Category Archives: Politics

Cummings, an exegesis (or how to read a text) (with statement in full)

Reading #DominicCummings narrative as a work of fiction

Rachel MuersThis tweeted by Professor Rachel Muers, Professor of Theology, Leeds, who applies to Cummings’s text the same methods that I have seen applied to II Samuel:

Reading #DominicCummings narrative [full narrative attached as Appendix] as a work of fiction (which it is, even if it recounts true events) is interesting on a few counts, eg gender and agency

For most of the story the narrator stands alone, sole heroic agent. He alone is responsible for protecting “wife and child”. “I decided” he says.


The centre of Barnard Castle, County Durham (via Wikipedia)

But at the point of the drive to Barnard Castle the female voice enters the story. The wife, not the narrator, is fearful. So “we decided” and even “we drove”.

This sets up an odd image in the reader’s mind – two people each with one hand on the wheel? But that’s not the point. This is the part of the story where the narrator is anxious, uncertain, not in control, fearful of claiming responsibility

It’s a brief wobble and then the “I” is back in charge. Running the show. Read the rest of this entry

Relevant again; Why Michael Gove is not fit to lead anything


Gove claiming that EU regulations prevent us from keeping out terrorists. Dylan Martinez via Daily Telegraph

“People in this country have had enough of experts,” said Michael Gove. The experts who tell us that Brexit will be damaging and a no-deal Brexit devastating; that human-caused global warming is a clear and present danger [Correction: Michael Gove does accept the expert consensus on climate change]; that physics teachers know more about physics (and about teaching) than Michael Gove did when telling them what and how to teach and getting it wrong from beginning to end; that actions have consequences; that reality matters.

And so, regretfully, for the third time, why Michael Gove is not fit to lead an Easter egg hunt, let alone a nation on the brink of the most catastrophic decision since 1914.

And since among other things that decision may well force us to submit to whatever trading arrangements the Tramp Administration chooses to impose on us, I would also draw attention to Miles King’s Michael Gove and the American Neoconservatives.

Anyway,here we go again:


Thermodynamics: turbines

The [then] Education Secretary said “What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law.” [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.


Newton’s Laws: sailing ships

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. [I went on to summarise both Newton’s laws, and Newton’s law, and to explain how the combination of these explained the hitherto mysterious phenomenon of planetary motion and related it to the motion of falling bodies on Earth; an intellectual achievement not equalled until Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity]

But what about the laws of thermodynamics? These weren’t discovered until the 19th century, the century of the steam engine… [I briefly described them]

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.

And regarding Gove’s description of Boyle’s Law as “basic”, I had this to say:

He [Gove] has been justly mocked for confusing Newton’s laws with the laws of thermodynamics. 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.)

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 [in the kinetic theory of gases], but this involves a concept of education that seems to be beyond his understanding…

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.

And, I would now add, completely unfit for making major decisions in these interesting times.

Steam turbine blade Siemens via Wikipedia. Sailing ship image from Pirate King website

Why Michael Gove is not fit to lead anything

Reposting because relevant

Primate's Progress

GoveThere are mistakes due to ignorance. There are mistakes due to misunderstanding. And finally, there are mistakes that show ignorance, misunderstanding, complacency, and arrogance.

The news that Michael Gove wants to lead the country sent me back to what I wrote about him almost exactly 3 years ago. He was, of course, talking through his hat, and we all do that from time to time. But he did this while telling the rest of us, in his then capacity of Education Secretary, what to do and how to teach. Now it may not matter that Michael Gove has only a limited grasp of physics (actually, I think it does, when the physics of climate change underlie the most important single challenge facing us), but it matters enormously that a would-be future Prime Minister considers his ignorance a qualification.

Anyway, here is the gist of what I wrote back then

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Why climate skepticism is not skepticism

Sourcing Skepticism … what factors drive questioning of Global Warming?

Copied wth permission of the author, Adam Siegel, from

The original was posted on September 13th, 2007 and attracted 23 Comments

Now it seems more relevant than ever, with such “skepticism” the posture of governments from Australia to Washington while the Arctic ice melts and methane begins to rise from the tundra.

Skepticism … the ability to question unquestioned beliefs and stated certainties is a powerful intellectual tool.

Sadly, “skepticism” is receiving a bad name through association with those ready, willing, able, and enthusiastic about denying the reality before their (and our) own eyes about the global changes in climate patterns and humanity’s role in driving these changes.

Questioner … Skeptic … Denier …

Clearly, not every question, not every challenge to data, not every voicing of concern is the same.  Nor is every motivation the same.  This is not simply about “fossil-fuel-funding” — although it can be at times. This is not simply about seeking Rapture and the end of times — even though it can be.  This is not simply about political beliefs creating thought structures for dealing with science — but it can be. Read the rest of this entry

The Scopes “Monkey trial”, Part 2: Evidence, Confrontation, Resolution, Consequences

This weekend sees the 93rd anniversary of the Scopes Trial, and I am reposting this and its companion piece to celebrate.

