Monthly Archives: May 2016

Professor wants faith-based Christian universities for Scotland

ProfJamesFraserProfessor James Fraser CBE,  has called for the establishment in Scotland of universities that teach within “the pre-suppositional framework of a Christian world view”, as opposed to the “radical secularist” position that he attributes to the existing universities, and holds up the network of Christian universities in the United States as a model. This demand is ill-conceived and presumptuous, and should be resisted. Professor Fraser is a philosophy graduate who has spent nearly all his career in university administration; he, of all people, should know better.

Remember that Scottish Universities are very heavily dependent on taxpayer money, since Scottish students have their fees paid for them by the Government. So the proposed Christian universities would be funded, in direct competition with the existing system, at the expense of a general population of whom now less than half are Christian. But that’s the least of it.

Self-styled Christian universities do indeed exist in the United States, and the problems that they pose should be enough to make Professor Fraser think again. They require their faculty to be Christians, and teach from a Christian point of view. But who is to say what point of view is Christian, and what is not? The Free Church, whose General Assembly he was addressing, adheres to a version of Christianity according to which the world was made in six days, the entire earth and life science content of the school curriculum must be wrong because it contradicts the Word of the Bible, humankind is “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good”, and all those who do not receive God’s grace are condemned to miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.

Is this what Professor Fraser wants to be able to demand from his Faculty? There have been cases, in the United States, of distinguished Professors being sacked from these Christian universities, merely because they did not accept on faith the literal truth of Genesis. Is this what we are being asked to emulate?

presupapolocoverAs for a “pre-suppositional framework”, that is a technical term that Professor Fraser will not have used lightly. The pre-supposition involved is that all reasoning and all evidence must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the framework, which is itself sacrosanct. Such an approach to knowledge is the very opposite of everything that a university stands for.

And finally, the claim that existing universities are “radical secularist”. I honestly do not know what the learned Professor means. All points of view are represented within our universities, and that is how it should be. Religious viewpoints have, if anything, a privileged position. They have chapels for those who wish to use them, hold religious services, and provide facilities for chaplains of all faiths. And nothing could be more stimulating for believers and nonbelievers alike than to freely mix and to discuss their agreements and differences. Why would anyone wish things otherwise?

Image of Professor Fraser from University of Highlands and Islands news release

Then and now; Darwin, Agassiz, global warming, and lakes that vanish overnight

Glen Roy is a valley in the Western Scottish Highlands, just south of the Great Glen (home to Loch Ness), and draining through Glen Spean to Loch Linnhe, an inlet of the Atlantic. It is remarkable for the presence of the Roads, a series of parallel, almost horizontal, grooves in the hills on the sides of the glen. Clearly shorelines; but of what body of water? And why are there more than one of them?


From Darwin, C. R., Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 129: 39-81, 1839. Observations on the parallel roads of Glen Roy, and of other parts of Lochaber in Scotland, with an attempt to prove that they are of marine origin.

Darwin thought the Roads represented vanished marine shorelines, one above the other as the result of vertical movement. Agassiz explained them, rather, as successive shorelines of a glacial lake, now vanished because the retaining glacier has melted away. If so, and if global warming is real, we might expect to see vanishing lakes today, as the glaciers retreat. We can, and we do, as my friend Peter Hess explains.


Sedimentary (greywacke) erratic (approx. height 1 m) on glaciated slopes around Dunglass Crag, near Glasgow, transported from original location some 30 km to the North

Charles Darwin visited the Glenroy area in 1838, two years after his return from his round the world voyage on the Beagle. During that voyage, he had examined the geology as well as the plants and animals of the places he visited, and among them was the coastal area of Chile. This is marked by raised beaches inland where once had been shoreline, and Darwin correctly described these as the effects of uplift, which we now know to be driven by plate tectonics. So it was natural that Darwin should have applied a similar explanation to the Roads, suggesting that the Cairngorms, like the Andes, were a zone of uplift, and that the Roads were ancient beaches of the Atlantic, now some ten miles away. The alternative theory, that they represented shorelines of an ancient lake, ran up against a seemingly conclusive objection; such a lake could only have formed if there had been a barrier across the valley, but there was no trace of this.

Only a year later, the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz visited the area. He had just published his Ice Age theory, and in the Highlands he found plenty of evidence to support it; scratches on bedrock caused by the passage of glaciers, erratics (boulders far from their parent rock formations),  and moraines (piles of rock rubble that had been carried by glaciers, left in place when the glacier melted).


