Saturday, July 26, 2014

ABC's Vision Impaired by Solar Hype and Hope

Critique of the ABC's "Power to the People", 4 corners, 7th July 2014

The ABC narrative goes something like this:
  1. Anthropogenic Global Warming is a huge problem, so we have to reduce our carbon outputs.
  2. PM Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt (Environment Minister) are not serious about tackling this problem. As well as scrapping the carbon tax they are now threatening to scrap the 20% renewable energy target as well
  3. Renewables, with a focus on solar power is a vital way forward for Australia. We are in grave danger of being left behind the rest of the world as they latch onto the clean energy market. (jobs, economic development)
  4. Solar thermal and solar PV can make a big difference now provided you have some insight, determination and care for the planet.
  5. In the not so distant future we will develop a radically different electricity system, with community micro-grids and technology that allows buildings to create and store their own energy.
Geoff Russell has already written a critique, Four Corners and its field of dreams, of this program on the pro-nuclear Brave New Climate site. He correctly takes the ABC to task for not doing the maths required for a critical assessment of the potential of solar power (point 4 above). In his view, consistent with the Brave New Climate perspective, nuclear power can do the job of serious carbon reduction much more effectively than solar:
By comparison, France built an essentially carbon free nuclear electricity system in under 20 years. So while Australian electricity generates 850 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, France is down around 70 grams per kilowatt hour and she’s been there since 1990. 
My research also indicates that there are a huge range of problems with solar and wind power. These problems were either glossed over by the ABC or not even mentioned. Nevertheless, the ABC claims to be well researched with dozens of supporting links revealed when you press the Show Background Information button on their website. In such a long standing polarised debate it is always possible to find lots of support for your preferred position. In omitting consideration of core issues the ABC has been far too selective, blinkered and unreflective in their focus.

The problems I refer to are energy returned on energy input (EROI or ERoEI) for renewable technologies, intermittency, diffuseness, storage, integration into the grid (the nature of baseload and peaking) and capacity issues. The capacity factor is how much electricity a generator produces relative to the maximum it could produce.

These issues, some of them technical, should form the core part of an informed program about the role of renewables in the energy mix. But apart from misleading claims about the storage issue most of them are not even mentioned in the ABC program. They have chosen to be warriors in the cause of renewable energy before completing the research that has to be done to be an informed warrior.

A good, free online reference to these more complex technical issues is Energy intensities, EROIs, and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants. Warning: it contains something missing from the ABC program - mathematical rigour.

Also see the book reviews on Brave New Climate for (an unfortunately too expensive book) Energy in Australia: Peak Oil, Solar Power and Asia's economic growth by Graham Palmer. (1) Precis by Graham Palmer (2) Review by John Morgan

This summary by Peter Lang (first comment after the book review) illustrating the relatively low values for solar and wind of the energy returned on energy invested (ERoEI) could form the starting point of a further discussion of the problems involved with solar and wind power.
  • PV (Germany) 2.3
  • Solar thermal 9.6
  • Wind 4
  • Hydro (NZ) 35
  • Coal 29 – 31
  • Gas 28
  • Nuclear 75 – 105
The ABC program is a complete fail with respect to these core issues of energy transformation. Here is a sample, referring to Canberra's Royalla Solar Farm:
STEPHEN LONG: And still tiny by world standards.

It costs a lot to build a plant like this, and that does feed into electricity prices, but in the medium term, the energy will be cheaper because the fuel input, sunlight, is free.

SIMON CORBELL: The economics is a no brainer and it also drives down the cost of electricity more generally in the market because, often, at times of peak demand, renewables is the cheapest source of energy into the electricity market
This could only be described as manipulative journalism. By mentioning that sunlight is free, and ignoring the other fixed production cost of the panels and labour as well as the relatively poor return due to the diffuseness and intermittency of sunlight, the impression is given that energy returns on inputs for solar power is an economic "no brainer". But the ERoEI figures above demonstrate the falseness of that claim.

Furthermore, I think the critique of the ABC needs to go beyond the technical issues. Their full message is for a clean, green and decentralised future, point (5) above. A nuclear energy future is not decentralised and so it is important to address that claim as well. The ABC claim is a political / cultural message that such a decentralised, energy future is desirable and possible, the cultural appeal of the long standing "small is beautiful" movement.

The ABC program suggested strongly, towards the end, that centralised electricity through the traditional grid would be replaced in time with decentralised micro-grids. This thought bubble inspired the "revolutionary" title of the program, "Power to the People".

Consider these extracts, I have emphasised the hype:

a) From the section about the Orange City Bowling Club in the central west of New South Wales.
STEPHEN LONG: An electricity bill that was running at $116,000 a year has fallen by more than a third, and the investment in rooftop solar will pay for itself in three years.

This humble bowling club may be part of a paradigm shift, a new era for the economy.

Danny Kennedy calls it the rooftop revolution, power to the people.

DANNY KENNEDY: What we've had is these big power stations at the middle of a hub and spoke model, shunting electrons down a one-way fire hose, telling us what we should pay for it.

What we're getting now is the ability to participate in the creation of electricity. We're going to have our own power plants on our own roofs. There's going to be a community level storage system, a solar farm or a wind farm out the back, and all those are going to take part in the creation of electricity and the economics of electricity, and it's all going to be managed through software and information communications technology.
b) From futurist Jeremy Rifkin:
JEREMY RIFKIN: We now have millions and millions of small players, home owners, small businesses, cooperatives, even large businesses that are producing their own solar and wind generated green electricity at near zero marginal cost.

In 10 years from now, 15 years from now, we'll have tens of millions of local sites producing green electricity on micro-grids
c) The section discussing the aftermath of superstorm Sandy:
STEPHEN LONG: When super storm Sandy struck the United States in 2012, Americans discovered what it's like when the power grid breaks down.

Millions of people across the east coast were left for days without electricity: no light, no heat and no communications.

RICHARD KAUFFMAN, CHAIRMAN, ENERGY AND FINANCE, NEW YORK STATE: The thing that people had the hardest time with during Sandy was the fact that they were cut off from communications. If you're without power for days, it is, not just inconvenient, but it really feels like you can't live your life.

Individuals and communities want to have more and more control over their energy system. We again saw this after Sandy where communities have asked for their own micro-grids because they don't want to be as reliant upon the grid.

STEPHEN LONG: Former investment banker, Richard Kauffman, is known as New York's Energy Tsar. He's overseeing a move to decentralised electricity.

RICHARD KAUFFMAN: In the last 10 years, we've invested $17 billion just to keep the grid as it is. And, in the next 10 years, if we keep just doing exactly as we've been doing, it's, we have to invest another $30 billion.

The Empire State is instead planning a radically different electricity system, with community micro-grids and technology that allows buildings to create and store their own energy.

RICHARD KAUFFMAN: It used to be that you had to get the electricity that came through the central grid because that was the only alternative.

Well that's not true anymore, so we have had, across a whole range of industries, the benefit that customers are now in charge and the technology exists now for that to be true in the power sector.

The cost of all these solutions are going down, while the cost of the traditional central station power and distribution systems goes up.
The ABC is promoting a decentralised field of dreams here. Here is a rebuttal to their views found on line. DG stands for distributed generation. Emphasis added.
If you want to know what utilities actually object to about DG, it is policies that functionally require them to purchase power from solar homeowners at $0.30/kWh when they don’t need it instead of buying it on the wholesale market for $0.04/kWh when they do. The result is not just less-profitable utilities but also higher rates for the vast majority of ratepayers. A recent California Public Utilities Commission study concluded that by 2020 the state’s net metering programs would increase rates by a billion dollars annually.

That’s not to say that the growth of renewable energy is not disruptive—just not in the way its advocates claim. Look at just about any place that has achieved significant deployment of renewable electricity, and what you find is that the vast majority comes from large, utility scale installations, not rooftop solar or any other behind-the-meter generation source. Even Germany gets over three-quarters of its renewable generation from large-scale wind, hydro, and biomass.

Given the current state of renewable technology and the scale of generation necessary to run a modern economy, these basic dynamics appear unlikely to change anytime soon. Take a peek at any of the dozens of scenarios produced by renewables advocates that claim we can run the U.S., Europe, or the world largely on renewables, and what you find is that most generation comes from massive industrial scale wind and solar developments from North Dakota to the North Sea—not DG.

In fact, a renewables-powered future will probably require more centralized generation, not less. Achieving significantly higher penetrations of renewable energy will require transmitting electricity over hundreds or thousands of miles from where large amounts can be generated to places where it will be consumed. Renewables champions may talk small-scale DG, but what they intend to build is every bit as centralized as the centralized power sources we have today.

Ultimately, what is disrupting the existing utility model is not the distributed nature of renewables, it is their intermittent nature, and the policies necessary to make them viable. Heavy public subsidization of the capital costs of wind and solar, combined with preferential purchase requirements for the power they generate, ensure that the marginal cost of wind and solar will always be lower than just about anything else when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. Hence, Germany simultaneously boasts the highest retail electricity prices in Europe and the lowest wholesale prices—not because the power costs less to generate but because most of the cost has been shifted elsewhere. In Germany, expensive, highly subsidized, intermittent renewables generation has driven wholesale prices so low that the utilities that must manage the grid and operate conventional power plants can no longer operate profitably. This, not cheap distributed solar, is what is disrupting the utility industry here and abroad.
- The Revolution won't be distributed (2014) 
Consistent with it's decentralisation thesis the ABC program provides us with a false idea about the nature of disruptive technologies:
MATTHEW WARREN: Oh look, I think we are seeing in the energy industry, it's going through a transformation that's not dissimilar to telephony to retail to newspaper media and that is, we're seeing, you know, quite radical transformation that is driven by technology and driven by changing market conditions.

DANNY KENNEDY: It's disruptive like media was disrupted a decade ago.

Once upon a time, the ABC and New York Times were all the news that was fit to print and they shunted the news of the day down the one way fire hose, and now we use social media and Twitter and whatever else to co-create what is the news stream and what makes for big news.

And, the economics, we know well, has been completed transformed. That's coming to electricity. The coal and other protected, vested interests of Australia are going the way of the Dodo if they don't adjust to this reality.
The important point about digital disruptive technologies is that they start out cheaper than established technologies. Mobile phones and online journalism start out cheaper than the media which they threaten to displace. The reverse situation applies to solar and wind power, which are still far more expensive than fossil fuels. Moore's law does not apply to energy technology as the ABC is suggesting.

Is a 20% Renewable energy target a good idea?

We need both more energy, particularly for the world's energy poor, and more clean energy, meaning, in part, energy produced without or with reduced CO2 emissions, also known as decarbonisation of the energy supply.

The program begins with Kerry O'Brien voicing the fear that the Abbott government is threatening to cut the 20% Renewable Energy Target (RET).

Why would Abbott and Hunt contemplate this? Well, the real reason, not spelt out clearly in this ABC program, is that renewables are expensive and so have to be subsidised.

The Australian political reality is that ongoing political uncertainty (no one knows what will happen electorally in the future) threatens renewable energy subsidies. As long as renewable energy can't compete with fossil fuels in the capitalist market place then it will remain dependent on subsidies whose delivery will remain politically uncertain.

Roger Pielke jnrs iron law says (assuming the continuation of the capitalist system) that when tough decisions have to be made economic issues will always trump environmental issues. He's right. The Australian people won't support a political system which raises or even vaguely threatens to raise energy prices to the point which either cuts deeply into our standard of living or makes us uncompetitive on the world stage. The election of the far from popular Tony Abbott as PM, who promised to rescind the carbon tax introduced by the ALP, demonstrates that.

So how to proceed? What policies do I support, which may be capable of gaining political traction? (1) Intelligent subsidies where there is justified hope for a rapid price reduction in the given renewable (2) Much more emphasis on Research, Development and Demonstration (RD and D) to bring the price of renewables down. Setting a target with a strict timeline does not necessarily promote these policies. I think the critique of the Abbott government's policies by Roger Pielke jnr (Australia's Climate Follies) has far more substance than the ABC critique.

Given that renewables such as solar and wind remain far more expensive (despite considerably cost reduction to date) than nuclear which in turn remains more expensive than fossil fuels then the emphasis needs to be on RD and D to bring the price of clean energy alternatives down to a level where they can compete.


Further reading about policy decision making in the USA: Beyond Boom and Bust

Monday, April 28, 2014

the core problem with marxism

I have put the following post up on reddit (link) for discussion. Comments here are welcome but I expect there will be more discussion there than here.

I'll try to articulate a critique of marxism that makes sense to me. Marxism was developed in the 19th Century when Reason and Science as a conquering force from the Enlightenment, which more or less overwhelmed religious belief, was seen as either a higher form of thought or at least a sufficient form of thought to solve all the significant problems in the world. Marx called his form of socialism "scientific" in contrast to utopian socialism. Marx's historical and dialectical materialism was influence by Hegel's idea that there were clear historical laws which, with much effort, could be discovered, articulated and provide a guide to scientific action.

When you put together the overarching concept of "scientific socialism", combined with a monistic (rather than pluralism) One TrueWay world view, expounded by Plekhanov and adopted by Lenin, and further combined with a (perhaps unconscious) fact-value or science - ethics dichotomy (rather than a distinction) then you end up with an overly deterministic way of evaluating how the world works.

Engels said that freedom is the recognition of necessity and this is the marxist view of virtue or ethics. This downplays the importance of ethics in our thinking in general and provides a basis for totalitarianism. The quickest way to achieve justice for the oppressed is to seize political power by whatever means available and implement the socialist order.

The "necessity" of overthrowing capitalism by revolution and establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat has led in practice to a dictatorship by the communist party. Democracy is denied since the masses are denied the right to reintroduce capitalism if 51% desire that. Communists are not the best democrats. Unfortunately, in practice, this has led to the Gulag. The historical facts have been endlessly debated, disputed, interpreted and reinterpreted. Marxists always admit that errors have been made but they can be corrected. What I am trying to outline here is the underlying cause, an overestimation of the role of Science as in "scientific socialism".

My argument here is not that any particular or detailed contribution by Marx is clearly wrong. For instance, Capital in my view is a brilliant critique of the political economy. It is also true that at certain times in history there was little alternative but to become a communist. If you were a Jew, or indeed any decent person, in Europe facing the rise of the National Socialists in the 1930s the only good options were to become a communist, since the alternative opposition was pathetic, or run away.

I am not arguing that capitalism is a good system. Capitalism is a terrible system. It is just that all the alternatives we have tried so far have turned out to be worse. (to paraphrase Winston Churchill)

This is a philosophical critique. Dialectics and Logic, the tools of scientific socialism are very useful and have their place in good analysis. It is just that they do not and cannot provide a One True Way forward. The core problem is that Marxism was built on a theory of the role Science that was plausible in the 19th Century but which we need to re-evaluate today.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Inequality is increasing

Whatever happened to Occupy Wall Street?

  • Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
  • The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion.
  • That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
  • The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.
  • Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.
  • The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.
  • In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.
- source, Oxfam

the Adam Goodes story

from the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) blog (link)

THE first choice he makes is to turn around. “Nah,” he tells himself. “This isn’t happening.”

May 24, 2013, in the dying minutes of the Sydney Swans versus Collingwood Magpies opening match of the AFL’s annual Indigenous Round, Swans powerhouse Adam Goodes chooses to turn his 100kg, 191cm frame towards an MCG crowd of 65,306 people and face the 13-year-old girl seated on the boundary fence who just called him an ape. He then chooses to point his right arm straight towards the crowd. This muscular, thick-boned weapon of a limb has contributed to 5797 disposals, 1829 handballs and 409 goals in a thrilling 16-year career. But now it’s a spotlight. It’s a thing of incandescence, a thing of fire. He then chooses to remove his mouthguard and call to a dazed steward resting against the fence with his arms folded across his kneecaps. “Mate,” he says. “I don’t want her here. Get her out.”

The moment takes 19 seconds to unfold. And 200 years to arise.

Adam Goodes was named the NSW Australian of the Year two months ago. On Australia Day eve he could well be named our nation’s Australian of the Year or this newspaper’s Australian of the Year. He’s been recognised as much for his community work – domestic violence awareness ambassador, working with kids in youth detention centres, establishing the Go Foundation with his cousin and fellow Swans great Michael O’Loughlin to create indigenous role models in all walks of life – as for the courage he showed that night at the MCG and the compassion he showed the girl thereafter. “I’ve had fantastic support over the past 24 hours,” Goodes said at the time. “I just hope that people give the 13-year-old girl the same sort of support because she needs it, her family needs it, and the people around them need it. It’s not a witch-hunt. I don’t want people to go after this young girl. We’ve just got to help educate society better so it doesn’t happen again.”

He’s had seven months to think about that night at the MCG, to turn it around in his mind, to chew on it with his closest friends and family. He pauses for a moment, silent and thoughtful. “Everybody has choices,” he says. “It’s about how you learn from those choices you make.” Choices.

Horsham, 300km north-west of Melbourne, 1994. Lisa May was a single parent raising three sons, the Goodes boys, Adam, 14, Jake, 12, and Brett, 10. Lisa May had separated from the boys’ father 10 years previously, and had recently chosen to escape from an abusive partner. She chose not to be a victim, not to wallow in a past that saw nine of her 10 siblings taken from their parents; saw her removed at the age of five from her parents at Point Pearce, an indigenous town on the Yorke Peninsula, South Australia, 70km from Wallaroo where Adam Goodes was born on January 8, 1980. She chose to devote her life to her sons.

“I’m very grateful to have a mother who wanted something better for her children than what she had growing up,” says Goodes. “There were sacrifices she made to make sure we went to school. To make sure we did our homework. To make sure we were well fed. I have no doubt she’s proud of us, but we’re forever indebted to her for those sacrifices she made for us.”

At 14, Goodes had a room filled with posters of the black US basketball star Michael Jordan. There was a time when he was climbing out his bedroom window to run to the local phone box to call the police to report domestic violence. But he could relax in his room, fantasise about “air”, hang time, the wonder and grace of a Jordan slam dunk.

On his first day of high school he passed a bus shelter where some kids offered him a puff on a joint; he politely declined. In class he met a kid named Dion resting his feet on a Sherrin football. At lunch the boys from the bus shelter asked him to sit with them but he refused because he’d chosen to go to the oval this ordinary lunch break to kick that oddly-shaped ball with Dion. Some time in that hour-long lunch break he leapt above the shoulders of his school friends and found his hang time, his own air, and Dion’s Sherrin slipped into his chest, sure and right, like it belonged there, like a newborn baby with its mother. “Not many cartilages left in my knees to give me that air up there anymore,” laughs Goodes today.

Some friends and family chose to drag 15-year-old Adam Goodes down. His dad, who separated from the family when Adam was four, had a European heritage. Adam’s own cousins called him “coconut”. He didn’t know what they meant. “Black on the outside, white on the inside,” his mum told him.

Playing for the North Ballarat Rebels in the TAC Cup under-18s, he outmuscled, outplayed an opponent, won a free kick. The opponent had nothing left in him but cheap and easy words: “F..k off you black c..t.”

Goodes chose football as his revenge. Be the best footballer they’d ever seen. Be Gilbert McAdam. Nicky Winmar. Michael Long. Be AFL’s Michael Jordan.

At 17, he was standing with his mum at Melbourne airport, about to fly to Sydney to begin his career with his beloved Swans. “This is the start of great things to come,” said Lisa May. “Don’t forget you are bringing Mama home a Brownlow.”

“I think I get a lot of my personality from my mum,” Goodes says. “She’s very modest about the job she done with all of us boys. She’s never blown away too much by anything we do because she’s always seen the good in us and she’s always believed we could do anything we wanted to do. She’s definitely given us that vision that we can do anything. Anything really is possible.”

Young Adam Goodes would bring Mama home two Brownlows.

Choices. Moments. Turning points. Former Sydney Swans coach Paul Roos watches footballers make choices every day, on field and off. Decisions that turn a game, change the course of a season, alter a career for better or worse. Roos says the greatest myth in the daytime telemovie narrative of Adam Goodes is that greatness fell upon him simply by strapping on his boots, pulling his red and white socks up and jogging on to the SCG. “He needed to be coached. He wanted to be coached. He wanted to learn. It didn’t come as easily to him as some people think. He had to learn his craft. He wasn’t a natural leader. He had to learn to lead. And we worked hard.”

Roos recalls Goodes coming to see him after the 2002 season when he finished third on the list of the Swans’ best and fairest players. Says Goodes: “The biggest disappointment for me at that time was not making the team leadership group and I’d just finished third in the best and fairest the year before. I thought that I’d improved with my consistency as a player and the leadership group was announced and there was 12 players in it and I wasn’t one of them.”

Some players of his talent might have opted for implosion, gone on a bender, skipped training, mouthed off. Goodes chose to quietly knock on his coach’s door and ask him to outline the ways in which he might better his chances the following year, correct his mistakes. “We sat down and had a discussion and one of the first things I asked was, ‘Do you want to be a leader?’?” recalls Roos. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I do’. And I said, ‘OK, well that’s good’. Not everyone wants to be a leader. It’s a myth in footy clubs that everyone wants to lead. I said there are things you need to work on, and behaviours.”

“They wanted to see more leadership from me on the training track and they wanted to hear my voice more in team meetings,” says Goodes.

“To his credit, he took that on board,” says Roos. “And the next time we voted he was in the leadership group.”

In the year that followed that discussion he was named team best and fairest and won his first Brownlow Medal. “I think it’s about how much do you really want something,” says Goodes. “How much do you want to sacrifice to get the best out of yourself? Once you commit in your mind what that is, you will do anything to get that.”

Roos and Goodes continued to have discussions that grew deeper and wider in theme. They talked about Goodes’ background, his family’s struggles. Roos soon saw a man who could not only inspire his team, but also his country. “I was always encouraging him,” Roos says. “From my point of view it was ‘if you are going to be a role model for the team you will also be a great role model for everyone, including your own people’. Adam tries to live his life by reaching his potential. He delves deeper into who he is and who made him what he is. It’s Aboriginal people, it’s European people, it’s every nationality. All kinds of people helped make Adam Goodes the great person he is.”

December 2004, and 24-year-old Adam Goodes sat at a table with future indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough in a French restaurant in Canberra. Also there was Sue Gordon, Western Australia’s first Aboriginal magistrate and chair of the new National Indigenous Council, which Goodes would join. Goodes had been exploring his aboriginality, studying a Diploma in Aboriginal Studies at Sydney’s Eora TAFE. Gordon told Goodes how it felt to be removed from her mother at the age of four in 1947 because she was part-Aboriginal. Goodes listened intently as Gordon told a story that mirrored his mother’s but one he’d never fully heard. “He’s quite deep,” Gordon says. “What I found was he was very keen to learn about Aboriginal issues across Australia. He wanted to understand the history. He was educating himself. But at the same time he didn’t realise that he was becoming a mentor to younger Aboriginal people.”

Today, Goodes and Gordon love each other like family. “I’ve watched him grow from a young footballer to a man to a captain,” she says. “He’s a fine man and he has a cross to bear far greater than some of them.

“That young Collingwood fan that night, that’s a sign that there are still pockets of people who don’t address the issues within a family. It really hurts. There are still a lot people who don’t fully understand it.”

He was magic that night. The thing that’s often forgot about Adam Goodes and the Swans-Magpies game of May 24, 2013, was how well he played, how much he contributed to the first Swans victory over the Pies at the MCG in 13 years. He kicked his 400th career goal that night. He gave his heart and soul to the 65,306 football fans in the crowd. Curling kicks from the outside of his right boot that could have landed on a coin. Bullet handballs that ignited 70m corridor plays. Goal-square marks of such timing and precognitive positioning it felt like his opponents were running in sludge and he was running on air. He found the ball that night like a bee finds nectar. He was a butterfly. He was a bloodhound.

He believes Australian rules football had its origins in marn grook, the game played by his Aboriginal ancestors in which players kicked and jostled for a stuffed animal skin “ball”. “The tallest men have the best chances in this game,” read a passage in 1878′s The Aborigines of Victoria by Robert Brough-Smyth. “Some of them will leap as high as five feet from the ground to catch the ball.”

He believes he was born to play the game. His bone structure, the size of his calves and thighs, his height-to-weight ratio. “When I play football, it’s something that becomes instinctive for me,” he says. He considers the game the “purest expression” of his Aboriginality. And there was no better example of this than on May 24, 2013, at the MCG. He was instinctive. He was electrifying. He was unstoppable. Until he chose to stop.

In 2008, Goodes was asked to contribute an essay to a hardback AFL history called The Australian Game of Football Since 1858. Goodes wrote a disarmingly frank and insightful history of indigenous Australia’s connection to the great game, drawing on everything he had studied, everything he had heard first-hand from scholars such as Sue Gordon and survivors like his mum. He wrote about his hero Nicky Winmar and the day, April 17, 1993, when ceaseless racial taunts caused him to lift his St Kilda jersey and point at his skin. “I am a human being,” Winmar said after the game. “No matter what colour I am.” Goodes wrote about the day in 2002 when one of the game’s most high-profile players called him a “f..king monkey- looking c..t”. He wrote about what it’s like to live “half-caste”, about “being the object of racism so many times that you lose count”. He left nothing off the page like he leaves nothing of himself on the football field when the siren sounds.

“I live in a racist country,” he wrote. “To understand what it means to be indigenous, you need to understand that we come with baggage,” he wrote. “Every one of us. And every one of us has a choice as to how we deal with it – some of us have not yet come to terms with that choice, or circumstances have made making the right choice difficult, if not impossible. But the choice – and the opportunity – remains there, right in front of us.” He titled his sweeping epic The Indigenous Game: A Matter of Choice. Anyone who has read it understands why he chose to stop that night at the MCG, why he turned around to spotlight the “ape” taunt that was flung at him so carelessly and foolishly, just like all those countless taunts that came before it. There was nothing knee-jerk about it. His whole life informed his reaction.

“It takes time to build that confidence to do that,” he says. “I think when you’re proud of something and you’ve always stood up for yourself, and when you get to that place, you’re very sure of who you are and what you stand for. And no matter how old that person was or where that happened to be, my reaction would have been exactly the same.”

That three-letter word did the impossible. It made Adam Goodes forget how much he loved Australian rules football. “Yeah,” he says. “It was disappointing. I don’t know if it would have been different if I had actually stayed on the ground. Because the coach just wanted me to rest the last three or four minutes off the ground that game. It just sort of all hit me once I was on the boundary, just sitting there thinking about it. Yeah, I just didn’t want to be out there anymore.

“When something cuts you to the core it’s very emotional, a very disappointing feeling. Something that you don’t want to have anybody go through and you certainly don’t want to be the reason that person is feeling like that. That’s what I take from the experience,” he says. “I think it’s important for people to stand up for who they are and where they come from. But to be able to do it in a way that cannot only help that person but help the people around them.”

The disappointment was deepened five days later when Collingwood club president Eddie McGuire – a man who had shaken Goodes’ hand in the dressing rooms after the incident with the girl, assuring him his club had a zero-tolerance policy on racism – made a remark on radio linking Goodes to the promotion of the King Kong musical. In some ways, the McGuire comment was a sharper blow, coming as it did from an adult professional, a seasoned journalist and businessman. Goodes was deeply hurt by it. He could have lashed out in the media, returned fire with a few stinging comments of his own. But he chose to go deeper, calling for big-picture understanding, a universal hauling of “the baggage”, a few more hands to carry the cross he has to bear.

“I think what I’ve learned in my journey is that sometimes you pick the wrong way as well,” he says. “You try not to make that bad decision again. You’re not going to make the right choice every time. I’m definitely one of those people who has made a lot of mistakes. It’s about how you deal with them and how you learn from them that really builds your character and how you can build your sense of self-belief and morals.”

But remember, he stresses, “we’re only 200 years old”. He thinks about what might have happened to a “half-caste kid” like him 100 years ago. He thinks about the Kahlin Compound, a Darwin home established in 1913 where, he says, “they took these half-caste kids away because they thought they could better assimilate these kids into mainstream Australia … because they had some white European blood in them”.

“In these camps they were trained to be domestics,” he says. “So no doubt we’ve come a long way since then.

“I’m very happy with the Australia I’m living in right now. We have a fantastic people that want very similar things. It’s a place where you can raise your family and they will be created as equal and be seen as equal. I think there are a lot of people out there doing fantastic things in the community. But we’re never gonna live in a perfect world and nor would we want to. I’d hate to think everybody got along and agreed on everything because that would be a pretty tame life, I believe. But we’ve got to work on each other’s mistakes.”

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Rhonda Farkota Speaking Tour: Maths Mastery

Australian education and maths. I think it's generally accepted that Asia has long ago overtaken us, that maths instruction is poorly done in many primary schools and that we have an unacceptable long tail of underachievement.

If you live in Australia or New Zealand, Rhonda Farkota (Maths and Direct Instruction expert) will be running seminars near you soon. Here are the locations and dates:
  • Adelaide, February 7th
  • Perth, February 14th
  • Brisbane, February 20th
  • Cairns, February 21st
  • Hobart, February 28th
  • Melbourne, March 14th
  • Sydney, March 21st
  • Alice Springs, March 28th
  • Auckland, April 4th
More detail here

Rhonda achieves something that most educators fail to achieve: She gets the balance right between teacher directed and student directed learning. That might sound simple but our educational reality shows that it is far from simple.

I have used Rhonda's materials with indigenous students and with home schooled students and think her approach is what is needed for students to establish a thorough grounding in basic maths skills.

See my earlier blog posts for more detail about Rhonda Farkota, her materials and education philosophy:

Rhonda Farkota's 2005 Opinion Piece (What needs to be done and still hasn't been done to fix maths education in Australia)

Rhonda Farkota: Australia's Direct Instruction Maths Expert (Some brief comments about her PhD thesis and links to the materials she developed)

Rhonda Farkota's educational philosophy explained in five paragraphs ("When it came to the employment and cultivation of higher order skills where reasoning and reflection were required it was clear that a student-directed approach to learning was better suited. But when it came to the acquisition of basic skills the empirical evidence unequivocally showed that a teacher-directed approach was best suited")

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism

A recent article by Bill and Melinda Gates (Three Myths on the World's Poor) gives the impression that capitalism is an unparalleled success story:
In our lifetimes, the global picture of poverty has been completely redrawn. Per-person incomes in Turkey and Chile are where the U.S. was in 1960. Malaysia is nearly there. So is Gabon. Since 1960, China's real income per person has gone up eightfold. India's has quadrupled, Brazil's has almost quintupled, and tiny Botswana, with shrewd management of its mineral resources, has seen a 30-fold increase. A new class of middle-income nations that barely existed 50 years ago now includes more than half the world's population.

And yes, this holds true even in Africa. Income per person in Africa has climbed by two-thirds since 1998—from just over $1,300 then to nearly $2,200 today. Seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies of the past half-decade are in Africa.

Here's our prediction: By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world.
This reminds me of a stunning video by Hans Rosling, the Director of the Gapminder Foundation which shows how much the wealth of the world has increased in the past 200 years:
You Tube version

brown – Europe
red – Asia
green – Middle East
blue – Africa
yellow – Americas

Most of the commentaries on the web praise this video to the skies. It deserves praise for its overall assessment of the progress of capitalism but there is also a tendency to fast forward through the bad times.

In 1810 the wealthiest countries were the UK and the Netherlands. The average life expectancy of every country was below 40.

Enter the industrial revolution and the wealth and life expectancy begins to dramatically improve for the countries which do industrialise. This is true although there is no mention of the appalling working conditions, the very long working hours, the child labour in the emerging factories of Britain and elsewhere. The birth pangs of capitalism led to major upheavals in 1848, the shortening of the working day, the Factory Acts, etc.

As the wealth of countries increases then so does the gap between rich and poor countries. Rosling does mention this (at 2:35). It also needs to be emphasised that the scale he is using on the horizontal wealth axis is logarithmic, showing the per annum categories of $400 (roughly one dollar per day), $4000 ($10 per day) and $40,000 ($100 per day). If he had used a linear scale then the gap between rich and poor countries would be far more pronounced. The gap between the richest and poorest countries taken from the closing and opening screens of this video is at least 100 times today compared with less than 10 times in 1810

He does mention the catastrophe of WW1 but then fast forwards through The Great Depression and WW2. It is far easier to fast forward through the bad times than live through them or explain them.

His focus is on post 1948, the boom years of capitalism.

By 1985 even in the poorest country, Mozambique on just $366 per year, the average lifespan was three years higher than Britain in 1810.

Wealth has increased but so has inequality. Rosling visually extracts Shanghai out of China towards the end, showing that it is similar in wealth to Italy. Then he extracts the poor inland province, Guizhou, and compares it to Pakistan. Finally, he shows how the even poorer rural part of Guizhou has a wealth index similar to Ghana, Africa. Certainly in this section there is no brushing over the real world problem of inequality in China.

He finishes on an optimistic note. The gap between the rest and the west is now closing. In the future it is possible that everyone can make it to the healthy and wealthy corner with more aid, trade, green technology and peace. Rosling slips into an optimistic version of political correctness in this parting message.

Some people are optimistic about the future of capitalism because of its productivity; others are pessimistic because of its inequality, anarchy of production, environmental destruction, and alienation . We need to see both sides of this picture. In evaluating the rosy picture of Gates and Rosling, I would use three criteria: standard of living, inequality and stability.

The overall standard of living has increased dramatically. Correct, capitalism has delivered in this respect.

Inequality has increased too. This is totally ignored by Bill and Melinda. It is mentioned by Rosling in places but the logarithmic wealth scale distorts the huge and growing gap here

Stability: Apart from the post war boom period (relatively stable and prosperous) capitalism has been an unstable system which can’t seem to avoid periodic economic crises. Over the next few years we will see how acute this problem will become. I'm really uncertain. I don't think anyone fully understands the inner dynamics of capitalism and its tendency to crisis. That elephant is still in the room.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

science, limited (Hilary Putnam)

Ch 8 The impact of science on modern conceptions of rationality. In Reason, Truth and History (1981) by Hilary Putnam

Putnam is suggesting that it is better to think rationally about both science and our values, without regarding one as more important than the other, rather than elevating science thinking above values thinking.

Putnam is trying to create a space in between two extreme, opposite views that tend to dominate our cultural discourse. The extreme views are:

Scientism: that the scientific approach is the only productive approach to take towards all of our issues, including social issues. Science, unlike all other viewpoints, provides us with the opportunity to understand the world objectively.

Relativism: Absolute scientific truth is an illusion. Truth, if you want to call it that, resides in an individual's interpretation of the world, which depends of their current knowledge and cultural context. There are many ways to interpret the world, we should respect all of them and not be so arrogant as to think anyone knows the best way.

This dichotomy (scientism / relativism) can be expressed with different labels, eg., objective / subjective; facts / values; materialist / idealist; reductionist / holist; monist / pluralist. In some debate these become swear words, that each side throws at the other. Putnam wants to collapse these dichotomies, which have become rigid ideological labels, into distinctions. We can talk rationally about both science and values without presuming that science represents some higher form of truth.

Our concept of progress tends to be scientific progress. The Industrial Revolution and the Computer Revolution represents progress. You can convincingly argue that Newton knew more science than Aristotle. But it is harder to argue that Shakespeare was a better poet than Homer. Science has progressed dramatically whereas literature and the arts have not.

History, as interpreted by the positivist August Comte (1798-1857), shows us that science is a heroic success story. We have moved from primitive myths, to high religion, to metaphysical theories (Plato, Kant), to positive science. This represents intellectual success as well as the obvious material and technological success.

From the scientism viewpoint, value judgements are viewed as suspect because they can't be verified by the methods of science. We can't obtain universal or majority agreement on ethical questions about abortion or homosexuality. Therefore science must be superior because the correctness of scientific theories can be demonstrated publicly.

Of course it is not really true that there is agreement on scientific theories. But most of us agree that scientific theories have testable consequences. Scientific language refers to publicly verifiable observations and not subjective private introspection. If we perform such and such actions then we will obtain such and such observable results. Much of the maths and science might be too difficult for the public to understand. But often the experts seem to be in agreement. And the public usually defers to the experts.

Not always. But current controversies such as the anthropogenic global warming debate or the reading wars debate are fought out with both sides claiming that science is on their side. Both sides think that science and not something else will deliver victory to their cause. When in doubt do more science.

Can science deliver us an objective view of the real world? Quantum physics interpreted as pop science is seen to be cool because it delivers us imaginative, mind boggling views of how the world really is that defy common sense. I have seen real scientists on TV arguing for parallel universes or that we are just holographic projections from the nearest black hole. Does anyone really believe this? I prefer common sense. If someone down the pub thinks they are just a holographic projection then they can buy their own drinks.

Instrumentalism is the idea that scientific theories are instruments to predict observations rather than attempts to describe the real but hidden structures of the world. Instrumentalism of itself is not a tenable or fully rounded concept of rationality. Sure, it is very valuable to know efficient means to attain certain ends. But it is also valuable, probably more important, to know what ends to choose. Scientific rationality applies to public means-ends connections. If this defines science then it also confines science. Why would anyone be satisfied with such a narrow conception of rationality?

Complex, real life, judgements require a high level of rationality but cannot be proved scientifically. It's strange that the fact that some things are impossible to prove (our value judgements) should become an argument for irrationality of belief about those things.

Nevertheless, instrumental success is appealing to the contemporary mind. Industrial society, both capitalist and socialist versions, have promoted their legitimacy on the basis of rising productivity and increasing standard of living. There is no doubt in my mind that this has some real merit. If a billion people or so live on a dollar a day then obviously we need to increase their standard of living. That is why I can't abandon my socialistic sentiment, since capitalism might increase standard of living but at the same time it also increases the gap between rich and poor. But, it is also true, that once their basic material needs are met, humans also look for more, a deeper concept of human flourishing or eudaimonia (Aristotle's term).

Empiricism is the belief that experience is the only source of real knowledge about the world. (I plan to discuss empiricism more fully later). One extreme version of empiricism is phenomenalism, that all we can talk about scientifically are sensations. JS Mill, for example, described physical objects as the "permanent possibility of sensation" (1865).

It follows from phenomenalism that all worthy facts are ultimately instrumental. If phenomenalism is correct then instrumentalism is elevated from the mundane and practical to high science. If you perform such and such actions then you will have such and such experiences. The only worthy knowledge is means-ends connections. This form does not fit "good", "bad" or other ethical judgements. "Good" people who take "good' actions have many divergent experiences and outcomes. Such ethical statements have no cognitive meaning, they are purely "emotive". This way of thinking (phenomenalism) was promoted by the Logical Positivists and Logical Empiricists [Ernst Mach (1838-1916), Otto Neurath (1882-1945), Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970 ), Hans Reichenbach (1891-1953)] and flourished from the mid 1920s to the mid 1930s.

Hence, phenomenalists could still claim to be curious about the "big questions" such as black holes, the Big Bang and evolution unlike the "vulgar" form of instrumentalism that only appealed to practical outcomes. For the phenomenalists it was just a fact of life that worthy knowledge was ultimately instrumental in form: If you perform such and such actions then you will have such and such experiences just happened to be the only sort of knowledge worthy of true science.

The logical empiricists were not worshippers of practical, narrow minded instrumentalism. Their healthy motivation was to eliminate obscurantism and metaphysics from intellectual discourse. But by drawing a sharp line between the factual (observational science) and the evaluational (talk about values) they ended up giving a distorted picture of the factual.

Putnam discusses how phenomenalism unravelled from within. One of its chief theoretician, Rudolf Carnap, tried but failed to show that statements of science are translatable one by one into statements about what experiences we will have if we perform certain actions.

Hence, since such science can't be attained (translation from science statements to certain experiences) then it is not justified to exclude value judgements (as emotive) on those same grounds.

It is a correct generalisation about the practice of scientists that their observation statements are couched in a certain type of language, a public physical thing language. But it is an error to turn this into an epistemological absolute. For example, if you are not allowed to talk about sensations because they are private then all introspection is ruled out.

Here is a danger which Putnam is articulating. Some people are in awe of the instrumental success of science which for them is free of the interminable debates we find in religion, ethics and metaphysics. In an age of various forms of quackery and snake oil salesmen (Tarot cards, Palmistry, homeopathy, astrology etc.) the best antidote is to stress the success of the scientific approach (achieved through rigorous controlled and / or double blind experiments). But there is another type of problem. In a culture hypnotised by the success of science a philosophy emerges (Scientism) which can't conceive of useful knowledge and reason outside of what we call science. What else could real knowledge be, except for science?

Modern versions of attempts at scientific objectivity have replaced the now rejected efforts of the Logical Empiricists. One of them is the Bayesian school. The problem here is that prior probabilities are subjective, or, the time taken for them to converge may be very long. You can't draw a sharp line between the actual beliefs of scientists and the scientific method.

Putnam also discusses Nelson Goodman's (1906-1998) critique of inductive projection. I'll leave that to another time since Nelson Goodman's work seems important enough to warrant more study in its own right (see references).

How then do we account for the success of science?

Scientists did develop a new set of methodological maxims between the 15th and 17th Centuries. Robert Boyle (1627-1691) played a major role here (see Leviathan and the Air Pump by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer). Before Boyle experiments were conceived as illustrations for doctrines believed on deductive and / or a priori grounds, not as evidence for and against theories. Boyle advocated several things which changed all of that:
  • he distinguished between actual experiments and thought experiments
  • all experiments should be completely described, including failed experiments
  • he wrote manuals for experimental procedures
This shift from a focus on a priori beliefs to testing theories by controlled experiments was a significant methodological shift. And it did lead to very successful science.

So Putnam agrees there is a successful scientific method but argues that it is not a rigorous set of formal rules. It also requires informal rationality or independent intelligence to be successful. It presupposes rationality and does not define rationality.

There are other limits to what science can achieve. It is not always possible to perform controlled experiments and sometimes only passive observation is possible, eg. for ethical reasons. Evaluating evidence for alternative theories is often an informal matter.

Karl Popper argued that science should proceed by putting forward highly falsifiable, risky theories, testing them, until only one survived. One problem with this is that it is not possible to test all strongly falsifiable theories, there are too many of them.

Furthermore, the falsifiability criterion would rule out one of science's favourite theories: Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin's theory does not imply definite predictions. We accept it because:
  • it provides a plausible explanation for an enormous amount of data
  • it has been fruitful in suggesting new theories
  • it provides links to other fields such as genetics and molecular biology
  • there is no satisfactory alternative theory
The method being used to evaluate Darwin's theory is inference to the best explanation even though the best explanation is not strongly falsifiable.

So, what remains of the scientific method? We can think about it either in the Boyle sense of strict experimental procedure or as a vague thing like:
"Make experiments and observations as carefully as you can and then make inferences to the best explanation and eliminate theories which can be falsified by crucial experiments"
Putnam argues that such a vague definition of the scientific method could be used for ethical induction just as readily as scientific induction.

This post is mainly a summary of one chapter of a book by Hilary Putnam, although I have thrown in a few examples and brief comments of my own on the way through. I'll write up how Putnam's thinking has impacted and changed my thinking in a later post.

Putnam's chapter also awakened or in some cases reawakened my interest in reading other books some of which I have already bought but haven't had time yet to read. Here they are.


Goodman, Nelson (1978) Ways of Worldmaking

Goodman, Nelson (1983) Fact, Fiction and Forecast (4th Edition)

Pielke, Roger A, jnr. (2007) The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics

Sarewitz, Daniel (1996). Frontiers of Illusion: Science, Technology and the Politics of Progress. Temple University Press

Sarewitz, Daniel (2004). How science makes environmental controversies worse.

Shapin, Steven and Schaffer, Simon (1985) Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life

Monday, December 30, 2013

dark morality: an argument in favour of moral uncertainty

Lecture 3: Equality and Our Moral Image of the World. In Putnam, Hilary (1987) The Many Faces of Realism.

I think this lecture resonates so strongly with me because it explains an issue that has worried me below the surface, without being able to articulate it clearly. The issue was wanting to be certain but not being certain about a variety of personal, political and cultural questions.

Putnam begins by saying that Kant kept a double set of books, one for a world we experience, our world, and the other, a world behind a veil (the Noumenal world), that we don't know about. Putnam, along with Lenin etc (Marxist critics of Kant) finds this dualism repulsive.

But unlike the marxist critics, who sometimes dismiss Kant contemptuously with one liners ("thing in itself", rubbish), Putnam finds much about Kant that is worthy and extraordinary.

Kant was the first philosopher to reject the idea of truth as correspondence to a pre-structured Reality (see Reason, Truth and History, pp. 56-7, 60-64 for more detail here)

Putnam evolved his idea of internal realism around about 1980. On the one side he rejected Big R Realism as being too algorithmic. On the other side he rejected Cultural Relativism as being too divorced from reality. Internal realism was a way to drive the philosophical chariot up the middle. This description is far too brief a summary of course, Putnam has written at length on this subject.

The fundamental idea of Kant's “critical philosophy” — especially in his three Critiques: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) — is human autonomy

One version of empiricism (there are many versions) says that all we know for sure is sense data. Kant rejects this in his first critique. When we experience the outer world with our senses the actual experience is inner, not outer. Sensations, the "objects of inner sense", are caught within the web of belief and conceptualisation. They do not represent an uncorrupted given that anchors our knowledge. Kant was the first internal realist. Our conceptual contribution can't be factored out. The "makers-true" and "makers-verified" of our beliefs lie within and not outside our conceptual system

Each of Kant's critique presents a different kind of reason and a different image of the world to go with each kind of reason: scientific reason, ethical reason, aesthetic reason, juridical reason. So even though Kant thinks we have exactly one scientific version of the world, for Putnam these different kinds of reasons hint at the conceptual relativity that he supports (eg. see pp. 17-19 of The Many Faces of Realism for more detail on conceptual relativity).

Putnam's aim in this book is to sketch the outline of internal realism in moral philosophy

Kant inherited from Rousseau and the ideals of the French revolution, in particular, the value of Equality. Equality comes from the Jewish religion. All humans are created in the image of God. Greek ethics (Plato, Aristotle, Hellenistic period) had no notion of universal human equality.

Note for further study: Compare this with Hannah Arendt's critique of the French revolution, that compassion for the most disadvantaged projected as the supreme virtue contributed to the destruction of Robespierre (On Revolution)

The idea of equality, when it is detached from it's religious roots becomes somewhat mysterious and exposed to scoffing. How many people really, deeply believe in human equality, beyond a politically correct platitude?

The idea of secular equality might be based on notions of something morally mysterious about humans (which is left undefined), respect, happiness, suffering or rights. It is not based on talents, achievements, social contribution etc. Nietzsche attacked the idea that we should respect the untalented. His moral elitism is perhaps still shared by many, for example, those working next to the untalented receiving the same pay, to take one example. Unions tend to oppose merit pay, is that a correct stance? Our belief in equality needs to be put under the microscope. This is one value of Putnam's essay, he is developing a more robust philosophical defence of equality.

In traditional formulations of equality (religious and secular) the notion of equality did not relate to freedom.

Kant offers a new approach that links liberty or freedom to equality. Kant's central distinction is between autonomy and heteronomy. Heteronomy is acceptance of the domination of an outside authority, human or divine. One accepts a moral system unthinkingly. It never occurs to one to "think for oneself", the great maxim of the Enlightenment. Totalitarians try to produce heteronomous people (sheep)

But what is autonomy? What is a positive characterisation of autonomy (as distinct from it being the opposite of heteronomy?)

An autonomous person asks: What should I do? How should I live?

An autonomous person uses free will and reason (rationality) to choose ethical principles. This approach is compatible with medieval (the Middle Ages, 5th - 15th C) thinking, for instance that of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

Putnam praises Kant because he transcends this medieval approach.

The medievals thought we had the capacity to know human essence, to know what Happiness or Eudaemonia (human flourishing) is, in the "thick" Aristotelian sense, the inclusive human end. We use our free will and rationality to discover what one should do and then do it. Eudaemonia becomes an engineering problem.

Kant rejects this, is sceptical. Happiness can be interpreted in too many different ways to be reduced to an engineering problem.

More than this, Kant welcomes and celebrates this uncertainty about the human condition. If there was a revealed nature of Eudaemonia then that would lead to heteronomy. An objective, inclusive human end is repulsive to Kant and Putnam.

It would be a bad thing if the truths of religion could be deduced by reason because that would produce fanaticism, intense hostility to others thinking for themselves. The logical fanatic is the most dangerous type of fanatic! Fanaticism is undesirable in itself. As far as I can tell this seems to be a foundational truth for Putnam but one that I share. The problematic nature of moral truth (religious truth for Kant) is a good thing.

Being certain about our beliefs is sometimes a bad thing. We should always be open to the need to sometimes revise our beliefs (fallibilism). Scepticism, doubt and uncertainty have their place. Putnam's broader outlook is that both belief and doubt require justification. In this essay he puts the case against certainty in moral belief.

This is where Kant breaks with the medievals, that to know human essence can be reduced to an engineering problem!

At the other end, fideism maintains that faith is independent of reason or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths. Kant attacks fideism too, basing religion of faith, since that also leads to fanaticism.

Kant says let us recognise that we have a religious need but let us not be fanatical about the way in which we satisfy that need. Neither Reason nor Fundamentalism (leap of faith, blind faith) can tell us with certainty how to satisfy that need.

In our secular age this message is still relevant since people embrace non religious causes with religious fervour (Environmentalism, Marxism, Libertarianism etc.) and, of course, religious fundamentalism is still a huge problem in the world (eg. al Qaeda). All of these causes contain truths but the danger that those truths will turn into dogma is real.

The respect in which we are all equals is that we all face this same dilemma, we can choose to think for ourselves without a clear guide. We are free, we can reason but there is no certainty in the outcome. That is the most valuable fact about our lives, our Eudaemonia. Putnam is arguing that this insight, linking equality to freedom originates with Kant.

Kant's ideal community is one of beings who think for themselves without knowing what the human essence is, without knowing what Eudaemonia is, and who respect one another for doing that. This is a valuable corrective to the danger of those who embrace causes with religious, fanatical fervour.

Kant, although he admired Rousseau, is very far from Rousseau's notion of submission to the general will.

This exercise in philosophical anthropology leads to the emergence of a moral image of the world. Putnam takes this phrase from Dieter Henrich.

A moral image of the world is more than a checklist of virtues or what one ought to do (rights, responsibilities etc.), rather it is a picture of how our virtues and ideals hang together with each other. It may be as vague as sisterhood or brotherhood. Putnam asserts that we need a moral image of the world, or, since he is a pluralist, a number of complementary moral images of the world.

For the medievals metaphysical realism was unproblematically correct since rational intuition gave us direct access to things in themselves.

Kant's advance on this was to celebrate the loss of essences without turning back to Humean empiricism

The core issue for me is do we really believe in human equality in a deep sense and has Putnam, interpreting Kant in this way, produced a stronger argument for equality, by linking it to freedom. That the result of believing we have free will and using our rationality as best we can is not moral certainty but instead uncertainty or pluralism, many paths open, there is not One True Way as advocated by fanatics of different stripes (religious fundamentalists, environmental alarmists, marxist dictatorships etc.). Moreover, his moral image of the world, that we start out as free, rational individuals who despite our best efforts can't achieve certainty on many big issues is far more powerful than some check list of virtues or the way we ought to be. This appears to me to be an original contribution or a deepening of our knowledge about the human condition. Putnam's argument is strong in part because it is informed by a deep knowledge of the philosophers who came before him (Hume, Rousseau, Kant).

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Trevor Tao: piano plus Rubik's cube

After chess today (Andrew Saint memorial), whilst we were munching pizza, Bill Anderson-Smith mentioned a youtube video where Trevor Tao, one of the chess participants and known for his various remarkable abilties, solves the Rubiks cube whilst playing a piece on the piano ( Erik Satie's gymnopedie). Here it is:

Friday, December 20, 2013

Is Diane Ravitch missing something?

Diane Ravitch is a highly respected education commentator and historian in the USA. She initially supported "No Child Left Behind" but later reversed her position.
High-stakes testing, "utopian" goals, "draconian" penalties, school closings, privatization, and charter schools didn't work, she concluded. "The best predictor of low academic performance is poverty—not bad teachers." (Why I Changed My Mind About School Reform)
I noticed a couple of books she has written which are very relevant to my research (research update here). I have just ordered her most recent book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. It contains chapters on test scores (both local to the USA and international comparisons such as PISA), the achievement gap, poverty, merit pay, teacher tenure, Teach for America and Michelle Rhee. The gloves are off, it's education war in the USA.

This made me curious about her attitude to Direct Instruction, so I did an advanced search of her blog using that phrase, "Direct Instruction" site: It appears that Diane doesn't write much about Direct Instruction but she does publish opponents of DI, such as Stephen Krashen, on her blog.

But what I found most interesting was that a supporter of DI, with the moniker Eded, challenged Stephen Krashen and IMO Prof Krashen did not provide an adequate response. Here is the exchange, including the original Stephen Krashen material initially posted by Diane Ravitch, A Literacy Expert Opposes the Common Core Standards
Stephen Krashen is a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, where he taught linguistics.

He comments here in response to an earlier post about the Common Core standards:
What this excessive detail also does is
(1) dictate the order of presentation of aspects of literacy
(2) encourage a direct teaching, skill-building approach to teaching.

Both of these consequences run counter to a massive amount of research and experience.

There is very good evidence from both first and second language acquisition that aspects of language and literacy are naturally acquired in a specific order that cannot be altered by instruction (C. Chomsky, 1969, The Acquisition of Syntax in Children from 5 to 10. Cambridge: MIT Press; Krashen, S. 1981, Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, Pergamon Press, available at

There is also very good evidence that we acquire language and literacy best not through direct instruction but via “comprehensible input” – for literacy, this means reading, especially reading that the reader finds truly interesting, or “compelling.” (Krashen, S. 2010.The Goodman/Smith Hypothesis, the Input Hypothesis, the Comprehension Hypothesis, and the (Even Stronger) Case for Free Voluntary Reading. In: Defying Convention, Inventing the Future in Literacy Research and Practice: Essays in Tribute to Ken and Yetta Goodman. P. Anders (Ed.) New York: Routledge. 2010. pp. 46-60. Available at
Now here is the exchange between Eded and Prof. Krashen in the comments:
December 27, 2012 at 12:24 am
Regarding the second point, I’m not aware of any research to suggest that direct instruction is counter to research.

Please have a look at papers at, my books, as well as the work of Frank Smith, Kenneth Goodman and others.

Dr. Krashen – thanks very much for posting the link to your website in response to my comment earlier. I have reviewed a few of your articles, and unfortunately I’m not seeing any research demonstrating that direct instruction is ineffective. I do see arguments presented, with some research, that motivation is important when learning to read, along with opportunities to meaningfully engage with reading. However, I haven’t seen any studies which contradict the massive body of evidence supporting direct instruction in the “Big 5″ areas of reading (see for a good list of research).

Could you perhaps provide a reference to a research article which specifically examines direct instruction vs. non-direct instruction instructional methods, and shows a greater impact of non-direct instruction methods on general reading outcomes (e.g., measures of reading fluency, comprehension)? It may be more helpful to evaluate your claims more specifically, rather than talk in broad generalities.

To the general public reading, I would highly encourage you to view the research link above and draw your own conclusions regarding direct instruction, as Dr. Krashen (and apparently Dr. Ravitch) are in the extreme minority when it comes to perceptions regarding the literature base of direct instruction.

Please keep looking. Many of us have published research showing the extreme limitations of direct instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, grammar, in direct response to the claims of the big 5 and National Reading Panel, and supporting the hypothesis that PA,phonics, vocabulary, grammar and competence in text structure are the result of reading (especially self-selected reading). Much of it is summarized in one place: Please see Comments on the LEARN Act, (A lot of it has been published in major journals, eg Phi Delta Kappan, Reading Research Quarterly, Garan’s papers in Language Arts, Kappan.)

Thanks for your response Dr. Krashen. Certainly one of the difficult aspects of this discussion is that it’s so broad. It’s not very easy to making sweeping generalizations about broad categories of interventions, as any particular side can start pointing at particular niches in the research, or studies within those niches, to prove points.

As such, I’ll respond to your comments on the LEARN Act specifically related to Phonemic Awareness (PA). Your main citation is a review of studies cited by the NRP about phonemic awareness, where you cite an insignificant effect of PA training on reading comprehension. In response, I’d direct you to this meta-analysis which shows a moderate effect size for PA on reading skills, and a large effect size for PA training on phonemic awareness skills:

I’d also point out a limitation of the parameters of your meta-analysis:

You only examine the effect of PA training on reading comprehension, as opposed to more component skills such as decoding, word reading, and reading fluency. It is entirely possible that PA training would have little or no direct impact on reading comprehension in later years of a child’s educational career, but have a more significant impact on more basic, foundational skills such as decoding. As such, it may be that phonemic awareness training is not sufficient in producing effects related to reading comprehension, and perhaps not even necessary with some (or many) kids, but it may nevertheless be a necessary component for some struggling readers in terms of acquiring beginning reading skills. As such, citing evidence that PA instruction fails to single-handedly produce long-term reading gains is not evidence that PA training is unnecessary.

Consider this analogy: a beginning swimmer receives instruction on how to breathe properly, but receives no additional swimming instruction. Is breathing instruction sufficient to producing good swimmers? No. Do all good swimmers breathe well? Mostly. Did all good swimmers learn, through explicit instruction, to breathe properly? No. Is any of this evidence that explicit instruction related to breathing properly is unnecessary or unhelpful to beginning swimmers, particularly those who struggle with breathing? Absolutely not. In fact, instruction on breathing may be absolutely critical to swimming, but may show little if any effect on a swimmer’s ability to swim a 500 meter butterfly stroke fluently, as beginning breathing is not sufficient to produce those gains.

As I mentioned before, it’s very difficult to discuss in blog comments a topic so wide as “direct instruction.” As such, my main point here is not to debunk your entire statement that there is no support for direct instruction as such a discussion would have to be much larger. Rather, my point is to highlight to other readers that your assertions (and Diane’s assertions) about direct instruction are not “givens” in research, that most folks do support the use of direct instruction, and that your research links/comments are not without challenge.

I’d also like to add a note of thanks for your willingness to engage in discussion on this blog – too often there is a gap between research and practice, and your willingness to engage in discussion with the “average reader” is a testament to your desire for research to be actually used rather than simply created. I’d also welcome follow-up comments and challenges, as I think those reading this blog post would be most informed by a more specific discussion of the research, as opposed to general statements about broad categories of interventions.

The failure to find a clear relationship between PA training and reading (reading comprehension) is consistent with the meta-analysis you cited. Also, there are other arguments, eg: some people learn to read quite well with very little PA, PA develops without instruction, adult illiterates have low PA, then their PA improves after they learn to read. Also we have to ask how millions of people learned to read before experts “discovered” PA. (We have made similar arguments for PA in second language development,Krashen, S. and Hastings, A. 2011. Is Phonemic Awareness Training Necessary in Second Language Literacy Development? Is it Even Useful? International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching 7(1). Available at

Again, PA training may not have a significant, direct impact on the general outcome of reading comprehension, but may have an impact on component, foundation skills such as word reading. Simply because an intervention is not sufficient in producing a general outcome does not mean that it isn’t a helpful component. There has been a causal link established between PA training and development of word reading skills, between word reading skills and reading fluency, and between reading fluency and reading comprehension. As such, it appears that PA training is mediated by variables such as word reading and reading fluency, and thus does have an impact on reading comprehension, if only indirectly.

With your “other route” concept – that some people learn to read quite well without PA training, consider mapping directions from your house to the mall. There are likely multiple routes, and the existence of one route does not imply the lack of existence of all others. You might take the highway, or the back roads. Those supporting PA training are not claiming that PA training is the only way to become a proficient reader, but that it is one route, particularly for struggling readers. In fact, it’s a common assertion that MANY readers do not require direct, explicit instruction in PA, phonics, etc., and that other, informal processes are at play.

In terms of PA developing without instruction, consider the case of a diabetic not producing insulin. The fact that many healthy people produce sufficient insulin is not evidence that diabetics do not. Similarly, that some children develop PA in a healthy manner is not evidence that other children do not.

In terms of PA developing as a result of other reading processes developing, I agree that there is not necessarily a unidirectional influence of PA (or many reading variables). For example, phonics instruction contributes to PA. However, that phonics instruction contributes to PA is not evidence that PA training does NOT contribute to phonics skills.

Again, bringing this discussion back to a point of relevance to this blog post, my hope is that those reading this discussion will not take for granted Diane’s comment that direct instruction “run[s] counter to a massive amount of research and experience.”

Credit/blame where credit/blame is due: the comment that direct instruction “run[s] counter to a massive amount of research and experience” comes from me, not Diane Ravitch.

Ah, I apologize – I was reading what I thought was her interpretation. Again, I’ve enjoyed the discussion. Looking forward to more exchanged in the future hopefully…

RE: PA, may have an impact on component, foundation skills such as word reading. Maybe word reading is not foundation skill but also a result of reading experience. (The comprehension hypothesis).

I think I understand you theoretically, but how do you make sense of evidence that phonics instruction improves word reading, that better word reading results in better fluency with connected text, and that fluency with connected text is what (in part) enables comprehension?

Complex phonics, word reading, fluency are all the RESULT of real reading for comprehension.

Dr. Krashen, in response to your last comment in our discussion above about phonics, word reading, and fluency being the result of comprehension as opposed to building toward comprehension, I’d again return to my “multiple pathways” comment: Some if not many children do not require explicit phonics (or other) instruction to read fluently and comprehend – they may independently acquire those skills, facilitated in part by being provided motivational and engaging reading contexts. However, with struggling readers (and others as well), research has suggested that explicit instruction in foundational reading skill areas (e.g., phonics) can lead to acquisition of more advanced skills such as reading fluency.

In other words, we both seem to be right, in that kids seem to be able to learn to read with both direct instruction and non-direct instruction. The question then becomes which modality to use in different situations, which would be directly answerable by research investigating the differential effects of DI vs. non-DI approaches in different instructional contexts. I am familiar with a variety of studies which support DI in across contexts, and am not familiar with any studies which examine DI and non-DI approaches side-by-side, and find greater effects for non-DI approaches. Could you provide any links to studies that would suggest favorable results for non-DI approaches over DI approaches?

Stephen Krashen
December 27, 2012 at 9:09 pm EdEd to avoid clogging up Diane’s blog, please write me off line and I will send you some sources and papers. My email:
Reading wars morph into research wars and it's hard to keep track of it all. But I thought that Eded had the better of this exchange, with Stephen copping out at the end. From my reading of the evidence it does favour Direct Instruction over the Whole Language views of Stephen Krashen. For instance see Kerry Hempenstall's essay, Literacy assessment based upon the National Reading Panel’s Big Five components (long, 46pp), for a very thorough review of the evidence.

Diane Ravitch's position is that poverty trumps teaching methodology. That is a powerful argument but we can't put on hold better education until the poverty question is solved. The education establishment and teacher unions have a duty to study the evidence and deliver the best possible education to poor students in the here and now.

Monday, December 16, 2013

rediscovering the purpose of school: reply to Barry York's education revolution article

A response to Barry York's article, Can we have a real Education Revolution?

Barry commences by pointing out that class size has reduced from 50 to 25 over a generation.

It is often claimed, by the political right, that reduction in class size hasn't improved educational outcomes. The statistics support this position of the right. John Hattie has become an often quoted authority about effect sizes:
"... a synthesis of meta-analyses and other studies of class size demonstrate a typical effect-size of about 0.1–0.2, which relative to other educational interventions could be considered ‘‘small’’ or even ‘‘tiny’’, especially in relation to many other possible interventions—and certainly not worth the billions of dollars spent reducing the number of children per classroom. The more important question, therefore, should not be ‘‘What are the reasons for this enhanced effect-size?’’, but ‘‘Why are the effect-sizes from reducing class size so small?’’"
- Hattie, J. (2005).The paradox of reducing class size and improving learning outcomes. International Journal of Educational Research, 43, 387–425
I believe that the Gonski report is yet another iteration of this process. It throws money at schools but lacks an evidence-based plan to actually improve educational outcomes.

Barry fondly mentions "a wonderful History teacher by the name of Itiel Bereson". I agree that great teachers make a difference and that this is far more important than class size.

I also agree that the teachers union plays a very limited and sometimes negative role in real educational reform because they are more interested in teacher conditions than teacher quality. I'm angry at the Union for not supporting performance pay for teachers in remote indigenous communities, conditional on them achieving measurable improvements. If the teachers union had responsibility for determining the nature of teacher training in Universities then they would feel more pressure to actually come up with an educational approach that works, rather than focusing too narrowly on teacher rights.

But when Barry argues that classroom teachers "know best" there is some lack of the clear thinking he extols beginning to creep in. If there are only a few great teachers like Mr. Bereson, one wonders why they as a group "know best"? Barry is expressing the belief here that those who do the real work, those at the chalk face, as a result of their nitty gritty day to day experience, "know best". Yet, if they really know best why do they support a union that focuses on worker conditions, promotes the same green issues that Barry objects to and doesn't push hard enough for quality teaching?

Who really does know best? One group that I have been taking a lot of notice of recently are those who promote evidence-based criteria and have the skin in the game of actually working with and improving the learning of disadvantaged students. In Australia, this would include Kevin Wheldall, Robin Beaman-Wheldall and Kerry Hempenstall as well as the initiative promoted by Noel Pearson in Cape York, using the American derived teaching materials of Zig Engelmann.

Barry goes on to counterpose Learning to Teaching as though there is no real connection between them. Moreover, he claims that the social purpose of schools is to imprison the mind and that hasn't changed for two centuries. This is simplistic argument. As always, the devil is in the detail.

This leads into Barry arguing for the end of learning as we know it and it's replacement with learning over the world wide web. We are led to believe that we can do this now because in C21st we have a "very high literacy". If only this were true. Unfortunately, the literacy rate in Australia leaves much to be desired. Although it has improved massively since the late C19th, the really important measure is whether people have sufficient literacy to be highly functioning members in today's society.

My research indicates that roughly 44% or 13.6 million Australians aged 15 to 74 years have literacy skills that will make it difficult for them to independently extract useful information from the world wide web (source: Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Australia 2011-12

Moreover, Australian schools are not doing a very good job in teaching basic literacy. The PIRLS 2011 study into reading comprehension put Australia second bottom of all English speaking countries surveyed. 24% of Australian students had a Low or Below Low score in reading comprehension. See Kevin Wheldall's article, PIRLS before Swine for more detail.

The basic problem is that teachers have not been trained properly to teach literacy. This was the conclusion of the Brendan Nelson National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy in 2005 but none of the recommendations from that inquiry have been implemented. The real villains here are the teacher trainers in universities and the teacher unions who block reform. (the education establishment). Many of them are still wedded to discredited whole language approaches.

It has been argued that there are other, more modern forms of literacy than old-fashioned "reading comprehension". These arguments sometimes take the form that it is more important to "read the world" than read the word. But a little thought is enough to convince most people that old fashioned "reading comprehension" is a prerequisite to "really learning" on the Internet.

So, the statistics reveal that at least 44% of adult Australians and 24% of young Australians, still at school, are going to miss out if Barry's model of school reform is implemented. Of course, the internet has incredible learning potential for highly literate and self motivated learners. But Barry has made too many sweeping generalisations in his historical and social analysis of the actual nature of schools. If you are not clear about the actual problem then how can you be clear about a viable solution?

Is it possible to conceive of a useful purpose for schools? Yes, it is. Anthropological findings show that there is no easy or natural path to certain types of knowledge, including reading and writing. This type of knowledge has been called non universals (by Alan Kay) or "biologically secondary cognitive abilities" (by David Geary).

Universal knowledge, displayed by every human tribe, includes such things as:
  • social
  • language
  • communication
  • culture
  • fantasies
  • stories
  • tools and art
  • superstition
  • religion and magic
  • case based learning
  • theatre
  • play and games
  • differences over similarities
  • quick reactions to patterns
  • loud noises and snakes
  • supernormal responses
  • vendetta and more (about 300 of these have been identified across cultures)
The above categorises the level of what most people do on the world wide web (social media), despite it's potential for higher learning.

On the other hand, the non universals include such things as:
  • reading and writing
  • deductive abstract mathematics
  • model based science
  • equal rights
  • democracy
  • perspective drawing
  • theory of harmony
  • similarities over differences
  • slow deep thinking
  • agriculture
  • legal systems
These are much harder to learn than the universals because we are not directly wired to learn them. These things are actually inventions which are difficult to invent. And the rise of Schools going all the way back to the Sumerian and Egyptian times came about to start helping children learn some of these things that aren't easy to learn. For more details about the universals and non universals see The non universals

Some things are hard to learn. Although that hard to learn information is on the internet it is usually not sought out spontaneously by your average facebook junkie. I call the popularity of social media the you_twit_face phenomena (after youtube, twitter and facebook). Pop culture is the main form of discourse on the internet.

Learning to read is rocket science. But once you know how to read you totally forget the process you went through to learn to read. The literate then become blind to the plight of the illiterate. The idea that reading is natural, you just soak it up naturally from the surrounding environment, is BS.

The legitimate purpose of school should be to teach the non universals, the things which are not learnt naturally. That is one reason why schools were invented in the first place. They are not simply vehicles to imprison our minds.

Barry quotes Mao: "If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality". I can agree with the Mao quote but like any one liner it only represents a part of a more complete picture. Mao argued for an ongoing spiral of knowledge between practice and theory. If you are going to take part in the practice of changing reality then you had better also be prepared to study / research hard and acquire a lot of knowledge, including book knowledge. We all know activists who end up doing and thinking foolish things.

In fact, there are many former radicals from the late 60s who went onto become education establishment leaders and union activists promoting non authoritarian, constructivist teaching methodologies such as whole language that have led to a quarter of our students not becoming literate. They have changed reality in a bad way due to insufficient research informed by an intuitive dislike for a form of "authority", mistaking authoritative with authoritarian.

The factory model critique is problematic when applied to education because there is some good education that fits a factory model type of metaphor. Factories in capitalism are bad because they steal from the labour of workers. Another sense in which it is used is the replacement of artisan labour with mechanical labour, but that critique is more problematic according to Marx. There is nothing wrong with a machine replacing what was previously done by an artisan.

Many intelligent people report bad experiences at schools. For example, they were told to do things, such as write answers in sentences, over and over again, something that they already knew how to do and so the experience was boring, boring, boring ...

But, could you have a good factory model in an educational setting? In my opinion, yes. One answer here would be to improve the factory, each student having their own individualised, computerised assembly line programmed to help achieve both essential literacies but also electives beyond the basics.

Another popular, related argument is that individuals have multiple intelligences or different learning styles, which have to be catered for. But those positions have pretty much been abandoned by thinking educators. Lookup Dan Willingham on the net, he is very good at debunking both of those fads (multiple intelligences, learning styles)

Direct Instruction is pretty much a factory model, a far better factory model than what happens in most existing schools, and so the intuitive dislike of it by "progressives" is strong - but wrong. In teaching basic literacy and maths the research shows that one method fits all is a very good way to go. Kevin Wheldall calls this Non categorical teaching.

In conclusion, what is my idea of a good argument for school reform? It's a matter of getting the balance right between components that need to be highly structured and other components enabling freedom of expression. Thanks to people like the Wheldalls (MULTILIT) we now know how to achieve very close to 100% literacy education through a structured approach, an individualised factory model if you will. Direct Instruction models could also be beneficial for highly literate people wishing to extend their knowledge over particular domains, eg. the contribution of Einstein to our knowledge of physics. Beyond that I agree that Barry's ideas have merit. The internet has much potential for extending our knowledge further for those who are literate and motivated to do that. But as Mao also said, you have to lift the bucket from the ground, not start in mid-air.