Keeping creationism out of Scottish schools; the long, long paper trail
The petition is closed. It has done its work, and I’m impressed by the process. Creationism may not be taught in science classes; and we already have the Minister’s statement in Parliament that in other classes, where appropriate, it should be discussed but not promoted. It has been a long and tortuous process, so I have collected here links to the key documents, and to the more than 60 press reports I know of.
Attention will now inevitably shift to Religious, Moral, and Philosophical Studies, where Creationism is (and should be) one of the topics selected for in-depth study. The evidence in favour of evolution is conclusive, yet Creationists deny this, and RMPS laudably shies away from telling students what to think. How do we cut this Gordian knot? And how best do we help RMPS teachers without any formal instruction in biology, when they face the specious pseudoscience of the Intelligent Designers?
More on this in due course. Meantime, the story so far:
Official documents, petition details, public comments:
Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.
That’s all! NB: No need for legislation; a simple Ministerial or departmental statement would suffice. No distinction between science and non-science classes, and no suggestion of preventing discussion of such ideas, as long as they are not presented as viable alternatives to known science.
And what happened? In brief, exceptional public interest (see this list); two hearings before the Public Petitions Committee (as one of which Spencer Fildes, as petitioner and Chair of the Scottish Secular Society, and I as scientific adviser to the Society, gave evidence); referral by that Committee to the Education and Culture Committee; a request from that committee to the Scottish Government to respond to the issues we had raised; a Ministerial response that went some way towards what we had asked for; and formal closure.
And much more besides; see here. The issue is no longer hidden, the prerogative of the most unenlightened to do whatever they want in name of religion has been challenged and to some extent limited; and the genie is out of the bottle.
And so it ends, not with a bang, but a quiet sigh of satisfaction.
Petition site and comments: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/creationismguidance
BBC recording of hearing; Spencer Fildes and Paul Braterman give evidence to Public Petitions Committee http://www.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/scotland-30004391
Or SSS version at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gi0RD3VAR1I
Transcript at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/28862.aspx?r=9635&i=87504 or (PDF) http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/28862.aspx?r=9635&mode=pdf
Official report of the second hearing by the Public Petitions Committee at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/28862.aspx?r=9759&i=89401
Official reports of the hearings by the Education and Culture Committee at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/28862.aspx?r=9836&i=90184#ScotParlOR and http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/28862.aspx?r=9951.
Press coverage: live links supplied where possible. Headline where different from link. Commentary as I saw fit:
(Additional post-May 24 2015 coverage at https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2015/05/28/scottish-victory-over-creationism-gets-300000-fb-likes-international-attention-what-next/)
Independent, 27 May: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/creationism-should-not-be-taught-in-schools-says-scottish-education-minister-10279509.html (quotes me as “delighted”)
[US] National Center for Science Education, reporting on Herald 24 May story: http://ncse.com/news/2015/05/update-from-scotland-0016382 Also reported on by IFLScience, http://www.iflscience.com/environment/creationism-banned-science-classes-scottish-government and Russian RT agency http://rt.com/uk/262377-scotland-snp-creationism-classrooms/ May 27
Herald 24 May 2015 http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/scottish-government-creationism-banned-from-science-class.126976076 Quotes the crucial new language (emphasis added) “Guidance provided by Education Scotland, set out in the ‘Principles and Practice’ papers and the ‘Experiences and Outcomes’ documentation for each of the eight curriculum areas does not identify Creationism as a scientific principle. It should therefore not be taught as part of science lessons.”
Herald 15 May 2015: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/creationist-teaching-just-around-the-corner-in-scottish-schools.126123235 Denholm, still spinning (see also his November 21 article, below), reports the Education and Culture Committee as agreeing that no new guidance was necessary (not noticing that new guidance had just been issued).