I would point out two things. One is that the actual William Jennings Bryan was nothing like the ogre of Inherit the Wind, which was an allegory of McCarthyism. The other is how remarkably well the scientific evidence has stood up to almost a century of examination. There is even a mention, based on serological evidence, of how closely related whales are to hoofed land animals.

Primate's Progress

Darrow: Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?

Bryan: No, sir; I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.

Both sides, I will argue, were long-term loses in this exchange. But why were such matters being discussed in Tennessee court of law in the first place?

Part 1: the story so far: An extraordinary case indeed, where a school teacher, with the encouragement of his own superintendent, volunteers to go on trial in the State court for the crime of teaching from the State’s approved textbook, and where that same superintendent will be the first witness called against him. And where a mere misdemeanour case, with a maximum penalty of $500, could attract the participation of William Jennings Bryan, former US Secretary of State, and Clarence Darrow, America’s most famous trial lawyer and an agnostic.

BillySundayPreaching Billy Sunday preaching

In the run-up to the case, we even have the…

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The Scopes “Monkey trial”, Part 1: Issues, Fact, and Fiction

This weekend sees the 93rd anniversary of the Scopes Trial, and I am reposting this and its companion piece to celebrate.

I would point out two things. One is that the actual William Jennings Bryan was nothing like the ogre of Inherit the Wind, which was an allegory of McCarthyism. The other is how remarkably well the scientific evidence has stood up to almost a century of examination. There is even a mention, based on serological evidence, of how closely related whales are to hoofed land animals.

Primate's Progress

What is the purpose of this examination?

We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States, and that is all.

DaytonCourthouse Dayton Courthouse today

Inherit the Wind, the prism through which the public sees the Scopes Trial, is a travesty. William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted Scopes, was neither a buffoon nor a biblical literalist but moved by deep concerns that continue to merit attention. He did not protest at the leniency of Scopes’s punishment, but offered to pay the fine out of his own pocket. Nor did he collapse in defeat at the end of the trial, but drove hundreds of miles, and delivered two major speeches, before dying in his sleep a week later. Scopes, on trial for the crime of teaching evolution in Tennessee state school, was never at risk of prison. He was no martyr, but a willing participant…

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The dismantling of democracy, manipulation by algorithm, and what to do next; Part 2 ofAlgorithms, bullshit, and the dismantling of democracy

Updates 26 April: Faceook’s chief technology officer tells UK Parliament they did not read terms and conditions that enabled Cambridge Analytica’s data grab;  22 April, Facebook reported moving 1.5 billion users out of reach of pending EU privacy law; 2 May, Cambridge Analytica ceases trading, at least under that name, in US and UK. Part 1 here

Computational propaganda; a structural problem

Political bullshit was with us before the rise to dominance of on-line news sources, but developments over the past decade have made things far worse. Philip N. Howard, Professor of Internet Studies at Oxford, studies of fake news and elections, and way back in 2014 he coined the phrase “computational propaganda” to describe what was happening.

Opportunity for such propaganda is built into the very fabric of mass social media. Targeted ads and “suggestions” protocols are not optional features; they are what Facebook is for. People join groups that they agree with, and discussion among like-minded people moves consensus further away from the middle ground. Facebook’s recommendation system makes things even worse. An investigator for Buzzfeed, having signed up for antivaxx sites, found herself getting recommendations for groups about Pizzagate, the perils of fluoride, chemtrails, and Flat Earth.

Facebook also makes it easy to propagate fake news under false flags. Thus the page “Native Americans United”, apparently from the Dakota Pipeline protesters, with the message “Love water Not Oil, Protect Our Mother,” was produced by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm. The same people also gave us a page “Black matters”, ostensively part of the Black lives Matter movement. Special Prosecutor Mueller has indicted 13 members of this troll farm, though they are clearly unlikely to ever enter his jurisdiction.

False news has a further advantage over reality on social media because it is generally more novel and attention-grabbing. Thus an analysis of Twitter shows that false news spreads faster, deeper (longer chains of transmission), and more broadly (total number of tweets) than true news. This seems to be the work of individuals, rather than bots. See here; full report here.


L: Via New York Times, A false Facebook claim from Sri Lanka : “23,000 sterilization pills caught in Ampara. Thank you to the police. Muslim pharmacy owner from Akkaraipattu arrested. Who wants to sterilize the Sinhalese?”

