Thursday, 17 December 2009

Who should you trust?

It is a simple fact that the world is a complex place. You can't be everywhere and know everything from first-hand experience. And so inevitably you have to accept reports from others about how the world is, and incorporate those reports into your understanding of the world.

But how do you decide whose reports are trustworthy and whose are not? And how do you justify those choices when (also on the basis of second-hand information) others have chosen to trust different people and have come to radically different ideas about the world.

In his comments on Paula Kirby - Believers in denial world. JonJ has quite clearly come to a very different understanding of climate change and its causes from my own conclusions. Neither of us is in a position to do much in the way of verifying the data directly, so both of us are relying on reports from others.

But it is clear that we have chosen to trust a radically different group of people.

So let's have a think about trust and skepticism, who we place our trust in and why.

First, there are some people and some aspects of what they relate which you are able to check directly. So you can develop a view informed by direct evidence as to their trustworthiness and how much weight you can place on their word.

Second, it is possible to make some assessment of a person's character by comparing him or her to others who you know, and in that way make a rough estimate of their trustworthiness even though you have had no opportunity to make any kind of direct check.

Third, you can go by reputation. In assessing somebody's trustworthiness you can rely on the opinion of others who you do trust.

Fourth, you can look at motivation, whether a person has any particular reason to lie on a particular subject, whether they have something to gain by doing so.

Then you can consider, if somebody was lying to you on a topic, whether it is likely that the lie would have been found out by somebody else and word of this reached you.

None of these methods are certain, none are as good as finding out for yourself, but they do allow you to make some kind of assessment of the balance of probability that you are being told the truth.

Let's consider how this might be applied in a case where (if you are not a professional biologist) you are definitely going to have to rely on second-hand knowledge. Let us think about the "debate" between those who accept the evidence for Darwinian evolution, and those who are Young Earth Creationists.

Now, there is a huge amount of scientific evidence in favour of an earth whose age is 4 billion years or so. I shan't go into the details of what it is, that isn't the topic of this post. But if earth is less than 10,000 years old as the Young Earth Creationists would have us believe, then all this scientific evidence must be wrong.

If this is the case, then one and only one of the following three things must be true.
  1. Scientists are being entirely honest, but have misinterpreted the data or have yet to discover some decisive bit of evidence which will prove the earth is only a few thousand years old.
  2. Scientists are engaged in a world-wide conspiracy to hoodwink us all into thinking the earth is old.
  3. The evidence for an old earth is real, but has been put there by God to give the impression of an old earth, and God has done such a good job of it that there is no way for us to be able to see the join.
You'll note that these three options are mutually contradictory. Either the evidence for a young earth exists or it doesn't. If it does, then (3) can't be true. If the evidence does exist, then scientists are being honest about it or they aren't, which means that both (1) and (2) can't simultaneously be true. Creationists don't choose just one of these and stick to it, they slip and slide and slither between these three positions depending on who they are arguing with and what bit of awkward evidence they are trying to explain away.

Let's take option (3) first. This is an unfalsifiable proposition, deliberately designed so that no evidence can possibly be obtained that would decide the question in either direction. It is a variant of the 5 minute hypothesis, and as such can be dismissed. While there is no means of proving it to be false, equally there is no reason to think it is true. The fact that creationists make such retreats into untestable propositions when the going gets tough is a very good reason to consider them untrustworthy.

Let's look next at the idea of the global scientific conspiracy. From what we know of human psychology, it is quite clear that this secret is just too big to keep. If there were such a conspiracy, it would have come out by now. Any scientist who could prove Darwin wrong would have fame that lived down the ages. Too much of a temptation for such a secret to have been kept among so many scientists for so long. It would never have lasted. So the conspiracy idea just isn't plausible.

Lastly, let's look at the idea that the scientists are honest but mistaken. For this to be true, dozens of entirely independent bits of evidence which all point the same way would all have simultaneously to be wrong. Radioactive dating techniques would have to be wrong, geological evidence, continental drift, astronomical and cosmological evidence, physics, biology. All would have to be giving wrong answers, and moreover, entirely by chance all be giving the same wrong answer. This isn't plausible either.

So even if you don't understand all that much about evolution, you can safely trust the word of the scientists on this one. The earth is billions of years old, time enough for Darwinian evolution to have done its work. Darwin was right, though there are always more details to be learned about it.

So lets look next at the issue of man-made climate change, about which JonJ and I had our disagreement. First of all, I will accept that the evidence for man-made climate change is not as strong as the evidence for an earth that is billions of years old. But it is still pretty strong. And it is possible to make an assessment using the same principles. We can still consider a number of possible hypotheses as to how the present situation might have been reached even through man-made climate change doesn't exist.
  1. The scientific consensus is mistaken, and although the evidence for man-made climate change appears to be strong, it is in fact being honestly misinterpreted. Either climate change isn't happening, or it has other predominant causes unrelated to human activities.
  2. There is a worldwide conspiracy of scientists to hoodwink the world into thinking that climate change is man-made when it isn't.
Again, note that the two options are mutually contradictory. A scientist can be dishonest, or can be honestly mistaken, but he can't be both at the same time. you have to choose between the two options.

Let's consider the conspiracy theory first. For this to be true, it would have to be a big secret. Again, too big to last. Peer review is part of the scientific culture, and the discovery of scientific hoaxes such as Piltdown Man is part of scientific folklore. It is not impossible for individual scientists to be dishonest, but the scientific method, with its peer review, repeatability of experiments and cross-checking of different methods against each other is in effect a vast exercise in institutional mistrust designed specifically to ensure that such dishonesty (as well as more mundane mistakes and errors) are brought to light eventually. I've described a bit of the scientific method in a previous article The conflict between science and religion.

Scientists know this, and so the motivation to deceive mostly isn't there, not least because of the near-certainty of being found out eventually. So, broadly speaking, we can rule out a scientific conspiracy as a plausible option.

But what about Climategate? Well, I've read a selection of the emails, and they don't form evidence of a conspiracy. What I have noticed is the following
  • It is perfectly clear that those who have released the emails have been very selective about what they have released, and have deliberately chosen the ones which are potentially most damaging. This is called cherry-picking, highlighting the evidence that best supports your case and hiding the rest. It is unscientific and dishonest, and should be taken as a sign of dishonesty on the part of the hackers.
  • Much of what is in the emails concerns techniques for understanding the data. For instance, tree-ring data offers a good proxy for temperature, except in the last hundred years or so. We know that it is a good proxy in older times because there is a good correlation between that and direct human temperature measurements. But in the last hundred years, tree rings in industrialised counties are thinner than one would expect. This is likely to be caused by industrial pollution. It can't be caused by lower temperatures, because we can measure the temperature directly and we know what it has been these last hundred years. So the "decline" in temperatures as supposedly indicated by the tree ring data has to be discarded, because we know it is wrong.
  • Scientists are human and intemperate just like the rest of us. Few of us would look all that good if the entire contents of our private emails were suddenly and without warning made public. The UEA scientists are learning the hard way something I've known for a while. If you write something down, even in private, you have to be prepared to defend it in public.
  • It is necessary for scientists to discuss incomplete, provisional and ongoing work amongst themselves. The unpublished material needs to be gathered together into published papers, where the necessary calculations have been checked, the data has been peer-reviewed and the conclusions justified. Scientific papers are published in such a way that other scientist can replicate the work and see if they obtain the same results. To treat informal unpublished material as if it is a scientific paper and then claim it is incomplete is unreasonable.
So, while Climategate might be evidence that some scientists don't much like each other (an all too human trait), it is not sufficient to justify a belief in a conspiracy theory.

So what about the idea that the scientific consensus is honestly held but wrong? It isn't impossible that this is the case, though it seems unlikely. What uncertainty remains is not about whether we are changing the climate, but rather how fast and by how much we are doing so. The only way to resolve that uncertainty is to do more science and get better answers.

But in the meantime, we need to go with the best guess that the evidence suggests. Our best guess is probably better than a second-best guess that ignores the balance of the evidence. And our best guess suggests that we need to take action now. That will be as much of a discomfort to scientists as the rest of us. In fact, it is worse for scientists - nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news. The scientists would have much preferred to be able to say there is nothing to worry about - they could stop worrying as well.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Merry Christmas

Even though I'm an atheist, I have no problem at all wishing people a Merry Christmas. Equally, as appropriate I'm perfectly happy to wish people all the best for Hanukkah, Diwali or Eid, depending on the religion of the person I'm talking to.

