Category Archives: research

Counter-terrorism and counter-law

Earlier this year I was delighted to be asked to contribute a post to Verfassungsblog. The post is here; you can also read a draft below.

Counter-Terrorism, the Rule of Law and the ‘Counter-Law’ Critique

“Counter-law”, as theorised by Richard Ericson, involves “using law against law”: the use of legal resources “to erode or eliminate traditional principles, standards, and procedures of criminal law” and facilitate pre-emptive policing interventions in areas such as counter‑terrorism. This, Ericson argues, threatens the rule of law, defined as the principle that “[p]olice and citizens alike should know what is and is not legally authorized … to ensure a predictable environment in which to make rational choices about rule‑governed behavior”.

Should the image of “law against law” be discounted as a polemical gesture to add weight to a liberal critique – or can it be grounded in a defensible theoretical model of the Rule of Law?

Rule of Law: Minimal, Maximal or Neither?

Ericson’s definition of the Rule of Law (hereafter RoL) echoes Hayek’s formulation: “government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand”. The content of those rules is entirely undefined: a state under the RoL may impose any combination of duties and freedoms on its citizens, or on different groups of its citizens. All that is required is that everything the state does is first enacted into law.

Spelt out, this minimal definition of the RoL does not seem particularly desirable. It is highly permissive, but at the same time highly restrictive—so much so as to make deviations and trade‑offs inevitable. The question would not be whether government conduct falls short of the RoL but how often, in what ways and with what costs and benefits.

Other definitions of the RoL go considerably further than Hayek’s. Bingham’s widely-cited definition of the RoL includes provision for the protection of fundamental human rights and state compliance with international law, as well as stipulating that laws should be intelligible, apply equally to all and bind the government as well as its citizens. This has been criticised as excessively wide-ranging; Raz criticises Bingham’s definition as “an assembly of diverse principles, with diverse rationales behind them”, arguing that “the law, to be just or legitimate, or fundamentally good, should conform to more than one moral principle or doctrine”.

Raz for his part offered two alternative extended definitions of the RoL. His 1979 definition combines a formal definition in terms of the properties of laws themselves (which should be clear, stable, publicised, prospective and general) with a set of principles of procedural justice. In 2019 Raz again cited the necessary formal properties of laws, then added a set of provisions relating to the reasonableness of government decisions. Ironically, both of Raz’s own definitions are vulnerable to a critique similar to his own. Each of the two definitions is, arguably, not a singular doctrine but a pair of principles, with the first group of stipulations defining good laws in formal terms and the second defining the proper administration of justice and good governance respectively.

The multi-dimensionality which Raz decries in Bingham’s definition of the RoL—and which, to a lesser extent, can also be identified in Raz’s own definitions—makes compliance to the RoL difficult to achieve: the more internal complexity the concept is understood as having, the more likely it is that government action will depart from one or other aspect of it. Once again, the RoL is defined in such a way as to make trade-offs inevitable, reducing the force of any critique which would make departure from the RoL an evil in itself.

In short, the RoL represents either a procedural restriction on government, or a set of principles whose partial or total realisation is conducive to greater government legitimacy. In both cases departures from the RoL are easy to justify on other grounds (e.g. for reasons of public safety), meaning that the RoL cannot be invoked as a stand-alone ground for critique.

A Third Alternative: The Formal Rule of Law

It may be possible to rescue the RoL as a ground for critique by using a purely formal definition, akin, though not identical, to the first half of Raz’s two pairs of principles. The definition proposed here draws (like Raz’s definitions) on Lon Fuller’s eight “principles of legality”. Fuller argues that laws should be general, be publicised and be prospective in effect; should not be unintelligible, mutually contradictory, impossible to obey or so changeable as to be impossible to identify; and should exhibit “congruence between the rules as announced and their actual administration”, to be secured primarily through excellence in legal drafting, interpretation and administration.

