This was the title of a meeting organised by the Bristol University Atheist Agnostic and Secular Society on 1st November. The meeting wasn’t recorded, but here is (more or less) what I said.
I’m not quite sure why I’m here, because the fantasies of religion seem to me much like the fantasies of quack medicine, not only morally offensive, but also simply boring. Fruitless speculations about the existence of gods is about as useful a way to spend time as fruitless speculations about whether there really are fairies at the bottom of your garden.
Of course people are free to believe in any daft thing they want, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. The problem is that daft beliefs about religion, just like daft beliefs about medicine, do harm other people. I suppose it’s my job to point out that neither religion nor philosophy are likely to allow you to understand the world, whereas science has, at least, got a chance of doing so. It has made a small start already.
What I like about science is that it is undogmatic. When the facts change you are forced to change your mind. If the facts contradict your theory, then your theory is wrong.
Very often, you have simply to say “I don’t know”. In contrast, religious people virtually never change their minds and very rarely say they “don’t know”. They invent pseudo-explanations, like “god did it”, for just about anything, and justify it with quotations from holy books. The holy books are so inconsistent, often downright weird, that you can pick a citation that justifies whatever your opinion was in the first place. You might as well cite a book of magic spells.
I’d maintain that philosophers of science have contributed very little of substance to the conduct of science, but I’ll miss that bit out because I wrote about it last week,.
Dr Baggini, among others, has claimed that the “new atheists” are too strident, and that they only antagonise moderate atheists (see The New Atheist Movement is destructive, though there is something of a recantation two years later in Religion’s truce with science can’t hold).
I disagree, for two reasons.
Firstly, people like Richard Dawkins are really not very strident. Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, is quiet and scholarly. It takes each of the arguments put forward by religious people, and dissects them one by one. It’s true that, having done this, he sets forth his conclusions quite bluntly. That seems to me to be a good thing. If your conclusions are stifled by tortuous euphemisms, nobody takes much notice. Just as in science, simple plain words are best.
The second, and more important, reason that I like Dawkin’s approach is that I suspect it’s the only approach that has much effect. There is a direct analogy with my own efforts to stop universities giving BSc degrees in subjects that are not science. Worse, they are actively anti-science. Take for example, homeopathy, the medicine that contains no medicine. I started by writing polite letters to vice chancellors. Usually they didn’t even have the courtesy to reply. All efforts to tackle the problem through the “proper channels” failed. The only thing that has worked was public derision. A combination of internal moles and Freedom of Information Act requests unearthed what was being taught on these courses. Like Westminster’s assertion that “amethysts emit high Yin energy”. Disclosure of such nonsense and headlines like
“Professor Geoffrey Petts of the University of Westminster says they “are not teaching pseudo-science”. The facts show this is not true
are certainly somewhat strident. But they have worked. Forget the proper channels if you want results. Mock what deserves to be mocked.
Religion is often immoral
When a pair of besuited Mormons knock on the front door, there are two reactions. Most people hide under the kitchen table. I don’t. I invite them in. It usually goes something like this. “why don’t you believe in god?”. To which I respond, “I don’t believe in god on moral grounds. All religions that I have encountered teach immorality”
This response is greeted with incredulity and indignation. You may think, is a bit strong, so let’s have some examples. The bible says (amongst many contradictory things)
Deuteronomy , chapters 7 & 20. and Joshua, chapters 6, 8, 10, 11, 14, etc.: After wandering in the desert for four decades, God ordered the Hebrews to invade the "promised land" and totally exterminate "the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites"leaving "alive nothing that breathes." They were to fight and kill the soldiers of these groups, and then murder the defenseless elderly, women, youths, children, infants, and newborns. The book of Joshua records the progress of the genocide, city by city:
20. And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.
21. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.
and the Koran says
“The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication—flog each of them with hundred stripes: Let no compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by God, if ye believe in God and the last day.”[Quran 24:2] “
If these aren’t deeply immoral, I don’t know what is. This gratuitous cruelty isn’t just Old Testament either. This is what persuaded me that religion is bad.
When I was about 15 I went to a summer camp which turned out to be run by christian evangelists (my parents swore they didn’t realise that it was a brain-washing camp). I was converted and became rather earnest. Then, at 18, I met a nurse. Being on Merseyside, she was Irish. And being 18, I was rather interested in sex. The price of sex was to go with her to mass, so of course I went. It was Easter and they were doing the Twelve Stations of the Cross. I still recall watching this, with mounting horror. The priests were just enjoying it too much. It was almost like a sado-masochistic orgy. The priests seemed to be almost masturbating. It was simply sick. Quite revolting.
