Category Archives: Society

Damage limitation at Imperial

The Royal College of Science building, now home to part of Imperial’s Chemistry Department

Disaster has been averted at Imperial. But much damage has been done, the group appointed to implement the decisions taken faces an impossible task, and the process has aggravated the very problem that it was meant to address.

For months, as I described elsewhere earlier,  Imperial College has been contemplating the possibility of dis-honouring T. H.  Huxley, one of its founders, on the basis of early remarks that we would now condemn as racist, but did no more than express the general assumptions of his time and place.  This despite the fact that Huxley was a lifelong opponent of all forms of discrimination, a fierce opponent of slavery at a time when many cultivated Englishmen were sympathetic to the Confederate cause, and clearly changed his views about race over time.

https://victorianweb.org/victorian/sculpture/misc/huxley2b.jpg

The President and the Provost have both been urging a whitewashing (if I can use this term) of the College’s history by such measures as removing Huxley’s name and bust from one of Imperial’s most prominent buildings.  As I explained earlier, they attempted to accomplish this using a deeply flawed process.  A History Group lacking in any higher level expertise in Huxley’s own areas of biology and palaeontology was set up, with the College archivist restricted to a consultative role, as was the Imperial faculty member best qualified to comment on historical matters. Two outside historians were consulted, but their areas of expertise did not really include Huxley.1 Adrian Desmond, Huxley’s biographer, was consulted but as I documented in my earlier article, his unambiguous vindication of Huxley was completely ignored. In October (revised version November), the History Group’s report recommended that Huxley’s name be removed from the Huxley Building, and his bust on display there relegated to a museum.

A request for comments on this report drew over 200 submissions.  Despite earlier commitments, the Provost refused to publish these, alleging confidentiality, and instead a summary was prepared by two outside facilitators from Goldsmith College’s Department of Social, Therapeutic, and Community Studies, neither of them biologists nor historians.  As might be predicted, this summary was obviously bad, suppressing all quantitative information about the general thrust of the submissions and giving equal weight to views that did, or did not, reflect historical reality.  This summary was then made available to the President’s Board, a group of senior advisers to the President, with whom the final decision rested. Board members also had access to the full submissions, but as we now know these add up to around 90,000 words, and one wonders how many people at such a level of seniority could possibly have found time to read them all.

Fortunately, loud voices had been raised in protest both inside and outside Imperial, the tenor of a forum held to discuss the History Group report was unmistakable, and I know that at least some Board members were directly lobbied by academic staff opposed to the removal proposals. It may also be relevant that the President, a firm advocate of removal, is now in the last few months of her term of office, and has been further weakened by other controversies.

The board met on February 21, and an official account of its conclusions was published on February 25.  According to this account, its main recommendations were as follows:

Optical fibres; image via Wikipedia article on Kapany

The Board committed to finding new ways to mark the impact and contributions of brilliant figures from underrepresented groups, having connections to Imperial, such as the Nobel Prize physicist Professor Abdus Salam , Dr Margaret Fishenden, who conducted seminal studies of combustion and heat transfer at Imperial , and Dr Narinder Singh Kapany, known as the father of fibre optics. This recommendation had met with widespread approval.

A working group has been established to implement these recommendations, and “To establish new ways for the Imperial community to continue to expose, engage with and learn from its history.”

The name and bust of TH Huxley will be retained, but put in context. This makes sense, provided the contextualising material comes from someone well informed about its subject matter. The submission to the History Group by Adrian Desmond, Huxley’s most noted biographer, would be a good start. The College will also consider a joint name for the building, linking Huxley to “a pathbreaking scientist from a Black, Asian or other minority ethnic background.”2 Here the working group faces a daunting challenge.  There are very few scientists of any background whose names could be linked to Huxley’s without suffering by comparison, let alone if consideration is restricted to the underrepresented.

Similar recommendations made regarding commemoration of the Beit brothers, whose profits from mines in South Africa did much to finance the College, seem to me sensible although I have no expertise in this area. Specifically, the College will seek to direct its Beit scholarships to African scientists. Other de-naming recommendations seem to have been quietly dropped.

