The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Book news

The Execution Channel, already short-listed for the BSFA Award, has now been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, in strong but controversial company - to whom, congratulations. The book has also made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2007.

The cover art for Fractions, Tor's omnibus edition of the first two Fall Revolution novels, has been revealed and it looks great. The book is due out in, aptly enough, the fall.

My short story 'Lighting Out' was also short-listed for a BSFA Award. Like the others, it's being podcast by that fine site Starship Sofa. Not only that, it's narrated by Diane Severson, a beautiful professional soprano singer. My work on this planet is done.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Refloating the Ark

This is a lightly HTML-ised version of an article that I wrote for last Monday's edition of the Morning Star.

Thirty-five years ago, I mentioned creationism to one of my zoology tutors at Glasgow University. 'Nobody,' he said, 'takes these people seriously!' Today, another of my former tutors, Roger Downie, now Professor of Zoological Education at Glagow University, has to take creationism - or evolution denial, as he prefers to call it - a bit more seriously than that.

He's still awaiting results from a survey of students' beliefs this year, but surveys he conducted over several years in the 1990s found one science student in ten rejecting evolution. Last November, Professor Downie debated 'Intelligent Design' advocates before Edinburgh University's Humanist Society. His lecture on 'The creationist threat to evolution' is scheduled for this year's course in Communicating Science.

I asked him where students' evolution denial comes from - supposed scientific arguments, or prior religious belief?

'Prior religious belief mainly, even when given the opportunity to give alternatives. Worrying, since these are science students embarking on an evidence-based degree...'

Asked whether creationist organizations are active in higher education, Professor Downie says: 'I can't give a general answer, but 'Truth in Science' is a UK group that has circulated a ID based teaching pack to schools. It has some British academics aboard, especially Professor Andy McIntosh, a Leeds physicist. There are a few other ID sympathisers scattered around, including one in Stirling.'

This doesn't sound like a mass movement. But that's no ground for complacency. A MORI poll for the BBC's Horizon programme in January 2006 found 22% identifying themselves as creationists, with about double that number believing that creation or Intelligent Design (ID) should be taught in schools. These are, of course, far higher proportions of adults than have ever been taught creationism in school themselves. So what's going on?

In part, it's a legacy of Tony Blair's enthusiasm for 'faith schools' and 'city academies'. The City Academies scheme allows businesses, churches and voluntary groups to gain control over a school's policy and ethos by contributing £2m towards the capital cost - around 10% of the total, the other 90% of which comes from you and me. State funded schools that teach creationism now include the Emmanuel City Technology College at Gateshead and the King's Academy in Middlesbrough, both sponsored by Sir Peter Vardy, and a Seventh Day Adventist school in Tottenham. Some at least of the UK's thousands of faith schools may be doing the same - though it should be noted that Anglican, Catholic and Jewish schools are very unlikely to do so. Just how bizarre this stuff can get is well brought out by Stephen Layfield, head of science at Emmanuel College, who calls for teaching 'the historicity of a world-wide flood' and affirms 'the feasibility of maintaining an ark full of representative creatures for a year ...' (The complete speech was archived by religious affairs and science journalist Andrew Brown - the Christian Institute removed it from its its own website after Richard Dawkins drew attention to it in The Daily Telegraph .)

The education pack circulated to heads of secondary schools in the UK by 'Truth in Science' got a positive response from only 59 out of ten thousand or so schools and was repudiated by the Department of Education. (Gillard D., (2007) Never mind the evidence: Blair's obsession with faith schools).

The 'Truth in Science' website is slick, but pure intellectual vandalism. The trick is to pretend that evolution versus 'Intelligent Design' is controversial within science. It isn't, but claiming that it is makes teaching 'alternative views' seem a question of balance and fair-mindedness.

The National Curriculum is vague enough to allow creationists an opening to urge that teachers 'teach the controversy', for some faith schools to go ahead and do it, and for the DoE to reassure enquirers and objectors that creationism and ID are not on the curriculum. The inimitable Melanie Phillips has defended the teaching of creationism on the grounds of tolerance, as well as on the sound ethos and academic excellence of religious schools. More recently, she's taken up the cudgels for ID supporters, indignantly claiming that evolutionists have 'falsely accused such scientists of being religious fundamentalists who believe the world was created in six days'.

All this echoes the situation in the US, where creationism and ID have wealthy, right-wing backers whose primary effort is to get the ideas into schools, under the guise of a 'scientific controversy' that doesn't exist. American socialist Lenny Flank gives a detailed exposure of the murky politics of evolution denial in his book Deception by Design and his website 'Creation Science' Debunked.

The US Constitution forbids an establishment of religion, so scientific cover has to be found for teaching creationism. It was originally provided by Henry Morris, a civil engineer who specialised in hydraulics. Together with a theologian, John C. Whitcomb, he wrote The Genesis Flood (1961), which argues that almost the entire the fossil record was laid down in, yes, Noah's Flood. Not all of its intended readers found it persuasive. To this day, even fundamentalist Christian oil geologists laugh at Flood Geology. They'd never dream of using it to find oil.

Later books advocated the same ideas, but with religious references carefully excised, and 'creation science' was born. The long march through the school boards began. After 'creation science' was ruled unconstitutional in 1987, the movement mutated into 'Intelligent Design' - only to receive a further rebuff with the Dover case in 2005.

Roger Downie also points to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and the '"unholy alliance" of Christian and Muslim creationists'. In Islam creationism is more mainstream than it is in Christianity. The most prominent Muslim creationist, the Turkish writer Harun Yahya, combines a quaint obsession with Zionists, Freemasons and Communists with appeals for inter-faith dialogue and opposition to terrorism. His creationism eschews the idiocies of Flood Geology and a young earth, and is well-funded: his books and CDs are finely-produced but inexpensive, and ten thousand unsolicited copies of his full-colour volume, Atlas of Creation, have been delivered free to scientists in Europe and North America. On February 26 2008, UCLU's Islamic Society hosted a presentation by representatives of the Harun Yahya Organization on 'The Collapse of the Evolution Theory' - one of dozens of similar events over the past year or two in the UK, and many more in the Muslim world, drawing huge audiences in Indonesia.

There's an understandable temptation to respond to evolution denial with militant atheism. Professor Downie disagrees:

'People are entitled to be militant atheists if they wish, but I think they should keep their comments separate from the discussion on the evidence for evolution. Most religious people these days accept evolution: only a fringe are deniers, and I'd hope to reduce that fringe. Linking evolution to atheism could have the opposite effect, and I've had experience from talks I've given of just such an effect. The response I favour is to emphasise the inappropriateness of judging a scientific issue by faith/belief. Stephen J. Gould's Rocks of Ages is good on this.'

Evolution versus denial is no more a conflict between religion and atheism than it is a controversy within science. At one level, the controversy is within the various religions themselves. Most denominations follow such revered Christian thinkers as Origen and Augustine, and the mediaeval Jewish sage Maimonedes, in reading Genesis figuratively. Fundamentalists insist that if Genesis isn't completely historical, it's simply false. In this, ironically, they are on the same page as some militant atheists.

At another level, however, the problem is political. It isn't just that creationism is backed by wealthy - and largely right-wing - businessmen. The root of the problem is the weakness of confident, secular and rational public discourse. This leaves room for all kinds of irrationality, which find an opening in the New Labour view that the public education system can't stand on its own feet, and needs to be propped up by money from business and morality from religion. Unless we repudiate that, more and more of our children will find their precious time wasted on feasibility studies of Noah's Ark.
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Thursday, March 06, 2008

To Mars and back stay!

Brian Dewhirst has commented on my Sputnik post
Posting here because it is closest to on-topic...