Once, after walking in the Dolomites, I wrote to the Italian Tourist Authority to complain that my holiday was spoiled because every time I got to the top of a mountain, I was greeted with a scene of graphic torture (a crucifix). It is very offensive to any normal human.
Of course, since then, it’s turned out that a large number of priests were not just enjoying the torture in their heads, but had been acting out their nasty fantasies through rape of real children. And that the Church (including the present pope) had gone to great lengths to conceal their activities from m the public and from the police.
The constant emphasis on guilt is horrible for adults. But telling happy young children that they are guilty sinners is obnoxious. It is a form of child abuse. And catholic schools that decorate classrooms with scenes of torture corrupt young minds. Indoctrinating children in one particular sect of one religion are not part of a civilized society. It promotes misunderstanding and prejudice between one child and another. This sort of divisive brainwashing is ghastly.
Ludicrously, when you pass 18, the law reverses itself. Up to the age of 18 you are encouraged by moral politicians (you know, like Blair and Gove) to promote religious segregation but once you pass 18, that sort of behaviour would, very properly, be illegal. The Universities Tests Act (1871) made it illegal for a university discriminate on grounds of religion, as governments actively encourage schools to do. (The Act was passed, of course, to bring Oxford and Cambridge up to the standards set by UCL in 1826.)
Then, of course, there is the church’s contribution to the spread of AIDS, by telling direct lies about condoms. The list goes on and on.
And these people want to tell us about morals? You must be joking.
When Napoleon mentioned to the great mathematician, Laplace, that God is not mentioned in the Me’chanique ce’leste, Laplace replied, " Sire, I did not need that hypothesis." When Napoleon later reported this reply to Lagrange, the latter remarked, "Ah, but that is a fine hypothesis. It explains so many things."
History doesn’t relate whether Lagrange’s comment was deeply ironical, but I like to think it was. It hits the nub of the problem. Religion explains nothing whatsoever, just muddles the ideas, and replaces one unknown with another.
At the time of the Reformation, Sir Thomas More was fond of burning heretics at the stake (merely possessing a bible in English was enough to get you tortured to death). .The protestants were no better, of course: they eventually decapitated More. But it won’t do to say that these things happened in the 16th century. In the 20th Century the pope declared the heretic-burner to be saint (one of the curious bits of make-believe that catholics seem to enjoy). Worse still, in 2000, Pope John Paul II declared Thomas More to be the “heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians” (whatever that means).
And of course it still goes on. Catholics and protestants kill each other. Sunnis and Shias kill each other. It’s characteristic of organisations whose beliefs are based on myths to be deeply aggrieved by people whose myths differ in some trivial detail. It happens in alternative medicine too. It’s all summed up in the "religious joke of the year".
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: "Stop. Don’t do it."
"Why shouldn’t I?" he asked.
"Well, there’s so much to live for!"
"Are you religious?"
He said, "Yes."
I said, "Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?"
"Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
"Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"
"Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"
"Baptist Church of God."
"Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God."
"Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?"
He said: "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915."
I said: "Die, heretic scum," and pushed him off.
In a nutshell, my objection to religion is that, with occasional honourable exceptions, it spreads immorality and violence.
Of course non-religious people can be just as immoral and violent, but, in the words of Stephen Weinberg:
"for good people to do evil things, it takes religion."
Is there hope for something better?
It’s pretty clear that as education spreads, religion dies. The process is well-advanced in the west, in every country apart from the USA, but in the USA religion is just another business, devoted to extracting money, mostly from the poor, and supporting the extreme right wing parties and military adventurism.
We shouldn’t be too smug about Islam either. Admittedly I was slightly taken aback when a second year undergraduate, on duty at an Islamic exhibition at UCL, told me that "when Islam came to power in the UK I would be executed" (and then asked for my name). But it’s little more than 100 years since we stopped whipping people and people were still being hanged in my lifetime. My guess is that in another few hundred years, Islam will catch up. It will become gradually less cruel and women will, bit by bit, come to be treated as human beings. But once that happens, Islam will start to die out altogether, just as Christianity has (almost) done in the West.
So, in the words of the atheist bus campaign.
"There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
In the questions after the talk, I was spurred into saying
Religion is what we had before the enlightenment
Times Higher Education published today a version of an earlier post on this blog, Why should a postman pay for your university education?.
Although the submtted version was within length, it got shortened and, worse, a bit garbled in places. I got no chance to check the final version. The penultimate paragraph was not written by me. So here, for the record, is what I sent them.
.We hear a lot about lifelong education, and a good thing too. But we have a government that seems to think socially-useful learning does end at 18. This age is a watershed in official attitudes to education particularly in two areas, religious discrimination and education as a public good.
