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Radio review: Analysis: Science in the time of cancel culture, and What’s Funny About. . .

23 July 2021

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In Analysis: Science in the time of cancel culture (Radio 4, Monday), Professor Steven Pinker spoke about “snitch culture”

In Analysis: Science in the time of cancel culture (Radio 4, Monday), Professor Steven Pinker spoke about “snitch culture”

AT A time when we have been obsessively engaged in following “the science”, a challenge has been coalescing around the question “Whose science?” On the one hand, lockdown sceptics plead for a recognition of alternative perspectives on the Covid crisis, while, on the other, campaigners for racial justice make claims about the bias inherent in mainstream scientific endeavour.

Professor Steven Pinker has tenure; so he is unafraid to speak out. But, in Analysis: Science in the time of cancel culture (Radio 4, Monday), he blamed “snitch culture” for the fact that, for instance, few in the less exalted tiers of his profession dare suggest that Covid might have escaped from a Wuhan laboratory. To be accused of racism confers greater ignominy than ignoring plausible evidence.

It is a legitimate question — just as it is legitimate for the geneticist Professor David Reich to enquire into the genomic differences between ethnic groups in ancient humans. Research of this kind should not, they argue, be regarded as intrinsically racist, but help in the fight against internet-based pseudo-science.

A large part of Professor Michael Muthukrishna’s programme was devoted to a more complex case-study, involving the programming of artificial intelligence (AI). Controversy surrounds the sacking of a Google researcher for suggesting that the internet forums, whose vast archives of verbiage provide a rich resource with which to train AI, manifest an inherent white bias. And so the robots of the future are being encoded with the world-view of white privilege.

The potential for satire is almost inexhaustible, not least because those arguing the case here gave us no concrete example of how this might play out in a realm other than the conceptual and ideological. Meanwhile, critics of this polemic face the now-familiar assertion that we are incapable of recognising and thus mitigating our own “bias blind-spots”; and there is at least one conference on the subject which now insists on reviewing papers for ethical content before acceptance. Censorship, or accountability?

Let us turn to simpler times, when the big debate of the day was about women priests. In 1994, at the same time as the first of them were taking up posts in Church of England parishes, the fictional Geraldine Granger arrived in Dibley. In What’s Funny About. . . (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week, repeat), Dawn French and Richard Curtis reminisced about a project that won several accolades and regularly makes it into lists of best British sitcoms.

This was an edited repeat of a Radio 4 Extra show broadcast last year; but, even in the longer version, there is precious little, in among discussion of the mechanics of comedy, on the “situation” itself — perhaps because the institution that The Vicar of Dibley evoked for an audience in the 1990s has receded so far into myth that it is as incorporeal as the Home Guard of Dad’s Army.

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