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


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.


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!


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!


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

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


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.


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.


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).


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)


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.

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.


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) - though 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.


Gove, Grammar, and Gnomes (and Michael Rosen)

Having read a piece by Toby Young in which he castigates the author Michael Rosen for a couple of proof-reading mistakes and uses this as a vehicle (a JCB perhaps?) for heaping praise on Michael Gove, I decided to apply some of the rules I had drummed into me at my traditional 1960s primary school (very much the style of schooling Michael Gove seems to approve of) to Michael Gove's What does it mean to be an educated person?:
And that is why, under this government, the Department for Education is setting higher expectations for every child.
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that you should not begin a sentence, still less a paragraph, with a conjunction.
Fans from abroad, she said, would apologise for their poor English.
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that words with Greek roots (apologizesthai) should take "ize" endings. (If you are under the misapprehension that "ize" endings are "American", please see the Oxford English Dictionary.)
We are introducing a basic test of competence in spelling, punctuation and grammar at the end of primary school.
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that lists should include the "Oxford comma", thus: "spelling, punctuation, and grammar".

This sentence is, in any case, badly phrased as it invites that interpretation that "grammar at the end of primary school" is a single item. It might have been better to write:

For students leaving primary school, we are introducing a basic test of competence in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
Though many other equally good (or better) variations are possible.
But I will abjure such Ciceronian rhetorical tricks.
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that the first person singular and plural take "shall".

He, and many others, are deeply worried about what he calls, ‘the enacted school curriculum: what actually gets taught in classrooms.’
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that it should be possible to delete the text within parenthetical commas leaving a grammatical sentence behind. The commas here are simply incorrect. This sentence should simply begin "He and many others are ..."

But through the development of their natural curiosity, talents and potential.
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that sentences should include a verb.

There are dozens of similar "errors" in Gove's essay.

Of course all the above "rules" (with the possible exception of the final two) are moot, but I wonder how Michael Gove might respond here. Would he admit that these "rules" are correct and he broke them; or would he insist that these "rules" are incorrect and that he has some other rules which are really correct; or would he concede that the "rules" of "correct" English are a matter for debate and of evolution? Any of these three options would seem to undermine his position somewhat.

As long as we are relaxed about the missing Oxford comma, we cannot condemn the following sentence for breaking any rules of grammar:
I suspect those of us who are parents would recognise that there are all too many children and young people only too happy to lose themselves in Stephanie Meyer, while away hours flinging electronic fowl at virtual pigs, hang out rather than shape up and dream of fame finding them rather than them pursuing glory.
This is, nonetheless, an appallingly badly constructed sentence. I had to read it four times (experimenting with different stresses) before I got the sense of it. The final "them" is especially problematic. Does the fame find the pigs or the fowl or the children or the parents? Obviously it is the children but the sentence does its best to mislead the reader.

I suppose Michael Gove might argue that, although my above remarks are rather embarrassing for him, the fact that I am able to embarrass him is testament to the quality of the schooling I received. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although I had all the above "rules", and many others, drummed into me as a child, I was quite incapable of applying them properly at the time. My terrible English and my even worse handwriting ensured that I only just scraped through my English Language O level.

What turned me into the towering king of blogging I have become today (ok, I'm not really the "towering king of blogging", but my posts are better than anything Michael Gove has ever written) was the fact that I devoured books from an early age. My love of books was bequeathed not by my "reading is a chore but you've got to do it or we'll hit you" school but by my parents. My father left an even more "traditional" school with no qualifications, but the Marxist (in those days) Workers' Education Association and later the Labour-created Open University saw to it that he died with an honours degree - leaving a house full of books that I am still trying to find room for in my own house. Next weekend an old friend of his is visiting. He graduated from Trinity College Oxford and arrived at this destination via the aforementioned WEA and the Trades Union Movement's Ruskin College.

