Archive for Religion

Hawking and the Mind of God

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 3, 2021 by telescoper

There’s a new book out about Stephen Hawking which has triggered a certain amount of reaction (see, e.g., here) so I thought I’d mention a book I wrote, largely in response to the pseudo-religious nature of some of Hawking’s later writings.

I have in the past gone on record, both on television and in print, as being not entirely positive about the “cult” that surrounds Stephen Hawking. I think a number of my colleagues have found some of my comments disrespectful and/or churlish. I do nevertheless stand by everything I’ve said. I have enormous respect for Hawking the physicist, as well as deep admiration for his tenacity and fortitude, and have never said otherwise. I don’t, however, agree that Hawking is in the same category of revolutionary thinkers as Newton or Einstein, which is how he is often portrayed.

In fact a poll of 100 theoretical physicists in 1999 came to exactly the same conclusion. The top ten in that list were:

  1. Albert Einstein
  2. Isaac Newton
  3. James Clerk Maxwell
  4. Niels Bohr
  5. Werner Heisenberg
  6. Galileo Galilei
  7. Richard Feynman
  8. Paul Dirac
  9. Erwin Schrödinger
  10. Ernest Rutherford

The idea of a league table like this is of course a bit silly, but it does at least give some insight into the way physicists regard prominent figures in their subject. Hawking came way down the list, in fact, in 300th (equal) place. I don’t think it is disrespectful to Hawking to point this out. I’m not saying he isn’t a brilliant physicist. I’m just saying that there are a great many other brilliant physicists that no one outside physics has ever heard of.

It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if the list had been restricted to living physicists. I’d guess Hawking would be in the top ten, but I’m not at all sure where…

And before I get accused of jealousy about Stephen Hawking’s fame, let me make it absolutely clear that if Hawking was like a top Premiership footballer (which I think is an appropriate analogy), then I am definitely like someone kicking a ball around for a pub team on a Sunday morning (with a hangover). This gulf does not make me envious; it just makes me admire his ability all the more, just as trying to play football makes one realise exactly how good the top players really are.

I am not myself religious but I do think that there are many things that science does not – and probably will never – explain, such as why there is something rather than nothing. I also believe that science and religious belief are not in principle incompatible – although whether there is a conflict in practice does depend of course on the form of religious belief and how it is observed. God and physics are in my view pretty much orthogonal. To put it another way, if I were religious, there’s nothing in theoretical physics that would change make me want to change my mind. However, I’ll leave it to those many physicists who are learned in matters of theology to take up the (metaphorical) cudgels with Professor Hawking.

Anyway, this is the book I wrote:.

And here is the jacket blurb:

Stephen Hawking has achieved a unique position in contemporary culture, combining eminence in the rarefied world of theoretical physics with the popular fame usually reserved for film stars and rock musicians. Yet Hawking’s technical work is so challenging, both in its conceptual scope and in its mathematical detail, that proper understanding of its significance lies beyond the grasp of all but a few specialists. How, then, did Hawking-the-scientist become Hawking-the-icon? Hawking’s theories often take him into the intellectual territory that has traditionally been the province of religion rather than science. He acknowledges this explicitly in the closing sentence of his bestseller, A Brief History of Time , where he says that his ultimate aim is to know the Mind of God . Hawking and the Mind of God examines the pseudo-religious connotations of some of the key themes in Hawking’s work, and how these shed light not only on the Hawking cult itself, but also on the wider issue of how scientists represent themselves in the media.

I’m sure you’ll understand that there isn’t a hint of opportunism in the way I’m drawing this to your attention because my book is long out of print so you can’t buy it unless you get a copy second-hand…

On Religion

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 3, 2016 by telescoper


Religion is a Diversity Issue

Posted in Education with tags , , on June 22, 2015 by telescoper

Equality and Diversity issues in Higher Education  have been very prominent in the media recently, though usually in the context of gender. A recent article in the Times Higher urges academics to include religion as a diversity issue, which prompted me to make a few comments here. Then my attention was drawn to the following Code of Conduct for lecturers at the forthcoming STFC Summer School for new Astronomy PhD students. I’m one of the invited speakers, actually:

Code of Conduct

I gather that there are some who find the inclusion of “religion” to be somehow inappropriate…

Before I go on I should declare that I am an atheist and a secularist. I’m a paid-up member of the National Secular Society, in fact. That means that I’m in favour of the removal of religious privilege from all aspects of the government of this country. What it does not mean is that I think I know all the answers. I may be an atheis, but I am not a fundamentalist like Richard Dawkins. In fact, I think Dawkins does more harm than good to secularism.

