Posts Tagged ‘richard dawkins’

RT Video of Teachers’ Demonstration in Washington against Betsy DeVos

October 17, 2017

Betsy DeVos is Trump’s education secretary. She’s a multimillionaire member of the family behind the Amway pyramid scheme, who has never attended a public, that is, state school in her life, and as a bright red corporate Republican, hates them with a passion. She, like her master, Trump, wants to privatise them, and turn them into charter schools. This means that they will be able to circumvent the state legislation regulating teaching standards, the pay and conditions of teaching staff, just like Academies in the UK. And in the case of America, they will also be outside the legislation outlawing the teaching of religion in schools.

Teachers in America, like those in Britain, are extremely worried and angry. This is a video by RT America of a demonstration by public school teachers outside the Hyatt Regency Bellevue Hotel in the state of Washington last Friday, 13th October 2017. The assembled educators have placards proclaiming ‘Stop Fascism’, protesting the privatisation of the American school system, and demanding an end to the road from school to prison. I don’t know the particular symbolism, but some of the female demonstrators lined up to wear 17th/18th century dress with red capes, holding placards, which read out ‘This nightmare will end’.

Mike and I both went to Anglican church school in Bristol, and I have absolutely nothing against the teaching of religion in schools nor the state supporting faith schools. I’m not a secularist. Religious education in British schools hasn’t prevented the increasing secularisation of society. Religion, and more recently the attempts of secular philosophy to grasp with the deep issues of humanity’s existence, morality and meaning, have been part of human culture and identity for centuries, if not millennia. It can also be argued that we need proper teaching about each others’ religious beliefs as society has become more plural and multicultural, so that children do not get distorted or bigoted pictures of our fellow citizens and their religious beliefs or secular philosophies.

But I’m also aware that American society and educational tradition is different, and that there are quite legitimate concerns that what these schools will push is not education, but indoctrination. Just as there are concerns over here about the extremist agenda pursued by some of the new faith schools established in the UK.

Mine and Mike’s mother was a junior school teacher for many years, and I did my first degree at an Anglican teacher training college, and so have some understanding from the inside of what teachers face. Contrary to what the Republicans and Conservatives would have us all believe, teachers as a rule don’t want to indoctrinate children with lesbian feminist cultural Marxist propaganda, although they do want to make sure that girls as well as boys reach their academic potential, and they do have a statutory duty tackle prejudice, including homophobia. But most of all, teachers want to stand in front of a White board and teach. And those I know, who’ve done it state that it’s immensely rewarding. They want to see their pupils do well, and become bright, inquiring members of society. They want to pass on the interest and passion they have for the subjects they teach, whether English, maths, science, history, whatever to the children in their care.

I’m perfectly aware that there are some terrible teachers. But the good far outnumber the bad. Teachers in this country have been appallingly treated by successive governments ever since Margaret Thatcher, and the attempts to privatise, or part-privatise schools through their transformation into academies and charter schools threaten educational standards, as well as the pay and conditions of the teaching staff themselves. This country has suffered from wave after wave of qualified teachers leaving the profession as conditions have become worse, demands increased, and in some cases even dangerous. There have been cases where teachers are assaulted. At the same time, like other public sectors workers, pay has been cut or frozen. They have not been given the support they need by the authorities, and in the case of the Republicans in America and Conservatives over here, they’ve actually been demonised and vilified. Over the decades newspapers like the Scum, the Heil and even the Torygraph have run article after article trying to scare the British public with stories about how left-wing teachers are indoctrinating Britain’s children. Under Cameron, we had Michael Gove whining about history wasn’t being taught properly. It should be more patriotic, with children taught the approved Tory version of the First World War, rather than Blackadder. As Mike pointed out in a series of articles he put up about it, this would be to distort history for the Tories’ own benefit. As well as mistaking a comedy, based on history, with history itself.

In the 1980s, my mother felt so strongly about the threat to British education that she and the other teachers in her union took industrial action. As did very many others. This was not done selfishly to maintain their own privileges at the expense of their children. It was also because they were very much concerned that unless strike action was taken, the Tories would continue to run down the British education system. As they have, and Blairite New Labour as well.

The transformation of America’s public schools into charter schools is undemocratic, and hasn’t just been done by the Republicans. Obama also pushed for it. And like Blair in England, schools were often taken out of the state sector and made charter schools against the wishes of the community, parents, teachers, community groups, pastors and clergy. The Black community in particular has been threatened by the fall in educational standards that they represent. A year or so ago the veteran civil rights organisation, the NAACP, came out against them. There are books over here about the failings of academy schools. One of the pamphlets I’ve written is against them. If you want a copy, just let me know in the comments and I’ll get back to you.

But DeVos and the corporatists want a privatised school system both as a source of profit and because they would transform the school system from proper education, to a system of creating a passive workforce, who have enough knowledge to work for their corporate masters, but not enough to question, think for themselves, or even to be able to participate fully in art and culture. Art and music along with other humanities are being dropped from the curriculum in Britain as schools concentrate on the STEM subjects. And this is harming our children’s education.

C.P. Snow talked of the ‘two cultures’. He felt that there was a real gap between the arts and the sciences, so that the two formed distinct, separate cultures with little contact between each other. I think his fears, however true they were when he was writing, are somewhat exaggerated now. Science and mathematics has inspired much art down the centuries, as you can see from the weird paradoxes of Max Escher or the new scientific experiments that were painted during the 18th century by Wright of Derby. And scientists and science educators like the late Carl Sagan and even Richard Dawkins have expressed an extensive knowledge and keen appreciation of art.

This is why teachers are protesting against academies and charter schools: they want to preserve proper educational standards. They want to make sure that the poorest children have the same opportunity to achieve as the wealthiest. They want education to receive its proper status as a public good, not the preserve of the affluent, or simply another revenue stream for a grotty multinational like Murdoch’s. And although in Britain religion is taught, or supposed to be taught, in schools, there are safeguards and legislation against indoctrination. And teachers wish to preserve those as well.

So stand with your community teachers and teaching unions, and don’t let the Republicans in America or the Tories in Britain turn your school into an academy.

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Vox Political and the Critique Archives Rebut the Claim that Islamophobia Isn’t Racism

September 25, 2017

Mike yesterday put up a piece by Martin Odoni of the Critique Archives, which does a good job of refuting the claim that it’s all right to demonise Muslims, because Islam isn’t a race. Mr. Odoni points out that even Richard Dawkins made this defence when he was tackled over some of his comments about Islam. Odoni points out that, while true, the difference between Islam as a race and Islam as a religion is largely semantic. The difference still allows discrimination of Islam as something foreign and ‘other’, and most White Brits probably think of a crazed Arab suicide bomber when they think of Islam. This is offensive, not only because it is both sectarian and racist, but also because it’s inaccurate. Only a small minority of the world’s Muslims are actually Arabs.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/09/24/no-islam-is-not-a-race-but-islamophobia-is-racism-thecritique-archives/

Of course, Mr. Odoni’s entirely right. But I also think that some of this rather artificial distinction was made by some because of a real fear generated by the rantings of some of the bigots. Akhtar and the others, who led the campaign against Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Verses in the Britain wanted to extend the British blasphemy laws to cover Islam. Much of the propaganda produced by the EDL and the ‘counter-jihad’ movement is about the threat posed to western secularism by the demands of some Muslims for anti-Islamic blasphemy to be outlawed. A few years ago Muslims around the world demonstrated against the-then Pope, when he quoted the negative comments of a Byzantine emperor about Islam. There were several marches in Britain, where the demonstrators held aloft banner proclaiming ‘Behead the Pope’, ‘Free Speech Go To Hell’, and others telling us that the jihad was coming. I’ve no doubt that the offence felt by Muslims around the world was genuine, but that those demonstrators demanding violent retaliation and clamp down on free speech were also in the minority.

