Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Physics Exam

One of these is a real question, from the Nelson Thornes AQA GCSE Science textbook endorsed by the AQA board. Can you guess which?

Notes to the candidate: no mathematics are necessary for this exam. Try as hard as you can to get the answers correct. You will be marked on effort.

1. The wave equation is v = ƒ λ

a) How does that make you feel?
b) What do you think of the effect of Greek culture on physics?

2. Timothy fires a pretty heavy cannonball at a low angle.

a) where will the cannonball land?
b) What do you think are Timothy's motives for firing cannonballs?

3) Imagine a taxi firm uses an ambulance radio channel by mistake. Write a short story about a mix-up that happens when the taxi firm uses the ambulance radio channel.

4) A debate is occurring at the local university between two scientists, one who thinks the Earth is at the centre of the solar system and the other who thinks the Sun is at the centre.

a) List the points in favour of both of their arguments.
b) Which scientist has the more common sense view?
c) Suggest a way the scientists could compromise.

5) A diagram of the stars has been provided on the following page.

a) Draw in your own constellations by connecting the dots.
b) Write a pretend 'history' of one of these constellations.

Answer can be found here.

Neanderthal genome

Exciting news:

Researchers studying Neanderthal DNA say it should be possible to construct a complete genome of the ancient hominid despite the degradation of the DNA over time.

There is also hope for reconstructing the genome of the mammoth and cave bear, according to a research team led by Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
The relationship between Neanderthals and modern man might now be clarified. Will this make any difference to creationists? Nope. As someone or other once said, you can't reason someone out of an opinion they didn't reason into. But for the reality-based community, there are some interesting times ahead.

Inequality in education

There have been a couple of interesting posts (here and here) from Chris Dillow, suggesting among other things that:

Perhaps [we] should follow the examples of Texas, and equalize exam results across schools, thus ensuring no-one suffers from going to a bad school.
This doesn't seem an accurate summary of the Texan system, which rather seems to guarantee college places to the top 10% of high school graduates from every school in addition to other forms of qualification. It also carries the following rider:
After a student is admitted, the university may review the student's high school records to determine if the student is prepared for college-level work. A student who needs additional preparation may be required to take a developmental, enrichment, or orientation course during the semester prior to the first semester of college.

Admission to a university does not guarantee acceptance into a particular college of study or department, however.
It is not clear whether success in the development course, if required, is a condition of subsequent entry but it would be reasonable if it were. It also ensures that good colleges are not forced at gunpoint to lower their standards.

Richard Feynman observed that the purpose of education is to increase the differences between children. If two children enter the educational process, one with a natural aptitude for maths and one with an aptitude for languages, they would start with this small but undeveloped difference. An effective system would enhance their natural aptitudes, finding and developing the things they can do best at as individuals. They would therefore leave the education with their natural aptitudes developed and trained, and with greater differences between them than had initially existed.

This is desirable. Differences between people are good and should be developed, and admired. Educational systems should try to equip every child with basic tools, and help them find and develop areas in which they can excel.

Ways to try to open the possibilities of excellence to people in an unequal society are obvious, and indeed we had an educational system which did just that until the 1970s in England, and still does in N Ireland. In other words, a system based on excellence can always find ways to promote equality.

Systems based on equality seem in practice to be unable to obtain excellence, partly because they don't aim for it. Here's an example, from Chris' second post:
Equalizing grades across schools would help reduce differences between schools.[1] Under the current system, parents have every incentive to seek out good schools. Under my system, this incentive is greatly blunted.[2]
1. Not true, the differences between schools would be the same. The consequences of these differences would be changed. The question of excellence simply doesn't enter into this thinking, and this creates a simple logical error.

Moreover, what incentive would bad schools then have to improve? Well, still some, because in practice any attempt to subvert the market itself becomes subverted. But survival for bad schools would be easier and they would continue to fail their pupils.

2. Trying to reduce parents' incentives to help with the education of their children - by making the parents powerless - is an awful ambition. What happens to us when we become powerless to affect outcomes? We become de-motivated, time-serving, disinterested. The logical end point for Chris' idea is a society in which everybody is forbidden from trying to improve anything at all, because different people will do so with differing results.

Nowhere in Chris' argument is the idea that the absolute quality of attainment is important. So long as every child is equally illiterate, illiteracy is fine. Parents must not be able to affect this equality of squalor.

Trying to increase equality without reference to any other factors will always just worsen a system for everyone who uses it. Equally, trying to increase excellence and giving parents choice improves things for everyone.

We will get fooled again

It's interesting to watch smoke curling from chimneys in late June, and to hear of people relighting their Agas, and to see pedestrians in their fleeces pass the window, as Radio 4 finally gets round, yesterday (no link available), to blaming the recent unseasonally cold weather on global warming.