I suppose my favourite passage in Gove's diatribe is the following:
Jacqueline Wilson is not - by any measure - a reactionary nostalgist in the republic of letters. Her work deals - unsparingly and in detail - with divorce, mental illness, life in the care system and growing up poor. We’re not talking pixies dancing under the Faraway Tree, here.
Jacqueline Wilson is, like Michael Rosen, an inspiring children's author and Gove is right to praise her. Gove, however, is a man who has taken countless schools out of the control of elected bodies and handed them over to groups of fruit-loops who believe in everything from creationism, transubstantiation, reincarnation, winged-horses, and yogic-flying to (yes) gnomes. He will, thereby, leave a legacy of segregated schooling which I'm sure will be the same success as it has been in South Africa and Northern Ireland. Quite how Michael Gove can mention "pixies" with a straight face rather puzzles me. Moreover, the problem posed by a history teacher who does not know the date for (say) the Norman Invasion would seem to pale into insignificance alongside the problem posed by a science teacher who believes that the earth was created six thousand years ago.

Gove also includes some grossly disingenuous misrepresentations of Michael Rosen's views and a thoroughly dishonest account of the use of "Mr Men" in an exercise by the Active History web-site.

It should, perhaps, be conceded that not everything Gove has to say is complete and utter tosh. Gove is right to criticize the lamentable IT syllabus and right to say that children should be encouraged to write well and right to say the children should be encouraged to read good books. How children are best encouraged to write well and read good books is, however, not a matter best decided by Michael Rosen (infinitely better qualified though he is than Michael Gove to comment on such matters), or by Marxist theory, or by my anecdotal remarks, or (especially) by whatever popped into Gove's head last Tuesday. How children are best encouraged to write well and read good books could, and would, best be decided by subjecting the matter to empirical examination - you know, controlled trials, evidence, statistical analysis, all that sort of thing. A science teacher (though preferably not one from a creationst school) could explain it all to Gove, if Gove were remotely interested in such things.[1]

I hope that, while I make no attempt to pontificate on the best way to educate our children, my above remarks do establish that this is a complex subject that defies simplistic analyses and that, when Gove talks about "correct English" and suggests that the only things holding kids back from higher achievement are the unions and left-wing teachers, he is (to use the plainest English possible) talking out of his arse.

............. oh, and I expect that Michael Rosen's books will still be inspiring children to read when Michael Gove is a minor footnote in even the most right-wing history books.

PS Muphry's Law - postulated by the splendid writer and Telegraph fifth columnist Tom Chivers (@TomChivers) - suggests that "Any work criticizing the spelling/grammar of another piece will itself contain an error". On that basis, this post will probably contain about two dozen mistakes. Any corrections gratefully received, admitted, and acted upon - I'm a scientist not a pompous demagogue!
[1] It has been brought to my attention (by Anthony Cox @drarcox), since I wrote this post, that Michael Gove is actually planning some controlled trials - a move which I can only applaud. I have, therefore been somewhat unfair to him (above) on this specific issue. It remains the case, however, that none of his current pronouncements are based on such research and these would still seem to reflect nothing more than his strongly held prejudices.


Would single vaccines have improved protection in the population?

OK, no jokes or satire this time. Just a cold hard look at this one remaining issue.

From the beginning, my main point was that irresponsible journalism bears a great deal of blame for the current crisis (now threatening to spread to Birmingham). This point has been made again very eloquently (sorry this is behind the Times Paywall) by my comrade in arms (on this topic) journalist David Aaronovitch. He focuses especially on the South Wales measles outbreak, MMR uptake in that area, and misleading coverage provided by the South Wales Evening Post; but he has harsh words for many journalists - including journalists at the BBC (to wit a letter of complaint to them from me and their shameful response).

Many journalists have, meanwhile, offered their mea culpas but (as anyone who has been following my blog will be aware) the journalist Peter Hitchens has argued strongly that fault lies not with journalist like him who ran stories suggesting there might be some substance to fears about MMR (there isn't by the way) but with the NHS which, in spite of those fears, refused to provide courses of six single vaccines as an alternative to the two MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) combined jabs.

