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

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

a new nature blog

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

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

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

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

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About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on June 19, 2017, in Education, Politics, Science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Mr Braterman I know you are an active fighter at the coal face whereas I’m a wiley old codger (75) still trying to make sense of the world.
    These days I’m largely an observer who can’t resist a comment or two.
    My information comes from Wikipedia and I’m sure you know the articles are by contribution from all and sundry. Apparently they are self- correcting and improve with time , something I’ve not too much of having had my three score and ten.
    I did a bit of ferreting and found Grindon Hall Christian School and a huge amount about the Bright Tribe Education Trust.
    There is a problem of balance between individuals personal freedom to bring up their children as they wish and indoctrination. We do not wish to reach a situation of George Orwells 1984, but at the same time there must be a framework of law.

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    • I remember problems with Grindon Hall. As I recall, the school agreed to be bound by the general rules, which do exclude the teaching of creationism as true. Lokking them up, I came across this: http://www.sunderlandecho.com/news/founders-of-sunderland-christian-school-resign-in-takeover-row-1-8172640. Apparently, Bright Tribe management was imposed on the school because of poor performance, and the original founders didn’t think that Bright Tribe is Christian enough.

      I found this on Bright Tribe: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/nov/15/bright-tribe-academy-chain-warwick-mansell. Like so many of the groups now running England’s school system, there are deep problems, but creationism is not mentioned as one of them.

      If you come across quotable evidence that Bright Tribe schools, or any other publicly funded schools, are promoting creationism, please supply details that I can follow through. Wikipedia is not in itself usable for this purpose, but is an excellent source of links to details. It is also subject to over-writing; the present Wikipedia entry for Grindon Hall gives no hint of its problems.

      More generally, I find both the Academy movement and the promotion of faith Schools grotesque, but that is a wider issue than Gove personally.

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  2. Being a total layman in most things except life I lean heavily on all sorts of experts realising that they are fallible and opinionated like us all.
    Not so long ago children were taken from their parents when judges accepted expert advice; a pinch of salt is always at the ready.
    I use Wikipedia quite a lot and often read through the annals of the popular and famous. Apparently Mr Gove approved three creationist schools in June 2012. Some said they would only teach it in religious instruction and the British Humanist Association said it was unacceptable in any syllabus. My question is how does all this sit nicely with state assisted faith schools?
    Mr Gove and many like him have a problem between freedom of speech and truth , these days it is a big global problem. In an unguarded moment he said : people have had enough of experts it made me smile and made him popular. Perhaps the public intend to do their own plumbing and house wiring or put new brake pads on their cars.
    We cannot expect our politicians to be experts in everything anymore than we can be ourselves, but we should expect them to be sensible and seek expert advice when they need to.

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    • “Apparently Mr Gove approved three creationist schools in June 2012. Some said they would only teach it in religious instruction and the British Humanist Association said it was unacceptable in any syllabus.”

      Please be more specific. What schools, what date, and a source for the story that I can cite. Without this information, I don’t see how we can move forward.

      You may be referring to Everyday Champions, a school run by creationists, which after some prevarication and a couple of name changes eventually collapsed. My recollection is that none of the other creationist schools actually made it either, but if I am wrong on this, I really need a link to the details.

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  3. We must take care not to make too much of Mr Goves ignorance of science, after all he is not a scientist but an English graduate. He has a conceit in his own abilities outside of his expertise which unfortunately is far too common. Much more worrying is his support of the teaching of creationism in schools , brushing aside the scientific experts who know about these things. Confessing ignorance is no shame we do it every time we take our car to a garage. We press our politicians to be Jack’s of all trades when we should be pressing them to consult expert advice.

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    • I was personally involved in a successful campaign to get Gove, then Education Sercretary, to make it clear that publicly funded schools in England must not teach creationism; see https://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/mar/21/free-schools-creationism-department-education. If you have any evidence that Gove now supports teaching creationism, please share it.

      His ignorance of science is, as the Newton/thermodynamics shows, embedded in a more general cultural and historical ignorance. This I regard as a serious defect in a politician.

      But worst of all is the authoritarian arrogance that accompanies this ignorance. While ignorant of physics, and while holding the post of Secretary of Education, he took it upon himself to tell physics teachers how to teach physics. Now, as Secretary for the Environment, he is in a position to impose his ignorance about climate change on that Department’s policymakers. And as a possible future prime minister…

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  4. If he can keep Boris out of occupying (with NO mandate at all) 10 Downing Street, this ‘don’t trust experts’ clown might fulfil some sort of function – even if it is nothing to do with the natural environment.

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