Herald 12 May: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/formal-ban-on-teaching-of-creationism-rejected.125864971
Evening Express 2 May 2015: http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/news/scotland/creationism-science-ban-bid-slammed/ Channelling David Andrew Robertson
Free Church News 18 March: http://freechurch.org/news/scotlands-science-minister-no-need-for-ban-on-creationism-in-schools Scotland’s Science minister: No need for ban on creationism in schools
Forbes Magazine 30 Dec 2014: http://www.forbes.com/sites/johnfarrell/2014/12/30/creationism-in-europe-you-bet/ Reviewing Creationism in Europe (Johns Hopkins Press) writes:
As scientist blogger Paul Braterman reports on events in Scotland (https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/ok-to-teach-creationism-in-context-says-scottish-government/), this [introducing ID in schools]could prove to be a successful strategy.
Scotsman 27 Dec 2014: http://www.scotsman.com/news/opinion/letters/test-the-word-1-3644430  Richard Lucas of SOLAS advocates debates about the truth of creationism: ”Or are aggressive atheists afraid that evolution, an indispensable foundation of their belief system, might not stand up to open debate in our educational institutions?”
Herald [Glasgow] 26 Dec: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/columnists/inside-track-reporting-with-dinosaurs.115054081 A hostile commentary.
Herald 26 Dec: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/columnists/inside-track-reporting-with-dinosaurs.115054081Herald 1 December: Letters; Bob Downie reiterates support for keeping religion, science separated. Garry Otton repeats scope of petition.
Scotsman 26 Dec: http://www.scotsman.com/news/biology-teachers-need-more-guidance-1-3643988 To my surprise, the statement I gave them was printed intact as an article. I referred to the strongly supportive statement at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_PublicPetitionsCommittee/General%20Documents/PE1530_DD_Society_of_Biology_10.11.14.pdf from the Society of Biology, the UK’s largest professional association of biologists, which states:
We encourage the Scottish Government to follow the strategy taken in other nations of the United Kingdom to provide clear guidance to schools and the teaching community stating explicitly that creationism and intelligent design are not considered to be scientific theories based on tested hypotheses, and therefore should not be taught in science lessons. Furthermore we urge the Scottish Government to provide teachers with appropriate training opportunities to develop the skills to answer controversial questions posed in science lessons in a clear and sensitive manner.
I mentioned that this had not been available as it should have been to the Committee and to the Government when considering the responses to our petition, and invited the Government to think again. I also drew attention to the need to provide appropriate training, especially to non-science teachers, as it is within a religious rather than a scientific context that problems are likely to arise.
Answers in Genesis 23 Dec: http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2014/12/23/scottish-government-rejects-creation-ban/. Ken Ham writes:
[T]eachers in Scotland still have the freedom to present the problems with evolution and millions of years as well as possibly present other alternatives, such as biblical creation, to their students. This is a victory for academic freedom in that country. Sadly, the secularists were trying to protect the teaching of their atheistic religion as the only worldview imposed on the current and future generations of kids.
Ham’s good friend, Dr Nagy Iskander of South Lanarkshire’s education Committee, is, we know, very keen on teaching alternatives:
Herald 21 Dec: Teaching with dinsoaurs http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/teaching-with-dinosaurs.26133681
When it comes to Scotland’s culture wars, many would view this last week as a catastrophe for the Scottish Secular Society (SSS), and a success for the country’s religious fundamentalists
but facing it on the next page http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/call-for-debate-on-religious-privilege.26133800 has SNP Councillor Sandy Howat questioning, on behalf of many SNP members, creationist teaching, opt-out rather than opt-in Religious Observance, and the presence of unelected representatives of religion on Council Education Committees.
Herald, 16 Dec: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/schools-creationism-ban-rejected-by-scottish-government.114739893 The Government response to our petition, http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_PublicPetitionsCommittee/General%20Documents/PE1530_BB_Scottish_Government_15.12.14.pdf stated
…there are no plans to issue guidance to schools or education authorities to prevent the presentation of Creationism, Intelligent Design or similar doctrines by teachers or school visitors. The evidence available suggests that guidance on these matters is unnecessary. However, Education Scotland will continue to monitor, through the school inspection process and by other means, any instances where schools are not ensuring the teaching of science is based on well-established science and scientific principles.
