Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Junk juggernaut rolls on

Post below lifted from Prof. Brignell. See the original for links

It is rather a depressing thought that the Telegraph is the nearest thing that Britain has to a serious newspaper. This week it has featured an outbreak of empty scares based on meta-studies, absurdly small studies and, of course, ridiculous relative risks (RR).

The first was a scare involving a popular vehicle for of self dosing, vitamins. While it is clear that people on a normal diet with a normal metabolism are wasting their money on these supplements, this is no excuse for spreading unnecessary alarm. With one possible exception, extra vitamins are simply useless. The exception is vitamin A. While a deficiency of this compound can cause serious diseases, including childhood blindness and death, an excess can suppress growth; stop menstruation; damage red blood corpuscles and cause skin rashes, headaches, nausea, and jaundice. Nevertheless, a meta-study yielding RRs of 1.16 or less adds nothing to the sum of human happiness and merely fuels pointless scare journalism.

Breast cancer has long been a favourite of the scare-mongers. For understandable reasons it roused fear in all women. It is frequently used to provide ammunition for the zealots, so the research tends to be directed towards their favourite targets. Now we are told that one glass of wine a day increases the risk of breast cancer (RR 1.07). Sandy tells about the provenance of this vital "research". In the very same week other “experts” picked on another favourite target, obesity. A small study (Trojan Number 547) indicated that fat women with breast cancer are more likely to die than their slim sisters (RR about 1.4). We are not told just how many were regarded as obese, but even if it were about a half of them, the number of excess deaths would be of the order of 12.

As we have observed before, small studies are not just useless, they are malign, as the phenomenon of funnel plots reveals.

Just in case you did not get the message from our sponsors, the risk of Alzheimer’s is increased for smokers, drinkers and those with raised cholesterol. The inclusion of tobacco is interesting, because before the Great Censorship, it was widely accepted that smokers were half as likely to get Alzheimer’s as non-smokers (likewise Parkinson’s to boot). Indeed, this promoted one of the first uses of the word paradox as a paranym. What a strange coincidence it is that the causes of these diseases all happen to be the favourite targets of various groups of zealots and not something else, such as lettuce.

Massive rise in unqualified foreign teachers in Britain

You would have to be desperate to teach in many of Britain's "sink" schools

The number of unqualified teachers taking classes in state schools has risen fivefold since Labour came to power, figures suggest. Two thirds of these teachers were hired from overseas, prompting fears that schools are being forced to look abroad to recruit staff as many British teachers quit the profession. Data released by ministers to the Conservatives yesterday shows that there were 16,710 staff teaching in England’s state schools without qualified teacher status (QTS) in 2007, up from 2,940 ten years earlier. This includes 10,970 teachers trained overseas, up from 2,480 in 1997. In addition 1,562 teachers from the European Economic Area are teaching in Britain after being awarded QTS last year, including 707 teachers from Poland.

Michael Gove, the Shadow Children’s Secretary, said that the fivefold rise in teachers without QTS was surprising as the Government’s advice was that everyone teaching in state schools “should have the official qualification”. He said that many qualified staff were “being put off teaching” by increasing problems with discipline and bureaucracy.

The figures follow data obtained by the Tories showing that there were more than 250,000 qualified teachers in England under 60 who are not currently teaching and 91,000 qualified teachers who have never taught.

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said that the vast majority of teachers from overseas were qualified in their home countries. And he said that all teachers from overseas had to convert their qualifications to QTS within four years of arriving. “We are clear that schools should only employ teachers from overseas if they can demonstrate they have the skills, experience and qualifications relevant to the post,” he added.

A spokeswoman for the Training and Development Agency for Schools said that there had been a small short-fall in the number of teacher training recruits this year. But she said: “It is worth noting that around 10,000 people return to teaching every year.”


Innocent photographer or terrorist?

Misplaced fears about terror, privacy and child protection are preventing amateur photographers from enjoying their hobby, say campaigners.

Phil Smith thought ex-EastEnder Letitia Dean turning on the Christmas lights in Ipswich would make a good snap for his collection. The 49-year-old started by firing off a few shots of the warm-up act on stage. But before the main attraction showed up, Mr Smith was challenged by a police officer who asked if he had a licence for the camera. After explaining he didn't need one, he was taken down a side-street for a formal "stop and search", then asked to delete the photos and ordered not take any more. So he slunk home with his camera.

"People were still taking photos with mobile phones and pocket cameras, so maybe it was because mine looked like a professional camera with a flash on top," he says. "I wasn't very pleased because I was taken through the crowd and through the barriers at the front and people were probably thinking 'I wonder what he was doing.' "To be pulled out of a crowd is very daunting and I wasn't aware of my rights. "It's a sad state of affairs today if an amateur photographer can't stand in the street taking photographs."

But he's not the only snapper to fall foul of the authorities while innocently pursuing a hobby or working. Austin Mitchell MP has tabled a motion in the Commons that has drawn on cross-party support from 150 other MPs, calling on the Home Office and the police to educate officers about photographers' rights. Mr Mitchell, himself a keen photographer, was challenged twice, once by a lock-keeper while photographing a barge on the Leeds to Liverpool canal and once on the beach at Cleethorpes. "There's a general alarm about terrorism and about paedophiles, two heady cocktails, and police and PCSOs [police community support officers] and wardens and authorities generally seem to be worried about this."

Photographers have every right to take photos in a public place, he says, and it's crazy for officials to challenge them when there are so many security cameras around and so many people now have cameras on phones. But it's usually inexperienced officers responsible. "If a decision is made to crack down on photographers, it should be made at the top. It's a general officiousness and a desire to interfere with people going about their legitimate business."

Steve Carroll was another hapless victim of this growing suspicion. Police seized the film from his camera while he was out taking snaps in a Hull shopping centre. They later returned it but a police investigation found they had acted correctly because he appeared to be taking photographs covertly. And photography enthusiast Adam Jones has started an online petition on the Downing Street website urging the prime minister to clarify the law. It has gained hundreds of supporters. He says it has become increasingly difficult to take photos in public places because of terrorism fears.

Holidaymakers to some overseas destinations will be familiar with this sort of attitude - travel guides frequently caution readers that innocently posing for a snapshot outside a government building could lead to some stern questions from local law enforcers. But in Britain this sort of attitude is new. So what is the law?

"If you are a normal person going about your business and you see something you want to take a picture of, then you are fine unless you're taking picture of something inherently private," says Hanna Basha, partner at solicitors Carter-Ruck. "But if it's the London Marathon or something, you're fine." There are also restrictions around some public buildings, like those involved in national defence.

Child protection has been an issue for years, says Stewart Gibson of the Bureau of Freelance Photographers, but what's happened recently is a rather odd interpretation of privacy and heightened fears about terrorism. "They [police, park wardens, security guards] seem to think you can't take pictures of people in public places. It's reached a point where everyone in the photographic world has become so concerned we're mounting campaigns and trying to publicise this."

It seems to be increasing, he says. "There's a great deal of paranoia around but the police are on alert for anything that vaguely resembles terrorism. It's difficult because the more professional a photographer, paradoxically, the more likely they are to be stopped or questioned. "If people were using photos for terrorism purposes they would be using the smallest camera possible."

The National Union of Journalists has staged a demo to highlight how media photographers are wrongly challenged by police. In May last year, Thames Valley Police overturned a caution issued to photographer Andy Handley of the MK News in Milton Keynes, after he took pictures at the scene of a road accident.

Guidelines agreed between senior police and the media were adopted by all forces in England and Wales last year. They state that police have no power to prevent the media taking photos. They state that "once images are recorded, [the police] have no power to delete or confiscate them without a court order, even if [the police] think they contain damaging or useful evidence."

And in the case of Phil Smith, an official complaint about the Christmas lights incident helped sort matters out. Not only did he receive a written apology from Suffolk Police, but also a visit from an inspector, who explained that the officer, a special constable, had acted wrongly. And there was one consolation for Mr Smith as he trudged home while lamenting the shots of Letitia Dean that never were - she didn't turn up anyway.


An interview with Kenneth Minogue

By Bernard Chapin

As a long time reader of The New Criterion, I've come across Kenneth Minogue's name several times. Not only is he the author of excellent essays, unlike the average conservative commentator, he is also a member of the professorate. Currently, he is an Honorary Fellow of the London School of Economics, and began his career at the college in 1954 as an Assistant Lecturer in Political Science. Mr. Minogue was born in New Zealand and primarily attended school in Australia; although, he also took an Economics degree from London University. In 2003, he was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal for services to political science. He is the author of numerous papers, essays, and books such as The Liberal Mind, The Concept of a University, Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, and Politics: A Very Short Introduction. The interview:

BC: Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions, Mr. Minogue. Let me begin by asking you that, as someone with an extensive background in the university, indeed as someone who wrote The Concept of the University in 2004, what should be the defining characteristics of such institutions?

KM: The basic point about universities is that they are reflective rather than practical institutions. Nothing in them is ever urgent. The current decadence of most places calling themselves universities is that they are full of unsophisticated people with opinions about how society and its members ought to conduct themselves - along with a passion to entrench those opinions in binding rules. Many professors today are simple moral dogmatists who think that we at last know for certain what is right and wrong. The only thing we may actually be confident about is that, in a generation or two, these opinions will be replaced by others.

BC: Does it make one an incurable romantic to argue that higher education's purpose is to search for truth? How anathema is such a notion today? How prevalent are those "scholars" whose primary interest is not truth but the practice of indoctrinating their students?

KM: As the classic formulation had it, universities are distinguished by the "disinterested pursuit of truth" - a somewhat risky pursuit at times. Amid the current vulgarity, many students would not even understand the word "disinterested." Scholarship and reflection can certainly be found patchily all over the place, but all too many professors are merely peddling some form of political salvationism. Universities used to be stocked by the unworldly and the rich. Both sets of people were valuable because they were not trying to "get on" by trying to please future employers. This gave the academic world in earlier times a sense of adventure, of openness.

BC: What do you make of political correctness? There are those who would argue it's a thing of the past. Frankly, I don't see how that's possible. It seems to me that cultural Marxism is more regnant than ever, would you agree?

KM: In my time, a great deal of what used to be intuitive and instinctive (such as good manners) has been replaced by the rule-bound and rationalised. Political correctness is a politicised version of good manners offering power to the kind of meddlesome people who want to tell others how to behave. As to Marxism, it was merely one more illusion that purported to be the key to life. It is significant in that it reveals one of the dominant passions still at work in our civilisation - the passion to create happiness by technology in the hands of a supposedly enlightened elite.

BC: If you were to rewrite The Liberal Mind, what specifically has changed since its original publication? Many of us, in America, insist that conservatives are the real liberals, and refuse to make use of term "liberal" when describing the left. Do you think that it's misleading, in an age of hate crime legislation and creeping socialism, to pretend that a statist disposition equates with liberal tendencies?

KM: The Liberal Mind was a critical account of precisely what Americans call "liberalism", which is a sentimental kind of egalitarianism. My targets today would focus even more directly on the fake compassion diffused by politicians trying to sound like men of the people. It is vital never to forget (if I may adapt Scott Fitzgerald) that "the powerful are different from us." Turning politics into a kind of soggy public benevolence at the expense of taxpayers does no service to anyone.

BC: Forgive my non-detachment, but what a magnificent article you penned this month for The New Criterion. It's called "Democracy and Political Naivet‚" for those who may not have read it. One of your central arguments is that "some classes of people are more dangerously na‹ve than others." I had to laugh when I saw it as it would definitely offend every cultural commissar in existence, but could you tell readers why this is the case?

KM: "Democracy and Political Naivete" was concerned with contemporary pieties. Piety is a form of respect for one's religion, as when the Romans admired "pious Aeneas." In politics, piety is merely corrupt, largely because it is focused on abstract classes of people such as Gays, Blacks, Women and others who sometimes package themselves as victims. Don't get me wrong - some of my best friends are Gays, Blacks, Women etc. but I don't have to genuflect every time they are presented as suffering, and often suffering because of White Male brutes like me. One should always be alert to the targets of ridicule and derision in public life (authority, pharmaceutical companies, corporations, evangelists) on the one hand, and those who automatically evoke pity on the other.

BC: How much has widespread female participation in electoral politics to blame for the triumph of emotion over reason in regards to government's stance on the big issues of the day?

KM: Yes, the abstract class of "women" has quite a lot to answer for. Plenty of women are of course bright, amusing and hard headed, but there is a lot of wimpish sentimentality being peddled by professional women. Harvard has become a laughing stock because of the Larry Summers affair, with some women going faint at the suggestion that women - as a class - might not be naturally good at maths. The problem results from the Annie Oakley view of women as able to do exactly what men do (which obviously they can't) and which sells everything valuable about female distinctiveness down the river in exchange for an absurdity. One consequence has been to sentimentalise life and diminish important virtues (by no means exclusively male) such as courage and self-control.

BC: You mention that the male chauvinist position is that men are more creatures of reason than are women, but it seems to me that it is also the feminist position. Is not the truly sexist position one which asserts that Woman, by nature of her genitalia, has something more important to say about politics than Man?

KM: As I said in the piece mentioned above, some women have a distinct and valuable talent for politics. I think the French, for example, lost a trick in going for the Salic Law (excluding female rules) in the Middle Ages. But my guess is that more women than men want to spend taxpayers' money in supposedly improving the lives of those who cannot do much for themselves.

BC: Is "intellectual" wholly a term of derision nowadays? Is there any merit to the concept of certain individuals maintaining the role of intellectual in society? This question has perplexed me ever since I read Paul Johnson's work on the subject.

KM: Public intellectuals are journalists, and professors are a lot closer to journalism today than they used to be. Being a journalist used to be a deadly insult in academic terms; no longer. It used to be the case that the French had intellectuals, and the English were merely educated. These days we have intellectuals coming out of our ears. And they are useful, no doubt, in turning public issues into matters of rational debate. Even in answering your questions, I am behaving rather like an intellectual. Few of us today can resist the pleasure of having opinions on subjects we know little about. That is why we need Socratic irony so badly.

BC: What are you working on at the moment?

KM: I am currently working on a book that tries to track the way in which our moral sentiments have evolved in the last century or so. Moral integrity in our dealings with our immediate associates - family, friends, colleagues - has become of less significance than taking up an "ethical" attitude to strangers who are supposedly in need, such as the poor and those living (according to one of those idiotic statistics diffused by charitable lobbies) on "less than a dollar a day." The dominant strain in morality is philanthropic: it admires devoting one's life to caring for others. It is "ethical" in a political sense, and no doubt in some ways admirable, but it suits best those who don't really have a life of their own to lead.

BC: Lastly, and I generally ask this question, do you think that conservatives have a chance to win the culture war? If not, can we at least roll back some of the gains made by the left?

KM: I regard Conservatives as people in touch with reality, and radicals as people aspiring to improve the world. In a sense, I suppose, we need both, though the dominance of improving political radicalism in Western countries these many decades seems to me to have made most things worse. Human beings, as Eliot said, can't bear much reality, so conservatives had better resign themselves to being a kind of saving remnant. Reality seldom wins votes. So we can't win, but winning isn't everything. Integrity is much more important.


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