Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Medical journals moving out of their area of competence is folly. And a journal from the home of the ever-decaying "National Health Service" lecturing Australia on its health system really is hilarious. See Matthew 7:3-5

ONE of the world's [once] most respected medical journals, The Lancet, has called for regime change in a once-great country whose health policies are succumbing to "the politics of fear and neglect" and "profound intolerance". Its target? Zimbabwe? Pakistan? Kazakhstan? No, The Lancet was referring to Australia and the Howard Government. In an editorial which might have been ghost-written by Mark Latham in a particularly bilious mood, the journal called upon voters to let shine "a new enlightenment to Australian health and medical science".

Earlier this month its editor Richard Horton visited Sydney. He must have briefed himself on the state of Australian science. The editorial, for instance, quotes "the respected scientist Ian Lowe" on the "extraordinary lengths" that the Government had taken to "silence independent opinion within the research community". Lowe is a respected scientist, but failing to mention his position as president of the Australian Conservation Foundation to Lancet readers is like describing Peter Garrett as a respected rock star, not as a Labor politician and a former president of the ACF.

I don't regard myself as a Coalition supporter, but I am alarmed at this heady mix of politics and medical science. Opposition health spokeswoman Nicola Roxon was a bit hasty in describing the editorial as "a devastating indictment of the Howard Government's record on health". Words like these could create an expectation that within a few months after an election victory enlightened Labor Party researchers will cure the obesity epidemic, the asthma epidemic and the depression epidemic, along with finding a solution to Aboriginal health woes. Unhappily, The Lancet editorial is only the most recent example of a worrying increase in advocacy science in top-flight journals. Traditionally, these luminaries have confined themselves to their areas of expertise. Public policy in areas such as HIV/AIDS or Aboriginal health was discussed in terms of specific programs, not as political huckstering.

But with the election of conservative governments in both the US and Australia, neurons in editorialists' cerebellums started to misfire madly. Not only The Lancet, but also the British Medical Journal and Nature and the US-based New England Journal of Medicine, The Journal of the American Medical Association and Science have become increasingly hostile towards the George W. Bush administration.

With some reason, of course. The American health system is a mess. The Bush administration has apparently tinkered with official reports, sacked recalcitrant scientists and placed sympathetic officials in key positions. But that's exactly what voters expect politicians to do. When they read newspapers, they hold their noses and measure governments' ever-improving graphs and optimistic forecasts with a bulldust meter.

But not when they read medical and science journals. Like Labor's Roxon, they naively expect that the white-coated gods of science speak truth to power in words uncontaminated by ideological prejudice. No longer. The journals have more or less squarely allied themselves with the liberal side in America's culture wars over abortion rights, therapeutic cloning, sex education, AIDS policies and population control. It has become nearly impossible for dissident scientists to get papers published in these sensitive areas because - they claim - independent opinions are silenced. The new field of stem cell research offers the most egregious example.

Back in 2003, after President George W. Bush had restricted funding for embryo research, the editor of the NEJM, Jeffrey Drazen, vowed to aggressively seek out and publish research on embryonic stem cells. "Physicians and scientists in the US should be at the centre of the action, not on the sidelines," he argued. He dismissed ethical objections.

The other journals, including The Lancet, did much the same, even though they admitted that there were "few tangible clinical benefits to report". The consequences of this ideologically blinkered policy were not long in coming. Science rushed into print two stunning articles about the creation of the world's first human therapeutic clones and stem cell lines. It was a brilliant coup that vindicated its editorial opposition to Bush's ethical and scientific caution.

And it turned out to be the worst fraud of the past hundred years, the handiwork of a publicity-hungry South Korean researcher who knew that Western journals were equally hungry to prove their case. How the editor of Science, Donald Kennedy, responded to this humiliating turn of events is instructive. Like any beleaguered politician, he appointed his mates to an investigating committee: three editors at Science, one former editor at Science, and two of the most passionate advocates of embryonic stem cell science in the US. It was hard to imagine a team less likely to ask tough questions. Had editorial misgivings been steamrollered because of his partisan commitment to embryo research? We will never know.

The real victims of a growth in political advocacy will be the journals themselves. With rising levels of fraud and self-serving commercialism in the ivory towers of academe, the credibility of leading journals is a more valuable asset than ever before. Politicking editorials can only tarnish this. And a habit of playing politics can backfire in unexpected ways. In an entertaining example of holier-than-thou-manship, the British Medical Journal is campaigning to knock The Lancet's halo into a cocked hat. Out of "sisterly concern for a fellow journal", it has called for a boycott because The Lancet's publisher, Reed Elsevier, organises a few fairs for the international arms trade. Richard Horton's explanations have been rather feeble. If The Lancet's friends play games like this, there is little need for the Australian Government to panic over the attack on its own far-from-perfect record.


