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« The BBC and the chief scientist | Main | Sticking one's neck out »

Teaching values

There is a rather interesting article in Times Higher Education about Joanna Williams, an academic who has taken it upon herself to criticise the close-mindedness of the academy. She has this to say about global warming and environmentalism.

I am not a climate-change denier, but I think it should be discussed and not placed beyond discussion – and I certainly don’t think that the response we have as a society is beyond discussion,” she says. “Sustainability is one solution, but there might also be more technological solutions. But, within higher education, sustainability has become a major topic and is taught as a moral value. You assess ‘Are your students demonstrating sustainability?’ rather than ‘Is sustainability the only response?’…You can see even in the titles of some courses that sustainability is the answer…As soon as you present something as a value and assess students on that value, you are putting things beyond debate.


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Reader Comments (50)

Ditto Yup

Jan 7, 2016 at 12:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterCeetee

"I am not a climate change denier, but..."

Wow! Just Wow! She is so terrified of having an opinion contrary to her peer group that she has to prefix with a statement like that.

Jan 7, 2016 at 12:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterIvor ward

Double wow - somebody has a defined and testable definition of sustainability as a solution to an undefined and unfalsifiable hypothesis!! Thank goodness brainy people!

Jan 7, 2016 at 12:50 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

Anyone who possesses an ounce of common sense, & is of a certain age with a reasonable education, knows that climate changes, it was called History, in my yoof! God alone knows what they call it today!

Jan 7, 2016 at 12:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan the Brit

Joanna Williams is usually worth reading. She often writes at Spiked. The other day she had an article on free speech and academic diversity in universities at the Conversation, usually a mouth-piece for left-wing authoritarians and activists.

Sustainability has become more than a 'major topic' - Danny Weston describes it as a cult. At my university the vans carry the slogan Towards a sustainable future and our printers are part of a "Sustainable print service".

Jan 7, 2016 at 1:17 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

Paul - I read the full article and I think she is saying something useful.

However I was struck by her lack of critical skills wrt to matters of science. To my mind this is evidenced by the closing comment that her apparent conclusion is that "rejecting the liberal project of advancing knowledge through competing truth claims has left universities without a purpose”. Does she have any knowledge of the scientific research and education functions of Universities?

The article starts with the statement that she entered academic life studying English and she has now, with a career behind her, written a book "confronting the fear of knowledge" and I wonder what she has done to equip herself with the necessary scientific knowledge and skills to be an informed and balanced commentator on life in the 21st century?

Jan 7, 2016 at 1:42 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

An impressive article by Joanna Williams that doesn't pull any punches. Can't agree with Ivor's putdown about her use of 'climate denier' I don't think he's thought it through within the context of the full text in which she argues for debate before dismissal but, has rather taken a knee-jerk reaction to the words.

Her words will not be welcomed by some of the commentators here (I'm thinking of you, Ken and Wussel, rather than the pesky cuniculus) whose world-views appear, to me at least, not unlike those academics that Joanna despises.

Joanna is clearly a brave and talented person and, in this, she reminds me of Judy Curry. Well done.

Jan 7, 2016 at 1:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoyFOMR

"I wonder what she has done to equip herself with the necessary scientific knowledge and skills to be an informed and balanced commentator on life in the 21st century?" - not banned yet.

Why should she? She's not presenting an essay on climate change but about the emergent troubling pathology of the academic mindset that allows, as just one example, sociopaths like Lewandowsky to flourish.

Jan 7, 2016 at 1:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoyFOMRr

But...... but........

'The science is settled.....'

What possible 'discussion' could there be..?

Jan 7, 2016 at 1:57 PM | Unregistered Commentersherlock1

RoyFMRr - "Why should she?" Because she is apparently concluding that universities have no purpose.

Jan 7, 2016 at 1:57 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

"At the end of Academic Freedom, Williams concludes that “rejecting the liberal project of advancing knowledge through competing truth claims has left universities without a purpose”. "


"Because she is apparently concluding that universities have no purpose."


Jan 7, 2016 at 2:06 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoyFOMRr

If she denies she's a 'denier' is she a 'meta-denier'? Or just prudent? There is no agreed understanding as to what constitutes 'climate denial' but there is a clear consensus (97%?) that it's not good.

