Friday, 31 July 2009

Simon Singh denied leave to appeal

So it's official then. Mr Justice Eady's definition of "bogus" stands. Jack of Kent has the bad news:

Letters have been sent to the parties (but there is a post strike in London.)

Simon Singh needed PTA because permission to appeal had been refused at first instance at the preliminary hearing in May.

There are no further details yet, including reasons.

I understand that this refusal may now mean he can make an "oral renewal" before the Court of Appeal.

Disappointing, though not entirely unexpected (there had been rumours to that effect). However, all avenues may not be exhausted. And the successful appeals in the Desmond/ Bower case and this one concerning a bad opera review have demonstrated recently that appeal judges are no longer giving Eady a blank cheque. In the opera case, Lord Justice Keene (who turned down Singh yesterday) said that not overturning one of Eady's edicts would be "an abdication of judicial responsibility".

The British Chiropractic Association has issued a brief statement, stating that it "notes" the decision and "looks forward to concluding this matter in due course to allow both parties to move forward constructively". Is that an olive branch? The case has been a classic instance of libel "blowback", alerting many people to questions about the origins, claims and even safety of the treatment which had previously been little aired. Moreover, the claims that Singh drew attention to have disappeared from the BCA's website and from their literature. They no longer promote these treatments, it would appear, happily or otherwise.

Over the past couple of months, the case against chiropractic has been disseminated far and wide. The BCA's decision to defend their profession via the libel courts rather than through proper debate has caused incalculable damage to their case, while anti-chiropractors have scored a home run. This might not be entirely fair. The claims Simon singled out for criticism, after all, apply only to a small minority of chiropractic treatments; the vast majority of practitioners concentrate on treating back pain, in which even Ernst and Singh accept that it can be beneficial.

For balance, you might be interested in this point-by-point refutation of Singh's Guardian article by the dissident chiropractor Richard Lanigan. Lanigan writes that

I have practised in the same area for almost fifteen years, I adjust the cervical spine of the vast majority of my patients and I do not recognise the “dangerous” practise Simon describes.

Interestingly, he also says that he " would question whether the BCA leadership is the respectable face of chiropractic." Hmm

If Singh does decide to appeal again, one aspect of Eady's ruling he might like to take issue with is the following:

13. It is alleged that the claimant promotes the bogus treatments "happily". What that means is not that they do it naively or innocently believing in their efficacy, but rather that they are quite content and, so to speak, with their eyes open to present what are known to be bogus treatments as useful and effective. That is in my judgment the plainest allegation of dishonesty and indeed it accuses them of thoroughly disreputable conduct.

I disagree. "Happily", in the natural meaning of the adverb, need not mean deliberately and with "eyes open" - but, rather, the opposite. This struck me belatedly in the wake of David Cameron's little accident the other day. He happily used the word "twat", unaware that (for some people, at least) it is not merely a variant of "twit" but also has an obscene anatomical meaning. Happily, here, means "innocently". No doubt the BCA were equally innocent when they promoted those "bogus" cures. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 30 July 2009

An Afghan rumour

Yesterday The Times held an online debate on Afghanistan in which Matthew Parris, David Aaronovitch and Michael Evans answered emailed questions. It was predictable stuff - discussions of the Afghanistan mess tend to go round in circles, in fact the increasingly hackneyed nature of the debate reflects the intractability of the situation. But there was this fascinating response by Matthew Parris to one of the questioners:

Phil, though I don't buy this myself, I was fascinated to find, in Kabul, that a conspiracy theory very widely believed among Afghans who are not necessarily hostile to us, is that America/Britain could get Osama tomorrow if they wanted, and wipe out the Taliban from the air, if they wanted, but are leaving them in place as an excuse for establishing military bases there. Many ordinary Afghans just can't believe that with our superior military capability, we cannot remove the Taliban.

And why should they? I believe it. Asymmetric warfare rarely goes well. But the existence of such rumours shows what damage the campaign is doing to the West's reputation. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The government will resize your Mars bars

Oh dear, it's the "obesity epidemic" again.

Says the Mail, the Food Standards Authority wants to "persuade" chocolate manufacturers to reduce the size of their bars "by up to a fifth". At the moment, they're talking the language of voluntary agreement, but their long term aim is presumably some form of legislation.

The Mail reports:

By 2012 the watchdog wants all confectionary to weigh no more than 50g - currently Mars bars are 58g and Bounty bars 57g.

Manufacturers have also been asked to sell bite-size bars as single items rather than as part of multibags.

They will be discouraged from promoting large supersize items - such as the Maltesers 'Big Bag' and - Mars 'Duo' - and instead encouraged to offer healthier snacks as alternatives .

...The plans, drawn up in an FSA consultation, also propose that within six years, fizzy drinks should be sold in 250 ml containers instead of standard 330ml for most brands.

Where to begin? I don't want to turn into Devil's Kitchen (that ecological niche is, after all, sufficiently filled already) but this is insulting and unworkable in equal measure. It's based on several layers of delusion, about nutrition science, about human psychology, and about the purpose of official advice. It's also an open invitation on the snack manufacturers to rip off their customers by selling them less for (presumably) the same amount of money.

Chocolate bars (and cans of fizzy drinks) are the size they are for good reasons. They are the optimum compromise between the manufacturer's desire to make the largest possible profit and the consumer's desire to have a moderately filling snack. If they are legislated smaller, or perhaps made smaller because of a voluntary agreement, then they would no longer fulfil their function. Many people would respond by buying more, rendering the whole scheme counterproductive. In any case, the notion that some quango should be setting more or less arbitrary targets for what people should consume would be scary were it not so absurd.

The alleged obesity "epidemic" is largely nonsense anyway, and not just because fatness is not a contagious disease. As reputable scientific studies show, there's almost no link between being "overweight" - as defined by the notoriously arbitrary Body Mass Index - and health problems. If anything, technically overweight people actually live longer than those whose svelte physiques meet with government approval. (As waistlines expand, after all, so does life expectancy.) Of course, there's such a thing as being morbidly obese. We all know what that looks like. Morbidly obese people are susceptible to diabetes and heart attacks, and probably get less sex, but they are and will remain in the minority.

For the taxpayer-funded obesity industry, its government sponsors/stooges and the nodding dogs of the media, there's no distinction between the morbidly obese and the overweight. There's simply a continuum of pinguidity. Hence assertions like this (in the Mail):

By 2050 up to 60 per cent of Britons will be obese and the cost to the National Health Service estimated to reach more than £8.4 billion.

Note that "and", which implies, falsely, that it is the 60 per cent projected to be obese (via a statistical process so inaccurate as to amount to conscious dishonesty) who will be costing the NHS all that money. It isn't: it's the morbidly obese. But that's the whole point. It is not the great mass of moderately overweight or even borderline obese people who concern the government calculators, it's the fact that, with the rise in average weight, there will be more people who are morbidly obese. That's why they're set on a course of bullying the whole population into losing weight, even when there's no health benefit for the great majority.

Officially, this is just a "consultation". FSA's Gill Fine denied that her quango was telling people what to eat. "We want to make it easier for people to make healthier choices — to choose foods with reduced saturated fat and sugar — or smaller portion sizes." I suppose she means that if people have the option of a large bar of chocolate or a small one, they are likely to choose the big one. Taking away that option will therefore make it easier to "choose" the smaller bar.

Nor is it just chocolate bars and fizzy drinks. The FSA's press release warns that "later in the year there will be further consultation on dairy and meat products and savoury snacks."

The FSA (not to be confused with the FSA, another quango which is supposed to have something to do with regulating the City of London) was set up in 2000 with a large budget and ambitious aims. Like some other New Labour quangos (the Equality and Human Rights Commission springs to mind) it's a bit of a pantomime horse. Some of its work is essential - investigating food contamination and other serious public health issues - but it is also supposed to pursue far vaguer goals of public health with a major part of its effort devoted, where it is not handing down edicts, to "raising awareness". If you look up "nutrition" on their website you can get a flavour of some of their rich and varied diet, including:

"Healthy catering"

"Food competences for young people"

"The Cooking Bus"

"Advice for school governors"

"Let's Cook!" campaign

"The Sheila McKechnie award"

"Using the Eatwell plate", including "How the Eatwell plate differs from 'The Balance of Good Health' plate"

"Salt reduction targets"

"Signpost labelling research"

And so much else besides. The FSA strikes me as an excellent candidate for extensive liposuction when the cuts come in.