Spencer Fildes comments
The fear is that creationists will now use the government’s position to further validate the cause of creationism, young earth doctrines and the pseudo-science of intelligent design.
as happened very promptly; see notes on Dec 23, above, and I comment:
This [the Government’s] language blurs the crucial distinction, built into the wording of our own petition, between learning about creationist worldviews, and being taught that such worldviews are tenable. The SSS fear this will bring Scottish education into disrepute.
I note that the Government response was over the signature of a civil servant,not a Minister, and wonder if they are already aware that they may be asked to thinkagain. Of course, the Government’s view is not binding on the Committee, which can make, although it cannot enforce, its own recommendations.
Herald 1 Dec: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/adopt-the-american-model-for-our-schools.25879090 Letters; Bob Downie reiterates support for keeping religion, science separated. Garry Otton repeats scope of petition.
Herald 28 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/respect-of-parents-rights-in-respect-of-education.25989631 Letter, Hugh McLoughlin, says we don’t explain what we mean by creationism, invokes European Convention on Human Rights
Herald 27 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/should-creationism-and-evolution-be-taught-side-by-side-in-the-school-classroom.25979445 letters. Among other things, corrects Rev David Fraser, states “The EIS position is that teachers can be trusted to conduct themselves professionally without the need for legislation.”
Herald 26 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/secularists-only-want-to-keep-religious-teaching-in-churches.25966308 Letter attacking Dvd Fraser’s defence of creationist teaching.
Herald 25 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/secularists-need-science-lessons.25959745 Rev David Fraser
I think most of us have had enough of the aggressive and perverse campaign against free speech by the Scottish Secular Society … Our leaders need follow the robust example of the EIS and defend the rights of the majority for the expression of their faith across the spectrum of school subjects.
Herald 24 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/teachers-reject-creationism-ban.25940642 Unnamed EIS spokesperson(s) condemn our petition. Herald reporter once again confuses the teaching of separate creation (the subject of our petition) with the idea of God as Creator, discussion of which we explicitly defend.
Herald 23 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/scotlands-culture-war-secularists-and-church-head-to-head.25941169 Scotland’s culture war: secularists and church head-to-head. A wide-ranging review by Judith Duffy.
Herald 22 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/a-mccarthyite-campaign.25937147 : In response to Spencer’s remarks to the Herald on November 21, the Reverend David Robertson accuses us of a McCarthyite campaign and anti-religious paranoia
Record, 21 Nov: http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/alasdair-allan-says-complete-confidence-2826128 Alasdair Allan says he has complete confidence in Scottish teachers following creationism debate
21 Nov, The Centre for Intelligent Design warns those on its mailing list: Government to impose Scientism on our children http://www.c4id.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=262:government-to-impose-scientism-on-our-children&catid=52:frontpage&Itemid=1 So now you know. The Centre regards evolution science and the study of the age of the Earth as forms of Scientism, whatever that may be.
Herald, 21 Nov, reports on submission made to the Petitions Committee by Ken Cunningham is Secretary of School Leaders Scotland: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/banning-creationism-lessons-is-dangerous-warn-headteachers.25925821 My comment:
Not Head Teachers; one ex-Head [in consultation, he later claimed, with the Association’s presidential team, whoever they may be] speaking for all his members with no further apparent mandate from his Association’s membership. And Cunningham and Noble [Director of the Centre for Intelligent Design, whose plans to promulgate creationism are a major matter of concern to us] are not as reported both members of the Free Church of Scotland; they are Elders (Cunningham also Secretary) of the same small independent Church, Cartsbridge in Busby, with a total membership of around 250; a much closer association. As usual this reporter, Andrew Denholm, misdescribes what we plainly said we meant by creationism.
See also commentary “Creationist Manoeuvres in the Dark” http://secularspen.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/creationist-manoeuvres-in-the-dark/ by Spencer Fildes, who has done more than any one to unmask the concealed connections.
