Thursday, 25 February 2010

Balls to sex education

The government's plans for better sex education in all schools has been watered down by an amendment to the Children, Schools and Families Bill allowing faith schools to 'reflect [their] religious character' in the way PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education) is taught.

The amendment comes after what the Catholic Education Service described as a period of 'extensive lobbying'.

The Schools Secretary Ed Balls is insisting that the amendment is not a watering down but teaching unions and the
National Secular Society have condemned the move, saying that it betrays children in faith schools. These children are often the most in need of accurate, impartial information as devoutly religious parents are unlikely to give it to them.

a letter to The Guardian, Balls writes that the legislation 'will not allow the teaching of homophobia'. Schools will have to 'teach the full programme of study. This includes promoting equality and encouraging acceptance of diversity. (...) what they cannot do is suggest that their views are the only ones. (...) The bottom line is that all young people should receive accurate and balanced information and discrimination is prevented in all schools'.

written before about what some hard-core religious groups think about sex education and while not all schools will be this extreme, it's hard to see how a school with a strong religious ethos will be able to fulfill both the legal requirement to teach the full programme and get its religious message across without these two aims coming into conflict. They may not 'suggest that their views are the only ones' but there are ways of presenting alternative views without giving them equal weight, making it perfectly clear what you think about them.

Teenage pregnancy rates have
started to fall. Stats from the Office for National Statistics show that in 2008 pregnancy in under 18s fell by 3.9% and in under 16s by 7.6%. While that's good news, this is not the time to start introducing amendments that could risk them going back up again. And they are still some of the worst in Western Europe. Hard-core religionists are particularly keen on denying women the power to understand and control their own bodies. When it comes to sex education, knowledge is power. Young women should know, for example, how to avoid needing an abortion and, if they do need one, how to get it - without any judgemental moral overtone.

The Government pledged to halve teen pregnancies by 2010. Ed Balls admitted that "It was a really ambitious target - it was a 50% fall. I think it was right to set an ambitious target and it is going to be really hard to make that amount of fall. But it is not enough. I'm still worried about it and there is a lot more to do."

The current amendment doesn't look like it's going to help achieve this target, whatever he says.

Teaching teenagers about sex is hard enough as it is, as an excellent article on
Scarlateen points out. Allowing religious schools to mix facts with faith will make it even harder for young people to get the impartial information they need to protect themselves and to explore their sexuality.

It may be problematic for teachers who are not used to talking about contraception, pre-marital sex, homosexuality and relationships to present the information well - even if their intentions are good. How will children be taught to use condoms if the school's stance is that contraception is a sin? At best, there will be a mixed message leaving them confused. A school may teach that homosexuals are equal under the law in this country but that, according to their God, it's a sin, against natural law. Which message will be stronger?

Some religious leaders are campaigning hard for schools' right to discriminate against gay people in employment, for the right to opt out of equality law - what message does this send to pupils?

Giving equal or greater weight to
abstinence won't work either.

Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Romain called on the Government to withdraw the amendment, saying, “Children at faith schools have just as much right to information that could help them avoid an unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection" but many religious leaders disagree with him.

PSHE is not just about contraception and STIs. Children and teenagers often have no idea how relationships work, when to have sex, whether to have sex, what kind of sex to have, how to talk about feelings, what to do about sexual abuse and so on. Many will just muddle along and be fine but many will not. Most teens worry at some point about being 'normal' and need reassurance.

The aim of PSHE is to teach more than just the mechanics of sex but there's a difference between teaching young people that they must be responsible, that acts have consequences, and loading them with moral judgements, fear, guilt, insecurities, doubt and prejudice.

We've already seen how the Catholic Church tried to prevent teenage girls having the HPV vaccine that could save their lives because, they said, it would encourage them to have sex. After protests they reluctantly allowed the vaccine as long as no sex ed accompanied it, thus leaving girls vulnerable to every other kind of infection, along with pregnancy. This does not bode well.

Are Catholic nuns going to be happy showing teenagers how to put on a condom?

