Category Archives: Just Add Logic; Won’t Hold Water

Debunking Dickson’s “Top 10 tips for atheists this Easter”

My original, and much wordier, title for this piece was going to be “Like a snowman using a blowtorch to build an igloo, Christians really shouldn’t  try to use reason to argue their case”, for in this latest offering published on ABC’s The Drum website, Dr. John Dickson, the founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity, pens his efforts to undermine many of the arguments Atheists give in arguments against religious belief. Sadly, like the aforementioned snowman, Dickson’s efforts to dismantle arguments against faith depend heavily on the use of flawed arguments and logical fallacies that leave us with a rather sad puddle where one expects Dickson had hoped to build a grand monument.

Here we go…

First of all, Dickson sets a sarcastic, snarky tone to his piece by suggesting that his writings are actually intended to help Ahteists select better arguments when arguing against faith, and be better equipped to “make a dent in Faith.” It reads like the script from teen-bitch-flicks like Mean Girls or Jawbreaker, where the super popular bitch pretends to be nice to the new kid only to deliver insults masked as sugary sweet advice. Perhaps Dickson just isn’t very aware of pop culture to realise what a tired trope this is, or how easily identifiable it is as the openings of a disingenuous argument. Personally, I take it as permission to assume the witness is hostile, your honour (Dickson, in case you’re reading, that’s a reference to primarily U.S. courtroom dramas that have been popular throughout the 20th and 21st centuries – I don’t actually think we’re in a trial 😉

The first 8 of Dickson’s ten tips suggest ‘helpful’ reasons why Atheists (Apparently a homogenous group with a single approach to discussing religion) should abandon some of their common argument against religion. The sarcastic, somewhat bitchy-teenage-girl tone of Dickson’s introduction continues, especially as he takes cheap shots at Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Kraus in multiple places, but overall, his reasons for abandoning key arguments are flawed and suggest that this missive is intended more for the already-faithful than as a genuine olive branch for Atheists.

Dickson’s first tip is for Atheists to Dip into Christianity’s intellectual tradition. At first, he doesn’t actually try to argue anything here, and apart from one snarky comment directed at Atheists, seems to be simply suggesting that Atheists should know more about religious history when trying to argue against it. But, if you look closely, what he has done is engaged in the Argument from Authority logical fallacy, when he says of Christian philosophers and thinkers throughout history that ” They’ve faced textual, historical, and philosophical scrutiny in almost every era, and they have left a sophisticated literary trail of reasons for the Faith.” Not only is Dickson deferring his need for evidence to the thinkers of the past, he’s even deferring his need to make an argument to those long-dead philosophers!

What Dickson, and all those who depend on the Argument from Authority fail to realise is that just because something has been studied over a long time, doesn’t make it any more real or valid than when it was first made up! There are universities that still include studies of Homeopathy in their health care degrees, but that doesn’t make Homeopathy any more valid as a health treatment. There are universities that include made up languages like Klingon and Tolkein’s Elvish as subjects of study, but that doesn’t suddenly imbue those fabricated tongues with their absent history and culture. They’re still made up, despite thousands of hours of study. See the connection to Religion?

Tip 2 addresses the use of the word Faith, and the way Christian’s use the word. Dickson claims that most Atheists use the word faith to mean ‘believing in something without reason’ (a definition which is included in any dictionary you care to look at) and suggests that what Christian’s really refer to when they use the word ‘faith’ is their “personal trust in the God whose existence one accepts on other grounds.” As someone who delights in picking apart fallacious arguments, this sentence gave me a thrill, such is its subtle combination of the Straw Man fallacy, and attempted misdirection to a weak Argument from Authority fallacy. The Straw Man lies in directing the reader’s attention away from the issue of evidence to the meaning of the word faith, while the weak Argument from Authority (or perhaps Appeal to Popularity) comes by dismissively referring to ‘other reasons’ for holding religious beliefs.

Equivocating over the meaning of words is a great Straw Man argument, and rather than addressing the issue at hand the intellectually dishonest arguer falls to redirecting the conversation to the meaning of words. Remember Bill Clinton on trial saying “That depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is?”. That’s what Dickson is doing. How about we forget the meaning of the word faith and get straight to the underlying issue of ‘absence of proof’?

But he does address, or rather dismiss, the need for proof by saying that Christians have faith in a God that they know exists for ‘other reasons’, without mentioning what those reasons are. True, it’s not entirely relevant to the meaning of the word ‘faith’ but it is a subtle misdirection that only serves to reinforce the original straw man argument. No evidence is given, just suggested reasons why one should not go looking for evidence and instead be confident that their use of the word ‘faith’ does not mean ‘belief without reason’, because we have those reasons. Those ‘other’ reasons.

Tip number 3 is where Dickson’s personal grudges really start to show and overshadow any effort he might make at a reasonable argument. In Tip 3 he asks Atheists to consider the status of 6-Day Creationism and accuses Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss of assuming literal 6-Day Creationism as the default Christian position, before going on to make the argument that Australia’s most productive theological college teaches that Genesis is not meant to be taken literally (another Argument from Authority fallacy). What Dickson is doing here is either one of two things. Either he is deliberately misrepresenting the truth, a.k.a. lying, or he is not as well versed in the writings and public speaking of Dawkins and Krauss, and is assuming that his own limited knowledge is enough to form a solid opinion (a rough approximation of the Argument from Ignorance fallacy). In either case, Dickson is ignoring the fact that when Dawkins and Krauss talk about irrational Christina belief, they are addressing the kind of hard-right bible-literalism that is found in various places in the United States of America. Dawkins especially recognises that there are some very reasonable Christian scholars and the tone of his rhetoric changes significantly depending on where, and to whom, he is speaking. If you would like one such example of this, here he is on the UK Christian radio program Unbelievable.

Dickson does not, however, go all the way of actually stating that all Atheists hold this mistaken belief about Christians and creationism, because to make such a statement would be absurd, just as it would be absurd to claim that there are absolutely no Christians who DO believe in literal 6=day creationism. This whole part of the article seems primarily aimed at undermining Dawkin’s and Krauss, but fails horribly due to Dickson’s ignorance, whether willing or otherwise.

Tip 4. *sigh* This is basically the same as Tip 3, but instead of focussing on Creationism, Dickson attempts to attack the God of the Gaps argument. For those unfamiliar, the God of the Gaps argument is a kind of Argument from Ignorance, in which, basically, religious believers use gaps in scientific knowledge as justification for sustaining belief in a god, and Dickson claims that no theologian actually uses this argument. As with tip 3, Dickson heavily depends on an attack against Lawrence Krauss as the support for this point, but once again commits the sin of several logical fallacies in doing so.