I have argued that Fuller’s eight principles can be summed up as the principles that laws should be universal, knowable and followable, and that the RoL also requires a fourth principle of justifiability. In fact, the eight principles reduce to two. Generality, publicity, intelligibility, stability over time and congruence of official action are factors of knowability: only if all these requirements are met is it reliably possible for any individual, in any situation, to ascertain what laws effectively apply to them. Knowability thus entails comprehensiveness: there can be in principle no social situation, and no group of people, not covered by any law.

Secondly, the requirements of prospectivity, non-contradiction, and possible obedience are factors of followability. Followability entails freedom of choice to follow a law (or not to do so): if the requirement of followability is to be met, an individual’s social existence may not be structured to the point where no margin of choice remains, nor may obedience to law generally be secured oppressively, through actual or threatened coercion.

Justifiability is not a separate principle but an implication of the first two. If following the law’s commands is a free choice (followability) based on knowledge and comprehension of the law (knowability), it must be possible to explain the applicability of a law to a given person in a given situation, and for the explanation to be rationally challenged. If law-compliant behaviour is not to be secured by force, it must also be the case that a rational challenge will, in some cases, succeed, and the law be amended accordingly.

Like Raz’s models, this formal model of the RoL does not encompass every standard to which the law in a just society would conform. However, it does not go as far as Raz’s argument that the RoL “has no bearing on the existence of spheres of activity free from governmental interference “, to the point that “[t]he law may … institute slavery without violating the rule of law”. These assertions run counter to the requirement of followability: a freely followable law must guarantee some “spheres of activity free from governmental interference”, while a law to enslave rational and previously free citizens is one that could only be secured by oppressive force.

The formal model does, however, omit most of Bingham’s desiderata, including the fundamental liberal requirement of equality before the law: while it must be possible for each individual in a society under the RoL to ascertain and choose to follow the laws applicable to them, there is no requirement that the same laws apply to all. The formal RoL is thus compatible with a high degree of social stratification—and, as such, with “very great iniquity”, at least if that word is used in the archaic sense of “want or violation of equity”. It grounds only a weak universalism: discriminatory treatment of different groups is compatible with the RoL thus defined, for as long as those groups accept their treatment as just.

However, the formal RoL is arguably better suited than either the minimal or maximal models to be used as grounds for critique. Whatever its other defects, any society operating under the RoL must have laws that can be known and can be followed (and can be justified in response to challenge); defects from any of these properties are identifiable as shortfalls from the RoL.

Counter-Law and Counter-Terrorism: Preventive Offences

Contemporary counter‑terrorist legislation has created numerous offences which violate the requirements of knowability and followability. Examples include the groups of offences classified as inchoate (offences of attempt or encouragement), preparatory (otherwise lawful conduct in preparation for the commission of an offence) and situational (offences defined in terms of a state of affairs).

Inchoate counter‑terrorism offences can involve long and speculative causal chains: it is an offence under the Terrorism Act 2006 to state that a terrorist act is worthy of emulation, if the person making the statement intends, or is reckless as to the possibility, that hearers should be encouraged to commit or instigate terrorist acts. This offence has since been joined, under the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019, by the offence of expressing an opinion or belief indicating support for a proscribed organisation, recklessly as to the possibility of others being encouraged to share this support. To commit either of these offences does not require that anyone is in fact encouraged in these ways, let alone that any terrorist act takes place.

The key preparatory offence under counter-terrorism legislation is the catch-all offence of ‘preparation of terrorist acts’ under the Terrorism Act 2006, covering “any conduct in preparation for giving effect to [the] intention” to commit a terrorist act. Given that the goal of counter-terrorist legislation is preventive rather than reactive, the preparation offence makes it possible to criminalise actions which were harmless and otherwise lawful, on the grounds that the offender possessed an intention which these acts would—if they had not been interrupted—have realised in the commission of acts of terrorism.