People far cleverer than me – including many of my colleagues in astrophysics and cosmology – are deeply religious and I don’t respect them any the less for that. I may not understand their beliefs, but I respect their right to hold them. I don’t delude myself into thinking that everything that I think do or say is perfectly rational, so I don’t judge people whose beliefs I find hard to comprehend.

Sir Isaac Newton was a great scientist, but he was also a deeply religious man who also dabbled in alchemy and other forms of magic. Science may have displaced some of the more esoteric parts of Newton’s belief-system, but it hasn’t banished the magic of our Universe. It just describes it better.

I believe in free speech. As a consequence, I do not believe that it should be illegal or unlawful to say things that insult a religion. I have myself made jokes about religion, e.g. on Twitter, that some have found offensive. I have also mocked the bigotry and hypocrisy which seems to me all too frequently associated with certain types of religious belief. And those who use religion as a pretext for racism, homophobia or gender discrimination. But that’s not the same as poking fun at someone just because they have a religious beleief.

Although I don’t think such things should ever be made unlawful – there is too much law about this already – there are circumstances in which such things should not be said. This seems to be an aspect of free speech that people get very wound up about. If you don’t say what you’re thinking then surely that’s cowardly “self-censorship”? No. In everyday life there are countless situations in which things are better left unsaid. We make such decisions all the time. That’s not about cowardice, unless you hold your tongue just because you’re frightened of making waves. There can be many reasons for discretion including, and these certainly apply in the context of the Summer School, professionalism and respect for your audience. Just because you can say something doesn’t always mean you should.

So I think it’s perfectly appropriate to have a Code of Conduct to remind speakers that they should refrain from making “offensive verbal comments” related to religion (or the other things listed). I welcome it, in fact. Religion is a diversity issue, in science as it is everywhere else.

Living in the Vortices of Infinity

Posted in Biographical, Literature, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 16, 2014 by telescoper

As a boyhood fan of influential American horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft (known to his friends as “H.P.”), I was dismayed to discover some time ago a poem which revealed his obnoxiously racist attitudes. I always find it difficult knowing what to do when someone whose artistic work you admire turns out to have a dark side to his or her personality. It’s always hard to separate the creation from the creator. In the case of H.P. Lovecraft I’ve maintained an interest in him and his work, I suppose in an attempt to find some redeeming features.

Anyway, in Lovecraft’s Selected Letters, I came across a passage which is reminiscent of the following quotation from an interview with physicist Steven Weinberg:

I believe that there is no point in the universe that can be discovered by the methods of science. I believe that what we have found so far, an impersonal universe in which it is not particularly directed toward human beings is what we are going to continue to find. And that when we find the ultimate laws of nature they will have a chilling, cold impersonal quality about them.

I don’t think this means [however] there’s no point to life. Usually the remark is quoted just as it stands. But if anyone read the next paragraph, they would see that I went on to say that if there is no point in the universe that we discover by the methods of science, there is a point that we can give the universe by the way we live, by loving each other, by discovering things about nature, by creating works of art. And that — in a way, although we are not the stars in a cosmic drama, if the only drama we’re starring in is one that we are making up as we go along, it is not entirely ignoble that faced with this unloving, impersonal universe we make a little island of warmth and love and science and art for ourselves. That’s not an entirely despicable role for us to play.

This is the passage in Lovecraft’s Selected Letters

As you are aware, I have never been able to soothe myself with the sugary delusions of religion; for these things stand convicted of the utmost absurdity in light of modern scientific knowledge. With Nietzsche, I have been forced to confess that mankind as a whole has no goal or purpose whatsoever, but is a mere superfluous speck in the unfathomable vortices of infinity and eternity. Accordingly, I have hardly been able to experience anything which one could call real happiness; or to take as vital an interest in human affairs as can one who still retains the hallucination of a “great purpose” in the general plan of terrestrial life. … However, I have never permitted these circumstances to react upon my daily life; for it is obvious that although I have “nothing to live for”, I certainly have just as much as any other of the insignificant bacteria called human beings. I have thus been content to observe the phenomena about me with something like objective interest, and to feel a certain tranquillity which comes from perfect acceptance of my place as an inconsequential atom. In ceasing to care about most things, I have likewise ceased to suffer in many ways. There is a real restfulness in the scientific conviction that nothing matters very much; that the only legitimate aim of humanity is to minimise acute suffering for the majority, and to derive whatever satisfaction is derivable from the exercise of the mind in the pursuit of truth (from Letter to Reinhardt Kleiner  (14 September 1919), in Selected Letters I, 1911-1924 edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, pp. 86-87).