Of course, it's not just Catholic schools that may be a problem and of course some faith schools will provide good quality PSHE but in some cases, while the head teacher and the school governors may be in favour of impartial teaching, individual teachers of strong belief may find ways to subvert that.

The Tories' position on the Bill is no better. Proposed
Conservative amendments would strike the requirement that PSHE should 'endeavour to promote equality', 'encourage the acceptance of diversity' and 'emphasise the importance of both rights and responsibilities'. They would mean that schools would not be required to teach PSHE and also allow parents to withdraw pupils of any age from SRE (sex and relationship education).

Balls may think he has set up enough safeguards to protect young people and to ensure that they all receive an adequate preparation for adult life, but unless schools are closely and constantly monitored, how will he ensure that all children are being well served? If a teacher oversteps the mark, unless a pupil reports them, no one will know. Teenagers won't be able to judge the quality of the information they get, they may not know they are being sold short until they fall pregnant or get an STI - and may not recognise that they have one until they've passed it on.

And let's not forget that what are often described as 'Christian children' or 'Muslim children' (etc) are more realistically described as the children of Christian (etc) parents who have chosen what school to send them to. On the other hand, many (mostly middle class) parents send their children to faith schools thinking they will get a better education there. They may have liberal values and be keen on full sex education but the children won't be getting it. It's unlikely that many children will feel comfortable discussing sex ed with parents, who may therefore not find out what is being taught them. All privileges have losers and, in allowing religious schools this leeway, it can only be the children who lose out.

Finally, even in non-religious schools, the maximum age for parents to keep children out of sex ed classes has been dropped from 19 to 15. But by that age, many teens are already experimenting. The Bill is a step in the right direction but falls far short of making sure that all young people are fully equipped to understand and enjoy their sexuality.

Mark Steel has commented on the story here.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

God Squad

Evening all. Constable George Dixon with you again.

Last month I told you about the Home Office giving the Christian Police Association £10,000 to fight crime with the power of prayer.

This month, there's more on prayer and policework. Inspector Roger Bartlett of Devon and Cornwall police has said that he is 'convinced' faith has a positive effect on policing. And he has proof. Let's take a look at that while I have my tea break.

Bartlett said he has seen "many direct answers to prayer in the workplace" from its positive impact on potentially violent incidents to reducing road deaths.

"I have seen a number of specific answers to (...) prayers – like the unprecedented Halloween night in the town when the police did not have to attend a single incident of disorder, or the prolific serial dwelling burglar who, after a significant series of offences, was apprehended in very unusual circumstances within three days of that group praying that he would trip up and be caught."

I'm just a humble bobby on the beat but even I know that just because one thing happens and then another thing, there is no necessary link between them. Only this morning, Mrs Dixon gave me a peck on the cheek as I was leaving the house and and said she hoped I had a good day on the beat (bless her). Later on, I was able to direct a woman who'd lost her way to the Post Office. Now, I could say that these two events were connected, cause and effect. Mrs Dixon's good wishes helped me do my job. But the boys at the station would give me a very queer look if I did. And quite right too.

It's not unknown for police to catch criminals and three days is quite a long time. Is there some sort of statute of limitations for prayers? What if the burglar had been caught after two weeks?

Inspector Bartlett has more of this 'evidence': "In 2007, I asked the [prayer] group to pray for the local detection rate, particularly in the Barnstaple sector, which was at about 26 per cent of total crime and one of the poorest in the force area and meant that justice, in too many cases, was not being done.

"Every quarter since that time, there has been an increase in that figure, despite reductions in the overall crime rate to the point that Barnstaple currently has a detection rate of just over 40 per cent of total crime, which is one of the highest in the country".

My son in law, Detective Andy Crawford, is a bright lad. He tells me there is a thing called reversion to norm. It's like having a lucky streak that runs out. Sooner or later, a run of wins becomes a run of loses or the other way round. He says that low detection rates could get better because of this too. Who knows? The thing is, there's no need to jump to the conclusion that prayer did it when there could be a perfectly ordinary, non-supernatural explanation. Andy says that's called Occam's Razor - go for the simplest explanation as it's most likely to be the right one.