A glacier-sculpted landscape. The hard basalt of Dunglass Crag, an ancient volcanic plug, has protected the softer rock downstream (right in photograph) from erosion

Evidence of this kind is not difficult to find throughout much of Scotland. I saw some of it myself earlier this month a few miles from Glasgow as a student on Glasgow University extension course (see illustrations). Agassiz realised that his ice age theory also provided the correct answer to the mystery of the Roads. Yes, there had been a lake, and yes, the roads did represent the shorelines at different times, carved into the sides of the valley by fierce freeze-thaw cycles. As for the barriers holding the lake in place at different levels over the course of time, they were a series of long vanished glaciers.

We now know that Agassiz was basically correct. Indeed, we can trace a whole series of glaciations, not just a single ice age. And Darwin was right in thinking that the area has experienced uplift; it could not fail to do so as the weight of ice above it melted away.


Poorly sorted rubble deposited by the glacier near the foot of the Crag

Later Darwin was to write of his paper on the Roads as his greatest blunder. He had visited Snowdonia in North Wales in 1831, as a student companion of the noted geologist Adam Sedgwick, who had been looking for fossils. In his Autobiography (p. 70) he laments how

“neither of us saw a trace of the wonderful glacial phenomena all around us; we did not notice the plainly scored rocks, the perched boulders, the lateral and terminal moraines. Yet these phenomena are so conspicuous that … a house burnt down by fire did not tell its story more plainly than did this valley.”

But it took Darwin several years to reach this point, and even then he persisted for a while with hybrid explanations, in which icebergs rather than retreating glaciers had deposited at least some of the erratics.


“Darwin’s boulders” in Cwm Idwal, Snowdonia, North Wales. Darwin had recognise these as glacial by 1842

Agassiz rejected Darwin’s concept of evolution when it was published twenty years later, but this does not seem to have diminished Darwin’s respect for him. Belief in the fixity of species was, in the 1860s, understandable conservatism, even if now, 150 years later, it is no more than deliberately cultivated ignorance.

The present is key to the past. It follows that the past can increase our understanding of the present. And so it is in this case. The glaciers of Switzerland are receding. Those of the southern Andes are receding even faster. Among them is Chile’s Colonia glacier, which dams a lake, Lake Cachet 2, some 3 square kilometers in area. As the glacier shrinks and weakens, it becomes progressively less able to hold back the water of the lake, which now periodically bursts through; on one recent occasion, the lake emptied itself overnight.


Lake to sandy valley overnight

The overflow channel through which the vanished Loch Roy must have drained can still be detected as an abrupt narrow valley in the surrounding hillsides. The draining of Lake Cachet II sent 200,000 tonnes of water overnight down Chile’s main river, and caused giant waves as far as the Pacific Ocean, 60 miles away.

Since Agassiz and Darwin examined the roads of Glen Roy, the earth’s mean surface temperature has increased by roughly 1oC, with another 0.5oC in the pipeline even if emissions were to be stabilised at the same levels as in the year 2000.

Which, of course, they won’t be.


Global mean surface temperature change from 1880 to 2015, relative to the 1951–1980 mean. The black line is the annual mean and the red line is the 5-year running mean

Darwin’s drawing of the Roads from Darwin Online.  Dunglass Crag, photos by author. Darwin’s boulders photographed by Michael Roberts. Lake Cachet II images via NCSE. Global temperature anomaly graph from NASA GISS via Wikipedia

More on receding glaciers at World Glacier Monitoring Service  and the US Government’s National Snow and Ice Data Center

h/t Michael Roberts, Dana Nuccitelli, Peter Hess. An earlier version of this post appeared in 3 Quarks Daily.

Transgender bathrooms, creationism, climate change denial, and the Ten Commandments

Toilet signs

Toilet signs, Ebay

Why does North Carolina want to force transgender persons to use the wrong public toilet? Why the steady stream of foredoomed bills demanding evenhanded treatment of evolution and creationism? And why endless attempts to mount official displays of the Ten Commandments, when such displays have repeatedly been ruled to breach the wall between Church and State?

Toilet etiquette is where prudery meets absurdity. Your chance of being embarrassed, let alone molested, by a transgender person in a US public toilet is probably zero, and certainly less than your chance of being shot dead at home by a toddler playing with a gun; after all, the only public display of genitalia is at the men’s urinal, and you can always use a booth if you prefer.

