Thursday, 5 December 2013
So the badger cull in the South-West of England has been called off, hopefully for good. Natural England has finally pulled the plug, after many months of being told - by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, among others - that it just wouldn't work.
Ministers set out to kill enough badgers to stop the spread of their tuberculosis to cattle. It's a terrible disease in livestock, and it causes thousands of fatalities a year. Had the killing worked - if it had ever looked likely to work - a culling programme would probably have been justified. But first the Government ignored all the evidence that shooting badgers has never made any difference to overall disease levels. Then it said that it wasn't going to do any follow up studies or scientific work on the cull at all - so that the limited killings, in only one part of England, wouldn't have any wider applicability at all. Then it failed to get enough of the badgers killed to reach the threshold where culling would do any good anyway, even in the local region.
In the meantime, many hundreds of beautiful, healthy, inoffensive animals have been slaughted. The Government has blown millions of pounds of your money, to absolutely no effect. And killing the healthy animals that marksmen could find, allowing diseased animals to move into their ranges and disrupting a settled situation, has probably made the TB problem worse.
What a disaster. And it's not alone, either. Universal credit has become a laughing stock. Higher Education tuition fees in England have managed the trick of asking both taxapyers and students to pay more, without giving universities much more money. The Government has to do better soon - or its chances of re-election, even as a minority or in a coalition, will be gone.
And let 'Public Policy and the Past' get this straight: the entire policy is now, and always was, disgusting, nasty, immoral and wrong. The word 'fiasco' doesn't cover it, and all we get out of the Ministry is response is a bland press release. In any honourable world, the Secretary of State - who so memorably said that the badgers themselves had 'moved the goalposts' - would resign immediately.
But of course we don't, and he won't.
Monday, 2 December 2013
So we all know that you should drink quite a lot of water to stay healthy, right? It reduces the strain on your kidneys and your bladder. It's good for your bowel. And your skin. And it stops you getting 'dehydrated'.
Well, regular readers will recall that I'm writing a book right now on 'The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain'. And I'm afraid to say that - just as most people didn't smell that bad, despite only having a bath once or twice a week - we don't appear to need that much water after all. All those cups of tea and coffee that people drank instead during the 1950s and 1960s? That might have done just as well.
So where did the idea come from? Well, it probably came from three, relatively interconnected, historical sources: the first, state-driven attempts to make us 'better', and 'healthier', partly so that we could ward off foreign menaces and serve the warfare state of the 1940s and 1950s. It does look as if the US National Academy of Sciences was the source of the idea (registration required), in a not-very-well-sourced set of 1945 recommendations. The second reason? Bottled water's attempts, from the 1970s onwards, to persuade us that it's 'purer' and 'better' than tap water - though it isn't, of course. A third reason for the rise of this concept, which has seen everyone marching around with plastic bottles of water even though they don't feel thirsty, is an increasing food festishism and faddism related to the way in which we eat food. Hunger? Seasonality? They're almost gone, relaced by a set of food-as-lifestyle indicators that are supposed to say more about who you are than how you feel. Bottled water makes you look healthy, fashionable and busy: you'd better get it down you if you want to look like a top sportsman or woman. Even they don't need quite so many bottles of isotonic sports drinks as they're told, but still.
Sure, if you're going to the gym a lot, or sweating it out in some hot climes, you should in all probability get a couple of litres in you a day. And it's better than guzzling down all those calories in fruit drinks. Otherwise, your body will just retain more of what you've got - and you should be more than okay. You can get most of the water you need from the food you eat anyway. Get plenty of fruit and vegetables and a couple of glasses of water in you every day, and you'll probably be fine.
That's it for today - not much of a public health announcement, but enlightening about our mythic 'knowledge' and common sense, all the same.
Friday, 29 November 2013
Boris Johnson's recent speech on equality and intelligence helps to show why those in the know rule him out as a future Prime Minister. He might be witty, interesting and above all able to cut through to the public in the way few other public figures can. But he's also a fly-by-night tightrope walker who makes it up as he goes along.
So it is with his mayoralty. So it is with this speech.
