Monthly Archives: June 2013

Don’t say Darwin unless you mean it

Don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution”. It’s about as useful as saying “Dalton” when you mean atoms. Our understanding of atoms has moved on enormously since Dalton’s time, and our understanding of evolution has moved on similarly since Darwin’s. Neither of them knew, or could have known, the first thing regarding what they were talking about, and both would be delighted at how thoroughly their own work has been superseded.

Dalton didn’t know anything about the forces that hold atoms together, which depend on electrons and quantum mechanics. In fact, he didn’t even know about electrons. Darwin was equally ignorant about the nature of biological novelty, which comes from mutating genes. In fact, he didn’t even know about genes. Chemistry has advanced enormously since Dalton, just as biology has advanced enormously since Darwin, although atoms remain central to chemistry in much the same way that evolution remains central to biology.
Darwin's Doubt

So why is discussion of evolution still saturated with Darwin’s name? In part, I think, because that’s the way the opponents of evolution want it. By identifying evolution with Darwin, they continue to breathe life into the controversies of the mid-19th century. At the same time, it helps them pretend that modern biology is just one individual’s point of view, rather than a mature science based on the work of thousands of investigators. Very recently, creationists have taken to invoking Darwin himself for their cause, in such titles as Darwin’s Doubt and Darwin Strikes Back. This is an extremely powerful rhetorical tool; if even Darwin was puzzled by [whatever], surely we “Darwinians” should be too. Closely related is the device of presenting creationism under the guise of even-handed debate, as when a creationist pseudo-textbook (which mentions Darwin on almost every page, but not in the index) calls itself Explore Evolution; the arguments for and against neo-Darwinism, or in the list below, where a creationist comic goes by the name, What’s Darwin got to do with it? A friendly discussion …

And while we’re on the subject of unhelpful language, don’t say “theory of evolution” when you mean the well-established facts of historical and continuing change over time, and of common ancestry. And if you find yourself in the position of explain the difference between a scientific theory (coherent intellectual structure developed to explain a range of observations), and the use of the word “theory” in everyday use (provisional hypothesis), you have blundered into a morass. Back out again.

But back to Darwin. You can see what I mean if you just look at the names of the books written by the new enemies of scientific biology, from Darwin’s Doubt (Meyer, 2013) all the way back to Darwin’s Black Box (Behe, 1996) and beyond. This week I came across further examples, The Darwin Conspiracy (Roy Davies, 2006), which portrays Darwin as a plagiarist, and, while checking its details, an even more lurid book of the same name by John Darnton, which portrays him as a murderer. To be fair, Darnton does not pretend that he is writing anything other than fiction, although surely he was writing with half an eye on the creationist market.

To test my idea, I went online to, and typed “Darwin” and “Darwinism” in the search window. Here are some of the books by creationists that I came up with; a lot of the names were all too familiar, but I never realized that Rick Santorum had actually got his name on a book:

Darwin’s Doubt (Meyer, 2013)

Dehumanization: A Product of Darwinism (David Campbell, 2012)

How We Got Swindled By Wall Street Godfathers, Greed & Financial Darwinism (E. Henry Schoenberger and David Satterfield, 2011)

Evolution by Intelligent Design: Debate is Over – Darwinism is Extinct (Gabor Lingauer, 2011)

Exposing Darwinism’s Weakest Link: Why Evolution Can’t Explain Human Existence (Kenneth Poppe, 2008)

Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism, (Stephen C. Meyer, Scott Minnich, Jonathan Moneymaker and Paul A. Nelson, 2007)

The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (Michael Behe, 2007); Since Behe clearly believes that biological complexity is the work of a designer who operates independently of natural laws, I include Behe as a creationist, although he would deny this)

Darwin Day In America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science  John G. West, 2007)

Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design (Thomas Woodward, 2007)

Darwin’s Nemesis: Phillip Johnson and the Intelligent Design Movement (William A. Dembski and Rick Santorum, 2006)

Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design (Thomas Woodward and William Dembski , 2006)

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design (Jonathan Wells, 2006)

Reclaiming Science from Darwinism: A Clear Understanding of Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, (Kenneth Poppe, 2006)

The Naked Emperor: Darwinism Exposed (Antony Latham, 2005)


Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing (William A. Dembski, 2004)

Darwinism, Design and Public Education (John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer, 2003)

Darwinism and the Rise of Degenerate Science (Paul Back, 2003)

The Collapse of Darwinism: Or The Rise of a Realist Theory of Life (Graeme D. Snooks, 2003)

Human Devolution: A Vedic Alternative to Darwin’s Theory (Michael A. Cremo, 2003)

The Case Against Darwin: Why the Evidence Should Be Examined (James Perloff, 2002)

Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (Benjamin Wiker and William Dembski (Jul 12, 2002)

Darwinism Under The Microscope: How recent scientific evidence points to divine design (James P. Gills, 2002)

Shattering the Myths of Darwinism (Richard Milton, 2000)

What’s Darwin Got to Do with It?: A Friendly Discussion About Evolution (Robert C. Newman, John L. Wiester and Janet Moneymaker, 2000)