But there is a problem in that many Islamic countries, possibly the majority, do have laws against blasphemy, and these laws have been used to shut down free speech and criticism of these regimes. They’ve also been used to foment the vicious persecution of religious minorities, such as Christians. Before Rushdie was hit with a fatwa by the Ayatollah Khomeini for his book, the Egyptian writer Mahfouz Naguib was forced into exile for a book he wrote, where it appears that the narrator is the Almighty. In Britain the blasphemy laws have been a dead letter for a very long time. The last action brought under them was by Mary Whitehouse in the late ’60s or early ’70s against a poem which appeared in Gay News. This in turn provoked a demonstration in support of the paper by the gays. From what I’ve heard about it, the protests were held right outside her house and on her own property, so that she looked out the window to find her garden filled with angry people waving placards.

Demands for the criminalization of anti-Islamic blasphemy, and the death of those they consider responsible, have diminished over the past few years. This is probably because the government has become increasingly less tolerant of actions that may stir up racial or sectarian unrest on one hand, while the Muslim bigots on the other are probably keeping quiet so they don’t get identified as potential jihadis, or jihadi sympathisers.

Nevertheless, a distinction has to be made between the kind of speech that is racially or religiously offensive, and reasoned criticism of Islam as a religion, along with every other faith or ideology. Free speech has to preserved from those bigots of any type, who would like to close it down altogether. And this means showing that while the Islamophobic demonization of Muslims it outlawed, this does not mean that reasonable criticism is illegal. The EDL and counterjihad movement try claim that the Islamisation of the west is occurring by stealth, and that once legislation is passed against Islamphobia, this will lead to further legislation prohibiting all criticism of Islam, until finally Islam is legally established as the official and unassailable religion.

Not only should Islamophobia be tackled, but it needs to be shown that their fears are unfounded. That the free criticism of all religions and ideologies, including Islam, is still permitted, and that we are most definitely not on a steady progress to becoming an Islamic state, whatever bilge is being spouted about ‘Eurabia’. Considering the way the EDL have split up and fragmented, and the way Pegida UK massively failed to take off, I think most people in Britain are getting this point already. It’s only the bigots and morons, who haven’t.

More Anti-Science from Trump: Climate Denier to Head NASA

September 13, 2017

This is absolutely incredible. It really is like something from dystopian Science Fiction, but unfortunately it’s true. In this clip from the Jimmy Dore Show, the American comedian and his co-hosts, Ron Placone and Steffi Zamorano comment on a report from Democracy Now! that Trump has decide to appoint Jim Bridenstine as the new head of NASA. Bridenstine has no scientific credentials, and doesn’t believe in climate change. In fact, in 2013 he stood on the floor of the senate and demanded that Barak Obama apologise for promoting it.

The trio begin the clip by remarking on the evidence from the hurricanes to hit America that climate change is real. Before storm Harvey, only three magnitude 5 storms had hit America. They then show how ludicrous the decision is by stating that as Trump has appointed someone, who doesn’t believe in a scientific fact to head a scientific agency, then Richard Dawkins should be appointed to head the national prayer breakfast. Dore jokes that there hasn’t been a government this anti-science since Galileo. And the Pope has apologized for him. The papacy also acknowledges climate change. Which means the world’s most religious Roman Catholic is more progressive than Trump and his minions.

There’s no way this is anything other than an attempt by the Republicans and their paymasters, the Koch brothers, and the other big polluting industries, to hobble and silence research into climate change in America. One of the functions satellites carry out is weather and climate monitoring. Space research generally has also led to greater understanding of weather systems on Earth. For example, the massive storms that rage across Jupiter are driven by the same laws and forces as those, which generate similar storm systems on Earth. Countries like India have invested in their space industry for the promise it offers of monitoring the weather and the progress of crop diseases, which can be disastrous for a developing nation, much of whose population are subsistence farmers.

Dore’s wrong about the Pope’s treatment of Galileo, however. Yes, it was scandalous, but at the time Galileo’s own research was actually undersupported. And he didn’t help himself in his book, the Dialogue of the Two World Systems. He knew the pope was an Aristotelian, but deliberately made the Aristotelian speaker in the book appear as stupid as possible. Even so, the Church was not uniformly against him. He did have supporters within the church and amongst the cardinals. See James Hannan’s God’s Philosophers: Science in the Middle Ages.

But this is like something from Science Fiction. Stephen Baxter’s Titan is an alternative history, in which a rabidly anti-science senator becomes president of the US and closes down NASA. It’s because he’s a Creationist, and doesn’t believe in the Copernican heliocentric system, or the discoveries revealed by Galileo. What isn’t shut down, is given to the USAF and given over to defence instead, while the agency’s museum is shut, except for its museum. This is then altered to stress the religious experiences many of the astronauts had when exploring space.

This isn’t quite fair on the Creationists. Those I knew did not reject Galileo and they didn’t reject heliocentrism, although I’ve since come across people, who do on the Net. But there are still clear parallels between Baxter’s book and Trump and those who back him.

Yesterday I found an interview with the veteran comics creator, Pat Mills on YouTube. I’m going to have to write a piece about it, because Mills is very left-wing and a fierce critic of capitalism and Britain’s class system. In the video, he states that when he started writing for 2000 AD, he and the others were told to create futures, which people would live in. And now we are. He pointed out that there really were robots, which looked like Robusters, and we also now had Donald Trump, who was very much like something from 2000 AD’s often bleak view of the future.

And he’s right. Trump’s appointment of a scientific ignoramus like Bridenstine is almost exactly like something from Science Fiction. And Mills compared Trump himself to Judge Cal, the deranged Chief Judge of Mega City 1, who behaved like Caligula. He appointed his pet fish as judge, and had one of the other judges pickled. Oh yes, and he called in the alien Kleggs to keep the human population of Mega City 1 under control. Trump hasn’t made contact with an evil alien life forms yet, but the nepotism and corruption is all there. Even if he hasn’t made his goldfish senator. But given the fictional parallel drawn by Mills, Bannon, Kelly-Anne Conway and the others he’s got rid of should be glad he just had them sacked. The real trouble’s going to start when he starts ordering human-sized pickled jars.