Boris (above) posited that there can't be a greater or wide measure of equality in our society because citizens have different levels of intelligence, as measured by their IQ scores. Well (deep sigh). Well. Well. Where does one start with this particular misunderstanding of just about everything that's been written on the question for the past thirty or forty years? It's not that it's elitist - though, as the Deputy Prime Minister said in reply to Boris' rant, it certainly is. Were one to show that there was an ineluctable link between academic ability and achievement, one might think that a bit of elitism in terms of written schooling might be justifiable, if not particularly helpful to the eighty to ninety per cent of children who'd be left out of the grammar school education Boris has been calling for.
It's not that. It's that his science is just so, so wrong. People are of course born to be different. Their height, speed, capacities and acuities are different. So far, so good. But the idea that there is a fixed leve of something called intelligence - well, here there's a parting of the ways.
So here's a thing that Boris didn't say: IQ tests are a joke. Their results shift around all over the place, with children gaining very high and very low scores across time, the same child racing ahead of the IQ 'average' one week and behind the next. There is no one fixed and unchanging quality called 'intelligence'. Here's another point he must know, but chose not to make: they measure a certain type of inside-the-box logic chopping, rather than true intelligence. Want to group things of a certain type together very quickly? Do some rapid maths in your head? Fine. IQ's for you. But if you want a truly testing, questing, flexible, reflexive and creative type of learning - like that the Chinese and Singaporese increasingly worry that their rigid education systems miss - you'll want to throw those tests in the bin and start again.The whole point about the 11+, the out-of-date and derided British exam that relied on IQ, is that civil servants were forced to concede that it had been discredited very rapidly after the 1944 Education Act that helped to enshrine it in British culture.
Here's some more points: there's no evidence that what IQ numbers we do have are related to those of parents. There's nothing to support the idea that IQ is correlated with economic success - quite the reverse, in fact. There's lots of evidence, on the other hand, that IQ-based systems privilege middle- or upper-class ways of speaking and reasoning, rather than the different types of knowledge prized by other socio-economic groups. And that politicians like to stigmatise people of 'low intelligence'. Mrs Thatcher's intellectual svengali, Keith Joseph, did just that in 1974 - evoking a row about the 'underclass' that reverberates to this day. Boris is tipping a cynical nod and a wink to a constituency he knows he'll need if he's to storm the ramparts of his party, and then No. 10 Downing Street.
But if the intellectual case was 'inequality is fine, because it reflects ability' than every single step of that argument is just wrong. False. The opposite of opinions based on evidence. Grounded in nothing. Nada. Squat. Zip.
Perhaps the Mayor of London should do his research before he starts talking - or, just perhaps, exhibit a little more intelligence.
Wednesday, 27 November 2013
If you're reading this in the UK, and you haven't heard that this month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the long-running science fiction serial Doctor Who (above), then you've been living under a rock. The BBC has spun itself like a top in endless promotion of perhaps its most iconic and famous show; fans have been driven into ever more fevered paroxysms of speculation.
But it's worth reflecting on what the ever-regenerating, ever-changing, ever-shifting Time Lord has given us over the years since Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman put the Galifryean on our screens. He's been there for most of all our lives, apart from a long, long hiatus between 1989 and 2005, broken only by a 1996 TV Movie. He's thought about and faced the problems of our age, and shown us our society in a mirror that we didn't always like - but which was always meaningful, always sharp and always important.
Have a think. Have a flick back through the back catalogue, and consider the way in which our problems have involved the Time Lord's adventures. There's been the threat of robots taking us over the brink of war, long before Wargames and Terminator in the 1980s (The War Machines, 1966), militarism and the First World War, the same year as the film adaptation of Oh, What a Lovely War! (The War Games, 1969), worries about cybernetics and humankind's artificial 'enhancement' (Tomb of the Cybermen, 1967), ruminations on genocide and ethnic cleansing (Genesis of the Daleks, 1975), the nastiness and solipsism of the 'leisure society' (The Leisure Hive, from 1980, and Vengeance on Varos, from 1985), and finally the madness of the Cold War (Warriors of the Deep, 1984). There were even some great big green worms, unleashed on the Third Doctor by a sinister corporation called Global that was busy pumping out pollution that would soon threaten the world with a great big wave of slime (The Green Death, 1973). Nasty stuff - and totally in tune with the apocalyptic environmental fears of early 'seventies Britain.
The revived series had carried on where the old one left off, going back to think anew about the Cold War (Cold War, 2013), genocide and ethnic cleansing (Dalek, 2005), the nature of justice and revenge (Family of Blood, 2007), genetic engineering (The Lazarus Experiment, 2007) and even urban planning and city life (Gridlock, 2007).
That's one of the reasons we love it all so much. Not just because it's a great big dinner of adventure, excitement, mystery and space travel, with a side order of nationalistic British flag waving to boot. Yes, that's all great. But what's really important is how the Doctor has made us think - and feel - about ourselves for a long, long time now.
Let's raise a glass: hurrah for Doctor Who!
Monday, 25 November 2013
Jonathan Trott's departure from England's cricket tour of Australia must touch at the heartstrings (above). A dedicated man, immersed in his sport, and famed for his physical and mental toughness in the middle, has been brought low by a 'stress-related illness'. That might mean many things, but right now it means that Trott is hurting. A lot.
We've been here before, of course, for instance when Marcus Trescothick was forced to come home in 2006. But cricket fans and commentators are starting, just starting, to get a handle on a problem that's been dogging the game for years: the black dog of depression. Former captains who were rather too quick with their criticism have apologised, mortified to hear about the problems they've probably exacerbated.
Now, the statistical underpinnings of the idea that cricketers are more prone to depression (and suicide) than the rest of the population are open to question. But there's no doubt that professional sport as a whole exposes men and women to nearly unbearable pressure. Do you fancy your entire professional identity and ability coming undone in front of tens of thousands of people - with many millions more watching at home? No, neither do I.
But there's no doubt that progress has been made, both within a rather conservative game, and in our wider society. Graeme Fowler, who played for England back in the 1980s, has spoken with some bravery about his own battles with depression - struggles that wouldn't have met nearly such an understanding or sophisicated response as they do today. We've come a long way. Senior figures within the game are now just about able to talk about their own 'demons', problems, doubts, worries and fears. We need to go further, because we've basically just come out of cavedwelling ignorance and started talking about depression and anxiety as if they're the same as having hurt your leg. But it's all a start.
It's be nice to think that people might stop hurling ridiculous insults and threats at each other while they go about their business - and hold back before they call each other names. The hosts might look at themselves a little quizzically after this. Quite apart from anything else, Australia's big and aggressive talk before the game nearly came unstuck on day one of The Ashes - and their opponents might regroup and stick together even more tightly now one of their number has been wounded. It's probably a forlorn hope, and we'll probably all be back whacking each other with a little cricket stick in a few days, but hey - it's something to hold onto.
For now, it's worth saying this: lots of people are struggling all the time. It's impossible to live without feeling like you might come apart. You have felt that. I have felt that. Everyone has felt that. Maybe there's someone struggling next to you at work right now. Why don't you ask them? Why don't you talk frankly about your own problems if they ask you? One thing's for sure: the principles of World Mental Health Day - frankness, fairness, compassion, dignity, openness - have never been more relevant.
Friday, 22 November 2013
The fiftieth anniversary of President John Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, Texas, is an opportunity to reflect on what it means to govern, or to be a leader, or to try to effect policy changes, in the modern world. The image of JFK (above) has often obscured more than it has revealed, for his personality seemed so dazzling to so many at the time (and since) that any historical insights about how he actually governed seem to have been blotted out.
Start with this: he was confident in his own abilities. Rich, tall, handsome and magnetic, he was difficult to know - but self-assured and self-reliant enough to ignore what the 'experts' told him. Many of his military chiefs advised an immediate military strike at the beginning of the near-fatal Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Kennedy ignored them, allowing his Soviet adversaries to climb down the ladder he offered them - the secret removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
Continue with this: he looked like he knew what he was doing. Through all the affairs, all the constant, compulsive womanising, all the pain from his back, all the chronic illnesses and all the pills, he stood up, smiled, walked and talked like you should follow him. And many did. He understood the power of the image. But it was more than that. He understood (like the present incumbent) that the power of words has not passed away in the era of the big state and the big missile. Indeed, it has become ever more important to give and shape meaning in an ever-more complex world. His extraordinary inaugural address, which has gone down in twentieth century history as the very acme of what a speech actually is, is only one example.
End with this: he understood that you can't get rooted in one political community or one outlook. That can be an intellectual prison - especially for a chief executive, who has to take all arguments and disagreements unto himself for resolution. He talked tough on communism - while trying to negotiate the superpowers away from the brink. He defended the value of the dollar (appointing a Republican to be his Secretary of the Treasury) while trying to break out of the relative economic stagnation of the 1950s. He vacillated and hesitated on civil rights, before finally beginning to move towards the only viable solution - desegregation.
Catholic realist that he was, one of his purest insights was that attempting to erode darkness by degrees, and working every day towards apparently impossible goals, was and is as important as actually arriving at any destination. As he put it at his American University address on the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty:
While we proceed to safeguard our national interests, let us also safeguard human interests. And the elimination of war and arms is clearly in the interest of both. No treaty, however much it may be to the advantage of all, however tightly it may be worded, can provide absolute security against the risks of deception and evasion. But it can... offer far more security and far fewer risks than an unabated, uncontrolled, unpredictable arms race. The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want a war. We do not now expect a war. This generation of Americans has already had enough - more than enough - of war and hate and oppression. We shall be prepared if others wish it. We shall be alert to try to stop it. But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we labor on - not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.
There is little more to say than this: remember the strategy of peace. Remember President John F. Kennedy today.
Monday, 18 November 2013
Sir John Major's emergence as a new-old type of 'Red' Conservative is a curiosity of our era. Serious-minded, experienced and worried about the type of grey, hidden and grinding poverty often found in our near suburbs, his is an expected but not-unwelcome (re-) eruption into our public life.
This time he's gone for the dominance of the privately-educated in our public life - which, if we look at the Cabinet or the top professions, is indeed just as 'shocking', troubling - and damaging - as he says.
The remedy some seize on, though, is a completely ahistorical fantasy. The cause of the grammar school is being heard again in the land, full of mendacity and historical ignorance about the 'opportunities' granted to 'the bright' by the existence of a test sorting the clever sheep from the not-so-clever goats at the age of 11 or 14. It was the 'system' that was adopted in England and Wales between the 1944 Education Act and the Government Circular announcing official disapproval for the idea which went round in 1965, but which took about a decade to bring this division to an end across most of the country.
It's an idea that's gained a bit of traction in recent months, with the United Kingdom Independence Party taking up the idea, various right-wing commentators writing that the end of selection was only one symbol of the end of meritocracy and our hard-and-fast aspirations to actually greater real knowledge, and even left-wing commentators making clear that selection by house price (given the premium paid around 'good' schools) isn't much of a replacement.
Memo to everyone: grammar schools didn't work by encouraging social mobility.
We only have to look to areas which still have them - Kent, for instance - to find schooling systems much more divided than elsewhere, much more scarred by the use of private tutors, and much more divided by social class than areas dotted with comprehensives.
But we can look historically at this question too. You'd expect me to say that, but studies of children born in the 1950s show absolutely no social mobility premium for areas with grammar schools. We have lots of official evidence from the 1950s that children from poorer backgrounds who went to grammars were much more likely than others to drop out. And it's much more likely that the rising economic tide of the time - and increased equality - helped people escape poverty, rather than the few Latin lessons and blazers handed out to a lucky handful.
You don't have to believe me. You can listen to two (actually very conservative) officials bemoaning the division of the school system at the time, revealed in their private correspondence in (ahem) my new book, published last year:
This country is pouring out its human wealth like water on the sands... A system under which failure to win a place in a selective school at 11+ meant complete and irrevocable denial of the coveted opportunities associated with a grammar school education could not hope to win the support o fparents, and could not survive the day when their wishes could gain a hearing.
Want to pour out our human wealth on the sands? Go ahead, build some more grammar schools. Otherwise - make universal secondary education to sixteen (and now eighteen) work properly. As someone once said: there is no alternative.