25 February 2010

Pick your cherries while ye may

The nature of scientific evidence has been under scrutiny this week with the coinciding of three important news stories. Simon Singh was in court for the appeal against the ruling last year by Judge Eady that he libelled the British Chiropractors Association - an action that the presiding judge described as "baffling" (story here) - while the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee delivered a damning verdict upon the funding of homeopathy by the NHS (here). Finally, and a little late in the day, the General Chiropractic Council fessed up the evidence for the efficacy of its treatments, a decidedly mixed bag (here).

What unites these three stories is they are examples of the reliance on cherry-picked evidence by the less-than-scientific, in order to bolster their credentials. In the realms of scientific practice and statistical validity, cherry-picking is one of the big sins; put simply it means ignoring all the evidence that doesn't support your hypothesis. So, if you conduct 100 trials on a new drug and 95 show it performs no better than the current treatment, but five show some improved outcomes, then to present these latter five trials as evidence supporting your drug's efficacy is to do A Bad Thing. Depending on what you are trying to prove, at best you are being unfair, and at worst committing fraud, though that doesn't stop it from being widely practised, and is surely the basis of 1,001 advertising campaigns.

And it also was the basis of an unusual claim by Inspector Roger Bartlett of the Devon and Cornwall Police this week of divine intervention to account for an improvement in crime statistics in his manor (story here). According to Inspector Bartlett the power of prayer by local christian groups has lead to a direct improvement in clear-up rates in the Barnstaple area, and similar decrease in number of serious road accidents in north Devon. Impressively, it would seem Insp Bartlett asked a group of local Christians to pray for a specific reduction in road accident deaths in the area the year before the number of incidents fell by 67%. Rather less impressively, he then continues to list random statistical improvements that he retrospectively attributes to prayer, which rather weakens his case.

But rather than give his notion the fisking it deserves, I wondered if I could try the same thing? Of course I can, for while it seems the good Lord is spending a lot of time helping out the motorists of Devon, he's been taking his eye off the deserving but weak-hearted. In 2006 a double-blinded RCT on the power of prayer was performed Harvard Medical School upon those recovering from coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery, with some allocated to receive unctions and some not, and those two groups further divided, with half being told they were being prayed for and the rest not.

The conclusion? "Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications." In other words, knowing you were being prayed for actually increased the chances of you getting worse, not better.

This then leads me to conclude that, while God clearly cares enough about the commitment of sin (crime) to help reduce it, he's not so keen on the love and compassion bit if you have a dicky ticker. Sounds a bit of an Old Testament sort of chap to me, which leaves me to assume the entire basis of Christianity is flawed, and therefore Judaism is the one true faith. QED. Suddenly things become enormously simple if you just notice what you want to see, and select your evidence accordingly, or look for patterns where none exist.

Meanwhile do be sure to drive carefully in north Devon, if you find yourself in that neck of the woods. God's made an impressive start, but wouldn't want you to ruin his hard work by demonstrating free will and driving off a cliff - he'd rather you wait for that heart attack to strike. And poor Inspector Bartlett would have to explain how his number went back up again without defaming Jehovah.

20 February 2010

Pester Power 2.0

This week David Cameron revealed a new policy that looks like out-Blairing even New Labour. In terms of lack of substance and naked populism, it is an overt attempt to position the party as in-touch with the voters. Of course there is nothing wrong with actually being in touch with voters' concerns, but this latest piece of headline grabbing is so thin you could use it as greaseproof paper to produce some half-baked ideas.

Starting off with the bold headline promise of "Protecting children from sexualisation and commercialisation", he introduces the concept of "premature sexualisation". To me that sounds like the sort of thing Dear Deirdre would tackle in The Sun, but Dave doesn't bother to give any examples of this, or even explain how he came to the conclusion it was of popular concern. It's out there, apparently, and Dave wants you to know he's concerned about it. But he no sooner raises it then he moves on to the bulk of the policy announcement covering measures that are "designed to crack down on irresponsible marketing practices and products targeted at children."

Speaking as a parent who consumes quite a lot of advertising on children's TV stations, I'm struggling to see the problem or why it suddenly merits a policy response. Advertisers have always targeted children, but today they work under greater restrictions than when I was a child. Children are big grabby bundles of Id, as likely to furiously demand to watch a TV show or have another 25 biscuits as they are to covet something they have seen in an ad. Unfortunately, one of the onerous tasks of parenting is managing their expectations, meeting the challenge of their desires, and setting clear parameters.

