The Left Must Find Its Way Back to Science

The sweet potato is a naturally occurring GMO (so are you)

And I would add, in the UK, unreasoning rejection of fracking (even by those who support off-shore oil production) to the list here of environmentally damaging Left presuppositions that urgently need replacement by rational discussion.

Random Rationality

With President Trump committing himself to reversing most, if not all, of Obama’s progressive environmental policies and having pulled out of the Paris Accords, I think it is imperative that the Left take a fresh, evidence-based look at their boogeymen. The Right may have their climate change and evolution denial, but the Left holds onto their fears of GMOs, conventional agriculture, and nuclear power as if they were afraid to lose them. The civilizational knife-edge we find ourselves atop of, as well the pushing and shoving Trump is adding, demands that the Left right their wrongs. Apparently, the Left is the party of science, and while that has always been a stretch, there’s no better time to make it so.

With the departure of the world’s second largest emitter from the first worldwide accord that attempted to limit climate change to within 2 degrees Celsius above baseline, that means that the rest…

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Michael Gove, the doctrinaire ignoramus now in charge of UK environmental policy

It does not matter very much that Michael Gove mistakenly imagines that Boyle’s law is some kind of a fundamental principle. It matters a very great deal, however, that he saw fit to tell teachers that they should teach it as such. It is a sad reflection on the British educational system that Gove, an Oxford graduate, thinks that Newton wrote the laws of thermodynamics, thus showing unawareness of the difference between 17th-century mechanics and 19th-century molecular statistics; the difference between the age of sail and the age of steam. But again, that need not in itself mattered too much. What does matter at many levels is his wish to have “Newton’s laws of thermodynamics” incorporated into the physics curriculum. In both cases, the shameful ignorance displayed is not in itself the major problem. The real concern is Gove’s willingness to impose his ignorance on those who know better, a willingness that led the National Association of Head Teachers, hardly a group of dangerous radicals, to vote no confidence in him. I have written on these topics before, most recently when he bid to become Prime Minister (“Why Michael Gove is not fit to lead anything”) but thought when that bid failed that I could let Gove lapse into the security that he so richly deserves.
Not so, alas. Gove is now Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs. Not topics on which I am an expert, so I will simply hand readers over to someone who is; Miles King at A New Nature Blog:

a new nature blog

Last week I wrote about Michael Gove’s surprise arrival as Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs. There is so much more to write about this, but time is limited and I will not be able to cover everything in one piece.

Gove obviously has achieved notoriety amongst the Education establishment, by driving through unpopular reforms to the National Curriculum and to the testing regime. As these reforms have only recently been implemented, the benefits, or damage they cause will only become clear in the years to come.

As a parent with children in the education system I will see personally what Gove (and his comic-book villain sidekick, Dominic Cummings) has done for the future of my family, aside from his (and Cummings’) leading role in Brexit.

His subsequent stint at the Ministry of Justice was too short for him to have achieved anything, either way. Perhaps…

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UK Conservatives, meet the DUP: extremist, creationist, sectarian

“Our MPs will be the kingmakers, playing a huge role” (R: Gregory Campbell MP, from whose victory speech those words are taken)

Overview: I am assuming as I write this that the Conservative Party will remain in power in the UK for the immediate future. As a matter of arithmetic, this will require the cooperation of the Democratic Unionist Party. All this may, however, change at any time.

Update on the Orange Walk issue: it’s already happening: “Supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) are demanding Theresa May allow a banned loyalist march as part of an agreement by the Northern Irish party to prop up a minority Conservative government.” Independent, Monday 12 June

Kingmakers. There is no doubt that this is how the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) see themselves. And there is no doubt that they aim to exploit this role to the full. Not by formal coalition, the trap  into which Nick Clegg so disastrously led his party in 2010, but “confidence and supply”, which will leave them free to make new demands and to threaten to withdraw support at any time. I will not attempt to unravel the complex affairs of Northern Ireland, but with the settlement there more fragile than it has been for some years, the strengthening of one partisan faction must be a matter of concern. Anyone requiring evidence of the DUP’s ruthless political infighting, inflammatory rhetoric, and skill at reopening old wounds is invited to visit their web site at http://www.mydup.com/.

