Sunday, January 20, 2008

British government renames Islamic terrorism as 'anti-Islamic activity'

Yes. You read that right:

"Ministers have adopted a new language for declarations on Islamic terrorism. In future, fanatics will be referred to as pursuing "anti-Islamic activity". Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said that extremists were behaving contrary to their faith, rather than acting in the name of Islam.

Security officials believe that directly linking terrorism to Islam is inflammatory, and risks alienating mainstream Muslim opinion. In her first major speech on radicalisation, Miss Smith repeatedly used the phrase "anti-Islamic".


She should read the Koran. Take the comment in Sura 4:89 about Non-Muslims:

"They long that ye should disbelieve even as they disbelieve, that ye may be upon a level (with them). So choose not friends from them till they forsake their homes in the way of Allah; if they turn back (to enmity) then take them and kill them wherever ye find them, and choose no friend nor helper from among them"

Even Hitler was not that blunt -- though he was just as genocidal in practice, of course.

The above passage is in my copy of the Koran and my copy was printed in India under the auspices of the Nizam of Hyderabad so I am pretty sure I have not been misled by a neocon plot.

Foolish academic elitism

There is more than an echo of that arch patrician, Lady Ludlow, in the scathing criticism being directed against the internet and its unlimited diet of free information. She it was, in the BBC's delectable serialisation of Mrs Gaskell's Cranford, who dismissed the notion that the lower classes should be given access to education. Teaching them to read, she said, would simply distract them from saying their prayers and serving the landed gentry.

Today it is the University of Google that stands accused of purveying the new socialism by offering equality of information to everyone. Modern students, say the critics, are being handed unlimited supplies of dubious facts from online sources such as Wikipedia, without the means of distinguishing between the good and the bad. Because they no longer have to sift through books and carry out their own research, the students' sense of curiosity has been blunted. The internet provides "white bread for the mind" and it is breeding a generation of dullards.

Let them read books, commands the impressively named Professor Tara Brabazon, of the University of Brighton where she is Professor of Media Studies. She says that she has banned her own students from using Wikipedia or Google as research sources, and insists they read printed texts only. In a lecture, she argues that only thus will we produce the critical thinkers that the nation needs.

I fear the professor is blaming the messenger rather than the message. It is not the uneven quality of facts found on the internet that is to blame for uninquiring minds, it is the way they have been taught to think - and the way their written work is marked.

I doubt if there is any difference between the undergraduates of my generation, who crammed for exams by creaming off selected quotes from recommended texts and then learning them by rote, and those of today who download convenient passages from Wikipedia. The difference lies in the use they make of the material. If they are encouraged to believe that predigested information is an end in itself, and if they are then given high marks for the result, they will simply conclude that that is the outcome that society requires of them.

If, on the other hand, they learn that they have a gateway to knowledge unprecedented in the history of man, and that this opens up access to sources of information that they might never have glimpsed as they struggled with poorly equipped libraries unhelpful staff and unimaginative lecturers, then they will realise that, far from blunting curiosity, it sharpens it.

Academics like Professor Brabazon reveal a Ludlow-like snobbery towards Wikipedia that is becoming ever harder to justify as the site itself improves. A year ago, the Encyclopaedia Britannica was outraged when the magazine Nature carried out a comparison between it and Wikipedia, and concluded that the service offered by the two were more or less on a par (Britannica had 2.9 minor errors per article, Wikipedia had 3.9).

The difference today is likely to be even less, because Wikipedia can correct itself so swiftly. That it is open to outside contributors of uncertain quality is part of its nature. But precisely because of this, there are thousands of eagle eyes ready to pounce on errors of fact or interpretation. Vandal editing - the deliberate distortion of facts by people known in the trade as "sockpuppets" - is now routinely detected, and particularly vulnerable pages are protected from interference.

