Disarm UCL 2.0

A Freedom of Information request has revealed that University College London received £3.6m from the arms trade from 2010-15, being funded by firms such as Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and Thales.
The American political activist and journalist Chris Hedges believes that corporate executives, and the ‘armies of bureaucrats’ and ‘careerists’ which serve them, are ‘cold and disconnected’, ‘docile’, ‘compliant’, and ‘assure themselves of their own goodness through their private acts as husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers … It is moral schizophrenia. They erect the walls to create an isolated consciousness. They make the lethal goals of ExxonMobil or Goldman Sachs or Raytheon or insurance companies possible’.[i] Erich Fromm’s classic 1956 study The Art of Loving argued that capitalism – and, we might add, the arms trade – ‘needs men who feel free and independent, not subject to any authority or principle or conscience – yet willing to be commanded, to do what is expected of them, to fit into the social machine without friction; who can be guided without force, led without leaders, prompted without aim – expect the one to make good, to be on the move, to function, to go ahead’.[ii]
Joining one of many such armies, University College London Provost Malcolm Grant visited the Arab Spring nations with David Cameron in 2011 to (primarily) sell arms during the ongoing forms of state terror. Grant’s decision followed an interesting and remarkable history, little-known on UCL’s campus today and rarely discussed at the time.
After a two year student campaign, on January 1st 2009 UCL implemented an ethical investment policy, ensuring divestment from the arms firm Cobham PLC, a major supplier of Israeli arms and whose Hellfire missiles were regularly used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cobham also manufactured parts of weapons system used by Israel in its bombing raids in Lebanon in 2006. After a freedom of information request revealed that UCL had £900,000 invested in Cobham (total assets invested: £92.3m; arms shares as percentage of total investments: 0.9) and £746,000 invested in Smiths Group (which contributed to the manufacturing of Apaches and F16s), the ‘Disarm UCL’ campaign was formed, which rapidly became extremely popular on campus, both with students and later with the university’s ethical investment review committee.[iii] The university even ran a unique, exciting degree course for students to take, an MSc in Systems Engineering Management, ‘a joint development between BAE SYSTEMS and University College London to produce a programme which combines academic rigour and practical experience in the Aerospace and Defence Industry’.[iv] Extracting this from the standardised and scrupulously misleading rhetoric of ‘excellence’ and so forth, this translates into ‘a course which funnels resources and ingenuity straight into the coffers of a private arms manufacturer’. UCL soon became known as ‘the Gower Street gunrunners’, and Disarm UCL campaigners were often seen in the Main Quad on campus. Around the same time, St Andrews, Goldsmiths and SOAS all made steps towards cutting ties with the arms trade. With UCL’s admirable history of opposing discrimination, its strong funding of human rights abuses came as something of a surprise to students and faculty. The university also seems to be regressing on a number of other fronts, failing to take action to stop modern-day slavery conditions in its international campus in Qatar, where migrant workers are paid less than £180 a month for 12-15-hour shifts and endure persistent human rights violations.[v]
In late May 2016, a Freedom of Information request of mine about UCL’s connections with the arms trade was been published.[vi] Despite the university implementing an ‘ethical investment’ policy from 2009 onwards as a result of Disarm UCL’s efforts, this only relates to stocks and shares and it currently seems to apply far less stringent ethical criteria when deciding on research and consultancy contracts, enjoying links with a large number of the UK’s (and some of the US’s) arms companies. The response to the FOI request was given by Spenser Crouch, Data Protection & Freedom of Information Administrator at UCL. Crouch’s response included funds received over the last five financial years from arms organisations. In addition: ‘Non-MoD funders include overseas Governmental Defence Agencies, notably Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). For example the DARPA make up 50% of the non MoD-related income reported here, however £1.25m (70%) of this is for research into brain function relating to injury recovery’. Finally: ‘The data covers 126 projects (including Mod-related), 57% of which are studentships. Studentships account for 55% of the MoD-related income overall, and 15% of the income from the other funders including the large DARPA projects’.
The files revealed that from 2010-15, UCL had received over £1.3m from the Ministry of Defence and related departments for various projects, with £340,000 coming from the Atomic Weapons Establishment, £880,000 from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), and £70,000 from the MoD.