It also occurred to me that if the overall crime rate is falling then the police are likely to clear up a bigger percentage of crimes anyway as there are fewer to solve. If there are 100 crimes and they solve 10, that's a 10% success rate. If there are 50 crimes and they still solve ten, that's a 20% success rate. An increase of 100%! But Inspector Bartlett is having none of that, even though he does give a nod to the boys in blue.

"Of course, that is down to some fantastic local policing, but the prayers I hear from Christians are for officers to be good at their job and implement practices that will lead to offenders being brought to account and victims seeing justice done. Clearly, many who do not have the faith I have would say that this is just coincidence, but the increase in that figure is so marked that it is indeed 'some coincidence'."

They might say it was just coincidence or they might say there were perfectly ordinary explanations. But not for Bartlett: "From my experience, the more I pray, the more 'coincidences' I seem to see."

The other day Mrs Dixon mentioned that our neighbourhood was being over-run with dogs lately. She doesn't like dogs. I decided to do what the boffins in forensics call an experiment. Every day for a whole week, I looked out for dogs while on the beat around Dock Green. And do you know, I spotted twenty three of them. The week before, I didn't see any. Or at least I don't remember seeing any. But then, I wasn't looking for them. It seems to me that the more you look for something, the more you see it and the more significant it becomes. Especially if you've decided in advance what your conclusion will be. I should say that there was a local dog show on the Green on Saturday. I also saw twenty seven cats, but I ignored them.

Inspector Bartlett doesn't stop there. He goes on that "probably the most significant answer to prayer" he experienced related to a fall in the number of serious road accidents in North Devon. He explained: "I presented to the [prayer] group a significant rise in northern Devon of the number of casualties killed or seriously injured on the roads and asked them to pray for this number to come down."

After the request, incidents fell from 97 in 2007-8 to 32 in 2008-9. "Not only was this a 67 per cent reduction on the previous year, and a far greater fall than any other area of the force, it was also more than 50 per cent lower than the next lowest annual figure locally (66). On this occasion, I am not sure we can make the same link between this reduction and 'good police work' as the figure is well beyond the control of even the best traffic officers that I know."

He's saying that the reduction in RTAs could not possibly have been down to the police, or any other earthly factor. It has to be the power of prayer. That's quite a claim. Detective Andy says he'd like to see a list of all the crimes and accidents logged in the area, a list of the ones prayed for and those that weren't, and the clear-up rates for both. And a list of crimes, accidents and arrests in another area where no one was praying, over a couple of years, to see if they had ups and downs too. Remarkable claims require remarkable evidence, he says.

On the Devon and Cornwall Christian Police website, Bartlett says that 'As a Police officer I am absolutely convinced, that the evidence for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is overwhelming'. He can believe what he likes but 'as a police officer' evidence has a bit of a different meaning to the way he's using it. It does to me, anyway.

This doesn't seem to me like a copper encouraging good community relations. It seems like one bobby who needs reminding that police work is about solid, testable evidence that will stand up in court. There doesn't seem much point in us wearing out our shoe leather and spending all that money on new-fangled things like DNA testing when a quick prayer can do the job. But what do I know? Perhaps Andy can explain it to me.

Tea break's over. Back to the beat.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Nostra Culpa

The Guardian reports that: 'The government will next week issue a formal apology to the tens of thousands of British children who were sent to Australia and other commonwealth countries with the promise of a better life but who often ended up neglected, abused or forgotten.'

This is the latest in a long line of governments apologising for something they did not do and follows the Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd doing the same.

Apologising on behalf of someone else is an odd thing to do. The current government is not responsible for the actions of its predecessors in the same way that people alive today are not responsible for slavery, the persecution of Catholics by Elizabeth 1, the treatment of Alan Turing or denying women the vote.

An apology implies responsibility at some level and you can't be responsible for something that you had no control over. Being born a particular nationality or into a certain social group is not something anyone has any say in. Many institutions that have substantial history have at some time been engaged in activities that current members would not now endorse.

