Category Archives: Uncategorized

Teaching Indigenous thought as science in New Zealand

As Michael says, this project is patronising, since it values Matauranga not for what it is, but for somethng that it is not. Such muddled thinking does nothing but harm to the admirable project of decolonising the curriculum

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

Exactly 40 years ago this December the hot topic in science was the trial over the teaching of Creationism in Arkansas.  A bill had been passed a few months earlier to give equal time of the teaching  of “Creation” and “Evolution” in schools.  (Creation mean a 6 day creation some 6 -10,000 years ago according to a literal view of Genesis and Evolution meant an earth some 4.5 billion years old and humans evolving ultimately from a unicellular creature.) At first Creationists in America were rejoicing at their success, but soon forces were mobilised against them.

Soon the bill was challenged in the courts, with a court case running from 7th to17th December 1981. A vast number of witnesses were called on both sides and on Jan 5th 1982 Judge Overton gave a 38 page ruling concluding that Creation Science was not science but religious doctrine and thus could not…

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Another side to Socrates

A marble head of Socrates
Marble head of Socrates, Roman, 1st Century CE, ?after Lysippos, 4th Century BCE, via Wikipedia

We all know the story. Socrates has been told by the oracle that he is wisest of men, but he considers that he himself knows nothing. Puzzled, he takes to cross-examining his fellow Athenians about their beliefs, and time and again finds that they will not bear examination. As a result, he is indicted on trumped-up charges of impiety and corrupting the young. After a trial in which he eloquently defends his behaviour, he is condemned to death. A martyr to freedom of expression, and a shocking example of democracy suppressing dissent. Surely there is more to the story than that? Indeed there is.

I am not about to commit the folly of denying the greatness of Socrates. We still, twentyfour cenuries later, praise his methods of investigation. I myself have used an argument taken directly from one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues. The topic was practical ethics, Socrates’ speciality; and the technique used, questioning assumed certainties, his favourite tactic.

Here’s what happened. A few years ago, I was involved in a moderately successful campaign  [1] to reduce the statutory role of the Churches in Scotland’s local authority education committees. The Church of Scotland attempted to justify its privileged position by pointing to its distinctive Christian ethos. In reply, I pointed out that to the extent that this ethos is generally shared, we do not need any Church to promote it, while to the extent that it is specific to Christianity, the Churches have no right to impose it on the rest of us.

My reasoning derives directly from Socrates, in The Euthyphro, where Socrates challenges Euthyphro to define pious behaviour.

Euthyphro, after a few false starts, defines it as the kind of behaviour that pleases the gods. Socrates then asks a question which reverberates to this day, and which undercuts any attempts to define morality by reference to authority; does such behavior please the gods because it is pious, in which case we still have to ask what it is that makes it pious, and we are back where we started. Or is it pious because it pleases the gods? In that case, piety depends merely on the divine whim.

For how Plato’s Socrates would define morality, we can turn to The Republic, in which he advocates a city ruled by an oligarchy of philosophers, qualified for their post by their superior insights, who give out the legend that they are of different descent from common clay, impose limits on public discussion, and ban poets and non-military music. It is easy to guess how long the sainted Socrates of common belief would have lasted within such a city.
Alliances at the outset of the Peloponnesian War, US Army via Wikipedia

And what about the charge of corrupting the young? Here it makes sense to look at what we know about how Socrates’ disciples behaved during the period of his influence. This included the period of the Peloponnesian War   between Athens and Sparta, which had led to total defeat for Athens, and the temporary installation five years before the trial of a brutal oligarchy (the Thirty) operating under Spartan auspices. The War could be seen as part of an ongoing struggle between oligarchy and (severely limited) democracy. The overthrow of the Thirty speaks to Athenian resilience, despite which there had been a further oligarchic coup attempt just two years before the trial.