Saint Johns College, Cambridge, where Nigel Dodds studied law

Nor should we fall into the trap of underestimating the DUP intellectually because of the crudeness of their dogmas. Nigel Dodds, of whom much more below, has a first-class honours degree in law from Cambridge University, while Ian Paisley Jr., MP for North Antrim and son of the charismatic Reverend Ian Paisley who founded the party, holds BA (hons) and MSSc degrees from Queen’s University Belfast in History and Irish Politics.

Sectarianism and links to violence: The DUP is a sectarian party, founded by former members of the UUP (United Unionist Party) who considered that party’s leadership too conciliatory towards the large Republican (i.e. Catholic) minority. In the late 1980s and 1990s, there were strong links between the DUP and Protestant paramilitary groups Read the rest of this entry

An indisputable fact?

This Geological Society Special Publication summarises historical and current thinking on the age of the Earth; free download here

The age of the Earth is around 4.55 billion years. Is this an indisputable fact? How would you answer a creationist who asked you this? I ask for a reason.

I was recently emailed by a stranger who wrote:

I am a college student taking Geology for the first time and there is a debate amongst the students in class. I am contacting you to assist in settling this dispute regarding the age of the earth.

If given the choice between these two rudimentary statements, would you say that:

(a) It is an indisputable fact that the earth is [around] 4.55 billion years old.

or

(b) Based on current scientific evidence, the earth appears to be 4.55 billion years old; however, future generations may find evidence that has the potential to either substantiate or refute our current model.

I replied:

Excellent question. But the answer MUST depend on the threshold for disputability.

Do you think it is an indisputable fact that the Romans invaded Britain? If so, you must say that it is an indisputable fact that the Earth is around 4.55 billion years old.

If you say that this age of the Earth is disputable because, in principle, further evidence might make us change our minds, then you must also say that it is disputable that the Romans invaded Britain.

People often say that this or that scientific fact is uncertain because it is always in principle revisable. But the same is true of ALL our knowledge about the world.

Does this help? Please let me know how this plays out.

I am not satisfied with my answer.

Roman mosaic, Fishbourne, 1st Century CE; click to enlarge

The question uses the rhetorical device of the false dilemma. If I say that the age is indisputable, I am violating the principle that scientific knowledge is open to challenge by new evidence. If I say that it is disputable, the questioner has succeeded in driving a wedge, with scientific orthodoxy on one side, and me on the other, alongside Young Earth creationists. This of course is the entire purpose; people don’t go around asking whether the existence of atoms is indisputable. By refining the issue as I did, I have slipped between the horns of the dilemma. Sound logic, feeble rhetoric; looks like I’m wriggling when faced with a straightforward question.

What else could I have said?

Mosaic, Fishbourne, image by Charlesdrakew – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4755271

The “scientific method”, a needless stumbling block. With a note on falsification

Science does not have a separate special method for learning about the world, the “scientific method” as taught in schools is a damaging illusion, and the falsifiability criterion has itself been falsified

Below, R: How not to; “The Scientific Method”, as inflicted on Science Fair participants. Click to enlarge

Consider this, from a justly esteemed chemistry text:

Scientists are always on the lookout for patterns.… Once they have detected patterns, scientists develop hypotheses… After formulating a hypotheses, scientists design further experiments [emphasis in original]

Or this, from a very recent post to a popular website:

The scientific method in a nutshell:
1. Ask a question
2. Do background research
3. Construct a hypothesis
4. Test your hypothesis by doing experiments
5. Analyze your data and draw conclusions
6. Communicate your results [emphasis in original]

Then, if you find yourself nodding in agreement, consider this:

Since a scientific theory, by definition, must be testable by repeatable observations and must be capable of being falsified if indeed it were false, a scientific theory can only attempt to explain processes and events that are presently occurring repeatedly within our observations. Theories about history, although interesting and often fruitful, are not scientific theories, even though they may be related to other theories which do fulfill the criteria of a scientific theory.