Darwinism Defeated? (J. I. Packer, Phillip E. Johnson and Denis O. Lamoureux, 1999) (Lamoureux says no, by the way)

Evolution Deceit: The Scientific Collapse of Darwinism (Harun Yahya and Mustapha Ahmad, 1999)

Tornado in a Junkyard: The Relentless Myth of Darwinism (James Perloff, 1999)

Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (Phillip E. Johnson, 1997)

Darwin’s Black Box (Michael Behe, 1996)

Darwinism, Science or Philosophy? (Phillip E. Johnson et al., 1994)

Darwin on Trial (Phillip E. Johnson, 1991)

Darwinism : The Refutation of a Myth (Soren Lovtrup, 1987)

There are also references to  “materialist neo-Darwinism”, but since I don’t pretend to know what a “materialist” is, and whether I or for that matter Darwin would qualify, I decided to let that go.

And so on, all the way back to The Refutation of Darwinism: And the Converse Theory of Development; Based … Upon Darwin’s Facts, (T Warren O’Neill, pre-1923)

Six Day Creationist publicly endorses Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt

The reasoning behind Stephen Meyer’s latest offering will not stand up to examination. However, the Discovery Institute have proudly announced that it has been endorsed by one of Britain’s leading scientists. It turns out, however, that the leading scientist is actually a doctor, not an evolutionary biologist, that he has been deeply involved with the Discovery Institute for many years, and that he required no convincing of the book’s central claim that biological information is the work of a designer. Nor, perhaps, is he the right person to evaluate Meyer’s critique of evolutionary science, because he never accepted evolutionary science in the first place. He believes that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, that Genesis I through XI is a historically accurate account, and that biological information actually originated on Days Three through Six of Creation, some 6000 years ago, at God’s say-so.

Darwin’s Doubt has been billed by the Discovery Institute as a game changer, but it is not clear what game is supposed to have been changed. Certainly not the game as played by the Discovery Institute, which continues to rely on various publicity stunts, and on its readers’ (and perhaps its writers’) ignorance of the underlying science.

Meyer’s argument rests on two pillars; that there was a sudden unexplained explosion of multiplicity of body plans around 500 million years ago (the “Cambrian explosion”), and that this is just a special case of a more general phenomenon, namely that evolution cannot generate information as complex as that found within living things.

It would be chutzpah on my part to claim any originality in my refutation of these claims, when the job has been done so expertly in a pandasthumb posting by Nick Matzke, written as he finishes graduate school. To summarise Matzke’s argument, the “explosion” was not a sudden event at all, but part of a complex sequence, and so far from the simultaneous de novo appearance of numerous unrelated body types, we have detailed knowledge of the family connections between them. As for the argument that evolution cannot generate new complexities, it is simply wrong. We see it happening all the time. Matzke actually knows something about this sort of thing, having written important papers on the origins of the bacterial flagellum and, more recently, the timing of the endosymbiotic events that gave rise to mitochondria.

What I want to talk about here is the latest publicity stunt. I have already written about the earlier pre-launch stunt of passing the hat round the Discovery Institute’s supporters in order to buy media coverage. What the DI have now done is to trumpet the endorsement of the book by Prof Norman Nevin, a leading biological scientist, as an example of a leading scientist who has been swayed by the book’s arguments.

There are just a few things wrong with this claim. Prof Nevin is not an evolutionary scientist at all. He is a medical geneticist, and if I wanted advice on whether it would be wise for me to marry my cousin, he would certainly be the right person to go to. However, that does not magically give him any deeper insight than anyone else into the origins of the deleterious genes that might manifest themselves in our offspring. (As we shall see later, he does claim such an insight, but not one that many readers here would accept.) He is not an independent judge of the Discovery Institute’s activities, since he is Chairman of Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID), which derives materials, arguments, and prominent speakers from the Discovery Institute, and whose very foundation was inspired by a visit to the UK of Phillip Johnson, the DI’s original creator. Finally, we can be completely confident that Prof Nevin’s acceptance of Intelligent Design is not the result of what Stephen Meyer has just written. His chairmanship of the Centre, which exists precisely to promote it, goes back to its foundation in 2010, and his acceptance of Intelligent Design derives, not from scientific argument, but from parochial religious obscurantism.

I am now going to resort to an ad hominem argument. Some people will say this is very wrong of me, and indeed I have been barred from posting comments on the C4ID FaceBook page for doing it. However, I will use the playground excuse of “they started it”. It is the Discovery Institute that invoked Prof Nevin’s authority in the first place, and so it is fair play to subject that authority to scrutiny.

Prof Nevin has told us what he thinks, at considerable length, in a series of sermons given at Bethany Church, Belfast. You will find his views on Adam and Eve here and here, and on the historical reality of Noah’s flood here. Or, if you’re not willing to sit and suffer for two hours, you can find a few representative quotations on the British Centre for Science Education website:

I believe the first eleven chapters of Genesis as the word of god and as historical fact.

Genesis is the foundation of God’s word and I believe that it is crucial to our understanding of the rest of scripture.