Forthcoming Programme on the Destructive Consequence of IT

August 1, 2017

Next Sunday, the 6th August, BBC 2 is showing a documentary at 8.00 pm on the negative aspects of automation and information technology. Entitled Secrets of Silicon Valley, it’s the first part of a two-part series. The blurb for it in the Radio Times reads

The Tech Gods – who run the biggest technology companies – say they’re creating a better world. Their utopian visions sound persuasive: Uber say the app reduces car pollution and could transform how cities are designed; Airbnb believes its website empowers ordinary people. some hope to reverser climate change or replace doctors with software.

In this doc, social media expert Jamie Bartlett investigates the consequences of “disruption” – replacing old industries with new ones. The Gods are optimistic about our automated future but one former Facebook exec is living off-grid because he fears the fallout from the tech revolution. (p. 54).

A bit more information is given on the listings page for the programmes on that evening. This gives the title of the episode – ‘The Disruptors’, and states

Jamie Bartlett uncovers the dark reality behind Silicon Valley’s glittering promise to build a better world. He visits Uber’s offices in San Francisco and hears how the company believes it is improving our cities. But Hyderabad, India, Jamie sees for himself the apparent human consequences of Uber’s utopian vision and asks what the next wave of Silicon Valley’s global disruption – the automation of millions of jobs – will mean for us. He gets a stark warning from an artificial intelligence pioneer who is replacing doctors with software. Jamie’s journey ends in the remote island hideout of a former social media executive who fears this new industrial revolution could lead to social breakdown and the collapse of capitalism. (p. 56).

I find the critical tone of this documentary refreshing after the relentless optimism of last Wednesday’s first instalment of another two-part documentary on robotics, Hyper Evolution: the Rise of the Robots. This was broadcast at 9 O’clock on BBC 4, with second part shown tomorrow – the second of August – at the same time slot.

This programme featured two scientists, the evolutionary biologist, Dr. Ben Garrod, and the electronics engineer Professor Danielle George, looking over the last century or so of robot development. Garrod stated that he was worried by how rapidly robots had evolved, and saw them as a possible threat to humanity. George, on the other hand, was massively enthusiastic. On visiting a car factory, where the vehicles were being assembled by robots, she said it was slightly scary to be around these huge machines, moving like dinosaurs, but declared proudly, ‘I love it’. At the end of the programme she concluded that whatever view we had of robotic development, we should embrace it as that way we would have control over it. Which prompts the opposing response that you could also control the technology, or its development, by rejecting it outright, minimizing it or limiting its application.

At first I wondered if Garrod was there simply because Richard Dawkins was unavailable. Dawko was voted the nation’s favourite public intellectual by the readers of one of the technology or current affairs magazines a few years ago, and to many people’s he’s the face of scientific rationality, in the same way as the cosmologist Stephen Hawking. However, there was a solid scientific reason he was involved through the way robotics engineers had solved certain problems by copying animal and human physiology. For example, Japanese cyberneticists had studied the structure of the human body to create the first robots shown in the programme. These were two androids that looked and sounded extremely lifelike. One of them, the earlier model, was modelled on its creator to the point where it was at one time an identical likeness. When the man was asked how he felt about getting older and less like his creation, he replied that he was having plastic surgery so that he continued to look as youthful and like his robot as was possible.

Japanese engineers had also studied the human hand, in order to create a robot pianist that, when it was unveiled over a decade ago, could play faster than a human performer. They had also solved the problem of getting machines to walk as bipeds like humans by giving them a pelvis, modeled on the human bone structure. But now the machines were going their own way. Instead of confining themselves to copying the human form, they were taking new shapes in order to fulfil specific functions. The programme makers wanted to leave you in new doubt that, although artificial, these machines were nevertheless living creatures. They were described as ‘a new species’. Actually, they aren’t, if you want to pursue the biological analogy. They aren’t a new species for the simple reason that there isn’t simply one variety of them. Instead, they take a plethora of shapes according to their different functions. They’re far more like a phylum, or even a kingdom, like the plant and animal kingdoms. The metal kingdom, perhaps?

It’s also highly problematic comparing them to biological creatures in another way. So far, none of the robots created have been able to reproduce themselves, in the same way biological organisms from the most primitive bacteria through to far more complex organisms, not least ourselves, do. Robots are manufactured by humans in laboratories, and heavily dependent on their creators both for their existence and continued functioning. This may well change, but we haven’t yet got to that stage.

The programme raced through the development of robots from Eric, the robot that greeted Americans at the World’s Fair, talking to one of the engineers, who’d built it and a similar metal man created by the Beeb in 1929. It also looked at the creation of walking robots, the robot pianist and other humanoid machines by the Japanese from the 1980s to today. It then hopped over the Atlantic to talk to one of the leading engineers at DARPA, the robotics technology firm for the American defence establishment. Visiting the labs, George was thrilled, as the company receives thousands of media requests, to she was exceptionally privileged. She was shown the latest humanoid robots, as well as ‘Big Dog’, the quadruped robot carrier, that does indeed look and act eerily like a large dog.

George was upbeat and enthusiastic. Any doubts you might have about robots taking people’s jobs were answered when she met a spokesman for the automated car factory. He stated that the human workers had been replaced by machines because, while machines weren’t better, they were more reliable. But the factory also employed 650 humans running around here and there to make sure that everything was running properly. So people were still being employed. And by using robots they’d cut the price on the cars, which was good for the consumer, so everyone benefits.

This was very different from some of the news reports I remember from my childhood, when computers and industrial robots were just coming in. There was shock by news reports of factories, where the human workers had been laid off, except for a crew of six. These men spent all day playing cards. They weren’t employed because they were experts, but simply because it would have been more expensive to sack them than to keep them on with nothing to do.

Despite the answers given by the car plant’s spokesman, you’re still quite justified in questioning how beneficial the replacement of human workers with robots actually is. For example, before the staff were replaced with robots, how many people were employed at the factory? Clearly, financial savings had to be made by replacing skilled workers with machines in order to make it economic. At the same time, what skill level were the 650 or so people now running around behind the machines? It’s possible that they are less skilled than the former car assembly workers. If that’s the case, they’d be paid less.

As for the fear of robots, the documentary traced this from Karel Capek’s 1920’s play, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robot, which gave the word ‘robot’ to the English language. The word ‘robot’ means ‘serf, slave’ or ‘forced feudal labour’ in Czech. This was the first play to deal with a robot uprising. In Japan, however, the attitude was different. Workers were being taught to accept robots as one of themselves. This was because of the animist nature of traditional Japanese religion. Shinto, the indigenous religion besides Buddhism, considers that there are kami, roughly spirits or gods, throughout nature, even inanimate objects. When asked what he thought the difference was between humans and robots, one of the engineers said there was none.

Geoff Simons also deals with the western fear of robots compared to the Japanese acceptance of them in his book, Robots: The Quest for Living Machines. He felt that it came from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. This is suspicious of robots, as it allows humans to usurp the Lord as the creator of living beings. See, for example, the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein – ‘the Modern Prometheus’. Prometheus was the tAstritan, who stole fire from the gods to give to humanity. Victor Frankenstein was similarly stealing a divine secret through the manufacture of his creature.