The first fallacy is in the title of Tip 4, which read “Repeat after me: no theologian claims a god-of-the-gaps”. Dickson is engaging the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy here, with the implied claim being that any Christian who DOES use a god-of-the-gaps argument must not be an actual theologian, and therefore their opinions and arguments are invalid. What Dickson fails (I would say deliberately refuses) to acknowledge is that the vast majority of religious believers in the world are not educated or trained to the point of earning the title ‘theologian’, and so by default, Dickson is actively dismissing the opinions and beliefs of the majority of religious believers; the same religious believers that Krauss is addressing in a national radio address. Again, Dickson is, either willingly or not, arguing from a position of his own ignorance.

The second logical fallacy Dickson commits here is a False Analogy in the form of another barb aimed at Krauss. Dickson writes: “Kraus sounds like a clever mechanic who imagines that just because he can explain how a car works he has done away with the Manufacturer”. Note how he capitalises Manufacturer, as a synonym for God? Anyway, why is this a false analogy? Because Dickson is trying to equate the mechanisms that resulted in existence of all known reality to the manufacture of a mundane, human-generate object. If I am a clever mechanic who knows how a car works, then I can make a car and become a manufacturer in my own right, and if I cannot manufacture a car, I am able to go and visit the place where the manufacturer exists and witness the process of the car being made. Even someone utterly ignorant of the mechanisms of car manufacture can go and watch a car being made. This is not true of the universe. Even the most knowledgeable physicist who has devoted a lifetime to the study of how the universe came to be cannot call God’s workshop and ask for a visit to the factory in order to better understand the process and hopefully make universes of one’s own. Dickson is using his poor analogy to suggest that because Car Manufacturer’s exist, God must exist. Well, I’ll get a car manufacturer on the phone, and when Dickson has a god on the other end of his line, we’ll organise a conference call and compare notes.

Tip 5. When reading this tip, I do not wonder if Dickson had intended this article to be a piece of comedy. It’s a short paragraph, so I’m going to reproduce it here in its entirety:

I wish I had a dollar for every time an atheist insisted that I am an atheist with respect to Thor, Zeus, Krishna, and so on, and that atheists just go ‘one god more’. As every trained philosopher knows, Christians are not absolute atheists with regard to other gods. They happily affirm the shared theistic logic that there must be a powerful Mind behind a rational universe. The disagreements concern how the deity has revealed itself in the world. Atheism is not just an extension of monotheism any more than celibacy is an extension of monogamy.

Just read that over a couple of times.

Then ask these question: Is Dickson saying that he, or at least ‘serious philosophers’, who believe in the Christian God, also believe in the existence of Thor? Ares? Susanno-O? Kali? Or any of the numerous other gods recorded in human history? Note that Dickson is not saying that they believe they are all different representations, or different manifestations, of the same God, but that “Christians are not absolute atheists with regard to other gods.” I suspect Dickson was attempting to make a dismissive comment here without considering the full implications, but in doing so he did invoke two more specific logical fallacies.

First, he once again dismisses the majority of religious believers with the No True Scotsman fallacy by stating that ‘serious philosophers know’, which means that if you are a religious believer who holds to the idea that the Christian god exists but Thor is a figure of fictional Norse mythology, then according to Dickson, you’re not a serious philosopher and your ideas are less worthy of consideration. You’d better get yourself a silver amulet depicting Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, in case the thunder god comes rampaging through your town any time soon. Just in case.

The second fallacy is one of my personal favourites, that of Begging the Question, in which a statement or question is posed which includes within it another contentious claim that is assumed to be true. In this case, Dickson says “They happily affirm the shared theistic logic that there must be a powerful Mind behind a rational universe”, which begs the question that the universe is, indeed, rational. Dickson describes the universe as rational, and says it in such a way that assumes it to be true, but doesn’t define this term nor offer an explanation of how he knows the universe is rational. If the universe were irrational, then what would that say of the mind that created it? Or the existence of such a mind at all? These questions are why the simple use of a word like ‘rational’ in describing the universe cannot be allowed to slip by unchallenged, even in such a comedic passage that suggests an acceptance of every known god in human history.

Tip 6. Dickson once again builds us a Straw man argument on the subject of Christianity ‘poisoning’ society. Rather than address the nuances and details of the argument that religion is a poison, Dickson focuses instead on the issue of how much charity work is conducted by religious people and religious institutions. He totally avoids the actual argument of what people may mean when they say religion is poisonous in the hope that citing the number of religious charities in Australia will somehow resolve the issue. What Dickson says about religious charity work is quite acceptable. Yes, religious people and religious institutions do good work. But that doesn’t address the very issue that Dickson himself raised. The Straw Man has been identified, burnt and now ignored. The argument that religion poisons everything is not a question of whether or not religious people do good or bad things, and Dickson’s efforts to reduce the topic down to a question of charitable man hours is just  disingenuous. Or ignorant.

Tip 7. The title of this section is “Concede that Jesus lived, and then argue about the details.” This point is filled with Arguments from Authority, as Dickson refers vaguely to ‘secular universities’ that teach of the existence of Jesus, and once again demonstrates a Begging the Question fallacy by referring to the specific facts of Jesus’ existence as an ‘academic baseline’. This section could also be seen to invoke the fallacy of ‘Special Pleading’ as Dickson does not actually offer (or even refer to) a specific study proving the existence of Jesus and instead pleads with the reader to just ‘concede’ the truth of Jesus’ existence. Umm… *cough* no. But I promise not to make absolutist statements that he didn’t exist either, because I simply don’t know.

Tip 8. This is really nothing more than a petty jab at atheists. Dickson says that people who claim their religious beliefs are based solely on ‘evidence’ appear ‘one-dimensional and lacking in self-awareness’, and that people need to incorporate an emotional and ethical basis for their arguments to be more persuasive. He even suggests that this is why churches attract more members than a sceptics club. In other words, Dickson is suggesting that people arguing against irrational, indoctrinated belief in defiance of evidence should invoke the very irrational indoctrination methods that allow people to ignore reason and evidence. Dickson is suggesting that ‘personal relevance and credibility’ are more important than, you know, real. What’s the logical fallacy here? Shifting the Goal Posts. Dickson doesn’t want to argue his case on the grounds of facts or reason, so he’d rather shift the goal posts to include ethical and emotional factors as well as facts. Sadly, no matter how good a person feels about religion, that doesn’t make it any more or less true.

After these first 8 tips, Dickson then offers two ‘helpful’ tips in the form of two lines of argument to which Dickson claims Christian belief is ‘vulnerable’. Those two tips are to ask Christians about Old Testament Violence (tip 9), and about hell and judgement (tip 10). In the subsequent paragraphs Dickson outlines how Christian faith might be vulnerable to these arguments, as well as reasons why he personally believes Christian faith will withstand such lines of argument (so he’s offering strategies that he believes will not work? That’s not really very helpful, is it?).

