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Monday 15 September 2008
Letters: Assisted suicide
There are ugly truths underlying the public view of assisted suicide
There is no doubting the extreme distress of Debbie Purdy that has prompted her to pursue the right to be helped to an earlier death ("Don't jail my husband if he helps me die, demands MS sufferer", 12 September). What is in doubt is the image of assisted suicide as portrayed by organisations such as Dignity in Dying.
In 1990, the Dutch Ministry of Health Welfare and Sports, the Dutch Ministry of Justice and the Royal Dutch Medical Association approved a study to examine the clinical problems of assisted suicide and euthanasia.
This was published in 2000 in the New England Journal of Medicine and showed that in 22 per cent of cases of assisted suicide there were technical difficulties, medical complications (some causing distress) or inadequate drug doses. In 18 per cent of patients, the drugs failed to end the patient's life and the doctor had to administer euthanasia by administering a lethal drug directly.
The authors suggest that one reason for these failures was the inadequate knowledge and lack of experience of doctors in prescribing drugs for assisted suicide. The alternative solution of a centre such as Dignitas in Switzerland also has problems. In December 2007, their secretary-general, Ludwig Minelli, gave a speech in London describing the problems of finding acceptance for Dignitas in Switzerland. He describes how Dignitas was evicted from three properties and how they now reside on an industrial estate next to a busy brothel. In addition, the Swiss government has now restricted the use of one drug for assisted suicide.
The image that assisted suicide can be completed peacefully and with 100 per cent success in a patient's own home is far from the reality that exists today.
Dr Claud Regnard
Newcastle upon Tyne
Creationism classes would be a mistake
To bring creationism actively into science classes is a mistake (letters, 13 September). That creationism is brought up by pupils during science classes is common. What science teachers need is a simple way to dismiss creationism without disrespecting the faith or beliefs of the children.
First, evolution does not say anything about the origin of life. It is a scientific theory that explains the development and diversity of life on earth from its beginning, 4.7 billion years ago to the present. Second, evolution, like all science, is not about belief or faith, it is about the acceptance of evidence.
The evidence for evolution is overwhelming and, although hardened creationists will argue that transitional forms in the fossil record do not exist, having held some in my hands and looked at countless others in the field during my studies as a geologist, I can say that they most certainly do.
We would never talk about gravity or atoms as "belief systems". Nobody argues that we should insist to our children that gravity is "just a theory and so take it only with a pinch of salt". The word theory in a scientific sense is very different from the vernacular meaning of just a speculative guess. In science, a theory is as good as it gets.
For science classes to legitimise something like intelligent design creationism, where there is no body of published scientific research, merely books that say it is a theory, would be wrong. School-based science cannot just jump and include every crackpot idea that comes along claiming to be a "theory".
I agree that science teachers need to be respectful and deal sensitively with creationist ideas they encounter. But to bring up creationism is not the answer.
James D Williams
Lecturer in Science Education, University of Sussex, Brighton Hugh
Dower says that "even Richard Dawkins cannot legitimately dismiss the idea that some sort of supernatural entity might have played a part in the creation of the universe and living organisms" (letters, 13 September). Specious attempts such as this to lend some sort of legitimacy to creationism miss the point by a country mile.
What children are taught in science lessons, be it evolution, the big bang, or radioactive decay, is supported by a wealth of evidence, which is why it can reasonably be considered fact. Moreover, such thinking is the product of painstaking observation and experiment. Firm conclusions are drawn only when rigorous examination consistently supports the hypothesis.
Creationism, on the other hand, begins with its conclusion: God exists, made everything in a week less than 7,000 years ago, has unlimited power, and - indications to the contrary notwithstanding - loves you an awful lot. From this point, it works backwards in a vain attempt to justify itself. Anything less like science or reason is hard to imagine.
It is not difficult to dream up ideas that, while monumentally unlikely, cannot be disproved. Bertrand Russell's undetectably small teapot in orbit between Earth and Mars is a nice example. Abduction by aliens is another. To encourage the idea that we should afford such daydreaming a bogus equivalence with science would be funny, were it not so irresponsible and malign.
Science teachers should refute creationism where it is advanced, with no pussyfooting around "sensibilities".
Bolton, Greater Manchester
In the second section of his consideration of "The big question" of creationism, Archie Bland lacks clarity in his language. He
writes that, "Proponents of evolution believe species change by a process of random genetic mutations" whereas "creationists, in contrast, believe that the world is less than 10,000 years old". The passage, in an otherwise balanced article, fails to identify that scientific and religious belief are two very different concepts.
A scientist may believe that Earth orbits the sun or that a water molecule is formed from two hydrogen atoms bonded with one oxygen atom, because that is what the scientific evidence indicates. If evidence to the contrary were to emerge, then a scientist would believe something else or at least it would form the basis of scientific debate. Where scientific evidence is not clear. then there is room for scientific controversy.
But the belief of creationists is founded upon the unquestioning acceptance (faith) in religious texts. By definition, religious belief can be (and is) held in spite of scientific evidence. Unless the different meanings of "belief" are explained, or different language used to differentiate the scientific or religious approach, the result is confusion. The most obvious examples is the suggestion that we should "teach the controversy" between scientific and religious belief in science classes. There is no scientific controversy to teach.
