Empty Argument

I know letters pages are traditionally fertile grounds for finding crazy opinions and attitudes but its not that often you get in on the Guardian (especially when compared with the Mail or even BBC Online). Today however we see a familiar empty argument trotted out by someone who apparently has taken offence that Atheists have dared to try and teach children – when everyone knows only the Church are allowed to brainwash.

Patrick Smith, from Essex, writes:

It is great that young people are being taught to think (Summer camp offers ‘godless’ alternative for atheists, 30 July). Alas, it seems Camp Quest will be assuming science is the only way to find truth, a view not shared by most of humanity. Experience of love, music, art and (yes) religion are just as important. Atheists can brainwash as shamelessly as any cult!

Now, correct me if I am wrong but this seems completely flawed. Mr Smith is missing the point by such a large amount it seems he must be talking about something else. I have no personal experience of the atheist camp, so I am (like Mr Smith, I suspect) forced to use the article referenced for background reading.

It seems the children are being taught to think:

The idea behind the camp is to give a “godless” alternative to traditional religious summer camps. In the morning the participants discuss philosophical ideas and learn about subjects such as astronomy.

But nothing there makes me think that it assumes “science is the only way to find a truth.” (I am a bit confused as to otherways to find a “truth” though). Children, 12 years old, discussing philosophy fills my heart with joy and renews some of my faith in human nature. (all irony is intentional). But it continues:

Then in the afternoons they take part in more traditional camp activities. They swim, they run, they climb, they row. In the evening – if the rain relents – they sit round the campfire and toast marshmallows.

Ok – this strikes me as all wholesome, childrens activities. It also carries the implication that they are still active in the evenings. Unless we assume they sit silently around the campfire then they are likely to be listening to music, talking about artistic subjects or learning how to interact with others.

This sort of leaves me confused what Mr Smith is objecting to – unless he feels, like lots of Christians seem to do, that without god being invoked at every sentence then the lessons are meaningless and unimportant. The unintentional irony in that viewpoint is there is a religion where god is mentioned in almost every sentence, and Christians seem to hate it.

For those with strong irony meters and in need of some laughs at the unintentional idiocy that “people with faith” can demonstrate, the comments on the Guardian article about the camp are very funny.

Cleopatra Was Egyptian – Shock News!

Wow, breaking news brought to us by the BBC reveals that Cleopatra was, wait for it, of african descent! It seems that the in-depth research of the 1963 blockbuster Cleopatra was wrong and the queen of Egypt was not actually a white caucasian but was native to Eqgypt. Amazing claims like this needs some fantastic research. Fortunately the headline news on the BBC rewards us:

Cleopatra, the last Egyptian Pharaoh, renowned for her beauty, was part African, says a BBC team which believes it has found her sister’s tomb.

Wow. Knock me down with a feather. It gets better:

But remains of the queen’s sister Princess Arsinoe, found in Ephesus, Turkey, indicate that her mother had an “African” skeleton.
Experts have described the results as “a real sensation.”

Amazing. An African skeleton… How could Liz Taylor have got it so wrong only 45 years ago. Do we need to re-cast and re-film an entire generation of epic movies? Next you will be telling me Jesus wasn’t a tall, blue eyed, blonde haired Caucasian.

Actually, I cant keep it up. This is mind numbingly insane.

First off: Who is actually surprised that Egypt is in Africa? Seriously, anyone? This is a news item that basically says “Egyptian Queen is part African.” Is it really that quiet a news day? (no). This is the Online BBC news that ignored seven hours of riots and petrol bombs in Lurgan, Northern Ireland (despite coverage being in the newspapers). This is the online BBC news that is regularly a day behind unfolding events. It is obviously wasting too much time writing copy for the department of the BLOODY OBVIOUS.

Secondly: No one is disputing Cleopatra’s lineage coming from Alexander’s generals and being predominantly Greek. However, the idea that this remained purely Greek (Macedonian?) after the first generation is simply batshit insane. Yes there was a huge amount of inbreeding, and most royal marriages were with Greek nobles, but over 250 years without allowing locals into the bloodline is unlikely. That would have been news worthy.

