Category Archives: Education

Is a good science talk really a bad science talk?

Engagement, suspense, and dramatic denouement; I wish someone had told me the importance of these at the beginning of my career, instead of leaving me to discover it half way through

The Grumpy Geophysicist

One of the mantras drilled into the heads of graduate students as they prepare their oral meeting presentations is “tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.”  The point being to make sure that the audience knows what you think is important.  And at a meeting, this can be pretty significant as folks wander in and out of a room or are distracted.  That first part tells them what they should really look for (and it helps to remind the student what they are emphasizing), the last is to reaffirm that the desired goal was in fact met.

But this is probably a lousy format for a colloquium talk and even lousier for a public talk.  Think of the storytellers out there and how their stories go.  Does Hans Christian Anderson tell you what happens to the Little Mermaid…

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What do Christians really believe about evolution?

Most people in the UK think that religious people believe in six-day creationism. Fortunately, they are wrong.

Less than one in six UK believers prefer separate creation to evolution

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The Garden of Eden (Lucas Cranach the Elder (1530)). Note scenes including the creation of Eve, the temptation by the serpent, and the expulsion

A new YouGov poll conducted in Canada and the UK shows two contrasting facts. Among those who call themselves “believers or spiritual”, only 16%, under one in six, rejected evolution in favour of separate creation. A much larger group (39%) thught that “Humans and other living things evolved over time, in a process guided by God”. As an advocate of evolution science, I regard such people as potential allies. “Guided by God” is so vague an expression that it could be taken to include God having set up the laws of nature, which was actually Darwin’s own position, according to his autobiography (here, pp 92-3), when he wrote Origin of Species. (Caveat: the options offered were

  1. Humans and other living things were created by God and have always existed in their current form
  2. Humans and other living things evolved over time, in a process guided by God
  3. Humans and other living things evolved over time as a result of natural selection, in which God played no part
  4. I have another view of the origin of species and development of life on Earth which isn’t included in this list
  5. I don’t know / I do not have a view on the origin of species and the development of life on Earth

Read the rest of this entry

On learning that the Iraqi government is dropping evolution from schoolbooks

This is how I appeared on Arabic-language Science News, أخبار العلوم – Science News, after a Facebook friend translated my remarks into Arabic

Teaching biology without mentioning evolution is like trying to teach chemistry without mentioning atoms. If you deny evolution, you have to deny the entire fossil record and also all the evidence of molecular biology. And evolution has nothing to do with religion. Within all the world’s great religions, there are thinkers who accept the evidence for evolution, and regard evolution itself as one of God’s creations. We do not allow scientists to tell religious leaders how to teach religion, so why should we allow religious leaders to tell scientists how to teach science?

The destroyed al-Nuri mosque and its gate in the old city of Mosul. Photograph: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images (via The Guardian)

 

 

 

Commenting on the recent decision by the Iraqi government to remove evolution from the school textbooks, I wrote these words to one of my many new-found Iraqi friends [1], a young man in Mosul now able to speak his mind after three years of Isis suppression; he then quoted me on Arabic-language Science News, أخبار العلوم – Science News, which has led in the first 12 hours to a brisk correspondence, more than a thousand likes, over fifty shares, and some not always friendly commentary in which chimpanzees feature prominently in my own assumed ancestry. I can only express my admiration for someone who, sheltering somehow in the ruins of that city, finds time to think of such things.

1] My piece on evolution in The Conversation was noticed by a Baghdad-based Arabic-language blog

Brag time: My “Slam Dunk to Creationists” attacked by Discovery Institute

The Discovery Institute, self appointed spokesman for Intelligent Design theory (i.e. cryptocreationist obscurantism) has singled out my piece in The Conversation, How to slam dunk creationists when it comes to the theory of evolution.

Slam Dunk image plagiarised from Discovery Institute. Provenance unknown

My piece argues that we should be talking about the evidence, not about the meaning of words. In particular, I take exception to the National Academy of Sciences definition of a theory as “supported by a vast body of evidence”, on the grounds that calling something a theory tells us nothing about how well supported it is. The Discovery Institute uses fancy layout to quotemine what I said, so that my criticism of the National Academy is made to look like approval, before taking exception to the National Academy of Sciences definition of a theory as “supported by a vast body of evidence”, on the grounds that calling something a theory tells us nothing about how well supported it is.

In passing, the DI also tells us that “Sahelanthropus … is thought by some to just be a female gorilla.” Eat your heart out, Smithsonian.

