2014-06-24

Name Dropping on Twitter and IRL

Name Dropping on Twitter and IRL*
(A Brontë Country “Who’s Heard of Who”)

Let’s begin at the beginning.

One upon a time, before Twitter was even thought of, a man called Robert Swindells

wrote a book:

Now it happens to be the case that my parents were very close friends of Robert Swindells and his wife – from way back before Bob achieved fame as an author – and, despite the deaths of both my parents, my wife and I still keep in touch with Bob and Brenda and call in on them from time to time. They live only a couple of miles away and live next door to an old school friend of mine.

So when, about a year ago, Owen Jones tweeted as follows:

And Anita Anand replied:

Call me “shallow”, but I couldn’t resist the urge to show off that I knew the author they were discussing:

Anita responded:

As it transpired, the next famous person I met in Brontë Country was not Bob Swindells (we’ve been rather remiss at keeping touch with lots of people over the past year or so) but Anita Anand’s husband (sic) Simon Singh (@SLSingh) who came to Haworth to give an excellent talk on Alan Turing, the Enigma machine, and cryptography at a WWII commemoration weekend. As Simon kindly signed one of his books for me (this one), it occurred to me that I have signed copies of books from just two authors, and in each case I have complete collections of the books of the two authors. Bob’s because he very generously kept my children supplied with spare copies of his books as they were growing up, and Simon’s because I’ve bought all his books and, having been along to a couple of events at which he has spoken, have taken advantage of the situation to pester Simon for a signature.

Real books are wonderful things – Bob Swindells, as it happens, regards e-books as an abomination – and they are made all the more wonderful when personalized by the author I think.

…….. But I digress.

At the weekend, my wife and I attended a rather splendid 90th birthday party in a pub just round the corner from the venue where Simon had spoken. There were actually two parties taking place in different rooms of the pub at the same time. Ours, and an extended family do being held by none other than Bob and Brenda (sic).

Naturally, we went over to say hello and I then remembered the conversation on twitter I had promised to pass on. Bob – a fellow leftie – knew Owen Jones’s name but struggled to summon any recollection of Anita Anand’s name.

I tried citing Radio 4’s Saturday Live show. Bob (again drawing on his leftiness) remembered Richard Coles (@RevRichardColes ) from the Communards days and affected a pantomime expression of horror when I explained the Richard had, in the meantime, found god. Unfortunately it seems that Bob, unlike my wife and I, does not listen to the wireless on Saturday morning. I urged him to do so – reassuring him that Richard (in spite of his religious leanings) was still a fine chap - but gave up my attempts to explain who Anita was using that particular tack.

I then tried evoking Anita’s other Radio 4 programme: Any Answers? and Bob realized straight away of whom I had been speaking. He was, I should report, very touched that people like Owen and Anita remembered his books from their teenage years and that his books had obviously made an impression on them.

Bob went on to express his disappointment that he had missed Simon Singh’s talk and his anger about the way Alan Turing had been treated. I remembered that Bob had served in the RAF – though too late for WWII. Bob was born a few months before war broke out, in March 1939.

Having had a lovely chat with Bob and Brenda and their extended family, my wife and I made our excuses and re-joined the party we were actually invited to. I found myself having to explain our brief absence to the person I was sitting alongside.

Here, I thought, was my second opportunity in a year to show off and name-drop - this time in real life!

I tried to explain what I had been up to.

Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that not only had my neighbour at the table not ever heard of Owen Jones, Richard Coles, Simon Singh, Anita Anand, Saturday Live, or Any Answers; my neighbour had not heard of Bob Swindells, any of his books, …. or, indeed, Twitter.

The Roman Emperor Claudius famously once said:

"Acquaintance lessens fame"

He might have added that non-acquaintance completely obviates fame and renders any attempt to bask in reflected glory quite futile.




*For non-tweeters: IRL=”In Real Iife”

2014-05-22

Are Bradford Metropolitan District Council (and others) Denying the Vote to their EU Residents?

We had an "interesting" experience while going to vote this time (2014-05-22) at our local polling station in Bradford, West Yorkshire.

My wife (who is very much able to speak for herself but who doesn't blog or tweet) is German, but has lived and worked and been on the electoral roll in Bradford since 1985. She is not allowed to vote in UK national elections but, like all UK EU residents, is allowed to vote (and has always voted) in local and in European elections.

On this occasion, my daughter, my wife, and I turned up at our local polling station with the cards they send you through the post. My daughter and I were handed voting slips for the EU election and for the local election. My wife was handed only a voting slip for the local election and told that she couldn't vote in the EU election. Even when we protested - and pointed out that she was an EU citizen and therefore allowed to vote in EU elections - they stuck to their guns. "There's a 'G' against her name" they insisted. "Yes, that stands for 'German'. Germany is in the EU, and EU citizens are entitled to vote in European Elections." we patiently explained. "Yes but our rules say that 'Gs' aren't allowed to vote in EU elections" they responded; "We don't write the rules, we just have to follow them." they added helpfully.[*]

So my wife was denied the opportunity to select from a list of raving neo-Nazis and Poujadists about a foot long and a handful of (relatively) sensible contenders for the role of our MEP.

I suspect cock-up rather than conspiracy here but, nonetheless, Bradford Metropolitan District Council appear to be breaking the law and I do not intend to let the matter rest.

#################

Having raised this matter on twitter, it seems that my wife is by no means the only EU citizen to have been refused an EU vote by their local authority. Part of the problem seems to be that EU citizens now (I'm not aware when this changed) have to complete additional paperwork to be granted a vote in EU elections. This obviously creates additional opportunities for local authorities to fail to supply the required paperwork or to lose it when they receive it back from the voter. Many people on twitter are reporting that they specifically filled in these additional forms - we filled in and returned (or competed online) everything that they sent us - but were still denied a vote.

Since the entitlement to vote is exactly the same for EU citizens voting in local or European elections, I am at a loss to imagine what purpose the creation of two parallel systems serves. I do not imagine that local authorities insist, for example, that their EU residents fill in extra forms before they become eligible for council tax. I expect that EU citizens fill in the same council tax forms as everyone else.