A few Christians try to impose on atheists the idea that it is hypocritical to speak of Christmas if you aren't a Christian, that you should not use the word unless you believe in the religion it is associated with. They then get the Daily Mail to complain that atheists are trying to ban the traditional Christmas by refusing to allow use of the word!

If any Christians genuinely feel that you should not utter the name of a day or season associated with a god or religion you do not follow, then here are a few words that they themselves ought not to use.

Tuesday: Named after Týr, the Norse god of war and law.

Wednesday: Named after the Anglo-Saxon god Woden.

Thursday: meaning "Thor's Day".

Friday: the day of Frige.

Saturday: Saturn's day.

January is named after Janus (Ianuarius), the god of the doorway.

February is named after the purification ritual Februa held on February 15 in the old Roman calendar.

March is named after Mars, the Roman god of war.

May has been named for the Greek goddess Maia.

June is named after the Roman goddess Juno.

July was named for Julius Caesar, who was born in that month and turned into a God by the Romans.

August was named in honor of Augustus, also turned into a God by the Romans.

Finally, Easter is named after the Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre. Perhaps the Christians might want to rename it? Since the First Commandment is about having no other gods, I imagine that God might get rather cross about having Eostre's name mentioned every year in church at his own most important festival!

Merry Christmas one and all!

(References from Wikipedia)

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Paula Kirby - Believers in denial

Paula Kirby has written a very good article Believers in denial in the Washington Post. In it she describes how climate change denial and fundamentalist religion are belief systems that have a demographic with considerable overlap

But there is an aspect to the common thread between climate change denial and creationism which Paula hasn't quite picked up on.

In both cases, the people involved have a loyalty to what they regard as a higher truth than that revealed by scientific evidence. In the case of creationists, it is loyalty to the principle of biblical inerrency. In the case of the climate change deniers (particularly in the US), in many cases it is loyalty to the philosophical and political principle of rugged individualism, that if only government would butt out of people's lives as much as possible, everything would get better though people freely exercising their individual self-interest.

The problem with climate change is that if in fact it is in large part man-made, then it is not a problem that is going to be addressed by people carrying on as before in pursuit of their individual self interest. That is what has got us into our present fix. The problem is so big that governments are going to need to be involved in sorting it, and moreover internationally coordinated actions by governments.

So what we have here is an issue where rugged individualism is not the solution, but is in fact so far from being the solution that it is actually part of the problem to be solved.

Where does this leave people who have a deep and abiding belief in the fundamental goodness of rugged individualism? To acknowledge the existence of man-made climate change and the need to do something about it requires that they abandon one of the most basic aspects of their philosophy of life, which they believe has served them well for many years.

That's a very hard thing to do. It is unthinkable. So what they do is unthink it. They would rather believe that the evidence for man-made climate change is false. They believe that the scientists are in it for the research funds, they think it is all an internationalist communist plot to rob America of its independence, they think that there is no consensus in the actual science.

The details of course are different, but the overall themes and tactics used are much the same: mistrust of science, belief in global conspiracy, cherry-picking evidence. And in both cases, there are people who are perfectly prepared to encourage this. In the case of creationism it is leaders of fundamentalist churches, in the case of climate change denial it is energy companies.

So, what is to be done about this? Two things. First is to expose as far as possible the sources of funding of the climate-change denial lobbyists, so that we can tell people "they would say that, wouldn't they". Second is to acknowledge that in the case of many rugged individualists, opposition to action on climate change is not based on evidence, and so is not going to be overcome by more and better evidence. You are not going to persuade these people with evidence. Therefore, you will either have to marginalise them and bring about a position where it is possible to act despite them, or it is going to be necessary to persuade them to accept that they rugged individualism is not a principle worth holding on to in all circumstances.

The conversation is going to have to change.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Setting up a campaign group

A couple of recent commenters have suggested setting up some kind of campaign group to push for the changes that are needed at Ealing Abbey and St Benedict's school to ensure that the children are properly protected. One of the commenters in the Crime of Inaction thread has said this.
Mr West and the contributors to this blog are doing sterling work. But, I fear, they are working in vain. The abbey will stick to its policy of ignoring calls made by individuals or blogs. This campaign needs clout. At the very least it needs a committee and the backing of other groups with similar aims. This can't be the only group of people worrying about these concerns.
One commenter in the Open Letter thread has just said this.
Is there anything more we can do to further 'the fight'? As someone has commented, real pressure needs to be brought to this issue. We badly need an action team to back the efforts of Mr West.
I think a group of concerned parishioners, parents and others is a great idea. A group is likely to include people who have expertise and contacts that I lack, and who know better what needs to be done or how to do it. I'm more interested in having the right things happen than in it being me specifically who moves things along. The protection of children is far too important for issues of credit to get in the way.

If you would be interested in participating in such a group, please send me an email to Once I have a few responses, I'll organise a meeting.

One further point. Campaigns with numbers behind them always carry more force than individuals, no matter how eloquent those individuals are. So if you are concerned, please get in contact even if you don't necessarily feel you have some specific skill or contribution to make. Your presence is a significant contribution by itself.

Monday, 30 November 2009

The crime of inaction

Vittorio Bufacchi has written an excellent piece The Crime of Inaction on the Guardian website about the paedophile scandal in the Catholic Church in Ireland. Here are some key points.
While all cases of child sex abuse are devastating, there is something about this story that is particularly disturbing. When children are systematically sexually abused for a period of decades by men wearing the collar, the perpetrators of violence are not only the deviant priests serving in parishes and religious orders. Violence is also done by those working at all levels in the Catholic church, both in Ireland and outside, who knew that these abuses were taking place and did nothing to stop this crime, or to bring the paedophiles to justice.
In an institution as rigid and hierarchical as the Catholic church, it is hard to believe that the cover-up stopped within Ireland. Sexual abuse cases involving cover-ups have also been reported in England, France, Australia and the United States.
If there is one lesson that must be learned from this report, it is that violence can be done in many ways: either by way of a direct action, or by an inaction. Paedophilia is unquestionably one of the most sickening forms of direct violence; but knowing that children are being sexually abused and doing nothing about it, therefore forbearing to prevent the crime, is arguably an even greater evil.
I can't fix the whole world, but I can try and improve my own small corner of it. That is why I will not rest until I get full cooperation from the Abbot of Ealing concerning past abuse at Ealing Abbey and St. Benedict's School, safeguards against any repetition of this abuse, and proper apologies and support for the past victims of abuse.

But I can't do it alone. So if you wish to help achieve this and have any kind of support you feel able to offer or any kind of influence you might be able to bring to bear, please contact me by email.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Open Letter concerning Child Protection at St Benedict's School (part 2)

(continued from part 1)

The second issue I wished to discuss with you is the school’s Child Protection and Safeguarding Policy document. I notice that this has been recently revised and published on the school website. (Regulations requiring publication of the child protection procedures of independent schools on school websites came into force in February 2009.) Nonetheless, it is a seriously inadequate document, and I dread to think how much worse its predecessor was. I have the following comments.

At many points within the document, it is stated that this or that action “should” be carried out. Where no discretion is intended in terms of the procedure to be followed or action taken, the word “should” is inappropriate. Instead, use the word “shall”. Every use of “should” within the document needs to be reviewed. Either the word should be changed to “shall” or guidance should be included indicating the circumstances under which the action might not be performed. Given the large number of occasions where “should” is used in the document, it hardly qualifies as a procedure at all.

Paragraph 3
This paragraph appears to be detached from any relevance specifically to child protection.

Paragraph 4, bullet 3
When Fr Pearce was moved from the position of Junior School Headmaster following complaints about him, was a “prompt and detailed report” made to the Independent Safeguarding Authority as specified in the policy? If the policy has been changed since then, why was this change made, and if the policy was in place at the time, why was no such report made?

Paragraph 4, bullet 11
This bullet refers to protecting children who have been abused, in accordance with an agreed child protection plan. However, there is no mention in the procedures of how a child protection plan can be agreed and implemented.

Paragraph 5
This paragraph states that “every complaint or suspicion of abuse from within or outside the school will be investigated and in all proper circumstances will be referred to an external agency”.
Were such complaints concerning Fr Pearce investigated? If not, why not? If so, what were the results of the investigation?
Were such complaints referred to an external agency? If not, why not? If so, what was the result of that referral?
How are “all proper circumstances” defined, and who has the authority to decide whether the circumstances are proper or not?