If there is a single person to blame for the defeat of Athens, it is Socrates’ disciple Alcibiades, who persuaded the Athenians to undertake a disastrous military operation in Sicily, defected to Sparta in the aftermath, and ended up advising Darius II of Persia on how to subvert the Greek city-states. Another prominent disciple of Socrates was Critias, a diehard oligarch who even after the overthrow of the Thirty had led a rearguard action that included the massacre of 300 people at Eleusis [2]. All these events would have been fresh in the memory of the Athenians at the time of the trial.

Alcibades being taught by Socrates, François-André Vincent.jpg
Alcibiades being taught by Socrates, François-André Vincent, 1776, Musée Fabre, via Wikipedia

Without in any way condoning the execution of Socrates, we might in the light of these events be able to come a little closer to understanding it. Unfortunately, the only contemporary accounts we have of the trial are derived from Plato, and from Xenophon who also clearly admired Socrates. So we have the case for the defence, but not the case for the prosecution. We have the wording of the indictment, but not the details of the allegations. Trying to find out what was really going on at the trial is a matter for an investigative journalist, and preferably one deeply committed to both free speech and democracy, who can help us understand why Socrates attracted less than universal admiration.

The Trial of Socrates

Fortunately, we have the results of exactly such an investigation, in the form of The Trial of Socrates, by I.F. Stone. Stone was an independent-minded investigative journalist, who avoided close contact with official sources and built his case on publicly available documents. He was a critic of Cold War policies, racism and anti-Semitism in the FBI, and much besides. During his career he worked for several different newspapers, and produced his newsletter, I. F. Stone’s Weekly, from 1953 until angina forced him to retire in 1971. At this point, he completed his long interrupted Bachelor’s degree in classical languages from the University of Pennsylvania, devoted himself to the study of classical Greek literature and thought, and over a ten-year period produced this book, which he completed a year before his death in 1981. What follows is his analysis of the trial and its significance, which I with my two years of schoolboy Greek am not qualified to improve on.
I. F. Stone, aged 64. Image by Kzitelman via Wikipedia

As Stone reminds us, Socrates himself wrote nothing down, and everything you know about him is at second or third hand. There are some critical mentions in Aristotle, who was born 15 years after Socrates died, fiercely hostile satires staged many years before the trial in Aristophanes’ The Clouds and The Birds, and a defence of Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Apology, but the most extensive source by far is Plato. Plato’s dialogues, centred on Socrates, are dramatic masterpieces through which Socrates emerges with still contemporary urgency. Scholars will continue to debate how much of this material may represent Socrates, and how much is Plato’s own, but unless there is reason to think otherwise, what we are usually discussing is Plato’s Socrates. However, in the case of the trial, we have the independent account by Xenophon, allowing us to check many crucial facts.

Let me start with Stone’s discussion of The Euthyphro, which occurs in the middle of the book, but goes to the heart of Stone’s critique. The dialogue is set as an encounter outside the courts, where Socrates is dealing with the preliminaries to his trial. It is usually presented, as I did myself earlier, as a triumphant example of Socrates’ probing demolition of Euthyphro’s unwarranted certainty. What we risk losing sight of is why Euthyphro and Socrates are having this discussion in the first place. Euthyphro has a real life dilemma. A labourer has killed one of his father’s slaves, whereupon his father left him in chains in a ditch while sending for legal advice. Three days later, the labourer was dead. Euthyphro has to decide whether it is more pious to be a good son and say nothing, or to be a good citizen and report the matter to the authorities, and he chooses the latter.

It should by now be no surprise that Socrates attacks this decision. Euthyphro has decided that in the circumstances piety requires him to inform against his own father, but under Socrates’ cross-examining, it turns out that he cannot even define piety. This is the background to Socrates’ unanswerable philosophical dilemma. Socrates is guided by the principle that questions can be decided by examining definitions, and it is the lack of a good definition that has led Euthyphro to what Socrates considers to be a perverse decision. I have long regarded The Euthyphro as showing Socrates at his best; but thanks to Stone, I can now see that it also shows him at his worst.