Premier News (a Creationist Christian radio channel), 20 Nov: http://www.premier.org.uk/News/UK/Scotland-s-teachers-oppose-secularist-attempt-to-ban-creationism Again, the reference is to Ken Cunningham’s submission to the Public Petitions Committee, but here he is said to speak for “Scotland’s teachers”.
Scotsman 18 Nov: http://www.scotsman.com/news/beware-the-trojan-horses-of-intolerance-1-3609240 The Reverend David Andrew Robertson, at that time Moderator-Intellect of the Free Church of Scotland, says Scottish Secular Society wants legislation against “teachers who might actually believe that God the Creator might have had something to do with creation.”
Christian News 17 Nov objects to banning the teaching of biblical creationism as fact: http://christiannews.net/2014/11/17/secular-group-seeks-to-ban-biblical-creation-from-public-schools-in-scotland/ (I continue to be amazed at the arrogance of those, like the authors of this article, who claim a monopoly of Christianity on the basis of their boneheadedly ignorant interpretation of its foundational documents.)
Herald 14 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/a-danger-of-state-atheism.25869067 Correspondence arising from Andrew Denholm’s misrepresentation on 12 Nov.; see below
Times Educational Supplement Scotland 14 Nov: http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6450346 Schools are being infiltrated by cults, say secularists
12 Nov NCSE ([US] National Centre for Science Education] News Update from Scotland http://ncse.com/news/2014/11/update-from-scotland-0015982
Herald 12 Nov http://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/scottish-politics/religious-extremists-infiltrating-schools.25845620
‘Religious extremists infiltrating schools’ This otherwise excellent article includes the statement “Creationism is the belief that the universe and living beings originate from acts of divine creation.” Not in this context. Our petition specifically refers to separate creationism is opposed to the established science of evolution. Although our opponents pretend otherwise, it has nothing to do with religious or philosophical positions regarding creation as a whole.
Aberdeen Evening Express 11 Nov: http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/news/scotland/msps-warned-on-schools-creationism-1.677358
[Glasgow] Evening Times 11 Nov: http://www.eveningtimes.co.uk/news/u/msps-warn-on-school-creationism.1415707018 [“warn” for “warned” is a typo]
STV News 11 Nov http://m.stv.tv/news/scotland/299236-scottish-secular-societys-petition-discusses-creationism-teaching/ Teaching of creationism in schools ‘cannot be ignored’, MSPs told
Good Morning Scotland 11 Nov https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyo89F5CGTQ Spencer Fildes interviewed
Sunday Times 9 Nov: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/Education/article1481607.ece MSPs to rule on creationism row
Press and Journal 9 Nov: https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/politics/holyrood/395263/row-over-religious-education-in-schools/ echoing Scotsman of 7 Nov
STV News 8 Nov: http://news.stv.tv/scotland/298911-free-church-creationism-teaching-ban-is-bigoted-and-anti-religious/
Freethinker 8 Nov: http://freethinker.co.uk/2014/11/08/scottish-secularists-branded-as-bigots/ Reporting DAR
Scotsman 7 Nov: http://www.scotsman.com/news/education/bid-to-ban-creationism-is-militant-atheism-1-3597863 Campaigners bidding to ban schools from teaching creationism in science lessons are “militant atheists” who want to impose their own views on youngsters and discourage questioning, a church leader has claimed. Reverend David Robertson…
(Interestingly, when preaching to Ken Cunningham, mentioned above, and Alastair Noble at Cartsbridge Evangelical Church, the Reverend shows full awareness that many of us are religious believers. Maybe he takes the Ninth Commandment more seriously when he is actually in church.)