The problem with this paragraph as it stands is that the “all proper circumstances” phrase, not qualified or defined, in effect leaves the school with unlimited discretion to decide whether or not to make a referral of a case to an external agency, no matter how serious it might be.

Paragraph 6: The designated teacher
The duties in paragraph 6 conflict with the duties in paragraph 7, in that in paragraph 6 the duties are undertaken are on behalf of the child, while the last bullet point in paragraph 7 indicates that duties are carried out on behalf of the school. This is a clear conflict of interest and must be resolved.

Bullet 8 of this paragraph requires that “appropriate action is taken” in actual or suspected cases of child abuse. Was appropriate action taken when suspicion fell on Fr David? If not, why not?

Paragraph 10: Possible signs of abuse
Most of the descriptions of possible signs of abuse appear to be make the assumption that the likely source of abuse is the home. Additional signs which ought to be included are an unwillingness to attend school, and a loss of respect for the authority of teachers.

Paragraph 11: Physical abuse
Saying “possibly made by a belt” is attempting a diagnosis of a physical injury which no teacher (including the designated teacher) is competent to make. The wording of this paragraph should not explicitly or implicitly encourage the making of such diagnoses.

Paragraph 12: Emotional abuse
It would appear that since all abuse involves emotional abuse, then the possible signs of emotional abuse should be the same as paragraph 10. (By the way “principal” is mis-spelled). Again, the parenthetical notes all have the effect of tilting the perception of the reader towards a diagnosis of possible abuse in the home. No such diagnosis should be made or attempted.

Paragraph 13: Sexual abuse
It is beyond comprehension that the initial paragraph is included with its present wording.
[Sexual abuse] Is the involvement of dependent (legally under 18), developmentally immature children and adolescents in sexual activities they do not truly comprehend, to which they are unable to give informed consent.
Where on earth did that definition come from?

First, any sexual contact with those under the age of consent is illegal and should be regarded as such.

Second, the phrase “developmentally immature” is entirely subjective, and suggests that unless the sexual activity is something which the child does “not truly comprehend” then it is not sexual abuse. It is hard to even start to describe how utterly wrong and misguided this is.

It has to be made clear that any sexual contact between a pupil of the school (including any who have passed their 18th birthday) and any teacher, governor, volunteer or any other person acting in any kind of official or supervisory capacity for the school should be regarded as sexual abuse, whether or not there is any complaint about it from the victim, and irrespective of the developmental maturity of the child. This is because of the imbalance in the power relationship between staff and the pupils they are in authority over. Because of this relationship of authority, no consent can be regarded as valid even if given in what the child considers to be good faith.

Using the phrase “developmentally immature” in the definition of sexual abuse in this way is in effect a sexual abuser’s charter, in that the claim can always be made that the child is sufficiently mature to consent, and the phrase is sufficiently vague as to be interpreted in any way that you wish.

Given the recent case of Fr. Pearce, I am staggered that this wording remains as it is.

The various definitions of abuse (particularly sexual abuse) should be updated to be consistent with the government’s guidelines What to do if you’re worried a child is being abused, and to make it clear that any kind of sexual contact or other activity with sexual overtones between staff and children must be treated as sexual abuse.

In the various possible signs of sexual abuse, “Truanting/running away from home” should be separated out into two bullets, since truanting is an avoidance of schools, and may therefore be indicative of sexual abuse whose source is in the school, while running away from home may be more indicative of a problem at home.

Paragraph 15: Staff responsibility
Much of this paragraph is concerned with further definitions of abuse, particularly emotional abuse. The contents of this paragraph should reflect its title and describe the responsibilities of staff, where they are distinct from “Duties of employees, governors and volunteers” as described in the following paragraph.

Paragraph 16: Duties of employees, governors and volunteers
It is not stated how employees, governors and volunteers will initially acquire the knowledge necessary to carry out their duties. It should be stated that they shall take up their duties only after they have undergone an induction in which they are made aware of their duties in respect of child protection, the school’s policies and procedures, and the relevant people to contact.

This paragraph is also a curious mix of general statements of legal duties and rather vague descriptions of procedures to be followed. The duties and the procedures for executing them should be separated for clarity and the avoidance of confusion. Where there are two descriptions of the same procedure (as for instance here and paragraph 18) there is inevitably scope for confusion as to which is the correct procedure to follow. To avoid such confusion, procedures must be kept separate from other text, must be stated only once, and should be entirely clear as to the extent of discretion available to a staff member when following the procedure.

Paragraph 17: Whistleblowing
The current text is too weak.
All staff are required to report to the Designated Teacher, any concern or allegations about school practices or the behaviour of colleagues which are likely to put pupils at risk of abuse or other serious harm. In exceptional cases such reports should be made to Ofsted. There will be no retribution or disciplinary action taken against a member of staff for making such a report provided that it is done in good faith.
Given that it appears that there was “sort of” knowledge of Fr. Pearce’s activities for a considerable time before he was arrested, this is inadequate. The text should be re-worded so that it is clear that there will be no retribution or disciplinary action in the event of a report unless it can be proved that the report was made maliciously.

Paragraph 19: Preserving Evidence
Mobile phones and computers not already the property of the school cannot be taken from their owners without consent, even if they contain evidence of possible abuse. To do so is theft. In the event that evidence is contained within such items, the safeguarding of evidence must consist of copying the information and promptly returning the device to its owner. Furthermore, in the event of an allegation or suspicion of a crime, it is not the task of the school to investigate, but instead to immediately refer the matter to the police, who have both the duty and authority to obtain and safeguard evidence in the way described.

Paragraph 22: Action by the Designated Teacher
It is unclear by what criteria the Designated Teacher will decide how to proceed. There are various items listed which should be taken into account, but nothing is stated as to the way these considerations affect the required course of action.

Furthermore, the second bullet suggests that no further action is taken by the school in the event of a complaint involving a serious criminal offense once a referral is made to the police or SSD. This is seriously inadequate. The evidence may be strong enough to require action to safeguard a child from a staff member or volunteer without necessarily being strong enough to undertake a prosecution for a serious criminal offense. In such a case, the child would be left unprotected if the school takes no further action. The second bullet must therefore be altered to make it clear that the lack of further investigation does not apply in the event of a complaint or suspicion regarding a staff member or volunteer within the school. However, any investigation must be carried out in co-operation with external agencies, and in such a way as not to compromise any criminal investigation.

Were the complaints regarding Fr Pearce referred to SSD or the police?

Paragraph 23: Referral Guidelines
This paragraph is rather woolly and contains too many double negatives. It should be rewritten to clearly state the circumstances under which the Designated Teacher shall make a referral. Use of terms like “normally” should be avoided unless it is specified what sorts of abnormal cases would require a different course of action.

Paragraph 25: Monitoring of Low Level Child Protection Concerns in School
It is not sufficiently clear where the dividing line comes between insufficient and sufficient grounds to make a referral to an outside agency. The sentence “Often there are insufficient grounds or evidence to suggest referral to an outside agency” should not be there in its present form, as it is leading the reader to expect that a preponderance of cases should not be referred, and therefore to make a first assumption that a case is not serious. It should be re-worded to start with “Where there are insufficient grounds to suggest referral to an outside agency…” followed by the action that should be taken instead.

Paragraph 26: Allegations against staff members
The school’s “procedures for dealing with allegations against staff” referred to in this paragraph should be published. In fact, in as far as they apply to allegations of abuse against children they should be incorporated into this document. Otherwise, there is no means by which parents and pupils can have confidence that the procedures do in fact “strike a balance between the need to protect children from abuse and the need to protect staff and volunteers from false or unfounded allegations”.

The fact that the first sentence of this section refers to false and unfounded allegations against staff suggests that this remains a higher concern than the protection of the children in the school’s care.

It should be made clear that when a staff member is suspended pending investigation of an allegation, the suspension must not be regarded as a disciplinary action, must not be recorded as such on the staff member’s personnel record and must not be considered to be indicative of the staff member’s probable guilt. Instead, it must be regarded as an administrative procedure pending the outcome of any investigation. It would appear in the past that there has been great hesitation over suspending any member of staff lest this imply a belief of that person’s guilt. A clear statement to the contrary will make it far easier to assure the protection of children while protecting staff from the adverse consequences of unfounded allegations. This is standard procedure in many organisations (including schools) in the event of an allegation of wrongdoing by an employee, pending investigation of the allegations.

