Michael Reiss and the secularists’ loss of faith

I consider God to be a figment and faith in God to be an irresistible, irrational belief which comes uninvited like many other widely-held human beliefs. I definitely don’t think that faith is rubbish, or weak-minded, or self-delusional, but I have no tolerance for the intrusion of religion into science education (see for example Adnan Oktar managing to get Dawkins banned in Turkey and circulating glossy creationist text-books by his alias Harun Yahya, or the quietism of ministers about creationism in British schools).

For these reasons I am sympathetic to the dismay that many secularist Fellows of the Royal Society felt when Reverend Michael Reiss, the Director of Education, broached the idea of engaging with creationist students in the classroom.

But as far as I can tell, Reiss didn’t say anything untoward when he wrote that:

For example, the excellent book Science, Evolution, and Creationism published by the US National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine, asserts: “The ideas offered by intelligent design creationists are not the products of scientific reasoning. Discussing these ideas in science classes would not be appropriate given their lack of scientific support.”

I agree with the first sentence but disagree with the second. Just because something lacks scientific support doesn’t seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson. When I was taught physics at school, and taught it extremely well in my view, what I remember finding so exciting was that we could discuss almost anything providing we were prepared to defend our thinking in a way that admitted objective evidence and logical argument.

So when teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have (hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching) and doing one’s best to have a genuine discussion. The word ‘genuine’ doesn’t mean that creationism or intelligent design deserve equal time.

However, in certain classes, depending on the comfort of the teacher in dealing with such issues and the make-up of the student body, it can be appropriate to deal with the issue. If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works.

Having said that, I don’t believe that such teaching is easy. Some students get very heated; others remain silent even if they disagree profoundly with what is said”

It’s basic outreach, isn’t it, not to rubbish students’ belief systems in a science class? And if science has become controversial, you can’t wish this away. I found Reiss pragmatic here. Nevertheless, he was pushed out of his post by beleaguered secularists who considered him a threat to science.

Harry Kroto argues rightly in The Guardian that:

Science is based solely on doubt-based, disinterested examination of the natural and physical world. It is entirely independent of personal belief. There is a very important, fundamental concomitant – that is to accept absolutely nothing whatsoever, for which there is no evidence, as having any fundamental validity. A lemma: one can of course have an infinite number of questions but only those questions that can be formulated in such a way that they can be subjected to detailed disinterested examination, and when so subjected reveal unequivocally and ubiquitously accepted data, may be significant.

The plethora of more-or-less incompatible religious concepts that mankind has invented from Creationism and intelligent design to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Mormonism, Scientology, Hinduism, Shinto, Shamanism etc, are all basically indistinguishable, from the freethinkers perspective. It really does not matter whether one believes a mystical entity created the universe 5,000 or 10,000 million years ago – both are equally irrational unsubstantiated claims of no fundamental validity.

I know that Kroto is right about science. I think most people would accept though that there is life outside scientific practice. Moreover, it seems to me that there would only be a case for extrapolating that Reiss is a threat to science and should lose the directorship – a post he already occupies – if it could be concretely demonstrated that Reiss was approaching science in a way which was not only philosophically but qualitatively and practically incompatible with the approach that Harry Kroto outlines above – in other words that he was ideologically perverting the course of science. But nobody is alleging this. Reiss’s scientific practice has not been impeached in any concrete way. Moreover Harry Kroto is tolerant of personally-held mystical beliefs:

“I do not have a particularly big problem with scientists who may have some personal mystical beliefs – for all I know the President of the Royal Society may be religious”

Rather, the concerns about Reiss are ad hominem:

However, I, and many of my Royal Society colleagues, do have a problem with an ordained minister as Director of Science Education – this is a totally different matter. An ordained minister must have accepted that there was a creator (presumably more intelligent than he is?) thus many of us (maybe 90% of FRSs) cannot see how such a person can pontificate on how to tackle this fundamentally unresolvable conflict at the science/religion interface. Reiss cannot have his religious cake in church and eat the scientific one in the classroom. This is where the intellectual integrity issue arises – and it is the crucial issue in the Reiss affair.”

Strange to say, based only on his ordination and refusal to smash creationism in his classroom, Kroto and the 90% of FRSs appear to have lost faith in Reiss.

Surely you’d expect scientists, if anyone, to judge a man this man on his acts rather than his identity.

There is certainly more to this than I have time to dig out.

Maybe Archbishop Cranmer sheds some light on this when he says:

“If the theory of evolution is so self-evident, it ought to have no problem standing up to a classroom discussion.”