In my first post on this topic I set out briefly what the problem was with the NHS offering single vaccines, and Martin Robbins, writing in the Guardian, has gone into a great deal more detail on this topic. Mr Hitchens remains unconvinced:

This graph (from the BBC) shows MMR uptake rates since 1997 (this vaccine was introduced in 1988 and replaced single measles and rubella vaccines - there never was a licensed single mumps vaccine in the UK):

It seems obvious to Mr Hitchens (and his supporters) that, had we offered single vaccine programmes once the unfounded autism scare had taken hold, this would have ensured that the missing yellow in this graph would have been filled in as parents who had eschewed MMR switched to single vaccine programmes instead.

Now, as has been argued, there are all sorts of reasons - logistical, financial, and ethical - why the NHS did not give in to various pressure groups and provide the less well tested single vaccines. And we are not alone. No other country in the world has a national six jab single vaccine programme. Let us, however, suppose that all these objections had been overcome and we had managed to secure huge supplies of single vaccines with a reasonable (though less than fully documented) safety record. Would it have worked?

The graphic below illustrates the MMR only regime and Peter Hitchens's proposal (which was also Andrew Wakefield's proposal) side by side.[1]

Now what Hitchens and like minded people seemingly fail to grasp is that the NHS provision of a single vaccine programme and (especially) the announcement of said in the media would have resulted, not just in the transfer of people from the no vaccine group to the singles group but also a huge transfer of people from the MMR group to the singles group.

If single vaccines were just as good as MMR, this wouldn't matter. But there are three relevant problems with single vaccines (in order of increasing significance):
  1. The immune reaction they produce is not quite as strong. Less than one percent of kids who get both MMR jabs will still lack immunity. With single vaccines the percentage is higher (exactly how much higher is difficult to say with confidence since there are a number of different preparations and far less data on the use of six single vaccines rather than two MMR vaccines)
  2. Andrew Wakefield suggested a one year gap between jabs. If this protocol were followed, kids receiving their first jabs would have to wait two more years before they stood any chance of being fully covered and a further three years to achieve maximum protection.
  3. Compliance with six single vaccines would be much lower than compliance with two MMR jabs. People move house, have fallible memories, decide not to bother, lose paperwork, miss appointments etc. - especially when they are not paying for the vaccines themselves.
(There are also the - admittedly statistically small but still significant if they happen to you - problems of increased dangers of allergic reactions, infection and injury from the injections themselves - if you have six rather than two - but let's just concentrate on the numbers aspect.)

If we assume, for the sake of argument, that the average single vaccines child will be (because of the considerations listed) fifty-percent as well protected as an MMR child, then the benefits of any transfer from the No Vaccines group to the Singles group in the above diagram will be wiped out by the same number of transfers from the MMR group to the Singles group.

If we assume that the average single vaccines child will be thirty-three-percent as well protected as an MMR child, then the benefits of any transfer from the No Vaccines group to the Singles group in the above diagram will be wiped out by the half the number of transfers from the MMR group to the Singles group.

If we assume that the average single vaccines child will be sixty-seven-percent as well protected as an MMR child, then the benefits of any transfer from the No Vaccines group to the Singles group in the above diagram will be wiped out by the double the number of transfers from the MMR group to the Singles group.

There are three variables here: 1) the transfers from the No Vaccines group to the Singles group 2) the transfers from the MMR group to the Singles group; and 3) the percentage cover provided to the typical recipient by a programme of single vaccines.

Nobody, and certainly not Peter Hitchens, knows for certain what these three variables are, but we can make educated estimates. Apart from any other considerations, the fact that the MMR group is very large in relation to the other two groups tells us that even a small percentage of switchers from this group would have resulted in very large absolute numbers of switchers.