Situational counter-terrorism offences, lastly, are offences where a guilty act is inferred from a state of affairs, elevating what might more usually constitute circumstantial evidence to an offence in its own right; an example is the offence of possessing information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism (Terrorism Act 2000). This offence has been expanded by the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 to include having viewed any such information over the Internet.

Given the crucial importance of the offender’s – unrealised – intention in making out the elements of offences, offences like these are neither knowable nor followable. A law prohibiting the commission of any act which might subsequently be presented as having been preparatory to what might have been a future act of political violence is not a law whose scope can reliably be known. Similarly, a law prohibiting any statement which could be presented as tending to encourage support for one of a designated list of groups (even if no such encouragement had taken place) is not a law that can freely be followed: it enjoins either silence or the affirmative act of a disclaimer.

Instead of the classical requirements of ‘guilty act’ and ‘guilty mind’, these offences share two unusual and complementary characteristics. The acts brought to trial are not themselves harmful and could potentially be proved against a wide range of people, many or most of whom would have carried them out without criminal intent. When charges such as these are brought, the prosecution attests not only to the factual element of these offences but to the correct interpretation of the facts. These are ‘ouster’ offences: the criminal court is ‘ousted’ from its role of determining guilt by the public prosecutor, being presented with offences defined in such a way that only one verdict is possible.

This degree of latitude is only available to the prosecution because—secondly—these are terrorist offences, subject to their own body of legislation. What this means, however, is that not merely intent or recklessness but a specific guilty mental state has been assumed: the defendant is suspected of intending to carry out, or intending to threaten to carry out—or welcoming the possibility of others carrying out or threatening to carry out—one of the broadly defined disruptive acts listed in the Terrorism Act s2, for the broadly-defined purposes listed in s1. The factual elements of the various offences look quite different if this assumption is not made: if the prosecutor is persuaded that the suspect is a harmless fantasist whose professions of innocence can be trusted, no terrorist intent can be inferred and no terrorist charges brought.

The Rule of Law: How to Use

Counter-terror legislation has created a catalogue of offences offering enormous scope for prosecutorial discretion, allowing for individuals to be convicted on the evidence of having committed innocuous acts. Moreover, in an extraordinary irony, suspicious acts and individuals qualify to be considered as ‘terrorist’ on the basis of an act of more or less speculative labelling, which is itself an exercise of prosecutorial discretion.

The Rule of Law, I have suggested, requires that the law be a reliable and non-oppressive guide to how citizens should act: as such, the laws governing every citizen must be rationally knowable and voluntarily followable (and, by extension, open to rational challenge and justification). These tendencies in counter-terrorist legislation clearly run counter to the RoL thus understood. Every move away from knowable and followable laws is a move away from the RoL—and towards a landscape in which police discretion decides not only who will be put on trial but who will subsequently be found guilty. Conversely, every move in this direction can be resisted by reference to the RoL, if this is understood as neither a technical desideratum nor a broad set of liberal ideals, but as the simple requirement that citizens should be able to know, understand and choose to follow the laws that apply to them.





Rethinking radicalisation – new paper

I’ve got a paper in the current (Winter 2019/20) issue of the (OA) Journal for Deradicalisation.

Here’s the abstract and (some) references:

Antagonism, Conflictuality and Resilience: A New Model of Societal Radicalisation

This paper proposes that, instead of framing radicalisation as a process undergone by individuals, society’s political sphere as a whole should be considered as a site of radicalisation: a social setting built on discourses which can themselves be characterised by their level(s) of ‘radicalism’. The radicalisation of individuals’ patterns of discursive action needs to be understood in the context of (changing) levels of societal radicalisation. Unless they also address this societal context, efforts to counter or forestall the radicalisation of individuals and groups can have only local and temporary success. Any counter-radicalisation intervention conducted purely on the basis of an individualised ‘contagion’ or ‘strain’ model will be unable to envision – let alone address – phenomena of societal radicalisation. Building on the literature on securitization, resilience and agonistic conflict, this paper offers a model of societal radicalisation and of the social and political conditions likely to foster this process. Societal radicalisation is seen in terms of the corrosion of agonistic politics and its replacement by antagonism; this is related to deficits in societal qualities of conflictuality and resilience, which are discussed. The radicalising drift from agonism to antagonism, when promoted at government level, is further related to the literature on securitisation. Lastly, one possible mechanism for societal radicalisation – ‘antagonistic amplification’ – is identified and directions for further work are suggested.

