Archive for the ‘ Politics ’ Category


I have a slight suspicion that I am being plagiarised. Every so often I get a spike of people looking at my posts about free will and the criminal justice system, often from America. I have wondered if that is related to people getting set an essay question that makes them google for info, and that brings up that post somewhere near the top.

A couple of days ago I noticed that one of the referrals came from a plagiarism checking site.

So, for people tempted to plagiarise, here is some advice:

  • Plagiarise from somewhere better. Seriously, the stuff here is brain-drippings, and while I got a First at uni, it wasn’t through producing stuff like that.
  • Plagiarise better. Don’t plagiarise directly from anything that is findable by google. Much of the web is unindexed, and while a lot of this is spam and porn, there are some great nuggets. For example, has lots of interesting discussion and is not googleable.

I am famous for once saying:

Let no one else’s work evade your eyes!
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes!
So don’t shade your eyes,
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize –
Only be sure always to call it please ‘research’.

Should I be more jealous of my parents or my unborn child?

I’m having a baby!

Well, my wife is. Anyway, I don’t want to be *that guy* and now talk only about the baby, and forget that I ever had other interests. So, I have combined one of my other interests with the prospects of the child by thinking about social justice between generations.

I have written before about the loss in Britain of the last generation that knew war with an existential threat to the UK. From the ashes of the First and Second World Wars Britain built the welfare state, the NHS, expanded education access and built decent affordable homes. I think these things are related – there is nothing more obvious than a massive war for demonstrating how cruel and unjust life can be, with huge numbers of people dying or seriously injured in their early adulthood in the name of the state. I think that lead to a sense of social responsibility – we had a collective moment of recognition that we as a society should look after people who needed it. I think we owe a huge debt to that generation, as the foundation of a society where people are, by and large, looked after.

The subsequent generation reaped the benefits hugely. Free and available education, quality social housing and the welfare state mean that there was much less actual hardship. And, perhaps because of this lack of understanding of what they were saved from, that generation has been incredibly damaging. Where the war generations sacrificed a great deal to provide for their children, the baby boomers have sacrificed their childrens’ prospects to protect themselves.

That may sound harsh, but in many ways the baby boomers are pulling up the ladder behind them. Property around the country, but especially the city, is unaffordable because of property hoarding and an obsession with inflating property value, despite the fact that this is a clear sign of social inequality. Energy is largely created by burning dinosaurs because of small minded, short sighted NIMBYism preventing both renewables and nuclear power. Free, and with it at least the appearance of equal, access to education has gone, and healthcare is at risk of following. The disabled and those in need from other countries are demonised and treated appallingly rather than supported. In fact, people born in the 60’s and 70’s are likely to be poorer than their parents.

And yet, despite the selfish and short sighted nature of the Baby Boomers, in many ways life is much better now, and technology has changed the world and the way we live in it. Almost every part of the globe is accessible in very little travel time. A huge amount of knowledge and information is available free and at your fingertips. You can communicate immediately and for free in HD around the world. Healthcare is improved, and should continue to improve for at least those that can afford insurance. Food is plentiful and varied for most. Society is more liberal, with homophobia, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination diminishing.

So, to answer my rhetorical question, I would much prefer to be born into the world today, as one of the first generation born into a world that has the internet. I prefer the great variety and improved technologies of the western world as it is now, which make our lives easier, safer and better. However, I am worried about the direction of travel in some areas, and I would very much like it if we could apply to this modern world a bit more of the ethos of that post-war generation, that recognised the duty to support those in need. I want my generation to have a greater understanding of our responsibilities to the future than the previous one had to us.

QED – a great excuse to do even more

If you follow either me or #qedcon on twitter, you may have noticed that I was at a big geeky conference this weekend.

First up, a quick review:

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Great speakers, a range of interesting and challenging subjects, well organised, and a wonderful crowd. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone with an interest in interesting things.

If I ever get round to it there are a load of different subjects that I saw talks on that I could write about, but I doubt I will.

One thing really strikes me though: we should do this more.

The Skeptics in the Pub network has grown hugely over the last few years, and there are groups all over the UK. These vary hugely, both in the scale of the events and the resources available. I have been at both ends of this, setting up and running Lancaster Skeptics as a one man band while working full time at the other end of the country, before moving south and getting involved in the original London Skeptics and the new Soho Skeptics, both of which have several people involved, an established audience, and enough resources to be able to aim high.