(It is said that an undergrad once asked Sir John Pentland Mahaffy, Provost of Trinity College Dublin, where he might find a lavatory. “At the end of the corridor,” Mahaffy grandly gestured, “you will find a door marked GENTLEMEN; but don’t let that stop you.” In the UK, of which Dublin was still part at the time, class trumps gender. Incidentally, Trinity had been admitting female undergraduates since 1903, 74 years before Harvard; I assume that sanitary arrangements were instituted to cope with this.)

It is established law in the US that the teaching of creationism serves a religious, rather than scientific or educational, purpose. It follows (Edwards v. Aguillard) that such teaching is unconstitutional in US public schools, since it violates the First Amendment separation of Church and State. There is no prospect of this ruling being overturned, unless we ever get a US Supreme Court packed by a creationist President.

It has also been repeatedly established that display of the Ten Commandments on State government property violates the US Constitution, for much the same reasons.

So why do we have States bringing in transgender bathroom laws, scientifically baseless (as discussed here by my friend Faye Flam), whose only effect would be to inconvenience and offend one particular small minority? Why did this monumental non-issue even spill over into the moronic drivelfest of the Republican Party’s nomination debate? Or attract so much attention that Pres. Obama’s statement of the obvious on the subject has been hailed as “historic”?

Why do we have a whole evolving family of “sound science teaching” bills, which would single out evolution, together with climate change, as subjects concerning which students should be taught “both sides”, or the “strengths and weaknesses” of what is in fact well established science?

And why should the current Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court keep on asserting his right to display the Ten Commandments in his courthouse? Does he really think it necessary to inform litigants that God brought them out of Egypt, wants them to be nice to their parents, and disapproves of graven images?

Stupidity? No, strategy. And a strategy that is highly evolved, if not indeed intelligently designed.

Consider how much these issues have in common. For a start, there is nostalgia for an imagined era of moral clarity and biblical belief. This feeds in to what is, I suspect, the most powerful of all political motivators, namely the sense of identity. We think as we do and vote as we do because of the kind of person we think we are, or at any rate would like to be. And these three issues translate as assertions of a very American kind of Christian identity. As a corollary, they define an enemy; the smug Liberal sneering at those who disagree with him (would that this image lacked validity). They are timeless, unlike the real issues of foreign policy and budgets; they will still be with us ten budget cycles and three foreign entanglements down the road.

And they work as attention grabbers, and as group identifiers. The major US retail chain Target thought it worthwhile to issue a statement inviting people to use the toilets fitting their self-description rather than their birth certificates; in retaliation, a group calling itself the American Family Association has launched a boycott petition that has gathered, so far, over 850,000 signatures. I do not know what evils the AFA plan to blame on Target, but they are among those who blame Darwin for Hitler, so they’ll think of something. AFA regards calls to action on climate change as impious, since the planet is in God’s hands. It also defends public display of the Ten Commandments, on the grounds that “the Ten Commandments are the basis of all of our laws.” These views form an identity cluster, and the inclusion of climate change denial is no accident.


Crabs washed up on a beach in Oregon after suffocating in low-oxygen waters. Credit: Elizabeth Gates, courtesy of PISCO, via NSF (click to magnify)

And finally, by the same token, they are perfect distractions from reality. American readers, at least, could hardly have failed to notice the transgender toilet controversy. But how many of us are even aware of evidence published earlier this month that warming is already reducing the availability of oxygen in the oceans, and that this effect will probably be widespread by the 2030s?

We could be talking about the erosion of democracy, looming water shortages in the US and Asia, the unstable world banking system, climate change, and the facts of economic inequality. Or we could be talking about who is allowed to use which bathroom. If you were a North Carolina legislator, which would you prefer?

Mahaffey anecdote from Sorenson h/t Abbas Raza. An earlier version of this piece appeared in 3 Quarks Daily.

Professor David MacKay and the Renewables Delusion

I too would like to simply replace fossil fuels with renewables, but nature doesn’t care about what you or I would like, and renewables don’t have enough power per unit area. If you think you can phase out fossil fuels in densely populated countries without phasing in nuclear, please show me your arithmetic. David Mackay’s full book and 10 page synopsis are available (in English and several other languages) here (free download)

[See however (h/t Michael Reiss); renewables according to this source already generate 24% of the UK’s electricity requirements; not of course the same as total energy requirements, but not negligible either]

h/t Michael Roberts


“I’m not pro-nuclear- just pro-arithmetic”.