But, and here's the clincher, even if you are quite convinced (as I'm sure Mr Hitchens is despite expert opinion) that that the benefits would have outweighed the drawbacks had we introduced single vaccines back in (say) 2004 (or prior to then), just look at what has happened to MMR uptake rates since then!

Had we supplied single vaccines back in the day, this would not just have been for one year. We'd have been stuck with them forever. And every year that has passed since 2004 would have made the statistics (for MMR plus single vaccines provision) worse in comparison to MMR alone. We are now (thank goodness) nearly back up to the levels of MMR uptake we had before the scare. Any transfers to single vaccines beyond this point would reduce immunity in the population - even if single vaccines were ninety-ninety percent as good as MMR (which they certainly are not).

It is highly unlikely that single vaccines would have improved matters, even in 2004. Even if it would have done, It is virtually certain that, over the course of time, the cumulative effect of the option illustrated on the right of my diagram would have been worse overall than sticking with MMR only. The NHS did absolutely the right thing.

Of course the only reason we are having this discussion is because there was a scare. Instead of informing themselves and reporting responsibly, journalists in the print and electronic media blithely spread the scare around. Those journalists, I'm afraid, need to examine their consciences if any death or disablement results from the current outbreak. They did not do the right thing.

[1] I've simplified things by assuming that those using single vaccines privately under the current regime would have continued to do so or would have switched to NHS provided single vaccines under the alternative regime. This would have had no overall effect and can be ignored. I've also simplified things with respect to the fact that some MMR recipients fail to get the second MMR jab. The numbers, in this case, would be slightly different on either side of the equation but, since the numbers getting MMR are high and the numbers on getting the second jab are low, this would make very little difference and this complication can be ignored.

PS It occurs to be that this post may come across as journalist-bashing. I should perhaps emphasize that there are one or two scientists who don't come out of this smelling of roses and that it is only due to the tenacity of a journalist - Brian Deer - that the full story of Andrew Wakefield's actions ever came to light. (Life is complicated and simplistic explanations are usually wrong!)


OK I give in. Peter Hitchens is right. (A UK blogger's reply to just criticism)

I've argued the MMR topic with Peter Hitchens at some length (see here, here [by me], here, here [by me], here, here, and here).

Whatever else you might wish to accuse Peter Hitchens of, you cannot accuse him of laconicism.

Mr Hitchens has requested that I reply again to some of his points.

Sadly, I have little to add on the specific subject of MMR: If you are a parent, the best thing you can do for your kids (unless your GP advises you of any contraindications in your individual child's case) is to get him or her vaccinated on schedule and ignore any contrary suggestions in the tabloid newspapers - these suggestions are irresponsible and wrong. I shall add that, if you want to learn more about real science and real controversies in science and want something accessible, read New Scientist or read Jim Al-Khalili or Jon Butterworth or Tom Chivers or Brian Cox or Edzard Ernst or Kevin Fong or Suzi Gage or Steve Jones or Alok Jha or Alice Roberts or Martin Robbins or Adam Rutherford or Simon Singh or any of the countless scientists and scientifically literate journalists who actually know what they are talking about and write excellent (and accurate) articles in the mainstream press.

Meanwhile I have been ignoring my own advice and reading some of Mr Hitchens's other thoughts - this time on the subject of evolution (here and here and here) and I've come to realize there's a unbridgeable gulf between Mr Hitchens and me.

You see I have always held the opinion that truth is (by and large) arrived at via the methods of logic and mathematics (which can "prove" things) or via the methods of empirical science (which can never prove things but can deliver well tested theories about the world and - crucially - modify those theories in the light of new evidence). Mr Hitchens takes an alternative view: truth is arrived at by whatever pops into his head on a particular day.

Unfortunately, there is no meta-argument that can establish that my opinion here is any better than Mr Hitchens's. (This is essentially the point which the post-modernists - often unfairly maligned by my comrades in skepticism - make.)

You might want to retort that we can establish that (say) medical advice based on mainstream science is better than medical advice based on what Mr Hitchens thinks and we can establish this by pointing to scientific evidence and statistical analyses of that evidence; but you would be missing the point. Mr Hitchens does not accept that empirical evidence or logic are relevant criteria for evaluating empirical claims. His position is unassailable.

I am forced, therefore, to concede that I am in the wrong. I have no knock down arguments against Mr Hitchens. There is no philosophical super-position from which someone can arbitrate between our respective opinions. I can only say, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, that Peter Hitchens and I had parted company before we ever began to speak to one another.


I should stop writing here. You, dear reader, are forgiven if you stop reading here. I promised Martin Robbins that I would stop giving Mr Hitchens any more excuses to propagate his anti-vaccination memes. But I'm afraid I can't help myself. In addition to his arguments relating to MMR, Peter Hitchens made a number of assertions and ad hominem attacks which he obviously thought were relevant to the safety of MMR - though I couldn't quite see the connection - and I feel compelled to address some of them:


Could the choice of a picture of me holding a rifle in a gun shop in Idaho be there to predispose liberal-minded readers against me?

Let me put Mr Hitchens's mind at rest. I tried to use the picture he puts at the top of his blog. It is protected. I hit Google images, typed in "Peter Hitchens" and started to scroll. My eyes alighted on the above picture and various ideas drifted across my synapses: "shots" (gedit?) "loose cannon". None of these quite seemed to work. Then I realized why this picture had caught my eye. Peter Hitchens has exactly the same expression I saw on my cat's face when once (in exasperation) I handed her the tin-opener. It occurred to me that this picture - man holding a dangerous object which he doesn't quite know how to use - was perfect. Okay, the real dangerous object in Peter Hitchens's hands is a computer keyboard rather than a gun but, as the old saying (which I suppose needs updating) goes: the pen is mightier than the sword.

Ten seconds after that picture was taken, the gun went off accidently and the bullet ricochet off the wall bringing down a chandelier on Mr Hitchins's (and the photographer's) heads. Mr Hitchens blamed the photographer for startling him. (Okay I made all that up but I think you'll agree it's hard to imagine any other scenario after seeing that picture.)

Next time I shall try and find a picture of Mr Hitches holding a kitten.

The author, I note, displays a picture of himself looking like a really cool dude, shades and all.

Again, let me set the record straight. This picture is cropped from a holiday snap taken by my wife. It shows me in a pair of prescription sunglasses which I obtained from Spec Savers in Bradford (such is the glamorous life I lead). Since those spectacles are now at the bottom of the Aegean Sea (following an unfortunate encounter with those laws of physics which scientists just make up to upset Peter Hitchens) and since the sun visits Bradford about as often as the light of reason visits Peter Hitchens, I almost never venture out round here in "shades". Using the "really cool dude" picture for my twitter account has the advantage that people don't point at me as I walk down the street and say "look there's that chap who Peter Hitchens is always writing about in the Mail".

Perhaps I should try and find a picture of myself holding a gun.

Mike Ward is a proxy for David Aaronovitch a former enthusiast of the late Communist Party of Great Britain who has not devoted much time to repudiating his past affiliation to the Party of Brezhnev and Andropov.

(I couldn't find a picture of David with a kitten or a gun, but here he is attempting to maintain his composure.)

This is going to get a bit "Life of Brian", but please bear with me.

Both Peter Hitchens and David Aaronovitch were (as they both freely admit) members of left-wing parties in their younger days.

Peter Hitchens was a member of the International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers' Party) which advocated violent revolution and whose members (who were there in force on many CND or anti-fascist demonstrations I attended in my youth) used to chant (using words which seemed to be directed at the likes of David Aaronovitch rather than at the general public) "Parliamentary-roadism out out out". They probably still do.

David Aaronovitch was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain which subscribed to parliamentary democracy and was highly critical of Brezhnev's Soviet Union (I'm not sure what they ever said about Andropov since he dropped dead shortly after taking office and I wasn't really paying attention). David Aaronovitch was very much on the right (anti-Soviet, "Euro-communist") wing of that Party which (unlike the SWP and like Communist parties all over the world) disbanded when it finally hit home that the empirical evidence was not declaring socialism to be a historical success.

Though both have moved on a lot since their days as socialist firebrands, David Aaronovitch has increasingly eschewed wilder ideas about the ways of the world in favour of ideas with a firm evidential basis. Peter Hitchens has simply swapped one species of far-fetched dogmatism for another.

I have never met David Aaronovitch and have never been his "proxy". I do feel a certain kinship with David, I have a similar age and BMI, have kids of a similar age, have travelled a similar intellectual road (though he's gone down that road further than I have) and I rather enjoy reading or hearing what he has to say. All that being said, I often disagree with him. Fortunately we don't disagree about how knowledge is arrived at so twitter dialogues between us have a point. He has certainly often influenced me.

But to finally come to the point of this rather rambling section: One issue on which I part company with David is on what Hitchens (rightly - IMHO) calls "Mr Blair’s idiotic and disastrous war on Iraq". But this very topic fatally exposes the flawed nature of Peter Hitchens's style of reasoning:
i) Hitchens is incapable of distinguishing between claims based on value judgments (like whether the Iraq war was justified or not) and claims about what is the case - which actually have a right answer (whether we currently know the answer or not)
ii) There is no simple relationship between someone's political opinions and their views about science and one can't just dismiss what David Aaronovitch and I have to say about MMR with "well that's just what you'd expect someone who supported the Iraq war to say."

Michael Ward seems to dislike my views on illegal drugs

I do!

We've been astonishingly successful at reducing the consumption and social acceptability and availability to minors of an addictive drug called "nicotine" and we have achieved this without imprisoning a single tobacconist or smoker (while regulating the product to ensure it contains nothing worse than dried tobacco leaves). Meanwhile, we've been astonishingly unsuccessful at reducing the consumption and social acceptability and availability to minors of an addictive drug called "heroin" despite imprisoning lots of people for increasingly long periods and, in some parts of the world, executing them (while striving to ensure that the product contains every dangerous impurity and virus known to humankind).

Perhaps there is a moral in this experience somewhere.

But I didn't try to pick a fight over drugs with Mr Hitchens. I merely tried to use drugs as an analogy to illustrate the difference (alluded to above) between value judgments and factual claims. Needless to say, Mr Hitchens failed to grasp my point.

Ironically, David Aaronovitch's views on drugs are closer to Peter Hitchens's than to mine[1]. A mirror image of our Iraq dispute. Again we have to conclude that
There is no simple relationship between someone's political opinions and their views about science and one can't just dismiss what David Aaronovitch and I have to say about MMR with "well that's just what you'd expect someone who supported the decriminalization of drugs to say."

Is there any coherent thread here?

Not really, but let me try and spin one.

Let's see: cats, communism, David Aaronovitch, drugs, and Peter Hitchens .... hmmm.

Okay got it!

Many moons ago, I announced on Twitter that my cat had correctly answered the question "who led The Long March".

Someone out there will recognize where I pinched this from. Drugs are closely involved. [2]

David Aaronovitch expressed some scepticism that my cat had correctly identified Zhou Enlai. My son Max and I set about trying to teach our cat to say "Zhou Enlai" instead of "Mao", but it quickly became apparent that A) we were never going to succeed, and B) even if we did succeed, we would fool nobody and it was always going to be a waste of time discussing Chinese history with our cat.......

... rather like discussing MMR or evolution or drug policy or .. well, almost anything, with Peter Hitchens.

{1] David Aaronovitch has informed me that his views on drugs policy are far more equivocal than I suggest above, but I'm not trying to pick any fights on that score at the moment. My main point still stands: PH can't just lump people together in a kind of seamless conspiratorial group on the basis that their shared views in one area differ from his own.

[2] Ha I've found it.