Science vs Religion

Last night I watched a very enjoyable documentary put together by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks on Science vs Religion and was inspired to explore some of the things raised in a blog post.

It’s great to see debate on such a controversial topic. It’s one that has always intrigued me and, this summer, I read Christopher Hitchens’ “God is Not Great”. This was a book so atheist that it challenged even my position as an agnostic!

I found much of the programme thoughtful and found myself agreeing with Lord Sacks a lot more than I had expected. However, the opening narrative made a comment that I simply can’t agree with:

for centuries religion and science stood happily side by side. But in the last few decades that relationship has broken down.

This is fundamentally not true. All that has changed in the last few decades is that now religion has to make its case rather than science. Numerous scientists were persecuted for making discoveries that went against religious teachings and much discovery was stifled by the shackles of religion. Lord Sacks says:

We’re living in an age of unprecedented scientific progress.

It is the freedom from religion in recent times that has helped such a period of discovery. These discoveries in turn have made religion have to defend itself more and it was great to see Lord Sacks make his case for religion in such a reasoned open manner.

How vs Why

The central theme of Lord Sacks’s argument was to “challenge the assumption that science and religion cannot coexist”. He suggested that this is because they answer different questions and should therefore work in partnership. Science answers the question of “How” things work but religion answers the question “Why”.
I think this is a nice way of thinking about things. It is difficult to see how science could ever answer the question “Why” to its full extent. As an example, how many parents have played this “Why” game with their children at some point? What starts as a straightforward question to answer, quickly becomes difficult when the child responds “Why” a few times!

Morality

Religion is also touted as being the answer to “how to live your life” providing a moral code and direction. The stories of the bible (and books of other religions) provide examples of such morals to lead your life by. I have no problem with this. However, the bible is not the only place to find good moral codes.
Many Hollywood movies have lessons of morality embedded within them (and in fact the moral is often the basis of the storyline). Recent Census collections found large numbers suggesting that their religion was Jedi. The Star Wars trilogy provides several examples of morality as the classic “good vs evil” set of films. So, if religion is a moral code, who can argue with Jedi as an option?!

Evidence

It is the concept of literal stories vs symbolic stories that is where I felt Lord Sacks started to lose the argument with Richard Dawkins. Dawkins repeatedly asked whether Lord Sacks thought a particular event actually happened and he was not able to give a straight answer. It is this sort of true faith in events with little evidence that will always set apart the mind of a scientist that looks at evidence from the mind of a religious person. Indeed at this point of the programme Lord Sacks conceded that they would never agree on the point that children should choose their own beliefs and not be assumed to be part of the same religion as their parents.
It is my mathematical mind and the number of beliefs that exist that really make me the agnostic I am. I find it extremely difficult to understand how anyone can be so certain that their one small branch of faith is correct in every detail and not doubt whether maybe someone else has it right. There are 6 major religions. Ignoring all the branches of these and all the smaller religions, and also assuming one of them has it right, the odds are still 1 in 6.
How much money would you put on those odds? I certainly wouldn’t bet my life on it!

Can religion and science coexist?

I can absolutely accept that religious beliefs have a place in the world to answer those difficult “why” questions. But when you get into the detail of any religion it gets rather more difficult a proposition. It is then that certain aspects of religion like circumcision, not eating certain foods, wearing certain clothing etc. look more like outdated mechanisms of control rather than anything meaningful. And it is this control of the faithful and inherent trust of anything said that means all organised religions have the potential to be dangerous.
Why not live life by the common moral code underlying all religions and enjoy the numerous stories and rich history they bring without worrying about details that have no real basis in fact. Let’s embrace the new knowledge that science brings. And let’s also have faith but in our own way.

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I’m outing myself as a tory

Ballot papers

Some of my votes

There it is, I’ve said it.

I’ve not hid it that well to be fair; given that I’ve been a party member for the last year along with when I was at university, and I also have conservatives listed under political views on my Facebook profile. However more recently I was perhaps a little more public by standing for election on May 5th!

I managed to secure almost 17% of the vote and came third as was expected: Leeds council Moortown ward results.

I’m hoping to find the time to write a bit more about it and, in particular, the human side of politics, such as the impact on those losing their seats that we generally don’t think about. However, that’s not the topic of this blog post (the first for some time) which was inspired by watching this week’s BBC Question Time. It was a show full of audience comment/reaction of negativity about the “nasty” party, ideological self-interest, destroyers of public services and haters of the NHS etc. Comments like these are actually why I rejoined the party a year ago. For the avoidance of doubt, this isn’t because I believe in these things and so wanted to be part of it, but because I was tired of sitting on the sidelines listening to such misunderstanding and lies.

The title of this post reflects the nature of being a tory. It seems strange that supporting something that over 36% of the UK voted for (and more England) should feel so difficult, but it does. On election day the wife of one conservative Councillor was concerned about wearing a rosette and I felt the same. I couldn’t imagine members of the other main political parties feeling like that. There seems to be such anger and hatred of the party from some that I really can’t understand.

The hatred of the party also seems to be a view that doesn’t need facts to back it up. The NHS is a classic example. Despite being the only party to ring fence and guarantee real rises in the NHS budget, everyone is talking about NHS cuts; and of course this is for ideological reasons and hatred of the NHS! Nonsense. BBC Question Time had a great example of this with a young man talking about the wonderful NHS treatment he had had recently and asking why the party wanted to destroy it. Well they don’t obviously. This is a view fueled by media headlines and sound bites rather than any understanding of what is planned.

If the party really did hate the NHS then the current economic climate would be an ideal time to actually cut the budget without worrying about any reforms at all!

Whether they will ever consider voting for the conservative party or not, if I can convince a few people that it isn’t something to hate with so much passion then I’ve done what I set out to do.

Who pays for University education?

Proposals have recently come out regarding the funding of University education. One of the key proposals involves a substantial increase in tuition fees. Of course this money is needed because there are so many people going to University these days that the state can’t possibly afford to fund it.

The aim of getting everyone into further education is a noble one but does it really make sense? Are students going to university to study anything other that science, medicine, engineering etc. really gaining anything that adds value to the economy? How many top writers have an English literature degree? I have no idea but suspect it is few. Are arts degrees anything more than studies for interest and proof of ability to learn and sit exams?

The problem is that with so many going to University degrees don’t even provide that proof anymore.

If you look at the economics from the other side it is often quoted that the average graduate salary is x thousand pounds higher than the average non-graduate. This figure is partly distorted by some very large numbers so the median would look a lot closer I suspect. It also seems a fairly obvious analysis to me that as more people go to university this gap will get smaller as there is only so much money to go around.

Getting that out of the way what I really wanted to point out was an odd inconsistency in what I’ve seen of the proposed policy.

1. Fees will only be paid once earning more than a certain salary, in this way the only people paying for the education will be those that benefit from it.

2. Poorer students will get money to help.

So who is paying. The first point implies the student is benefiting and so pays whereas the second suggests that parents would be paying and so poorer students need help.

This seems quite inequitable and you could surely then have the case that one student gets no help and earns e.g. 25,000 a year so pays back his loan over pretty much his entire life having not benefited that much from university whereas another could get help with paying the fees and then earn 50,000 a year and pay the loan off quite quickly easily.

Who’s also (mis)taking my pension?

So after the horrendous programme on pensions last year Who took your pension? shown on Dispatches on channel 4, the BBC decided they liked the title and sensationalist reporting so much that they’d do their own present tense version Who’s Taking Money from My Pension? (albeit it now seems to have various other names depending on where you look). Well I thought I’d follow the trend and use a similar blog title to my colleague Henry Tapper.

I attended a wonderful lunch yesterday where we discussed the issue and, as much as Henry tried to keep us focused, many others. His post linked to above shows much of what was concluded.

What angers me, and even the people in the programme, is that yet again it was a missed opportunity to educate the public on how pensions work, what they should look out for and what they should do. Instead we had more sensationalism with experts being cut off in mid sentence. The only thing this will achieve is more suspicion of pensions and less pension saving.

One of the things we discussed yesterday is the white knight status of ISAs. How many people will, following last night’s disgrace, stop paying into their pension and use an ISA instead. Yet ISAs are essentially just a different tax wrapper for the same product having access to much the same investment choices and charges. It was even raised yesterday that the charges on ISAs might be higher.

There is a real lack of financial understanding in the area of investment. ISAs are seen as good because they don’t go down in value like pensions. But this is just because they are Cash ISAs with generally poor interest rates attached. A stocks & shares ISA would perform exactly like a pension and aims for a higher return at the expense of additional risk. If you have a pension fund and don’t want to see it fall then talk to an IFA and get your fund moved into Cash. But do so in the knowledge that if you still have a while to go to retirement then its probably not the most suitable investment to have as the returns expected will be lower than from other investments.

On to some numbers.

The headline grabbing 80% of money paid taken in charges is a terrible number. If there is to be any analysis done then you need to compare apples with apples rather than pears or oranges.

Oranges with Pears

To get to the 80% number I have to use an annual management charge (amc) of around 1.75% pa. This is unquestionably a high charge and would not be considered normal but probably reflects a special type of policy. If that policy is right for you then that’s ok. For the majority though you should be looking for policies charging less than 1% pa amc so I will also do some figures with an amc of 0.75% pa.

Paying £250 a month for 40 years is £120,000.
The charges over the period equate to £93,500 (1.75% amc) and £48,238 (0.75% amc)

So it’s reduced the amount you’ve paid in by 80% (1.75% amc) or 40% (0.75% amc) – this was the calculation done in Panorama.

Apples with Pears

But the above is a ridiculous comparison as the charges are taken out at a totally different time so have a completely different value to the £120,000. We should really compare with the fund value at retirement.

The fund values at retirement equate to £385,000 (1.75% amc) or £505,000 (0.75% amc)

So the charges would represent a reduction of 20% (1.75% amc) or 9% (0.75% amc) – doesn’t seem so bad now.

Apples with Apples

We’ve now gone too far the other way as the charges are worth more than this since they’ve been taken out of the fund earlier. If we are truly comparing apples with apples then we should compare the fund value at retirement with and without charges.

Without charges the fund would grow to £621,000!

So the effect of charges is a reduction in value of 40% (1.75% amc) or 19% (0.75% amc)

So there really was no need to be sensationalist as the true figures are still significant.

Who is to blame for high charges?

There are 2 key groups to blame in my opinion:

Some poor IFAs who are still selling inappropriate policies (the blame to some extent also falling with product providers for incentivising certain products by high commissions).

But, most importantly, the public for not taking enough interest in their pensions, trying to understand them and reviewing them regularly.

Should we still read classic books at school?

I watched an excellent programme yesterday about Toby Young’s quest to open one of the first “free schools” under the coalition government’s policy. I wish him well with his plans.

The thing that sparked the most discussion in our house was the comment made about the sort of books that he thought the children at a school he visited should be reading.

I was very much on the side of the student in the programme. The books to be read should be those that were of interest to the students and that sparked an interest in reading. My wife on the other hand was completely in Toby’s camp that the books to be read should be more along the lines of classic works.

When I was young I used to read a lot and I used to really enjoy reading. I read entirely fiction and a lot of Enid Blyton. I bought lots of books and I was a regular visitor of the town library. My love of reading meant that I picked up quite a variety of books and read tales of Odysseus, for example, when age 10. I can vividly remember staying up reading all night at the weekend as I loved what I was reading so much.

Things changed when I got to secondary school. Here we began to have set books we had to read as part of our English lessons. Some of these were ok but many were so called classics and very hard going with little interest to me. We’d then dissect them into something they often weren’t meant to be (even in the author’s opinion) and all the pleasure of reading was killed. I rarely read a book between the ages of 14 and 20. Since age 20 I have been reading, albeit irregularly, but the subject matter has been 80% non-fiction.

My wife on the other hand goes to a regular book group and reads 2 books a week!

This is perhaps where the big difference is between me and her. I have always been a very slow reader whereas she reads extremely fast. Our brains work in completely different ways in how we read as well. For example, when doing a cross word together she always does the “easy ones” first stating that they stand out. Meanwhile I wonder how she could have found the easy one that is 13 down when I’ve only worked my way half way down the across clues. She can take in all the clues at once whereas I read them one by one.

For me therefore, reading classics that didn’t interest me took up so much time that it meant I didn’t have chance to read anything else and I lost the love of reading. Whereas for my wife reading the classic might not have been enjoyable but she was done in a few days and on to something better.

We agreed to disagree on the debate in question.

The other question that springs to mind though is what makes a classic? and who is it that gets to decide that a book is a classic? Is there really any merit in force feeding children Dickens and Shakespeare and pointing out why it’s considered so good? Should we not be spending time making sure that children have a real grasp of the English language, have the skills to write letters, reports and other important documents rather than worrying about literature? When it comes to literature is the best teaching not to get children interested in reading so they can take a view on what’s good themselves? Literature is after all an art and is utterly subjective – how can there be a right answer?

I thought jargon in pensions was bad…

…but I hadn’t seen anything until I got into Education.

When I became a governor of one of my local schools I was sent a big induction pack of information. Much of this was information to be expected such as information on the school, the latest Ofsted report and terms of reference for the board. The one document that stood out though was the Glossary. It was huge!

I joked that I thought I knew what a “Young Person” was until I went through it. The amount of definitions and terminology is incredible. It makes me think that the world of education has probably become bloated with rules and regulations and a more simplistic approach would mean more time could be spent on things that really matter.