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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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England bans creationist teaching. So should Scotland. Petition in preparation. More on Monday

Gove

Michael Gove, at Westminster, finally gets it

The latest guidance from England’s Department for Education requires the teaching of evolution as part of a balanced curriculum in all publicly funded schools, bars the teaching of creationism as a viable alternative in any classroom, and extends these regulations to all new and existing Free Schools and Academies. The Scottish Education Department should follow this example. We at the Scottish Secular Society are putting together a parliamentary petition asking for this. I am asking for your support, especially if you live in Scotland, and will be posting updates on our progress.

My friend Richy Thompson reports on developments in England here. The relevant official documents are here and here and here. A lot of language, much of it on other matters, but the most important clause[1] states

that the requirement on every academy and free school to provide a broad and balanced curriculum, in any case prevents the teaching of creationism as evidence based theory in any academy or free school.

So while earlier statements contained strange loopholes excluding some existing schools, these have now been plugged. What about Religious Education? Here there is clearly a place for discussion of creationism, just as there is a place for the discussion of Baal-worship, but the official language clearly distinguishes between discussion and advocacy:

The Secretary of State acknowledges that [the relevant funding agreement clauses] do not prevent discussion of beliefs about the origins of the Earth and living things, such as creationism, in Religious Education, as long as it is not presented as a valid alternative to established scientific theory [emphasis added].

This wording does not restrict discussion of the theological arguments that some continue to put forward for creationism, a discussion that in some Scottish schools would be very necessary, but makes it clear that it is “not [to be] presented as a valid alternative” on any grounds whatsoever. Admirable language.

MikeRussell

Mike Russell, Holyrood, doesn’t

The Scottish education system is completely different. There are no equivalents of the English Free Schools and Academies, and although there are recognized denominational schools, these are overwhelmingly Catholic and, as such, accepting of evolution. Education is under the control of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. The Education Secretary for many years has been Mike Russell. He belongs to the Episcopalian Church, part of the Anglican Community which has long since made its peace with evolution, and even apologized to Darwin for past harsh treatment.

TruthBeTold (2)

This was handed out to all pupils in assembly at KirktonHolme Primary in September 2013

Despite all this, in response to letters and to questioning in the Scottish parliament, he has consistently taken the view that no explicit guidance on creationism is necessary, on the grounds that there is no problem in Scotland, and that the entire issue can be left to the good sense of the teachers in each school. I doubt if such a position was ever tenable, but it is certainly not so now. Within the past twelve months, we have had the scandal at Kirktonholme, where pupils were given out Young Earth creationist materials in assembly (complete with tame dinosaurs pulling carts),  an evangelical group that displays materials from Answers in Genesis offering Religious Education materials “within the framework of the curriculum for excellence“, and the discovery that many schools have creationist chaplains, and/or chaplaincy teams with representatives of churches committed to creationism, and Young Earth creationism at that. Moreover, every Local Authority Education Committee in Scotland must by law include as full voting members representatives of three religious groups, Catholic, Church of Scotland, and one other, and this other is in numerous documented cases a group committed to creationism.

In these circumstances, teachers may very well feel the need for official protection when teaching scientific reality. Indeed the Herald reported that the EIS teachers’ union, and Ann Ballinger, of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, asked for this when, nearly four years ago, Glasgow’s neo-creationist Centre for Intelligent Design opened its doors, but their requests were simply ignored.

Given this situation, the Scottish Secular Society (SSS) has decided to invite all those interested in protecting our schools from creationist infiltration, to join it in petitioning the Scottish Parliament to issue clear statutory guidance building on existing references to evolution and making it clear that creationism must not be presented anywhere within the publicly funded Scottish school system as a viable alternative. We plan to have a draft petition submitted to the parliament within days.

A note on the Scottish petition system, and on the role of SSS: SSS is a secularist, but not a humanist or atheist organization. Meaning, that it is opposed to religious privilege and presumption in the political sphere,  regarding belief  or unbelief as a matter of individual conscience, and therefore to be protected. It is neutral in matters of faith, and has members of many different faiths and none.

The Scottish petition system is vastly preferable to that at Westminster. The most a Westminster petition will get you from your political masters is a half hour debate, often (as in one famous recent case) shamefully ill attended, and with no formal motion discussed. A Scottish petition such as this will be officially posted for comment and discussion, and given the level of interest in the subject there is little doubt that it will be placed on the formal agenda of the Committee that exists for that purpose. At that stage further public comment will be requested, the Committee itself may directly approach interested parties (including the Government itself) for their views, which will also be posted for public comment, and the petitioners will be invited to give evidence in person. A petition such as the one we are now preparing will almost certainly end up being referred to the Education and Culture Committee, leading to a further round of discussion and, to judge from precedent, extensive newspaper and other debate, bringing the entire issue into the public domain and laying the ground for further discussion among opinion- and policy-makers even if no further official action is taken.

