Welcome to Tim Harding’s blog of writings and talks about logic, rationality, philosophy and skepticism. There are also some reblogs of some of Tim’s favourite posts by other writers, plus some of his favourite quotations and videos This blog has a Facebook connection at The Logical Place.

There are over six hundred posts here about all sorts of topics – please have a good look around before leaving.

If you are looking for an article about the Birth of Experimental Science recently published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Out of the Dark’, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about the Dark Ages recently published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘In the Dark’, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about the Traditional Chinese Medicine vs. Endangered Species recently published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Bad Medicine’, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about the rejection of expertise published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Who needs to Know?’, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about Charles Darwin published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Darwin’s Missing Link“, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about the Astronomical Renaissance published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Rebirth of the Universe‘, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about DNA and GM foods published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘The Good Oil‘, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about animal welfare published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Creature Features‘, it is available here.

If you would like to submit a comment about anything written here, please read our comments policy.


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What is logic?

The word ‘logic‘ is not easy to define, because it has slightly different meanings in various applications ranging from philosophy, to mathematics to computer science. In philosophy, logic’s main concern is with the validity or cogency of arguments. The essential difference between informal logic and formal logic is that informal logic uses natural language, whereas formal logic (also known as symbolic logic) is more complex and uses mathematical symbols to overcome the frequent ambiguity or imprecision of natural language.

So what is an argument? In everyday life, we use the word ‘argument’ to mean a verbal dispute or disagreement (which is actually a clash between two or more arguments put forward by different people). This is not the way this word is usually used in philosophical logic, where arguments are those statements a person makes in the attempt to convince someone of something, or present reasons for accepting a given conclusion. In this sense, an argument consist of statements or propositions, called its premises, from which a conclusion is claimed to follow (in the case of a deductive argument) or be inferred (in the case of an inductive argument). Deductive conclusions usually begin with a word like ‘therefore’, ‘thus’, ‘so’ or ‘it follows that’.

A good argument is one that has two virtues: good form and all true premises. Arguments can be either deductiveinductive  or abductive. A deductive argument with valid form and true premises is said to be sound. An inductive argument based on strong evidence is said to be cogent. The term ‘good argument’ covers all three of these types of arguments.

Deductive arguments

A valid argument is a deductive argument where the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises, because of the logical structure of the argument. That is, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must also be true. Conversely, an invalid argument is one where the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. However, the validity or invalidity of arguments must be clearly distinguished from the truth or falsity of its premises. It is possible for the conclusion of a valid argument to be true, even though one or more of its premises are false. For example, consider the following argument:

Premise 1: Napoleon was German
Premise 2: All Germans are Europeans
Conclusion: Therefore, Napoleon was European

The conclusion that Napoleon was European is true, even though Premise 1 is false. This argument is valid because of its logical structure, not because its premises and conclusion are all true (which they are not). Even if the premises and conclusion were all true, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that the argument was valid. If an argument has true premises and its form is valid, then its conclusion must be true.

Deductive logic is essentially about consistency. The rules of logic are not arbitrary, like the rules for a game of chess. They exist to avoid internal contradictions within an argument. For example, if we have an argument with the following premises:

Premise 1: Napoleon was either German or French
Premise 2: Napoleon was not German

The conclusion cannot logically be “Therefore, Napoleon was German” because that would directly contradict Premise 2. So the logical conclusion can only be: “Therefore, Napoleon was French”, not because we know that it happens to be true, but because it is the only possible conclusion if both the premises are true. This is admittedly a simple and self-evident example, but similar reasoning applies to more complex arguments where the rules of logic are not so self-evident. In summary, the rules of logic exist because breaking the rules would entail internal contradictions within the argument.

Inductive arguments

An inductive argument is one where the premises seek to supply strong evidence for (not absolute proof of) the truth of the conclusion. While the conclusion of a sound deductive argument is supposed to be certain, the conclusion of a cogent inductive argument is supposed to be probable, based upon the evidence given. An example of an inductive argument is: 

Premise 1: Almost all people are taller than 26 inches
Premise 2: George is a person
Conclusion: Therefore, George is almost certainly taller than 26 inches

Whilst an inductive argument based on strong evidence can be cogent, there is some dispute amongst philosophers as to the reliability of induction as a scientific method. For example, by the problem of induction, no number of confirming observations can verify a universal generalization, such as ‘All swans are white’, yet it is logically possible to falsify it by observing a single black swan.

