Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Oh rly?


Over 200 University of Central Florida students admitted to cheating on a midterm exam after their professor figured out at least a third of his class had cheated. In a lecture posted on YouTube, Professor Richard Quinn told the students that he had done a statistical analysis of the grades and was using other methods to identify the cheats, but instead of turning the list over to the university authorities he offered the following deal: "I don't want to have to explain to your parents why you didn't graduate, so I went to the Dean and I made a deal. The deal is you can either wait it out and hope that we don't identify you, or you can identify yourself to your lab instructor and you can complete the rest of the course and the grade you get in the course is the grade you earned in the course."

In principle, I like this.  Cheating is bad.  Cheats prosper, but at the expense of honest people, which is fairly shit.  It’s best if nobody cheats, but degree courses are exactly the sorts of thing that can be infected by cheating and once it’s happened, the pressure for everyone else to cheat increases.  I suspect we can reduce opportunities for cheating in university exams, but I’m not sure these approaches are compatible with aims of sending as many people as possible to university.  For instance, my lecturers knew I wasn’t cheating because they set extra, unmarked assignments.  I did them all and I tried to find unexpected answers to them and discuss why I’d done it that way.  Of course, I’m an unrelenting geek and – I’ve just realised – a bit of a swot.  And of course it isn’t clear how this kind of thing can scale.  I’m not describing a solution so much as suggesting that something like a solution might be doable if we were to have realistic expectations of the education system.

But back to the link.  The professor makes claims that aren’t substantial.  He begins, bewilderingly, by comparing two different types of distribution from two different events.  The things he says are clear from his graphs are not clear to me.  He claims he worked out from this analysis that people must be cheating and that later an anonymous student revealed that the answers to the exam were in the wild and that the students might have used them.  This, he says, confirmed his suspicions.

What do you do if you find out a substantial contingent of your class has been cheating?  Well, the only thing you can really do is set another exam.  Shame for those who didn’t cheat, but what choice do you have?

And that’s what this guy did too.  However, he is a passive, aggressive, and passive aggressive wanker, so he couldn’t leave it at that.  He had to pretend he knew all along that cheating was being done and that it was just confirmed by the anonymous confession.

He had to pretend that he had statistical reasons to suspect it.  Those reasons make no sense.  He compared two different distributions from two different times.  Nothing about this can be used to demonstrate that cheating happened.  It’s just a demonstration of authority – and an incompetent one at that.  Personally, I’d fail all students who failed to see through such transparent crap, whether they cheated or not.

But he doesn’t stop there.  He goes on to pretend that his advanced statistical analysis of ‘the data’ plus unspecified analysis of (presumably internet) ‘traffic’ has narrowed down the cheaters to 1/3 of the class.  He can’t (yet) guarantee that he has all the perps bang to rights and he might have fingered some non-perps.  He has a mystifying 95% confidence that his list includes all the cheaters, but some non-cheaters might be on the list too.  It’s an astonishing claim and you’d imagine he’d back it up, wouldn’t you?  Well, it requires ‘further forensic analysis’ apparently, which is expected by the end of the week.  Right.

But he’s declaring an amnesty: if the cheaters come clean, they can retake the exam (if they also complete a 4 hour ethics course, hilariously).  He doesn’t actually say what will happen if they don’t, which rather takes the teeth out of the pretend threat.  Some sinister-sounding department will ‘get involved’.  That’s even less scary than his original toothless threat.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t want people to cheat.  But I don’t want self-obsessed passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive wankers to vent their failings on students.

His final flourish is just amazing.  He’s close to tears.  He claims to know who the cheaters are.  He clearly doesn’t.  He talks about sending ‘information’ to people who couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the situation.  He breaks down, wondering what his last 20 years teaching were ‘for’.  He washes his hands of the cheaters, even though he doesn’t know who they are.  While pretending he does.

Then he says that pregnant women who have to give birth at the time of the make-up exam will have to give birth in the exam.

Oh you worthless prick.  You don’t have any weight to throw around, so you’ll throw around hatred and stupidity instead.  Someone cheated so you’ll pretend you know who did and who didn’t and you’ll punish everyone anyway, regardless.  You don’t actually have any power to really punish people so you’ll pretend you’re punishing them BY ROBBING THEM OF AN ACTUAL LECTURE, YOU FUCKING DICK. 

Supposedly some people confessed to cheating.  Me? I’d have failed those idiots.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Pope changes mind

It doesn’t happen very often and it’s far too early to judge either implications or intent, but it looks as though the Pope has decided that condoms might not always be bad after all.  Needless to say, it’s a horribly mealy-mouthed statement:

“In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of [HIV] infection, it can… be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality”

but a potentially welcome first step: it’s an admission that condoms can and do prevent HIV, something that sections of the Catholic church, under the Pope’s guidance, has often – horrifically - denied.  So that’s a good thing.  But the BBC reports that the Pope also said that “more humane attitude to sexuality, and not condom use, was the proper way to combat HIV infection.”  So he’s still obsessed with what people do in the dark and still wants to control all our sexual lives.  It’s all about morality, apparently.  A ‘Catholic commentator’ (whatever that means) Austen Ivereigh said that the church has long held this view anyway:

If the intention is to prevent transmission of the virus, rather than prevent contraception, moral theologians would say that was of a different moral order.

What vacuous bullshit, I hardly know where to begin.  In fact, I’m going to leave that until a later post. 

Despite all these complaints, admitting that condoms prevent the transmission of HIV is an improvement on Ratzinger’s comments in Cameroon last year, where he claimed that condoms increase the problem of AIDS.  It’s a step in the right direction, let’s see how it goes.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My favourite poem

By Mr William Blake

I laid me down upon a bank,
Where Love lay sleeping;
I heard among the rushes dank
Weeping, weeping.

