31 May 2010

Won't get fooled again.

Last week my son gave me an interesting insight into how we understand the world when he asked me the following question: Are all brown skinned people vegetarians? He had obviously spent a while mulling it over with all the data at his disposal: of the 30 kids in his class, maybe 8 or 9 are non-white, all of whom have some cultural or religious dietary requirements. In school dinner terms, the safest bet for religiously observant parents is to choose the vegetarian option for their offspring. So in my son's universe of 30, there was a noticeable correlation. QED.

While this is charmingly naive in a 7-year-old boy, it would be ridiculous if grown adults followed this statistical method. And yet it is actually remarkably similar to the approach used by newspaper editors when approaching a story about science and evidence. Perhaps my favourite definition of why we take a scientific approach to information is by Robert M Pirsig in Zen and the art and motorcycle maintenance: "The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn't misled you into believing you know something you actually don't know." Whereas the average newspaper editor seems to operate on the principle that the real purpose of the scientific method is to act as another branch of the entertainment industry.

It was an apposite thing to be considering as it came on the same day the GMC formally struck off Andrew Wakefield, originator of the research that led to what I can only describe as the MMR media hoax. He was not barred from practising medicine because of his bad science but rather his habit of taking blood samples for money at children's parties and performing unnecessary, and bowel-rupturing, endoscopies upon autistic children. His foot soldiers in the war on reason were the British press who ensured the story remained active beyond the point when it became clear the evidence did not support his claims.

Top of the list of offenders was, unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail, though you'd never have guessed it from Tuesday's reporting. Unusually they didn't seek a balancing quote from one of their medical experts: Carole Caplin, Carol Vorderman, Julia Carling or Jackie Fletcher. Nor did they make any mention of the hundreds of column centimetres they had given to popular readings of Wakefield's work. He was hung out to dry as the lone shooter, with the Mail denying its role behind the grassy knoll, as it was shocked, SHOCKED to discover that Wakefield had a vested interest for finding a link between autism and MMR that caused him to ignore the facts. Unlike the Daily Mail, of course.

Of all the coverage devoted to this issue, one fact that continues to amaze me. Wakefield's original research, in 1998, was not ever meant, in itself, to be proof of anything for one simple reason: it was a study based upon 12 very sick children with multiple conditions, including autism. As a sample size for proving anything it is next to useless, and any editor who couldn't see that was either staggeringly stupid or truly desperate for news. Next to this, my son's observation looks like a model of rigour and caution.

25 May 2010

Gods and monsters

One of the most important breakthroughs in modern science happened last week to the breathless delight of the tabloid press. You can tell it was an important story, because it was the fourth story on the Six O'clock News, hot on the heels of the marriage breakdown of a pop star. Nevertheless, the Daily Mail duly fell for the bait dangled by Craig Venter, a "maverick biologist and billionaire entrepreneur" no less, that he had built a synthetic cell from scratch (story here).

How does it measure up according to our Mid-market Daily Science Story index? Reporting single, unverified claim as scientific fact? Check. Unhelpful diagrams showing sciency things? Check. Apocalyptic speculation based upon ridiculous extrapolations? Check. And, finally, explaining something complex with reference to a movie? Check.

And inevitably he was accused of "playing God" with his experiments, a phrase that always confuses me. Assuming we mean on a metaphorical level, I am uncertain how what Venter has done is morally different from the genetic engineering that mankind has been doing for centuries - cultivating wheat, breeding cattle, clearing and creating forests. The fact that he has done it in an extremely roundabout way is, to me, arguing about angels on a pinhead - and, in fact, he seems to have used an existing life form, one of the oldest known, as an incubator. It's hardly Dr Frankenstein's lightening bolt reanimating the departed.

According to this criteria, I've played God a couple of times in my life, creating lives that would never have existed without me - and I didn't even ask the Daily Mail's permission. Politicians play God every day, making decisions that will affect the life chances of millions of people: whether to go to war, whether to feed the starving, whether to fund the medicines of ill people, whether to protect an animal species.

Meanwhile God seems to have moved on from the whole creating life business to acting as a adjuster for insurance companies - setting off volcanoes to ruin our holidays or freak weather conditions to flatten our homes, as anyone who has tried to claim compensation will know. By logical extension, the Daily Mail should accuse the striking British Airways cabin crew of playing God, interfering with holiday plans in ways previously attributed to acts of the almighty.

23 May 2010

What's the big idea?

This weekend I joined Dave's "Big Society". Not Cameron, but a different Dave. And a different "Big Society" come to think of it. I spent 24 hours or so as a parent volunteer at a camp for my local Scout Association and the various junior sections in deepest, darkest Essex.

Just so you don't think that the Conservatives "Big Society" thing was a bit of election puff, it is still very much alive. From a link on the Home page of conservatives.com you can read all about the new spirit of community evangelisation, though it has been diplomatically rebranded as Civil Society, in deference to their government bedfellows, the Liberal Democrats. Speaking at its launch as a government policy last week, the Other Dave described it thus: "...we know instinctively that the state is often too inhuman, monolithic and clumsy to tackle our deepest social problems. We know that the best ideas come from the ground up, not the top down".

Leaving aside the false opposition of exactly which direction of travel the best ideas take, the programme itself wants to get local people organising locally, and in true Tory fashion engages in supply-side economics to tackle this: training an army of Community Organisers to raise the Dunkirk spirit, paid for from the money found down the back of everyone's sofa (I'm paraphrasing here, but not much). It here goes for what it sees as the crux of the matter: the money. And of course, it's true - paying for things is very important, in order to encourage people to build local projects and organisations. But nowhere in any of the 16 pages of "Big Society not Big Government" does it tackle one of the biggest barriers to participation.

Returning to Dave our local Scoutmaster, on Friday he shopped for the entire camp of some 36 people and to get to site early to start to set up the tents, assess the infrastructure and conduct risk-assessments on the proposed activities. Once flag was down on Sunday lunchtime, he supervised the dismantling of the camp and returned the Troop's gear to the lockup and the van to the rental office. To say nothing of the organising, arranging payment, raising the money to subsidise the event and the week-in, week-out running of the various beaver, cub and scout get-togethers.

Dave's employers tried to pressure him into working a weekend shift, despite the fact he had taken Friday as annual leave. Between his work and the Scout movement, there's little room for other things, but Dave does it willingly and happily because he believes he is doing something worthwhile, and a thriving body of local children back this by voting with their feet every Monday. Dave is one of thousands of people who put their careers on hold, or have to juggle their work commitments for, essentially, the benefit of other people's children. He doesn't get paid, and nor does he seek to. But here's where Big Government could come in.

Dave doesn't need the Big Society Bank to sell Social Impact Bonds (no, really) to buy another tent, or even cover the van hire. But if his employers could leverage the social value of Dave's volunteer work somehow, so they could benefit from his largess, they might see Dave's hinterland life as a benefit to them, and Dave as a valued employer. Will the Other Dave, in Downing Street, enact legislation to free potential community activists by helping them to hold down work and take some time for the common wheel? Probably sounds a bit too much like top-down, red tape to Dave's mates in the business community.

08 May 2010

Proportional Reproduction

I listened to a surreal piece of radio on "Today", this morning on Radio 4. As part of the post-election analysis, a reporter visited the ultra-safe Conservative seat of Henley-on-Thames, erstwhile proving ground of political luminaries Michael Heseltine and Boris Johnson (listen here). The local voters seemed both confused and angry as to why David Cameron wasn't Prime Minister. Cameron promised them power if only they'd turn down the heating and love gays, and now it seems they have to hug-a-lib-dem to come close to chucking out the chinz at 10 Downing Street. The trouble with the first-past-the-post system, it would seem, is it isn't first past enough.

It seems everyone is angry with the electoral system right now, and not just people in Henley who can't count. Despite the fact the Liberal Democrats polled about the same as 2005, their usual lack of proportional numbers of seats has sparked actual protests on the streets, instead of the more usual muttering in beer. A thousand people gathered in Trafalgar square to demand change, everyone from Lord Mandelson to Gordon Brown has called the system "discredited"; ironic when we consider the chief losers under the system are currently closer to government now than any of their colleagues had been in a generation. Those who grizzle that we are always ruled by a minority vote have got their wish - no-one with a majority of seats.

It seems electoral reform will be firmly on the agenda; either in the form of a concession to the Lib Dems in exchange for underpinning a Tory government, or propping up a Labour one, or in anticipation of the inevitable election that the alternative to those scenarios would bring in the next 12 months. The time is ripe for change, and surely the people would grasp that to their collective bosoms, wouldn't they? Actually I'm inclined to think it would achieve the opposite.

Most people can understand the simple logic of proportional representation; in order to reflect the will of the people there must be a relationship between the number of votes cast and their representation in the Legislature. Clearly the present system favours those parties who benefit from herd behaviour; wherever people gather to think the same way in concentrated geographies. Not necessarily a sound basis for capturing a national mood. Yet bear in mind that although governments are regularly formed by the representatives of less than 40% of the voting public, nearly 8 in 10 will have the chance to vote in a government of their choice more often than not. This is not an argument in favour of the present system, but a caveat about the obvious support there must be for changing it.

The delicate dance being performed by the party leaders is an insight into what a proportionate result would look like every time. And if, as seems likely, a minority Conservative government limps through the year before calling another election, a lot of people, when presented with the reality of coalitions, will have second thoughts about supporting a referendum on PR. So the very thing that enables electoral reform to happen, a strong showing by the third party in a hung parliament, is the one set of circumstances that will make its prospect the least enticing.

I'm of the view that the current position we are in is the most exciting piece of politics in my living memory; uncertainty and the mewling brats of the stock market be damned, this is real politics in the classic definition of the word: the resolution of difficult things by talking and compromising instead of violence. Instead, the most disturbing aspect about the situation, from my position, is the unseen role of the unelected head of state, should Mr Clegg decide to throw his lot in with the Labour Party - entirely possible, given how cool Cameron is towards Electoral Reform. Under those circumstances, two power bases, neither with a majority, would be competing to run a government - and who would have to choose? Step forward Her Majesty the Queen.

It's one thing to have an electoral system whose nods to proportionality are little better than Mussolini's Acerbo Law, because it's based upon how closely like-minded voters live to each other. But surely that pales beside the daftness of someone deciding who should form a government because she is her father's daughter?