Abductive arguments

Abduction may be described as an “inference to the best explanation”, and whilst not as reliable as deduction or induction, it can still be a useful form of reasoning. For example, a typical abductive reasoning process used by doctors in diagnosis might be: “this set of symptoms could be caused by illnesses X, Y or Z. If I ask some more questions or conduct some tests I can rule out X and Y, so it must be Z.

Incidentally, the doctor is the one who is doing the abduction here, not the patient. By accepting the doctor’s diagnosis, the patient is using inductive reasoning that the doctor has a sufficiently high probability of being right that it is rational to accept the diagnosis. This is actually an acceptable form of the Argument from Authority (only the deductive form is fallacious).


Hodges, W. (1977) Logic – an introduction to elementary logic (2nd ed. 2001) Penguin, London.
Lemmon, E.J. (1987) Beginning Logic. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis.

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Rationality may be defined as as the quality of being consistent with or using reason, which is further defined as the mental ability to draw inferences or conclusions from premises (the ‘if – then’ connection). The application of reason is known as reasoning; the main categories of which are deductive and inductive reasoning. A deductive argument with valid form and true premises is said to be sound. An inductive argument based on strong evidence is said to be cogent. It is rational to accept the conclusions of arguments that are sound or cogent, unless and until they are effectively refuted.

A fallacy is an error of reasoning resulting in a misconception or false conclusion. A fallacious argument can be deductively invalid or one that has insufficient inductive strength. A deductively invalid argument is one where the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. That is , the conclusion can be false even if the premises are true. An example of an inductively invalid argument is a conclusion that smoking does not cause cancer based on the anecdotal evidence of only one healthy smoker.

By accident or design, fallacies may exploit emotional triggers in the listener (e.g. appeal to emotion), or take advantage of social relationships between people (e.g. argument from authority). By definition, a belief arising from a logical fallacy is contrary to reason and is therefore irrational, even though a small number of such beliefs might possibly be true by coincidence.

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If you’re going to ridicule research, do your homework

The Conversation

Rob Brooks, UNSW Australia

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph is suffering one of their frequent relapses into frothy-mouthed panic about government wastage on research grants. Poking at layabout academics for ‘wasting’ tax dollars on seemingly frivolous projects reminds me of nothing more than the schoolyard bully who secretly knows he peaked in year 9. Today, the Tele flattered me by holding up one of my own projects for ridicule, ironically illustrating their point that rusted-on ideology, and patronage provide the most direct route possible to mediocrity.

In an ‘Exclusive’ Natasha Bita goes beyond the tried-and-true formula of simply spouting big school words culled from the titles and summaries of grant proposals, and giggling “what does that even mean?”. She pits a handful of phrases from grant summaries against more urgent priorities, quoting Michael Potter of the Centre for Independent Studies:

Would it not be a better investment to fund research into cures for disease, major social problems, and ways to boost the Australian economy?

Quite. Presumably we can leave it to the Tele and the CIS to decide on which research is most beneficial? Without the need for all that grant writing and peer review?

Trying to isolate researchers by painting some research as valuable and the rest as claptrap is a clever strategy. But devoutly as we all may wish for an end to cancer, even cancer researchers, hell even some cancer patients think there are other priorities too.

Sexual conflict and the taxpayer

The Australian Research Council no longer publishes the titles of grants in its funding announcements. I’m not sure what the official line is, but the impression among my colleagues is they seek to present a small target to exactly this kind of pillory, which becomes annual sport when the likes of Andrew Bolt tire of their regular targets of faux-outrage.

Now the ARC publish only summaries of the projects or their likely benefits. Never mind, those can be cherry-picked too. That’s how I found my project mentioned in today’s paper. A NewsCorp blogger named Tim Blair picked up on a project of mine, in which I collaborate with economists Pauline Grosjean and Paul Seabright, that was funded in last year’s round.

Surely a government that genuinely believes we have serious debt and deficit issues wouldn’t give more than $500,000 to the University of NSW for a project that “intends to address how the evolutionary phenomena of intra-sexual competition and intersexual conflict interact with economic circumstances to shape gendered behaviour and attitudes”.

And here’s the bit that convinces me “Tim Blair” isn’t just a poorly programmed bot:

It’s difficult to tell what’s meant by “intersexual conflict interacting with economic circumstances” but it’s probably something to do with taxpayers getting screwed.

See what he did there? If it doesn’t snare the Walkley, it’ll definitely have the boys down the pub chuckling into their schooners.

The bit that Mr Blair quoted selectively was from the description of our project On the origins and persistence of gender: Combining evolutionary and economic approaches to study sex differences and cultural variation. You won’t find that title on the ARC website, but you will find the full project description.

