2014-10-14

Talking More Bollocks about Cox

If you read my original Talking Bollocks About Cox and you go on to read what I have to say below, you may begin to suspect that I am just some kind of sycophantic fan-boy for the "ever-lovely Professor Brian Cox" (see below). Nothing could be further from the truth. As a Yorkshireman, my toes curl just as much as yours when he uses the Lancastrian word "sing-ging" in place of "singing" and I've even had cause to disagree with some things he has said (see eg The Science Delusion (in defence of philosophy) para 5). But when people write complete bollocks about a comrade-geek's splendid TV programmes, I simply can't restrain myself any longer.

So here's my "fisk" of an article that appeared today in the Grauniad (my bits all in blue):

Brian Cox's Human Universe presents a fatally flawed view of evolution

Humans do not stand at the top of a ladder of creation, above the apes and below the angels, superior to all other species
True(ish). It's not a ladder, it's a bush and there are no such things as angels or creation. As for "superior", that's a value judgement. Depends on your values. We are "on top" and "superior" and "above the apes" (most of us) if you measure cleverness. But have we said anything Brian would disagree with, or has misled us over, here?

In The Human Universe, Brian Cox speaks with awe and reverence of our uniqueness as a species. Photograph: BBC When I watched the first episode of Human Universe, a televisual emission on the BBC presented by the ever-lovely Professor Brian Cox, [there it is] I held my breath. I am usually allergic to tales of The Ascent of Man, but I thought – and hoped – that we’d outgrown the idea of evolution as a linear narrative leading from archaea to astronauts.

Yep. It's not "linear", it's more like a bush. But you can trace a line back from astronauts to archaea. Did he say "linear"?

So I exhaled markedly about halfway through when he lined up several skulls of antique varieties of human in order of increasing brain size, and then posited climate change as the driver for each observed increase in size. To be sure, Cox didn’t actually say that one skull was definitively ancestral to the next, but there was a definite sense of post-hoc-ery going on, as human beings adapted to each new environment by expanding their brains, rather than (say) expanding their livers, or going somewhere else, or becoming extinct.

Yep. "He didn’t actually say that one skull was definitively ancestral to the next". Yes, lots of alternative things could have happened. Yes, we didn't go extinct. We know that because we're here. What's your point?

As a child I watched the late Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man with appropriately reverential awe, and it’s clear that Cox is ploughing the same furrow. He can go further than Bronowski, though, by interposing scenic shots from the International Space Station and getting into the lives of astronauts. Fair dues, but here is the first of several too many eggs in the pudding.

He's "ploughing" a "furrow" and ending up with "too many eggs"? Yes but once he reached the top of the trees it was plain sailing from then on!

Cox talks about finding our place among the stars, when the ISS is hardly more than several solar-powered baked bean cans in low-earth orbit. Fewer than 20 people (all men) have set foot on any other body in the solar system – the moon – and none more recently than 1972. Plans to return people to the moon or go anywhere else are, to be charitable, at the pipe-dream stage. To talk of our place among the stars is at best premature, at worst hubristic.

Eh? "Several solar-powered baked bean cans"? Their contents perhaps served up with the surfeit of eggs? It takes a lot to impress you doesn't it? More seriously, Brian Cox is constantly moaning about the fact that we are not putting anything like enough effort into our space programmes, so to accuse him of hubris here is absurd.

But that’s just a quibble, an unsightly pimple on what is a greater problem. Cox speaks, with the prerequisite Bronowskian awe and reverence, of our uniqueness as a species, that we are the only species capable of doing the things we do, by virtue of attributes such as language and writing. Cox turns his boyishly unfocused gaze of general wonderment from the heavens to the depths of antiquity, the growth of societies and trade and how writing pulled this all together.

But we are "the only species capable of doing the things we do, by virtue of attributes such as language and writing". As for "an unsightly pimple on [..] a greater problem", let's not go there.

It’s this – the assertion of the uniqueness that makes us special – that really gets up my nose, because it’s a tautology and therefore meaningless. Giraffes are unique at doing what they do. So are bumble-bees, quokkas, binturongs, bougainvillea, begonias and bandicoots. Each species is unique by virtue of its own attributes – that’s rather the point of being a species – and human beings are just one species among many. To posit humans as something extra-special in some qualitative way is called human exceptionalism, and this is invariably coloured by subjectivity. Of course we think we’re special, because it’s we who are awarding the prizes.