The cause for a rational evidence-based approach to energy policy has suffered a huge loss with the death of Professor David Mackay  three weeks ago, on April 14th.

Mackay, Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, was the author of Sustainable Energy Without Hot Air, a key text that has been my number one stop to point folks to as a starting point for understanding energy supply and demand. In particular, I have frequently cited this table which explains very well the limitations of wind and solar energy due to their relatively low energy density:

Power per unit land or water area

Based on these figures, population and current energy demand, MacKay calculates that Britain cannot live on its own renewables- they simply need too much land.

By contrast to the 2-20W/m2 that can be achieved through wind or solar pv power, fossil fuels or…

View original post 460 more words

LibDem Holyrood hopeful wants to keep Church nominees on Council Committees

I asked Robert Brown, top Glasgow Region LibDem list candidate, former Deputy Minister for Education and Young People, and current South Lanarkshire Councillor

Should we continue to leave in place the pre-devolution requirement for all Local Authority Education Committees to include three individuals selected by the Churches, sitting and voting alongside the Councillor members selected by the voters?

[Yes, I’m afraid that means what it says. Three of the members of your Council Education Committee were put there by the Churches, not the votersThis despite the fact that most Scots describe themselves as having no religion]


Robert Brown: “on the whole valuable to have the Churches involved”

His reply [emphasis added]:

I am not particularly exercised by this. I think it is on the whole valuable to have the Churches involved but I have not sat on an Education Committee and don’t really know how it works out in practice.

It is linked to the broader question of the nature of religious observance and religious education in schools. As you may know, a new, more inclusive, Code of Practice on Religious observance was developed about 4 or 5 years back* which has, I think, proved satisfactory. I can’t say any of this is an issue on which I have had any representations from constituents over the years.

I should add that school communities are increasingly diverse in both religious and cultural background and this has to be reflected in the arrangements made on these things.

TruthBeTold (2)

Book handed out to all school assembly participants at Kirktonholme Primary, South Lanarkshire, during Robert Brown’s time as Councillor

I am appalled. Here we have a former Deputy Minister of the Education, and current South Lanarkshire Councillor, saying that “I am not particularly exercised” about this, and “… don’t really know how it works out in practice.” So he tells us that he doesn’t know and doesn’t care about this gross affront to democracy, despite its effect on the governance of the schools for which he formerly had Ministerial responsibility. This effect is real; the Church nominated members sit alongside the elected councillors, and hold the balance of power on 19 out of Scotland’s 32 Education Committees. He next attempts to distract attention from this highly specific issue by smothering it in the broader general context of religious observance in Scottish schools. Finally, he states that in his view the situation in recent years “has … proved satisfactory.”


The Creation Museum, Kentucky, where Dr Iskander has lectured, presents Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) from a biblical standpoint


From Truth be Told, Chapter 7, Dinosaurs and Man

This despite two major 2013 scandals in the schools of the very region for which he had then just taken his seat as Councillor. First we had the exposure of Nagy Iskander, then a member of the Chaplaincy Committee at Calderwood Academy, as an internationally recognised six-day creationist, Then, a few months later, we had the scandal at Kirktonholme, where an Alabama-based US fundamentalist sect distributed in School Assembly their own textbooks, showing humans using dinosaurs as farm animals; it was subsequently discovered that they had been influencing the school curriculum for eight years. That sect is no longer active in South Lanarkshire schools, but Dr Iskander continues to sit on South Lanarkshire’s Education Committee, having been appointed by his own Church, the biblical infallibilist Westwoodhill Evangelical.

The Scottish Secular Society will be seeking action on the issue of Church seats on Education Committees during the life of the new Parliament. We have collected data on how the Church nominees are appointed, and find arbitrary and inefficient recruitment mechanisms, gross overrepresentation of Noah’s Ark hellfire creationist churches, and bizarre cases such as that of North Lanarkshire, where an outgoing Councillor, having been soundly defeated at the polls in 2013, now sits on the Education Committee as representative of the Boys Brigade.

More in due course

*Mr Brown seems to be referring to the 2004 report on Religious Observance, and subsequent (2011) Government guidance, which recommends that Religious Observance be non-confessional. The recommendation is non-binding, generally ignored, and did nothing to prevent the Kirktonholme scqndal of which he seems strangely unaware.

%d bloggers like this: