Figures such as Murray Edwards President Dorothy Byrne have also been pushing for a narrative emphasising fertilityAlex Parnham-Cope for Varsity / VYSOTSKY (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

“Cambridge University’s most taboo subject? When are YOU having CHILDREN? Population boom? Or population collapse? The planet cannot sustain more life. In attempt to hault [sic] the climate crisis, it is immoral to bring more children into the world. Right?”

So read a recent email advertising a documentary screening sent around University departments, received by NatScis and Medics.

The need to promote and preserve free speech is a healthy and necessary mode of institutional survival in any university. But the line between freely speaking fact or fiction gets particularly blurred when questions surrounding the meaning of “scientific truth” are thrown into the mix.

Reckless scaremongering?

The “award-winning 90-minute documentary” called Birthgap – Childless World is concerned with the planet’s collapsing birthrate, advertised as examining the “precipitous decline in the world’s birth rate upon women, the economy and the stability of the welfare state”.

The filmmaker Stephen J Shaw has “recently appeared in discussion with prominent podcasters such as Chris Williamson and Jordan B Peterson”. It will be shown in a screening at St John’s College on 12 May.

Yet the advertisement has faced some backlash from students. One commentator on Camfess remarked: “Why is it whenever some event is decided to be promoted to the entire university, it is always the most unhinged and bigoted nonsense.”

The advertisement continues: “But what if the opposite was true? What if the pitfalls of Feminism and the modern dating-world meant within the near future, the planet would run-out of people to sustain our quality of life and welfare systems?”

Is it really fair to solely attribute declining birth rates to the pressures of modern society and the emancipation of women? Correlation is not causation – birth rate trends are clearly driven by a plethora of other factors. A highly reductionist agenda to revert to traditional gendered roles is hardly going to address what persists to be a complex societal issue. Reckless scaremongering doesn’t cut it without a well-evidenced scientific basis.

This ultimately raises the question: should the University be actively promoting events with not-so-innocuous presuppositions?

The murky, politicised landscape of (Cambridge) science

Cambridge has been enraptured in debates surrounding free speech. It was only this Michaelmas that I was sitting in my room in Tree Court in Caius one evening, surrounded by the protests against “gender-critical” speaker Helen Joyce, who was invited to present a talk by fellow Arif Ahmed.

But the issue of free speech equally punctuates scientific discourse. I spoke to Toby Smallcombe, Cambridge medic-turned-historian and Varsity Science writer, who argues that “there is concrete evidence that a plethora of biases exist within medical practice, and this is hurting our treatment of patients.” The recent backlash about Cambridge-led research into autism, condemned as out of touch with the clinical needs of autistic patients, is a fitting case in point.

“Cambridge has been making efforts to include these topics in its curriculum, already discussing stigma, racism and implicit bias as part of the undergraduate medical course. The curriculum is still changing, but how will efforts to make the curriculum more sensitive to implicit bias be affected by the gathering wave of this ‘anti-woke’ movement against unconscious bias training,” continues Toby.

The debates in Caius continue to simmer in the background. Last term, I attended a talk by Dominic Cummings for the inaugural event of the re-branded Caius Political Philosophy Society that challenged the “invented nonsense” of the media, the bureaucracy of No 10, denying any wrongdoing or misconduct during the pandemic, and discussing his “psychopathic interest” in Bismarck.

Peppered throughout his anti-BoJo tirade, Cummings called for a much wider adoption of the efficiency and industriousness of science and engineering in society and (especially) the government. In the post-talk discussion, engineering professor Rob Miller discussed with Cummings the pressing need for practical solutions to climate change.

Climate change in Cambridge continues to be a fraught and deeply contested issue. While undergraduate students continue to wear BP-branded lab coats, departments have only just begun to pause their quid pro quo arrangements with Big Oil companies. The radical positions of climate activists (and perhaps deniers) in Cambridge seem to deviate from the middle ground of climate scientists. “Tackling climate change is not always as black and white as we environmentalists would like it to be,” argued one PhD student I interviewed last term.

Miller highlighted a number of inefficiencies in the ability of the government to bring new engineering technologies, particularly in the aerospace industry, taking ten years to incorporate innovations in products and argued that scientific funding still goes to “the same white old males”.

Free speech in science is a different kettle of fish


Mountain View

Students plan protest against ‘anti feminist’ documentary screening

The view of science as objective, rational and absolute certainly has a modicum of truth, but there is equally a degree of subjectivity in scientific judgment that must be acknowledged by the University.

Debates surrounding climate justice, implicit bias training, population dynamics and AI are all highly politicised: the views and beliefs of scientists and non-scientists alike influence and interfere with any reasonable measure of scientific objectivity in fields like climate science or autism research.

Free speech is undoubtedly important to maintain a vibrant intellectual environment. But when bold and often unsubstantiated (pseudo)-scientific claims are made by speakers, the University needs to stop and think before they platform more radical and unconventional scientific views.