The Board also decided to release an anonymised version of the written submissions. This has the effect of showing the degree of distortion in the previously publicised summary. For example, the summary says that “Some participants felt such items [statues, busts, and historical artifacts] should be removed when possible as they are a daily reminder of enslavement and colonial legacy and not a reflection of the College current values.” In the full version, slavery (or slave, enslavement, etc.) is explicitly mentioned in 45 submissions. Two of these deal with a side-issue, the slave owner Sir Henry de la Beche. (Here the first version of the report was criticised for being too kind, but the matter had by then already been dealt with with at the Department level by removing his name from an award, renaming the geology society, and archiving his bust ) . Of the remaining 43, only 5 favour removing existing names or statues, 2 are ambiguous, and 36 are opposed to removal. 26 mention Huxley by name and all but twoof these oppose removal, with frequent mention of his enlightened attitudes and opposition to slavery. (It took me less than half an hour to establish all this, using simple word searching to scan the relevant submissions, which were generally quite unambiguous.)

Again, according to the summary,

Other [respondents] said they felt unwelcomed and rejected by Huxley’s links to eugenics, leading to feelings of marginalisation, disrespect, hurt and offence. Some that marking his legacy without this context had a negative effect on Imperial’s aspirations to equality and inclusion and its global standing.

This is flat out untrue.

By my count, 20 separate submissions mentioned eugenics. Of these, only one was in favour of renaming. 19 were opposed, and of these 18 mentioned Huxley by name, many pointing out that nothing in his writings could be said to support eugenics. As one respondent put it, capturing the general flavour of the responses, “taking down Huxley because his work contributed to eugenics is about as logical as cancelling Jesus because his name has been used to justify crusades.” Others also pointed out that to link Huxley to eugenics is unhistorical, since we can date the very term to Galton’s writing in 1883, some years after the work for which Huxley is chiefly remembered. (I would further add, since such charges are often raised by creationists against evolution science as a whole, that eugenics was deeply rooted in older beliefs2  about hereditary inferiority.

So how did the summary come to say what it did? Its authors, remember, were from Goldsmith College’s Department of Social, Therapeutic, and Community Studies, with no expertise either in history or in the relevant science. I must presume that, as non-experts, they wrongly imagined that the History Group spoke from a position of expertise, and allowed their perspective to be influenced accordingly. I emphasise this point because it helps explain the very real harm that this process has done to the College, and to the reputation of science in general.

Consider the History Group’s overall impact. To quote its own report,

The Group’s project was set up as part of a series of initiatives to address racial injustice.  An important rationale for the project was to develop an understanding of how Imperial is perceived by a wide range of stakeholders, how this is influenced by its history (or perception of its history) and the extent to which this perception will hinder our ambition to establish a truly inclusive environment which allows all to flourish and to feel at home.

How well has the History Group succeeded in attaining these objectives? Not very.  The recommendation to dis-honour Huxley achieved the rare distinction of being attacked both by the strongly Conservative Telegraph and the left-leaning Observer, sister paper to the Guardian. The Telegraph printed   and re-echoed the letter of protest by 40 academics that the journal Nature had refused to publish. In the Observer , Kenan Malik, who himself studied at Imperial and is, for what it is worth, himself a member of a minority ethnic group, criticised the entire notion that real inequalities were being usefully addressed by such symbolic actions, while pouring scorn on a process that treated Huxley, an agent of scientific and social progress, in the same way as the slave trader Colston whose statue had been thrown into Bristol Harbour (or, I would add in the context of Imperial, the slave owner de la Beche discussed above). As Malik puts it,

Damning both equally as racists who do not deserve commemoration is to abandon historical evaluation for a crude mode of moral judgment.

The Times also gave sympathetic treatment to criticism of the history group report from within Imperial.

By the time the College’s decision was announced, Russia had invaded Ukraine, moving public attention away from this, as with so many other matters.  The only newspaper accounts of the decision that I could find were in the Daily Mail online and, again, the Times.

The headline in the Daily Mail reads

Ethnic minority scientist’s name will be added to Imperial College building named in honour of Thomas Henry Huxley after claims that biologist who discovered birds were descended from dinosaurs was racist

Its bulleted summary states that the History Group had accused Huxley of ‘scientific racism’, while the full article reports academics’ rebuttal and praise of him as a role model.

