I thunder in The Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Spencer Fildes and Paul Braterman testifying to Public Petitions Committee

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

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

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

Politics on the Rails

The economy exists to serve people. To imagine the reverse is idolatry

Dissenting Radical

A guest post by Brian the Brainy Biking Boxer 

On a packed train swishing north through England’s summer a stand-off simmers: passengers without seats versus a train manager with several. Just one problem: class.

Standard class is jammed. You can’t even stand. Three lost travellers squeeze into a square metre of floor by the toilet, smells and all. One of them spots that most of first class, a coffee-scented oasis spied through company-branded perspex, is empty. But her attempt to claim an unused seat is blocked by a uniform.

“You haven’t paid. If I let you sit in here it wouldn’t be fair to those who have.”

“But we have paid for a seat. There just aren’t any back there. And these ones are empty.”

“I’m sorry; there’s nothing I can do.”

A choice is made: the dignity and comfort of these toilet-dwelling passengers versus the integrity of the train’s…

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The Left Must Find Its Way Back to Science

The sweet potato is a naturally occurring GMO (so are you)

And I would add, in the UK, unreasoning rejection of fracking (even by those who support off-shore oil production) to the list here of environmentally damaging Left presuppositions that urgently need replacement by rational discussion.

Random Rationality

With President Trump committing himself to reversing most, if not all, of Obama’s progressive environmental policies and having pulled out of the Paris Accords, I think it is imperative that the Left take a fresh, evidence-based look at their boogeymen. The Right may have their climate change and evolution denial, but the Left holds onto their fears of GMOs, conventional agriculture, and nuclear power as if they were afraid to lose them. The civilizational knife-edge we find ourselves atop of, as well the pushing and shoving Trump is adding, demands that the Left right their wrongs. Apparently, the Left is the party of science, and while that has always been a stretch, there’s no better time to make it so.

With the departure of the world’s second largest emitter from the first worldwide accord that attempted to limit climate change to within 2 degrees Celsius above baseline, that means that the rest…

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

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

a new nature blog

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

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

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

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

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UK Conservatives, meet the DUP: extremist, creationist, sectarian

“Our MPs will be the kingmakers, playing a huge role” (R: Gregory Campbell MP, from whose victory speech those words are taken)

Overview: I am assuming as I write this that the Conservative Party will remain in power in the UK for the immediate future. As a matter of arithmetic, this will require the cooperation of the Democratic Unionist Party. All this may, however, change at any time.

Update on the Orange Walk issue: it’s already happening: “Supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) are demanding Theresa May allow a banned loyalist march as part of an agreement by the Northern Irish party to prop up a minority Conservative government.” Independent, Monday 12 June

Kingmakers. There is no doubt that this is how the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) see themselves. And there is no doubt that they aim to exploit this role to the full. Not by formal coalition, the trap  into which Nick Clegg so disastrously led his party in 2010, but “confidence and supply”, which will leave them free to make new demands and to threaten to withdraw support at any time. I will not attempt to unravel the complex affairs of Northern Ireland, but with the settlement there more fragile than it has been for some years, the strengthening of one partisan faction must be a matter of concern. Anyone requiring evidence of the DUP’s ruthless political infighting, inflammatory rhetoric, and skill at reopening old wounds is invited to visit their web site at http://www.mydup.com/.

Saint Johns College, Cambridge, where Nigel Dodds studied law

Nor should we fall into the trap of underestimating the DUP intellectually because of the crudeness of their dogmas. Nigel Dodds, of whom much more below, has a first-class honours degree in law from Cambridge University, while Ian Paisley Jr., MP for North Antrim and son of the charismatic Reverend Ian Paisley who founded the party, holds BA (hons) and MSSc degrees from Queen’s University Belfast in History and Irish Politics.

Sectarianism and links to violence: The DUP is a sectarian party, founded by former members of the UUP (United Unionist Party) who considered that party’s leadership too conciliatory towards the large Republican (i.e. Catholic) minority. In the late 1980s and 1990s, there were strong links between the DUP and Protestant paramilitary groups Read the rest of this entry

An indisputable fact?

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

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

I was recently emailed by a stranger who wrote:

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

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

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


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

I replied:

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

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

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

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

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

I am not satisfied with my answer.

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

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

What else could I have said?

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

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

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

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

Consider this, from a justly esteemed chemistry text:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct”, and other gems from Taylor and Francis

Update: Skeptic has now published a not entirely favourable review of the “conceptual penis” hoax, by Alan Sokal, Professor of Mathematics at University College London, and of Physics at New York University, and author of the famous hoax article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity“. I have asked my University librarian why we carry the journal that published this nonsense, and how much it is costing us. I have not had a reply; but then, if she had not heard of the matter before seeing the title of my email, she may have discarded it as spam. It seems likely that we carry the journal concerned, Cogent Social Sciences, as part of a bundle, since I do not imagine that any academic Department at Glasgow would have requested it.

The article has been retracted, and is no longer available on the journal website, but the published version had been archived and remains available here.

“It is also factually incorrect to associate the anatomical penis with male reproductivity.” (Cogent Social Sciences (2017), 3: 1330439, https://doi.org/10.1080/23311886.2017.1330439

The journal that accepted this paper, after peer review, is available through Glasgow University Library, and is published by Taylor and Francis. This in turn is owned by the conglomerate Informa, which has swallowed a number of thoroughly reputable publishing houses. Among them, CRC (who produce a valuable science data reference resource, known for historical reasons as “the Rubber Bible” (though perhaps I should explain in the present context that the vulgar US meaning of “rubber” has nothing to do with it), Routledge, and Gordon and Breach. Wikipedia credits Taylor and Francis with revenue of £490 million in 2016, or over a quarter of a million per employee. Informa is incorporated in Jersey but tax resident in Switzerland.

Go to https://www.cogentoa.com/article/10.1080/23311886.2017.1330439.pdf (or if that link disappears, as it well may, to the authors’ archived link, here,  and you will see an article by Jamie Lindsay and Peter Boyle, of Southeast Independent Social Research Group. There you will be told, at the outset, that

The androcentric scientific and meta-scientific evidence that the penis is the male reproductive organ is considered overwhelming and largely uncontroversial.

But do not be deceived by this social consensus. To quote the paper’s Public Interest Statement,

As a result of our research into the essential concept of the penis and its exchanges with the social and material world, we conclude that penises are not best understood as the male sexual organ, or as a male reproductive organ, but instead as an enacted social construct that is both damaging and problematic for society and future generations. … and is the conceptual driver behind much of climate change. Read the rest of this entry

An Ammonite Fossil Leaves A Trail of Evidence of a Tranquil Jurassic Seafloor

Catastrophist creationism gracefully refuted (again); this time by skid marks of drifting ammonite. Free download of paper at Lomax DR., Falkingham PL., Schweigert G., and Jiménez AP. 2017. An 8.5 m long ammonite drag mark from the Upper Jurassic Solnhofen Lithographic Limestones, Germany. PLOS ONE

Naturalis Historia

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