Friday, November 26, 2010

IVEC and me

I'm supposed to be doing a course called TAA, which I wrote about back in September, asking myself and answering textbook questions. Really though it's time for me to start innovating, or to start comprehending what I'm to do, to start thinking my way into this, because people are relying on me to come up with some goods.

I'd previously chosen a competency package, or whatever it's called, in ESOL, which tended to fit in more with high school teaching so I shall abandon that and focus on basic computing through the course.

why do I never have such students in my class?

Today at a meeting with the co-ordinator of the community centre I've been attached to over the past few years, I learned about IVEC, which is not in vitro expression cloning. It seems to mean introductory vocational education. We were talked to by a woman called Michelle from TAFE, who informed us that if we won funding for providing the goods for clients to obtain cert 1 in IVEC, we'd have to look at units of competency and develop training around it, which would be a simple matter. She talked of multiliteracy units and foundational units and pathways, it's all about pathways. Our co-ordinator tells me though that the money is all in the foundational stuff not the multiliteracy stuff, where there's lots of work to be done for little reward.

Anyway, client numeracy and literacy skills can be assessed at National Reporting System [NRS] levels 1, 2 and 3, though some clients are at an even more basic level [Not Yet Achieved, NYA 1]. I've obtained the whole TAFE document describing everything to do with this cert 1 IVEC course - it's over 1500 pages long! But here's an interesting quote from page 8:

Providers working in the Adult and Community Education (ACE) area are encouraged to offer accredited education and training programs to their clients, especially for Community and Neighbourhood Houses. Although there are no formal or funding-based requirements to do so, providing such accredited training in turn establishes a means for transitions from ACE to TAFE. Many such community clients are preparing themselves for work or vocational training and use ACE programs as a pathway to VET and TAFE.
The trouble with this observation is that while many of my students [computing, ESOL and literacy] are preparing themselves for work, very many, probably the majority, are not. Would I lose the other students if I switched to a vocational focus in my English class?

I note that this particular certificate has three supposed levels - preliminary, foundational and certificate. Also known as competency standards, with preliminary being NYA 1, certificate being at level 2 minimum and preferably higher. The problem is of course that I have no clear evidence from my teaching experience that progress is being made by my students, though there's more positive evidence I think from my one on one computer students than my ESOL students.

Hopefully I'll be able to garner evidence of improvement in my students from this framework. Here are some reassuring words about NRS:
 The NRS is a framework for describing adult language, literacy and numeracy competence in two dimensions reflecting real life performance. It provides Indicators of Competence in Reading, Writing, Oral and Signed communication1, Learning Strategies and Numeracy at five different levels and in six different aspects of social and vocational activity.
The NRS is used as a reporting mechanism for DEST-funded literacy and numeracy programs and is currently undergoing further review and development. Further information about the NRS can be obtained at

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Is the Catholic Church a cult?

A recent news item on ABC 24 about religious resurgence in Russia caught my attention, because the more orthodox Russian church has expressed concern about the growth of unorthodox 'cult' versions of Christianity. The news report took the line that many of these 'cults' would not be so regarded in Australia and the US, and that this was really about orthodox forces trying to impose their will.
It all raises interesting questions about what a cult actually is, and whether a so-called mainstream or traditional religion can still be regarded as a cult.
Without even reaching for wiki definitions, I think it's safe to say that the term cult is usually associated with new religions or new variations on established religions, as well as being associated with extreme behaviour, ritual and attitudes. So that, if we take the Catholic Church, its belief that, through ritual, you can partake of the actual blood and body of the central, foundational figure of the religion can't be considered cultic because, though extreme enough, surely, it's sanctioned by tradition, as well as by the agreement of church leaders throughout its history [most notably at the Council of Trent in 1551].
Basically this way of looking at things says that any 'orthodox' belief system can't be a cult, and that's the end of the story. The problem with this is that one person's orthodoxy is another person's weirdness. The opening line of the wikipedia definition of a cult, for what it's worth, says this:
The word cult pejoratively refers to a group whose beliefs or practices are considered strange.
That puts the Catholic Church well and truly in the cult category in my book, and many skeptics and scientists would surely agree, but of course there's more to it than that, otherwise flat-earthers and young earth creationists would be considered cult members, and that's going too far. Interestingly, the above quote has a note attached, saying it comes from the OED, and that note adds this, from the American Journal of Sociology, to the definition:
"Cults[...], like other deviant social movements, tend to recruit people with a grievance, people who suffer from some variety of deprivation."
Clearly this doesn't apply to Catholics, the majority of whom just find themselves in the religion for family and societal reasons. The common run of Catholics don't really look to the hierarchy for guidance in their everyday lives, especially not in developed countries. The Catholic commentator Paul Collins said exactly this in an interview this morning. In this respect you could say that the Catholic Church is a failed cult. One of the characteristics of cults, after all, is a slavish obedience to the dictates of the cult leadership. And didn't the Catholic cardinals 'make' the Pope infallible back in the nineteenth century precisely to encourage this slavish obedience? Infallibility is a supernatural category. Cults always endow their leaders with some supernatural quality or other.
When a Papal Bull or encyclical is issued from the Vatican, it's usually about directing the followers, like a shepherd directing his sheep. I've read one or two of these documents, and one of the features I've noticed in them is a tendency to declare Truths. Capitals are always used. It's a simple device to impart a supernatural flavour - truths are for commoners, Truths are declared by the Infallible. It's here that the cultish state of this very hierarchical church is most evident, but luckily for the followers [and the leaders too perhaps], it's undermined on every lower rung of the ladder by the pragmatic, the sensible, the perverse and the indifferent.
We shouldn't get too complacent about this wannabe cult though - yes, in the west it is seen as having more show than substance, but in Africa, in the Pacific Islands, in nearby Papua, where supernatural beliefs often saturate the atmosphere, just begging to be exploited, the Catholic Church is a very real and very dangerous force. We must continue to monitor it and combat it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

letter to Charles Taylor

Prof Taylor meets fans

Hello Mr Taylor, I hope this finds you well. I've been meaning to have a look at your big book, A Secular Age, for some time now, but being impoverished, and in any case a slow reader, it would be a costly venture for me all round.
Like yourself I suspect, I've been animated of late by the lively debates going on around religion, Christianity, secularism and science, but my take would certainly not be the same as yours. I must say I enjoyed reading some of your lucid essays in the eighties, on thinkers as diverse as Foucault and Hegel, and I always meant to read more of your work, but life took over, and then much more recently I heard of your winning the Templeton Prize, and that you were 'religious'. You could've knocked me down with a feather.
You cropped up again, for me, in the pages of Philosophy Now [July-August 2009 edition], a magazine I buy from time to time, where you were interviewed about, amongst many other things, the atheist bus campaign in Britain. That's what I want to focus on in this letter. Here is the part of the interview I want to focus upon:
Interviewer: I was thinking about your recent book, A Secular Age this morning when a bus passed by with an atheist, or more correctly, agnostic slogan 'There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.'
Taylor: I heard about that. It's hilariously funny. It's very odd, isn't it? I'm trying to figure out why this is happening in our time. This new phenomena is puzzling. Atheists that want to spread the 'gospel' and are sometimes very angry. I think it may be rather like the response of certain bishops to Darwin in the nineteenth century. The bishops had a sense that the world was going on in a certain direction, more and more conversion and so on. And then they found that they're suddenly upset in their expectation, and they get very rattled and very angry. Similarly, we're seeing this now among the secularizing intelligentsia. Liberals who felt that the world was going in a certain direction, that it was all going according to plan, and then when it seems not to be, they get rattled. So you get these rather pathetic phenomena. Putting things on buses as though that's going to make people somehow change their view about God, the universe, the meaning of life and so on. A bus slogan! It's not likely to trigger something very fundamental in anybody.
Well Professor Taylor, I don't know if you'd call this an unguarded moment, but I would almost want to call it a 'hissy fit'. First you describe the phenomenon of an atheist slogan as 'hilarious', and then you describe it as 'puzzling', both, it seems to me with an air of condescension. Personally, I think it's because you're rattled.
For example, why do you describe an atheist slogan as pathetic, without any mention of Christian slogans, which outnumber the atheist ones by thousands and thousands to one, especially in your part of the world? Do you think these Christian slogans - Jesus is the Answer, Jesus Loves You, Jesus Saves, Honk if You Love Jesus, What would Jesus think? Not Perfect, Just Forgiven, and so on ad nauseum - are going to change anybody's view, are going to trigger anything fundamental in anybody? Or maybe you think these slogans are shoved before our faces constantly for other reasons? If so, maybe you should think again about the many and varied reasons atheists might use slogans too.
How interesting, though, that you respond to a perfectly reasonable [and notably agnostic] bus slogan with references to atheist 'gospel' and atheist anger. Could this, again, be projection? Gospels, after all, don't generally have the word 'probably' in them, and Christian slogans never do.
Let me look more closely, though, at your analysis of this phenomenon. You compare the atheist response to things not going their way to the response of some bishops when Darwin produced his Origin of Species. The idea being that the bishops thought in the nineteenth century that things were going their way too, with more and more conversions, etc. But there is something fundamentally wrong with this comparison. The bishops were reacting to the theory of evolution by natural selection, which is the most powerful and successful biological theory ever developed. It has transformed our understanding of life on this planet, and is one of the most significant scientific developments in human history. The arguments of the bishops in opposing this theory are seen as shallow, ideological and absurd. Modern atheists are still fighting these shallow, ideological arguments, in the form of creationism/intelligent design, and the rise of the soi-disant new atheists has had much to do with the rise of anti-intellectual fundamentalist religion in recent times, as well as the anti-intellectual, 'submissive' strand inherent in all religious belief systems. It seems to me to be a 'we've had enough of this' reaction to this wave. So, in making this comparison, you appear to be equating the theory of evolution with the wilful ignorance of fundamentalist religion. If you can't see the absurdity of this, then I can't see much hope in your approach to the issue.
I can only hope that A Secular Age cuts a little deeper than your 'understanding' of the atheist bus campaign. I don't want to be wasting my time and money. But I do hear that you are in fact a Catholic, a sect for which I feel a particular antipathy, I must say, being not by nature traditionalist, authoritarian, patriarchal or homophobic. Still I'm open to what you have to say. Maybe you'll actually be able to make sense of 'spirituality'? Nobody else has.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

another stirpot letter

This letter writing malarky is beginning to appeal to me, after posting my first. But I'm thinking that the Pope isn't necessarily the best recipient - there are so many others, Christians and non-Christians, that I should write to, using snail mail, which can't be so easily ignored, I'm hoping, as email. I have nothing to lose, if nobody responds or even reads these letters, since nobody reads the blog anyway. So I could turn the criticisms I've made in the past [of Paul Collins, John Dickson, William Lane Craig, Charles Taylor and others] into letters actually sent to them. Pourquoi pas?

So let me begin with Paul Collins - who has apparently come out with a new book, Judgement Day, treating of environmental theology, may the gods help us. Of course it was a previous book of his, Believers, that I dealt with here. So, based on my critique, here's my next letter.

Dear Paul Collins

I hope this letter is able to find you, as obviously I have no proper address for you. I wanted to address to you some queries regarding a book you wrote a few years ago, Believers. I bought the book in order to get a sense of what is happening with Catholics and Christian believers in Australia, and as such it was quite informative. I imagine that some Catholics reading the book would find it quite grim and depressing reading. However, I'm neither a Catholic nor a Christian so I have a different perspective.
Of course, your book doesn't deal with theological issues or questions of beliefs and their justification, but you do make one reference in the text to non-belief or lack of belief, which, not surprisingly, alludes to the so-called 'new atheism'. Here is the passage: of the focal sources of modern angst is the attempt to live without any sense of God or the transcendent, without faith in anything. This has become particularly virulent with the recent publication of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens' tomes attacking all forms of religious belief and equating mainstream faith with fundamentalism. These authors actively oppose God and set out to to explain reality as the product of evolution, without any sense of transcendence or spirituality. In the process they cut off any possibility of hope and creativity for a better world. Modern anxiety constitutes one of the basic ministerial challenges for Catholicism: to offer a sense of trust in God to the wider world.  

I find this a very strange passage, and I would like to examine it in more detail, to see if I can make sense of it.
To take the first sentence first, I myself, along with many others I know, have lived without any sense of 'God', by whom you presumably mean that male god called 'God', first described by Semitic writers a few millenia ago. This god is, of course, one of thousands of gods, some living, some dead, worshipped, loved, feared and so forth by different cultures and civilizations over the space and time of our planet. I wouldn't say that I've 'attempted' to live without this god, for I've not had to put much effort into it, and I've certainly not suffered angst over a life without him. However, in more recent times I've developed an interest in your god and in Christianity generally, out of historical curiosity. In reading the Bible, as well as some analyses of the text, I must say that I'm very happy that this 'God' fellow hasn't deeply affected my life, for it would be difficult to find a more unpleasant character in the world of fiction. I should also add, as a lifelong reader of fine literature, that I find the character quite implausible.
To return to your first sentence, in it you have linked three things, 'God', 'transcendence' and 'anything' [or everything]. You have linked the three items with the term 'faith'. There are, it seems, a couple of implications here. It seems that 'God' implies 'transcendence' [and/or vice versa], and that a lack of belief [or faith] in either [or both] implies a lack of faith in anything. I have to ask you - do you really seriously mean this? Are you not playing fast and loose with the term 'faith' here? I have faith in my nearest and dearest, I have faith in the postal service, and I have [a somewhat wavering] faith in my local football team, and that is just the tip of the iceberg, and all without any considerations about supernatural entities or transcendent beings. 'Faith' in terms of these transcendental [but yet strangely personal] beings seems to mean something entirely different - something like a belief in the real, objective existence of something non-material [a very specific something!] for which there is no evidence. Only in this highly circumscribed sense do I lack 'faith'.
So your first sentence presents a puzzlement. But I haven't finished with it yet! You claim that the attempt to live without 'faith' is a major source of angst. I wonder how you can know this? I myself have felt angst - and moral angst too - about many many things in my life, but certainly not about the lack of supernatural beings! I'm sure you're aware that, amongst the scientific community, the level of religious unbelief is far higher than it is amongst the general public. Now, scientists are generally high-achieving, intelligent, confident types, not overly given to angst. Nor are they particularly given to moral irresponsibility. To take the most famous example, Albert Einstein, who considered the belief in a personal god to be a form of childishness, you could hardly find a man more concerned about moral responsibility. So I can only assume that your statement about moral angst is a form of projection. You would feel a great deal of moral angst if someone tried to force you to live without your favourite supernatural being [what some nasty unbelievers unkindly describe as 'your imaginary friend'], so you project that angst onto others. I can assure you, we have no interest in sharing your angst, and we have no interest, either, in taking your god away from you. You can keep him.
Looking now at your second sentence, where you claim that the books of Dawkins and Hitchens, which I've read, 'equate mainstream religious faith with fundamentalism'. I think this is something of an over-simplification, and the issue is too philosophically complex to cover in a hopefully short letter. The central point is that all belief systems which cannot point to a mechanism [how the material world can be influenced by, let alone created by, a non-material force], whether god-beliefs, astrology or faith healing, are regarded as equally suspect by people like myself. Some religious believers are liberal and progressive, some are conservative, some are fundamentalist, and so forth, but to the non-believer or sceptic these are relatively unimportant distinctions. The problem is the lack of evidence, and indeed, the lack of plausibility. The implausibility of religious beliefs is underlined, in my view, by their self-serving nature, with humans being made in the image of the creator god, who is so concerned with his pet creatures that he knows every hair on each and every one of their heads. These are comforting childish fantasies, rendered 'plausible' by centuries of obsessive theological rationalisation.
But I digress. Let me finish by looking at the next two sentences, which presumably summarize your attitude to those who don't believe in supernatural beings:
These authors actively oppose God and set out to to explain reality as the product of evolution, without any sense of transcendence or spirituality. In the process they cut off any possibility of hope and creativity for a better world.
These extraordinary lines are well worth commenting on, though it's hard to know where to begin! Firstly I should point out Hitchens, Dawkins and others don't actively oppose the god called God any more than they actively oppose Ahura Mazda, Baal, Ganesh, the Rainbow Serpent or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. They don't believe that any of these entities have any real existence, so opposing them would make no sense. What they oppose is belief in these entities. That is a major, major distinction.
Second, nobody sets out to explain 'reality' as the product of evolution. Evolution by natural selection is a [phenomenally successful] theory that explains the proliferation of life on this tiny, insignificant speck of a planet. That's a very far cry from explaining 'reality'. It is science in general, not just the individual authors mentioned, that sets out to explain reality without resort to transcendence or spirituality, high-falutin terms always given a positive spin by believers, but less than useless as mechanisms for explaining anything. It should be further pointed out that Catholic 'spirituality' essentially means a belief, without any evidence whatever to support it, that humans, unlike any other mammal or primate, have an 'eternal soul', a preposterous notion that is an insult to the intelligence of any educated person.
But it is the following sentence that's the real doozy. 'In the process they [i.e. Dawkins and Hitchens, or do you mean all scientists, or all 'this-worlders'?] cut off any possibility of hope and creativity for a better world.'
Now, I'm hoping that even you will recognize that this sentence doesn't constitute one of your greatest literary efforts. Perhaps, though, you're thinking of the better world which awaits us when we pass over, where the lion lies down with the lamb, and nothing ever happens? Something to hope for, maybe, but nothing whatever to do with creativity. Otherwise, this sentence is just meaningless gibberish.
I myself live for the creative energy, the enthusiasm and the optimism around me. I'm a lifelong lover of the arts, especially literature and music, but in recent years I've been particularly enthused by the creative exploration of our world that goes under the general banner of science. I've just read an article on recent exciting initiatives to finally cure AIDS. Yesterday I read another exciting article about the possibility of life existing under the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. And today I've just received the extraordinary news that the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva has succeeded in creating a miniature 'big bang', at a temperature of around ten trillion degrees. The future looks pretty exciting to me!
I don't know what it is you believers are hoping for, and I don't think your hopes are particularly coherent. In any case, we won't build a better world by worshipping and endlessly praising dodgy superhuman father figures. That seems to me an insult to our creativity and our energy. We're not the puppets [or the free-willed creations] of a god, we're a bunch of apes - and we have mountains of evidence to prove it. But, as such, we've done pretty well for ourselves, especially when we've tried looking at our world as it really is. I respectfully suggest you try doing the same.
Good luck with your future literary endeavours.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

my first letter to the pope

So, okay, I've been asked to start writing letters to the Vatican about their positions on various issues, and if I don't get responses, at least I can try collecting them in book form. I don't entirely like the idea of getting bogged down in such a project, but at least letters might provoke more of a response than my blog does.

Before I get started though, just another, entirely different subject to get off my chest. In the most recent issue of Cosmos there was an exciting piece on the exploration of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, by the space probe Huygens, named after the 17th century Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, who discovered Titan [a lovely romantic touch]. Turns out it's one of the most promising bits of rock in our solar system for exploring the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. It's believed, but not yet substantiated, that there's H20, in liquid form, beneath the crust, some 45kms deep. Evidence of radioactive decay suggests that this possibly watery area is a lot hotter than the surface [which averages -179 degrees celsius]. The combination of this subterranean ocean and a surface rich in hydrocarbons makes for very interesting possibilities. And even if the search for life turns out to be unsuccessful, it raises hope that certain chemical combinations friendly to life as we know it will surely exist elsewhere in the outer vastness. It's a cinch, surely. I truly believe that extra-terrestrial life will be discovered in the coming decades, hopefully in my life-time. These are among the thoughts that can keep a fellow bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Anyway, back to my letter.

Dear pope,
I don't mind if one of your employees responds to this enquiry as I realize you're a very busy man. Please send it on to whoever oversees this sort of thing. It's just that, in my part of the world, Australia, one of your archbishops recently advised his constituents - I don't know how many there were, but I don't think Australia is a very Catholic country - not to vote for the Greens, a political party, here as elsewhere, with an environmentalist and generally liberal agenda. It seems that the Greens are advocating reform in the fields of abortion and euthanasia, which the archbishop found offensive, presumably in line with the doctrine of the Catholic Church. He urged all Catholics to avoid voting for the Greens in an upcoming election. Or it may be that he urged all potential voters so to do. Which raises another niggling question, which I'm sure you are best placed to answer. Does Catholic doctrine on moral matters cover just Catholics or is it intended to cover all of humanity? I realize this is a big issue, but just to save time and effort, a yes or no answer would be fine. Thank you.
Anyway, because the Catholic Church comes out very strongly with its views on such topics, I thought I should do some research on Catholic doctrine. You know, on how, when and why it was formulated. I have been reading the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care services, fourth edition, which, to quote, was developed by the Committee on Doctrine of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops [in the USA] and approved as the national code by the full body of bishops at its June 2001 General Meeting. I'm not sure if the document was submitted for your approval, or that of your Vatican advisers, but I'm sure it's very much in line with Catholic doctrine, which is universal and unified, is it not?

Obviously the document doesn't go deeply into the history of the formulation of Catholic doctrine, but it does provide some hints, and I'm hoping you and your office can provide clarification. I won't go into all the questions I have, because I know you and your people are very busy, so I'll confine myself two one or two hopefully clearly formulated questions. First, in relation to this quote from the Introduction to Part One of the above-mentioned document:
 ... within a pluralistic society, Catholic health care services will encounter requests for medical procedures contrary to the moral teachings of the Church. Catholic health care does not offend the rights of individual conscience by refusing to provide or permit medical procedures that are judged morally wrong by the teaching authority of the Church.
Does the Catholic Church consider 'the rights of individual conscience' to be the rights of all human individuals with a conscience? If so, how can it claim to know that it is not offending anyone by its refusals?Or does 'individual conscience' here mean some kind of abstraction created or defined by the Catholic Church? In the first case, offence is a very personal, sometimes idiosyncratic thing, but in the second case something entirely created by the Catholic Church could be treated in whatever manner the church wants to treat it, for example as never being offended by any of that Church's decisions. So I would assume that by 'individual conscience' you mean something else, something more objectively defined as a morally active force or sounding board? If so how do you know that such a conscience is not offended by the Church's refusals? Clarification on this matter would be much appreciated. Thank you.

I will quote from another part of the document, ask a few questions, and then I will be finished, I promise. In the Introduction to Part Four, there is this passage: 
For legitimate reasons of responsible parenthood, married couples may limit the number of their children by natural means. The Church cannot approve contraceptive interventions that "either in anticipation of the marital act, or in its accomplishment or in the development of its natural consequences, have the purpose, whether as an end or a means, to render procreation impossible." Such interventions violate "the inseparable connection, willed by God . . . between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive and procreative meaning."
Now, I know that when Catholics use the term 'God' they're referring to their god, and I know, because I've researched the matter, that this god is one of hundreds, indeed thousands of gods, major and minor, universal and local, that people have believed in and do believe in throughout the space and time of this planet. So I'm wondering whether all the marital acts, of all kinds [and think of all the many different cultures and religions that have celebrated these acts] have been willed by your god, according to your church, and how you come to this conclusion. Does your beloved book, The Bible, state this explicitly anywhere? I will say nothing for now about the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act, for now, because I think I may have already asked too many questions in this preliminary letter. I suppose I'm wondering whether your god, God, only connects Catholics in marriage by his will, or does he even connect those who reject or are ignorant of your god?  And how do you know the answer to this - whichever answer is correct?

I thank you and your team for their patience, and I look forward to your response. 

I've printed out a very slightly edited version of this letter ready for sending to the pontiff.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

on Catholic morality, mainly

Reading round the blogosphere, flitting about silently, and I visited Panda's Thumb, Richard Hoppe's article on ID and the imminent demise of 'Darwinism', which took me to this intriguing site, apparently well known to proponents of the debate but new to me, and it was at turns hilarious, chilling and informative. I recall, apropos of this, one of my step-daughters [a converted Christian] relating to her brother, a geophysicist and presumably an atheist, that she'd heard that evolution was on the skids. This was about eight years ago, and my stepson had no ready reply, and neither had I. How different would be the situation now, but the opportunity has passed. The wonderful Yiddish word for this is trepverter, which I learned from a Saul Bellow novel, Herzog maybe.

On other vaguely religious matters [ID being vaguely religious], the Catholic Church in Victoria has come out against the Greens, because of their approach to abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage, issues I have strong views on myself, especially that last issue - and also here. The Archbishop of Melbourne, Dennis Hart, has come out so strongly against those nasty progressive Greens that pundits have to hark back to the fifties for an equally strident Catholic campaign. Hart reckons that candidates should reflect community values and community expectations [as he imagines the HRCC does]. Fortunately he represents urban Melbournians, with a Catholic population that is minuscule and falling, so I suspect his clarion call to the faithful will, when the election is done and dusted, provide a useful measure of the power of that ultra-conservative organisation in modern politics. Watch the Green vote in the Victorian election in a few weeks time. I wouldn't be surprised if the Catholic protest actually wins it a few votes.

Which of course brings us to the actual issues under scrutiny, namely euthanasia and abortion [since I've largely dealt with the gay marriage issue]. The Catholic Church 's attitude towards these issues are fairly basic and IMHO, dogmatic and dumb. It's the predictable line - human life [and no other life] is 'sacred', and that includes all fertilized cells, no matter how embryonic, and spermatozoa. For those remotely interested, here are the Catholic 'Ethical and Religious Directives' for their Health Care workers. Much of it is reasonable enough when it doesn't touch on theology. Unsurprisingly, it horribly mixes the reality of health care with the myths of Jesus's health 'ministry', and 'science' is naturally commandeered for this quasi-supernatural without being asked:
Through science the human race comes to understand God's wonderful work; and through technology it must conserve, protect, and perfect nature in harmony with God's purposes. Health care professionals pursue a special vocation to share in carrying forth God's life-giving and healing work.
No comment on the undeniable fact that an increasing number of scientists reject the existence of gods. And of course it gets worse, when apparently god-given Catholic dogma is at issue:
 ... within a pluralistic society, Catholic health care services will encounter requests for medical procedures contrary to the moral teachings of the Church. Catholic health care does not offend the rights of individual conscience by refusing to provide or permit medical procedures that are judged morally wrong by the teaching authority of the Church.
It doesn't offend individual conscience by refusing to, say, perform abortions? Says who? Says the Catholic Church, that's who. Apparently the Catholic Church decides who it has offended and who it hasn't. Not that I mind that Catholic health services refuse to perform procedures contrary to their dogma. I don't necessarily want them to change, I just want them to get out of the way. And I would dearly love for the general public to turn its collective back on the dogmatic approach of this institution. And, of course, it largely has.

As I say, most of these health care directives are unexceptionable, but there are of course some that are reflective of Catholic dogma. Take directive 36, which treats of female rape victims:
A female who has been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault. If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization. It is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum.
This may be all very well for people who choose to be Catholic, or who can't conceive of any alternative to being Catholic. My concern would be where the Catholic church provides the only health-care facilities in a particular region, permitting them to impose their moral dogma on unsuspecting rape victims.

The introduction to part four of the directives goes on a great deal about the sanctity of marriage [hardly a health-care issue]. Considering that the title of part four is 'Issues in Care for the Beginning of Life', one might wonder why marriage is such a focus [and I wonder, just as an aside, whether the HRCC still considers children born out of wedlock as illegitimate?], but of course, according to this institution marriage is the only way to procreate. And nothing should be allowed to interfere with [legitimate] procreation. Here's what the HRCC has to say about contraception:
For legitimate reasons of responsible parenthood, married couples may limit the number of their children by natural means. The Church cannot approve contraceptive interventions that "either in anticipation of the marital act, or in its accomplishment or in the development of its natural consequences, have the purpose, whether as an end or a means, to render procreation impossible." Such interventions violate "the inseparable connection, willed by God . . . between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive and procreative meaning."
The usual supernaturally sanctioned claptrap, always emphasizing that human life is different from mere animal life, and subject to holy, or holier, laws. And with this they get into some deep waters, using scientific terminology usually inimical to theological manipulation, as in directives 40 and 41:
Heterologous fertilization (that is, any technique used to achieve conception by the use of gametes coming from at least one donor other than the spouses) is prohibited because it is contrary to the covenant of marriage, the unity of the spouses, and the dignity proper to parents and the child.
Homologous artificial fertilization (that is, any technique used to achieve conception using the gametes of the two spouses joined in marriage) is prohibited when it separates procreation from the marital act in its unitive significance (e.g., any technique used to achieve extra-corporeal conception).
Presumably these directives carry their rationale within them, that is, that heterologous fertilization is contrary to the covenant of marriage as the HRCC conceives of it, though presumably the HRCC believes their conception to be 'objectively true' and supernaturally given, and that homologous artificial fertilization somehow interferes with the true nature of the marital act [again as the HRCC conceives of or defines it]. All of this makes me inclined to write to the Vatican [let's start at the top] to ask them to clarify, not so much when they arrived at this conception, but when their supernatural being informed them that this was the true definition of marriage, since I don't believe it is explicitly stated in the big book that is supposed to have been written by this being.   

Anyway, that is enough for now. I'll finish off on this issue in my next post

Monday, November 1, 2010

speed reading, with thanks to skeptoid

Not posting a lot lately, for various reasons. Have been moving house, a horrible and endless task, especially the downsizing and trying to get rid of accumulated stuff. Also, getting a little depressed about the blog, which I can't even get my nearest and dearest to read. Am I that boring? Apparently so. Have had two comments since I changed url about eight months ago, neither of them of any interest. Not sure how to attract traffic - obviously the thing to do is comment more often on other people's sites, but I don't do much of that, as I generally find myself too inexpert in specific fields. I like reading other people's blogs though.

Visited and listened to Skeptoid for the first time today. An 11 minute podcast - presumably that's his usual span - on speed reading, something I've often chortled over in the past. Dunning [Brian Dunning is the Skeptoid man] deals with it seriously though, and along the way provides useful knowledge on the reading process.

I remember as a teenager being intrigued by some speed reading claims on the telly, and also, somehow a paperback found its way into our house, promising great strides in reading proficiency - improved speed and comprehension. I was both skeptical and hopeful, for, though an avid reader, I always felt myself to be frustratingly slow, just as I dawdled behind everyone else in my walks to school.

Anyway, I particularly remember the book recommending you increase your visual intake with each saccade [I made some effort to do so], and I'm sure it would've had much to say about subvocalisation too. These are two 'gimmicks' focussed on by Dunning in his debunking. His general conclusion is that there's almost always a trade-off between speed and retention [and poor retention is, presumably, a result of not taking it all in in the first place]. It's not that you can't increase your reading speed, but the methods usually touted are more of less useless. Those who can read [and retain stuff] at high speeds are usually 'freaks', such as Ken Peake, who was supposedly able to read some 10,000 words per minute [the average is around 300 wpm], presumably with reasonable retention. He could apparently read two pages at a time, according to Dunning, though one would assume that he read them in the right sequence. Maybe his saccade stretched across the two pages. Peake was born without a corpus collosum connecting the two brain hemispheres, possibly allowing some kind of parallel processing.

At a guess, my reading speed is about 200 wpm, and that's when I'm really flying, reading a page every two minutes. Fact is, I dawdle and dream a lot, I've always been very permissive with my mind, allowing it to wander hither and yon, and I often have to reread when I find I haven't properly taken things in. Even when I have, I sometimes like to reread, to squeeze as much from the text as I can, or to really 'nail it down'. Which brings to mind something Dunning also mentions, that speed and retention depend significantly on what you're reading. I mean, try flying through Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, or Heidegger's Being and Time, just to name-drop for a moment.

But even the fastest readers [with normal brain wiring] never manage to go beyond 600 wpm, with reasonable [say 75%] retention, according to a study conducted by Ronald Carver, quoted by Dunning. For most people, 400wpm is really pushing at the limits. As I've said, the elimination of sub-vocalisation is one of the approaches to speedier reading promised by the merchants, but this can't actually be done, you apparently can't read without it, and even the fastest readers, and skimmers, do it, even when they think they don't, as nerve-impulse measuring has shown. Apparently NASA even uses these barely detectable sub-vocalization effects to build systems for web browsing and other tasks. It's all about the fact that reading is inextricably linked to speaking. So any claim to eliminate sub-vocalisation is a crock.

So how about saccades - training your eyes to take in more words at a leap? Well, here's what Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain, has to say:
Research reveals that our eyes continually make small movements called saccades, followed by very brief moments when the eyes are almost stopped, called fixations, while we gather information from our central [foveal] vision. At least 10 per cent of the time, our eyes dart back ever so slightly in regressions to pick up past information. When adults read, the typical saccade covers about eight letters; for children it is less. One brilliant design feature of our eyes allows us to see 'ahead' into a parafoveal region and still farther along the line of text into the peripheral region. We now know that when we read in English, we actually see about fourteen or fifteen letters to the right of our fixed focus, and we see the same number of letters to the left if we read in Hebrew. 
As I recall from the 'reading dynamics' book I read avidly as a teen, the typical saccade was described as covering about eight words rather than eight letters, and I can't recall anything being mentioned about a parafoveal region, but the above explanation helps us understand how we don't feel our reading to be particularly jumpy - there's a combination going on between actual focus, anticipation and checking. And we also need time to absorb what we're reading, to retain it. So pauses are inevitable and necessary.

So is there any way we can train ourselves to read more quickly, and also effectively? Dunning suggests we focus on improving our recognition vocabulary, that's to say our reading-already-comprehension. However, he doesn't really go into any detail about that, except to say that we spend more time sub-vocalising words we don't recognize. Yet it seems to me that as my vocabulary [and therefore my recognition vocabulary] has grown, my reading has gotten slower. I must say, though, that when I come across a word I don't know, I not only sub-vocalize at a snail's pace, I often put the damn book down and go and look it up, usually online these days, and that slows my reading down considerably, especially when I get distracted by, or absorbed by, the internet, and don't return to the book till an hour later, and then I have to reread to get back into context.

It's also a fact of life that much improvement in recognition vocabulary over the years is more than counterbalanced by a deterioration in eyesight, probably caused by lots of reading.

So, I suppose I'll just go on reading, more and more slowly, until, one day, I stop.