The Times article, however, is extraordinary, not only restating the refuted claim that Huxley’s work had somehow led to eugenics, but describing him as a eugenicist himself.

Times article, March 3 2022, under the byline of “James Beal, Social Affairs editor”

Notice that this article appeared under the byline, not of a reporter, but of the Social Affairs editor. I can only surmise that it is playing a role in some wider agenda.

So, returning to the history group’s objectives, how will all this activity have affectedhow Imperial is perceived” and the worthy “ambition to establish a truly inclusive environment which allows all to flourish and to feel at home”? Not, I fear, very well. The College has given us a shameful exhibition of poor scholarship, and besmeared the reputation of its founder. It created a false impression of impartiality and expertise in the setting up and naming of the History Group, thus enhancing the opprobrium it will attract from some for ignoring its recommendations. For those who, like the vast majority of historians, life science scholars, and respondents to the call for submissions, the accusations against Huxley were ill-informed and misguided, the exercise will leave them dismayed by the History Group’s recommendedations. For those, if there are any, who do really feel excluded and less able to flourish because of Huxley’s belief, in 1865, in a hierarchy of races, they will be dismayed that the Group’s central recommendation was not implemented, and will be feeling more excluded than ever. Who can blame them when the report itself and its Press coverage have given them so much cause?

One final irony. Within the UK at least, the biggest single cause of imbalances of power and education between groups is social class. Imperial itself is well aware of this problem, and includes this factor among others in its ambitious plans to widen access. What better role model, then, than a child forced by family poverty to leave school at age 10, who rose to the highest levels of accomplishment, whose scientific achievements continue to earn our admiration 150 years later, and who did more perhaps than any other person of his time to broaden educational opportunity? I give you

Thomas Henry Huxley

This article first appeared on 3 Quarks Daily, as an update of my earlier Intellectual Disgrace at Imperial College. As before, I thank numerous colleagues for discussions and relevant information, including Joe Felsenstein, Steve Hollenhorst, Nick Matzke, Andrew Petto, Betty Smokovitis, and members of Imperial’s academic staff. RCS Building image, Barabbas1312, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons. Bust of Huxley, photograph George P. Landau, via https://victorianweb.org/victorian/religion/agnos.html . Huxley sketch by his daughter, Marian, via Wikipedia

***

1] To be fair, there was some overlap with the other main target for reconsideration, the Beit brothers, major donors towards the College, whose wealth derived from South African mines.  Imperial College has no history department at such, but the academic staff member best qualified to pronounce on historical matters was also relegated to a consultative role.

2] Pet peeve: I wish people would not say “minority” when they clearly mean “underrepresented”.  Albert Einstein came from a minority ethnic background, and as a result had to flee his country of birth, but I do not think that is what the College has in mind.

Why creationism bears all the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory

A friend asked me why I bother about creationism. This article spells out my reasons. It has had some 150,000 reads since first published in The Conversation in February, and has been featured in Snopes and Yahoo! News, and attacked by Ken Ham and Bodie Hodge of Answers in Genesis, Jake Hebert Ph.D [sic] at the Institute for Creation Research, and others.

https://images.theconversation.com/files/381349/original/file-20210129-21-zsa3bk.jpg?ixlib=rb-1.1.0&rect=0%2C374%2C4031%2C2015&q=45&auto=format&w=1356&h=668&fit=crop
A replica of Noah’s Ark from the biblical tale at the Ark Encounter theme park in Kentucky. Lindasj22/Shutterstock

Many people around the world looked on aghast as they witnessed the harm done by conspiracy theories such as QAnon and the myth of the stolen US election that led to the attack on the US Capitol Building on January 6. Yet while these ideas will no doubt fade in time, there is arguably a much more enduring conspiracy theory that also pervades America in the form of young Earth creationism. And it’s one that we cannot ignore because it is dangerously opposed to science.

In the US today, up to 40% of adults agree with the young Earth creationist claim that all humans are descended from Adam and Eve within the past 10,000 years. They also believe that living creatures are the result of “special creation” rather than evolution and shared ancestry. And that Noah’s flood was worldwide and responsible for the sediments in the geologic column (layers of rock built up over millions of years), such as those exposed in the Grand Canyon.