Here's how the FSA press release puts the Mars bar reduction strategy in context:

In February 2008 the Agency published its Saturated Fat and Energy Intake Programme, which outlined the actions needed to help consumers reduce saturated fat in their diet and balance the amount of calories they consume with their needs. The Agency’s programme identified four areas for action:

* improving consumer awareness and understanding of healthy eating with particular focus on the impact of saturated fat on health
* encouraging promotion and uptake of healthier options
* encouraging accessibility of smaller food portion sizes
* encouraging voluntary reformulation of mainstream products to reduce saturated fat and energy

Earlier this year the Agency ran a media campaign across the UK raising awareness of the health risks from eating too much saturated fat along with supporting advice on how to cut down.

Once the consultation is complete, comments will be taken into account and a summary of responses will be published. It is anticipated that the final recommendations will be published by the end of the year.

That's the way the money goes...
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Simon Singh's Banned Article

Today, Sense About Science is encouraging bloggers to republish Simon Singh's now notorious Guardian article Beware the Spinal Trap, which forms the basis of the British Chiropractic Association case against him.

Like most of those involved in today's stunt, New Humanist are a bunch of wimps:

As that original article is part of an ongoing legal case, there is no option but to edit out that section in this instance. Nevertheless, the piece retains Simon's key concerns about the validity of chiropractic in treating a wide range of conditions, and the potential medical dangers related to such practices.

I, however, am more than happy to post up the whole thing, which you can find in my dungeon. Further details of the mass-dissemination campaign may be found here.

As for the fate of Simon Singh's appeal, that remains uncertain, though there have been some depressing rumours. Confirmation either way is expected in a couple of days. I'll let you know when there's reliable news. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

David Davis's privacy arguments have no backbone

This is a guest post by Frank Fisher

If you're going to declare war on a corporation, you might as well pick on someone big, and at first glance David Davis has done just that with his Times attack on mooted Tory plans to scrap the NHS “spine” and store health data with Google. A spot of populist rabble rousing never hurts a backbencher's public profile, and with a target like Google matched to a lexicon of attack buzzwords like "privacy", "trust" and even "database", it's rabble rousing with a civil libs edge, and that's the flavour of the month. But a closer reading of a really quite finely detailed piece presents a much more nuanced and less confrontational picture.

For one, Davis doesn't actually dismiss the idea of private companies handling confidential patient records at all; he just wants a secure framework in which it might happen. For another, his arguments in favour of that tally less with the notion of handing the job to another, perhaps "nicer" corporation, like Microsoft (snigger), than with the prevailing mood for data storage/retrieval in IT circles; making use of the Cloud.

A wise stance, as scrap with Google if you like, but taking on the Cloud People is foolhardy. Those pushing for distributed storage aren't just doing so with commercial gain in mind, they're zealots. The Cloud isn't just a means to an end, it is an end. Distributed processing, distributed applications, distributed storage, distributed risk, distributed targets, distributed ownership - it makes a lot of sense, commercially, ethically, technically. But where it won't make sense is to government, to quangos, and to the civil, and not so civil, servants who figure a patient's data belongs to almost anyone except that patient.

Sadly, without an innovative and genuinely cutting edge approach from NHS IT providers and developers - and we've seen little of that to date - it won't make sense in practical terms for this particular application either. Why? Because unlike other personal data, health records must be accessible by third parties - even against the key record owner's will. You could be comatose, insane, or carrying an illness that might affect others beside yourself. Hey, get off your high horse, privacy advocates; medical ethics apply to patients too, I reckon, and harming another individual by withholding information... well I don't care if it is embarrassing or upsetting, it's a moral no-no. And because unlike other personal data, these third parties need uniform, regularised access to it, their unique identifier, probably your NHS number, should be able to draw on your records, no matter where you might have stored them: with Google, with the NHS, sitting in your shared P2P drive, anywhere else in the Cloud - and sure, that's doable. Place a secure escrow layer between your GP and your data that has your NHS number on one side, your data path on the other, and you have a nice smooth app that delivers flexibility, security, and gives you limited control of your own data. But it ain't going to happen - a cutting edge app developed by the NHS's favoured suppliers? These are the people who built the swine flu panic site in classic ASP...

No, unfortunately a more traditional answer will have to do - and that may well be Google, as Davis knows. And he sees the value in it. Let's look at one line again, where he's ruling out many of the ways in which Google could, but won't be allowed to, make money: “That means it should not be sold on, it should not be data mined for commercial insights, and it should not be used for targeted advertising.” Firm words. But in fact, the biggest money earner with this kind of data wouldn’t be any of those – it would be data mining for medical insights. A practice the pharmaceutical giants carry out every day. And that of course returns them income in the long run – but only when it benefits medical care – and wouldn’t appear to be ruled out in DD’s little list. Call me a cynic, but that’s no oversight. And a good thing too.

When therapies are becoming ever more targeted, when genetic groupings even at national levels are proven to work with or against certain compounds and therapies (as an example, there are compounds licensed for use in China that have no better than placebo value against the same conditions in European populations), when contra-indications are springing up unnoticed from products taken in combination, you really want the largest pool of patient data possible to sift, mine, crunch. An NHS archive would be extremely valuable for this. Hugely so. And is that a bad thing? Why? Altruism is supposed to be good, right? Why wouldn’t you want your data crunched, if it could benefit others? What harm would it do?

Anonymisable data stored with Google, Microsoft, or even in the Cloud would be a valuable resource – easy to imagine cash changing hands to get at it. For some this seems to produce an instinctive fear – anger even. But if they’d donate blood, why not data?

There’s a lot of tosh talked about privacy – and Davis is as guilty as any; people up in arms about Google Streetview, yet also annoyed that we can’t take a photo of a copper - reconcile those two views. Privacy is both an abstract and a practical concept; reality and theory, and it works for both you, and I. Both us, and them. In the field of medical information it seems to me that some necessary loss of privacy is legitimate, to advance medicine, so too is some degree of potential loss, for practical administrative reasons, to support data transfer, access, recovery. The big question would then appear to be, is the private sector more or less able than the public sector to deliver a working system that ensures privacy loss, and privacy loss risks, are as low as possible. The answer has to be a big vote of confidence in the private sector. I may not trust Google a great deal more than David Davis does, but I trust them a damn sight more than I’d trust the NHS.

©Frank Fisher
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Monday, 27 July 2009

Marian madness

Both the Telegraph and the Mail carry articles by Simon Caldwell about the defrocking of a priest who was closely associated with the supposed apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Medjugorje in the former Yugoslavia - a kind of spiritual Disneyland which has attracted millions of pilgrims over the past 30 years, despite being disowned by the Catholic church. He describes this as "a massive blow" to the shrine's many devotees, although they must be used to such disappointments by now. One might think that the Vatican would be keen to exploit the great faith-affirming (and money-making) potential of the Holy Mother's visits. But no. The church authorities have established commissions of experts, they have demanded scientific proof, and having found none they have pronounced the whole thing bogus (unlike, for example, Lourdes, which is completely genuine). Yet the pilgrims keep coming. And the Virgin is still delivering her messages. She and the pope are locked in a game of metaphysical chicken.

In truth, the row has always been as much a power struggle as a debate about the genuineness or otherwise of the apparitions themselves. The visions may be inauthentic - even, it is alleged, fraudulent - but, what is worse, they are unauthorised. Fr Tomislav Vlašic has been treated as a renegade for years now - even before the "miraculous phenomena" began in 1981 - but this new development brings to an end an investigation that began last year. Vlašic was confined to a monastery for the duration and, Caldwell reports, "he was forbidden to communicate with anyone, even his lawyers, without the permission of his superior." The spirit of the Inquisition is alive and well, it seems, and entirely unaffected by the European Human Rights Convention.

In the end, Vlašic gave up the struggle and jumped before he was pushed. Or perhaps he just begged to be let out. I've tracked down what appears to be the papally-approved document which was issued in March (on this forum) It's fairly hard-hitting.

It starts by referencing a "request" from Fr Vlašic to be released from his vows, but then goes on to describe the priest as "responsible for conduct detrimental to ecclesial communion, both within the doctrinal and the disciplinary ambit, and having incurred the censure of interdict". In other words, he has been both a heretic and a very naughty boy.

The Holy Father, it goes on, "has granted the petitioner... forgiveness of the incurred censure". However, the sting in the tail comes in the form of "a salutary penal precept - under pain of excommunication". He is "absolutely prohibited", not merely from exercising the ministry, but also from making any "statements about religion, especially with regard to the 'phenomenon of Medjugorje'". In addition, he is forbidden to stay in any property belonging to his former order, and any Franciscan superior who offers him a bed is threatened with dismissal.