Of course, there is always the risk of inaccurate information. But is any dictionary, encyclopaedia or historical work immune from it? Should I trust Macaulay's error-littered, Whig-biased History of England simply because it is bound in leather and will take a trip to the library to find? Is the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography to be relied on because it has 60 volumes and a worldwide reputation, or should I listen to the detractors who have found errors in its entries for Jane Austen, Florence Nightingale and George V? And is the Britannica quite as magisterial as its title suggests?

I did a quick test on my own, looking up Nancy Mitford (I'm a fan) and judging the results on time and accuracy. Wikipedia gave me four pages of almost 100 per cent accurate information (I rang her niece, Emma Tennant, who spotted one small error), together with 33 links to related characters and a 16-line bibliography suggesting further reading. I got the whole lot in ten seconds.

The Britannica required a 20-minute trip to my nearest library. It gave me 350 words and a bibliography with one entry (Harold Acton's memoir). The online version offered the chance of signing up to a 30-day free trial, but still required my credit card details, replete with reassurances about taking my privacy "very seriously" - always a worrying sign. The DNB provided by far the best and fullest entry (but so it should). However, a month's subscription costs 29.35 pounds, and a year will set you back 195 pounds plus VAT. [sales tax]

What Professor Brabazon and cohorts of internet critics appear to be advocating is that those who require reliable information - the academic term is "peer-reviewed" - should be made either to work for it, or to pay for it. Curiosity, it seems, can only be stimulated by trawling library shelves or by shelling out substantial amounts of money.

The rest of us must fall back on the poor man's legacy, the internet, where we will encounter trivia, inaccuracy and lazy opinions lazily received. It's a useful caricature, of course, for those whose business it is to maintain a two-tiered society. But it suggests that not much has changed since the Church railed against men like Wycliffe and Tyndale who had the temerity to translate the Bible from Latin into English and thus allow it to be read by the great unwashed.


British mathematics education dumbed down

An advanced form of the maths A-level should be introduced to attract the prodigies who are not stretched by the current qualifications, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said yesterday. Some 60% of teachers they questioned for their latest report on A-level maths said the qualifications had got easier since reforms in 2004. Teachers said pupils were increasingly re-taking units to improve their marks and that there was a wide perception that some options were easier than others. The report says: "Most teachers also felt that the two optional units do not provide sufficient 'stretch' for the most able students."

It concludes that the options for the QCA were to accept that only a small clever core of students should do maths, or that the A-level should be separated from the further maths A-level which should stretch the most able. A spokesman said they would be investigating how to improve the further A-level. The current A-level was introduced in 2004 in response to a crisis in recruitment after earlier reforms in 2000 prompted a decline. Since 2004 the number of candidates has increased by around 14%.

Ken Boston, chief executive of the QCA, said that maths A-level was among the most challenging to design because of the range of ability among pupils. "There is a far greater range of achievement in mathematics (and the related discipline of physics) among young people than any in other subject in the curriculum, except perhaps music. While there are some 14 year olds still struggling with basic arithmetic, there are some young people who are pushing at the frontiers of advanced mathematics, and destined for brilliant careers. And in the broad span between the two, there is an extraordinary range of differentiated performance. Mathematics is a nationally important priority."

The schools minister Jim Knight said the new A-levels being piloted would better reflect academic excellent through the new A* grade. "Let's be clear. A-level maths is not easy. It is a rigorous and challenging qualification. "Changes made to the curriculum in 2004 made it more accessible - for example by allowing combinations such as statistics and mechanics, while retaining core mathematical content and protecting intellectual rigour. "These changes also overcame problems with the transition from GCSE without reducing the level of difficulty, and were made after extensive consultation with the mathematics community.

"Right now, plans are in place to stretch the brightest candidates even further. The new A-level, which is being piloted, will stretch the most able candidates with more open ended, less structured questions and the A* grade will ensure that exceptional attainment is recognised and students are better prepared than ever before to study maths at university."


British Left attacking the role of fathers

Doesn't a child need a father? Since in vitro fertilisation was first regulated in 1990 doctors have been required to consider the welfare of the baby, including "the need of that child for a father". This is one of the few ethical principles in IVF law and has served as a reminder that the welfare of the child is more important than the wishes of the would-be parents.

