Saturday, 20 March 2010

Come all ye faithful: do faith schools threaten British science education?

With the announcement of a New Life Academy in Hull opening later this year the debate over religious education in Britain has become more intense than ever before. Of course we need to take Richard Dawkins' rhetoric with a pinch of salt, but has the current administration allowed or even provided financial support for fundamentalist organisations to infiltrate the British education system at the expense of science and rational thought?

The Hull Academy will follow the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum that amongst other tenets supports the literal truth of the Bible. So how likely is it that the UK will take on aspects of the American Bible Belt, with critical thinking and enquiry subservient to dogma and absolute belief? One of the main criticisms of the ACE system is its reliance on learning by rote, yet at least in their pre-teens, children are shown to benefit from such a system. It appears to do little to quench their thirst for exploration and discovery, which if anything is largely stamped out by an exam-obsessed education system. If all learning is given via rote there is an obvious problem, but in the vast majority of British faith schools this does not seem to be the case.

Alongside the four Emmanuel Schools Foundation academies, the NLA Academy is an easy target for those fearing religious extremism. But outside of Hollywood, the real world is rarely so easy to divide into good and bad. Not only are the ESF schools open to all faiths but an Ofsted inspection failed to support the allegations of creation science being taught. Even if these faculties were heading towards US-style fundamentalism, linking their techniques to all faith schools would be akin to arguing that the majority of British Jewish children attend the Yiddish-speaking private schools in North London's Stamford Hill orthodox community. Parents who are desperate to indoctrinate their children will take a do-it-yourself approach if they cannot find a school to deliver their requirements.

Many senior religious figures of various faiths, including the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, have stated that they do not want creationism taught in schools. If there is any stereotyping in this subject, it is here: most fundamentalists concentrate solely on evolutionary theories, natural selection and its implicit linking of mankind to other animals, rather than any other branch of science. Although the age of the Earth (and therefore the universe in general), as well as the sun-centred solar system, is sometimes denied for its disagreement with the Bible and the Koran, there are few extremists prepared to oppose other cornerstones of modern science. Clearly, would-be chemists should feel safe, potential geo- and astrophysicists less so, and those considering a career in evolutionary biology should not move to the American Midwest (or even Hull!)

More seriously, what of more subtle approaches by the mainstream denominations? A 2004 New Statesman article maligned an Anglican school in Canterbury for its attempts to inculcate infants with religious sensibilities via techniques that sounded more like a New Age cult than the Jesuit approach, but since then there has been little in the way of comparable stories. Whether senior figures in the Church of England see faith schools as a way of replenishing their ever-diminishing flock is unknown, but there is no solid evidence for such a master plan. Britain has a long and let's face it, fairly proud history of ordained ministers who have dabbled in the sciences, although few who could be compared with the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics. Although T.H.Huxley (A.K.A. Darwin's bulldog) railed against the ordained amateurs, his main bone of contention concerned Anglican privilege: comfortable sinecures allowing vicars to delve in the sciences whilst the lower social orders including Huxley had to fight tooth and claw to establish a paid profession.

There are many examples of religiously devout scientists who can be used to diffuse the caricatured 'us and them' mentality, perhaps the best-known current British example being particle physicist the Reverend John Polkinghorne. Organisations such as the International Society for Science and Religion, and the Society of Ordained Scientists, both of which claim Polkinghorne as a member, are against intelligent design from both a faith and science perspective. Whilst the hardline atheists might deem these groups as intending to both have their wafer and eat it, there are clearly a wide range of attitudes in support of current scientific theories at the expense of a literal belief in religious texts. But then don't most Christians today express a level of belief as varied as the rituals of the numerous denominations themselves, often far short of accepting literal Biblical truth? Believers find their own way, and so it is with scientists who follow conventional belief systems.