In 1871 the Universities Tests Act made it illegal for a university to discriminate among applicants on the basis of religious beliefs (or lack thereof) and forced Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham to follow in the footsteps of UCL. For the last 140 years it has been unimaginable that any university would allow religious discrimination. In stark contrast, in 2010, religious discrimination (and the accompanying social discrimination) in entry to primary and secondary schools is not only legal, but is actively encouraged by the government. It was a trend that got worse while the ‘reverend’ Tony Blair was prime minister. The minister of education under the new conservative regime promised even more religious schools. Why the rules should be diametrically opposite when you are under 18 from when you are over 18 is baffling.
It is equally baffling (and perhaps a partial explanation) that universities are not regarded as part of education at all by this government and its immediate predecessors. Universities are governed by the Department of Business, not the Department of Education. Education is not regarded as a continuum, or as a life-long project: it’s something you do at school.
The government has managed the remarkable feat of devising a system for universities in which everybody loses. It saves the taxpayer little or no money (according to HEPI). It leaves universities worse off. And it does both of these while tripling the debt incurred by students. It’s hard to believe that such monumental ineptitude has motives that are other than ideological. The virtual privatisation of post-18 teaching, particularly of humanities, was a step too far even for Margaret Thatcher.
The only too brief debate on these changes focussed almost entirely on how to repay an enormous debt. That was the wrong starting point. The first thing that should have been decided was what sort of university system we want. It is arguable that the honours degree system is quite unsuited to an age when half the population get higher education. A general first degree, at a teaching-only institution, would be much cheaper, and it would be a social leveller. If that were followed, for those who wanted and merited it, by a properly taught graduate school (as opposed to the present powerpoint-teaching charades), and this was taught by active researchers at research intensive places, the standard of education would be increased. There might be some problems with such a system, but they were not even discussed before rushing the changes through.
The organisation that should have been at the forefront of fresh thinking, UUK, was paralysed as the elite VCs, all in favour of maximum fees, wrangled with the post-1992 VCs who saw themselves at greater risk. The result was total inaction. They may have been on leadership courses, but they failed to lead. The elite VCs are now finding that even £9000 will leave them worse off than before. They really should have thought a bit more about how to adapt to tertiary education for half the population rather than trying to fund things as they are at the moment.
Whatever the system, the question will always arise: why should a postman pay for your university education? My answer is that they should pay, but not very much. They should pay because, although they may not get any direct benefit themselves, their children certainly may. The fairest, most progressive, tax is income tax. If you are a postman, or indeed a graduate, on a low income, you shouldn’t pay much tax, so you won’t pay much for other people’s university education.
I can see no reason for the sudden change in attitude to, and funding of, education that happens when you reach 18.
I see every reason why kids should be angry. I doubt that we have seen the last of the riots.
I hope not anyway.
One member of parliament, above all others, has championed reason for the last 13 years, But Evan Harris was not re-elected in Oxford West and Abingdon. On May 6th he got 23,730 votes, a mere 176 votes fewer than his conservative rival.
Click picture to see hero movie (be patient) (or right click to download mpg file)
Let me declare an interest. Evan Harris is one of the most principled men I have ever had the pleasure to meet. His stands on human rights, civil rights and libel law reform have been exemplary. He is also one of the few (and now fewer) members of parliament who understands how science works and its importance for the future of the UK. He has been a tireless advocate for the idea that policy should be based on evidence (as opposed to guesswork)..
Harris is also an atheist, something that one would not expect to be very relevant in a country where the influence of religion has declined progressively for many years. It would not be relevant if it were not for the fact that his defeat was brought about by poisonous lies propagated by, ahem, evangelical christians. I’m an atheist too, but I have met some good christians, I think they are wrong about their sky fairies, but I also think they should be free to believe in them if they want. Some of them do good things as a result of their beliefs. But not in Oxford West and Abingdon.
The (just) winner was conservative Nicola Blackwood. She is a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. But curiously a search of her web site for ‘christian’ shows not a single result. Shouldn’t voters know about your beliefs? It seems distinctly dishonest not to admit that your views come from an old book as interpreted by old men, The voter should know your motives.
Her profile at the Conservative Christian Fellowship says
“Along with many Christians, she is concerned that right to freedom of religion is being undermined without proper understanding of the potential consequences for faith groups or the wider community. In particular, she fears that the voice of Christians and people of other faiths on key issues of conscience is too readily dismissed in public debate.”
But what did Nicola Blackwood know about the smear leaflets?
Nicola Blackwood’s web site not only doesn’t mention the word ‘christian. It says very little about policies of any sort, There is no
mention of euthanasia or any of the other questions raised in pamphlets that were distributed throughout the constituency. There is a well hidden disclaimer
"Nicola has distanced the Conservative Party from literature distributed by private individuals and special interest and pressure groups attacking her opponent".
