Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Reason for Success

In my last post I explained why it doesn’t much matter which school you send you kids to, as long as it reaches some minimum standards. So we can all relax.

Except we can’t, because, juding by the comments, most people don’t believe it. All our experience suggests a straightforward cause and effect relationship between successful kids and good teaching. We enjoyed the maths lessons of Mr X while the history class of Miss Y sent us to sleep. Surely, we did better at maths and worse at history as a result. But think back honestly. My best subject at school was physics but I had a succession of boring teachers who actually put me off doing the subject at university (I changed back to physics after a year at college).

This is why I am so excited by the work on genetics that has shown nurture to be largely irrelevant. Science is at its best when it is utterly counter-intuitive. That the earth orbits the sun still seems ridiculous if you sit down and think it through. Ditto, that upbringing, quality of teaching and environment make a significant difference to outcomes. Remember how we are all taught to talk endlessly to our toddlers to help them develop their language skills? It’s rubbish. Healthy children are no more capable of not learning to talk then they are not learning to walk.

As for anecdotes, I can’t accept them as evidence in this case. The experience of particular individuals does not invalidate a general thesis that never claims to be exhaustive. But the varied experience of individuals does show us that we cannot use science as an excuse to discriminate. Science can inform large scale policy – hence it should help us get over the irrelevant grammar school debate. But it cannot be allowed to pigeon hole particular people because they come from a group which has a higher or lower average level of some trait.

Bearing that in mind, let me briefly explain why middle class children, on average, do better at school. Membership of the middle class really just means earning a good wage. Brains are valued more than brawn, so ‘white collar’ workers are paid more than ‘blue collar’. The more intellectually demanding the role is, the more that the people who do it get paid. Today, being middle class is almost synonymous with being a ‘knowledge worker’ or a ‘professional’. This much, I hope, is not controversial.

Clever women and clever men tend to marry other clever men and clever women. This trend has become increasingly pronounced now that women have taken their rightful place in the workforce. In other words, feminism has probably entrenched the middle classes by making it more likely that men will marry their intellectual peers.

Finally, clever parents are more likely to have clever offspring. If both parents have brains, as is now usual in middle class families, the kids’ chances of inheriting the genes that built them are enhanced even further.

And that is why middle class children will always, on average, have better academic results. It’s not because their parents are pushy, or get their kids into the best schools. It’s just that their children have inherited the same genes that made their parents middle class in the first place.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Why Choice of School Does not Matter

It is a commonplace in British political debate that the middle classes hog all the good schools. By ‘good’ schools, I presume we mean those that get the best exam results and end up highest up the league tables. The argument, which even the Conservatives have started to make, is that a good school attracts middle class parents who move the earth to get their offspring into it, to the detriment of working class kids whose own parents are not so pushy. As a result, the Labour government spends a huge amount of political capital trying to prevent middle class parents from being able to influence the chances of their children getting places at ‘good’ schools. The latest fad is to allocate places by lottery. Both parties think that ‘good’ schools have a massive effect on the life-chances of the pupils lucky enough to attend them.

I’m sorry to say that all the premises of this debate are utter hogwash. First, let’s look at what makes a ‘good’ school. Does a school get the best exam results because of the excellence of its teachers, or the management style of its headmaster or the religious character of its ethos? Or is it because the kids that go to that school happen to be cleverer than the ones down the road? Testing this is quite hard to do because the ‘good’ schools automatically tend to attract the clever pupils (for reasons I’ll explain in my next post). So, how can you distinguish between the push effect of good teaching and the pull effect of bright kids?

The Labour Party’s pet lottery scheme can help us. As chapter five of the book Freakonomics explains, in Chicago many school places are allocated randomly. This means that the ‘good’ schools can’t attract the bright kids because they have to go where the lottery places them. Economists examining the results of Chicago schools found that the school an individual attends has absolutely no effect on their own exam results. The schools that do best, the ones that appear ‘good’ enjoy that status thanks to the brains of their pupils, not the quality of their teaching.

