Philosophy Discussions and Debates

In Our Time

It has been exciting – if a bit nerve-racking – to appear on Melvyn Bragg's wonderful programme on Radio 4, which goes out live on a Thursday morning at 9 a.m., and in which his questions are penetrating and not pre-scripted (beyond a general gist). So far, I have been involved with four of these:

Debating God's Existence

In 2011, William Lane Craig, the prominent American philosopher of religion and Christian evangelist, toured a number of British universities debating with atheists and sceptics. Richard Dawkins' refusal to engage with Craig at an event in the Sheldonian Theatre that I was invited to chair caused quite a stir, provoking a suggestion of cowardice from an Oxford colleague in The Guardian, and various jokes from Christian sources including a campaign of advertisements on Oxford buses, a couple of Hitler Downfall parodies (since deleted), and some cartoons, one of which had me in the firing line.

Craig is an experienced and formidable debater, armed (as I discovered) with a large and carefully indexed loose-leaf folder of replies to familiar attacks. He is also a master of the debate format, making things extremely hard for any would-be attacker because he launches so many arguments to start with that it is impossible to engage with them all and make any points of one's own. I decided to engage with them argument-by-argument, and some of my points (e.g. on the coherence of infinities) definitely hit home, though again, Craig used the debate format cleverly, giving specious responses to deflect these points in a context where there was no opportunity to interrupt and counter. Overall I felt I'd done reasonably well for a novice in this format, though in retrospect I should have written my final 5-minute summing-up in advance, rather than trying to tailor it to what had actually happened in the debate!

The Futuremakers Podcast

Since 2018, I have hosted the Futuremakers podcast, involving discussions (usually four-way) with Oxford researchers – both technical and social – working in areas with significant implications for our future. The first season was on Artificial Intelligence, the second on Climate and Sustainability. Both consisted of 10 episodes, involving prominent researchers and some external guests (e.g. MP Caroline Lucas, and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney).

Software Making Headlines

Most of the stories below arose in connection with my Signature Stylometric System, which I originally wrote to help demonstrate to humanities students in Leeds how computing could bring distinctive value to their other studies. When I left Leeds, I made the program freely available on the web, and it started to get used by various people for their pet projects (such as disrupting Barack Obama's election!). The image below shows Signature revealing evidence (weak, but cumulative) that "Robert Galbraith" is, in fact, J.K. Rowling.

    Screenshot of Signature program

Unmasking J.K. Rowling

In July 2013, I was phoned one Friday afternoon by The Sunday Times who wanted to investigate a tip-off to the effect that "Robert Galbraith", pseudonymous author of The Cuckoo's Calling, was in fact J.K. Rowling. Having previously written for them in connection with the Obama/Ayers controversy (see below), I was happy to help, and so again became involved in a front page story. As before, I used my Signature software to investigate the evidence, but this time – in contrast to the Obama case – it delivered a fairly clear positive signal. For more details, see How J.K. Rowling was Unmasked. On the day that the Sunday Times story appeared, I was called or emailed by numerous journalists, and invited to London for two live interviews. Click on these links to see the BBC 10 o'clock News Interview and the BBC News Channel Interview. The former includes a snapshot of my computer display and the graphical output of the software; the latter gives more detail of the events, the analysis, and some discussion around the case.

Obama/Ayers Controversy

Very shortly before the US Election in November 2008, I got dragged into the Obama/Ayers ghostwriting controversy, when some prominent Republicans tried to enlist my help – and that of my Signature software – in discrediting Barack Obama. Subsequently I wrote an article for The Sunday Times exposing the plot, and – to my amazement – ended up on the front page! That weekend I was staying in College, and was very surprised, early on Saturday afternoon, to start receiving emails about the article, as Sunday dawned in the Far East. I'd included a link to my PhiloComp website, in the hope that this would provoke interest in the Computer Science and Philosophy course. So that evening and most of the night, I wrote up the details of my analysis there, to enable curious people from around the world to see the results for themselves. This got picked up by numerous commentators and widely shared online, as it showed very clearly that the evidence proferred for the ghostwriting hypothesis was hopelessly weak. Later I got some hate mail from a few very opinionated Republicans, and decided it might be prudent to keep a lower profile, so wrote no more on the matter. I'd done enough to ensure Obama's election (and a "thank you" note from him would have been nice! :-)

Coleridge/Faustus Controversy

In October 2007, Frederick Burwick and James McKusick published, through Oxford University Press, Faustus: From the German of Goethe, carrying the bold subtitle Translated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The last chapter of this substantial scholarly tome was devoted to a "Stylometric Analysis of the Faust Translations", using the basic version of my Signature software to corroborate the authors' claim that Coleridge was indeed the translator. I didn't become aware of this until after the book had been produced; had I been approached, I would certainly have recommended far more rigorous and extensive analysis before making such a bold claim. The book quickly provoked a major literary controversy, in numerous websites and journals (including the Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian). For an extensive critical discussion of the claim, see "A Gentleman of Literary Eminence".

A Foray into the World of Marketing

In August 2005 I received out of the blue an email from Craig Kolb, a business analyst with the company Ask Afrika. He wanted to try using chatbot technology in a marketing context, and had identified my Elizabeth system as the most suitable for the purpose, owing to its power, control, and flexibility. Working together, we developed a script that Craig then used to investigate South African consumers' reasons for choosing their mobile phone network. A joint paper "Connecting with Elizabeth: Using artificial intelligence as a data collection aid" was then accepted for the "Connections" annual conference of the Market Research Society (MRS), held at the London Barbican in March 2006. Click the following for the abstract, the published paper, and the PowerPoint presentation (which looks very different from my usual material, after being jazzed up by the Ask Afrika marketers).


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