Premier Christian Radio 7 Nov: http://www.premierchristianradio.com/News/UK/Scottish-church-leader-condemns-petition-to-axe-creationism-teaching
Herald 4 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/topic-of-the-week-intelligent-design.25812362 A selection of letters
Herald 4 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/columnists/faith-has-no-place-in-the-science-classroom.25739522
NCSE 4 Nov: http://ncse.com/news/2014/11/banning-creationism-scottish-schools-0015967
Herald 2 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/anger-over-move-to-teach-intelligent-design-in-schools.25756300 Introduces the topic
Answers in Genesis Sept 12 2014: https://answersingenesis.org/theory-of-evolution/in-schools/academic-freedom-under-fire-scotland/
SecEd September 11 2014: http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/news/nobel-winners-fight-the-teaching-of-creationism
Answers in Genesis Sept 7 2014: https://answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2014/09/07/nobel-winning-scientists-push-for-ban-of-creation-in-scottish-schools/
My own most relevant blog posts
May 20 2015: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2015/05/20/creationism-in-scottish-schools-we-won/
February 18: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2015/02/18/darwin-vs-todays-creationists-eugenie-scott-in-glasgow/
February 12: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2015/02/12/holyrood-dinosaur-makes-international-business-times-headline/
Jan 31: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2015/01/31/18-msps-now-back-motion-to-rein-in-creationism-in-scottish-schools/
Jan 27: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2015/01/27/creationism-in-scotland-our-petition-makes-progress/
Jan 25: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2015/01/25/fight-against-creationism-in-scotland-gains-powerful-allies-imminent-developments/
Jan 22: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/reining-in-creationists-south-lanarkshire-repenting-past-mistakes-leads-the-way/
Jan 19: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2015/01/19/creationism-in-scottish-schools-final-submission-to-scottish-parliament/
Dec 28 2014: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/scotland-refuses-to-ban-teaching-of-creationism/
Dec 27: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/12/27/answers-in-genesis-praises-scottish-governments-creationism-teaching-policy/
Dec 16: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/ok-to-teach-creationism-in-context-says-scottish-government/
Nov 10: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/11/10/the-battle-for-evolution-in-scottish-schools/ (reblogged from Jonny Scaramanga’s Leaving fundamentalism)
Nov 7: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/11/07/answers-in-genesis-attacks-our-petition-against-creationism-young-earthism/
Nov 5: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/scotlands-kitzmiller-we-need-your-help/
Nov 2: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/petition-against-evolution-denial-gets-full-page-coverage-in-glasgow-sunday-herald/
Oct 17: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/centre-for-intelligent-design-launches-naked-creationist-attack-on-secscot-petition/
Aug 29: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/historian-geologist-school-governor-priest-writes-supporting-petition-against-creationism-in-scots-schools/
Aug 26: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/08/26/3rd-nobel-prize-winner-backs-petition-keep-creationist-teaching-out-of-scots-schools/
Aug 23: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/08/23/scottish-schools-we-dont-invite-antivaxxers-so-we-shouldnt-invite-antievolutionists/
Aug 10: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/08/10/second-nobel-laureate-signs-petition-attached-to-keep-creationist-teaching-out-of-scottish-state-schools/
Aug 9: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/08/09/nobel-prize-winner-backs-will-you-back-petition-to-keep-creationism-out-of-scottish-schools/
July 26 2014: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/against-creationism-in-scottish-schools-sign-support-share/
June 23: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/06/23/petition-to-scottish-parliament-no-state-funded-creationist-teaching-draft-text-comments-requested/
June 21 2014: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/06/21/england-bans-creationist-teaching-so-should-scotland-petition-in-preparation-more-on-monday/
 Most recent first. Links made explicit, for ease of reference and copying. We would welcome notification of any coverage we have missed. NB this post refers only to coverage directly relevant to our petition PE01530
The first 50,000; what next?