What makes this even worse, is that there is now no simple way for an EU voter to find out whether he or she is eligible to vote in a European election. In the past he/she could simply look up his/her name on the electoral register. Under the new regime, mere inclusion in the electoral register is no guarantee of eligibility to vote.

The only information I can find about the situation on the Bradford Metropolitan District Council site is:

Citizens of EU countries (other than the UK, Ireland, Cyprus, Malta) cannot vote in UK Parliamentary elections and must fill in a separate form to vote in European Parliamentary elections.

Where anyone can get hold of this "separate form" is not discussed further.

The twin-track system for registering EU voters clearly discriminates, in a systematic fashion, against a section of the electorate who are least likely to vote for xenophobic parties (who seem to be in the ascendancy at the moment) and thus may have a significant effect on the outcome of the current election - depending, of course, on the scale of this problem (which I have no way of knowing).

I find this totally unacceptable.

PS

I rang the Electoral Services Unit of Bradford Metropolitan District Council this morning and was told (twice) that “she’d have to go and vote in Germany to vote in the EU elections”. When I (twice) pointed out that this is untrue I was told that "someone from the back office” would ring me back to discuss it further. I'm still waiting for the call.

PPS[*]

Since our conversations at the vote, we have learned that "G" does not stand for "German" after all.

Every time we've been to vote for the past thirty years, they've taken my wife's polling card, ignored what it said on the front about who she could vote for, established her nationality - apparently (though seemingly not) from the code against her name, and declared that yes she was allowed to vote in the local or EU election but not in the national election - hence (and also because of the coincidence of "G" for "German" and the fact that they send us a sheet with our names on it every year and "German" against my wife's name) our mistaken assumption.

Since then we've discovered that a French friend is "K", and Julia Ruppel ‏(@SpeakUpEu on twitter) has informed me that "G" simply means "not allowed to vote in EU elections".

What is to be done?

Since the vote, some online research and conversations, and since these articles appeared in the national press:

EU citizens stopped from voting in UK after confusion over registration forms
'Go and vote in your own country': Evidence of non-British EU citizens turned away at the polls despite being on electoral roll
And even a story about us in the Local Paper: Bradford teacher told: ‘Go to Germany if you want to vote’

..... I've become a lot clearer about what the real problems are here and how they need to be fixed. These problems fall into two categories:

1 The system is nuts

There is no rational purpose served by forcing EU citizens to register to vote twice with their local council. Everyone (including EU citizens) should receive one form on which they (if foreign) declare their nationality and on which they tick a box agreeing not to break the law and double-vote (pretending for the moment that this is a matter of any significance and a matter, even if it were of any significance, that could be solved by making people fill in a form).

Unfortunately, if is not within the gift of local authorities to change this system and, bonkers though it is, it probably won't get changed.

2 Local councils don't understand the nutty system and can't administer it

This aspect of the situation could be fixed more easily. Bradford in particular and local councils in general need to do the following as a matter of urgency:

  • Educate their electoral services staff about the rules for elections
  • Respond to enquiries when they have promised to do this
  • Put up links to the "separate form" - this one I believe - on their websites with clear instructions as to what to do with the form and where to send it
  • Ensure that they send out the "separate form" at the same time as the normal electoral roll form and in the same mailing - again with clear instructions as to what to do with the forms and where to send them and with a return envelope
  • Ensure that their staff process the "separate form" at the same time as the normal electoral roll form when they receive it back from the voters
  • Publish an augmented electoral roll that indicates whether those included have been granted their full voting rights or only some of them or some way of checking - preferably on-line - what one's voting status is (now that merely being on the roll is no longer a clear indication of this)

2014-04-24

Britain may or may not be a Christian country, but it certainly seems to be a disingenuous one

The Daily Telegraph for 2014-04-23 contains a letter signed by Professor Roger Scruton and eight other signatories which attempts to serve as a riposte to a letter sent three days earlier by Professor Professor Jim Al-Khalili and fifty-four other academics and prominent members of the British Humanist Association who objected to David Cameron's characterization of Britain as a “Christian country”.

I reproduce the new letter in full below:

SIR – Professor Al-Khalili and his co-signatories are quite correct to describe British society as plural and to say that it has benefited from the contributions of many non-Christians.

Nevertheless, in important ways Britain remains a Christian country, as the Prime Minister has rightly claimed. The establishment of the Church of England enshrines Christian humanism as a public orthodoxy, which continues to inform a good many of our laws, institutions and public rituals.

This Anglican establishment is liberal, imposing no civil penalties on non-Anglicans, which is why so many non-Anglican Christians and non-Christian believers support it. More broadly, the fact that most Britons continue to tell pollsters that they are religious is presumably one reason why this religious “establishment-lite” persists. According to the 2010 British Social Attitudes survey, 67 per cent of us described ourselves as either “religious” or “fuzzy faithful” and only 33 per cent as “unreligious”.

It is understandable that convinced atheists will find this situation irritating. But a public orthodoxy of some kind is inevitable, and some citizens are bound to find themselves on the wrong side of it and required to exercise liberal tolerance toward it. It remains open to them, of course, to persuade their fellow citizens that there is a better alternative.

  • Professor Nigel Biggar
  • Professor Brenda Almond
  • Professor Stephen R L Clark
  • Dr David Conway
  • Professor John Haldane
  • Professor Jeremy Jennings
  • Professor Roger Scruton
  • Dr Edward Skidelsky

Quite where the signatories got the idea from that the Anglican establishment imposes "no civil penalties on non-Anglicans" from I am unsure. In fact the Anglican establishment imposes many civil penalties on non-Anglicans, Chancel repair liability and exclusion from employment in or attendance at state funded schools under the control of the Anglican Church being two notable examples.

The letter goes on to quote from the "2010 British Social Attitudes survey" and to conflate being religious with being Christian and being Christian with being Anglican. In fact, the figures from the same survey for 2012 are available and clearly show that fewer than fifty percent of the British population are Christians (of any type) and fewer than twenty percent are Anglican Christians.