If you are familiar with the creation-evolution “controversy”, you may well suspect that last example of being so much creationist waffle, intended to discredit the whole of present-day geology and evolutionary biology. And you would be right. This quotation is from Duane Gish, a major figure in the twentieth century revival of biblical literalist creationism, writing for the Institute of Creation Research.1

L: Mike Pence, ” [N]ow that we have recognised evolution as a theory… can we also consider teaching other theories of the origin of species?”

Such nonsense isn’t funny any more, if it ever was. The man who may very soon find himself President of the United States is an eloquent spokesman for creationism.

And yet Gish’s remarks seem to follow from the view of science put forward in the first two excerpts. What has gone wrong here? Practically everything. Read the rest of this entry

“The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct”, and other gems from Taylor and Francis

Update: Skeptic has now published a not entirely favourable review of the “conceptual penis” hoax, by Alan Sokal, Professor of Mathematics at University College London, and of Physics at New York University, and author of the famous hoax article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity“. I have asked my University librarian why we carry the journal that published this nonsense, and how much it is costing us. I have not had a reply; but then, if she had not heard of the matter before seeing the title of my email, she may have discarded it as spam. It seems likely that we carry the journal concerned, Cogent Social Sciences, as part of a bundle, since I do not imagine that any academic Department at Glasgow would have requested it.

The article has been retracted, and is no longer available on the journal website, but the published version had been archived and remains available here.

“It is also factually incorrect to associate the anatomical penis with male reproductivity.” (Cogent Social Sciences (2017), 3: 1330439, https://doi.org/10.1080/23311886.2017.1330439

The journal that accepted this paper, after peer review, is available through Glasgow University Library, and is published by Taylor and Francis. This in turn is owned by the conglomerate Informa, which has swallowed a number of thoroughly reputable publishing houses. Among them, CRC (who produce a valuable science data reference resource, known for historical reasons as “the Rubber Bible” (though perhaps I should explain in the present context that the vulgar US meaning of “rubber” has nothing to do with it), Routledge, and Gordon and Breach. Wikipedia credits Taylor and Francis with revenue of £490 million in 2016, or over a quarter of a million per employee. Informa is incorporated in Jersey but tax resident in Switzerland.

Go to https://www.cogentoa.com/article/10.1080/23311886.2017.1330439.pdf (or if that link disappears, as it well may, to the authors’ archived link, here,  and you will see an article by Jamie Lindsay and Peter Boyle, of Southeast Independent Social Research Group. There you will be told, at the outset, that

The androcentric scientific and meta-scientific evidence that the penis is the male reproductive organ is considered overwhelming and largely uncontroversial.

But do not be deceived by this social consensus. To quote the paper’s Public Interest Statement,

As a result of our research into the essential concept of the penis and its exchanges with the social and material world, we conclude that penises are not best understood as the male sexual organ, or as a male reproductive organ, but instead as an enacted social construct that is both damaging and problematic for society and future generations. … and is the conceptual driver behind much of climate change. Read the rest of this entry

An Ammonite Fossil Leaves A Trail of Evidence of a Tranquil Jurassic Seafloor

Catastrophist creationism gracefully refuted (again); this time by skid marks of drifting ammonite. Free download of paper at Lomax DR., Falkingham PL., Schweigert G., and Jiménez AP. 2017. An 8.5 m long ammonite drag mark from the Upper Jurassic Solnhofen Lithographic Limestones, Germany. PLOS ONE

Naturalis Historia

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Creationist nonsense on geology; the odd case of Prof McIntosh D.Sc.

Image result for andy mcintoshCatastrophism versus gradualism; this controversy was laid to rest by TH Huxley in his 1869 Address to the Geological Society, but UK Young Earth Creationists persist in parading the corpse as if it presented a living challenge to current thinking. Perhaps it appeals to their absolutist binary mindset.

McIntosh himself is a member of the group mendaciously mislabelled Truth in Science, which distributed the equally mendacious neo-creationist tract Exploring Evolution to UK schools some years ago, and is an author of the error-saturated Origins, Examining the Evidence, published by that group. BCSE has published a detailed review of Exploring Evolution here.