This is infuriatingly obtuse. Faith cannot be scientifically challenged because faith and evidence are incompatible. The worry of the secularist scientists is that incontrovertible but, here, destructive religion-based values will leach into scientific ways of doing and thinking, as they are howling at the gates of policy-making about abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell research. They are worried about the enormous diversion of time implied by welcoming strongly-held evidence-free beliefs into a scientific forum. I agree with them. Some debates are stupid, futile, undermining and wasteful of time and energy.

So while I think that Reiss – who was not proposing such a debate – has been sacrificed to a panic, I think it is up to those who feel the same way to convince their secularist colleagues that the boundaries between faith and science are not as porous as people like Harry Kroto fear.


Reviews of the year 5768

I realised today it’s Jewish new year. Shana tova l’kulam to everyone whatever your creed.

Here are some reviews of the news of the Jews in the past year.

The Jerusalem Post lists the Israelis of the year by sphere of influence, including a mystifying portrait of a settler who apparently is anti-extremist. If he is anti-extremist then things must be pretty extreme.

The Anti-Defamation League is worrying about the UN and global attitudes to Jews.

Totally Jewish notes the recognition of Gordon Brown, the predicament of Fur refugees, the assessment that UCU’s boycott was unlawful, the rise of the BNP (with North London polls held on Yom Kippur!) and 40,000 people marching in celebration of the 60th anniversary of Israel’s creation.

Ha’aretz’s top stories for 5768 are assassination, tractor attacks, a suicide bombing, a ceasefire, a child abuse case, Obama, Livni, Ahmedinejad and two obituaries (considering these pressures you have to hand it to the Israelis…)

The JTA focus is on Israel – the self-critical Winograd Report on the war on Hesbollah, the Annapolis peace talks and the resulting ‘shelf agreement’, the corruption charges against Olmert, Hamas’s breach of the blockade, Israel’s bombing of a suspected Syrian nuclear investigation, Israel’s peace talks with Syria, and what to do about Iran’s nuclear capability, and the return to Israel of the remains of Israeli reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.

My memories come from just a small, rather arid section of Jewish goings-on to do with not religion, not culture, but politics – Karsenty’s legal success in insisting the death of Mohammed Al Dura (lubricant of anti-Zionism and the intifada) was a propaganda hoax, the anti-Israel graffiti on English Jewish streets, the ongoing rot of UCU with hard left/right (who can tell these days) antisemitism, UCU’s disgusting treatment of David Hirsh, Green antisemitism, BNP courting the Jews (that the Left repelled with its cuddling of Islamist extremists), Harry’s Place taking on the atavistic forces of Hamas UK, PACBI and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine wrecking OneVoice’s peace concerts, the launch of the UK Friends of The Abraham Fund, Mearsheimer and Walt, the launch of the Z-Word, the launch of J Street, the Community Security Trust’s report on antisemitic discourse, Olmert’s declaration today that to give peace a chance, Israel must pass back the West Bank and Golan, and the sense, as the vilification rains down on the City’s bankers and hedge fund managers, that societies in crisis have a primordial urge to scapegoat.

Formative political books

There’s an interesting thing going round the Greens with people listing their formative political works.

JimJay on the Daily Maybe started it off with a list which he observes to be dry but whose Rees, ISJ, Cliff and Callinicos gave me unpleasant pavlovians – I first came to them in the context of their aggressive perspectives on Israel. Matt Sellwood’s list looks intriguing.

Mine? Thinking about it. With some concern I realise I haven’t read a single book of social or economic theory any of the more recent fix-it manuals or paradigmatic works of the left (or right or centre for that matter). This might explain and also justify my lack of political thrust.

Among others I am suddenly very curious about, I would very much like to know Bob’s, Sonti’s, Marko Attila Hoare’s, Yish’s, Barkingside 21’s, the AWL’s, David Hirsh’s, Norm’s, Eve Garrard’s, Snoopy The Goon’s, Peter Tatchell’s, Mod’s, Max Dunbar’s and Harry’s Place’s.

Update: see Matt Selwood, Scott Redding, Adrian Windisch, Peter Sanderson, and Weggis.

There is no political theory under my belt. My most politically formative works coincide with my most formative personal works:

  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harpur Lee (but that’s fiction)
  • Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (fiction)
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton (fiction).(This is where I’m going wrong.)
  • Arthur Koestler’s two volume autobiography (aha – fact, garnished with Koestlery spin)
  • The writings of Orwell.
  • Crossland’s (ed) The God That Failed (ex-communists fire the opening salvos of the cultural Cold War)
  • Triomf by Marlene Van Niekirk (fiction)
  • The poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (poetry)
  • The various writings of the Eusties – particularly David Hirsh, Eve Garrard, Norman Geras, Anthony Julius, David T, Marko Attila Hoare.
  • Nietzsche’s Will to Power (his bad reaction to cosmic upheaval of modernity)
  • Joyce Da Silva’s work on animal sentience.
  • And of course, Nick Cohen’s What’s Left.

