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Concussion – what are the alternatives?

concussion 2What kind of treatment is it rational to try out when you have a concussion?

I am currently suffering from the effects of a football hitting my head very hard from the side. I think it clearly produced a concussion since I’m still fatigued and off work. Below are some thoughts I wrote down when I previously had concussion after a bike accident. They were in response to a well-meaning attempt to give me advice, but which I didn’t find helpful. After this accident, I was off work for nine months and it took more than three years to fully recover. Clearly I’m hoping this won’t be the case this time.

Anyway, since I’m in this predicament – here are my conclusions on treatment from four years ago. The “you” is the acquaintance who gave me advice.

The whole area of medical treatment is obviously very complex. How do we

assess which approach is more valid and productive than another? You
seem to agree that solid, supporting scientific evidence is crucial in
helping us determine that. While access to data has obviously been
enormously facilitated by the web, there’s an enormous amount of
information on the internet that isn’t reliable.
How do we decide
between the various sources? No simple answer, but informing ourselves
through reading clearly helps – a willingness to look at multiple
sources. We also have to use judgement. Is the particular therapy being
promoted by someone with sufficient scientific experience and knowledge?
And if they have valid medical qualifications, are they being overly
influenced by commercial incentives – whether it be a large
pharmaceutical company, or an alternative medicine store looking for
customers? There aren’t always absolute distinctions – but I think it
has to be a balance of knowledge and judgement, with the principle that
reliable scientific evidence is the key.
The gold standard is the
systematic review, carried out by disinterested, knowledgeable medical
experts – who can sift those studies that are properly controlled,
replicated and sufficiently large and robust to be taken into account –
which can then make an assessment of the preponderance of evidence –
since single, small studies – even if well conducted – are not always
sufficient to base strong conclusions on.
Fortunately there has been some good work in this area – notably the
creation of the Cochrane Collaboration – an international network of
publicly funded health experts committed to evidence-based systematic
reviews of current health treatments. It’s hard for them to cover
everything of course – but it’s a very good initiative. https://www.cochrane.org/
There are some
arguments about its approach – from some who argue that it’s maybe even
too narrowly evidence based. There are schools of thought that say that
it’s rational to also include scientific plausibility in an assessment –
ie for a treatment to be considered thoroughly it should first have some
plausibility and not contradict all previous scientific knowledge (there
are exceptions to this of course – but the old adage applies –
extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.) One group arguing
this is the Science Based Medicine blog – from which I quote one extract
from below.
At this point, I do want to give more information though, about my own
history with concussion treatment.  Over the past ten months or so I’ve
been seeing two specialists from the NYU medical center’s concussion
unit. This at the recommendation of our PT, Maria Gerlich (excellent)
who has considerable experience of working with Iraq vets with TBI. She
specifically recommended that I get in with Dr Steven Flanagan, who she
basically regards at the top expert in the field in this locality – he
is the head of the centre, a teaching professor and an internationally
recognized expert in concussion management. I also saw Dr Donna
Langenbahn, a neuro-psychologist with 30 years of experience working
with people recovering from brain injury. She also lectures round the
world on this subject.
Two points. This doesn’t make these specialists infallible – of course
not. But as a rule of thumb I feel it does make sense – ie it’s a
rational choice – for me to give more weight to their opinions and
advice, than to other people who are not medically trained specialists
in concussion, and who don’t have decades of experience in that
speciality.
The second point, from what I’ve seen and experienced with these highly
skilled professionals, is that I have no reason to conclude that they
are not open to considering “alternative” therapies. In fact I did do
some cranio-sacral therapy with Maria, who mixes conventional and
alternative stuff. (I saw no harm in it – it was pleasant, but
anecdotally I didn’t notice any difference after it – and my understanding is that it doesn’t have a credible scientific basis.)
I then discussed
this and other alternative therapies with Donna, who was generally
relaxed about it, and was always pointing me to all sorts of studies –
so it’s certainly not the case that I have had treatment with people who
do not consider alternative treatments. These are people who’ve done a
great deal of research – and I have no evidence to suppose that they
have ignored non-mainstream approaches.
One of the issues is how you define “alternative” of course, since it’s
a slippery, relative concept. If it means “approaches for which there is
no scientific evidence” – yes, I’m firmly opposed, I’m biased against.
If it means, on the other hand, scientifically plausible hypotheses or
approaches for which there might be some experimental evidence, but that
need to be explored further – I’m open to that. As we agree, the
scientific process amasses evidence and assesses probabilities – it
doesn’t decide anything absolutely, but it is cautious when claims are
made without evidence, and, crucially, it responds and adapts when
evidence shows that previously used approaches are ineffective.
Anyhow, on those lines, during the treatment I read up about some
current research. One example was Buffalo University – where, theorising
that blood flow, carrying in glucose, is restricted in the brain
following TBI, they felt that carefully graded running exercise may help
boost blood flow and accelerate recovery (by of course increasing blood
flow in the brain). Since I’m a runner anyway, and since I felt that
moderate running could do no harm, I decided to up the amount of times I
ran during the middle months of my treatment. The experimenters were at
pains to say that their preliminary results needed to be backed up with
more data – it’s an essentially unproven hypothesis at this moment. So
in those terms, I think you could plausibly call this an “alternative”
approach – which I tried with the approval of the specialists.
Back to some of the larger issues I’ve reflected on since our
discussion. Do I pay more attention to modern medical approaches rather
than alternative approaches overall? Yes, I do – for the following
reasons. For all its faults, our modern medical system obligates
extensive trials and an evidence-based approach before new treatments
and approaches are approved (yes, the system isn’t perfect and there are
abuses – and the regulatory system could and should be stronger). But I
would surmise that, in the case of the majority of the alternative
therapies presented online, there isn’t an equivalent, extensive demand
or indeed official requirement for the kind of rigorous testing and
trials that conventional modern medicine is submitted to. (I believe
that unproven therapies usually have only to indicate that they are not
FDA approved – but I’m not sure about all the regulations here.) I think
you would agree that a great many of these alternative therapies are not
supported by well-controlled scientific studies. So from that starting
point, I think it’s absolutely reasonable to look first at therapies
where there is a considerably greater likelihood that the claims are
backed with scientific studies.
Does it mean that one should therefore ignore alternative therapies? Of
course not, but given that we have limited time on this earth, I use a
rule of thumb which prioritises scientific evidence – yes, I plead
guilty to that bias. Of course, not everything has – or can be tested –
and some of those alternative therapies will no doubt be proven
effective at some point – but does that warrant that I should try an
untested and unproven hypothesis as opposed to an approach that has been
tested – I think not – outside of extreme situations maybe, where for
example someone is at risk of dying and there are no proven therapies at
all.
Why does all this matter? Many unsound and unproven therapies are fairly
harmless – and rely on the placebo effect. I don’t think there’s a huge
problem with someone taking treatment for a minor ailment and, through
the placebo effect, feeling better. I do however think there’s a serious
problem when someone has a dangerous, severe or life-threatening
condition and is encouraged to take a totally-non proven approach – when
there are relatively effective treatments available in modern medicine –
thus putting themselves at much greater risk.  This definitely happens,
alas fairly frequently.
But there’s also a larger point. The scientific process is arguably (in
my view) the human race’s greatest achievement – it’s transformed our
lives, especially in the area of healthcare over the last few centuries.
If people are encouraged to ignore scientific evidence in their
decision-making (and especially in public policy) that’s a deficit for
the whole of society. Think of climate change for example – where there
are very large numbers of people who refuse to accept overwhelming
evidence – and this resistance and lack of command of the basic facts is
exploited cynically by commercial interests. In this case, resistance to
science could literally have disastrous consequences for the whole
world.
There’s also a lesser but significant evil – for example, a substantial
proportion of the $50 billion food supplement industry unscrupulously
exploits gullibility to screw large amounts of money out of people –
often desperate people with serious health problems. That’s a disgrace –
if anything should be regulated more thoroughly, it’s that industry.
What about some of the specifics of our discussion? Well, your first
suggestion was that I take vitamins. In the context explained above, I
didn’t take very kindly to that – though I know you had kindly
intentions. I’ve done more looking through the data on this – yes, there
is research going on – some of it into vitamin treatment for concussion,
and some of it might eventually lead to new insights – for example I
found one study that showed possibly promising results with mice and
Vitamin E – but it’s mice, not humans of course and only a single study.
However, the majority of the scientific surveys I’ve looked at conclude
that no dietary supplements have so far been proven efficacious for
concussion treatment. In fact, it’s got to the stage where the FDA
recently issued a warning against outlets who have been proposing
vitamin supplement treatments for concussion – saying it’s unfounded and
dangerous. I include several references and extracts just below to this.
(As an aside, I’ve often heard criticisms from alternative sources that
modern medicine ignores dietary and lifestyle issues – that’s a major
straw man in my opinion – conventional medicine has, for centuries now,
focused on sanitation, good housing, safe water and diet – we are
inundated with conventional research and information on those issues.
(Michael Bloomberg, for example, launched major lifestyle health
campaigns in New York City against smoking and large soda drinks.) And
yes, my treatment with the specialists involved extensive discussion of
life-style management, diet, as well as the psychological aspects of
recovery)
References to vitamins and concussion: – extracts followed by urls:
1)      Since the 1980s, numerous studies have attempted to identify
neuroprotective agents. Because of the complexity of the biochemical and
cellular cascades that follow TBI, there are many potential therapeutic
targets that may help support individuals who have suffered TBI. These
efforts have included magnesium administration, hormone supplementation,
calcium channel blockade, bradykinin inhibition, use of
anti-inflammatory drugs, blockade of immune receptors, as well as use of
numerous other vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant agents. These agents
often work by multiple mechanisms that may include limiting glutamate
excitotoxicity, limiting of free radical and lipid peroxidation damage,
or minimizing BBB disruption. Unfortunately, none of these completed
trials have demonstrated significant clinical benefit in humans.
2)
  But the FDA on Tuesday issued a warning to consumers, saying the
 supplements are untested, unproven, and possibly dangerous. “We don’t
 have any evidence that there is any medication, vitamin, or herb that
 helps people to recover after head trauma,” said Dr. Andrew Russman of
 the Cleveland Clinic.  (quote from above)
3)
as the marketing claims here are, the science doesn’t support the use of
any dietary supplements for the prevention of concussions or the
reduction of post-concussion symptoms that would enable one to return to
playing a sport faster,” says Daniel Fabricant, Ph.D., director of FDA’s
Division of Dietary Supplement Programs.  (quote from above)
4)
Continued discussion:  On vitamins generally – it’s interesting – as you
probably know, there have been several very large and robust studies on
taking multi-vitamin supplements which have concluded there is no
overall health benefit  (and in the special case of taking anti-oxidants
(beta-carotene, vitamin E  See also:
Goldacre, Ben (2010-10-12). Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma
Flacks (Kindle Location 1486). Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition.) as
supplements for preventing cancer, large studies have concluded that
these supplements actually increase the risk of death and morbidity) – –
I’ll include a link below.
Just reflecting further on the meaning of the world “alternative” I
think I could reasonably argue that in this case it’s an “alternative”
position to argue against multivitamin supplements – since the
conventional wisdom – especially in the US – is that they are good for
you, despite the now robust evidence against them.
I’ll restrict myself (since this is getting very long here) to one
article that summarises and refers to the above studies:
Finally out of interest I did some reading on the megavitamins for
schizophrenia thing. This was far from an exhaustive search and this is
not an area I claim to have any prior knowledge on, but I’ve come across
a number of articles and studies which say that earlier studies claiming
efficacity were flawed and not-properly controlled (ie not
double-blinded) and that subsequent, more rigorous trails have shown no
benefit. There may well be other robust trials saying the opposite of
this – I’d be interested in reading them if you can send them my way –
but in the meantime, here are the sceptical analyses  – and null
hypothesis trials – that I’ve found:
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The great bike helmet debate

lots of helmets

So first the case against helmets – from this video in the Guardian.

