Friday, 31 July 2009

Creationist exams

Here is a story which, if true, is horrifying.

The National Recognition Information Centre (NARIC) have advised that a qualification that appears to contain creationist codswallop is equivalent to international A levels.

On the NARIC website, there is a news section, and an item there gives more information. To quote from that item:

"Using the NARIC benchmarking methodology, these qualifications have been closely examined in terms of their learning outcomes, assessment frameworks, underpinning quality assurance mechanisms, mode of learning and delivery. ...

This exercise continues to show how useful the NARIC benchmarking methodology is, it can really make a significant difference for less well known qualifications."

This explains how NARIC reached their conclusion. They focus on everything except content. So what do we know about the content?

The curriculum on this webpage does not go into detail, but the page does contain these words: "If, as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, you believe that the Bible is the Creator’s reliable and trustworthy handbook to the whole of life, then you will be glad to hear that the ACE curriculum is written from the literal Bible creation base. In other words, we believe that God says what He means and means what He says."

So there probably is a good slug of creationism in there, along with perfectly sensible courses in mathematics, languages and so on.

I do not blame the perpetrators. They are entitled to their scientific illiteracy. But NARIC's action has exposed the weakness of an approach that disregards content and concentrates only on form. There is such a thing as factual error so gross that it renders the best possible form worthless. Would NARIC approve of a geography qualification that ticked all of their boxes but that taught flat-earthism?

The same point must be made about schools. In the UK, you have to get your child educated. The normal method is to send a child to school. Schools that follow this ACE curriculum may tick all the boxes for child welfare, discipline and so on, but the content of what they teach should lead us to ask whether sending a child to such a school satisfies the legal requirement to educate children.

It would be nice to see some gutsy response from our politicians. Will the Secretary of State for Schools and his shadows now stand up and say, in no uncertain terms, both that NARIC needs to change and that scientific illiteracy is not acceptable in schools? (NARIC appears to be funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but it is in schools that the real danger lies.)

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Science and government policy

I have been away from blogging for too long, finishing a book (due out in February, under the title Deliberation and Reason, since you ask). But now there is again time for this blog.

There has recently been a bit of a fuss about the role of science in UK government policy-making, with concerns that the science does not have enough influence:

If there is a problem here, then it must be sorted. You cannot beat nature, and if the evidence is that a policy is not going to work, you should drop it, however great the headline that will thereby be lost. But I fear that this harsh message will not be fully accepted by ministers because they very often have to deal with human nature. The concern is with how people will respond to an educational programme, or to a change in benefit entitlements, or something like that. Human nature is known to be changeable, and ministers can then all too easily convince themselves that people will respond to new approaches or incentives in the ways that will make the policies succeed. Uncertainty about how people will respond leaves space for unwarranted optimism.

So what is the remedy? We have tried select committees, which are good but are easily ignored. When was a minister, or a senior civil servant, last sacked because a select committee found his or her policy-making skills wanting?

Here is my modest proposal. Any white paper that proposes new policies which rely for their success on people responding in certain ways must be written up with a full base of evidence, then the whole paper must be submitted to a couple of respected independent journals in the relevant field, which must each appoint a couple of reviewers who will go through the paper exactly as if they were peer-reviewing for publication in the journal. The reviewers' reports are then published.