Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Gonzalez and the need for critical thinking

What is truth? Is truth the same as received opinions? Is there no such thing as truth? Or is there a definite version of events that is more representative of reality than any other?

I would argue for the latter, and I guess most of the people who read this and comment here would agree - even if they have a different opinion as to what that truth is. If this is the case, they believe that it is meaningful to seek to persuade me of the rightness of their idea of what truth is, just as when I write this, I am seeking to an extent to persuade readers of the rightness of my ideas.

This ties in with the headline, by the way - "Data isn't information; information isn't knowledge; knowledge isn't wisdom; wisdom isn't truth." In that, I am seeking to draw attention to the fact that truth is ultimately something "external" - something "beyond" the observer - even the most reliable of observers can go no further than his or her observations allow. You can infer from the headline that this blog expresses a view which is at its core anti-empiricist!

Of course, people will have different perceptions of how things are - the same event observed by different observers will result in their drawing different conclusions. This is a point I have already made regarding science - that the difference between proponents of ID and proponents of naturalism isn't fundamentally one of science (both can do the same experiments, and make the same observations) but one of presuppositions/worldviews/metanarratives. If you exclude the idea of external agency, then you are bound to interpret your observations in this light. Hence Dawkins' famous comment to the effect that if he saw a statue of the virgin Mary move, he would be more likely to believe in a vastly improbable quantum phenomenon than in a miracle of divine origin. And vice versa. Scientific experiments are almost certainly not going to have an impact on people's presuppositions - this is a part that scientific experiments simply don't reach.

However, people on both sides of the ID/naturalism debate accept in principle that there is the possibility of a definitive answer. Both Dawkins and (say) Dembski would be prepared to say that something happened to the statue (contrast "There is no spoon" - The Matrix) - a measurable change has occurred, and further that this requires some sort of explanation - that events are contingent.

For most people, "truth" is something that they apprehend from all sorts of sources, and few these days are prepared to engage sufficient critical faculties to come to a sensible conclusion as to what real truth is. For the few who are prepared to engage critical thinking skills, it is easy to underestimate the power and perceived authority of these sources of information - which include web references and search engines. "You can't possibly believe the nonsense being put out by such-and-such a group," we often think to ourselves. Oh yes they can! Somebody, somewhere, must be making it worthwhile to spammers putting out those silly emails promising to pay a million pounds into your bank account if you will just send the details.

I didn't post about Gonzalez below because I thought I was adding to the debate in any way. Neither was it because I thought that Discovery Institute is somehow authoritative in a way that (say) Panda's Thumb isn't. The reason for the post was to make more visible an alternative perspective - so that hopefully people searching the internet for information will not only look up the anti-ID writings of bloggers and then assume that this is reliable.

"Oh, that wouldn't happen!" Don't you believe it. Urban myths gain currency rapidly. Was the cabin boy in Captain Pugwash called Roger? No. Are the park keepers at the Grand Canyon really being told not to talk about the age of the Grand Canyon? No. Does the fact that this is so stop the stories going round and round, as somebody finds a reference to the incorrect facts on the internet and repeats it? No.

This isn't confined to the internet. "Inherit the Wind" was written as an anti-McCarthyite film, but the story of the film was the Scopes trial. The film is factually inaccurate - but people still assume that when they see it, they are seeing a historically reliable presentation. And the same could be said on a non-ID related theme of "JFK", the Oliver Stone film. Or the supposed historical references in "The Da Vinci Code". Or the Gnostic Gospels. Or Brecht's "Life of Galileo". Or Shakespeare's Histories.

By posting below - and even by posting this - I am not assuming that people will take what I have written as being reliable or true. I don't expect anybody to take anything they read as reliable or true. What I want to do is make sure that when people read things, they engage critical thinking skills, and don't just accept things because they fit with their presuppositions.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Cutabaria progress report

I somehow doubt anybody is interested, but there we go ...

UN Category of Government: New York Times Democracy
Civil Rights: Excellent
Economy: Strong
Political Freedoms: Excellent

The Most Serene Republic of Cutabaria is a very large, socially progressive nation, notable for its burgeoning starfish population. Its compassionate, hard-working, intelligent population of 76 million enjoy a sensible mix of personal and economic freedoms, while the political process is open and the people's right to vote held sacrosanct.