Then I went to the heath and the wild,
To the thistles and thorns of the waste;
And they told me how they were beguiled,
Driven out, and compelled to the chaste.

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

It isn’t just the subject matter.  It’s the building sense of discontent and the increasingly specific complaints.  Not a very sophisticated analysis, but it’s why I like it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

I’m a liar, get me out of here

The awful UK ‘reality’ show I’m a celebrity get me out of here! has a history of baiting egotistical idiots by putting a group of them together in a very slightly uncomfortable situation then getting the public to vote which of them will perform lurid forfeits such as eating insects and which of them should leave the jungle.  Or they have to fight to the death until there is ONE SUPREME CELEBRITY WHO WILL ENTERTAIN ALL. Or something, I’ve never seen it. 

In 2002, one of the celebrities was Uri Geller, who was apparently voted out quite early after annoying everyone into a coma.  This year, they have Gillian McKeith, fake doctor, litigious liar and horrible, horrible person.  She’s built an empire out of pretending she’s a real doctor (when she bought her PhD from an non-accredited degree mill) and humiliating fat people on national television under the guise of helping them with nutritional advice.  Judging by some of her output, she knows nothing about nutrition, chemistry or reality.  Ben Goldacre describes some of her idiocy here, as well as gleefully explaining that she’s no longer allowed to call herself a doctor on her various products.

Annyway, Gillian is in the jungle.  It’s hard to see how this can go well for her because like Geller, she is a deeply annoying person, but without any of his superficial charm.  And she’s already announced that she’s scared of insects, which is unlikely to work out well for her when the public has to vote for who should carry out insect-related tasks. 

I won’t be watching, but I predict that the public will turn on her fairly quickly and vote her onto every unpleasant task, causing her to storm off in tears.  Let’s hope so.

There’s a twitter campaign to get the hashtag #notarealdoctor trending.  The only downside I can see is that McKeith herself will be unaware of it until she gets back.  Pity that, because she’d be certain to wade in and start throwing threats about, lying, deleting ill-advised tweets and so on.  That would be pretty entertaining.  But let’s get the tag trending anyway: the more the public knows about McKeith’s lying awfulness while she’s at their beck and call, very much the better.

Why the pope eats beaver

Something reminded me this morning of the Catholic tradition of eating fish – or more accurately not eating ‘meat’ – on Fridays.  This is not commanded in the bible, but emerged as a tradition sometime later.  There are various stories purporting to explain the practice, but none seem particularly plausible.

It amuses me that the Catholic church, which is built on a foundation of insane notions such as zombie carpenters must have sat bolt upright and wide-eyed in bed one afternoon and said to the alter boy “You know, what we need is a bit more batshit insanity: we haven’t got quite enough”.  The way it works provides useful insight into religious thinking.

Laying off meat one day a week is a sacrifice, but it’s hardly up there with old testament style killing your children (or preparing to kill them, only to stop at the last moment when god tells you he was only joking: either way, the bible is chock full of human blood sacrifice of varying type and severity). 

These are people who believe that god wants them to avoid meat on Fridays.  The being that created the universe.  Who put in place every star and planet and who created life itself, the quintessential mystery.  The being who holds the power to grant an eternal life of bliss or of torment, depending on whether we do what he wants.

And yet, passing up a hamburger for a filet-o-fish one day a week is a bit too high a price to pay for an eternity in paradise and avoidance of hell.  So church leaders found ways to cheat.  Aquinas said you can’t eat "animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and ... those that walk on the earth" and this was seized upon to mean it’s OK to eat those non-fish that spend most of their time in water.  Such as beavers, capybara, otters, presumably water-dwelling reptiles and so on.  And so it is officially permissible to eat those things on Friday, despite the fact that neither the people who made these rules, nor Aquinas on whose writing the rules were based, had any basis on which to claim special knowledge of what god wants.

This type of nit-picking is common in religious thinking.  It’s also hilarious that the entire institution of the Catholic church and its members are engaged in such a blatant and transparent attempt to fool what they believe to be an omnipotent, omnipresent being.  A being, moreover, who notoriously makes it his personal business to scrutinise what everyone thinks as well as what they do and to punish people with an eternity of torment for thinking the wrong things. 

This is the being they are trying to fool by saying beavers are fish.

Well, good luck with that, I guess. 

Sunday, November 07, 2010


I know what you’re thinking.  You really want to spew forth inconsequential babble like the rest of us, but you can’t run the risk that you might encounter a non-Christian.  Then Christianchirp is for you!

It’s thrilling stuff, packed to the rafters with the sorts of deep philosophical discourse we’ve come to expect in 140 characters. 

For example, JesusSaves raises an important issue:

i have always wondered: can atheists be moral? Why or why not?

Sadly, there are no replies yet, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before the Twistian community gets to the bottom of it.

To be fair though, the level of inanity isn’t noticeably greater than tweets from any other group and to the site’s credit, the terms of use are nowhere near as preachy as I expected.  There’s this:

Because we publicly bill ourselves as a Christian site, we will not tolerate submissions of content that are examples of sensationalistic disrespect to the Christian faith, or to any bona fide religion, for that matter.  In other words, while you are free to challenge religious teachings or interpretations or ideas on any matter or issue, you may not do so in a vulgar manner.  This includes doing silly things like selecting an avatar that portrays Jesus drinking alcohol or having sex.  Let us keep the discourse elevated, people, and if not elevated, at least out of the gutter. 

which isn’t nearly as bad as  I expected.  Although alcohol, eh?  I seem to remember Jesus was quite fond of it.  Whether he was encouraging people to drink wine with their supper or buying everyone a round at a wedding, he seemed quite a party animal.