Not much by some standards, I know, but still gratifying, especially as 33,000 of these have been in 2014. Actually, I’m a little out of date and we’ve now passed 52,500, but I’ve been busy with other stuff, such as the Law Society’s ill-judged decision to advise on sharia law which I discussed over at 3 Quarks Daily (see also here), and the secularist case for an independent Scotland, given the deep entrenchment of religious privilege in what I look forward to referring to as the Former United Kingdom. My thanks to all who have helped me reach this point. Friends who have commented, shown appreciation, mentioned this blog, retweeted, reposted, invited me to guest post, or mentioned me in their own publications – you know who you are and what you’ve done, and I appreciate it. My thanks also to my creationist opponents who have struggled – so far unsuccessfully – to show me the error of my ways. But above all, my thanks to my readers. Readers from over 140 countries and autonomous regions. Russian Federation and Ukraine. Israel and Palestine. Most populous, China (yes, I have had views direct from there, and one from Macau, as well as a number from Hong Kong). Least populous, Aland Islands in the Baltic, followed by Gibraltar and the Faroe Islands.
All 28 member states of the EU. Except for Yemen and Syria, every Arabic-speaking country. Every other country with a Mediterranean coastline except Monaco. All the successor states to Yugoslavia and 12 out of 15 successor states to the Soviet Union. Most remote, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. Most gratifying, Rwanda, Burundi, and Afghanistan. Most heavily represented, UK followed by US, with Canada and Australia some way behind but still over the thousand mark. Most conspicuous absentee, Iran.
Most read topics, evolution and creationism. Hardly surprising; this was not what I intended, but I’ve found myself writing about little else. Heavy emphasis on the situation in Scotland, because that’s where I live and where my ear is to the ground. I have been horrified by the extent of creationist infiltration in Scottish education, frustrated by official evasiveness, and increasingly convinced that the campaign against obscurantism needs to be bottom up as well as top down. Pusillanimous politicians would rather forget about the matter, as would their overburdened officialdom. It is up to us to remind them, to find out what is happening case by case, to mobilise parents, to form alliances across faith and party lines, to share our awareness of how much is at stake.
I hope this blog helps. If you have ideas about how best to use it, let me know.
Boyle’s Law is not a principle; so does the UK Education Secretary know what a principle is?
What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law. [Education Secretary Michael Gove, reported here].
He has been justly mocked for confusing Newton’s laws with the laws of thermodynamics (e.g. here and here and, by me, here). 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.)
Reasoning: Boyle’s Law states that if you double the pressure on a sample of gas, you will halve the volume. Boyle thought this was because the molecules of gas repel each other, so it takes more pressure to push them closer together, and Newton put this idea on a mathematical footing, by suggesting an inverse square law for repulsion, rather like his inverse square law for gravitational attraction. They were wrong.
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, but this involves a concept of education that seems to be beyond his understanding.
Now to what is basic. Boyle’s Law is now explained using the kinetic theory of gases. This describes a gas as a whole lot of molecules, of such small volume compared to their container that we can think of them as points, each wandering around doing their own thing, and, from time to time, bouncing off the walls. It is the impact of these bounces that gives rise to pressure. If you push the same number of molecules (at the same temperature) into half the volume, each area of wall will get twice as many bounces per second, and so will experience twice the pressure. Pressure x volume remains constant.
Actually, Boyle’s Law isn’t even true. Simple kinetic theory neglects the fact that gas molecules attract each other a little, making the pressure less than what the theory tells you it ought to be. And if we compress the gas into a very small volume, we can no longer ignore the volume taken up by the actual molecules themselves.
So what does teaching Boyle’s Law achieve? Firstly, a bit of elementary algebra that gives clear answers, and that can be used to bully students if, as so often happens, they meet it in science before they have been adequately prepared in their maths classes. This, I suspect, is the aspect that Gove finds particularly appealing. Secondly, some rather nice experiments involving balancing weights on top of sealed-off syringes. Thirdly, insight into how to use a mathematical model and, at a more advanced level, how to allow for the fact that real gases do not exactly meet its assumptions. Fourthly, a good example of how the practice of science depends on the technology of the society that produces it. In this case, seventeenth century improvements in glassmaking made it possible to construct tubes of uniform cross-section, which were needed to measure volumes of gas accurately. Fifthly … but that’s enough to be going on with. Further elaboration would, ironically, lead us on to introductory thermodynamics. Ironically, given the interview that started this discussion.
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.