Thursday, November 30, 2006

Censorship = Tolerance and Diversity?

Sometimes even obvious possibilities may not be mentioned

Satoshi Kanazawa, a virtually unknown professor of evolutionary psychology at the London School of Economics (LSE), has published in the pages of the British Journal of Health Psychology an article suggesting that ill-health and poverty in less-developed countries in Africa can be blamed on low IQs. Predictably, student activists have circulated an electronic petition across Europe calling on the well-known school to stand up for tolerance and diversity--by condemning Kanazawa.

Thankfully, these self-appointed do-gooders are off to a slow start. At the time I finished editing this column, the student petition, "LSE Lecturer: Research or Racism?" had only 151 signatures. Needless to say, I was not one of its signatories. It's not that I support Kanazawa (I don't even know who he is). Rather, I consider the petition's aim to be nothing more than a call for censorship. I'm not sure I like that.

I also bristle anytime student activists and other pimple-faced do-gooders decide what views or opinions I should be protected from. But more than anything else, the petition embodies the worst kind of political correctness and is, with no hyperbole intended, fundamentally dangerous to the very idea of academic freedom.

In my way of thinking, if you really aim to be diverse and tolerant--as an individual, institution, or society--then I think freedom of thought and liberty of opinion (no matter how objectionable) is fundamental. I am therefore perplexed by a petition that calls for institutional condemnation of a professor. How can censorship of a particular view--no matter how obtuse or misguided it may be--be equated to standing up for tolerance and diversity?

Now, let's be up-front about things here: Racist or racialist theories are repugnant. And Kanazawa may be shown to have, in the end, some questionable views. But I'm not ready to label him a racist or eugenicist yet since I haven't read his article (and I'm not about to blindly trust the British tabloids). His publishing record is certainly provocative and includes such choice works as "Why beautiful people are more intelligent", "You can judge a book by its cover", and "The myth of racial discrimination in pay in the US".

But the truth is I am not in the least bit interested in discussing Kanazawa or his article. What concerns me is the well-intentioned but wholly misguided reactions to his ideas. In other words, the problem is not Kanazawa but the LSE petition and the authoritarian liberals signing it. Their morally righteous and knee-jerk reaction to ideas deemed "dangerous" frankly terrifies me much more than Kanazawa himself

To be sure, this is the first that any of us studying journalism here have ever heard of Kanazawa. But I have little doubt that the Kanazawa story will get bigger in the coming weeks--especially as the petition spreads and if the LSE continues to admirably defend the professor's right to publish controversial research.

Of course, in the US, we've seen this all before: earlier this year, when John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published their paper "The Israel Lobby"; in, 2005, when Larry Summers at Harvard raised questions about gender and academic achievement in mathematics; in 2004, when Samuel Huntington published Who Are We?, on America's national identity and Hispanic immigration; in 1994, when Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein co-wrote The Bell Curve. It's no different on the other side of the Atlantic. In March, Leeds University forced the early retirement of a professor accused of racism because he supported the ideas of Murray and Herrnstein (which have, by the way, almost nothing to do with race but everything to do with the erosion of social cohesion in the US). And incidents of political correctness abound in England and across the Euro-zone.

That's why with regards to Kanazawa, I am surprised that the LSE hasn't yet fired him. (The last time I saw this kind of back-bone in defense of free speech was when the Danish government refused to condemn the news daily Jyllands-Posten for publishing a dozen cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.)

What to do about Kanazawa? Laissez faire, laissez aller, laissez passer. Let him continue to put his ideas into circulation--by publishing articles, lecturing, giving provocative presentations--and watch just how quickly the marketplace of ideas at the LSE and elsewhere will churn with indignant responses to his outrageous claims. I have no doubt that his work will eventually serve as a catalyst for others to carry out their own research. Some of these researchers will overwhelm him with reams of new data. Others may eventually (si Deus vult) prove him flat-out wrong--and effectively reduce him to academic irrelevance.

But liberty of thought and mind is vital. And if there is one place in the world where crack-pot ideas can be discussed and hair-brained schemes explored without fear of retribution it should be in the halls of academe. It is precisely because the LSE is a diverse and tolerant [academic] institution that it should do nothing about Kanazawa and leave the professor to his fever swamps. Let the student petitioners gnash their teeth.


Starbucks again in the sights of the success-haters

Starbucks was accused yesterday of "playing Russian roulette" with its brand as a row over prices for Ethiopian coffee farmers intensified. As an Oxford academic lambasted the American coffee shops chain, Jim Donald, Starbucks' chief executive, was preparing to visit Ethiopia tomorrow for talks with Meles Zenawi, its Prime Minister, The Times has learnt.

Douglas Holt, the L'Or‚al Professor of Marketing at Oxford University's Said Business School, accused Starbucks of hypocrisy and abuse of power and said that the company was in danger of damaging its name among its educated middle-class customers by opposing Addis Ababa's attempts to trademark Ethiopia's coffee varieties in the United States.

The international coffee chain had worked hard to cultivate a progressive image, selling fair trade and "ethical" products and promoting sustainable development among the poorest coffee-growers, he said. "In their rash attempt to shut down Ethiopia's applications, [Starbucks] have placed the Starbucks brand in significant peril. Starbucks customers will be shocked by the disconnect between their current perceptions of Starbucks' ethics and the company's actions against Ethiopia," he said. He claimed that Starbucks' stance was likely to hit profits much harder than any price rises brought about by trademarking.

Oxfam said last month that the Ethiopian growers selling to Starbucks earned between 75 cents and $1.60 a pound on beans that Starbucks sold at up to $26 (13.40 pounds sterling) a pound. The aid organisation issued a strongly worded statement accusing Starbucks of actively blocking Ethiopia's trademark bid.

Starbucks, in turn, denied this and issued a statement demanding that Oxfam stop its attack. Oxfam took out full-page advertisements on the issue in The New York Times and two Seattle-based newspapers. Starbucks said that trademarks were not the best way to help growers and suggested a regional certification alternative that it said was used in many countries to brand premium food and wine. It made no sense, the company said, for trademarks to be geographically based, as in the Ethiopian application for three regional names. Starbucks added that it consistently paid premium bean prices and that between 2002 and 2006 it had quadrupled its Ethiopian coffee purchases.

"We support the recognition of the source of our coffees and have a deep appreciation for the farmers that grow them," the company said. "We are committed to working collaboratively and continuing dialogue with key stakeholders to find a solution that benefits Ethiopian coffee farmers. We have had recent conversations with Oxfam about planning logistics for a stakeholder summit. "Our investment in social development projects and providing access to affordable loans . . . has been recognised for its leadership within the industry," it said.

Getachew Mengistie, the director-general of the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office, said that Addis Ababa had studied the merits of both trademarks and certification and found that trademarks would strengthen the position of farmers, enabling them to get a reasonable return for their product.

Professor Holt said: "With a certification mark, Starbucks and other Western coffee marketers would still have full control over Ethiopian coffee brands." Trademarks would require licences for companies wanting to use the names - giving the coffee producers a commercial asset that they could control.

Starbucks declined to confirm or deny Mr Donald's visit. Oxfam said that it had invited supporters to fax Mr Donald in protest and that more than 70,000 people had done so. "Speciality coffees in other regions of the world can get up to 45 per cent of the retail price, compared with the 5 to 10 per cent Ethiopians are currently receiving," Oxfam said. "We're meeting with Starbucks again next week and are hoping there can be progress." Ethiopia's growers could earn $88 million more per year with trademarks, it said. Starbucks declined to respond directly to Professor Holt's comments.

Brian Smith, research fellow at Cranfield University and author of Guarding the Brand, questioned Professor Holt's assertions. He said that Western consumers had limited sympathy with subsistence farmers in Africa and although they might be prepared to pay 5p more for a fair trade latte, they might not walk an extra 50 yards to another coffee shop to avoid Starbucks and its policy on trademarks. "I don't see this doing Starbucks significant long-lasting harm . . . Starbucks will handle this in an intelligent manner, offering an alternative," he said.



There are a few leaps in the reasoning below but it has given room for debate in an area not usually discussed scientifically

Your mother probably told you, as her mother told her: sit up straight. Whether at table, in class or at work we have always been told that sitting stiff-backed and upright is good for our bones, our posture, our digestion, our alertness and our general air of looking as if we are plugged into the world. Now research suggests that we would be far better off slouching and slumping. Today's advice is to let go and recline. Using a new form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a team of radiologists have found that sitting up straight puts unneccesary strain on the spine and could cause chronic back pain because of trapped nerves or slipped discs.

The ideal angle for office workers who sit for long periods is about 135 degrees. It might make working at a computer impractical but it will put less pressure on the spine than a hunched or upright position, the researchers say. The study at Woodend Hospital in Aberdeen involved 22 healthy volunteers who had no history of back pain or surgery. They adjusted their posture while being scanned by a movable MRI machine, assuming three sitting positions: a slouch, with the body hunched forward over a desk or video game console; an upright 90-degree sitting position; and a relaxed position where the patient reclined at 135 degrees but kept their feet on the floor. By measuring the spinal angles and the arrangement and height of spinal discs and movement across the positions, the radiologists found that the relaxed posture best preserved the spine's natural shape.

Waseem Amir Bashir, from Edinburgh, lead author of the study, said: "When pressure is put on the spine it becomes squashed and misaligned. A 135-degree body-thigh sitting posture was demonstrated to be the best biomechanical sitting position, as opposed to a 90-degree posture, which most people consider normal. "Sitting in a sound anatomic position is essential, since the strain put on the spine and its associated muscles and ligaments over time can lead to pain, deformity and chronic illness." Dr Bashir, who now works at the University of Alberta Hospital in Canada, presented the research yesterday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) in Chicago. The study was the first of its kind because MRI scanning has previously required patients to lie flat.

Back pain is the cause of one in six days off work and about 80 per cent of Britons are expected to suffer from it at some point. Office workers and school children may stave off future back problems by correcting their sitting posture and finding a chair that allows them to recline, Dr Bashir said. He added: "We were not created to sit down for long hours, but somehow modern life requires the vast majority of the global population to work in a seated position, The best position for our backs is arguably lying down, but this is hardly practical."

However, Gordon Waddell, an orthopaedic surgeon at the Glasgow Nuffield Hospital, said that the link between biomechanics as shown in MRI scans and preventing back pain was still very theoretical. It was "human nature" to develop back pain, he said. "Like a headache or a cold, it seems we all get back pain and most of the evidence suggests that sitting position does not make a difference



So far only in dogs but child obesity cannot be far behind

Obesity has become such an issue of political incorrectness that two brothers appeared in court yesterday charged with allowing a dog to get too fat. Rusty, a nine-year-old labrador, may only have been doing what labradors do, which is to eat everything in sight. But he ballooned to more than 11« stone (161lb, 73kg), the ideal weight for a large-boned 6ft (1.82m) woman, but not a retriever, which should be chasing sticks and newly shot game. Rusty had trouble standing up, and after no more than five paces he had to sit down again, breathless. He looked, magistrates at Ely, Cambridgeshire, were told yesterday, more like a seal than a dog.

In what is thought to be the first case of its kind, Rusty's owners, David Benton and his brother Derek, have been charged with animal cruelty for allowing him to become grossly overweight. According to the Kennel Club, the ideal weight for a dog of Rusty's age and breed is between 65lb and 80lb. When found by an RSPCA inspector, Rusty was more than twice the upper limit. Unlike most labradors, he was quite incapable of leaping into a van. The Benton brothers, of Fordham, Cambridgeshire, deny causing the dog unncessary suffering. They claim that they fed Rusty a normal diet of dried pet food with only the odd bone as a treat.

When Jason Finch of the RSPCA first saw Rusty in February, he found the dog virtually unable to move, the court was told. He issued a notice advising the owners to take the dog to a vet as soon as possible. When he returned in March, they had not done so. The owners declined to sign the dog over to the RSPCA, but agreed to let Mr Finch take Rusty to the charity's own vet. But the dog could not even walk to Mr Finch's van.

Stephen Climie, for the prosecution, said that Rusty had been found to be morbidly obese at 74.2kg, double the weight of a normal labrador; the brothers had been told repeatedly by vets over five years to put the dog on a diet, but had not done so. Rusty suffers from arthritis, a common complaint in labradors, but his condition had been made worse by his being grossly overweight, Mr Climie said. Alex Wylie, a vet from Bury St Edmunds who treated Rusty, said that the dog suffered from painful joints and breathing problems. "He did literally look like a walrus. There were times when he couldn't get up from his back legs at all. It was horrible to see."

When interviewed by the RSPCA, David Benton insisted that Rusty ate only one meal of dried food each evening and a snack in the morning. "He has been plump ever since he was a puppy. He is a poor old thing but he is not in pain. We have tried to give him many foods, but it does not make any difference," he said. Derek Benton told the charity that Rusty's weight gain was old age catching up with him.

The court was told that Rusty had not seen a vet for 17 months before the RSPCA took him away. The brothers claimed that they used to get him treated under a pet insurance plan, but could no longer get cover because of his age. Since living with an RSPCA dog carer, the court was told, Rusty had lost 3.5 stone [49lb].


British Labour's health chaos: you couldn't make it up

They are trying to close an A&E [ER] department in Casualty. In Holby City more and more patients have to be transferred to specialist centres elsewhere. In No 10 they wish everyone could understand what the scriptwriters do: the NHS is changing.

The voters certainly don’t get it. It used to be Labour’s boast that it was the party of the NHS. And it was true: every single poll showed Labour ahead of the Conservatives on the health service, always. Until this summer. In the past ten years Labour has achieved the extraordinary feat of turning a 49-point lead over the Tories on health into a four-point lead for the Tories (Ipsos MORI). That’s a stunning fall at a time when spending on the NHS under Labour has ballooned from £35 billion to £80 billion, and waiting lists have fallen from 18 to six months.

In part the decline reflects growing cynicism about the Government in general, in part it is a riposte to overblown promises about “saving the NHS”. Ten years after promising to “save” it, the health service has a £500 million debt and 60 hospitals are threatened with closure or downgrading.

What went wrong? First, not as much as it sounds. The debt isn’t a lot for a health service with a budget of £80 billion. Gordon Brown could flick that away with a stroke of his pen, or his big clunking fist.

Nor is it on the whole that the Conservative Party is trusted more with the NHS; Labour is just trusted less. Four in ten people say that they don’t know who would do the best job any more.

That’s the good news for the Government. The rest is bad. With hospital closures imminent and a ferocious Conservative assault on the territory, including a cheeky campaign to “stop Brown’s NHS cuts”, Labour is worried. Not quite worried sick, but it should be.

The drive to cut the debt has coincided with a big push towards “reconfiguration” of services — hospital closures to you and me. It is almost impossible now for ministers to disentangle in people’s minds the idea that the local health service is in debt with the fact that their hospital is under threat. The Government argues that the closure or downgrading of some hospitals was always implicit in its reforms, regardless of the current financial difficulties, as some treatment was brought “closer to the people” while greater specialisation saw fewer, more specialised hospitals. I don’t remember them championing hospital closures when they published their reform programme, the NHS Plan, six years ago. It was an implicit not an explicit part of it.

The area I live in is in debt and has a number of hospitals under threat. Throughout Surrey and Sussex, in East Anglia and other threatened areas, this is the big conversation. It dominates local media. What ministers may have hoped could be contained in a few mainly Conservative rural areas has spilled over into the national press, and they haven’t even started shutting any of the hospitals yet. We are in a pre-consultation planning period, when health authorities are drawing up plans for public consultation next year, and rumours abound as to what hideousness they may contain. The vacuum of information is filled by local GPs, who tell patients they cannot take on the extra work the Government says they are going to do when the hospital closes: no staff, and no space to expand the surgery.

What mastermind at the heart of government, I wonder, planned this? And planned it so perfectly that the next election is going to coincide with massive hospital cuts?

“It’s the right thing to do,” they repeat. Tony Blair is not for turning. Fewer, more specialised hospitals will be safer for patients who will end up overall with better services, not worse. And what is more, we won’t get to the maximum 18-week wait between GP referral and treatment by the end of 2008 unless we do it.

So between spring next year and the end of 2008 the Government is simultaneously going to jump through the hoops of closing hospitals, reorganise local services, open new treatment centres and make the biggest, deepest cut yet in waiting lists? Forget it.

There is a broader tension in government policy that nobody can resolve: just as it claims to be bringing care closer to the people, it is planning to take local A&E and maternity departments further away from them. Local health planners calculate how long an ambulance with a flashing blue light might take to reach the specialist hospital, not an ordinary driver distracted by a sick family member in the car. Ministers have realised that these are the issues that have to be addressed, tangibly, in the local reorganisation proposals, which is why they have been put back until next year.

Let’s assume that the Government is right and a lot of conditions — asthma, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis — as well as many minor operations could be better and more cheaply managed in local communities or at home than in big hospitals. Let’s allow too that superhospitals with knobs on have a better chance of saving the life of a seriously injured person, and that babies are marginally more safely delivered in larger specialist centres (which is why mothers at high risk will be transferred there anyway).

That still won’t answer the “local” problem. People do not feel safe without access to an A&E that they can reach within a reasonable time. They would prefer to have their babies in a local hospital, which means maintaining a full maternity unit — there were some terrible problems in Kidderminster when the maternity unit was downgraded to a midwife-led one. And when a baby is born, or someone is taken ill in the night, the family wants to be able to visit the next day, without making a two to three-hour round trip, plus the visit time.

These are human needs outside the medical charts, and the Government has failed to grasp them. I wonder if it’s too late to ask Casualty’s scriptwriters for help.



But about Britain only

The days of empire may be gone but global warming will make Britain the centre of the civilised world once again, according to James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia theory, which views the world as a self-sustaining organic system. In a bleak prophecy he says that global warming will become so intense within a century that much of the world will become uninhabitable. The British Isles, however, is perfectly placed to become the most desirable location in the world in which to live and one of the few areas able to feed itself. It will be able to survive the devastating consequences of global heating, as he now terms it.

Professor Lovelock was one of the first scientists to give warning of the dangers of global warming, which he believes is here for 200,000 years. It will wreak so much havoc that the Earth wil be able to support only 500 million people, just one in six of today's population. Adaptation, Professor Lovelock said yesterday, is the only choice left as the world warms up and there is a rapid northwards shift of its population. Equatorial regions will become so hot that they can no longer sustain agriculture and will turn into deserts. Much of Europe will dry out so extensively that millions of people will be forced to make a new life closer to the Arctic.

The British Isles, small and surrounded by water, will remain cool enough to sustain a modern, technologically advanced nation, despite being 8C (14F) hotter on average. "The British Isles may be a very desirable bit of real estate because we are surrounded by the sea," he said. "The summer of 2003 will be typical of conditions by 2100." Displaced millions will settle in Britain and Ireland and will have to be accommodated in skyscrapers that will make cities resemble the Hong Kong of today - which by 2100 will be uninhabitable, he said.

Speaking to the media before a speech to the Institution of Chemical Engineers yesterday, Professor Lovelock said that agricultural land would be at a premium and rationing would have to be reintroduced. Among the countries forecast by Professor Lovelock to face agricultural collapse is China. A warming world will open up Siberia as a potential grainbelt but he doubts that Russia will welcome a billion Chinese immigrants. Island nations such as New Zealand may remain habitable but large land masses, including most of the USA and Asia, will become too hot to grow sufficient food, with the possible exception of some coastal regions.

His Gaia theory suggests that rather than temperatures continuing to rise indefinitely until emissions are controlled, the increase will be limited to 8C. He likens it to a human suffering a fever - but one from which it will take the planet 200,000 years to recover from. Despite his bleak prophecy he remains optimistic for the species if not for individuals: "We are not all doomed," he said. "An awful lot of people will die, but I don't see the species dying out."


1 comment:

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