Jan 7, 2016 at 2:07 PM | Unregistered Commenterosseo

Sorry Roy - please tell me what she concludes?

Jan 7, 2016 at 2:12 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

osseo :-)

Jan 7, 2016 at 2:13 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

"I am not a climate-change denier"

Congratulations, Ms. Williams. You have achieved soaring heights of Wisdom with this profundity. I'll put your bust on my mantle, right next to Ah-nolds.

I see Academia has re-established itself again today as a joke.


Jan 7, 2016 at 2:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterBad Andrew

Until someone can provide a scientific definition of 'climate', that isn't just an abused generalization, we are going nowhere, just like we've gone nowhere in discussing climate science daily for a decade.


Jan 7, 2016 at 2:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterBad Andrew

nby, she's very much on the arts/politics/sociology side, where in subjects like, say, history, there are many possible viewpoints, and students learn by discussing and debating these different views. Her concern is that this is what is being lost.

Of course you are right that on the science side things are very different (we don't debate different points of view in maths) and some of what she says is less applicable there.

Jan 7, 2016 at 2:32 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

"I am not a climate change denier..."

She need have written no more to make the point.

Jan 7, 2016 at 2:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterGeckko

Paul - So I'm guessing you still feel you have a purpose.... ;-)

... despite sympathy with her argument in favour of free speech, my frustration is with the ignorance and arrogance she displays wrt to the scientific realm which is such an integral and essential element of life. The fact that this is in contradiction with the sub title of her book is just the icing on the cake.

Jan 7, 2016 at 2:49 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet


According to the author of this piece, Matthew Reisz, her conclusion was "rejecting the liberal project of advancing knowledge through competing truth claims has left universities without a purpose”. I would find it difficult to object to this statement.

As Paul Matthews points out she is "very much on the arts/politics/sociology side" and this is certainly the case hence her article is primarily concerned with "student censors, the elevation of subjective experience over ‘facts’ and the need to challenge ideas" (intro to article) and she then gives examples drawn from her own experience.

So, yes, in those areas she certainly has expertise; in the sciences likely not but, IMO much of this subjective hijacking of Higher Education by the touchy-feely, virtue signalling and easily offended squads has infected the climate, environmental and psychology 'sciences' community.

Different disciplines - same mind-set:(

I'm not over-concerned about her use of the 'd' word here; it's a term that permeates and poisons the climate change discussion that touch upon the perceptions of the public and doesn't, for me, carry any stigma when used by someone who is unaware that the science is not as 'settled' as they think it is. After all, many sceptics have pointed out that they one wholeheartedly swallowed the 'settled science' meme until they dug deeper. I can't castigate her for not having done that yet and given her views re sustainability she may. indeed, take her shovel out one day and find out, to her horror, that the cancer has spread.

Jan 7, 2016 at 3:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoyFOMR

All I can think of is a making a parallel thought.

A teacher in 1900 questioning the British Empire* in any aspect.

That is the challenge.

*without wishing to get into hair shirt, hand ringing, lefty liberal opinion on the Empire so required now.

Jan 7, 2016 at 3:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterMedia Hoar

Genet it was, I think, who said - turn the Universities into Prisons.

He may have had a point. But this has been coming a long time. The Diversity Myth, written by a couple of graduates from Stanford Uni., recount their experiences their, and the atmosphere of hysteria that overtook the campus there in the early 90s. A quarter of a century on, all that has happened this insanity has spread and increased massively. The book is available on Amazon, and well worth a read.

What troubles me more than anything is that those running our universities show no desire whatsoever to deal with this mass outbreak of Narcissism.

Jan 7, 2016 at 3:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Poynton

What is sustainability when it is at home?

AND stiffing the consumer is OK but is it sustainable? Moreover, in the first place if you don't believe in the cant, is it morally sustainable to inculcate children with it?

Sustainability, is just another term for the collective hogwash which is also known as the green agenda.