Browsing the climate statistics at NOAA, set against a baseline of the 1971 to 2000 average (against which you'd expect current statistic to show "unusually warm"), it is very clear that the warming of the 1980s and early 1990s has plateaued, though not yet begun to fall back. Perhaps it will start rising significantly again.

But what if (when?) it does become obvious that the temperature trend has started to fall? What will be the reaction? Will heads explode?

Nope. The reaction will be as follows:

1. The non-scientific journalists who have been ululating about "consensus" and insisting that "the science is in" will start making "scientists, eh? Can't trust 'em" pieces.*

2. The milleniarists will move seamlessly onto the next reason why we're all doomed unless we let them take control of every detail of our lives, as they have every time their predictions have failed to materialise, which is what has happened every time they have made predictions.

And millions of people will buy it.

* Ever noticed how news items are prefaced "Scientists say..."? Scientists say sugar is good for you. Scientists say sugar is bad for you. Scientists, eh? Can't they make their minds up?

The same journalists never begin any pieces with "Politicians say...". Politicians say higher taxes are good. Politicians say higher taxes are bad. Politicians, eh?

If it were more widely understood that scientists disagree with each other, that knowledge is incomplete and that different research projects can under these circumstances be expected to point to different conclusions sometimes, indeed that apparently contradictory conclusions can all be correct in a state of incomplete knowledge, then we would have had to put up with a lot less bullshit in recent years.

Iranian spontaneity

While on the one hand, massive demonstrations have been taking place against the introduction of petrol rationing in Iran, on the other hand the Governor of Garmsar Province, where President Ahmamadbastard was born, has just been sacked for failing to organise a sufficiently large spontaneous demonstration to welcome said President on a recent visit.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Despite Decency, HP bloggers still bigots

During the 1970s, if you listened carefully, you would occasionally hear references in the media to the "scandal of black members of Working Men's Clubs". The scandal was that there weren't any - a colour bar operated almost as effectively in the North of England as in Country Clubs in the American South two decades earlier.

I'd give you links to references to this, but there aren't any that I could find. As I have mentioned before, left wing academics have carefully avoided references to anything that might cast the Labour movement in anything but a saintly light, and in an age increasingly restricted to online reference material, this represents the sort of re-writing of history that Winston Smith did as a day job in that most telling of warnings against the excesses of the political left, 1984.

The bedrock of the Labour Party, the white working class, has been happy to vote for anti-racist campaigners, and Marxists who have translated their ideas of oppressed classes into those of oppressed minorities, so long as this has also meant voting themselves larger portions of other people's money than have been offered by any other party. But the racism is still there, and this means that if the "other people's money" bit seems to be wavering, they are perfectly happy to switch to the BNP.

Enter David T with a post at Harry's Place, entitled: "Despite Cameron, Tory MPs Still Bigots", in which he quotes a poll that suggests Tory MPs have less enlightened views towards... Well, here's the wording:

just 46 per cent of Tory MPs agree that gay couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples, with 54 per cent disagreeing. For comparison, 83 per cent of Labour MPs and 92 per cent of Lib Dems agree.

Similarly, there is a 52 to 48 per cent split among Tories on whether “the diverse mix of races, cultures and religions now found in our society has improved Britain”. By contrast, 92 per cent of Labour MPs agree, as do all Lib Dems surveyed. And while Labour MPs are virtually unanimous (94 per cent) in agreeing that “one of the things that would most improve life in Britain today is people being more tolerant of different ethnic groups and cultures”, that is the view of only 67 per cent of Tory MPs.
He draws this out as follows:
Most Tories I know are social liberals to the core. They are not, however, representative of the views of the base of the party. Instead, they reflect the attitudes of the floating voters, who the Tories must capture in order to win the next election.

The problem which Cameron therefore faces is a familiar one. Play to the swing voters: but not so much that your grass roots stay home on Election Day, and not so little that your target voters think you're a phoney.
Indeed, both problems are familiar - to the Labour Party, whose MPs are no more representative of their voters than are the "liberal to the core" Tories he cites.

Attitudes towards race and homosexuality do not easily sort along party lines. Libertarian Conservative Party members in the Lords fought some of the earliest battles for gay rights. There is no deeper pool of hatred towards gays than among the Labour voting white working class, and not every coal miner ends up with tears of happiness in his eyes if his son turns out to be a ballet-dancing gay.

It isn't just competition for housing that worries the white working class. I'd be willing to bet I've spent more years living on Council Estates than David T, and I can report that racial hatred is absolutely normal, ubiquitous and overt among those who would never consider voting for any party other than Labour.

I admire David T's work on the whole, but it is depressing how routinely he slips into partisanship and tribalism. Is the Catholic Church the "Nasty Church" for its attitudes towards abortion and gay rights? Is Trevor Phillips the "Nasty antiracism campaigner", for his comments about multiculturalism (which is what the above questions actually relate to, not racism)? In the context of Islamism, David is perfectly ready to draw out some of the problems that large scale Muslim immigration has caused us. He isn't willing to concede that others are allowed to do the same if, and only if, they are Tory MPs.