This section contains passages within square brackets suggesting that they have been copied and pasted from some external source and that the bracketed passages should have been edited to make them applicable to the school’s specific documents.

This entire section requires detailed review and revision. It is seriously inadequate as it stands. That it should have been reviewed and republished since Fr. Pearce’s arrest and conviction and still remain in this state is astonishing.

Paragraph 27: Early years – pre-preparatory school and nursery
It is unclear why informing Ofsted of allegations of serious harm or abuse by persons on the premises should be restricted to the premises of the pre-preparatory school and nursery.

To state that “the School” will inform Ofsted leaves the responsibility unspecified. The responsibility for informing Ofsted should be given to a specific person, probably the Designated Teacher, so that there is no mistaking who must take the action.

Paragraph 28: Allegations against pupils
A double standard is being applied here regarding the actions towards staff and the actions towards pupils when an allegation has been made. The difference in the language between this paragraph and paragraph 26 suggests that the criteria for suspending a pupil are far lower than for suspending a member of staff. Furthermore, any suspension of a pupil must be carried out in accordance with the school’s legal obligations regarding temporary exclusions and the process by which they are carried out. Reference to the school policy on exclusions should be made here, and the policy and procedures for exclusions should be publicly available.

Paragraph 29: Suspected harm from outside the school
This paragraph appears to contradict earlier paragraphs suggesting that all conversations or other concerns must automatically be reported to the designated teacher, specifically paragraphs 18 to 21. It is unclear what paragraph 29 adds apart from confusion.

Paragraph 30: Monitoring
The Designated Teacher cannot adequately monitor his or her own actions, which form a very large part of the operation of the policy and procedures. Therefore, responsibility for monitoring the operation of the policy and procedures must be given to some other person, probably the Headteacher, since he has overall responsibility for the safety of pupils within the school.

Paragraph 32: Agencies
The names and addresses of the governors should also be included, since they also have a legal responsibility and a supervisory and monitoring role in ensuring that the child protection procedures are maintained and adequately implemented.

I trust that you will act with some urgency in respect of these comments, since they indicate a serious inadequacy in the child protection policies and procedures at the school. It is particularly troubling that the two weakest sections concern sexual abuse (paragraph 13) and allegations against staff members (paragraph 26) despite what appear to me to be an obvious need to give these sections special attention in order to prevent any kind of repetition of abuse such as was perpetrated by Fr. Pearce.

I recommend that in reviewing these procedures, you contact the Ealing Safeguarding Children Board and ask their advice regarding best practice, and also contact other schools in the area (both state and independent) and obtain copies of their procedures so that you can make use of the best of them.

Yours sincerely

Jonathan West

Open Letter concerning Child Protection at St Benedict's School (Part 1)

I had hoped to get Abbot Martin Shiperlee's co-operation in improving child protection at St. Benedict's, but it seems that he is putting up the shutters and refusing to speak to me. So instead I'm going to have to make my point in public. To that effect, here is an open letter to the Abbot. I am publishing it here in two parts, since the two parts deal with two separate topics. This will make it easier for any subsequent comments to be kept in separate threads each concerned with a different subject.

Dear Abbot Martin

I am extremely disappointed that you have refused to meet me, and have taken four weeks even to summon up the courtesy to make any response to my requests – two requests by email and two phone calls.

There were two matters that I wished to discuss with you in your role as chairman of governors concerning child protection issues at St Benedict’s School.

The first matter I wished to discuss is the “independent review” you announced in your press statement and in your letter to parents. I have the following questions regarding this review:
  1. Who will conduct it?
  2. On what date will they start? (or have started if the review is already underway)
  3. What are the terms of reference of the review?
  4. Will the school and abbey make all records available on request to the persons conducting the review?
  5. Can victims or their families make direct contact with the people conducting the review in order to give evidence? If so, how should they do this?
  6. When is it expected that the review will be concluded?
  7. To whom will the report be provided?
  8. Will the report be made available to the public?
  9. Will the Abbey and the school act on the recommendations of the review?
You may be aware that a significant number of people have been publicly expressing concern about the lack of any public statement regarding this review since it was announced. When we met in September, I suggested an independent review to you, and it appeared at the time that the idea of one had not until then occurred to you. It seems strange that you have chosen not to engage in further discussions in person with me on this subject since I first suggested it to you, and this can only give rise to suspicions that your intention in announcing the review may be to appear to be doing something to improve child protection while in fact ensuring as little information as possible about past abuses is permitted to come to light.


Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Blogosphere responses to Ruse

I just did a quick google blog search to see who else is responding to Michael Ruse's Guardian piece.

The results are quite interesting. The following blogs take an anti-Ruse line, usually berating him for errors of fact or logic and accusing him of putting up strawmen. Each has a slightly different detailed take on it, but broadly thy are all saying much the same thing.

Michael Ruse and Faitheism
Dawkins et al bring us into disrepute
Schisms, rifts, and apologia for insanity
Ruse gibbers on. . . .
Ruse, Again
The supposed atheist schism
A Confused Philosopher (Part II)
Philosophy, Science and Law
Ruse's Seven Deadly Sins
Reflections on A Ruse

On the other hand, these blogs are cheering him on.

Schism! Denial! Infighting! Name calling! And that's just among the atheists...
'The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist'
Is there an atheist schism? – Dawkins et al bring us into disrepute
My kinda atheist

The interesting thing is that there is not a single atheist blog that support Ruse. All those who support him are Christian blogs, and they don't support him because they agree with his brand of atheism, but either because they relish the idea of dissension in the ranks of the competing "atheist religion" or just want to cheer on all enemies of Dawkins.

eChurchwebsites is a typical example
As I rather enjoy dipping into the atheist worldview from time to time, I have come to relish this activity more and more lately, as I note their growing internal divisions. It would certainly seem that all is not rosy in the belief systems of; ‘there is no God’.

Maybe there will be an atheist ‘reformation’, or perhaps they will simply schism into different denominations, as some atheist ‘believers’ seem unable to accept the doctrine of Dawkin’s (pbuh) infallibility?
They seem to have undergone an irony bypass...

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Michael Ruse and Faitheism

Michael Ruse is doing his faitheist thing again - saying that atheists are right about God but really ought to shut up about it lest they frighten the horses.

He doesn't start well.

As a professional philosopher my first question naturally is: "What or who is an atheist?" If you mean someone who absolutely and utterly does not believe there is any God or meaning then I doubt there are many in this group.

As I pointed out in I'm an atheist, OK?, that definition of atheism is mainly used by theists who want to find ways of minimising the impact of atheism. For Michael to start out with that definition does not augur well.

The body of his argument starts with this

First, non-believer though I may be, I do not think (as do the new atheists) that all religion is necessarily evil and corrupting.

I'm rather struck by the insertion of the word "necessarily" there, given the direction his argument takes later. Of course, its insertion allows for the possibility that all religion is in fact evil and corrupting, even if there isn't anything that makes it necessarily so. But even so, he is constructing a strawman. New atheists don't take the view that he is ascribing to them. They merely believe that (almost all) religion is based on a premise that is false, specifically the existence of a supernatural God. That belief without evidence has certain consequences, including a greater susceptibility to the calls of moral absolutism, which means that in practice some religion is evil and corrupting. I've described the New Atheist position as I understand it in Six atheist theses for light, not heat, so I shan't repeat it all here. Most atheists commenting on that article seemed to be broadly in agreement with it.

Ruse goes on with his second point.
Second, unlike the new atheists, I take scholarship seriously. I have written that The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist and I meant it. Trying to understand how God could need no cause, Christians claim that God exists necessarily. I have taken the effort to try to understand what that means. Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, "What caused God?" as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery.

There's that word "necessarily" again! I have taken the trouble to read a fair bit of theology and philosophy, especially the philosophy of religion, and I have also read the God Delusion. There is always the danger of regarding somebody as being wise and learned if they say something you already happen to agree with, and to regard somebody as ignorant and foolish if they say something you disagree with. It takes a great deal of detachment to set that aside and to see whether there might in fact be something in the opposing view. To do that, you need to look at the evidence.

So let us do that, and examine the Christian claim that God exists necessarily, and understand what it fact it means. I've been reviewing Richard Swinburne's "The Existence of God", and Swinburne does have quite a bit on the necessary existence of God, God's necessity is a central plank of his argument. Swinburne's version of the God proposition is this:

There exists necessarily a person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient , perfectly good, and the creator of all things.