Key references

Bailey, G. and Edwards, P. (2017), “Rethinking ‘radicalisation’: Microradicalisations and reciprocal radicalisation as an intertwined process”. Journal for Deradicalisation 10.
della Porta, D. (2018), “Radicalisation: A Relational Perspective”. Annual Review of Political Science 21.
Demetriou, C. and Alimi, E. (2018), “Relational radicalization”. In: Dépelteau, F. (ed.) (2018), The Palgrave Handbook of Relational Sociology. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Edwards, P. (2016), “Closure through resilience: the case of PREVENT”. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 39(4).
Edwards, P. (2009), ‘More work! Less pay!’: Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-7. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Malthaner, S. (2017), “Radicalization: The Evolution of an Analytical Paradigm”. European Journal of Sociology 58(3).
Mouffe, C. (2013), Agonistics. London: Verso.
Ruggiero, V. (2017), “The Radicalisation of Democracy: Conflict, Social Movements and Terrorism”. Critical Criminology 25(4).
Stephens, W. & Sieckelinck, S. (2019), “Being resilient to radicalisation in PVE policy: a critical examination”. Critical Studies on Terrorism.
Tarrow, S. (1998), Power In Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tilly, C. (2005), “Terror as Strategy and Relational Process”. International Journal of Comparative Sociology 46 (1–2).

The paper grew out of a suggestion by my colleague Gavin Bailey. “Radicalisation” in its conventional usage is a “black box” concept – an unknown process that must have happened before a violent attack takes place. As such it’s difficult, if not impossible, to identify a process of radicalisation while it’s happening, which is obviously when it would be useful to identify it. In practice a precautionary logic tends to prevail, with the term being applied to behaviours which people think may be associated with political violence. This carries an obvious danger of excessive and discriminatory labelling; it’s tempting just to discard the concept altogether. But, even if we can’t reliably identify a specific series of changes and transitions which add up to Radicalisation with a capital R, might it not still be possible to say that something identifiable as “radicalisation” can be seen happening in people’s lives – taking place, in particular, every time somebody adopts a more intransigent, more antagonistic political framing? Gavin’s concept of “micro-radicalisations” got me thinking about what it was that was being radicalised – the person or the conflict? This in turn led me to the idea that a society’s political sphere can itself be radicalised, in the sense of losing conflictuality – the capacity to articulate and contain polarised social conflicts – and/or losing the resilience to deal with disruption. The more conflicts are excluded from the political sphere, the more disruptive the return of a repressed conflict will be; the lower a political sphere’s resilience, the more it will be weakened further by any disruption. As for what constitute conflictuality and resilience on the scale of a society’s political sphere – and what this ‘sphere’ thing is anyway – I’m afraid you’ll have to read the paper.

I’m quite pleased with the end result (particularly after the rewrites suggested by Reviewer 2; thanks also go to Phil), not least because it represents a return to the social movements literature where my academic career began; it’s nice to be citing Charles Tilly and writers influenced by him again (myself included!). The model I’ve ended up with is rather more austere than is the norm in that school – the people in it are considerably less important than the patterns of discursive action they reproduce – but I believe it’s valid; at least, I believe it’ll make an interesting bit of kit to think with.

As for operationalizing the key variables and testing the assumptions… that’s a whole other project, or two.

You can read the Journal for Deradicalisation here; my paper is here. Share and enjoy!

