Archive for February, 2012

Don’t trust Canadian scientists


It seems that Canadian government scientists (that is, those who work directly for the Canadian government, rather than just those who receive funding from it) are being insulated from media contact behind a wall of bureaucrats. Interview requests from media cannot go directly to the scientists, but must be vetted by officials. Those officials may ask for written questions beforehand; they can select which (if any) questions will be answered; and they can redirect requests to other scientists or simply deny the requests entirely. (See the CBC or BBC articles for more details.)

On the face of it, this is an outrage. The greatest value of science – one might say its very essence – is the constant effort to shrug off the various forms of conscious and unconscious bias that distort our understanding of the real world. For a scientific message to be filtered through politically-minded bureaucrats is like filtering clean drinking water through used toilet paper.

It’s important not to blow this out of proportion. It’s not that scientists at large are being muzzled in Canada – only the ones directly employed by the federal government.

So, as consumers of science, the reasonable response is simply to disregard any science reported by the federal government and its scientists. Even if the scientists themselves are perfectly ethical and unbiased, and even if the only actions of the filter are to selectively suppress research (ie, not rewriting or falsifying results), this biases the overall picture painted by the results. (A similar travesty is practiced by pharmaceutical companies – and opposed by scientists and other public interest groups.)

As a taxpayer, I am not inclined to pay for something that is of no value to me. So I suggest the federal government either remove these draconian restrictions or halt all of its science programs. Obviously, removing the restrictions would be better – it would reduce bureaucracy costs and remove (or at least lessen) the taint of political bias on the research being reported, while allowing valuable scientific research to continue.

I would like to mention one point that has been raised in favour of this bureaucratic filter: that scientists are not always good communicators of science.

It is a legitimate concern. Very few people are good communicators of science.

Scientists tend to be the most unbiased about the naked facts of their studies, but can get over-excited about the implications, and can get invested in a particular interpretation. Journalists are increasingly ignorant of scientific methods, and so they tend to exaggerate the implications of studies even more than the scientists, in order to get the more interesting headline. They also lack the perspective that comes from knowing what other studies have been done on a topic, and from understanding the nature of the scientific process. Politicians and bureaucrats are as bad as journalists at understanding the science, and have strong motivations to “spin” (ie, distort) the science to serve their political ends.

It is unlikely that politicians can be reformed in this sense – not so long as popular opinion drives their fortunes. (That is, not so long as we live in a democracy.) Journalists, likewise, will tend to go for the sexy headline over accurate science, so we cannot expect them to self-educate.

On the other hand, there are already movements within the scientific community to encourage better communication outside academia. My vote is to put further emphasis on this solution. Teach more scientists to communicate their research well.

Until that happens, I still think inept-but-well-meaning scientists’ communication of research is the lesser evil.

Banned! Minority tyrrany! (Perspective?)


There’s been a ruling in an English High Court that, instead of praying at the start of council meetings (when everyone must be there), the Bideford town council should instead pray just before the start of council meetings (when attendance is optional). The case was introduced by a local councillor, and supported by the National Secular Society (NSS). Michael Langrish, the Bishop of Exeter, tells us in that story that this is an attack on the religious freedom of Christians. “I think it’s a great pity that a tiny minority are seeking to ban the majority, many of whom find prayers very, very helpful, from continuing with a process in which no-one actually has to participate.”

It seems to me that there is a whole lot of wrong wrapped up in the Bishop’s words. I’ll take some time to review the two main bits of wrong: the demographics involved, and the injury done.

For the demographics, I’m drawing on a 2011 poll commissioned by the British Humanist Association (BHA), and a 2007 poll conducted by Why Church, a Christian group. I do not know how biased either of these polls might be, so I will also throw in numbers from the recurring British Social Attitudes Survey. The numbers differ, but the overall story is basically the same.

The BHA study found that 53% of people in England and Wales claim to be Christian (7% claim other religions), but only 29% claimed to be religious. For how many of those is the message of their church important? The Why Church study finds that regular attendance is declining steadily – at the time of the report, it was at 15%. That’s how many in the UK attend at least once a month. In particular, compare this section from the executive summary of their report to the bishop’s statement above (my emphasis):

Two thirds of UK adults (66%) or 32.2 million people have no connection with church at present (nor with another religion). These people are evenly divided between those who have been in the past but have since left (16 million) and those who have never been in their lives (16.2 million). This secular majority presents a major challenge to churches. Most of them – 29.3 million – are unreceptive and closed to attending church; churchgoing is simply not on their agenda.

The BHA study supports this, reporting that 63% of respondents had not been to church in more than a year.

It looks like the good bishop’s claim to speak for the majority is, at best, barely true and soon to be outdated. More likely, he’s thinking about a Britain that is several decades in the past.