In my estimation, Dickson is doing something akin to ‘poisoning the well’, or inserting ideas intended to undermine future arguments before they can even be raised. How so? Well both of Dickson’s proposed arguments require discussion to take place within a framework that already assumes the existence of God and the truth of religious doctrine! If an atheist doesn’t believe that God exists, or has ever existed, then what is the point of arguing about violence in the Old Testament? I’d much rather explore why you choose to believe that the old-testament is a true and factual account of events. Likewise, discussing hell and judgement presumes the existence of hell and the existence of a God to make judgements of people. And until there is sufficient evidence to justify belief in a God or the hell it created, then why worry about the details?

So, in the end, despite his stated (and somewhat bitchy) intention to show why athesists should abandon specific arguments against religious belief, he has failed to actually articulate a single reasoned argument that holds up under scrutiny. He has, however, managed to distance himself from the majority of religious believers by dismissing them as not ‘serious philosophers’ or ‘serious theists’ while simultaneously making snide remarks about prominent public figures who he disagrees with and, as a result, comes across as a bit of a dick.

Well done Dickson, well done.

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Arguments in support of Homeoppathy

It has been some small while since I, your good Capitan, have taken you on a journey through the realms of logical fallacies and poorly constructed arguments. I’ve been off journeying in an absurd land populated by tramps and pompous industrialists, but even their repetitive & meaningless conversation could not drown out the call to adventure offered by the release of the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) draft Information Paper: Evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for treating health conditions, whose findings that “that the assessment of the evidence from research in humans does not show that homeopathy is effective for treating the range of health conditions considered” coincided perfectly with World Homeopathy Awareness Week, and prompted the expected response in the form of a press release from the Australian Homeopathy Association.

The press release is a treasure trove of poor arguments to explore, but first, a quick summary of the document it was responding to.

The NHMRC report was a systematic review of evidence into efficacy of Homeopathy that evaluated the methodology and validity of each study so reviewed before considering the outcomes of said review, and the document outlines the criteria a study must meet to be considered reliable, as well as the standards that must be met for a treatment to be considered effective. It actually provides a very good summary of the principles that determine an effective blinded trial, and the benchmarks that a treatment must meet to be considered to have an effect. If you want to pause now before embarking on our journey in order to go and read the NHMRC report, go ahead… I’ll wait…

All done? Ready to go? Good.

So then now let us set sail into the blue deep of logical fallacies and poorly structured argument as we navigate our way through the response penned to this report by the Australian Homeopathic Association. One small reminder before we get our brains wet: a properly structured argument generally requires a premise (the point being made), evidence in support of the argument (whether empirical, anecdotal, etc) and a conclusion to reinforce the premise. In an extended argument like an essay, it has an overarching argument, known as a thesis, which is supported by a series of premises, each of which need to be proven in turn in order to validate the thesis. With that in mind, lets look at the offering given up by the AHA.

It begins with two brief paragraphs that refer to the number of people in Australia, Europe and India that have used Homeopathy. These introductory passages assume the reader has some knowledge of homeopathy, and offers no explanation of what the practice actually involves, and instead seems to be trying to establishing a positive image of homeopathy based on the number of people who engage in it. When coupled with an actual claim of efficacy (which this opening does not offer) such an approach would be an example of the “appeal to popularity” fallacy, hoping people will accept a things popularity as a substitute for the need of actual evidence. In this case, the introduction makes no specific claim other than the number of people using Homeopathy, and therefore does not actually add anything to the discussion. It is also unclear what is meant to be the argument, if any, offered up by this opening. Is the writer trying to prove that lots of people use homeopathy? Okay, if we accept that, then what? It doesn’t address the question of Homeopathy’s efficacy, does it?

It then gives a description of the NHMRC’s report which, in all fairness, is a fairly accurate description, but doesn’t make any further claims. It does, however, use the phrase “This review has focussed exclusively on recent systematic trials” – the use of the word ‘exclusively’ will become important later on.

The document then offers a definition of homeopathy as a ‘holistic system of medicine’ that is ‘not ideally suited to systematic reviews which focus on isolated disease conditions without considering the overall health of the individual’. Unless I’ve forgotten how to read, this seems to be saying that scientific methodologies that focus on the efficacy of homeopathy at curing diseases are not appropriate as a way of evaluating the practice because it looks at a person’s health from a broader, ‘holistic’ perspective. Now this is an interesting case to make, but one that would be easily undermined if, for example, the Australian Homeopathic Association had made any claims that Homeopathy could actually treat specific conditions that could therefore be measured. If you go over to the AHA webpage about homeopathy you will notice that it does in fact offer quite a list of conditions that homeopathy is alleged to be able to treat, including:

Acute complaints – coughs, colds, earache, food poisoning, hangover, travel sickness etc.

Chronic complaints – skin conditions, hormone imbalances, depression, headaches, behavioural problems, digestive disturbances, asthma, arthritis etc.

First aid situations – bites, stings, hives, injuries, trauma, shock etc.

So the AHA seems to be at cross-purposes with itself at this point. On it’s website it claims that homeopathy can treat specific, measurable conditions, while in the press release it claims that it’s not appropriate to assess homeopathy by systematically reviewing it’s efficacy at treating specific conditions. The claim that homeopathy is a ‘holistic’ practice and that systematic reviews are not appropriate is an example of the logical fallacy of ‘special pleading’  – basically begging for the regular rules not to be applied to s specific situation. In this case, the AHA is pleading with the reader to excuse homeopathy from the regular rules applied to a scientific evaluation.

The press release then goes on to say…

The Australian Homoeopathic Association is disappointed that the NHMRC review focussed on only this one type of evidence and excluded other evidence types, which are more suited to the way homoeopathy is used in clinical practice. It should be noted here that the NHMRC working group did not include even one trained homoeopath even though the AHA suggested a number of qualified individuals who not only are homoeopathic practitioners but also have the relevant academic background.

They’re disappointed the NHMRC only used a scientific review process, as opposed to ‘more suited’ methods? Note that it does not suggest what other review methods it recommends, only that it rejects the scientific method as a process for reviewing the efficacy of Homeopathy. So what exactly are they trying to say? Not a whole lot. This is more ‘special pleading’, wishing to be allowed to exist outside the rules, as it were.

The comment about the working group not including a Homeopath is also a somewhat pointless statement. They’re not actually making a claim  that the lack of a Homeopath skewed results, simply identifying that there wasn’t a current practitioner involved. Like the paragraph above, it doesn’t seem to be actually stating anything of significance as it is not actually making a claim that requires substantiating. However, what I believe they are trying to do is build a Straw Man argument. Rather than actually address the reviews findings or its methodology in any way, they build up a false argument regarding the conduct of the review in the hope that the true-believers out there will latch onto that false argument instead, and use it in substitution for any actual evidence or argument against the review’s findings. More on that later…

The press release then goes on to refer to three occasions where studies of homeopathy has been proven effective: a review by the Swiss government, a 2005 German study, and a 6 year study at the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital. They further state that Homeopathy is on the UK’s NHS (publicly funded health service) and that GP’s in France and German offer Homeopathy as an alternative to pharmaceutical drugs.

