5 Things They Don’t Tell You About Teaching in Higher Education…

Image result for university lecture

Have you ever considered a career in teaching? Does it sound totally great but the concept of a PGCE and a month’s mandated nose-wiping in a Primary School turn you off? Would you rather teach people you can be cynical and sarcastic to? Then try HE!

(note that this is primarily cathartic cynicism, it’s still a good job, and where I’ve highlighted problems below I do have solutions – at least for the things in my control – but maybe for another time)


It’s long been thought that the difference between teaching at school and at university is that the former were forced to be there – as subjects become more optional, attitudes improve. I do think that’s true, and is part about what makes teaching in further and higher ed. much more attractive. When students want to learn because they intrinsically value it, they’re great to teach, and this is backed up by (decent) research in education and psychology.

Except…

1. The students don’t want to be there

Once, long ago, students came to university because they had a passion for the subject – although this tended to correlate strongly with being wealthy and white for various reasons, that’s beside the point for now. People would happily come to university for the privilege and sheer honour of sitting in a stuffy room and listen to an academic talk endlessly about their area of expertise (a minor exaggeration, I’m sure). After all, it didn’t matter if you didn’t understand it, you just went to the library to learn it again properly before hitting the subsidised alcohol.

But that’s very much changed now.

We can blame the new fees regime, sure, but there’s been a broader cultural shift in what university is actually for – or, at least, seen to be for. It’s now a continuation of school, it’s just “what you do”, and if you don’t go to university you’re seen as a failure. Whether this comes from employers demanding “any degree” for jobs that don’t warrant it, wider society now valuing education for its own sake, or even direct bullshit-expectations from parents, students have to go to university. Students now scramble onto difficult STEM courses because they’re offered through clearing, but do so with a lack of maths qualifications and an interest in the subject that comes exclusively from being told “don’t do Art History or English, it’s a waste of time”. The expectation is “university”, as opposed to “physics” or “biochemistry”.

The end result is that students don’t really want to be taught by you. They see university as a 3-4 year prison sentence they must serve before they can graduate and a get a decent job with more money – a fallacy given that graduate wages are rapidly collapsing. Students increasingly see only the extrinsic value in the subject – the degree, the stepping stone to the next thing. You’re there to tell them how to pass the exam so that they can be graded and graduate with a 2:1 and put off deciding what they want to do with their lives for a bit longer. The effect this has on their motivation is just as bad as school pupils who are “forced” to stay in school way past the point where they care about it.

It’s not a universal, but it’s a large enough quantity to make the job much harder than it needs to be. In fact, the job is already hard enough given that…

2. There is no training (that’s of any use)

Surely, the person standing up to lecture you has been taught how to do it effectively, right? And when someone is organising a tutorial, they’ve been told how to structure the session, respond to queries, and their notes on the questions contain an extensive troubleshooter and FAQ?

Nah.

You’re pretty much thrown into it with nothing if you decide to go on a teaching route. You’ll go into the lab for the first time to supervise 100 or so 18-21 year-olds and know nothing of the practicals. You’ll have a group of 6 in a tutorial and you won’t have had the chance to practice what you’re going to do with them. You’ll turn up to a lecture and this is the first time you’ll have given a presentation where the audience’s comprehension of what you’re about to say actually matters.

Now, this isn’t to say you’re ultimately terrible at it. Junior academics usually have to present to a lecture theatre (their research and proposals) before they’re employed. The ones that don’t get the job are the ones that fail to realise this isn’t a presentation, it’s an audition. As a result, anyone employed in that position can at least speak clearly and won’t fidget and mumble their way through a lecture series. But that’s it, that’s the main bit of quality control that weeds out the physically incapable. Barring a yearly peer review (usually precipitated when the one person who cares decides to organising), which focuses mainly on ticking a few boxes along the lines of “were you any good? Yeah, whatever”, there’s little to no culture of review or quality control on HE teaching. Responses from student feedback are, generally speaking, either useless (“they were fine” ranging to needlessly personal insults) or unrepresentative (a response-rate of 5% is good) so can’t be used to improve teaching and direct your own development as a teacher.

Well, there is some training. But it doesn’t involve how to deliver or develop a curriculum, or make sure that your ideas are understood by people. Instead, you’ll get taught “learning styles” (largely debunked as hokum) or you’ll be taught Kolb’s learning cycle (I’ve yet to find a use for it) and countless over-complicated words that really do nothing but state the obvious. You’ll hear about “travelling theory” where you treat your “subject as a terrain to be explored with hills to be climbed for better viewpoints with the teacher as the travelling companion or expert guide”. This all sounds lovely and poetic and makes some abstract high-level sense, but doesn’t really help you help you teach someone how to normalise a wavefunction or integrate a rate equation. And the diagrams – be sure to always call them “models” – the bloody diagrams that mean nothing but will make your eyeballs bleed. Bloom’s taxonomy (or at least the cognitive domain of it) might be useful for you writing exam questions, but that’s it. Make sure you use “conceptions” and “discourse” a lot when it comes to writing your essay to prove you’ve learned this stuff.

The only useful thing I got out of a year’s worth of workshops and coursework was a half-hour session on vocal health – because talking your bollocks off to 200 people for 45 minutes is harder physical work than it seems. That was great; and something I appreciated more than most, thanks to being married to a pro vocalist who has schooled me in the theory of that for over a decade.

Anyway, why the “training” sucks segues nicely to the next bit. You’re not really being trained to teach, exactly…

3. If you want recognition, be prepared to do something useless

Teaching is a largely thankless task in higher education. This sounds a bit weird if you think of university primarily as an educational institution, yet, it makes perfect sense if you think of them as academic institutions designed to generate research. Teaching doesn’t generate headlines, it doesn’t bring in millions in grant money, and it will get you a new building only once in a blue moon when the university finally listens to the 800th email saying “the teaching labs are about to fall down and kill people!” (because “they’re too small to fit the students you demand we should take” doesn’t get the job done).

This is slowly changing, though. We can blame the fee regime for this. Students now make up the majority of funding for universities, and with the Teaching Excellence Framework around the corner, the higher-ups are taking it seriously.