Good evening or good morning

More news on my book. I handed over the corrected proofs this morning, together with an index. Compiling the index was easier than I’d thought it would be, but still not exactly fun; it was one of those tasks that leaves you looking round for the next chunk of mental hard labour for several days afterwards. My basic approach was to index every proper name I could see, plus a few key concepts. I then cut out most names with only one occurrence, although a few got left in for the benefit of anyone who picks up the book and starts by browsing the index (don’t tell me it’s just me).

It’s called ‘More work! Less pay!’ Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-7, and it’ll be published (initially in hardback) by Manchester University Press this autumn. And that index? Here’s a selection. (For each initial letter I’ve included the first entry and the one with the most references.)

A A/traverso; Autonomia
B Balestrini, Nanni; Brigate Rosse (BR)
C Cacciari, Massimo; Confederazione Generale Italiano del Lavoro (CGIL)
D d’Alema, Massimo; Democrazia Cristiana (DC)
E L’erba voglio; Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna (ETA)
F Faina, Gianfranco; Feltrinelli, Giangiacomo
G Gandalf the Violet; Gruppi d’Azione Partigiana (GAP)
H ‘Historic compromise’; Hot Autumn
I Ingrao, Pietro
L Lama, Luciano; Lotta Continua
M Maccari, Germano; Movement of 1977
N Napolitano, Giorgio; Negri, Antonio
O Operaismo
P Pajetta, Enrico; Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI)
Q Quaderni Rossi
R Radical Party; Resistance (Italian)
S Sayer, Andrew; Scalzone, Oreste
T Tarrow, Sidney
U Unità Comuniste Combattenti (UCC); l’Unità
V Via italiana al socialismo
W Wowdadaism

They say you can tell a lot about a book from its index; certainly I’m pretty pleased with what this one seems to be saying. It’s not Pale Fire – no “Berlinguer, idiocy of; idleness of; taste of, in shoes” sub-entries – but I think it tells you pretty much what the book’s about. It’s about Togliatti, Feltrinelli, Lotta Continua and the Red Brigades, and everything that connects them. One connection in particular:

Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) passim
see also Austerity; Berlinguer, Enrico; Confederazione Generale Italiano del Lavoro; Historic Compromise; Lama, Luciano; Togliatti, Palmiro; l’Unità

Give or take a few

My book: an announcement and a question.

I’m quite excited about my book. Or should I say, my book – for lo, that’s an actual link to a page where you can, apparently, pre-order it, with free UK delivery and everything. And here’s the publisher’s page about the book, and here’s what it says there:

‘More work! Less pay!’

Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972–77
Phil Edwards

In the mid-1970s, a wave of contentious radicalism swept through Italy. Groups and movements such as ‘Proletarian youth’, ‘metropolitan Indians’ and ‘the area of Autonomy’ practised new forms of activism, confrontational and often violent. Creative and brutal, intransigent and playful, the movements flourished briefly before being suppressed through heavy policing and political exclusion.

This is the first full-length study in English of these movements. Building on Sidney Tarrow’s ‘cycle of contention’ model and drawing on a wide range of Italian materials, Phil Edwards tells the story of a unique and fascinating group of political movements, and of their disastrous engagement with the mainstream Left. As well as shedding light on a neglected period of twentieth century history, this book offers lessons for understanding today’s contentious movements (‘No Global’, ‘Black Bloc’) and today’s ‘armed struggle’ groups.

This book will be of great interest to scholars in the fields of Italian politics and society; the sociology of social movements; and terrorism and political violence.

1. Introduction
2. The Hot Autumn and after: a cycle of contention reconsidered
3. From Resistance to Historic Compromise: the politics of the PCI
4. From Feltrinelli to Moro: a second cycle of contention
5. ‘Repudiate all forms of intolerance’: how the movements were framed
6. A cycle and its aftermath
7. Do you remember revolution?
8. Social movements and cycles of contention: theoretical appendix

The book itself is currently sitting on the floor of our front room in the form of proofs (proofs! actual proofs of my book!) – proofs which I’m going to have to check before too long, to say nothing of producing an index.