He goes on to describe "necessarily" at greater length.

The theist holds that God possesses the properties described in some sense necessarily, and that he is in some sense a necessary being. That is to say, God could not suddenly cease to be (for example) omnipotent. While God is God, he is omnipotent; nor could he cease to be God while remaining the same individual (as for example, the Prime Minister can cease to be Prime Minister while remaining the same person).

Further on he says

To say that some being necessarily or essentially has certain properties is to say that without these properties he could not exist. ... To use Kripke's well-discussed example, a person is an essential kind. If John is a person he could not be anything else; because if John ceases to be a person, he ceases to be. Let us call a person who is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free, perfectly good and the creator of all things a divine being. The theist must claim that God is a being who belongs to the essential kind of divine being.

That deals with the necessity of God's properties, if he exists. If he isn't all that is described above, then he isn't God. All of the above consists of an extended definition of what God would be, if he exists. It doesn't make his existence inevitable, and so none of the above explains Ruse's view that Dawkins is fatuous in asking "What caused God?" Swinburne is obviously aware of this, and goes on as follows.
To say that 'God exists' necessarily is, I believe, to say that the existence of God is a brute fact that is inexplicable - not in the sense that we do not know the explanation, but in the sense that it does not have one.
So, according to Swinburne, there is no answer to Dawkins' question - you just have to accept the fact of God's existence, if in fact he does exist. Swinburne, throughout the whole of his book, does not claim that there is a valid deductive argument for the existence of God. So by Swinburne's definition, although God's existence and properties are both necessary, this does not mean that God's existence is real, i.e. that on the available evidence it is inevitable that God does in fact exist. Swinburne spends the rest of the book looking at various bits of evidence for and against God's existence and comes up with his view on the balance of probability of God's existence.

Now, in my view, to say that God's existence is inexplicable and expect people to leave it at that is just the sort of call to ignorance I described in the 4th point of Six atheist theses for light, not heat. Swinburne's account of "necessary existence" is quite different from that which you might imagine from Ruse's throwaway use of the phrase, which one might take to be synonymous with "inevitable". It isn't, but you would never know from Ruse's article. Ruse claims that he has gone to the trouble of understanding what "necessary existence" means. Maybe so, maybe not - but we cannot tell, because he hasn't gone to the the trouble of explaining to us what he understands by it.

Ruse continues.
Third, how dare we be so condescending? I don't have faith. I really don't. Rowan Williams does as do many of my fellow philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (a Protestant) and Ernan McMullin (a Catholic). I think they are wrong; they think I am wrong. But they are not stupid or bad or whatever.
Another strawman. Nobody denies that there are some very good people who have faith, and nobody denies that there are some very clever people who have faith. But the only way by which we can decide whether atheists or theists are correct in their beliefs is (as I described in The cosmic detective) to have a look at the evidence, and see what it tells us. And Ruse, since he thinks that Williams, McMullin, Plantigna et al are wrong, has presumably concluded that the balance of the evidence points to the nonexistence of God.

Ruse finishes with this point.
Fourth and finally, I live in the American South, surrounded by ardent Christians. I want evolution taught in the schools and I can think of no way better designed to make that impossible than to spout on about religion, from ignorance and with contempt. And especially to make unsubstantiated arguments that science refutes religion.
Nobody says science refutes religion. Dawkins certainly doesn't. As I understand it, the New Atheists take a view encapsulated by Laplace. On being asked by Napoleon "they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator", he replied "I had no need of that hypothesis.". (Of course, this rather gives the lie to the use of the word "new" in the name "New Atheists". Although I don't have an exact date for the comment, Laplace probably made it in the first decade of the 19th century.)

Scientific evidence does demonstrate that various factual claims in the Bible interpreted literally (such as the 6-day creation) are false. But that is not quite the same as saying that science refutes religion, and Ruse as a philosopher ought to know better than to suggest that it does.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Swinburne: The problem of evil

This chapter is completely misnamed, because Swinburne doesn't seem to find evil any kind of problem at all.

His first line of argument is that some evils can serve greater good. Parents rightly allow a dentist to cause pain to their children for the greater good of healthy adult teeth. And God (if he exists) can cause or allow what appear to be evils in the service of a greater good which we cannot necessarily yet perceive. He states that one important greater good is that without evils and suffering, our ability to have and show concern for others is impaired. We cannot be concerned for somebody's welfare and take action to assure it unless that person's welfare is somehow at risk, and if there is no suffering there is no possibility of that happening.

His next line of argument is the "Argument from the Need for Knowledge", that we are endowed with free choices, and without natural evils our ability to make choices would be impaired in that the choices would have no effect. Also, without the chance to observe evil outcomes, we have no knowledge as to the likely good or bad effects of a choice, and no means ever of obtaining such knowledge. Since knowledge is a good thing, this is a greater good that is served by the presence of evil.

He then argues God's right to inflict harm, that parents have a right to do some degree of harm to their children for their own long-term good, and that God, being so much more than parents to us all, similarly has a right to inflict harm for the good of our souls.

He then goes on to address the quantity of evil in the world, the idea that, even given all these arguments, with things such as Hiroshima, the Holocaust, ther Lisbon Earthquake and the Black Death, God might have overdone it a bit. This is his response.

Suppose that one less person had been burnt by the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Then there would have been less opportunity for courage and sympathy; one less piece of information about the effects of atomic radiation, less people (relatives of the person burnt) who would have had a strong desire to campaign for nuclear disarmament and against imperialist expansion. Ando so on. Of course, removal of one bad state or the possibility of one bad state will not remove much good, any more than the removal of one grain of sand will make much difference to the fact that you still have a heap of sand. But the removal of one grain of sand will make a bit of a difference, and so will the removal of one bad state.
What he seems to be arguing is that evil is in fact good, in that the more evil there is, the more opportunity there is for people to do good in response. This is a torturer's charter. "I'm only doing this to you for the good of your family, so they can show sympathy to you in your injured state once I have finished with you." It excuses all kinds of evil. It is easy enough for people to do evil believing they are doing good without cover from this kind of fatuous philosophy. If the Hiroshima bomb had never been built, nobody would have been burned by it, and if nuclear weapons had never been developed, there would have been no need for people to campaign for nuclear disamament, and could perhaps have turned to other more substantive forms of good work.

It also suggests that there is ultimately nothing that can be done to reduce the total amount of evil in the world - that God decides how much evil there should be, and that everything is always for the best in this the best of all possible worlds.

There are two issues here. The first is how nauseatingly grotesque this philosophy is, and how easily it can be turned to the service of evil actions. The second is how completely without evidence all this hypothesising is. It depends on us making the assumption without specific evidence that there is a God, that he is good, that he allows evil for the the benefit of our immortal souls, that the amount of evil is at its optimum value for God's perfectly good purposes, and that the removal of even one small amount of human or natural evil will remove as much or more opportunity for humans to be good in response. Phooey.

But it gets worse. Swinburne's next argument is the "Argument from Hiddenness", the idea that keeping himself largely hidden from human sight is just the sort of thing a perfect God would do, since too obvious a Godly presence inhibits the ability of humans to make a free choice whether or not to worship God, and that allowing evil into the world is a part of the process of keeping God hidden from view. If you take this argument, then God ceases to be any kind of scientific proposition at all, he becomes a mechanism by which any possible phenomenon can be interpreted as being consistent with God's existence. If there is no possible phenomenon that can be shown, even in principle, to be incompatible with God's existence, then you now have an unfalsifiable proposition, and therefore all Swinburne's ideas of probability, flawed though they were from the outset, go out of the window, because probability has no meaning at all in the context of unfalsifiable propositions, and no evidence one way or the other can affect one's thinking on the matter.

But for all that, he grandly concludes that the existence of evil in the world does not form a C-inductive argument against God, and the probability of God's existence is unimpaired. There is no explaining going on here, merely explaining-away.

Friday, 30 October 2009

The inquiry at Ealing Abbey

Following the sexual crimes of Fr David Pearce, Abbot Shipperlee has written in a letter to all parents at St Benedict's School

I am instructing an independent review into this matter to examine what there is to be learned in order to ensure that there can never be a recurrence of this situation.

I hope in due course to find out more about this review, about who will be conducting it, what its scope and terms of reference will be, who it will report to, and whether its report will be made public. I don't even know whether the inquiry has started its work yet.