But let's run with this for the minute and assume ads aimed at children are Very Bad. What's Dave's solution?
  • Banning the most manipulative marketing techniques aimed at young people
  • Strengthening the regulatory framework
  • Giving people the power to make complaints
  • Banning irresponsible companies from winning future government contracts.
The rules around what you can and can't say when advertising to children, and where and when you can say it is listed in tedious detail on the ASA site (or click here), because a lot of people have given this tricky area a lot of thought, in balancing the legitimate rights of businesses to sell products against protecting the rights of children. And anytime you think that balance is not achieved, you can complain to the ASA. So, again, I am struggling to see what "Dave" is announcing that is not already covered, apart from a general breastbeating that he has an ill-defined concern, and wants you to know he cherishes your kids too.

What I think has changed things in Cameron's mind is the Internet in general, and social media specifically. Cameron is supposedly a hip young guy, groovy to the web and all things digital, as we saw a few years ago with his "Web Cam" broadcasts on YouTube. But here he paints new media as a source of unmitigated threat: children vulnerable to new advertising channels and parents powerless to stop it. But in truth, it is a two way street; just as new media gives new routes to consumers, it gives greater powers to parents to express their displeasure, co-ordinate action against inappropriate messaging and mobilise our economic clout. Parents may no longer be the gatekeepers to the advertising channels open to children, but they still hold the purse strings. New media offers creators of products aimed at children new ways of engaging with the people who foot the bill, to persuade them of their worthiness.

He emphasised that "social pressure" is the best way to combat irresponsible behaviour and encourage responsibility, saying that the Conservatives would "make it easier for parents to mobilise against campaigns and products that they think are inappropriate". At present, thanks to the explosion of new technology, parents are doing just that - forming networks, sharing information, creating pressure groups around issues and concerns, and exerting that pressure in co-ordinated ways.

Take the example of the infamous "Lolita Bed" that was withdrawn from sale at Woolworths, after parental pressure led by the raisingkids.co.uk website (story here). Cameron himself supported this campaign as an example of the "sexualisation of children". He seems to have missed the point that it is an example of grass-roots "social pressure" at work, the very thing he will supposedly encourage. Unless he is somehow suggesting a new law allowing vigilante attacks upon toy manufacturers, parents mobilising against campaigns and products is exactly what they are doing at the moment. Cameron is graciously giving us permission to carry on.

Cameron finishes by saying: "A Conservative Government would take the tough action needed to help families and build a society in which we stop treating children as adults". My concern is, instead, that a Conservative Government will build a society where we treat adults as children.

14 February 2010

Dying beyond your means

There's been a bit of pre-election huffing and puffing this week around care for the elderly in the UK. The facts about the size of the challenge are clear; according to the Office for National Statistics, despite large influxes of younger immigrants, overall the UK population balance continues get older. It is projected that, by 2033, 23 per cent of the population will be aged 65 and over compared to 18 per cent aged 16 or younger.

The fastest population increase has been in the number of those aged 85 and over, the 'oldest old'. In 1983, there were just over 600,000 people in the UK aged 85 and over. Since then the numbers have more than doubled reaching 1.3 million in 2008. By 2033 the number of people aged 85 and over is projected to more than double again to reach 3.2 million, and to account for 5 per cent of the total population. Combined with the fact that dementia rates rise rapidly among the over 80s, that's a big bill for care that someone has to foot. That someone probably being those of us who work and pay taxes.

The government suggested this week that those entering retirement might want to chip in a bit. Health Minister Andy Burnham said the government may introduce a compulsory charge of up to £20,000 pounds per person payable on retirement to cover the cost of care in old age - though, it is just one of three options being considered alongside a top-up payment system and an insurance-based approach. Frankly, I think he could suggest that the government will pay by winning the lottery every week, since he hasn't much chance of enacting anything after the general election. But that hasn't stopped Dave "David" Cameron jumping in with a soundbite about a "death tax", and an artless poster highlighting the issue (here).

If it were me, I'd make it £40,000, and we'll take the car as well, just so the Baby Boomer generation can finally feel what it feels like to pay for something. Having been rewarded with the best start in life on the backs of their parents' struggles, they have enjoyed a lifetime of free education, full employment, the sexual revolution and occupational pension schemes that seem designed by Bernie Madoff. And, of course, entitlement to retire at 55. Picking up the tab is my generation, who are presented with a unique opportunity to get screwed at both ends, as we won't get the chance to leech off the next generation in time-honoured fashion. The Boomers have pulled up the drawbridge, and we have to pay for everything ourselves.

£20,000 is less than the operating costs of my 4-person family for just one year, so far from extortion, I reckon it looks excellent value for an open-ended commitment to on-call nurses to wipe your bum around the clock. But it's not something I will ultimately have to pay; by the 2030s I reckon they'll have banned retirement altogether, and we'll just be "executed" when the chip in our hands starts flashing. They'll call it Logan's Stagger.

13 February 2010

It's beginning to add up

I was playing dominoes with my son earlier - the old fashioned tile game, not a see-who-can-order-the-hottest-pizza competition - when it struck me what has been going wrong with the economy these last few years: innumeracy. In short, we have lost the ability to add up a row of numbers. Sure, we can usually manage the small stuff, change from a fiver, that sort of thing, but when the zeros start going on, the wheels start to come off.

It's all coming to a head in Greece right now for this very reason. Many within the Euro zone are pointing the finger at some of the less-than-truthful declarations Greece has made in the past in order to gain Euro membership, and in the present as to the true state of its indebtedness. But I reckon as the number started to rise they simply lost count - put in the best estimate, like an MP's expenses claim. Even the president of the Eurogroup, Jean-Claude Juncker, admitted no-one else in Europe had questioned the figures. If everyone in Europe has lost count of how much Greece owes everyone else, I reckon some kind of number-overload point has been reached.

On a smaller scale, I see it every day all around me - my Twitter fans (!) will know the delight I feel upon discovering supermarket multi-buy deals which are cheaper than single packets. Or take my soon-to-be-ex electricity supplier, E.ON (please). Every April they set a monthly direct debit, based upon my average consumption. Last year we started at £91 per month, until we racked up a £67 credit within 3 months. Taking it down to £81 pm, by Christmas we were nearly £100 in the black, so I was interested to receive this week notification of the proposed new monthly payments from April 2010. They'd done a lot of thinking, carefully analysed our usage, and used all their fingers and toes to come up with a new figure: £119 per month.

And I think it's obvious where this number-weariness has come from: RBS and Northern Rock. As I journeyed into London last week, past Stratford and the site of the 2012 Olympic Games, I was thinking back to 2006, and how quaint it seemed to have a political scandal about those Olympic costs "spiralling out of control" at a cost to the UK taxpayer of £5bn. Even the initial nationalisation cost of Northern Rock at £50bn seems chump change, compared to the hairy barbarian cluster-fuck that is Royal Bank of Scotland. So perhaps I should not have been surprised last week to hear that RBS was planning to hand out £1.3bn in bonuses, despite making a loss of over £7bn.

The only conclusion I can come to is everyone at RBS has also forgotten how to count. Failure to grasp reality was behind the sub-prime mortgage fiasco, and it seems to me that reaching into a pot containing minus £7,000,000,000, expecting to find some cash is the ultimate proof of this. The brain-burning size of the debt has suspended all numeracy functions, and what's more it is spreading: the coverage in the press seemed almost muted. It's such a familiar territory to us now, we couldn't really be bothered to raise a snarl. We have been utterly beaten into apathy and confusion by the sheer size of the figures involved, numbed by numbers. Pretty soon I'm going to be asking my son to add up the weekly shopping as my skull collapses with anger at the idiotic sense of entitlement by morons whose supposed talent for wealth generation has gone almost as far into the red as our savings.

Let's hope I'm not reduced to asking E.ON to count for me.

07 February 2010

A Bridge too far

I was reading this week in the Corriere della Sera one of those "Funny Old World" stories about the England football captain, John Terry, potentially losing his job because of an adulterous affair. There was a general scratching of heads in Italy as to what one had to do with the other, in stark contrast with the British press who wrote, almost as one, that Terry should be demoted over the scandal as though it were an axiomatic truth. So there was a certain tension on Thursday as we waited to to see whether England's Italian manager would adopt a continental understanding or if he had decided to go native.

I was interested to note that, when the axe fell, those named as replacements at both Captain and Vice-Captain were not exactly adroit at staying out of the papers for reasons of bad personal judgement. And throughout this sordid episode, no one has actually suggested Terry be dropped from the team, so clearly there is a higher bar for moral behaviour by captains than mere squad members - just as well given that at least four regular starting XI players have been named in the tabloids for the exact same sins.

I would suggest that those who seek moral purpose in the England football team are probably wasting their time. As my friend Marcus pointed out, by the same criteria that got Terry fired, we should demote the Archbishop of Canterbury for being bad at football. Just as we don't require our national sportsmen to be Cordon Bleu chefs, qualified architects or banjo players, we shouldn't expect them to be moral paragons. Before Terry even got the job he'd been pilloried in the press for public urination in a bar, inappropriate texting to other women and parking his Bentley in a disabled car bay so we knew he wasn't exactly Albert Schweitzer. But he was evidently good at putting various parts of his body between foreigners and a football, and in our whimsical society, such talents earn £100,000 a week.

Indeed, I'd suggest that is the real point of this story. Football is peculiarly sensitive to excessive remuneration for its elite stars, even though those who can command such pay are the small point of a very wide-based pyramid of journeymen pros hacking each other every week for a miner's wage. We accept with a straight face a banker claiming he can "prove" he is worth a bonus of £1m after a government rescue; John Terry proves every week what he's worth in the most unforgiving public arena. Premier League football clubs are falling over themselves to show how in touch they are with those who buy the match tickets, pies and replica shirts through community liaison, charity sponsorship and "Kick Racism Out Of Football" raffles. "We haven't lost touch with our roots and values" they desperately cry via piles of signed polyester.

Yet the most overlooked part of the story reveals some very old-fashioned values still at work within the beautiful game. Wise sports hacks claimed it wasn't the affair that was the problem, but the fact that the Other Woman, Vanessa Perroncel, was the Ex-Other Woman of a former Chelsea colleague, Wayne Bridge, also a member of the England team. Disruption to England's World Cup plans caused by friction within the squad was the real threat, it was said. Demotion for Terry was the only way to achieve team harmony, it was also said. Or to put it another way: John nicked Wayne's bird.

Details over the exact chronology are sketchy, but it seems Bridge and Ms Perroncel had split at the time of Terry's dalliance; her mistake was not having a "Property of Wayne Bridge" tattoo. Did Terry act shabbily toward a supposed friend and former colleague? Probably, but Perroncel is also a grown up with some free will. The fact she is being implied as the chattel of Bridge reveals a lot about attitudes within the press towards women, in particular those who move in Premier League football's rarefied atmosphere. She has no function outside of being the companion to either player.

John Terry may insert vegetables into bodily orifices for all I care, but ever since the story broke he has proved his worth to his team through solid sporting performance. By contrast, Rio Ferdinand, new England captain, fresh back from injury, aimed a punch at an opponent, earning him a three-match ban - the sort of behaviour that can cost a team dear in a World Cup (just ask David Beckham). But as long as he didn't sleep with someone who wasn't going out with someone who also plays for England, moral decency is upheld. And the humbug of the tabloid press can carry on undisturbed.

03 February 2010

Enlightened thinking

Prince Charles is a man often associated with backwards thinking, which I suppose is not surprising, given he has lived his life in reverse. For the first 50-odd years he has been in retirement, pottering in his garden and taking up hobbies, and as he approaches the age at which most would be considering superannuation, he is preparing to begin his first day job, as head of state. This would also explain his somewhat fogyish opinions, not a coherent ideology as such, but a combination of Luddite sentimentalism and spiritualist mumbo-jumbo. Imagine a posh Arthur Scargill running a Reiki clinic.

From talking to his plants to model villages, via a general "why can't we all get along" pantheism, his obsessions are so random as to attract little excitement by me, until today. “I was accused once of being the enemy of the Enlightenment,” he told a conference at St James’s Palace. “I felt proud of that.”

He goes on: “I thought, ‘Hang on a moment’. The Enlightenment started over 200 years ago. It might be time to think again and review it and question whether it is really effective in today’s conditions, faced as we are with huge challenges all over the world. It must be apparent to people deep down that we have to do something about it. We cannot go on surely like this, just imagining that the principles of the Enlightenment laid down in the eighteenth century still apply now."

Well, obviously there are the crackpot ideas from that time that will never last, such as democracy, the rights of man and rational thought. And what has the scientific method ever given us? But I assume this also applies to the serious ideas of the last 200 years like homeopathy and neo-classical architecture, which are rather closer to his heart. How on earth do we evaluate our heritage and decide what still applies and what doesn't?

I've worked out a system for evaluating what we should keep and what we should discard, and it's quite simple. Anything that Prince Charles likes, we get rid of, anything he speaks out against, we should keep. So out with alternative medicine, model villages, polo and overpriced biscuits, and in comes cool architecture, regulation of herbal remedies and critical thinking.

Let's remember England before this Enlightenment nonsense, where everything was judged a result of divine providence, where few could read and even fewer had a vote, and witch-hunting was a bona fide occupation - holistic cures were provided via a ducking stool. But on the plus side, we did have an absolute monarch, who was also called King Charles. Maybe that's what he meant?

Or did he mean the bit after that where we cut off King Charles's head and installed a theocracy for 11 years?