So Christianchirp isn’t offensive.  I was hoping to extract more comedy out of it, but credit where it’s due.  It’s early days though, so with any luck some batshit crazy fundamentalist types will join and give the rest of us more to laugh at.  And of course we’ve all come across policies of this sort before on religious sites and seen a somewhat flexibly applied definition of terms like “sensationalist disrespect”. 

So time will tell.  In the meantime, we can continue to wonder how these people managed to sign up for Christianchirp with their fingers in both ears. 

We could also wonder why they didn’t use the term ‘twistians’.  It’s so obvious that I’m not even going to google it.  I’m sure it’s been used before.  If not, I invented it, so hands off.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Should we be skeptical about climate change?

I’m not going to argue that our global climate is changing (for – as far as Humans are concerned – the worst) or that humans are causing much of this change.  It is.  They are.  That’s all I want to say on the matter here. 

Some people say we should be skeptical about this conclusion and they’re quite right, we should.  But our skepticism should be well-targeted.  It should be at the root of climate science.  Does a slice of data support a hypothesis?  Well, that’s what we need to check.  It’s because this skepticism is present at the root of climate science that it’s safe for those of us who don’t know much about that science to believe what the consensus is telling us. 

Skepticism is less useful at the level of whether AGW is happening or not.  This is not to say we should be discouraged from asking questions (we shouldn’t) but that any skepticism at this level has to refer to the lower levels anyway.  Eventually, you’d need to present an argument that showed lots of data doesn’t support the hypotheses of AGW. 

In other words, just saying “I’m not convinced by these scientists and their data and their models” is not enough.  It’s no better than just picking a conclusion and manufacturing arguments to support it out of thin air.  In that sense, it is the very opposite of skepticism.

Some such methods and attitudes can be seen in the comments here (an excellent video by the way):


notably from correspondent Pag.  Pag doesn’t understand how science is actually done and this ignorance colours his views.  It’s important to note that Pag doesn’t deny AGW, but is skeptical.  Unfortunately, he targets his skepticism incorrectly as described above.  I’ll pick out a few points to show what I mean.

Probably a bad idea to throw that out there, but here's why I'm skeptical about the whole anthropomorphic global warming thing [….] The gist of it is that the science of global warming is attempting to predict the future decades in advance, something that nobody has ever been able to do with any kind of reliability, in any field, as far as I know. What's worse, the whole thing is two parts politics for one part science, which doesn't help its reliability.

Of course there are fields where predictions can be made over such timescales and much larger ones.  Astronomy is the most obvious example, but there are many others.  However, the point is about what is being predicted, with what accuracy etc.  It’s not necessary to predict the temperature on July 14th 2085 in order to predict increasing heat or in large weather events or whatever.  Predictions always have error bars and much of the work being done in climate science is concerned with reducing those error bars.  We can already predict more or less what’s going to happen, but more data and better ways of analysing it can predict it more accurately.  And can more accurately predict the effects of any intervention that might be attempted, such as reducing CO2 production.  As for the 2 parts politics charge, to begin with, this is a flat, unsupported assertion and the further charge that politics inevitably casts doubt on the conclusions of climate science is not explained.  However, if we look at the situation more carefully, we can see that there’s another category error: Pag is confusing the level of uncertainty banded about in the media (Global warming is happening!  No it isn’t! etc.) with the daily work of climate science (These data support hypothesis X!  My algorithm shows that the results are probably not significant!).  But more on this later.

First, the scientists themselves. Are they unbiased? I'm unconvinced. On one side, some scientists are paid by the oil industry who gains by having oil be perceived as safe. On the other side, some scientists are paid by environmental organizations who get their money from people who believe that the environment is in great peril (let's face it, if people stopped believing in global warming, Green Peace and others like them would lose a huge amount of donations). Neither side is particularly neutral or trustworthy.

This might be the case if the greater number of climate scientists were directly funded by organisations with an agenda.  In fact, most are funded through government.  If government have a bias on the issue, I’d expect it to anti-AGW since this stance would mean they didn’t have to make unpopular decisions.  But again, this broad argument doesn’t really get to the heart of the misunderstanding.  Pag rightly points out that individual scientists – regardless of funding – are subject to bias and likely to look more favourably on results that confirm that bias.

This is true.  We are all subject to bias.  Science is organised such that this bias is reduced, but it would be naive to accept that this removes it entirely.  We should expect to see some bias in the scientific record.  However, this where Pag gets it wrong, because – perhaps counter intuitively – this doesn’t make the conclusions of climate science suspect.

This is because of what the daily business of science actually is.  What we see of it is for the most part what appears in the media.  This view is badly skewed at best.  We tend to see headlines announcing a ‘breakthrough’ or which claims to ‘cast doubt’ on some important or supposedly cherished previous finding.

But what we see in practice isn’t like this at all.  A scientific paper typically documents something relatively unimportant in the general scheme of things, but which supports or refutes a minor hypothesis.  It’s a tiny piece of a big picture.  It’s certainly possible that a researcher might prefer methods that support their preferred hypothesis rather than refute it, but that hypothesis will be at the level of “this method is good for analysing this kind of data” rather than “AGW does/doesn’t exist”.  It’s by no means clear that a slight bias of this kind will have a noticeable effect on the question of AGW.

Pag goes on to explain that climate scientists are more biased than others because they are emotionally involved:they are passionate environmentalists and have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.  His basis for this assertion is unclear.

Second, is the model reliable? I'm sure scientists are doing their best to make it as reliable as possible, but is it good enough? We're talking about simulating the whole earth for 100 years -- no small challenge.