No. Bumble-bees are not unique when it comes to (say) flying, because birds and bats and even some fish do that too - after a fashion. Humans are unique when it comes to our language and writing and technological achievement.

Science supposedly got out of this hubristic habit in the 1970s when a new philosophy of classification called “cladistics” was adopted, which sought to discover how species were related to one another without reference to the ancestry of any one species from any other one species. The reasoning is clear. Because it’s a fair assumption that all life descends through evolution from a common ancestor, one can safely assume that any species is a cousin in some degree of any other species, and that it’s possible to get a measure of the degree to which they are related.

Ah, "hubristic" again.

What you should never do, however, is line up a series of skulls (all of whom will be cousins) and say one was the ancestor of the other. Whereas it might be so, we could never test or falsify this assertion.

Yes. If you find a hominid skull buried in the ground, the chances are that it's not a direct human ancestor. It's almost certainly the descendent of a cousin of one of our ancestors. As has already been noted, evolution is a bush not a ladder. On the other hand, all the other homonids died out long ago, so any skull you find is likely to be much more similar to that of its (and our) shared ancestor than our skulls are to that shared ancestor. Oh and we can occasionally (admittedly very rarely) obtain DNA from ancient bones and make very testable assertions about ancestry .... though this excursion into Popperianism really isn't of any relevance here.

From this it is clear that human beings do not stand at the top of a ladder of creation, above the apes and below the angels, naturally superior to all other species. Instead, humans represent one twig in a very busy bush of twigs, each one representing one species, living or extinct.

Yep, it's a bush not a ladder. I think we know that. I think Brian knows that.

I wrote a book about all this recently – The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution – which, if I say so myself, is doing rather well, but it’s a source of frustration that Professor Cox is in a better position to get his message across: first, because he’s on TV; and, second, because he’s a lot better looking than I am. Jealous? Of course I am. But more concerned, really, than jealous, because Brian’s message (might I call him Brian? I can? Lovely!) is wrong.

Ah! You've written a book. How many culinary metaphors in there I wonder?

Do I perhaps protest too much?

Yes!

When I was discussing this on the social media, my friend, the science writer and fellow golden-retriever owner Brian Clegg (another Brian: once I get Brian May on board, I’ll have the set – note to self, write an article about the relevance of badgers to interstellar dust) commented: “Funnily, I have no problem with exceptionalism. If you really doubt human beings are exceptional, please feel free to live in a house built by a bower bird, using tools made by a crow and reading all the books/watching the TV written and made by, erm, remind me which animals write books and make films?”

I think Brian Clegg (no relation I trust) has a point.

Brian (qua Clegg), who has allowed me to quote him, has a good point, but it misses the point I was making, which is essentially this: the attributes of any given species are not transferrable, because they cannot be fully appreciated by members of another species. We humans might very well write books and make TV programmes, but these seem so much more superior to, say, the tools of crows, because they are made and consumed by us, not crows. From the point of view of a crow, a human-made TV programme makes no sense at all and therefore has no value.

There was a group of philosophers-of-science based in Edinburgh and sometimes called the "Edinburgh School" who used to talk like this - and probably still do. "Barmy relativism" my Professor used to call their ideas - rather dismissively - but he was right!

Here’s another example, and perhaps a better one. We all recognise that domestic dogs are highly intelligent, social creatures. However, we do not regard them as self-aware in the same way that (we think) we are, because they cannot recognise their reflection in a mirror as belonging to them. But this test – the so-called mirror self-recognition test – is biased towards creatures for which vision is the primary sensory modality. Dogs generally have very poor vision, but this is more than compensated for by their sense of smell, which exceeds ours in sensitivity at least a hundredfold. This means that dogs can identify scents much fainter than we can detect, and also distinguish between scents.

Barmy relativism.