Simon Caldwell was also responsible for a major hatchet-job on the Medjugorje circus last October in the Spectator. He described Vlašic, who acted as a spiritual adviser to the six original "visionaries", as "a genius at marketing the phenomenon in the West", but otherwise portrayed him as a libidinous con-man. Among the information he relayed was the following:

- In 1976, Fr Vlašic made a nun pregnant and packed her off to Germany, promising to renounce the priesthood and follow her. When he reneged, her landlord sent a copy of his love-letters to a senior Vatican official, one Joseph Ratzinger.

- Another local priest, Father Iveca Vego, was described by the Virgin in one of her appearances as a living saint. Shortly afterwards it emerged that, like Vlašic before him, he had made a nun pregnant.

- After he was kicked out of Medjugorje, Vlašic headed to Italy where he established a community devoted to the apparitions. There he "continued to party like a bad dog". He was accompanied by an Austrian woman who claimed to have been healed at the shrine and also by one of the visionaries, Marija. She left after a few months, however, allegedly after catching Vlašic and the Austrian having sex.

Caldwell concluded:

All the evidence indicates that the phenomenon is a calculated and cynical con. Medjugorje has grown wealthy and it is no coincidence that so have the seers. Some own executive houses with immaculate gardens, double garages and security gates, and one has a tennis court. Others drive BMWs and go on frequent foreign trips, and all have married — one of them, Dragicevic, to the former Miss Massachusetts, Loreen Murphy. It must have made Father Vlasic very proud.

There's another side to the story. The journalist John Cornwell visited Medjugorje about twenty years ago for a book he was writing and interviewed many of those concerned, including the local bishop who insisted that the whole affair was fraudulent and blamed it on the malign influence of the Franciscans (who had "been a nuisance to Rome for generations"). He was "neverthless convinced that despite the exploitation on the periphery, Medjugorje was an unusual focus of spirituality in modern times, one that outweighed the sum of his drawbacks." It "offered a message of hope" to "people who normally saw themselves as powerless, disenfranchised, helpless".

But that, of course, has been a characteristic of most great frauds throughout history.

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Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Heresiarch Twitters

After more than a year of prevarication, I've finally registered for a Twitter account. This is despite the fact that some impostor has long since swiped the name "Heresiarch". My updates, assuming there are any, will be found under the account name Heresy_Corner (with connecting underscore) and should also magically appear in the sidebar to your right.

I intend mainly to twitter/tweet/twittify things I've come across relating to the usual Heresy Corner topics, rather than personal minutiae, in which there is no conceivable interest for anyone. Having previously deliberately avoided the world of Twitter, partly because of its enormous potentiality for timewasting and partly because the 140 character limit is alien to my naturally verbose style, I've been converted by its undoubted utility as a news source. I hope both to give and receive.

I'm completely new to this, so I apologise in advance to anyone interested enough to follow my no doubt superfluous twitterings if they don't make much sense at first. I'd also be very grateful to any Twitterers out there willing to share tips on how to make this thing work and who is worth following. Read the rest of this article

Gatesgate 2

After his initial mishandling of the Henry Louis Gates affair - enraging police officers nationally by appearing to accept the "racial profiling" interpretation of the incident - Barack Obama seems to have recovered his poise and is now fulfilling his more familiar role as Healer in Chief. He has invited both men round for a beer at the White House. Whether that will prevent both parties from, in time-honoured American fashion, suing the pants off each other remains to be seen.

Lawrence O'Donnell in Time has the best account I've read so far of the incident. Why? Because he doesn't mention the R-word once. Instead, he concentrates on the real problem with Sgt Crowley's behaviour - that it was an all-too-typical case of a police officer abusing his power of arrest:

We have an uncomfortable choice with Sergeant Crowley. Either he doesn't know what disorderly conduct is or Crowley simply decided to show Gates who's boss the only way he knew how at the time — by whipping out his handcuffs and abusing his power to arrest. Police make the latter choice in this country every day, knowing that the charges are going to have to be dropped.

We all know that happens. That's why so much of the commentary about this case is obsessed with exactly who said what to whom in the Gates home that day. Most white, and some black, TV talking heads obviously believe that Gates was stupid if he actually exercised his constitutional right to say anything he felt like saying to a cop. Because they know it is not terribly difficult to provoke American police to violate their oaths and the law and arrest people for no legal reason.

The trouble started when Gates assumed - for understandable reasons, but nevertheless (I believe) quite wrongly - that the cop's request for his ID was racially motivated. His response was resentful, rude and insulting, and Sgt Crowley was probably justified in being offended by Gates's accusations of racism. But being rude to a policeman isn't, and shouldn't be, a crime. The trouble is that police (on both sides of the Atlantic) have a tendency to act as though it is.

Obama was right to describe the arrest as "stupid". But Gates was also stupid to get into a slanging match with a police officer, not because he was in the wrong, nor because he did anything to justify an arrest, but because being arrested is the predictable fate of anyone who fails to treat the police with anything other than cringing submissiveness. We might wish it were not so - I certainly wish it were not so - but anyone who comes into contact with the police is best advised to act like a young male gorilla would in the presence of a silverback, with lowered eyes and unequivocal gestures of appeasement.

On the race issue, KJB points me to a piece of fairly impenetrable prose on the blog Womanist Musings:

The impunity with which systemic Whiteness operates is normalized in order to portray Blackness as naturally deviant. Those of us that speak out against racism are too sensitive, determined to see racial issues where none exist, or are purposefully agitating an otherwise peaceful situation for the sake of personal attention.

I'm afraid I get an almost physical reaction to phrases like "systemic Whiteness", perhaps because I'm trapped into neo-colonialist hetero-normative modes of hegemonic discourse (though I like to think it's because of a preference for nice clear prose). But I also find it quite irrelevant here. I don't see how pointing out that there is no evidence of a racial dimension in this case equates to accusing Gates of "over-sensitivity". No one doubts the long and shameful history of racial conduct on the part of police, which still continues despite attempts to combat it. But that doesn't mean that any claim of racial harassment, however dubious, must be accepted simply because it has been made by or on behalf of a member of an ethnic minority.

There is also the evidence about Sgt Crowley that has emerged, which conclusively demonstrates that any suspicions of racism on his part are groundless. Not only has he personally taught an anti-racism course for the past five years, but (according to the Weekly Standard)

the Cambridge Police Department has long tried to mirror the city's cultural and demographic shifts. As one police officer said in 1997, after the appointment of the city's first "liaison to the gay community," the Cambridge cops are as diverse as the city they serve: "[W]e have a black commissioner, female deputies, black deputies, gay officers.

Cambridge PD sounds as politically correct as, for example, the Met. Sadly, as is all too often shown on this side of the Atlantic, being committed to the political agenda of "diversity" is no guarantee of common-sense policing.

Sgt Crowley has been publicly vilified as a racist cop, which must be both extraordinarily hurtful personally and potentially ruinous to his career. In this day and age, to accuse someone of racism is among the most serious charges one can make; it is not something to be bandied about casually - and certainly not by someone in Gates's elevated position.

Gates needs to apologise for calling Sergeant Crowley a racist, and Crowley needs to apologise for arresting a man for "yelling" in his own home. Easy.

Some commentators, undoubtedly, have showed an unattractive glee in accusing Gates of race-baiting or condemning his own behaviour vis-a-vis Sgt Crowley. Stephanie Guttman in today's Telegraph, for example, accuses him of "peddling victimology" and "making a living out of grievance" despite the fact that "Cambridge, Massachusetts is run by a black mayor (the second consecutive black mayor of the city), in a state with a black governor, in a country with a black president". She also maintains that the situation he found himself in was his own fault for answering back.

If one takes the subways in New York City, one has little flare-ups with harassed police officers often. I could have been arrested many times when something small I did attracted the attention of a tired, stressed-out officer and instead of quietly complying I’d chosen to make a ruckus. People who take the subway know how to behave - out of experience and out of empathy for a fellow human being, the cop on the beat, who has a tough job to do.

The trouble with that argument is that it amounts to blaming the victim. The fact that the police have a "tough job to do" doesn't entitle them to treat law-abiding people going about their ordinary lives with arrogant belligerence. That they increasingly think it does is one of the main reasons why the police no longer enjoy the respect they once did. And the fact that experience shows such a course of behaviour to be pragmatically sensible doesn't mean that anyone refusing to submit to this kind of humiliation is placed morally in the wrong.

