Posts Tagged ‘richard dawkins’

Books on God and Religion

March 17, 2018

On Thursday, Jo, one of the great commenters to this blog, asked my a couple of questions on the nature of the Almighty, which I tried to answer as best I could. I offered to put up here a few books, which might help people trying to explore for themselves the theological and philosophical ideas and debates about the nature of God, faith, religion and so on. I set up this blog about a decade and a half ago to defend Christianity against attacks by the New Atheists. I don’t really want to get sidetracked back there, because some of these issues will just go on forever if you let them. And I’m far more concerned to bring people of different religions and none together to combat the attacks by the Tories and the Blairites on the remains of the welfare state, the privatisation of the NHS, and the impoverishment and murder of the British public, particularly the disabled, in order to further enrich the corporate elite. Especially as the Tories seem to want to provoke war with Russia.

But here are some books, which are written for ordinary people, which cover these issues, which have helped me and which I hope others reading about these topics for themselves will also find helpful.

The Thinker’s Guide to God, Peter Vardy and Julie Arliss (Alresford: John Hunt Publishing 2003)

This book is written by two academics from a Christian viewpoint, and discusses the Western religious tradition from Plato and Aristotle. It has the following chapters

1. Thinking About God – Plato and Aristotle
2.The God of the Philosophers
3. The God of Sacred Scripture
4. Religious Language
5. The Challenge of Anti-Realism
6. Arguments for the Existence of God
7. The Attributes of God
8. Life After Death
9. Miracles and Prayer
10. Jesus, the Trinity, and Christian Theology
11. Faith and Reason
12 Attacks on God, Darwin, Marx and Freud
13 God and Science
14 Quantum Science, Multi-Dimensions and God

God: A Guide for the Perplexed, Keith Ward, (Oxford: OneWorld 2003)

1. A Feeling for the Gods
God, literalism and poetry, A world full of Gods, Descartes and the cosmic machine, Wordsworth and Blake, the gods and poetic imagination, Conflict among the gods, Friedrich Schleiermacher: a Romantic account of the gods; Rudolf Otto: the sense of the numinous; Martin Buber: life as meeting, Epilogue: the testimony of a secularist.

2. Beyond the gods
Prophets and seers; The prophets of Israel and monotheism; Basil, Gregory Palamas and Maimonides: the apophatic way; Thomas Aquinas: the simplicity of God; The five ways of demonstrating God; Pseudo-Dyonysius the Areopagite; The doctrine of analogy; Three mystics.

3. The Love that moves the sun
The 613 commandments; Pigs and other animals; the two great commandments; The Ten Commandments; Jesus and the Law; Calvin and the Commandments, Faith and works; Theistic morality as fulfilling God’s purpose; Kant, the categorical imperative and faith, God as creative freedom, affective knowledge and illimitable love.

4. The God of the Philosophers

God and Job; Plato and the gods; the vision of the Good; Appearance and Reality; Augustine and creation ex nihilo, Aristotle and the Perfect Being; Augustine and Platonism; Anselm and Necessary Being; Evil, necessity and the Free Will defence; Creation as a timeless act; Faith and understanding.

5. The Poet of the World

The timeless and immutable God; The rejection of Platonism; Hegel and the philosophy of Absolute Spirit; Marx and the dialectic of history; Pantheism and panentheism; Time and creativity, The redemption of suffering; History and the purposive cosmos; Process philosophy; The collapse of the metaphysical vision.

6. The darkness between stars

Pascal: faith and scepticism; A.J. Ayer; the death of metaphysics; Scientific hypotheses and existential questions; Kierkegaard: truth as subjectivity; Sartre; freedom from a repressive God; Heidegger and Kierkegaard: the absolute
paradox; Tillich: religious symbols; Wittgenstein: pictures of human life; Religious language and forms of life; Religion and ‘seeing-as’; Spirituality without belief; Non-realism and God; The silence of the heart.