QED was all that is good about the Skeptics in the Pub network writ large, not least because it is a collaborative effort between two of the countries most active groups, the Merseyside Skeptical Society and the Greater Manchester Skeptics Society. I think over 400 people attended, and tickets sold out well in advance, and I believe there was a waiting list.

The impression I got was that there was plenty of enthusiasm amongst all the attendees for more events, and everyone is already complaining that there is 13 months to go.

So why don’t we take all that great work, and copy it or build on it elsewhere? I think the community is big enough, and growing enough, to sustain another equivalent event elsewhere, probably at a different time of year. Edinburgh puts on the Skeptics on the Fringe, which is a brilliant piece of work, rightly recognised at the Ockham’s this year, but I think that is specific to the area and time. London did have The Amazing Meeting a few years ago, which was an import from the James Randi Educational Foundation, and I think London is probably the natural place to go next.

I don’t know how this would work really – the QED team have clearly done an excellent job, but there is only so much they can do for free while still having time to sleep (and I get the impression organising QED takes a huge amount of effort), and they are all based in the North West. There are 5 Skeptics in the Pub groups in London alone, many more in the South East, and a wide range of other related organisations. However, the QED team have demonstrated their own value too well to be left out.

I think the important bit, if there are to be more events on this scale, is that they co-ordinate and work together. I think I’m being pulled into thinking that there should be a single organising body that supports two (or more) big events a year, and supports grassroots skepticism throughout the rest of the year. At a guess, I would imagine two successful events a year could fund a massive increase in quality skeptical activism, but there would need to be a way of channelling this in a way that made some strategic sense.

So, I guess I think British skepticism should be thinking about a way to organise itself a bit to achieve three ends – put on more events of this scale, co-ordinate better between local groups, and share resources out better.

I don’t know if there is any remnant politics from the last TAM or between different groups that I am not aware of, and I have no intention at all of stepping on anyone’s toes, and I don’t care. I just think we should use the inspiration and example of a wonderful weekend to push on.


Thatcher – just a Walkman

Did you cry or rejoice when the Walkman died? It was a world-changing device, created in 1979, overthrown by a series of newcomers that it fundamentally influenced, that continued to be dragged out beyond the point where it had relevance until its surprisingly recent demise. I didn’t. I was indifferent.

An old lady died today, apparently upset and confused through much of her later years and with little contact with her children. I can’t bring myself to be happy about this. I dislike unnecessary suffering wherever it is, and it seems she had a shitty time of it toward the end. Clearly lots of other people had a shitty time of it because of her, during and since her reign as Prime Minister, and I understand the joy and grief that people are pouring out. But she’s not important, and hasn’t been for years.

Maggie is a Walkman. I’m not thinking about Walkmans anymore, I’m concerned about the move from mp3s to streaming – the fact that the tape was the medium that revolutionised music consumption, and was the first usable and affordable portable device doesn’t matter to me one bit when I can store all of my music on Google Play and stream it on any device. It’s worth remembering and learning from history, but not at the expense of the present.

I remember my first portable music device. It wasn’t an official Walkman because we weren’t rich, and it chewed up my tapes about every fifth use. Even those that didn’t get chewed up stretched over time, and as the batteries ran out the music would slowly grind to a halt. These problems were unique to the tape era, much as the poll tax, the miners strike and removal of milk were unique to Maggies government.

What Thatcher fundamentally changed was the fact that music could be personal and portable for the first time, and the Walkman opened up free markets in a new way, with the real beginnings of a project to roll back the state, undermine collectivist movements and monetise every aspect of life.

Later came Blair with his shininess, magnetism and apparent indestructibility. I guess he must be the CD in this story – the fundamental principles are very similar to the previous, and in many ways it’s a much better, pleasanter and more reliable version of it’s predecessor.

Brown is the Minidisc – technically actually quite good, but everyone had invested heavily in CDs and didn’t want to replace the whole lot, and then along came MP3s before he could really get dug in. Both Brown and the Minidisc were a victim of poor timing and circumstance.

And MP3s should really be the modern Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties – They almost sound, to the untrained ear, like music, but they lack depth, range and substance. We have a new set of problems with MP3s, and these are largely different to those of tapes. So when the tape Walkman finally stopped getting produced (in 2010) people were too busy cursing iTunes for being surprisingly difficult to use and worrying about DRM, rather than mourning it’s passing.