Indeed the eleven chapters, the first eleven chapter of the Book of Genesis, are referred to in the New Testament. So the Book of Genesis is foundational to the word of God.

So the Lord Jesus Christ looked upon Adam and Eve, he looked upon Abel and Cain as historical figures… and when he discusses the Flood and Noah… the Lord Jesus Christ looked upon these early chapters as historical fact.

And what’s good enough for the Lord Jesus Christ is good enough for Norman Nevin. So there!

I must admit that here Prof Nevin has the advantage of me. I do not claim to know exactly what was said in Judaea almost 2000 years ago. And even if I did, I wouldn’t know whether references to older texts implied that they were to be understood literally or allegorically, a distinction already well-developed in the rabbinical tradition of the time.

And what about those genetic defects, on which Prof Nevin really is an expert, which irrevocably condemn a child to the slow choking death of cystic fibrosis, or an adult to the mental degeneration of Huntingdon’s? How could it possibly be their fault? Again, Prof Levin has the answer. The world, as created, was “very good”, as Genesis 1:31 assures us. So all these nasty things were not in the world as created, and must be the result of something that happened later. Of course, the Fall! The choking child, the confused and twitching adult, deserve everything that is happening to them because of something their remote ancestors did 6000 years ago. So that dreadful Something really must have happened, as a matter of historical fact, and everything those nasty evolutionists and Darwinians are telling you is wrong.

If you can believe that, no wonder you can believe that Stephen Meyer’s ramblings are superb science.

Sex, Lies, and Pam Stenzel; what my Freedom of Information request dredged up

The Stenzel story received more coverage in last Friday’s Times Educational Supplement Scotland, in conjunction with a closely related story about the uneven quality of sex education in Scottish high schools.

In brief: the school has failed in its basic responsibilities. It invited an ill-informed speaker on the basis of her reputation with the discredited abstinence-only US sex education movement, and because her message suited their agenda. It did this without bothering to check her credentials, or even her own website, where they would have seen how poor her qualifications were. It invited her to disseminate disinformation that even the head teacher describes as “contentious”, on topics of life and death importance including cancer and mental health. And finally, the task of evaluating and discussing her materials is assigned to the very RE teachers who suggested inviting her in the first place, using, as a teaching aid, the video of her error-laden talk.

The core problem is that sexual health and relationships education in Catholic schools in Scotland is delivered as part of the “Called to Love” module of religious education, and that in these schools the religious education curriculum is determined by the Scottish Bishops’ Council. So life-and-death factual information is entrusted to teachers with no training in biology or health-related issues, while the actual content is determined by a similarly unqualified committee of professional celibates.

As promised, I give here the replies that I received from Renfrewshire Council, the local authority responsible for St Andrew’s Academy. First I give those where the reply seems to be of interest, with my comments, but then, for the record, I include the others at the end so that you can see I am not quote mining.

What fees were paid to Ms Stenzel for her visit, and what contributions were made towards her expenses, and other incidental expenses connected with the visit, such as the cost of busing in children from other schools?

Ms Stezel did not charge fees for this event.

Comment: although she did not charge fees, she was, according to an eyewitness (see Garry Otton’s account on the Scottish Secular Society web page), doing a brisk business in the sale of her CDs.

What were the sources used to pay such fees, contributions, and expenses?

The costs of Ms Stenzel’s flights from Belfast to Glasgow and return were paid for by the school fund of St Andrew’s Academy. There were no other costs.

Comment: you might be wondering how Ms Stenzel, who is based in California, came to be in Belfast. She was there by invitation of Precious Life, a group opposed to abortion in all cases including rape.

An eyewitness was told that one of your RE teachers visited Ms Stenzel in California. Did the teacher receive any assistance from school or other funds for that trip?

A teacher of Religious Education attended the Diocese of Los Angeles R. E. Congress 2013 in California. She paid her own expenses for this Continuing Professional Development opportunity. Amongst other lectures she attended during the conference, she also attended the lecture by Ms Stenzel.

You read that correctly. The Diocese of Los Angeles organized a lecture on sexual morality.

Was the school aware that Ms Stenzel has no formal training or qualifications regarding the health matters that she discusses, her only academic qualification being a first degree in psychology?

The School and the church authorities were aware of Ms Stenzel’s reputation and the message she delivered in her books and her lectures.

Translation: we didn’t know and we don’t care. So what if she doesn’t know what she’s talking about? We agree with what she’s saying.

In evaluating her qualifications, did you take into account the fact that this degree is from an extreme Conservative US evangelical university, LibertyUniversity (founder, Jerry Falwell; funder, Sun Myung Moon), which collaborates with AnswersInGenesis and requires its biology professors to embrace Young Earth Creationism? (Such Creationism is of course incompatible with Catholic teaching.)

The school was not aware of this.

Comment: the school had not even bothered to visit Ms Stenzel’s self-description on her own website.

Were you, and other teachers involved in the decision to invite Ms Stenzel, aware that she would repeatedly claim that having more than one lifetime partner was dangerous and damaging (eyewitness report: “No one has ever had more than one partner and not paid”)? Did you consider the effect of this claim on children whose parents clearly have had more than one partner, including those remarrying with the full blessing of the Catholic Church after bereavement or annulment?