I think the situation is rather more complex than this, however. Firstly, I don’t think the Japanese are as comfortable with robots as the programme tried to make out. One Japanese scientist, for example, has recommended that robots should not be made too humanlike, as too close a resemblance is deeply unsettling to the humans, who have to work with it. Presumably the scientist was basing this on the experience of Japanese as well as Europeans and Americans.

Much Japanese SF also pretty much like its western counterpart, including robot heroes. One of the long-time comic favourites in Japan is Astroboy, a robot boy with awesome abilities, gadgets and weapons. But over here, I can remember reading the Robot Archie strip in Valiant in the 1970s, along with the later Robusters and A.B.C. Warriors strips in 2000 AD. R2D2 and C3PO are two of the central characters in Star Wars, while Doctor Who had K9 as his faithful robot dog.

And the idea of robot creatures goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Hephaestus, the ancient Greek god of fire, was a smith. Lame, he forged three metal girls to help him walk. Pioneering inventors like Hero of Alexandria created miniature theatres and other automata. After the fall of the Roman Empire, this technology was taken up by the Muslim Arabs. The Banu Musa brothers in the 9th century AD created a whole series of machines, which they simply called ‘ingenious devices’, and Baghdad had a water clock which included various automatic figures, like the sun and moon, and the movement of the stars. This technology then passed to medieval Europe, so that by the end of the Middle Ages, lords and ladies filled their pleasure gardens with mechanical animals. The 18th century saw the fascinating clockwork machines of Vaucanson, Droz and other European inventors. With the development of steam power, and then electricity in the 19th century came stories about mechanical humans. One of the earliest was the ‘Steam Man’, about a steam-powered robot, which ran in one of the American magazines. This carried on into the early 20th century. One of the very earliest Italian films was about a ‘uomo machina’, or ‘man machine’. A seductive but evil female robot also appears in Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis. Both films appeared before R.U.R., and so don’t use the term robot. Lang just calls his robot a ‘maschinemensch’ – machine person.

It’s also very problematic whether robots will ever really take human’s jobs, or even develop genuine consciousness and artificial intelligence. I’m going to have to deal with this topic in more detail later, but the questions posed by the programme prompted me to buy a copy of Hubert L. Dreyfus’ What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. Initially published in the 1970s, and then updated in the 1990s, this describes the repeated problems computer scientists and engineers have faced trying to develop Artificial Intelligence. Again and again, these scientists predicted that ‘next year’ ,’in five years’ time’, ‘in the next ten years’ or ‘soon’, robots would achieve human level intelligence, and would make all of us unemployed. The last such prediction I recall reading was way back in 1999 – 2000, when we were all told that by 2025 robots would be as intelligent as cats. All these forecasts have proven wrong. But they’re still being made.

In tomorrow’s edition of Hyperevolution, the programme asks the question of whether robots will ever achieve consciousness. My guess is that they’ll conclude that they will. I think we need to be a little more skeptical.

Vox Political: Kipper and Conservative MP Douglas Carswell in Row with Scientists over Tides

September 20, 2016

This piece by Mike over at Vox Political is a real gem, as it encapsulates the profound anti-intellectualism and sheer bone-headed stupidity of the Tories and the Kippers. Mike has posted up a piece commenting on a report in the Independent that Douglas Carswell, the former Tory and now Kipper MP for Clacton, has got into a row with Britain’s scientists over the origins of tides. Conventional science holds that they’re caused by the Moon. Carswell, however, believes they’re caused by the Sun, and has challenged a top scientist at Sussex University’s Science Policy Research Unit over the issue.

The report also notes that this bizarre claim was made after Michael Gove declared that the British people were tired of experts after he failed to name one economist, who thought that Brexit would be good for Britain.

The title of Mike’s piece just about sums up the astonishment Carswell’s claim must cause in everybody, who has any idea about science: Both Tories and Kippers Have Made Douglas Carswell an MP. Read This and Asky Why?

Both Tories and Kippers have made Douglas Carswell an MP. Read this and ask: Why?

Quite. If you’re wondering whether the Moon does cause tides, Mike over in his piece has a clip of Brian Cox explaining the phenomenon.

I’ve a feeling that as far back as the ancient Greeks, it was known that the Moon caused tides. Certainly the great medieval philosopher and scientist Robert Grosseteste of Lincoln knew about it in the Twelfth century. As he was writing several centuries before Isaac Newton discovered the Law of Gravity, Grosseteste believed that they were caused by the Moon’s magnetism, rather than its gravitational effect on Earth. Still, you can’t expect too much of the people of that period, when science was still very much in its infancy. But it nevertheless shows the astonishing advances the people of the Middle Ages were capable of, simply using the most primitive of equipment, observation, and the power of their minds.

This simple fact, that the Moon causes the Earth’s tides, has been put in thousands of textbooks on astronomy and space for children since at least the beginning of mass education and popular science. Astronomy has been a popular hobby for amateurs since at least beginning of the 20th century, and I’ve no doubt probably as far back as the 19th. Generations of children have had the opportunity to learn that the Moon causes tides, along with other interesting and fascinating facts about space. Carswell, however, is clearly the exception, having rejected all that.

It all brings to my mind the conversation Blackadder has with Tom Baker’s bonkers sea captain, Redbeard Rum, in the epdisode ‘Potato’ from the comedy show’s second series. Trying to impress Good Queen Bess by sailing abroad as explorers, Blackadder, Percy and Baldrick plan to fake their expedition by sailing round and round the Isle of Wight instead until they get dizzy. They get lost instead as Rum believes it is possible to sail a ship without a crew. When they ask him if you really can, Rum replies, ‘Opinion is divided.’
‘So who says you don’t?’
‘Me.’
‘So who says you do?’
‘Everybody else.’
‘Bugger!’

Quite.

This exactly describes Carswell’s attitude to space physics. Everybody else believes the Moon causes the tides, except him. I can see this causing yet another panic amongst scientists and ‘science educators’. Way back around 2009, the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, various scientists like Richard Dawkins were running around demanding better science education because polls showed a majority of the British public didn’t believe in it. This was partly a response to the growth in Creationism and Intelligent Design, though both of these views of evolution have had a very limited impact over here in Britain. That controversy seems to have quietened down, though the issue of the continuing need for improved science education has carried on with the persistence denial of climate change and anthropogenic global warming by the Right in both America and Britain. One of the sceptics of global warming and climate change over on this side of the Pond is Nigel Lawson. He’s even written a book about it, which I found the other day in another of Cheltenham’s secondhand book shops. Now that Carswell’s made this statement about the tides, which flies in the face of everything scientists have known since blokes like Aristotle, it wouldn’t surprise me if today’s leading science communicators, like Dawkins, Robert Winston, Alice Roberts, Brian Cox and the rest of them started worrying about this issue as well. And I wouldn’t blame them if they did.

As for Gove’s comment that ‘People in Britain are fed up of experts’, this also reminds me another comment by the American comedian, Bill Hicks. ‘Do I detect an air of anti-intellectualism in this country? Seems to have started about 1980 [the year Reagan was elected].’

If you’re worried that the Tories and UKIP don’t understand science, and are going to take us back to the Dark Ages, be afraid: you’re right. And heaven help the rest of us with them in charge.

