explosives in Ukraine could lead to an increase in firearms and munitions trafficked into the EU’, either through smuggling routes or online. Earlier this year, experts cautioned that controls were needed to prevent munitions flooding the black market across the continent. Just days before the Yle story broke, the US Department of State announced its plan to tackle the illicit diversion of weapons sent to Ukraine, citing ‘Russia’s forces, Russia’s proxies, and non-state actors’ as potential criminal agents. ...  Continue reading