Setting aside my new-authorial giddiness (which mostly evaporated when I started thinking about indexing anyway), I honestly think this is a book that’s well worth publishing. It is the first full-length study in English of the Italian movements of the 1970s – the great archipelago of Autonomia, the ‘proletarian youth’, the indiani metropolitani, the movimento del ’77 and all – not to mention the vast and complex panorama of ‘armed struggle’ groups which flourished and declined alongside them. There’s some of this in Storming Heaven, Steve Wright’s excellent book on operaismo and Autonomia; there’s some about the movimento in one chapter of Robert Lumley’s States of Emergency; and there are a couple of very good books about the armed groups by David Moss and Donatella della Porta. But to get a proper overview of the scene, you’ve basically had to read Italian. Up to now!

All right, so it’s an academic specialism like any other, and I only think it’s fascinating and important because it’s my academic specialism – someone else could make an equally good case for a new atlas of French regional dialects or a groundbreaking study of variations in snail shell thickness. But I do think it’s fascinating and important – and since this is my blog, I’ll take the space to tell you why.

Italian politics often looks a bit weird, seen from the outside, and the mid- to late 1970s were a particularly weird period. It had two particularly striking features. Firstly, you had a political system that was becoming more and more ossified, heading for the final stasis of the ‘five party’ period (when every political party to the Left of the Fascists and to the Right of the Communists was locked into a permanent coalition around the ruling Christian Democrats). The Communists – who had been systematically excluded from power since 1948 – tried to challenge the Christian Democrats’ dominance of Italian politics, but they did so (this is the weird part) by asking to be allowed to share power; the word ‘begging’ also comes to mind. The Communists’ approach was politically abject; it was tactically inept (the Christian Democrats under Aldo Moro ran rings around them), and it was strategically disastrous (the party never recovered, and arguably still hasn’t). Whether ideologically or in terms of party self-interest, it made no sense at all. Why did they do it?

Well, you’ll have to read chapter 3, but a large part of what was going on had to do with the second oddity of the period. In the late 1960s there had been a huge amount of industrial militancy, beginning outside the unions and very largely escaping their control. The wave of activism culminated at the very end of the decade, with an official settlement agreed in December 1969; this got the workers most of what they’d wanted, while also giving the unions what they’d wanted by acknowledging their representative role in the workplace. So in 1970 everyone went back to work, to be greeted with a pay rise plus official union representation, and things went back to normal. What’s extraordinary is what happened next: over the next few years, things started kicking off again, in the name of direct action against inflation. Rent strikes, bus fare strikes, utility strikes, ‘proletarian shopping’ (à la Can’t pay? Won’t pay!)… it was all happening, facilitated in many cases by people who’d cut their teeth in the wildcat strikes of the 60s. It’s a period of extraordinarily active and widespread protest and agitation; it didn’t go anywhere near the official Left (represented by the poor old Communist Party); and, for the most part, it didn’t go near the workplace either.

So you had political stasis, a supine official Left and some fairly wild scenes in the streets, in the campuses and on the estates. And then you had the interaction between the movements and the Communist Party, which is the analytical heart of my book. Following news stories in the Communist Party’s paper l’Unità over a period of five years, I analyse the party’s dominant ‘framings’ of the movements – how the party leadership saw them, and how it wanted party members to see them. Hostility to the movements is not surprising – these were, after all, potential political rivals. What is surprising, and marks a sharp departure from the Party’s approach to the activism of the late 60s, is the hostility expressed towards the movements’ members, their demands and their culture. Instead of offering to take the movements under its wing, the Party essentially dismissed them in their entirety, after labelling them as breeding-grounds for nihilist hooligans and fascist provocateurs. This ‘scorched-earth’ policy made life extremely difficult for the movements, deprived of any kind of sponsor from within the political mainstream; from this point of view it could be said to have been a success. However, it also led inexorably to the Communist Party denying itself a major potential source of new members and new ideas, and alienating much of its existing support. And they never did get to share power with the Christian Democrats.