What was wrong here, if predictable, was that race was ever made an issue. Now it may be, as I suggested the other day, that Gates's long and politically-engaged study of black history has given him an over-keen racism radar. I've even seen it argued, ingeniously, that after a long and distinguished academic career that has not notably been obstructed by racial prejudice he rather relishes having experienced first hand the victimisation he has hitherto only been able to write about. After all, in his initial statement Gates pronounced that the arrest had made him "keenly aware of how many people every day experience abuses in the criminal justice system". But that is by the way. Every case should be looked at on its particular facts, not on how it fits into some pre-prepared agenda. And the facts here are fairly straightforward. Gates's behaviour was understandable but unwise. Crowley's behaviour was unprofessional but, sadly, only to be expected. The fuss since has been wholly disproportionate.
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Friday, 24 July 2009

Afghanistan: preparing to lose?

Reports about the situation in Afghanistan in this country are ridiculously parochial, concentrating on British deaths - understandably, but to the exclusion of any real explanation of what is going on there, and why - a largely beside-the-point debate about the shortage of helicopters, and the statements of British ministers, with their evasive and constantly changing justifications for our involvement. But as the ever-perceptive Matthew Parris pointed out last Saturday, there real reason for our continued presence in Afghanistan is that the Americans are there, and how long our forces remain, and what they do, and what level of success they will ultimately be able to claim, all depend on the US. That isn't to say that the British contribution is negligible; far from it, it is, comparative to all other countries involved, hugely disproportionate. But it is, nevertheless, secondary. The Americans call the shots. As Parris put it,

It is not reasonable to suggest that Britain simply declare national defeat, turn tail and abandon our US ally at months’ notice....We British don’t stick the knife into a new and admired US President. We just don’t. There’s no point in recommending it.

Parris also suggested that the politicians and generals were well aware of what a mess the whole situation is, even if they don't, and can't, admit it in public. I'm not entirely convinced. He underestimates the vast capacity for self-delusion that most people have, the tendency to focus on positive news and the psychological power of "one last heave". But he's right, of course, that they are aware that all is not as it should be, and that they have to pretend otherwise. The constantly shifting justifications for the war are proof enough of that. What is it this week? The "domino theory", I think - the idea that if the Taliban aren't defeated in Afghanistan they'll walk over Pakistan and its half million strong army and seize the nuclear weapons. The region is now "AfPak", which is a little like calling the non-Canadian parts of North America Mexus. But don't worry, if you don't like that explanation there will be another one along in a few weeks.

But it doesn't matter what I think. It doesn't matter what Matthew Parris thinks, and it doesn't even matter what Gordon Brown thinks. What matters is what they think over in the States. And there are signs that war-weariness is setting in. The LA Times recently carried the assessment of Defence Secretary Robert Gates that "after the Iraq experience, nobody is prepared to have a long slog where it is not apparent we are making headway" and that "the troops are tired; the American people are pretty tired." At the moment the Obama White House is engaged on a major push, but if that doesn't work, it is quite possible that the ground is being prepared for admission of defeat.

Time highlights a report (pdf) issued this week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a well-connected think tank (and "no bunch of liberal do-gooders"). Its author, Anthony Cordesman, is a member of the Strategic Assessment Group set up by General StanleyMcChrystal, the new(ish) American commander in Afghanistan. He isn't entirely without optimism. "I believe that that the war can be won if the US and its allies act quickly and decisively", he writes. But his assessment of the current situation is bleak. The war, he thinks, "now has five, not one, centers of gravity" - six, if you include Pakistan. Indeed, "the situation has deteriorated into a crisis where the Taliban and other Jihadist movements are now winning."

Even Cordesman's assertion that the war can be won is two-edged: the theory only works if you accept that it has thus far been a comprehensive failure and are prepared to accept a major escalation. He pulls no punches on that score:

Years of chronic underresourcing, failures by the Afghan central government, corruption and waste on all sides, a lack of effective civil-military cooperation and anything approaching a real-world unity of effort within the US team, NATO/ISAF, and UN and international agencies have had serious costs. So have past efforts to deny the scale of insurgent success...

The USA and its allies have been "living in a world of politically correct denial about the dangers, waste, and ineffectiveness" Cordesman claims. He is scathing of politicians who talk only of nation-building and supporting the Afghan authorities (such as John Reid's notorious comment about wanting to be able to leave "without a shot being fired", perhaps): "The failure to treat war as war, and the resulting focus on individual national political interests, is an act of political and moral cowardice on the part of the governments involved".

To turn the situation around, he thinks, will require a far greater commitment of resources - which means, primarily, US resources. It will also mean a trebling in size of the Afghan army to almost a quarter of a million men, and a thoroughgoing reform of the Afghan state, which isn't just corrupt and underdevelopedbut, in many areas of the country, practically non-existent.

He is especially blunt about the deficiencies of the Karzai government. "Corruption and abuses by power brokers are so pervasive that they have widely discredited the Afghan national government" he comments. The Kabul regime is so bad, indeed, that it is almost as dangerous as the Taliban.

The threat does not simply consist of insurgent movements like the Taliban and Al Qa’ida. It consists of a central government and many elements of provincial and local governments that now lack capacity at many different levels. It is a government whose real and perceived excessive corruption, ties to informal power brokers, and links to narcotics trafficking and organized crime have severely undermined its popular legitimacy -- regardless of the fact that the central government is elected. Just as there are no purely military solutions to counterinsurgency, there are no solutions where the host government fails its people. The NATO/ISAF and US mission face the equivalent of two threats rather than one.

Then there is "the self-destructive lack of unity of effort" between the various governments and NGOs involved in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. There is he writes "an unforgivable lack of transparency and integrity in the US and international aid community, sometimes mixed with direct corruption."

And then, of course, there is the additional problem of Pakistan, many of whose "actions are ambiguous at best". He also warns of possible "spoiler operations by Iran".

His conclusion is fairly stark: "Provide adequate resources or give up and leave". And his definition of "adequate" is

adequate manpower and adequate funding over a period of years and major funding for at least the next four to five years. In practice, the US must also deal with the reality that most of the new resources will have to come from the US and that this will probably require substantial increases in US forces beyond those that President Obama and the Congress have so far committed.

In other words, even the major escalation that Obama administration has already announced - and which he has had trouble getting through Congress - is not going to be enough. Not nearly. In addition to troops, Cordeson advocates a programme of rebuilding (indeed, building) Afghanistan, by-passing the official government and so ambitious that it would amount (though he doesn't admit it) to a full-scale colonial occupation. It sounds just too much, and perhaps it is intended to. Even while pouring resources into the country, he says, the US and its allies should be "planning for the possibility of failure". The "odds of success are not yet good" he writes, "and failure is all too real a possibility". And, indeed, "defeat is excusable", even if failing to warn "that it is probable" is not. Cordesman provides a list of ten things that are likely to go wrong. Of these, he identifies two as the most probable causes of any eventual failure. First, the strong possibility that "the corruption, predatory behavior, and failure to meet the needs of the Afghan people will grow worse after an election that many Afghans perceive as rigged to the point of being illegitimate or meaningless". Secondly that

The US and NATO/ISAF nations will continue in the tendency to deny the extent to which a crisis exists, to claim unrealistic successes, and promise more than NATO/ISAF and the US can deliver....Every denial of this reality for political reasons will further compound the risk of defeat. The US, NATO/ISAF, UNAMA face a serious risk of defeating themselves and this risk will require constant attention.

Cordesman may believe that the war is winnable, but he manages to make it sound like a lost cause.
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Thursday, 23 July 2009

Desmond's Defeat

There is much jollity this evening at the news that Express owner, publisher of softcore magazines and sometime New Labour donor Richard Desmond has failed in his libel action against author Tom Bower. Bower had made various claims that Desmond objected to in a book about the jailed former Telegraph owner Conrad Black - that Desmond had been forced to apologise to Black over some matter, for example. The alleged defamation, from what I can gather, lay in the notion that a newspaper proprietor - especially one with Desmond's reputation for ruthlessness - could be a wimp. He also claimed (under oath) that a press baron would never use his newspaper to settle scores with a business rival. "It's quite difficult to think of a more defamatory allegation to make against the proprietor of a newspaper" his counsel told the jury - hilariously, it might be thought. Private Eye has the full story - with more to follow in a fortnight's time.