Financial Times Review of Biography of Douglas Adams

October 27, 2015

Adams Hitchhiker Photo

Adams on the set of the BBC’s TV series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Going through a pile of old newspaper clippings, I came across a review by David Honigmann of M.J. Simpson’s Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams, published by Hodder & Stoughton, from the Saturday edition of the Financial Times for 22nd/23rd March 2003. Here it is.

The psychologist Meredith Belbin distinguished between a range of roles that individuals could play on a team. There are the co-ordinators who keep things moving, the resource investigators who grub around for materials and cut deals, the shaper/finishers who make sure projects get completed and the plants who throw out ideas. Douglas, it is fair to say, was a plant. In a casual conversation, he could throw out enough ideas for a lifetime’s writing. It was just the actual writing that came hard to him. He was ambitious enough to live in poverty on odd jobs while waiting for his big break, with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but not ambitious enough to keep working at the same rate once fame arrived.

M.J. Simpson’s biography of Adams is surprisingly tart, coming from a fan whose obsession with his subject seems to fall just this side of stalkerhood. The charges against Adams are four-fold: he procrastinated, he was starstruck, he exaggerated, his knowledge of science fiction was shallow. That Adams procrastinated is not in doubt. He learned the habit at the feet of a master, working with Graham Chapman during Chapman’s alcoholic post-Python years. After the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, all his books were delivered late – in many cases they were only begun after the deadline had passed. But he was, in general, so reliable as a cash-cow that editors and publishers were prepared to wait for milking-time. Nonetheless, at the time of his death, Adams had not completed a book for eight years, and his last project, Starship Titanic, had received only a lukewarm reception.

Starstruck, Adams certainly seems to have been. He went to Cambridge to ingratiate himself with the Footlights crowd: he wanted to be John Cleese and worked his way into at least an outer ring of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. His parties were studded with musicians from Procol Harum, Pink Floyd and Wings, and Islington media glitterati.

“The audience were more famous than the band,” recalls one of the latter ruefully. For his 42nd birthday, he was given a certificate entitling him to appear on stage with Pink Floyd. His school chaplain suspects that his atheism was caused by his hero-worship of Richard Dawkins. At best, this tendency in Adams meant that he exposed himself to a wide range of ideas, many of which he developed in his own work; at its worst, this star-spotting was mostly harmless. That Adams played up his anecdotes seems likely. Simpson patiently debunks some of the myths: the first book did not go straight to number one in the Sunday Times bestseller list; Adams did not have to fight his way through crowds to get to his first book signing; the original idea for Hitchhiker did not (probably) come to him as he lay drunk in a field outside Innsbruck. The myths became part of Adams’ brand. He told the stories well, as can be heard on Douglas Adams’s Guide to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an audiocassette from BBC Worldwide. In essence, they fulfilled his desire to be a performer, not just a writer.

They may have served a function as self-defence in the face of a world with almost limitless tempting distractions. And they seem to have fulfilled his need for external validation: as someone who cherished throughout his life the time when a hard-to-please English teacher gave him 10 out of 10 for a story, he succumbed to the temptation to make his career a little more successful, a little more lucky.

The final suggestion is that Adams’s knowledge of science fiction was shallow. This is probably correct: one of the characteristics of science fiction fandom is that someone, somewhere, always knows more than you do. But as a science fiction writer, Adams had the mastertouch of being able to put names on concepts that no one previously knew they needed. The number of Hitchhiker concepts now embedded in the internet (such as the Babel Fish as a universal translator) is a tribute to this. There is one strikingly sad moment in Douglas Adams’s Guide, when Adams notes, “when you pass 40 – and I’m well past 40 – you suddenly become aware that all the things on your agenda … you’re not going to do them all.”

Had he lived longer, it is doubtful whether he would have produced much more, unless driven to it by economic necessity. Simpson considers this a waste of his talent. More charitably, one might conclude that most of his ambitions had been fulfilled and a few decades of intellectual puttering about and indulging his hobbies was a fair reward.

Despite Simpson’s general diligence, there is one striking lacuna. For the last decade or so of his life, Adams had been working on a novel to be called The Salmon of Doubt. What was to be in it changed periodically but the title remained – surprising, given Adams’s general indifference to titles. Simpson dismisses it as “a meaningless phrase”, but it is nothing of the sort. The Salmon of Doubt is a riff on the Irish legend of the Salmon of Certainty, which grants whoever eats it all the knowledge in the world. The seer Fionn labours for seven years to catch it, but when he does he leaves someone else to cook it while he gathers firewood. The other man – who turns out to be Fionn, son Uail, son of Baiscne – consumes three drops of oil from the fish, and he gets the knowledge, not Fionn the seer.

In other words, what turned out to be Adams’s last project was named for the story of someone who procrastinates for seven years over a project to gain the secrets of life, the universe and everything, only to have the prize snatched away from him at the last minute. He would have appreciated the irony.

And here’s the opening titles from the BBC TV version:

UKIP, Islamophobia and the Loud Atheism Website

April 18, 2015

On Thursday, Hope Not Hate published a piece UKIP’s Stretford & Urmston Candidate Thinks Islam is “Despicable” reporting that Kalvin Chapman, the UKIP parliamentary candidate for Stretford and Urmston, Kalvin Chapman, had posted a comment on the ‘Loud Atheism’ Facebook page attacking Islam. He described it as a ‘despicable’ and ‘f***ed up’.

The article’s at http://www.hopenothate.org.uk/ukip/ukip-s-stretford-urmston-candidate-thinks-islam-is-despicable-4397, if you want to see it.

Now I have the impression that this is pretty much par for the course for much of the ‘New Atheist’ movement. This is the form of organised atheism that emerged in late decade, led by Richard Dawkins, Sue Blackmore, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel C. Dennett. The movements critics have pointed out that by and large the New Atheism didn’t have any new arguments, except perhaps an extension of Darwinian theory to try and explain religious belief. In the case of Sue Blackmore and Daniel C. Dennett, it had an extremely reductive view of human consciousness that saw it as being nothing more than a series of biological computer programmes. Sue Blackmore in particular took this to its most logically absurd extent and denied consciousness actually existed.

If the arguments were largely the same, traditional arguments used against religious belief and organised religion, the presentation was quite different. It was much more vicious, vitriolic and intolerant. Atheist movements in the past have persecuted organised religion. Religious belief in the former Communist bloc was severely limited and fiercely persecuted, with religious believers killed or sent to forced labour camps. In the former Soviet Union the penalty for holding a religious service in your own home would see you arrested and your house demolished.

The older, atheist tradition in the West could be much more genteel. Angry revolutionaries like the Surrealist film-maker Bunuel and his counterparts could and did make blasphemous films and art attacking organised religion in general and Roman Catholicism in particular. In the 1950s they held a mock trial of the Roman Catholic church in a disused church just outside Paris, while the Surrealists’ leader, Andre Breton, wrote an article denouncing recent attempts to combine surrealism with Christianity, entitled ‘To Your Kennels, Curs of God’.