Whether creationism should be taught or even mentioned in school science lessons is one issue. But Archie Bland sets out a black and white division between evolutionists and creationists who believe in a 10,000-year-old Earth. He lumps proponents of intelligent design in with the young-Earth creationists. Anyone who has read any of the material will realise how false this analysis is.
The majority of creationists in Britain (that is, those who believe that God created) are either theistic evolutionists, or old-Earth creationists. Young-Earth creationism is a relatively new phenomenon, largely imported from the US. It suits both the atheist fundamentalists who want to hijack science as proof there is no God, and the religious fundamentalists, who want to hijack science to prove that there is a God, to make such a simplistic black and white division.
David A Robertson
Author, 'The Dawkins Letters', Dundee
Sweater solution to staying warm
It is interesting that all the talk about energy savings is concerned with insulating the home and office. What about insulating the person? Every TV ad these days shows office workers in shirtsleeves and housewives in light clothing. A thick Arran sweater, or a Breton fisherman's jersey, or even a thermal vest, would cost a great deal less than loft or cavity wall insulation, much of which is being improved at the taxpayer's expense.
Even in the car, wearing a warm jacket or sweater would mean doing without the heater, a cost-free, fuel-saving measure. It is surely not premises we need to change, but people's attitudes to fashion and clothing.
Home education better than school
I am astonished at the inflammatory article on home schooling by Johann Hari. The recent study, How Children Learn at Home, by Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison, concludes that informal home education is "astonishingly effective". Paula Rothermel, of Durham University, has also researched home education and found it effective. In America, many universities actively recruit home-educated children because of their initiative and love of learning. And American research found that home-educated children are better socialised, more likely to do voluntary work and more likely to vote. If this is true, they are, as a group, far less likely to become criminals because they are too busy being model citizens.
I home-educate our five children and am increasingly confident as I see how well they are doing. My children love learning and are easily keeping pace with their schooled peers. My children are out in the community more than most children. We have had endless compliments, from librarians, youth group leaders, staff at museums and people in general on how pleasant and well-behaved our children are.
Has Hari not noticed the sink schools pouring out illiterate, innumerate children? He suggests that home-educated children, not parents, should be interviewed regularly. Should we interview schooled children regularly and force them to be home-educatedif they are failing in school?
There are many children suffering and failing to thrive in the school system who would benefit from unpressured education under the guidance of a loving, supportive parent. My husband works with the Youth Offending Service in Notthinghamshire and notes that in some cases issues with school are a large contributing factor to the youth's situation.
Children are the responsibility of the parents because they are the people who care about their children the most. We have legislation to cover welfare issues and that legislation should not be confused with education.
Worming a way out of a toxic problem
I read the report, "Super worms may clean up heavy metals", (11 September) with interest. But I cannot quite see how the worms, however good at consuming toxic metals, can remove these substances from contaminated sites. The toxins would either be excreted by the worms, or retained in them until death. In either case, they would still be on site.
Or is there a cunning plan to put recycling collection boxes round the site, into which the worms would crawl when they sensed the approach of the Grim Reaper?
Graham Parris Isfield, East Sussex
The real Russia
I would have much more faith in Vladimir Putin's remarks about a changed Russia (report, 12 September) if it stopped killing its journalists at home, and its opponents abroad. Admittedly, the use of polonium for Litvinenko was more sophisticated than the ice-pick reserved for Trotsky, but the new Russia seems to be singing from much the same hymn sheet as Stalin did.
Degrees of success
It is derisory to suggest that because a few founders of successful companies did not go to university, Britain does not require the levels of participation in higher education that goes unremarked in other EU countries and to which Asian governments aspire ("Are degrees worth the paper they're printed on?", 8 ).
The empires of Philip Green, Richard Branson and Ann Gloag are highly dependent on professional staff with graduate qualifications who are the products of the widening access agenda and themselves reflect the cosmopolitan consumer markets which are key to the success of these companies.
Chief Executive, Million+, London SE1
What Dominic Lawson conveniently forgets (Opinion, 12 September) is that independent schools operate under different constraints than state schools (as do academies). The only lesson to be learnt from the independent sector is that increased funding per pupil, smaller class sizes and the ability to throw out disruptive pupils can result in a higher standard of education. The notion that a high degree of discipline, respect for teacher's authority and a formal dress code is the sole province of the independent sector is nonsense, and offensive.
Your report (13 September) is wrong in suggesting that Sarah Brown is the only bride in British history who knew she was marrying a future prime minister. Fifty-six years ago last month, Clarissa Spencer Churchill married Winston Churchill's heir apparent, Anthony Eden, in the society wedding of the year. Perhaps worryingly for Gordon Brown, it is worth recalling that Eden's premiership ended in tears after only one year, 279 days in office.
Michael G Cottrell
First, find your beach
A favourite safety warning sign was on a beach ball. It said, "Only to be used under competent supervision". I am looking forward to the development of an NVQ in safe play with beach balls.
Less of this
Please could you publish fewer (not less) letters from tin-eared philistines (letters, 12 September) trumpeting their disdain for the beauty of the English language.
Edward Collier Cheltenham, Gloucestershire
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