The whole premise is predicated on the most egregious lie, that somehow we (society) can somehow 'sustain' itself without recourse to using fossil fuels. LO! Innit funny to report that, without fossil fuels [steel manufacture] your local birdmincer would be nigh impossible to fashion and don't start me on PV cells, indeed at some point fossil fuels and the manufacture of most of what we use is still 'manufactured' yer know by mining ores and coal and via machines 'n' stuff.

The very idea of fluffy sustainability is an impossible notion that comes out of woolly minded nerds who don't understand the fundamentals of how this world works, thus go down the road to the end and sustainability will meet you there.

Government/Academia via the teaching professions, indoctrinate children with the latest tosh and sustainability in all its grandiose hypocrisy is the latest fad, alongside; everybody in the world, were, was, are much nicer than your horrible forefathers, the cult of death is the creed of peace, if you want to change sex - use this omni toilet, Socialism-Statism will save the world, government spending is 'investment', UK welfare is for everyone on the planet and so is the NHS - et bloody cetera.

Lastly the corporate blob preach sustainability, all the while producing junk which is guaranteed to fall apart in a 2-10 years time depending on whether it was produced in Turkey, China or, Japan and guess what - they love are married to, the corporate blob in Brussels, Westminster and the UN.

Finally, we all know the only way to be truly sustainable is to go back to those halcyon days of the Neolithic - any takers?

Jan 7, 2016 at 3:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

Paul Matthews

"we don't debate different points of view in maths"

My son who has a Ph.D in pure maths from U.Cal Berkeley would be very surprised with statement! He told me that was all they did in maths research.

Jan 7, 2016 at 3:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterSpectator

Academia know they have lost the support of the general population for their climate madness. What they don't know is what to do about it. Some think it's just a question of waiting till "the warming" (ha ha -what another 18 years?), others want more PR and to attack "deniers" (they only work in academia because only students are gullible enough to take their BS)... but others are realising they are being left behind and want to find ways to "get back in touch" with the rest of us.

That's no doubt an important debate for academia (who are now out on a limb and being laughed at for their failings by us sceptics) but for most people the likely response is this: what? ... or if they are more informed "who cares what they think?"

Jan 7, 2016 at 3:43 PM | Registered CommenterMikeHaseler

Spectator, ah that's pure maths - they think, we applied maths people do stuff!
Also of course there's a difference between research and teaching.

Jan 7, 2016 at 4:52 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

Climate science depends on recycling and reusing failed ideas. 97% of climate scientists therefore think they are sustainable. Climate scientists may not even make good compost.

Jan 7, 2016 at 5:05 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

'I am not a climate-change denier'

She begins with a declaration of orthodoxy.

"Climate change" is undefined, but you must believe it.

Jan 7, 2016 at 7:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterGamecock

I don't understand the venom of some of these comments. The THE article is by a journalist writing about Ms Williams. At the Conversation article Paul mentions
she expresses her own ideas and is very combative. She's defending us, for goodness sake. She's no more obliged to read up on the science of climate change than you or I are to inform ourselves about transgender politics.

Jan 7, 2016 at 8:38 PM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

I've just posted this comment at Ms Williams' article at the Conversation:

Ms Williams might like to know that there is an appreciative article about her views at
She might further like to know that this blog is one of a sort that the Conversation considers “unreliable” and one of the editors has stated that linking to it may result in comments being removed. So hurry.

Jan 7, 2016 at 8:45 PM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

nby: I think you're focusing on the university purpose aspect, rather than the competing truths, which I think RoyFOMR is highlighting.

"At the end of Academic Freedom, Williams concludes that “rejecting the liberal project of advancing knowledge through competing truth claims has left universities without a purpose”.

“rejecting the liberal project of advancing knowledge through competing truth claims ...". This does not advance knowledge, and thereby makes the university equivalent to a church.

Jan 7, 2016 at 9:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterGreg Cavanagh


I didn't even know of the existence of the madness called "critical theory" till reading her article.

And, though her article makes many good points, she is clearly still sipping the cool aid: Consider her use of the word "transphobic".

I think that this means that if you agree with Germaine Greer on the subject of "transexuals" that you are expressing an irrational fear, and therefore insane and should be dismissed as a rabid fool.