Here we have a combination of the Argument from Authority and the Appeal to Popularity once again. The reference to countries that offer homeopathy as part of mainstream clinical practice do not actually support and specific argument and are clearly intended to make it seem as though the practice is accepted elsewhere, and so by extrapolation, why shouldn’t it be accepted in Australia?

The references to the study are Argument’s from Authority, hoping that the reader will accept the official sounding (or simply foreign) origins of the study as proof of their accuracy without questioning the accuracy of those studies themselves.

All of this, however, is offered without any actual argument being put forward. The press release HAS NOT REJECTED THE FINDINGS OF THE REVIEW! It has not put forward a counter argument and has instead attempted to attack peripheral issues such as the make up of the work-group or the methodology used in the review process, in the attempt to cloud the issue and distract from the primary finding of the review, which is that Homeopathy has no measurable effect as a health treatment.

The final paragraph is perhaps the most telling indicator that the AHA actually have no counter argument to offer, as it says that:

The Australian Homoeopathic Association recommend to the NHMRC that it take a more comprehensive approach to the analysis of homoeopathy’s efficacy and consider a large-scale economic evaluation of the benefits of a more integrated system and one which respects and advocates “patient choice” in healthcare provision – as is common across Europe where over 30 Million people use homoeopathic medicine.

It suggests a “More comprehensive” approach without identifying what that would actually mean or how it would be better than the systematic review already undertaken, and then they try to redirect the argument again by focusing on ‘economic benefits’ and the respect for ‘parent choice’, both of which are separate issues away from the question of ‘Does Homeopathy actually have a beneficial effect for patients suffering from health complaints?” (to which the answer is no, by the way). More misdirection, and a final failure to actually rebut the findings of the review itself.

So by the end of this process, what do we find? Appeals to Popularity, Arguments from Authority, Straw Man and disingenuous misdirection, all of which suggest, very strongly, that the AHA don’t actually have a strong argument to put forward about the efficacy of homeopathy. It is also worth noting that, at no point in this document has the AHA included a description of what Homeopathy actually is, or how it is supposed to work.

Now, I could go into an argument about homeopathy itself, and bring together a series of references that show how it is not even physically possible for homeopathy to work according to the principles that homeopaths themselves claim as the basis of the practice, but that would be to go outside of the frame of the presented argument and bring in third party information (of which there is an abundance!) and would be unfair to the homeopaths who, in this instance, are already licking their wounds and fighting back with weak cries the equivalent of yelling “Oh, Yeah!”.

So far, on the weight of evidence presented here, Homeopathy does not have a strong argument to stand on, and anyone who reads this press release and chooses to believe it represents a strong argument in favour of homeopathy is doing so sans evidence, and probably motivated by their own desire to continue believing in the powers of ‘magic water’.

That’s all for now, but in the spirit of people being motivated to hold on to irrational beliefs in the absence of appropriate evidence, I’ll wish you all a happy easter and look forward to our next adventure in critical thinking.

 

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Weasel Words and School Autonomy

Recently, Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced that $70 million dollars would be made available to support public schools in becoming Independent Public Schools.

The plan was immediately and resoundingly rejected by many secors of society, with NSW Education Minister outright refusing to agree to the policy, claiming that there was not enough research of evidence to suggest that it wa sa good model for education.

What I intend to focus on in this post, however, is not the lacking evidence base in support of Pyne’s proposition, nor the fact that Independent Public Schools are widely recognised as being primarily an attack on public education and an move in the conservative’s ongoing battle to destroy unionism in education, nor highlight that the currnt government’s anti-unionism ideology is so overbearing, that Prime Minister Abbott blatantly lied about the effect of Unionised workers when justifying why his government wouldn’t support long-standing Australian company SPC, who were asking for only around 1/3 of he money being put into this move to shake up public education in Australia.

No, what I’ll be looking at is the government’s own language used to explain and justify the policy, and demonstrate how the use of language results in very little actually being communicated or committed to (admitted?) to by the government. They offer a single page of explanation for the policy on their studentsfirst.org.au website, which can be found here.

It begins:

Both internationally and in Australia, evidence emphasises the advantages of school autonomy as part of a comprehensive strategy for school improvement

Right off the bat, familiar weasel words appear in the use of the phrase “As part of a”. Remember all those childhood cereal commercials that tried to tell you that several hundred calories of sugar-coated flakes were “part of a complete breakfast”? It’s a phrase that means “The thing we’re selling may or may not be a positive part of the complete whole, and we’re trying to mask it’s deleterious effects behind a more holistic image in the hope of appearing to take a comprehensive view of the subject while ultimately just trying to sell you large amount of unhealthy processed sugar”.

The page continues:

In Australia, schools in all states and territories have been moving towards more autonomous and independent models to improve education outcomes.

While this sentence seems innocuous enough, the use of the simple conjunction ‘to’ between the two clauses make for a minefield of potential meaning. The first clause, that school sin Australia have become increasingly autonomous, is a factual claim that is easily verifiable, however to use ‘to’ to connect that fact to the motivation of improving school outcomes is to make a claim that requires significant further evidence before it can be taken as true. In fact, the primary counter-claim against Independent Public Schools is that it is not a policy aimed at improving educational standards, but a cost-cutting measure masked by educational concerns. That counter claim is backed up by the general failure of any nation’s implementation of models like IPS to yield significant improvements in academic results that can be directly attributed to the model. Therefore, for that statement form the government to be taken as true, further evidence is required.  In terms of argument, it falls under the heading of “that which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”, and therefore offers no value to the discussion.

This is followed by:

The Australian Government also recognises that giving schools and school leaders greater autonomy can help improve student results.

Everything said about the previous sentence applies here. No evidence, no reason, just words. Meaningless words.

Then:

Great schools have leaders and teachers who have the independence to make the decisions and develop the courses that best meets the needs of their students.

Here we see what is effectively a non-sequitur, in that it does not logically follow from the previous statements. This statement actually has nothing to do with the previous or following statements. Even if we accept this statement to be entirely true (and this webpage offers no evidence in order for us to do so) you will notice that the statement itself contains the implied assumptions that schools currently don’t have the capacity to develop great courses (they do!). This is the informal logical fallacy of begging the question. If the argument is to be made that schools currently do not have that capacity and that becoming independent with grant it, then make that argument! Unless of course, that argument is easily identifiable as false. Ultimately, again, this sentence adds no actual valid information, and appears to be a deliberate misdirection.

The page then goes on to say that the government is committed to supporting development of school leaders, and as a statement of intent, followed by two qualified “we know” statements, it again does not actually add information that can be verified.

So after the introduction, we actually have no reliable information about School Autonomy or its effects on education, nor references to sources we might evaluate for ourselves.

Then, after the heading “Independent Public Schools” we find…

The evidence shows, and overseas experience highlights, that increasing school autonomy can help lift student outcomes and better meet the needs of local communities.

More familiar weasel words appear. First of all, this statement makes a claim to evidence, yet offers none. But then it uses the word ‘help’. Any grade 10 English student should be able to identify how the word ‘help’ is used in advertisements for products that have no proven effect, just like vitamin supplements “help” your bodies natural defences, or ‘miracle diet foods’ “help” your natural metabolic processes. Like with the complete breakfast example, the use of the word ‘help’ here immediately undermines any suggestion that Independent Public Schools actually contribute toward improved student outcomes, and anyway, if the evidence exists, as this statement claims it does, then where is it?

The following statement uses almost exactly the same strategy, but uses the term ‘better placed to’ , which again does not guarantee a specific outcome but does sound suggestive of positive action and outcomes.

Then there’s this statement:

The Australian Government is responding to the growing demand for greater school autonomy and flexibility with its new $70 million Independent Public Schools initiative, that builds on current developments across the states to help schools become more autonomous and independent if they so choose.

“Responding to the growing demand?” What growing demand? Where is the growing demand? A simple poll result or parent survey would give some indication, but we aren’t even offered that. Lets consider the things in Australian society that there is a clear growing demand for: Same Sex marriage, Effective Action on Climate Change, an End to the Music Career of Justin Bieber. You know how we can tell there’s growing demand for these things? Public action, news stories, debates in parliament, polls and surveys showing clear preferences in public opinion.

You know what I haven’t seen? A single story – not one – of a community rallying to have their public school made independent against the will of the teachers or school administration.

Without evidence, this is another phrase that can be dismissed as entirely meaningless, and attempting to use positive language to imply justification.

The following statement is again another statement of intent, and therefore unassailable, though no justification is given for why “increased parent and community involvement” is a good thing, or what it will even look like in practice.

Then there are four short paragraphs that link to other government documents with information about Independent Public Schools for parents and carers. I will particularly tackle the ‘fact sheet’ in greater detail in a future post.

So in it’s official page outlining the plan for Independent Public Schools the government cannot offer us even one single verifiable piece of evidence to support their claims of the policies efficacy, and use several deceptive phrases and at least two logical fallacies that suggest either they don’t have anyone on staff who knows how to write a coherent piece of text, OR they are selecting words carefully to avoid addressing the issue of evidence while still seeming positive and official.

As a piece of written communication it does not offer any reliable information except for two vague statements about the governments intent regarding the program which let us know, at least, what they intend to do. We are no more enlightened about the efficacy of Independent Public Schools at the end than we were at the beginning, though potentially a bit more confused.

The site does, however, promise that there will be more information coming. I eagerly await it’s arrival upon my dissecting table.

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When journalists miss the mark (or, does Kevin Donnelly still want to brand gay people?)

This article from the Sydney Morning Herlad’s Gareth Hutchens highlights the fact that in Kevin Donnelly’s 2004 book he argued that sex education classes should be taught by heterosexual teachers because “many parents would consider the sexual practices of gays, lesbians and transgender individuals decidedly unnatural”.

Now there is no denying that this is an abhorrent sentiment on behalf of Donnelly (and given the book’s pedigree, by implication an abhorrent sentiment tacitly endorsed by Malcolm Turnbull and the Menzies Research Centre). Beyond the blatant bigotry of the attitude, the policy implications are downright totalitarian. Consider for a moment that in order to ensure that only ‘straight’ teachers teach sex-ed, it would require a policy of forcing all teachers to disclose their sexuality to their employer, in effect have it recorded as one of their ‘teaching qualifications’, and then having teachers actively denied the capacity to do their job based on their sexual orientation.

And then what happens if there is a school in which ALL of the qualified health/PE/Sex-Ed teachers happen to be gay? Does the school force someone to teach the topic outside of their subject knowledge? Now I understand than in Christopher Pyne’s world anyone who has ever had sex is arguably an expert in sex education (and therefore someone who has engaged in unsafe sexual practices who has contracted one or more STI’s is an expert above the rest!), but really, would Donnelly rather have someone with limited knowledge of sexual health issues teach the class and risk a poor quality of education (after all, what does his ‘Education Standards Institute’ webpage have to say about the issue of teacher quality and qualifications?) rather than have a trained teacher lead a class because they happen to be gay?

There is no denying that such sentiments are the semi-rational ravings of a fevered mind that likely fantasises about a world in which homosexuals must wear yellow arm bands to allow easy identification.

But there is a more concerning issue here about the level of account to which this article holds, or doesn’t hold, Kevin Donnelly.

The fact that he published those sentiments in a book book ten years ago is not news! Ten years ago the public attitude toward homosexuals in society was very different to today. While Donnelly’s views were bigoted and extreme,  they would have found much more sympathy among the unthinking Australian public,in a world where same-sex marriage wasn’t even really a topic of discussion and TV shows still featured blatantly camp gay stereotypes as comic relief. The world has come a long way on acceptance of homosexuality in society since 2004, and so it is not unreasonable to ask whether or not Kevin Donnelly’s views of the issue might have also changed. But the article does not ask that question.

Also, at the time Donnelly published that book he was not really anybody to pay attention to. This book appears to be his effort to clutch some public notoriety by courting controversy at the same time that he was planning a run for Liberal party preselection. But in 2004 the response ‘Kevin who?’ would not have been unexpected.

What IS relevant, and what the article kind of dances around, is the fact that, now, Donnelly is one of the two appointed heads of the Australian Curriculum Review, and what SHOULD be news is the story of whether or not Donnelly stands by his previous statements or is willing to distance himself from them.

Does the current head of the Australian Curriculum review still hold to views of homosexuals that, if implemented in policy, would require a public branding of homosexuals that would make Nigerian anti-gay extremists go weak at the knees?

Does the head of the Australian Curriculum review still hold views on homosexuals that would place bigotry and prejudice at a higher value than an individual’s academic qualifications and professional capacity to teach a subject?

Or does the head of the Australia Curriculum review recognise that in the past he has spouted hateful utterances that belie an ignorant disregard for individual human dignity, and is he willing to go on record stating that many of his previous publications no longer reflect his views, and thus meaning that for someone whose primary contribution to public discourse has been to espouse his own opinion, that in effect his entire public profile is no longer valid and people should just ignore him as they would any old man spouting bigotted statements in public?

If a reporter were to put those questions to Donnelly and then report on his response, or refusal to give one, now THAT would be news.

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Christopher Pyne, politics & the subtle traps of language

Only a short while after recommissioning this blog to the purpose of applying critical thinking to a wider range of arguments in the public domain, I discovered this offering by Australian Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne entitled “Politics have no place in curriculum review.”

I don’t believe in fate, so I shall chalk it up to fortuitous chance that such a temporal intersection should provide me with an opportunity to not only engage in my usual exposure of logical fallacies in argument,  but to also navigate the treacherous waters of nuanced language in an effort to discern meaning and, possibly, intent.

In this opinion piece, Pyne is responding to the (overwhelming) negative response to his announce review of the Australian curriculum.