Having viewed her video/presentation the school’s head teacher was of the view that her general theme was to promote celibacy before marriage and monogamy during marriage as the best way to have positive relationships.

Comment: we approve of her general theme, so don’t bother us with troublesome details.

Were you aware that Ms Stenzel, in all her talks, makes a number of claims that depart considerably from received and informed medical opinion, and in many cases have been explicitly refuted, including the claims that 30% of all sexually transmitted diseases including gonorrhoea are incurable and life-long; and that abortion leads to an increased risk of depression?

The school’s headteacher is aware that this area is deeply contentious across the medical profession. The facts of the case are followed up in R.E. classes using the most up-to-date medical knowledge.

Translation: we know that the medical profession insists that what she was telling the children is a load of bollocks, but we are going to carry on repeating it anyway.

I understand the event was filmed. Who owns this film and how will it be used? Who paid for the filming? Who will have access to the film?

The R.E. department of the school filmed the lecture for curricular use. There was no cost. The R.E. department would envisage using excerpts in their R.E. programme.

Comment: see translation of previous item.

Were you aware that she would conjure up from nowhere, as a question she was unable to answer, the possibility that chlamydia could lead to sterility?

As the head teacher did not have a script prior to the event, he was not aware that she would raise this issue.

Comment: the head teacher claims to have seen a video of her presentation before inviting her, but presumably failed to notice this minor detail.

Were you aware that she would grossly misrepresent the effectiveness of HPV vaccination, which she describes as effective only for 4 out of 18 strains of HPV, without mentioning that the vaccine is by design specific for HPV-16 and HPV-18, the very strains most capable of causing cervical cancer (which is why the vaccine is targeted against them)?

As with the previous question, the head teacher was not aware that she would raise this specific point about HPV vaccination.

Comment: as previous.

Do you know why, given her concern about cervical cancer, she failed to mention Papanikolaou (Pap) smears, which have been saving lives since 1941? And what measures are the schools taking to remedy this grave omission?

The school’s head teacher does not know why she failed to mention this issue.

Translation: we’re not really interested in keeping the children healthy. All we are really interested in is scaring them into being good.

Were you aware that by giving the impression that condoms are largely ineffective in preventing the spread of AIDS and STDs, the talk was in direct contradiction of official Scottish Government advice, as available at here:  “All young people must be given advice on “safe sex” and how to avoid or limit their exposure to infection. Young couples are encouraged to use a method of contraception and condoms to protect against transmission of infections.” [note that this advice refers to all young people] and, through that link, at “Always use a condom that carries the British Kite Mark or European CE safety mark during sex. This prevents your partner(s) becoming infected with HIV, hepatitis and other sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea and herpes.”?

Ms Stenzel’s message about condoms were [sic] linked to the church’s message about celibacy and the fact that STDs are increasing in Scotland.

Comment is superfluous.

Did you or any one else involved with this visit take into account the possibility that the effects of her presentation are liable to include couples refraining from condom use, in the mistaken belief that it was ineffectual in preventing disease transmission, and individuals refraining from seeking medical attention for STDs, in the mistaken belief that they are incurable?

Ms Stenzel’s message about condoms was linked to the church’s message about celibacy and the fact that STDs are increasing in Scotland.

As for previous item.

Did you or anyone else involved in this visit take into account the extremely high probability that the effect on some pupils will be to totally discredit the schools’ teaching regarding sexuality, including the need to behave responsibly and to take appropriate precautions?

The school’s head teacher did not anticipate the outcomes you describe.

Comment: the NHS Health Education Department (see story here) can go jump in a lake.

Are you aware that studies in the US have shown that “abstinence only” sex education programs, extensively funded under the George W Bush administration, have been shown to be completely ineffectual?

In terms of Section 17 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, we have no recorded information to answer this question.

Comment: we don’t wish to know that. (However, Ms Stenzel knows it perfectly well, and when challenged about it is on record as saying that it doesn’t matter because she is telling the truth as she sees it, and because she is answerable only to God.)

And just for the record:

Which schools took part in this event?

All Catholic secondary schools of the Diocese of Paisley were invited to attend the meeting on 8 May 2013. Almost all sent some pupils, accompanied by their Religious Education teachers.

What part or parts of the school curriculum did this event address?

This talk complemented the S3 Religious Education course “Called to Love” which is a central part of the Relationships and Model Education element of the S3 syllabus in a Catholic school.

Was the school aware that, according to publicly available tax data, in 2011 (the most recent date for which this information is available) Ms Stenzel’s operation had an annual budget in excess of $268,000?

The school is not aware of the annual budget of Ms Stenzel’s operation.

Which teachers were consulted before authorizing Ms Stenzel’s visit? In particular, were teachers involved in education regarding biology, health, and human sexuality consulted? What opinions did they express?

All staff in the School were informed of the visit. There were no objections to the visit.