We cannot understand Socrates’ attitude without reference to its political context. Thus the word “labourer,” as Stone points out, was a technical term for the lowest class of freemen, those without property, who had won the right to full citizenship just two centuries earlier, and had suffered most under the oligarchies that Sparta had imposed on Athens. Classical Greek was proverbial for the subtlety of its vocabulary, and accordingly, here as elsewhere, Stone pays close attention to the actual words used, and shows us many shades of meaning that would otherwise be lost in translation. His discussion of the Euthyphro runs to 5 pages, and includes such relevant background detail as the changing fates of the landowners on the island of Naxos, where the episode had taken place, during the Peloponnesian War, and the disenfranchisement of labourers in the oligarchical interludes of the preceding decades.

Stone, a journalist remember, does not waste words, and I cannot possibly do justice here to what takes him 250 fact-filled pages plus footnotes. So I will select just four topics for discussion; what we know about Socrates chief accuser, Socrates’ mutually contradictory claims to ignorance and to superior insight, the full significance of the indictment brought against him, and his extraordinary conduct at the trial.

Socrates’ chief accuser was Anytus, a tanner by trade, but on occasion a general by necessity. We first meet him in The Meno, where Socrates belittles all of Athens’ leading political figures, including Pericles and Thucydides, and Anytus warns Socrates that he could get into trouble by insulting so many people. The Meno is set two years before the trial, and we cannot tell whether this exchange actually took place, or whether the report is Plato’s dramatic embroidering. The underlying issue here, as Stone points out, is not that Socrates takes this or that political position, but that he is antipolitical. He attacks oligarchs and democrats equally, because he does not regard the common herd as fit for self-government under either system. Anytus himself was no extreme democrat. He was a follower of Theramenes, who had attempted to moderate the policies of the Thirty, and been executed for this on the orders of Critias. At that point, Anytas himself had fled Athens, and joined the coalition that soon recaptured the city from the Thirty, Critias himself being slain in the final battle.

Anytus’ son had for a while been part of Socrates’ circle, but that did not last. As Stone puts it, “One might add that Anytus was not unreasonable in withdrawing his son from Socratic tutelage. Anytus had reason to fear that his son might have been turned by Socrates against his father, taught to despise the family business [3], and converted by his aristocratic associates into a pro-Spartan snob and a supporter of the Thirty.”

Socrates boasted of his own humility. The Oracle at Delphi had proclaimed him superior in wisdom to other men, and so, he said, he had interrogated others renowned for their wisdom, and to his dismay found them lacking. We have already met his dismissal from consideration of Athenian statesmen across the political spectrum. In his Apology [4] he refers to this without naming names. He then turns his attention to the poets (his contemporaries here would have included Euripides and Sophocles), but rejects them also because they cannot explain their own works to his satisfaction. Regarding skilled tradesmen, a group that included Anytus, he observed that “even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom.” No one, it seemed, could meet his high standards, and he had to conclude that he was indeed better off than anyone else was, being at least aware of his own ignorance. He was also better off in having access to his own daemon, or inner voice. This is not, as one might imagine, some kind of conscience or inner light, but a spiritual entity, as the Apology, especially in Xenophon [5], makes plain.

Now to the indictment. I had always thought that this included an accusation of “making the worse appear the better cause”. But those words are not those of his accusers. They are Socrates’ (or perhaps Plato’s) own, crafted to cast the trial in the context of suppression of dissent. As Stone convincingly shows, this interpretation was not generally expressed until several centuries later. The actual indictment refers to corrupting the young, and to not believing in the gods the state believes in, but in others.

As for corrupting the young, we have seen the examples of Alcibiades and Critias, and we can at least sympathise with a tanner faced with a Socrates who teaches his son that his father’s occupation is unworthy. We can also be more specific. Aristophanes, lampooning Socrates in his comedies, describes the young under his influence as having been socratified and, in The Birds, spartified. Fifteen years earlier, when The Birds was staged, that may have been a bit of a joke, but not in the aftermath of the Sparta-imposed dictatorship of the Thirty, and the even more recent coup attempt.