Atheists do not find the situation where many people are religious "irritating". What we find irritating is, for example, that even though barely twenty percent of the population are Anglicans and far fewer are practising Anglicans (soon to be, if not already, outnumbered by practising Muslims) twenty-six unelected Church of England bishops sit in the House of Lords as of right. No other churches have this right. What are we to do when they begin demanding similar representation?

There is a better alternative: a secular constitution (like that of the USA - a far more religious country than the UK) under which people of all faiths (and none) enjoy equal rights under the law and in civil society.

The current insistence on maintaining privileges for a declining minority faith and encoding those privileges in law is sectarian in the short term and untenable in the longer term. False claims and dodgy statistics may obscure this truth for a while, but sooner or later we are going to have to face up to the imperative that, in a pluralistic society, religion and state have to be clearly demarcated.

2014-03-27

Curiouser and curiouser: Ofqual, OCR, and the exam questions censored by faith schools

Postscript


Though I'm putting it at the beginning ....

It seems that Ofqual and OCR and any other exam-boards who may or may not have been involved have relented and announced that "schools will no longer be permitted to tamper with question papers prior to a student sitting an exam."

Sadly, of course, this will not necessarily ensure that state schools controlled by religious extremists will now begin to teach the full science curriculum to their students, but it is a very welcome step in the right direction.

Education minister Elizabeth Truss's views on these latest developments do not seem to have been announced.

Background

On 2014-03-02 the Sunday Times ran a story entitled "Faith schools cut exam questions on evolution" (paywall) in which they said:

EXAM boards have been accused of colluding with faith schools to “censor” exam papers that contain questions on evolution and human reproduction.

The boards are said to be “accommodating creationism in the classroom” by working with schools that want to remove questions in GCSE papers that conflict with their religious beliefs.

One of England’s most respected exam boards, OCR, has a policy of reaching agreement with faith schools about removing such questions. Papers obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show the board believes it is important to respect the schools’ need to do this “in view of their religious beliefs”.

Further details were provided by a post on the website of the National Secular Society "Government complicit in redaction of exam questions". In the NSS post, OCR are quoted (in correspondence with Ofqual) as follows:

In our deliberations we have reached the conclusion the most proportionate and reasonable approach would be to come to an agreement with the centres concerned which will protect the future integrity of our examinations – by stipulating how, when and where the redactions take place – but at the same time respect their need to do this in view of their religious beliefs. We believe we need to be mindful of the fact that if we do not come to an agreement with the centres we could be seen as creating a barrier to accessing the examinations for the candidates.

In other words, Ofqual appears to have known about "redactions" from exam papers to meet the objections of faith schools. (These redactions seem to have been focused mainly on science-paper questions about evolution and human reproduction.) Ofqual (the body which regulates the OCR and other school exam boards) does not appear to have taken any steps to stop OCR from following this practice and have thereby (it appears) effectively endorsed the practice.

My Freedom of Information Request

Like many people with interests in education and science, I was extremely concerned to learn that Ofqual had apparently given its tacit approval to the OCR's policy of censoring exam questions to meet objections from staff at state schools whose extreme religious views conflict with scientific findings. I wondered whether any other exam boards other than OCR were involved and so, on 2014-03-03, I contacted Ofqual to ask them:

FOI request Dear Sir/Madam

In yesterday’s Sunday Times http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/National/article1381959.ece , it was reported that OCR and Ofqual have cooperated with some faith schools who have a policy of censoring questions in science exams in order to avoid offending religious sensibilities.

Please could you inform me which, if any, exam boards other than OCR have allowed schools to censor exam papers with Ofqual’s blessing.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours faithfully

Dr M A Ward

It has taken twenty-four days for Ofqual to respond. This is well within the allowed time for FOI requests but, given that they have responded as they have - ie by not supplying me with any information, seems a rather long time to have taken. Anyway, here it is:

Some personal details redacted.

The key passage is:

I confirm that on this occasion information of the type you have requested is not held by Ofqual. Ofqual has not consented to the censorship of exam papers and no exam boards, including OCR, have redacted parts of exam papers with Ofqual's blessing.

Now this answer is rather problematic on a number of counts:

  • If Ofqual really don't hold information about exam boards allowing schools to censor exam papers (the type of information I requested) how have they been able to assure me that no exam boards have redacted parts of exam papers with Ofqual's blessing?
  • This answer immediately raises the question: Have some exam boards redacted parts of exam papers without Ofqual's blessing?
  • Or, are Ofqual trying to suggest that merely allowing OCR (and possibly other boards) to redact science questions does not constitute Ofqual giving its blessing to the redaction of science questions? In which case, are Ofqual not rather splitting hairs?
  • Actually, there was no suggestion that OCR had redacted exam papers. It seems to have been the schools themselves who did this - with OCR and then Ofqual's acquiescence.
and last but not least .....
  • However you interpret the various ambiguities, this answer would rather appear to suggest that Ofqual's views conflict with those of the government.
education minister Elizabeth Truss [said - echoing the OCR statement above] that a "proportionate and reasonable response" had been agreed with the school (ref)

So what is going on here? I think we should be told!

2014-02-14

The Science Delusion (in defence of philosophy)

Darwin versus the philosophers

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go off on some sort of post-modernist relativist rant. I do think science is a “privileged” way of looking at the world. But I wish to defend philosophy.

I’m not entirely sure what Richard Dawkins had in mind when he wrote the above tweet – though he has provided some further clarification in subsequent tweets. My initial inclination was to respond with:

On this 127th anniversary of Borodin’s death (1887-02-15) it is a severe indictment of science that no chemist anticipated Prince Igor.

But then I remembered that Alexander Borodin invented a method for the identification of urea.

Anyway, the more general point I wished to make was that it seems to be a common belief amongt scientists that philosophy is basically a load of bollocks and that all real questions can be addressed by science. Actually, this is (sort of) the view of some philosophers (but let’s not go there) and is also (though I’m paraphrasing his actual remarks) the expressed view of another scientist for whom I have a great deal of respect: Prof Brian Cox (@ProfBrianCox).