That is a pretty weak response to the poisonous and inaccurate leaflets that were circulated (they can be seen here). The worst stuff came form two sources
The Reverend Lynda Rose.
Lynda Rose is an Anglican minister who seems to think it appropriate to call a good man "Dr Death" because of her religious ‘principles’. Here is part of her leaflet
Lynda Rose has extreme "pro-life" views, more like those of the pope than of the average anglican. She seems not unlike the extreme right wing fundamentalist religious groups found in the USA. Harris told the Oxford Mail that
“It is a pity that, instead of putting up a candidate to contest the election, an anonymous group, using money from no-one knows where, is distributing an inaccurate personal attack leaflet in this constituency for the first time ever.
“It is offensive and I would say profoundly unchristian to use the term Dr Death – associated with Nazi murderer Joseph Mengele or mass-murderer Harold Shipman – to describe any politician.”
The Reverend Rose replied to the this in a letter to the Oxford Mail (April 26th) that is reproduced on the web site Anglican
Mainstream ("Anglo-catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox, Charismatic, Mainstream"). There is not a word of apology for vilely defamatory use of “Dr Death”, but merely a huffy defence of Hansard’s voting records.
That takes some beating as uncharitable, intolerant, inaccurate (and defamatory) comment. But there is even worse to come.
Keith Mann was another candidate in the same election. In 1994 Mann was sentenced to 14 years in jail, reduced to 11 years on appeal, for 21 offences including possession of explosives, incitement, criminal damage, and escape from custody (from Wikipedia). His leaflets were even worse than those of the Reverend Lynda Rose.
This vile calumny, full of inaccurate allegations and written by someone wth a serious criminal record, was aimed at a deeply-principled man. No doubt helped Nicola Blackwood to scrape in, but I can find no direct denunciation of it from Ms Blackwood. Christians don’t seem to be fussy about their allies.
Then there were the newspapers, in particular the Daily Telegraph.
Cristina Odone was editor of the Catholic Herald from 1991 to 1996. She is another ‘good christian’ who wrote an abominably nasty piece in the Daily Telegraph on April 19th. The Lib Dems are a Jekyll and Hyde party. Forget nice Mr Clegg. What about ‘Dr Death’? It is worth looking at it as a prime example of inaccurate, ad hominem, nastiness. It is also worth looking at for the comments: there were a lot of comments (thanks to an alert via Twitter) and most of them were along the lines of this of one of the first, from the redoubtable skepchick
"Thanks for the heads up, Cristina! Now I know to cheer for the LibDems. I want to know that if I end up in a vegetative state, I’m given a peaceful death rather than my own Telegraph column."
Most importantly, read the calm, diginified and polite response from Evan Harris himself.
I have never said that that the current abortion rate is not of import (you just made that up Christina!) and indeed have argued for more effective sex and relationships education as other countries manage and which also delays first sexual intercourse. And for better access to effective contraception. We can disagree on that too but best to have a rational discussion rather than a distortion.
I have never said “God is bad, his followers mad”. You made that up again Christina! I respect the religious view actually but believe that the state should be neutral on religion and it should not be privileged by the state above other beliefs.
My own comment took a while because of the Telegraph’s clunky registration system.
“This truly vile piece of writing shows all the tolerance of an Ayatollah who advocates rule by religious dogma (well actually, of course, by his own opinions). There could hardly be a worse moment to seek to impose catholic values on the rest of society. That church, including its head, has been seem to fail to report to the police the most vile crimes. It is in deep disgrace precisely because of its lack of moral principles.
One thing was very clear: she doesn’t understand the web. Her follow-up article seemed to think that the response was organised by Lib Den HQ! The Lib Dems’ spooky posse of internet pests. Sorry, Ms Odone, but these days concerned individuals can speak up.
The Reverand Goerge Pitcher, anglican minister at St Bride’s church, Fleet Street, was the next priest to bring disgrace on christianity with another incredibly nasty piece, again in the Telegraph, The best result of the election: Let’s rejoice that Lib Dem Evan Harris has lost his seat.
Again there were many hostile comments, including quite a lot from christians.
“Speaking as a Christian, I find it amazing how many Christians are capable of being thoroughly nasty about people they dislike. I have made a mental note that if I ever find myself seeking a church in central London, I shall avoid St Brides, Fleet St like the plague.”
and from ex-christians
“Dr Evan Harris is more of a doctor than either you or Nadine Dorris are “human beings”. You are both spiteful, evil people, and you are exactly the sort of person that drove me to reject the Catholic Church, and ask for an official notice of my defection to be placed in the baptismal register of my parish.”