So when my dogs sniff a lamp post, they do so with the intensity and concentration of a master of wine. It’s no stretch to imagine that, to a dog, the scent of another dog on a lamppost has meaning in every sense as representational as a road sign, a letter, or a message. Scents on lampposts are to dogs what social media are to us: I call it SniffBook. The dogs read and appreciate the status updates left by other dogs, and sometimes leave their comments. To us, these scents are as indistinguishable and as unintelligible as a television programme is to a dog.

Barmy relativism.

Dogs can presumably recognise their own scents and tell them apart from the scents of other dogs as readily as we’d recognise our reflection in a mirror. Would we humans pass for self-aware, based on scent alone? I think not. Neither, then, should we judge the abilities of other animals by own own, unique, species-specific standards.

So what are we left with?
The only valid point in this whole diatribe is that evolution is like a bush not like a ladder. But, as has been noted, Brian knows that and I think everyone else does too. After all, I don't just have humans in my house, I have cats too and rather a lot of spiders. I can see all sorts of birds out of the window, and some bushes, and a ladder too as it happens. It's fucking obvious that evolution is more like a bush than a ladder.
So to arrange hominid skulls in a non-branching line could (I concede) potentially be slightly misleading, but "slightly misleading" a very long way from a "fatal flaw". In any case, where were we actually misled?
We weren't
I too find most television programmes as indistinguishable and as unintelligible as my cats do (I haven't got a dog) but Brian's programme was a very welcome exception. This article, on the other hand, .............

2014-09-01

New Verse for "The Elements" song

Since Tom Lehrer composed his The Elements song, Lawrencium (mentioned by Tom Lehrer during the performance to which I link) and fifteen other new elements have been discovered.

I think a new verse is called for:


There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium,
And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium
And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium,
And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium,
Europium, zirconium, lutetium, vanadium
And lanthanum and osmium and astatine and radium
And gold, protactinium and indium and gallium
And iodine and thorium and thulium and thallium.

There's yttrium, ytterbium, actinium, rubidium
And boron, gadolinium, niobium, iridium
And strontium and silicon and silver and samarium,
And bismuth, bromine, lithium, beryllium and barium.

There's holmium and helium and hafnium and erbium
And phosphorous and francium and fluorine and terbium
And manganese and mercury, molybdenum, magnesium,
Dysprosium and scandium and cerium and caesium
And lead, praseodymium, and platinum, plutonium,
Palladium, promethium, potassium, polonium, and
Tantalum, technetium, titanium, tellurium,
And cadmium and calcium and chromium and curium.

There's sulphur, californium and fermium, berkelium
And also mendelevium, einsteinium and nobelium
And argon, krypton, neon, radon, xenon, zinc and rhodium
And chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper,
Tungsten, tin and sodium.

Proposed new verse:

Rutherfordium, Lawrencium, Seaborgium, Ununtrium
Livermorium, Darmstadtium, Flerovium, Meitnerium
Ununoctium and Hassium
Ununpentium and Bohrium
Ununseptium, Roentgenium, Copernicium, and Dubnium

These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard,
And there may be many others, but they haven't been discovered.

This just about scans if you merge the first two syllables together each time. I am more than open to any suggestions for improvements from any scientists, musicians, or poets. The ones beginning "Unun" will get proper names in due course.

...in fact I think Brian Cox (who - thanks to his RT of @ElectroPig's original tweet - is responsible for my time-wasting efforts here) should waste some of his own time and try this out on his keyboard!



[1] Lyrics from Sing365 (I hope they don't mind my using them).
[2] New elements from Lenntech.
[3] Latest naming conventions from Wikipedia.

2014-08-13

The Day PZ Myers came to Hebden Bridge

My son Max and his friend Claire entered the ticket office at the train station in Bradford the other day. As they approached, the man behind the counter put down his newspaper and cast a baleful eye over Claire’s bright blue hair. “Hebden Bridge?” he asked. He was right first time.

A few days ago I saw that Paul Zachary "PZ" Myers associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota Morris, Pharyngula blogger, and sworn enemy of creationist nut-jobbery in all its forms was coming to speak in Hebden. I had to do a double-take. Unfortunately, since I originally saw this, I’d been up to my eyeballs in work and miscellaneous other activities - mainly on behalf of others (as we say in Yorkshire: “A friend in need is a bloody nuisance”) and PZ’s visit had gone completely out of my head.