This piece by my friend, the geologist historian Anglican priest Michael Roberts, will tell you more about McIntosh’s writing than you wish to know, but will convey a wealth of fascinating geological and historical information in the process.

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

THE GEOLOGY OF GENESIS FOR TODAY

Image result for andy mcintosh

One of the best selling British creationist books is Genesis for Today by Andy McIntosh, which is now in its 5th edition. https://www.dayone.co.uk/products/genesis-for-today

Most of the book is a popular exposition of Genesis 1 to 11 – and some of it I agree with, but not his insistence that it is literal history.

In Genesis for Today McIntosh gives three scientific appendices, which are much the same in the 1st and 5th editions.  I could either go through and nit-pick his geological errors or consider them under main headings. I have chosen the latter.

Image result

Most would think that a professor in a scientific discipline at a leading university (with a first-rate geology department) would be able to make a reasonable showing on geology.Many amateurs and non-geologists I’ve met in geological societies have a clear grasp.

From the whole of his book, other writings and…

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If, how, and why to vote in June 8 UK general election

“My vote won’t make the difference.” Of course it won’t. But you are part of a community of like-minded people with shared interests. Collectively, such communities make all the difference in the world. So you can do your bit, or you can let your friends do all the work without you. Up to you.

First, make sure you’re registered. This cannot be taken for granted, especially if you have moved in the past couple of years, and even if you had been automatically registered before that. The Cameron Government changed the rules, in a way a highly unfavourable to students and others who change addresses. I wonder why.

It takes less than 5 minutes. Go to https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote?gclid=COaV5_HL7NMCFawp0wod-ykCSw and follow instructions. You will generally need your National Insurance number. You must be 18 or over, a British citizen, a qualifying Commonwealth citizen or a citizen of the Republic of Ireland. And you can’t vote if you’re in the House of Lords, or in jail. You will also find instructions for armed service or overseas voting, and for postal voting.

How to vote? The UK system is First past the post. You only get to vote for one candidate. So

  • If your most preferred (or lease unpreferred) candidate has a real chance of winning in your constituency, vote for them
  • Otherwise, vote for your choice, however reluctant, between the candidates who do have a chance of winning there.
  • If your top priority is to stop one particular party from being elected, vote for whoever is most likely to defeat them in your constituency. For many (not all) of my friends, this will mean voting for whoever is most likely to defeat the Tory. You can find guidance on that here, and although I have not checked the site’s credentials, I have looked at a number of its recommendations and they seem reasonable.

Finally, if you have not yet decided your preference, I have a very old-fashioned solution. Look at the record of this Government, what it has to offer, and compare it with the alternatives. For example, if you think that the railways are better under private ownership, that Brexit negotiations are being conducted with skill and competence, that the NHS in England is well supported, that Government finances are under control, and that poverty and homelessness are no longer real problems in Britain, you should definitely vote Tory.

Church nominees on Education Committees; Petitions Committee writes to Scottish Government (for 3rd time)

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any better for our Petition to remove unelected Church nominees from Scottish Local Authority Education Committees, things got better.

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Spencer Fildes and Paul Braterman testifying to Public Petitions Committee

The Scottish Secular Society is petitioning the Scottish Parliament for the removal of the theocratic anomaly, according to which every Local Authority Education Committee in Scotland must include three representatives of religious bodies. These church nominees are not answerable to the electorate, nor to the elected Councillors, and do not even have to declare an interest.

The Public Petitions Committee has now discuss the matter at three separate meetings. At its November 24 meeting last year, it took evidence from Spencer Fildes, who is advancing the Petition on behalf of the Society, with minor contributions from me, and agreed to write to interested parties, including of course the Scottish Government. So far, so predictable. On February 2 of this year, it reviewed the responses, declared itself unsatisfied with the governmental response regarding the equalities duty as it applies here, and wrote to them again. This was a highly significant development. The Committee agrees, as the Equalities and Human Rights Commission itself has agreed since the matter was first raised in 2013, that there are equalities issues here that invite discussion in terms of Scotland’s 1998 Human Rights Act and 2010 Equality Act. What is relevant is the duty of any public body, including the Government itself, to eliminate discrimination and advance equality of opportunity, and of course the privileged position of religious communities on the Education Committees is discrimination and inequality of opportunity, since it creates positions of political power for which only those holding certain religious beliefs are eligible.

In reply to the Committee’s letter, sent February 3, the Scottish Government stated that it will

seek to undertake an Equality Impact Assessment on any policy proposals emerging from the Education Governance Review. It is our intention that once this process has been undertaken we will then consider any of the Scottish Secular Society’s proposals that are not addressed through any changes made by the Education Governance Review.

We were happy, at least for the moment, with this reply. The Committee was not. At its most recent meeting (April 27), the Committee agreed to write to the Government yet again, asking for clarification of the timescale of its planned response to the Education Governance Review, whether it was committed to carrying out an equality impact assessment, and whether the final sentence of its letter referred to the Petition, or to the Society’s submission to the Review.

JohannLamontMSPgreenjacket.jpg

Johann Lamont (CC via Wikipedia)

Most significantly, the Convener (the redoubtable Johann Lamont) further commented

I was quite interested in the idea that the public sector equality duty does not apply to legislation that we have already passed—I was quite intrigued by that. That seemed to me to be saying, “Well, that was before we thought about the equality question, so we don’t have to include it.” I suppose that the question for the Scottish Government concerns the point at which it looks at things that have been done in the past to see whether they match up, and whether the governance review affords the Government the opportunity to consider that issue.

it seems clear that she, for one, will not be happy if the Government evades our arguments on the legalistic grounds that the legislation imposing the Religious Representatives requirement predates the equalities legislation.

The Committee formally agreed to keep the petition open pending the Government’s reply, with one member saying that they could then ”decide how to take the petition further”, and the Convener thanked us for our ongoing interest.

Three years ago, in response to a very similar petition, the Equality and Human Rights Commission expressed its concerns at the present situation, to no avail. The then Petitions Committee forwarded that petition to the Education and Skills Committee, who allowed it to run into the sand because of procedural complexities. So what has changed? In my judgement, several things. Firstly, the Public Petitions Committee is adopting a much more assertive role, rather than merely acting as a gatekeeper. Its convener, Johann Lamont, is an experienced and formidable politician, and former leader of the Scottish Labour Party, a position from which she resigned in 2014, giving as reason interference by the Westminster Labour leadership. She has said of herself

I have been a committee convener, proud of building consensus where possible, to test legislation and to challenge the government of the day.

Secondly, we have the steady drift away from the Churches. This has two effects. It adds weight to the argument that the present arrangement is unjust, because those excluded from the privileged position of Religious Representative are now an actual majority among younger Scots. And as a corollary, it reduces the electoral cost of opposing the Churches. It is the duty of elected Members to consider such things, not only out of self-interest, but because of their duty to represent their constituents.

It will be some time before the fate of our Petition becomes clearer, but, whatever happens next, the issue will not go away. The Public Petitions Committee has shown that it will not be fobbed off with mere generalisations. We have, with the help of our MSP friends, succeeded in framing the discussion in terms of equality, rather than in terms of religion, and I am increasingly convinced that the reforms we seek are now only a matter of time.

To support the Scottish Secular Society click on “Donate” button. The  Scottish Secular society exists to promote freedom of, and freedom from, religious belief, and holds meetings on subjects of interest approximately once a month.

Appendix: relevant documents

Full documentation is on the Scottish Government website, here. The most recent documents are shown below:

Scottish Government submission of 3 March 2017:

Thank you for your letter of 3 February in respect of Petition PE1623 from the Scottish Secular Society calling for changes to the current practices under Section 124 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 which requires that local authority education committees must include members nominated by various churches.

Following your meeting on 2 February you requested the Scottish Government’s timescale for publishing the Education Governance Review findings and whether an assessment of the position of unelected church appointees had been undertaken in respect of the Public Sector Equality Duty.