I’m honoured by such well-informed and well thought out attention. And while the DI’s article is unsigned, connoisseurs of Creationism will understand my additional delight at having Casey Luskin and Douglas Axe listed among my accusers. With enemies like this, who needs friends?

At the time of writing, my piece has attracted 78,000 hits [update: 95,000 hits] and been featured by Newsweek, Business Insider, The Raw Story, RealClearScience, and others. My thanks to Jane Wright, at The Conversation, whose skilful editing helped make all this possible.

I thunder in The Times

I have a Thunderer piece (opinionated editorial) in The Times. The Times itself was nicknamed “The Thunderer” back when it was the UK’s leading newspaper of record. Some might criticise me for submitting to it now that it’s Murdoch, but I think the need to communicate trumps considerations of ideological purity. (I would, however, draw the line at The Sun.)*

Background: As regular readers will know, the Scottish Secular Society petition to remove unelected Church appointees from Local Authority Educating Committees has been closed, but on the most favourable possible terms. The Scottish Government has undertaken to review the equalities implications of its current reorganisation of education, and, in addition, to consider the points that we raised. The Public Editions Committee has thanked us for raising these important issues, invited us to re-submit our case if, after reorganisation, that still seems necessary, and has forwarded the matter to the Education and Skills Committee, which will be considering this issue as part of its overall discussion of the reorganisation.

Thunderer piece: This is my orginal version. The version as published, slightly cut back for reasons of space, is here. Here I give the most significant sentence that was cut back, with omissions restored and highlighted, followed by the full original text.

There is need for discussion of the entire role of religion and religious organisations in education, within an increasingly non-religious Scotland, covering such matters as the Religious Observance requirement, the nature of Religious Education (too often based on teaching one particular doctrine as true), and the inclusion, in Catholic schools, of factual information about human sexuality and birth control in Religious and Moral Education, under the control of the Council of Bishops, whose own experience of these matters is highly untypical.

Full original text: Under legislation dating back to 1929 and beyond, Read the rest of this entry

Petition to remove unelected Church nominees from Education Committees: final report

For full background on the Scottish Secular Society’s petition for the removal of unelected Church representatives from Local Authority Education Committees, see here, and for the most recent posting on the topic see here. Now read on:

It’s complicated. Our petition, though closed, is very much alive, and has achieved its objectives, unless, of course, it hasn’t.

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Spencer Fildes and Paul Braterman testifying to Public Petitions Committee

The Public Petitions Committee (full report below) tells us that the petition has done its work. Maybe; we suspend judgement until we see the shape of Scotland’s post-review educational system. And if we don’t like what we see, the Committee has invited us to reopen the issue. At that point we will actually be in a stronger position than if the petition had been left open, since in a new submission we will be able to tailor our arguments to the situation as it will then be. (And one change in the situation, in the few days since the Committee met, is a further reported decline in religious affiliation in Scotland, especially among the young.)

Meantime, we are thanked for raising important issues, the Scottish Government has undertaken to review our concerns, and the matter has also been forwarded to the Education and Skills Committee, who will assuredly bear it in mind when the time comes to discuss the promised educational reorganisation. By a remarkable coincidence, the Convener of the Petitions Committee is the same person as the Deputy Convener of Education and Skills. Moreover, the membership of Education and Skills includes Tavish Scott (MSP for Shetland), a declared supporter of the reform that we seek, so we can be confident that the issues will receive full attention. So, more to the point, can the Scottish Government as it drafts its plans for education change.

To quote the petition’s website https://www.parliament.scot/GettingInvolved/Petitions/ChurchAppointees  “29 June 2017: The Committee agreed Read the rest of this entry

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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An indisputable fact?

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

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

I was recently emailed by a stranger who wrote:

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

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

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

or

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

I replied:

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

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

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

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

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

I am not satisfied with my answer.

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

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

What else could I have said?

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

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

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

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

Consider this, from a justly esteemed chemistry text:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spencer Fildes and Paul Braterman testifying to Public Petitions Committee

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

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

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

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

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

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Johann Lamont (CC via Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appendix: relevant documents

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

Scottish Government submission of 3 March 2017:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Convener:   (Johann Lamont, Labour, Glasgow)

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

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

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

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

Maurice Corry:    (C, West Scotland)

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

The Convener:

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

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

Rona Mackay:   (SNP, Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

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

The Convener:

Okay. Are we agreed on the action to take?

Members indicated agreement.

The Convener:

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

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