The enormous government is mainly concerned with Education, although Social Welfare and Healthcare are on the agenda. The average income tax rate is 26%. A tiny private sector is dominated by the Book Publishing industry.

Children are brainwashed at a young age to accept "Love and peace!" as a way of life, citizens are allowed to rise or fall based on their own merits, untold millions of chocolate bars are going into a new government-funded maternity leave scheme, and streakers swamp all public events in order to bare it all. Crime is moderate, and the police force struggles against a lack of funding and a high mortality rate. Cutabaria's national animal is the starfish, which is also the nation's favorite main course, and its currency is the chocolate bar.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

More about Gonzalez

In a (probably vain) attempt to prevent lies about Guillermo Gonzalez becoming received truth by e-repetition - long linked chains of faulty information all cropping up in search engines way ahead of the facts - here's a page which responds to some of the anti-ID misinformation that has been spread around. It comments on the following false assertions:
1: Dr. Gonzalez's Work is about Intelligent Design in Biology.

2: Dr. Gonzalez Doesn't Have Many Published Peer-Reviewed Papers.

3: Dr. Gonzalez's Research Has Not Been Cited Often.

4: The Only Publications that Matter are the Ones Published Since Joining ISU.

5: Dr. Gonzalez Must Have Been Denied Tenure Due to a Lack of Research Grants.

6: ISU's Tenure Standards Are So High Even Many Good Researchers Cannot Get Tenure There.
If you are interested in an alternative perspective to the one presented by people who are set against anything that might be considered non-naturalistic, then follow the link.

"Privileged Planet", by Gonzalez and Richards, along with "Rare Earth" by Ward and Brownlee, are two of the most interesting books that I read last year - and I read a fair amount! Neither say much specifically about biology; but both draw very similar strands from almost every scientific discipline together - which is part of the interest of the books. Both address the fact that, far from being a completely insignificant planet, there are many things about Earth that make it highly unusual, and highly adapted to the development of complex, intelligent life. PP is the more provocative, in that it correlates Earth's habitability with its suitability as a platform from which to observe the rest of the cosmos, and suggests that this link is indicative of purposiveness.

As I said in my post below, I have yet to see any serious interaction with this thesis, which is as far as I can tell scientifically reasonable, testable, and falsifiable. I suspect that this is because most of the anti-ID community who might be interested in scientifically discrediting it haven't actually read what Gonzalez and Richards have to say, preferring instead to rely on the uninformed and inaccurate digests supplied by Panda's Thumb.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Counter-culture in universities

I am thankful to the Witts for pointing out this article in World Magazine, by Marvin Olasky.

The back story is that Guillermo Gonzalez, co-author of "Privileged Planet", has been denied tenure at Iowa State University. This was not because it is a common occurrence there, nor because of the quality of his academic record, but because unlike Ward and Brownlee, who wrote "Rare Earth", Gonzalez and Richards interpret their data within a non-naturalistic framework as revealing something about the nature and intent of a designer. It is worth pointing out, in this context, that there has been no substantive refutation of "Privileged Planet" - most of the response to the book from the naturalistic community has incorrectly identified it as nothing more than anthropicism ("Of course the universe is adapted to life, or we wouldn't be here."), or presented absurd caricatures of their arguments ("If the fact that life is uncommon suggests that there is a God, then if it never occurred, that would be absolute proof!" Douglas Adams did similar things with his arguments - except they were meant to be parodies).

I digress.

The effect of this seems to be pretty much to expect Gonzalez to leave ISU, and without the endorsement of the university. Opponents of ID ask why more scientists in mainstream universities don't talk about their beliefs in ID, and why more papers in support of ID aren't found in mainstream scientific journals. And yet good scientists are being effectively removed from mainstream institutions through political means - unsurprisingly, they find themselves work in institutions that are more open-minded to alternatives to naturalism. How exactly is ID supposed to become part of the mainstream scientific agenda when debate is closed down by political means, rather than by substantive and thoughtful interchange?

I digress.

Aaaaanyway, the reason for picking up the "WORLD Magazine" article was actually to disagree with it - or at least, the conclusion.
The possibility of building beachheads remains, but our larger goal should be to build up strong Christian colleges that can attract the best students.
How does this relate to the sub-culture/anti-culture/para-culture/counter-culture thing that I picked up from Tim Keller below - and which, incidentally, is a pattern we see not only in Acts but in Romans and Corinthians that I can think of off-hand? Olasky is pushing for something between an anti-culture and a para-culture. Christians are called to be counter-cultural.