I know, because I have heard plenty of recorded lectures, that I am influenced by Mill, Paine, Locke, and (particularly because he understood that being a good citizen is a consuming pursuit) Rousseau, but I have not yet thoroughly read a work of theirs. I am a poor political reader in general – I read a lot but my political reading is short and journalistic.

So, here we are. I sympathise with the people who turn decisively from the Stalinists. My domestic and international politics progressive, egalitarian and democratic. My economics are socialist – but baselessly so.

Views of Barkingside

Slagz, Slutz or Hoze would be a bit much but Tartz is harmless enough, isn’t it? Only the other week Matt exclaimed, in affection, that I was – what was it? – a “revolting little tart” (I think I had my head in the kitchen cupboard eating golden syrup or some such). So it must be OK.

Me, somebody’s problem on a train?

All is right with the world.

I got on the Central Line eating a very dry breadstick. For some moments I was diverted by the task of negotiating a handhold on the vertical pole (the roof bars are for taller people than me – I have to get over-close to people’s laps to reach them). This involved displacing a man who thought it was acceptable to lean his entire body along its length and as you can imagine it took a bit of tactical manoeuvring. I was feeling quite aggrieved when I was suddenly I was brought sharply to attention by an even more aggrieved-sounding voice saying:

“EXCUSE me. I’ve got nothing against you eating but could you PLEASE stop dropping crumbs on me because that is SICK.”

Me, sick?? A black-hooded man in fetish boots was looking at his black drainpipes. I couldn’t see a crumb, I thought that “sick” was an overreaction, but I dare say that crumbs had indeed made contact with his lap because it was a very dry breadstick. Moreover could I be entirely sure that they hadn’t fallen from my mouth as I out-manoeuvred the pole man? Had he been alert enough to realise, that would have been poetic justice for him: pushy woman in her efforts to assert herself over one passenger inadvertantly deposits masticated breadstick on a second.  What a horrible thought. I’m almost certain not.

Me, somebody’s problem on the London Underground? I was very happy he had spoken up. I didn’t mind at all – in fact it was only proper. He looked as if he was in a very bad temper. I felt stirrings of empathy. I took out my earphones, said “I’m very sorry about that” and smiled on him beatifically (as I moved my elbow to prevent pole-man from crushing my hand between the pole and his body). He took out his earphones and muttered grudgingly that it was alright.  Then I carefully necked the rest of my breadstick as he peeked at me irritably from under his hood. At Mile End he was away like a hare out of a trap and I sat in the seat next to his and ate about six more over my bag.

On a different but related note, Matt came across a programme on BBC Radio 3’s Twenty Minutes about noise in the quiet carriage. I think the way the presenter describes the tension of the abstention from noise in the QC as a pane of glass with a rock hurtling at it, is spot on. He is so right. When I’m in the quiet carriage I’m all ears for noise, it’s ridiculous. And the irony is that you can, as he did, get pulled up for wearing noise-cancelling earphones.

Kitsch British anti-imperialism

John Wight has done something (unguessable) and earned himself a spot of his very own on Socialist Unity (barometer of the British Left) in which he opines that:

“…regardless of the strong case offered by Mearsheimer and Walt, the evidence in support of the alternative argument that in the relationship between both countries it is the US which controls Israel seems more compelling”.

Why? Because if it really were the case that Israelis ran the US, they would have ethnically cleansed the Palestinians by now. A wrong, nasty, evidence-free and widely-held view. This is in fact a text-book example of the dross that passes for anti-imperialism today.

Here we have a celebration of Hesbollah’s survival as the key factor in preventing an Israeli campaign against Iran. Praise for the Iraqi and Afghan “resistance” (bleck!) to US imperialist ambition. Behold the U.S. refusing to support Israel in a military campaign against Iran. Mearsheimer and Walt are wrong about the overweening power of the Ziomonster lobby – it is, after all, the US who holds the reins. Duh! Considering Israel’s relatively miniscule size and economic clout, this is obvious (unless perhaps you have a weak spot for Jewish conspiracy theories.)

Predictably, here we also see the whitewash of Iran, a country with nuclear ambitions which has been aggressing Israel for years, both rhetorically and in the form of arming and training Hamas and Hesbollah. And the failure to acknowledge that Mearsheimer and Walt, much-cited by people who make a mountain of Israeli influence, eventually realised that Israel has always considered Iran a bigger WMD threat than Iraq. And of course the term “resistance” applied to those who murder gay people, agents of law and order, and democratically elected political opponents, deny education for girls and rights for women.