Book cover of The Genesis Flood, The Biblical Flood and its Scientific Implications.

Such beliefs derive from the doctrine of biblical infallibility, long accepted as integral to the faith of numerous evangelical and Baptist churches throughout the world, including the Free Church of Scotland. But I would argue that the present-day creationist movement is a fully fledged conspiracy theory. It meets all the criteria, offering a complete parallel universe with its own organisations and rules of evidence, and claims that the scientific establishment promoting evolution is an arrogant and morally corrupt elite.

This so-called elite supposedly conspires to monopolise academic employment and research grants. Its alleged objective is to deny divine authority, and the ultimate beneficiary and prime mover is Satan.

Creationism re-emerged in this form in reaction to the mid-20th century emphasis on science education. Its key text is the long-time best seller, The Genesis Flood, by John C Whitcomb and Henry M Morris. This provided the inspiration for Morris’s own Institute for Creation Research, and for its offshoots, Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International. [Note added: Ken Ham points out in his rebuttal that Answers in Genesis arose independently of the Institute for Creation Research, and that his article concerning denial of divine authority, cited in the previous paragraph and below, does not mention Satan by name.]

Ken Ham, the founder and chief executive of Answers in Genesis, is also responsible for the highly lucrative Ark Encounter theme park and Creation Museum in Kentucky. As a visit to any of these websites will show, their creationism is completely hostile to science, while paradoxically claiming to be scientific.

Demonising and discrediting

These are common conspiracy theory tactics at play. Creationists go to great lengths to demonise the proponents of evolution, and to undermine the overwhelming evidence in its favour.

There are numerous organisations, among them Biologos, the American Scientific Affiliation, the Faraday Institute, and the Clergy Letter Project, which describes themselves as “an endeavour designed to demonstrate that religion and science can be compatible”, that is, promoting evolution science within the context of religious belief. Even so, creationists insist on linking together the separate topics of evolution, materialist philosophy, and the promotion of atheism.

According to Answers in Genesis, evolution science is a work of Satan, while former US Congressman Paul Broun has described it as “a lie straight from the pit of hell”. When he said that, by the way, he was a member of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Like other conspiracy theorists, creationists immunise themselves from fact-based criticism. They label the study of the past as based on unprovable assumptions, thus disqualifying in advance the plain evidence of geology.

They then attack other evidence by focusing on specific frauds, such as Piltdown man – a hoax skeleton purportedly of a missing link between humans and other apes that was debunked more than 60 years ago – or the dinosaur-bird amalgam “Archaeoraptor”, discredited by sharp-eyed scientists before ever making it into the peer-reviewed literature (although not before making it into National Geographic).

One favourite target is Ernst Haeckel, whose pictures of embryos, published in 1874, are now considered to be seriously inaccurate. However, they do correctly draw attention to what most matters here: the features shared during development by different organisms – including humans – such as gill arches, a long tail, and eyes on the side rather than the front of the head, confirming they have a common ancestry.

Haeckel’s name appears on the Answers in Genesis website 92 times. He is also the subject of a lengthy chapter in Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution; Science or Myth?. This book, which even has its own high school study guide, was what first convinced me, back in 2013, that creationism was a conspiracy theory.

More from The Conversation’s Expert guide to conspiracy theories here.

It is a splendid example of creationist tactics, using long-rectified shortcomings (such as those in early studies on Darwinian evolution in peppered moths, in response to changing colours following reduced pollution) to imply that the entire science is fraudulent. Wells has a real PhD in biology, a PhD acquired with the specific goal of “destroying Darwinism” – meaning evolution science – from the inside.

Wells is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a conservative thinktank which promotes creationism under the banner of “Intelligent Design”, and is also linked to other conspiracy theories, such as claims that the consensus on climate change is bogus, and that last November’s US presidential election was stolen. An article by a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute on the subject has now being removed from its website, but can be found here.

A series of graphics indicating seven contributing parts of a conspiracy theory.
How those fighting science denial break down reasoning of conspiracy theories. JohnCook@skepticalscience, Author provided

What next?

Conspiracy theories are always driven by some underlying concern or agenda. The theory that Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery, or that the 2020 US election was stolen, are about political legitimacy and will fade as the politicians promoting them fade from memory. The idea that COVID-19 does not exist is proving a little harder to dislodge, but scientists, such as those behind Respectful Insolence, are organising to fight back on science denial and misinformation.

I fear that the creationist conspiracy theory will not be so short-lived. It is driven by a deep-seated power struggle within religious communities, between modernists and literalists; between those who regard scripture as coming to us through human authors, however inspired, and those who regard it as a perfect supernatural revelation. And that is a struggle that will be with us for a long time to come.

The Hate Crime Bill and the Bible

 

Letter in Dundee Courier; Watching out for religious hatred 

Sir, – The Courier

Atheists see some merit in Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf’s Hate Crime Bill, as it will enable the prosecution of all Scotland’s religions and their Holy Books for spreading hatred.

It is utterly unacceptable that in progressive, social democratic Scotland that squalid, Bronze Age village disputes, as described in the Holy Books, about control of women, goats or water should give Scotland’s “Holy Willies” authority to spout out vitriol against atheists, agnostics, apostates, sceptics, non-believers, women, trans people and homosexuals.

We fully intend to monitor all Holy Books, sermons in places of worship and the social media accounts of the various religions and report any hatred to Police Scotland for criminal investigation.

Ian Stewart, Convener, Atheist Scotland, Park Avenue, Dundee.

Christian News  takes Mr Stewart very seriously:

If passed, the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill would criminalise words deemed “likely” to “stir up hatred” against particular groups. It would not require any proof of intent.

Simon Calvert, Deputy Director for Public Affairs at The Christian Institute, warned against “the dangerous new ‘stirring up hatred’ offences”, saying that “they will give politically-motivated complainants like Mr Stewart a powerful weapon against their ideological opponents.”

He commented: “The threshold of the proposed offences is so low that Mr Stewart might well be able to persuade a police officer that certain unfashionable Bible verses or sermons are ‘hate crimes’. Does the Scottish Government really want to expose church ministers to the risk of prosecution at the instigation of anti-religious zealots?

Mr Calvert also pointed out that “Thankfully, Mr Stewart does not represent all atheists.”

The organisation “Atheist Scotland” does not seem to exist. But “Ian Stewart” sounds like someone I would like to get to know. The pending Hate Crime bill would certainly give him plenty of scope to carry out his threat, since it creates an offence of abusive speech likely to stir up hatred, whether there is any intent to stir up hatred and whether any hatred is stirred up or not, against members of various groups. Using the definitions in the Bill, these groups would include believers in different religions from the speaker, believers in no religion, homosexuals, transsexuals, and cross-dressers, all of whom you will find vilified in the Bible, while the Westminster Confession of Faith condemns all non-Christians to eternal conscious torment and serve them right.

The reality of course is that all the UK’s major secularists and humanist organisations, as well as a coalition ranging from the Free Church of Scotland to the Roman Catholics, have called (see e.g. Free to Disagree) for this bill in anything like its present form to be scrapped. There is no precedent for such diversity of opinion uniting around a cause, and for this, if nothing else, the Justice Minister is to be congratulated.

Undark: In Social Insects, Researchers Find Hints for Controlling Disease

Repost from UndarK:

In Social Insects, Researchers Find Hints for Controlling Disease

July 22, 2020 by Michael Schulson

Given that she infects ant colonies with deadly pathogens and then studies how they respond, one might say that Nathalie Stroeymeyt, a senior lecturer in the school of biological sciences at the University of Bristol in the U.K., specializes in miniature pandemics. The tables turned on her, however, in March: Covid-19 swept through Britain, and Stroeymeyt was shut out of her ant epidemiology lab. The high-performance computers she uses to track ant behavior sat idle, and only a lab technician — deemed an essential worker — was permitted to tend to the lab’s hundreds of black garden ant colonies, each housed in its own plastic tub.

With governments across the world now encouraging people to maintain space between one another to prevent the spread of the virus, Stroeymeyt drew parallels with her insect subjects. The current guidance on social distancing “rung familiar,” Stroeymeyt said, “because I’ve been seeing it among the ants.”

Such insights are at the heart of a burgeoning field of insect research that some scientists say could help humans imagine a more pandemic-resilient society. As with humans, fending off Read the rest of this entry

Scots, PLEASE write to Holyrood Justice Ctee and to MSPs. Here’s how and why

File:ScottishParliamentFront.JPGThe draft Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill is open for comment for just over one more week. It is a frightening attack on freedom of speech, and introduces a new offence of abusive speech, of which one can be guilty even without criminal intent, with penalties of up to seven years imprisonment. Fortunately, we still have time to persuade MSPs, of whom some even within the Government party have doubts. Links to the bill, other comments, and relevant email addresses are given below.

A person commits an offence if the person … communicates threatening or abusive material to another person, and … as a result, it is likely that hatred will be stirred up against such a group.

In brief, the bill is so broad, and its language so vague and inclusive, that it would be impossible to express oneself on a whole range of important issues without running the risk of offending.

The bill states that

A person commits an offence if the person … communicates threatening or abusive material to another person, and … as a result, it is likely that hatred will be stirred up against such a group.[Emphasis added]

The characteristics are age, disability, religion or, in the case of a social or cultural group, perceived religious affiliation, sexual orientation, transgender identity, variations in sex characteristics.

Notice that one can offend without intending to do so, even if no hatred is actually stirred up, and even if no member of the relevant group has actually complained. Strangely enough, when it comes to race, colour, nationality (including citizenship), or ethnic or national origins, there must be actual intent to stir up hatred. Why there should be this distinction is beyond my understanding, while expressions like “abuse” and “hatred” are so vague that there are a whole range of important current controversies (e.g. trans rights issues, the Palestine-Israel question, immigration, religious family law) were what some would regard as legitimate expression of opinion would risk being seen by others as abusive and stirring up hatred.

(Full text of the relevant sections at end of post)

Here’s what I sent to the Justice Committee at justicecommittee@parliament.scot, with copies to my Constituency and all my Regional MSPs:

As your constituent, I wish to comment on the draft Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill.

I welcome the abolition of the law against blasphemy, which I hope is in no way controversial, but an eight-word Bill would suffice for that.

I am a member of an ethnic minority group, and have been subjected to abusive speech likely to stir up hatred. Despite this, I am completely opposed to this Bill, which introduces a large number of necessarily ill-defined terms, and is likely to achieve the opposite of what is intended. I am particularly concerned at the creation of a new class of offence based on the extremely ill-defined concept of “abuse”, as well as the fact that it is possible to offend under this Bill with no intention of doing so.

If this Bill or anything at all like it becomes law, it will possible for me to offend without intending to do so by communicating material considered abusive, even if I do not consider it abusive, and even in the absence of complaints from anyone who is allegedly targeted, if it is found that it is likely (whatever that may mean) that what I communicate will stir up hatred, even if that was not my intent. I expect that many of us have offended multiple times by these criteria. Read the rest of this entry

Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world (review; long)

Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world, Marcia Bjornerud, Princeton University Press, 2018/2020

There are many excellent overviews for the general reader of how life on Earth has changed over time (see, for a recent example, Neil Shubin’s Some Assembly Required, which I reviewed here recently. The history of the Earth itself has not been so well served, and Timefulness; How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, by Marcia Bjornerud, Professor of Geology and environmental Sciences at Lawrence University, is a welcome and timely addition to this badly under-represented genre. [1] The book is beautifully written, in plain language, with complex ideas explained with great simplicity and the use of strikingly appropriate verbal imagery. Behind this transparency of language lies a deep love and knowledge of her subject. The book should appeal to anyone looking for an overview of the Earth as the abode of life, or a perspective on our place in time, and how recklessly we are compressing the tempo of natural change.

The author presents her book as an argument for what she calls timefulness, the perception of ourselves as living in and constrained by time, of time itself as having both extension and texture, of the acceptance of our own mortality, and of our own responsibilities. This she sees as severely lacking in our society. We expect people to know something about distances on the map, but Read the rest of this entry

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

Gove

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:

SteamTurbine

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.

ships_fluyt

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 climate skepticism is not skepticism

Sourcing Skepticism … what factors drive questioning of Global Warming?

Copied wth permission of the author, Adam Siegel, from http://getenergysmartnow.com/2007/09/13/sourcing-skepticism-what-factors-drive-questioning-of-global-warming/

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 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

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