Thirdly: In my limited archaological knowledge, WTF does “african bones” mean? Is this 19th century casual racism where its thought that the darkies have a different genetic makeup to us “white people?”  What on Earth is there about the bones that make them “african” rather than Egyptian or Greek? Seriously, WTF!

There has been some reluctance of late for this blog to attack the blinding madness that the BBC is pushing out, mainly because it puts us in the same camp as the Daily Wail, but this is a step too far.

The BBC has seriously lost any sense of what is, or isnt, news. This is thinly veiled advertising for a BBC program of dubious merit. Shame on the BBC and I want them to refund what ever portion of my licence fee went towards this drivel.

Making the baby jesus cry, again

What is it with the new “christians” that they have to keep presenting themselves as a persecuted minority? This week’s poor “christians” story supposedly involved a five year-old being told that she couldn’t talk about god in school. (There’s a good summary in the Times.)

The Daily Telgraph headed their version of this tale:

Primary school receptionist ‘facing sack’ after daughter talks about Jesus to classmate
A primary school receptionist, Jennie Cain, whose five-year-old daughter was told off for talking about Jesus in class is now facing the sack for seeking support from her church.

Well, it seems not. The BBC reported that

But the head teacher said Jasmine had told her friend she would ‘go to hell’ if she did not believe in God.

Which isn’t quite the same thing. The teacher- as you might expect – told the child that maybe it wasn’t really a good thing to threaten your classmates with hellfire…..

The mother claimed that her daughter was “upset” and interpreted this as meaning her daughter had been told she couldn’t speak about Jesus again.

It has clearly not occurred to this woman that the other five-year-old might have been rather “upset” on being told by a classmate that she’d go to hell. But, then, her own unfortunate daughter has obviously been exposed to this poisonous nonsense for so long that it’s obviously never occurred to the mother that it might be in any way cruel….

She sent an email, from her home internet account, to members of her church asking them to pray about the situation.

One person in the congregation forwarded it to the head teacher. Now, maybe I’m too hard-nosed, but I’d think that spreading malicious gossip about your employer is not normally considered acceptable. (Granted, making malicious prayer calls is a whole new category of industrial conduct that might not fall under standard employment law.) . So you might think that she could indeed be facing the sack, but it turns out that she isn’t.

The head confirmed that Mrs Cain was being investigated for making “unfair allegations” about the school, but denied she was facing the sack. That’s not enough to satisfy the latest “christian” defence group.

Mike Judge, from the Christian Institute, which is supporting Mrs Cain, said: “A six-year-old girl and her mother have been slammed for nothing more than expressing their Christian faith.
“I am particularly concerned about the way in which Mrs Cain’s private email to her church friends ended up in the hands of the head teacher.
“This is the latest in a series of cases where Christians are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

D’uh? an issue that vaguely involves religion in passing takes place (A five year-old is asked not to scare the shit out of her schoolmates. Her mother blows it up into a church issue.) Yet another spurious “christian” defence organisation gets involved. The Daily Mail and the Telegraph get in on the act…

Is there some sort of template somewhere?

There must also be some sort of template for the graphics. I’m not going to say “Hang your heads in shame, Renaissance masters” because the inspiration photos tend to be more Victorian sentimental saint pictures than Renaissance masterpieces, but there is still a clear line of ancestry. The Telegraph shows this woman looking heavenwards with an expression that signals “suffering terribly but still full of faith” ROTFL.

Who are this Christian Institute anyway? (These fundy organisations seem to be popping up in all directions. Who could keep track?) Their website has the standard stories from a set outrage list that these “christians” are working their way through: the nurse who prayed which was last week’s “christian nonsense, “christian” registrar fired for refusing to do her job, boy scouts being allowed to make an islamic pledge, etc.

The website doesn’t try to milk this story for every drop of outraged “christian” emotionalism at all (;-D):

A five-year-old girl from Devon was left in tears after her teacher reprimanded her for talking about Jesus in class – and her mummy could be facing the sack.

They are still rank amateurs compared to Daily Mail when it comes to emotive language, though. Daily Mail gives this story an even more thoroughgoing emotional makeover:

The child

“was ticked off by a teacher for discussing heaven and hell with a friend, and came home in a flood of tears.”

The sobs intensify as the piece progresses.

After comforting the distraught little girl, her mother sent a private email to ten close Christian friends asking them to offer prayers for the families and the school.

…The case has sparked fresh outrage among the Christian community, which fears its members are becoming the most discriminated against people in society.

And so on, ad nauseam. I’ll spare you more quotes except this one:

Today former minister Ann Widdecombe said: ‘There is now daily evidence of Christianophobia in this country and it is high time that it was tackled.

Darwin and the Tree of Life

Possibly the best “educational” program I have seen on television in as long as I can remember. Better than Michio Kaku, better than all the discovery channel shows, better than all the rest.

I am talking about a wonderful BBC1 program – Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life – which has just finished. If you missed it, I cant stress how much you really should watch this on iPlayer. It is a part-Open University funded education program, supported by an interesting BBC Darwin website, where you can catch a glimpse of the program if it isnt on the iPlayer yet.

In a nutshell, David Attenborough shows his fantastic qualities as a presenter and takes the viewer on a tour through the history of the theory of evolution. He is genuinely enthusiastic about the science and has a presentational style that is unmatched. I was actually saddened at one point in the program, when I realised that 30 years ago people were more accepting of evolution and our place in the world than they are today. Thanks to the idiocy of fundamentalist religion we really are going back in time.

Attenborough calmly and politely mocks the ideas that all species were created as they are with no change and gives a wonderful (if brief) example of how the eye is a good example of evolution at work. It is all well done and while the hardened scientist may object at some simplification, this is a program which explains evolution in an hour for the general public. To that end some abbreviation of the tree of life is understandable.

Sadly, the BBC website sort of undermines Attenborough’s fantastic work with this line:

David shares his personal view on Darwin’s controversial idea.

Now, while it was indeed controversial in the 1860’s it is now valid science with solid evidential backing. The controversy is not real. Implying it is still there plays into the hands of the idiots and anti-educationalists. Shame really.

This program shows that, despite its faults, the BBC really can pull it out of the bag when it comes to “important” programs.

Darwin is not the atheist god.

In today’s Guardian, Madeleine Bunting has obviously run out of things to write about and pulled a bit of a weird post about atheists and Darwin to try and stir things up (and she has succeeded here at least 🙂 ).

With a peice titled “Darwin shouldn’t be hijacked by New Atheists – he is an ethical inspiration” she generates all manner of fallacies and incorrect statements. Interestingly, she achieves this without actually saying much at all. What a wonderful example of how you can fill four columns in a national daily newspaper with, effectively, nothing. She is writing about 2009 being the “Year of Darwin” (as well as Gallileo, but that is another story) and begins with what a “brilliant scientist” Darwin was, leading to this:

He is, Newton apart, the greatest British scientist ever, so it makes good sense for the British Council, among others, to use this as an opportunity to flag up the prestigious history of British science.

Now, I am sure there are many British scientists (living and dead) who would take offence at this. Darwin’s work (and Newtons) was indeed brilliant, but there have been many other examples of equal brilliance albeit in different fields. Lawrence Krauss, in New Scientist, states that “anyone who was looking could have seen that humans were animals” which is certainly true – Darwin’s brilliance was to have been looking…

Further on, Madeleine identifies one of the biggest worries about the state of British education (and possibly a reason behind the Year of Darwin):

What drives this anniversary is a missionary zeal to persuade and convince the public of the truth of Darwin’s great discoveries, because, astoundingly – despite the mountain of scientific evidence – there is still considerable scepticism and even hostility to this great Victorian. A poll for the BBC in 2006 found that less than half the British population accepted the theory of evolution as the best description for the development of life.

Less than half. In a “largely” secular nation. Sad, isn’t it. I have some doubts of the figures, because I know of no-one personally who would say Evolution is false. For 30+ million people in the UK to think this, the chances of me never having met even one is pretty remote. While I personally feel the figures are somewhat inaccurate, it doesn’t matter. One person thinking the Sky Pixie shook magic dust out and life appeared is one too many.

From this point on, however, it goes downhill. Madeleine falls into the trap of thinking Darwin is the Atheist equivalent of Jesus. She seems to think that atheists require a historical icon to have been an atheist to support the cause. She seems to imply that Darwin has become the Old Testament Prophet of the New Atheism.

Utter nonsense but first some quotes:

In particular, what would have baffled Darwin is his recruitment as standard bearer for atheism in the 21st century.

Where has this come from? Creationists initiated the battle against Darwin, invoking their god to strike down evolution. Religious people of almost all persuasions are happy to accept evolution as valid science. The catholic church has embraced the work of Darwin. How in the name of Wotan is Darwin the “standard bearer” for Atheism?

I actually think Madeleine has mistaken Darwin for Dawkins. Easily done, but a mistake none the less.

Yet bizarrely, the whole 19th-century collapse of faith is now pinned on Darwin.

Only by Creationists. Again, she is using the arguments of creationists against atheists. Madness. There have been atheists as long as there have been humans. We are born atheists and some are converted into theists. The Royal Society was full of non-theists who had nothing to do with Darwin. This is just nonsense you would expect to see on Rapture Ready or CARM.

The fear is that the anniversary will be hijacked by the New Atheism as the perfect battleground for another round of jousting over the absurdity of belief (a position that Darwin pointedly never took up).

The fear by creationists. What is this “New Atheism” thing anyway? What does it mean? Does it imply people have found a new way of not believing? Does it actually have any meaning or is it an underhanded way of taking a shot at Atheists? Is it an example of how some atheists hate their own lack of belief so much they feel the need to distance themselves from others? (This leads to a point excellently expressed on The Atheist Ethicist Blog)

Agnosticism is not a valid belief structure. You either believe there is a god, or you dont. There is no new way to not believe, just in the modern world people are less frightened of stating they don’t believe. It is not “militant atheism” any more than Songs of Praise is militant Christianity.

Next we have a sleight of words trick:

Many of the prominent voices in the New Atheism are lined up to reassert that it is simply impossible to believe in God and accept Darwin’s theory of evolution; Richard Dawkins and the US philosopher Daniel Dennett are among those due to appear in Darwin200 events.

Wow, this is good. There are two points here and she writes to imply they are heavily linked. She first tells us that people are lined up to assert that it is impossible to believe in a Deity (any deity) and accept Evolution and then mentions Dawkins. The implication is clear, Dawkin will be one of these people. This appeals on some levels, because Dawkins is an outspoken atheist (damn his eyes for having the temeretity to speak out….) but it is clearly written by someone who knows nothing of what Dawkins has said.

It is possible to believe in the Christian God and accept evolution. Evolution makes no claims on the origin of life. The Catholic church is happy that God planted the seeds and life evolved. See, it is easy. Evolution disproves a literal interpretation of the bible, but outside the more fundamentalist minds this is rarely found anyway. It is, largely, only devout creationists who feel that Evolution alone challenges God.

Science as a whole challenges belief. In the God Delusion, and during his TV shows and talks, Dawkins uses a vast array of scientific fields to challenge the existence of any deity. I can not think of a scientific disciple which does not provide information to show there is no [Wotan|Odin|Thor|Set|Dievas|Allah|Krishna| etc]. Astronomy and Geology rubbish any idea of a literal interpretation of the biblical creation theory. Evolution is but one strand. No one would say “hey, ignore everything else in science, the only thing that disproves the bible is the genetic similarity between humans and chimps” (or what ever variation you want).

However.

There is a group of people who do think Evolution is the only means by which God can be disproven. These people are convinced that the rest of the scientific stable supports the existence of god, and provides a framework for him to exist. These people also think Dawkins is the evil spokesman of “Darwinism” and these people use the term “New Atheism” to put down those uppity non-believers who have the cheek to speak out in public.

Creationists.

Madeleine Bunting’s article has been so heavily influenced by creationist thinking you could almost read it on CARM, Uncommon Descent or the like. Almost but not quite. The terms are creationis terms. The arguments are creationist-inspired. But the general tone is one of a non-believer. I suspect there is some element of lazy journalism here, or a creationist researcher, or both. Possibly, Madeleine Bunting is an “Old Atheist” – the sort who kept quiet, went to church, paid a tithe etc but didn’t have faith – or perhaps she is an “Agnostic” – an atheist who wont admit it – but either way, she is wrong about Atheism needing, wanting or having a standard bearer in the form of Charles Darwin.

Science of science standards

Abandon your moderate smugness about your academic skills and try to answer any of these old maths and chemistry exam questions:
Old mathematics paper
5 decades Chemistry papers

Well, I think I could get a few right, especially with a bit of a run-up to revise and some practice. But I would still have failed dismally. I couldn’t even get near to passing an exam that I’ve actually got the paper qualifications for – from the days when it was “harder”.

The Royal Society of Chemistry has petitioned the government about a fall in school science standards.

Armed with the first hard evidence of a catastrophic slippage in school science examinations standards, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has launched a Downing Street e-petition calling for urgent intervention to halt the slide.
And tomorrow morning a devastating RSC report demolishing the myth of record-breaking science education performance will land on the desks of all Members of Parliament.
The RSC report, also being supplied to industrialists and educationalists, raises major concerns over the disappearance from schools science examinations of vital problem-solving, critical thinking and mathematical manipulation…..
… Even bright students with enthusiastic teachers are being compelled to “learn to the test”, answering undemanding questions to satisfy the needs of league tables and national targets. The RSC has powerful evidence of the decline in standards, adding to the revelation that students are able to receive a “good pass” with a mark of 20%.

I’m not saying that they are wrong. They make very valid points in the report .

However, the public face of their “first hard evidence” seems more like a publicity stunt than science. In its pop-science media version, it certainly looks like the application of poor social science The RSC “hard evidence” is their exam test (5 decades Chemistry papers)

The RSC ran a competition based on exam questions culled from 50 years of chemistry O Level/GCSE exams. They found that the students (identified as “the most promising scientists” by their schools) who sat the tests “averaged just 25% of available marks.”

“Although the winner of the RSC competition got 94%, the fact that many highly intelligent youngsters were unfamiliar with solving these types of questions, obtaining on average 35% correct from recent papers from the 2000s and just 15% from the 1960s, points to a systemic failure and misplaced priorities in the educational system, rather than shortcomings in individual teachers or students. (From the RSC website)

Hmm. The content of the Chemistry curriculum has surely changed over 50 years. The percentage of correct answers fell as the questions went further back in time. This suggests at least one alternative explanation – the less familiar they were with the material, the worse the students did.

(Which is not surprising, given that teachers have had to “teach to the test” whenever they have prepared students for public exams. Students would be quite annoyed if they found themselves being prepared for exams from 50 years ago, because – however good their knowledge might be, it still wouldn’t allow them to do well on a 2008 paper.)

Surely, control samples should have been used. For instance, groups of students who weren’t already identified as the science stars; groups of students given only recent questions; groups of adults asked to sit the same tests and/ or recent exams. It would also have been more convincing if they hadn’t marked and set the tests themselves.

Not worth the bother? Obviously, because this would imply it was a real investigation, not a way to get their petition some public interest. (Such as I am showing here…. D’oh. Chemists:1 Me:0)

The RSC aren’t stupid. Their full report shows that they are aware that changes in the subject make it impossible to draw easy conclusions. They point out that they aren’t blaming teachers or students.

However, unless they are almost too unworldly to shop for their own pipettes, they would know that this will get publicity only because the whole report will be presented in terms of “exams are getting easier”.

This is an ongoing debate. It’s sometimes seen as a bit churlish to suggest that exams are easier, presenting some implied insult to the efforts of current students.

However, by very simple mathematics, if education policies are qualification-driven, demanding very high target levels of achievement, exam qualifications must get easier.

It is not possible to demand that 100% of 16 year-olds pass exams unless those exams are so easy that anyone can pass them (By definition. The clue’s in the target figure, for the mathematically-challenged.)

What teacher in their right mind would enter their dimmest or least interested students for a tough chemistry exam? Why would they encourage any students whom they think won’t get a good exam mark to develop an interest in science, when their school will go tumbling down the league tables if only 5% manage a pass?

The RSC is actually saying this. Their real argument is about the system not the easiness of exams.

But who’s going to notice that while we are all feeding our own prejudices about the youth of today getting dumber? (Try one of those exam papers if you ever start to believe that.)

Teaching “the controversy”, again

Almost a third of teachers think creationism should be taught on a par with evolution, according to the Times.

Of the 1,200 questioned, 53 per cent thought that creationism should not be taught in science lessons, while 29 per cent thought it should.

OK, a third is some serious rounding up from 29%, but the 29% figure itself is quite scary. It suggests that 29% of teachers are either stupid or batshit crazy, which isn’t encouraging. After all, these people have made their way through years of school and higher education to get to become teachers.

It’s certainly evidence for how far ID /creationism has penetrated the UK.

Hoping to find that the poll was conducted by AIG in a few church schools, I am shocked to find that this comes from Teachers TV (to which the Times added an ill-advised pedantic apostrophe, not used by the station itself.)

As you might expect from the name, Teachers TV is mainly worthy but dull (Key stage x in subject blah) but it sometimes has some fascinating content. (I’ve accidentally caught programmes on neuroscience and Turkish tiled architecture, when randomly clicking through the cable channels.) They are currently featuring “Evolution week” on their site. So these poll results don’t seem to be skewed in favour of a creationist agenda.

Which makes the 29% depressingly possible. Worse 18% of a sample of 248 science teachers (albeit a small sample, skewed by respondent bias) thought evolution and creationism should have equal status

Teachers TV interviewed Dr Adam Rutherford (podcast editor for Nature)

Dr Rutherford says that science teachers with those views need retraining or should be taken out of the classroom if they refuse to change their opinion.

That seems as uncontroversial as saying that a domestic science teacher who can’t boil an egg should be retrained or sacked.

However, it brought up quite a furious response in some comments on the Teachers TV site (among the rational ones, that said that phrenology and astrology weren’t taught in science classes either.)

For example, edinburgh4 said that his/her creation group had PHD-qualified speakers and:

the idea that unintelligent design (naturalism) can be falsified while at the same time intelligent design cannot is logically untenability [sic] and morally dubious. If a design did not come from an unintelligent source there is only one conclusion left. Excluding special creation from discussion leaves evolution as the only option this is hollow victory. More and more the public are seeing it as such.

oeditor replied, disputing the “qualifications” of these speakers:

Professor McIntosh may talk about birds but he is an engineer, not a biologist. Nor is he a geologist, as can be seen from his claim that the Grand Canyon was formed by Noah’s flood – “probably in matter of hours”. He isn’t a historian or a linguist either, despite having produced a DVD claiming that the Chinese ideographic script provides evidence of the Tower of Babel.
What he is – and he proclaims this proudly – is a committed Christian who believes that the biblical account of creation in Genesis is to be taken literally and that it happened about 6000 years ago. Everything he and his fellow creationists claim stems from that one premise and nothing else.

Nullius in Verba said

The issue is not whether Creation should be taught in science lessons. The issue is how genuine scientific thought and debate should be encouraged. Stifling the debate as Adam Rutherford suggests is a recipe for tyranny and there is a great danger of insisting that atheism is the only paradigm in which to conduct science (patently not true when one considers the greats like Faraday and Boyle of earlier centuries).

It is even more disturbing that teachers don’t seem to have a basic grasp of logic than that they think it’s reasonable to teach creationism in science classes.

This “stifling the debate” is a common but deeply flawed creationist argument. There are a million to the power of a million possible theories about the nature of life.

Indeed you could produce alternative theories about anything. I could try to get a cup of coffee by standing on one leg, putting a cat on my head, facing magnetic north and chanting “Ding McChing.” It probably wouldn’t work but who knows if they haven’t tried it? If I was undergoing barista training for a chain of coffee bars, I wouldn’t expect them to allow that as an alternative to switching on the machines, grinding the beans and so on. Or if there was really relativist manager who’d let the trainee baristas discuss their own theories, wouldn’t they have to try out the sacrifice of a young goat with a silver knife, if someone else liked that idea? of course, you might have to wait a few millenia for a double espresso.

I can’t see the difference here at all. Some theories have been proven to work through experiment. Until there are theories that work better, it would be slack not to teach people the ones with the empirical backup.

I think Terry Pratchett has at least one (science?) degree. In his Diskworld books, a flat earth is carried on the backs of giant elephants standing on the back of a turtle. What if some of his readers don’t understand the concept of “fiction”? (Not unlike the average fundy) Surely this theory should be discussed in science classes? Respectfully, as a legitimate alternative to geography, in case any of the students’ parents believe it, of course.

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Update
Read more about this on the excellent Opinion of a Minion blog