So we have the power to make things happen. Let’s start now.

Disclosure: I am on the Board of the Scottish Secular Society.

[1] In full, the new Church Academy clauses state that: 23E) The parties acknowledge that clauses 2.43 and 2.44 of the Funding Agreement [which preclude the teaching of pseudoscience and require the teaching of evolution] apply to all academies. They explicitly require that pupils are taught about the theory of evolution, and prevent academy trusts from teaching ‘creationism’ as scientific fact. 23F) ‘Creationism’, for the purposes of clauses 2.43 and 2.44 of the Funding Agreement and clause 23E above, is any doctrine or theory which holds that natural biological processes cannot account for the history, diversity, and complexity of life on earth and therefore rejects the scientific theory of evolution. The parties acknowledge that Creationism, in this sense, is rejected by most mainstream Churches and religious traditions, including the major providers of state funded schools such as the [Anglican] [Catholic] Churches, as well as the scientific community. It does not accord with the scientific consensus or the very large body of established scientific evidence; nor does it accurately and consistently employ the scientific method, and as such it should not be presented to pupils at the Academy as a scientific theory. 23G) The parties recognise that the teaching of creationism is not part of prevailing practice in the English education system, but acknowledge that it is however important that all schools are clear about what is expected in terms of the curriculum which they need to provide. The parties further recognise that the requirement on every academy and free school to provide a broad and balanced curriculum, in any case prevents the teaching of creationism as evidence based theory in any academy or free school. 23H) The Secretary of State acknowledges that clauses 2.43 and 2.44 of the Funding Agreement, and clauses 23E and 23G above do not prevent discussion of beliefs about the origins of the Earth and living things, such as creationism, in Religious Education, as long as it is not presented as a valid alternative to established scientific theory.

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.

UK Education Secretary says students need to know how Newton invented thermodynamics [!]

I would like to say that Michael Gove shows a knowledge of what counts as basic science that is some 300+ years out of date, but that would be too kind.

Gove said there had been previous attempts to make science relevant, by linking it to contemporary concerns such as climate change or food scares. But he said: “What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law.” [Times interview, reported here]

As many readers will know, but the Education Secretary clearly doesn’t, Newton’s laws describe the motion of individual particles. Thermodynamics is intrinsically statistical, and was developed over a century after Newton’s death. Boyle’s Law is not a basic scientific principle, although it is a corollary of the basic principles followed by (ideal) gases. And here we have someone ignorant of these elementary facts, in a position of enormous power, telling the schools how to teach, and the examination boards how to examine.

And in this same interview, he says he wants schools to form chains and brands, like businesses. Satire falls silent.

Anti-Creationists need to think about tactics

By Paul Braterman and Mark Edon. This piece first appeared on November 30, 2012, on the BCSE website.

 We write here as individual non-believers in support of the “accommodationist” position taken by the British Centre for Science Education (BCSE), on whose committee both of us serve.  We consider that there are over-riding tactical and strategic reasons for this position.  As non-believers defending science, we are being unreasonable if we criticise the godly for failing to combat Creationism, and then, for fear of ideological impurity, refuse to link arms with them when they do.

Followers of the political & religious controversy surrounding evolution [1] will be aware of a subsidiary debate amongst those who do accept modern science, that encompasses such issues as; “Is it possible to believe in god and accept the science?”, “Should the objective of the debate be the acceptance of science or the rejection of god?” and “What is the best way to get people to accept the science?

The British Centre for Science Education  (BCSE), comprising volunteers from science, education and business backgrounds, is a single purpose organisation.  Our objective, shared by our members regardless of their religious position, is to keep Creationism out of UK schools.  The simple fact is that the Government (in its policy statements at least), other mainstream political parties in the UK, the established Church and other mainstream churches all agree on this.  In the UK, only a minority of self-identified Christians think that creationism should be taught, while Young Earth creationists complain that the vast majority of evangelicals reject their doctrine.

The current Coalition Government Free School and Academy programs have given Creationists in the UK opportunities that they had never previously dreamt of and, through what we sincerely hope is mere oversight, July 2012 saw the first crypto-Creationist free school applications approved.  They will be getting tax payers’ money to teach children, at the expense of the local authority education budget, although the local authority will have no control over them and at this stage no-one knows what they will teach.

The BCSE wants to campaign against Creationism in a way that unites the widest possible range of opinion and so we don’t campaign for or against any of the following; atheism, religion, faith schools, free schools or academies, although many members and committee members hold strong views on many of these issues.

If you look at the activities of Creationists here in the UK you can see that their main campaigning tactic is to present themselves as Christians making perfectly reasonable requests about education policy, all in the spirit of fairness, whilst being attacked by militant atheists.

So it is in these circumstances that the BCSE campaigns against Creationism with all and any who will agree with us on this issue, regardless of any disagreement on other issues.  This means we are neutral on matters of religion and we are glad to work with the religious and non-religious alike.  The CrISIS campaign, in which we took part last year, which culminated in a letter to Michael Gove signed by the National Secular Society, Richard Dawkins, Jim Al-Khalili, Susan Blackmore, Andrew Colman, David Colquhoun, Christopher French, Adam Hart -Davis, Julian Huppert MP, The Rev Canon Theologian David Jennings, Steve Jones, Dr Stephen Law, Clifford Longley, the Rev Michael Roberts, Simon Singh MBE, Canon Theologian Keith Ward, and education lecturer James D.  Williams, exemplifies this, as did a similarly broad-based subsequent campaign, which we supported, by the British Humanist Association.

BCSE’s experience of working with representatives of the clear majority of the religious population in the UK that accept the science, and our knowledge that UK Creationists unremittingly promote an “Atheists versus Christians” narrative during recruitment and campaigning, has lead us to often repeat the fact that the majority of religious people have no problem with the science.

These two aspects of what we do: 1) working with the religious and non-religious alike, 2) pointing out that accepting the science is fine with the established church and the large majority of the religious, are far from protecting us against criticism.

Creationists still accuse us of promoting an atheistic ideology, and even level this charge against ordained ministers and other committed believers amongst our members but then they do the same to that vast majority of Christians who accept the science, and even the (outgoing) Archbishop of Canterbury is not spared.  Some nonbelievers label us “accommodationists” for working with the religious and for not arguing against the existence of god, claiming that because religion is correlated with Creationism the only way to counter Creationism is to campaign against religion.  For want of a better label, we will refer to nonbelievers in this camp as “anti-theists”, in the belief that many already call themselves this and that it doesn’t offend or mislead.  This seems less clumsy than “anti-accommodationists”.  If a better label exists we will happily adopt it.  Whilst we are on the subject of labels, we reserve the term “Creationists” for those who deny the well-established science of evolution and common descent, and, in many cases, of an ancient earth and even more ancient Universe. This is quite different from the philosophical creationism that accepts these realities, but sees them as, ultimately, the work of a deity.  Some who should know better seem unsure of the difference between these positions and thereby play into the hands of the enemies of reason.

Unfortunately, anti-theists or those who can be labelled as such, when campaigning against Creationism, are vulnerable to the line invariably taken by Creationists that they are just Atheists persecuting Christians.  Thus our good friend Richy Thomson, BHAFaithSchools and Education campaigner, found himself outmanoeuvred in a radio phone-in discussion of a proposed Creationist school in Sheffield, when the advocate of Creationism change the terms of debate by pointing out that his opponent was against faith schools and religion in general.  Similarly, when a Creationist on Radio Five was asked to say if he wanted Creationism taught in science classes or not, he ignored the question and claimed that the BHA was prejudiced when evaluating the scientific evidence and wanted to restrict the rights of the religious.  The correct response would be to point out that the large majority of religious people think that Creationism is silly too, perhaps with some examples but again the point at issue was lost.  While only a very tiny minority of people are pushing Creationism into UK schools, they create the illusion of broad support by such muddling of issues.

It is worth stating plainly here that the BCSE neither calls for the religious to give up their faith (indeed, how could it, given the range of opinions in its membership?) nor for the anti-theists to stop campaigning against it.

It seems to us that the Creationists adopt the “Atheist versus Christians” tactic at every available opportunity for two good reasons.

First of all, the conflict and persecution narrative aids recruitment and engenders zeal, especially among the many potential recruits who are at difficult points in their own lives.  Creationist organisers know that being part of a valiant band struggling against the odds offers both a sense of belonging and the chance for the leaders to prove their honesty and intelligence by accurately predicting ridicule and rudeness from people outside the group.  In this way the weirder the claims, the stronger the ridicule, and the more strongly members are driven into the group.  This is why you find so many Creationist groups publicising the fact of their opponents calling them names.

Secondly, and more at issue here, the conflict narrative very often means the public debate can be swiftly moved away from “Creationism is daft” to genuine Atheist versus Christian issues such as faith schools.  Creationists know that in such debates they are part of a much larger and more respectable group and readily identify themselves as simply “Christians”.

So how should we proceed?

There seems to be agreement amongst anti-theists and accommodationists that some Creationists can be won over to accept the science, although both sides currently see this as a rare event and base their claims upon anecdotes [2].  Is loss of faith or is accommodation of science with religious belief the reason for such changes of mind? Well, the anecdotes suggest both are possible paths that individuals do travel.  However we still have no quantitative data on the reasons why, despite this obviously being of great interest to all.

A recent paper in Evolution Education and Outreach by Southcott and Downie [3] does give us some hints at data on this topic, but not much more than a reason for more research.

The data relates to biology students at GlasgowUniversity between 1987 and 2011 who rejected evolution.  Here are a few highlights but please go and read the thing for yourselves if you are interested.

First of all things that anti-theists and accommodationists agree on:

From the abstract.

Evolution rejection was closely related to accepting a religion-based alternative, whereas acceptance was related to finding the evidence convincing.  Although many religious students accepted evolution, 50% of Islamic students were rejecters, compared to 25% of Christians.

Anti-theists seem to go on from this to deduce that as Creationism comes from religion you must counter religious belief to counter Creationism.  This simply does not follow.

A question testing acceptance of several scientific propositions showed no evidence that evolution rejecters were generally more skeptical of science than accepters.

That is surprising, although it could be that evolution rejecters were simply unaware of the full implications of their position.  Moving on.

A breakdown of evolution into three components (human origins, macroevolution, and microevolution) found that some evolution rejecters accepted some components, with microevolution having the highest acceptance and human origins the lowest.  These findings are discussed in terms of strategies for evolution education and the phenomenon of evolution rejection worldwide.

This reflects the common Creationist tactics of claiming to accept micro evolution so as to avoid the appearance of rejecting all evidence out of hand.

Now some highlights from the rest of the paper.  Rejection of evolution at GlasgowUniversity is running at between 3.9% and 4.4% in samples taken irregularly between 1987 and 2011 (they used some data from previous studies for comparison) and from the small numbers available it seems that Islamic students are about twice as likely as Christian students to reject evolution.

The overall level of students with a religion was down over the various study years and the association of religion with evolution denial strengthened.

This next bit made us sit up and pay attention (our emphasis);

All level 4 [now in their final year at uni] rejectors belonged to “low evolution” degree programs.  It is clear that for most of them, no amount of scientific evidence would overcome their beliefs, a more entrenched position even than that taken by level 1 rejecters.” (“Low evolution” here describes courses such as psychology or pharmacology, as opposed to, say, zoology.)

So it would appear that logical and evidence based argument is futile with these folks.

This next bit was also very interesting.

By level 4, our evolution rejection sample size was very small, but the importance of a belief precluding evolution remained the main factor.  Our sample size for switching from rejection to acceptance was also small (n=7), but it is fascinating that these students were less affected by scientific evidence than by a realization that evolution and their religious beliefs were not in conflict.

So for these students in Glasgow, reaching some kind of personal accommodation between the science and their faith was the path to accepting evolution.

This next finding fits in with recent survey findings for the UK population as a whole.

It is worth emphasizing that, although evolution rejection was strongly associated with holding a religious belief, the majority of believers accepted evolution.

These are the results of just a few surveys in one university and more research will be required to inform appropriate educational strategies.

In the meantime we have a political battle on our hands and this article lays out the reasons why opponents of Creationism in publicly funded schools in the UK should think carefully about their tactics.

In summary, the reasons for even the most dedicated opponents of religion to adopt accommodationism in the political fight against Creationism are twofold.

  • Tactical advantage gained by appealing to a huge majority support by including the religious non Creationists.
  • Strategic advantage as the Creationists are denied one of their main recruitment and retention tactics and we give ourselves the best chance of reducing their hardcore support.

Anti-theist groups need no permission from us to continue their own wider campaigns and agendas but they should seriously consider working with an accommodationist umbrella group like the BCSE to maximise their political effectiveness in this particular fight.

As for the situation at the time of writing, BCSE strongly supports the BHA campaign of protest against the recent decision to allow Creationist groups to open Free Schools, while (in accord with the spirit of this article) drawing attention to the fact that the issue here is not religion versus irreligion, but science versus the denial of science.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

1  but which on examination includes the denial of such vast swathes of modern science including physics, earth sciences and cosmology as they all speak to an old earth, plus so many other related disciplines, that one might as well say that such deniers simply reject science.

2 See Richard Dawkins converts corner for examples of loss of faith and the BCSE community forum for examples of both kinds.

3 Southcott, R.  & Downie, J., Evolution and Religion: Attitudes of Scottish Bioscience Students to the Teaching of Evolutionary Biology, Evolution: Education and Outreach, Springer New York, 1936-6426, pp.  1-11, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12052-012-0419-9 , Doi: 10.1007/s12052-012-0419-9

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