Father Raymond Blake is another cleric who thinks you should vote according to his interpretation of the bible. His web site is as political as that of the christian taleban of the southern USA,
and just about as charitable. He too uses the "Dr Death" abuse, with no consideration of what Harris actually advocates.
How is it that christians (and homeopaths) can be quite so unpleasant?
Religious people, and those with other belief systems that resemble religions are supposed, traditionally, to be warm, caring people, charitable, forgiving and selfless, That, at least is the image they like to cultivate. Of course it has never been quite as simple as that. Just think of the inquisition, the warring catholics and protestants and, right now, the sordid disgrace of child rape, and its cover up by the highest officials of the vatican.
Last easter, I added a bit to the 2008 diary section of this blog about why I’m not a christian It seems to be worth repeating here.
"When I was about 15 I went to a Summer camp which turned out to be run by christian evangelists (my parents swore they didn’t realise that it was a brain-washing camp). I was converted and became rather earnest. Then, at 18, I met a nurse. Being on Merseyside, she was Irish. And being 18, I was rather interested in sex. The price of sex was to go with her to mass, so of course I went. It was Easter and they were doing the Twelve Stations of the Cross. I still recall watching this, with mounting horror. The priests were just enjoying it too much. It was almost like a sado-masochistic orgy. The priests seemed to be almost masturbating. It was simply sick."
I was reminded of this streak of cruelty that runs through christianity by the comment made by an aide to Tony Blair who said
“I couldn’t help feeling TB was rather relishing his first blooding as PM, sending the boys into action. Despite all the necessary stuff about taking action ‘with a heavy heart’, I think he feels it is part of his coming of age as a leader.”
His enthusiasm for a war that has killed over 100,000 people (and cost a small fortune) seems sadly consistent with his catholicism,
Despite all this, some individual religious people have done good for humankind.
Likewise proponents of magic medicine are proud of their individual caring approach and this may indeed be helpful in eliciting a good placebo response.
The problem seems to be that neither group can tolerate criticism. They aren’t interesting in discussing anything, because they just know they are right. And if anyone tries to express an opinion that differs from their own, the niceness vanishes like the snow in spring.
The quotations above show the downright nasty vindictiveness of religious people towards an honourable man who happens to hold somewhat different views to their own.
Likewise the cuddly homeopaths show astonishing abusive nastiness to anyone who doesn’t believe in their magic. I allow them to say what they want on this blog but they routinely delete comments. Along with most of my scientific friends, I’ve been subject to abuse and utterly incorrect allegations. I don’t enjoy it, but if its the price of free speech, so be it.
I fear that these things represent the incursion into UK politics of the extreme polarisation seen in the USA. a place where religious people seem to think it is moral to shoot doctors who do abortions.
Some morality. Thank you Tony Blair.
Some other blogs on this topic
Dr Aust wrote Catholicism plus writing in the Telegraph apparently makes you barking mad.
Tessera wrote Playing dirty politics. Attacks on Dr Evan Harris
A liberal Dose (Neil Fawcett) wrote Extremists to the left of me, fundies to the right.
Richard Dawkins wrote Evan Harris: Is this why he lost his seat?
Ophelia Benson wrote three good posts (via comment from Swiss Frank)
http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2010/peculiar-george/and, via Butterflies and Wheels,
Clifford Longley has trenchant comment on Platitude of the Day
Texas schools board rewrites US history with lessons promoting God and guns. Chris McGreal, in the Guardian writes about the sort of thing that the clerics mentioned here might love.
“US Christian conservatives drop references to slave trade and sideline Thomas Jefferson who backed church-state separation”
“Several changes include sidelining Thomas Jefferson, who favoured separation of church and state, while introducing a new focus on the “significant contributions” of pro-slavery Confederate leaders during the civil war.”
“The new curriculum asserts that “the right to keep and bear arms” is an important element of a democratic society. Study of Sir Isaac Newton is dropped in favour of examining scientific advances through military technology.
There is also a suggestion that the anti-communist witch-hunt by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s may have been justified.
The education board has dropped references to the slave trade in favour of calling it the more innocuous “Atlantic triangular trade”, and recasts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as driven by Islamic fundamentalism.”
Being interested in science communication, I was pleased when the BMJ asked me to review Unscientific America , by Chris Monney and Sheril Kirshenbaum.
The BMJ provides a link that allows you access to the whole review. They have made very few changes from the submitted version, which is reproduced below (with live links in the text. [Download pdf of print version]
I very soon discovered that the book had already caused ructions in the USA, as a result of its advocacy of appeasement of religious groups. In particular there was all out war with P.Z.Myers, whose very popular blog, Pharyngula. documented the battle in detail).