This isn’t what climate scientists are trying to do at all.  They don’t try to simulate the whole earth, which would indeed be a tall order.  Instead, there are lots of models of different aspects of the climate, which show different kinds of trend, with differently-sized error bars with different types of input and which are effective over different time spans, with differing levels of precision etc.  These generate evidence that purports to support or refute some hypothesis.  This is far from the vision of some grand model of the universe with scientists feeding data in one end, cranking the handle and a perfect prediction of the climate’s behaviour comes out the other end. 

We can’t, practically speaking, answer questions like that.  At least, not yet.  But we can ask questions like “if X has this kind of relationship with Y, what will it mean for Z?” and then we can look for data that such a relationship exists and that our model does indeed predict the effect on Z with some accuracy.

Pag makes a similar point about data being unreliable.  Pag has a poor understanding of what data is and where it comes from.  He or she doesn’t understand that climate scientists know that their data is imperfect and know ways to correct for it.  People like Pag always think they’re the only ones who understand any of this and that scientists are somehow unaware of the difficulty.  He prates on about how the models don’t admit to any uncertainty in results, which is just plain wrong and accuses the models of not taking into account future perturbations (the example he cites is the possibility that everyone will start using electric cars).

“I'm well aware that various scenarios are considered for global warming simulations,” he admits, “but they're very limited.”

Really?  He/she manages to conclude this without knowing a single thing about the models or how they are applied.

So, as I see it, global warming predictions come from biased scientists using flawed models based on partial and imprecise data to predict the future. And they ask us to trust them with billion-dollar decisions based on these predictions. I'm sorry, but I remain skeptical.

And this is at the heart of why skepticism is more properly levelled at the low levels of climate science rather than the broad strokes.  Pag’s objections to models and data aren’t valid.  Pag’s ignorance of these things and how they are used results in badly-targeted skepticism and wasted effort.

So be skeptical about science, but make sure you focus your efforts where they can do the most good.  Are there people out there faking data?  It’s not unlikely.  Is there a set of data or some conclusions that are relied upon too highly by many researchers?  Could be.  Skepticism about climate science are more properly applied at this level.  If we get that right, our conclusions can only become more accurate over time.

Thursday, November 04, 2010


77% of 48 women said an undefined product that you have to buy every month made them feel better in unspecified ways when asked by aggressive marketers who were probably also their boss.


And on that basis, astonishing, fabulous claims.

Billions of women suffer from this complaint every month of their lives.  And yet this obviously bogus product is somehow legally sold.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Some of my best friends are

Well, it’s pretty clear that I’m not going to get any work done today. Stupid brain.  It keeps noticing things that are more interesting.  I’ve officially written the rest of the day off so I can start fresh in the morning.  I’ll regret that later Sad smilebut it gives me the chance to check on my feeds, which are in woeful disarray.

Anyway, here is a welcome respite from the idiocy of Andrew Brown.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s still idiocy, but not quite such flagrant idiocy.  Actually, idiocy is far too strong.  It’s not all that bad, really, and it’s inoffensive enough, I guess, but it’s very silly nevertheless.

Karen Glaser likes Dawkins nearly as much as her dad but she thinks he’s wrong about faith schools.  Why?  because she has a single example of a faith school which she says is ‘multicultural’.  Therefore Dawkins is wrong about all faith schools.

She points out correctly that Jewish faith schools are not represented in Faith School Menace and explains why (to some extent) this is the case: no Jewish faith schools would talk to him.  However, Dawkins did interview Glaser so it’s a shame that this didn’t make the final cut.  Dawkins usually tries to release interviews he does for television uncut so there’s some hope that we might eventually see it.

Glaser’s silliness can be summarised with one two of her own sentences:

My defence of Jewish education is heavily based on my experience of one particular Jewish school: Simon Marks Jewish Primary, in north London. That experience may well be atypical, but, I would argue, is still germane.

Well yes, ‘germane’ is a funny old word, isn’t it?  Glaser’s experience of this school is certainly relevant to the discussion, but it doesn’t mean Dawkins is wrong.  Basing an argument like that on a single example is transparently, footingly, embarrassingly foolish, especially when there’s a strong suspicion – as indicated by Glaser – that it’s an atypical example anyway.

Why mention it?  Naturally some faith schools are good at some things, sometimes things their opponents might not immediately expect. Nobody should be (or is, as far as I’m aware) surprised by this.  We shouldn’t be surprised either if Hitler was nice to his mother. 

There’s a very good reason indeed to mention it: if the school’s as good as she says, it could serve as a useful example of how to do faith schools right.  Or more properly to build faith schools that conform more closely to some particular ideals, if that’s what we want to do.  But Glaser doesn’t mention it for this reason.  She mentions it as a pathetically inadequate argument that Dawkins is wrong about all faith schools.  One example serves to prove this.

Pull your socks up, Karen, this is silliness of the silliest kind.  Your opinions are either evidence-based or they aren’t.  You either stand by what reason tells you or you make it up.  You can’t have it both ways. You celebrate Dawkins for doing awesome evidence-based stuff and when you don’t agree with him you abandon that conviction and decide you’re right and he’s wrong because you say so.  Or more accurately because of a single example, which amounts to the same thing.

Dawkins’ show mentions various other criteria that might suggest that faith schools are in some ways bad.  Glaser doesn’t mention these.

Is this really all you need to do to be a journalist?



The next session featured James Randi(!) being interviewed by Robin Ince.  It was a good and very enjoyable interview.  Randi was as charming and interesting as ever and Ince was funny, beginning by listing many of Randi’s achievements and accolades then saying “I’ll be asking about that in a moment, but the thing we really want to know about is your appearance on Happy Days.”  Randi reported that Henry Winkler was “a joy”, which really is what we wanted to know.

