Monday, 20 December 2010

Philosophy grads smarter than other graduates (incl. sciences)?

If you are wondering what kind of degree programme is likely to boost your general smarts, consider these figures.

Go here. This is one of several graphs from the above article. Based on GRE test performance (Graduate Record Examination) of graduate programme applicants. Quantitative (math) skills on the vertical axis, verbal skills on the horizontal (other graphs include the third component - "analytical writing", at which philosophers also excel, dramatically outperforming all others).

Philosophy graduates are pretty damn smart, the various figures suggest, compared to graduates with other degrees, including most - perhaps even all - sciences (though were they smarter to begin with, or did their degree programme make them smarter, compared to other degrees?). Check the article. Here's the original table of GRE scores of US students completing a variety of degrees.

Notice religion also does very well.

This data suggests (but falls a long way short of establishing) that if we want to produce graduates with general, across-the-board smarts, physics and philosophy are disciplines to encourage [and possibly also that accountancy and business administration should be discouraged (this confirms all my prejudices, I am pleased to say!)].

Note some very weird stats on this graph, such as business administration's woeful performance, doing less well than even "art and performance" on quantitative skills and verbal skills (which is staggering). And accountancy grads less good on quantitative skills than philosophy grads (!) and the worst performers of all on verbal skills. Both business and accountancy are also weak on the analytic writing component.

Of course, as the new business-friendly, market-led Tory vision of degree provision kicks in, we'll probably see philosophy departments up and down the country closing and business administration degrees expanding. Brilliant.

P.S. Just added a second graph comparing analytical writing and verbal. Check out e.g business administration. And where's philosophy?

Thursday, 16 December 2010


See some of you there, I hope...

Centre for Inquiry UK and South Place Ethical Society present

The Root Causes of The Holocaust

What caused the Holocaust? What was the role of the Enlightenment? What role did religion play in causing, or trying to halt, the Holocaust?

Prof. A.C. Grayling

Prof. Jonathan Glover (King’s College)

Dr David Ranan (author of Double Cross)

11am-2pm, Sat. December 18th, 2010

Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn, London WC1R 4RL – Main Hall

10.30-11.00 Registration

11.00-12.00 Jonathan Glover

12.00-1.00 David Ranan

1.00-2.00 A.C. Grayling


Tickets on the door. Bring a friend.

Cogito dialogue

A short dialogue on the Cogito: inference or performance?

MARY: ‘Cogito ergo sum’ – I think therefore I am – Descartes’ famous proof that he exists!
JOHN: I don’t see that Descartes has proved anything.
MARY: Why not?
JOHN: Well, before Descartes arrives at his ‘proof’, he sets about trying to subject all his beliefs to doubt, right?
MARY: Yes. That’s his famous ‘method of doubt’. He decides to set aside all of those beliefs which he can doubt, to see if he find any indubitable certainties. He wants to identify which of his beliefs are utterly secure, so that he can then rebuild knowledge upon them. They will provide him with a firm foundation. And the cogito is his starting point – Descartes cannot doubt that he exists because, by doubting he exists, he proves that he does. It’s a self-defeating doubt.
JOHN: Hmm. I am not so sure. Look, Descartes supposes at one point that there might be an evil demon intent on deceiving him – correct?
MARY: Yes. Descartes doesn't actually believe there is such a demon, of course. But he supposes, for the sake of argument, that there might be. A demon so powerful that it could cause Descartes to have deceptive experiences, deluding Descartes into supposing he inhabits a real, physical world of trees and houses and other people, when in truth it is all an illusion.
JOHN: Right. Descartes ask himself: how can I know that I am not being deceived by such a demon? After all, everything would seem just the same. And if I can’t tell that I am not, then I cannot know that I am not.
JOHN: Right.
MARY: But then Descartes realizes that, while such a powerful and deceitful demon might deceive him about there being a physical world, it could not deceive him into thinking he exists when he doesn’t. Not even such a demon could deceive Descartes about that.
JOHN: So you say. But look, Descartes admits that such a demon might mess with Descartes’ mind in other ways too. For example, it could make Descartes go wrong in his reasoning.
MARY: Yes, that’s true.
JOHN: But then Descartes ‘proof’ must be useless. Notice the word ‘ergo’ – therefore. Descartes has constructed a piece of reasoning, from the premise that he thinks to the conclusion that he exists. Correct?
MARY: It looks that way, yes.
JOHN: But then how does Descartes know that this little argument – I think, therefore, I am – is sound? Perhaps the demon is deluding Descartes into thinking it’s sound, when it not. You see? Descartes’ proof is a piece of reasoning, and Descartes cannot yet trust any of his reasoning, because the demon might be making him go wrong.
MARY: Okay, I see the problem. Or rather I see what you think the problem is for Descartes. In fact, I think you have misunderstood him.
JOHN: How?
MARY: ‘Cogito ergo sum’ looks like an argument, a piece of reasoning, true. But it’s not. It is something else. It is a performance.
JOHN: A performance? In what sense.
MARY: By doing some thinking – some doubting – Descartes shows that he exists. He doesn’t infer he exists. He actually demonstrates it, by thinking.
JOHN: So the cogito isn’t an argument after all? An inference from the premise ‘I think’ to the conclusion ‘I am’?
MARY: Correct. If it were, then Descartes could not be sure an evil demon had not made his reasoning go wrong. But the cogito is actually a performance. Descartes proves he exists by engaging in an activity – by thinking, demonstrates he exists.
JOHN: But wouldn’t another activity do just as well? Riding a bike, say? Wouldn’t that demonstrate he exists?
MARY: No, because Descartes couldn’t be sure he really was riding a bike. The evil demon might delude Descartes into thinking he’s riding a bike, when he’s not. But the demon cannot make Descartes think he’s thinking when he’s not.
JOHN: Hmm. I am still not sure Descartes has proved beyond all possible doubt that he exists. Let me think about it some more…

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Captain Ska

Obviously it would send a powerful message if this was number 1 at Xmas. 79p from itunes and profit goes to charity. Search "Liar liar" ska.

[P.S. I don't endorse every line of the song btw - it is a bit of hyperbole, obviously.]

Sunday, 12 December 2010

University Fees: Cui bono? (Who benefits?)

Who are the real winners re the new University fees and funding arrangements, compared to, say, an income-tax based system of funding on which graduates are funded from general taxation (like we used to have)?

As the Ancient Romans used to ask: "Cui bono?" or "Who benefits?" Here's Cicero:

The famous Lucius Cassius, whom the Roman people used to regard as a very honest and wise judge, was in the habit of asking, time and again, 'To whose benefit?'

My suggestions, in this case, are:

(1) The banks who will be administering the complex loan system and making money from the huge debts graduates will accumulate at the start of their careers. These banks will have been talking behind the scenes with Govt. Ministers about how precisely they'll do this and what profits they might expect to make.

(ii) The very rich. When things are funded by general taxation, the rich pay more. When they are funded by fees and loans, they pay very much less. The bulk of the cost is pushed downwards towards the middle classes.

(iii) The upper middle classes, whose children, while already having a marked advantage in terms of university admission because they have been privately educated and primed for Oxbridge, will now face far less stiff competition for places at those elite universities (because the plebs will have been put off by the fees and debt). I imagine the parents of little Gideons and Lucindas up and down the country are currently rubbing their hands with glee at the massive boost their offspring's life chances have just received c/o posh boys Cameron, Osborne and Clegg.

The losers would seem to be everyone else, or rather, our children. Am I wrong?

As Cicero realized, sometimes, when you really want to understand what people are up to and why, you do better not to listen to their various arguments and rhetoric but simply to ask: "Cui bono?"

You now face a net lifetime financial loss if you do an arts or humanities degree, and quite possibly if you do a science degree too

"The Research Report: The economic benefits of a degree published by Universities UK in February 2007, reports the average lifetime earnings of a graduate as £160,000 more than those of a non-graduate with two A-levels. Within this average there is a range from £340,315 for medical and dental graduates to £51,549 for a humanities degree and £34,949 for an arts degree."

Doing a degree in humanities or arts now involves a net lifetime financial loss, assuming students graduate with fees/costs of £30,000 and interest to be added over decades. But of course, the actual fee+cost will be rather more than that. So why bother?

Of course, if people do science degrees instead, that won't increase the pool of science jobs, so the same number will now be taking those poorer paid non-science grad jobs previously taken by arts and humanities grads (but with their more expensive and largely irrelevant science degrees).

Society needs people to do those graduate jobs. But it seems we now want them to pay for their own university education at a cost greater over their lifetime than they'll gain by doing those grad jobs rather than non-grad jobs.

[[P.S. actually I exaggerate as those who earn less will never pay full amount back and it is written off after 30 years.]]

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Why should a postman pay for your university education?

Proponents of graduate fees and loans justify loading, say, teachers with £50k of debt at the beginning of their careers as fair because the alternative - an income tax funded system - is unfair:

"Why should a postman pay for your university education?"

Paxman asked this question of a student on Newsnight. Perhaps he was expecting a good answer but he didn't get one. A good response is to say:

"Why should a postman pay for the cancer treatment of this middle class woman?"

Unless you are free market libertarian of the most extreme sort, you can surely see there's a good answer to this question.

In fact, unlike that middle class woman's cancer treatment, the postman does get an obvious direct benefit from living in a society in which people are university educated, such as the qualified teachers who teach his children, for example. And, more importantly, his own children will have the opportunity to go to university without being saddled with huge debt.

Being a low paid worker, he of course contributes only a small amount towards getting these benefits (while being no less entitled to them than anyone else). The vast bulk of the cost is met be the better off, proportional to their income.

A university-educated public also gives the rich and big business an educated workforce to exploit. Yet big businesses such as Top Shop, while happily trading here and enjoying the benefits of our educated workforce, won't pay tax here - won't contribute anything at all towards educating that workforce. Perhaps they should? The Green's policy is that big business should be paying for university education. That's another, interesting alternative to current proposals.

Of course the simplest solution to the problem of funding university education is just to raise income tax (which would instantly, simply and economically produce massive revenue, unlike the proposed system which is not only unfair but horribly complex, administratively costly, and won't produce much in the short term, perhaps if ever). The Lib Dems, I seem to remember, used to have a policy of putting a penny on the pound - a one percent tax increase - for education. Yet they now say there is "no alternative" to the current plans. A tax increase is now considered unthinkable. Why? Because the rich would pay the same - the same proportion of their income as everyone else, take the same "pain" as everyone else, and the Tories cannot have that.

Stephen Law
Former postman.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Tutition fees, the rich and Labour - red Steve rants.

My wife was in London yesterday and saw the demonstration. She mentioned that one of the main cries was "tax the rich". Weirdly, the Labour party are failing to cash in on the growing, widespread resentment against big business and the very wealthy.

Tory policies, while being dressed up as "progressive", are often only progressive re. the less well off, not the very rich. Take child benefit. That's cut for families earning over a certain amount. This is "progressive" we're told, but of course it's a way of directing cuts onto the middle classes, not the rich, who will lose the exact same amount whether they are on £42k or £2 or £20 million a year. It's a poll tax on everyone over a certain threshold.

Ditto the fees policy. The poor, for the time being, receive some help, and no one pays the loan back till they earn £21k, so it's "progressive" we are told. But only re. the less well off. The rich will just pay up front, will not accrue huge amounts of interest over decades, and most importantly, will pay the same fee as everyone else (which will be no more than they are currently paying for Lucinda and Henry's private schooling). Again, the middle classes get hit hardest, the rich the least.

The common factor with the poll tax is this: in every case, Tories act to push the costs of running the state downwards on to the majority and protect a small but very rich minority. The difference this time is that this is being dressed up as "progressive".

We are told "there is no alternative" to the current proposals. Well, here's one. Introduce a 1, 2 or 3 percent (whatever is needed) income tax increase for education levied on every graduate earning over a certain amount, with (most importantly) no upper limit or upper amount taken. This would apply to current graduates, so would not be disproportionately loaded onto the next generation leaving the current generation to get away Scot free but new grads saddled with £50k debt each. The pain would be spread fairly across society. Most importantly, it would be genuinely progressive, because the rich would pay the same proportion of their income, i.e. take the same amount of pain.

My guess is the vast majority of people in this country would say that this was genuinely fair, and certainly much fairer than loading lower middle class youngsters with 50k of debt each. I'd quite happily pay the extra tax. But it will never happen. It will certainly never happen under the Tories, because the Tories are bankrolled by the very rich (much like the Republican party is, which has just got its $700 billion tax cuts for the rich forced through in the middle of a financial crisis).

Currently, there are divisions between the middle and lower classes that are being exploited by the tabloids, with the Mail, etc. moaning about the middle classes being hit hardest while 'dole scroungers' and immigrants cash in. This is a "divide and rule" tactic - in fact the middle classes are not being hit harder than the poor, but they are both being hit very, very much harder than are the rich. Yet while middle class anger is focused on dole scroungers and immigrants, the rich will get away with it.

Actually, even the middle classes are beginning to notice the unfairness. It was middle class sixth formers, among others, who were carrying placards saying "tax the rich".

So I think Labour spin doctors should be encouraging and exploiting a different, rather more warranted, "us and them" attitude. With multi-millionaire old Etonians and Bullingdon club members destroying public services but making sure their rich friends and backers, e.g. bankers, etc. don't have to pay any more, Labour really should be making hay. It is indeed a "class war", a war that they, the Tory party, are clandestinely waging on the vast majority of us on behalf of the rich.

P.S. this is an observation about "divide and rule" strategy. I realize that the very rich constitute such a small percentage of the population that increasing the amount they pay won't have that much of an impact on the deficit. But that's irrelevant. The Tories are terrified of the public waking up to the fact that they are bankrolled by and always act in the interests of big business and the rich, and try to drown out the suggestion by loudly shouting "politics of envy", "class war", etc. the moment it crops up. They encourage us to think we should "move beyond" that old "us and them" thinking - they want us to think we are all in it together now in a "Big Society". If I were a Labour spinner, I'd be thinking now's the time to bring back class war in bucket-fulls. Just pick the right class.

There's a great deal of both working and middle class grass roots feeling about big business and the very wealthy getting away with not paying their fair share - as demonstrated by the growing demos outside Top Shop and other shops which happily trade here, yet won't pay tax here.

By getting more radical, Labour could really tap into that grass roots movement. They could present clear education funding alternatives such as the one outlined above, for example.

There are alternatives to loading tomorrow's teachers and nurses with £50k of debt each at the start of their career on which the interest grows each day.

Remember, this entire mess was caused by the greed and stupidity of certain very rich people - bankers (now back on massive bonuses, of course). Who pays for the financial carnage they caused? Not them. Your kids and mine - each of whom has just been told, "Here's a bill for £50,000. Now pay up, or forget about going to university."

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Upcoming books

Books I am publishing shortly...

CFI UK events in April

In partnership with The Oxford Literary festival CFI UK has the following events lined up in April 2011 (held at Christ Church College, University of Oxford).


Grayling launches his latest book in the glorious Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford University on Sunday 3rd April, 12pm.


Magician/skeptic/entertainer/poet Penlington presents his Edinburgh Festival show Uri and Me for CFI UK. About Uri Geller….. Sunday 3rd April 10am. Venue TBA.


Justin Barret, Prof. of Psychology at University of Oxford, explains we he believes we have an innate tendency to religious belief (he is religious himself). He’ll be presenting some fascinating experimental results. 4pm Wed. April 6th. venue TBA.


Stephen Law (author, a Very Short Introduction to Humanism, The Philosophy Gym) debates with Prof Alister McGrath (author of The Dawkins Delusion and A Fine-Tuned Universe – The Quest For God in Science and Theology.) Thursday 7th April, 6.30pm Venue TBA.


John Cornwell, author of Hitler’s Pope and David Ranan, author Double Cross, debate the relationship between the Church and The Holocaust. Friday 8th April 10.oo am. Venue TBA.

Tickets will be available from The Festival website at

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Matt Tee communicates

I find this 30 minute talk by Matt Tee unbelievably irritating, and have been wondering whether my adverse reaction is really warranted, and whether it actually says more about me than about him. What do you think? The talk is here.

It is a 30 minute talk by Matt Tee, the current Permanent Secretary for Government Communications. Tee earns in excess of £160,000 per year. He is a communications professional who seems to have had a very successful career.

My problem with this talk is, I think:

1. Tee reminds me of David Brent. This is not his fault, and not a legitimate reason to criticise what he says.

2. He has little to say, surely? Strip out the “successful behavioural outcomes”, “partnership”, "stakeholder”, “co-creation”, “we’re on a journey” jargon and rhetoric, and his message boils down to:

• The public used to be seen by Government as passive recipients of information, not as customers to engage with, which they now are, ‘cos of the internet, twitter, etc. Citizens can now provide feedback on services.

• There should be more effective working together between government departments.

• Government needs to apply psychological research if Government wants to affect behaviour, not just make ads saying: “stop smoking”, “eat less fat”, “do more exercise”, “get a job”, etc.

Now, surely, all of this is pretty trite and obvious, not cutting edge insight? Won't everyone in the audience already know this? Most of us know it, surely. It’s platitudinous.

3. Much of what Tee says seems to serve primarily as a device for reminding us of how successful he has been. The talk is in large part a puff for himself and his career.

4. Is Tee himself a good communicator? I found this presentation dull, uninformative, and I suspect it’s unlikely to motivate his audience to do anything different. The one concrete bit of advice he gives them is: think of how your next communication might be tweeted.

As I say, Tee earns over £160,000 per year of taxpayer's money (equivalent to, say, the combined salaries of three university professors). Maybe he’s very good at managing. But I’d say he’s a rather poor communicator and, on the basis of this performance, a bit light on ideas.

But perhaps I am being jealous and unfair? Wouldn't be the first time...

POSTSCRIPT. Perhaps one way of bringing out the sheer inanity of what Tee has to see is to apply the denial test. Who might conceivably say, "Matt, I disagree with you: let's not listen to to the public but just treat them as passive receivers of information, let's not have more effective working together between departments, and let's not apply psychological research to produce more effective communications."

Also note the zeitgeist, buzzword flavour of the ideas. He's following the common formula of offering obvious suggestions of the sort any reasonably intelligent person given five minutes to think about the subject might come up with, but dressed up as "synergy", "joined-up-thinking", "stake-holding", "partnership" and "co-creation", or whatever the current vocabulary is, etc. At times it seems to me to come close to pseudo-profundity.

Monday, 6 December 2010

The Plank and Double Effect

Doctrine of Double effect

It is morally permissible to perform an action with bad effects (e.g. killing one person to save another) iff:

 1. The act itself, considered in independently of its effect, is not wrong.
 2. Only the good effect is directly intended (the bad is merely foreseen).
 3. The bad effect is not a means for achieving the good.
 4. The good effect outweighs the bad

In a nutshell: An act is not permissible if the intention is to do a bad thing to achieve a good consequence of that bad thing. But an act is permissible if the intention is to do a good thing that simply has bad consequences (outweighed by the good).

Double effect in action


1. Dropping a bomb on a military base, knowing it will result in hundreds of civilian deaths. But the destruction of the base will end the war, resulting in many more lives saved.

2. Dropping a bomb on civilians, resulting in hundreds of deaths, the resulting terror leading to surrender and many more lives saved.

Notice the consequences are identical. According to Double Effect 1 is permissible but 2 is not. Many find this intuitively right. Now consider...

The Plank

Case 1

Two unconscious men are lying at either end of a plank suspended from a runaway balloon by a fraying rope that will soon break, plunging both men to their death. The plank passes a window. You can save one man by grabbing him. But that will tip the plank and kill the other. What should you do? Grab one man and you save him. But as a result of your action the other will immediately die. Or do nothing, and they will both soon die.

Intuitively, it seems right to me to save one even if as a result the other immediately dies. It seems right to kill an innocent person so that a life might be saved.

Doctrine of Double Effect concurs. But now consider...

Case 2

Two unconscious men are lying at either end of a plank suspended from a runaway balloon by a fraying rope that will soon break, plunging both men to their death.

The plank passes your window. You can save one man by firmly shoving the other, nearer man off the plank to his death (he is far to heavy for you to grab). Shove him off and the plank will tip and the other man will drop safely onto an adjacent roof. Do nothing and both men die. What should you do?

Intuitively - push the man to his death. In Case 2, it also seems right to save one man by directly and intentionally killing the other (his death is not an unintended but foreseen bad consequence), just as in Case 1. But Double Effect says you should not shove the man off the plank. You should do nothing, with the result both die.

But does it really make any moral difference that one is grabbing a man rather than shoving him off? Isn't this difference morally irrelevant?

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Tory leaders intellectual lightweights and student yobs?

Wikileaks: We discover Obama sees the Tory team as "lightweights" and that Mervyn King said about Cameron and Osborne that they had a "lack of experience and tendency to see issues only in terms of politics".

Osborne had also been identified by Labour as the "weak link" in a supposedly already intellectually dubious team.

Incidentally, George Osborne did not just change his name from Gideon. It's a very little know fact that Osborne also changed degree part way through. He switched to Modern History while at Oxford (from PPE, I believe - Politics, Philosophy and Economics). Switching degrees after the first year is a fairly unusual thing to do, usually prevented or at least strongly discouraged by colleges and universities unless there are very good reasons for doing so. But who knows the actual reason for George's switch? So far I have only heard a very interesting as yet unsubstantiated report from a contemporary of his that he switched because he found the economics too hard. Be very interested to hear from anyone else who knows more about George's reasons for switching degree after a year....

Perhaps, as is widely suspected, Osborne is not the sharpest pencil in the box. But student yob? Before pointing a finger at students who broke windows in the recent tuition fee protests, indignant Tories should note that Osborne was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club while at Oxford. Here's wiki:

The Bullingdon Club is a socially exclusive student dining club at Oxford University. The club has no permanent rooms and is notorious for its members' wealth and destructive binges. [1] Membership is by invitation only, and prohibitively expensive for most, given the need to pay for the uniform, dinners and damages.[2]

Yes, damages:

Today, the Bullingdon is primarily a dining club, though a vestige of the Club's sporting links exists in the support of an annual point to point race. The Club President, known as the General, presents the winner's cup and the Club members meet there for a champagne breakfast. The Club also meets for an annual Club dinner. Guests may be invited to either of these events. There may also be smaller dinners during the year to mark the initiation of new members. Membership elections are held twice a year, when successful new members are visited in their rooms, which are then 'trashed' as a symbol of their election. The Club's modus operandi has often been to book a private dining room under an assumed name, as most restaurateurs are wary of the Club's reputation for causing considerable drunken damage during the course of the dinners.

Andrew Gimson, biographer of Boris Johnson [also a member], reported about the club in the 1980s [when George Osborne was a member S.L.]: "I don't think an evening would have ended without a restaurant being trashed and being paid for in full, very often in cash. [...]

The difference between these toffs and the recently protesting students who broke some windows is, I suppose, that the latter didn't brandish a wad of notes afterwards and say, "There you are my good man - that should take care of it. Now fuck off."

Photo is of Osborne in his Bullingdon club outfit. Cameron was a member too.

The New York Times told its readers in 1913 that "The Bullingdon represents the acme of exclusiveness at Oxford; it is the club of the sons of nobility, the sons of great wealth; its membership represents the 'young bloods' of the university".[9]

The acme of exclusiveness indeed.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Michael Behe talk{42F345D1-A875-41AD-8591-71515CB69803}

Above link: Intelligent design proponent Michael Behe talks rubbish (that's not my view, that's the view of the Christian Kenneth R. Miller and many other religious scientists). Her's Miller, who is an excellent and highly knowledgeable speaker. If you're tempted to think that there's maybe something to all this ID stuff, listen to Miller. Notice he starts with a prayer....

PS fine-tuning arguments are anther matter entirely. They, at least, are not a joke.