However, one potential danger of teaching science in faith schools may be a relic of Darwin's contemporaries (and of course Darwin himself initially aimed for a church career), namely the well-intentioned attempt to imbibe the discipline with a moral structure. Yet as our current level of knowledge clearly shows, bearing in mind everything from natural selection to asteroid impact, we cannot ally ethical principles to scientific methods or knowledge. Scientific theories can be used for good or evil, but it is about as tenable to link science to ethics or moral development as it is to blame a cat for torturing its prey. Of course children require moral guidance, but it must be nurtured via other routes. Einstein wrote in 1930 of a sense of cosmic religious feeling which has no need for the conventional anthropomorphic deity but to my mind seems more akin to Buddhism. As such he believed that a key role of science (along with art) is to awaken and preserve this numinous-like feeling. I for one consider this is as far as science can go along the road to spirituality, but equally agree with Huxley's term agnosticism: to go beyond this in either direction with our current, obviously primitive state of understanding, is sheer arrogance. If we wish to inculcate an open mind in our children, we must first guarantee such a thought system in ourselves. All else is indoctrination, be it religious or secular.

One of the ironies of faith schools in a nation where two thirds of secondary school children do not see themselves as religious practitioners, is that they are generally considered to supply a high standard of education and as such are usually oversubscribed. But all in all, there is little evidence to support this notion, since any oversubscribed institution is presumably able to choose a higher calibre of student whilst claiming to the contrary. Current estimates suggest 15% of British children attend faith schools, with a higher proportion in some regions (such as over 20% of London's secondary school places) but as low as 5% in more rural areas. Clearly, parents who want a good education for their children are not being put off by the worry of potential indoctrination. As has become obvious over the past few years, there are large increases in attendance at school-affiliated churches just prior to the application period: a substantial number of parents are obviously faking faith in return for what they deem to be a superior education.

For the moment it seems science education in Britain has little to worry about from the fundamentalists, at least compared to the divisiveness and homophobia that the National Secular Society deem the most prominent results of increasing faith-based education. We must be careful to ensure that as taxpayers we do not end up funding creationist institutions, but we can do little to prevent private schools following this approach. On a positive note, the closest faith school to me has a higher level of science attainment than its non-religious rivals. I admit that I attended an Anglican school for three years and appear to have emerged with as plural a stance as could be wished for. Indeed, I look back fondly on the days of dangerous chemistry experiments before health and safety-guaranteed virtual demonstrations began to supplant this fun aspect of school science: if you haven't used a burning peanut to blow the lid off a cocoa tin, you haven't lived!

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Sunday, 7 March 2010

How green is my alley? Reduce, reuse & recycle

British artist Richard Hamilton's 1957 definition of pop art included the terms 'transient', 'expendable', 'mass-produced', and 'Big Business'. We've come a long way since similar contemporary cultural attitudes led to throwaway clothing and disposable furniture, but there's still plenty that needs to be done before we achieve anything approaching sustainable development. The recent news articles showing that like the Pacific, the North Atlantic Ocean has its own enormous patch of floating plastic waste, clearly define a multinational problem: but what can the average Briton do to help the environment?

The three green 'R's of reduce, reuse and recycle involve a lot of statistics published by a variety of concerns, ranging from manufacturers to environmental groups. Going with the old saying that there are lies, damn lies and you-know-what, how can the public find a way through the minefield? As an example, estimates for the UK's annual waste total vary from 100 million to 400 million tonnes - although even the lower figure is more than enough! In recent years there have been several scandals involving potentially dangerous waste collected by local councils for recycling, only to be sent to developing countries where it is picked over by scavengers. Clearly, in some cases, out of sight is also out of mind.

Perhaps this shouldn't be too surprising considering how quickly we've had to adopt ecologically-motivated measures, but another concern is the enormous regional variation in recycling collection, waste processing and recovery. Lack of processing plants and a deficiency of recycling knowledge within councils supply yet another example of the postcode lottery. In response to this some local communities are taking matters into their own hands, such as the Somerset village of Chew Magna, where the inhabitants are attempting to gain zero waste status.