The questions is: what would that look like?

PS Blogger now has Autosave - and I am sincerely thankful!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Cutabaria decides ...

I mentioned Nation States below, with my new country. Each day, I am presented with a new issue, which my government is supposed to react to. Here is today's:
Several major city streets were clogged with bicycles this morning, as the environmental group 'Two Wheels Good, Four Wheels Bad' staged a protest. Several hundred riders ambled through downtown streets, blissfully ignoring the torrent of abuse hurled at them by thousands of motorists running late for work.

The Debate
"People are sick of dirty, smelly automobiles," said protest organizer Sue-Ann Steele. "They're choking the city, the environment--our lives! Cars must be banned!" Agree?

"The only thing people are sick of is long-haired idiots riding their bicycles at two miles an hour on major thoroughfares," says committed motorist May Shiomi. "People shouldn't be able to protest like this. The government needs to crack down on them." Agree?

The Automotive Manufacturers Association, meanwhile, has called for government support. "It's clear that we need to boost the level of automobile support in this country. This protest this morning is a clear indication of... um... anyway, we need more government funds." Agree?

The government has yet to formalize a position on this issue.

If you wish, you may simply dismiss this issue.
I should point out that is an ingenious means of marketing a book called "Jennifer Government" by Max Barry. I don't know how successful it is - I haven't (yet) bought the book - but it's certainly ingenious.

For another successful internet marketing strategy (well, I bought this one) go here.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Online quizzes ...

... what's the point?

The main point, I assume, is a bit of fun. However, I think they have slightly more substance than the average, space-filler quiz in a magazine - "Which Doctor Who monster are you most like? Are you a morning or an evening person?"

Take the quiz the results of which I posted below. A commenter, Srdjan, rightly points out that many questions are "loaded" and often quite superficial. And yet ....

How would I choose a church, if I arrived in a new place? Work from the bottom of the list up. I wouldn't even try one of the bottom three on the list - whilst I know Christians in all three sorts of churches, the systematic problems with the three groups (as I see it) would discourage me from even visiting them. The next two up I would also have quite a lot of problems with, but I would start to find myself having a lot more time for certain aspects of what they say.

I would struggle with a church that identified itself as having a "fundamentalist" position, although most of the individual things they believed I could live with. I don't know what "neo orthodox" is, and I suppose that if I'd had to pick a label without knowing the content of the quiz, I'd have gone for "reformed evangelical" first - but the spread over the top three is only 7%, so they are hardly widely separated positions.

As it happens, I would have a great deal of difficulty going to anything labelled "methodist" - despite the fact that the local methodist church has a good reputation. I remember doing door-to-door work when I was a teenager. So many people would say "Sorry, but I'm methodist" as an excuse not to talk about Christianity that I was turned off methodism for life.

So the answers did make visible to me some things about what I believe in a more organised way than I would perhaps previously have seen.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

What's your theological worldview?

You know it's a quiet news week when you get two quizzes or memes in a row, but here goes ....

You scored as Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan. You are an evangelical in the Wesleyan tradition. You believe that God's grace enables you to choose to believe in him, even though you yourself are totally depraved. The gift of the Holy Spirit gives you assurance of your salvation, and he also enables you to live the life of obedience to which God has called us. You are influenced heavily by John Wesley and the Methodists.

Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan


Neo orthodox


Reformed Evangelical








Roman Catholic


Classical Liberal


Modern Liberal


What's your theological worldview?
created with

John Wesley? Are you kidding? My EFC roots showing ....

Saturday, May 05, 2007

See, be and flee

From Miss Mellifluous - thanks for asking, Mell!

1. Three characters you wish were real so you could meet them

Nancy Blackett. Probably Peggy, actually - Nancy was a bit fierce, whereas Peggy was cute. Oh yeah, I forgot. I grew up. Darn it.

Meg, from A Wrinkle in Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet, by Madeleine L'Engle - who started as a lovely girl and grew into a lovely woman and mother. Those books enriched my life.

Hermione Grainger - who is probably basically an alter ego for J.K.Rowling, I guess - intelligent, but once she comes to terms with herself, far more human than most of the other characters in Harry Potter. Please don't kill her off, J.K.

