The week in higher education

April 29, 2010

The extraordinary saga of the online reviews praising the work of historian Orlando Figes and rubbishing that of his rivals has taken another twist. As reported last week, the mystery surrounding the anonymous reviews appeared to have been solved when Professor Figes' lawyer announced that his client's wife, University of Cambridge law lecturer Stephanie Palmer, was responsible for the reviews. Days later, however, Professor Figes, who is based at Birkbeck, University of London, issued a remarkable mea culpa - he had written the pieces himself and had allowed his wife to take the rap. In a statement reported on 23 April, he says that his lies were rooted in "health issues".

A leading climate scientist is suing a newspaper and the authors of anonymous reader comments, claiming that they "poison" the global warming debate. The libel lawsuit has been launched by Andrew Weaver, a climate modeller at the University of Victoria, Canada, who has accused the National Post of publishing "grossly irresponsible falsehoods". The articles, published during the recent "Climategate" furore, claimed that the scientist had cherry-picked data to support his research. He is suing the paper and a number of as-yet unidentified readers who left comments on its website, it was reported on 23 April.

The pre-election purdah silencing academics was criticised on 24 April. Writing in The Independent, Nigel Hawkes, director of the campaign group Straight Statistics, cited the gag imposed on scholars funded by the Medical Research Council. "Three days after the election was called, The Independent published a letter from 22 Labour-supporting scientists," Mr Hawkes writes. "Two of the signatories work for the MRC. So they broke purdah. Nobody pointed this out ... are sanctions planned? It would make a good test case, although it's unclear what form the sanctions could take, beyond a slap on the wrist."

A sleazy website on which a professor published a guide to Thailand's "girl scene" has been shut down after he agreed that it tarnished his university's image. Kenneth Ng, associate professor of economics at California State University, Northridge, used the site to offer advice, including how to haggle with Thai prostitutes. Northridge officials took the view that he was free to run the site in his own time, but it was reported on 25 April that the academic had decided to take the content down. Harry Hellenbrand, Northridge's provost, said: "Professor Ng said that he is taking down the site because of the deleterious effect it had on the university's reputation, not because he considered the subject matter and content as unsuitable for public discourse."

Some may dispute the popular perception of Stephen Hawking as Britain's most brilliant scholar, but few can deny his pedigree when it comes to attracting publicity. The Cambridge physicist was back in the spotlight on 26 April after declaring a strong belief in aliens and hinting that the Earth could be at risk of invasion. Speaking in a forthcoming Discovery Channel documentary series, Stephen Hawking's Universe, he argues that it is "perfectly rational" to assume that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the Universe. But he warns: "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life may develop into something we wouldn't want to meet." He adds that aliens could "exist in massive ships" as "nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach".

A student responded to a claim by an Islamic cleric that scantily clad women cause earthquakes by organising a "Boobquake" event to test the theory. Jen McCreight, a student at Purdue University in the US, organised a mass experiment on 26 April, asking as many women as possible to show off their cleavage. The only wobble occurred early in the day when a 6.0-magnitude quake hit Taiwan, but Ms McCreight said that this did not count as it was outside her Boobquake time zone. "If we get many of a similar magnitude in the next 24 hours, we may start worshipping the power of immodesty," she blogged.

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