In addition to the lack of processing facilities another issue is sorting, although the use of high-tech approaches such as x-ray fluorescence and infra-red spectroscopy may increase efficiency, especially of plastics where recycling can create enormous savings in everything from oil to water. It isn't just the percentage that is recycled that counts, but how effective the processing and recovery methods are and whether as a nation we can reduce the amount of waste in the first place. Britain is an intensely consumerist nation and as if we need further proof, our household waste continues to grow by about 3% each year.

One of the most astonishing statistics (you see, they keep on cropping up), is the estimated 17.5 billion plastic bags given away in British shops every year. This amounts to over 130,000 tonnes of plastic, very few of which are composed of biodegradable material. An example of how quickly habits could change is shown by Ireland's introduction of a tax on plastic bags in 2002, which lead to an almost immediate reduction of over 90%. What's the difference to the UK? As far as I can tell, it boils down to the simple fact that unlike in Ireland, we have companies who make plastic bags: far be it from the Government to inhibit sales within our increasingly pitiful manufacturing base.

Despite the popularity of city allotments we are so divorced from food sources as to blindly follow use-by dates without actually checking the food itself. Recent evidence, including personal experiments by yours truly, show that in many cases the dates are wildly pessimistic (fingers crossed, I haven't been poisoned yet.) Again the figures vary widely, but estimates for food wastage in Britain range from 2.5 million to 8 million tonnes per year, which even for the lower figure equates to 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Food safety scares have a lot to answer for, but surely effective food science education of adults as well as children is the obvious solution? After all, it would save us at least £10 billion per year on our shopping bills.

Of course it isn't just the consumer who is at fault: British industry must bear much of the blame. Every year we each spend up to one-sixth of our food budget on packaging, much of which uses standard sizes to cut manufacturing costs at the expense of material wastage. We could do worse than look at South Korea, where over the past decade legislation has reduced both the size and materials that can be used for packaging processed foods.

Another issue is planned obsolescence. Both the Trading Standards Institute and the Office of Fair Trading investigate consumer claims of items ceasing to work shortly after the initial warranty expires, but there are plenty of less obvious instances of products deliberately built to limits short of their potential working life, such as printer cartridges and rechargeable batteries. More insidious still is the use of advertising and clever marketing, combined with long-term release cycles, to promote a more rapid replacement of items than is really necessary. This 'obsolescence of desirability' is particularly obvious with mobile phones, which rapidly outstripped manufacturer's sales estimates in the early 1990s and are now updated on the basis of a fashionable new function or user interface rather than improvements to their core purpose. There can be no better illustration of the needlessly short life span of electronic goods than the seven metre tall WEEE Man sculpture at the Eden Project in Cornwall, which is composed of the consumer goods the average British citizen gets through in a lifetime - including no less than 35 mobile phones!

One irony is that the rapid development of storage formats over the past few decades has created a cycle of obsolescence from floppy disks to laser discs at a time we most need to counter expendability. Perhaps the current generation of 'virtual' devices such as Ipods and Ipads will help offset this, as long as their material and energy costs don't outweigh the savings in paper and packaging.

We cannot be in any doubt that things are changing for the better, but the big question is whether it is fast enough. The world's third largest retailer, Tesco, plans to be carbon neutral…in about forty years time. Many office buildings are already zero carbon and the Government plans for all new homes to be built to this standard from 2016. Meanwhile the Welsh firm Affresol has developed TPR, a wholly-recyclable substance stronger than concrete yet made mostly of waste and intended to provide load-bearing walls for buildings; fingers crossed for their pilot project!

Obviously just cutting back on domestic waste and power consumption will not do as much as reducing fossil fuel usage, but every little bit helps. A final shocking statistic: every Christmas this nation uses 8,000 tonnes of wrapping paper. Do we really need that amount? And as for carbon-trading - that's a whole other issue...