7. The personal ground of being

God as omnipotent person; The problem of evil; Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche: beyond good and evil; Omniscience and creative freedom; God: person or personal; Persons as relational; The idea of the Trinity; The revelatory roots of religion; Conclusion: Seven ways of thinking about God.


Teach Yourself Philosophy of Religion, by Mel Thompson, (London: HodderHeadline 1997)

What is the philosophy of Religion?
Why study religion in this way?
What is involved?
The structure of this book
What this book aims to do.

1. Religious Experiences
Starting with experience
What happens when you experience something?
What is religious experience?
Induced religious experiences
Charismatic experiences
Some features of religious experience
What can we know?
Authority and response

2.Religious Language
A private language?
Knowledge and description
Faith, reason and beliefs
The rational and the non-rational
Interpreting language
Cognitive and non-cognitive
Language games
The limitations of language

3. God: the concepts
God as creator
Transcendence and immanence
Theism, pantheism and panentheism
Atheism, agnosticism and secularism
Nietzsche: God is dead
Secular interpretations of God
A postmodernist interpretation
The Christian concept of God: the Trinity
Beliefs, language and religion
Religious alternatives to theism
Basic beliefs

4. God: the arguments
The ontological argument
The cosmological argument
the teleological argument
the moral argument
the argument from religious experience

5. The Self
Bodies, minds and souls
Knowing our minds
Joining souls to bodies?
Identity and freedom
Life beyond death
Some conclusions

6. Causes, providence and miracles

7. Suffering and evil
The challenge and the response
the problem
God as moral agent
Suffering and the major religions
Coming to terms with suffering
The devil and hell
Religion and terrorism

8. Religion and Science
The problem science poses for religion
the key issues
the changing world view
the methods of science and religion
the origin of the universe
evolution and humankind
Some conclusions

9. Religion and ethics
Natural law
absolute ethics
Morality and facts
How are religion and morality treated?
Values and choices

Postcript, Glossary, Taking it Further

God and Evolution: A Reader, ed. by Mary Kathleen Cunningham (London: Routledge 2007)

Part One

1. Charles Hodge ‘The Protestant Rule of Faith’
2. Sallie McFague ‘Metaphor’
3. Mary Midgley ‘How Myths work’
4. Ian G. Barbour ‘The Structures of Science and Religion’.

Part Two
Evolutionary Theory

5. Charles Darwin, ‘On the origin of species
6. Francisco J. Ayala ‘The Evolution of life as overview
7. Michael Ruse ‘Is there are limit to our knowledge of evolution?

Part Three

6. Genesis 1-2
7. Ronald J. Numbers ‘The Creationists’.

Part Four
Intelligent Design

10. William Paley ‘Natural Theology’
11. Michael J. Behe ‘Irreducible complexity: Obstacle to Darwinian Evolution’
12. Kenneth R. Miller, ‘Answering the biochemical argument from Design

Part Five

13. Richard Dawkins, ‘The Blind Watchmaker’
14. Richard Dawkins, ‘God’s utility function’
15. Daniel C. Dennett, ‘God’s dangerous idea’
16. Mary Midgley, ‘The quest for a universal acid’
17. Michael Ruse, ‘Methodological naturalism under attack’.

Part Six
Evolutionary Theism

18. Howard J. Van Till, ‘The creation: intelligently designed or optimally equipped?’
19. Arthur Peacock, ‘Biological evolution-a positive theological appraisal’
20. Jurgen Moltmann, ‘God’s kenosis in the creation and consummation of the world’.
21 Elizabeth A. Johnson, ‘Does God play dice? Divine providence and chance’.

Part Seven:
Reformulations of Tradition

22. John F. Haught, ‘Evolution, tragedy, and cosmic paradox’
23. Sallie McFague, ‘God and the world’
24. Ruth Page, ‘Panentheism and pansyntheism: God is relation’
25. Gordon D. Kaufman, ‘On thinking of God as serendipitous creativity’.