In view of the well-known emotionally disturbing nature of Ms Stenzel’s presentations, what notification was sent to parents and to senior pupils, and what measures were taken to ensure their consent to the pupils’ attendance? (Please supply copies of relevant material as distributed to parents. I have an eyewitness report that one student, from St Ninian’s, denied parental involvement, and said that he had been sent by his teacher).

Letters were sent to the parents of all year groups from S3 – S6 in St Andrew’s Academy. No parents objected. Many parents came with their children to the event. It is also sent to the same age groups of pupils in TrinityHigh School. Other young people who attended were from schools outside Renfrewshire. As such we have no further information about how they informed young people.

Were you aware that her talk would be deeply insulting to males, and would include an anecdote about how she had humiliated a boy by asking him where his vulva was?

The school’s headteacher has had no feedback that would suggest that this presentation was insulting to males.

Comment: an eyewitness reported this anecdote, but I have relegated this evasion to the “boring” category in comparison with other items.

What plans exist or are contemplated to invite Ms Stenzel again?

There are none.

Comment: they have her recorded anyway. No need.


Out of control sex “education” in Scottish Catholic schools; background to the Stenzel Horrors

The underlying problem is that factual information about sex is, in Scottish Catholic schools, delivered under the Religious Education heading as part of the “Called to Love” module of sexual health and relationships education (SHRE), and tailored to suit Church doctrine, not scientific or educational reality.

A Scottish Parliamentary report, described here in Friday’s TESS, refers to “worrying” comments from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde that Catholic schools had prevented NHS officials from scrutinising their SHRE.

In the words of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (I asked them), Religious Education in Scottish Catholic schools “is set out in statute with the Catholic Education Commission having responsibility for the faith content of the curriculum on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland.  Religious education in Catholic schools takes place within the context of the wider Catholic faith community, in partnership with home and parish, and as part of the school curriculum’s Experiences and Outcomes.”

So there are no checks and balances. If it chooses (and it does so choose) the Bishop’s Conference can decide that agnosticism and atheism are not to be discussed as real options on a par with religious faiths. Even worse, it seems that the Bishop’s Conference can and does dictate the factual content of SHRE regarding human sexuality, refuses to even discuss the matter with NHS officials, and feels (and is) at liberty to override explicit Scottish Government guidance, when that guidance says (here and here) that

All young people must be given advice on “safe sex” and how to avoid or limit their exposure to infection. Young couples are encouraged to use a method of contraception and condoms to protect against transmission of infections.


a condom … prevents your partner(s) becoming infected with HIV, hepatitis and other sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea and herpes

This leads to such horrific episodes as Pam Stenzel’s school visit in Paisley last month. I reported on this earlier, and have now heard back from the Local Authority in response to my Freedom of Information request. The visit has also been the subject of a story in today’s TESS, and I am happy to have been able to supply some if the information used there. If happy is the right word; we shouldn’t have to keep fighting against reality-denying nonsense in our schools, whether that nonsense is about creationism or about chlamydia.

Tomorrow, I am going to the Edinburgh Secular Society conference in Edinburgh where I will be talking about both those issues. On Sunday, I will post here the full response of Renfrewshire Council to my Freedom of Information request. There you will see, among other things, that the school who invited Ms Stenzel did not know about the highly questionable quality of her academic qualifications, that it regards nonsense claims she made as “contentious” when in fact they are downright wrong, and that her talk (filmed for future use) is in any case justified because it fits in with the overall message about being good.

More later.

Boyle’s Law is not a principle; so does the UK Education Secretary know what a principle is?

What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law. [Education Secretary Michael Gove, reported here].

He has been justly mocked for confusing Newton’s laws with the laws of thermodynamics (e.g. here and here and, by me, here). But the kind of ignorance involved in describing Boyle’s Law as a “basic scientific principle” is far more damaging.

Disclosure: I taught Boyle’s Law for over 40 years, and it gets three index entries in my book, From Stars to Stalagmites.

Bottom line: Boyle’s Law is not basic. It is a secondary consequence of the kinetic theory of gases, which is basic. The difference is enormous, and matters. Anyone who thinks that Boyle’s Law is a principle doesn’t know what a principle is. (So Gove doesn’t know what a principle is? That figures.)

Reasoning: Boyle’s Law states that if you double the pressure on a sample of gas, you will halve the volume. Boyle thought this was because the molecules of gas repel each other, so it takes more pressure to push them closer together, and Newton put this idea on a mathematical footing, by suggesting an inverse square law for repulsion, rather like his inverse square law for gravitational attraction. They were wrong.

Mathematically, the Law is simply stated, which may be why Mr Gove thinks it is basic: volume is inversely proportional to pressure, which gives you a nice simple equation (P x V = a constant) that even a Cabinet Minister can understand. But on its own, it is of no educational value whatsoever. It only acquires value if you put it in its context, but this involves a concept of education that seems to be beyond his understanding.

Now to what is basic. Boyle’s Law is now explained using the kinetic theory of gases. This describes a gas as a whole lot of molecules, of such small volume compared to their container that we can think of them as points, each wandering around doing their own thing, and, from time to time, bouncing off the walls. It is the impact of these bounces that gives rise to pressure. If you push the same number of molecules (at the same temperature) into half the volume, each area of wall will get twice as many bounces per second, and so will experience twice the pressure. Pressure x volume remains constant.