Descendants of mistreated people or groups often demand apologies or even financial reparation. The people who perpetrated the acts cannot be punished, so the living must make amends.

Groups who continue to suffer disadvantage have a case for demanding better treatment in the present but only in the same way that any disadvantaged group does. Holding living individuals or institutions responsible looks too much like wanting penitence from someone and whoever is at hand will do. There is an element of the 'sins of the fathers' at work.

The past cannot and should not be written off. But recognising that actions of our ancestors or predecessors must not be repeated and taking steps to ensure that they are not is very different from apologising or paying for them.

Last month Brown apologised for thalidomide. Campaigners won £28 million compensation from the UK manufacturers and the government has announced a £20 million support package for the survivors. But what did the apology achieve?

"The apology is just as important as the financial settlement," said Guy Tweedy, one of the thalidomiders leading the campaign for a better deal.

"It is important not only to thalidomiders but also to parents of thalidomiders and the parents who lost thalidomiders. It should have happened 45 years ago. No minister has ever really stepped up to the plate and said the right thing."

Would the apology have been as acceptable without the practical action? There seems to be confusion between apologising and acknowledging that wrong was done in the past that has consequences in the present.

Dealing with the consequences of someone else's actions is not the same as making amends. It is an independent act inspired by your own moral sense or by current legislation. It does not imply guilt either directly or by association and therefore the need to apologise.

Rather than scapegoat entire institutions, it would be more productive to educate people so they are aware of what happened in the past and are better able to avoid it happening again. And to legislate to make sure it doesn't.

Of course, it's much easier to apologise for something you didn't do (especially for public figures and institutions). The sackcloth and ashes act also demonstrates your sensitivity and moral superiority. There may sometimes be political capital in parading your penitence especially if the aggrieved are voters and belong to a large pressure group. In addition, at present it would be hard not to apologise without appearing callous, arrogant or unjust while the apology is misunderstood and misused.

My great grand-father was a bigamist and did time for it. Should I apologise to anyone who suffered from his crime? Should I try to find out whether there are any living descendants of the child he had with his first (legitimate) wife and apologise? I certainly benefited from it; if he hadn't done it, I wouldn't exist.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Petition for Libel Law Reform

A message from Simon Singh:

As you know, England’s chilling libel laws need to be reformed. One way to help achieve this is for 100,000 people to sign the petition for libel reform before the political parties write their manifestos for the election. We have 17,000 signatures, but we really need 100,000, and we need your help to get there.

My idea is simple: if everyone who has already signed up persuades just one more person each week to sign the petition then we will reach our goal within a month!

One person per week is all we need, but please spread the word as much as you can. In fact, if you persuade 10 people to sign up then email me ( and I promise to thank you by printing your name in my next book … which I will start writing as soon as I have put my own libel case behind me. I cannot say when this will be, but it is a very real promise. My only caveat is that I will limit this to the first thousand people who recruit ten supporters.

When persuading your friends remember to tell them:

(a) English libel laws have been condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee.

(b) These laws gag scientists, bloggers and journalists who want to discuss matters of genuine public interest (and public health!).

(c) Our laws give rise to libel tourism, whereby the rich and the powerful (Saudi billionaires, Russian oligarchs and overseas corporations) come to London to sue writers because English libel laws are so hostile to responsible journalism. (In fact, it is exactly because English libel laws have this global impact that we welcome signatories to the petition from around the world.)

(d) Vested interests can use their resources to bully and intimidate those who seek to question them. The cost of a libel trial in England is 100 times more expensive than the European average and typically runs to over £1 million.

(e) Three separate ongoing libel cases involve myself and two medical researchers raising concerns about three medical treatments. We face losing £1 million each. In future, why would anyone else raise similar concerns? If these health matters are not reported, then the public is put at risk.

My experience has been sobering. I’ve had to spend £100,000 to defend my writing and have put my life on hold for almost two years. However, the prospect of reforming our libel laws keeps me cheerful.

Thanks so much for your support. We’ve only got one shot at this – so I hope you can persuade 1 (or maybe 10) friends, family and colleagues to sign.


Thursday, 4 February 2010

Natural Law

The Pope has said that UK equality law is against natural law.

In his speech confirming his visit here in September, he said: "Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society.

"Yet (...) the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs.

"In some respects, it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed."

The parts of equality law that the Pope objects to are those that accord the same rights to gay people as to everyone else, particularly in employment. The Church (both Catholic and Protestant, by the way) wants the right not to employ gay people in certain areas. Catholic adoption agencies also want the right to turn down gay couples, preferring to leave children in care rather than let them be adopted by people whose sexuality they find unacceptable. Some have threatened to close down if they cannot have this right.

The Pope is saying that according equal rights to homosexuals and denying the Church the right to discriminate against them violates natural law. Under 'the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded' , some are more equal than others.

The term 'natural law' or lex naturalis has varied meanings. Philosophers have defined it in different ways since the Ancient Greeks. For Catholics, it has a specific meaning, as defined in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

The natural law is the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which he has endowed us. This law we learn not through the unaided operation of reason, but through the light of supernatural revelation.

The natural law consists of one supreme and universal principal, from which are derived all our natural moral obligations and duties.

The natural law is universal, that is to say, it applied to the entire human race, and is in itself the same for all.

Natural law is something that God has instilled in us all, whether we believe in him or not. There is an objective, unchanging morality that exists independently of humanity, outside of time. Accepting homosexuality as equal to heterosexuality is against it.

The godless have stopped up their ears against the truth and are hell-bent (literally) on defying natural law. But deep down, they must know that the Pope is right because of this seed of lex naturalis planted in us all by God.

Where this leaves people whose religions have their own inherent laws that they believe come from their god(s) is not clear. It would be interesting to know what a Muslim or Sikh, for example, thinks about their internal moral compass coming from the Christian God.

Many Catholics do not share the Pope's hardline views on homosexuality, contraception and other matters. Perhaps part of the reason for his visit is to whip them into shape.

Cherie Blair aka Judge Cherie Booth, a Catholic, has also been talking about religion and morality. She suspended the sentence of a man who broke another man's jaw after an argument in a bank queue. Her reason was that he was a religious person. She said: 'You are a religious man and know this is not acceptable behaviour'.

She appears to be saying that religious people have an inherent, natural, sense of right and wrong purely by virtue of being religious. As the defendant was a Muslim, the particular religion appears irrelevant.

The defendant may be a) religious and b) remorseful but the two facts should not be conflated as they have apparently been here. As a judge and the wife of an ex PM, Booth should know that choice of words matters. Saying something like 'you are a religious man and...' represents all religious people as a homogenous group, all possessed of the same characteristics. By extension, the non-religious as a group cannot be expected to have this sense. If that is not what she intended, then she should have made her position clearer. Questions will inevitably be asked about how she would have sentenced a non-religious person.
It's not just about justice being done, but about it being seen to be done.

It could be argued that a religious person who knows right from wrong has less excuse for bad behaviour than someone who is not religious.

The Pope may wish to have a word with Booth while he is here to clear up the fact that morality comes not from any old religion but from Christianity alone.

What both Booth's view and the Pope's have in common is the assumption that morality, a sense of right and wrong, is founded in religion and has a supernatural, extra-human, source. Both views of course ignore scientific findings that morals and rules of social behaviour are evolved pro-social traits that exist in all social animals to a certain degree and are at their most complex and codified in humans.

The Pope and other religious spokespeople are also opposing equality law because they think it is a threat to their freedom of speech. By which they mean their right to express their prejudices along with their beliefs. Religious hard-liners are often quick to play the victim, claiming their own rights are under threat, while trying to deny others the right to criticise them or, in some cases, even to question their beliefs. Freedom of speech is not the issue here. It is only when words constitute harassment or incitement to violence that the law steps in.

The Pope said in the same speech that "Fidelity to the gospel in no way restricts the freedom of others - on the contrary, it serves their freedom by offering them the truth".

I would be much obliged if someone would explain the logic of this to me.
UPDATE: 8 February
The NSS has been contacted about another apparent case of sentence reduction on religious grounds. Sukhvinder Singh Gill was intially sentenced to 33 months at Leicester Crown Court last year for making fake designer clothes. Last week his sentence was reduced to 12 months even though he had been in prison before. Judge Cook said: "Offending on this scale is serious. Legitimate businesses were cheated out of profits they deserved and an immediate custodial sentence was entirely justified". He added that Gill is "highly respected in the Leicester Sikh community" as one of the reasons for shortening the sentence.
The person who contacted the NSS commented that "He is not respected in the Sikh community - I am from the same community and this story dilutes the stature of Sikhism and the blatant favouritism and special dispensation given by the Appeal Judiciary smacks of religious bias."

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The End of Civilization As We Know It: 2

In August last year I wrote about how the Internet, Facebook and Twitter are eating our brains and destroying the very fabric of society - according to Archbishop Vincent Nichols and Baroness Susan Greenfield.

Now there's a story all over the media about links between internet use and depression. According to the headlines
'Internet use linked to depression' , Study links excessive internet use to depression and Link between surfing web and depression, study claims to cite just a few. And the Mirror's Does being inter the net bring you down loads? (Classy).

According to the Independent, there is 'striking' evidence and according to the Telegraph, 'British scientists found that the longer people spent online, the less likely they were to be happy'. (The Telegraph would make a point of saying they were British).

The study, reported in Psychopathology, was carried out at Leeds University and sampled 1319 people. Of these, 1.2% were internet addicts. I make that 15.8 people but the report says that 18 of them were classed as addicts who spent 'proportionately' more time on sex, gambling and online community websites. They had a depression score five times higher than the non-addicted group according to questionnaires they filled in.

The reporting in the media is very muddled; one minute articles are foretelling doom and the next admitting that the Leeds team said 'what we don't know is which comes first - are depressed people drawn to the internet or does the internet cause depression?' The study concludes that more research is needed to look at the relationship between addiction and depression. So it's not saying very much at all - but that never got in the way of a good headline.


Dr Vaughan Bell of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London has dealt with stories about the alleged dangers of the internet before and produced an excellent PPP about them called Don't Touch That Dial. He commented on this story that by definition internet addicts are emotionally depressed so the conclusions are 'not a big surprise' and that 'there is no good evidence that the problem is the internet itself'.

Or did he?

On his site, Mindhacks, Bell says that the diagnostic questionnaires used to test for depression are 'not particularly reliable'. He then discusses a meta-analysis of research into internet use and mood: 'This meta-analysis found that there was a statistically reliable link between internet use and depression, but one so small as to be insignificant. In fact, it found that internet was responsible for between 0.02% and 0.03% of total changes in mood'.

He also says that 'Interestingly, I am quoted in some of the news stories about the study. Actually, I was contacted by a BBC journalist and some other stories have seemingly just nicked the quotes.'

The Telegraph goes a step further and dredges up the story about teen suicides in Bridgend in 2008 where social networking sites were blamed. As I wrote in August: 'A quick survey of sites on teenage suicide make no mention of social networking as a cause - in fact, poor social networking is a factor.'

The Mirror tags this onto the end of the story for no apparent reason: 'Brainy children are more likely to suffer manic depression, a joint study in London and Sweden found'.

Both these extras serve to reinforce the idea that there is Something Bad going on, despite the flimsiness of the story.

It's not surprising the media thought there was a story here. If, like the lead author Dr Catriona Morrison, you use terms like 'the darker side' of the Internet, then don't be surprised if headlines are misleading and articles muddled.

Morrison added that 'This study reinforces the public speculation that over-engaging in websites that serve to replace normal social function might be linked to psychological disorders like depression and addiction'.

Science and speculation are generally not good friends. Reinforcing public speculation can be downright irresponsible. Saying something like 'might be linked to' is pretty much sure to be translated into misleading headlines.

So this is a non-story on two counts. Firstly, the research does not show any causal link between internet use and depression despite the best efforts of the media. Secondly, the research was not very good anyway.