OK there is obviously a widespread debate on the use of bike helmets – I’ve read around and there are as many, possibly more, campaigning websites arguing against helmet use as those arguing in favour. Something like the impact on overall health and safety of bike helmets is a complex issue with many variables, so it’s hard to have an absolutely slam-dunk scientific conclusion either way – as with many issues, like cancer and tobacco notably, which was argued over for decades.

I also acknowledge I’ve been a bit too dismissive of the case against helmets and have been a little too sweeping in my judgements at times – so I apologize for that.

I am now familiar with most of the arguments on either side. We can have strong and passionate opinions – I do – and so do many who disagree with me. I think we can still have a reasonable debate – and the key issue is that we support our case with credible evidence and allow for some uncertainty in a complex case like this.

So now to the video.

To be fair the reporter does cite a doctor and a witness emphasizing the severity of injuries that can happen without helmets, and also says he personally wears helmets.

I think there isn’t much disagreement that there is a strong correlation between helmet legislation (requiring bikers to wear helmets) and a significant reduction in the number of deaths and severe head injuries on the road – where legislation has been implemented. There are a great many studies showing this correlation – I’ll confine myself to the studies cited below.

The main questions posed by those opposed to helmet legislation are these:

1 Does that reduction in deaths come at the expense of a significant reduction in ridership, thus negating any benefits by actually producing larger numbers of unhealthy adults and therefore, in the end, higher numbers of deaths from other causes (namely major diseases like heart disease and cancer)?

2 Does helmet legislation create a false sense of security for cyclists and thus produces more risky behaviour on the roads?

And these are indeed the core arguments of the video.

Dr Harry Rutter stresses that helmet legislation reduces bike use and thereby negatively impacts overall health since it reduces the number of people taking that form of healthy exercise – so therefore the net effect of helmet legislation (requiring people to wear helmets) is negative. The doctor sets up a direct conflict: the health benefits of cycling vastly outweigh the risks.

The problem here is that the video, beyond making the verbal assertions that cycling reduces ridership, does not actually cite any evidence in support of this claim.

helmet on handlebar

So the three sources I’m going to cite are

1) the Cochrane Collaboration,

http://cochranelibrary-wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD005401.pub3/abstract

2) a major systematic review of studies by the Canadian Paediatric Society:

https://www.cps.ca/en/documents/position/bike-helmets-to-reduce-risk-of-head-injury

3) and more individually, this report from the universities of Ottawa and Manitoba in Canada:

http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/16/4/219?sid=ae6fb749-4be3-4f3b-a2ee-f71c2b4b885d

I’ll begin with the Cochrane Collaboration, which is the international collaboration between governments, to provide evidence-based systematic reports on health issues – and is widely regarded as one of the most reliable and neutral international references. It is rather strictly and austerely focused on evidence-based medicine. It doesn’t consider the wider context of scientific plausibility and simply narrowly reads from approved studies – and it has a high benchmark for studies it considers to be of an adequate methodological level. So sometimes you don’t get the whole picture but you do get stringently solid and cautious conclusions.

Cochrane basically says that there is evidence that helmets protect from death and severe injury but concludes that there are no qualitatively good enough studies to say whether ridership is increased, reduced or stays the same:

“Bicycle helmet legislation appears to be effective in increasing helmet use and decreasing head injury rates in the populations for which it is implemented. However, there are very few high quality evaluative studies that measure these outcomes, and none that reported data on possible declines in bicycle use.”

The Canadian Paediatric Society, which refers to a whole range of issues related to helmets takes a slightly less stringent approach and concludes thusly: “There is also ample research indicating that legislation reduces risk of bicycle-related head injury.”

This study also reviews various studies on ridership – some of which saw a decrease and some of which saw no change – and concludes that there the evidence is a “wash” as the Americans say – ie that there’s no strong evidence either way. They argue that other factors (ie not to do with helmets) affecting ridership have probably not been accounted for in the studies.

Significantly, it points out a key fact about a study in Australia that is frequently cited by anti-helmet websites – the study did show a decrease in ridership – but the critics leave out an important and crucial point – that ridership among children was falling BEFORE the legislation was brought in and the decline in ridership among adults returned to pre-legislation level after two years, although adolescents remained lower. And for example, this study is contradicted by the Canadian study from Ottawa cited above that found no decline after legislation: “Helmet legislation is not associated with changes in ridership.”

So the evidence is mixed and does not point conclusively in either direction.

So the assertions by the video reporter and Dr. Rutter are not supported by the current weight of scientific evidence – and therefore their key argument, that reduced ridership actually means an overall negative affect, does not hold. And as to his suggested conflict between health and safety – there is no necessary conflict – why not promote riding AND helmet use and get the most of both worlds? ie a healthy population exposed to fewer severe accidents. There is no logical conflict there at all.

There’s also a question – raised by one of the studies – but so far unanswered: let us suppose for the sake of argument that helmet legislation did reduce ridership. In that case do we definitely conclude that people will exercise less or might people turn to other forms of exercise? We don’t know.

We then move on to the question of increased risk-taking and a familiar friend, Ian Walker of Bath University is cited in the video. Walker cites a lab study that indicated that people gambled more riskily in the lab if they wore a helmet as opposed to a cap.

But unless this theory is put to the test on the road with all its different conditions, it’s not reasonable to draw conclusions for actual behaviour on the roads from that. So to be fair Mr. Walker did go out on the road and tested another aspect of this  – he measured whether cars drove closer to him if he was wearing no helmet or a wig and found that cars drove slightly more than three inches closer to him if he was wearing a helmet – thus concluding that other vehicles are more likely to take risk with you if you wore a helmet.

His controlled study group? A group of one. Himself (!) And while the fact that Ian Walker is an anti-helmet campaigner doesn’t necessarily disqualify him, I’m afraid the other more important fact – that his study is based on a sample of one does disqualify this study as reliable scientific evidence.

To draw conclusions on helmet use we need plenty of studies and plenty of systematic reviews. A single study on a single person doesn’t make the grade.

So back to the Canadian Paediatric Society that did review a number of studies on cycling and risky behaviour. And again it’s a wash: studies have come up with conflicting and various results:

“One ED-based study found no evidence of a relationship between use of safety equipment and reported bicycling behaviour (cycling fast, taking chances) or injury severity among children injured in a variety of activities, including bicycling.[46] Another found that helmeted bicyclists experienced less severe nonhead and non-neck injuries.[47] Injury outcome-based studies involving all age groups have found that helmeted bicyclists experienced more frequent and severe nonhead injuries compared with nonhelmeted bicyclists.[48] However, one European study found no relationship between bicyclist commission of a traffic violation and helmet use.[49] The issue of risk compensation remains unresolved.[23]

So the second leg of the argument – increased risk-taking – is also not supported by the overall balance of evidence. And there’s an additional point to be made here: what if helmets did increase risky behaviour? Unless it was substantially proven that serious nonhead injuries increased – as one study says, but others don’t – should we be concerned anyway, since the net result is a significant reduction in deaths and severe head injuries? If that holds, the point becomes moot.

But at any rate, to repeat, there is no balance of evidence so far that risky behaviour increases.

Incidentally, the reporter’s claim that “major studies and scientists in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, concluded that helmets do not improve overall safety”– is clearly false, since I’ve cited at least two major studies from Canada above, and at least one significant Australian report, concluding that there was a decline in injury, is cited by the Canadian review.

group of

Some other points made in the video: cycling is “not as dangerous as people think” it says – referring to the UK. But the UK is one of the very safest countries in the world and has made major headway in reducing road deaths over the past fifteen years (as I discovered while making a documentary on road safety for the UN). So what about all the other countries where road deaths are higher – and sometimes much higher?

The example of the Netherlands is interesting – since they do indeed have low levels of cyclist deaths and low use of helmets. As the video acknowledges, the Netherlands has spent 40 years improving road safety – including major improvements to infrastructure – and this reminds me of the mantra of the experts I interviewed for the documentary: road safety depends on the three Es: Enforcement, Engineering and Education. ie infrastructure improvements to roads and vehicles; stricter law enforcement and public information campaigns to reduce risky behaviour.

I fully agree and it makes sense – those in favour of helmets, like me are of course in favour of all other aspects of improving road safety – there is no contradiction here at all. Yes, all aspects of road safety need to be improved – and if helmets lower deaths and severe head injuries, as the evidence shows, then helmets should be very much part of that overall picture.

So the Netherlands has done well in creating a much safer environment with lower deaths – but one wonders if that low level of cyclist deaths might be lower still of helmet use was increased:

“More than 800 cyclists per year sustain head and/or brain injury in a collision with a motor vehicle. In addition, more than 2500 cyclists per year suffer from head and/or brain injury after a crash or a fall not involving a motor vehicle (bicycle-only crash). In 86% of the cases the head injury of a cyclist is (also) brain injury. 2010 – 14.”

https://www.swov.nl/en/facts-figures/factsheet/bicycle-helmets

Later in the video, cyclist Chris Boardman argues we should be free to choose and we should not impose “my will on you.” Yes, as a default, one doesn’t want to impose on people – but obviously when there’s a public health implication, we do precisely that: by requiring, for instance, that parents vaccinate their children, or that car drivers wear seat belts and don’t talk on handheld mobile phones – laws imposed on them that most of us heartily agree with, since it protects them as well as others. If the evidence is strong that helmets reduce death and severe head injury – and the evidence shows a strong correlation – with no proven reduction in ridership and no proven increase in risky behaviour – there’s a strong case for legislation.

And finally, the video turns to this argument: “The greatest number of head injuries is among motorists – in the UK…so maybe they should wear helmets.”

Seriously guys? Of course the number of head injuries is higher because there’s vastly greater use of motor vehicles than bikes! That’s a schoolboy prank of an argument, by using an absolute number instead of a proportional rate.