Randi talked about his youth, which just made him even more impressive.  He exposed at a young age a clairvoyant who was running a billet-reading scam using a one-ahead technique.  Punters had to write down what they wanted to know and seal it in an envelope.  The clairvoyant memorised the contents of one of these and discarded it.  Then on stage, pulled a random envelope out of the basket then without opening it, held it theatrically to his brow (probably) and described the contents of the one he’d previously memorised.  Whoever wrote that card would indicate that he’d got it right and the clairvoyant would rip open the envelope and examine the contents as if to verify it’s correctness.  However, since this was secretly a different envelope, he’d memorise the contents, discard it and pick another from the basket and repeat the trick.

Randi foiled this by sticking the back of the envelope slightly to the card inside, so when the guy opened it, it caused a bit of a kerfuffle which was noticeable.  When the guy opened the next envelope and started to recite what was on Randi’s card in the previous envelope, young Randi marched to the front and explained to the audience what the guy was doing.  It didn’t make much impact on the audience: the technique, although simple, is quite hard to explain as I’ve just found out and it was probably lost on them.  However, the police were called from the station across the road and he was taken away for disrupting a church service, causing his father to be brought home from a golf game and – by the sound of it – was rather severely punished. 

What confidence!  What courage!  At that age, I can’t imagine that I’d have been able to do this.  I might have made sarcastic comments at the back and explain to people I knew afterwards how it was done, but I don’t think I could have acted as Randi did.

Ince got Randi to deliver some of his well-loved set pieces, such as the tale of his hilarious destruction of Uri Geller on the Johnny Carson show. And his exposure of the even more awful Peter Popoff.

This latter was moving.  Randi was in tears describing the plight of a boy in a wheelchair scammed by Popoff and another woman distressed because Popoff had told her to give *ahem* god all her money, which would mean she wouldn’t have enough for the bus fare home.  Her friend was pushing her to give that money anyway, because god might not heal her if she didn’t give the full amount.  Which would make god the only being in the universe who’s a bigger wanker than Popoff. 

The interview ended with the first of two rapid-fire standing ovations, both well-deserved.  The second was a result of the JREF awards for outstanding achievement in the field of excellence contributions to skepticism.  This year, there were two categories:

  • A ‘professional’ category, which was very deservedly won by Ben Goldacre, one of the most hard-working people in the world, and
  • A ‘grassroots’ category, which was won by Rhys Morgan.

It was Rhys who received the standing ovation and he was understandably and touchingly overcome.  His story is worth mentioning.

Rhys is 15 years old and suffers from Crohn’s disease.  He was searching a web forum dedicated to the disease and its treatments and found references to a putative remedy called Miracle Mineral Solution.  He investigated this and found that it was in fact bleach.  Bleach doesn’t cure Crohn’s and is rather unlikely to be good for you.  The BBC article I link to above doesn’t tell the full story.  It explains how he brought it to the attention of the Food Standards Agency and succeeded in getting it banned for sale.  What it doesn’t say is that he also brought it to the attention of people on that forum (and others) and received a lot of threats and abuse for his pains.  He just wanted to highlight the issue to sufferers but was roundly criticised for ‘spoiling the magic’.  He persisted in spite of this and achieved this great result.

That’s the end of day 1! I can’t believe I still had day 2 to cover…

TAM London speaker 8: panel on skeptical activism

This was a panel session introduced by the Sense About Science director Tracey Brown. The members were Evan Harris, David Allen Green, sometimes known as Jack of Kent and Simon Singh.

I won’t write much about this because a lot was said, it was a while ago now and my notes aren’t very good.  Also, I’m supposed to be working.  So I’ll just say that the speakers and discussion was enjoyable and if that’s being lame then I don’t want to…..walk…properly….

What I should mention, however, is that Simon Singh announced the impending launch of a new skeptical campaign called The Nightingale Collaboration, after Florence Nightingale, who was a good skeptic: an advocate of evidence-based medicine and the inventor of the pie chart.

The campaign’s aim is to challenge misleading claims made by CAM practitioners and reporting them to the appropriate bodies.  If you feel that this might not be very effective since many of these bodies are self-regulating.  But that’s because you’re not counting on the ingenuity of nerds.  One of the things they’ve done is write a a bot that crawls around homeopathy websites, tests if they are making claims that violate the authority’s rules and automatically sends letters to the authority.  A bot like this can generate a lot of letters in no time flat.  That’s got to be annoying.  They will also be making tools available for volunteers to use in their own campaigns.

It sounds good.

The only minor annoyance I had with the panel session was that it was a little too ‘skepticism is a movement’ for my liking.  Stuff like The Nightingale Collaboration is great and I understand that the more organised a bunch of skeptics is, the more effective they can be.  I’m all for that kind of thing - focussed campaigns run by people who are interested in them – but I’m not so keen on establishing and toeing party lines as I’ve said before, and there was a bit of that sort of talk on the panel.

It was worth listening to for Allen Green’s comment: When cats complain, they complain of herding skeptics."

Andrew Brown speaks nonsensically about faith schools

Updated (see bottom)

This is an old article, but my recent post about faith schools brought it to mind and I read it again to remind myself how idiotic it was. Andrew Brown writes various untrue and nonsensical things on CiF.

Richard Dawkins on Mumsnet came up with a remark to silence all his critics: "What have you read of mine that makes you think I have a skewed agenda?" It certainly left me opening and shutting my mouth like a breathless goldfish.

