It’s not Gravity, it’s sticky feet!

I had a couple of emails from Bernie this week. The usual one reminding me to blog (where does the time go?) and a second suggesting that if I was stuck for something to write about I could pick up on a discussion started by Professor Brian Cox, the UK physicist and a rather cool promoter of science-dude (I’m just jealous) that was taking place on Twitter.

Anyway, I’m not great with Twitter and apparently I only have 17 ‘followers’, so I’m not much of a guru either and I do wonder why they follow me, as the last tweet I made was in May and it was one that I accidently sent to a work colleague that didn’t actually say anything.

Nevertheless, I looked it up and found what Bernie called a ‘discussion’ but looked more like a series of statements, some of which I couldn’t really understand and linked to all sorts of other stuff. This is probably why I’m not a great fan of Twitter as I prefer more linear forms of communication. What were immediately apparent however were two pictures of Jesus riding a dinosaur. I’m not sure of their provenance, but they looked like the daft sort of thing that Creationists (particularly ones in the US) produce. Indeed, one of the links took me to a Creationist Museum in Cincinnati in the US. It actually looked like a lot of fun and strangely I found myself thinking that I’d rather like to visit it one day. Expositions on the Voyage of the Ark and using dinosaurs as work animals, in fact a whole new exhibition on ‘Were dragons dinosaurs?’ and loads of state of the art learning technologies made it look like really good fun and in a way that’s just what it is. It’s funny. In fact it’s so far ‘out there’ that we find it amusing and we can laugh and be derisive about these peoples earnestly held beliefs. Jesus on a dinosaur – what a laugh!

Now there’s something not right there. I felt a bit uncomfortable writing that.

This is something that doesn’t sit easily with my admittedly wishy-washy-pinko-neo-liberalism. These Creationists have every right to believe that the world is 6000 years old and that people co-existed with dinosaurs, just so long as they stay in the world of belief and don’t step into the world of science. Ignoring the evidence and taking the stance “I see/hear what you’re saying, but I still believe” is fine in my book. Flat-earthers actually have my respect for sticking with it. My own belief that gravity doesn’t exist, but that we just have very slightly sticky feet is constantly derided, but I have never lost the faith in it, despite the shed load of evidence to the contrary.

There seems to be a trend to deride creationists as loons and nut cases (UK slang terms for harmless idiots) at the moment and I’m not sure how other religions would react to such sustained criticism, probably badly given another event that took place in England a few days ago.

For this week saw the launch of new plans for the National Curriculum (for England). Given the policy of the present Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has been to return schools in England to the1950’s it was actually heartening to read a very clear commitment to the teaching of evolution to young children.

In Year 6 (10 – 11 years) they need to be taught to:

  • recognise that living things have changed over time and that fossils provide information about living things that inhabited the Earth millions of years ago
  • recognise that living things produce offspring of the same kind, but normally offspring vary and are not identical to their parents
  • identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution.

The notes and guidance talks about sources of evidence and that:

“They should also appreciate that variation in offspring over time can make animals more or less able to survive in particular environments, for example by exploring how giraffes’ necks got longer, or the development of insulating fur on the arctic fox. Pupils might find out about the work of palaeontologists such as Mary Anning and about how Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin developed their ideas on evolution.”

 Well at least that’s something. In fact I’ve just checked and the framework doesn’t even mention ‘creation’ and the only references to ‘the Church’ in the 224 pages are in the history section. Furthermore, all schools in England must teach evolution as a “comprehensive and coherent scientific theory”. Good.

Now what’s interesting here is the reaction, not from mad Creationists, but from a far more worrying and insidious source. In the UK we have what are known as ‘faith schools’. These are allowed under the Education Act (in fact were encouraged under Tony Blair – a devout Christian) for children of specific faiths. One doesn’t have to be a Catholic or a Muslim to go to a Catholic or Muslim school, but it sort of helps. These schools draw down state funding (but are supported by their affiliated religions), deliver the National Curriculum and provide tuition for the English national qualifications taken at 16 and 18. We have over 7000 of them and around 1000 privately funded (about a third of all schools). That’s around 2.5 million children. Add to that the new wave of so called ‘New Schools’ (again privately run ones that do get some state funding) and that’s an awful lot of kids. The faith schools reaction to the new National Curriculum was summed up by Michael Cohen, an adviser to Orthodox schools, who said: “I don’t see Charedi [Orthodox] schools going along with it. It is something that flies in face of their ethos and culture.” If that’s the case what has their ethos and culture been teaching the kids for the last 10 years?

Anyway, they’ll have to as Faith Schools are not exempt from teaching evolution, but then somehow “ethos and culture” sounded familiar. So I went back and had another look and found that officials have explained that evolution can be taught “in a context that reflected a school’s ethos”. Now this is the same arrangement made a few years back with compulsory Sex Education in England. As you can imagine, Catholic schools were somewhat concerned by the fact that they would have to teach about the use of condoms, but are allowed to do so in a manner that reflects the ‘ethos’ of the school. In other words, this is a condom, this is how it works, it’s a sin to use one.

So there we have it. It’s really not the US Creationists we should be spending our time on. If they want to produce pictures of Jesus on a Dinosaur and think the Earth is 6000 years old, well, good luck to them, actually I really don’t care.