This project intends to address how the evolutionary phenomena of intra-sexual competition and inter-sexual conflict interact with economic circumstances to shape gendered behaviour and attitudes. These phenomena are important in evolution, economics, psychology and sociology, with implications for the economy and for the welfare of women and men. The project predicts that gender-related culture arises, partially, out of mating market dynamics. The research crosses traditional boundaries between biology and economics to investigate the forces giving rise to gendered behaviour and resulting patterns of marriages, violence, political preferences and occupational choices. The project may provide new insights into the links between gender and violence, within-family conflicts, and gender roles in the home and workplace.

In 18 years of applying for research support, I have never yet proposed a project with more pressing or important consequences. It contains so many of the things that conservatives fulminate over: declining marriage rates, rising violent and non-violent crime, and changing gender roles. If our project can provide new insights into intimate partner violence, or why young men take risks with their lives, or the reasons behind declining marriage rates, I would expect the likes of Bita, Potter and Blair to show at least the minimum humane curiosity.

Curiosity, it seems, is a limited commodity at Telegraph HQ. As is the capacity to do even the most cursory research. Shonkily researched assertions are okay if you enjoy the safe patronage of a major news organisation. You would never get away with such abject laziness, or such contempt for professional disinterest, in a grant proposal to a federal funding body.


Ray Hadley picked up the Telegraph’s baton in an interview with the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, demanding that the ARC justify its funding decision in the front bar of a Western Sydney or North Brisbane pub.

Yes, after the forlorn cries for better funding of research rang through Science Week last week, and as the ARC sits in Canberra to decide the outcomes of this year’s biggest schemes, the pro-ignorance side of the culture wars has decided to play their favourite game. Their attempts to paint researchers as out-of-touch layabouts draining the public purse are, if you read the comments on Blair’s blog, playing well with the patrons of those very pubs.

Our ideas are already well pub-tested, Mr Treasurer. Many a research project is hatched in a bar-room conversation. Many of us still have the scrawled-on beer coasters to prove it (#putoutyourcoasters?), and receipts to show we spent our own money to buy the booze. And there seems no end of “Research in the Pubevenings in which academics explain their research and discuss ideas with members of the curious – drinking – public.

And the fewer than 20 percent of projects that succeed in gaining funding have passed a trial by fire more intense than any front-bar witch hunt Messers Hadley or Morrison could confect. Indeed the real scandal here is how much of Australia’s top-notch intellectual effort is wasted by only funding a small proportion of the many deserving projects. If the treasurer is as worried about waste as he professes, then perhaps he should find the money to fund universities and research in line with the kinds of country Australia should hope one day to become.

Research shows that it would be an economically sound investment.

This is what the peer-review process on my latest grant looked like.

The ConversationRob Brooks, Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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To uniquely protect Islam against mockery, Sydney newspaper suggests that Muslims be considered members of a race rather than a religion

Why Evolution Is True

I don’t know how popular or respected the Sydney Morning Herald is (Aussies weigh in), but it’s just published an editorial that’s as intellectually misguided as it is poorly written. Have a look at the short online op-ed, “Jedi knights don’t need protection from free speech“, published five days ago. Now the title is provocative, but its message is simple. Muslims aren’t protected from “hate speech” because Australian law doesn’t protect religion. It does, however, protect hate speech against race. Therefore Australia should classify Muslims as “ethno-religious” groups, which apparently fall under the aegis of “race,” so that Muslims—unlike members of other faiths—get special protection from being insulted and offended.

Australia’s “hate speech” laws apparently vary among the states, but there’s also a national law stipulating the grounds for redress. As Wikipedia notes:

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 forbids hate speech on several grounds. The Act makes…

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Measles is not better than autism: Debunking anti-vaccine arguments

The Logic of Science

Over the weekend, I was unfortunate enough to come across an article by Jaclyn Harwell at “Modern Alternative Health” called “5 Reasons That Measles is Better Than Autism.” Unsurprisingly, it was full of misinformation and shoddy arguments. Indeed, it was so full of counterfactual claims and dishonest distortions of reality that I felt compelled to write a rebuttal, especially since the faulty arguments contained in the post are prevalent among antivaccers. Therefore, I am going to dissect that post and explain why it is nonsense. Before I get to Jaclyn’s “5 reasons,” however, I need to deal with several serious problems in the opening statements of the article.

First, this post is fundamentally flawed because the entire thing is based on the false dichotomy that you have to choose between because vaccines and autism. In reality, of course, vaccines do not cause autism. As I explained at length in this…

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An historic handful of dirt: Whitlam and the legacy of the Wave Hill Walk-Off

The Conversation

Charlie Ward, Western Sydney University

Fifty years ago, on the morning of August 23, 1966, Vincent Lingiari led a walk-off of 200 Gurindji, Mudburra and Warlpiri workers and their families from a remote Northern Territory cattle station, escaping a century of servitude.

