Archive | April, 2013

It’s all relative

29 Apr

‘Relativism is the concept that points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration.’ (from Wikipedia)

There are currently several outbreaks of measles in Britain. The problem goes back fifteen years when there was a big fall in the uptake of the MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccine. The reason that fewer parents were getting their children inoculated was a health scare about the vaccine which suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and an increase in the rate of autism. The research which sparked the scare was a study by Dr Andrew Wakefield which appeared in the medical publication, the Lancet, in 1998. The paper was partially withdrawn in 2004 and finally withdrawn in 2010. A review of the paper showed multiple flaws in the study, including the selection of data and groups, failure to have the work properly peer reviewed and poor statistical method. Investigations by Sunday Times journalist Brian Deer revealed that Wakefield had multiple undeclared conflicts of interest, had manipulated evidence, and had broken other ethical codes. Dr Wakefield was struck off the medical register in 2010.

It is easy to lay all the blame at the door of Dr Wakefield, but there are other villains in this story. Journalists sniffed a good story and published or made scary reports in the popular press, on radio and television. The standards of journalism in relation to knowledge of even the most simple of medical matters was largely absent, and a good training in statistical method utterly lacking. Medical scares always make good stories, whether there is any truth in them or not. The lack of moral responsibility of these journalists and their simple failure to check their facts has resulted in many teenagers catching what can be a very serious illness, measles. The excuse used was that there were two sides to the story, on one side the opinion of Dr Andrew Wakefield and on the other side the medical opinion of the rest of the medical community. This is a case of relativism, one where the opinion of the two were given equal weighting. It was the moral responsibility of the journalists to weigh the evidence properly and report accordingly. By failing to do so they scared parents sufficiently that they did not have their children inoculated, and the results of this is the current outbreak of measles. For a good explanation of the errors in the study, look up ‘Bad Science’, by Dr Ben Goldacre, who writes for The Guardian newspaper.

History does not have the same kind of scientific objectivity, but claim most historians claim to have their own appropriate notions of objectivity. It is necessary to recognise the bias in other writers and a good deal of self knowledge of one’s own failure to be fully objective. In judging evidence the nature and volume of evidence must be weighed to judge the correct story and crude relativism of all stories must be rejected. Holocaust deniers rely on relativism to get their message across, when any independent study would show the denier’s argument to be wholly false. We should all be wary of relativism in whatever sphere we move in. There is far too much bad journalism around. More than ever it is necessary to judge carefully when you are told anything, especially when the teller might very well have an ulterior motive.


Thou shalt not kill

18 Apr

That is the sixth commandment. It is very simple and direct, and there are no sub-clauses or exceptions. Personally, I am an atheist, so it should make no difference to me, but it is the one commandment that really makes sense in humanist, ethical terms. As for coveting my neighbour’s ox or ass, well it doesn’t really apply, and not believing in God or sin, most of the other ones tend to go by the board. Being faithful to my wife is a personal and practical decision, so that deals with the seventh commandment. As I try to be a responsible member of my little sub-set of society theft and deception are also not on my agenda.

The death penalty was abandoned in Britain back in the sixties, and yet murder is much less prevalent here than in many countries where it is still a proscribed punishment. The vast majority of murders are committed by someone known to the victim, usually when not in a sane state of mind. The death sentence is not a deterrent. It does not work. If killing people is wrong then it also applies to judicial murder, otherwise known as execution. As I said above, there are no sub-clauses or exceptions. Way to go, Almighty one!

Do not tolerate intolerance

16 Apr

My sympathies go out to everyone affected by the Boston bombings. I used to commute through London during the IRA bombing campaigns, and saw some devastation.  It is deeply worrying to be involved in such incidents. Without wishing to pre-judge any findings the coincidence of date seems to indicate that this outrage is likely to have been the actions of some group or individual with a domestic agenda rather than a foreign terrorist group. It occurred eighteen years to the day after the Oklahoma bombing and twenty years after the Waco siege. This was also the day for tax returns to be filed. If it does turn out to be the work of some right wing nut then the USA should take a long hard look at itself and at what freedom really means.

There is a strongly flowing current of violence in the muddy streams of US society. You only have to listen to the opinions expressed by shock jocks or read a small sample of the poisonous outpourings on supposedly political discussion groups to realise that there are lot of very angry, very crazy people out there perfectly willing to justify assassination or political violence against any target considered even vaguely liberal. Many of these crazies are heavily armed and believe in conspiracy theories and alien abduction etc., etc. These people will not be able to engage in reasoned political debate.

For what it is worth, my belief is that all behaviour and beliefs should be tolerated except where those behaviours stop other people living as they wish. We should tolerate everything except intolerance. Now for a nasty piece of real history which has largely gone unremarked. The USA selected the Pilgrim Fathers as the ideal founders of the state among many groups of settlers. The usual story given about the Pilgrim Fathers is that they left England because of religious intolerance. This is exactly one hundred and eighty degrees from the historical truth. The extreme Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock were perfectly free to practice their religion in England provided they behaved themselves and paid their taxes. But they were unwilling to share the country with people with different beliefs. They came to the New World in order to get away from other faiths. They formed the least tolerant society imaginable. The following is a small section from a site about American Quaker persecutions:

The Puritans of New England, specifically Connecticut and Massachusetts, exceeded the persecutions that the Quakers experienced in England, principally by hanging three Quaker men and one Quaker woman. Twenty-three other Quakers were scheduled to die by hanging before the King of England intervened. One would think that the Puritans, after escaping persecutions themselves by fleeing to New England, would have been more tolerant. But, as you will see, their self-righteous spirit, viciously dealt with all conflicting religious opinions; and, since the Quakers were far more convicting than any other sect, with their nontraditional doctrines, they were most brutally persecuted.

In the meantime, to return to the start of this blog entry, everyone’s death affects me. To quote one of my favourite poets:

No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

John Donne, [English clergyman & poet (1572 – 1631)], Meditation XVII


Margaret Thatcher – my perspective

9 Apr

When Margaret Thatcher resigned after being ousted following the Poll Tax debacle I was joyful. That evening I went to a sing-along session and went straight into a ragged rendition of Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’. People at the session had no idea that I had a political bone in my body until then.

This is not meant to be a critique of her beliefs or actions, and it is not intended as a parting shot. What I have heard so far in the media is almost entirely gushing and lacking in any critical review. Her time in leadership was long enough ago for some perspective to be applied to this history. I remember Margaret Hilda Thatcher as Minister of Education. This was a role in which she courted controversy and publicity. She was about to be sacked by Prime Minister Ted Heath when she launched her bid for party leadership.

In all she did she divided opinion. There were those who worshipped the ground she walked on while others wanted to see her evaporate in a puff of un-smoke. I always suspected that her greatest supporters had a desire to be treated like naughty children with her as the strict nanny. Personally, I could never vote for anyone who talked to me as though my dog had just died.

Shortly after she was elected I was working in Warrington and living in Liverpool. I used to commute along the East Lancs road. During an eighteen month period every factory along that road closed. There had been dozens of factories employing thousands of workers. Many were efficient and modern, and had met or exceeded production targets. There is little doubt that Thatcher’s principal policy was to destroy the power of the Trades Unions. She succeeded in doing that at the cost of destroying the industries. The economy was weak at the start of her first term and she exacerbated the problem by deflating during a recession. The effect was catastrophic on industry and labour. Unemployment rates went to levels not seen since the 1930’s and were combined with high inflation. All this happened at a time when Britain was receiving maximum revenues from North Sea oil.

The problem was that Margaret Thatcher really believed. She believed you could run a country like a corner shop. She believed the unions were the enemy. She believed that there was no such thing as society and that we could do without a significant manufacturing base. She was willing to fight for her beliefs with great tenacity and unswerving focus on her goals. There is no doubt that she kick-started the change to deregulation and financial liberalisation. The practice seemed to have succeeded for decades until the financial institutions got too greedy and overreached themselves. This has left much of the western economy in a very difficult place. It was her creation.

There was a time when the economy was at its worst when she was unelectable. Then Argentina invaded South Georgia and the Falklands after receiving mixed signals from the Foreign Ministry. The dispatch of the task force to reclaim the Falklands was a desperate gamble which worked. After the war she was re-elected on the wave of national pride. Her views on Apartheid South Africa and friendship with the Chilean dictator and mass-murderer, General Pinochet indicated her political sympathies. She had a unique ability to annoy people and to turn long-standing friends into enemies. In the end she pushed an unworkable policy too far and found she had few allies in her own party.  The speech she made on entering 10 Downing Street echoed St Francis of Assisi. The words about reconciliation always rang hollow. She was strong-minded but wrong-headed.