That's bigotry.

And, as if to prove the point, the first comment relates to a website, "Hate My Tory", that has been puffed at Harry's Place before, despite being one of the most revolting pieces of political malice I've ever seen - and one that passes as humour in the eyes of many Labour supporters. The comment linking to it reads: "Remember children, the only good Tory is a lavatory."

When John Prescott says he is most comfortable fighting politics on the grounds of class, what he means is that he is most comfortable fighting people - hating people - because of the circumstances of their birth. This malevolent hatred courses through the Labour Party. No other political party defines itself through hatred of other people. I have never met a Tory who hated the working class. I have met dozens of Labour Party voters and members who hate with the venom and energy of a Northern Irish sectarian.

Now you bring it up, David, which party really deserves the title of "Nasty"?

Random equality

Googling for "return to grammar schools" (with quotation marks) produces 2060 results, almost all negative - NO return to Grammar schools. Googling for "return to secondary modern schools" (again, with quotes) produces no results at all.

I know this is an imprecise survey, but it's still meaningful. We live in a society in which it is unremarkable that people should say "No more good schools", but nobody should say "No more bad schools". As it has turned out, the comprehensive system has actually ensured that now almost every English child goes to a Secondary Modern.

It seems that the "almost" in that last sentence rankles with some. Brighton Council has said it will allocate children to schools by lottery, to prevent Middle Class parents making a school outperform others in the area by moving within its catchment area. There have also been calls at the national level to force independent schools to admit a quota of disruptive pupils.

These initiatives will have a predictable effect: to make good schools worse without making bad schools better. The arrival of a handful of intelligent, well-motivated pupils in a school with disruptive pupils can have no effect whatsoever; the arrival of a few disruptive pupils in a high-performing school will ruin the education of every child on the roll.

Making schools worse does not make things equally bad for everybody. The wealthy can still hire tutors, send their children abroad or otherwise ensure they have a good education. As the rest of the population slides further behind, the gap widens even further. Thus, these initiatives designed to further equality have precisely the opposite effect.

What makes this inexcusable is that we did have a period, ending in the late 1970s, when social mobility was higher, and this was the consequence of the Grammar School system and the Direct Grant. So we actually know, experimentally, that reversing the current education policies would create greater social mobility and improve standards - for everybody: A report published through the LSE reviewed the real life laboratory experiment that the continuation of Grammar Schools (with reformed entrance arrangements) in Northern Ireland up to the present has provided. It shows that:

Using administrative data before and after the reform, we find that the open enrolment reform of 1989 (which affected the 1979 birth cohort) had a clear impact in Northern Ireland relative to England. A 15 percentage point increase in the number of pupils enabled to attend grammar school (at the age of 11) was accompanied by shifts of similar magnitude in the number achieving five or more GCSEs at A*-C and one or more A-level. This suggests a strong causal effect of expanding the more academic track on overall educational achievement.
Although this research cannot be interpreted as evaluating the overall effects of a comprehensive or selective (‘tracked’) system of education, it is an example of where widening access to the more academic track has generated positive net effects. It illustrates the high price that pupils pay for being excluded from the academic track, even when they are some way down the ability distribution within their birth cohort.

The study also provides clear evidence that selection into the more academic track really has a causal impact – the improvement in educational outcomes is not simply an artefact of the selection process.
On Radio 4 this morning, John Humphreys interviewed David Cameron about a Sutton Trust report that showed social mobility had got worse. A child born in 1970 was less mobile than one born in 1958. This can be paraphrased as follows: A child born into a society with academic selection and centres of excellence open to all on merit alone had a greater chance of social mobility than one born into today's Comprehensive system.

Humphreys advocated the Brighton lottery appeal. Cameron disagreed, but said there should be "No return to the 11 plus". "A lottery is completely fair," remonstrated Humphreys.

In fact, a lottery would be (almost) completely random. Random is not the same as fair and it's strange that anybody should conflate the two.

But it's much more strange that neither man advocated a return to a system of education that we know - from experience - works better than the present one.

It's also plain that when the established media and both major parties advocate educational policies we know, from experience - from experiment - can only fail, we're in trouble.

Walk, chew gum, walk...

Seems I'm not so good at doing two things at once. Have been exceedingly busy. However, I'm going to try to post a bit again.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Quote of the Day

You may steer clear of the word "pupose" in a gramatical sense
Comments to a Times Q&A with Christopher Hitchens about religion.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Blimey - a libel!

I'd been planning to post again today after a long work-induced break. How exciting, though, to wake up to find a libel in the comments to a post about Gore.

I don't know whether I'm obliged to remove a libel from the comments section. This one has been the subject of litigation, in 1993, and my commenter, Dr Justin Lancaster, retracted and apologised. Here he is repeating his libel without giving any context for the reader. Not very honest. Not very creditable. Rum chaps, some of these global warming alarmists.