Monthly Archives: November 2013
Scottish friends; send John Finnie MSP your views on his bill to abolish Church appointees on Council education Committees
This is the first stage of the consultation process. Here’s my input. You can find the outline of the bill, and associated questions, here. All you need do is copy the questions, give your own answers (mine below might help, but please don’t cut and paste; it spoils the whole effect), get organisations you’re involved in to consider doing likewise, and pass the word on.
Response to your proposal to remove Church representatives from education committees.
I am Paul Braterman, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, 48 Nith Street, Glasgow G 33 2AF, responding as an individual.
Q1: Do you agree that the obligation on local authorities to appoint three church representatives to Education Committees (set out in section 124 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973) should be removed?
Yes, most strongly. It is an affront to democracy, completely anachronistic and in no way representative of the current Scottish population.
At least two of the church representatives owe their positions to their nominating churches, to which they are in the first instance answerable, rather than to the electorate. This is intolerable. In addition, members of the represented churches have dual access to the council, through their elected representatives and through the church representatives. This is inequitable. Finally, churches do have their own institutional interests. This is corrupting.
I note also that some church representatives represent strange views, which should certainly not have a privileged position within the educational system. For example, Dr Nagy Iskander (South Lanarkshire) is a six-day creationist, while the Rev David Fraser (Clackmannanshire) represents a church that believes in the special creation of Adam and Eve as characters in history, and a literal historical Fall that left their descendants “corrupted in every aspect of their being”, and has told its members that Noah’s Ark had been found on Mount Ararat.
Q2: Do you agree that at least two-thirds of the members of all local authority committees should be elected councillors?
Yes. That would allow even a very small committee (4 members) to co-opt 2 if it wished.
Q3: Do you agree that any unelected members of committees should no longer have a right to vote?
Yes. It is an affront to democracy that unelected members could ever sway an issue by voting.
Q4. Do you agree that all votes taken by councils and committees of councils should be recorded in a manner which would allow constituents to identify whether their elected member(s) had been present and able to take part in the vote?
Yes. Representative democracy depends on this sort of thing.
Q5: Do you agree with the following proposed categorisations of votes and no-votes? If not, what categories would best achieve the aim of greater accountability?
Names of all members present for that vote
Names of those voting yes
Names of those voting no
Names of those abstaining
Names of those ineligible to vote and the reason (e.g. because of a conflict of interest).
Names of those present and eligible but who did not vote
Q6: Beyond meetings of the whole council and its committees, are there any other meetings which should be covered by such a provision? How should such meetings be defined so as to apply clearly to every local authority and allow for variations in structure?
I do not know what kind of meeting could be referred to, but if it is any meeting at which individuals are eligible to vote by virtue of being councillors, or by virtue of some other position that they hold because they are councillors, they should be covered.
Q7: Do you agree that councillors should be obliged to record, in the same way as set out at question 5, any votes taken regarding local authorities’ statutory functions that take place in organisations and bodies out-with the local authority?
See my answer to Q6.
Q8: Do you agree that local authorities should be obliged to webcast all meetings to which the public are currently permitted?
Q9: Should the scope of this measure go beyond meetings of the full council and its committees and sub-committees? If so, what other meetings should local authorities be required to webcast?
Q10: Do you agree that, in addition to live webcasting, local authorities should be required to make archived recordings available for a period following the meeting? What would an appropriate period be?
I do not know enough about webcasting to have strong opinions on this. I do, however, feel that in all these cases, the minutes of meetings should be posted on the website, and archived indefinitely; and that if any materials are webcast, the archived recordings should remain available for a period including the next two council elections.
Q11: What is your assessment of the likely financial implications of the proposed Bill?
I do not know enough about webcasting to speak to its financial implications. The other proposed changes would probably result in a small financial saving.
Q12: Is the proposed Bill likely to have any substantial positive or negative implications for equality? If it is likely to have a substantial negative implication, how might this be minimised or avoided?
The proposed bill would enhance equality, by removing the privileges associated with religious organisations to which most Scots no longer belong (the combined membership of the Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland was less than 50% at the last census).
Q13: Do you have any other comments or suggestions relevant to the final proposal?
Merely that, like most Scots, I was unaware of the existence of these reserved seats until very recently, and now that I am so aware, I am amazed that they were not abolished generations ago. Church spokesmen defend their existence, on the grounds that they have valuable experience. So have many others, such as parents, teachers, policemen, social workers, and medical personnel, and councils can co-opt such people, or take testimony from them, when they feel the need to do so. The claim that Church spokesmen are of such high virtue that they should be on council committees whether anyone wants them there or not, is breathtaking in its arrogance.
Young Earth Creationist books handed out in a Scottish state school; worse and worse!
(All the more reason, my Sottish friends, to write to your MSPs; see here)
I reviewed these books earlier. Diogenes, an expert on creationist quackery, has drawn my attention to a couple of further detailed absurdities.