Against this, there were atheist intellectuals like A.J. Ayer and Ludovik Kennedy, who were much less personally abusive. Kennedy when he appeared on Mark Lamarr’s chat show, Lamarr’s Attacks, in the 1990s, was courteous and polite. A.J. Ayer became friends with a Jesuit priest after having a Near Death Experience choking on a piece of fish in hospital. It didn’t make him become a religious believer, but the incident does show that people of differing and opposed religious views needn’t be personal enemies.

The New Atheism, by contrast, was much more aggressive, with a far greater use of invective. Rather than merely being attacked intellectually, religious and religious belief should be actively discouraged and given much less tolerance. Richard Dawkins has been quoted by his critics as saying that religious believers should be humiliated and shamed into abandoning their beliefs.

The result of this is that some atheist websites have a reputation for abuse and invective, like P.Z. Myers’ The Panda’s Thumb, set up to defend evolution from creationism, and Raving Atheism. I was warned off the latter by a friend, who said it was just atheists being extremely blasphemous and abusive for the sake of it.

To be fair, this approach has its critics from within the atheist movement, many of whom are genuinely shocked at how extreme and bitterly intolerant the New Atheist rhetoric is. A few years ago one atheist writer published an article in one of the papers actually saying that Richard Dawkins’ made him ashamed to be an atheist. And within the last couple of years in particular a strain of Islamophobia has emerged within the New Atheist movement. Again, this has been exemplified by Richard Dawkins, who become the subject of further controversy because of his posts and tweets attacking Islam, particularly the low status of women in Islamic countries and Female Genital Mutilation. Chapman’s comments about Islam are part of this strand of New Atheism.

And the fear of Islam, or at least radical Islamism, may have been one of the catalysts of the New Atheism from the start. I was talking to a friend of mine a while ago about the origins of the New Atheism. I thought it was a reaction to the growth of Creationism and Intelligent Design, which recognises the emergence of new species over time, but claims this is due to the intervention of intelligent agencies, rather than the mechanism of random mutation and natural selection, suggested by Neo-Darwinian theory. I also wondered if it was also due to the accession to the Presidency of George ‘Dubya’, an Evangelical Christian, and the increasing power and influence of the Christian religious right in American politics.

My friend took a different view. He believed it was a reaction to 9/11 and the rise of aggressive Islamic terrorist movements, like al-Qaeda, and radical and aggressive Islamic political movements within the largely secular West, such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir. He stated that some of Atheists’, Agnostics’ and Secularists’ Societies set up on university campus in practice were little more than anti-Islam societies.

Now I don’t know how true this is. The AAS at Bristol University did not seem to be particularly interested in Islam, only in attacking religion in general. The events and lectures it organised seemed generally disrespectful, such as a social evening in which members were encouraged to dress up as their favourite religious figure. One of their lectures was a general account of traditional, religious beliefs about the creation of the world from antiquity onwards.

Now I do believe that if you are going to criticise religion, then this should extend to all religions, rather than just Christianity as the former majority, mainstream religion of the West. However, in the case of Islam at the moment, such criticism has become extremely dangerous. It can easily lead to the persecution of innocents, including racist attacks and the demonization of Islam generally because of the atrocities committed by the Islamist militants. This in turn may fuel the alienation and resentment in Muslim communities, and further the Islamists’ goal of their further radicalisation.

In the case of Chapman, I’m not surprised that his post against Islam was particularly splenetic, given the title of the website on which it was posted. What is worrying is that it comes from a prospective parliamentary candidate for a party that has developed a reputation for racism and a bitter hostility to Islam.

Hoisted by their Own Petard: Tories Embarrassed by Food Banks and Muslim Alienation

June 12, 2014

A few days ago, Mike over at Vox Political reported that attack on food banks, and the religious organisations that ran them, by Nick Couling. Couling is one of Iain Duncan Smith’s underlings over at the DWP. According to Couling, the rise in food banks was not due to an increase in underlying poverty. No! It was all due to Christian evangelisation, as the Christian charities and churches that run them attempt to use them as a tool for reaching out to the wider, secular community. Mike said in his article that it was a peculiar attitude to take, considering that RTU Smith himself strongly connected his welfare reforms in quasi-religious terms with his own Roman Catholicism. And going further, David Cameron managed to cause outrage at Easter by trying to give his ‘Big Society’ policies are religious justification, not least amongst Christians objecting to the Tories’ increasing impoverishment of millions of citizens through wage restraint and their programme of savage cuts. However, the religious motivation behind the government’s programme of increasing benefit cuts and the dismantlement of the welfare state goes all the way back to that icon of modern Toryism, Maggie Thatcher.

The French researcher, Jean Kepel, in his book on the rise of militant, fundamentalist religion, The Revenge of God, notes that one of Thatcher’s reasons for attacking the welfare state was to strengthen organised religion. She wanted to counter increasing secularisation and the drift away from the churches by cutting down on state welfare provision. This would, she believed, result in the poor and needy having to turn to religious organisations – the churches – for help instead.

And this has indeed occurred, to the great embarrassment of the Tories. The numbers of people using food banks, and the amount of food and meals they provide, are an independent source of statistics for the massive growth of poverty in this country. The unemployment figures can be massaged and doctored by the DWP, which only counts those in receipt of particular types of benefit, while ignoring others. Similarly, Kittysjones in an article, which I reblogged earlier this week, showed how Cameron used the Gini Coefficient to manipulate the figures on inqueality of wealth, and so purport to show that this was a less unequal society than it is. And if that doesn’t work, you can always block the publication of statistics altogether, as RTU has done with the number of people, who’ve died since being assessed as fit and well by Atos. He won’t release the information, and petulantly denounces anyone who demands it as ‘vexatious’, as Mike and the other welfare activists have repeatedly found out.

As Mike reported this morning, IDS tried it on the Trussell Trust back in 2011. The Trust’s head got a phone call from someone in his office stating that Smith was very angry with them. It was another attempt to silence an independent, embarrassing source of information.

It didn’t work. And so this week, after trying to promote themselves as pillars of Christian morality, Couling and his masters apparently decided that they were all militant Dawkinite atheists, determined to protect secular Tory Britain from the march of evil, Left-wing Christian evangelism. Presumably they’ll all go back now and try to erase the bits where Thatcher prates in her speeches about ‘Judeo-Christian values’, and show her instead meeting A.C. Grayling and brandishing copies of Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

That’s determination to strengthen religious organisations through the destruction of secular alternatives is also, according to Kepel, one of the factors in the growth of Islamic Fundamentalism in the UK. It’s not the only, or main one by any means. For Kepel and other researchers into the emergence of militant Islam in the UK, the immediate catalyst was the Satanic Verses controversy in the 1980s. The sense of outrage at the book’s perceived blasphemy shocked and infuriated a very sizable proportion of the country’s Muslim community, and allowed a platform for some deeply intolerant and violently bigoted religious leaders, as well as ordinary, far less radical Muslims, who simply found the book immensely offensive. Kepel notes that what Thatcher failed to appreciate, was that the Muslim community would be in a better position to provide these welfare services than the Christian churches. One of the Five Pillars of Islam, the fundamentals of Muslim faith and practice, is the zakat, or alms tax. Muslims are expected to give a tenth of their income to the mosque, which in turn is supposed to distribute this money to the community’s poor. The Muslim community thus possessed as an integral part of their faith an independent source of support for their community. As a result, as state support was cut down and removed, many Muslim communities became more inward-looking and alienated as their poor turned to this and other more traditional forms of support.

And so it gave yet greater impetus to the kind of militants, that have now surfaced allegedly trying to undermine secular education in Birmingham through ‘Operation Trojan Horse’.

Of course, that isn’t the only assistance Maggie gave to the bigots and fundamentalists. Some of the worst firebrands were deliberately allowed to enter Britain as a reward for their services in resisting the Russians in Afghanistan. This included one deeply unpleasant mujahid, who blew up an airliner carrying military staff from Afghanistan back to Moscow. The plan also happened to be full of schoolchildren, heading back to Russia for the vacation. But this atrocity was perfectly acceptable to Thatcher, because, after all, Communist Russia was ‘the evil Empire’.

And so the poverty, despair and alienation caused by Thatcher’s attack on the welfare state has come back to haunt them. Not that his will cause any embarrassment for the Tory leadership, who have a time-honoured policy of blaming anyone and everyone but themselves. And so the widespread use of food banks is blamed on Christian evangelism – no, but that is party what Maggie wanted – and is silent on their role in promoting and giving material assistance to militant Islam.

And before people start blaming the Muslim community as a whole, just remember that in many cases the authorities repeatedly ignored the warnings of moderate Muslims, shocked at the intolerance and violent hatred coming out of the radical mullahs. The police were repeatedly tipped off about the nature of the Finchley Mosque and its preaching of the jihad by an Algerian Muslim, but did nothing until it became unavoidable. Probably because this would cause official embarrassment and contradict Maggie’s own policy. And so the country’s own security suffered, because Maggie wanted to bring down Communism.

Poverty Journalism and the Media Patronisation of the Poor

March 9, 2014

Thackeray Snob Cover

W.M. Thacheray’s The Book of Snobs (Alan Sutton 1989)

I’ve just reblogged Jaynelinney’s article criticising the media’s use of the poor as a kind of zoo, who can be patronised on camera by visits from ostensibly well-meaning celebrities and TV producers, expressing concerns about their plight. Her piece was inspired by the article, to which she links, in ‘Independent Voices’ in the Indie, about how the middle classes have been regularly traipsing into slums and working class poverty to see how the ‘other half’ live for almost 200 years now. That article mentions, amongst others, Henry Mayhew, the author of London Labour and the London Poor, and George Orwell’s classic, The Road to Wigan Pier, as well as more recent works by Polly Toynbee. Orwell comes in for something of a bashing as he undertook his journey to the heart of industrial darkness as a journo in search of a subject, not as a social campaigner. The book that followed annoyed a member of the National Unemployed Union so much, that he wrote his own book, tracing the journey in reverse, so that he travelled from the depressed areas to the leafy suburbs of Epsom. For the writer of the Independent article, what we need are fewer middle class writers patronising the working class, and more working class writers casting acerbic, jaundiced prose and writing at the Middle and Upper classes and their lives of wealth and luxury.

Thackeray and Snobs, Ancient and Modern

This would, actually, be an interesting experiment, and could produce something really radical. In the hands of a good writer, it could produce something like Thackeray’s The Book of Snobs, but with added social bite. Thackeray was, of course, solidly middle class, and certainly didn’t deny it. The book is subtitled ‘By One of Themselves’. It was originally published by Punch, when it was still slightly subversive, more like Private Eye today than the eminently respectable, establishment organ it later became. Each chapter describes a particular class of snob, who were defined as ‘someone who meanly admires mean things’. Reading it I was struck by how modern it still sounds, despite having first seen print in 1846-7. For example, Thackeray’s chapter on ‘University Snobs’ has this to say about the ‘Philosophical Snob’.

The Philosophical Snob of the 1840s and Their Modern University Descendants

Then there were Philosophical Snobs, who used to ape statesmen at the spouting-clubs, and who believed as a fact that Government always had an eye on the University for the selection of orators for the House of Commons. There were audacious young free-thinkers, who adored nobody or nothing, except perhaps Robespierre and the Koran, and panted for the day when the pale name of priest should shrink and dwindle away before the indignation of an enlightened world.

If you think of the earnest young people, who discovered radical politics at university, or who joined the Student Union and the various political associations with a view to starting a career in politics, or simply read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Uni before joining the staff of an MP on graduation as a researcher, then Thackeray’s description above actually isn’t that different from what goes on today. Robespierre, of course, was the leader of the dreaded Committee for Public Safety, responsible for killing hundreds of thousands during the French Revolution in the name of republicanism, democracy and Deism, so you can easily see a parallel there between the snobs earnestly reading his works, and some of the radicals in the 1960s, who joined the various Communist parties and loudly hailed Mao’s Little Red Book. As for the free-thinkers, who used to toast the day when the last king would be strangled in the bowels of the last priest, that reminds me of the various atheist and secularist societies that sprang up on campuses a few years ago, all talking earnestly about the threat of religion to science and quoting Richard Dawkins and Lewis Wolpert.

the Upper Classes at Uni, and the Perils of their Lower Class Imitators

But it is the poor university students who try to copy their far wealthier social superiors, about whom Thackeray is most scathing. He states:

But the worst of all University Snobs are those unfortunates who go to rack and ruin from their desire to ape their betters. Smith becomes acquainted with great people at college, and is ashamed of his father the tradesman. Jones has fine acquaintances, and lives after their fashion like a gay free-hearted fellow as he is, and ruins his father, and robs his sister’s portion, and cripples his younger brother’s outset in life, for the pleasure of entertaining my lord, and riding by the side of Sir John And though it may be very good fun for Robinson to fuddle himself at home as he does at College, and to be brought home by the policeman he has just been trying to knock down-think what fun for the poor old soul his mother!-the half-pay captain’s widow, who has been pinching herself all her life long, in order that that jolly young fellow might have a university education.

Unfortunately, little also seems to have changed here in the last nearly 170 year since Thackeray wrote that. I did some voluntary work a few weeks ago for M Shed here in Bristol. Many of the other volunteers were also university students and graduates, who were hoping to find a career in museum work. Discussing the country’s problems, one older lady stated very forcefully that the problem was that none of the country’s leaders now came from the working class. Just about everyone agreed with her on this point. One of the university students made the point very many have also made, about politicians coming directly from Oxford, where they studied PPE, and haven’t done a proper day’s work in their lives. The girl told us that one of her friends, who was ‘a little bit posh’, had gone to Oxford and been shocked at how dominated it was by the aristocracy. And have I heard of students, who have managed to irritate their fellows by copying the manners of Oxford upper crust.

Domination of Society by the Upper Classes, regardless of Merit

As for the chapter ‘What Snobs Admire’, where Thackeray describes the life and career of a fictional snob, Lord Buckram, who goes and gets flogged at Eton, studies at Oxford, and then marries well on graduation to a rich heiress, before taking his place among the gilded youth. Thackeray could be describing modern snobbery in all its pomp today, especially, but not exclusively, amongst the cabinet:

Suppose he is a young nobleman of a literary turn, and that he published poems ever so foolish and feeble; the Snobs would purchase thousands of his volumes: the publishers (who refused my Passion-Flowers, and my grand Epic at any price) would give him his own. Suppose he is a nobleman of a jovial turn, and has a fancy for wrenching off knockers, frequenting gin-shops, and half murdering policemen: the public will sympathize good-naturedly with his amusements, and say he is a hearty, honest fellow. Suppose he is fond of play and the turf, and has a fancy to be a blackleg, and occasionally condescends to pluck a pigeon at cards; the public will pardon him, and many honest people will court him, as they would court a housebreaker if he happened to be a Lord. Suppose he is an idiot; yet, by the glorious constitution, he is good enough to govern us. Suppose he is an honest, high-minded gentleman; so much the better for himself. But he may be an ass, and yet respected; or a ruffian, and yet be exceeding popular; or a rogue, and yet excuses will be found for him. Snow sill still worship him. Male snobs will do him honour, and females look kindly on him, however hideous he may be.

Snobbishness Revived, and Britain Going Back to 19th century

This just about describes the social privileges and the expectations of immediate public deference of the entire Tory front bench. All this was, of course, supposed to have been done away in the ‘white heat’ of the ’60s, when, along with the development of new technology, and new classlessness was supposed to have swept through the nation. Well, that may have been the case then, but things have since gone backwards. There are now fewer Labour MPs, who come from a working class background, than there were before the ’60s. Hugh Massingberd, in one of his essays in the Times in the 1980s, celebrated the revival of the fortunes of the aristocracy and the country house under Maggie Thatcher as ‘a new social restoration’. The Libertarians have emerged from out of the Union of Conservative Students to preach Von Hayek and Von Mises’ revival of classical economics, with all its faults, with the exception that in general the 19th century economists approved of trade unions. Well, the new classlessness of the 1960s has thoroughly died down, and the Coalition is leading us forward into the 19th century.

Science Britannia and the Need for a Programme on Medieval Science

September 22, 2013

Last week, the Beeb started a new series on the history of science, Science Britannia, broadcast on BBC 2 on Wednesdays at 8.00 pm. Fronted by Professor Brian Cox, now Britain’s answer to Carl Sagan, the series traces the development of British science and the personalities of the scientists involved from the mid-18th century. The name, Science Britannia, seems to come from the various music documentary series the Beeb has screened over recent years, such as Jazz Britannia, and one on caricature, political satire, the Music Hall and burlesque, Rude Britannia. Now any series on the history of science is to be welcomed, though my problem with such series is that they are always set in the Renaissance or later. In this case, I suspect the series has been influenced in its selection of the date at which to begin by Jenny Uglow’s, The Lunar Men. This was about the 18th century society of natural philosophers – the term ‘scientist’ was not coined until the 19th century – of which Erasmus Darwin was a member. He published his own theory of evolution fifty years before that of his better-known grandson, Charles. On this Wednesday programme Cox does go back to Isaac Newton in the 17th century, to examine his psychology, as well as that of later pioneering British scientists.

I do have one criticism of these series, however. They largely ignore the amazing scientific and technological advances that went on during the Middle Ages. Historians of medieval science, such as James Hallam in his book, God’s Philosophers, and A.C. Crombie in his two volume history of medieval science, have demonstrated that there was no Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries in the sense that these ideas were a radical break with medieval science. They weren’t. Instead, they had their roots very much in the investigations and examination of nature of medieval natural philosophers even as they rejected their Aristotelianism. Roger Bartlet, in his programme on the medieval worldview, has demonstrated that the Middle Ages were not anti-science and that the mixture of science and faith made perfect sense to them, even if it now seems irrational to us. For example, I made a list of about 20 innovations that appeared in Europe during the Middle Ages. They were
Adoption for the purpose of preventing the deaths of unwanted children, Council of Vaison, 442.

Linguistics: Priscian, 6th century.

Floating Mills, Belisarius, 537.

Orphanage, St. Maguebodus, c. 581.

Electrotherapy, Paul of Aegina, 7th century.

Tide Mills, Adriatic and England, 11th century.

Armour plated warships, Scandinavia, 11th century.

Lottery, Italy, 12th century

Harness, Europe, c. 1150.

Spectacles, Armati or Spina, c. 1280.

Pencil – silver or black lead used for drawing, 14th century.

High Explosive Marine Shell, Netherlands, c. 1370, or Venice 1376.

Movable type, Laurens Janszoon, alias Coster, 1423,

Oil painting, H and J Van Eyck, 1420,

Diving Suit, Kyeser, c. 1400.

Double crane, Konrad Kyeser, early 15th century.

Screw, 15th century Europe.

Arquebus, Spain, c. 1450, first used at Battle of Moret, 1476.

Hypothermia, France, c. 1495.

Air gun, Marin Bourgeois, 1498.

Source

Great Inventions Through History (Edinburgh: W&R Chambers 1991).

This is only a short list. There have been whole encyclopaedias written on medieval science and technology.

I think one reason why such as programme has not been broadcast is because it conflicts with the received wisdom about the Middle Ages, and the aggressively atheist views of some of the media own scientific darlings. Since the Renaissance, and particularly since the 19th century, the Middle Ages have been viewed as an age of superstition, in which the Church actively discouraged and persecuted science and scientists. This wasn’t the case, but the idea is still promoted very strongly. One of those, who continues to do this, is Richard Dawkins, who is now known as an atheist propagandist almost as much for his work as a biologists and science writer. Very many of the science programmes screened on British television, whether BBC or Channel 4, included Dawkins as an expert. He is a popular speaker at literary and science festivals, even though his views on the relationship between science and faith and the history of science are completely wrong. Nevertheless, it agrees with the historical prejudices of his audience and the media. James Hallam said that he found it difficult to find a publisher for his book, God’s Philosophers, but its demonstration that people of faith – Christian priests, monks and laymen – could do great science in the Age of Faith – directly contradicted the popular view of the period. One publisher explicitly told him that they weren’t going to be publish the book because they were an atheist. Censorship and bigotry is by no means the sole province of the religious.

Unfortunately, the current institutional structure of the BBC and its commissioning process appears to make this extremely difficult to correct, at least for those outside of the television industry. A year or so ago I was so incensed at the repeat of the media’s prejudice against medieval science, that I considered writing to the BBC to propose a series on it to correct it. I ended up giving up altogether. If you go to the relevant pages on this, you’ll find that while the BBC will accept scripts and suggestions from outside the industry for drama, fiction and comedy, all factual content must be developed with a production company before they will consider it. What this means is that unless you are already a media insider, you have absolutely no chance of getting your idea for a factual series developed for TV.

I hope, however, that the Beeb’s view of medieval science will change, and that we can expect a series on it sometime soon. In the meantime, if anyone has any suggestions, how I can approach the Beeb or another TV channel or production company to get such a series made, please let me know. It’s about time we did something to challenge this fashionable atheist myth.