Physics Textbook on Cosmology and Gravitation

March 15, 2018

M.V. Berry, Principles of Cosmology and Gravitation (Bristol: Institute of Physics Publishing 1989).

Yesterday came the news of the death of the great British physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking at the age of 76. Hawking had suffered for most of his adult life from motor neurone disease, since he was diagnosed with it in his early 20s. He was given only three years to live, but instead managed to live out a very full lifespan working on his theories of the origin of the universe and Black Holes. He was a great ambassador for science. His book, A Brief History of Time, was a bestseller when it appeared in 1980s, although he admitted that it was probably a book few finished. And he showed that it was still possible for a disabled person to do cutting edge research, provided they had the necessary technical and medical support. In his case, it was his wheelchair and the machine that allowed him to speak, first of all by keying in the words, then by twitching just a single muscle. Some of the praise seemed a bit too fulsome to me. Like when they started saying that he was the greatest scientist since Newton and Einstein. I don’t think he was. And Hawking on his own didn’t unlock the secrets of universe or Black Holes, as the Beeb’s presenters also claimed. As for his great sense of humour, well, it existed, as his appearance on shows like The Simpsons demonstrated, but my memory of it is marred by him turning up with the TV critic, Victor Lewis Smith, telling fart jokes and laughing on the 1990s series, Inside Victor Lewis Smith. But it really was inspiring to see how he was a great hero to the ‘A’ level students at a science fair yesterday, and how he had inspired them to become interested in science.

One of the complaints Richard Dawkins has made about popular science programmes is that they’re too ‘dumbed-down’. He points out that they have to have lots of explosions, and they mustn’t include equations, in case that scares people off. There’s a lot with which I don’t agree with Dawkins. I’m not an atheist, and have argued on this blog against him and the other militant atheists. But he is right here. Scientists writing the popular science books have said that they’ve been told by their publishers to leave equations out, because every equation in a book damages sales.

I think this is the wrong attitude to have. It’s why I’ve put up this piece about the above book by M.V. Berry. It’s an undergraduate physics textbook, which does contain the fundamental mathematical equations for this area of physics. Its contents include

1. Introduction

2. Cosmography
2.1 What the universe contains
2.2 The cosmic distance hierarchy and the determination of galactic densities
2.2.1 Parallax
2.2.2 Distance from velocity measurements
2.2.3 Distance from apparent luminosity
2.2.4 Weighing galaxies
2.3 The red shift and the expansion of the universe.

3. Physical base of general relativity
3.1 The need for relativistic ideas and a theory of gravitation.
3.2 Difficulties with Newtonian mechanics: gravity
3.3. Difficulties with Newtonian mechanics: inertial frames and absolute space.
3.4 Inadequacy of special relativity.
3.5 Mach’s principle, and gravitational waves.
3.6 Einstein’s principle of equivalence.

4 Curved spacetime and the physical mathematics of general relativity.
4.1 Particle Paths and the separation between events
4.2 Geodesics
4.3 Curved spaces
4.4 Curvature and gravitation.

5 General relativity near massive objects
5.1 Spacetime near an isolated mass.
5.2 Around the world with clocks.
5.3 Precession of the perihelion of Mercury
5.4 Deflection of light
5.5 Radar echoes from planets
5.6 Black Holes

6 Cosmic Kinematics
6.1 Spacetime for the smoothed-out universe
6.2 Red shifts and horizons
6.3 Apparent luminosity
6.4 Galactic densities and the darkness of the night sky.
6.5 Number counts

7 Cosmic dynamics
7.1 Gravitation and the cosmic fluid
7.2 Histories of model universes
7.3 The steady state theory
7.4 Cosmologies in which the strength of gravity varies

8 In the beginning
8.1 Cosmic black-body radiation.
8.2 Condensation of galaxies
8.3 Ylem.

Appendix A: Labelling astronomical objects
Appendix B: Theorema Egregium
Solutions to odd-numbered problems
Useful numbers.

there’s also a bibliography and index.