The obvious problem with the “all real questions can be addressed by science” line is that someone only needs to retort: “oh no they can’t” (in a pantomime voice) and we’re off into discussing a question which can’t (on pain of circularity) be addressed by science.

I can’t possibly do this topic real justice in this humble blog post but let me focus on a specific example - which I hope may illustrate the role of philosophy – and let you all decide for yourselves whether you think it’s all bollocks:

The Turing Test:

Turing (most would argue – just in case you dispute what he himself actually meant) answered the question “Can machines think?” with (though I’m paraphrasing again) “yes, if they can pass the test of imitating a human so well that an interrogator of the machine (which would obviously have to be hidden from view – unless it were a very convincing robot) can’t tell whether it’s human or not”.

In other words, Turing answered the question “Can machines think?”, not (as scientists often do) in terms of underlying mechanisms but in terms of observable behaviour.

There are obvious parallels with Heisenberg's interpretation of quantum theory here

[....] man könnte zu der Vermutung verleitet werden, daß sich hinter der wahrgenommenen statistischen Welt noch eine „wirkliche” Welt verberge, in der das Kausalgesetz gilt. Aber solche Spekulationen scheinen uns, das betonen wir ausdrücklich, unfruchtbar und sinnlos. Die Physik soll nur den Zusammenhang der Wahrnehmungen formal beschreiben. Werner Heisenberg, Über den anschaulichen Inhalt der [Quantentheorie] [....], p 503.

Which translates as: "[....] it is possible to ask whether there is still concealed behind the statistical universe of perception a "true" universe in which the law of causality would be valid. But such speculation seems to us to be without value and meaningless, for physics must confine itself to the description of the relationships between perceptions." Translation (unattributed) in: Coley, N G & Stannard, R; Quantum Theory (The Bohr - Einstein Debate); p 109.

But, again, let’s not go there. (We can leave bringing up quantum mechanics to bamboozle your audience to the homeopaths and other quacks.)

I wish to argue that, while it’s perfectly reasonable for a scientist to design Turing Tests and to decide whether a candidate machine has passed any of them, you don’t need to believe in pixies or souls or ghosts in the machine to see that there are reasonable objections to Turing’s thesis.

Questions such as “Does passing the Turing Test really imply that machines can think?”, is, I hope you will agree, not one that could ever be decided by science. It is a question that might be refined or redefined by scientific discoveries (just as the question “Can machines think?” can be seen as a modern version of the Cartesian question as to whether animals have souls) but it is, I submit, an essentially philosophical question. Just because philosophers will never provide a definitive answer to this question (in the way that scientists have – pace the views of sundry mouth breathers - provided a definitive answer to the question of how humans appeared on our planet) does not mean that the question is not worthy of attention.

There is, I submit, a whole realm of perfectly rational intellectual activity that does not necessarily lead to the formulation of empirical tests.

Of course, one reason that philosophy is a worthwhile exercise is that philosophical speculation may help to clarify the thoughts of scientists as they try to compose testable theories about the world. In fact, all scientists must and do wax philosophical from time to time (see Prof Butterworth @jonmbutterworth for a recent example: How did I get here? ) though philosophical speculation is only a part of their day jobs.

But this is a bit like our disingenuous claims (especially in funding submissions) that the true value of scientific research lies in bagless vacuum cleaners, Teflon saucepans and the full body umbrella .

We all know that the real reason that we (those of us who do) love and pursue science is that we love the intellectual challenge of thinking about bigger questions about the world.

Similarly, philosophers love the intellectual challenge of thinking about the even bigger questions about the bigger questions about the world and it would be really mean and would diminish us all to prevent them from doing this!

2014-01-30

Causing Offence: Why the BBC's response to religious extremism is indefensible










From the splendid and entirely unoffensive Jesus and Mo online cartoon site.


Background

Here's Nick Cohen's excellent report of the issue for those unfamiliar with the BBC's recent behaviour. Nick summarizes the key facts thus:

The BBC asked the executive director of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremist thinktank, on to a discussion show. Two atheist members of the audience wore T-shirts showing Jesus saying: "Hey" and Muhammad saying: "How ya doing?" I beg you to keep the innocuous nature of the cartoon at the front of your mind as we descend into a modern Bedlam.

The BBC decided that extreme Wahhabi and Salafi Muslims, who would ban all images of Muhammad, represented all Muslims. It ordered its producers not to show the offending T-shirts. [Liberal Democrat candidate Maajid] Nawaz left the studio in some disgust. He tweeted the cartoon of Jesus saying: "Hey" and Muhammad saying: "How ya doing?" and added: "This is not offensive & I'm sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it."

What Happened Next?

Not only is the BBC is standing by its decision, but it is continuing to censor the relevant image in its reporting on the current furore surrounding the image.

As Ian Katz (@iankatz1000) Editor for BBC Newsnight put it in a recent tweet:

I'm sorry, but the BBC's position here is indefensible.

If I wrote to the BBC to complain that I had been deeply offended by (say) an item on breast feeding, the BBC would (I sincerely hope) write back (albeit using polite language) referring me to the reply given in the case of Arkell v. Pressdram.

If, on the other hand, I wrote to the BBC to complain that I had been deeply offended by (say) an item in which a rabid racist had been given a platform to rant on - unchallenged - about the UK becoming overrun by "niggers, pakis, and yids" , the BBC would (I sincerely hope) write back conceding I might have a point.

In between these two extremes there are huge grey areas and the BBC, quite rightly, pre-emptively exercises its judgement as to what is appropriate to broadcast and what is not appropriate to broadcast.

In exercising such judgement, however, the BBC is also judging not just how likely it is that some people might be offended by whatever the item in question might be but also how reasonable it is for anyone to take offence at that item. (After all, there are many people who are deeply offended by breastfeeding and all manner of other perfectly innocuous topics.)

The cartoon in this case was utterly innocuous and could not give offence to anyone other than a totally unreasonable fanatic. By pussyfooting around such fanatics, the BBC is - in effect - suggesting that their concerns are somehow reasonable. They are not.

I, like Maajid Nawaz, am greatly offended by the BBC's behaviour in this matter. I wonder whether Mr Katz and his colleagues will ever start taking the feelings of those of us with deeply held liberal and rational values into account.