In some circles, the result of the case is also being chalked up as a defeat for journos' least favourite judge. Roy Greenslade implies that Eady showed undue partiality towards Desmond, preventing some evidence of his character faults from going before the jury. Some of Eady's rulings were overturned by the Court of Appeal - which is unusual. This must be a good omen for Simon Singh. Greenslade - who gave evidence on Bowers' behalf - mentions some of the things that weren't mentioned in court:

For example, the jury could not hear about Desmond's extraordinary behaviour towards Telegraph Media Group executives in April 2004, when he launched into a Nazi tirade.

At a meeting to discuss the companies joint ownership of a print works, he called TMG's then chief executive, Jeremy Deedes, a "miserable little piece of shit" and said Germans were "all Nazis". But Deedes was prohibited from telling of that incident in court.

Similarly, jurors were prevented from hearing the testimony of the former Daily Express night editor, Ted Young, who claimed he was punched by Desmond during an altercation about a story Desmond said should have been published.

That incident, in September 2004, led to Young being paid a six-figure sum in August 2005 on the eve of an industrial tribunal hearing.

Greenslade also chooses to highlight the information (also ruled inadmissable) that Desmond is held in "contempt" by other proprietors and editors - such as the Mails' Paul Dacre who thought it "a very sad day" for the newspaper industry when he "was allowed to buy "a once great newspaper". I'd have thought being criticised by Paul Dacre was a badge of honour. In his speech to the Society of Editors last year Dacre waxed lyrical about the greatness of the Express in the days when his father worked for it, when its pages were filled with book reviews "with barely a nod to literary criticism" and readers' letters which captured "the tears, the tribulations, the laughter, the quirks and the wisdom of everyday family life" , but which turned out to have been ghost-written by the hacks.

The report in the Express is just hilarious.

RICHARD Desmond, Chairman of Northern and Shell, which owns the Daily Express and Sunday Express newspapers, tonight expressed satisfaction at the end of his three week High Court battle against the journalist Tom Bower.

Satisfaction? He lost. Even the defence counsel thought he might win on a technicality, inviting the jury to award Desmond symbolic damages of no more than the 40p cost of the newspaper

Mr. Desmond said: “I sued Mr Bower for defamation because he made inaccurate and damaging allegations about me, yet he refused to apologise and publish a correction. Bower made a series of errors about events and timings and even got the name of one of my newspapers wrong.

That's not what the jury concluded.

"His biggest mistake was in thinking I would not go to court to uphold my reputation and the resulting action has cost many hundreds of thousands of pounds to defend a few ill-thought-out remarks that were not even essential to his book.”

Bower will be awarded his costs.

Mr. Desmond concluded: “It was worth it to stand up in court and set the record straight.”

And have the full, devastating accounts of his behaviour splashed all over tomorrow's papers. I'm sure he thinks it was worth it.

English libel law has many faults, but one of its better aspects is the frequent (though not inevitable) involvement of a jury. Defamation is ridiculously easy to establish in strict legal terms, but where ordinary jurors are involved there's at least a strong possibility that common sense will prevail.
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Wednesday, 22 July 2009


A racist incident, in the immortal words of the MacPherson report, "is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person." By that token, what happened to Henry Louis Gates Jr outside his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts last week was certainly a racist incident. Indeed, if the officer's report is to any degree accurate, almost the first thing Professor Gates - Skip to his numerous friends and admirers - said to Sergeant Crowley (who was attempting to ascertain his identity) was: "Why, because I'm a black man in America?" Thus began a steady escalation of emotion (if not violence) on both sides which ended with the 58 year old academic being handcuffed and bundled into a police car. He was later released, and yesterday all charges were dropped. The bad feeling it has engendered will take much longer to clear up.

Racist or otherwise, the incident has been commented upon everywhere, but the facts remain contested, even obscure. There have been inevitable contributions from reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who saw - as Gates himself did - the arrest in the wider context of US racial tension. "The charges have been dropped, but the stain remains," orated Jackson. "Humiliation remains." And the humiliation - he didn't need to say it - was the humiliation born of three hundred years of slavery and a further hundred of racism and poverty as much as it was the humiliation of a middle-aged professor. Indeed, whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, Gates's experience sounds comparatively trivial.

"If you have ever met Skip Gates, as I have, the idea that such a distinguished and refined gentleman could partake in any illegal activities is simply laughable," writes Lola Adesioye on CIF. On the other hand, Damian Thompson (from whom I first learned of the incident) thinks Gates "self-important" and someone who "has never been slow to allege racism". On that reading, the allegation of racism is a red herring at best, and possibly a deliberate stunt on the part of a man whose predicament was largely his own fault.

Such an interpretation relies heavily on the accuracy of the police report, which you can see here - and that, of course, is the problem. Crowley states that he was alerted by a neighbour, who had seen what appeared to be "two black males" breaking into a house (Gates's own). That is not in dispute. But between that and the moment of Gates's arrest there is considerable scope for disagreement. Crowley describes Gates as abusive, uncooperative and even threatening; making unfounded accusations of racism, constantly "yelling" at the officer and warning him that "You have no idea who you're dealing with". Gates responds that he was merely trying to gain access to his own property (he had locked himself out); that he walks with a cane and thus posed no sort of threat to the much younger policeman; that he feels "outraged"; and that the incident makes him "so keenly aware of how many people every day experience abuses in the criminal justice system". Today we learn, to little surprise, that he is consulting his lawyers.

Who is telling the truth? Perhaps they both are. Gates, who had just returned from China, may have been in an unusually irritable mood - and being unable to open his front door is unlikely to have improved his temper. He may have been unaware that he was behaving in an overbearing and unreasonable manner. And perhaps he was also less inhibited than he would ordinarily have been in the presence of a police officer who, while not a famous Harvard professor, did have the power of arrest. For, even if he was entirely in the right, his behaviour seems unwise. When faced with someone holding a warrant badge and, in America, a gun, even the most distinguished professor is at a disadvantage.

As for Sgt Crowley - well, even if he were more aggressive than he suggests in his report (which is quite likely) he would scarcely be the first police officer, on either side of the Atlantic, to speak to respectable citizens as though they were hooligans. Some police officers enjoy the power; for others, rudeness seems to be a default mood. In this case, Gates was not merely making loud accusations of racism (to which he expected the sergeant to immediately defer), he was abusing his position as a Harvard professor to overawe a social inferior. Of course Crowley shouldn't have risen to the bait; but that doesn't make him a racist, merely a typical police officer.

That Henry Louis Gates should have interpreted Crowley's challenge as racist isn't surprising, though. Gates isn't just black (African-American, if you insist). He's a professional analyst of the black experience. And he has always been a politically-engaged scholar. He is, perhaps, primed to see racist behaviour where there is none. And in this particular case, whatever else may happen on police patrols in the United States (or over here, for that matter) no evidence of racism has thus far been provided. You don't have to be black to be mistreated by the police - although, admittedly, it helps.

Would a white professor have been treated in this way? I can easily believe that he would. A couple of years ago, the distinguished Anglo-Spanish historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto was attending a conference in Atlanta, Georgia when he was arrested for jaywalking. "There was no traffic in sight and no danger to me or anyone else", he later recalled. Nor was he aware that he had done anything illegal. What happened next was "shocking, traumatising and deeply educational":

A young man in a bomber jacket accosted me, claiming to be a policeman, but with no visible evidence of his status. We got locked in mutual misunderstanding, demanding each other's ID. I mistook the normal attitude of an Atlanta cop for arrogance, aggression and menace. He, I suppose, mistook the normal demeanour of an ageing and old-fashioned European intellectual for prevarication or provocation.

His behaviour baffled me even before he lost patience with me, kicked my legs from under me, knocked my glasses from my nose, wrestled me to the ground, and with the help of four or five other burly policemen who suddenly appeared on the scene, ripped my coat, scattered my books in the gutter, handcuffed me, and pinioned me painfully to the concrete.

I was bundled into a filthy paddy-wagon with some rather unsavoury-looking fellow-prisoners and spent eight hours in the degrading, frightening environment of the downtown detention centre, with no humiliation spared: mugshot, fingerprinting, intrusive search, medical examination, and the frustration of understanding nothing: neither why I was there, nor how I might get out.

Fernandez-Armesto was not the victim of police racism. He was the victim of police insensitivity, arrogance and bullying. He seems to have had a far worse time than Gates did - and for less reason. But, despite the urgings of everyone including the judge who dismissed the case against him he declined to sue the police. He "had no stomach for such a hostile and elaborate strategy".

More fool him.
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Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Decoding the DNA database

The British government is currently trying to circumvent a demand by the European Court of Human Rights that it reduce the scope of its beloved DNA database. In May, it launched a "consultation exercise" (pdf) setting out its response to the Strasbourg ruling in S and Marper. The two plaintiffs in that case, who had been arrested but not convicted of any crime, successfully argued that for the police to retain their DNA profiles indefinitely breached their human rights. The court ruled that their DNA, and that of people in their position, be removed.

The government's minimal proposal is to delete DNA details - where the arrest was for a relatively minor offence - after six years (or twelve, for more serious offences). It's hard to see how this meets the requirements of the EHCR judgement. S and Marper themselves would not have had their profiles removed from the database if these rules had been in force - and yet the court upheld their claim on the grounds that to retain them was disproportionate.

In its attempt to justify the largest possible database, the government has resorted to some questionable science - claiming, for example, that people who are arrested and cleared are as likely to commit future crimes as those who are convicted. Ben Goldacre has convincingly demolished their case, as have professors Keith Soothill and Brian Francis. Goldacre calls the consultation paper - which draws on work by the criminologist Prof. Ken Pease (to whom we shall return) - "possibly the most unclear and badly presented piece of research I have ever seen in a professional environment". His Bad Science blog and Guardian column usually concentrate on journalistic exaggeration, scaremongering and cut'n'paste reproductions of press releases; for the Government to be guilty of such shoddy work, in an area of such importance to both crime prevention and civil liberties, is frankly alarming. If not entirely without precedent. It is a criminological dodgy dossier.

Some of the most perceptive criticisms of the Home Office's approach - albeit expressed in appropriately judicious language - were contained in a speech made last month by Mr Justice Beatson (pdf).

The judge points out that the Home Office proposals fail to address many of the ECHR's concerns - as they are legally bound to do. He notes, for example, that to take into account the ECHR's reasoning "would require an assessment of the legitimate needs of privacy and autonomy" - something which appears not to have been done, apparently a deliberate ommission. Nor does the consultation paper address the ECHR's criticisms of the effect on the presumption of innocence of blanket DNA retention. The principle that one is innocent until proven guilty is the jewel in the crown of English jurisprudence, one of our nation's greatest gifts to the world. Now it has to be imposed on the government by a court sitting in a foreign country. It's too depressing for words.

Justice Beatson also notes the contradiction between the report's claim to be based on evidence and the figures of 6 and 12 years, which it describes merely as "a commonsense approach". Most damningly, he comments that "It is not apparent from the Consultation Paper whether [Pease's] research has been subjected to the normal scientific peer review that is a prerequisite of academic respectability." The findings of Soothill and Francis come close to peer review, and they are fairly devastating. Their main criticism is based, like Goldacre's, on the document's questionable use of statistics. But they make some broader points, too. For example:

The notion of “arrest” is the main criterion used for action in the consultation document. While police arrests are not whimsical, they come at the beginning and not the end of the criminal justice process. Some people are disproportionately at risk of being taken into questioning by the police and being arrested. In contrast, a conviction is the outcome of evidence being tested in court. In fact, arrests are useful indicators of police action but not of guilt. Re-arrests are dangerous indicators and making arrests the pivotal criterion encourages the notion that we are moving towards becoming a police state.

Southill and Francis are also struck by a confusion "between two types of discourse - a discourse relating to crime and a discourse relating to criminals" and by "a remarkable lack of discussion about persistent criminals". This, though, is no accident, as I hope to show.

The Home Office admits that the ECHR ruling requires that there is a distinction between people convicted of an offence and those merely arrested. Yet their proposal - to retain all profiles, however obtained, for six years - makes no such distinction (except one of time). Legally innocent people will continue to be regarded, as Soothill and Francis put it, as "honorary criminals". And, reading the lengthy document, it becomes clear why: in their view, there is no distinction. Acquittal, or even a decision not to press charges, is irrelevant. They appear to believe that only habitual or potential criminals get arrested - or else that everyone is either a criminal or a criminal-in-waiting.

Many people who get themselves arrested, however, are not criminals in any meaningful sense of the term. Some may be perfectly innocent bystanders who get mixed up in an incident simply by being there. Others may be peaceful protesters, or public spirited citizens tackling antisocial behaviour (in such circumstances, the police's general practice is to arrest first, ask questions afterwards), or victims of mistaken identity or malicious allegations. They may be leakers of official documents, or people otherwise caught up in political shenanigans (Ruth Turner, Damian Green, Lord Levy). They may be like the Southport teenager arrested because he found a mobile phone and handed it in to the police. They find themselves on the database despite being no threat to anyone.

This isn't to deny a correlation between being on the database and propensity to commit crime. Obviously a high proportion of arrestees will be of dubious character. The large, though decreasing, number of people who manage to go through life without ever being arrested are more likely to be law-abiding, if perhaps somewhat timid. But for any given individual, having been arrested is not a marker for anything. This doesn't mean, of course, that there will not be cases of people arrested for a minor offence who turn out to be serial rapists, and whose sample, given on arrest, leads to their conviction on a serious charge. There have been such instances - in one case, a man was convicted because the police held a DNA sample from his sister. But such instances are (however welcome) statistical quirks. The vast majority of people whose sisters are arrested do not turn out to be rapists or murderers. Media concentration on such cases distorts public perception, perhaps deliberately so.

The larger the database, moreover, the greater the chance that it will produce miscarriages of justice. There may be "false positives", especially if DNA found at a crime scene is fragmentary; or a person's DNA may be present at a crime scene quite legitimately (if it's a pub, they might have had a drink there) - but because they are already "on the database" they will be regarded with automatic suspicion.

But none of this matters to the Home Office, which has long since stopped thinking in terms of individuals and cares only about actuarial justice. The prevailing criminological doctrine is something known as Rational Choice Theory - a way of thinking about human behaviour borrowed from economics, and which asserts (to simplify) that people act in utilitarian ways to maximise their advantages. Other things being equal, the theory assumes, if you see a wallet lying on the ground, and there are no CCTV cameras watching, you will steal it. To quote a leading study of the subject, RCT "views all individuals, regardless of their social background, as capable of crime, and approaches its preventative measures without identifying any crime-prone group". Hence anyone who happens to be on the database is equally suspect.

The ultimate origins of RCT are found in the work of some post-Enlightenment thinkers, above all Jeremy Bentham, although its modern incarnation relies on the mathematical modelling made possible by modern computers. For most of the Twentieth century, such ideas were shunned in favour of "dispositional" theories of crime, which concentrated on the criminal: what made people criminals, and how they could be reformed and rehabilitated. RCT and its practical offshoot, Situational Crime Prevention, aren't interested in criminals (because everyone is or could be a criminal) but in crime as a kind of social hazard to be combatted via managerial techniques - a bit like swine flu.

This approach is not, of course, confined to the world of criminology. As Keith Haywood puts it (pdf),

One aspect of the ‘wider context in which crime occurs’ germane to discussions of RCT and SCP is the roll-out of neo-liberal forms of governance and control and the accompanying cultures of risk and resource management. Increasingly prevalent across the spectrum of social life, from primary education to health care, these managerial, ‘government-at-a-distance’ techniques frequently incorporate the principles of rational calculation and interest maximization in their analyses. The result is a totalizing language that speaks not of difference, contradiction or alternative moralities and subjectivities, but of a single, unquestioned rationality that sets itself up as the enemy of all forms of ‘irrationality’.

Haywood contends, unarguably in my opinion, that RCT is based on a "sociologically hollow narrative" about human behaviour.

You will not, I hope, be too astonished to discover that Home Office favourite Ken Pease, whose work forms the basis of the consultation paper on DNA retention, is a leading proponent of such methods. Haywood calls him "one of the high priests of the neo-classical revival". Elsewhere, Pease has argued that crime is best tackled by such techniques as "embracing crime-reductive design", promoting birth-control and even abortion (statistically, the products of unwanted pregnancies are more likely to grow up to become criminals). Rehabilitating offenders, by contrast, is relatively unimportant, because it "seems to be less profitable in reducing levels of crime, at least within the range of intensities of intervention which are routinely practicable" (No Through Road, 2006, pdf). Better that potential criminals are never born, he seems to believe, - although, of course, that would mean aborting the "innocent" along with the "guilty". But - hey - fewer crimes. Chilling.

Pease also quotes with approval the words of Prof Per-Olof H. Wikström:

The key suggested inhibiting mechanism is conceptualized as deterrence, defined as the perceived risk of intervention, and associated risk of sanction if acting unlawfully in pursuing a temptation or responding to a provocation. Deterrence occurs in response to monitoring. The potentially deterrent effect of monitoring is influenced by the individual’s executive functions, through the self-control exercised.