With all that flapping of the mouth, you’d have thought something might have come out.  For example, he could have answered the question.  He doesn’t.  If it was such a preposterous statement, you’d think an example would come pretty easily.  Naturally, Brown leaves out all mention of context.  Someone commented to Dawkins that he or she wouldn’t want to see an atheist school: “I want my children to learn to evaluate evidence and form conclusions, of course, but not from people such as yourself with such a skewed agenda.”  Dawkins’ answer as quoted by Brown agrees wholeheartedly with the evidence and conclusions part but asks the questioner to justify the accusation that his agenda is skewed in this respect.  In other words, he’s saying that he doesn’t want to start an atheist school.  If he were going to start a school it would be secular, place high value on evidence and critical thinking, but would not evangelise atheism.  Nothing he’s written suggests that he wants to evangelise atheism in schools.  Brown pretends not to notice this nuance.  In fact, he goes further than omitting context, choosing instead to present the quote in an almost completely made-up false context.  Dawkins didn’t make this remark to silence anyone, let alone ‘all his critics’.  In claiming he did, Brown is trying to paint Dawkins as claiming he’s entirely impartial on every issue, which of course he’s never done.

But Brown does like playing games with language:

It is from [Mumsnet] that the story has come forth that he wants to start an atheist school. Whether that will actually happen is another thing. But it is in any case revealing of his reasoning.

The story does indeed come from the thread Brown links to.  But Dawkins never says he wants to start an atheist school.  So how can it be revealing of his reasoning?  Notice that Brown doesn’t actually state explicitly the lie that Dawkins wants to start an atheist school, but he sure as hell implies it and it’s plainly his attention to lead readers to believe that untruth.

Next, Brown quotes Dawkins again:

"That's a good point. I believe this is putting parental rights above children's rights."

and responds:

It is impossible to read this as meaning anything but that children have a right to be educated as Richard Dawkins thinks fit, but not as their parents do.

I find it rather hard to read all that into Dawkins’ statement.  It seems pretty straightforward to me as read, without Brown’s imaginative embellishment.  The issue is that if parents send their children to schools to be indoctrinated, their rights are being placed over those of the child.  This is a fact.  An argument might be made that the parents’ rights should trump the child’s on this matter.  Dawkins (and I) would make the counter-argument that indoctrination is deeply unethical and children ought to have the right to not have it done to them.  This is not an issue of Richard Dawkins’ ego or even his wanting to decide what children should be taught.  It’s an issue of children’s rights, which is something worthy of discussion, not of outright smarmy dismissal by the intellectually feeble.  Brown somehow turns the possession of an opinion by Dawkins into a demand that all children be taught according to his whim.  This kind of monstrous hyperbole is quite indicative of Brown’s writing.

[Dawkins] alluded several times in the threat [sic] to the sufferings of atheist parents forced to send their children to faith schools:

"Is it better to stand by one's principles or be hypocritical in order to provide the best option? What a horrible dilemma to be forced into."

But apparently this doesn't apply if your principles are religious ones, because then your children have a right to be educated as atheists.

What Dawkins was actually saying is that he sympathises with atheist parents who send their children to a religious school if it happens to be better than the local secular alternative.  They want the best for their kids and who can blame them for hypocritically pretending to be religious?  Brown’s distortion is….bewildering.  Dawkins says no such thing.  Brown’s conclusion doesn’t even follow in any coherent way from what Dawkins does say.  What doesn’t apply?  It isn’t at all clear.  Perhaps Brown is saying that it would also be a horrible dilemma if religious parents were forced to pretend to be atheists in order to get their children into a better school.  I entirely agree and - I strongly suspect – so would Dawkins.  But let us just remember that Dawkins has not proposed an atheist school.  He hasn’t even proposed a secular school.  Someone asked him if he might be tempted to start one and he called it an interesting idea, clearly and plainly stressing the secular angle rather than the atheist.  Could you imagine such a school refusing to accept children of religious parents?  What would be the point?  The only suggestion that this is what Dawkins advocates comes from Brown, who has made it up.

Of course, the Dawkins position here is purely a matter of assertion. It's impossible to imagine anything that might qualify as evidence for the view that it is okay for atheists to discriminate against parents who have particular religious beliefs, while it is very wrong for believers to do so.

This is not Dawkins’ position.  Nor is it mine.  But it’s not very difficult to imagine what that evidence might look like.  Evidence that children were harmed in some way by religious indoctrination would qualify, for example.  I’m not saying that evidence exists, although it wouldn’t surprise me.  I’m just pointing out another of Brown’s obvious, odious little tricks: for the second time, he has stated as ‘impossible’ something that is plainly not only possible but laughably easy.  If the reader doesn’t think very hard about it, she might be bamboozled into thinking that such evidence is impossible.  And all of this is wrapped up in a false statement about what Dawkins advocates!

But "evidence", tends to be defined backwards in these polemics – in other words, he starts from the axiom that there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of God, (implied here in his remark that "Every atheist I know would change their mind in a heartbeat if any evidence appeared in favour of religious belief") and then find meanings for the term that fit this use. This is of course the same trick as defining faith as belief without evidence and then using this definition as proof that faith is irrational.

The statement that there’s no evidence for god is not an axiom, it’s a conclusion.  All Brown has to do to show that it’s false is to show us some evidence.  Nobody has ever been able to do so.  But what evidence is Brown even talking about here?  The evidence he demands above (that it’s OK for atheists to discriminate against religious parents in the matter of school admissions but not the other way around)?  We don’t need any such evidence because nobody is making that claim anyway, least of all Dawkins.  Or has he segued into talking about evidence that god exists?  It’s unclear, but then so is the reasoning behind his accusation that Dawkins defines evidence ‘backwards’. 