It is an American book through and through, and in the USA the biggest threat to reason comes from the far-right religious fundamentalists who preach young-earth creationism. It is said that 46% of US citizens believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. The same far-right religious groups also preach that carrying guns is good, that Iraq was responsible for 9/11, that climate change is a socialist conspiracy and that health care for everyone is a communist plot. And they never hesitate to lie in the promotion of their ‘religious’ views. The US situation is totally different from that in Europe, where religion is all but dead, and young earth creationism is the preserve of a few cranky used-car dealers (and possibly Tony Blair?)
Review of the Week
Trust me, I’m a scientist
David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology, University College London
Unscientific America sounds like a fascinating topic, not least because the book is a follow-up from Mooney’s The Republican War on Science. It is written entirely from a US perspective (the USA sequenced the genome and invented the internet, apparently unaided). It’s reported that 46 percent of Americans believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. That’s certainly cause for alarm and Mooney & Kirshenbaum are certainly alarmed. They think that the public needs to be educated in science. They identify the obvious problems, evolution, climate change and quackery and ask what can be done. The problem is that they propose no good solutions, and some bad ones. Their aims are worthy but sometimes the book reads like an over-long and somewhat condescending whine about why science and scientists are not sufficiently appreciated.
I simply don’t think that it’s true that the public are not interested in science, nor that they can’t understand it at a level that is sufficient to be useful. It’s true that they have been let down badly by some sections of the media. Think particularly of the “great MMR hoax”1. The disastrous fall in vaccination is more attributable to talk show presenters and air-headed celebrities than to lack of interest from the public. People are systematically deceived by anti-vaxers, climate change denialists, vitamin pill salesmen and a horde of crackpot alternative therapists.
There is one problem that Mooney & Kirshenbaum don’t talk about at all, yet it seems to me to be one of the biggest problems in science communication. It isn’t lack of interest by the public, nor even lack of understanding, but lack of trust. The tendency of real science to indulge in hyperbolic self-promotion is one reason for the lack of trust. Sometimes this descends into outright dishonesty2,3. That is a tendency that is promoted by government and funding agencies by their insistence on imposing silly performance measures. The public is quite sensible enough to take with a pinch of salt the almost daily announcements of “cancer cures” that emanate from university press offices.
On the face of it, one should be encouraged that ‘public engagement in science’ is the mode du jour. It isn’t quite that simple though. Only too often, universities regard public engagement as a branch of their own PR machine4. They even instruct you about what tone of voice to use when talking publicly.
One reason why scientists need to talk to people outside the lab is precisely to counteract this tide of nonsense from PR people, who are paid to deceive. The problem for academics is usually time. We already do three jobs, teaching, research and coping with HR bollocks. How can we find time for a fourth job? That’s not easy, especially for the best researchers (those that do research themselves, not just lead a team). Mooney & Kirshenbaum suggest that the solution is to create a “cadre of communication and outreach experts”. I don’t think this would work. They would, by and large, be outsiders, writing uncritical paeans, dictated by big name scientists. A new cadre of PR hangers-on does not sound like a great idea. A better, and very much cheaper, solution would be to provide a course in free blogging software and we’ll do it ourselves.
The two chapters that I looked forward to reading, on religion and on “The bloggers cannot save us”, proved deeply disappointing. The authors are firmly in the camp of what Richard Dawkins called the “Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists&rdquo.; They maintain “if the goal is to create an America more friendly to science and reason, the combativeness of the New Atheists is strongly counterproductive”. They are particularly critical of P.Z. Myers5, the University of Minnesota developmental biologist who is splendidly clear in his views. Of the communion wafer, he famously said “It’s a frackin’ cracker”. But he, and Dawkins, are right. When it comes to young earth creationists we have a war on our hands, and nowhere more than in the USA. What’s more it’s a winnable war. Mooney & Kirshenbaum are all for appeasement, but appeasement won’t work. It might please the more moderate wings of the church, but they already believe in evolution and are regarded by fundamentalists as being just as big an enemy as Myers and Dawkins. And, one must ask, who has done best at getting a wide public readership? P.Z Myers’ blog, Pharyngula, has up to two million page views a month. Dawkins’ book The God Delusion has sold three million copies. In comparison the bland and often rather condescending corporate science web sites get tiny numbers of hits.
In Europe in general, and the UK in particular, young earth creationists are not the major problem that they are in the USA, despite being supported by Tony Blair6. Perhaps the nearest analogy in Europe is the threat to reason from various sorts of crackpot medicine. The appeasers are widespread. The Royal Colleges and the Department of Health are at the forefront of the Neville Chamberlain approach. But appeasement hasn’t worked there either. What has worked is the revelation that university courses are teaching that “amethysts emit high yin energy”7. Or, in a lecture on herbal approaches for patients with cancer, “Legally, you cannot claim to cure cancer. This is not a problem because: ‘we treat people, not diseases’ “8. This is shocking stuff but it has not been unearthed by the corporate media, but by bloggers.