From the comments that have been posted on my previous articles on this subject, it is quite obvious that there much more has been going on that is covered by the 5 victims of Fr Pearce who were the subject of the criminal charges against him.

I suspect that there are many of you out there who have suffered abuse and do not feel able to describe any kinds of details of them in a public forum such as the comments on this blog. I think it is appropriate that you should have an opportunity to recount your experiences and for them to form a part of the evidence to this inquiry.

If you wish to contact me by email, I will do all in my power to see that your experiences are placed before the inquiry. Include "Fr Pearce" or "David Pearce" in the subject line, so I can quickly and easily identify messages on the subject.

I promise that anything you write to me by email will be kept entirely confidential, except in as far as you authorise me to communicate it to anybody else apart from those conducting the inquiry. In particular, I shall not use any of your emails as material for this blog unless you specifically tell me I can. I just want to ensure that any evidence that the inquiry should be aware of is made available to them. I take the view that a review of procedures at the Abbey and the school can't be adequate unless it is carried out will the fullest possible knowledge of the failures that have occurred in the past. And that knowledge requires that as many victims as possible come forward to describe their experiences.

I don't expect that any evidence would result in further charges against Fr Pearce. As I understand it, the police have closed their file on him as a result of their successful prosecution. But even if the evidence you provide does not result in prosecutions against Fr Pearce or anybody else, I still think the inquiry needs to hear it. I suspect that there has been as assumption in the past that if the evidence is not sufficient for a criminal prosecution, then no other action should be taken. If so, then that needs to change - the safety and welfare of the children in the school's care should be the higher priority, and that requires that action to protect a child should be taken even in cases where the evidence is insufficient for criminal prosecutions.

It looks as if some reviewing has already been carried out internally, there are new documents on the Information for Parents page of the St Benedict's School website.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Swinburne: Arguments from Consciousness, Morality and Providence

Time to skip though a bit faster, so I'm taking the next two chapters together: Arguments from Consciousness and Morality, and The Argument from Providence. The form of the argument will by now be fairly familiar, so I don't need to rehearse it in such detail, even though the subject matter is different.

In Arguments from Consciousness and Morality, Swinburne makes the same general point, that he finds it hard to conceive of a way in which consciousness could have come about through natural processes. He accepts evolution as a means by which animals have come about, but finds it hard to understand why thought should have evolved. The only quotation he provides in the whole of the two chapters is from the 17th century philosopher John Locke

Divide matter into as many parts as you will ... vary the figure and motion of it, as much as you please ... and you may as rationally expect to produce sense, thought, and knowledge by putting together in a certain figure and motion, gross particles of matter, as by those that are the very minutest, that do anywhere exist. They knock, impel, and resist each other just as the greater do, and that is all they can do.

On the other hand, Swinburne thinks that human beings who think are just the sort of thing that God would make if he exists, and so he regards this as a good C-inductive argument for God.

He takes a similar line with The Argument from Moral Truth, which he comes to later in the chapter, that there is no reason for an awareness of moral truth to come to use by natural means, but implanting an awareness of them in us is just what God would do.

In essence, this is what Dawkins calls the Argument from Personal Incredulity. Just because Swinburne finds it hard to think of a way that these phenomena could have occurred naturally, he therefore assumes them to be extremely unlikely to be natural phenomena. This simply highlights the subjective nature of his assessments, since scientists with more knowledge of the subject are apt to regard the natural explanation as perfectly plausible and likely.

In The Argument from Providence, Swinburne regards it as wonderfully helpful of God to have created a world in which mankind can look after himself (feed himself, clothe himself) without apparent divine intervention every day. That the universe should have configured itself that way naturally he thinks to be unlikely, and so again it is regarded as a C-inductive argument for God.

Similarly, he is most impressed by the fact that the world offers us opportunities to help each other. he goes through various kinds of worlds that God might want to create, and settles on what he calls world-IV as being the most likely, in which there is exist humanly free agents who are born and die. In other words, he regards this is the best of all possible worlds, and therefore the one that God would most want to create. He argues

Given that ... we may expect God to create humanly free agents with a large degree of free choice and responsibility, subject to a limit of harm (that is, positive evil) they can do to each other, it is moderately probable that God will make a World-IV, including natural death for all and free agents having the power to cause death.

It seems to me that there is a glaring hole here (quite in addition to all the holes I've already identified in this general form of argument) and that is that we are not in a World-IV by Swinburne's description. We live in a universe where humans in fact have unlimited power to do evil to each other, to the extent of being able to use atomic weapons in such a way as to extinguish all life from the planet. So far we have chosen not to. But that doesn't change the fact that the power exists for us to do unlimited harm.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

A big "Thank you"

Attending the sentencing hearing of Fr David Pearce, and hearing the nature of the abuses he committed, I was particularly impressed by the courage of the victims who came forward and were prepared to give evidence, and who almost until the day of the trial believed that they would have to face Fr Pearce in court to give evidence.

That is courage of a very special kind. Not many people can say "I helped put a paedophile behind bars", but you can. That is an achievement to be proud of.

Other children are safer because of what you did. Thank you.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Sentencing of Fr David Pearce

Just two very quick items, I'll report in more detail later.

Fr Pearce today was sentenced to 8 years in prison for his offences against boys at St Benedict's School. According to law, he will serve half and the other half will be suspended. He will be placed on the sex offenders' register for life, and the judge also made an order that he must not have any unsupervised contact with any child under the age of 18, not be involved unsupervised in any educational activity with any child under the age of 18, and not undertake unsupervised any religious service in the presence of any child under the age of 18.

The Abbot was not present and no statement on behalf of the Abbey was made to the press at the court (though a press statement was issued later). I understand from discussions with journalists present that he has been refusing all calls from the press recently.

The story has hit the news. It was lead item on ITV's news programme "London Tonight". So far, the fullest written account is in The Independent, but the Ealing Gazette, the Press Association, and the BBC website are also carrying the story.

I'm not going to compete with the Independent's account, written by Wesley Johnson and Anisha Ahmed of the Press Association. Their journalists have better shorthand than mine and their account is a substantially accurate summary of the offences committed by Fr Pearce. Also, the victims have had their lives messed with enough, I don't want to invade their privacy any further by repeating the details all over again. I met one of the police officers who had conducted the investigation and she advised me that the case was under reporting restrictions as regards the names of the victims, but I assured her that even without restrictions I had no intention of naming any victims.

But there are a few points which I made a particular note of.

Firstly, it is quite clear from the account given by the prosecuting barrister that Fr Pearce got himself into a position of trust and authority and then used that position to prevent his victims from speaking up, and to prevent them for a long time from being believed even when they did speak up. One victim was even estranged from his own parents for a time as they found the accusations to be unbelievable.

Second, although the physical acts involved were not the most serious possible sexual offences, it is quite clear that it has had a devastating effect on the lives of the victims, as much from the abuse of trust as from the physical abuse. Statements read out in court from more than one victim mentioned how Fr David "was everywhere" in their life. It is quite clear that the victims were in no way able to deal with the psychological manipulations he inflicted on them, they just didn't have the age and maturity.

If any of the victims read this, let me assure you that from the description given in court, there is no reason at all for you to feel in any way guilty about your own actions. You were manipulated and you were not responsible for the abuse done to you. The mere fact that there was little or no physical coercion is entirely irrelevant, Fr Pearce was in such a position of authority over you, and in some cases over your parents, that there is no way that somebody of your age could have resisted an adult with the age, authority, education and sophistication of Fr Pearce. Psychologically it was the equivalent of putting a 9-year old into a boxing ring with Mike Tyson. There's no way you could possibly have been expected to withstand that. You have my every best wish and sincere hope that now Fr Pearce is behind bars for a substantial time you will be able to get on with your lives in peace and privacy.