By contrast, Dawkins is perfectly clear about what he means by evidence.  He means it in the same way virtually all scientists mean it: observations in the context of a hypothesis.  To find evidence of god, you’d first need to construct a well-formed hypothesis, which would include a definition of what observations would constitute evidence for and against it that specific hypothesis.  There’s no ‘backwards definition’ here, that’s simply what evidence means.  And defining faith as belief without evidence (or more properly, belief that doesn’t rely on evidence) is not so much of a trick as the actual definition of that word.  It’s how it’s used by practically everyone, believer or otherwise.  Complex epistemological arguments aside, believing things for no good reason is irrational.  No linguistic trick here and a hypocritical accusation from Brown, who uses such tricks constantly. 

If that sounds unfair, consider the uses of "evidence" in his discussion of education here:

"Children should be taught to ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded. If children understand that beliefs should be substantiated with evidence, as opposed to tradition, authority, revelation or faith, they will automatically work out for themselves that they are atheists."

It's clear here that Dawkins is starting from the definition that "evidence" is what can't justify a belief in God, whereas "tradition, authority, revelation, and faith" have all been used to justify religious belief, so they must be bad.

Notice the scare quotes around ‘evidence’, which are only there to further falsely imply Dawkins’ misuse of what the word means.

Brown’s analysis of this straightforward statement is astonishing.  Dawkins isn’t defining evidence as that which cannot justify a belief in god.  He’s saying that – as a matter of fact – there isn’t any evidence (as the term is commonly used by scientists) of a god.  Therefore, if someone were to properly understand how evidence works, then she’d be very unlikely to believe in god.  This is because things like tradition, authority, revelation and faith do not constitute evidence.  This is not because Dawkins defines it that way, it’s because they cannot reliably be used to indicate truth.  Dawkins doesn’t say that these things are ‘bad’, just that they can’t be used as evidence for the existence of god.  Authority figures can be dishonest or mistaken.  There are incompatible religious traditions which cannot possibly all be true, so how can tradition be relied upon to reveal truth?  Revelation cannot be distinguished from delusion.  The existence of faith doesn’t imply belief either: all sorts of people have had faith in untrue things and the incompatibility of religion argument again applies.  This discounts those things from being evidence for god because they are almost wholly objective.

But the idea that you can separate a respect for evidence from a respect for tradition and authority doesn't survive a moment's reflection on the ways that children actually learn. That's true whether or not God exists.

Is isn’t ought.  We’re all susceptible to fooling ourselves and being fooled by others, especially authority figures.  We can’t use things like tradition and authority to determine that we’re not being fooled.  That’s why we need evidence.  If we teach children to properly understand evidence and critical thinking, they’ll have the tools they need to test whether or not they are being fooled.  They might not use these tools or they might use them poorly, but I’d rather they had them to hand than not.

To be sceptical, critical, and open-minded are all mental, and even moral disciplines. Obviously, all education in any schools, should try to produce such children. But these skills don't come naturally. Indeed, Dawkins, in other moods, will emphasise the utter lack of these skills in small children. So how are they learned? If you want to teach children to be sceptical, critical, and open-minded, you have to start from authority and induct them into a tradition where these things are valued.

What such a child would need is an environment in which the tools of critical thinking can be learned, tested and practiced.  If you want to insist that this implies authority and tradition then be my guest but don’t suggest that authority and tradition are good reasons to believe in god.  Nobody’s saying that these things aren’t important (least of all Dawkins, an educator), just that they aren’t always appropriate.  In particular – and this is what Dawkins is saying – they are not appropriate ways of finding out the truth about things like god.  Brown carries on in this mode for a couple more paragraphs, batting at strawmen of his own fevered imagining. 

It’s amusing but uninteresting (and unsurprising) that Brown emphasises from Dawkins’ list of bad reasons to believe things only ‘authority’ and ‘tradition’.  These are the ones that will appeal most to right-wing readers and Brown’s baseless and idiotic accusation that Dawkins somehow opposes these things will be enough to seal Dawkins’ infamy in many people’s minds.

The entire article is as incoherent as it is dishonest.  Brown repeatedly puts words into Dawkins’ mouth and flails at strawmen.  If you examine the text in any detail, it’s quite difficult to know what – if any – argument he’s actually making at any particular point.  There are some interesting things to be said about faith schools and interesting debate to be had on a potential atheist school or critical thinking school.  Brown raises none of these.  His intention was to construct an elaborate ad hominem attack on Richard Dawkins, who has never  expressed a wish to start an atheist school, as Brown knows perfectly well.  Mission (clumsily and incoherently) accomplished, I guess.

Brown should apologise to Dawkins for lying about him; the public for misinforming them; and me for subjecting me to this fatuous drivel.


Brown’s repeated claim of Dawkins’ supposed intention to open an atheist school is a more egregious lie than I had realised.  He quotes Dawkins (see above) saying that if children are taught about evidence, they’ll work atheism out for themselves.  When copying that text, Brown somehow failed to notice the text that surrounded it, in which Dawkins states his position with perfect clarity.  Surely Brown could not have copied the bit of text he quotes without seeing the rest (emphasis mine)?

many people have asked about atheist schools including Cauliffe. DoubtUnites - I look forward to receiving your children's letters. Thank you for suggesting that I should start an atheist free school. I like the idea very much, although I would prefer to call it a free-thinking free school. I would never want to indoctrinate children in atheism, any more than in religion. Instead, children should be taught to ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded. If children understand that beliefs should be substantiated with evidence, as opposed to tradition, authority, revelation or faith, they will automatically work out for themselves that they are atheists. I would also teach comparative religion, and teach it properly without any bias towards particular religions, and including historically important but dead religions, such as those of ancient Greece and the Norse gods, if only because these, like the Abrahamic scriptures, are important for understanding English literature and European history.

Andrew Brown, you’re a lying arsehole.

No free ride

I’m quite proud of my home county.  North Yorkshire County Council is proposing to stop paying for children to travel to a faith school if it is not the closest school to their home.