Actually, Boyle’s Law isn’t even true. Simple kinetic theory neglects the fact that gas molecules attract each other a little, making the pressure less than what the theory tells you it ought to be. And if we compress the gas into a very small volume, we can no longer ignore the volume taken up by the actual molecules themselves.

So what does teaching Boyle’s Law achieve? Firstly, a bit of elementary algebra that gives clear answers, and that can be used to bully students if, as so often happens, they meet it in science before they have been adequately prepared in their maths classes. This, I suspect, is the aspect that Gove finds particularly appealing. Secondly, some rather nice experiments involving balancing weights on top of sealed-off syringes. Thirdly, insight into how to use a mathematical model and, at a more advanced level, how to allow for the fact that real gases do not exactly meet its assumptions. Fourthly, a good example of how the practice of science depends on the technology of the society that produces it. In this case, seventeenth century improvements in glassmaking made it possible to construct tubes of uniform cross-section, which were needed to measure volumes of gas accurately. Fifthly … but that’s enough to be going on with. Further elaboration would, ironically, lead us on to introductory thermodynamics. Ironically, given the interview that started this discussion.

Educationally, context is everything, the key to understanding and to making that understanding worthwhile. A person who decries the study of context is unfit for involvement with education.

Even at Cabinet level.

Newton, thermodynamics, Boyle’s Law, and the basics; a lesson for Michael Gove

On Monday, the Education Secretary said “What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law.” [Times interview, reported here]. He has been widely criticized for this (e.g. here and here), but it’s still worth discussing exactly why what he said is so appallingly wrong, on at least four separate counts. In the unlikely event that Mr. Gove ever reads this, he may learn something. Muddling up the laws of motion with the laws of thermodynamics is bad enough. Muddling up an almost incidental observation, like Boyle’s Law, is even worse, especially when this muddle comes from someone in charge of our educational system [well, not mine actually; I’m glad to say I live in Scotland], and in the very act of his telling teachers and examiners what is, and what is not, important.

Okay, from the top. Newton’s laws; Gove probably meant (if he meant anything) Newton’s laws of motion, but he may also have been thinking of Newton’s law (note singular) of gravity. The laws of motion are three in number:

1) If no force is acting on it, a body will carry on moving at the same speed in a straight line.

2) If force is acting on it, the body will undergo acceleration, according to the equation

 Force = mass x acceleration

3) Action and reaction are equal and opposite

So what does all this mean? In particular, what do scientists mean by “acceleration”? Acceleration is rate of change of velocity. Velocity is not quite the same thing as speed; it is speed in a particular direction. So the first law just says that if there’s no force, there’ll be no acceleration, no change in velocity, and the body will carry on moving in the same direction at the same speed. Notice, by the way, that if a body changes direction, that is a kind of acceleration, even if it keeps on going at the same speed. For example, if something is going round in circles, there must be a force (sometimes, confusingly, called centrifugal force) that keeps it accelerating inwards, and stops it from going straight off at a tangent.

Then what about the heavenly bodies, which travel in curves, pretty close to circles although Kepler’s more accurate measurement had already shown by Newton’s time that the curves are actually ellipses? The moon, for example. The moon goes round the earth, without flying off at a tangent. So the earth must be exerting a force on the moon.

And finally, the third law. If the earth is tugging on the moon, then the moon is tugging equally hard on the earth. We say that the moon goes round the earth, but it is more accurate to say that earth and moon both rotate around their common centre of gravity.

Notice that all of this describes the motion of single bodies. Thermodynamics, as we shall see, only comes into play when we have very large numbers of individual bodies.

The other thing that Gove might have meant is Newton’s inverse square law of gravity, which tells us just how fast gravity decreases with distance.

Now here is the really beautiful bit. We can measure (Galileo already had measured) how fast falling bodies here on earth accelerate under gravity. Knowing how far we are from the centre of the earth, and how far away the moon is, we can work out from the inverse square law how strong the earth’s gravity is at that distance, and then, from Newton’s second law, how fast the moon ought to be accelerating towards the earth. And when we do this calculation, we find that that exactly matches the amount of acceleration needed to hold the moon in its orbit going round the earth just once every lunar month. (Any decent present-day physics student should be able to do this calculation in minutes. For Newton to do it for the first time involved some rather more impressive intellectual feats, such as clarifying the concepts of force, speed, velocity and acceleration, formulating the laws I’ve referred to, and inventing calculus.)

But what about the laws of thermodynamics? These weren’t discovered until the 19th century, the century of the steam engine. People usually talk about the three laws of thermodynamics, although there is actually another one called the Zeroth Law, because people only really noticed they had been assuming it long after they had formulated the others. (This very boring law says roughly that if two things are at the same temperature as – in physics-speak, at thermal equilibrium with – a third thing, they must be at the same temperature as each other. Otherwise, we couldn’t have the concept of “same temperature”.)