2013-11-14

The Extremes of Creation or the Creation of Extremes (Christmas is coming & there are excellent books to be had)



The Ramble

I had planned to write two separate posts (I’m not sure my ramblings below quite merit the description of “reviews”) on these two books but they both arrived on my door mat around the same time, I have some similar things to say about both books (and their authors), and, if you select one on Amazon, the other pops up as a recommendation and you can buy the pair for a reduced price. Here, then, is my two for the price of one offer.

My first, and only (until now), attempt at posting my thoughts on a book I had read was not, I fear, an unbridled source of joy for the author. He obviously skim-read my post and decided it was a hagiography and tweeted lots of nice things back. He then, apparently, re-read my post (just as hurriedly) and decided it was a hatchet-job and promptly deleted all his nice tweets. In fact my post was a well-balanced mixture of high praise and trenchant criticism.

Spoiler alert:

This time round I have only nice things to say about my target books and their authors.

But first some personal history:

A long long time ago in this very universe, I went to university and studied biochemistry and genetics. After a year’s research work at Newcastle University I got my first permanent job at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow. For various reasons, I hated it. The final straw came when one day, during the coffee break, my boss picked up the Daily Mail (they were all graduates, PhDs, clinicians, professors even; but they all seemed to read the Daily Mail) and read out one of their ghastly headlines to the assembled company of coffee drinkers – something about brown people coming in droves to “our” country to sponge off “our” benefits while taking all “our” jobs and giving us all cancer. Everyone in the room (bar me) tutted and shook their heads in disapproval. I regret to this day not having had the courage to stand up and shout “for fuck’s sake you don’t actually believe this shite do you?”, but I just slunk quietly out of the room.

I quit my science job, studied philosophy, and then philosophy of science and somehow ended up in an obscure field of IT. I’ve certainly had an interesting career. But I’ve always missed science and always tried to keep up with what was going on – mainly by reading popular science literature (a couple of examples of which I am, don’t worry, eventually going to get round to discussing).

To come finally to the point, in my day, all the cool people (or so it seemed at the time) were doing philosophy and social science and politics; and all the people doing science were irredeemably uncool.

Now, quite suddenly there seems to be a whole new generation of astonishingly cool, media savvy, young science communicators out there who don’t seem to read the Daily Mail. I consider myself privileged to have lived long enough to witness such a thing. It has made the job of passing on a love of (or at least respect for) science to my two kids so much easier and has enriched my own life to an (to me) unexpected extent.

So today I wish to pay my respects to the writing efforts of two members of this new generation: Adam Rutherford (geneticist) and Kevin Fong (space doctor). Both have combined successful endeavours in their chosen disciplines with successful careers as science presenters – being good at doing science is (I have often had cause to reflect) no guarantee whatsoever of being good at communicating the subject.

Actually (sorry Adam and Kevin) I think my favourite TV science presenter and science writer of all is (Adam Rutherford’s mentor) Steve Jones, but even he wasn’t on TV in my day and (sorry Steve) isn’t anything like as photogenic as Adam and Kevin. Steve J may appeal to old gits like me but is, I suspect, somewhat less likely to appeal to a younger generation.

The Books

Both Kevin and Adam have recycled some of the material they presented in their excellent TV programmes in their books. Though I watched both these series, as someone who almost always gets disturbed during TV programmes by cats and/or kids and/or spousal demands for cups of tea, and as someone who tends to forget most of what I do see on TV, I did not find this any kind of impediment to my enjoyment of the books.

While there are – as I’ve repeatedly noted – various parallels that can be drawn here, the two books could hardly be less similar. Kevin Fong’s book Extremes is, I suppose you could say, a slightly odd collage of autobiography, physiology, and medical anecdote; but this description utterly fails to do it justice. After the first few paragraphs you are completely hooked. Extremes grips you like a thriller. Actually I’ve never read a thriller. I once read a “whodunit” and was little wiser even after I’d got to the dénouement. But my point is that the book is amazingly readable and exciting and (unlike my whodunit – at least when it was uploaded into my cerebellum) knits (what might seem at first blush, to be) a disparate set of themes into a fully coherent piece of writing.

The writing has a beautiful economy of style. There is no redundancy or unnecessary verbiage in Kevin Fong’s prose and he discusses some astonishingly heart-rending and moving events while steering well clear of any sentimentality or sensationalism or ghoulishness.

There is nothing in the book to scare even the most hard-core science-phobe and even the most hard-core science-phile will still learn a thing or two and enjoy it immensely. Both groups will be moved to tears on several occasions.

Adam Rutherford’s book will, I suppose, scare some people[1]; but, if you are one of those people, it is worth your while to overcome your fears.

The book addresses probably the two most fascinating questions concerning life: where did it come from and where is it going? It addresses these questions from the point of view of the science of Genetics.

The answer to first question is, in a sense, of limited scientific value. We shall almost certainly never know for certain how life got going on our planet and (spoiler alert) we know that it did. But figuring out how nature could have got round the Catch 22 of abiogenesis (a code of life – qua life – requires a system that can read and replicate that code; a system that can read and replicate a code must itself be the result of reading and acting upon a code) is one of those questions that seems (to me at least) entirely worth pursuing for its own sake. And, in the second part of Adam’s book, we begin to see how attempts to answer such fundamental questions may have all kinds of practical implications in the longer term. Again (yet another spoiler alert) Adam Rutherford explains how the pieces of the puzzle have begun to fall into place and relates experiments that have provided an wonderful solution to the central Catch 22 described above.

The answers provided to the second question in Adam Rutherford’s book (Where is life going?) involve not dire speculation about a Frankensteinian (is there such a word?) future but a detailed examination of some quite incredible developments in our understanding of how genetic mechanisms work and how we can use our new understanding to manipulate and modify those mechanism – and even come up with our own novel variations.