I think Mooney and Kirshenbaum have it all wrong. They favour corporate communications, which are written by people outside science and which easily become mere PR machines for individuals and institutions. Such blogs are rarely popular and at their worst they threaten the honesty of science. More and more individual scientists have found that they can write their own blog. It costs next to nothing and you can say what you think. A few clicks and the world can read what you have to say. Forget corporate communications. Just do it yourself. It’s fun. And think of the money you’d save for doing science if the PR people were just fired.
(1) Goldacre, B. The media’s MMR hoax. 2008 http://www.badscience.net/2008/08/the-medias-mmr-hoax/
(2) PLoS One. Ghostwriting documents now fully available on PLoS Medicine website. 21-8-2009 http://speakingofmedicine.plos.org/2009/08/21/ghostwriting-documents-now-fully-available-on-plos-medicine-website/
(3) Colquhoun, D. Universities Inc. in the UK. The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education: part 2. 6-12-2007 http://www.dcscience.net/?p=193
(4) Corbyn, Z. Nottingham raises eyebrows over definition of ‘public engagement’. 21-8-2008 http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=403234
(5) Myers, P. Z. Pharyngula. 2009 http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/
(6) Pyke, N. Revealed: Blair’s link to schools that take the Creation literally (Independent 13 June 2004). 13-7-2004 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/revealed-blairs-link-to-schools-that-take-the-creation-literally-732032.html
(7) Colquhoun, D. Westminster University BSc: "amethysts emit high yin energy". 23-4-2008 http://www.dcscience.net/?p=227
(8) Colquhoun, D. Herbal approaches for patients with cancer. 10-8-2009 http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2043
P.Z. Myers has posted about thie book review, on Pharyngula, as Is this book dead yet? There are a lot more comments there than here, though few of them address the question of science communications..
Butterflies and Wheels is generating a lot of hits
Latest: Michael Reiss resigns 16 September 2008: see below
There has been something of a rumpus in the media today when the education secretary of the Royal Society, Michael Reiss, appeared to endorse the teaching of creationism in science classes, The BBC’s report was only too typical.
“Call for creationism in science”
“Creationism should be discussed in school science lessons, rather than excluded, says the director of education at the Royal Society.”
The Guardian’s report, perhaps also not entirely accurate, started with the words
“Creationism and intelligent design should be taught in school science lessons, according to a leading expert in science education.”
After lunch today the email below was sent out to Fellows
|Dear Fellow/Foreign Member
Royal Society’s position on the teaching of creationism in schools
You may have seen in the today’s media coverage of the Royal Society’s position on the teaching of creationism in schools, following a speech by the Society’s Director of Education. Unfortunately, much of the coverage has given a misleading impression of the Society’s policy.
To prevent further confusion, a statement clarifying the Society’s position has been issued today and the text is given below:
“The Royal Society is opposed to creationism being taught as science. Some media reports have misrepresented the views of Professor Michael Reiss, Director of Education at the Society expressed in a speech yesterday.
Professor Reiss has issued the following clarification. “Some of my comments about the teaching of creationism have been misinterpreted as suggesting that creationism should be taught in science classes. Creationism has no scientific basis. However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis.”
In addition, we are working actively to correct the misunderstanding by dealing directly with individual newspapers and broadcast media.
So that seems clear “The Royal Society is opposed to creationism being taught as science.”. So I shan’t have to resign.
You can be sure that proponents of creationism, and its dishonestly disguised version, “intelligent design” will exploit this misunderstanding ruthlessly.
Much more of this and I’ll have to revive my old religion page. I thought for a moment that we were going back to the dark ages of Sarah Palin.
Watch this space for developments.
Perhaps this matter is not so trivial after all. The Guardian report Reiss as saying
“science teachers should not see creationism as a “misconception” but as an alternative “world view” “
The BBC says
“Rather than dismissing creationism as a “misconception”, he says it should be seen as a cultural “world view”. “
Most importantly, Reiss himself said, in a Guardian blog (not the original speech), on September 11th,
“I feel that creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a world view.”
None of those versions sounds at all acceptable to me.
Creationism is a misconception.
The original speech can be heard on a Guardian Play the mp3 file.
