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Manchester University staff member’s ironic letter to colleagues about their indifference to the consequences of their research for BAE

Dear Colleagues,

I attended the presentation given by the arms company Thales a few months ago as a personal interdisciplinary exercise. The problem was as follows.

Given a group of thoroughly decent academics listening to a presentation of some highly technical problems posed by an organisation devoted to the production, inter alia, of tools of repression, mass slaughter, and arbitrary execution, I was interested to learn how such individuals would cope with a certain cognitive dissonance which they might be expected to experience.

The results were very interesting. During the two hours or so for which I attended, despite the fact that numerous questions were asked, not a single member of the audience (including myself) asked any question concerning the purpose for which the resolution of any of the problems might be required.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that anything at all dramatic would have been revealed had such a question been asked. It’s just that it seemed that the mathematicians present appeared quite happy not to know. I surmise that in fact the majority preferred not to know. This is in fact the most common method by which humans deal with potential cognitive dissonance. As one psychologist puts it:

“If someone is presented with information that is dissonant from what they already know, the easiest way to deal with this new information is to ignore it, refuse to accept it, or simply avoid that type of information in general.”

Given what I now know, I am proposing a different resolution to the potential cognitive dissonance of some of my colleagues concerning the purpose of their labour. This is because I believe that in life, as in mathematics, the best results are obtained by taking all the evidence into account, rather than by ignoring or suppressing apparently inconvenient facts. Thus in order to resolve a problem of cognitive dissonance it is sometimes necessary as a preliminary step to heighten that dissonance to an intolerable level. Therefore if you are of a delicate psychological disposition you should probably not read the rest of this email.

I shall be attending the presentation by BAE Systems on Tuesday 24 May, in the Reynolds Building. I shall also be posing a number of questions.

BAE  has the largest sales of military equipment in the world, and unlike some of its competitors such as Thales, its non-military operations form, at 5%, an insignificant proportion of the total. BAE is also one of the most unethical and corrupt companies on the surface of the earth, a fact which has been well-documented. Nevertheless I feel sure that the event on Tuesday will be just as it has been billed: “a fun opportunity to demonstrate to BAE what we can offer”.

Of course it will also be a juicy opportunity to slaver over the prospect of a modest recompense in return for our mathematical expertise in devising more efficient ways of pulverising those remote, but obstinately restive natives, for the sake of democracy; or if that fails, pulverising them for the sake of economic stability (see footnote).

I appreciate that it’s a little vulgar to mention the use to which the products of our expertise might be put, but it does help us to understand the potential and lucrative significance to us of BAE Chairman Olver’s recent observation that, at least in the Middle East, “regional tensions combined with enduring high oil prices result in robust budgets and increasing opportunities”.

For example the Tactica armored vehicles with their “non-aggressive profile” have been tremendously useful to the fraternal Saudi forces sent to Bahrain to help to control impertinent Bahraini commoners, not to mention those insolent Bahraini students studying at Manchester who had the effrontery to demonstrate outside the BBC against the his most Royal Highness, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, (May His Name Live Forever), and who are now mercifully being sent home to face the discipline imposed by these elegant vehicles, and doubtless by some of BAE’s other nifty products.

And here’s a once popular little ditty composed by a mathematician some 50 years ago to which we can sing along as we think deeply about how to resolve BAE’s little problems. The words need of a bit of updating, which I’m sure won’t be beyond the poetic talents of mathematicians of such versatility as ourselves. Just substitute your own name for that of the gentleman named in the song, substitute “Baghdad” for “London”, and sing in a mid-atlantic drawl instead of a German accent.

How times have changed, it’s a bit embarrassing really to think we used to be so self-righteous…..

I am so much looking forward to this fun little session on 24th, and I hope to see you all there.

It might also be nice to invite some of our undergraduates along too so that they can appreciate just how useful we are in the real world, don’t you think? The lunch is really tasty I hear.


George Wilmers
School of Mathematics
University of Manchester

PS. Oh, and before I sign off, I just must mention to you, in case you missed it, the newly advertised post of “Associate Vice-President For Social Responsibility” for the University. This is really a nice little earner with an honorarium of £10k per annum which would be particularly well-suited to someone working with BAE, because BAE have so much experience of those annoying little difficulties which can arise in presenting one’s true values to the outside world. Anyway I do assure you that for £10k it’s really a doddle, because our V-C manages to do essentially the same job for Astra-Zeneca in her spare time, and it turns out that it doesn’t really matter if you miss the odd triviality. So, if you’re involved with BAE, do think of applying: I’m sure Nancy will be delighted to hear from you!

Note: Certain leftwing rabble-rousers have insinuated that collaboration with an enterprise involved in the production of tools necessary for the liquidation of such antisocial elements is not consistent with Article II of the University’s Charter, which states that the objects of the University shall be “to advance education, knowledge and wisdom by research…. for the benefit of individuals and society at large”. This objection is quite obviously poppycock, since it is the most elementary common sense that disposable riff-raff in remote corners of the globe cannot possibly be considered to be a part of “society at large”.

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