It’s a fascinating and in many ways a tragic period. More to the point, the scale and diffusion of activism makes it a very unusual period in European history. To think of another like it I think you’d need to go back to May ’68, if not to Barcelona ’36 – and both of those have had plenty written about them, even in English. Yes, Steve Wright’s book is good – and the chapter in Robert Lumley’s book – but I really think this is the first book in English to do the period justice. I don’t expect you’ll buy it, though, unless you’ve got an institutional budget. Here’s the problem: the initial edition is hardback only. The planned cover price is £60, or approximately 30p per page. There’s a possibility of a paperback edition, which I might be able to recommend people to buy with a straight face; there’s a possibility, if the hardback edition sells. It’s an edition of 400.

All giddiness spent, I know the topic of the radical left in Italy in the 1970s isn’t that fascinating to that many people; I know the book’s never going to sell a million. I think it’s got a definite readership, though, not all of whom frequent university libraries. With a fair wind I think it could sell a few thousand – if it was affordable.

So here’s the question, aimed particularly at anyone who’s been in a similar position or knows people who have (hi Daniel!): how can I sell (say) 300 academic hardbacks, knowing that they’re realistically only going to be bought by libraries and eccentric millionaires? Advertising? Journal papers (Phil Edwards is the author of…)? Word of mouth at conferences? Emails to everyone I’ve ever met who might be interested (Forgive the impersonal approach, NO STOP PLEASE DON’T DELETE THaaah, too late)? Blog posts like this one?

Any suggestions will be gratefully received. (And I really don’t expect you to buy the book yourself. Unless you’re a librarian and/or an eccentric millionaire, of course, in which case feel free.)

On science alone

Like Splinty, I am not inconsiderably annoyed at Private Eye. Oh yes.

In the recent ruckus between Newsnight and the Decent Right thinktank Policy Exchange, the Eye (or at least the enigmatic ‘Ratbiter’) has unaccountably chosen to side with the latter.

Newsnight alleged that Policy Exchange or its researchers had forged the receipts which showed you could buy book spewing out hatred of women, Jews, Christians and moderate Muslims in mosques. The researchers utterly deny any forgery; but the implications of the alleged exposé are explosive: David Cameron’s favourite think-tank was apparently stirring up racial hatred with fraudulent evidence.

Newsnight‘s killer claim was that its hacks had organised forensic tests which proved that receipts Policy Exchange said it had collected from the Muslim Education Centre in High Wycombe were dubious. When Policy Exchange said that the centre was selling such titles as Women Who Deserve to go to Hell – for complaining about their husbands and going along with feminist ideas promoted by Jews and Christians – it couldn’t be believed. The BBC stuck by the accusation even though the Muslim Education Centre cheerily told reporters that the books were indeed on sale.

Similarly Newsnight said receipts from the Al-Muntada Al-Islami Trust in west London were suspicious … If Newsnight‘s allegations were correct, the al-Muntada centre should be the innocent victim of a disgraceful smear. But the most basic checks show that it wasn’t. At the time the Eye was going to press, the al-Muntada online bookshop was offering [two works cited by Policy Exchange]

There’s a very basic logical fallacy in the argument put forward by Policy Exchange and endorsed by the Eye, which hinges on the unstated proposition that for Muslim bookshops to sell the works of (say) Sayyid Qutb really matters. It’s about working backwards up the chain of causation and treating an intermediate (and perhaps optional) link as if it were the starting point. All sorts of misinterpretations can follow from this error: some gang members grew up listening to gangsta rap, for example, but many people who grew up listening to gangsta rap didn’t go on to join gangs and were never at any risk of doing so. In the case of Qutb, as Splinty says:

What Qutb does do, if you’re a young Muslim alienated from the surrounding society, is provide an intellectual framework for you to understand your alienation. Note that this only works if you’re already an alienated Muslim, and that a Qutbist intellectual framework is not remotely necessary for the alienated Muslim to adopt jihadi ideas.