And if we are talking comparative rates? Cyclists are fifteen times more likely to be killed in the UK than car drivers per miles by road:

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/648081/rrcgb2016-01.pdf

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Are you or have you ever been a Mysterian?

Or The Invasion of the Mysterians. A discussion about the limits of the human brain in understanding the universe.

I’ve read with interest some segments from the writings of one of the leaders of this alien species – the Mysterians – one Colin McGinn, influential philosopher (who I think coined the term). He’s certainly interesting – and at times charmingly unaggressive in his approach – but I am not a Mysterian and see things very differently.

Mysterians believe there are some things – for example subjective consciousness and free will – that we will simply never understand because of the limits of our brain’s capacity.

It’s clear then that McGinn is a pessimist about the human capacity to acquire knowledge, along with Chomsky, who not surprisingly has endorsed McGinn’s work, from what I read.

 

mcginn 1

Colin McGinn

I, on the other hand, am an optimist about our capacities. And perhaps that is really the fundamental difference – no one can in any way absolutely prove their case on this and perhaps we should acknowledge it and leave it there. Of course McGinn could be right and I could be wrong – and we can’t currently settle the argument.

But it’s much too interesting to leave alone.

These are McGinn’s claims in a nutshell. In 1993 he described his approach as ‘Transcendental Naturalism’: (note: he argues that this approach applies to a range of problems, not just consciousness, but this is a subject he’s returned to often)

“Transcendental Naturalism with respect to consciousness is this claim: the natural principles which mediate between brain processes and conscious states are inaccessible to human reason. …My general thesis, in these terms, is that philosophical bafflement results from the lack of an ‘intellectual organ’ suitable to the subject.” Problems in Philosophy, 1993.

myst 4

In other words there are some problems – like the mind-body problem – that we are intrinsically unable to solve, since our brains don’t have the capacity to do so. He speculates that there may be various modules in the brain for doing different things and that the one for cognition may just not be able to understand what another part of the brain is doing – ie consciousness itself. He says this should not necessarily be a surprise and it would be a good idea to accept – thus saving ourselves from a lot of unnecessary bafflement. In particular, he has focused in on the problem of consciousness – and also the unconscious – which he says are two examples of a whole range of things that are impermeable to our understanding.

Here’s another extract from a recent book of his, talking about unconscious memories of seeing the colour red, which he describes as an allied problem to the issue of consciousness:

“We are a bit like the blind man with regard to color perception: he can refer to it demonstratively and make true statements about it, but he doesn’t really know what he is talking about. Why? Because he is not conscious of such states—he has no acquaintance with them. They are a blank to him. Likewise, our own memories are alien to our comprehension—for they are presented to us neither perceptually nor introspectively. We know they are there but we don’t really grasp their nature, their mode of being. They are conceived as just “the residue of experience and the cause of recollection.” Our mode of referring to them is not cognitively penetrating—not revelatory. Thus we find ourselves conceptually uncomfortable with the unconscious; we can’t quite believe in it, though we are convinced it must exist. ” (Philosophical Provocations, 2018)

He talks a lot about our bafflement and puzzlement on issues of this kind:

“We have no conception of what a unifying theory of consciousness and matter would look like. The resulting logical gulf presents us with a deep mystery: how does the world contrive to do what we cannot conceive of it as doing? ”

Ok so my thoughts.

Well, first of all his scepticism about scientific knowledge and our ongoing exploration of how the “world contrives to do what we cannot conceive of it as doing”, seems to me a bit strange. I think there’s plenty of evidence that we can conceive of what the world is doing in these areas. We’ve made enormous advances in our understanding of consciousness, using the usual scientific approaches.

Here, for example, is Steven Pinker on current research into consciousness and how it interfaces with the world. And yes, while this is on the so-called “easy problem” of the physical explanation of how consciousness works, as opposed to the conceptual problem of how there is first-person subjective experience going on in my head in the first place, my point is this: that the vastly increased knowledge and penetration of the easy problem informs, changes and develops the conceptual apparatus we have and gives insights into issues like the “mind-body” problem and that this knowledge enhances and changes those concepts, for instance by getting rid of the “ghost in the machine” and by tying every aspect of consciousness to the brain:

“We are well on the way to a satisfying explanation (of the “easy” scientific problem). It’s hardly a mystery why we experience a world of stable, solid, colored 3-D objects rather than the kaleidoscope of pixels on our retinas, or why we enjoy (and hence seek) food, sex, and bodily integrity while suffering from (and hence avoiding) social isolation and tissue damage: these internal states and the behavior they encourage are obvious Darwinian adaptations. With advances in evolutionary psychology, more and more of our conscious experiences are being explained in this way, including our intellectual obsessions, moral emotions, and aesthetic reactions.

Nor are the computational and neurobiological bases of consciousness obstinately befuddling. The cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene and his collaborators have argued that consciousness functions as a “global workspace” or “blackboard” representation. The blackboard metaphor refers to the way that a diverse set of computational modules can post their results in a common format that all the other modules can “see.” Those modules include perception, memory, motivation, language understanding, and action planning, and the fact that they can all access a common pool of currently relevant information (the contents of consciousness) allows us to describe, grasp, or approach what we see, to respond to what other people say or do, and to remember and plan depending on what we want and what we know.” Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (p. 426).

So while, I think, that McGinn is overly sceptical (and to put it bluntly, wrong) about scientific advances and contributions to our understanding of consciousness, there is nevertheless, according to McGinn still a big CONCEPTUAL problem, that we can’t solve – and even Pinker agrees with this: ie how can we account for the existence of consciousness at all and our subjective experience of it?

Although distinguished thinkers such as Pinker are convinced by McGinn’s argument, I am not persuaded.

In the big scientific picture we, obviously have a way to go before we have a full explanation of how everything works and how consciousness arises and what it does – but the principles are laid out and clear. Subjective consciousness has to arise from a material base (it doesn’t rely on miracles or the supernatural) and from the neural activity in our brains; there’s clearly an information processing element in the brain which contributes to our thoughts and mental activities – and we know that information is stored and communicated by a network of firing neurons – and so on.

And in support of my argument that advances in the “easy’ question of the scientific workings of consciousness give us more and more answers on the hard question – of what consciousness actually is – here is another extract from Pinker.

One of the questions that has historically (and often in the present) caused bafflement and puzzlement is how can we be self-aware – and especially, how could machines possibly be self-aware – which seems to be like a mysterious quality that only humans and animals possess? But according to Pinker, advances in our knowledge of how things work have steadily made this question less and less mysterious:

“Self-knowledge, including the ability to use a mirror, is no more mysterious than any other topic in perception and memory. If I have a mental database for people, what’s to prevent it from containing an entry for myself? If I can learn to raise my arm and crane my neck to sight a hidden spot on my back, why couldn’t I learn to raise a mirror and look up at it to sight a hidden spot on my forehead? And access to information about the self is perfectly easy to model. Any beginning programmer can write a short piece of software that examines, reports on, and even modifies itself. A robot that could recognize itself in a mirror would not be much more difficult to build than a robot that could recognize anything at all. There are, to be sure, good questions to ask about the evolution of self-knowledge, its development in children, and its advantages (and, more interesting, disadvantages, as we shall see in Chapter 6). But self-knowledge is an everyday topic in cognitive science, not the paradox of water becoming wine.” Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works (pp. 134-135). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

It seems to me that regular science is accounting for more and more aspects of consciousness and that the area that remains mysterious, if there is one, is contracting. So what does that leave? What I think McGinn is getting at, in the hard problem, is that we don’t know what consciousness IS, as a subjective experience – there’s a THISness or essence of being conscious that we can’t grasp conceptually – or describe scientifically – like the blind man who can’t grasp the concept of “red”, or like we humans, in another well-known philosophical example, can’t grasp what it’s like to actually BE a bat.

I have basically two answers to that. One: actually we can have a concept of these things, maybe not an absolutely comprehensive one, but yet a pretty serviceable concept – and why should we be absolutist about it? (after all is there much in the universe around us for which we have an absolutely comprehensive and satisfying grasp of conceptually?).

And my second answer, basically is – so what?

But back to the first.

I disagree that the blind man doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he talks of red. He can have a lot of knowledge about it – of light rays, the functioning of the retina, cones, the ideas of greater and lesser intensity, difference in characteristics and so on, and how people react emotionally to different colours and that colour emerges from light reflecting from objects. Yes, something – (an essence if you like) escapes him – but he does have a serviceable concept. He DOES have an idea of what he is talking about.

The same with a bat – we know that the bat uses echolocation, has eyes, and very sensitive hearing and flies – many of these things we can have a reasonable idea of. Again we DO have a concept, albeit limited and maybe somewhat metaphorical, of what it’s like to be a bat – but we can’t get everything – an essence escapes us.

Ah, but McGinn might say, the experience of the colour red is an essentially visual experience, and therefore the blindman is uniquely blocked from having a concept of it. But in that case, what about gamma rays? They are essentially visual since they consist of photons – thus are light:

“Gamma rays, denoted by the lower-case Greek letter gamma, are penetrating electromagnetic radiation of a kind arising from the radioactive decay of atomic nuclei. It consists of photons in the highest observed range of photon energy….Gamma rays ionize atoms (they are ionizing radiation), and are thus biologically hazardous.” (wikipedia)

And here’s my point: I can’t see them – they are entirely invisible to me, just as red is to a blindman, but I have a perfectly reasonable concept of them and an understanding of what they are. I can reasonably say I know what I’m talking about when I talk about gamma rays.

And this kind of predicament for humans is far from unusual. For example what about this (from wiki):

“Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.” On the most basic level, the equation says that energy and mass (matter) are interchangeable; they are different forms of the same thing. Under the right conditions, energy can become mass, and vice versa.”

I have a definite (though slightly wobbly) concept of this – no doubt not fully mathematically informed – but I can see some of the logic, imagine how the energy represented by a piece of chalk could propel a spaceship around the universe and so on. Yes, not complete – but I DO have a concept that’s clearly not entirely false, even though I haven’t studied physics to any sort of high level. So to a sophisticated physicist I am basically a blind man – I can’t do the complicated maths, I don’t know how those formulations work and I have little stored information about complex physical theories. And at the same time it’s VERY unintuitive – I certainly can’t feel it. But despite all this I am happy to know I have some understanding of it and that this knowledge has produced extraordinary results in the world and demonstrated the predictive power of science. And I also know that I can improve my understanding and concepts considerably with more study and reading.

What about space-time curvature? Again, I have some understanding that it relates to the theory of relativity, that it causes light to bend and so on – and I can understand metaphorical models for it (a bit like imagining myself a bat) – imagining space like a fabric and a heavy billiard ball rolling on it and distorting the fabric and pulling other objects towards it. Again, I can’t really get to a fully intuitive grasp of what it REALLY is – I can’t FEEL it, but I am reasonably satisfied with the concept.