It seems to me all to turn on what Reiss means by “showing respect” for ‘alternative world views’, which you believe to be pernicious bunkum. The term ‘alternative world view’ is itself cause for concern. It smacks of alternative medicine. In what sense is a piece of nonsensical bunkum an ‘alternative’ as opposed to being simply bunkum?. I don’t envy teachers who have to deal with young children, who have been brainwashed by religious parents, on matters like this, but older ones should not be encouraged to think that religious nonsense is a proper alternative to sensible thought and observation.
The Observer on Sunday 14 September reports
Creationism call divides Royal Society
Two Nobel prize winners – Sir Harry Kroto and Sir Richard Roberts – have demanded that the Royal Society sack its education director, Professor Michael Reiss. The call, backed by other senior Royal Society fellows, follows Reiss’s controversial claim last week that creationism be taught in schools’ science classes.
Reiss, an ordained Church of England minister, has since alleged he was misquoted. Nevertheless, several Royal Society fellows say his religious views make him an inappropriate choice for the post.
The Reverend Professor Reiss presumably believes the Nicene Creed. That creed seems to make about as much sense as homeopathy (with the same reservation that some of the words have no discernible meaning at all). I’m inclined to agree that it makes no sense to ask someone who believes that stuff to take charge of science education.
Steve Jones, the UCL geneticist, has his say in the Sun
Latest: Michael Reiss resigns
On 16th September, the following statement was made by the Royal Society.
Some of Professor Michael Reiss’s recent comments, on the issue of creationism in schools, while speaking as the Royal Society’s Director of Education, were open to misinterpretation. While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the Society’s reputation. As a result, Professor Reiss and the Royal Society have agreed that, in the best interests of the Society, he will step down immediately as Director of Education a part time post he held on secondment. He is to return, full time, to his position as Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education.
The Royal Society’s position is that creationism has no scientific basis and should not be part of the science curriculum. However, if a young person raises creationism in a science class, teachers should be in a position to explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism is not, in any way, scientific.
The Royal Society greatly appreciates Professor Reiss’s efforts in furthering the Society’s work in the important field of science education over the past two years. The Society wishes him well for the future.
Sadly, I’m inclined to believe that this is the best solution. Reiss’s soundness on evolution is not in doubt. but there was sufficient ambiguity in his statements that he should perhaps have anticipated the furore that would, and did, ensue.
Now the trivial stuff.
This video about Sarah Palin’s church was pulled from YouTube for “inappropriate content” -found it on richarddawkins.net
Sarah Palin’s Churches and The Third Wave from Bruce Wilson on Vimeo.
And this hilarious one from CNN
OK this is not very serious (or is it?). A computer game: players of PolarPalin must help a polar bear to navigate its way across Alaska to blow up oil wells, all the while avoiding Palin, the governor of the state, in her campaign tank.
This has been reposted from my old religion and education blog.
Derek Gillard’s excellent "Education in England" site had this beautiful piece. With his permission, I reproduce it here, because it has now vanished from his site. However you can still read also Gillard’s excellent essay “Creationism: bad science, bad religion, bad education”
Marcus Atkins, a classroom assistant at a Cornish secondary school, is taking the school’s governors to an industrial tribunal claiming unfair dismissal. He says the governors have discriminated against him because of his religious beliefs.
Atkins (pictured in class) is a member of the Fraternity of Neptune, a little known religious group which believes that, since life was created in the sea, they must honour the sea god by wearing full diving gear, including heavy metal helmet and lead-lined boots.
Governors at Porthnutnow High School decided to sack the classroom assistant on the basis that the children couldn’t hear what he was saying, that he refused to work in any classroom where children of fishing families were present, and that his lead-lined boots were wearing out the carpet in the school library.”
“Atkins says he has been unfairly treated. ‘The children can hear what I’m saying perfectly well,’ he told a BBC reporter. ‘All they have to do is stick the other end of my breathing tube in their ear and bingo.’ (At least, that’s what the reporter thinks he said).
Asked about the charge that he had refused to teach the children of fishing families, he replied ‘I’ve got to stick to my religious principles. Why can’t the head simply arrange the school’s timetable so that none of these children are in the classes I work with? What’s difficult about that?’
And the library carpet? ‘That’s ridiculous too,’ said Atkins. ‘I’ve refused to go in the library because there are books about trawlers in there, so how can I be wearing out the carpet?’
Atkins doesn’t have much support – hardly surprising given that Porthnutnow is a fishing village. His local MP is backing calls for him to be sacked and one government minister told the Sunday Mirror that the teaching assistant was ‘denying the right of children to a full education’.
Meanwhile, the government is pressing ahead with plans to open hundreds more religious schools, including a handful of academies sponsored by the Fraternity of Neptune. Grand Merman Sir Cyril Driftwood said ‘It’s a wonderful opportunity to teach children Neptunian theology, a subject I feel has been sadly lacking from the National Curriculum for too long.’