The rest of the indictment is the accusation that Socrates “does not believe in the gods the state believes in, but in other new spiritual beings.” According to Stone, what is important here is the reference to the gods that the Athenian state believes in, rather than to gods in general, although Socrates deliberately blurs this crucial distinction in his Apology. He readily establishes that he takes part in the customary rituals, but this could hardly be the point since everybody knew that anyway. Moreover, classical polytheism was indulgent to different views of the gods, and it is not until the rise of monotheism that we have the concepts of atheism and heresy as deviant. So if that is not what the indictment means, what does it mean?

Here we are forced to speculate, for lack of evidence. There are three specific deities that Stone mentions at this point. Firstly there is Hephaestus, god of the smithy, a divine craftsman highly revered in a city renowned for the quality of its workmanship. Yet Socrates disdains such material activities. Then there are two divinities singled out for mention by Athena herself in the final scene of Aeschylus’ Orestes trilogy. One of these is Zeus, but more specifically Zeus Agoraios, Zeus of the assembly, the titular divinity of its free debates. The other is Peitho, or Persuasion, personified as a goddess. Socrates, Stone is suggesting, is under attack for his failure to embrace the essential democratic spirit of participation in public life.

Socrates does indeed attempt to defend himself from such a charge, apparently sincerely but not very convincingly. He says that he had not spoken in the assemblies, for fear of being killed for his opinions. Yet he was expounding those same opinions in the Agora every day, to anyone who would listen, and Plato would continue to teach Socratic doctrine unmolested at his Academy in Athens for another 40 years. He mentions voting against the initial majority in an important trial, but he could hardly have evaded the duty to take part, having been chosen by lot to be among the judges, nor could he have been in danger in stating his opinion, since he persuaded the majority to his own point of view. And he mentions that he quietly ignored an order from the Thirty to take part in an unlawful arrest. Hardly a spectacular display of opposition, when he could have added his very well-known presence to the opposition forces then mustering outside the city.

And finally, to Socrates’ conduct at the trial, and his motivation. Socrates made it very clear to Xenophon’s informant, Hermogenes, that he had knowing set out on a course that would lead to his death. He eloquently laments his lack of eloquence, while claiming that minds have been poisoned against him, and insults the court for being open to rhetorical persuasion. His proud display of humility is calculated to offend the citizens judging him. He belittles the excellences of craftsmanship, poetry, and political debate, for which Athens was justly famous. He gives credibility to the charge of believing in different gods, by invoking his daemon and its preternatural insight. He rejects in advance the possibility of being conditionally acquitted if he stops teaching, although he had done exactly that when asked to under the Thirty. He is surprised – one might almost say offended – by the narrowness of the guilty verdict against him. When proceedings move on to the punishment phase, the prosecution offers, as foreseen, the death penalty, expecting the defence to come up with a serious alternative. Yet Socrates’ counteroffer is that he be awarded civic banquets for life, in recognition of his services to the city. And although he eventually modifies that to paying a small fine, it is hardly surprising that the majority in favour of the death penalty ends up being larger than it had been for the earlier guilty verdict. He was asking for it, after all.

The killing of Socrates was a crime. Socrates was a willing accomplice.

The Death of Socrates by Giambettino Cignaroli, early 18C, via Wikipedia

1] I helped present a petition to the Scottish Parliament asking them to revoke the long-standing legal requirement for Council Education Committees to include nominees of the Churches as voting members. In response, the Scottish Government reinterpreted the legislation so as to make their presence a matter for each separate Council to decide.
2] Xenophon, despite his sympathy for the oligarchic cause, confirms this atrocity. Critias appears, favourably, and without any mention of these events, in several of Plato’s dialogues, but these were written many years later.
3] In Xenophon’s version of Socrates’ Apology, Socrates says that Anytus’ enmity arose “because, seeing him deemed worthy of the highest honours of the state, I told him it ill became him to bring up his son in a tan-yard.”
4] The word of course is used here in its original sense of explanation and justification, the very opposite of common current usage. In this paragraph, I use Plato’s version of the Apology, although it was probably written much later, since it is more explicit here than Xenophon’s.
5] Here Xenophon is the more explicit: “I speak of a divinity, and in using that designation I claim to speak at once more exactly and more reverentially than they do who [using divination] ascribe the power of the gods to birds. And that I am not lying against the Godhead I have this as a proof: although I have reported to numbers of friends the counsels of heaven, I have never at any time been shown to be a deceiver or deceived [tumult in court].”