During the same period, UCL received an astonishing £3.6m from the arms trade, bringing the total military-related funding to £4.9m. More worryingly, the amount has in fact increased annually from 2010, beginning at £623,000 in 2010-11, then rising to £881,000 in 2011-12, £1.02m in 2012-13, £1.14m in 2013-14, and £1.28m in 2014-15. The companies funding the university include Aeroflex, Airbus Defence & Space, Airbus Weapons Establishment, Babcock, BAE Systems (including BAE Systems Marine Ltd, BAE Systems Surface Ships Ltd), BMT Defence Services Limited, EADS, Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, Rolls-Royce Power Engineering, Thales (including Thales Uk Ltd, Thales Netherland B.V.), and TRL Technology. From 2010-15, UCL received £195,000 from BAE Systems, £1.8m from DARPA, £67,000 from Airbus, £19,000 from Halliburton (which works closely with the arms industry), £236,000 from Lockheed Martin, and £625,000 from Thales.
The FOI request included the following statement: ‘I would wholeheartedly encourage the university to adopt an ethical investment policy that excludes the arms trade, and would appreciate it if you could tell me if this is something that the university is working towards’. UCL’s response included no comment to this effect.
As countless other examples reveal, the modern university is concerned above all else with profit, and is more than willing to align itself with abusive regimes and rogue corporations, supporting unethical firms through investment, research, recruitment and inviting representatives to give talks on campus. Universities are increasingly becoming militarised spaces. University career services – those stale and intensely unhelpful entities – promote arms companies and invite them to careers fairs, ‘advising’ students away from applying their skills in more ethical, renewal job markets. Universities invest their financial reserves and endowment funds, either by buying shares directly or investing in funds. Through either of these means, their funds are often invested in arms companies, supporting them financially while also giving the arms trade something of a ‘social license’, since universities are typically well-respected (quasi-)public bodies.
Not only does investment in the arms trade have nothing at all to do with education, but ethical investment funds have been shown to be more profitable. Throughout the 2000s, the Church of England’s £4.3 billion ethical fund was the second best performers out of over 1,000 funds.
Please sign the petition calling on UCL to divest from the arms trade: https://www.change.org/p/university-college-london-disarm-ucl-university-received-3-6m-from-the-arms-trade-from-2010-15?recruiter=12987879&utm_source=share_for_starters&utm_medium=copyLink
Updates can be found on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/disarmucl
[i] Chris Hedges, ‘The Careerists,’ 23 July 2012, The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress (New York: Nation Books, 2013), pp. 372-3 (pp. 368-73).
[ii] Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (London: HarperPerennial, 1956/2006), p. 79.
[iii] See: http://disarmucl.blogspot.co.uk.
[iv] See: https://www.studywarnomore.org.uk/data/ucl.html.
[v] Luke James, ‘UCL ‘passive’ in face of Qatar slavery’, Morning Star, 21-08-2014.
[vi] ‘UCL and the arms trade’, FOI request: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/ucl_and_the_arms_trade.
Posted in Activism, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Songbirds Sing Beautifully and Cats Go Meow: A Reply to Sperlich (2016)

For an example of one of the most ridiculous and unconstructive cases of academic fisticuffs, look no further that Wolfgang Sperlich’s paper published today in Biolinguistics, which attempts to criticize some recent papers of mine. Sperlich finds no irony in the mind-boggling claim that he is supposed to be defending Berwick & Chomsky’s (B&C) recent book Why Only Us from an allegedly homogeneous horde of rabid insurgents while simultaneously pushing a hocus-pocus ‘quantum linguistics’ theory (quantum effects rapidly fade away once you reach the level of dynamic, mesoscopic neural computation, i.e. once you reach the level most respectable neurolinguists agree is relevant for linguistic computation).
Firstly, the piece is written in terrible, obscure prose (“as a modern Shakespeare would have to say”; “a metaphor Chomsky the sailor might appreciate”; “so let us hit back ad hominem, one more time”; “songbirds sing beautifully”; “our cat meows in a way that annoys my wife”; “The Cartesian proposition of cogito, ergo sum may be the best evidence for equating language with thought”; “The great communicators of our day, from Hitler to Reagan”; “the publishing industry … makes a good living out of selling all manners [sic] of dictionaries”; “Why do the English say ‘tree’ and the Germans ‘Baum’?”), claiming to review and even falsify some of B&C’s views without doing either at any point (to repeat: Sperlich claims to defend and also improve on B&C’s work but does neither). It’s even more bizarre that he seems to classify me as one of the ‘younger wannabees snapping at [Chomsky’s] heels’ (this is meant to be a serious academic journal, remember) and amazingly even cites as an urgent point of discussion an informal blog post of mine. This is weirdly offensive – my work is designed to progress our understanding of the neurobiological basis of language, making virtually no reference to Chomsky (I have a poster of him in my house, but I also think his influence on the neurobiology of language has actually been fairly negative in recent times).