I think my own philosophy of life is some sort of juxtaposition of these two…

Science Propaganda

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 2, 2013 by telescoper

I thought I’d do a quick rehash of an old post which is vaguely relevant to the still simmering controversy generated by the Cox-Ince editorial I blogged about before Christmas.

The legitimate interface between science and society has many levels to it. One aspect is the simple need to explain what science tells us about the world in order that people can play an informed part in our increasingly technological society. Another is that there needs to be encouragement for (especially young) people to study science seriously and to make it their career in order to maintain the supply of scientists for the future. And then there is the issue of the wider cultural implications of science, its impact on other belief-systems (such as religions) other forms of endeavour (such as art and literature) and even for government.

I think virtually all scientists would agree with the need for engagement in at least the first two of these. In fact, I’m sure most scientists would love to have the chance to explain their work to a lay audience, but not all subjects are as accessible or inspirational as, say, astronomy. Unfortunately also, not all scientists are very good at this sort of thing. Some might even be counter-productive if inflicted on the public in this way. So it seems relatively natural that some people have had more success at this activity than others, and have thus become identified as “science communicators”. Although some scientists are a bit snobby about those who write popular books and give popular talks, most of us agree that this kind of work is vital for both science and society.

Vital, yes, but there are dangers. The number of scientists involved in this sort of work is probably more limited than it should be owing to the laziness of the popular media, who generally can’t be bothered to look outside London and the South-East for friendly scientists. The broadsheet newspapers employ very few qualified specialists among their staff even on the science pages so it’s a battle to get meaningful scientific content into print in the mass media. Much that does appear is slavishly regurgitated from one of the press agencies who are kept well fed by the public relations experts employed by research laboratories and other science institutes.

These factors mean that what comes out in the media can be a distorted representation of the real scientific process. Heads of research groups and laboratories are engaged in the increasingly difficult business of securing enough money to continue their work in these uncertain financial times. Producing lots of glossy press releases seems to be one way of raising the profile and gaining the attention of funding bodies. Most scientists do this with care, but sometimes the results are ludicrously exaggerated or simply wrong. Some of the claims circulating around the time the Large Hadron Collider was switched on definitely fell into one or more of those categories. I realise that there’s a difficult balance to be struck between simplicity and accuracy, and that errors can result from over-enthusiasm rather than anything more sinister, but even so we should tread carefully if we want the public to engage with what science really is.

The Cox-Ince editorial is refreshingly clear about the limitations of science:

Science is a framework with only one absolute: all opinions, theories and “laws” are open to revision in the face of evidence. It should not be seen or presented, therefore, as a body of inviolate knowledge against which policy should be judged; the effect of this would be to replace one priesthood with another. Rather, science is a process, a series of structures that allow us, in as unbiased a way as possible, to test our assertions against Nature.

However, there is still far too much science reporting that portrays as facts  ideas and theories which have little or no evidence to support them. This isn’t science communication, it’s science propaganda and I think too many scientists go along with it. There’s a difficult balance to be struck, between engaging the public with inspirational but superficial TV programmes and explaining the intellectual struggles that science really involves.  Give the public the latter without any of the former and they’ll surely switch off!

Most worryingly is the perceived need to demonstrate black-and-white certainty over issues which are considerably more complicated than that. This is another situation where science popularisation becomes science propaganda. I’m not sure whether the public actually wants its scientists to make pronouncements as if they were infallible oracles, but the media definitely do. Scientists sometimes become cast in the role of priests, which is dangerous, especially when a result is later shown to be false. Then the public don’t just lose faith with one particular scientist, but with the whole of science.

Science is not about certainty. What it is a method for dealing rationally with uncertainty. It is a pragmatic system primarily intended for making testable inferences about the world using measurable, quantitative data. Scientists look their most arrogant and dogmatic when they try to push science beyond the (relatively limited) boundaries of its applicability and to ride roughshod over alternative ways of dealing with wider issues including, yes, religion.

I don’t have any religious beliefs that anyone other than me would recognize as such. I am also a scientist. But I don’t see any reason why being a scientist or not being a scientist should have any implications for my (lack of) religious faith. God (whatever that means) is, by construction, orthogonal to science. I’m not at all opposed to scientists talking about their religion or their atheism in the public domain. I don’t see why their opinions are of any more interest than anyone else’s in these matters, but I’m quite happy to hear them voiced.

This brings us to the question, often raised by hardline atheists, as to whether more scientists  should follow Richard Dawkins’ lead and be champions of atheism in the public domain. As a matter of fact, I agree with some of Dawkins’ agenda, such as his argument for the separation of church and state, although I don’t feel his heavy-handed use of the vitriol in The God Delusion achieved anything particularly positive (except for his bank balance, perhaps). But I don’t think it’s right to assume that all scientists should follow his example. Their beliefs are their business. I don’t think we will be much better off if we simply replace one set of priests with another. In this respect I wholeheartedly agree with Peter Higgs who has recently described Dawkins as “embarrassing”.

So there you have my plea for both public and scientists to accept that science will never have all the answers. There will always be “aspects of human experience that, even in an age of astonishing scientific advance, remain beyond the reach of scientific explanation”.

Can I have the Templeton Prize now please?

The Crisis of Secularism – There isn’t enough of it!

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on September 1, 2012 by telescoper

I found this provocative video via the National Secular Society. The speaker is Pat Condell. He makes some excellent points, although I think he spoils it a bit with some cheap gibes. You can respect others’ religious beliefs and still be a secularist.

Here are some links relating to the comments he makes:

Evangelical leaders see secularism as a greater threat than Islam…

Ten Commandments Judge Roy Moore: Secularism leads to sharia law…

Pope warns bishops about secularism…

Pope: New evangelisation needed to counter crisis of secularism

Cardinal warns of ‘aggressive secularism’…

A Cut Below

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , on July 23, 2012 by telescoper

This morning, sitting in the garden catching up on the weekend’s newspapers, I found an opinion piece in yesterday’s Observer about male circumcision. This of course stems from a story that broke a few weeks ago about a court in Germany ruling that the circumcision of male children constitutes “bodily harm” and is consequently in breach of their human rights.  Since this procedure is traditional practice in some religious groups, including Jews and Muslims, there has been a predictable outcry that the court ruling violates their right to religious freedom.

At the risk of causing discomfort among (especially male) readers of this blog I thought I’d comment on this issue from a personal perspective. I’m not going to go into the ethical question, actually. I can certainly see the argument that an infant is unable to give consent and there must be limits to what parents can do to their children in the name of religion.

I will however, state parenthetically that one thing that does puzzle me is the court’s statement that being circumcised as an infant interferes with a person’s right to determine their religion later in life. Huh? That’s a non sequitur because there’s nothing to stop a circumcized man becoming a Christian. Is there?

Anyway, in the modern world female genital mutilation is rightly regarded as abhorrent, so why should male circumcision be any different?

But there is an angle to this story that most commenters have ignored, and that is that not all male circumcisions are carried out because of religious or other traditions. You’ll probably all think this is too much information to write on a blog, but I myself was circumcised, not as an infant, but as a young boy of seven or eight. I’m neither Jewish nor Muslim nor anything else in particular when it comes to religious belief. I won’t go into the reasons I had it done, but they were entirely medical. Anyway, I’m not in the slightest bit embarrassed to be a Roundhead rather than a Cavalier. In fact, I like my willy just like it is.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to show you a picture.

Being gay, and therefore having more than a passing interest in such issues, I’d also say that a “cut” penis is arguably more attractive and certainly more hygienic compared to the “uncut” variety. I guess my aesthetic judgement is influenced by the fact that that’s what my todger is like, but I know plenty of other men and women who prefer their partners that way too. At any rate the operation certainly doesn’t impair sexual function in any way, and possibly even improves it. At least in that respect it’s very different from female circumcision.

Of course I’m not going to argue that such preferences constitute good reasons for the involuntary circumcision of young boys. My point is that virtually all the rhetoric on this issue implies that to be  circumcised is to is to be incomplete. Mutilated. Damaged.  Inferior. I don’t think of it that way at all. Indeed, it bothers me to think of the effect this language could have on younger guys just coming to terms with their adulthood. Do you really want anyone to feel ashamed or embarrassed because they have been circumcized?

What I’m saying is that it’s not circumcision that’s bad, but the circumstances in which it is sometimes carried out. So by all means let’s debate the deep ethical conflict that this issue highlights between religious observance and the prevention of bodily harm to infants, but let’s also have a bit more respect for those of us who are, and are happy to be, a cut above the rest.

P.S. I was going to relate the famous schoolboy exam howler about how Sir Francis Drake circumcised the globe using a 60ft clipper, but decided not to.

Thought for the Day

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on July 1, 2011 by telescoper

For naturalism, fed on recent cosmological speculations, mankind is in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing that little by little the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear, and to be drowned ignominiously will be the human creature’s portion. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation.

From The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, first published in 1902…

Gravity and Grace

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on April 26, 2011 by telescoper

This morning I came across the following quotation, which is translated from the book Le Pesanteur et la Grace (i.e. “Gravity and Grace“), written in 1947 by French philosopher Simone Weil:

Science today must search for a source of inspiration higher than itself or it must perish.

Science offers only three points of interest: 1. technical applications; 2. as a game of chess; 3. as a way to God.

I’m not sure I agree with what is written, and in any case the options don’t seem to me to be mutually exclusive, but a number of things did strike me reading it.

For a start, and for what it’s worth, I do think science has value within itself, so I’m at odds a bit with the initial premise. On the other hand, science is a human activity and it therefore doesn’t stand apart from other thing humans are interested in.

Then there is the extent to which we now all have to pretend that pretty much the only point of interest in science is “1. technical applications”. I don’t believe that’s true, actually, and I’m worried that by continually saying that it is, scientists might be sowing the seeds of their own destruction.

And then there’s “the game of chess”. I’m actually hopeless at chess, but I understand this as representing some form of abstract mental challenge.  If that’s what it does mean, then I’d agree that’s probably what got me interested in science. I’ve always been pathologically interested in puzzles. When I look at galaxies and stars, I don’t tend to gaze at them in awe at their enormity or beauty, I just tend to wonder how they work and what they’re made of. I don’t really mind people having a sense of awe, of course, but there’s a danger that if we take that too far we end up being over-awed which might make us shy away from the biggest questions. To me the Universe is just a great big puzzle, though it’s actually rather a tough one. I’m still stuck on 1 across, in fact…

Finally, we have science as “a way to God”. I find it quite interesting that a Christian philosopher could present science as that, especially when so many of my atheistic colleagues regard science and religion as polar opposites. It seems likely to me that anyone who studies science primarily as a means of finding God is probably in for a disappointment. I’m reminded of a quote  from Thomas à Kempis I learned at school:

The humble knowledge of thyself is a surer way to God than the deepest search after science.

But that’s not to say that science and religion are incompatible with each other. I think they’re basically orthogonal, although in an abstract space with an extremely complicated geometry…

One of the interesting things about working in cosmology is that the big questions are very big indeed, which may be the reason why cosmologists tend to have strong views on matters of religion (and metaphysics in a general sense).  Just take the Templeton Prize, for example. The arguments about this year’s award to Lord (Martin) Rees are still simmering on, but it’s worth remembering that many recent winners of this prize, including John Barrow (my PhD supervisor, in fact) and  George Ellis (former collaborator of mine), are most noted for their work in cosmology. Both are religious: John Barrow is a member of the United Reformed Church, and George Ellis is a Quaker. Martin Rees is an atheist. But their religious views are not in conflict with their research. All are outstanding scientists.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the Easter holiday about religion and science. It’s partly the Templeton prize saga, partly the occasion of Easter itself, and partly the fact that I’ve been reading even more of the poems of R.S. Thomas. In case you didn’t know I was brought up in the (Anglican) Christian tradition, attended Sunday School, sang in the local Church Choir, and was confirmed in the Church of England. When I went to seconday school – the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle – I joined the Christian Union and remained in it for 3-4 years.

Although  I was immersed in Christianity – the Christian Union was vigorously Evangelical – it didn’t really stick and eventually all melted away.   I don’t really remember precisely what it was then that made me turn away from religion, although the sins of the flesh might have had something to do with it…

However, although I became an atheist I’ve never been a particularly devout one. The only thing that I’m really sure about is that I don’t know the answers. Does that make me an agnostic rather than an atheist? I don’t know. Perhaps I could just describe myself as a non-believer? That wouldn’t do either, because we all have to believe in some things in order to function at all. Even science starts with unprovable axioms.

A career in cosmology has given me the opportunity to think about many Big Questions. Why does the Universe have laws? Why is there something rather than nothing? And so on. I’m not much of a philosopher, though, and  I don’t have the answers. I do, however, refuse to take the easy way out by denying that the questions have meaning. Of course it’s not entirely satisfactory having to answer “I don’t know”, but I don’t agree with those of my atheist colleagues who think religion is an easy way out. I’m sure that a thinking Christian has just as many difficult issues to grapple with as a thinking atheist. Not thinking at all is the only really easy way out.

A few years ago I spoke at an interesting meeting in Cambridge entitled God or Multiverse? In fact there’s a picture below of the panel discussion at the end -I’m second from the right:

I thought it was an interesting dialogue, but I have to say that, if anything, it strengthened my non-belief. Prof. Keith Ward argued that the primary motivation for belief in God was the existence of “Good”. I have to admit that I find the Universe as a whole amoral and although humans have done good from time to time they have done evil in at least equal measure. The vast majority of people on this Earth live in poverty, many of them in abject misery. Good is a bad word to describe this state of affairs.

I just can’t accept the idea of a God that is interested in the Universe at the level of human beings. We’re so insignificant on the scale of the cosmos, that it seems very arrogant to me to suppose that it’s really got much to do with us. We appeared somehow, miraculously perhaps, but could disappear just as easily. I doubt the Universe would miss us much.

But I might be wrong.


A Census of the Ridiculous

Posted in Bad Statistics, History with tags , , , , on March 12, 2011 by telescoper

My form for the 2011 Census arrived yesterday. Apparently they were all posted out on Monday, so that’s 5 days in the post. Par for the course for the Royal Mail these days. I’m slightly surprised it arrived at all.

There’s a hefty £1000 fine for not completing the Census, so I suppose I’ll fill it in, despite my feeling that it’s both intrusive and unnecessary. What’s worse is that several of the questions are so badly designed that the information resulting will be useless.

For example, according to the census guide:

Very careful consideration is given to the questions included in the census. Questions must meet the needs of a substantial number of users in order that the census is acceptable to the public and yields good quality data. The questions are selected following several rounds of consultation with:

  • central and local government
  • academia
  • health authorities
  • the business community
  • groups representing ethnic minorities and others with special interests and concerns

Hang on. The “business community”? Why should they be consulted? What do they want with my personal information? I thought the census data was for planning public services!  On the other hand, when everything is privatised maybe all our personal data will be flogged off to the private sector anyway.

The 2011 Census is the first one to include a question on health. According to the saturation advertising about the census, this question will help plan new hospitals and distribute NHS funding. So what is the new question, the answer to which will provide such valuable data? Here it is, together with the possible responses:

13. How is your health in general?

  • Very good
  • Good
  • Fair
  • Bad
  • Very Bad

And that’s it for “health”. Does anyone actually believe such a vague question is  going to be of any use at all in planning NHS services? I certainly don’t.

And then there’s the famous question about religion.

20. What is your religion?

For a start I don’t think my religion or lack of it should be any concern to the government. To be fair, however, this question is marked as “voluntary” so respondents are allowed not to answer it without getting locked up in the Tower of London. But in any case it’s a leading question and should never have been included in the census in this form anyway. “Do you have a religion and, if so, what is it?” would have been much better.

I could go on, but I’ve got better things to do today.

I’ll just say this last thing about the Census. Most of it clearly has nothing whatever to do with planning public services. In fact the government already holds most of the information about your private circumstances the form demands. The Census is nothing more an opportunity for the government to cross-check tax, benefit or other records in the hope of finding inaccuracies. In other words, Big Brother is watching you.

And the cost of all this snooping? A whopping £500 million, more than double the cost of the 2001 Census, and all of it  at a time of huge cuts to public services. You have to laugh, don’t you?