I would disagree. You don't need to be irrational or afraid to point out the madness of transgenderisum and the genital mutilation that it encourages of its victims.

Control the language, control the debate...

Jan 7, 2016 at 9:42 PM | Unregistered Commentergareth

That light she can see in the corner of her eye is her career light blinking , and that is what you get for question 'the cause' in modern academia.

Jan 7, 2016 at 9:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterKNR

I occasionally wonder what problem universities are attempting to solve. Or alternatively, if there were no universties as presently established, who would be clamouring for their creation as they are now? The fact that they do much that is admirable must be weighed against the harm and the expense. Or are they in the UK primarily designed to make half of the 18-21 generation pay to be kept out of the job market for three or more years then encourage the most marketable of them to emigrate? If so they are working as designed and I am mistaken to criticise.

Jan 7, 2016 at 10:17 PM | Unregistered Commenterrhoda

It's sad to relate, as far as I'm concerned, that the tone of some of the comments at this site would not have seemed out of place at Real Climate in its 'heyday'

Whatever happened to sceptics holding the moral high ground?

Jan 7, 2016 at 10:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoyFOMR

geoffchambers - who are the "us" you refer to and what defence is she providing?

Greg - to clarify: I reject her (reported) conclusion that universities have no purpose. I dislike her sweeping statements and I do not respect her self contradictory presentation.

RoyFOMR - which comments are you referring to? What point are you seeking to make by your reference to real climate? And what moral code or barrier do you think has been broken?

Jan 7, 2016 at 11:23 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

She's got it. Now watch the Green Blob come for 3....2....1...

Jan 7, 2016 at 11:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterNiff

"I reject her (reported) conclusion that universities have no purpose."

The primary purposes of universities are:
1) to educate
2) to research

Both require the freedom to question both authority and the received wisdom, on any subject whatsoever. If you think Newton is wrong, or that racial equality is wrong, or sexual equality is wrong, you can say so, presenting what evidence you have and then have a debate about it with others that know something about it.

To close off any subject, regardless of how wrong, immoral or repugnant you or even a 99.99% majority find it, is the essence of anti-intellectualism and is anti-progressive. That some - even the vast majority - may find your research inappropriate is entirely immaterial to its value, which cannot be judged until you have at least completed it and likely not until such time as a significant number of other scholars of diverse cultural backgrounds have absorbed and considered it in detail and determined its usefulness. This process has resulted in the enlightenment and all scientific advances in all of recorded history. To throw it away is an insult to academia itself and completely intolerable in modern society. That the left has now become "the man" and now refuses to "stick it up the man" is very odd, but hardly surprising.

Jan 8, 2016 at 12:19 AM | Unregistered CommenterKneel

'It's sad to relate, as far as I'm concerned, that the tone of some of the comments at this site would not have seemed out of place at Real Climate in its 'heyday'

Whatever happened to sceptics holding the moral high ground?

RealClimate in it's heyday was rubbish - I agree

Jan 8, 2016 at 12:25 AM | Unregistered CommenterEternalOptimist

Kneel - so is your view that currently universities are left without a purpose?

Jan 8, 2016 at 12:25 AM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

" your view that currently universities are left without a purpose?"

No - merely that any restriction on questioning current positions on any subject is so damaging to the nurturing of innovative thinkers that such restrictions devalue the education of the next generation to such an extent that in my view they are not being educated, merely trained to respond in the "correct" manner.
IOW, the purpose of universities has been changed - IMO, for the worse. If your opinion is that the purpose universities is to educate, then they have indeed had that purpose removed. That there may be another purpose for them now means they still have a purpose though.

Jan 8, 2016 at 12:46 AM | Unregistered CommenterKneel

"Whatever happened to sceptics holding the moral high ground?"

Good luck to Joanna wotsherface, you'll hear no criticism of her from me, disappointment perhaps but not criticism.

But what of.....morality?

There is no middle ground here, either you tell the truth or, you work for the green blob.

One only has to dip into the blizzard of lies told about the recent inclement "record" weather over the past couple of months - pray tell me - just whose holding the moral high ground - here? What with, the exploitative, nay unconscionable media manipulation of the plight of people whose homes and businesses were flooded - camera work used to promote what is a political agenda 'man made warming is happening' - crikey, it was obscene.