From the opening paragraph, there is strong sense of defensiveness about the language which also contains an examples of the ‘no true scotsman’ fallacy, in which Pyne asserts that anyone interested in “Australia having a quality education system… should welcome the review.” The implication here is that if you don’t welcome the review, then you’re not really interested in quality education, as if that was the only reason or motivation that person might have for supporting or opposing the review.

He then changes tack slightly to assert that the Coalition have been calling for a review for a number of years.

The Coalition promised to have a curriculum review before the 2010 election. This was repeated before the election last year. Far from being a secret, it was shouted from the rooftops before, and during, the election campaign. The Coalition has been consistent about the need for a review for several years. Doubters can check the record.

The problem is, which record? From the party of the ‘non-core promise’ it is not entirely easy to find records of every statement made in public. Their official website archives don’t go back further than 2012 (at least not when the words ‘review national curriculum’ are searched for). Searching for policies in general from that election proves largely fruitless, as hits form the 2013 election dominate for as long as I can b bothered to click ‘next page’.

A google search for “Australian Federal Election 2010 policy comparison education”, two relevant sites come up on my first page. This ABC website offers an extremely simplistic reduction of both party policies, in which no mention of a review is made. This document from the NSW Business chamber offers a much more comprehensive summary of both parties policies, and not only does it not credit the Coalition with calling for a curriculum review, but it doesn’t even credit the coalition with having any policies about education other than those to modify or repeal the spending on the Building Education Revolution, standing in stark contrast to Labor’s policies as depicted in the same document.

Now I would’t be surprised to eventually find a record of a doorstop interview or other public document in which someone did call for work to be done on the National Curriculum, but the lack of easily available evidence makes it seem as though such a call was not as emphatic as Pyne would have us believe. Indeed, Pyne’s use of the idiom “shouted from the rooftops” would have us believe that the review was called for loudly and frequently as part of their election run. Sadly, this ‘record’ that Pyne somewhat flippantly suggests we check is not as readily available as one might hope in the age of the internets.

This is where I wish to draw attention to Pyne’s use of language. So far he has used two phrases whose implied meaning is subtle and manipulative.

Firstly, Pyne’s flippant imperative to “check the record” creates a sense of somewhat aggressive confidence that if someone were to check ‘the record’ that they would undoubtedly find some evidence to support the claim of having been consistent in calling for a review. He does this instead of actually offering any evidence of his claim, thereby shifting the burden of proof from himself or is argument to anyone who would challenge him. In other words, saying “I don’t have to prove my claim, you have to disprove it.” A distraction intended to put opponents on the back foot, especially if they fall for it and then try to engage in the fallacious argument.

Secondly, “shout from the rooftops”?!? This slightly old-fashioned idiom is usually used to indicate a sense of overwhelming excitement. The kind of excitement that might make someone want to climb up on their roof and yell out over the neighborhood. Is Pyne suggesting that reviewing the national curriculum is something that really excited the LNP? Or is he perhaps, like Abbott’s famous ‘suppository of all wisdom’ gaff, making use of a phrase that he thinks will appeal to his audience, but without really being familiar wit it, or understanding it’s usual use and meaning? It would be much easier to simply say “We made repeated calls for a curriculum review”, but I offer the suggestion that such a statement would be much easier to quantify than ‘shouting from the rooftops’ and thus be easily challenged. Somewhat cheesy turns of phrase are much easier to dismiss if challenged.

Two paragraphs later Pyne says “There can be little doubt the Abbott government has a firm mandate to initiate a review of the national curriculum.” and immediately brings up a favourite world-play of politicians on both side, which is the meaning of the word mandate. This site provides a reasonable exploration of the term mandate as it applies to Australian politics, and highlights what a generally disingenuous words it is for politicians to use hen discussing the policies of political parties.As I understand it, the only time a political party in government can really claim to have a “mandate” is if they win an overwhelming majority of seats in both houses of parliament, meaning that no other party can prevent them from enshrining their policies in legislation. This did not happen in the 2013 election, with the balance of power in the senate seeming to reside with a voting block made up of the Palmer United Party and the Motoring Enthusiasts Party.

As I see it, when a politician claims to have a mandate, they’re playing with words that sound important but are largely meaningless, and are intended to project authority and (hopefully) dissuade opposition. In a sense this is an attempt at the “Argument from Authority”, in which the authority of a person making a claim is taken as evidence of the claim’s truth rather than the claim itself being examined for truth. In this case Pyne is attempting to invoke the authority of the government and it’s ‘mandate’ rather than actually explore the rationale for the review in detail.

(And I hope everyone reading this can stop and give me some small credit for resisting the urge to make jokes about Pyne claiming to have a ‘firm man-date’.)

Pyne then goes on to say:

To suggest the review is a political ploy is disingenuous. Those who think so should have a close look at their own motives for articulating such a nonsense: partisan politics is at its worst when dressed up as public concern.

After reading this paragraph several times, I can only interpret it as a wordier way of saying “I know you are, but what am I”. Once again Pyne is trying to shift focus away from himself, and rather than trying to defend the genuine need for a curriculum review or respond to the specific criticisms made, and instead is attacking his critics. It is an Ad Hominem argument, attempting to undermine the specific criticisms by undermining the critics and their motivations, and not actually a logically-valid response.

Pyne then goes on to say that incoming governments have a right and a duty to review the previous government policies. In this paragraph he is building a straw man argument, constructing a flimsy argument that he can more easily knock down than the real argument opposing him. I agree that an incoming government has a right to review policies, however the government’s right to do this is not the primary source of criticism and concern regarding the review. Concerns relate more to the necessity (different from a ‘right’), timing, short time frame, limited scope, and appointment of only two people with clear party biases to lead the review. Pyne is using word as smoke and mirrors to direct away from the real criticisms, many of which were outlined quite concisely in this open letter from over 170 educators.

He then proceeds to offer something that seems to merge another straw man argument with an Ad Hominem. He attacks the previous labor government as being shambolic and desperate, simultaneously trying to make the negative characteristics of the Labor government the focus of argument rather than the curriculum review (Straw Man), and simultaneously undermining the existing curriculum by discrediting the government that wa sin power when it was developed (Ad Hominem). While their may be substance to justify Pyne’s attacks on his predecessors, they still do not actually address the actual concerns that have been raised in many public forums about the curriculum review.

It’s also worth noting that for an article titled “Politics have no place in curriculum review”, so far Pyne has offered little else other than politic as the reason for the review. The politics of governing, the politic of inter-party rivalries and attacks. So does this mean that Pyne is a hypocrite? that he is incapable of staying on point for a few hundred words? Or is he perhaps suffering some cognitive dissonance between what he actually knows and believes, and what he is trying to achieve through this article? I can only speculate, and I invite you to do the same and see if you can find a way to justify this seeming disconnect between the stated purpose of this article and its contents.  Chances are, no positive justification will come forth.