But no longer, it seems. The Government is seeking, in a new Bill in the House of Lords, to delete that obligation. Instead, IVF providers will have to consider "the need for supportive parenting", a change that is both unacceptable and inappropriate. The phrase "supportive parenting" will mean little to the public. Because it is speculative it will be difficult for practitioners to interpret, and it adds nothing of substance to the existing requirement to have regard to the welfare of the child. There is no reason to change the current approach, which works well.

A substantial amount of research has demonstrated that fathers make a distinctive contribution to child rearing, without which children are generally the poorer. If we believe that the welfare of children is important, it would be irresponsible to allow the law to move backwards and lose explicit reference to fathers.

The need to have regard to the role of fathers is not discriminatory. It has not and does not prevent same-sex couples from receiving IVF - the numbers of lesbian couples having such treatment is increasing. It simply asks those assessing IVF patients to consider the need of a child for a father, an eminently sensible provision that sends out a vital signal about the centrality of fathers.

This is an important principle of non-discrimination. It upholds equality of parenting and equal respect for both sexes in their roles. We all want to see women fulfilling their wish to become mothers, but one cannot overlook the contribution made by half the human race to the upbringing of the next generation.

At a time when many argue that Britain is suffering from a crisis of fatherlessness, this proposed change conflicts with the efforts being made to remedy the situation. The Government is encouraging paternity leave, compels fathers to pay maintenance, has ended the anonymity of sperm donors and wants them to register their names on birth certificates.

Britain has been successful in the field of advanced reproductive technology because the regulations governing it have kept the confidence of the public. That confidence will be jeopardised if this principle, which the great majority regard as important, is abandoned.



A published email to Benny Peiser from David Whitehouse []:

My scientific training taught me to elevate data above all else. Whatever you might want the universe to do or to fit in with a cherished theory it is the data that tells you what the universe actually does. Huxley said, tongue in cheek, that it was the great tragedy of science that a beautiful hypothesis can be slain by an ugly fact. Data trumps everything...or does it?

Recently, I wrote an article pointing out that the global average temperature for the past 7 years was statistically flat - that is no analysis of that data could say anything about it other than it was a flat line. I didn't think it was particularly controversial as I was merely stating what the data produced by the US National Climatic Data Center and the UK's Met Office was saying. I wondered why the CO2 levels have gone up and the temperature had not. I discounted aerosols reflecting sunlight as there has been no big volcanic eruptions in over a decade and the IPCC says that the atmosphere's aerosol load has declined, and doubted that decadal oceanic variations could do the trick either. You can read the article here.

The article received a record 700 comments, mostly supportive. Several interesting points emerged (aside from the obvious fact that many who comment on such articles haven't actually read them) that might be of interest to readers. There are those who say the data does not exist and that I am lying! More puzzling are those who say that the data shows nothing of interest and that it is statistically irrelevant.

Underneath this assertion is something very interesting. There is a vociferous body of opinion that says the data does not show the world hasn't warmed and that in reality the upward temperature gradient of the years 1980 -1998 is still being maintained -- it's just that the data does not show it! Some go on to say that in a 27 year temperature time series one would expect 7 flat years given the signal to noise ratio of the data.

To my mind this is seeing what you want to see and the maxim should be that the data shows what the data shows - if it shows the last 7 years is flat then that's what mother nature says and no amount of arguing or statistical analysis is going to say it isn't so. It seems to me these people deny the data to suit their own perspective.

However, could we expect a 7 year standstill just by sampling errors alone even though the rising trend is still upward? It's possible though highly unlikely, it is surely far more likely that the flat data represents flat data! Surely the important question here is: what would the data look like if the temperature has stopped rising? The answer is, of course, it would look exactly like what it does now. We should let Occam decide which explanation to choose.