Then, academia, teachers force feeding such nebulous guff like the sustainability myth down young childrens throats is despicable as it is, immoral.

Cheap and plentiful energy keeps people warm, helps the poor, keeps hospital lights and theatres running, brings jobs and heats schools - that's my sort of very robust morality.

I don't like equivocation, to me that's amoral.

Jan 8, 2016 at 1:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

"I am not a climate-change denier, but I think it should be discussed and not placed beyond discussion ..." .

Regardless of what others have said above, seen in their full context the first few words really mean "Because I think [climate change] should be discussed and not placed beyond discussion, don't dismiss me as a climate sceptic/denier and stop reading."

Jan 8, 2016 at 2:08 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohnM

Joanna thingy is an academic - she knows full well that unless she genuflects to the gods of Global Warming, she will not get any funding and might lose her job.

Only the retired or those of independent means can afford to be realists.

Jan 8, 2016 at 8:29 AM | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Duffin

What a lovely piece of thinking beyond the staff room. She can teach my kids any day she wants

Jan 8, 2016 at 8:57 AM | Unregistered CommenterStephen Richards

Ms Williams should realise that the first GISS modelling paper offset with imaginary 'negative convection' the excess input energy that arises from assuming the planet's surface emits real IR energy at its 'black body' level. The models have been wrong for 40 years!

Jan 8, 2016 at 9:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterNCC 1701E

I have 3 kids in secondary school.
They have been educated in scientific methodology by me- in that I have told them to look beyond the headlines and check the data- All are projected to achieve 9 A*s at GCSE (if you believe in "projections").

Yet they complain to me that to get "good" marks in certain subjects- Geography is a prime example- they have to quote verbatim from the Global Warming "Bible"- the syllabus.

Jan 8, 2016 at 9:45 AM | Unregistered CommenterBitter&Twisted

So Kneel - you too reject her conclusion? I'm only pressing the point because you chose to preface your initial comment with my rejection yet it appears we are in agreement on this point.

Bitter&Twisted - from the bit I hear of the geography syllabus, I concur. Congratulations on having capable and engaged children - and for having given them a constructive steer. Good luck to them in their future pursuits :-)

In the absence of any clarification from Geoff and Roy, I'll make this my last comment on Ms Williams views as reported in the highlighted article.

IMO she is promoting a book in which she is making an argument for free speech and the vital role of acquiring primary knowledge through argument and counter argument. In related articles she appears to be against simple repetitions of orthodoxy. Yet her reported position and comments on "climate denial" and "sustainability" demonstrate that she has applied neither of her principles of knowldedge query and rejection of orthodoxy. For a professional academic specialising in critical evaluation of evidence, I think that shows a fatal lack of rigour and competence.

Further to this, her sweeping conclusion that universities have lost their purpose is directly contradicted by the many talented students and academics working and qualifying in domains such as medicine, engineering, mathematics, law etc etc who go onto contribute to society in directly productive employment. This appears to be something which Ms Williams is either ignorant of or something that she does not see as a valid purpose for universities.

To conclude, whilst I think her support and promotion of free speech is a good thing, I think the headline article is essentially an advert for her book and on the basis of what is presented there and elsewhere it looks to be a very poor product. osseo and Gamecock hit the nail on the head.

Jan 8, 2016 at 11:14 AM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

In any discussion the assumptions of the thesis statement are *always* fair game. If they are valid and demonstrable, they should be able to withstand inquiry.

Jan 8, 2016 at 5:33 PM | Unregistered Commentertadchem

"So Kneel - you too reject her conclusion?"

Just to be clear, IMO universities have changed from places of education, to places of training. IOW, from places exposing you to many and varied opinions and requiring you to think about your own opinion and justify it, to places where repeating the currently in vogue mantra is not just sufficient, but even encouraged. Don't think, just repeat after me...
This is, of course, inevitable when society expects you to have a degree in order to be qualified enough to empty the dust bin. When most people "need" a degree to get a job, that degree has been devalued.

Jan 8, 2016 at 10:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterKneel

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