Except…

The training and recognition don’t reward good teaching, they reward talking about good teaching. Hopefully, I shouldn’t need to hammer home that these aren’t the same thing.

Consider what you need to do for an HEA fellowship, for example. You need to write essays and take part in continuous personal development (CPD), but few of those are ever based around your actual teaching (you have to write a case-study of your own teaching, but the actual aim is to analyse it using the bullshit you learned in your ‘training’ workshops). As a result, the people who get published in the educational literature, and so make a name for themselves as ‘good’ teachers, are the ones who write things like “Conceptions of Student Learning: A New Model Paradigm For Higher Education” and then proceed to yank four student types out of their arse and call them “Square Thinkers” and “Circle Thinkers” and “Triangle Thinkers” and “Squiggle Thinkers”, each described with Barnum statements and no real evidence, and then try to say something profound like “you should make your tutorial group of Squares, Circles, Triangles and Squiggles”. I’m not naming names, but this actually happened once.

So if you can guff around and talk crap about teaching and learning, and make it sound complicated and theoretical and academic, you could very easily find yourself on route to a very cushy academic job in an education department.

Alternatively, you can innovate. Innovation is something I won’t bash outright, but innovation for the sake of innovation is the enemy. Want a teaching award? Start a Twitter account! Send out homework assignments via Snapchat! Get into a packed lecture theatre and do explosions with your students – don’t bother telling them why they explode and how to stop it, that might be useful to them, and that’s boring. Experiment with keeping your office door open! Do EBL and PBL and use the word “constructivism” a lot! Add your students on Facebook! Tear up the rule book because you’re cool and wait for lavish praise to fall upon you!

If you’re a softly-spoken lecturer who stands at the front to just talk – calmly, rationally, and with a clear message – the students will go away knowing a lot about a subject. But that sort of crap doesn’t get you an award or promotion. (before you think this just sounds like bitterness on my behalf, you need to know I’m not actually this kind of person)

Anyway, you can avoid most ‘training’ sessions, except the most important one, which they probably won’t tell you about…

4. You need to learn mental health first-aid

So, cynicism aside for a moment, if you want to work with students, seriously, learn mental health first-aid. Believe me, there’s a lot that “common sense” won’t get you through here so you need to know it and get taught by someone who knows what they’re doing. It’s difficult to deal with, but it’s something you will inevitably deal with and may even take up a measurable chunk of your time (which can’t be directly assigned to the Work Allocation Model, of course).

Why is this important and potentially time-consuming?

Look above at all the crap students have to deal with. Under pressure to perform from their parents, locked into a course they hate by the expense and the fears that they’ll never pay back these objectively ridiculous fees, surrounded by staff who would rather be writing their next Science paper than answer questions on thermodynamics, faced with lab work that’s almost designed to overload their working memory… and then panicked that they haven’t learned anything from the young, hip and trendy ones that are telling them to check their twitter feed for tutorial announcements.

All that on top of being young, a bit dim, unsure… by the gods, the list goes on. It is a perfect recipe for a mental breakdown. And this is strikingly common, and not just restricted to the stereotype of the emo goth girl who broke up with her boyfriend. Anyone who comes into your office could break down in tears at a moments notice.

I really don’t talk about this often, so I’ll get it over with in a single quick-fire list: in a few short years I’ve had students on anti-depressants, undergoing  CBT, having panic attacks in labs, admitting to being sexually assaulted, having been mugged, saying that their family has just imploded, discovered they’re dyslexic, passed out in an exam and woke up in hospital, passed out in a laboratory, passed out in my office…

This is serious fucking business. We’re not there to be therapists – we shouldn’t take on that role – but university counselling services are stretched thin, underfunded (by comparison to their need), and are only really available as palliative care rather than preventative. As a result, we often have no choice. If you want to take a teaching-track route into HE, you’re likely to be in close contact with students far more often than research-focused counterparts, you’re going to be seen as more approachable because of it, you’re going to deal with this whether you like it or not.

Maybe you want to stay in research over teaching, because…

5. We don’t know if it’s going to become a dead-end or not

As recently as 5-6 years ago, a teaching-track in a university was a dead-end. Teaching staff were recruited as a cheap and easy plugs to do jobs that senior academics didn’t want to do. They don’t want to spent 6 hours on their feet in teaching labs. They don’t want to blow 4 hours a week on tutorials. They’ll put up with a lecture course if it’s the only one they have to teach that term and they don’t have to do anything but stand and talk. And so, teaching-focused staff were born – costing only as much as a postdoc to employ, capable of absorbing much of the abuse students generate, and having copious free time to load up with that “any other duties” bit of the job description.

But there was no promotion track. There’s no way, as a teaching-focused academic, you can write and bring in a 6-7 figure grant. There’s no way, as someone who doesn’t run a research group, you can really publish a high-impact paper. And so there was no way that a university or department could reward you for it.

This has, however, mildly improved. There are now promotion criteria, there are pathways to get to senior positions, and – even if it is rare as astatine – you can get a tenured professorship purely on teaching. Some places are even slowly unpicking the distinction between teaching and research focused staff, allowing you to hold the title of “lecturer” officially – ironically, “lecturer” usually means you do less lecturing than the people without it. This is all fabulous, of course. Finally, universities are recognising that students bring in a load of cash, and so the staff to teach them stuff might be worth investing in.

But.

There’s always a ‘but’.

The UK is slowly moving over to the United States’ model in, well, every area, really – and this includes HE. We’re going to privatise our healthcare, prisons and welfare, and we’re going to hike higher education fees to make them inaccessible to all but the most advantaged people. We also run the risk of paying staff less, exploiting the eagerness of younger researchers and teaching staff to take poorly-paid positions for a 1-2% shot at the big time. The US runs on a frankly appalling system of “adjunct” professors, who are usually newly-minted PhDs who are typically paid per class they teach. The end result is that many of them teach classes at multiple institutions, often with long commutes between, and are paid only for the hours teaching. Once you factor in the travel times between jobs, the marking, grading, course development and other sundry overtime, the wages work out as just below minimum wage. Yet the system works because people feel they have no other choice – and they’d be right, that’s their only choice.

Is the UK heading that way, too? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. On the one hand, we’ve seen staggering improvements in the respect you get for teaching in HE, on the other hand we could revert to the US model at a moments notice if the suits in charge see that it’s cheaper to pay some young pup £3,000 to teach a class than it is to pay them £30,000 to be full-time and only teach 4-5.

I’ve seen an increase in teaching positions advertised as “term-time only”, which pro-rata down to quite a low salary for a year of work, meaning you’ll need a temp or part-time job to keep you busy in the long summer. But, more importantly, term-time-only contracts and per-class contracts robs universities of the chance to do any development work. Most teaching labs experiments were cutting edge back in the 60s, some lecture courses haven’t been updated since the 90s, intro courses given to first years are still the same tired old things despite evidence that flipped delivery would improve them. No one can do that unless teaching-focused staff are given the time, respect, and clout to develop – and that means employing them full time, even over the Christmas, Easter, and summer breaks. If the worrying trend to employ them for their hours only continues, we’ll lose any chance of curriculum development or review by people who actually care about effective teaching.

So there’s a lot of work being put in to make the position respectable. But it’s likely that the walking suits earning 10x what I’ll ever be able to won’t like that, and reverse the entire thing into a ditch.

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A Crisis of Identity

Allow me to go all special-snowflake and super-self-indulgent for a bit. Normal service will resume shortly.


I’ve had trouble recently figuring out exactly where I fit in the world.

I feel too weird for ‘normal’ society, but too normal for ‘weird’ society.

I mean, consider: My week isn’t spent counting down to Friday where I go out to get drunk in a packed club; my political opinions go beyond “They’re all crooks!”; I don’t work in an office where my surname has remarkably transformed into ‘from accounts’ or ‘from purchasing’; I can count on one hand the exact number of times I’ve given a shit about sport in the last twenty years; And my main sexual fetish isn’t “phwoar, tits!”.

Meanwhile, at the same time: I hate whimsy; I can’t stand poetry; I’ve committed the ultimate sin in thinking that Doctor Who is just a TV show and, really, just a wee-little-bit shit; I don’t have any ironic hobbies like knitting or collecting tea; I don’t have any mental illnesses or disorders, neither self- nor professionally-diagnosed; And I’m basically cishet scum through-and-through.

So I wonder why either group puts up with me.

I could become a conservative, but I think they’re the Evil Fucking Empire. I’m obviously a liberal, but the liberal-left’s innate talent for self-destruction through its purity culture makes me want to curl into a ball and cry. I could go the South Park route and become apathetic and develop a disdain for any thought that challenges me to care or develop or change but, at the end of the day, I just give too much of a shit about things for that nonsense.

Is my real place with the more-mainstream nerds, fighting for Comic-Con tickets and arguing about X-Box vs the PlayStation 19? Probably not, since I have no idea where I’d find the disposable income for all that bullshit, and I find the casual misogyny and the neckbeardiness that comes with the territory utterly repellent. Does that mean I should join in full-time with the Social Justice Enthusiasts, instead? I suppose so, but I find them to be mostly cloud-cuckoolanders who need to learn to live in reality as it is, first, before they have a hope in hell of changing it because, goat-dammit, guys, perfection is the enemy of good/better, here!

A religious group is a non-starter, obviously. Maybe I could get in with the hardened, out-and-proud Atheists? Well, to be honest, I’d rather join a religious cult that was happy to admit to it, and I like that when I use the word “logic” I mean some bollocks like “(∃x∈X|x=n)⇔n∉Y” and not “Feminism and Islam are the greatest threat to humanity because Logic”.

Metalheads? Frankly, I’d rather be locked in a lift for 24 hours with a Trump fan than a Tool fan, and if I can’t stand the liberal purity culture I’ll last about half a second in the world of “METAAAAAALL!!!!!”. Besides, the broader ‘alternative’ crowd have always looked at me with suspicion for having zero interest in ever getting a piecing or tattoo ever.

So all those sub-cultures and movements are out, and I’ve never felt right nor welcome in any of them.

I’m not, and probably never will be, the great, perfect, stalwart LGBT ally people want me to be, but I’ll never go back to the “eugh, why does it always have to be about the gays!” crowd because fuck that. I know for a damn fact that privilege is very real, but I know there is literally fuck-all I can do about it – which I know because I once asked what I could do about it and had shit slung in my face for it. And, yes, quite, simply not talking about racism won’t make it magically go away but neither will only talking about it.

Or do I just bite the bullet and turn normal – Get a trendy haircut, support the local sports team (Go Sports Team!), share post-memes with Minions on them, comment on a Facebook post that already has 150,000 comments on it, roll back my self-awareness, and start regularly watching Eastenders? Or go full tits-to-the-wall odd – Shave one eyebrow because “that’s so random!”, take up body-painting, change my Facebook profile picture to the flag of whatever country is going through the shit this time, buy some goofy hats, take up barefoot running, and then invent my own sexual orientation because “there isn’t a word that describes me!”?

Or, is this just normal and expected. Are we all like this and all thinking the same thing?

Things To Do Instead of Transformers 4…

Transformers: Age of Extinction recently came to Netflix. Yay!

And I sat down and watched it… Yay?

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Reviews the world over have pretty much panned it, so I can’t add to that. Instead, here is a non-comprehensive list of things you can do instead should anyone suggest watching it even for Bad Movie Night:

  • Literally nothing – Sit in a reasonably comfortable spot, stare at the wall, and do nothing. Don’t even think. Through this, you run a small risk of entering a Zen-like meditative trance and experiencing Enlightenment. Meanwhile, there is no place in the infinite reaches of the multi-verse where this is possible by watching Age of Extinction. The potential drawbacks including DVT and existential dread of wondering why you’re doing this are the same in either case here.
  • Watch 9 Songs – Until very, very recently, if anyone asked me “what is the very worst film you’ve ever watched?” I would answer, without a beat, 9 Songs. It’s pseudo-pornographic crap held together by the worst the 2000s’ Indy music scene has to offer and some additional supposedly-deep and meaningful claptrap about ice cores. I can’t quite remember the details, I mostly recall a strong feeling of “Thank Christ that bullshit is over” at the end of 9 Songs and a desire to get wasted to blot it out. It is still better than Age of Extinction.
  • Get a prison-tattoo – With a blunt needle. And infected ink. Of a swastika. On your genitals. It’ll be an actual good story to bring up on a first date, and may give you a sense of achievement.
  • Read John Knox’s Monstrous Regiment of Women or some of John Norman’s Gor series – In either of these cases you will find a better, more progressive, enlightening, balanced and respectful treatment of women than you will find in Transformers: Michael Bay’s Ode To Statutory Rape.
  • Watch the YouTube video of all the dinobot scenes from the movie – If you watch Optimus riding Grimlock while wielding a sword, your inner Transformers fanboy will certainly be sated. You can then watch this for two-and-a-half-hours on a loop and pretend it’s part of a much better story that makes actual sense.

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  • Experiment with auto-erotic asphyxiation – A lot of people say it’s terrible, and it’s not worth it. And they also say that it could actively damage or harm you. But hey, a lot of people like it, and do it, and say it’s worth it if you’re into that sort of thing. You know, the exact same line of reasoning that says “go see a Michael Bay movie that isn’t Bad Boys“.
  • Find an internet comments section and read it – Like “doing nothing” this has a small but finite chance of causing enlightenment.
  • Floss your eyeballs – This entirely fictional health tip is likely to cause a lot of confusion and discomfort, is totally unnecessary and will make you question what you’re doing and why you took this advice. The same thing will happen as you watch Michael Bay slowly pan over an underage teen’s hotpants while openly discussing how she’s getting the D from a 20 year-old. Except after this, your eyes will at least be a little cleaner.
  • Figure out of Mark Wahlberg is a net-positive to humanity – Wahlberg is the best thing about this movie. He acts his little pudgy nose off fully realising all the dimensions (all none of them) of the flat, motivation-free character the writers bestowed upon him in Age of Extinction. So good. On the other hand, Planet of the Apes. So fuck me. On the other hand, Ted. So good. On the other hand, Ted 2. So fuck me. Then try to fit Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch into that puzzle. It’s likely that 2 hours 45 minutes later, you may have come to an answer satisfying enough that you could write it up and submit to a sociology journal.
  • Inject marijuana into your nipple and breastfeed your partner – I just can’t find this one in my copy of The Encyclopaedia of Unusual Sex Practices. So if you do manage to do this in the space of three hours, it’s three hours well spent pushing back the boundaries of human imagination.
  • Listen to Linkin Park – All of it. Every album. Track their slow decline from nu-metal superstars to post-modernist, self-mythologising “Artistes” of some description. You also get to hear their contributions to the Transformers soundtracks, which I kinda like in an easy-listening, non-offensive, wouldn’t-throw-a-brick-at-the-DJ-if-they-played-it-in-the-10pm-slot sort of way despite the general flat, triteness of those three songs. You also get to throw yourself to your knees and scream along to Numb like you’re still 15 and hate your parents. And that’s basically Jailbaity McJailbaitface’s entire character development in Age of Extinction.

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  • Watch the first (live-action, 2007) Transformers movie – hey, it’s a big dumb blockbuster tent-pole release, but it does exactly what it says on the tin: giant freaking robots kick the shit out of each other for a bit. And thanks to Speilberg’s “a boy and his car” concept, actually gives it a human dimension that may make you give a shit about the characters as they run and scream from the destruction on screen. Yes. I feel this film is actually good. In fact, watch Dark of the Moon instead, that also holds up as vaguely-coherent entertainment. Don’t watch Revenge of the Fallen, however. See the rest of this list before sticking Revenge of the Fallen on. In fact, watch Age of Extinction before Revenge of the Fallen.
  • Or fuck that, watch the 1986 animated Transformers: The Movie – You get G1 Optimus not acting like a murderous psychopath. You get Galvatron. You get Unicron. You get the Dinobots. You get ‘You Got The touch’. You get the death of Optimus Prime, too. You get Orson Welles for fuck’s sake. Sure, it’s an objectively kinda-not-that-good film, and, yes, the animation is dodgy as all hell, and yes, it’s painfully ’80s, but you can watch it twice in the space of 2014’s offering.
  • Write a blog post reviewing a bad film – Hell, it’s working for me right now. I’d say this is 2 hours 45 minutes of my life I’ll never get back, but in reality it’s 2 and a half – because the only reason to sit through the credits is to find out which writer needs shot as an example to others.

Chemistry by Chance – How Even Qualified Chemists Cease to Understand Chemistry Once They Come Out as Creationists (part 2)

See Part 1 and Part 3

Time to continue slogging through this… so…

4. The Problem of Reactivity

In this 4th section, McComb’s gradually tries to get into a little bit of abiogenesis and evolutionary biology. And again, he seems to mix the two up entirely, applying the conditions and pre-requisites for one to the other. So, let’s get this clear: abiogenesis is how life gets started, evolutionary biology is what happens once it has and natural selection can get involved. Importantly, abiogenesis has no requirement that an amino acid chain that has formed from a hypothetical “primordial soup” has a purpose. Purpose and function is something that comes later, once selection criteria have been able to refine the process. This is why evolutionary biologists that have to defend themselves against creationists and design advocates say that abiogenesis and evolution are different things, and that evolution has no need to explain abiogenesis. One works on refining information (information that exists as an abstract isomorphism with a chemical compound) and the other simply gets us to that chemical compound, and any variant of it that it likes.

So, the core claim of this section can be summed up in this sentence:

The product of natural or random reactions could never provide the precise sequences found in proteins and DNA/RNA.

But, as I said, they don’t have to. At this stage, what we’re calling “life” doesn’t serve a particular function. Now, I could go into how McComb’s is ballsing up reactivity and rates of reaction again, but I actually want to blow my word count on this very important revelation. I will put it in large, centred, capital letters and bold text just to make it clear:

ABIOGENESIS IS A PROCESS NOT AN EVENT

This means that there is no magic sudden spark that generates life. No one studying or theorising the early stages of life (studying it seriously, that is) has ever proposed differently. Life is a continuum, working its way up slowly from simple chemicals to complex chemicals – from disorder to order, from less organised information to more organised information (this is in an “information theory” sense, I direct anyone with a problem with this to this article). There is no sudden barrier that delineates life from non-life, and there certainly isn’t one in abiogensis. This is an important subtly that few really get, and creationists actively exploit this lack of understanding when trying to sell their wares to an unsuspecting population. In fact, “life”, as a thing, is an illusion (yes, this is an extreme over-interpretation of a very subtle point, but it makes headlines). “Life” is really just a mental (and linguistic) short-cut that differentiates between things that we can eat or could eat us, and things that can’t. A rock? Can’t eat us, we can’t eat it; not alive. That deer over there? We can eat it or it could eat us; alive. It serves us well because if we had to apply too much thinking to it, we would die pretty quickly. When it comes to edge cases, our intuitive of what is “alive” breaks down – and we think it’s a problem with reality, when really it’s a problem with our perception.

No more is this evident when it comes to viruses, prions, bacteria, fungus and other edge cases where our simple, intuitive definition of life fails almost completely. We simply cannot define it well enough. So, are self-replicating DNA fragments “alive”? Are organised peptide chains “alive”? Perhaps, perhaps not. The question is, in fact, meaningless. We’re going from a gradual scale of “not alive” at one end and “alive” at the other, with no sudden jump between them.

Forming amino acid chains or RNA chains in a solution has no requirement that they form a particular order. The order is refined later as life increases in complexity and begins to be acted upon by natural selection – and indeed, natural selection can refine things from random noise as a starting point. An argument against amino acids forming at all (as shown in the first three points) would be relevant to abiogenesis, but arguing that they couldn’t magically form a particular sequence is not. Besides, any chain would be a probability defying event, just as any combination of cards in a deck is a trillion-to-one-against order, yet still happens. Once that chain has formed – under the control of chemistry – that’s where we need to look at how it obtains, or at least refines, its information content.

5. The Problem of Selectivity

This is just re-wording no.4. Let’s not bother with it in too much detail. Suffice to say, the most correct bit of chemistry in it is the following quote:

Chemical selectivity concerns where components react.

Yeah, that’s about right.

Overall, this is trying to say that because a peptide chain can grow from both ends, the odds of it generating a “meaningful” sequence is small. Except, I need to just reiterate this, the concept of a meaningful sequence does not exist in the abiogenesis framework. It does for us today because we have an established system for translating DNA sequences to protein chains, and enzyme catalysts to run the show. In a hypothetical primordial soup where our main aim is simply to produce a polypeptide, the exact sequence does not matter.

Though I want to finish this with a curious observation. Throughout numbers 1, 2 and 3 (covered in part 1 of this piece), McCombs focuses on how unreactive amino acids apparently are. He goes to great lengths to say they won’t form chains. Yet here, in point 5, he is talking about the countless hundreds of isomers that should be formed. Surely, if he was under the impression the amide bonds didn’t form at all from a reaction of two amino acids, then the “problem of selectivity” shouldn’t matter at all, right? Such is the nature of a Gish Gallop – creationists are so desperate to pad out their over-bloated lists of arguments they don’t notice when their points actually start to contradict each other.

6. The Problem of Solubility

Again, an apparent Ph.D chemist seems to be displaying a sub-middle-school level understanding of polymer science. While it’s vaguely true that macromolecules have a tendency to be less water-soluble (and less soluble in general) this isn’t purely because of their length. After all – and I’m starting to sound like a broken record here – they are soluble in our cells. Protein chains and DNA chains don’t magically hit a certain length and precipitate out of our bodies and, subsequently, kill us. If solubility was a problem for abiogenesis, it would be a problem for our mere current existence. So, obviously, peptide chains and proteins definitely are water soluble.

But how does nature manage to do this? It’s simple, really, because it’s the same way synthetic chemists get around the problem; by attaching a few water soluble functional groups to the chain. But for this, I need to explain what solubility actually is.

Solubility is the ability for a substance to be broken down into just a single molecule and effectively surrounded by a liquid so that it can move freely inside it. That’s it. This is the solution phase. It’s not a particularly special thing, but it is useful for chemical reactivity because it means every molecule is spread out and open to reaction (i.e., it’s not a solid) but at the same time it’s a nice controlled environment (i.e., it’s not a gas phase). For this to happen you need sites on your molecule where the solvent can bind, so that it can be carried around in solution. In really small molecules this is comparatively trivial – a metal ion like Co(II), for instance, will just coordinate water octahedrally in its inner sovlation sphere and it will dangle around in water quite nicely. For larger macromolecules, however, we can be more specific with sites where a solvent will bind to help bring it into solution. So we need groups that are compatible with the solvent. For water, charge and polarity is important – hence why it can solubilise cobalt with a 2+ charge very easily. Individual amino acids also do this well because of the individual acidic and basic groups on them which hold a high polarity and a potential charge. As a chain increases – as McCombs points out – the number of acidic and basic sites relative to the size of the chain reduce, and eventually the solubility becomes poor. However, and this is the however that McCombs conveniently forgets to add to his list, not all amino acids are common, boring,  aprotic alanine and glycine. Many have sites that will water-solubilise the protein. In fact, in protein folding these are essential as they are what drive proteins to fold up a certain way.

This interesting graphic shows the wide variety of naturally occurring amino acids. What is interesting are the wide variety of ones with charged side chains or uncharged polar side chains. There are those words again, “polar” and “charge”, which happen to be very water soluble. Bung a few of those in your peptide chain and insolubility ceases to be a problem regardless of length. In fact it really doesn’t take many of these groups to solubilise a chain, and that’s a fact abused by polymer chemists and catalytic chemists to get their stuff to be water soluble without much trouble.

And again, I’m going to leave it there and come on to 7 and 8 later, they seem to change track to a different set of chemical principles.

Chemistry by Chance – How Even Qualified Chemists Cease to Understand Chemistry Once They Come Out as Creationists (part 1)

Part 2 and Part 3

I’m going back on a chemistry and creationism kick. You know, because I can. And in this case, I’m going to look at this article* by Charles McCombs, Ph.D – apparently a Ph.D in organic chemistry from UCLA, though you wouldn’t know that from him talking about the basic fucking organic chemistry that I’m about to go through.

Like most creationist listicles,** it’s less like 10 separate points and more 10 vaguely similar points re-worded differently – and all have the same problem; namely, that McCombs doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The second most generic comment I can give on this subject is that all these chemical objections would suggest life doesn’t exist. They don’t say that life couldn’t arise naturally, they say that – if true – life simply couldn’t exist. Life does exist, and we are the giant walking chemical factories that prove it, so there is clearly something up with these objections. This is a recurring theme, remember it.

*“Cite this article: McCombs, C. A. 2009. Chemistry by Chance: A Formula for Non-Life. Acts & Facts. 38 (2): 30.” – No. I won’t cite your ‘article’ this way. Posh-sounding citations are for real actual factual science and academic work, not blog posts from the Institute for Creation Research.

**A portmanteau of “list” and “article”. It unfortunately never looks as good written down as it sounds.

1. The Problem of Unreactivity

In this first section, McCombs attests that amino acids cannot form peptide chains in a watery environment – these reactions must exclude water (and this is basically what his other 9 points say more or less).

But if amino acids can’t react to form peptides in water, one needs to ask: how the hell do they react to form in our cells? The average human, by mass, is about 60% water. Our cells are rammed full of the stuff. Our cells even form because of water, as hydrophobic and hydrophilic sections of the phospholipids that form cell membranes arrange the way they do precisely because we are aqueous creatures. Biological reactions take place entirely in H2O, and entire fields of medicinal chemistry and bio-active chemistry all have to face the fact that their chemistry is water-based. If water was such a problem to the formation of these essential chemicals, we wouldn’t exist. We would fall over and die as the chemical reactions that sustain us refused to take place in the watery environment of our cells. So, no matter how good (or bad, and it is bad) this theory is, the simple fact is that water cannot be a barrier to reaction. In fact, actual factual existent condensation reactions, that form actual factual existent peptides, happen in water every day. Where McCombs declares that the process must be completely water-free, since the activated compounds would react with water”, he either doesn’t understand the chemistry he supposedly has a Ph.D in or is outright lying to the flock to prove creationism true. I cannot comprehend a third option there.

The main assertion in this first part, however, is that these chemicals – amino acids – are naturally un-reactive and that you need to activate them to generate a reaction. Outside the cellular environment where enzymatic catalysis drives peptide formation, these chemicals will sit tight and do nothing. However, this itself isn’t a barrier to the start of life. Evolutionary biology and modern geology postulates we had billions of years for peptides to form, slow reactivity is not a problem here. What would be a problem is if the peptide bond between amino acids was massively unstable – but it isn’t, it’s the opposite in fact, and we’re literally living proof of that. Slightly acidic or basic conditions speed up the condensation reactions required to build a peptide bond, and mineral catalysts or autocatalytic reactions in a hypothetical “primordial soup” also reduce the reaction barrier so that polymerisation can occur. It’s not really a problem except in the creationist imagination.

But once formed, the peptide bond is kinetically stable meaning it will only break down slowly – and honestly, it would help if McCombs actually phrased things in proper chemical terms such as stability, equilibrium and kinetics so I didn’t have to try and second-guess what he was on about and try and translate it for him. It takes a long time to break an amide bond unless you have a strong catalyst in there. The nitrogen in the bond de-localises its electrons and stabilises the bond against acid/base attack far more than in the comparable ester bond – and in fact the breakdown of proteins over thousands of years in nature is a remarkably useful dating technique. So, once formed, even if that formation is slow, the products are similarly inert and stable enough to take part in further reactions (even if these other reactions are slow – but speed is not a problem for evolutionary biology), and McCombs very slyly ignores this fact when he declares amino acids to be unreactive but implies their polymeric products are not.

2. The Problem of Ionization

I’m going to be frank with this section – it makes no sense. McCombs first off conflates “ionisation” with “acid base equilibrium”. In the first case, we’d use that term to describe the mechanical – or perhaps electrochemical – action of stripping electrons away from a neutral molecules. This happens in a mass spectrometer where we use an electric current to start giving these molecules positive charges, or it happens at high temperatures where we form a plasma. This takes a lot of energy because you’re disrupting a strong electrostatic bond between a positively charged atomic nucleus and its surrounding negatively charged electrons.

But this article seems to mix this up with what is really just charge separation, which occurs when an acid and base exchange a proton to form a charged conjugate base and conjugate acid. It’s best demonstrated by example:

HCl +H2O → H3O+ + Cl

Here, hydrochloric acid (HCl) acts as an acid, water (H2O) is acting as a base. H3O+ and Cl are the resulting conjugate acid and conjugate base respectively. These hold formal charges – i.e., they have one too few and one excess electron respectively to balance out the positive charges of the atomic nuclei – but they still balance out with a positive (+1) and negative (-1) on the right hand side of that equation, so overall the chemical system remains neutral. However, I have never, ever, ever, heard this sort of reaction being referred to as “ionisation” – except, perhaps, in an abstract sense where you might use a Hess Cycle to break it down into individual steps; for instance, you’d have a step where you’d “ionise” gaseous Cl to gaseous Cl prior to solvating it, but this isn’t to say the real Cl atom in reality actually goes magically into the gas phase and ionises itself out of nowhere, a Hess Cycle is just a bean-counting exercise in energy conservation. No, what is really happening is that our molecules combine together into an intermediate or transition state, and when they separate again one side takes an extra electron with it because it happens to be more stable that way. The charges are then successfully separated because water, being a polar solvent, binds electrostatically to these ions to keep them apart. And this just happens to be a nice, stable situation. Again, I have never heard of this being called “ionisation” just in case anyone confuses it with something like the formation of a plasma.

But what is his point? To use McCombs’s words:

The amine group is basic and will react quickly with the acid group also present. This acid-base reaction of amino acids is instantaneous in water, and the components necessary for protein formation are not present in a form in which they can react.

So, what he’s referring to is the acid-base equilibrium of a basic amine group and an acidic carboxylic acid group. He seems to be suggesting that because of this reaction, the acid and base groups will protonate/deprotonate and can no longer react (just as in the HCl reaction above).

R-COOH + R’-NH2 → R-COO + R’-NH3+

Actually, the above is slightly more complicated because if it’s in water there will be H2O + H2O → H3O+ + OH playing about in there, too.

BUT, and this is fucking GCSE-level chemistry here, amines and carboxylic acids are not a strong acid/base combination. They do not all protonate/deprotonate in solution. In fact, the pKa value* for the average carboxylic acid is between 2 and 5. McCombs seems to think that this acid dissociation is a problem to the formation of peptide chains – but, and this is a recurring theme, if it was then protein chains wouldn’t form at all. In fact, this protonation is probably quite helpful for formation of peptide bonds because such a reaction is acid (and base) catalysed. These protonated/deprotonated forms that are charged are actually highly reactive – and because they are a weak acid/base combination, have plenty of uncharged and unchanged molecules around them to react with. This sort of thing is, far from a barrier, an essential property of the molecules doing what we need them to do.

*This is a measure of acidity based on the equilibrium constant between the acidic proton being attached and detached. It’s a logarithmic scale, and the fact that these pKa values aren’t negative-infinity suggests that not all – not by a long shot – amino acids are going to be formal ions in solution.

3. The Problem of Mass Action

Here is my favourite one (and this is getting long so I might stop here for now), because McComb’s manages to mess up the explanation of, and then completely misapply, Le Chatelier’s principle. Let’s just quote his conclusion verbatim for now:

This means that any reaction that produces water cannot be performed in the presence of water.

Now, I could give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s not explaining himself well, but let’s not and just take this sentence literally. Think about this for a moment. Suppose we have a completely dry solvent (say, dry benzene that’s been distilled and refluxed over sodium and then cannula transferred to a flame-dried reactant flask that has been flushed with nitrogen – as you do) and we perform an organic reaction in it that condenses out water – peptide/amide/ester bond formation, for instance. As soon as the first molecule – of trillions – reacts, the reaction is now in the presence of water. If you were to take the above sentence literally, then no chemical reaction would ever occur at all. The first reaction would take place, it would then be in the presence of its product, the reaction would stop. But of course, reactions do proceed, so this principle that McCombs is alluding to could not possibly say what he’s trying to claim. So, let me try to explain it.

Le Chatelier’s principle states that a chemical system at equilibrium will adapt to oppose any change imposed on it.

Okay, that’s probably not very nice and pop-sciencey, so let’s break it down further. A chemical equilibrium is where a chemical reaction, say “A + B → C” can reverse so that “C → A + B” happens too. At equilibrium, or in “equilibrium conditions”, the rate of both reactions is the same. It should then be obvious that that relative concentrations of A, B and C will remain the same – C is produced in the first reaction at the same speed it’s consumed in the second reaction and likewise for A and B. Le Chatelier’s principle says that if we change those conditions by, for example, adding a spoonful of C to the system, then the chemical system will oppose that addition and go back to “equilibrium conditions” by consuming C at a faster rate.  This is simply because rate is proportional to concentration, and if you boost the concentration of C, that backwards reaction (C → A + B) will speed up until enough C has been consumed that the rate is the same as the forward reaction again. Aka, equilibrium has been achieved again.

Where McCombs has catastrophically fucked up this explanation and applied it ass-backwards is to assume this is an absolute statement, and that you can tell just by looking at a reaction on paper whether it will go ahead or not in the presence of A, B or C. No. Just no. This is not how it works. A chemical equilibrium is driven by energy and the energy difference between the products and reactants; specifically a little formula that reads “ΔG = -RTln(K)”. If the product is more stable, the equilibrium will lie to the right, if the reactant is more stable it will lie to the left. Concentration does not come into this except when you are talking about changing the conditions at equilibrium.

A + B → C

For instance, an equilibrium concentration might be a 10:1 ratio of A:C at a particular temperature. Le Chatelier’s principle refers only to a change made against those conditions – if we make a system were it’s a 1:1 ratio of A:C by spooning in some C the system will oppose this change and get itself back to equilibrium by consuming C until 10:1 is reached again. This emphatically does not mean that reactions that generate water as a by-product cannot occur in a water solvent. In fact they can, and they do. And there are many where you don’t need to bother drying your solvents or glassware in the lab precisely because the reaction generates water.

Seriously, where the fuck did this guy learn chemistry?

Dear Mr Cameron

Dear David Cameron, you right-wing fucktard (no, wait, a bit harsh)

Cameron! How, man, ye little radgey!! (no, bit too Tyne and Wear, they’ll assume I’m stupid)

Dear David Cameron, (alleged) quasi human,

I read with a combination of bafflement and alarm (that’s suitably middle class, right?) of your proposals to solve All The Problems In The World by attacking that horrid beast known as Internet Pornography. I would like to express my disagreement (read; am about to shred your entire argument into small chunks and pass them through my digestive system) with your proposals and your motive.

Firstly, I must question your choice of target. Creating an opt-out only filter for all pornographic images and video at the ISP level is tantamount to the old idiom of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut (or perhaps using the UK’s stock of atomic weapons on Belfast in order to deal with the IRA). It sets a dangerous precedent for a government enforced, high level censorship campaign against content generators on the Internet. This is something we expect from China and North Korea, but not the United Kingdom. I fear that this is the thinner end of a wedge that will seek to remove the online presence of any dissidence once the precedent and infrastructure for such a move is in place.

You aim to clamp down on pornography depicting child abuse, yet there is already sufficient momentum across the internet to deal with this. The Internet Watch Foundation, for instance, is remarkably zealous in policing the internet (well, blacklisting the cover of Virgin Killer was fucking hilarious, at least) and can be very effective (when it’s not making a cunting balls up censoring Wikipedia, of course). Google, which despite its flaws (Evil. Evil bastards) deals with indecent images of children very effectively by taking a zero-tolerance approach. Further, being one of the leaders in internet technology, it is undoubtedly better equipped to deal effectively with the cited problem of illegal images and acts (Google is scary-fucking-good at what it does) than any government endorsed filter. Content hosting websites also police themselves effectively, and always report as much detail as possible about offenders to the relevant authorities – those that don’t are usually dealt with by the search engines and ISPs that do deal with it effectively. If this is somehow insufficient, then how would making further amendments to the law without further provisions for enforcement, as was the case with The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, improve the situation? (Let me answer that one for you; it won’t, you stupid piece of shit)  There is very little evidence available that current laws and practices are not sufficient to deal with a problem that will only be driven more underground, and become more subversive, should we attempt to take broad (and stupid) actions against it online.

We all know this will be ineffective (that is, it won’t do jack shit) overall. Anyone who has used the internet for any length of time will quickly come to a few conclusions on the subject. Firstly; internet porn isn’t as easy to merely “stumble” across as is widely advertised (if you stick Google’s safe search on, and look up “Disney Princess”, you’re not going to be immediately met with one of the countless pieces of “fan art” depicting Jasmine riding Aladdin’s rock-hard and oversized cock) and simple precautions are already widely and freely available for responsible adults and parents to use. Secondly; where generic web filters are in place (Fucking Scunthorpe!), they usually don’t work. Trying to instigate an opt-in policy for indecent images will likely create a false sense of security for parents, leading them to avoid the basic courses of action they should be taking when raising children in the internet age. (but, hey, it’s just too much fucking effort to supervise Little Timmy’s internet usage. He’s just fucking fine having a DeviantART account age 8.) There are many problems with attempting to block “pornography”; how to define it, for one, is a major hurdle. What about, say, DeviantART, where the line between “smut” and “artistic nudes” is blurred, or YouTube, where people post explicit material daily, but only just get through by making sure nipples are sufficiently covered? The line needs to be drawn somewhere for such a hard-and-fast (hurr hurr) approach, and it is almost certain that innocent material will be taken offline while offending material gets through. Normally, it would be fallacious to say that less-than-100% effectiveness means we should avoid attempting a reduction in harm, but here we are talking about state-wide censorship based on zero evidence that harm will actually be reduced. In this case, such a problem is not a fallacious one, but a serious issue that casts doubt over whether such a proposal is anything more than a complete waste of our collective time. (Also, Cameron, don’t lie; I bet you’ve tossed one off to a pair of barely-18 tits in your time. Though, back when you had a functioning sex drive we were probably all still on 28k dial-up)

What is most disturbing, however, is the targeting of “extreme” pornography in the 2008 act and the current focus on depictions and simulations of rape. Not rape. Depictions and simulations of rape (see, you’re not going to get a fucking heading saying you want to ban rape, as that was dealt with nicely in the Sexual Offences Act years ago).  “Depiction” and “simulation” notably implying that consent was exchanged prior to the act; what does this sort of message send to the population, and our children, about the nature of consent in sexual activity?

Let’s be frank here (i.e., the sexually repressed should skip to the next paragraph). “Extreme” pornography is, by and large, not a problem. Because laws against rape and child abuse, as well as physical abuse to adults, are already in effect, producers of “extreme” pornography (“BDSM” if you want the actual factual technical term) have to tread very careful grounds in order for their material to be sold; yes, it’s also policed effectively by credit card processors (often, the adults involved will happily go way further than they do, with full consent, but the legal eagles working for the payment processing companies say “no”).  This started a movement towards what is known as “ethical” pornography; a move towards business transparency, codes of conduct, fundamental rights for the talent and more openness about how what was occurring was simply fantasy. This often includes bookending scenes with interviews and behind-the-scenes footage to underscore both the fantasy and consensual aspects of the scenes being produced (for those interpreting this as “porn addict”, this sort of information is readily available online to research and is basic and fundamental knowledge for anyone who is not a complete fuckwit expressing an informed opinion regarding online censorship). Contrast this to the experiences in so-called vanilla pornography, where fewer legal restrictions are in place. Women rail-roaded into the business, underpaid, overworked, forced onto drugs, controlled by pimps, taken in, chewed up and spat out, and regularly beaten and abused by directors; all of this stems from “normal” pornography rather than its “more interesting” sub-genres. So, indeed, this extreme form of pornography that you personally find most sickening is the most ethical, consensual and progressive of all pornography (admit it, it’s all just right-wing squeamishness about the sick fact that people fuck and dare to enjoy it).

As for the choice of motive, this is also questionable (read; royally fucktarded). How can someone, with a straight face, declare that they’re taking a decision to protect children (a decision that won’t actually protect children) while simultaneously dismantling the welfare state and taking country-wide financial decisions that are actively driving people into poverty? (Really, how the fuck do you sleep at night?)

Statistically, the greatest potential harm to a child is its own parents, whether it be physical or psychological abuse, or simple neglect. Being exposed to a pair of naked breasts (or even a pair of massive quintuple Ds getting splashed by 6 ball-sack’s worth of salty Man Juice at the same time) is unlikely to lead to everlasting trauma. You know what does cause harm? It’s assertions such as the fact that girls can only wear pink, or that boys must play with cars rather than dolls. It’s the idea that we should never discuss issues such as consent and personal agency with young children because that would “destroy their innocence” (I mean, for fucksake, most sex education has pretty diagrams of internal reproductive organs, but the first time a young boy might see the outside of a growling vagina is when, aged 16 he awkwardly tries to stick his cock in her bellybutton).

In short, what is being proposed is the perfect combination of ineffective and pointless, headline-grabbing but meaningless, and needlessly oppressive to free expression. It serves to undermine legitimate, consensual activity, while generating some air of useless complacency amongst the “concerned” and those easily susceptible to such scaremongering.  But most of all, it sets a dangerous precedent for how a government can control the content communicated between its citizens.