You can get from A to C via B, but you can also go straight from A to C, or go to B without going on to C. What’s most important is starting at A – and you don’t get there from B.

So there’s a strong argument that Policy Exchange and ‘Ratbiter’ don’t have a case even if we take everything they say at face value. But there’s a more fundamental problem. ‘Ratbiter’ doesn’t go into any detail about the alleged faking of the receipts, resorting to the weaselly adjectives ‘dubious’ and ‘suspicious’ and a reference to sciencey-sounding “forensic tests”. Those scientists, they can prove anything, can’t they? Newsnight will have given those receipts to a bunch of boffins in white coats, they’ll have taken a sample and whizzed it round in a centrifuge or something, and just because some liquid ends up turning red instead of blue…

Actually the tests were a bit more basic – and a bit more conclusive. Here‘s Richard Watson of Newsnight (and this has been up since the 14th of December, which presumably was some time before the Eye went to press):

Al-Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre
the hand-writing on this receipt is very similar – to my eye it looks identical – to the hand-writing on another receipt, said to have been obtained from a mosque in Leyton, 10 miles away [Masjid as-Tawhid]. A registered forensic document examiner concluded that there was “strong evidence” that the two receipts were written by the same person.

Masjid as-Tawhid
The first receipt provided by the researcher was obtained from the bookshop, at 78 Leyton High Road. I did see the carbon copy of this receipt so we know the books were acquired from the bookshop. But both the bookshop manager and the mosque management categorically say they are two separate organisations.

Curiously, we were told that researchers were sent back at a later date to obtain a second receipt on headed paper and that document, printed on an ink-jet printer, introduced the word “mosque” into the receipt for the first time. The address is still given as that of the bookshop. But none of this addresses the worrying fact that the hand-writing on the printed receipt matches that on the receipt from the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, 10 miles away.

[The receipt was] printed on an ink-jet printer. The forensic ESDA tests carried out by the registered document examiner concluded that this receipt was underneath the receipt from the Muslim Education Centre in High Wycombe when this latter one was written out. Once again the mosque management categorically told us that the receipt provided by the researchers was not a genuine document. Even if the books are available online, there are serious questions about the authenticity of this receipt.

You get the idea.

I read quite a lot of research for the purposes of my day job, and I’ve seen results called into question on much weaker grounds than Newsnight had. If you’ve got good reason to believe that the evidence in front of you isn’t genuine – let alone reason to believe that it’s been faked – then you just don’t trust that research, even if it’s telling you that the sky is sometimes dark at night and Monday tends to come after Sunday. If someone else can get similar results by other means, bully for them – let them publish what they’ve got. But that doesn’t somehow retrospectively validate the faked research, as the Eye seems to imagine.

Ultimately it’s a point about the reliability of the researcher as well as the research. If you’ve got evidence that they’re willing to put their thumb on the scales to get the right answer, from that point on you can’t really trust anything they tell you – unless it begins with “I’m sorry I faked those results”, and even then you’ll want to watch them like a hawk. Unfortunately Policy Exchange’s response to Newsnight can be summed up as “we didn’t fake those results, and what does it matter if we did, and besides you’re no better”.

To push the evidence is bad, but it doesn’t make the research completely invalid. To fake the evidence does invalidate the research, but for the researcher it’s survivable. But to fake the evidence and then refuse to admit it, deny that it matters, change the subject and generally try to bluster your way out of it – you’re off the list, I’m afraid.

The fundamental point ‘Ratbiter’ seems to miss is that this applies just as strongly if the results are plausible – and twice as strongly if the results are in line with the audience’s expectations. Picture the scene: they’re telling you what you want to hear, and it seems believable, but you’ve got evidence that they’re willing to lie about it. It’s a setup that rings some very loud alarm bells for me, but apparently it doesn’t at the Eye. Perhaps ‘Ratbiter’ had better stay well away from time-share presentations.

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