Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for September, 2014

Jews and evolution

Salon has published an interesting interview with former Commonwealth Chief Rabbi of the soi-disant Orthodox Jonathan Sacks about his new book about the relationship between science and religion. The man who did as much as anyone in recent years to break down cooperation and mutual respect between Orthodox and progressive streams of Judaism in the UK has rediscovered the virtues of mutual respect and toleration since stepping down last year from his post as Orthodox Chief Rabbi. At least, he believes strongly that atheists should respect him more.

One particular exchange caught my attention:

Why do so few Jews take issue with the theory of evolution, while creationism is common among Christians?

I think Christians tended to think that religion and science were part of the same universe of discourse. So they assumed that the Bible was telling us scientific stuff, as well as moral and spiritual stuff. Whereas Jews don’t read the Bible that way.

It surprises me that the good Rabbi feels so confident accepting the premise of the question, that Orthodox Jews are hip to modern (i.e., post-medieval) science. It’s hard to believe that he has become so disengaged from the cause of Jewish education in Britain in the past year that he failed to note the scandal earlier this year, when a Jewish girls’ school in London (state-funded, natch!) was found to be removing questions from A-level biology exams “because they do not fit in with their beliefs.”

Fifty-two papers were altered by Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School to remove questions on evolution.

This being Britain, where everything is a sport, no one cared much at first about the children being taught bogus biology; they only cared about the game being fair:

The examinations body, OCR, says it was satisfied that the girls did not have an unfair advantage. It now plans to allow the practice, saying it has come to an agreement with the school to protect the future integrity of the exams.

On more mature reflection, the exam regulator Ofqual did decide that excising questions from exams would be deemed “malpractice”.

Until I read of this controversy, I would have felt confident agreeing with Lord Sacks that there is no Jewish tradition for rejecting scientific biology. Now I’m obviously not so sure. Perhaps this represents part of the harmonic convergence between Orthodox Jewry and American Evangelical Christianity — rather like the way they’ve come to a consensus on supporting Israel, even if the motives may be discordant — Jews wanting Israel as a place to live, Christians wanting it as a place to stage Armageddon.

Define “senseless”

David Cameron has described the defection of Tory MP Mark Reckless to the anti-immigrant anti-Europe party UKIP not as “reckless” (too obvious), but as “senseless”. As in, absolutely nothing could be accomplished by this move to advance the anti-immigrant anti-Europe political agenda by this move.

In completely unrelated news, which BBC journalists unaccountably included in the same article, the prime minister announced that he would not argue in favour of staying in the EU in his planned 2017 referendum if he does not obtain concessions from the EU:

“If I don’t achieve that it will be for the British public to decide whether to stay in or get out,” he said.

But he added: “I have said this all my political life: if I thought that it wasn’t in Britain’s interest to be in the European Union, I wouldn’t argue for us to be in it.”

And Conservative Culture Secretary Sajid Javid told the Daily Mail the UK could still prosper if it chose to exit the EU. “I think it would open up opportunities. I am not afraid of that at all,” he added.

Innumeracy: UK prison service edition

The BBC reports on a study by the Prisoners Education Trust, of the impact of the recent decision of the prison service to limit prisoners’ access to books. The Ministry of Justice has dismissed the study, saying

the PET survey of 343 inmates represented just 0.01% of the total prison population in England and Wales.

This is a twofer, with a pair of errors packed into impressively small space. Even a government minister should be able to calculate that if 343 inmates represent 0.01% of the prison population, then more than 6% of the population (53.5 million) must be imprisoned, which I don’t need to check the figures to know must be wrong. But I did check it, and find that the Ministry of Justice made a wee error of not quite 2 orders of magnitude. According to this publication (coincidentally, also from the Ministry of Justice) there were about 84,000 prisoners in June 2013. Assuming there haven’t been any huge changes since then, those 343 inmates in fact represent 0.4% of the prison population. Where is Michael Gove when you need him?

More generally, the comment conveyed the impression that if the sample were a small fraction of the population then it couldn’t be statistically valid. Of course, that’s not true. If you were doing an election poll of the whole population of England, a random sample of 0.01% of the population would be about 5000 people, which is much larger than most surveys, and enough to get a result that’s accurate to within about ± 1.5%. The real problem with this survey is that it’s not a random sample, and not representative, being self-selected among readers of a certain magazine; but there is no pretence about that, and if the Ministry of Justice were interested in addressing the issue rather than issuing talking points, they could address the question of whether the concerns raised by the more literate of the prisoner population most concerned with literacy are worth taking seriously.