In other words, people will only be good if they are being watched. Human beings tend naturally towards evil.

In the Home Office document, Pease interestingly chooses to speculate about the possible deterrent effect of being on the database . He has, he writes, sought published work on this issue "but can find none. It seems important to remedy this." Research over many years, as he is well aware, has failed to show a strong deterrent effect even for capital punishment. But that's scarcely the point. If the purpose of the DNA database is to catch criminals, then it would be more effective - cheaper, faster and less prone to error - if it concentrated on the guilty, or those against whom there was at least some evidence. But that isn't, ultimately, the purpose of the database.

Pease's approach is one of misanthropic utilitarianism and hyperactive risk-assessment: like ubiquitous CCTV cameras, the DNA database is a technocratic device to monitor society, to reduce the scope of unobserved action, to squeeze out uncertainty. It follows that it should be as comprehensive as cost or public opinion or the law will allow. That the innocent should be included as well as the guilty is not an unfortunate side-effect, it is a necessity. Because they, too, will be deterred from committing crimes. And because there's no such thing as an innocent person, just someone who hasn't committed a crime yet. Or hasn't been caught. See "Independent Safeguarding Authority" for further details.

This pessimistic view of human nature is now firmly entrenched at the Home Office. From the vantage-point of Whitehall bean-counters, it is of little consequence who is guilty or innocent, whose privacy is being invaded or what potential for false-positives and other mistakes there may be. They have simply ceased to bother about individual civil liberties. As Tony Blair used to say, all that stuff belongs to another age. This is the 21st century. The computers have taken over.
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Monday, 20 July 2009

A little less terror

It is said that there was, or is, a condom manufacturer which retailed its products in three sizes: Jumbo, Colossal and SuperColossal. It is thus with Home Office terror alerts, which start at "substantial", move up to "severe" and end up at "critical" - which is supposed to mean that the terrorists are about to strike, but which actually means that they just did. For appearances' sake, there are two lower categories, but they would imply that the security services had done their job so well they deserve to have their budget slashed and half their staff redeployed to analysing traffic-flow data. Effectively, therefore, a "substantial" terror risk is as low as it goes.

Here's how Duncan Gardham reports it in the Telegraph:

It is the third of five threat levels and means the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, a unit within MI5, believes that the danger of an attack is now "highly likely" rather than a "strong possibility".

Actually, it's the other way round: an attack is now "a strong possibility" whereas previously it had been "highly likely". But the very fact that such a mistake can be made does rather show how meaningless this official language is. "Highly likely" and "a strong possibility" are virtually synonymous expressions: what they both mean is that the spooks think they've got the situation under control, but the government wants cover its back. And to keep us in a state of fear and dependence. It's a bit like reclassifying drugs: nothing to do with the scientific evidence, everything about "sending a message".

The message, though, is distinctly mixed. If they really wanted to demonstrate that the danger from terrorism had diminished, they could start dismantling some of the security theatre that has made air travel almost unbearable and that each autumn turns party conference venues into something resembling one of Edward I's Welsh castles. More likely, they're lowering the threat level now so that they can put it up again later. The Telegraph quotes John Yates, Scotland Yard's counterterrorism boss: "It is logical because we cannot keep having it high unless the threat is there."

Of course, today's move doesn't mean that a terrorist attack won't happen. Possibly the reverse. The last time the threat level was reduced this low was in 2005, a month before the Tube bombings. It is in the very nature of terrorist incidents of this type to be unpredictable, almost random: there are too few potential terrorists, and they have too little in the way of resources, to mount bombings on the scale of Madrid or London with anything other than extreme rarity. As for 9/11, that was a once-in-a-lifetime event, the Al Qaeda equivalent of the Apollo moonshot: spectacular but unrepeatable (despite what was said at the time). Some credit is clearly due to the success of counter-terrorist operations in foiling some plots at an early stage - but they have only ever foiled possible plots, potential plots, plots that probably wouldn't have gone anywhere.

Compare Indonesia, which has just suffered the double bombing of two major hotels, or India, or above all Pakistan: countries that must be ever-vigilant but yet cannot prevent repeated deadly attacks. Why are they so vulnerable? Not, surely, because of unsophisticated or lackadaisical security services. Rather, because these countries are on the frontline. Islamist terrorism in Western countries is really a form of seepage. Despite the alarmist talk by governments and others ("they hate our way of life", "they want to impose a universal Caliphate on the whole world") those terror organisations that are well organised enough to present a real and constant danger are more interested in attacking targets closer to home. What we are left with, in the main, are home-grown enthusiasts, usually self-motivated, shopping for bomb ingredients in Boots.

So what is this downgrading of the threat level all about? The BBC report quotes "terror expert David Capitanchik" as suggesting that the explanation may be a purely political attempt to justify its claim that the best place to fight domestic terror is Afghanistan. "I think the government, and possibly the security services, want to show.... that somehow, despite the loss of soldiers, it's being successful - it is actually reducing the threat." Wow. I'd like to think I could aspire to that level of cynicism - but then I'm not a "terror expert", and I'm not being approached for a quote from the BBC. The Beeb's general policy is to follow the official line which, in this case, is that "there remains a real and serious threat against the United Kingdom and I would ask that the public remain vigilant" and that "the decision to change the threat Level is taken ... independently of Ministers".

We can take it, then, that everyone agrees that the whole "threat level" thing is a PR job. I'm not quite convinced by the Afghanistan theory, though, if only because no-one believes our presence there has much to do with domestic terrorism anyway - it's just the latest excuse. My guess is that it has something to do with swine flu.

As tends to happen nowadays, the flu "pandemic" is being addressed by the government as a security concern as much as a health problem - or more. (It's instructive, by the way, how terrorism has become the yardstick by which all threats are measured, even entirely different or vastly bigger threats, so large does it loom in political and media discourse.) Alan Johnson told Andrew Marr yesterday morning that the virus is "a worse threat than terrorism", and that "the whole Cobra machinery" has swung into action. The disruptive effects will certainly be far beyond it - even if it kills relatively few people. Whether or not it destroys the recovery (or at least provides the government with a convenient excuse as to why there isn't one) it will cost a fortune. We're told, too, that criminals will be let off lightly as police and lawyers lie in bed sneezing. The fight against terror just isn't so much of a priority when there are real problems to worry about. Come to think of it, airports might be compelled to streamline their security checks.

Let's hope the terrorists, and would-be terrorists, all contract swine flu. Otherwise there could be trouble.
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Sunday, 19 July 2009

Blaming the judges

In a rather misconceived article in the Observer, Nick Cohen highlights another alarming instance of how English libel law has a dangerously chilling effect on important matters of public debate. Mathematicians, including Herriott-Watt's Dr Tim Johnson, have been doing valuable work picking out the flaws in mathematical models created by financial wizards such as the Nobel-prizewinning David Li - models which helped major banks lose billions over the past couple of years. "They were pretending mathematics was magic" Johnson complains. But now, afraid of being sued by these same institutions, they're reluctant to point the finger of blame where it's due. Cohen writes:

Ministers, led by Lord Drayson, have been wooing Johnson and his colleagues of late and I can't say I am surprised. Tens of millions of people in the rich world and hundreds of millions in the poor are losing their livelihoods because bad maths allowed bankers to pretend to themselves that they were not being insanely reckless....The public pays the academics' salaries and academics can return the compliment by protecting the public.

"You have a f*cking duty to speak out," as one blunt politician explained the deal to them.

But they are not going to speak out for a reason readers of this column will guess: Johnson and his colleagues fear being hauled before the libel courts. Academics have noted the willingness of the judiciary to allow believers in "alternative" chiropractic therapy to sue science writer Simon Singh, and can imagine all too graphically what would happen to them. Chiropractors are small-time operators working from suburban offices, one said. Bankers have the most expensive lawyers in the City on call. If his colleagues were to hint that a bank was risking its investors' money, they would be hammered.

This is all too plausible, sadly. Invoking the law to stifle discussion of sensitive issues is profoundly dangerous. The use of libel in such areas has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished. Things have got seriously out of balance. The original point of libel law was to protect people from unwarranted slurs on their reputation, which can be just as damaging as physical injury. This was always open to abuse by the rich and powerful: in many cases, the mere threat of a libel writ has been enough to extract abject apologies from newspapers and broadcasters even for cases of quite justified criticism. Dodgy tycoons like Robert Maxwell have long deployed legal threats to avoid having to answer difficult questions, and it is hard to see how such actions have ever been in the public interest.