Then at about 7.30 this evening I saw the following tweet:

I remembered: “Doors 7.30pm – 8pm start”. Hebden Bridge is about 30 minutes away by car from my house. I found my keys, leapt into the car, forgetting my phone, and hit the road. Taking the empty back roads over the moors I somehow managed to get to the Trades Club with two minutes to spare. But there was nowhere to park at the venue and I had to park about half a mile away and run like Mo Farah (well, like Mo Farah would run if he were giving Eric Pickles a piggy back) back to the venue.

I pelted up the stairs (squeezing past a lady who was saying to her friend “eee we’ve got a professor in ‘ere tonight”), bought one of the few remaining tickets, and joined PZ’s talk – which had, I was assured, “only been going on for a couple of minutes”.

Later I asked a fellow local how on earth we’d managed to get the world famous PZ Myers (hot foot from the dreaming spires of Oxford) to come and speak at Hebden Bridge. “Well he’s on his way up to Edinburgh. I suppose it was on the way” he suggested.

Now don’t get me wrong, Hebden Bridge is a lovely place (it is, after all, in Yorkshire) and I urge you all to visit if you are ever up this way. But it is not normally on the beaten track of internationally renowned academics.

Anyway, PZ’s talk (on American creationists) was, of course, splendid and highly entertaining and much appreciated by the audience – who were clearly clued up on much of what PZ had come to speak about.

Though it quickly became clear – as PZ himself acknowledged – that he was “preaching to the choir” there was plenty of interesting material that I (and I expect many others there) were not particularly aware of. One thing PZ pointed out was what a recent phenomenon creationism (based on a literal interpretation of biblical texts) is. Another thing, which I certainly hadn’t really appreciated, was the origins of this ideology in the teachings of quite small numbers of people who, even by the standards of American god botherers, were a pretty wacky bunch. Disturbingly, the nonsense spread by such crazies (far more extreme even than the sort of arguments scientists were having to rebut in the days of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial) have now become part of mainstream thinking and are now embraced by about half the population of the USA.

Photo by kind permission of Chris Hassall @katatrepsis (who took it - as I say i forgot my phone)

Even more disturbingly, we learned, the creationist movement in the USA is astonishingly well funded. Its ludicrous, though well produced, propaganda is funded by rivers of cash from generous, though credulous, donors and income from theme parks - which, inter alia, present theropods from the late Cretaceous Period being herded onto a 4000 year old Ark.

PZ’s talk was followed by questions and discussion of how best to stop them ever coming here. PZ took “here” to mean “the UK”, but obviously they really meant “West Yorkshire”.

So a really excellent talk met by a really warm reception – a bit too warm …. especially after I had run all the way from the car park. We may have fewer religious zealots than the Yanks, but they do - it has to be said - have better air conditioning than we do.

I shook hands with PZ and thanked him before leaving and should like to take this opportunity to say how flattered we all were that he took time out to come and share an evening with us here in God’s own County.

(I was about to suggest they could try and get Prof Brian Cox next year but then I remembered that he's from Lancashire.)

2014-08-03

The riddle of Ridley

This piece was inspired by Nick Cohen’s piece (which I urge you to read) in the Observer today: Why do we still honour free-market intellectuals? (It's mystifying that the former chairman of Northern Rock is still garnering plaudits).

The author of our current misfortunes?

Matt Ridley (AKA The Right Hon Matthew, 5th Viscount Ridley) is famous (or perhaps infamous) for (let us put this as neutrally as possible) being “in charge” of Northern Rock when it went pear-shaped (to use a metaphor borrowed from biology) in 2007. This debacle was the first (at least the first that came to everyone’s attention) in a series of events that culminated in the virtual collapse of the UK banking system and the economic mess from which we are only just recovering (at least if the optimists are to be believed).

I, however, knew of Matt Ridley long before 2007, as the author of a series of books on evolutionary biology and genetics. While I should hesitate to recommend Dr Ridley’s financial advice to anyone (ditto his views on climate change – but that’s a story for another day), I should have no hesitation in recommending his excellent popular science books.