This article first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily.

Why I wear a mask

Face Masks for Coronavirus COVID-19 | Lindare Medical

It isn’t for me, it’s for you. It’s also virtue signalling, and nothing wrong with that. And finally, I’m glad to say, it’s what the law is where I live. There is of course a libertarian argument against mask wearing, just like there’s a libertarian argument against drunk driving. So what?

We have known for months that the main way COVID-19 spreads is through aerial droplets. When these dry out, they form an infective aerosol. So the best way to stop this happening is to catch them before they dry out. That’s the real function of the mask. It give some protection to the wearers, but much more important is the protection it gives to those around them.

SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, isolated from a patient. Image by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, via Washington Post

But I’m double vaccinated; how could I possibly be infectious? Very easily. We know that vaccines are not 100% effective against COVID-19, although they greatly reduce the chance of diagnosable infection, as well as the chance of such infection becoming serious or lethal. It follows that there might be quite a number of us wandering around harbouring the virus but completely unaware of it, especially if we have been vaccinated. And live vaccine has been recovered from the noses of vaccinated subjects. We also know that our vaccines are less effective against the relatively new Delta variant that they are against the older strains from which they were developed,  and the laws of mutation and evolution mean that new variants are emerging all the time, and being selected for their ability to spread even in a largely vaccinated population.

I also know that if people see those around them wearing masks, they are more likely to mask up themselves. That’s good for them, and good for those around them. This is what used to be called setting a good example, but that expression seems of gone out of fashion. Now it’s likely to be called virtue signalling, which actually means exactly the same thing, but is turned into an insulting attack on my sincerity. Too bad. I really don’t care whether or not strangers on a bus think that I’m virtuous. But I do care enough about them to want to see them keeping each other safe.

House of Commons debate on Afghanistan, 18 August 2021, via Daily Mail

In Scotland, as I write, mask mandates are in force in indoor environments where people from different households mix, with exceptions for the small minority for whom mask wearing is a problem. It isn’t for me, although I’m officially asthmatic and have been diagnosed with Level 2 Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. In England, by contrast, Alexander Boris dePfeffel Johnson dropped mask mandates in England while at the same time telling everyone that mask wearing was desirable. As it was, I thought his position completely in character, as was today’s spectacle of unmasked MPs in the crowded Chamber on his side of the House. However, I can only look on with astonishment when people like Governor Greg Abbott of Texas move to prevent local authorities, and schools, from imposing mask mandates in their own jurisdiction. I confess I was delighted to hear that Abbott himself has just tested positive for coronavirus. It is unlikely that he will come to any harm, since he is double vaccinated and no doubt, unlike many Americans, carries excellent health-insurance at the taxpayer’s expense, but there is every chance that during the pre-symptomatic phase of the infection he passed it on to others, who may not be so fortunate.

People hold signs as they listen to a speech in Bayonne
Protest in Bayonne, south-west France, against plans to require a health pass to enter a cafe or use intercity trains. Photograph: Bob Edme/AP via Guardian

But what about the libertarian argument against making mask wearing (or, indeed, vaccination) compulsory? This is an argument that for deep cultural reasons has appeal in the US, and I am surprised to see it echoed to the point of mass demonstrations in the UK and France. The argument is, presumably, that I am the best judge of my own circumstances, and the government (or as it is sometimes called the nanny state) should not be making my decisions for me.

