David Cameron’s speech on “extremism” and segregation

Stop extremismDavid Cameron has recently given a major speech on “extremism”, and the full transcript can be read here. Here is my reaction to parts of the speech.

The title states that “Prime Minister David Cameron set out his plans to address extremism”. What sort of extremism? Well, we all know that we’re referring to extreme versions of Islam, though many politicians are reluctant to spell that out. Let’s see how Cameron fares.

Early on he declares that “Today, I want to talk about … how together we defeat extremism”. It is another nine sentences before he overcomes the “Voldemort effect” and actually names it:

“And because the focus of my remarks today is on tackling Islamist extremism — not Islam the religion — let me say this.”

Well done! Islamist extremism (even if it is accompanied by the hasty and obligatory assurance that Islamism is nothing to do with Islam). Continue reading

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Debate with Anthony Freeland on Objective Morality: Second Post

This post continues my debate with the Christian blogger Anthony Freeland over whether moral values and duties are objective (independent of human opinion) or subjective (being reports of human opinion). See Anthony’s first post, my first reply, and then Anthony’s second post.

Was the Holocaust evil?

Anthony feels that I hadn’t properly answered his question: Was the Holocaust an act of evil? He also complains that “with subjective morality … nothing can be considered evil”.

It’s clear that Anthony and I interpret the word “evil” differently. I had considered that my statement: “most humans regard the Holocaust as among the vilest and most abhorrent crimes ever” answered the question. Yes, subjectively, most people feel the Holocaust to be evil. But Anthony is presumably asking something different. Continue reading

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Theos’s Ben Ryan: your attack on free speech is not the answer

Free speech is increasingly under attack. We in the West thought that the issue had long been settled, but it is being reopened by those arguing that free speech must be used “responsibly”, and that it must be tensioned against the feelings of anyone who might be offended.

Such notions would, of course, negate free speech. Anyone could censor anything by claiming they were offended. And who gets to decide what is “responsible” speech? Clearly Martin Luther was irresponsible in nailing ninety-five theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, given that they attacked the Catholic Church which had provided leadership and stability through all of Christendom. And clearly William Wilberforce was highly irresponsible to start attacking the system of slavery which underpinned the whole economic system.

The fashion for denigrating free speech is typified by a blog article by Ben Ryan, a researcher for the Theos think tank. Headed “Your unfunny t-shirts are not the answer”, it starts:

A blog was recently drawn to my attention by one Dr Chris Moos that tries to paint the LSE Director Professor Craig Calhoun as a “faith warrior”. By deigning to argue that religion ought to be taken more seriously in academia in a range of different subjects as an overlooked cause Calhoun is displaying some sort of scary Christian zeal (apparently).

Well that’s rather pompous writing. And the word “deigning” doesn’t mean what Ryan seems to think it does. And the grammar is wrong (the blog post was not drawn to his attention by Chris Moos, the post was written by Chris Moos). OK, maybe it’s bad form to attack the writer, rather than his ideas, but people who are so ready to give up principles of free speech rather annoy me, given how central the right to criticise is to the Western way of life. Continue reading

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On objective moral values and duties: A reply to Anthony Freeland

The Christian blogger Anthony Freeland has invited me to debate the topic of whether morals are objective or subjective. Anthony has written the first post, arguing that objective moral values and duties do exist.

I’m arguing that morals are subjective, and will structure this post as a reply to Anthony, though elaborating on my wider views at times (for more of which see these three posts). To start with, I’ll concur with Anthony’s definition of the terms. Subjective morals derive from and are dependent on human feelings and opinion on the matter. Objective moral values and duties need to be independent of human opinion (though, as below, more broadly they need to be independent of the feelings of any sentient being). Continue reading

Posted in Debates, Philosophy, Religion, Science | Tagged , , , , | 162 Comments

On Discovering a Planet and the Art of Writing a Press Release

tran_snapOne notable aspect of research into extra-solar planets is that both the media and the wider public are very interested. The first press release that I ever wrote, on the discovery of the first planets by our Wide Angle Search for Planets collaboration, back in 2007, ended up in TIME magazine as number 6 in their “Top 10 Scientific Discoveries” of the year. But the days of easy publicity for merely discovering a planet have passed. With astronomers worldwide having now found over 1000 exoplanets, it is getting harder to find a new angle when writing a press release.

Exoplanet transit

Our WASP project uses arrays of cameras to monitor millions of stars in order to look for tiny dips in their light caused by a planet orbiting in front of them. This requires a huge data-processing operation and the need for sophisticated search algorithms to look for the transit events.

WASP camera array

The big problem is that the data, being obtained looking through Earth’s atmosphere, are hugely noisy. In the end, we need a human to help out the computer algorithms and make a judgement about what is likely to be an actual transit event. And that requires looking at lots and lots of light-curves of lots and lots of stars.

When I got an email from a 15-yr-old schoolboy — Tom Wagg — saying that he was keen on science and asking if he could join my research group for a week of work-experience, I figured that a bright 15-yr-old would be as good at that sort of pattern-recognition task as the best computer algorithms. So, I trained him up by showing him all the planet-transit dips that we’d already found, and set him the task of finding more of the same in our extensive data archive. Continue reading

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What is the point of scientific peer review?

peer-review-thumbnailIn order to publish in any scientific journal worth publishing in, ones paper must pass “peer review”. This consists of the editors asking one or more experts in the field to review the paper in order to spot errors, recommend improvements, and opine on whether it is of sufficient merit to publish.

Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, has written an article in the Times Higher Education arguing that “the process has little if any benefit and lots of flaws”, and that “peer review doesn’t work” because most of what is published in scientific journals “is plain wrong”.

He tells the story, when at the BMJ, of deliberately inserting multiple errors into manuscripts to see how many reviewers found them. Many of the reviewers missed many of the errors.

This raises the question of what peer review is actually for. Smith states that “Peer review is supposed to be the quality assurance system for science”, that aims to reassure readers “that they can trust what they are reading” (added emphasis).

However, no working scientist actually “trusts” scientific papers, all scientists read papers in a sceptical way, knowing full well that much of what they are reading will turn out to be wrong. “The” quality-assurance system for science is not what happens prior to publication, but what happens after publication. That is when the real peer review begins, when the community can read and think about and criticise a paper. Continue reading

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Basics of scientism: the web of knowledge

scientism A common criticism of science is that it must make foundational assumptions that have to be taken on faith. It is, the critic asserts, just one world view among other, equally “valid”, world views that are based on different starting assumptions. Thus, the critic declares, science adopts naturalism as an axiom of faith, whereas a religious view is more complete in that it also allows for supernaturalism.

This argument assumes a linear view of knowledge, in which one starts with basic assumptions and builds on them using reason and evidence. The fundamentals of logic, for example, are part of the basic assumptions, and these cannot be further justified, but are simply the starting points of the system.

Under scientism this view is wrong. Instead, all knowledge should be regarded as a web of inter-related ideas, that are adopted in order that the overall web best models the world that we experience through sense data.

Any part of this web of ideas can be examined and replaced, if replacing it improves the overall match to reality. Even basic axioms of maths and logic can be evaluated, and thus they are ultimately accepted for empirical reasons, namely that they model the real world.

This view of knowledge was promoted by the Vienna Circle philosophers such as Otto Neurath, who gave the metaphor of knowledge being a raft floating at sea, where any part of it may be replaced. As worded by Quine: Continue reading

Posted in Philosophy, Science, Scientism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 42 Comments