The stupidity of a British medical journal

The editor of "The Medical Journal of Australia" comments below on the editorial mentioned above: "Australia: the politics of fear and neglect". Lancet 2007; 369: 1320

From the first days of European settlement, our colonies were bombarded with bureaucratic edicts from the Motherland, until Federation and Australia's emergence as a proud and independent nation put an end to our dependency. But the Motherland's long-lost role was recently revived in an editorial in The Lancet entitled Australia: the politics of fear and neglect. Short, simplistic and sensational, it proclaimed that Australia's progressive and inclusive culture was burdened by a dark underbelly of political conservatism.

It further asserted that the Australian Government had effectively silenced dissent in the scientific community, and propagated a political view "that those who spoke up for indigenous health were simply `establishing politically and morally correct credentials'". To top it off, the Prime Minister was portrayed as ruthlessly exploiting Australia's strong undercurrent of political conservatism.

And The Lancet's solution? Gratuitous advice to oust the conservatives at this year's federal election and usher in a new era of "enlightenment" for Australian health and medical science!

Significantly, the editorial was silent on the concerted efforts of dedicated Australian researchers and doctors working to improve Indigenous health, and the fearless advocacy of this goal by various professional bodies and this Journal. Despite The Lancet's assertion of "silenced" scientists, its editorial was strangely silent on the conservative government's unprecedented investment in health and medical research.

Following The Lancet's edict, a commentary in The Australian warned scientific and medical journals not to engage in politics+ and put their public standing, independence and integrity at risk. As long as there remain unresolved issues in the delivery of health care to all Australians, requiring political attention and action, the MJA will never heed this injunction. But, in pursuit of this goal, the recent edict from London is hardly an example to emulate.


British Muslim school teaches antisemitic curriculum

The principal of an Islamic school has admitted that it uses textbooks which describe Jews as "apes" and Christians as "pigs" and has refused to withdraw them. Dr Sumaya Alyusuf confirmed that the offending books exist after former teacher Colin Cook, 57, alleged that children as young as five are taught from racist materials at the King Fahd Academy in Acton.

In an interview on BBC2's Newsnight, Dr Alyusuf was asked by Jeremy Paxman whether she recognised the books. She said: "Yes, I do recognise these books, of course. We have these books in our school. These books have good chapters that can be used by the teachers. It depends on the objectives the teacher wants to achieve." In another exchange, Dr Alyusuf insisted the books should not be scrapped, saying that allegedly racist sections had been "misinterpreted".

The school is owned, funded and run by the government of Saudi Arabia. Mr Paxman asked: "Will you now remove this nonsense from the Saudi Ministry of Education from your school?" Dr Alyusuf replied: "Just to reiterate what I said earlier, there are chapters from these books that are used and that will serve our objectives. But we don't teach hatred towards Judaism or Christianity - on the contrary."

During the programme Louise Ellman, MP for Liverpool Riverside and chairman of the Jewish Labour Movement, accused the school of inciting racial hatred and hit out at Ofsted inspectors for failing to discover the textbooks. She said: "This whole situation is unacceptable. It is incitement. It is part of a deliberate Saudi initiative to install Wahabbism extremism among Muslims and in the rest of society. If Ofsted has not drawn attention to this, that is a failing of Ofsted. "It is unacceptable and we should look to see if this is happening in other schools as well. This is about teaching children. I think the school should take immediate action and so should the regulatory authorities."

In his employment tribunal claim Mr Cook, who taught English at the school for 19 years, has accused it of poisoning pupils' minds with a curriculum of hate. Arabic translators have found that the books also describe Jews as "repugnant".

Dr Alyusuf initially claimed that the books were "not taught currently", saying: "We teach a different curriculum. We teach an international curriculum." Asked by Mr Paxman, "Would you discipline any teacher who has used these teaching materials?", she replied: "Of course I would." The principal, who has been in the post just under six months, also claimed: "I monitor what is taught in the classrooms. I have developed the curriculum myself."

Asked by Mr Paxman whether she agreed with the suggestion in teaching materials that non-believers in Islam are condemned to "hellfire", she said: "We don't teach that. We teach Islam and it is important for our students to assert their identity."

Mr Cook, of Feltham, was earning 35,000 pounds a year and is seeking 100,000 in compensation. In legal papers submitted to a Watford employment tribunal, he alleged that pupils as young as five are taught that religions including Christianity and Judaism are "worthless". He also alleges that when he questioned whether the curriculum complied with British laws, he was told: "This is not England. It is Saudi Arabia".