An interesting argument. Surely I am better able than anyone else to evaluate the effect of alcohol on my driving, rather than imposing arbitrary limits based on the amount of alcohol in my blood, with no regard to how superbly well I personally happen to be able to carry my liquor. I also know better than anybody else just how well the brakes on my car need to work, given the way I drive; how dare government force me the obligation to spend my own money to have this checked by strangers? And so on.

Or perhaps I’d better keep such thoughts to myself, in case they resurface on GB News. And after all, if you really don’t care about what’s happening to the people around you, I can’t make you.

This week, Northern Ireland’s First Minister is Young Earth Creationist


Northern Ireland is home to the Giant’s Causeway, one of the world’s most spectacular geological phenomena. This is part of an enormous lava field that was first produced when the modern North Atlantic began to open, and is still growing at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and, most spectacularly, in Iceland. Fragments of the initial outpouring were separated from each other as the Eurasian and North American plates moved apart to form the Atlantic Ocean, and now can be found in locations from Greenland and Denmark. The Causeway itself consists of the basalt formed by the solidification of massive successive outpourings of lava. The slow cooling of this rock forced it contract, fracturing as it did so into hexagonal columns up to 10 m high. Tens of thousands of years must have passed between successive outpourings, because we can see, in between the basalt layers, the baked remains of soil formed by weathering of the lower one.

The Antrim Lava field shown within the British Tertiary Volcanic Province, itself part of the North Atlantic Lava Field. By Hazel Muzzy (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
“The Chimneys,” columnar structures on skyline. Note additional columnar sructures to right and beneath. Click to enlarge

Careful examination shows a complex succession of processes:

  • The formation of the lowest basalts in 11 separate episodes
  • A pause of at least 100,000 years, during which the first interbasaltic soil layer was formed by weathering. This weathering was accompanied by the erosion of stream valleys,
  • Changes in chemical composition beneath the crust in the lavas feeding the eruptions
  • The formation of the middle basalts, slightly different in chemical composition from the lowest
  • Their slow cooling to give more than 40,000 regular columns
  • More weathering, to give the second interbasaltic layer
  • Formation of the upper basalts, which ever since have been more slowly modified by weathering and erosion.
  • As shown by radiometric dating, all this happened between 50 and 60 million years ago.
Interbasaltic layer beneath The Chimneys. Click and click again to magnify: note uneven upper contact surface between weathered layer and basalt, due to erosion of palaeosol, and holes (“giants’ eyes”) in the layer where incompletely weathered basalt chunks have been dislodged.

Or was it more like 4,369 years ago? That is the view held by Answers in Genesis, the world’s leading creationist organisation, which assigns the opening of the Atlantic Ocean to the convulsions formed, around that date, by Noah’s Flood. The date itself is arrived at by adding up the time intervals listed in the biblical book of Genesis. There is, of course, nothing in the biblical flood account that even hints at such convulsions. We can trace the idea to the Seventh-day Adventists prophetess Ellen B. White, whose views indirectly influenced the 1961 book, The Genesis Flood, foundational text for the 20th-century revival of Young Earth creationism. “Creation science” has since been further modified to take account of plate tectonics. The trouble, of course, is that the entire geological record must, according to Young Earth dogma, be shoehorned into a 6000 year interval. This leads to numerous absurdities, such as continents moving as fast as rowing boats, and an ice age that reached its peak during the lifetimes of Abraham and Isaac, but none of this seems to bother Young Earth creationism’s true believers.

Readers may be surprised to learn that these true believers include among them some of Northern Ireland’s most influential politicians.

Mervyn Storey, MLA  (Member of the [ Northern Ireland]  Legislative Assembly), who from 2008 until 2014 was Chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly Education Committee, is a former vice-chairman of the Caleb Foundation. This body rejects the whole of modern geology as well as evolutionary biology, and claimed credit (if that is the correct word) for temporarily persuading the National Trust visitor centre at the Causeway to give Young Earth creationism parity of treatment with scientific geology. The resulting outrage led to a letter writing campaign with its own Facebook page (which survives as a discussion forum), and eventual removal of the offending language. Amongother prominent MLAs, Edwin Poots and Paul Givan are also closely associated with Caleb. Poots was briefly (from 28 May this year until 22 June) leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and in that capacity nominated Givan to be Northern Ireland’s First Minister.