While Adam Rutherford’s book is extremely well written, his prose is (it has to be admitted) much denser than the prose in Extremes – “dense” in the sense that there is often a lot of information packed into short runs of text. (Again, I’m not criticising here, merely suggesting that you should save your glass of wine for after reading each chapter rather than drinking it at the same time. Such self-denial will pay dividends if you wish to get the most out of this book. Please note, I’m not hereby suggesting that it is okay to read Kevin Fong’s while completely trolleyed. And, out of deference to Kevin’s genetics – which make it a bad idea for him to get completely trolleyed – I read Kevin’s book while never fortifying myself with anything stronger than a cup of tea. But I digress once again.)

But there are some quite astonishingly fun aspects of Adam Rutherford’s book too:

  1. The outermost blank pages (there’s probably a technical term for these [2]) of the hardback edition (I’ve not seen the softback yet) come in colours that make Las Vegas on acid seem subdued. Just opening the book without sunglasses on made my retinas bleed. If Adam Rutherford thinks these colours anything other than highly alarming, he needs to get his OPN1LW and OPN1MW genes checked out.
  2. The two halves of the book are opposite ways up – you read about the origin of life from one end and then have to turn it the other way up to read about the future of life from the other end. Whichever way you put it on your bookshelf, it looks the wrong way up when viewed from the wrong side.
  3. It contains hidden references to cinema films – another of Adam Rutherford’s passions.
So if forced to choose one of these two books, Extremes or Creation, for Christmas this year, which should you go for?

My unequivocal answer:

Fuck it, they’re both out in paperback [3]. Get them both!




[1] The cover even scared me.

[2] It seems they are called "end papers" - thanks to @Suw (on Twitter) for that information.

[3] It also seems that Creation doesn't come out in softback until February 6th - thanks to @AdamRutherford (on Twitter) for that information.

2013-10-13

Why Michael Gove's special adviser is wrong about genes and education; and why you probably are too.



The Guardian this week reported that Michael Gove's special adviser Dominic Cummings had "provoked outrage" by claiming that "up to 70% of a child's performance is related to his or her genes".

Now I don't know whether Dominic Cummings has been quoted correctly here [1], but - assuming he has - I should like to make four rather bold statements (and then try and justify them):
  1. Dominic Cummings is talking complete nonsense.
  2. What Dominic Cummings intended to say is probably true.
  3. Even if what Dominic Cummings intended to say is true, this has the opposite implication to the implication he thinks it has.
  4. Whether your politics are, right or left, your views on genetics and education are almost certainly back-to-front too.
Let us take the second point first:

I suspect what Dominic Cummings intended to say is that "up to 70% of the variation in children's performances is related to their genes".

To see why this statement (rather than the one he apparently made) is probably true, we need only consider the following simple thought experiment:

Imagine you adopted two randomly chosen children born one the same day (Mary and Jane) and gave them exactly the same upbringing, environment, life experiences, and education. (Of course that would be impossible in practice, but this is only a thought experiment.) Now imagine that we tested them both (several times perhaps to make sure one of them was not having an off day) at eighteen years old and Mary got straight Bs and Jane got straight Cs.

The variation in the results of the two individuals must, I hope you see, be entirely due to their respective genetic makeups.

Now let's repeat the thought experiment but provide much better education. This time (we could imagine) Mary gets straight As and Jane gets straight Bs. The variation in the results of the two individuals must still be 100% due to their respective genetic makeups. The improvement in results is, however, entirely due to the change in environment - specifically the improvement in education.

This observation illustrates why, as given, Dominic Cummings's statement (as I claim above in "1") is drivel. The 70% figure relates to the explanation for the variation in a population not to the performance of an individual.

Of course, as I expect almost everyone agrees, the variation in academic achievement (and many other attributes) of the population depends on a complex mixture of factors. Teasing out the relative contributions of the various factors is far more tricky than you might think. Even if we take something like height - which is far easier to measure objectively than academic ability and is undisputedly highly heritable (tall parents tend to have tall kids and vice versa) - it is still far from clear to what extent the variation in human height around the world is down to genes or environment.

I have no idea what the correct figure is for the genetic contribution to the variation in academic achievement in the population at large, but (though I am very much on the political left) it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that the true figure is even higher than 70%.

But, given the fact that nobody know the facts for sure, people at either end of the political spectrum are wont to provide ideologically-driven rather than data-driven answers to the empirical question: How much is nature and how much is nurture?

The left's commitment to egalitarian principles lead them to conclude that it must be mostly due to nurture. Only if we believe that, they suppose, can we imagine a future where social inequities are put right through progressive social intervention.

The right's commitment to in-egalitarian principles lead them to conclude that it must be mostly due to nature. Only if we believe that, they suppose, can we justify the claim that doing anything to improve the lot of the hoi polloi is a waste of time.

So why do I claim that both sides have got the whole thing rather arse-about-face?

Let us conduct another couple of thought experiments:

First let us first suppose that we have the most extreme case possible of the left-wing belief about the way the world is. Everyone in our imaginary society is a genetic clone with an exactly equal genetic endowment of academic potential and any differences in ultimate achievement will be entirely due to how we nurture the individuals concerned. How would we then structure our education system? We'd have to choose individuals completely arbitrarily from the pool and train some of them up to be clever enough to be surgeons or rocket scientists or whatever; and - at the other end - some of them to be just clever enough to tie their own shoe-laces etc so that they could perform jobs requiring very little intelligence - like the job of Education Secretary I suppose.

But isn't this more or less what right-wing education policy has always been (and what the likes of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings seem to want to go fully back to): a system where people are picked arbitrarily from the pool on the basis of social class [2] (rather than innate ability) and given the training they require to fulfill their allotted station in life?

Now, instead of s society of genetic clones, let us imagine a society where everyone is born with different potentials. No matter how well I had been nurtured, I could never have become a Premiere League cricket player or someone who can cope with dates and times or remembering where I put my car keys; and the likes of Michael Gove could, no matter how well he had been nurtured, never have understood averages or become a professor of thermodynamics.

...a bit like the world Dominic Cummings and other right-wingers (probably largely correctly) believe we do inhabit.