Facebook algorithms automatically promote those messages that keep people spending more time on the site. Read the rest of this entry

Algorithms, bullshit, and the dismantling of democracy; (1) Bullshit

Bullshit is sticky, and by trying to stamp on it you spread it. Because its appeal is directly to the emotions, rational critique is beside the point, while virtuous outrage is as effective as support in sending it viral.

The term bullshit was introduced in its current sense by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in 2005, and has been the subject of a rash of books since Trump’s emergence as a force to be reckoned with. I have chosen this particular volume as my jumping off point, because I am familiar with the author’s UK perspective, and because the author himself, as a contributor to Buzzfeed, is part of the revolution in electronic publishing that has made bullshit so much easier to propagate.

Lying is lying; bullshit is different

Lying is misrepresentation of reality. Bullshit is something far more serious. Bullshit invites us to follow the leader into a world of subjectivity, where reality comes second to what we choose to believe. Bullshit is the delegitimisation of reality, designed to make rational discussion impossible. It is the triumph of assertion over reality.

This book names names. Boris Johnson (for more on Johnson’s chronic mendacity, see here) the Daily Mail (which is world’s largest news website, because of focus on celebrities), the Canary,1 Brexit, the Daily Express, and, of course, Trump. He also mentions Read the rest of this entry

Truth imitates satire (again) at the Environmental Protection Agency

Trump shakes hands with EPA Administrator Pruitt after announcing intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on greenhouse gas emission

“Human activity impacts our changing climate in some manner.The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue… [C]lear gaps remain including our understanding of the role of human activity and what we can do about it.”

These are among the talking points distributed to EPA staffers this week.

Have you seen this kind of language before? Yes, you have indeed, from Pruitt himself almost actually a year ago.  At that time, I pointed out that Pruitt was following the script of BBC’s satire, Yes Minister. I have now tracked down the relevant episode, where UK Cabinet Minister (later Prime Minister) Jim Hacker, asks his trusted Civil Servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby, how to deal with evidence that one would rather ignore. Sir Humphrey’s advice:

Discredit the evidence that you are not publishing. This is, of course, much easier than discrediting evidence that you do publish… You say: (a) that it leaves important questions unanswered (b) that much of the evidence is inconclusive (c) that the figures are open to other interpretations (d) that certain findings are contradictory (e) that some of the main conclusions have been questioned. Points (a) to (d) are bound to be true. In fact, all of these criticisms can be made of a report without even reading it. There are, for instance, always some questions unanswered — such as the ones they haven’t asked. As regards (e), if some of the main conclusions have not been questioned, question them!

That, by the way, was about the safety of a chemical processing by-product.

Jim proving he has elbows

Hacker (L) explaining his dilemma to Sir Humphrey

You might perhaps be concerned about the degree of contact with reality with which the EPA (to quote further talking points distributed this week) “promotes science that helps inform states, municipalities and tribes on how to plan for and respond to extreme events and environmental emergencies, recognizes the challenges that communities face in adapting to a changing climate, [and] will continue to advance its climate adaptation efforts.”

But really there’s no cause to worry, because, according to Reuters, Pruitt has “reaffirmed plans for the EPA to host a public debate on climate science sometime this year that would pit climate change doubters against other climate scientists.” It’s not clear where he’ll find his climate change doubters, but I’m sure he’ll manage, and no doubt the debate will take place with the same level of intellectual content and integrity that we have seen from the Senate Environment Committee, or would expect to see in a debate on evolution organised by Vice President Pence.

So stop making a silly fuss about the Government telling scientists to misrepresent the science.

Image and quotations from EPA talking points via Washington Post, 28 March 2018. Quotation from Yes Minster via Hacker/Appleby image via Temperature image from NASA Goddard via Wikipedia; public domain

The “Nazi pug” was offensive; the law far more so. I have written to my MP

“If you don’t believe in a person’s right to say things that you might find ‘grossly offensive’, then you don’t believe in freedom of speech”

I am Jewish. I have known holocaust survivors, as well as families who narrowly escaped the Nazi advance across Europe. I am old enough to remember the images that came out of Belsen, and was old enough and aware enough at the time to realise that but for minor accidents of time and place, that could have been me. To this day, I cannot write of these things without emotion. I have also, to compare small things with large, experienced antisemitism both personal and institutionalised.

I am therefore, presumably, among those whom Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003  would most wish to shield from offence in this case. But the law itself is an offence against my freedom of expression, and I know that there are many who find my own publicly expressed views highly offensive. For this reason, I have written to my MP asking him to support repeal of ths section of the law, and urge my readers in the UK to do likewise.

The facts are not in dispute. A Mr Meechan, apparently annoyed with his girlfriend, trained her dog to raise his paw in imitation of a Nazi salute in response to the cues “Sieg Heil” and “Gas the Jews”, and posted this performance on YouTube, where Read the rest of this entry

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