Paul Givan MLA.jpg

Givan was first mentioned in this blog almost exactly 4 years ago, .in connection with his work, along with Poots, in persuading Lisburn City Council to advocate the teaching of creationism. I am happy to say that the schools, both Catholic and non-Catholic, wrote back to point out that Lisburn City Council had no authority over school curricula, that these curricula were generated in consultation with the Northern Ireland Department  of Education, and that the schools themselves had highly professional trained staff, who would not take kindly to this suggestion.

Givan assumed office on 14 June. Within days it became clear that his position was untenable, and at the time of writing we expect to see Donaldson announce his successor very shortly. I have criticized Donaldson before for many reasons (see here), but at least advocacy of creationism is not among them.

Site photographs by the author. Givan image, official photograph (2016)

NCSE letter

This is the letter referred to in the post “TH Huxley’s legacy, a campus building renaming controversy, and appeal for signatures”

Legacy Review Task Force 
Western Washington University 

Dear members of the Legacy Review Task Force, 

May 20, 2021 

I write on behalf of the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization affiliated with  the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teachers 
Association that works to promote and defend the integrity of science education.  

NCSE applauds Western Washington University’s thoughtful and considered approach to studying the  question of the naming of its Huxley College and appreciates the invitation to the public to offer input.  

On the basis of its extensive experience and expertise with organizing opposition to pseudoscientific  attacks on science education, particularly evolution and climate change, NCSE wishes to emphasize  the importance of attending only to reliable and objective scholarship in considering Thomas Henry  Huxley’s significance.   

Because Huxley was so important in the history of science, his beliefs and actions have often been 
misrepresented, taken out of context, or exaggerated by ideologues with axes to grind. Unfortunately,  especially in the era of the Internet, it is easy for well-intentioned but ill-informed readers to be misled  by the writings of such ideologues. 

In particular, Laura Wagner’s “Why is TH Huxley Problematic?” (to be found on the Research and 
Resources section of the Legacy Review Task Force material) cites the following problematic 

· “Richard Owen and Charles Darwin on Race: A study in contrast,” a blog post that appeared on 
a website styling itself Evolution News & Science Today. That website is operated by the 
Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, the de facto institutional home of 
“intelligent design,” the latest incarnation of creationism. 

· “T. H. Huxley’s Hideous Revolution in Science,” an essay that appeared in Executive Intelligence 
Review, a newsletter published by the political movement founded by Lyndon LaRouche, 
infamous for, among other things, denying the harmful effects on the environment of DDT, 
chlorofluorocarbons, and greenhouse gases. 

· The Darwin Effect, a book published by a creationist publisher and written by a young-earth 
creationist who himself, in 1985, complained that he was the victim of reverse discrimination in 

a letter to the newsletter of David Duke’s National Association for the Advancement of White 
People (see 

To be sure, the fact that the authors of these problematic resources have scientifically indefensible  views and a record of promoting them through assassinating the characters of their opponents 
does not, of itself, show that their specific claims about Huxley are mistaken. But it strongly 
suggests that they are not worth taking seriously. 

Instead, what ought to be taken seriously are the views of qualified scholars, and it is laudable that  the Legacy Review Task Force solicited observations about Huxley’s significance from such 

scholars as White, Lyons, Reidy, and Rupke. These observations do not of themselves settle the 
question of the naming of Huxley College, but they, and similarly reliable and objective scholarship,  rather than ideologically motivated attacks on Huxley, should be at the basis of any decision. 

NCSE would be happy to discuss the provenance of the problematic resources with you further if 
needed. In any case, we hope that the Legacy Review Task Force arrives at a satisfactory resolution  to the question it faces. 