I’m not claiming to understand the equations. I struggled at both my ‘O’ level maths and physics, and what I know about science and astronomy I learned mostly through popular science books. But in the mid-1990s I wanted to see at least some of the equations scientists used in their explorations and modelling of the universe. One of the popular science books I was reading said at the time that this book was at the level that people with ‘A’ level maths could understand, and this didn’t seem quite so much a jump from my basic maths skills. So I ordered it. I’m afraid I can’t say that I’ve read it properly, despite the fact that I keep meaning to. Some of the equations are just too much for me, but I can follow the explanations in the text. I’m putting this notice of the book up here, in case there are any budding Stephen or Stephanie Hawkingses out there, who want to go a bit further than the pop-sci explanations, and see for themselves what the maths behind it all is like.

The Beeb also said in their eulogy for the great man, that Hawking hoped that the people reading his A Brief History of Time would come away with one point, even if they hadn’t finished it: that the universe is governed by rational law. Actually, this ideas isn’t unique to Hawking by a very, very long way. It actually comes from the Middle Ages, and is the assumption that makes science possible. Hawking was an agnostic, I believe, and many scientists are atheists. But this assumption that the universe is governed by rational laws ultimately comes from Christian theology. The founds of modern science in the Renaissance pointed to the passages in the Bible, in which God’s Wisdom creates the universes and establishes the boundaries and courses of natural phenomena, like the tides and stars. And the anarchist of science, Feuerabend, pointed out that the assumption that the laws of the universe all form a consistent whole come from Christian doctrine, quoting the 13th century theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas: ‘We must believe that the laws of the universe are one, because God is one.’

Hawking has passed away, but it’s clear that he has inspired many more people to become interested in this rather arcane branch of the sciences. I hope this continues, despite the Tories’ attack on education and science and research for its own sake.

Radio 4 Programme on Douglas Adams, and New Series of Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

February 27, 2018

This Saturday, 3rd March 2018, Radio 4 are broadcasting a programme on Douglas Adams and his ideas for the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, based on papers at Cambridge University. The programme’s part of their Archive Hour series, at 8.00 O’clock in the evening. The blurb for it on page 119 of the Radio Times reads

John Lloyd explores a collection of Douglas Adams’ private papers written as the latter’s ideas for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy took shape.

There’s a bit more about the programme on the previous page, 118, which runs

Don’t Panic! It’s the Douglas Adams Papers

As part of the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the first broadcast on Radio 4 of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a new series begins on Radio 4 on Thursday. It includes unused material held at Cambridge University by author Douglas Adams, and Adams’ papers are the basis of his friend and collaborator John Lloyd’s tribute this evening. The tribute inevitably hinges on Adams’ famous inability to write. He “got stuck”. But the results of his anguish impressed such fans as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, both of whom appear. A priceless homage to a comedy genius.

And there’s a two-page feature on him on pages 114 & 115.

The new series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is on Radio 4 at 6.30, on Thursday 8th March. The new series’ entitled The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Phase, and the listing for it in the Radio Times runs

Simon Jones returns as Arthur Dent in a new sci-fi comedy tale based on Dirk Maggs’ novel And Another Thing, with additional material by creator Douglas Adams. It sees Arthur and the rest in an adventure involving Viking Gods and Irish confidence tricksters-not to mention the first glimpse of the Eccentrica Gallumbits.

I don’t think I’ll be listening to it, as I went off Hitchhiker and Adams way back in the 1990s. I loved the first two books, but their quality steadily went down, and I’ve had no desire to read the Dirk Gently stories or anything else Adams’ wrote. And I also wasn’t impressed by the way Adams got very sniffy in an interview on the radio with Paxman, when Paxo told him he wrote science fiction, ‘but it was good’, and Adams denied that he did. Hitchhiker clearly is SF, but it seems Adams either didn’t respect the genre due to literary snobbishness, or simply didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an SF writer. I can also remember him on another radio programme back in the 1990s telling an audience of schoolchildren that he was a ‘wordsmith’. I’m sure that’s true, in the sense that Adams was genuinely concerned with making sure his work was exactly right, but it still sounds more than a little pretentious and conceited when the uses the term to describe himself.

May’s Speech to Rich Tory Donors: This Is What the Lollards Warned You About

February 11, 2018

Sunday is the Christian holy day, so I thought I’d include here a particularly relevant piece of radical Christian polemic against the rich and powerful and their neglect and oppression of the poor from the 15th century.

A few days ago Mike put up a piece reporting Theresa May’s speech at a fundraising banquet for rich Tory donors. To get in, you had to pay £15,000 for a ticket. The long reign of Thatcherite neoliberalism in this country has led to a massive transfer of wealth from the poorer sections of society – the working and lower middle classes – upwards to the extremely rich. Thatcher, and her fanboys and -girls – have cut and privatised benefits and services to the poor, with the specific intention of making the bloated rich even richer, though tax cuts, massive subsidies, and exploiting the very state industries, that they have privatised and sold to them.

The Lollards were a proto-Protestant sect of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, who followed the teachings of the Yorkshire priest and reformer, John Wycliffe. Wycliffe was disgusted by the corruption of the church and society in his day. He advocated the Bible in English, holy scripture as the only source for religious authority, clerical marriage and proper concern for the poor. And he and his followers were bitterly critical of the friars, as they were generally perceived to have neglected their vocation of teaching and preaching Christianity to focus on serving the rich for their own material gain.

The text here is ‘The Perversion of the Works of Mercy’, which inveighs against the way Christ’s commandment to feed, give drink, and clothe poor people, and visit those in prison, as well as other holy works, have been so corrupted so that those, who feign moral rectitude and Christian charity now spend their time doing this for the rich and powerful instead. Here’s an extract. You should be able to understand the late medieval spelling and vocabulary.

Hou Sathanas [Satan] and his children turnen werkis of mercy upsodoun and discyven men therinne and in here five wyttis.

First Crist comaundith men of power to fede hungry pore men. The fiend and his techen to make costy festis and waste many goodis on lordis and riche men and so suffer pore men sterve and perishe for hunger and other myschevys. Ye, men that feynen hem [them] ful of charite and religion gadren proper goodis to hemselven and festen dlicatly lordis and laides and riche men and suffer here pore brethren begge for meschef and fare ful harde.

Crist comaundith to yeve drynk to thrusty [thirsty] [men] and wymmen. The fiend and his techen to puveye high wyn and spised ale and strong for riche men and lordis to make hem drunken and chide and fighte and foryete God and his lawe, and to suffer pore, that han nought of hore owene and may not labore for febilnesse or sikenesse and blyndenesse drynke water and falle in feveris or ellis perische.

Crist comaundith to clothe nakyd men and wymmen whanne thei han noght of here owene. Thereto the fend and his techen to yeve costly clothis and manye to riche men and mynstralis and shavaldours {Northern slang for robbers] for worldly name and suffer pore men have nakid sidis and schakynge lippis and hondis for cold that woo is hemwith the lif. Ye, prelatis and men singular religion, that taken the charge to ben procuratouris and dispenderis of pore mennus liflode, clothen fatte horsis with gaie sadlies and bridles and mytris and croceris with gold and silver and precious stonys, and suffren pore men and children perische for cold. And yit these prelatis and newe religious comen in staat of Cristis povert and his apostlis, and techen and crien that whatever thei han is pore mennus goode. Yit riche men closen dede stockis and stonys with precious clothis, with gold and silver and perlis and gaynesse to the world, and suffren pore men goo sore acold and at moche meschefe.