In fact, of course, there are an infinite number of things I have concepts of – but don’t have the capacity to imagine, or feel, or cognitively penetrate (as McGinn puts it). What about what it’s like to be a rock? Or a piece of wood? I can bring some metaphors towards it, imagining the feel and texture of wood, for example, and its relative immobility. But of course, I know that leaves out a lot.

So in fact, a lack of full conceptual penetration is arguably a banal commonplace for humans – perhaps there are very few things that we do have full penetration on, perhaps none at all. It’s not just “difficult” problems like consciousness and free-will, it’s the routine things that we encounter every day – what is it to be like a dog or a chair? IF we ask these kinds of questions they are difficult to answer completely, but there are nevertheless reasonably satisfactory answers. And in truth, these kinds of issues don’t tend to trouble us very much.

I would suggest that the “difficult” problems actually share a great deal with banal problems. We mostly have adequate conceptual penetration with the ordinary (when we bother to attend to this) and there’s no essential reason why we don’t or can’t have adequate penetration with so-called “difficult” subjects, since I believe that the problems are actually more similar than McGinn suggests. So yes, I agree that our brain capacity is limited – however, I disagree that these kinds of problems are forever insoluble and will eternally leave us baffled. We can have quite sufficient understanding for our purposes and we can increase that understanding with study and research.

One brief and simple way of putting my position is this: yes, our brains have definite limits when it comes to getting a fully intuitive grasp of issues like consciousness and free will – agreed. But we do, on the other hand, demonstrably have the capacity to develop adequate, sufficient and effective concepts to describe these problems – and that our capacity increases with increased research and knowledge. Thus I make a clear distinction between our brain’s intuitive limits and our brain’s capacity (with help) to develop concepts.

And PS the problem of unconsciousness mentioned above I think is equally amenable to scientific exploration and increased knowledge and a reasonable conceptual grasp. I think we can all have a fairly decent concept of what an unconscious memory is, for example as information stored in neurons in the brain, that is accessible, but is not always present in the conscious mind.

So this all leads to me to my second answer: so what? – if there’s an essence I can’t completely penetrate conceptually? I can’t completely penetrate conceptually what it’s like to be another human being, or for that other being to think – but I can have a pretty good guess. Am I a bit conceptually uncomfortable about not fully grasping everything – yes, but again so what? I can live with it.

And actually I’m wondering if McGinn is conflating two things – an intuitive FEEL for what something is “like” as opposed to a concept of it. Intuitive feeling is harder no doubt – but as I’ve said it’s actually NOT that difficult to have concepts about lots of things – though not an absolutely satisfying concept – or completely comprehensive.

And a second question – does what McGinn says boil down to this – that we may have as many concepts about consciousness and free will as we like, but we’ll remain intuitively unsatisfied? If so, I think that is a rather trivial result – since in that case we may well have very satisfactory concepts that describe things that happen with great accuracy, truth and logic – but that we still remain intuitively uncomfortable – and that’s not really a massively serious issue in my opinion.

(As a side note see this analagous reference to how modern mathematics has moved from struggling with what something “really” is to a method of “defining” what some mathematical concept is, without worrying about an essence – and thus proceeding very effectively to use these definitions to expand its scope and range of applications:

“The British number theorist G. H. Hardy, in his 1949 book Divergent Series, explains it best: It does not occur to a modern mathematician that a collection of mathematical symbols should have a “meaning” until one has been assigned to it by definition. It was not a triviality even to the greatest mathematicians of the eighteenth century. They had not the habit of definition: it was not natural to them to say, in so many words, “by X we mean Y.” . . . It is broadly true to say that mathematicians before Cauchy asked not, “How shall we define 1 − 1 + 1 − 1 + . . .” but “What is 1 − 1 + 1 − 1 + . . . ?” and that this habit of mind led them into unnecessary perplexities and controversies which were often really verbal. This is not just loosey-goosey mathematical relativism. Just because we can assign whatever meaning we like to a string of mathematical symbols doesn’t mean we should. In math, as in life, there are good choices and there are bad ones. In the mathematical context, the good choices are the ones that settle unnecessary perplexities without creating new ones. The sum .9 + .09 + .009 + . . . gets closer and closer to 1 the more terms you add. And it never gets any farther away. No matter how tight a cordon we draw around the number 1, the sum will eventually, after some finite number of steps, penetrate it, and never leave. Under those circumstances, Cauchy said, we should simply define the value of the infinite sum to be 1.

Ellenberg, Jordan. How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking (p. 47). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.”  )

But even if he does strictly mean ‘concept’ without melding it with intuitive feel, I use the idea of a dimmer switch in response: we can have better and better and fuller concepts of things on a graduating scale – and we can have rather thin and unsatisfying concepts of things. But we CAN have concepts – and those concepts can be made more fully rounded with increased knowledge. And that absolutely applies to difficult subjects like consciousness – or free will or what have you. (For example neuroscience has contributed many interesting insights into the debate about free-will).

I say “so what?” semi-seriously – because I argue that we already have a pretty good idea about consciousness – as explained above. And, actually, in a major irony – we ALSO have an extremely good idea of what it IS and what if FEELS like – since I’m experiencing consciousness right now. So, amusingly, consciousness is arguably one of things we actually understand the most in the universe. Perhaps it’s one of our least baffling, least problematic issues – even if we still need to do a lot of scientific research on it.

Having said that I’m not entirely serious with my “so what?” since I, along with most of the human race, am hungry for more information on how consciousness actually works. We’ve made huge progress – will we get it all? We can’t answer that question – but my hunch is that we’ll get what is relevant and useful to know. After all, there’s a vast array of things that were complete mysteries to earlier human beings, or at least things that they failed to analyse correctly, that we now have much, much better and more plausible explanations for – from thunder and lightning, to disease, to the movement of the planets, moral behaviour, the beginning and existence of the universe and the underlying structure of matter.

McGinn is essentially making a major scientific claim – that our brains cannot understand certain things, and that different modules in the brain mean a block on cognition – without, so far as I know, any direct scientific evidence for the claim. I’m confident that further scientific research will shed a lot of light on this.

And there’s also this point. Very seldom today do humans solely rely on their own brain to do research and acquire knowledge – we’ve built a vast store of knowledge around us for a start – far more than any individual human brain can contain – but giving it immensely increased powers of understanding and cognitive penetration. And of course we have computers – which have enormous computational power and range, far beyond human capacities in many areas. So human beings have developed a formidable culture and a formidable architecture of knowledge and a formidable array of tools – that has very certainly greatly extended the reach of what is conceptually understandable to the human brain – from the telescope to the supercomputer.

So yes, to quote McGinn again, I am of the “domesticating” persuasion – an approach he set up, with the intention of knocking down – in his Problems in Philosophy, 1993. In contrast, I think there is a good evidence that this is indeed the way things will continue to go:

“Domesticating programmes are familiar enough – attempts to convince us that consciousness is really nothing more than suchand-such. When you analyse conscious states sufficiently the specialness dissolves. Consciousness can be reduced to facts of a metaphysically unproblematic kind. Materialism and functionalism are the most obvious D positions today: to be in a conscious state is just to be in a certain sort of physical state – a neural state or a state defined by causal role. The spookiness is an illusion, to be dispelled by acquiring more physical knowledge of the kind we already possess.”

So finally, on a personal level I don’t feel the sense of bafflement and puzzlement that McGinn frequently refers to. ARE we fundamentally baffled by the problem of consciousness? Looking at the enormous amount of confident scientific activity and the very rapid development of thinking machines and Artificial Intelligence, it certainly doesn’t look that way to me.

But then again, I’m an optimist.

myst 2

 

 

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Is the US a democracy?

US DEM 1US DEM 3Dem 4Is the US a democracy? Some US researchers (from Princeton) recently – and famously – concluded that it isn’t. What are their criteria? They say that the people in the top ten percent wealth bracket get their way most of the time and the average earner has little or no causal influence on policy outcomes. (I provide extracts and a link to the study below).

But let’s unpack that a little. The researchers point out that in reality average and elites’ interests coincided two-thirds of the time – so average Jane and Joe get what they want 67% of the time. The researchers argue that their research though shows that, when the elites’ interests differ from the average, the elites get their way, almost always. The study is based on actual policy decisions over a 15 year period in the US, accounting for the recorded attitudes of various groups in the US, including average people, elites and organized interest groups (which latter, they say, don’t on the whole represent average views.)

US DEM 2But looking through their paper, we should make some qualifications. The researchers point out that the US system has a bias towards the status quo – in fact, a quite deliberate bias – created by the famed checks and balances, separations of powers, different representative assemblies and so on. So that means that ALL participants in the US system don’t get their way all of the time. They also accept that public officials, including political activists – either appointed or elected – who don’t figure in the top 10 percent of income are not accounted for.

So let’s look at the elites – let’s say our starting point is that they get their way 98% of the time – since the study accepts that the average citizen does have a small amount of say even when elites are opposed. But this figure is reduced by checks and balances – how much? It’s very hard to quantify – but given the checks and balances are substantial – let’s say across the board it means that 15% of the time whoever wants change is blocked from change, on average. Since elites are more influential, according to the study, let’s say that elites are blocked 10% of the time by checks and balances alone. (In the study, it’s concluded hypothetically that, supposing average Americans and organized interest groups are neutral on an issue, if 80% of the affluent elite prefer a particular policy it will be adopted about 45% of the time, given the mix of influences against them – ie half of the other groups included in the study are opposed in this model, as well as checks and balances, and presumably given that support for the policy is not unanimous even among the elite.)

Aside from checks and balances, what about the influence of non wealthy public officials, including political party activists – since the researchers accept that their study does not account for their possible influence? There must be several million of them, but let’s make a very modest guesstimate that they influence change in contrast to elite preferences 3% of the time.

So with these estimates, the affluent elite get their way 85% of the time (accounting for checks and balances and the influence of non-wealthy public officials). Whereas the average person gets their way 70% of the time (since the 15% due to checks and balances is already assumed, and they gain 3% from non-wealthy public officials who we will assume represent their views in these instances).

Yes, the study concludes that the affluent have a much greater independent causal influence on policy than average citizens – but I am looking at the practical outcome of these various forces – using a consequentialist approach.

So we have a system in which wealthy elites get their way 85% of the time and non-wealthy Americans get their way 70% of the time.

This of course is not an ideal outcome, if we want to consider democracy as fair to all parts of society. The researchers clearly conclude that this is inadequate and imply that the US is not a democracy at all. Their main contention is that there isn’t a causal relationship between what the average want and what happens – they get their way only because the elite agrees with what they want 67% of the time. I will return to that question.

Presumably then, the researchers not only require causality, they would prefer a higher rate of success for the average citizen. Let’s say, modestly, that the average citizen ought to get her way 20% of the time even when the elites are opposed. This would then (I think) increase her chances of getting her way by 20% (ie one fifth) of the 30% of the time they don’t get their way, minus a factor for status quo bias. Which would be roughly 6% minus 1% – bringing them up to a 75% satisfaction rate, while the elites would be brought down to approximately 80%.

Thus, given modest assumptions about what the researchers would consider satisfactory, for the US to qualify as a democracy the average citizen would have to get her way at least 75% of the time and elites could get their way no more than 80% of the time.

And my question is – how many countries in the world would qualify as democracies given those requirements? I don’t have the time or the energy to do more research on this – but one thinks of the usual suspects – the Scandinavian countries – Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark – and perhaps Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But in my opinion it’s far from certain that ANY of these countries would actually meet the requirement – perhaps a handful might – maybe. This is in the context that most organizations that calculate how many democracies currently exist in the world, put the number at between 80 and 100 (as calculated by orgs such as the Polity Project, the Economist’s Democracy Index and Freedom House). (Some of the calculations exclude smaller countries – but very roughly about half of countries are rated as democracies – which is far more than the ratings, say, in the 70s, when only about 35 countries were rated democratic).

So my conclusion is that the researchers at best would allow that a handful of countries in the world qualify as democratic. And surely that is an absurd result – the bar being put at such a high standard – and contrasting with the usual view that about 80 – 100 countries are democracies. In other words, if the US isn’t a democracy, hardly any country is.

And what about the causality argument? I agree it’s not insignificant, but supposing their findings are true, how much does it matter if average citizens don’t cause policy change directly, if they get the OUTCOMES they want 70% of the time? To put it bluntly – who cares about the causal relationship if the average citizens’s preferences are indeed reflected most of the time and only slightly less than the elites? Yes, that’s a pragmatic argument – and I agree that it would be a good thing to endow the average person with greater causal influence – but I nevertheless believe that outcomes, in an imperfect world, are, in the end, what actually matter most in people’s lives.

And on the question of checks and balances – virtually no country I can think of is a pure democracy today. The democracies that do exist are representative democracies where people are elected to make decisions on behalf of the population. Yes, it is an unfortunate fact that many if not most of the leading politicians in the US are part of the affluent elite – but still, the point is that they make decisions most of the time in line with popular will. And that is not counting the contribution of non-affluent public officials who presumably have some influence in representing the popular will. (And no, this doesn’t mean I am opposed to reforming the US political system, and reducing the influence of money – I am very much in favour of that.)

And checks and balances, in my view, make sense. In a democracy there’s a desirable equilibrium – you don’t of course want to make it impossible to make changes – that would then not be a democracy. On the other hand you don’t want to make it too easy – otherwise it would be very hard indeed to implement long-term policies if everything could be reversed without checks. And sometimes, frankly, the popular will SHOULD be resisted. For example, in the 1930s, solid majorities of Americans were opposed to allowing Jews from Nazi Germany to immigrate into the US. And mostly through history large majorities have been in favour of capital punishment, but the death penalty has become more and more restricted (and gradually public opinion changes – capital punishment becomes less popular.) So three cheers for checks and balances.

So in short – if the US is not a democracy according to this research – who the hell is?

NOTE: I am assuming, for the sake of argument, that the study methods and statistical analysis are valid.

A couple of extracts from the study:

1)
As noted, our evidence does not indicate that in U.S. policy making the average citizen always loses out. Since the preferences of ordinary citizens tend to be positively correlated with the preferences of economic elites, ordinary citizens often win the policies they want, even if they are more or less coincidental beneficiaries rather than causes of the victory. There is not necessarily any contradiction at all between our findings and past bivariate findings of a roughly two-thirds correspondence between actual policy and the wishes of the general public, or of a close correspondence between the liberal/conservative “mood” of the public and changes in policy making.42 Our main point concerns causal inference: if interpreted in terms of actual causal impact, the prior findings appear to be largely or wholly spurious. Further, the issues about which economic elites and ordinary citizens disagree reflect important matters, including many aspects of trade restrictions, tax policy, corporate regulation, abortion, and school prayer, so that the resulting political losses by ordinary citizens are not trivial. Moreover, we must remember that in our analyses the preferences of the affluent are serving as proxies for those of truly wealthy Americans, who may well have more political clout than the affluent, and who tend to have policy preferences that differ more markedly from those of the average citizens. Thus even rather slight measured differences between preferences of the affluent and the median citizen may signal situations in which economic-elites want something quite different from most Americans and they generally get their way. A final point: Even in a bivariate, descriptive sense, our evidence indicates that the responsiveness of the U.S. political system when the general public wants government action is severely limited. Because of the impediments to majority rule that were deliberately built into the U.S. political system—federalism, separation of powers, bicameralism—together with further impediments due to anti-majoritarian congressional rules and procedures, the system has a substantial status quo bias. Thus when popular majorities favor the status quo, opposing a given policy change, they are likely to get their way; but when a majority—even a very large majority—of the public favors change, it is not likely to get what it wants. In our 1,779 policy cases, narrow pro-change majorities of the public got the policy changes they wanted only about 30 percent of the time. More strikingly, even overwhelmingly large pro-change majorities, with 80 percent of the public favoring a policy change, got that change only about 43 percent of the time.

2) In any case, we need to reiterate that our data concern economic elites. Income and wealth tend to be positively correlated with other dimensions of elite status, such as high social standing and the occupancy of high-level institutional positions, but they are not the same thing. We cannot say anything directly about the non-economic aspects of certain elite theories, especially those that emphasize actors who may not be highly paid, such as public officials and political party activists.

Read the study.

 

 

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Who can we trust? The BBC? Mostly yes.

Well – I had embarked on this before I knew an election had been announced in the UK. The UK has very strict laws on election reporting – you literally have to count up the number of people in each party represented in a programme, a phone-in show, a magazine show etc etc during the official three weeks of the campaign. It’s a reminder that by law, (and by statutory obligation under the BBC’s licence fee arrangement) broadcasters are required to be politically impartial and balanced in their overall output. Which means that, (outside of election campaigns) while individual items or programmes do not have to be always meticulously balanced, the overall output of any broadcaster in the UK has to be. The same rules do not apply to newspapers. If broadcasters are clearly proven to be in breach of these laws they can be subject to censure, or being taken off the air.

I am writing this for various reasons – one of which is the following. I am disturbed at frequently coming across a kind of global scepticism: meaning a generalized distrust of the media, a distrust of official statistics, a distrust of experts, of scientific findings, coupled with a generalized distrust of government – encapsulated by the phrase “you can’t trust anyone.”

This is manifested, for example, in determined movements not to accept the following, despite overwhelming scientific evidence for all three

  • that vaccines are safe
  • that climate change is caused by and connected to human activity
  • that GMOs are safe for human consumption

This at a time when we have the most extensive array of human knowledge ever assembled, literally at our fingers tips, via the internet.

But anyway, this is more particularly a focus on what I perceive to be increased and more vitriolic attacks on the “lamestream media,” which I see as linked to this pattern.

I do not dispute that scepticism and questioning are healthy. I do argue however that certain kinds of global scepticism are not warranted and don’t make sense.

I’m also arguing that it is reasonable and rational to mostly trust that there are quite a few journalistic organizations out there who are committed to reporting accurately and impartially, even though they may fail in some instances.

I’m going to therefore disappoint the expectations that the title might have aroused: I am going to argue that the BBC is one those journalistic organizations that it is reasonable to put trust in. Its record, by and large, I contend, is of commitment to impartial coverage of events.

tvFull disclosure: I worked for the BBC from 1987 to 1998 as a reporter and producer.

I am writing this since I’ve become aware that the BBC, more typically under attack from the political right, which considers it pro-left biased, has recently come under more frequent attack from the left. It’s not entirely new – the Glasgow Media Group’s studies in the 1970s and 80s accused mainstream television – the BBC and ITV – of anti-left biased reporting on political issues, and I’ve read other reports from that period alleging the same.

More recently there’s been an attack from Cardiff University Lecturer Mike Berry and also the Media Reform Coalition – which criticized the BBC’s coverage of Jeremy Corbyn (current leader of the Labour Party).

I’m going to take a look at all of these reports in some detail. For reasons of time and space I’m not going to examine the right-wing attacks on the BBC – partly because I perceive that the latest left-wing attacks are somewhat newer and warrant more current attention.

But first let’s just remind ourselves that there’s a strong history of criticism from the right – saying exactly the opposite of the left-wing critiques: that the BBC is biased and pro-left. A recent example is the “Bias at the BBC” report published in the Telegraph.

There is also a thriving industry of right-wing websites devoted to proving that the BBC is left-wing – for example these two: biasedbbc and news-watch.  Then there’s this recent right-leaning report alleging the BBC’s bias in its pro EU coverage.  And again, there’s this fairly recent allegation by a Tory minister that the BBC has an anti-business slant.

wilsonThis pattern of attacks from both left and right is nothing new. In the 1960s Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson complained loud and often about the BBC’s alleged anti- government bias, as did Tony Blair’s government. On the other side, Mrs Thatcher repeatedly attacked the BBC – famously alleging strong bias in the BBC’s coverage of a bombing raid in Libya in 1985 – producing a detailed document of the alleged bias, which was then rebutted by a detailed reply from the BBC.

Sniping has continued to the present day. In short, it’s fair to say that pretty much every government over the past fifty years at least has complained about the BBC, whether they are Conservative, Labour or Coalition, all alleging that the organization is biased against their political positions.

(It’s hard not to note one of many ironies here. Internationally, according to surveys I’ve seen, the BBC is regarded as one of the most trusted and prestigious media organizations in the world. It’s arguably one of the most prominent contributions of the UK to the globe as a whole. This is not to say it’s never controversial – authoritarian governments from Russia to Sri Lanka tend to hate it and dismiss its reports. In Sri Lanka I heard the phrase “Bloody Biased Corporation.” The BBC’s crime? It reported extensively on the widespread persecution of Tamils by the government and army in the north east of the country.)

This is all to give some context and background. The standard BBC argument – that if both sides are criticizing the organization then it’s probably doing the right thing – doesn’t of course prove that the organization is not biased. However, it’s not an insignificant point. If criticism only came from one political side, I think one could reasonably argue that the BBC should be more worried and self-critical than it currently is. And the fact that it is criticized by both sides does open at least the possibility that the BBC is not kowtowing to either political grouping, left or right, and therefore equally annoys people with opposite political views. So I think it is reasonable to use this phenomenon as an indicator that’s worth noting, while not presenting it as something that is conclusive.

bbc 3Now I’m going to consider three instances of reports from left-leaning organizations, all alleging pro-right bias.

This report by the Media Reform Group argues that the BBC early evening news (and also later evening news) did not report fairly or impartially on Jeremy Corbyn during a ten-day period in 2016 following the mass resignations of the Labour shadow cabinet.  It should be noted that even this critical report acknowledges that the BBC’s online coverage was balanced, and that other parts of the BBC – and it names Newsnight and the Andrew Marr show – compensated by giving prominent air time to Corbyn supporters. So the report itself is not an indictment of the BBC as a whole, just of the evening news on television in that ten-day period.

The argument is that more hostile language was used toward Corbyn and his supporters, that more critics were interviewed, that greater air time was given to critics and the general slant of stories were negative. (The report also criticizes coverage by other press, newspapers etc but as mentioned these are not covered by the same requirements for balance.)

Drilling down a bit the actual statistics on the BBC early evening news, according to the report are these: the news featured 13 Corbyn critics against 9 Corbyn supporters, and gave nearly twice as much airtime to critics during the ten day period on the news at 6, while ITV news had a more or less balanced amount of airtime for critics and supporters.

The report also recorded a much greater proportion of negatively framed issue reports in this period, by the BBC. There follows a qualitative report on use of language, citing instances of negative language being used by reporters re Corbyn. So that’s the argument.

I am not asserting that there is nothing to the criticism. For me the most troubling is the amount of airtime given to critics (not so much the numbers of critics). It’s possible that the evening news did make too much of the critical side. I will return to this later.

However, I don’t find the rest of the report convincing. Firstly, most of the report is commentary by the lead guy, Dr Justin Schlosberg, not statistics and figures. And there are some problems with that. Schlosberg argued in a separate, outside commentary that everyone has political views and that’s fine so long as those political views don’t colour the objectivity of the report. I agree. But in fact the writing in the report (ironically enough) isn’t scientific or objective. Take this extract:

“Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the party less than 10 months ago with an overwhelming and unprecedented mandate from hundreds of thousands of members and supporters. He was elected on a platform of principled opposition to austerity, privatisation and the Iraq War” etc etc.

Beside the tone, the key word here is “principled”. That is not an objective word – it is completely evaluative and should have no place in a scientifically objective report. Again ironically, no BBC reporter could get away with describing a political candidate in a direct description as “principled” since it’s obviously a political endorsement. (For the record, I actually think Corbyn is almost certainly principled – but that isn’t the point – as a BBC reporter I could not, and would not, have used such an evaluative word.)

It’s fairly clear that Schlosberg is sympathetic to Corbyn – not a problem in itself – but, to repeat, as he himself argues, it should not leak into a credible report. And more unfortunately, Schlosberg made a statement during public discussion of his report that the BBC was a “mouthpiece for the right wing press.” That statement is significant since it isn’t supported by his own report, which, as I mention, DIDN’T accuse the whole of the BBC as biased, only the evening TV news (ie not radio, not the rest of BBC television and not BBC online). So this is a strong generalization not supported by his own research, which clearly reveals his bias, which did leak into the report.

That’s why I’m not inclined to give the report the benefit of the doubt on its qualitative selection of language used by the BBC. I’d like to see a proper quantitative account of the language used, from an unbiased source.

tv2There’s another major flaw with the report. It accuses the BBC of framing its reports negatively. But let’s remember what it was reporting on – an unprecedented crisis in the Labour Party in which large numbers of shadow cabinet members resigned, leading to an overwhelming vote of no confidence by Labour MPs in the leader. To my knowledge no such thing has ever happened in the party before, and was clearly a very significant crisis. OF COURSE the story was framed in a negative way – it was a major crisis! Arguing, as this report does, that the BBC was negatively slanted, is the equivalent of complaining that coverage of an earthquake or natural disaster was overly negative. It ignores how journalism operates in the real world: a crisis is legitimately reported as a crisis. If the BBC hadn’t reported it as a crisis it would quite reasonably be accused of being pro-Corbyn.

There’s also a logical fallacy to the argument: it points out that the BBC’s framing (ie how the stories were headlined and presented) was more negative than ITV’s. Does that, objectively speaking, mean that the BBC was biased? No it doesn’t. It might, perfectly logically, mean that the ITV coverage was biased and pro-Corbyn, and that the BBC’s wasn’t. The issue is that we are talking about two relative measures not absolute measures. How do we know, without further context, whether either organization was right to be either more or less negative. Is that nit-picking? No – a scientifically objective report would need to address that question. It doesn’t.

So overall, the report’s bias undermines its credibility. Most of the report is commentary, which reveals a lack of impartiality, though I do make an exception for one set of its statistics. It is of course ironic that a report that claims objectivity in its criticism of the BBC for lack of impartiality, actually lacks impartiality itself.

tvOK on to the Glasgow Media Group’s report “More Bad News” from the mid-70s. I read this thoroughly. The contention is that the BBC (and this time ITV too) gave more airtime to proponents of a particular view that the Glasgow Media Group disagreed with; secondly: that the media controlled the debate, rather than reflecting the debate, which was about the causes of inflation. The implication is that a media organization should reflect various opinions not set an agenda or try to lead them. Without getting into details, the report’s own figures clearly refute the report’s own contention. The representatives shown on the BBC of various views closely reflected the actual spread of views across the political spectrum on this issue.

Extract from my commentary:

They (Glasgow Media Group) state quite clearly in the intro, that the Glasgow Media Group believes that the principle underlying cause of inflation is the lack of investment in industry in the UK, leading to too much capital chasing too few goods.

Here’s where I think they go wrong in their argument: their principle point is that television news controls the debate – rather, presumably, than reflecting it. But let’s look at this in context: the Glasgow Media Group’s position can easily be identified with the left of the Labour Party at the time – very familiar to me, since I held precisely these views. The centre and right of the Labour Party, including the cabinet, and the major ministers at the time didn’t hold this view – and frequently stressed the need to rein in wage demands – to maintain the deal of the Social Contract. The Conservative Party had some slightly different angles, but also focused on excessive wage demands – especially by public sector unions. Thus the majority of the members of by far the largest parties focused on wage demands.

What do their own figures show about coverage (they cite both ITN and the BBC): – ie on the specific issue – what caused inflation at the time?

Main figures – 96 references to wage demand argument, with 12 rebuttals

33 references to lack of investment. 29 references to rise in oil prices; 22 government borrowing, 22 government expenditure (others much fewer)

Remember that the majority of the main political parties supported the wage inflation argument. These figures therefore show a pretty close and accurate reflection of the main political arguments. (Remember that the view that GMG is supporting is a clearly a MINORITY view). They don’t support the idea that the media controlled the debate at all – rather that they pretty accurately reflected the spectrum of opinion on this issue (crudely speaking).”

My conclusion from this was that the Glasgow Media Group had confused too things. They clearly disagreed with the main arguments being put forth on this subject, as conveyed by the media. That’s fine, anyone can disagree. (For the record, my views at that time were pretty much wholly in alignment with the views of Jeremy Corbyn, with the exception of the EU. I’ve moved to a more centre-left, social-democratic, Obama-like position in recent decades. As Schlosberg argues, that doesn’t vitiate my position, so long as my arguments are logical and objective.)

The problem is that the BBC’s role is not (obviously) to put out reports that people agree with, and, in the realm of politics at any rate, they are not obliged to put our reports that are objectively correct (since there is pretty much no agreement in politics on what is objectively correct on highly political and contentious issues such as – what is the correct level of taxes? Or how much should a government invest or borrow? Yes, philosophically-speaking there is, I think, a fact of the matter – but these issues are so closely related to values that in a practical sense it’s all but impossible to reduce these arguments to sheer, objective facts.) The Glasgow Media Group in my opinion clearly conflated and confused these two things. In effect, the report shows that the BBC faithfully reflected the balance of political opinion in the country at the time, as represented by the positions of the political parties, and the various wings of those parties – and it just happened that the majority opinion was one that the Glasgow Media Group disagreed with.

tv4As a general remark, I think this is a somewhat more subtle and nuanced example of a more widespread phenomenon that I see today: if a media outlet carries views you disagree with, you instantly dismiss it and loudly proclaim on the internet that it’s a biased and untrustworthy media organization.

Turning to the last and final left-leaning report. This is a report by Mike Berry of Cardiff University. I’m not going to go into this in as much detail, to avoid exhaustion, which may have already set in. Berry alleges, by comparing coverage of political events in 2007 and 2012, similar biased coverage against the left – namely that Tories get more airtime than Labour politicians, (and also secondarily that the BBC gives higher profile to people anti the EU). Extract:

“In strand one (reporting of immigration, the EU and religion), Gordon Brown outnumbered David Cameron in appearances by a ratio of less than two to one (47 vs 26) in 2007.

In 2012 David Cameron outnumbered Ed Milliband by a factor of nearly four to one (53 vs 15).

Labour cabinet members and ministers outnumbered Conservative shadow cabinet and ministers by approximately two to one (90 vs 46) in 2007; in 2012, Conservative cabinet members and ministers outnumbered their Labour counterparts by more than four to one (67 to 15).

In strand two (reporting of all topics) Conservative politicians were featured more than 50% more often than Labour ones (24 vs 15) across the two time periods on the BBC News at Six. So the evidence is clear that BBC does not lean to the left it actually provides more space for Conservative voices.”

Which is on the face of it damning. But then if you drill down into the original report that this is based on, it turns out that the report did not state the conclusions that Mike Berry did. In fact Mike Berry was just one of 21 researchers. So it seems that his article is like a minority report voicing his personal dissent. The fact is though, the original report does not slant the same way and is much more cautious and nuanced, as follows:

1“There is no clear statistical evidence of a change of approach between 2007 and 2012           to reporting the three topics – although there is a slight increase in the breadth of                   opinions represented across the years of our samples in BBC coverage of religion,                  immigration and the UK’s relationship to Europe.

  1. There is a striking dominance of party political voices in the output and topics analysed. This has increased between 2007 and 2012 in stories about the UK’s relationship with Europe, where the debate is dominated by British mainstream political positions.
  2. Although political voices dominate, and the ruling party has a larger share of voice, the Conservative dominance in 2012 is by a notably larger margin than Labour dominance in 2007 (although the two governments were at different points in the electoral cycle), and there is only a relatively limited presence of Liberal Democrats across both years.”
  • And then later:

This points to a cautious conclusion that Cameron was a more newsworthy opposition leader than Miliband in the context of the three topics, and that his coalition government has likewise been more successful in attracting coverage than the Labour leadership that preceded him. It might also reflect the tail end of a long period of Labour rule, with the opposition making ground, against the early years of a Conservative-led coalition government with the opposition regrouping.”

If you read the above, you realize that Berry has left out this very important caveat and qualification – that the reporting of the two governments (2007) and (2012) came at times when the governments were in different parts of their cycles – so that you are comparing apples with oranges if you draw direct conclusions from the numbers without this context.

tv3The last comment from the main report above raises an interesting question: perhaps some politicians are simply more successful, through their own personal and organizational qualities, at drawing attention to their policies than others. Abstract question: suppose, for the sake of argument, that one politician is objectively more effective, dynamic and a better communicator than an opponent. Is it the task of the broadcaster to obscure that? Or should the broadcaster reflect it in some way?

A second theoretical question is raised by all this. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that one group is supported by 20% of the population, and opposed by 80% of the population. How should a broadcaster report on this situation objectively? The answer is not straightforward. If the broadcaster gives equal weight to the opposing views, (in terms of framing, numbers of interviewees and airtime) couldn’t it therefore be reasonably accused of introducing bias – since the weight of opinion is not 50/50 – but 80/20?

The rough rule of thumb in political reporting is to give equal time – but is that always the right approach? I think there’s a rational argument that sometimes broadcasters should reflect differences of political popularity. A comparison that comes to mind, which admittedly is in a different field and not pure politics, is reporting on climate change: eventually broadcasters came under legitimate criticism for over-representing climate sceptics, when 98% of climate scientists had concluded that human activity was affecting the climate. Broadcasters were accused – rightly – of giving too much airtime to sceptics, giving the impression that the scientific debate was actually balanced between the two points of view.

This raises a separate issue. Are organizations like the BBC in some senses “too balanced” – or to put it differently, do they report with false equivalence between two points of view, when one of those points of view is clearly refuted by the evidence. This is Economist Paul Krugman’s complaint in the US: that the media give equal weight to views put forward by the Republicans and Democrats, whereas, in his view, the reality is that the Republicans are much more extreme than the Democrats in making false statements that are in direct contradiction with the evidence. So in his view media organizations are not reporting correctly if they give both points of view equal air-time.

This was further developed recently by economist Simon Wren-Lewis in the UK. He accused the BBC of the same kind of false equivalence in its reporting, by giving equal airtime to proponents of these two views: that Brexit would be bad for the economy – on one side, and on the other – that Brexit wouldn’t be bad for the economy. Wren-Lewis’s point is that a large majority of economists had concluded that it would definitely be bad for the economy, but the BBC persisted in giving equal airtime to the opposite view. Thus, in effect, giving too much voice to a non-factual perspective.

This is not, of course, the same problem as the earlier criticism of political bias – it’s more a criticism of a method, a clinging to balance, even when balance isn’t required or appropriate. But even though this isn’t the main subject of this article, I do have to take issue a bit with Wren-Lewis. Let’s think of the context – a hugely contentious debate, with extremely polarised views on both sides. What is a BBC reporter or producer to do in these circumstances, faced with an enormously complex issue? Most aren’t trained economists, so can’t truly evaluate whether Wren-Lewis is correct. The best they can do, if they see that a majority of economists agree with Wren-Lewis, is to report that fact (and I think the BBC did just this frequently) while still giving airtime to the opposing view. Maybe the opposing view should therefore have been given slightly less airtime than it was.

But also let’s consider the substance: economics is an intensely political subject area, with lots of disagreement on most issues; this was also an economic forecast which have frequently been shown historically to be unreliable – so therefore the BBC was arguably right not to treat it as settled science, like climate change. So even on the substance, the BBC has a right to defend itself on giving a fair amount of balance to the opposing views.

Again, if it hadn’t, it would have been deluged with intensified criticism that it was “anti-Brexit” or “Pro EU.” Remember I quote examples above of this criticism (but also examples, once again, of groups arguing the exact opposite – that the BBC was a mouthpiece for anti-EU views.)

OK so that’s a lot of discussion of reports and statistics. I’m now going to speak more anecdotally.

bbcAs previously mentioned, I worked for the BBC from 1987 to 1998. My views through this period were to the left – mostly very similar to Jeremy Corbyn’s. I think it’s true to say that in every single report I broadcast that had the slightest political content (and that was frequent) I included viewpoints that I personally disagreed with. This was especially true in reports which involved interviews with politicians.

The expectation at the BBC, very clearly understood, was that as a reporter I had to be really tough on any politician and to press them hard on any controversial point. I remember grilling Eric Heffer, the left-wing Labour MP on the party’s policies and outlook, and also pressing Edwina Currie on a local health service issue.

The point being, that in my experience over those eleven years, you simply had to be tough with politicians from any part of the political spectrum. I would have been called out and strongly criticized by my editors if I hadn’t. This is the culture of the BBC as I know it – that, in practice, you can’t let politicians get away with making their political pitches without strong challenge, and this absolutely applied if you were interviewing a left-leaning politician or a right-leaning one. This culture permeated local reporting and national reporting – and I would argue that pretty much anyone who has worked for the BBC as a reporter would recognize what I say.

I’m going to now turn to another report – commissioned by the BBC governors (at the time the body that oversees the BBC’s editorial independence) and carried out by an independent panel on the organization’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I turn to this because this is a good example of a highly contentious issue with strongly opposing viewpoints. I remember receiving faxes and comments on this story, more so than on anything else, when I was working as a reporter and producer, alleging that the BBC was biased toward one side or the other.

israel pThis was the Report of the Independent panel for the BBC Governors on impartiality of BBC coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, April 2006.

Their conclusions were as follows: (very briefly summarized)

  1. “Apart from individual lapses, sometimes of tone, language or attitude, there was little to suggest systematic or deliberate bias; on the contrary there was evidence, in the programming and in other ways, of a commitment to be fair, accurate and impartial;
  2. there are identifiable shortcomings. There are, in particular, gaps in coverage, analysis, context and perspective. … These included an absence of historical background and deficiencies in the provision of other contexts (such as the role of the wider Middle East in the conflict), and insufficient analysis and interpretation of some important events and issues etc etc”

I quote this report because, from my perspective, it rather accurately reflects my own experience of working for the BBC. Yes, there was an overall commitment to impartiality. But at the same time, reporters and producers have to produce pieces often under severe time pressure. Balance is crudely managed – grabbing a quick interview with the two sides. Above all, and this is a criticism that can be made of almost all news broadcasters, it was difficult to place things in an adequate historical and societal context, given the time constraints. So the praise and criticism of the above rings true.

Needless to say the above report didn’t assuage groups on both sides of the conflict or stop them from continuing to accuse the BBC of bias.

Because of the above considerations, a reporter is more likely to resort to the familiar and well-known representative of a point of view. There is a tendency therefore for an organization like the BBC to reflect a more mainstream and establishment range of voices. So if you are in a political group that is not in the mainstream, but is more to the left or the right, you are less likely to receive as much coverage.

So I think the BBC and others are “guilty” in practice of covering the more mainstream views in any society. Certainly if you are in one of those groups you are likely to see that as a defect.

But is the BBC wrong to more often reflect mainstream views? Remember the Glasgow Media Group’s argument that a broadcaster shouldn’t control the debate but should reflect it? I think that’s right – so a tendency to reflect the views held by larger parts of society is not, in my opinion, a defect.

So what could be done about that? In an ideal world, even more airtime would be given to political discussions, which would then allow more context and more room for smaller groups in society. Television, in particular, probably doesn’t do that enough – and a lot of the problem is simply lack of air-time and lack of time to prepare. If more air-time was given, more voices could be included. So it is a fair criticism to say that television could and should include a broader range of voices across the political spectrum.

Conclusions

So overall I think that the BBC does have an overall commitment to impartial reporting on political questions. However, it’s limited by the hasty pragmatic choices reporters have to make in day-to-day reporting which results in a lack of sufficient context and analysis, and means that political groups representing minority opinions don’t get as much airtime as an ideally informed public should get.

Reporters and producers are human and fallible. Even though the culture at the BBC is to press for impartiality, individual editors and reporters can and sometimes do nudge the framing back and forth in ways that are not wholly fair. The BBC does fail sometimes. Sometimes also it’s hard to be entirely objective when an overwhelming narrative has been developed in all media across the nation – including newspapers and online. It’s hard for a BBC editor or producer not to be influenced by mainstream thinking.

Mainstream thinking – as reflected by polls and the overall media environment – has generally not been sympathetic to Jeremy Corbyn. That’s undoubtedly true. As mentioned above, bloggers and newspapers are under no constraint whatsoever to be fair or objective, and they patently aren’t. It’s only broadcasters who are under that constraint, which in turn means they have an even greater responsibility to report fairly.

As mentioned before, the single statistic that bothers me in the reports above is the much greater proportion of airtime given to Jeremy Corbyn critics on the BBC’s 6 pm news in a ten-day period in 2016. (For reasons given I don’t find other accusations persuasive.) This might well be a prima facie case that this particular TV bulletin (and its editor) did give unfair coverage of Corbyn.

Let’s look at the context. Corbyn and the Labour party are in a major crisis. In my opinion that means that negative coverage is warranted of this event. However, a reasonable balance between supporters and critics should obviously be maintained. The context is – re support for Corbyn – that there are three basic constituencies:

party membership: strong majority in favour of Corbyn;

MPs in parliament: strong majority against Corbyn;

public at large (as far as polling indicates) strong majority against Corbyn.

So following my previous arguments, it might be reasonable for there to be somewhat more weight given to criticism and opposition, given this context and the story (a crisis). Let’s say a ration of 12 – 9 – very rough rule of thumb – might be arguably fair. The actual distribution of critics to supporters was 13 – 9 – which is just about defensible, but maybe a bit too slanted.

But, and here’s the rub, the airtime given, was a ratio of around 17 – 9, andI don’t think that is defensible. So in this instance, the report makes a fair point.

If so, the BBC did fail in this instance and the BBC should rightly be held to account for this. But let’s remember, even this report didn’t allege overall bias by the BBC – it said that BBC online was fair and balanced, and that other parts of the BBC – Newsnight and the Andrew Marr show – gave prominent airtime to Corbyn supporters.

So scrutiny of the BBC is welcome – in fact it’s vital in a democracy. Well-founded and evidence-based criticisms should be responded to by the BBC.

At the same time, I haven’t come across any convincing study or evidence that the BBC as a whole is biased politically. It doesn’t accord with either the historical record, the weight of the evidence such as we have it, or my personal experience.

And to conclude: impartial media organizations are, quite literally I believe, one of the most important elements of any democratic society. They are extremely precious, and are outnumbered by vast numbers of partial media outlets, (and by outlets that are deliberately focused on spreading propaganda and false information).

There is a place for partial, opinion-led outlets, but we do need also to be able to turn to media organizations that we can trust at least to be trying hard to report fairly. It personally drives me crazy to listen to a media outlet in which the only voices I hear are ones that I agree with and are not challenged. On the BBC political viewpoints are pretty always challenged – and that’s a good and valuable thing.

We should, in summary, hold media organizations like the BBC to account when they do fail. But we should also value them and support the tradition they represent – it’s an extremely precious and vital tradition.

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GMOs, Vaccines and Climate Change – yes, yes and yes. (Unpopular post)

Should we be worried about GMOs?

Yes, to some extent – well, we should be prudent: we need to keep monitoring and we need to keep vigilant – BUT – the overwhelming scientific evidence to date is that they are safe – and there have literally been thousands of studies on GMOs. To quote from one science-blog article these are the critical conclusions most scientists have drawn:

1) All the currently approved commercially available crops that have been brought about via modern molecular genetic engineering techniques are at least as safe to consume (and are at least as safe for the environment) as their corresponding non-GE counterparts.

2) There is nothing about the process of modern genetic engineering that makes unpredicted dangers any more intrinsically likely than would be the case with other methods of altering an organism’s genome (I.e. Selective breeding radiation mutagenesis, polyploidy or wide cross hybridization). 

Have there been studies that have found negative effects? Yes, there are a few – but most scientists see those studies as flawed or inconclusive, and they are massively outweighed by studies that concluded the opposite, as above. As an example, here’s a description of one particularly controversial study  that found negative effects – that has now been retracted by the publisher – the Seralini rats study on GMOs.

Of course it’s very difficult to prove an absence of risk – hence the need for continued vigilance.

What I’ve just written is hotly disputed by many – and I’m fully aware that when it comes to GMOs there is a large contingent – especially on the liberal left – who are vigorously opposed to this assertion. There’s probably more opposition to GMOs in Europe (although Europe’s main scientific academies say they are safe) and a number of countries have banned imports of GMO foods.

What is true is that GMO foods have totally penetrated the market in the US and we are, and have been, eating vast quantities of them for a long time.

But here’s where I’m going to annoy that large contingent. Let me quote this Pew Study in the US:

In fact, it’s not just an 88% majority of American Association for the Advancement of Science scientists who say that GMO foods are safe to eat, it’s most major national and international scientific bodies around the world – from the US, to Europe, to Australia, to the World Health Organization – that have concluded the same thing. See a partial list of such organizations here further down the article.

So the consensus among scientists re GMOs is similar to the worldwide consensus of scientists on climate change (98% according to some surveys) and on the effectiveness and overall of safety of vaccines (backed by by the overwhelming majority of scientists based on very large studies).

Needless to say, there are strong, very persistent groups who are totally opposed to all of the above: to vaccines, and also to the assertion that climate change is happening and is caused by human activity. (The political spread is different – I’d hazard a guess that anti-vaccine sentiment is evenly spread across the political arena from left to right, while anti-climate change is more on the political right).

Of course, this is very much the case with GMOs – just google GMO and you’ll find dozens of crusading groups who are furious that major scientific bodies are supporting the conclusion that GMOs are safe – or more strictly, that GMOs, which have been in very widespread use for the past several decades, have yet to be shown to have any discernible negative health impact on humans or animals.

And whether it’s GMOs, vaccines or climate change, it’s the same argument essentially in each case: the vast majority of scientists can’t be trusted because they have commercial pressures, or interests, not to tell the truth. So the claim is that there is a global conspiracy by the majority of scientists to mislead the public, fueled by big money from big pharma, agribusiness, and the medical establishment.

In turn, the critics turn to the minority studies and the minority of scientists – but also a large number of non-specialists – who argue that the vast majority of scientists are wrong.

gmo4Whose perspective is it more rational to give greater weight to? Who is more likely to be giving out information that is scientifically accurate?

I can see more reasons why GMOs are unpopular on the liberal left: they are produced by large agribusiness companies; there are issues around financial monopoly and patenting of genes; they are perceived as non-natural.  There’s also concern that they will damage the environment (but here again the scientific consensus is as follows: they don’t – or at least not more than other products).

I agree that commercial monopolies can easily be problematic, but that is a completely different issue to my question: are they safe or not?  It’s surely a mistake to conflate these two issues – or to allow sentiments about one to lead to conclusions about the other.

So let’s take an individual case in point – the recent wide-ranging study (essentially a study of studies – a systematic review) published by the National Academy of Sciences.

Their main conclusion:

The design and analysis of many animal-feeding studies were not optimal, but the large number of experimental studies provided reasonable evidence that animals were not harmed by eating food derived from GE crops. Additionally, long-term data on livestock health before and after the introduction of GE crops showed no adverse effects associated with GE crops. The committee also examined epidemiological data on incidence of cancers and other human-health problems over time and found no substantiated evidence that foods from GE crops were less safe than foods from non-GE crops.

It’s a vast study of decades of research. But can we trust it? I don’t disagree at all that it is legitimate to subject studies like this to scrutiny. Is the National Academy of Sciences trustworthy? Are the scientists biased, and do they have conflicts of interest because of close ties with the industry? If you read the web, you’ll find people asserting exactly this.

But to be as fair as I can on this – I’ve looked up the study – I’ve looked up who was on the panel; I’ve looked up who funded the research and I’ve looked up the procedure for appointing the panel and how they approach conflicts of interest. You can examine all this through the links below.

So please if you’re interested – follow up each link – read who is on the panel, google them, look for references; find out about the institutions sponsoring the panel and do your due diligence on those two – and let me know if you find something dubious.

Maybe no one can answer every sceptical question – but there’s an enormous amount of publicly available information there that anyone can assess.

I can’t myself claim to have done an absolutely exhaustive study of every single lead here, but from what I’ve read online I don’t see any significant signs of conflicts of interest – either with the scientists themselves, or with bodies funding it – but of course I could have missed something.

A note on the page about procedures: while saying they screen out conflicts of interests, they do in fact deliberately look for a range of different opinions and viewpoints on the panel.

Here you go:

And here’s an overview of the study, from a supportive point of view, from a blog I read frequently – Science Based Medicine – and here’s an NPR article on the research which quotes the chair of the panel.

I am not in any way arguing that ALL the issues have been settled – that would truly be unscientific – ongoing research and vigilance needs to be maintained – and here’s another article from Scientific American which gives a sympathetic hearing to one or two sceptics, while also referring to the consensus – but in addition arguing that dismissals of scepticism have been too harsh.

2009-026-global-warming-sceptics-final-wordI have a bigger point to make, and I’ve referred to it on other posts: I’m worried by a kind of global scepticism I come across fairly frequently: namely that you can’t trust ANYONE, not scientists, not researchers, not governments, not the media. But if that is the case we are truly paralysed. If we don’t trust that we can access accurate scientific results we really are in a bind.

Of course it’s true – in non-democratic countries, or in instances where scientists ARE hired guns for commercial interests (and yes it happens quite a lot of the time) that scientists aren’t always to be trusted. Yes – we need to be very wary of studies coming from unfree societies, or studies sponsored by commercial interests on crucial issues that affect our lives.

But are we really saying, in situations like climate change, vaccines and GMOs that very large majorities of scientists are deliberately and knowingly deceiving us? That they are ALL in thrall to commercial interests or political interference? If so, it doesn’t seem to be a world that I recognize. Perhaps I’m uncommonly naive, but from my own encounters with scientists, and from what I read, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that a very substantial proportion of scientists do research because they are interested in finding out whether various hypotheses are correct or not, and to get an insight into what is actually happening in the universe.

And another thought: if science has been completely hijacked by lackeys for commercial interests, how come it’s been so successful over the last five centuries? Surely if scientists were only working to a commercial (or political) diktat, rather than factual reality, science would have failed abysmally by now and been dismissed. (And since there’s never been a higher degree of scrutiny or public information sharing than in the present day, there’s reason to think that in the past science was quite possibly more vulnerable to commercial and political pressure – think of Galileo under house arrest, or the astronomer Bruno Giordano being executed after displeasing the Inquisition with theories that suggested that stars were distant suns with their own planets, among other things.)

Anyway, I’ve tried to give out as much information as I can – especially on that one influential study above.

And finally, I AM arguing there is an existing general scientific consensus on GMOs – whether you agree with it or not – since I have the impression that this state of affairs is not well publicised.

 

 

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Brexit is Brexit is exit?

euTheresa May the likely next Prime Minister said “Brexit is Brexit’ but it’s not going to be as simple as that, and in her own words, when she said that “government and parliament” should make sure it happens, she was in the same breath leaving the door open for parliamentary involvement. She also talked of continued access to and negotiations on the single market. Already some European leaders (Sarkozy for example) are talking about an accommodation, keeping the UK in the EU.

The situation as I see it is as follows. May says the UK won’t invoke Article 50, which sets off a 2-year timetable for withdrawal, until the new year. This is because once the Article is invoked it puts the UK in an extremely weak bargaining position, since the EU could simply sit us out and not agree to anything.

On their side, at the moment, for precisely these reasons, EU officials are saying “no informal negotiations” before Article 50. Why would they – throwing away their bargaining advantage?

Of course the UK does have some leverage -since the EU does want to maintain good relations and trade with the UK.

However, it’s inconceivable that May can negotiate continued full access to the single market without huge concessions on freedom of movement – which animated much of the vote against the EU. You can’t have your cake and eat it.

Additionally, in order to have access to the single market – or even somewhat free access to the single market – the UK will also have to abide by many of the laws and regulations that people fulminated against during the referendum.

The EU is not going to give the UK a free ride – of course not. Not only because it’s logical and reasonable to have to make reciprocal concessions to have the advantages of the single market, but also because the EU wants to make sure it’s known that there’s a price for leaving, in order to warn other countries not to.

So whatever she does, however skillfully negotiated, even supposing that EU officials will relent and consent to informal negotiations -which because of political pressures might indeed happen – she can’t present a fantastic deal: the more access she gains, the more it will be like still being a member of the EU, but without any say at all on EU policy; or she will have a bad deal which gives us much more limited access, but with fewer obligations to the EU.

Nevertheless, the government will spin this as a “good deal for Britain.” But there will be major factors making this a tough stance to defend. One: the very likely break-up of the UK which will follow -with Scotland leaving and a hornet’s nest opened in Northern Ireland. Two – very likely a major weakening, if not terminal destruction of the City – which will inevitably lose its power since it will be outside the EU, and major financial operators will naturally want their operations to be inside the EU. So there will be enormous pressure from many groups and interests – not least business – and enormous consequences for any proposed deal.

Obviously Remainers will be extremely critical of the deal – asking why it is superior to simply staying in the EU in the first place. And they will have a good point.

My best guess? There’s a 65% to 35% chance that the government will simply push it through, without a parliamentary vote – propelled by the continuing animus against the EU and the referendum outcome.

But that means there’s a 35% chance of three other outcomes:

  • A vote in parliament to approve or not approve the deal
  • A general election to approve the deal
  • A second referendum on the deal

It will largely depend on: how much dissatisfaction and pressure there will be around the deal. Whether a lot of people are calling for a parliamentary vote. Where the Labour Party is positioned. Whether, given a protracted and difficult negotiation process, people will begin to tire of the whole process and come round to thinking the status quo wasn’t as bad as all that. Whether European and EU politicians dangle some incentives before the UK to entice it to stay in – such as some kind of opt-out on completely free movement – a second tier of countries with different rules on this – as already mooted by some.

So a lot of things could happen – and as US officials are suggesting – which they wouldn’t if there was no possibility of it – there are still several scenarios in which the UK would remain in the EU.

PS – footnote: I suspect a key to this is the “free movement’ element – which I think is the core fear/animus/question in the electorate. If some kind of deal could be offered on this – from the EU itself (ie the two tier option, as Sarkozy is suggesting, allowing some to opt out of completely free movement,which of course would have to be a Europe wide deal, not just specifically for the UK) – I think the government would then have cover to say the referendum’s goals have been met – yay! – and could then say we we can proceed as a full member – thus obviating the other downsides – damage to the City; UK break up; recession and job losses caused by limited access to the single market.

 

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