What is far more concerning to me is that in England we have up to a third of State schools (funded by me and you!) teaching all the usual covertly dangerous rubbish (this is just one theory, intelligent design is another etc etc) and dressing it up as an education that reflects an ethos, rather than simply calling it an indoctrination, because that’s exactly what it is. If the ethos of a school allows them to determine their own facts as well as their beliefs there is something terribly wrong. They simply forfeit the right to be seen as an institution that has any association with education.

The next thing you know they’ll be teaching that gravity is all about slightly sticky feet. Actually, that would be pretty cool.

Roger

Links

The New National Curriculum Framework (England) can be found here.

The Creation Museum: http://creationmuseum.org/

Jesus on Dinosaurs (likely spoof’s rather than the work of Creationists, as sources uncertain):

https://twitter.com/msmiih/status/355439140462018563/photo/1/large

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bar-art/414998399/

 

 

3 thoughts on “It’s not Gravity, it’s sticky feet!

  1. An interesting Post, Rog. I must admit share your concerns to quite some extent, and I agree that criticizing or ridiculing individuals or groups is abhorrent. Nevertheless, I think pointing out the ridiculousness of ideas is reasonable, even if unfortunately this sometimes offends people.

    Treating anyone with derision is certainly very negative, but if people argue positions that make no sense, then the use of humour to highlight the problems with certain ideas can be powerful: reductio ad-absurdium is a legitimate logical argument. I have had it happen to me over the years, and although it feels uncomfortable to be on the receiving end, it made me think and accept that “maybe that idea wasn’t so good after all!” We are all wrong about something at some point.

    This is a difficult area, and sometimes there is a fine line between humour directed at ideas, and going beyond into persecution of a group. The age old arguments around free speech are testimony to the difficulties we face here. As long as there is no systematic mistreatment of an individual or group by another group I think it is reasonable to make a humorous attack on an argument but it isn’t a simple thing. Obviously any arguments that inspire hatred or violence are to be condemned, but if you take a position on something, chances are you will offend someone. So how do we decide what is “fair game” to find funny?

    I must admit, I do find it makes me nervous when any group, state or religious group start to step in telling us what it is Ok to think and say and what it isn’t about their ideas. This seems a worrying step towards censorship in the wrong direction, and the recent laws on blasphemy and gay propaganda in Russia are are a case in point (providing up to one year in prison for “insult to religious feelings”). See http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/201307162254-0022913

    Personally I find any law on blasphemy or apostasy unconscionable, as it reflects extremist fundamentalism, and basically restricts people to not saying anything that might possibly upset some particular group. It also constrains the expression of personal beliefs or challenges to them. Such laws are inevitably used pejoratively to target minorities or individuals who don’t fit in with the majority view. Anyhow, I note none of the blasphemy laws (some of which carry the death penalty in some countries) apply to religious minded people making statements that are offensive to atheist’s core beliefs (somehow their beliefs are less valued as they don’t involve a deity). At the end of the day, under such laws Brian Cox’s hashtag #jesusdidntridedinosaurs would certainly be considered blasphemous.

    Despite my misgivings, I have to confess the dinosaur pictures did make me laugh, but not at the people who believe this sort of thing, but rather at the absurdity of the imagery.

    On the gravity front, you may actually be onto something. Recent work on Geckos seems to show they defy gravity with sticky feet: http://www.nature.com/nmat/journal/v2/n7/full/nmat917.html

    Who would have thought!

    Cheers
    Bernie

  2. Thanks for the comment Bernie. Perhaps I came over as a bit pious about people laughing at Creationists. When you do see what they get up to sometimes with young kids minds you realise how bigoted and closed minded any extreme form of religion can be. In fact, I’m not sure if you remember the Bronowski series ‘Ascent of Man’ but there was an iconic scene when he filmed at Auschwitz. He picked up a handful of mud and said something on the lines of ‘Science didn’t do this. This what happens when we are certain that we are right’. Actually, I’ve just grabbed the book off the shelf – here you go:
    “When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.” Powerful stuff. Challenging bigots and extremists has my complete support (including the use of humour). I guess my point is that extreme US Creationists are easy targets. Richard Dawkins is often accused (rather unfairly) of ripping into them because it’s easy to do so. My primary concern is with the ‘moderate’ creationists and their insidious pretence of balance and fairness – the ‘we see God’s influence in evolution’ line. The Faith Schools all pretend to teach science (they have to) and actually the students get very good grades, but it’s a ‘selective’ science. Rumours abound about how some blank out ‘inappropriate’ examination questions on state exam papers, or instruct students simply not to answer questions on evolution. If true it’s disgraceful and worrying, but even if these are isolated or exaggerated, we still have schools in the UK that simply DO NOT teach science. They teach some bastardised form of it and we tolerate it! I entirely agree with your point about upsetting people – it’s incredibly important to do so sometimes. Let us offend, laugh at and ridicule. Anyone who can’t take it, deserves it.
    Actually, at the risk of turing this comment into a book, but just to demonstrate issues around offence, here’s a funny email sent to me by my colleague and friend Robert that’s a nice conclusion.

    “Just a note that you will probably now have signed up to the University computer usage regulations, which includes the following:-
    Users must not knowingly, through use or personal behaviour, cause any annoyance, inconvenience, offence, distress or nuisance to other users of those facilities or individuals within or outside the University.
    So no more academic debate except in the most agreeable and conciliatory way. Clearly, Universities are NOT the place for radical thinking that will cause anybody any annoyance or offence, and I am sure that Copernicus; Voltaire; Newton; Darwin et al. would concur.
    I hope you don’t find any of this offensive.
    Yours meekly and compliantly,
    Robert”

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