Truth to Tell contains the usual attack on Haeckel, with the usual claim that this invalidates all the developmental evidence we now have for evolution, some 130 years later. As Diogenes surmised (see his comments on the earlier post), this is accompanied by a completely meaningless image meant to represent a human foetus. The accompanying text makes clear the real agenda: “A human embryo starts as a human, ends as a human, and is a human the entire time.” The figure (click for full scale view), and accompanying text, speaks for itself:
The reference to human footprints in coal, pp l03 – 104, doesn’t even get the dates of the Carboniferous right:
“As an example, according to evolutionists, the coal in the Upper Carboniferous layer is supposed to be 250 million years old. Humans did not evolve, according to this theory, until about 3 million years ago. Yet we have found human footprints in coal layers that are supposed to be 250 million years old.”
As Diogenes reminds us, the Carboniferous ended 299 million years ago. The number 250 million, the claim that the impressions are human footprints, and the description of 250 million years ago as Carboniferous, probably come via John C. Whitcomb and Henry Morris, The Genesis Flood, p. 172. The footprints, if such they be, were described in a 1940 Scientific American article, which concluded, however, that they were probably carvings, or, if not, footprints of some as yet unrecognized species, see here for more details. However, that article did contain the rhetorical hypothetical
“If man, or even his ape ancestor’s early mammalian ancestor, existed as far back as the Carboniferous Period in any shape, then the whole science of geology is so completely wrong that all the geologists will resign their jobs and take up truck driving.”
Of course, that was meant to be a reductio ad absurdum, but Creationists have no sense of irony, and this is the kind of thing they really jump on. Indeed, Apologetics Press, publishers of the books in question, quote-mines the article in a separate posting here, with fanciful chalked in foot shapes.
Truth be Told continues:
“How could the coal layers be 250 million years old, if the humans who made tracks in them did not evolve until 247 million years after coal formed? The truth is, neither humans nor coal are millions of years old. After the Flood, Noah or his descendants could have left their footprints in the coal while it was just beginning to form a few thousand years ago. In summary, coal forms when plants are buried very quickly.The upright trees in coal prove this [there are other references to polystrate fossils, of course.]Scientists are now able to form coal in the laboratory in only a few months, so we know it does not take millions of years to form. Furthermore, things like human footprints show that the coal is not millions of years old.”
No references anywhere in the book, but there is a true/false question in the Chapter Review, “Human footprints have been found in coal that evolutionists date to be 250 million years old.” Guess what the answer is supposed to be.
A detailed analysis of all the errors would require a book as long as the original, so I’ll leave it there.
My Scottish friends; please write to your MSPs in support of opt-in petition; draft letter here
I write as your constituent to ask your support for Petition 1487, Religious Observance in Schools, which seeks to replace the present “opt-out” system for Religious Observance (RO) with “opt-in”. The petition and responses are at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/religiousobservance, and the Petitions Committee will be holding its second hearing on November 12. We believe that the proposed change will end serious problems with the present system, lead to improvements in communication between home and school about the nature of RO, and help RO fulfil its aim of celebrating shared values.
The present system presumes agreement with the school’s practice of RO. Not all school handbooks even fulfil the legal requirement to state that opt-out from RO is available. Children who opt out are not properly catered for, and are made to feel exceptional, while there are examples of schools putting pressure on parents to reverse their decision, or even on occasion denying that the right to opt out exists in their school. The proposed change to opt-in would prevent such wrongs.
At present, while RO is intended to be a celebration of universal community values, it is often in practice dominated by one particular worldview, generally, in so-called non-denominational schools, Protestantism. This at a time when the number of Scots having no religious affiliation exceeds a third, and is greater than that of the Church of Scotland, the most numerous denomination.
The practice of RO varies enormously from school to school, and recent events at Kirktonholme Primary, where to parents’ dismay, creationist and anti-scientific books were distributed during RO, show how far it is at times from achieving its ideals. Such abuses would be most unlikely under the improved school-home communication that would result from opt-in.
Finally, we believe that the proposed change will reinvigorate RO by leading to general discussion of its nature and purpose, discussion that in our present diverse society is essential for its long-term survival.
Rebutting Creationism in Brazil
I have just found myself rebutting a Creationist engineering professor, on the Brazilian Air Force Academy’s cultural website.
“Scientific Creationism” is emerging as a problem in Latin America. As in the UK, it’s essentially a US evangelical import (recall that the Catholic Church accepts the historical fact of evolution). As creation-watchers may know, Henry Morris, widely regarded as the father of “Creation Science”, wrote its foundational work, The Genesis Flood,
together with the theologian John C. Whitcomb, under the influence of the ideas of the Seventh-day Adventist, George McCready Price. So when the Brazilian Airforce Academy asked me to reply to an exposition of Creationism by Ruy Carlos de Camargo Vieira, Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering at the University of São Paulo and himself a convert to Seventh-day Adventism, I was very happy to do so. Here’s what I said:
Evolution is real science; creationism is fake philosophy
A reply to “O Evolucionismo e o Criacionismo à luz do Método Científico”
Evolution is not an optional worldview but a fundamental scientific theory, and one of the most successful scientific theories of all time. Biblical creationism is not a worldview either, but a set of factually mistaken beliefs about the world and the Bible.