The First Law of thermodynamics is, simply, the conservation of energy. That’s all kinds of energy added up together, including for example heat energy, light energy, electrical energy, and the “kinetic energy” that things have because they’re moving. One very important example of the conservation of energy is what happens inside a heat engine, be it an old-fashioned steam engine, an internal combustion engine, or a power-generating turbine. Here, heat is converted into other forms of energy, such as mechanical or electrical. This is all far beyond anything Newton could have imagined. Newton wrote in terms of force, rather than energy, and he had been dead for over a century before people realized that the different forms of energy include heat.

There are many ways of expressing the Second Law, usually involving rather technical language, but the basic idea is always the same; things tend to get more spread out over time, and won’t get less spread out unless you do some work to make them. (One common formulation is that things tend to get more disordered over time, but I don’t like that one, because I’m not quite sure how you define the amount of disorder, whereas there are exact mathematical methods for describing how spread out things are.) For example, let a drop of food dye fall into a glass full of water. Wait, and you will see the dye spread through the water. Keep on waiting, and you will never see it separating out again as a separate drop. You can force it to, if you can make a very fine filter that lets the water through but retains the dye, but it always takes work to do this. To be precise, you would be working against osmotic pressure, something your kidneys are doing all the time as they concentrate your urine.

This sounds a long way from steam engines, but it isn’t. Usable energy (electrical or kinetic, say) is much less spread out than heat energy, and so the Second Law limits how efficiently heat can ever be converted into more useful forms.

The Second Law of thermodynamics also involves a radical, and very surprising, departure from Newton’s scheme of things. Newton’s world is timeless. Things happen over time, but you would see the same kinds of things if you ran the video backwards. We can use Newton’s physics to describe the motion of planets, but it could equally well describe these motions if they were all exactly reversed.

Now we have a paradox, to which I have yet to see a good solution, although I have seen many brave tries. Every single event taking place in the dye/water mixture can be described in terms of interactions between particles, and every such interaction can, as in Newton’s physics, be as well described going forwards or backwards. To use the technical term, each individual interaction is reversible. But the overall process is irreversible; you can’t go back again. You cannot unscramble eggs. Why not?

The Third Law is more complicated, and was not formulated until the early 20th century. It enables us to compare the spread-out-ness of heat energy in different chemical materials, and hence to predict which way chemical reactions tend to go. We can excuse Gove for not knowing about the Third Law, but the first two, as C. P. Snow pointed out a generation ago, should be part of the furniture of any educated mind.

If you don’t immediately realize that Newton’s laws and the laws of thermodynamics belong to different stages of technology, the age of sail as opposed to the age of steam, and to different levels of scientific understanding, the individual and macroscopic as opposed to the statistical and submicroscopic, then you don’t know what you’re talking about. Gove’s blunder has been compared to confusing Shakespeare with Dickens. It is far, far worse than that. It is – I am at a loss for an adequate simile. All I can say is that it is as bad as confusing Newton’s laws with the laws of thermodynamics, and I can’t say worse than that.

I will write on why Boyle’s Law is not basic tomorrow.

Discovery Institute’s vanity press style promotion of Stephen Meyer’s latest

Tuesday saw the launch of Stephen Meyer’s latest book, Darwin’s Doubt. I doubt if I will be reading it, but here’s a little of what the blurb on says about it:

In Darwin’s Doubt, Stephen C. Meyer tells the story of the mystery surrounding this [the Cambrian] explosion of animal life—a mystery that has intensified, not only because the expected ancestors of these animals have not been found, but because scientists have learned more about what it takes to construct an animal. During the last half century, biologists have come to appreciate the central importance of biological information—stored in DNA and elsewhere in cells—to building animal forms.

Expanding on the compelling case he presented in his last book, Signature in the Cell, Meyer argues that the origin of this information, as well as other mysterious features of the Cambrian event, are best explained by intelligent design, rather than purely undirected evolutionary processes.

So there you have it. Stephen Meyer is unaware of the roots, stretching back into the Ediacaran and beyond, of what he lumps in together with the Cambrian explosion. And he still doesn’t understand how evolving systems accumulate complexity, and thinks that saying an intelligence (or even an Intelligence) put it in there from the outside by unspecified means counts as an explanation. And of course, he uses the old old trick, which I have written about before, of bypassing our present-day understanding by linking the discussion back to Darwin.

The Discovery Institute also uses another old trick, which The Sensuous Curmugeon, much as I admire him, seems to have missed. Passing the hat round to buy publicity. The Curmudgeon writes:

Whenever a creationist’s book is trumpeted in a press release, we immediately consider it to be a candidate for our series on Self-Published Geniuses. That’s where we write about creationists and others who pay for press releases to promote vanity-published books about their imaginary discoveries and pseudo-science ravings.

But Meyer’s book doesn’t qualify for that list.

The Curmugeon is much too kind. Let me draw his attention to this, sent out by the Discovery Institute to its supporters (don’t ask me how I got hold of it, but I promise you it’s genuine, including emphasis and bullets):

As you know, we are hard at work, preparing the way for the release of Darwin’s Doubt with media projects, online and print advertising, radio interview campaigns, and more. Many have come alongside of us in supporting this project, and believe me, every bit helps in our goal of raising $50,000 to help promote this book.