The BHA poll reports that while 53% claim to be Christian, 65% of people in England and Wales claim to be non-religious. Clearly, some see themselves as “non-religious Christians” – a category which reminds me of “secular Jews”. A Scottish poll gave similar results: 58% claiming some religious affiliation, and 56% saying they were not religious. Even the Why Church survey shows agnostics and atheists at 33% of the population. Langrish’s claim that it is a “tiny minority” imposing these onerous restrictions is therefore ridiculous. It is no stretch to say that, if they don’t already, non-believers are likely to soon outnumber believers in the UK.

The British Social Attitudes Survey shows a drop in Church of England affiliation from 22.50% in 2008 to 19.98% in 2009. Christians overall went from 49.70% to 43.83%, and total religious affiliations from 56.38% to 48.86%. The “no religion” category grew over the same period from 43.19% to 50.67%. Call me crazy, but it looks to me like the bishop’s C of E flock is less than half the size of those whose interests the NSS seeks to protect – Langrish’s “tiny minority”. Probably, he meant all religious people when referring to the “majority” – but even so the numbers are close, and moving in favour of the non-religious.

I’ll let you sift through the statistics yourselves for further insight – there is obviously a lot of scope for picking different numbers, depending what aspect of the issue is important to you. The British Social Attitudes Survey releases their data to registered users; the Why Church people have a number of informative graphics on their website, as well as an in-depth report (PDF). The BHA provides downloadable statistical summaries of their poll on their website.

What wiggle room do we have in interpreting the demographics for this issue?

On the bishop’s side, we could include only regular attenders of the Church of England? That would be somewhere well south of 15%. It’s tempting, but of course other Christians and religious people more generally may also claim an interest in making prayers part of the official council business. That would put the number up as high as 61% – but only, mark you, if the prayers are inclusive of all religious perspectives. And what about people who only attend services rarely or not at all? Is it reasonable to think that they would be upset by a law that allows councillors to opt out of pre-meeting prayers? Counting regular (monthly or more) attenders from all religions, we get something closer to the 15%.

On the secular side, should we only look at members of the NSS, the BHA, and other organizations promoting non-belief? If so, we’ll have a very low number – perhaps appearing to justify Langrish’s “tiny minority”. The BHA has 28000 paying members and supporters; the HSS (Humanist Society of Scotland) has around 6500 members; and the NSS is estimated to have fewer than 10000 paying members. Some individuals will be members of more than one of these groups, and there are many smaller groups that I have left off of this list, but this indicates that something like 40000 people – a fraction of a percent of the UK population, are card-carrying, dues-paying secularists. Should we also include the “de-churched” – the 33% of UK adults who used to attend church, but no longer do? They seem to have made a pretty solid vote for reducing the influence of church in their daily lives. Should we include everyone who claims to be non-religious? Again, it’s tempting, but not all of this group (depending on the survey, somewhere from 33% to 65%) will agree with the secularization of Britain (just as not all religious people agree with the establishment of church power and rituals in government institutions).

Regarding the specific issue at hand – religious prayers before council meetings – a couple of questions about politics on the British Social Attitudes Survey are also relevant. A growing number of people think that churches have too much power in the country (10.58% in 1991, 29.76% in 2008), and people increasingly object to religious leaders influencing government (56.64% in 1991, 67.26% in 2008).

Goodness, what a mess of numbers! Over all, the bishop’s appeal to democratic sensibilities seems to backfire. If the will of the people is important, then the British people seem to be saying that the church should back off. (Of course, an obvious rejoinder from Langrish’s camp would be to bemoan the fact that people are turning their backs on religion – but that becomes more paternalistic and less democratic. Besides, I wouldn’t want to put words in the good reverend’s mouth.)

But let’s back up a little. What did the court rule, exactly? It ruled that prayers are okay in a pre-meeting context, but not as part of the minuted, mandatory-attendance part of council meetings.

So when we hear people complain that their voices are being silenced, their rights trampled on, bear that in mind. They are being pushed perhaps a few minutes earlier, so that people who object to the practice of prayer in council meetings have more freedom to absent themselves while the religious folks carry on thanking and invoking and praising as they always have. That is the great secular imposition which Langrish and others are wailing about.

This is the point where I would typically want to extract some broader lesson. Perhaps about people’s tendency to inflate perceived injuries against them. Or I would congratulate myself on my humility by noticing that we also tend to minimize perceived injuries against others when we identify – by creed or otherwise – with those accused of the attack. (It’s true that I think the Bishop is being alarmist. On the other hand, he is right in his statement in the Guardian that ” the agenda of the National Secular Society is inch by inch to drive religion out of the public sphere.”)

But I think I’ll leave it there, and see what you think. Is there an obvious demographic perspective that makes this all clear? Should we be worried about how many of us there are and how many of them, or is secularization about something more than just one side beating another side with brute numbers? What is the significance of the (apparently overlooked) fact that it was the High Court, attempting to interpret the laws of the land, that handed down this ruling (and not the NSS or one disgruntled atheist councillor)?


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