Sperlich is right in only one sense: Vyvan Evans’s New Scientist review was indeed atrocious, being concerned more with caricaturing B&C’s positions than engaging with their arguments. Evans even claimed that because “some of the precursors for language do exist in other species” (by language he is, as usual, not talking about what B&C explicitly focus on, namely the computational system, but rather those faculties recruited in the service of it, namely what he happens to be interested in), B&C’s evolutionary scenario for a completely different component of language must be false. The logic seems to be as follows: “B&C claim X about P, but I believe Y about Q, therefore B&C are wrong”.
Sperlich reacts to my blog post (again, I’m not sure this is ripe discussion for an academic paper, but let’s indulge him) with “Wow!”, but for the wrong reason: His passive aggressive, needy sarcasm is not even worth engaging with. I’m genuinely amazed that he can condemn me for using my blog as “merely a vehicle to launch his own theory”. I think I reserve the right to use my blog for whatever reason I want to (as if that needs stressing). Sperlich doesn’t (read: cannot) make a judgement of my actual theory, though. Strange, considering he seems to think that my citing and referencing relevant papers amounts to “name dropping”.
This is the closest Sperlich gets to critiquing my work, being much more concerned with surreal attempts at offending me: “So, what could thoughts generated by Merge possibly be made of—biologically speaking? Murphy invokes ‘brain oscillations’ which still sounds like Newtonian physics to me (as alluded to by B&C before) and so I am somewhat surprised that none of the protagonists reviewed here (B&C included) have delved into higher-level quantum biology which now can explain, amongst other complex biological systems, navigation in some migratory birds.” His claims regarding ‘quantum linguistics’ only arise to the most general, semi-metaphorical statements: He admits, for instance, that “Obviously, I lack the technical expertise in these matters”. Well why engage with the topic, then?
After this, he moves on to attack the Biolingusitics journal itself, being amazed “that Murphy is elevated to double authorship in the current volume”. One might even speculate at this point as to why this piece was actually accepted for publication. He only quotes the opening paragraph of a recent paper (using the same sarcastic phrase “We are grateful” twice in one page) and then speculates about me (or rather, the “much maligned Murphy”) changing a phrase from this blog to the paper “maybe in an attempt to get his articles accepted by Biolinguistics”. Firstly, like 99% of Sperlich’s piece, this is clearly not suitable for academic discussion. Secondly, I clearly wanted to make the language less informal when translating parts of the blog into a paper – because, unlike Sperlich, the “much maligned Murphy” is concerned with writing in sensible academic prose, not blurting out whatever thought happens to come to mind. So if I change my phraseology from an informal context to a formal one, I hope Sperlich can forgive me. Remember, this is the person who used the phrase “so let us hit back ad hominem, one more time” in a serious, straight-faced way. He even writes at one point: “listen to Hitler’s speeches and wonder how such a terrible voice could enthuse millions of Germans, lest they were hypnotized”. Sperlich’s lack of concern for wider socio-economic, imperial factors is about as impressive as his concern for academic professionalism more generally. Indeed, instead of engaging with Marc Hauser’s not-too-crazy views about songbirds, Sperlich simply brushes them aside with the dismissive phrase “Hauser’s songbird obsession shines through” – yes, in the same way that Einstein’s space-time obsession shines through clearly in his work.
Towards the end, Sperlich (tellingly) confesses that “I agree with everything that B&C have to say, with the exception of various sections I do not really understand due to lack of technical knowledge”. He later comes out in favour of my anti-lexicalist position, but then makes vague objections to it before failing to say exactly how he’d improve it (I’m also puzzled by his claim that Fujita expresses “the strongest anti-lexicalist claim to date”, a record surely set in Boeckx’s most recent book).
Overall, Sperlich should listen to his own careful, wise words: “These people, as the proverb goes quite succinctly, do not think before they speak.”
Posted in Linguistics, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

New paper on pragmatic unarticulated constituents

New paper published in Biolinguistics on the nature of pragmatic unarticulated constituents and the syntax-semantics interface.
“This paper explores the prospect that grammatical expressions are propositionally whole and psychologically plausible, leading to the explanatory burden being placed on syntax rather than pragmatic processes, with the latter crucially bearing the feature of optionality. When supposedly unarticulated constituents are added, expressions which are propositionally distinct, and not simply more specific, arise. The ad hoc nature of a number of pragmatic processes carry with them the additional problem of effectively acting as barriers to implementing language in the brain. The advantages of an anti-lexicalist biolinguistic methodology are discussed, and a bi-phasal model of linguistic interpretation is proposed, Phasal Eliminativism, carved by syntactic phases and (optionally) enriched by a restricted number of pragmatic processes. In addition, it is shown that the syntactic operation of labeling (departing from standard Merge-centric evolutionary hypotheses) is responsible for a range of semantic and pragmatic phenomena, rendering core aspects of syntax and lexical pragmatics commensurable.”
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment