Sunday, March 01, 2009

BBC gullibility again

James Lovelock, the British chemist and alleged expert on climate change, suggests that 80% of mankind will be wiped out by climate change and that the hot planet will last for 100,000 years. So persuasive is his assertion that it was asserted on BBC World's HARDtalk as a fact today. What ever happened to science and to journalism?

Lets deal with journalism first. Stephen Sackur, who now fronts HARDtalk, is normally no slouch. He has a solid journalistic career behind him - strong history as a tough foreign correspondent for the BBC and then the solid BBC Washington correspondent - a well respected position and he did sterling work, covering the Lewinsky scandal, Clintonomics and the various forms of Clintongate. He also covered the Bush election by the Supreme Court. He has hosted HARDtalk since 2004, when he replaced journalist and novelist Tim Sebastian. Yet here is talking about science and technology and he quotes this absurb claim by Lovelock as if it were a statement of fact.

Journalists have generally given up on seeking to understand science, but instead look for the next scientist who will say something strange so that they have a "story". This is why we have such a warped view of all sorts of scientific work - climate change, mad cow disease, obesity being good examples. The trick is to take a general position and then find extreme cases which "prove" the position. This is not scientific reporting or indeed journalism. As we lose more and more science trained journalist to be replaced by more and more journalists who have no other education but a degree in journalism (what exactly is that?), then we can expect science reporting to go very strange. This is why people like Dr James Hansen of NASA can get such a strong press coverage - the more outrageous they are (coal trains are "death trains" and coal powered power stations are "factories of death" according to Hansen - see an earlier blog post) the more likely they will be reported, all in the name of science.

Then there is the problem of science, or more accurately, sensationalism masquerading through a person who used to be scientist who has now become a polemicist. Lovelock is today's example - last week it was James Hansen and no doubt others will follow. Lovelock suggests that some 5 billion will die as a result of global warming and climate change and, because he used to be a scientist, this is then presented as some sort of scientifically based "evidence" when in fact it is total speculation (a.k.a. "bullsh*t"). Most people have got to the point when they don't know what to believe, especially when serious journalists report speculation as science. The consequence is that both science and journalism get a bad name and both get exploited by the lunatic fringe who make a living from bullsh*t.

We need some journalistic standards, like triple sourcing and fact checking, to come back into science reporting. We need scientists to stop pretending to be something they are not. We need rational, evidence based conversations. Otherwise, we will just discredit good science, good journalism and rational, evidence based dialogue.


Brits of both parties want immigration cut

Cutting immigration is now the number one issue for both Labour and Tory voters, a new poll reveals. A Daily Telegraph/YouGov survey shows that it is the top concern that people want an incoming Conservative government to deal with. Fifty-two per cent said they wanted a Tory administration to reduce immigration.

This week immigration figures revealed that one in nine people living in Britain was born overseas, highlighting a significant change in population make-up under Labour. There were 6.5 million people born abroad who were resident in the UK in June 2008. This represented a rise of 290,000 on the previous year and 1.2 million since 2004.

The issue of foreign workers sparked strike action across the country when a refinery in Lincolnshire employed Italian workers to complete a contract, instead of using UK workers. Unions accused Gordon Brown of going back on his commitment to ensure there were "British jobs for British workers." The issue caused consternation among many Labour MPs who watched their traditional supporters protesting so strongly against the Prime Minister. Labour ministers are aware that immigration is now a problem for them among their core voters. Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary, recently said that the "white working class" feels ignored over the issue.

In today's poll it also comes top of the list of concerns among Labour voters with 42 per cent saying it should be cut compared to 62 per cent of Conservative backers. Reducing the powers of the European Union is second and providing more to help families is third.

The poll also shows a comfortable lead for the Tories over Labour. The Conservatives are on 41 per cent, down two on last month, and Labour on 31, down one point on January's survey. The Liberal Democrats polled 15 per cent, down one. That result would only, however, give Mr Cameron a Commons majority of 38. He and his party strategists are determined to land a sizable majority and capitalise on the Government's unpopularity.

When asked who would make the better Prime Minister, 25 per cent said Mr Brown, down two, and 33 per cent Mr Cameron, also down two.

There is more bad news for the Prime Minister with the finding that only 14 per cent believe the Government's measures to tackle the recession are working. Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, admitted this month that Labour needed to hold its nerve because the effect of its recession measures were not yet being felt.

The arrival of Ken Clarke as Lord Mandelson's opposite number has had an immediate impact. When asked who would make a better Business Secretary, 48 per cent said Mr Clarke and only 17 per cent favoured Lord Mandelson, who like Mr Clarke was brought back to bolster his party's front bench team. One recent poll put the Conservatives 20 points ahead.

Mr Brown's own popularity also continues to decline. Sixty-five per cent of voters are dissatisfied with him as Prime Minister, up two from last month, and only 25 per cent are satisfied, down two. When asked whether Mr Cameron was proving a good leader of the Conservative party 46 per cent said yes, the same as last month. The Tories have also emerged as the party more trusted to get the country out of the present crisis -- reversing the position of last autumn. Then Mr Brown's assured handling of the crisis saw an increase in his personal standing and an improvement in Labour's poll ratings. But now 35 per cent say the Tories are more trusted to deal with the crisis and only 28 per cent Labour.


Flu spread by unvaccinated NHS frontline staff

Health workers have been blamed for putting vulnerable patients at risk and worsening the winter’s flu outbreak by refusing to have flu jabs. Fewer than one in seven frontline NHS staff had a flu jab last year, The Times has learnt, despite a recommendation that they do so. The Royal College of General Practitioners called last night for hospital doctors, GPs, nurses, carers and other staff to have compulsory jabs or be banned from contact with patients other than in exceptional circumstances. Figures to be published next week by the Department of Health will show that the vast majority of health professionals ignored government advice that everyone in direct contact with patients be immunised.

Of the hundreds of patients seriously affected by staff transmission of flu, some were infected while being treated in high-dependency wards.

The health department figures show that only 14 per cent of frontline workers had a flu jab before the 2008-09 season, despite warnings from Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer for England, that immunisation rates had to improve.

The flu outbreak over Christmas and the new year was the worst for eight years, with more than 60 cases per 100,000 head of population. About 2,000 deaths are attributed to flu annually – although the number can rise to more than 10,000 in bad years. The number for this winter has not yet been released. Some hospitals suffered serious flu outbreaks exacerbated by staff transmission of the highly contagious virus, while shortages of workers put pressure on accident and emergency departments. Anecdotal reports suggest that on occasion patients brought to hospital by ambulance had to wait for up to five hours because staff were so overstretched by absenteeism and higher admission rates caused by flu.

At Royal Liverpool University Hospital, nearly 100 patients caught flu, including on high-dependency wards treating blood diseases and kidney problems.

Low levels of vaccination among staff were identified by the Health Protection Agency as a significant factor in the outbreak. When health chiefs in Liverpool asked any unvaccinated staff to get a jab to help to control the outbreak, almost 1,300 came forward. All frontline workers should be offered jabs through programmes run by health trusts from early October, at the start of the annual vaccination campaign. Uptake rates, which have been low historically, rose to close to 20 per cent of NHS frontline workers in 2005 but have fallen away since.

Dr George Kassianos, the immunisation spokesman for the Royal College, said it was incumbent on ministers and health leaders to make sure that patients were not put at greater risk from contact with the NHS. Dr Kassianos said that a form of compulsory vaccination – where anyone not wishing to have a flu jab should not be put in frontline roles unless under exceptional circumstances – should be considered. “The only way to boost the effectiveness of the flu vaccine is to immunise the people who are delivering the care – in hospitals, nursing homes, residential homes and GPs’ surgeries,” he said. “We are now so hot on infections such as MRSA, so why are we not on influenza? You are placing patients’ lives at risk if you give them the flu.

“It may make sense to say that if staff want to work in contact with patients, then they need to be immunised. We have to think of the patient on the hospital bed. They have a right not to contract flu from a carer.” Under the code of practice for health-care-acquired infections issued by the NHS, and monitored by the Healthcare Commission, trusts are required to “ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that healthcare workers are free of, and protected from, exposure to communicable infections”.

However, a study of NHS attitudes conducted by the Government last year found that most staff did not view flu as a serious illness and thought the vaccine unnecessary because they were not at risk. Trusts reported staff vaccine compliance as a “key problem area”.A conference was even held by the Department of Health last June for flu vaccine campaign organisers to improve NHS workers’ uptake.

Michael Summers, the vice-chairman of the Patients’ Association, said that the latest figures seen by The Times were “very concerning”. “NHS staff must lead by example. They know that patients are vulnerable to flu if they themselves are infected but also if they fall sick and have to stay at home, which will also affect patient care. They know the risks this is posing to patients.”

A health department spokesman said that the Government accepted that improvement was required, but mandatory vaccination was not being considered. [It should be a requirement of the job] “We want to see flu immunisation rates in healthcare workers increase because it will benefit both patients and staff. The recently published code of practice emphasises the need for NHS organisations to have an immunisation policy in place and to ensure staff’s immunisation status is reviewed and updated,” he said.


9-0 and no more! PC rule could blow the whistle on crushing defeats in British children's football

For generations of young footballers, being soundly thrashed by a rival team has been a tough, if character-building, rite of passage. But the days of double-digit goal tallies may be numbered. Some officials want the Football Association to introduce a so-called 'mercy rule' in youth soccer. An import from the United States, the rule means that if one team achieves a certain goal advantage over another the match is declared over, thus sparing the losers further humiliation.

Supporters claim such a move would prevent youngsters from becoming prematurely disillusioned with the beautiful game. But critics insist it will also deprive them of a vital life skill: Dealing with utter defeat.

The Mid Lincolnshire League is calling on the FA to bring in rules which would mean that if a nine-goal gap opened up between teams, then the game would stop. Ron Westerman, chairman of the Mid Lincs Youth League, in which more than 6,000 children aged up to 13 play in 400 teams, said: 'We'd not be taking away victory or defeat, merely lessening its severity. Scorelines of 25-0 don't do anyone any favours, especially at age eight to ten. 'We've asked the FA to consider bringing this in nationwide, but at the moment it's just one of many things up for consultation.' The rule already operates unofficially in Devon's Pioneer youth league. Now both counties want the FA to adopt the idea more widely, saying it will encourage more youngsters to enjoy the game.

But sceptics believe such measures merely provide a politically correct comfort blanket for children against the realities of the wider world. Robert Whelan, deputy director of think-tank Civitas, said: 'We're being over-protective with youngsters but doing them no favours. It's a symptom of a society that wants to protect the young from anything unpleasant at all costs. 'But the fact is that life can sometimes be unpleasant and you don't always win - and sometimes you lose by a big margin. 'Life throws down challenges to you, and sometimes it lays you flat on your back, but you have to learn to pick yourself up again, and you won't develop that spirit if no one ever allows you to lose.'

Tory MP Julian Brazier described the idea as 'terribly sad', adding: 'How can you really appreciate a fantastic win, if you've never experienced a crushing defeat?' But Devon FA chief executive Paul Morrison said: 'People talk about defeats being character building, but children are more vulnerable these days and we don't want to put them off playing the game because they are thrashed. 'A women's team I know lost 42-0 one Saturday, and within three weeks they'd disbanded. These days it should be about enjoyment and player development, rather than winning at all costs.'

An FA spokesman said: 'So far the reaction seems about 50/50, so it's not been introduced nationally yet, but it's something that could be considered in the future.'


Many students from British government schools not well enough prepared for Cambridge

State school students are missing out on places at elite universities because their grades are not good enough, Cambridge admissions chiefs said yesterday. The 'critical obstacle' to an official crusade to widen the social class mix of students is their poor performance compared with private school pupils, it was claimed. In a veiled attack on Labour's record, the university said it had failed to break the 'pernicious link between deprivation and educational attainment'.

Research commissioned by Cambridge found state school pupils make up 86 per cent of A-level candidates but only 63 per cent of those achieving three As in academic disciplines. In an analysis, Dr Geoff Parks and Richard Partington said this figure was 'unlikely' to rise 'unless their exam performance improves'.

Areas which still had grammar schools dominated the top of a table of authorities with the most state school pupils gaining three As at A-level, they added. More than 27 per cent of state pupils in Reading, which has high-performing grammars, achieved three As in 2006, compared with none in Southwark, said the analysis. Many sixthform colleges also did well. But, said Dr Parks and Mr Partington, the research showed the real barrier to top universities was an 'uneven' education playing field and the link between a child's prospects and their social background.

The research follows a Commons inquiry which found that almost 400million pounds has been spent on boosting recruitment of working-class students to university with barely any effect. Cambridge's intervention will rile Universities Secretary John Denham, who believes leading universities should do more to change the social make-up of their students. In a speech this week, Mr Denham declared: 'The more research intensive universities must address fair access effectively, or their student population will remain skewed. 'Failing to attract the best talent from all parts of our society is bad for those institutions and bad for the students who miss out on studying there.'

When Cambridge vice-chancellor Alison Richard claimed last year ministers were 'meddling' in university affairs and expecting them to pursue a 'social justice' agenda instead of concentrating on their core purposes of education and research, Mr Denham said he disagreed 'profoundly'.

Research by Cambridge Assessment, the exam board linked to the university, found that 24,580 A-levels students in 2006 achieved three or more As in subjects excluding general studies and critical thinking. Of those, 8,858 - or 36 per cent - were independently educated [with independent schools accounting for only 7% of the student population]. Grammar schools accounted for a further 4,191 - or 17 per cent - of triple A students.


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