In this world, it no longer makes sense to choose people arbitrarily from the pool and nurture (only) them. The only policy that makes sense is to nurture everybody so that each person achieves the best he or she is capable of and those who come out on top represent those who started out with the best genes rather than those who were fortunate enough to be given an education.

...rather like the sort of education system left-wingers tend to argue for in fact.

Okay, I've over-simplified here and rather caricatured the various political positions, but I hope I have also successfully made a serious point: the thinking about nature and nurture, on both left and right, is terribly confused.





[1] It seems he was not (ref) - thanks @OdysseanProject for the link. Whether or not Dominic Cummings share's this confusion, however, it is a form of confusion which is widespread (on both sides) and that, rather than criticizing Cummings, was the main thrust of this post.

[2] Of course they have, from time to time, also helped a few lucky less-well-off individuals over the years who were selected on the basis of ability rather than "breeding" (not least the British Humanist Association's splendid Chief Executive, Andrew Copson @andrewcopson, who wrote recently about his assisted place at an independent school and thereby set off a train of thought in my head which - after reading the Cummings story - turned into this blog post). Such considerations do not detract from my main point however - not least because the selection of such talented individuals is also arbitrary (many perfectly worthy poor kids don't get picked).

2013-10-08

The Al-Madinah Free School in Derby

Before we start, here's a picture of Jessica Ennis (from Yorkshire) winning the Olympics in "tight-fitted indecent" clothing - did I mention she's from Yorkshire?





The Al-Madinah Free School in Derby has just reopened almost a week after it was closed during an Ofsted inspection.

In its own words:

(from the school prospectus on the reopened school website today pp13-14)

Introduction

Al-Madinah School is a Muslim faith school serving Derby and the surrounding areas. Through a team of dedicated and skilled staff, the school endeavours to provide excellent education in a surrounding shaped by the teachings of Allah Almighty and His Final Messenger, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him.
At the heart of Al-Madinah School is the Quranic and Islamic Studies department, supported by a team of experienced and dedicated servants of Islam. This team is not only responsible for teaching Islam, but to ensure the values, morals and philosophy of Islam is reflected in each and every aspect of the school. The following sections aim to indicate in detail how this has been achieved.
Your input, questions and queries are welcome; please direct them to the Director of Islamic Studies at Al-Madinah School. Thank you.

1.0 Books and Teaching Resources.

In each and every department, all efforts will be geared towards ensuring the books and resources conform to the teachings of Islam.
Sensitive, inaccurate and potentially blasphemous material will be censored or removed completely. If and when teachers are required by the curriculum to convey teachings that are totally against Islam [1], the Director of Islamic Studies will brief the relevant teachers and advise accordingly.

With regards to songs and music, we acknowledge that it can be an aid for learning, in particular in primary school. Under the guidance of the Director, it shall only be used as a learning aid, not for entertainment and amusement purposes.
Muslims are encouraged to reflect on Allah’s beauty in his creations. The art lessons will be used as a platform to fulfill this religious duty. At the same time however, great care will be taken to ensure artwork produced or shown in lessons conform with the specific teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
[1] Darwinism, for example

2.0 School Uniform.

Al-Madinah School is committed to the principle of a school uniform for both male and female pupils. This smart and affordable uniform will instill a sense of pride and identity in the students, as well as implicitly teach the values of equality and brotherhood in the school. The school uniform is:
Key Stage 1: Children of age 4-7.
• Black trousers.
• White polo shirt.
• Al-Madinah school jumper.
• Black shoes (not trainers).
Key Stage 2, 3 and 4: Children of 8-16.
• Black trousers.
• White shirt/blouse.
• School tie.
• Al-Madinah jumper with logo.
• Charcoal & blue blazer.
• Black shoes (not trainers).
PE Kit.
• White tops (long sleeve only).
• Long black bottoms (loose).
• The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) instructed Muslims to display modesty and decency in clothing. In light of these teachings, pupils will not be permitted to wear clothing that is transparent, tight-fitted or indecent.

2.1 The Attire of Teachers and Staff Members.

All staff members will also express decency and modesty in their clothing and appearance. Female members of staff – irrespective of their religious beliefs – will cover their heads and bodies appropriately in light of the teachings of Islam. Provocative and revealing clothing will not be permitted. Male members of staff are expected to dress so they create an example for their pupils. In short, the school will adhere to Qur’anic teachings when it comes to clothing. ‘And clothes of piety, that is better’, Allah Almighty states (7: 26).

3.0 Employment of Staff and Teachers.

The employment of staff and teachers will be strictly governed to ensure the most dedicated, competent and skilled individuals are selected to work at the school.
Additionally, the vigorous process will ensure that the Muslim staff that are recruited are suitable to teach the faith elements of the School to the highest standards. The Director of Islamic Studies will be directly involved in the recruitment process to ensure this is the case.

4.0 The School Building.

Our aim is to ensure the school premises are kept clean, not least because ‘Allah loves the ones who repent often and the ones who keep clean’ (2:222). The displays, settings and posters in and around the school will be ascetically-pleasing as well as informative and educational. Utmost care will be taken to ensure all displays conform to Islamic teachings and in fact, encourage adopting the ideals of the Final Messenger (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).

5.0 Physical Education.

A strong moral and spiritual character requires a strong physical body. The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) taught us to care for our bodies through good, physical exercise.
Al-Madinah School is wholly committed to ensuring both male and females get opportunities to pursue sports and games at the local sports facilities.
Male staff members will not actively teach female students, but will merely co-ordinate them, through communicating with female members of staff. During the actual lesson, no male member of Al-Madinah School staff will be present.
All topped off with a supporting quotation from a Mr Abdurrahman:
I love the family atmosphere
So there you have it. In the UK in the 21st century our government is funding a children's school which:
  • Censors books and resources which do not conform to the teachings of Islam
  • Does not allow songs and music for entertainment and amusement
  • Forces female staff-members (but not male staff-members) to cover their heads and bodies
  • Discriminates on religious grounds when recruiting staff
  • Prevents children from drawing pictures that do not meet the specific teachings of Prophet Muhammad
  • Segregates staff and pupils on the basis of gender
  • Forces children to wear long baggy clothing for games
and last but not least
  • Teaches children that Darwin's theory of evolution is totally against Islam.
All this may well please Allah Almighty, His Final Messenger, Mr Abdurrahman, and Michael Gove, but I find it all extremely disturbing.