Thirdly, I'd like to mention some of the points made in plea of mitigation by the defending barrister. I happened to be sat next to one of the victims in the public seats during the hearing, and could sense his hackles rise at some of the statements being made. But I don't blame the barrister for making pleas of mitigation - it is his job, and it is necessary for the judge to hear whatever good points there are to be made. But there was very little that really could be said that would have much mitigating effect. Here are some of the points made.
  • the defendant wished to apologise to the victims for the acts committed, and the barrister was now doing so on his behalf
  • he had shown sufficient contact with reality (in contrast to many other sex offenders) that he had changed his plea to guilty, albeit at a very late date
  • he did not set out to cause distress
  • the judge had a duty to sentence only on the basis of the charges to which Pearce had pleaded guilty (about half the charges originally brought - the rest were dropped by the prosecution in exchange for the guilty plea)
  • he had also done much good in the world, that he had been a good and effective teacher, that he had participated in and led a great many out-of-hours school activities, and that many pupils had benefited from the education he had had a part in providing
  • many people had come forward to act as character witnesses for him, including pillars of the local community, even though they were aware of his offences and that he had pleaded guilty
  • he hadn't acted as a predator - the crime career of a sexual predator classically involves an escalation in the seriousness of offences over time, which didn't happen in this case
  • the victim impact statements should be read with some caution, not because they should be regarded as in any way untrue, but rather that they should be read as the effect of all the abuse suffered by the victims, and that some of the victim impact statements made mention of abuse inflicted by others in addition to that by Fr Pearce
The judge was thoroughly unimpressed by most of this, and this was reflected in the points he made in giving sentence.

Fourth, I was very much struck by one point made by the prosecuting barrister, almost as an aside. After the civil case in 2006, Fr Pearce was placed on a "restricted ministry" by the Abbot. Part of a letter from the Abbot was read out in court which stated that Fr Pearce:
  • was not to have any public ministry
  • must celebrate mass only in private within the monastery
  • must have no contact with children
The reason given in the letter for this restricted ministry was "to protect Fr David from unfounded allegations". No mention was made in court of any other reason given.

The last of his victims was befriended by Fr Pearce after the civil case, despite the restrictions supposedly imposed by the Abbot.

Fifth, there was no sign of the Abbot. He was not present, despite the fact that he had led me to understand that he would use the occasion to make a statement. A press statement was issued later by the Abbey. I don't yet have a copy, because as far as I can tell it hasn't been posted either on the Abbey website or that of the Diocese of Westminster, so all I can do is quote what was included in the report in the Independent.
In a statement issued by Ealing Abbey, Abbot Martin Shipperlee said: "The crimes perpetrated by David Pearce were a betrayal of the trust placed in him as a teacher and priest.

"His exploitation of the most vulnerable was brought to an end by the courage of those of his victims who came forward and revealed what had been happening.

"I would like to apologise in every way I can to the victims and to everyone else who has been affected by this case.

"I will remember in my prayers all those whose lives have been troubled by David Pearce's actions."

The Abbot said he was launching an independent review into the case "to examine what there is to be learned to ensure that there can never be a recurrence of this situation".

He added: "David Pearce's future as a priest will now be reviewed by my superiors in accordance with the child protection procedures of the church."
That is not nearly good enough. It leaves entirely unstated what of his own personal failures or the Abbey's institutional failures he was apologising for. After all, these failures were what permitted Fr Pearce to continue his abuse for so long. The words are very slightly less weaselly than those which followed the civil case, but fall far short of what the victims can and should reasonably expect from the Abbey.

Even the statement about the "independent review" could be interpreted as weasel words. "A recurrence of this situation" could be read to mean "a recurrence of things being found out to the extent that it got to court and embarrassed the church." I warned the Abbot against the use of euphemisms and circumlocutions, that an apology would have to be full and frank if it was going to do much good. Certainly I am comprehensively unimpressed with what has been offered so far.

I think that the victims deserve something a little more substantial in terms of support than that the Abbot will "remember in my prayers all those whose lives have been troubled by David Pearce's actions".

But I'm pleased about the independent review. I would like to learn more about it - who will be conducting it, what their terms of reference will be, and whether its report will be published. The details of this matter, and unless I know it is going to have a broad remit, unqualified cooperation from everyone at the Abbey and its schools from the Abbot down, a public report, and be conducted by secular non-catholic experts, then I'm going to be skeptical as to whether this is any more than window dressing. However, it it does have all those characteristics, then there is every chance that future abuse can be prevented and any other past abuse brought to light.

I intend keeping an eye on this and seeing what happens in future.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Swinburne: Teleological Arguments

Swinburne goes on next to look at teleological arguments, the arguments from design. He goes through several of them: the Argument from Temporal Order, the Argument from Spatial Order, the Fine Tuning Argument, and slightly curiously the Argument from Beauty is tacked on the end.

The Argument from Temporal Order looks as the fact that there are regularities in time - i.e. that one event causes another in a regular way, such that we are able to predict the future.

The argument from Spatial Order looks at the fact that atoms arrange themselves in regular patterns spatially to form a variety of substances. Although he makes a generally approving reference to Michael Behe’s “Irreducible Complexity” and describes the idea at more length in an appendix, Swinburne is careful to say that the argument from Spatial Order as he describes it does not depend on Behe’s ideas, and is fully compatible with Darwinian evolution. Swinburne’s version of the argument concerns inorganic materials of the right sorts to form themselves into organic compounds, and later into life and eventually into us humans. According to Swinburne, it is amazing that inorganic materials of the right sort, particularly carbon with its very special abilities at being organised into long chains in large molecules, should exist in the first place so that Darwinian evolution can get started.

The Fine Tuning Argument is about how amazing it is that natural laws are adjusted in such a way that multiple elements are created so that chemistry can happen.

The Argument from Beauty is that it would make no sense for God to make a universe that wasn’t sufficiently beautiful for us to appreciate it.

All these argument are made in much the same form. All these varieties of order are the sorts of things a God would create if he wanted to create beings like humans, and therefore the conditional probability of each of these is high given God, and the probability that these would arise in a Godless universe is accordingly much lower. Therefore each provides what Swinburne calls a C-inductive argument in favour of God. Remember from the previous chapter that this isn’t what most people think of as a C-inductive argument but instead it is a line of argument that suggests that the conditional probabilities, when fed through Bayes’ Theorem, will result in a higher than previous overall probability.

If you define a sort of God who you think would do these sorts of things, then of course you will assess as quite high the probability that God has done it. But for this to have much effect on the outcome of Bayes’ theorem (even if you accept this use of it, which I don’t) you would have to assess the prior probability as significantly greater than zero. Time for another down-to-earth example, this time taken from Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, for no better reason than I’m a fan of his book and blog. I’m going to use his particular example of datamining to identify terrorist suspects.

In this example, Ben Goldacre is looking at the use of data about individuals to assess whether they should be considered to be terrorist suspects.

Let’s imagine you have an amazingly accurate test, and each time you use it on a true suspect, it will correctly identify them as such 8 times out of 10 (but miss them 2 times out of 10); and each time you use it on an innocent person, it will correctly identify them as innocent 9 times out of 10, but incorrectly identify them as a suspect 1 time out of 10.

On the face of it, that sounds quite promising. But let’s go on.

These numbers tell you about the chances of a test result being accurate, given the status of the individual, which you already know (and the numbers are a stable property of the test). But you stand at the other end of the telescope: you have the result of a test, and you want to use that to work out the status of the individual. That depends entirely on how many suspects there are in the population being tested.

If you have 10 people, and you know that 1 is a suspect, and you assess them all with this test, then you will correctly get your one true positive and – on average – 1 false positive. If you have 100 people, and you know that 1 is a suspect, you will get your one true positive and, on average, 10 false positives. If you’re looking for one suspect among 1000 people, you will get your suspect, and 100 false positives. Once your false positives begin to dwarf your true positives, a positive result from the test becomes pretty unhelpful.

I agree. A test that gives you the wrong result 10 times out of 11 is getting to be less than entirely useful. But it gets worse.

Remember this is a screening tool, for assessing dodgy behaviour, spotting dodgy patterns, in a general population. We are invited to accept that everybody’s data will be surveyed and processed, because MI5 have clever algorithms to identify people who were never previously suspected. There are 60 million people in the UK, with, let’s say, 10,000 true suspects. Using your unrealistically accurate imaginary screening test, you get 6 million false positives. At the same time, of your 10,000 true suspects, you miss 2,000.

So, using Swinburne’s notation, this means that that even if P(e|h & k) is very much higher than P(e|~h & k), if P(h|k) is very low, it doesn’t help you very much. In the terrorist example above, P(h|k) is 10,000 in 60 million, or 0.017%. Even though P(e|h & k) is greater P(e|~h & k) by a factor of 8, the false positives still swamp your numbers. The overall probability is still dominated by the prior probability, so processing the numbers through Bayes means that the probability that a person testing positive actually is a valid terrorist suspect has only been raised from 0.017% to 0.13%. That isn’t all that useful.