Steven Pinker enthusiasts will not be surprised to learn this. Of course, intelligence is innate and where you happen to go to school won’t affect that. Nor will any other factors connected to upbringing or nurture. The Chicago economists found that factors like the number of books in the child’s home or whether their parents read to them were all as irrelevant to exam success as the school that the child went to. I am willing to admit that very bad schools probably have a detrimental effect, but I would probably put that down to the behaviour of the pupils there as well, rather than the inadequacies of the teachers.

This means that all sides in Britain can take heart. Labour can stop worrying about the middles classes hogging the places at the top schools. The workers do just as well at the schools they are at. The middle classes can relax if they can’t get their child into their first choice of school. It probably doesn’t matter anyway. The lottery system is unlikely to screw up or enhance anyone’s life chances. And as for selective schools, the panacea for the right and the bugbear of the left, they don’t make a blind bit of difference either. They do well in the league tables because they have clever kids at them, but the kids would do just as well at any school that met minimum standards.

If you thought that the Chicago experience was a one-off, a report just out finds the same results in English schools. The researchers interviewed middle class left-wing parents who sent their kids the local comprehensive as a political statement. Even though the local schools were rated as poor, the bright children of the lefties still did just as well as we would expect them to – including getting into Oxford or Cambridge. Predictably, the academics who did the research, together with the BBC reporting it, utterly misinterpret the results. They accuse the middle classes of hogging all the resources at the schools. In my next post I’ll explain why middle class children really do better than working class ones, and why there is nothing anyone can ever do about it.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Sandwiches, the NHS and Fairness

When I was about ten I was sent to a dreadful little prep school in Surrey called St Edmunds. It had lots of traditional rules whose origins were lost in the mists of time but no one had ever taken the trouble to write them down. So, new boys had to figure it all out by themselves. One of the pathetic regulations was that you were not allowed to make sandwiches at tea time. During the three years I endured at the school, the purpose of this rule was never disclosed, largely because there was no earthly reason for it. One day, I had the audacity to make a sandwich. My refusal to unmake it and worse to actually eat it meant the dispute escalated until I was standing in front of the headmaster. Eventually, as a ten year old alone at a boarding school, I was browbeaten into submission. In return, I have thought of the school and its staff with undisguised contempt ever since.

The only justification that the headmaster could muster for preventing me from eating my sandwich was that if he let me do it, then he would have to let everyone else do it as well. Fairness was used as a justification for stupidity. I expect many people are familiar with this excuse. It is one of the favourites used by bureaucrats as they seek to justify upholding their petty regulations in wildly inappropriate circumstances.

Sadly, the situation is sometimes more serious than a child’s right to make sandwiches. Recently, a cancer patient was told that she could not buy drugs with her own money without forfeiting the right to free treatment on the NHS. Disgustingly, Alan Johnson, the health secretary has supported the health authority's inhuman policy, apparently on the grounds of fairness. Now it is too late for poor Mrs Mills. If there is any justice Alan Johnson will be struck down by something that the NHS won’t treat with the latest drugs and be faced with the same choice between ‘fairness’ and an early death. This is not just a terrible parable about the perils of socialised medicine, but also shows the limits of using fairness as the final arbiter in morality.

The golden rule says, "Do unto others what you would have done to you." That means putting yourself in someone else's place and asking how you would feel if Alan Johnson banned you from buying a life-prolonging drug with your own money.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Francis Bacon and Horse's Teeth

Here is a famous story you might have heard, taken from here:

In the year of our Lord 1432, there arose a grievous quarrel among the brethren over the number of teeth in the mouth of a horse. For thirteen days the disputation raged without ceasing. All the ancient books and chronicles were fetched out, and wonderful and ponderous erudition such as was never before heard of in this region was made manifest. At the beginning of the fourteenth day, a youthful friar of goodly bearing asked his learned superiors for permission to add a word, and straightway, to the wonderment of the disputants, whose deep wisdom he sore vexed, he beseeched them to unbend in a manner coarse and unheard-of and to look in the open mouth of a horse and find answer to their questionings. At this, their dignity being grievously hurt, they waxed exceeding wroth; and, joining in a mighty uproar, they flew upon him and smote him, hip and thigh, and cast him out forthwith. For, said they, surely Satan hath tempted this bold neophyte to declare unholy and unheard-of ways of finding truth, contrary to all the teachings of the fathers. After many days more of grievous strife, the dove of peace sat on the assembly, and they as one man declaring the problem to be an everlasting mystery because of a grievous dearth of historical and theological evidence thereof, so ordered the same writ down.

When I was going through my phase of arguing on the Internet Infidels discussion board, a lady using the screen name of Sojourner was one of my common debating partners. She was very bright and quite knowledgeable which meant talking with her was always fun. She had gone as far as to write an entire book on her internet site which told the story of Western civilisation (without irony) from the point of view of a nineteenth-century positivist. That is to say, her theme was of mankind’s progress towards liberalism through reason and the defeat of superstition. Like many amateurs, she had read most of the standard popular histories but none of the primary sources. Sadly her effort os no longer on-line. I hope I didn't help drive it away.

The result was a hodgepodge of fact, fantasy and misinterpretation through a liberal lens. Everyone was judged with perfect hindsight and no contemporary context at all. St Augustine and St Paul were baddies, Roger and Francis Bacon were goodies and people were always getting into trouble with the Church for thinking too much. Sojourner thought she was a critical thinker but her book revealed that she had happily swallowed anything that agreed with her prejudices without ever considering it. For example, she quoted Ammianus Marcellinus on the libraries of Rome being “shut up like tombs” and assumed this was the fault of Christians. She had not bothered check the context which clearly blames pagans for not caring about their intellectual heritage.

She also quoted the horse story given above as a typical example of medieval obscurantism, claiming it came from the works of Francis Bacon. Leaving aside the fact that Bacon was far too late to give any sort of accurate picture of medieval thought, I challenged her for a reference to Bacon’s works. All I got was the secondary source she had mined the quotation from. Now Bacon’s works are voluminous, partly in Latin and ideal for hiding a story to which you want to give a famous providence. More recently, there have been other attempts to track down the horse story, none of which are able to push it back past 1900. Interestingly, there is a variation of the myth that it came from a chronicle of an ancient monastery and dates from 1425!

I present this as yet another myth about the Middle Ages that has been doing the rounds. If anyone has any idea where it originates from, I would be most interested.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Now for some News

I sent in the corrections to my thesis last week for approval by the examiner. If she gives the nod then it is all done. Otherwise, I hope that it doesn’t lead to the degree being downgraded. I’m reasonably confident that I have covered everything but you can never tell. Any spare prayers or thoughts on this would be much appreciated.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili, a professor of physics at the University of Greenwich has been championing the achievements of medieval Islam in science in the Telegraph and the Guardian. Naturally, this has gone down like a lead balloon with some people as you can see. I found the Christian creationist commenting here, who refused to give an ounce of credit to Islam, particularly unfortunate but restricted my comments to taking on the Telegraph’s village atheist. I do have a policy of not arguing with fellow Christians in public no matter how much I disagree with them as it just gives succour to the real enemy.

Respected opponent Charles Freeman has a new book out called 381AD. It appears to run back over the same ground as Closing of the Western Mind but dealing with the years around the end of the fourth century in more detail. There is a glowing and utterly ignorant review by John Carey in the Sunday Times. Freeman’s problem is with ‘authoritarian’ Christianity rather than the ‘touchy-feely’ sort. I can see what he means here and it is certainly true that the religion lost its innocence by cosying up to the Roman Empire. Where he is wrong is to imagine that the Empire became more authoritarian as a result of Christianity rather than the other way around. As usual, St Augustine is the one dug up and placed on the throne for trial. As usual, he is found guilty of speaking the truth about human nature that progressives just don’t want to hear. I’ll try to get around to reading and reviewing 381AD later in the year.

I will be re-activating the search for a publisher of my book in the near future. If possible, I want to have the PhD done and dusted first, if only for appearance’s sake. My agent will be shifting his attention to America and hopefully also some of the smaller houses in the UK which we have not considered to date.

Finally, my article on the closure of the School of Athens by Emperor Justinian is up at Bede’s Library. It looks at the few primary sources related to the event and weighs up the evidence, asking what happened and what the effects were. One of the most interesting points that came out of my research was that the school closed by Justinian was not the same as the one founded by Plato. Plato’s academy had been closed by the (pagan) Romans when they first annexed Athens in the second century BC. It had been refounded as a neo-Platonic school around the third century AD. Despite the four hundred year break in existence, the neo-Platonists were happy to encourage the Platonic pedigree and many modern authors have imagined the school had been in existence for a millennium when Justinian (probably) closed it.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Rowan Williams and the Sharia Law

Oh dear. The AB of C has a history of accidentally generating lurid headlines. I recall when The Sunday Telegraph assured us that the Asian Tsunami had led him to doubt the existence of God when Dr Williams had said no such thing. This time, though, it seems he deserved the opprobrium being poured upon him. I’ve been trying to figure out what he said and what he meant before coming to a conclusion about the validity of his remarks.

Here in England, we have an ex-judicial system called binding arbitration. What happens is that two parties in dispute both agree to be bound by the decision of a mutually agreed expert. The point of the exercise is to save the money and time involved in taking a case to court. The Jewish community has, for a long time, used this system to allow their rabbis to act as arbitrators in inheritance and business disputes. In effect, Jews use religious courts. But as far as the law of the land is concerned, there is nothing special about agreeing to be bound by the decision of a rabbi or a local council reconciliation officer. That the rabbis use Jewish law is a private matter between them and the parties concerned. The only legal contract, as far as I can tell, is the initial agreement to be bound by whatever decision the expert in question reaches. In principle, I would think, if the expert suggests something loopy or illegal, you can still go to the courts to get the contract voided.

Now there is no reason that an Imam, applying the principles of Sharia law, should not act as the arbitrator in a dispute between Moslems who contractually agree to be bound by his decision (subject, as ever to reasonableness and legality). In fact, this already happens quite frequently and has no bearing on the universal validity of English law. But Dr Williams appeared to want to go further and enshrine certain Sharia principles in the secular law of the land. Now this idea, if he meant it, is the purest kind of lunacy. His Grace appears to be a wafer short of a monstrance. My initial thought was that he can’t mean this but having read his words I think he probably did. Clearly, in a secular society, a religious court can only hand down religious penalties. Their ultimate sanction can only be to ban you from mass or the local mosque. This seems something that no secularist could argue with.

There are also special tax rules because Islamic Banks can't charge interest. They have various ways around this but as our tax system is based on the idea that banks make money from charging interest, special tax provisions have been made for Islamic finance.

I fear Dr Williams, for whom I had high hopes, is now a busted flush. Perhaps his difficulties with the issue of homosexuality (an insolvable problem in the context of Anglicanism whose solution will lead to the dissolution or schism of that church) has left him demob happy. In retirement one has licence to speak ones mind a little more. He might consider that to be the best answer to his problems. York is ready and waiting for translation to Canterbury.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Steven Pinker of the Evolution of Morality

In an excellent recent article for the New York Times, Steven Pinker outlined current research into the evolutionary origin of morality. He explains how researchers have shown that morality can been categorised into five universal headings: fairness, purity, authority, harm and community. Translated into language that we all understand, these five categories mean: do unto others as you would have done to you; do not commit adultery; honour your father and mother; do no murder; and do not covet your neighbour’s ox. Although there are huge variations in morals in different societies, Pinker is convincing that all fit into these categories. When the moral order changes, as it did, for instance, over slavery, the priority attached to the relevant categories is rebalanced. In the case of slavery, fairness trumped authority although most of the arguments in favour before the American Civil War were based on preserving the southern way of life (that is, community).

Pinker’s article covers a lot more ground, but two points stand out. The first is that conservatives seem to value all five kinds of morality in roughly equal measure. Liberals (which means the left in this context), on the other hand, tend to privilege fairness and community. You can see many aspects of the culture wars in a new light by slotting the arguments on both sides into the relevant moral categories. Pornography? Conservatives object on the grounds of purity, liberals get stuck in for fairness’s sake. Animal rights? Wrong, say conservatives protecting their (human) community. Right, say liberals avoiding harm to others. The only point where I am a bit lost is figuring out which moral category applies to people who are pro-choice on abortion. The antis are obviously saying do no harm. I suppose those in favour could cite community much as conservatives do for animal rights.

Ultimately, the categories you use to play this game don’t matter so much as the fact that they are innate. The moral imperative is part of our basic human nature. As such, we can be pretty sure that it has evolved. The advantage, I suppose, of the five categories mentioned above is that it is quite easy to come up with some just-so stories about exactly how we evolved them.

I won’t bother with that but want, instead, to move onto my second point. For many people, the idea that morality evolved leaves them a bit disconcerted. But they should not be. Christian theologians have been almost unanimous in finding that natural law is a part of the natural world. It is a universal property of healthy humans regardless of their religion or culture. But it is only machinery. The software of specific morality and ethics requires something more. The evolutionary explanation for morality does not actually explain why slavery and abortion are wrong, it only explains how we became creatures who are capable of having the argument in the first place.

We are forced back to the position that almost all the specific morality of our society is a product of our Christian heritage, not our genes. Towards the end of his article, Pinker speculates on some of the ways that morality might be ‘objective’ in a universe without God. But he doesn’t get very far with it. Almost any discussion of where our ethics came from must acknowledge that a major part of the answer is Christianity.

By the way, one of the commentators on this blog recommended Larry Arnhart's Darwinian Conservatism blog. It covers similar ground to Pinker at a more adavanced level. Well worth a look.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Oliver Kamm

I have been enjoying the blog of Oliver Kamm. Kamm is a true rationalist. Most of my readers will be aware that people who call themselves rationalists tend to be suffering from more delusions than most. They have simply substituted what they took to be one set of myths (usually religious) for another set (usually reductionist and political). Kamm is far more clear-eyed. In fact, the only illusion he allows himself is that he is a member of the political left. And yet his main literary activity is to puncture the bubbles that make up the worldview of certain members of mainstream left.

For some of this group, to call yourself leftwing requires that you hold to certain propositions. These include that America is to blame for most of the world’s problems, that the Soviet Union was a glorious experiment that went wrong and that the Palestinians are entirely innocent of the causes of their suffering. Economically, you must be anti-globalisation, against free trade, in favour of protectionism (which you call fair trade) and impatiently awaiting the collapse of capitalism. On the domestic front, you must hate Margaret Thatcher, laud the Trade Unions, believe that the Argentine battle cruiser, the Belgrano, represented no threat to the British fleet when it was sunk during the Falklands War and blame the Middle Classes for everything that is wrong with the British education system.

As far as I can gather, Kamm does not subscribe to any of these propositions. Nor, I should hasten to add, do many people in the Labour Government, which could be described as social democratic but never as socialist. The Labour Party’s activist base, on the other hand, is well to the left of the leadership.

So Kamm is a liberal who delights in destroying the myths of the left (and occasionally the far right too, although he restricts himself to holocaust denial debunking in this respect). Anyone who enjoys forensic prose coupled with high intelligence laced with a Tabasco of arrogance will find his blog well worth perusing. He is especially strong on the continuing legends of the Cold War, especially those that seek to show a moral equivalence between the democratic United States and the tyranny of the Soviet Union.

Like many other signatories of the Euston Manifesto, on one subject he is quite misguided. As an atheist, he occasionally feels a need to be rude about religion. This has also led him to praise the recent books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I can only assume that this is one area of study where he is not as well briefed as he is in modern history and contemporary politics. Consequently, he is unable to distinguish between useful scholarship on the subject and the rhetoric that he despises in other areas. Not that he would convert; but he should be aware that the history and science of religious belief bears little resemblance to Hitchens’ and Dawkins’ caricature. Sadly, I don’t think he would consider brushing up on theological questions would be a valuable use of his time and so this flaw in his thinking is likely to be maintained.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Battle over Church Schools

American readers might be slightly surprised to find that church schools (nowadays often called faith schools so as not to discriminate against non-Christian religions) should be a big issue in the UK. The argument has historical roots. Once upon a time, most free schools in the country were run by the Church of England. From the mid-nineteenth century, the Catholic Church also began to set up schools, which tended, because of demographics, to be in quite poor areas. In the 1940s, schools were nationalised and the state started to pay for most of their upkeep. Despite increasing levels of regulation, many church schools have retained some independence, especially over admissions and ‘ethos’.

The arguments for church schools are two-fold. Firstly, people have a right to have their children brought up within their own tradition. Secondly, church schools tend to be better than non-church schools. The reasons for the later fact are hotly debated. Some claim that it is purely due to the middle classes packing church schools while leaving secular schools to deal with the socially disadvantaged. Others claim it is due to the culture of discipline and hard work at church schools which leads to their success. I would think that both factors contribute but that it is the strong ethos that leads to middle class parents being attracted to the school in the first place, thus further improving its image and results.

The propensity to blame the middle classes for clogging up the best schools has even infected the Conservative Party. Their schools spokesman, Michael Gove (him again), recently referred to the sharp elbows of the middle classes, presumably forcing their way past the worthy poor to bag all the desks at the local school. The Conservative leader, David Cameron also got himself into a muddle on the Church Schools issue. In a recent Times interview he said he would not blame parents trying to do the best for their children. This was interpreted as condoning atheists who pretend to a Christian faith so as to get their kids into a church school. Journalists often peddle the idea that non-believers turn up at church each Sunday just to improve their chances of getting their children into the attached school. I’ve always found the image of worthy Dawkinistas laying aside their copies of The God Delusion to march off to Communion on Sunday rather ridiculous. What probably does happen is people who never really bothered with religion one way or the other suddenly find they have an urge to investigate it if the local church school is any good. I rather suspect that David Cameron himself falls into this category.

There is no doubt that the stakes for us middle class parents are frighteningly high. State schools are free but vary between excellent and utterly dire. No self-respecting parent will accept a poor school for their offspring but the allocation of places to the best state schools is a lottery, increasingly quite literally so. The alternative private schools start at around £8,000 a year. Many middle class parents, unsurprisingly, decide that kind of money is worth a Mass.

The argument against church schools is harder to pin down because it is only usually made by ranters like Polly Toynbee. The traditional objection is that church schools encourage religious segregation although no one seems to provide any evidence for this beyond insisting that it is ‘obvious’. Some of it is ideological egalitarianism which would rather all schools were poor than some were better than others. The fact that church schools do generally appear to be better than secular schools is clearly a red rag to the bulls who refuse to see any good in religion. Perhaps they are also worried that parents who are attending church to ease access to a school might fall under religion’s wicked spell as well. The arguments have now been confused by concern from all sides about Muslim state schools (of which there are so far only one or two). Some on the left would rather close down all church schools than admit to discriminating against Islam. If Islamic schools funded by the taxpayer do take off, we can expect that this argument will get a lot louder.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.