As you are aware, the Education Governance Review was launched by the Deputy First Minister on 13 September 2016 and ended on 6 January 2017. The purpose of the Education Governance Review was to ask consultees about the role that every part of our education system plays to deliver education in Scotland and how this could be improved. The consultation asked 17 questions, covering 5 key areas:

  1. Empowering teachers, practitioners, parents, schools and communities
  2. Strengthening ‘the middle’ – how teachers, practitioners, schools and other local and regional partners work together to deliver education – including through encouraging school clusters and the establishment of new educational regions
  3. A clear national framework and building capacity in education
  4. Fair funding – learner-centred funding
  5. Accountability

The Scottish Government received over 1100 responses to the consultation, including a response from the Scottish Secular Society, in addition to this over 700 people attended the public engagement sessions. The consultation responses, where permission was given, were published on the Scottish Government’s consultation hub on 3 February. The Scottish Government is now taking time to consider these responses, and wider evidence, and will publish their findings in due course.

In relation to the issues of an EQIA, in 1996, section 124 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 was substituted into that Act by the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994. As this predates the Equalities Act 2010 there was no requirement to carry out an assessment of this provision in terms of the public sector equality duty at the time it was instructed.

The Public Sector Equality Duty in the Equality Act 2010 has three main elements. It requires public authorities to have ‘due regard’ to the need to:

(a) Eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under the Act

(b) Advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it

(c) Foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it

Please be assured that we will seek to undertake an Equality Impact Assessment on any policy proposals emerging from the Education Governance Review. It is our intention that once this process has been undertaken we will then consider any of the Scottish Secular Society’s proposals that are not addressed through any changes made by the Education Governance Review.

Official report of April 27 meeting: Local Authority Education Committees (Church Appointees) (PE1623)

The Convener:   (Johann Lamont, Labour, Glasgow)

The next petition is PE1623, on unelected church appointees on local authority education committees. It was lodged by Spencer Fildes on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society. Submissions by the Scottish Government and the petitioner have been circulated to members, along with a note by the clerk.

The Scottish Government identifies the number of responses that it received on its education governance review and says that it will publish its findings in due course. In response to our question on any assessment it had undertaken in respect of the public sector equality duty, the Scottish Government advises that such an assessment was not a requirement at the time that the legislation was instructed, but that is something that it will seek to undertake on any policy proposals that arise from its governance review. The Government adds that it intends to consider any of the petitioners’ proposals that are not addressed through the governance review.

The petitioners broadly welcome the Scottish Government’s response but contend that it will not be possible to establish whether any proposals that emerge from the governance review address the issues that have been raised until they have been assessed.

Do members have any comments or suggestions for action to take?

Maurice Corry:    (C, West Scotland)

First, I think that we should seek from the Scottish Government an update on its anticipated timescale for the publication of its findings from its education governance review, which will apply to the local authorities as well. Subsequently, we should have clarification on whether the Government will carry out any equality impact assessment on policy proposals from that review. Thirdly, we should have clarification on whether the Government’s reference to the Scottish Secular Society’s proposals relate to what is called for in the petition or to the society’s response to the consultation. It is also important that we refer the matter to COSLA for its views.

The Convener:

Okay. We got some information from COSLA in response to our initial search for evidence.

Do members agree that we write to the Scottish Government as suggested? I was quite interested in the idea that the public sector equality duty does not apply to legislation that we have already passed—I was quite intrigued by that. That seemed to me to be saying, “Well, that was before we thought about the equality question, so we don’t have to include it.” I suppose that the question for the Scottish Government concerns the point at which it looks at things that have been done in the past to see whether they match up, and whether the governance review affords the Government the opportunity to consider that issue.

Rona Mackay:   (SNP, Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

I agree. We need clarification on the points that Maurice Corry raised. After we get a response, we can decide how to take the petition further.

The Convener:

Okay. Are we agreed on the action to take?

Members indicated agreement.

The Convener:

Again, we thank the petitioners for their on-going interest in the question.

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