 

The sense of place

I read with amazement the new book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit.  For a book that is so attentive to the physicality of the land, and the particularity of place, it struck me as surprisingly willing to use place names in their platitudinous sense, in a context that made them leap off the page in bizarre ways:

By his very presence, he turns En Harod into the Mecca of the kibbutz movement.

… has turned a huge garage in southern Tel Aviv into the new mecca of dance, drugs, and casual encounters.

After seven and a half years in inferior and mediocre Sephardic institutions, Aryeh Machluf Deri had reached the Eton of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox world.

If the thought of the Mecca of “dance, drugs, and casual encounters” doesn’t make your head spin (imagine, conversely, describing the Kaaba as “the Reeperbahn of pilgrimage and divine ecstasy”) then surely the thought of an ultra-Orthodox Eton must.

In all seriousness, the book accomplishes something I would have thought impossible: It tells the story of Israel from a Zionist perspective, while refusing to look away from, dismiss, or otherwise morally diminish the suffering inflicted upon the Arab population of Palestine. Ultimately, it’s the most depressing book on the subject I have ever read, not because of the horror that is recounted, but because holding up the justice and injustice of both sides to the cold light leaves the reader (and the author) with the sense that this is a paradox of justice that has no resolution, a doom of eternal conflict. Other books, like Max Blumenthal’s Goliath, that take a much harsher tone toward Israel and its political establishment, arouse a sense of moral fervour, a sense that just a bit of generosity and good will could bring both sides to the promised land of peace. Shavit’s is the disillusion of an old man, who has seen the rise and fall of grand hopes, and sees the avoidance of destruction as the best that his country can hope for.

Fishiness in Scotland

So now Alex Salmond has resigned. Not entirely unexpected, despite the fact that he managed to stampede the British establishment into promising effective autonomy for Scotland, which was exactly what Cameron opposed when the referendum was first mooted.

But surely I am not the only person who thought that a situation where the First Minister was named Salmond and the Deputy First Minister named Sturgeon was too fishy to be allowed to continue. In the interest of expanding the phylogenetic variety at the top of Scottish government, perhaps Liam Fox could be persuaded to abandon the Conservatives?

When to call it quits

Today is the day of the Scottish referendum. As I’ve commented before, I don’t really have a personal opinion about the question, though I think Scottish independence would probably make my life marginally worse. (To the extent that I have a coherent political view of the situation, it is mostly concurrent with that expressed with some eloquence by Charles Stross. I’d much prefer to see a federal UK. I guess that’s what happens when you let aliens with their strange ideas infiltrate the nation.)

The only sense in which I think I have relevant expertise is with regard to the way people are talking about risk. The whole thrust of the No campaign has been to conjure up dangers, known and unforeseeable, of Scottish independence. I think they’re probably right — in particular, I think the economists are right that Scots are being misled by those who claim that they can successfully keep the British pound as their currency. On the other hand, there are also risks of staying part of the UK. In particular, the risk of being taken out of the EU by an English public that is increasingly insular in its outlook (inlook?) Since everyone’s fond of divorce metaphors, we might see Scotland as a woman whose jealous husband is trying to force her to move with him away from her friends and family. There is a long tradition of Scotland using relations with the Continent as a balance against England. It’s not so much a question of whether Scotland wants to be part of a bigger nation or go it alone; it’s a question of whether Scotland wishes to confederate with England or with Europe. And despite a reasonably successful 307 year run with England the choice for the future is not so obvious.

And that raises what I think is the most irksome twist of the No campaign’s logic: The question of timing. If you protest early against a new arrangement, you can be told, “You haven’t given it enough of a chance”. But if you wait too long, you can be told it’s really been settled by custom and tradition. (To be fair, “you haven’t given it enough of a chance” wasn’t really the argument against the 18th century Scottish rebels, who tended to find English muskets doing the persuading.) Surely it’s reasonable to reconsider these sorts of arrangements after 300 years or so. England offered Scotland the opportunity to be a co-coloniser rather than a colony, and it accepted. Now that the imperial dream is not just dead but despised, isn’t it reasonable to ask a new generation whether the union is still meeting their needs?

Low unemployment rates for math/stat PhDs

I was interested to read of a recent NSF study, that found only 2.1% unemployment in the US for people with doctoral degrees in science, engineering, and health fields. That’s only about 1/3 the rate in the general population over age 25. But I found even more striking that within that group, those with doctorates in mathematics and statistics had lower unemployment than those in any other field, at 1.2%.