Addendum:
Lord Nash Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools has written to the school and raised some of the above issues. There is, however, no specific mention of the teaching of evolutionary theory - something which is mandated by Lord Nash's department here.

2013-09-13

Do we see the same thing?



Jenny Winder's




excellent piece in the Washington Times (which I urge you to read) Sound and vision: Exploring the world of sight and hearing contains many fascinating, surprising, and intriguing examples of the peculiarities of human perception.

Jenny Winder's son, like my own, is colour blind and, using or knowledge of light and retinal biology, we can infer what our sons and people with different types of colour blindness see:



Now it is easy, when thinking about perception, to be led astray by a kind of "Numskulls" (from "The Beano") notion of psychology (I point to which I shall return)



where (in the case of vision) "I" is the little man top right with specs, and my sensory apparatus is the telescope, and "I" look at what appears in the eyepiece of the telescope. Such a notion of perception is clearly philosophically problematic (not least because it would lead to an infinite regress of little men with telescopes) and biologically incorrect. As Jenny Winder notes, colour perception is ultimately located in the activities of our brain cells - activities that take place in response to signals transmitted from the retina by the optic nerve.

It is, I suppose, possible that, just as various types of colour blindness affect the functioning of the retina, there could be biological conditions that affected the functioning of the optic nerve. Such conditions might, in turn, lead to new insights into what different people see when presented with different colours and these scientific insights could be added to what we understand about colour blindness; but I know of no such conditions.

When we get into the brain itself, however, there are further complications - which Jenny Winder alludes to. The science of observing and teasing apart neuronal activity in different people presented with different visual stimuli still has a lot of work to do. Perhaps one day (by analogy with the theoretical example of optic nerve function and the well understood example of retinal biology) we might be able to infer - from neuronal activity - what different people experience when presented with the same visual stimulus. Perhaps we never shall. But, given what Michael Stevens calls (in the video Jenny Winder links to) the "ineffably private" nature of colour vision, things get a bit murky at this point.

In his video (which is certainly worth a watch) Michael Stevens departs somewhat from a purely scientific analysis of this topic and ventures off into the realms of philosophy. One of my problems, with Michael Stevens is he makes no attempt to distinguish clearly between the two realms.

The Philosopher whose name most often crops up in this context and whose ideas would seem to inform Michael Stevens, is John Locke:

15. Though one man’s idea of blue should be different from another’s.

Neither would it carry any imputation of falsehood to our simple ideas, if by the different structure of our organs it were so ordered, that the same object should produce in several men’s minds different ideas at the same time; v.g. if the idea that a violet produced in one man’s mind by his eyes were the same that a marigold produced in another man’s, and vice versa. For, since this could never be known, because one man’s mind could not pass into another man’s body, to perceive what appearances were produced by those organs; neither the ideas hereby, nor the names, would be at all confounded, or any falsehood be in either. For all things that had the texture of a violet, producing constantly the idea that he called blue, and those which had the texture of a marigold, producing constantly the idea which he as constantly called yellow, whatever those appearances were in his mind; he would be able as regularly to distinguish things for his use by those appearances, and understand and signify those distinctions marked by the name blue and yellow, as if the appearances or ideas in his mind received from those two flowers were exactly the same with the ideas in other men’s minds.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke


We can forgive Locke for the fact that the science of perception was virtually non-existent in his day. This fact does not detract from the essence of the points he makes. But, like Michael Stevens, John Locke, I would argue, is in danger of conflating science and philosophy here.

If Locke is putting forward a scientific theory that the "different structure of our organs" might produce marigold in one man's mind and violet in another man's mind and that this "could never be known", he is simply wrong. Science has already provided a great deal of knowledge in this area and future science, I think we can assume, will provide a great deal more.

If, on the other hand, Locke is putting forward a philosophical theory, there is more to say.

I suppose the best way to illustrate the purely philosophical point would be to consider a situation where we have two people with identical sensory apparatus and identical brain activity when presented with certain colours (perhaps two identical twins). Here, though the scientist declares them to be the same, the philosopher can argue that, because perception is ineffably private, we still have no way of knowing whether these two individuals are having the same sensation when they look at (say) a strawberry.

Now, in this humble blog post, I cannot possibly do justice to the philosophical literature devoted to this kind of claim, but it's the kind of philosophical claim that clearly strikes a chord with many people and I think it is worth further examination:

First of all we have to be clear about what we mean by the word "same" here. Two twitchers who claim to have seen the "same bird" on a particular day may both have being sharing a hide and observing a single lesser-spotted grebe in the field in front of them, or may have been far apart and observing two different individual lesser-spotted grebes in different places. In the first case they observed the same token. In the second case the same type.

It is trivially true that two individuals looking at the same strawberry don't have the same (token) perception. They have different heads.

But do they have the same (type) perception? Does this question make sense?

The notion here seems to be that if the little Numskull in my skull could climb into your skull and look down your telescope he would say "ah yes, that's just what I see in my telescope" or, alternatively, "hmmm, that's not what I see in my telescope". But, as has been argued, the Numskulls do not lend themselves well to coherent thought experiments.

If we tease out the purely philosophical claims implicit in John Locke's or Michael Stevens's accounts, we are being asked to assign meaning to contentions that two people might perceive different or the same (type) things in the absence of any criteria that could ever decide the matter. No conversations between the individuals will ever shed light on this question. No tests or scientific findings could ever shed light on the matter. We can't even think of a coherent thought experiment that could shed light on the matter - even extra sensory perception - were it to exist - would presumably involve the transmission of data from one brain to another which might then be interpreted differently.

I conclude that the essentially solipsistic position implied here - the only thing I can really be sure about is what's going on inside my head - is incoherent. I really can know (in the only senses of "know" that make any sense) - through science and through engaging with you - what is going on inside your head and when it is the same or different from what is going on inside my head.

This is a rather important conclusion. It means that none of us are truly alone.