Swinburne, as part of his version of the Argument from Spatial Order, regards it is very unlikely that a godless universe would come into being sufficiently fine-tuned that would allow “humanly free agents” to appear, even through the process of Darwinian evolution. He helpfully defines what he regards as the necessary characteristics of humanly free agents as follows.

1. Sense organs with an enormous variety of possible states varying with an enormous variety of possible inputs caused by different world states

2. An information processor that can turn the states of sense organs into brain states that give rise to beliefs of prudential or moral importance

3. A memory bank, to file states correlated with past experiences (we could not consciously reason about anything unless we could recall our past experiences and what others have told us)

4. Brain states that give rise to desires, good and evil (desires to eat and drink, to care for others or to hurt them, and to discover whether or not there is a God)

5. Brain states caused by the many different purposes we have

6. A processor to turn these states into limb and other voluntary movements (to turn, for example, my purpose of telling you that it is Friday into those twists of lip and tongue that will produce an English sentence with that meaning)

7. Brain states that are not fully determined by other physical states

Clifford Longley quoted Professor David Deutsch out of context to support the fine-tuning argument in favour of God when Longley complained to the Advertising Standards Authority against the Atheist Bus Campaign. I took the trouble to contact Professor Deutsch at the time to find out his true views on the subject. He responded as follows.

I do not believe that the 'fine-tuning' of physical constants provides any sort of argument for the existence of God or anything else supernatural. That is because if the constants had been set intentionally by supernatural entities, then the intentions of those entities must themselves have been at least as 'fine-tuned' when they set the constants, and that fine-tuning would remain unexplained. Hence that supernatural hypothesis does not even address the fine-tuning problem, let alone solve it.

Think about that for a moment. Something as complex as a human needs quite a lot of explaining, and a universe with natural laws that permit Darwinian evolution to get going also needs much explaining. But God, as Swinburne describes it, has all of the characteristics of “humanly free agents”, on a far greater scale and with infinitely more complexity and capability than is possessed by mere humans. Humans have sense organs that can detect light, sound and smell passing through a very small corner of the universe. According to Swinburne, God has sense organs that can directly detect anything happening going on anywhere in the whole universe. Humans have a processor that can turn brain states into limb movements. But God has a processor that can by means of “basic actions” (i.e. unmediated direct actions) affect any atom in the entire universe. If the probability of a Godless universe capable of supporting humans is regarded by Swinburne as being very small because of the complexity involved, then Swinburne’s own argument against uncaused complexity applies equally and with even more force to the prior probability of God’s existence, or the intrinsic probability of theism as Swinburne describes it.

Swinburne earlier airily described God as being immaterial (i.e. not made of matter) and as being all of one substance (presumably an immaterial substance, whatever that might be) and therefore simple. But whatever substance God consists of, to be God he still needs all the capabilities Swinburne describes as being necessary for humans, but with a scale and capability vastly increased. Moreover, since God is omnipresent, omnipotent and eternal, by Swinburne’s definition there is not even any means analogous to Darwinian evolution by which God could have come into existence. It would all have to have been there in full from the very beginning. If it is improbable for a universe to exist uncaused with sufficient order and complexity to support a Darwinian process resulting in us, then a God with even greater capabilities coming about uncaused directly is even more improbable, by many, many orders of magnitude.

Swinburne of course says nothing about the effect of teleological arguments on the prior probability of God. He has already addressed in a previous chapter the intrinsic probability of theism, being the probability of God on no evidence at all, and has no intention of revising his estimates of it. He has declared God to be simple and that is that. Instead, he concentrates solely on the conditional probabilities of the universe given God’s existence or nonexistence.

But this hides the fact that the line of reasoning he follows renders the prior probability of theism so low that even deciding that the conditional probability of the universe being as it is, given God, is quite high, it isn't going to shift the Bayesian calculus very far in the right direction, even if Swinburne were to go the whole hog and say that the probability of God creating such a universe is 1.

So he’s continuing to make up numbers, but now he’s not even being consistent about how he applies his own rules concerning how he makes up his numbers.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Swinburne: Cosmological arguments

In Chapter 7, Swinburne finally gets round to looking at the evidence for or against God. He starts with the Cosmological argument, in essence looking for answers to the question “Why is there anything rather than nothing?”

It is of course a very good question, and one we don’t know the answer to. We know that the universe does exist if only because we are part of it and observing it. At this point, Swinburne is concerning himself solely with the existence of the universe, not with any of its properties.

Swinburne is very keen on quoting 18th-century philosophers. He frequently quotes Hume (whom he doesn’t like) and Liebnitz (whom he does like), but broadly speaking he doesn’t draw on anybody more recent except in as far as they comment on Hume and Liebnitz, or on Aquinas. There is one exception to this. He likes to quote himself, extensively.

But this gives his arguments are rather mechanistic feel to them, as if his understanding of atoms is that they are Newtonian billiard balls. He is aware of the Big Bang theory but if he knows anything more about it than the name of the theory and the approximate age of the universe (which he puts at 15 billion years) then he doesn’t let on.

Swinburne discusses the regression to the first cause. He spends about 10 pages on this, but after all the quotations and arguments, it boils down a fairly simple point. Either the universe is infinitely old or it isn’t. If it is infinitely old, then it is ultimately uncaused. If it isn’t then it had a first cause, which either comes from God, or is ultimately uncaused. So we ultimately have a choice of explanation, either the universe exists uncaused, or the universe was created by God, who exists uncaused.

And not surprisingly, he prefers the latter explanation. He conveniently summarises his reasons in the last paragraph of the chapter.

There is quite a chance that, if there is a God, he will make something of the finitude and complexity of the universe. It is very unlikely that a universe would exist uncaused, but rather more likely that God would exist uncaused. Hence the argument from the existence of the universe to the existence of God is a good C-inductive argument.

His assertion that the universe existing uncaused is less likely than God existing uncaused is based on his belief that God is simpler than the universe, and that simpler things are more probable than complex ones. At the end of Chapter 5, Swinburne said that the intrinsic probability of theism was low, but because he regarded theism as a simple concept, it was more probable than any one of many other individual hypotheses for the existence of things. He reached that conclusion without examining or even naming any alternative hypothesis, so if we are to agree with him, we have to take his assertion on trust, without evidence.

But now, in Chapter 7, this has suddenly transformed itself into a 2-way choice between the universe existing uncaused and the universe being caused by God, with the latter being judged more probable. It is almost as it he expects us not to have read (or at least not to have remembered) what he wrote in the previous chapters.

Note that he characterises this as a C-inductive argument. Remember that back in chapter 1 he gave an example of a C-inductive argument, where the premise that 100 ravens have all been observed to be black is a C-inductive argument towards the conclusion that all ravens are black.

A C-inductive argument is characterised by the existence of a hypothesis where all the relevant evidence confirms the hypothesis and none of it disproves it, but where the possibility remains that some evidence at present unknown might someday disprove the hypothesis. Irrelevant matters do not contribute to the C-inductive argument, so for instance the colour of seagulls is not relevant to the hypothesis that all ravens are black. Seagulls of any colour are equally consistent both with the hypothesis that all ravens are black and with its converse, that there exists at least one non-black raven.

At the moment, we don’t know enough about the universe to know its first cause. Therefore, so far as we can tell, the existence of the universe is consistent both with God’s existence and with God’s nonexistence. It is therefore a piece of irrelevant evidence just like the colour of seagulls. To call the existence of the universe a C-inductive argument for God is incorrect.

However, Swinburne’s definition of a C-inductive argument has morphed a bit. It now isn’t anything to do with the example he gave. In terms of how he is actually using the phrase, a good C-inductive argument is one which results in a conditional probability greater than the prior probability you had before you evaluated the new evidence. In other words, a C-inductive argument is one where you feed the numbers into Bayes’ theorem and come out with a probability greater than you started with.

In this, he is demonstrating again this fundamental misunderstanding of what Bayes’ theorem does. As I described in the previous chapter, Bayes allows us to refine our understanding of the population of a certain class of entity, by allowing us to eliminate on the basis of evidence certain proportions of a larger population whose characteristics we are aware of. In the example I gave in the previous article, we were able to refine probabilities by eliminating from consideration skirt-wearers and children with short hair from an overall population of schoolchildren, in order to assess how many long-haired trouser-wearers were girls.

We don’t have a population here. We don’t have a bunch of universes, some of which exist uncaused and some of which are made by God. We don’t have a way of distinguishing caused universes from uncaused. All we have is Swinburne making numbers up again.