Currently, children ordinarily attend the school closest to their home or one otherwise designated the ‘normal’ school by the council.  The council will pay for the child’s travel to and from that school with certain caveats.  In some cases, parents can make a case to the council that their child should instead attend a more distant school and if the council agrees, it will pay for the child’s travel to that school instead.

Alternatively, parents can choose to enrol their child in a private school.  In these cases, the child does not qualify for free transport.

This all seems perfectly fair and reasonable.  It is consistent with the goals of providing equal access to education and of enabling a marketplace for private education.  It does not discriminate against children who attend private schools because it doesn’t change those children’s rights to free travel to their local school.  They’re just waiving that right by attending a different school instead.

However, as in so many cases, the rules change when the spectre of faith schools rears its ugly head.  More on the downright unfairness of UK faith schools in a moment, but the particular unfairness I’m interested in here is this one:  if parents choose to send their child to a faith school, they can automatically expect free transport even if it isn’t the closest school to their home.

In other words, children of religious parents are entitled to benefits that children of non-religious parents are not.  To be sure, it’s not quite as simple as that.  Not all religious parents have the opportunity to enrol their children in faith schools and many don’t wish to.  Conversely, there are sure to be children in faith schools who do not have religious parents.  I’m not arguing that all religious parents automatically have an additional right.  I’m arguing that it’s religion itself that is once again privileged.  Students who do attend faith schools receive an additional right simply because of the faith aspect. 

This might not seem like a big deal in itself, but it’s yet another example of the entirely unfair and inexplicable privileging of religion.  It means that children can attend schools they couldn’t otherwise afford to solely on the basis of their parents’ belief or professed belief.  This option wouldn’t be open to my children.  Not that I’d want to send them to a faith school, of course, but I might want to make choices about which school my child attends on other grounds. Academic grounds, for example: shouldn’t I expect the same benefits?

North Yorkshire County Council is – as far as I’m aware – the first to address this situation.  It’s proposing that children shouldn’t get free travel to a faith school if it is not their local or otherwise designated ‘normal’ school.  This is a cost-saving measure rather than an anti-religious one, but it seems well targeted.  It’s hard to imagine what legitimate objection there could be, especially when the alternative is cutting funding for school travel for disabled children.

No doubt the religious will come up with objections anyway.  The only one I’ve seen so far is from a Church of England vicar who says that the council hasn’t considered the full impact of the proposal and that – inexplicably – student numbers will fall in both faith and non-faith schools as a result.  Since every child has to attend a school, I’m not entirely convinced by this argument.

Faith schools are grossly unfair for lots of other reasons too.  If you’re in the UK, you can watch Richard Dawkins’ show Faith School Menace? Here: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/faith-school-menace/4od

It’s quite hard to find information about faith schools.  I haven’t even managed to find out yet how many there actually are in North Yorkshire, although there are 7000 in England, mostly Church of England and Catholic.  But this is what I’ve been able to verify so far.  Correct me if I’m wrong about anything:

Anyone can start a faith school.  All you need is a fairly small amount of money (around £1m, I think) and the government will give you a whole lot more money to get started and pay your bills in perpetuity.  You only get to do this if your school is to have a religious focus and has formal links with a mainstream religion.  In some cases, I’m given to understand, the Labour government even waived the need to raise any private money at all.  Usually, a religious organisation must supply the land for buildings, but the school will usually receive 90% of capital costs.

Once you’ve started a faith school, it can then opt out of the religious education curriculum, whereas other schools cannot.  This means that while other schools have to teach about all religions and secular issues relating to religion, faith schools can teach only theirs.  Or presumably they could teach lies about other religions or about atheists. 

You can teach creationism in faith schools.  While they are compelled to teach the curriculum, there’s nothing to prevent them teaching additional material.  Of course, this is true in all schools, but only faith schools can get away with teaching outright lies such as creationism.  There’d rightly be an outcry if non-faith schools did this, but it has happened in UK faith schools without very much fuss at all. 

You get to be more selective about which students you accept than a non-religious school.  You can discriminate against children on the grounds of their parents’ religion but must otherwise comply with the statutory Admissions Code.  In practice, this mostly means that you can prioritise students whose parents share your religion, but if you have spaces left over, you have to fill them with people whose parents have a different or no religion.  However, the figures suggest that some form of covert selection is going on anyway.  For example, faith schools have fewer students from poorer families and fewer with special educational needs.  This will make your results look better.

You can discriminate against non-religious staff.  You can fill all teaching posts with members of the faith you promote and can instigate faith tests.  No other employers (other than churches themselves) are allowed to do this.  If I refused to employ someone because they were religious, I’d rightly be judged to be breaking the law.  But it’s OK to do it if you’re a faith school.  It’s a worrying practice for other reasons, too.  What’s to stop a faith school using the religious test as an excuse to dismiss staff, claiming an ideological dispute?  It could be used as a way to bypass normal disciplinary or redundancy procedure or to avoid claims of unfair dismissal.

You can decide what your school’s ethos will be.  I’ve no idea what this means, but I’m guessing it will include things like dress code, punishment, behaviour etc.  Assuming that faith schools must otherwise comply with the law, this is still somewhat worrying.  Can faith schools force girls and female staff to wear a burka?  Could they expel a student for eating pork?  Or for being homosexual?  Or for being an atheist or professing another religion?  Might they be allowed to punish girls for socialising with boys?  Or for being ‘disrespectful’ to males?  Or for being sexually assaulted by a male?  Might they be able to punish students for things they do outside school?

I don’t know whether any of these things are true, but why would this weasel word ‘ethos’ be required unless the schools wished to do things they wouldn’t normally be allowed to or be exempt from something otherwise mandatory?