Pupils have allegedly been heard saying they want to "kill Americans", praising 9/11 and idolising Osama bin Laden as their "hero". Mr Cook claims he was dismissed last December after blowing the whistle on the school for covering up cheating by children in GCSE exams. He is bringing a tribunal claim for unfair dismissal, race discrimination and victimisation. The school is vigorously defending his claims.


Efficient use of time incorrect

Richard Wiseman, professor of the public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in England, has done another of his `wacky' behaviour studies. This time he's researched the speed of walking in 32 countries - and he has concluded that our legs, and therefore our lives, move too fast. This discovery has got cultural commentators guiltily confessing that `the Universe's metronome ...has enslaved me', and others admitting that they have become `addicted' to BlackBerrys or `doing two things at once' (1). Such dramatic responses to a study into the speed of walking, alongside green campaigns such as the slow food and slow travel movements, show that many consider the pace of contemporary life to be dizzily spinning off the milometer, and set to send us all into physical and spiritual turmoil. So, are we all living far too `fast lives', and would we benefit from slowing down?

The walking study forms part of Wiseman's latest book, Quirkology. Wiseman is known for his earlier research into off-the-wall topics like superstition and smiling, but it is his work on the pace of life that has really captured the media's attention. His study asks, `Is your speed of life too fast for your own good?'. The answer is `yes' if you are a dreaded Type A: `impatient, excessively time-conscious, and finds relaxation difficult.' It is far healthier, apparently, to be a Type B: `don't tend to get stressed by the hustle and bustle of modern-day living.' (2) [That Type A/B typology and its health claims have long ago been discredited. See here]

Significantly, the professor acknowledges that if you're a Type A, `This might help you be productive'. But he warns that there is a high price to pay: `your relationships and health could suffer as a consequence.' On the surface, this may be a study of speedy walking and what it reveals about our apparently stressful speedy lives. Yet if we took our anthropologist goggles off for a moment, we would realise that dashing along the pavement is not the act of a crazy automaton species. Rather, walking quickly is about saving what some perceive to be valuable time. Often we do things quickly in order to preserve and expand our relaxation time.

This is the paradox that the pace-of-life experts miss: speed and efficiency are not simply part of a vicious cycle on the `hedonic treadmill'; instead they are often about freeing up time to use as we wish. Yet even this spare time we create is not spared the hectoring of today's slow-living lobby: psychologists and green moralisers also wish to colonise and set in slow motion our personal, private spaces.

Wiseman's results showed that the pace of life is now `10 per cent faster than it was a decade-and-a-half ago'. He argues that a lot of this speeding-up is `technology-driven': `What's amazing is that these days you press send on an email and if someone hasn't responded in 10 minutes you think "where are they?"'(3) No doubt there is some truth in that - but is this really a sign of childish impatience, or part of a desire simply to get things done? Listening to Professor Wiseman and other speed-cynics, you would think that the adult population is now a collective victim of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Previously reserved for badly-behaved or loud children, the ADD diagnosis appears to have filtered into everyday language and consciousness: we're all now considered to be fidgety adult toddlers, suffering information-overload and over-stimulation from an aggressive bombardment of stimuli, be it advertising, computer games or rolling news coverage.

Behind all the concern about speedy living, there seems to be an overarching disgust for convenience and our apparently `quick-fix culture'. The anti-speed lobby postures puritanically against ease, comfort and consumerism; it seems to loathe these things because they allow people to do lots of different things at once and to get news, information and music (via iPods) on demand. Today, it seems, it is more ethical to shop, cook and travel slowly rather than in a hurry. Consider the issue of cooking.

In recent years, a slow food group has emerged as a `resistance movement to fast food'. It started in Italy but it has spread and grown exponentially: it now exists in 100 countries and has 83,000 members. The movement encourages people to grow their own produce, within their own `eco-regions', and to take their time both with the production and the preparation of food. However, look a little closer and the slow food movement's central philosophy is less about celebrating lengthy marinades and more about looking snootily upon the fast food-scoffing masses: `We consider ourselves co-producers, not consumers.. [We were] founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people's dwindling interest in the food they eat.' (4)

Dwindling interest in what we eat? In fact, people seem more obsessed than ever with their diets. Yet this notion that we just put any old grub in our mouths without thinking it through - just as we allegedly allow ourselves to be bombarded with 24-hour news and information without filtering it - captures a central prejudice of the slow-living lobby: that people have become automatons, rushing around and doing things without thinking about the consequences.

Elsewhere, it is now assumed that the slow shopper is an ethical shopper. Ethical shoppers boast about their leisurely consumer antics and brag of `browsing' independent bookstores rather than simply clicking on Amazon and getting their tome in the post the next day. Articles in Sunday newspaper supplements frequently praise the beloved second-hand emporiums over the ruthless book chains, arguing that it is more pleasurable to buy a book in a small dusty shop rather than in a supermarket-style massive bookstore. Yet online book sales figures contradict this picture: such sales continue to rise, as vast numbers of people opt for the convenience of buying reading material online rather than in an old backstreet store. Again, we can glimpse an elitist grain in the slow-living lobby, for whom the masses' methods of buying stuff - what they refer to as `frenetic' or `hysterical' shopping - is inferior to the slower, calmer consumer experience (5).

There is also a slow travel movement. Instead of rushing to fly in the skies (which of course causes pollution) slow travellers make a virtue of crawling around the globe and being the `right kind' of tourist, as `it's not just how we get there that's important.but how we behave when we're there.' (6) In other words, slow travellers are not like the vulgar hordes who go on cheap breaks. A key tenet of today's green behavioural law is that you should take part in gentle leisurely travel, in order to minimise your carbon footprint: such travel is apparently physically pure, in the sense that it is `stress free' and uncontaminated by speed.

Now even Japan, the emblem of fast lane living, has places like Kakegawa, which proudly declares that it is a `Slow Life City'. `Slow Life Cities' have been built in response to what is described as `international speed sickness'. Carl Honor,, author of In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, argues that `the global affliction of the hurry virus has afflicted every corner of the planet'. So now speed is seen as a disease, a `virus', which is making us ill. This looks like an updated version of the old religious idea that fast and `selfish' living is morally wrong and those who partake in it will be struck down.

The demand that we should be inefficient for ethical reasons is a demand for us to leave the `rat race'. That term has been dusted down and relieved of its 1960s, teenage-angst associations with `the man' or `the system'; it now enjoys pride of place as the major descriptor of contemporary living. Popular culture titillates us with invitations to escape the city and buy a house in the country; to escape into a rural idyll or a slower lifestyle abroad. In the various celebrations of slow living today, we are effectively being sold the fantasy of a slower life as the answer to individual and social problems. Instead of asking how everyday life might be improved further, and made more joyous and fruitful, greens and others say: `Just slow down, forget about it..'

The pace police's obsession with work-life balance effectively turns old-fashioned labour dynamics into psychological issues. What was previously described as alienation or workplace exhaustion is now presented as a poor lifestyle management or the fault of a dangerously manic disposition. And so the solution to work problems is discussed at a psychological level, too: it is not to demand better pay or conditions, but rather to slow your life down in order to make yourself feel calmer and, apparently, happier.

The lifestyle gurus offer a false sense of empowerment with their prescriptions to `chill out'. Feeling lacklustre? Stuck in a pointless job? Blame your materialistic impulses, slow down, search your inner self for answers. In truth, speed and industriousness can reap their own rewards, if they are fired by worthy ambitions. Speed is about packing more into life - and therefore the rejection of speed looks to me like a rejection of the dynamic possibilities of life itself. Of course, advocating speed for its own sake, Jeremy Clarkson-style, would be as banal as embracing the new slow ethos. But if pace means embracing technology that allows us to have more free time in which to relax, experiment or even try to realise new collective possibilities, then bring on the speed sickness. There is much to be gained from operating in fast forward.


Prof. Brignell on Tony Blair's malign "legacy": "It is nothing less than quite amazing that one man has wrought so many changes in a mere decade... Some writers even claim that he made no difference. On the contrary, he has made a bigger change to his nation than any other leader who employed non-violent means. Ourselves ten years ago would not recognise the British society of today. Blair suffered from the Genesis Delusion. He thought he merely had to say "Let there be X" and there would be X. He never quite cottoned on to the truth of Bismarck's dictum that "Politics is the art of the possible." It is the inevitable outcome of electing a leader who has never run anything, but no doubt the British will do it again. In turn this is the inevitable outcome of the youth and celebrity culture." [Prof. Brignell then goes into detail]

High-tax Britain: "A triple whammy of soaring council tax, stamp duty and inheritance tax has helped Chancellor Gordon Brown raise the burden to its highest ever - with Middle Britain particularly badly hit. ...Friday June 1 marks this year's Tax Freedom Day, the date from which workers are deemed to start earning for themselves, having handed over every pound earned so far this year in tax.

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