Let's put another few in, as also-rans. Mycroft, from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein - though his approach to probability left something to be desired, IMO. Faramir. Lola (as in Charlie and Lola, not the other one).

2. Three characters you would like to be

John Walker, master of "The Swallow".

Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Isildur's heir. Though not if I had to marry Liv Tyler.

Christopher Robin.

3. Three characters who scare you

IT, from A Wrinkle in Time. (I think that was IT's name).

The possessed horse thing from The Owl Service, by Alan Garner. I didn't finish the book, and can't remember what the horse was or did, but I'm still terrified of the memory of the bit where the horse looks round at the girl riding it, and its lips curl into a smile before it gallops off with her on its back and leaps into the quarry.

Um .... let's think. What was the name of the character in Nineteen Eighty Four who talked to Winston about a boot stamping on the face of humanity for ever? Him, anyway. Although I think Orwell was fundamentally wrong, and Aldous Huxley much closer to the truth.

Three more people to tag? Well, Jon, Bec and Alan, I guess.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Tim Keller on Christians and culture

Rather note-like format - I suspect this is part of a delivered talk, rather than a written article.
We must not form:
  • a sub-culture in which we externally dress and talk (dialect) differently avoid certain gross behaviors, but internally we have the same values as the surrounding culture. (E.g. believers may not smoke or drink too much or have sex outside of marriage, yet in their core beings they may be as materialistic and individualistic, and status- or image-conscious as the society around.)
  • an anti-culture in which Christians feel highly polluted by the very presence of the unbelieving schools, entertainment, arts, and culture. In this model they feel they cannot really function in the society without getting the cultural power back through legislation and storming institutions directly.
  • a para-culture expecting a miraculous, sweeping intervention by God which will convert many or most individuals and explosively transform the culture. Instead of becoming deeply engaged with the society and people around them, working with others as co-citizens to deal with the troubles and problems, believers concentrate completely on evangelism and discipleship building up the church and their own numbers.

  • Rather we should form a counter-culture. This is the reverse of a 'sub-culture' - we are to be externally quite like the surrounding culture (positive toward and conversant with it), without 'jargon' and other Christian trappings - yet in worldview, values, and lifestyle, they demonstrate chastity, simplicity, humility and self-sacrifice. They are quite different in the way they understand money, relationships, human life, sex, and so on. Hananiah is an example of the 'para-culture' in Jeremiah 28; Jeremiah is a proponent of the 'counter-culture' in Jeremiah 29.

    Vocations, professions and the tentacles of Ofsted

    In the good old days - let's say, in the first 30 years of the NHS - people became nurses because they were good at caring for people. It wasn't necessarily a "profession" - you didn't need many paper qualifications; you didn't need the paper trail of continuing professional development (CPD), because most skills you would learn informally as you went along. It was a "vocation" - you did it because it was something you were able to do, you enjoyed doing it, and you generally did it well.

    That started to change in the Eighties, with the introduction of nursing degrees. Doubtless many nurses feel more "positive" about themselves because they have a degree - but has it improved the standard of nursing care? I suspect that many people's experience of the NHS would suggest the opposite. Should nurses have felt "negative" about themselves before because they were in an "unprofessional", "vocational" job? Of course not - because as with all such jobs, they are vital for society. Conversely, a significant number of people who didn't want the hassle of further formal education, or CPD (and yes, it is a hassle if all you want is a few days work per week to bring in some money), were turned off the idea of nursing as a career.

    Nursery schools were another vocational workplace - albeit often only temporarily. Mums who were just getting children into school would get eight hours a week work for a pre-school - helping children get used to being in a larger group, perhaps teaching them a bit about how to read and write, and so on. In return, they'd start to get back into a "working" frame of mind after a career break of several years, and earn a bit of money.

    Of course, nursery provision was hit-and-miss ten years ago - the quality of care and education that you got from different providers was quite varied. Doubtless it needed some regulation. The form of regulation that was chosen was to bring it into the educational system - the regulator became Ofsted, and nursery education became part of the "Foundation Stage". (If you have children in Reception at school, did you know that they aren't on Key Stage 1 yet? Foundation Stage actually covers pre-school environments and reception year at school. KS1 is year 1 and 2.)

    No longer was the aim simply to make sure that a pre-school was a safe environment in which children could learn to be part of a wider community. Now it was part of the educational system. It is subject to Ofsted inspections - yes, those things that can shut down schools - albeit under a somewhat different regime. And management of nursery settings became something that required qualifications - NVQ's, diplomas.

    Of course, most people don't start working in pre-schools because they expect to make a career out of it - so the traditional pre-school, run by a group of sympathetic mums is probably disappearing as we speak. Instead, pre-schools will be run by people who have done nursery education qualifications in colleges - but who are probably not parents. The vocational role replaced by the professional role, again.

    The same thing happened to classroom assistants. The old idea of a mum or dad using a few hours a week to get into the school, help out in the chemistry department, or clean paint pots, is fading. Ofsted expects teachers to have strategies to use classroom assistants, and the expectation is also that classroom assistants will do NVQ's, and be given formal roles within the school.

    Well, now it's happening to childminding. Originally, childminding wasn't really a job. If you were a mum who was good with children, and had your own children at home anyway, then why not come to an arrangement with other mums who wanted to work part time? It was a really neat, informal system, that worked really well.

    But those innocent days are over. You were expected to register before, but now you have to register with - you guessed it, Ofsted. You have to meet standards, so you are inspected by them as well. Yes, that's right - Ofsted now also come into the homes of childminders. Here is a flavour of how Ofsted see this.
    The National Standards are a set of 'outcomes' that providers should aim to achieve. Ofsted will expect providers to demonstrate how they achieve each of the standards. The purpose of this guidance, therefore, is to help providers to meet the standards. It also explains how Ofsted Childcare Inspectors will register and inspect against the National Standards. Each standard has supporting criteria which give pointers about how it can be met. Providers must have regard to these criteria when deciding how they will meet the standard. In addition to meeting the National Standards, the provider must also meet a set of regulations. These regulations are included in this guidance. The guidance contains a few examples of good practice.
    Yes, that refers to childminders, not to secondary schools. Oh, and for good measure, by 2015, childminders will be expected to complete a diploma in childminding. Once again, the aim is to move from something that was vocational to something that is professional.

    To an extent, I understand this. Classroom assistants, pre-schools and increasingly childminders are paid by the state, either directly or through the tax system. It makes sense for the state to ensure that people aren't simply riding the gravy train - though a childminder is likely to be getting £10 per hour, whereas the unregulated consultants that have multiplied in the last ten years may be getting that per minute!

    But what will be the effect of this? Do I actually want a childminder who can jump through a series of educational hoops - both for herself, and the environment she intends to care for my children in? Actually, I don't. In the same way that what I really want in a pre-school is a safe, happy environment in which my child can get used to being in a large group of children, what I want from a childminder is a place where my children can be looked after that feels like a normal family home, preferably close to my house, preferably with children around the age of my children. And that's all.

    What is my point? Firstly, we are looking at Ofsted regulating children's lives away from home from birth to 16. That is an extraordinary level of influence for one government agency. This gives me cause for concern. Ofsted say:
    We inspect and regulate to achieve excellence in the care of children and young people, and in education and skills for learners of all ages .... in England. Their educational, economic and social well-being will promote our success as a country.
    This isn't simply an educational issue - and indeed, the focus with initiatives like "Every Child Matters" has been far broader than education. However, who inspects the inspectors? Who decides what "educational, economic and social well-being" looks like? This needs to be a discussion held in the public domain, not one lost in a quango.

    Secondly, professionalising jobs won't necessarily improve the quality of the work done. It may simply restrict supply - and hence, in Keynesian fashion, raise prices.

    Finally, this is a plea for people to recognise the value of vocational work. As a Christian, I believe that people's dignity is inherent in their humanity, not in the money they earn or the qualifications that they have. But you don't have to be a Christian to believe this, just human. I could put some really impressive letters after my name, but I don't. If you don't respect me as a human being, then I'm not interested in your respect for the things that I have done.

    By professionalising nursing, pre-schools, classroom assistants and childminding, we as a society are saying that we don't value the people doing those things simply as they are - we are suggesting that they are more valuable if they have a diploma or a degree. But the role they play in society is as crucial as that played by any other worker. I don't need a university professor to look after my pre-school children, or a brain surgeon to dress my wounds after an accident, or (for that matter) an engineering graduate to unblock my drains, or an Olympic weight lifter to sweep the streets. But I need somebody to do it!