Then there is the argument that 7 years is too short a timescale to prove anything. In a sense they are right, we do not know if the 7 flat years will continue or if the temperature will start to rise or fall afterwards. But many twist that question and use it to dismiss the 7 years of measured flat data as meaningless. This is not valid. The 7 years remains what it is - 7 years of measured flat data and it is not an insignificant fraction of the 18 years of warming we saw between 1980 - 1998. What's more, the data set is not yet complete. It seems to me that many are judging those 7 flat years by different standards from that which they judge the 1980-1998 warming period and that is obviously unjustified.

The response to my article is here. It commits many of the sins I mention and more -- and even says my article will go down as the most controversial ever in that I claim that global warming has 'stopped.' It even denies that the period 2001-2007 has been measured as statistically flat and claims I made the elementary error of confusing long term average with year on year variability (seems that 18 years is a long term climatic effect but ten years is a year on year variability!)

It says that although CO2 levels are rising year on year no one claimed that the temperature would do otherwise! Average things out and the trend is hotter. (no one denies that this decade is hotter than previous ones so that is no response to my points). It cites as conclusive evidence a graph posted on the RealClimate website that uses trend lines covering the recent post 1980 spell to prove that no recent standstill exists. The News Statesman response then makes some dodgy comments about the way science progresses.

The RealClimate graph is designed to prove what it wants to prove in that the statistical analysis chosen dilutes a 7 year flat spell at the end of a data series. It also includes no error bars on the annual temperature measurements and if it did the graph would tell a very different story and the trend lines would have a much greater degree of variation.

The New Statesman reply says that similar 7 year standstills have occurred in the past so the current one is nothing special but it fails to add that those periods were statistically far more variable than the current 7 year standstill and that they were blips in an upward trend caused by El Chichon and Mt Pinatubo. There has been no similar event for the recent 7 years! All things considered the New Statesman reply to my article fails to make any counter case when you look at the facts in detail and not in a shallow way with the eye of faith.

Finally, there is another aspect to the debate that worried me far more than an environmental 'activist' getting the science wrong. It is one of double standards and it has become rather predictable. Provide any criticism, even mild or supportive, or even suggest that we might be wrong and that we don't know everything and one's integrity is attacked. I am accused of intentionally or otherwise of misleading the public and you will note the association made in the New Statesman reply between myself and those who posted comments who might have been paid to take a contrary position.

This idea that big energy companies are fuelling all so-called dissent has become a cliche, and is often used reprehensibly by those who cannot respond scientifically to argument. One recent book about the catastrophe that is global warming even had a lengthy section about the tobacco industry denying lung cancer so as to set a parallel with the 'climate change deniers' camp.

On a recent TV debate that Benny Peiser and I took part in a representative from a well know environmental pressure group, who was obviously stressed and irritated by our comments, demanded that the question master make us swear we weren't being funded by the oil lobby. Benny and I said we weren't but thinking about it I should have demanded an apology for that slur before I decided whether to answer or not.

We have reached a sad stage when such things happen. We should ensure that such debates are even handed and that both sides of any argument declare their vested interests, if any. Surely these big, campaigning groups have a stronger vested interest in global warming than most?

Finally this, another well known saying: "Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing."


Kids hate clowns, research shows

BAD news for Coco and Blinko – British children don't like clowns and even older kids are scared of them. The news that will no doubt have clowns shedding tears was revealed in a poll of youngsters by researchers from the University of Sheffield who examined how to improve the decor of children's wards in hospitals.

The study, reported in the Nursing Standard magazine, found all of the 250 patients aged between four and 16 they quizzed disliked the use of clowns, with even the older ones finding them scary. "As adults we make assumptions about what works for children," said Penny Curtis, a senior lecturer in research at the university. "We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable."


UK government toughening up? "Gordon Brown has brushed aside a chorus of protest to press ahead with plans to allow terror suspects to be locked up without charge for up to 42 days, leaked documents obtained by The Independent show. The Prime Minister's refusal to compromise leaves the Home Secretary facing a desperate struggle to avert Mr Brown's first Commons defeat. Up to 40 Labour MPs have vowed to oppose any extension of the current 28-day limit, already the longest in the Western world."

No comments: