Monday, November 27, 2006

A new thing to make me happy

We went to Milton Keynes yesterday, an unfairly maligned place. It's great for shopping - particularly if you have to push a buggy around. Best of all, they have a Lego shop, and I am now the proud owner of a new Lego Boba Fett keyring. Brilliant.

Truth and evidence

I was disappointed and not to say a little anxious to read a report today claiming that an increasing number of schools are teaching creationism in science lessons. I'm not concerned merely because I happen to think creationism is not much of a theory. (I happen to think that it is more like a form of intellectual surrender: we can't at present explain how this happened so we assume something analogous to something familiar, like a super-craftsman, must be responsible...) More worrying is the rhetoric assumed by many of the organisations promoting this view that suggest that they are the intellectually modest and respectable side in the debate. For example, the organisation Truth in science offers as part of a rationale for its promotion of creationist material the principle outlined in various school syllabuses that:
Pupils should be scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence (for example, Darwin's theory of evolution)
National Curriculum KS4

This is an excellent principle and could offer a foundation in critical epistemology generally. It is important to be able to recognise how empirical data can be interepreted differently and how alternative hypotheses are advanced, tested, and criticised. That is the way to do science. But this does not mean, I think, that entirely unfalsifiable and untestable hypotheses -- such as those offered by creationists -- deserve to be presented to children as equally plausible or equally worthwhile. Here's a thought: What would count as evidence against creationism? What would creationists say could possibly count as evidence against their view? If there is no answer to this, then I have no idea how to assess creationism as an explanatory hypothesis. True, it is not easy to see how one might prove Darwinism either, but at least in its case I have some idea about what phenomena might and might not be interpreted in its terms. Note that the KS 4 principle talks specifically about scientific controversies. I don't think I'm alone in imagining creationism not to be 'scientific' in any significant sense of the term.
The Truth in science site goes on to point out sections in textbooks which point out -- rightly -- when evidence for a particular theory (e.g. hominid evolution) is scant or disputed. Again, this is perfectly good science. But I don't see how this should be thought to be a sign of bad faith on the evolutionists' part. They, at least, are prepared to offer their theory for scrutiny. (To be fair, Truth in science do generally take the pose that they are encouraging debate in the face of dogmatism. But there are some curious sides to this. See here, for example, for their restatement of the misguided old chestnut that natural selection and evolution would make our society empty of morality. 'Humanism', it seems is for them a synonym for amoralism. For a better view of humanism see the British Humanist Association site.)

My proposal would be that creationism does deserve to be taught as a theory. But it also therefore deserves to be subject to the same scrutiny as its competitors. (No mention of that possibility by Truth in science...) Start with Hume's Dialogues on natural religion and other discussions of the argument for design and see what children make of that. Taught well and with an open mind, I imagine this would be an excellent educational opportunity.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Policy by TV

The tired government's new announcement is the creation of various 'Supernannies' to improve parenting skills and somehow thereby reduce delinquency and other sorts of naughtiness. (The picture of sullen teenagers in hoodies being sent to a naughty step does not produce much confidence.)

I'm not so bothered about the policy, this time, but the manner of its presentation. First, our dear leader 'Tony' announces this by 'writing' exclusively in the Sun. Here is a flavour of his statesmanlike rhetoric:
Being a parent is hard and most of us have to just get on and do it. But there are some families who can’t cope with it. That’s a fact.
I love the ending: 'That's a fact.' Really, Tony? Glad you emphasised that for me or I'd have thought that you just say things that aren't 'facts'... And nice of you to imply that it's not my family that needs the naughty step. But there are 'some', no doubt. That's a fact.
What really annoys me is the patronising tone, the deliberate avoidance of any abstract principles, the restricted vocabulary and the most basic gesture at persuasion. It is the worst form of paternalism.
Add to that the choice of term. 'Supernanny' is not just the tabloids' spin; it's implied by in Tony's own words:

[T]he overwhelming majority of parents say they would welcome outside help in dealing with difficulties with their children.
This should be no surprise given the huge popularity of television programmes in which experts help parents with their problem kids.
So now TV -- in fact, Channel 4 -- is leading government policy. First Jamie Oliver drove policy on school meals. Now Jo Frost is driving policy on parenting. What next? Let's send Kim and Aggie to tackle hospital 'Superbugs'. (Isn't everything 'Super' now?) Or lets set up a new mechanism for tendering for public contracts in a Noel Edmonds' Deal or no deal? style. Don't laugh... It's not so unthinkable.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Liberal education and philosophical sympathy

Well, I've now read Stephen Law's The war for children's minds and I'm quite impressed. On the other hand, I'm predisposed to agree with the general thrust of his call to avoid authoritarian teaching methods and encouraged independent consideration of, in particular, moral, political and religious questions. Some of the writing is a bit of a blunt instrument, but it is intended to be read by a wide audience and it is time that someone got a bit polemical on this side of the debate. In particular, Law does a good job of demolishing some of the weak but popular conservative arguments such as: 'In the absence of religious faith there can be no ethical rules or truths' and 'Liberalism leads inevitably to relativism'.
One of the most important virtues worth cultivating, I think, is a willingness to engage sympathetically with a point of view which is not, at least initially, one's own. It is too easy, often, simply to reject as misguided and pointless a view because of an initial distaste or a failure to see why anyone would ever come to hold such an opinion. I've been thinking about this recently because the failure to engage sympathetically is a mistake often seen in promising philosophy students. They acquire the notion that dismissing a view swiftly and by rejecting its foundations is by far the most impressive way of winning an argument. If that were true, then there would indeed be little of interest in studying most ancient philosophy since it is generally built on foundations and overarching conceptions of the world we would not share. Of course, we do not have to agree with any point of view simply because someone august or clever thought or wrote it. But the ability to engage with a view we happen to disagree with, by uncovering its assumptions and asking why it might have appealed is often a route not only to enlarging one's own view, but also for encouraging an appreciation for the intellectual abilities and sincere effort expended by others in developing a view, whether or not we care to agree with its conclusions. That, it seems to me, is an essential aspect of thinking philosophically and of thinking about philosophy as a humanity. And I would hope that it would be a virtue inspired by a generally liberal educational outlook.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

League tables

The 2006 Leiter report has just been published here. It ranks philosophy departments across the world and also includes a ranking by area of speciality. Although all the ancient philosophy specialists in the Cambridge Faculty of Classics are listed only as 'Affiliated faculty' (in contrast to our colleagues in the Faculty of Philosophy in Oxford) Cambridge comes out level with Princeton as the second highest ranked Faculty in the world for studying ancient philosophy. Oxford are first. It was also nice to see that Cambridge ranks higher in ancient philosophy than in any other philosophical specialism.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Shock report: Santa 'may' not be real

It's that time of year again. The air is crisp and there's a hint of frost on the ground. And already we have people complaining that Christmas is coming too early. Isn't it time we resisted this and instead went back to the good old days? Wasn't it great when we didn't complain about Christmas coming too early until at least the end of November, if not early December? Soon, we'll be complaining about Christmas coming too early in January.

This too from the article in today's Guardian:
The Christmas ad for Argos has received 15 complaints from parents because it conveys the concept to children that Santa may not be real and that it is parents who actually buy children's presents.
Fancy that. 15 people -- a real groundswell of popular opinion. And: 'may' not be real? Come on, Guardian, don't be so coy. Still, I agree that it is terrible that there should be these obstacles to parents lying to their children. What other collective deceptions should we ensure can never be revealed in advertising a catalogue retail chain?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Children, authority and free thinking

A lot of nonsense has been talked, particularly recently, about how children are being educated poorly, not only in schools but also more widely be various social and cultural influences, new technologies and so on. It is refreshing, therefore, to read some more reasonable analysis of the issues at stake, which tries to rise about mere dogma and set out precisely where the different positions lie.
Stephen Law, author of the excellent The Philosophy Files, has written The War for Children's Minds. I have not read it yet, but if the short piece in the Philosophers' Magazine is any indication, it is just what we need.

While you're thinking philosophically, and in the run-up to Christmas, you might also drop in on the Unemployed Philosophers' Guild, where you can find all sorts of excellent presents for the philosopher in your life (or for yourself...) My favourites: the Freudian slippers, and the Nietzschean eternal recurrence watch.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Facebook: a warning

The national press has picked up on the Facebook, a website known to all Cambridge undergraduates as somewhere to promote themselves by listing their vast numbers of friends, share photographs of their wide and varied social life, and display their interesting quirky character by listing the different groups and societies they have formed -- most of them only virtual and existing for the sole purpose of making a public display of inventive humour and free-thinking wit. This is, of course, all well and good to a point but -- as the Guardian article makes clear -- the content is not always written with the clear thought in mind that it is a very public forum. In particular, jokes or criticisms aimed at members of staff, teaching staff, and other students are public and open to view by the objects of the barbs.
Isn't this an odd sort of doublethink? Clearly, the point of such a forum is that it is a form of organised public display as much as a means of communication. Two students can email each other in a mode which is open only to the two of them should they wish. There is no need for them to post a conversation on their Facebook 'wall' that any passing browser can read. So there is, built into the very nature of the thing, both an openness and also, I think, the pretence of baring oneself to a wide audience. But it is easy to think of it also as a kind of private club, as if these were indeed closed conversations and discreet grumbles that no one but the select and envisaged few can read.
Students ought to be cleverer than this. Some colleges, I know, have already warned their students that Facebook profiles are regularly checked by employers on receipt of a job application. The diligent and committed budding merchant banker can soon blow his cover if the HR department reads about his membership of the 'Brunette appreciation society'. It doesn't matter that, of course, the Facebook is no more a window on the 'real' person than any other form of self-presentation (blogs included). It can and is on occasion treated as such. Those students in Cambridge busy writing lit. crits. for their Classics IB paper on 'Latin letters' might like to wonder how what they say about Pliny's correspondence might be said (mutatis mutandis...) about their own.