The only criticism I might make of those books is that Ridley is sometimes too ready to borrow metaphors from evolutionary biology and try and apply them in his thinking on how the economy works or (even more tendentiously) ought (in a moral sense) to work. You can often see this species of thinking lurking below his writing. Richard Dawkins (who writes in similar fields and has often worked alongside Ridley) is rather more keen to note (though I am paraphrasing Dawkins here) that just because nature is “red in tooth and claw” it does not follow that the best run economies are, or that (even if such economies were the most financially successful) they would be an ethical success.

But let us move on and look at some (evolutionary) science……..

First, some human psychology:

It is a puzzling fact about humans (revealed in a number of experiments) that when acting as an audience at (say) a random number guessing game, they will accord extra respect to those who guess the “correct” numbers (and less respect to those who guess the “incorrect” numbers) even though they know the game is entirely random. If popular films are an accurate portrayal of reality (I would not know as I have never entered a casino) winners at roulette accrue similarly inflated (and entirely undeserved) prestige.

Of course, winning at some gambling games – for example Black Jack – can be a sign of cleverness. If you can remember the sequence of cards and calculate the odds in your head as the game progresses you can stack the odds in your favour. But, usually, gambling involves pure chance. It is often claimed that some people are “expert” poker players, but the last time I read something on this subject, the author was suggesting that the statistics on this are by no means unequivocal. It is entirely possible (he opined) that “top” poker players are simply “lucky” poker players.

So why do we admire people who happen to make the right (entirely serendipitous) guesses? One answer I have seen put forward is that we (for evolutionary reasons) prefer to ascribe what happens in the world to agency rather than to random chance: the movement in the bushes might be a random effect of the wind, but those who assumed it might be a stalking lion were more likely to live long enough to become our ancestors.

Secondly, some evolutionary theory:

It was at one time thought - even sometimes by Darwin himself (despite what we often read and despite the fact that the modern non-Lamarckian theory is styled “Darwinian”) - that a significant element in evolution is the inheritance, by offspring, of characteristics acquired in life by parents. The example usually given of this sort of phenomenon is the ancestors of the giraffe having to stretch their necks to reach the leaves of tall trees and then passing on their elongated necks to future generations who then did the same and became taller still.

Microbiologists were among the last scientists to disabuse themselves of Lamarckian notions. The example of giraffe gymnastics is clearly far-fetched but, for a long time, it really did seem as though populations of bacteria could be "trained" to survive increasing concentrations of antibiotics in their growth media – like heroin addicts learning to tolerate increasing doses of their chosen drug I suppose – and could pass this learned ability on to their daughter cells. What actually happens is that a few “lucky” mutant bacteria just happen to survive each round of antibiotic treatment and go on to produce new generations with a similar genetic make-up (plus a few new mutants).

In other words, the successful bacteria do not owe their survival to any of their own achievements in life.

Perhaps you can already see where I am going with this ………..

Bankers

Certainly until the events of the last few years, I suppose that people naturally (and as we have seen for good evolutionary reasons) tended to assume that successful bankers were successful because they were highly talented people who owed their success to their talents. Successful bankers were awarded prestige and honours and, even though some people wondered aloud whether bankers really deserved to be paid salaries and bonuses hundreds or thousands of times greater than what (say) a university researcher discovering a new antibiotic might expect, most people accepted that successful bankers deserved high salaries.

But there’s an entirely plausible alternative hypothesis for what the mechanism at work here is – made all the more plausible since the events of 2007. What if bankers make entirely random decisions? The financial environment in which they make those random decisions, selects some to survive and prosper, and some to go bust; but the bankers themselves have no more special foresight than bacteria growing on media contaminated with varying concentrations of antibiotic.

What, in short, if banking (and perhaps commerce in general in a market economy) is Darwinian rather than Larmarckian?

What if successful bankers do not deserve any more reward in life than successful bacteria?

Given Mark Ridley’s fondness for drawing parallels (at least implicitly) between evolutionary biology and the financial world, I am surprised he has never given serious consideration to this hypothesis. And, even more to the point, subscription to such a hypothesis would entirely absolve Matt Ridley of any culpability for the plight of millions who have been far less fortunate in life than the Viscount and who now find themselves at the (lack of) mercy of events which were certainly beyond their control.

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.