From an ideological rut of such profound depth, how can anybody think straight about the conflicts in the Middle East?

Wight is part of a movement which is trying to force an end to Israel. Like other anti-Israel campaigners who purport to be pro-Palestinian campaigners, he gives a voice to the far right. He recently referred readers of The Morning Star to holocaust denial site CODOH without a) noticing and b) realising the significance of his failure to differentiate between far right and far left. In his article he clings to the expansionist, ethnic cleanser description of ‘Zionist’ which most suits Kach, an organisation Israel banned years ago.

Wight is a member of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, an organisation which welcomes antisemitism. The SPSC hosted Gilad Atzmon at a fund-raiser in 2005 with a presentation titled “Zionist Control”. Gilad Atzmon says that “To regard Hitler as the wickedest man and the Third Reich as the embodiment of evilness is to let Israel off the hook”, “We have to admit that Israel is the ultimate evil rather than Nazi Germany” and “I would suggest that perhaps we should face it once and for all: the Jews were responsible for the killing of Jesus”. Its chair Mick Napier recently coordinated bullying of a quartet of Israeli musicians at a concert and defended the suicide bombing of the Israeli seminary – again with reference to far right haters. When a small group of anti-Israel activists, some of whom were Jewish, attempted to put political distance between the PSC’s antisemitic elements and the rest of the Palestine solidarity movement, they were trounced.

Jews and ‘Zionists’ are frequently accused of waving the shroud of antisemitism in order to distract honest people from criticising Israel. David Hirsh calls this “the Livingstone formulation” and it is widespread these days. But given the catalogue of screw-ups above, there are plenty of reasons for Jews and anti-racists to raise the alarm about the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign and its British comrades who fail, time after time, to distinguish between antisemitism and anti-Israelism in their practice.

For some sense on anti-imperialism and some observations about its antisemitic excesses dominant on the far left today, there’s a readable essay by Mick Hume on the anti-imperialism of fools and Marko Attila Hoare in Democratiya on “twelve practical reasons why the phenomenon, in its left-wing manifestation to which I once subscribed, is a negative one”. For a sane, anti-racist commendation of anti-imperialism from the intelligent fragment which has not walked away from the dysfunctional revolutionary left, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty have a day school on October 4th in London on globalisation, anti-imperialism and the Middle East. For evidence of the Israeli government not being big into ethnic cleansing, see the advances made by The Abraham Fund. Given the poor shape of the rest of the Middle East, awash with bad leaders, bad structures and oppressive policies and riven by violent faction fighting, the unilateral dismantling of Israeli defences which the anti-imperialists bay for is ludicrous. What Israel could do unilaterally but isn’t doing now is another story – but the anti-imperialists don’t like to discuss that. To do so would involve some actual research, and the shades of grey this introduced would bring their entire ideology crashing down round their ears.

John Wight is prone to compare Israel to various fearsome beasts. The “hydra-headed monster” was a good one. This time Israel is a “vicious bulldog” towing its master along on its leash. Idley contemplating the sort of creature John Wight reminds me of has been quite interesting.

Air bags for older people

The older you get the more likely you are to fall – for a variety of reasons including sudden drops in blood pressure, impaired proprioception, slow reflexes, muscular weakness. Falls are what many older people fear most, particularly if there is also osteoporosis. First come broken wrists and then, as your reflexes get slower and you are on the ground before you can get your hand out to break your fall, broken hips.

In their homes, many older people who fall find that they can’t get up (when was the last time you saw a 90 year old raise themself from a lying position on the ground?) Even if you aren’t badly hurt, long hours lying on the floor waiting to be found can lead to hypothermia, dehydration and pressure ulcers where the boney parts – the skull, seat bones, shoulder blades – are in contact with the floor. Afterwards, the fear of another fall is often debilitating, particularly in the knowledge that your independence, privacy and dignity are on the line.

I used to be involved in a project to produce health information on falls. As well as the common-sense stuff about lighting the stairs and taping down any rugs, we were given other strange bits of advice to pass on to people who were anticipating a fall, like “Keep a blanket and hot drink in a flask in a low cupboard”. Imagine spending your morning creeping round refreshing your flask of tea for the day. Are you supposed to put a flask and blanket in each room? Or maybe just stay in the room with the flask and blanket. What a life.

Technology is promising. You can have sensors (intelligent, trainable ones) in your home which, via a central hub, can communicate to a trusted somebody with a smart key to your house (which only becomes usable in the event of something worrying happening) that you are in but you haven’t used the toilet or kettle for hours, or that your fridge door hasn’t been opened all day, or that your hob is on. But it won’t actually prevent a fall.

Given all that, I think this air-bag suit intended for older adults may not be as ridiculous or degrading as it looks. Let each decide.