Crist trechith to herberwe [harbour, accommodate] pore men that han non houses ne penby to peye for here innys [inns, lodging]. The fend and his techen to herberwe riche men and lordis with grete cost and deyitte for worldly worschipe and suffer pore men wander in stormys and slepe with the swyn and many tymes suffer not hem come withinne here yatis, and so to fynde many excusacions and coloure this doynge, Ye, ypocritis of privat religion maken grete houses and costy and gaily peyntid more than kyngis and lordis bi sotil beggynge and confessions and trentalise and mayntenynge of synne, and herberwe lordis and riche men, and namely ladies, and suffer more men lie withouten or geten houslewth at pore men or ellis perische for wedris and cold.

Crist techeth to visite sike men and counforte hem and helpe hem of sustenaunce. The fend and his techen to visiten riche me, lordis and ladies in here prosperite and lykynge to be holden kynde [high born] and curteis, and to comforte eche other in synne and to have lustis of glottonye, lecherie and other schrewidnessis; but of pore men that ben beddrede and couchen in muk or dust is litel thought on or noght. Yit ypocritis of feyned religion vistien not fadirles children and modirles [motherless] and widewise in here tribulacion, and kepe not hemself unbleckid fro this world as Seynt James techith; but visite off riche men and wymmen and namely riche widewis [widows] for to gete world muk by false deceitis and carien it home to Caymes’ {Cain’s] castelis and Anticristis covent [convents] and Sathanas children and marteris [martyrs] of glotonye.

Crist techith to visit men in prison and helpe to delyvere hem in good manere and counforte hem bi almes-yevinge. The fend and his prresonen pore men for dette whanne thi ben not at power to paie and traveil night and day and liven ful harde and toylen with trewthe and susteynen wif and children…

From Middle English Religious Prose, edited by N.F. Blake (London: Edward Arnold 1972) pp. 239-41.

Clearly, this is a piece of sectarian polemic, and isn’t entirely fair. Historians have pointed out that the church was suffering serious poverty and neglect the time, which affected many of the lower clergy and monastic institutions, so that they simply weren’t in any position to perform their Christian duties of aiding the poor themselves.

And my point here is not to attack the Roman Catholic church, as I know many ordinary Catholics and Roman Catholic clergy are deeply involved in caring for the poor. But simply to make the point that the issues the Lollards inveighed against are still present and embodied in the Tory party and people like Tweezer. In the Middle Ages, it was the church that had the function of providing whatever welfare services there were to the poor, as well as the personal charity of great lords. But since Thatcher, public institutions and the welfare state – the modern, secular equivalents of these religious institutions, have been run down for the profit of the rich.

And there’s also a distinct religious parallel here too, though it’s with the evangelical Christian Right and their prosperity gospel. Tweezer is a vicar’s daughter, who claims that when she was a child she was a ‘goody two-shoes’. Lobster has pointed out just how many right-wing Christians gathered around IDS and now Damian Greene in the DWP. The evangelical Right in America believe that God doesn’t want you to be poor, for whom they have nothing but contempt. One particularly self-righteous Republican politico – it might have been Ted Cruz – even declared that the poor should be taxed more. ‘Because it’s what Christ would have wanted’. No, and this moron should read the Gospels before opening his mouth.

And I’m still furious at the way a large number of right-wing pastors made it clear that they didn’t care if one Republican candidate was guilty of molesting underage girls. He stood for their values, which were for the rich, and against the poor. And, of course, gays. Which shows how selective their concern over changes and violation of traditional sexual morality is.

These hypocrites have done as much harm to Christianity as Dawkins and the militant atheists. Many of the atheist polemicists are socially conscious people, whose rejection of religion is partly based on the way the religious don’t live up to their ideals. And as history has shown, and these pratts continue to show, all too often the atheists have been right in this criticism.

And in there moral condemnation of the fawning over the rich at the expense of the poor, the Lollards were right. And this text from six hundred years ago shows up the Tory party and its hypocritical supporters in the Christian religious right as it is today.

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.

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.

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?’
‘So who says you do?’
‘Everybody else.’


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: