Exploring the moral landscape with recursive partitioning

I’ve mentioned the World Values Survey before. Lately, I’ve been taking another look at this fascinating dataset, specifically at the questions on morality. The chart below provides an analysis of responses to the question “Is abortion justifiable?” These responses ranged from 1 (“never justifiable”) to 10 (“always justifiable”). I looked at the most recent data for Australia and the United States, plus one European country (the Netherlands) and one African country (Zambia), using recursive partitioning with the rpart package of R, together with my own tree-drawing code.

Attitude data such as this is often explained using political orientation, but political orientation is itself really more of an effect than a cause. Instead, I used age, sex, marital status, education level, language spoken at home, number of children, and religion as explanatory variables, with some grouping of my own. Demographic weightings were those provided in the dataset.

For the United States (US), the overall average response was 4.8 (as at 2011, having risen from 4.0 in 1995). However, among more religious people, who attended religious services at least weekly, the average response was lower. This group was mostly, but not entirely, Christian, and the area of the box on the chart gives an approximate indication of the group’s size (according to Pew Forum, this group has been slowly shrinking in size, down to 36% in 2014). The average response was 3.0 for those in the group who also engaged in daily prayer, and 4.3 for those who did not. Among those who attended religious services less than weekly, the responses varied by education level. The average response was 4.8 for those with education up to high school; 6.9 for those with at least some tertiary education who were Buddhist (B), Hindu (H), Jewish (J), Muslim (M), or “None” (N); and 5.4 for those with at least some tertiary education who were Catholic (C), Orthodox (Or), Protestant (P), or Other (Ot).

For Australia (AU), the overall average response was 5.8 (as at 2012, having risen from 4.3 in 1981), with a pattern broadly similar to the US. Here the “more religious” category included those attending religious services at least monthly (but it was still smaller a smaller group than in the US). The average response was 2.7 for those in the group who also engaged in daily prayer, and 4.6 for those who did not. The group most supportive of abortion were those attending religious services less than monthly, with at least some tertiary education, and speaking English or a European language at home. Those speaking Non-European languages at home clustered with the religious group (and those with at least some tertiary education speaking Non-European languages at home are a growing segment of the population, increasing from 6.2% of adults in the 2011 Census to 8.3% of adults in the 2016 Census).

For the Netherlands (NL), the overall average response was 6.5 (as at 2012). Those most opposed to abortion either attended religious services at least weekly (3.2), or were Hindu or Muslim (3.3). Then came those who either attended religious services monthly (5.2), or who attended religious services less often, but were still Catholic (C), Orthodox (Or), Protestant (P), or Other (Ot), and had not completed high school (5.3). The group most supportive of abortion were those attending religious services less than monthly, with at least some tertiary education, and who were Buddhist, Jewish, or “None” (7.9).

For Zambia (ZM), opposition to abortion was strong, with an overall average response of 3.2 (as at 2007). It was highest for those whose marital status was “separated” (4.5), and lowest for those aged 28 and up whose marital status was anything else (2.8).

Of the explanatory variables I used, all except sex, age, and number of children were important in at least one country. However, sex was important for “Is prostitution justifiable?” or “Is violence against other people justifiable?” Age was important for “Is homosexuality justifiable?” or “Is sex before marriage justifiable?” Number of children was important for “Is divorce justifiable?” or “Is suicide justifiable?” For example, here is an analysis of attitudes to divorce:


2019 World Solar Challenge update

Nuon, now Vattenfall, at the 2017 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge (photo: Anthony Dekker)

An update on the 53 teams (27 Challengers, 25 Cruisers, and 1 Adventure car) interested in the 2019 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge this October. The big news is that defending champions Nuon have changed their name to Vattenfall.

Warning: this list is obsolete. Please check more recent posts.

This page last updated 23:29 on 17 February 2019 AEDT

The Crucible of Time: a book review

The Crucible of Time by John Brunner (1983)

I recently re-read The Crucible of Time by science fiction author John Brunner (1934–1995). It is one of the last great triumphant-rise-of-human-progress novels where, in spite of all kinds of natural disasters, the inhabitants of a planet drag themselves through thousands of years of scientific development in order to escape their doomed planet (around the 80’s, science fiction became darker and more dystopian, as indeed, many of Brunner’s other novels are). What makes this novel stand out from a rather dull subgenre is that the characters are not human at all, but are some kind of mollusc. When you can get your readers to identify emotionally with a sort of intelligent slug or squid, then you’ve got serious writing talent: “‘But – !’ She sank back, at a loss. For the first time it was possible to see how pretty she was, her torso sleek and sturdy, her claws and mandibles as delicate as a flyet’s. Her maw still crowded, she went on, ‘But I always thought you and Professor Wam were enemies! When I heard you were giving a lecture and she had agreed to reply to you, I couldn’t really believe it, but I decided I had to be present, because you’re both on the other side from my parents. They are crazy, aren’t they? Please tell me they’re crazy! And then explain how you two can be acting like friends right here and now! I mean,’ she concluded beseechingly, ‘you don’t smell like enemies to each other!’

At one level, The Crucible of Time is a strange tirade against religion, having set up a universe in which the religious leaders are, by construction, dangerously wrong. This gives Brunner’s characters some more immediate opponents than the impending disaster itself, but these opponents seem a little too much like cardboard cut-outs most of the time. I was left somewhat confused as to why the universe of the novel contained religion at all. An evolutionary argument was implied, but it didn’t seem to make sense.

The novel (or rather, collection of linked stories) does have some fascinating descriptions of a civilisation that’s built mostly, but not entirely, on biology – in contrast to ours, which is built mostly, but not entirely, on physics. Brunner avoids tedious descriptions by giving animals names that suggest English equivalents. The alien equivalent of a domesticated camel is a drom, for example. The large domesticated water-creatures that perform the function of ships are barqs, briqs, and junqs: “‘Correct! Well, if a mindless plant can find a way to spread beyond its isolated patch, why shouldn’t we? Did it ever strike you that there must have been a first person who pithed a barq or briq, just as there was certainly a first who tamed a junq? Then, folk were confined to continents or islands, and had to trudge wearily from place to place unless they had a drom—and someone, equally, must have been first to ride a drom!’

In a similar vein are words like laq, sourgas, and stumpium (named after the planet Stumpalong). Checking Internet reviews, this aspect of the novel seems to be both loved and hated.

But I consider this novel to be one of the great science fiction classics; it’s well worth a read. See here for a more detailed review and plot summary.

The Crucible of Time by John Brunner: 3½ stars

The modern Trivium and the teaching of science

The “trivium” approach to education derives from “The Lost Tools of Learning,” a 1947 speech by scholar and detective story author Dorothy L. Sayers. This approach takes the seven liberal arts (illustrated above), drops the all-important quadrivium, and applies the remainder in a largely metaphorical way. It is an interesting approach, although it inevitably under-emphasises mathematics. The door to Plato’s Academy was marked “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter (Ἀγεωμέτρητος μηδεὶς εἰσίτω),” and this referred to the most advanced mathematic of his day. I’m not sure that the “trivium” approach to education delivers that level of mathematical knowledge. Then again, does the standard approach?


Science, on the other hand, can be fitted quite well into the “trivium” model. The three stages of this model (largely metaphorical, as noted) are “grammar,” “logic,” and “rhetoric.”

The “grammar” stage (intended for ages 6 to 10 or so) covers basic facts. Science at this level logically includes what used to be called natural history – the close observation of the natural world. Maintaining a nature journal is an important part of this, as are simple experiments, the use of a telescope, collections of objects (rocks, shells, etc.), and simple measurements (such as recording measurements from a home weather station).

Mother and child nature journaling examples from Nature Study Australia Instagram and website

Dorothy L. Sayers has nothing to say about science in the “logic” stage (apart from fitting algebra and geometry here), but the “logic” stage would reasonably include taxonomies, empirical laws, and an exploration of how and why things work the way they do – that is, the internal logic connecting scientific observations and measurements. A degree of integration with history education would provide some context regarding where these taxonomies and laws came from, and why they were seen as important when they were formulated.

Exploring Boyle’s law with a simple apparatus

In the “rhetoric” stage, the “how” and “why” of science would be explored in more detail, along with practical applications and project work (such as entering a science competition, or possibly even collaborating with local academics on a scientific conference paper).

A US Army engineer helps judge high school science projects (photo: Michael J. Nevins / US Army)

I suspect that quite a decent science education programme could be worked out on such a basis. If any reader knows of it having been done, please add a comment.