All types of participation in this coordinated effort are vital to its success. Here are a few ways you can help:

Pre-order the book at [link in original], if you have not already done so.

Tell your friends and family about the book and encourage them to pre-order a copy.

Donate [link in original] to support the many ways we will be bringing attention to the book:

  • $35 will send the book to an opinion maker.
  • $100 will purchase an online advertising spot.
  • $150 will pay to set-up one radio interview for Stephen Meyer.
  • $400 will pay for the production of a podcast.
  • $2,000 will pay for the production of a promotional video short.

Thanks to a generous donor, every $2 we raise through this campaign will be matched by another $1. And, because of the donations already made and several offline donations, we now only need to raise about $27,500 to make our goal by the end of this month.

Please consider helping to pave the way for the release of Darwin’s Doubt by DONATING NOW [link in original].  With your help, this book will change the course of the origins debate for generations to come.

So now you know.

UK Education Secretary says students need to know how Newton invented thermodynamics [!]

I would like to say that Michael Gove shows a knowledge of what counts as basic science that is some 300+ years out of date, but that would be too kind.

Gove said there had been previous attempts to make science relevant, by linking it to contemporary concerns such as climate change or food scares. But he said: “What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law.” [Times interview, reported here]

As many readers will know, but the Education Secretary clearly doesn’t, Newton’s laws describe the motion of individual particles. Thermodynamics is intrinsically statistical, and was developed over a century after Newton’s death. Boyle’s Law is not a basic scientific principle, although it is a corollary of the basic principles followed by (ideal) gases. And here we have someone ignorant of these elementary facts, in a position of enormous power, telling the schools how to teach, and the examination boards how to examine.

And in this same interview, he says he wants schools to form chains and brands, like businesses. Satire falls silent.

Suddenly, I’m an intolerant atheist

Lately, we have all heard a lot about “intolerant atheists”. I was wondering who these people were. Now I know. It’s me.

As many of my readers know, Secular Scotland is backing a parliamentary petition to change the rules regarding Religious Observance in schools from opt-out (parents must take the initiative, and are often not even notified of their right to do so), to opt-in (children are only taking part if their parents want them to). Here is what RCScotland, the Catholic Parliamentary Office, had to say in reply, in Fr Paul’s posting of June 11:

 The intolerant mindset of the petitioners is perfectly illustrated by the following two comments they have made: that for our country to be considered Christian “flies in the face of Scotland’s position as a leading proponent of equality and diversity”; and asking [sic] “do you think it is right, if you are a non-Christian believer, that your child is forced to endure Christian religious observance?” [Emphasis in original].

Well yes: I do think it arrogant presumption to call this country Christian when most of its population don’t even go to church to get married. Worse, I think it morally wrong to manoeuvre children into praying to a God they don’t believe in. And so, I must confess, I am guilty as charged. And proud of it.

You have until Thursday to sign the petition here.

One week left – petition to change opt-out to opt-in for Religious Observance in Scottish schools



[Update: the petition was duly submitted with 1516 signatures, and Mark Gordon (for himslef) and Caroline Lynch )for Secular Scotland)  have been invited to give evidence to the Petitions Committee in September]

Only one week remains to sign the Secular Scotland Petition to the Scottish Parliament (you can sign here), to change the procedure regarding registration for children to take part in Religious Observance in schools from opt-out to opt-in. This petition has already attracted widespread attention in broadcasts, local and national newspapers, and discussion forums both secular and religious.

I and others have already rehearsed the arguments. Parents (and children) are not being informed of their rights, and in one extreme case (the Edinburgh School Handbook template, no less), the existence of RO is not even mentioned. RO receives input from committees with their own dynamic, including in at least one case from a prominent advocate of six-day creationism. Children are left thinking that the school requires them to take part in religious ceremonies that they don’t believe in, and those parents who are aware of their rights and wish to assert them are presented with bureaucratic hurdles, up to and including the need for a personal conference with the head teacher.

My own view is clear. Children should only be taking part in religious observance if they want to be, and I do not understand why anyone, whatever their own personal beliefs, would wish it otherwise. The view from the Catholic Church, and from the Free Church of Scotland, who find themselves in agreement over this (as over so many things these days), is that the change would cause disastrous disruption to the fabric of society, and be a prelude to the complete removal of religion from the public educational system. Such anxieties speak volumes.

For what it’s worth (and I know that facts are not worth very much in some discussions), both the petitioner, Mark Gordon, and the supporting organization, Secular Scotland, are very much in favour of the retention of Religious Education in schools, given the important role of religion in cultures worldwide, both historically and in the present. Moreover, neither is demanding the removal of Religious Observance from schools (there is indeed a separate petition to that effect, in which, however, Secular Scotland plays no formal role). My own view is that the public discussion that would result from the change to opt-in would help rejuvenate RO, because its advocates, with inertia no longer on their side, would be forced to find a role for it suitable for today’s Scotland, in which the traditional beliefs can no longer be taken for granted.

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