A new book traces what happened after the Wave Hill Walk-Off and this famous moment between Vincent Lingiari and Gough Whitlam in 1975. Monash University Publishing, 2016, Author provided

The families rejected the pleas of their British multinational employer Vestey’s to return to the Wave Hill station, re-occupied an area of their own land at Wattie Creek, and fought until the nation’s leaders heeded their cause. Nine years later, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam symbolically returned the Gurindji’s country with a handful of red dirt – a story many Australians know from the song From Little Things, Big Things Grow.

But how much did the 1966 Wave Hill Walk-Off, or the historic 1975 meeting between Whitlam and Lingiari, really improve life for the Gurindji people? And how significant was the walk-off in the fight for Indigenous recognition and land rights in Australia?

A Handful of Sand: The Gurindji Struggle, After the Walk-Off, published today, tells that story. This edited extract reveals the drama and accidental comedy of the day the prime minister and his entourage descended on the remote community of Daguragu (formerly Wattie Creek) for the “hand back” on August 16, 1975 – and its bittersweet aftermath.

Whitlam flew up in a BAC 1-11 [jet]. The airstrip… wasn’t quite long enough for it [laughs]. I remember that when he landed, there were all these dignitaries waiting out there for Gough, but he didn’t stop in time and went hurtling through the fence. It was a pretty spectacular start to the day’s events. – Geoff Eames, Central Land Council lawyer.

It was just after midday when Whitlam and his wife Margaret stepped onto Gurindji soil for the first time. According to a very young onlooker, the prime minister “stood there like a great big giant and [shook] each old people hand”. In her blue slacksuit, Mrs Whitlam also began mixing with the crowd, embracing local infants.

A succession of former ministers — all of whom had promised the Gurindji varying amounts of land — milled about. Meanwhile, a “tethered goat [ate] rubbish with great solemnity”.

After introductions and greetings, the day’s program began under the shade of a bough shed. Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Les Johnson optimistically reassured the audience that with the government’s forthcoming Land Rights Act, the Gurindji could convert their lease to proper land rights, making them legal owners “later in the year”. (In reality, that didn’t happen for more than a decade.)

The Wave Hill region in Australia’s Northern Territory.
A Handful of Sand, by Charlie Ward, Monash University Publishing, 2016, CC BY-NC-ND

The general manager of Vestey’s Angliss group Roger Golding announced that Lord Vestey would give the Gurindji a gift of 400 cattle. Golding wished the new Murramulla Gurindji Company every success – though he also made a jibe at the protesters who had stormed his company’s offices some years earlier. Lupngiari — a significant player in the Gurindji’s struggle — sat back, ignored by photographers, rolling a smoke.

On the prime ministerial jet that morning, public servant turned Aboriginal affairs adviser H.C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs urged Whitlam to keep his speech short and invest the day with a sense of ceremony.

Coombs recounted a story told by anthropologist Bill Stanner: how Wurundjeri elders had formalised their people’s 1835 land treaty with encroaching settlers at Port Phillip by placing soil into the hand of explorer John Batman. Hearing Coombs’ suggestion that the PM might reverse the gesture with Lingiari, Whitlam revised his performance plan for Daguragu on the spot.

When it came to his turn to speak, Whitlam congratulated the Gurindji and their supporters on their victory after a nine-year “fight for justice”. Promising that the Australian government would “help you in your plans to use this land fruitfully”, his speech concluded with the words:

Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people, and I put into your hands this piece of the earth itself as a sign that we restore them to you and your children forever.

Part of Gough Whitlam’s speech on August 16, 1975. Posted by Luke Pearson.

In finishing, Whitlam handed Lingiari the new deeds to the Gurindji’s land, now officially dubbed NT Pastoral Lease 805. Then, to the joy of assembled photographers, he stooped down, grabbed a handful of red earth, and poured it into Lingiari’s open palm.

Vestey pastoral inspector Cec Watts and his wife Dawn remember how Lingiari — knowing the symbolic importance of the soil he had been given — then quietly tried dispose of the red dirt without offending the assembled kartiya (white people). As the couple recalled:

Cec: I was standing quite close to Vincent, and Gough gave him this handful of dirt, symbolically, and the old bloke sort of let it drift out of his hand.

Dawn: He didn’t know what to do with it.

Cec: Poor old bugger… He put it behind his back.

Dawn: They could have given him a little box.

Lingiari — who according to one reporter was struck with a case of nerves — responded to Whitlam and the crowd in his own language:

The important white men are giving us this land ceremonially… It belonged to the whites, but today it is in the hands of us Aboriginals all around here. Let us live happily as mates, let us not make it hard for each other… They will give us cattle, they will give us horses, and we will be happy… These important white men have come here to our ceremonial ground and they are welcome…

You (Gurindji) must keep this land safe for yourselves, it does not belong to any different Welfare man. They took our country away from us, now they have bought it back ceremonially.

After Whitlam gave the old man even more dirt for the benefit of the press, photographer Mervyn Bishop’s images of the “handover” became some of the most recognised in Australian political history. The power of the photos rested in the symbolism of Whitlam’s gesture, made on behalf of millions concerned by Aboriginal dispossession.

The handover implicitly acknowledged the moral rightfuness of the Gurindji’s stand, and the historical injustices done to them by the Europeans on their country. It was by dint of the Gurindji’s hard slog at Wattie Creek that they had successfully brought all this to the nation’s attention. The handover day was the old Gurindji men’s finest hour, and their victory.

Lingiari made his speech, and a party followed. Chops, sausages and fruit were served before painted-up members of the track mob and others danced. Mindful of the whites’ need to mark every occasion by consuming liquor, Daguragu’s elders had waived their alcohol ban for the day, but precious little was on hand.

Guests quickly learned that the line “One for Mrs Whitlam, please” would guarantee them a cold beer. The prime minister “poured champagne down his copious gullet” from the bottle, according to agronomist Rob Wesley-Smith, before passing it to a startled Lingiari. The old man had sworn off drinking the year before, but he took a swig — and requested Whitlam’s help to prevent the ill-effects grog was having on his community.

Amongst such excitement, the Gurindji leader gave the new title deeds to his lawyer, Geoff Eames, for safekeeping. With enthusiastic residents wanting to examine the documents, Eames lost them in the crowd. At that point he was approached by Whitlam, announcing there had been requests for photographs of the black and white statesmen holding the parchment. When Eames replied meekly that he didn’t know where it was, Whitlam’s response was quintessential:

What? It took them 200 years to get their land back, and you’ve lost it in ten minutes?

Eventually the deed was located, “all stained with red dirt, it had been passed through so many hands”.

After the bonhomie subsided and the VIPs departed for the Wave Hill airstrip, Daguragu’s elders were apparently “disgusted” by the empty beer cans left behind.

Gurindji employees of the Muramulla Cattle Company, yarding cattle at Daguragu (formerly Wattie Creek) in about 1978.
Rob Wesley-Smith, CC BY-NC-ND

In rural Queensland the day after the ceremony, Whitlam claimed on radio that “for the first time, Aboriginal people have been given rights to their own land”.

The PM was gilding the lily, for although he was clear that the government’s transferral of a pastoral lease to the Gurindji was just the first step towards returning their land in perpetuity, the “rights” he’d conferred were merely those enjoyed by Vestey’s and other NT pastoralists. Contrary to Whitlam’s spin, the reality was that other Aboriginal groups had pipped the Gurindji to the post on that count, too.

The 1966 Wave Hill Walk-Off and the tireless years of campaigning that followed were nationally significant, not least because they helped inspire the Whitlam government’s 1973–74 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights. Its findings were used to draft the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 – the most far-reaching land rights laws in any part of Australia.

But as for their own land rights, it would take the Gurindji people another 11 years before they could finally call their land their own.

* A Handful of Sand: The Gurindji Struggle, After the Walk-Off is published by Monash University Publishing.

The ConversationCharlie Ward, Writer, Historian and PhD Candidate, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Can we please abandon the word “spiritual”?

Why Evolution Is True

I’m busy with my children’s book, and will be for a few days, because writing it is HARD. In fact, it’s about harder than any 1500 words I’ve ever written. I don’t have children, and know only that you shouldn’t condescend to them in books, and that the books should appeal to parents as well as their kids. So I’ve had to go to bookstores and read gazillions of children’s books, which has left me more confused than ever. They are very diverse. But I’ll say this: I have a newfound admiration for those who can write well for children.

But I digress. As my head is wrapped around India, cats, and mice, it’ll be hard to deal with anything substantive on this site for a few days. Bear with me; like Maru, I do my best.

But here’s one thing, which came from reader Steve S. who sent me a link…

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A Skeptic’s Guide to Dowsing

Victorian Skeptics

This article first appeared as a Vic Skeptics discussion pamphlet.
The full range of our discussion pamphlets can be downloaded here:

or by clicking on the “Useful Info” link at the top of this page.