Glenn Branch 

Deputy Director, NCSE 

My Passover message

Chewing gum and the genetics of an ancient human

I was particularly interested in this, further confirmation that Europeans until recently were dark-skinned, and in the suggested link between fair skin and diet, as well as weak sunlight


The sequencing of DNA has advanced to such a degree of precision and accuracy that minute traces of tissue, hair, saliva, sweat, semen and other bodily solids and fluids found at crime scenes are able to point to whomever was present. That is, provided that those persons’ DNA is known either from samples taken from suspects or resides in police records. In the case of individuals unknown to the authorities, archived DNA sequences from members of almost all ethnic groups can be used to ‘profile’ those present at a crime. Likely skin and hair pigmentation, and even eye colour, emerge from segments that contain the genes responsible.

One of the oddest demonstrations of the efficacy of DNA sequencing from minute samples used a wad of chewed birch resin. Such gums are still chewed widely for a number of reasons: to stave off thirst or hunger; to benefit from antiseptic compounds…

View original post 463 more words

Tactical voting; how, and why This most dispiriting of elections is also among the most important of my lifetime, and its consequences will be felt long after the principal actors are mercifully forgotten.

Boris Johnson in August 2019For me, the overriding issue is clear. We are heading for a situation where the Johnson-ERG axis that has taken over the Conservative Party will be returned with a minority of votes, but a majority of seats in Parliament. This will give us at best Johnson’s extremely damaging Brexit deal, but more probably, with detailed negotiations foredoomed by the Nigel Farage (45718080574) (cropped).jpgrigid timetable, no deal at all. Here, for once, Farage is telling the truth.

The only way to stop this is by tactical voting. With grotesque tribalism, Labour, Lib Dem, and in some constituencies even the Greens are standing against each other in seats that will as a direct result fall to the Conservatives. The only way to stop this is for voters to show the statesmanship that is so sadly lacking in the Party leaders, and vote tactically. Read the rest of this entry

One riotous Oxford booze-up; two future UK Prime Ministers

Why does such a tiny, tight-knit, arrogant elite hold so much power?

Yes, as I wrote in 2015, that’s Dave, “Boris” (Alexander Boris dePfeffel), and the rest of their Old Etonian pals, in purpose-tailored [1] getups, before the notorious Bullingdon Club dinner, which year after year ended in drunken rioting, invading and smashing up the rooms of ordinary students (who were referred to as “trogs” i.e. troglodytes), the occasional debagging (an old tradition; see Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall), and then moving on to more serious stuff like smashing up restaurants.

“Boris” you will have noticed, was already showing his talent for occupying centre-stage, and by all accounts was already exhibiting his incendiary sense of humour.

If you’ve forgotten about Dave (David William Donald Cameron, PM 11 May 2010 to 13 July 2016), his autobiographical For the Record is due for release in September, and he is said to have obtained an £800,000 advance on this from HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp, which also owns Dow Jones (as in Dow Jones Index). Perhaps we should feel sorry for him; Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is said to earn that much every year.

1] According to Wikipedia, the price of this gear in 2007 was £3,500. Equal to some 600 hours work at minimum wage, or 49 weeks living allowance on benefits in Glasgow. But remember, that does include the special biscuit-coloured waistcoat. And you do get two more chances to wear it, if you make it into the Club in your first year.

Does Education Make you Stupider? Pt. 2

The Grumpy Geophysicist

Well, the first post didn’t quite have that name but that was kind of the message.  In a nutshell, that post discussed research showing that a better basic understanding of science made for more intense partisanship. Now a short article in The Atlantic describes a somewhat similar exercise generated by More in Common, but this time directly addressing partisanship itself. Basically, this summarizes a study asking people questions about the beliefs of their political opposites.  And once again, more education seems to make people misjudge reality.

Honestly, this is discouraging. But wait–it gets more bizarre.

Basically Democrats lacking a high school education had a pretty firm fix on the opinions of members of the Republican party, correctly estimating what fraction of Republicans agreed or disagreed with certain policy statements. But as you go up the education ladder, Democrats get worse and worse.  Republicans, on the other hand, are pretty…

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