Prof Vieira argues that the present-day theory of evolution, and biblical creationism, are not in fact rival theories, but representations of differing untestable worldviews, and that the difference between them is philosophical rather than scientific. He is mistaken on every count. Evolution is a scientific theory, not only about the past, but about processes operating and observable in the present. It has made numerous successful predictions and passed many severe experimental tests. It explains facts that could not even have been imagined when, 150 years ago, the theory was put forward in its modern form. The creation story of Genesis can be tested against observation, and fails. It makes statements contrary to known fact, so that, however great its significance to us, we cannot regard it as an accurate historical narrative.
29+ Evidences for Macroevolution
The Scientific Case for Common DescentYour Inner Fish, by Neil Shubin, and Why Evolution is True by his colleague at the University of Chicago, Jerry Coyne. There is also an excellent on-line site, 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution, with hundreds of references to the primary literature, summarising the main arguments, and new findings supporting and illustrating the fact of evolution are reported every day.
Shubin’s book begins with a beautiful example of evolution as a predictive theory. Lower Devonian rocks contain no land vertebrates. Upper Devonian rocks contain plenty. Therefore evolution predicts that there should be fossil evidence for intermediate forms somewhere in the middle Devonian. The earliest known land vertebrates are amphibians, which would have required fresh water, and this and other detailed arguments suggested that rocks around 375 million years old, formed in river deltas, would be the best place to look. Prof Shubin and his colleagues mounted an expedition to a location in the Canadian Arctic where such rocks were exposed, and discovered the predicted intermediate form, a fish with a wrist, which they called Tiktaalik. Notice that if these rocks had shown a sudden transition without intermediates, or if they had been full of rabbits, dinosaurs, or fried chicken bones, this would have disproved the evolutionary account.
Coyne’s book lays out with great clarity the facts that are explained by evolution, all of them examples of the “evidências palpáveis [substantive evidence]” in support of evolution, “que possam ser submetidas ao escrutínio do Método Científico [that can undergo examination according to the Scientific Method]”, whose existence the learned Professor denies. These include (a) the way living things can be arranged in families on the basis of their anatomy, (b) copious fossil forms (of which Tiktaalik is one example) showing how different categorias biológicas are descended from a common ancestry, (c) our knowledge of how new species arise (Prof Coyne is also an author of the more technical book Speciation), (d) the family trees deduced from DNA evidence, (e) the fact that these three independent methods – anatomical relationship, fossil record, and DNA comparison – give the same tree, or rather branching bush, of life, and (f) the examples of evolution that we see all around us. In addition (g), we can and do perform laboratory experiments that demonstrate and elucidate evolution, and (h) the whole of plant and animal breeding consists of evolutionary processes harnessed to our wishes, with artificial selection replacing natural selection.
Prof Veiera presents two kinds of reason for his claim that evolution is not science. One is the fact that it does not explain the origin of life, the Solar System, or the Universe. But this is no argument at all. Atomic theory does not explain the origin of atoms, the Solar System, or the Universe, but no one doubts that it is a scientific theory. The other one is that it does not explain the transformation of species and origin of new orders, as classified according to modern taxonomy. As we have seen, this is not true. Shubin’s book, for example, gives a very clear account of the origin of the transformation of fish to amphibians, and Carl Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge describes the transformation of land mammals to whales. But even if it were true, a theory should not be rejected just because there are things we cannot yet explain. Unanswered questions are as essential to all kinds of science as unquestioned answers are to some kinds of religion.
The whale ancestor, Ambulocetus natans, (approximately 12 feet long, coastal habitat) , courtesy Thewissen Research Laboratory
Regarding biblical creationism, this does make some very precise and verifiable claims. It asserts, for example (Genesis 1:20 – 25), that birds and whales were created before land animals. Now we know that birds are descended from land dinosaurs, and that whales (free review article here; also Carl Zimmer’s book mentioned above) are descended from terrestrial mammals. So we must infer that if, as Prof Vieira believes, God is responsible for the content of Genesis 1, He did not intend it to be used as a biology textbook. I note in passing that many Christians, including Catholics, Episcopalians, and Methodists, have no problem with the fact of evolution, and that only extreme Evangelical groups, such as the Seventh Day Adventists to which Prof Veiera belongs, regard Genesis as a literal historical record.
Finally, does it matter? Yes, to Brazil’s past, present, and future. Regarding the past, the mineral wealth of Brazil can only be understood using genuine science, including evolution and its companion, deep-time geochemistry. For example, the banded iron-formations of the Quadrilátero Ferrífero in Minas Gerais owe their existence to the release of oxygen by photosynthesizing bacteria more than two billion years ago, and the oil and gas of the continental shelf were formed by the decay of ancient organisms in the Cretaceous. The present includes the responsibility of managing the Amazon basin, something that can only be done wisely by respecting the evolved relationships between its many species. And all of us will need real science, and a recognition of scientific reality, as humankind faces its troubling and unsettled future.
(Acknowledgements to Jerry Coyne, Neil Shubin, Douglas Theobald, Hans Thewissen, and Carl Zimmer, whose work I cite here)