Dowsing, (also known as Divining) is widely practised in Australia. Dowsers claim the ability to detect useful substances in the ground using processes which are not able to be explained by current scientific principles.

The most frequently dowsed substance in drought-prone Australia is water. Many Australians can claim a friend or relative who is a water-diviner.

Australian Skeptics have long been interested in dowsing. It clearly lies within the range of paranormal activities which come under scrutiny. We offer a sum of money, (currently $100,000) to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal ability of any kind. Our only stipulation is that candidates must pass a proper scientific test, the protocols of which have been agreed…

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Reflections on medieval history

The medieval period is commonly viewed negatively in the popular media.  The very word ‘medieval’ is often used as a pejorative.  So why did I decide to study Medieval Europe this semester at Monash?

I think I had two main reasons.  First, it is part of a long-held plan of mine to study the whole of western history in a roughly chronological order (I had already studied it from the dawn of civilisation until the fall of the Roman Empire).  Second, it was actually the period of history I knew least about.  I knew something of later periods through general reading and my subscription to the BBC History magazine. Some of the views I had acquired about the medieval period through the popular media were bound to be mistaken.  So I was curious to find out – and I was right.

Before doing the course, I was broadly aware of the difference between the early and later Middle Ages – the early Medieval period from 500 to 1000CE being popularly described as ‘the Dark Ages’, and the later period as ‘feudal’ and ‘scholastic’.  I now know that High Medieval period was from 1000 to 1200CE and the Late Medieval period was from 1200 to 1400CE. Both of these later period were times of intellectual and other progress, rather than being static or even regressive as is sometimes described in the popular media.

I knew little about the history of the Christian Church and its complex relationships with monarchs and the rest of the secular world.  I didn’t know much about the daily lives of peasants and their relationships with the other classes of society.  Through my interest in philosophy, I was interested in the intellectual development of the later Middle Ages, but I didn’t know a lot about it. These were the aspects of the course I found the most interesting, and which I would now like to reflect upon.

I learnt that after the fall of the Roman Empire, the western Christian Church was broadly split into the priests under the control of bishops, and monks or nuns under the control of abbots and abbesses.  There were some doctrinal differences, but there were also power struggles for the control of the Church, as illustrated by the Benedictine Rule of the 6th century CE.

Doubts about the legitimacy of Charlemagne’s succession to the Frankish throne led to him being crowned as Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800CE.  In return, the Pope and the Church received military protection from the Emperor, illustrating the symbiotic relationship between Church and State.  However, there were also conflicts within this relationship – for example, the ‘investiture conflict’ over who had the right to appoint bishops.

I was surprised to learn of the relatively minor doctrinal differences between orthodox movements such as the Franciscans and Dominicans on the one hand, and heretical groups such as the Waldensians and Cathars on the other.  These differences did not seem sufficient to account for the often brutal treatment of heretics; so once again, struggles for power seem to be the best explanation.

I became interested the agricultural economics of the later Middle Ages, where a combination of fortuitous circumstances such as warmer climate, higher rainfall, better farming practices and equipment led to surpluses of production for the first time in centuries.[1]   These surpluses not enabled not only trade, but also the storage of produce such as oats for the feeding of horses.  This in turn enabled the replacement of plow-pulling oxen by horses that required less pasture that could be reallocated to cropping.  Horses also moved and turned faster than oxen, resulting in even more efficiencies.[2]

Crop yields for wheat improved to an estimated four times the quantity of grain sown.  Typically, one quarter of the yield was reserved for the next planting, one or two quarters went to the lord of the manor as rent, and the remainder was either consumed as bread or beer, stored for the winter or sold at local markets.[3]  Few peasants could afford meat to eat – they mainly lived on bread, beer and vegetables grown by women and children in small cottage gardens, plus eggs from chickens and milk from cows and goats.  Those living in coastal areas also ate fish. [4]

Finally, apart from the relatively brief Carolingan Renaissance of the late eighth century to the ninth century, intellectual progress in Western Europe generally lagged behind that of the Byzantine and Islamic parts of the former Roman Empire.   But from around 1050, Arabic, Jewish and Greek intellectual manuscripts started to become more available in the West in Latin translations.[5]  The resulting revival of classical logic and reason in twelfth century Western Europe, known as ‘Scholasticism’, was highly significant to the development of universities and subsequent intellectual progress.  It was also a precursor to the development of empirical scientific methods by Bishop Robert Grossteste and Friar Roger Bacon, which were important because of the later practical benefits of science to humanity.  I personally found it somewhat ironic that the later clashes between religion and science had their origins in the pioneering experiments of a bishop and a friar.