And this is exactly what we should be doing now. The Coalition government is carrying on some of the ideological work of Thatcherism, but this is often in brand new ways. Worrying about the death of one lost old woman is distracting, and no kind of victory. This is the month that many of the welfare and healthcare changes came into force, and we absolutely must not forget that or allow this to be submerged in misguided and misspent wrath.

We should turn our attention to the next stages of the development. Rather than singing about the wicked Walkman being dead, we need to work out how we can ensure the cloud can be a freer, fairer and more equitable solution than personal possession of musical hardware has ever been. I really hope Play turns out to be some sort of progressive liberal socialists, but I’m scared it will be something much more like a sinister clown.

Why we shouldn’t try to make IDS live on £53 a week

Recently Ian-Duncan Smith said he could live on the £53 a week a stallholder said he took home. He has since been backed up by a few others who think they could do the same, although most people seem to think this is impossible. Notably, it seems that the richer you are, the more likely you are to think you could. I had a conversation with a relative a little while ago about the both the possibility and fairness of living in London on minimum wage, so I find this interesting.

Of course, the immediate response for most people who disagree with IDSs politics was to challenge him to do it – there was a massive petition, which I believe broke records for the fastest growing online petition.

While this is completely understandable, and I’m very sympathetic to the cause, it’s misguided, for a few reasons – it’s basically impossible to make it a fair test, and even if it were, he would be able to do it, and even if he weren’t it would prove his ideological point.


How do you make it a fair test?

He would have to give up every perk of being an MP – no phone, hospitality, transport, second house payments or anything. This would make it basically impossible for him to do his job for this period. So, he would have to step down for a year. I can’t really see that happening, especially as he will be aware that by the time he came back, this parliament would be coming to an end, so he might not get to return to a governing parliament.

Even if his current income and perks were cut to those a benefits recipient gets, and he left his job for a year, he would need to do a lot more to ensure this was anything like a fair test. Presumably he has the house, car, clothes and gadgets of a wealthy man. If I could start a year knowing that I had all the clothes I needed I would feel a lot better about the £53 challenge, but the problem with the sort of clothes that that income affords is that they are cheap, and don’t last well. If I could set up camp in a well insulated room with a decent pc, thick blankets and an iPad for when I wanted to go to the loo, I could pass a year without really noticing. But an iPad is roughly equivalent to eight weeks without food, water, electricity or heating at that income.

So he would have to start from scratch – perhaps the fairest way would be to do a survey of the possessions and finances of people who have been on £53 long term, and give him those to begin with. Of course, this should really include any outstanding debts to Wonga, Bright House and even less savoury and scrupulous characters (*glares at Lloyds TSB*). But given that he could argue that he wouldn’t get into that situation, and that’s exactly what we’re testing, I would say start at evens, with only the items owned outright by the ‘average’ benefits claimant. How we work that out, I have no idea.

Even if we could somehow get his wealth and goods to the equivalent of someone on £53 a week, I can’t imagine that that becomes a fair test. His social circles are valuable in themselves. I guess that when he goes to a dinner party, he very rarely gets offered a choice between the cheapest Lambrini rip-off and value super-strength lager. He wouldn’t get served Smart Price food, or the occasional treat of something that’s just about to go out of date and needs flogged off by the supermarket. That sort of thing makes such a difference to quality of life that it makes a nonsense of the whole project.

Finally, he has his education and upbringing, including his time in Perugia. Being incredibly literate, confident and well spoken means that even if all the above were somehow balanced, he would be in a situation incredibly few people living on £53 a week would dream of. He would be able to navigate the system that, perversely, he and others have made unnecesarily complex. I have very intelligent and able friends who find this difficult, and less well off friends find it nigh on impossible.


Why would he not succeed?

As well as not being able to make it a fair test, I can’t see how he would not succeed. It clearly is possible to *survive* on £53 a week – it’s just very difficult to really *live*. Someone of his intelligence and ability should be able to plan a budget sufficiently that he doesn’t die of starvation or exposure. He understands compound interest, and knows better than to get involved in anything dangerous or illegal, so if he was committed he’d get through even if he didn’t enjoy it at all.

The interesting point about this though, is that the mindset and experience involved with being a very wealthy person roughing it for a set period of time is vastly different from living in the situation. He would have a finish line to aim for, when all his worldly possessions would come flooding back. I would happily live on £53 a week if I knew I would end up as wealthy and powerful as IDS at the end of a year, and I would be terrible at living on £53.

He could not possibly experience the grind that most poor people feel. The problem that most people in this situation face is that they expend all their energy and effort trying to survive, with little expectation of significant improvement at any point. Real people in this situation have constant fear that something will go wrong – the boiler breaks, you get evicted, the government cuts your benefits or whatever. At best they can hope to absorb this hit over a period of months, if they live an even more miserable existence. Even in minimum wage jobs, much better than £53, life is a very tricky balance, which a single outlay can massively throw for a long period of time.

I just can’t buy that he would fail the challenge, partly because it isn’t the much worse challenge faced by people who actually do live on benefits every day, and partly because he has massive advantages going into it.


What would he learn anyway?

I think this is the most important point really: whether he failed or succeeded in living for a year on £53 it would probably reinforce his point. If he succeeds, he can say that it clearly is possible, and possibly that he found it so easy that the rate can take another cut. His ideological position appears to be to want to make living on benefits deeply unpleasant to give people an incentive to come off it. If he finds it really hard, well, that’s exactly what he wants.

There is a possibility that he would come to understand the challenges that the long term unemployed face, but I don’t think this is the problem. I genuinely believe he wants people to have more opportunity and be better off. He has done work previously that suggests he actually has a bit of an understanding, probably more so than most Conservative MPs. It is his belief, however, that the best way to tackle this is to make the ‘option’ of staying out of work so unpleasant as to border on untenable.

I think the way for him to learn something useful and important would be to study the impacts of various approaches to welfare on a range of measures such as employment rates, GDP, life expectancy, poverty and quality of life. I haven’t done a full impartial study, but I suspect that there is a limit on when the stick is useful, such as when there is a significant job shortage and demonisation of those in need. If the evidence isn’t already in place, perhaps he could consider the parliamentary paper on evidence based politics, and get that underway.

What to do instead

If you have a problem with reductions in benefits payments, the increased difficulty in getting them, and the demonisation of the sick and the poor, there are things that you can do that will be much more effective than the pipe-dream of signing a petition to get a government minister to quit his job and live as one of the poorest in society. I’m no expert, but things that strike me as a bit more useful include:

Sign the petitions on the government site that might actually enforce a debate. There are some on benefits, and others on related social issues. Tell everyone you know to do the same. Here’s one, here’s another one, and here are a load more (including the occasional WTFer). There is no way the government care about online petitions, or what your Facebook avatar is, but they have ensured that this one petition site could, theoretically, mean something.

Write to your MP part one. They Work For You. So tell them what to do. If you want them to protect the poorest, tell them that. MPs do read letters, and if they get a few on a topic it makes them think out their response. You probably won’t change their mind, but just prompting the thought and giving them a sense that the topic matters is important.

Write to your MP part two. When you don’t have a specific challenge, it is well worth promoting evidence based policy. If we convince the government to promote hypothesis testing, we will build a solid and incredibly useful evidence base on a huge range of policy areas. Even if you disagree with the decision to act on evidence, having solid evidence allows for a better quality of debate than simple unfettered ideology.

Challenge prejudice. When you see people talking about ‘scroungers’ or ‘dole-scum’, point out how incorrect they are. Point out that there are more people than jobs, so people necessarily will be out of work. It is also worth being very aware of your own prejudices and privileges. I am a young, educated, straight, middle-class, relatively wealthy, white male, and I am very aware of just what a lucky bastard I am. Few people in the history of humanity have had as easy a life as me.

Give to charity. If you reasonably can afford to give some, or more, to charity, do so. Where the state is contracting, charity may have to fill some gaps. If you can give money or time, you could make a real difference.

Loads of other stuff… There is probably a load more to do, and I can’t pretend to know it all. If you think of something, do it, and tell others to do it too.

Guaranteed jobs and enforced work (aka I WANT MY HOVERBOARD)

Labour has just announced what looks likely to become a central plank in their electoral strategy in a couple of years. They are guaranteeing the offer of a job for anyone who has been out of work for 2 years. On the face of it, and stated like that, this looks great – long term unemployment is a real problem for people stuck in it, and for children growing up surrounded by it. Giving people the opportunity and experience to work is likely to benefit them and the people around them.

However, there are a few questions I think need answering to clarify what this policy really is. The answers to these will really strongly colour how I feel about this policy. At best, this is a good policy badly let down by how it has been presented, and at worst an economically and socially illiterate tax funded subsidy to those least in need using the forced labour of the demonised poor.

1. Why are we compelling people to work at all?
Balls has stated that benefits will be withdrawn for anyone choosing not to accept the job ‘offer’. This fits with a general social idea that people should be forced to work as part of a social contract. This is in many ways the biggest challenge I have, and the one I’ll need to look into the most before I’m happy to state my own position, but my initial reaction is that it is barbaric to force people to work against their will.

I want to live in a society that demonstrates compassion, that doesn’t force people to act against their will, and that provides a decent standard of living for everyone in it. Deciding to make people suffer where it is in our gift to support and nurture them is cruel and I want no part of it. I will take some convincing that it is somehow better to force people under threat of starvation and homelessness than accept that decision not to work and ensure that they are comfortable and able to provide well for their children and dependants.

The economic argument to withdraw benefits after two years of unemployment seems trivial in the grand scheme or things – much smaller to both individuals and the state than the costs incurred by the NHS de-organisation, the education de-organisation, the privatisation then partial unprivatisation of the railways, and the avoidance of tax by large international companies.

I am tempted initially to support something like the Citizens Wage, described and argued for here on A Latent Existence with links to handy further reading, which gives each citizen a set amount of money. This provides everyone the opportunity to feed, clothe and shelter themselves to a basic level, without living under duress. However, I’ll need to look into that more before committing.

2. Where will these jobs come from?
Even if we accept that people should be forced to work, its not clear how there can be the jobs required to make this guarantee. The economy is currently difficult, and there aren’t enough jobs to go around. The numbers of unemployed, long term unemployed and underemployed have risen over the last few years. I am yet to be convinced that any initially promising signs in employment numbers mean a sustainable growth of any kind, let alone one that could provide employment for every long term unemployee as well as everyone who has been disemployed in the last two years.

The proposed method of paying for this scheme seems like a socialist dream, in that raising tax on the wealthiest is being suggested to fund work for the long term unemployed. I am behind that in principle, and as long as the money stacks up, this is not a point of contention at all for me.

New jobs will have to be created to meet this need, and I can think of D) ways of doing this.

A) Provide subsidised work to the private sector.
This is mentioned in the initial version of the policy proposed today, but I really hope this changes before the next election. I struggle to see how this could legitimately increase the number of jobs, as private employers would use this labour to replace their existing low skilled, low paid workers as they have done with the workfare schemes. I suppose criteria for using the workers could include conditions that force expansion, but I don’t see any modern political party forcing the hand of industry in that way, and private industry would still only take these on if it improved profitability in some way.

However this is formulated and implemented, this ends up with the state subsidising shareholders in private industry without really creating work. I am not comfortable with tax revenue being paid to private companies to replace low paid work with even lower paid work.

B) Provide subsidised workers to the public sector.
The public sector has contracted significantly since the election, as I’m sure it would have under a Labour led government, and I don’t think there are many publicly funded bodies not feeling a significant pinch. This is leading to a decrease in public unemployment even where people are not being made redundant, through natural wastage. I am sure many public sector organisations would jump at the chance to have cheap labour, but they will recognise that there are often significant skill gaps between long-term unemployed and high quality nurses, firemen, administrators and managers. And to be clear THE PUBLIC SECTOR NEEDS ENOUGH GOOD ADMINISTRATORS AND MANAGERS. Frontline staff cannot magically do everything.

So this ends up looking like the government is just providing essential funding to deliver services from a different pot, with strict limits on the staff it can be used to employ. Although this may allow public bodies to deliver some services, it looks like a massively inefficient way of using public money to do so.

C) Dig a hole and fill it up
Keynes argued that it was more worthwhile to employ someone to dig a hole and someone else to fill it up than it was to have two people without work. I agree with this when opposed to the austerity and deficit porn Osborne and, sadly, Balls seem stuck on. The value to communities, families and individuals of people working is much greater than difference between the benefits and tax bills. It is both financial and psychological – and is depressingly widely seen as a measure of social worth.

However, this seems like a massive missed opportunity – if people are going to be offered a job after two years, make it a useful one. People who feel engaged in their work will get more from the job, and be more likely to stay in it for the long haul, and pass on a strong work ethic to others in the community.

D) Create genuine public sector work
This is superficially similar to the above, but involves a great increase in spending on genuine public services rather than with concentration on those jobs that can be reasonably filled by the long term unemployed. If you increase public spending across the board, more jobs will be created and these will be filled. Additionally, really big projects could be undertaken that those involved could be proud of.

Is there any good reason the entire rail network could not be upgraded quickly? How about a decent national cycle network? Why isn’t every public building covered in solar panels? Why don’t I have a hover board? Is every public building wheelchair accessible? Could children stand to have more after school sports, arts, music, science and tech clubs? Could jet packs be made safe and affordable? Is fibre optic and 4g coverage available everywhere? Do we recycle plastics other than bottles properly? Is every library book in the country on the right shelf? When can I go to the moon? Are there any old or disabled people that could use some support? I want a goddamn flying car already.

If the answer to this question ends up as D, I am a very happy pixie, not least because I really want that hover board. I could sadly live with the wasted chance of C in preference to continued public sector slashing. I couldn’t support B as although the intention is probably good, the practice would almost certainly be more destructive to public services than the benefit to individuals is worth. A would really, really grind my beans for reasons I’m sure I don’t need to go further into.

3. How individualised will these jobs be?
It is important that people starting work for the first time in a while have a good experience to increase the chances of staying in a post for the longer haul. Will there be a process whereby they can reasonably choose between different working conditions? A hard physical job outside would be very unsuitable to those who have multiple health conditions but have been taken off health related benefits by ATOS, but may well suit an ex-factory or dock worker. How people are matched to jobs will make a huge difference in how suitable a match it is, and this needs to be spelled out. Of course, not everyone can get the perfect job, but everyone should get an acceptable job.

Other important factors include the locations for these jobs. For people based in London, Manchester or Birmingham I don’t imagine there will be much difficulty finding work, but this won’t be the same in Fleetwood and Darwen. Will people be expected to spend more than fifty percent of their probably minimum wage on travelling three hours a day to get to the nearest city with jobs? Or should people move away from their family, friends and homes to take up a job they have to take?

I will only be happy if there is some assurance that people will be offered jobs that they are suited to and in a suitable location, and that they are likely to get skills and experience that make it more likely that they can move on to other jobs as and when they choose.

4. Why is it being presented as it is?
The initial piece that I read was by Ed Balls, and the Twitter account of the Labour press office mentioned this on several occasions. They are really emphasising the ‘tough’ aspect, although of course not all Labour supporters like that. Now, this rhetoric makes me feel really uncomfortable – in a world where there is currently, and potentially indefinitely, less work to do than people to do it, we should not be punishing people for not having work. There is no reason to be ‘tough’ with people for not finding work that doesn’t exist. I agree strongly with giving people the opportunity, skills and any other support to help them find work, but shouldn’t be demonising people who haven’t yet been able to do it for themselves.

What we need is a positive approach that understands the challenges a rapidly changing highly industrialised society, with pockets of disenfranchised people in the second or more generation of unemployment. The same policy would be much better simply for a positive presentation of those people, as it would help create a more inclusive, supportive society. Of course, it wouldn’t pander to the centre ground of politics, which is increasingly authoritarian, petty and unpleasant around out groups such as the poor, the unwell and the foreign. I sadly suspect this short term party political posturing explains the damaging presentation, as Labour compete with the Conservatives to be the toughest kid on the block.

Could this policy work?

So, in the guise presented originally I am really worried about this proposal, but from the ashes of this policy could rise a really good policy. The changes or clarifications that I feel must be made to make this a decent, progressive and socially beneficial policy are roughly:

  • Remove the compulsion aspect – offer everyone a paid job and encourage and support them to do it
  • Make sure the job is suited to the person in terms of work required, such as physical and mental effort
  • Make sure the job is where the person wants and needs to be
  • Make the job worthwhile – make it serve a public good rather than shareholder interests
  • Stop talking about getting tough with people, and recognise that it’s tough for people

I hope  that between now and 2015 Miliband and Balls recognise these problems, and use this opportunity to create  jobs, improve public services, and protect those in need from public invective stirred up by the unpleasant posturing of the Conservatives.

Labour – Please, be the party of the left and use the proposed pension tax on the richest to fund a better society for all of us, and not a worse.

Facts as the basis for media regulation in health

Today I went to an event organised by the Democratic Society to discuss regulation of the media. This is the penultimate stage in their ongoing project, whereby a number of writers have contributed posts on particular aspects of the subject. I wrote a draft piece making the case for change, based on the harm arising from the misrepresentation of science in healthcare.

A lot of interesting discussion was had around how we can encourage the public to participate in the production of the media, how the culture of journalists can be changed for the better, and what oversight and regulation can and should be put in place.

One point of discussion today was the basis on which cases presented to a regulator should be judged. To me, the obvious imperative is to ensure that what is reported is true, or at least not clearly known not to be true. I understand that this is a difficult criteria on which to legislate, for a number of reasons. I also know, having been to a couple of talks by legal blogger and onion knower David Allen Green, that the basis of British law is not the finding of facts, but the determination of liability.

If my understanding is correct following todays discussion, the current system for complaints in the press arena, outside of clearly illegal activities, is based largely on the harm to the individual complainant. The complainant has to demonstrate that the particular story was either an invasion of their privacy, harmed their reputation through implication, or made false statements about them. This is a practical solution to the difficulties of resolving disputes between parties, and could be made to protect parties of lesser power and wealth, although it currently does not.

It seems that much of what was discussed revolved around the manipulation of public perception and the reporting of private lives of individuals. What I feel this misses, though, is the direct protection of the public from directly harmful untruths; it only protects us from untruths that are likely to be harmful to parties that are able to bring the kind of action required, and even then only minimally. I feel it is very important to protect people from wider, currently largely unchallenged untruths that can lead to people making the wrong healthcare choices, and causing unnecessary suffering or death.

It is clear from the large sets of scientific data that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, that drinking alcoholic increases cancer risk, and that homeopathy does not protect against malaria. To say otherwise is both clearly factually inaccurate, and dangerous. My position is that publications that make claims like this should not have to be challenged by an individual that has been directly and demonstrably harmed by that particular article, but should be made to retract claims that are counter to the body of evidence and everything we have learned about healthcare.

Exactly what the mechanism for this would be I do not know, and I am not sufficiently versed in the formations of political and regulatory bodies to speculate on the best fit. However, I am unsure where the significant difference is between the case being brought on the grounds that the claim is wrong or that the claim is potentially harmful. If a claim in the health field is harmful, it is because it is factually wrong. If a healthcare claim is factually wrong it is therefore potentially harmful. These two cannot be clearly distinguished in this instance, as the potential to harm is a necessary property of incorrect health claims – if it doesn’t harm relative to alternative claims, it is not wrong.

What I want to be clear about, though, is a key distinction I would draw. I am convinced that people should be protected from dangerous untruths and that to allow them to be printed unchallenged is a threat to public health, but I do not wish to suppress innovation, new ideas and challenge within science. As long as the facts are presented fairly and accurately and the distinction between fact and speculation is clear, I am positively happy to see people thinking about new forms of treatment based on cutting edge technology, genetic discoveries or refined drugs. It is through innovation and challenge that we make the great breakthroughs.

The best ideas should then be tested thoroughly using appropriate trial designs, to see what is likely to work. These tests will produce a new set of data to add to the pre-existing, on which further theories and speculations can be based. Once again, though, having done the testing, it should be required that the results are accurately described – the facts are the immutable foundations on which any theory should be built. Often several competing ones can be reasonably developed, at least until further testing discriminates between them.

However, in the more developed areas, there tends to be little room for controversy in the evidence, as these controversial areas are the first to get further research to provide clarity on what it is that is happening. The simple facts of the trials to look at the supposed link between MMR and autism are available – no well designed study, of which there have been several, has found evidence of a link. This does not logically prove that the link is not there, but provides a very robust level of evidence – certainly greater than much evidence used to convict people of crimes.

Based on this, I believe the statement ‘there is no link between MMR and autism’ is acceptable as a reasonable summary of the evidence, whereas the statement ‘there is a link between MMR and autism’ is not. It is inaccurate and dangerous, and is exactly the sort of statement that any worthwhile media regulator should be tackling.

The details of how a particular statement is deemed a reasonable summary of the evidence is not clear to me in all cases. Those areas that have live, genuine scientific debate should be allowed to work themselves out through the scientific discourse. Individual facts resulting from experiments should of course never be manipulated or misrepresented, but there will be occasions where there is more than one summary of the available evidence that is reasonable, and the interplay between these is where the interesting science will happen. There is no crime in being wrong when it was a reasonable position to take based on the knowledge available, but continuing to promote a disproven hypothesis in medicine is dangerous.

All the above is simply an expansion on the famous observation that you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. I think more than that, the media are entitled to give us their opinion, but they are not entitled to give us their own facts. In many areas this is problematic, but in healthcare it leads directly to poor health decisions, and avoidable suffering and death. This must be a priority for a regulator.