Pyne carries on to say that there are good educational reasons for this review, and at this point, my incredulity spikes well into the red. Why? Well, if you’ve been following the media on the review, you’ll have seen that one of the most significant and frequently repeated criticisms of existing curriculum used to justify the review is the inclusion of “Indigenous and Asian perspectives” and “Critical and Creative Thinking” as general capabilities in all subjects. So when, in this paragraph and the next, Pyne says that Australia is “faced with globalisation and increasing international competition” and that there are doubts “The national curriculum, in it’s present form, is meeting those policy demands.”, then I find myself no longer able to believe that Pyne is being sincere in his argument.

We need to prepare students for globalisation, but are unhappy that they’re being taught about the region of the world that will likely be the world’s largest superpower before the middle of this century?

We need to prepare students for a increased international competition, but we don’t want them to learn to think in the critical and creative ways that promote new ideas, problem solving & entrepreneurship?

I suspect that either Mr. Pyne and I have radically different understandings of what the new curriculum actually contains, or I have misunderstood his point, or he is being deceitful in his representation of matters.

Also, no matter how you look at it, these matters are all explicitly political, relating to Australia’s place in the international landscape,  once again contrasting with the assertion of the title that “politics have no place in curriculum review”.

Pyne then closes with an obfuscation, another Straw Man, an a closing remark that belies some ideological confusion.

The obfuscation lies in Pyne’s assertion that the review is public and independent, and that the report will be made public. All technically correct, but what Pyne fails to tell is that, as it is not a parliamentary inquiry, there is no requirement for all of the submissions to be made public. This means that there is no way for the public to check that what is contained in the final report is actually an accurate reflection of the submissions made to the review panel.

The Straw Man lies in his claim that most of the criticism is about the review panel members, because anyone in such a position is ‘likely to attract criticism’. True, but it doesn’t actually address nor effectively dismiss the criticisms themselves. Namely that the two men appointed to lead the review are both middle-aged white males with outspoken conservative views on most issues, one whom is a public-policy expert (not an education expert) and the other who, while he has a Ph.D. in the teaching of English in Victoria in the ’80s, has spent most of his life since then as a consultant and Liberal party faithful, with little-to-know current academic work in the field of education.

Finally, he asserts that :

Petty personal attacks before we even get to the result of the review serve no purpose other than the political – the last thing we all need.

Now Pyne has spent the majority of this article providing political reasons, both domestic and international, for why the review is valid and justified, and yet here we have an assertion that serving political ends is not what we need – and he dismissively characterises every opposing statement as a “Petty Personal Attack”, once again poisoning the well against any future criticisms by denigrating them, and thus avoiding the actual substance of those criticisms.  Personally, I would assert that it is not actually possible to separate any action from the surrounding politics. All human activity exists in relation to its governing political structure. Either a person acts in accordance with government directions (or laws!) and thus reinforces them, or acts in defiance of them and this challenges the authority and collective will of any governing body. Choosing to review the curriculum is a political act, the people appointed to lead the review were chosen on political grounds – maybe not strictly party-political grounds – just as it would have been a political decision to deliberately appoint one or more opponents of the government to the panel. The discussion surrounding the review has been explicitly political, mentioning the need for more religion in schools and reduced focus on Indigenous and Asian perspectives in the classroom.

By its every nature, everything about the review is political, so to assert that politics has no place in the review is to deny the very nature of government and its relationship to human activity. Either that, or it belies a deep misunderstanding of just what it means for something to be political.

So if the conclusion of this analysis is that perhaps Pyne doesn’t actually understand the nature of politics and is actually just speaking in defense of his own preferences and point of view, then I suspect that may be a conclusion that a lot of people would be inclined to agree with.

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Chris Berg’s fallacy-ridden response to curriculum review critics.

With the announcement of the review into National Curriculum, and the controversy over the appointment of only two people, two white, middle-class men with outspoken conservative political views, to lead the review, it is inevitable that we are going to see a stream of oped pieces online and in newspaper columns both criticising and defending both the review itself, and Pyne’s appointments to lead the review. We are going to see a flood of arguments put forward, some of which will be valid, but many of which I expect will be instead be fallacy-ridden espousal of ideology masked as rational argument from people in dubious positions of authority. Which means, of course, that there will be plenty of fodder for this blog as I deconstruct the flawed arguments of those who would sway public opinion to suit their own ends and ideologies in the field of education. So… here goes…

This piece appeared on the Drum in which Chris Berg makes the point that people opposing the two men appointed by Christopher Pyne to review the national curriculum do so on the grounds of the mens’ outspoken conservative ideology, and claims that the national curriculum, indeed any curriculum, is already ideologically biased. He goes so far as to state that “An ideologically neutral curriculum is a contradiction in terms.” Now, on that point, I don’t disagree. All education is driven by ideology. However Berg’s goal is not to simply make that point, but to try and use that position to belittle those who oppose the review by implying that they are either ignorant or dishonest in their opposition, and to then use the acknowledgement of the inherent ideological nature of all curriculum to argue for the removal of the national curriculum all together.

Unfortunately, his argument is so filled with the holes of flawed reasoning that he may as well be trying to carry water with a sieve.

First and foremost, Berg’s article in its entirety is an example of the fallacy of a Straw Man, in which Berg sets up a false representation of his opponents position that is more suited to his own argument, and that is easier to knock down. Berg provides only a couple of quotes from the Australian Education Union, Bill Shorten and Tony Taylor about ‘culture wars’ the ‘politicisation’ of education, and the concern of ’20 years of culture war in the classroom’, and then takes those to be representative of the primary oppositions for the curriculum, while making the claim that ‘if there is a ‘culture war’, it wasn’t the right that started it. The national curriculum is already deeply ideological.’

This is a false representation of the concerns and oppositions to the review, as Berg tries to position those quotes and concerns as though they are entirely focused on the existence of ideology within the curriculum, and ignores the fact that they are clearly about the politics and ideology surrounding and motivating the very process of developing and reviewing the curriculum. When people criticise the ‘politicisation of education’, they are not, as Berg would ave his readers believe, trying to make the claim that any existing curriculum is ideologically neutral, and to my knowledge, no one has made such a claim other than Berg in his attempt to put words in the mouths of others. They are instead expressing concern about the use of education being manipulated explicitly as a tool for political ends, which is a much more complex issue and one not so easily rebutted by simply pointing out that everything in education has an ideology within it. A statement which I find to be about as insightful and sophisticated as saying that everything that is wet must have had contact with water at some point.

If you look at the April 2012 publication by ACARA detailing the development process of the Australian Curriculum, you will quickly realise that the process was extensive in scope, consultative in nature, and subject to repeated scrutiny and revision. The plan even includes the expectation of ongoing review and revision following the first stage of implementation. Such a thorough process suggests that the politics behind it included the values of consultative development and evidence & expert-opinion based decision making, which together suggest a fairly open mindset with regards to the contents of the final document. The government of the day did not go into the process announcing what they thought needed to be prescribed in the documents-under-development while claiming that such prescriptions were in the best interests of students, instead they asked the question “what is best for our students” and shaped the curriculum from there.

This stands in stark contrast to the process by which Pyne has launched the review of the same curriculum. He has appointed a panel of only two people to review curriculum in four specialist subject areas, with the expectation of the review process taking only a few months, and all the while both Pyne and Donnelly (one of the two ‘reviewers’) have been openly stating their opinion that there needs to be more religion in the curriculum, greater focus on a specific perspective on Australian history and culture, and even the prescription of specific methods of teaching. What sort of politics and values might drive such an approach? It certainly doesn’t seem to be as thorough or consultative (though the review is open for submission from the public until the end of February), and it seems pretty clear that there are already expectations on the findings of this ‘review’ that bring it’s legitimacy into question.

It is this kind of political difference that is invoked when people express concerns about politics in education, which was expressed quite concisely in an open letter from a large group of educators to minister Pyne in the Sydney morning Herald, and while concerns over the ideological nature of curriculum content may well be part of the overall concern, to focus solely on such concerns and suggest that it is the primary cause for opposition to the review is nothing short of an act of intellectual dishonesty.

Berg demonstrates a further act of intellectual dishonesty with the following statements:

Ideology isn’t a bad thing. Everybody’s thought is shaped by ideology, whether they’re aware of it or not. But it’s ideology nonetheless.

So it is bizarre to object, as Julia Gillard did on Friday, that the ideological direction of the curriculum was not dictated by the Prime Ministers’ Office. Are we supposed to feel better that a group of independent (read: unelected) education specialists (Kevin Donnelly calls them “educrats”) determined the future philosophical underpinnings of our compulsory education system?

(That rule by unelected experts is supposed to be more legitimate and morally superior to rule by elected representatives just shows how anti-democratic our era really is.)

Unless I’m mistaken, Berg here is implying that the act of engaging experts in a field to consult and act on your behalf in a field is somehow a bad thing, and indeed ‘undemocratic’.

Just to be clear, Berg, a ‘senior research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs’, who makes his living in part by being paid by other people to provide his opinion and perspective on matters that he is presumably an expert in, is decrying the practice of engaging third-parties to advise or consult on specific matters. Even more amusing is his inclusion of Kevin Donnelly’s implied condescension to such experts with the term ‘educrats’, at a time when that same individual has been appointed (not elected) to advise the current government on education, chosen supposedly because of his personal expertise in education. What is not clear here is whether Berg is decrying the entire practice of engaging third party experts and consultants to advise on particular matters, or only if he thinks it is a bad thing when it applies to education. The implication seems to be that only elected officials should be making decisions about public matters, and in doing so Berg neglects the fact that ACARA and their authority to create a national curriculum were created by an act of parliament, meaning that it was the decision of elected representatives. Would he rather than elected representatives make every decision for the population without consultation of appropriate experts?

No matter how you look at it, I struggle to see this as anything other than a very ballsy and bald-faced use of the fallacy of ‘Special Pleading. Basically claiming that the rules expected to apply to everyone else should not be applied to oneself, and only serves to further highlight his efforts to build a Straw Man through the use of such absurd and asinine statements. Furthermore, Berg also offers no reasoning or justification for why it is undemocratic, he simply makes a claim and moves on in the hope of sparking some emotional ire from his reader without asking them to think too deeply about it. Thankfully, from the perspective of a logical argument, that which can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence. So Berg’s point is utterly dismissable in its current form and can be rejected.

Now given that Berg’s entire article is effectively one massive fallacy of argument, having exposed it as such I might be inclined to stop here, however Berg uses his Straw Man argument to justify another, separate and somewhat concerning argument, which is that we should not have any national curriculum at all, and furthermore, we should just get rid of all forms of prescription and just let schools sort it out for themselves.

The last 12 paragraphs – the majority of which contain only single-sentence assertions – make several claims about the way curriculum in Australia ‘should’ be.  For example

At the very least, the curriculum should be handed back to the states. It is not a project worth pursuing.

Should it, really? Why can state governments do it any better than a federal government? Why is it not worth pursuing? Are there not potential benefits to getting it right and improving it over time? I don’t have immediate answer to the questions, but Berg doesn’t even acknowledge that those questions exist, and as with his statements about third-party advisors, unevidenced claims such as these can simply be dismissed.

When a population’s values conflict, we should look for solutions in political economy.

Should we? Is that the only option available to us? or are you suggesting that’s the best option? Why is it better than other options? No evidence or justification given? Then, dismissed!

Devolving curriculum decisions down to the school level ought to satisfy both critics of Kevin Donnelly and critics of the curriculum as it stands.

Ought it to? How? How would getting rid of any kind of centralised curriculum at a federal, state or regional level satisfy anyone? Donnelly has said repeatedly that he thinks more religion needs to be taught in schools, so why would he be happy leaving curriculum to schools and running the risk of some schools not teaching enough religion? How would the people who have claimed that Australian schools need to teach more about Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage feel about Islamic or Hindu schools being freed from the prescription of needing to teach such content?

Also, who said we need to satisfy critics? Is it the governments job to satisfy everyone? What if one group of critics are outright wrong in their opposition, informed by flawed values or overriding political ideology? Should we really be trying to satisfy them, or to better educate them so that their contribution to public discourse is better informed? These are just more unsubstantiated assertions from Berg that ultimately offer no value and can be summarily dismissed.

Once again we have here an opinion piece that offers little-to-no actual substance, and is either written by someone who is confused and ill-informed, or is likely written for the purpose of confusing others. It’s my assertion that Berg’s article can be treated in a manner as casually dismissive as the one with which Berg treats the need for reason and evidence to support his opinions.

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Sherlock’s illogical defence of religion in Australia.

The place of religion in society is a sensitive issue that trickles down into education. The Howard government’s School Chaplains program was the centre of a lot of criticism and only ensured that the issues of scripture and religion in supposedly secular public education would continue for the foreseeable future.

While there are plenty of prominent critics of religion, there are also plenty of people with access to a public platform who are willing to jump to the defence of their beliefs. Sadly, because all religions are based on the need for belief grounded in faith, rather than evidence, the arguments in defence of religion are similarly lacking in evidence and it is not uncommon to hear otherwise intelligent people offering up illogical, inexcusable non-sense as justification for why we should all submit to the authority of the institutionalised authority of a supreme being.

So when Peter Sherlock, Vice-Dean of MCD University of Divinity (MCD stands for Melbourne College of Divnity!) posted a piece on The Conversation entitled “Don’t stop believing: religion has a place in Australia’s future” my expectations were of another logical-fallacy laden defence of religion by a believer with not only personal motivations for believing, but professional and financial motivations as well. I was not disappointed. Given that the most famous Sherlock in English literature was renowned for his near-infallible skills of logical deduction, by the end of this piece I hope that it should be pretty clear how this Sherlock’s name is somewhat at odds, if not an affront to, the customary associations of the name. Here goes…

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