Backman, Clifford R., The Worlds of Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Bennett, Judith M., Medieval Europe – A Short History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011).

Colish, Marcia, L., Medieval foundations of the Western intellectual tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).


[1] Bennett, p.139.

[2] Backman, p.218.

[3] Backman, p.219.

[4] Backman, p.220.

[5] Colish, p.274.

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Final House results and a polling critique

The Conversation

Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

At the election held on 2 July, the Coalition won a bare majority of 76 of the 150 House seats, to 69 for Labor and five crossbenchers, representing a net loss of 14 seats for the Coalition and a net 14 seat gain for Labor from the 2013 election. The crossbenchers are Independents Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie, the Greens’ Adam Bandt, Katter Party MP Bob Katter and Rebekha Sharkie of the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT).

The national Two Party Preferred (2PP) vote was 50.4-49.6 to the Coalition, a 3.1 point gain for Labor since the 2013 election. Primary votes were 42.0% for the Coalition (down 3.5), 34.7% for Labor (up 1.3), 10.2% for the Greens (up 1.6), 1.8% for the NXT and 11.1% for all Others. In SA, the NXT won 21.3% of the vote.

Conservatives have jibed that Labor’s primary vote was its second lowest since 1903, but the last election was only the second time since the beginning of the two party system in 1910 that the total major party vote was less than 80%, and this election has continued that downward trend. The Greens take substantial support on Labor’s left, and this is why Labor came close at this election despite a low primary vote.

Although they won only 76.7% of the overall vote between them, the major parties combined won 96.7% of House seats, showing how favourable the single member system used in the House is for the big parties.

If 2013 election preferences had been used, the Coalition would have won 50.5% of the 2PP, so actual preferences gave Labor a slight advantage over 2013 preferences. We will not know how minor party preferences flowed to Labor or the Coalition until the end of August.

The only close seat was Herbert, which Labor won by just 37 votes or a 0.02% margin. All other seats were won by at least 0.5%. Assuming the five current crossbenchers hold their seats and that all swings are uniform, Labor requires a 0.7 point swing to cost the Coalition its majority, a 1.1 point swing to win more seats than the Coalition, and a 1.5 point swing for a majority Labor government.

The swings required on the pendulum are now about right because sophomore surges are factored into the Coalition seats. That is, it is unlikely that the Coalition will be boosted by additional personal votes in seats they retained at this election after defeating Labor incumbents in 2013. The “sophomore surge” effect applies at the election after winning the seat, and after that it is factored into the seat’s margin.

Turnout at this election was 91.0%, down 2.2 points on 2013 and the lowest turnout at a Federal election since the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924. However, Peter Brent says this is because the electoral roll expanded to 95.1% of eligible voters, up from 92.4% in 2013. Turnout as a percentage of total eligible voters was 86.4%, up 0.2 points.

The informal rate at this election was 5.1% for the House, down 0.8 points. Brent says that the formal rate as a percentage of total eligible voters increased 0.9 points to 82.0% at this election.

State results

In the following table, I am using the post-redistribution pendulum to determine gains and losses. In 2013, the Coalition won 30 of NSW’s 48 seats to Labor’s 18, but this became 27 Coalition to 20 Labor, out of 47, post-redistribution. In WA, the Coalition won 12 out of 15, to Labor’s 3 in 2013, and this became 13 Coalition to 3 Labor, out of 16, post-redistribution.

Since all states swung against the Coalition, all swings recorded are negative. The Coalition gained a seat in Victoria, and this is recorded as a negative loss. Clive Palmer’s retirement meant his seat of Fairfax was assumed to return to the Coalition, and this is not generally regarded as a Coalition gain. All seats lost by the Coalition were to Labor, except Mayo in SA, where they lost to the NXT.

House final results

The table shows that Labor made respectable gains in every state except Queensland and Victoria. A key reason for Labor’s underperformance in these states is that both now have Labor state governments. State Labor and Coalition governments tend to hinder their respective party’s Federal performance. Very unpopular state governments can drag the Federal party further down.

In Queensland in particular, had Campbell Newmann still been Premier, it is very likely that Federal Labor would have performed better, probably winning enough seats to at least cost Turnbull his majority.

Election result not a reaction to super reforms

There has been much noise from the hard right about how the superannuation reforms announced in the May budget cost the Liberals donations and votes. I cannot speak for donations, but the results show that super was not a factor in the unexpectedly close election.

Regions where Labor made its biggest gains were western Sydney and Tasmania, with Labor making six of its 13 total seat gains in these regions, which have relatively low incomes. On the other hand, wealthy inner city seats such as Kooyong in Melbourne and Curtin in Perth recorded small swings towards the Liberals.

The Poll Bludger has conducted a multiple regression analysis of the election results, and he has concluded that higher levels of education and income were associated with better swing results for the Coalition. If super had been a factor, we would expect better swing results for Labor in high-income seats.

There was a sophomore effect favouring the Coalition, but it was swamped by massive swings to Labor in western Sydney and Tasmania. However, in Queensland the Coalition held Capricornia and Petrie, which had been gained from Labor in 2013, while losing Longman and Herbert. The Coalition also held its post-redistribution regional NSW seats other than Eden-Monaro, and comfortably retained the three Victorian seats gained in 2013.

Polling critique

All of the final polls came within a point of the actual 2PP. Here is the final poll table, sorted by first date of fieldwork, with actual election results below the poll estimates. Bold in the table denotes a poll estimate that was within one point of the actual result.

Fed polls vs election

Newspoll was clearly the best poll, getting all primary votes and the 2PP accurate to within 0.3 points, ReachTEL slightly overestimated the Coalition, but was good otherwise. Galaxy overestimated both major parties, and Ipsos overestimated the Greens by 3 points, and underestimated both major parties by about 2 points.

The poll results were too close to each other, and this implies herding, where all polls artificially move towards the same conclusion. In this case, herding gave the correct result, but at the 2015 UK general election all final polls were within 1% of showing a Labour-Conservative tie. The Conservatives won that election by 6.5%. In general, we should be wary of polls that are too close together.

The biggest example of herding at this election was Essential, which moved from 51-49 to Labor in the week before the election to its final estimate of 50.5-49.5 to the Coalition. This was accurate, but other polls taken at that time did not show a 1.5 point gain for the Coalition.

Ipsos overestimated the Greens, both relative to the election and other pollsters. This was not just a problem with Ipsos’ final poll; its polls have always had the Greens higher than other polls. This clear bias towards the Greens in Ipsos’ polls is a problem for Ipsos.

There were fewer polls during the campaignn than I would have expected. Other than Ipsos, only Essential, ReachTEL and Newspoll polled regularly. Newspoll was best at tracking the vote during the campaign, though its early campaign polls had Labor a little too high. Essential had Labor ahead until the final poll, and ReachTEL had some results that were too friendly to the Coalition.

Ipsos is currently the only live phone pollster, and this used to be the gold standard of opinion polling. However, at this election, ReachTEL (robopolling) and Newspoll (online panel and robopolling) were clearly superior to Ipsos. Methods other than live phone polling are improving.

Seat polls were very hit and miss, with some big misses. The Poll Bludger has graphs showing that seat polls had a large range of results vs actual outcomes, and were slightly biased towards the Coalition. An example of poor seat polls is Macarthur, which Labor won 58-42, but two seat polls had Labor only ahead 51-49 and a third was tied.

The ConversationAdrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Yahoo News science feed sends horoscopes

Why Evolution Is True

Yes, thanks to alert reader Rodger, I discovered that the Yahoo SCIENCE FEED sends horoscopes to the readers. Here’s a headline; click on the screenshot to see the “change”. (Hint: it’s not about a change in the brightness at night.)

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 6.22.40 AM

What’s the change in store. I quote from Yahoo:

When darkness descends and you look to the night sky tonight, what you’ll be seeing is a very special full moon. Not only will the moon be in the realm of Aquarius, but it will soon be depicting a lunar eclipse on the night of August 18th.

So, what exactly does this mean for us sisters of the moon?

Well, to put it simply: There are going to be some changes heading our way. As you look forward to many new beginnings and possibly unexpected endings, it’s important that you fall back on what makes you unique. There may be a side…

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Firing Line, Australia’s Path to War (Quarterly Essay #62), by James Brown

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

Firing LineDid you know that in 2014, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott not only sent 200 of our special forces to Europe to help with the MH17 recovery operations, but also seriously – very seriously – also considered sending a battalion? (That’s 1000 troops from our small Australian army).  Fortunately he was talked out of it.  Citing a report in The Australian, the man who brings matters military to the long-overdue attention of the Australian public, former Australian Army officer and author James Brown says:

“Australia’s leading military planners … argued against that proposal, telling Mr Abbott there were serious problems with the plan: Australian soldiers would not be able to speak either Ukrainian or Russian, and the Australian troops would have difficulty distinguishing between the Ukrainian and the Russian militia”.  Beyond these concerns, the response of Russia to having an armed formation from a NATO partner country dropped near a sensitive border was…

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