Recruiting the dead

Former chief of the UK General Staff General Sir Richard Dannatt  has spoken up on the Scottish referendum, and what he has to say is deeply disgraceful:

Scottish soldiers have fought over several centuries and in so many campaigns to preserve the territorial integrity of their country from external threat, but in the Northern Ireland campaign more recently, they fought against internal threat, but what about today? Do the families of Scottish soldiers who lost their lives between 1969 and 2007 to preserve the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom now just say, “Well, it no longer matters”?

Now, interestingly, while he does go on to say “I cannot speak for them”, his essay includes not a single quote from a single one of these Scottish soldiers, living or dead. Putting aside the fact that some of them were probably just looking for steady pay or a certain kind of military camaraderie, I think it is extraordinarily condescending — and disrespectful — to enlist the dead to march in ones political campaign. And it is disgraceful to use the term “internal threat” to cover both the Northern Ireland campaign — where British soldiers battled against a terror campaign that sought to change the constitutional order by force — and the referendum campaign

There were many nationalists in Northern Ireland who themselves wished to dissolve the “territorial integrity” of the United Kingdom, but who also opposed the attempts to do so by force. The fact that General Dannatt cannot perceive a gap between seeking to accomplish political goals by referendum and seeking to accomplish it by force says all you need to know about the military mind at its most brutal.

In fact, as a matter of historical record, even their political masters at the time of the greatest turmoil in Northern Ireland, the government of Edward Heath, doesn’t seem to have been fighting to “preserve the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom”, so much as to prevent Northern Ireland from sinking into full-blown civil war. At least, the cabinet seems to have been willing to entertain the notion of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, but ruled it out when it seemed certain only to exacerbate the chaos and violence.

Scotland’s European future

I commented before on the interesting way an independent, increasingly cosmopolitan Scotland, and an increasingly suspicious and insular rump-UK might pass each other on the way through the EU door. I was interested to find out who is permitted to vote in next week’s independence referendum in Scotland. You might have supposed that an attempt was being made to appeal to the inbred Bannockburn nostalgia voters, perhaps even extending the franchise to self-identified Scots by birth. Instead, the voting eligibility criteria seem sedulously post-nationalist and forward-looking. Birth plays no role, only residence and citizenship. In addition to admitting 16- and 17-year-olds to the franchise, they are permitting — in a move that seems stunningly self-assured to anyone who remembers how the aftermath of the 1995 Quebec referendum descended into ugly recriminations against “money and the ethnic vote” — EU citizens ordinarily resident in Scotland to vote. There’s no clearer statement, I think, of how differently the Scots view their future from how the English view theirs.

And if the nationalists win the referendum on this basis, it will be hard to argue that they haven’t earned their independence honourably.

The Return of the Ampelmännchen

I’m in Berlin now, for the first time in ten years. I lived here for much of the 1990s, and much has changed since then. But the change that I found most striking is in the Ampelmännchen, the anthropomorphic red and green traffic signals that tell you to walk or not walk. When I was first in Berlin, the backlash against Western triumphalism was just starting. With the unification of Germany, all kinds of things that had been standardised within each of the former countries now needed to be standardised between them. In principle, this would have involved some sort of consultation and compromise between the two sides. In practice, the East was treated like a colony, and the western standards were simply imposed. (I wrote a long essay at the time about my perceptions of the resentment in East Berlin.)

The resistance converged on the Ampelmännchen. The East had sort of jaunty 1950s-era conspicuously male figures, while the West had sleek, modern, gender-neutral figures. They looked like this:

berlinwalksignals

By the time I arrived, quite a few signals had already been changed in East Berlin, and the Rettet die Ampelmännchen campaign (“Save the  Ampelmännchen“) was fighting to stop the losses. They distributed stickers with images of the Eastern Ampelmännchen, and hoped to slow their destruction. It was an inspired choice, since these Eastern Ampelmännchen are just so adorable. The arguments for the others — in particular, gender neutrality — may be convincing, but it is hard to contemplate their utter extinction without a pang.

Now, 20 years after the struggle broke out, I find that the Ost Ampelmännchen are everywhere in Berlin, even in the West. So, something has been saved. The rulers of the GDR vowed to create a Neuen Menschen (new man), but their only enduring success was the creation of a Neues Ampelmännchen.

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