I'm rather eager to hear your thoughts on the "Spirit of the Lone Eagle" one-way, one-person mission to Mars proposal, if you have any.
I'm embarrassed to admit that the first time I heard this proposal, from Dolan Cummings of the Manifesto Club, I mistook it for the morbid notion that someone should go to Mars and die. Not at all - the proposal is that one person should go to Mars and live there, explore, and in time be joined by others. It's easier to send supplies one-way than to take even one person back. This makes a human Mars mission feasible in a much shorter time than we've imagined.

I like it. It'd probably do everything that Apollo is supposed to have done to screw up space development, but what the heck.

Now, if we could get the PRC interested in sending a taikonaut there first ...
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Here's the thing

I know now what annoys me about the proliferation of Gaelic-English bilingual signs in Scotland. I had to think about it, because I'm by no means opposed to bilingualism - or multilingualism, for that matter - generally. The council and the government print information in several languages. I welcome that, as I welcome the immigrants. Banks and shops advertise in Polish - good for them. I have an attachment to Gaelic, though I don't speak it. So why do I find these signs so irritating? What makes Gaelic in Scotland different from Irish in Ireland, or Welsh in Wales, or Bengali on Edinburgh council-tax information leaflets?

One difference is that nobody is left alive who needs Gaelic translations to make sense of - and very few who even, at a minimum, need them to be at home with reading - what the state demands of them or what businesses offer them. Another is that the language hasn't, like Irish or Welsh, become a symbol of a national cause. The political and cultural resurgence of Scottish identity was expressed in what is now called Scottish Standard English, and in a resurrected Scots. So in that sense bilingualism is artificial. It meets no need and answers no demand.

There's something very postmodern about this whole state-sponsored splatter of Gaelic on signage. It exists not because there is a flourishing Gaelic-speaking community, but because there isn't! If there were, there'd be no need for all the research so often required to rummage up a Gaelic name or nitpick a Gaelic spelling.

I suspect the people who are most charmed by the new bilingual signs are tourists and incomers, and those who are most irritated are people of Highland origin, and particularly those who live in the Highlands. For sure, there's a typical Scottish Tory hostility to it here and there, but that's just their landlord-class politics talking out of their arse. But the most cutting jeers I've heard on the matter have come from Highlanders, some of them native speakers of Gaelic.

So here's my guess, based on analysing how I feel about it myself. I would welcome argument or testimony to the contrary. But for what it's worth, my guess is this: we regret not speaking Gaelic, and we resent the presumption that we should. We have done our best with the hard hand we were dealt. Some of us have left for the Central Belt or the ends of the earth. Others have made a living in the desolate, depopulated landscape, working on the shooting estates or digging the thin and sodden fields in the old days; in tourism, commerce and industry today. And in almost all cases, to do this meant forgetting the language, leaving it to dwindle in the Sunday-morning sermon and the ceilidh and the old folks' private talk. We had to learn English, and we were proud that we spoke a more standard English than the Lowland Scots.

And after all that has left us illiterate and inarticulate in the language of our ancestors, but sharp and cutting in the lingua franca of the modern world, you come back and mock the teuchter again, with your signs for Raon Gnìomhachais (Industrial Estate) and Pàirc Gnothachais (Business Park) and Snaidhm-Rathaid (Interchange) and Port-adhair (Airport) - bright green sticking-plasters across what we had thought were faded scars.
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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Small annoyances

It's the little things that'll do it, you know. When the revolution comes, it'll be fuelled by tiny peeves. Some that I'm saving wood for barricades over:

Pointlessly bilingual signage, now infesting the best small country in the world.

Foods now with reduced salt/fat, in accordance with Government/EU guidelines. This has made several traditional brands of pie uneatable (not enough shortening in the pastry), and ruined salted peanuts.

Bars without ashtrays. Mind you, it's amazing how much roomier pubs have become. And quieter.

And one that has nothing to do with politics: book review sections of broadsheet and Sunday papers that every so often are devoted entirely to children's books. I read review sections to see what smart adults are thinking about. Children's books are important. If I want reviews of them, I could buy Parenting or Mother and Baby. (In theory. I never have, and have no idea what books if any they review.)
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