But the use of libel to protect companies from criticism from the media and from individuals (such as the McLibel Two) has greatly expanded the danger. And, as the Singh case (among others) has demonstrated, the law is now being deployed to protect some people's opinions from the normal processes of scientific scrutiny. Suing, or threatening to sue, has become too easy, because trials are ruinously expensive for all but the deepest pockets, and because the law is biased against defendants.

On the other hand, Cohen doesn't provide any evidence that these mathematicians have actually been threatened with libel actions. Perhaps they don't need to be: perhaps now fear of libel is exerting its chilling effect even where actual libel actions would be unlikely to succeed. The threat, even the imagined threat, of a libel action has become one more risk to be avoided in our risk-averse and litigation-drenched society. But whether the law itself is frightening them, or the publicity occasioned by the Singh case and other high-profile actions, is unclear: just because some researchers are terrified of libel lawyers doesn't mean they are right to be. Cohen really spoils his case, though, when he uses the story as opportunity to clamber aboard one of his other hobby-horses: the deficiency, muddle-headedness and general cowardliness of the British left. He writes:

In theory, liberals ought to believe in freedom of speech. In practice, Labour ministers have yet to meet campaigners for law reform and wider liberal society has yet to overcome a way of thinking that stops it reconnecting with the best parts of the liberal tradition.

The unwillingness of Labour ministers to act is indeed lamentable. The ways of thinking of "wider liberal society" - he's referring, I guess, to the multiculturalism industry with its automatic indulgence of victimhood - has nothing to do with it. It is wholly irrelevant. "Simon Singh and the mathematicians are now living with the consequences of the human rights movement", writes Cohen. Actually, they are living with the consequences of the much older libel law, which has thus far been largely dormant in matters scientific for no other reason that it never occurred to anyone that it could be used.

What has changed? Conditional fee agreements, and touting for business by lawyers, and a series of decisions by libel judges to accept jurisdiction even between foreign parties. Cohen, however, puts it down to "Margaret Thatcher's repeated election victories" which "convinced British liberals to try to win in the courts what they could not win at the ballot box." Bizarre. We're not talking about claimed human rights violations. The Human Rights Act has not affected the law of libel - though it has, of course, introduced new privacy rights, which many journalists regret. Indeed, the best hope for restraining the libel courts - assuming Parliament doesn't act, and so far there's sadly little evidence that it will - may lie in the right to free expression enshrined in the HRA.

Cohen then goes after the judges. He doesn't mention Eady by name, but it's clear who he has in mind when he says that

British judges, like judges across the EU, do not believe in freedom of speech. They are illiberal liberals who will defend all rights except the most fundamental right of a citizen of a free country to make his or her case without fear of the consequences.

He then launches into a series of blanket statements that read all too like the soundings-off of a pub bore:

The average British judge does not believe that free debate in the marketplace of the mind will expose "wrong opinions and practices". He believes they must be suppressed because he retains the fear of the old European aristocracy that the masses cannot see through dangerous ideas and bad arguments.

That's just hysterical garbage, isn't it? First he categorises judges as "illiberal liberals" wedded to fashionable human rights nostrums; then he portrays them as archaic defenders of vested class interest. He ends by accusing them, en masse, of "an elite suspicion of democracy". This may or may not be true; but it's irrelevant. What judges are doing in libel cases (and many libel cases, it should be remembered, are decided by juries) is applying the law as it has developed over decades of precedent. The reversed burden of proof, perhaps the most objectionable feature of English libel law, in not invented anew by Mr Justice Eady every time he puts his wig on.

Cohen's argument here is not just silly but probably counter-productive. What is needed, and needed urgently, is reform to the law so that it does not, as it does too often, serve mainly to stifle free speech and enrich lawyers. It should be restricted, too, in jurisdictional terms, to end the present embarrassing position the London now has as the libel capital of the world. There should be a strong presumption in favour of free speech built into the law, and actions should be made more difficult to bring. If possible, courts should refuse to hear cases based on matters of scientific evidence in which they have no expertise. In most cases, claimants should be forced to prove malice. All these things are possible, if the government (or its successor) is prepared to make the necessary parliamentary time.

But to ensure change will require pointing out clearly how and why the present law is being abused, and how it got into its current mess, rather than (as Cohen does) clinging to the comfort blanket of a grand conspiracy theory. There are bad individual decisions, of course, unnecessarily narrow (or broad) judgements that have served to make matters even worse. Blaming judges, though, is too easy and often unfair. The worst that can be said of Mr Justice Eady is that he has sometimes taken a narrow, legalistic view and had insufficient regard to the wider social and political consequences of his rulings. But even there, in all honesty, he was merely doing his job. The problem is the law.
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Saturday, 18 July 2009

Wilde Religion

L'Osservatore Romano is usually described as the Vatican's "official" newspaper. This means, among other things, that journalists are liable to look upon it as they looked upon Pravda in the days of the Soviet Union. Reading it, it is made to seem, is like peering into the Pope's brain. Twice in the past week articles in OR have been interpreted as official Catholic U-turns on major cultural matters: first Harry Potter, which the Vatican has supposedly come round to despite the Pope's well-publicised earlier reservations (though see here for my earlier discussion of this important issue) and Oscar Wilde, who according to Friday's Independent has now been embraced by the church - in spite of You Know What. Jerome Taylor comments that Oscar "is an unlikely pin-up for the Catholic Church".

The original article, by Paolo Gulisano, concentrates on Wilde's philosophical ideas rather than his personality or his sex life, describing Wilde as "one of the personalities of the 19th century who most lucidly analysed the modern world in its disturbing as well as its positive aspects". Like many people, it seems, Gulisano mistakes Wilde's shallowness for a type of profundity. Oscar himself, of course, was more subtle than that. He realised - though it's hardly much of an insight - that "most people are other people", as he put it in De Profundis. "Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation". It was therefore not difficult to gain a reputation for wisdom by the simple expedient of saying unexpected things. What is rather more surprising, perhaps, is that his laboured witticisms are still impressing people more than a hundred years after his death. He would have liked that, I suspect. As he might have said, "Had I known that there were so much profit in dying, I should have done it more often".

In fact, the Catholic Church was reconciled to Wilde (had they ever been otherwise) as long ago as 1900, when the author was received into the fold on his deathbed. Whether Oscar was reconciled to Catholicism is rather more doubtful: his alleged conversion, to judge by Richard Ellman's account of it, seems to have been largely an administrative convenience to enable his burial in consecrated ground. By the time his last remaining friend Robbie Ross called for the priest Wilde was semi-comatose and in no condition to resist.

Wilde was undoubtedly attracted by elements of Catholicism - especially the aesthetic dimension, and also the intense concentration on sin (as an enthusiastic self-dramatiser, he liked to exaggerate his sinfulness). He flirted with conversion in his twenties. At Oxford, a visitor recalled, his room was "full of photographs of the Pope and of Cardinal Manning" and "his long-haired head full of nonsense regarding the Church of Rome". He also, notes Ellman, "adorned his third finger with an oval amethyst right that looked faintly ecclesiastical". A couple of years later, visiting Rome, he secured an audience with Pope Pius IX, which left him, unusually, "too awestruck to speak". But that seems to have been as far as it went. Eventually he "turned aside from Catholicism with as much éclat as he had turned towards it." Towards the end, when Ross fervently declared to him that Catholicism was true, he replied merely "No, Robbie, it isn't".

This passage from The Picture of Dorian Gray seems to sum up both Wilde's attraction to Catholic Christianity and his rejection of it:

It was rumoured of him once that he was about to join the Roman Catholic communion, and certainly the Roman ritual had always a great attraction for him. The daily sacrifice, more awful really than all the sacrifices of the antique world, stirred him as much by its superb rejection of the evidence of the senses as by the primitive simplicity of its elements and the eternal pathos of the human tragedy that it sought to symbolize. He loved to kneel down on the cold marble pavement and watch the priest, in his stiff flowered dalmatic, slowly and with white hands moving aside the veil of the tabernacle, or raising aloft the jewelled, lantern-shaped monstrance with that pallid wafer that at times, one would fain think, is indeed the "panis caelestis," the bread of angels, or, robed in the garments of the Passion of Christ, breaking the Host into the chalice and smiting his breast for his sins. The fuming censers that the grave boys, in their lace and scarlet, tossed into the air like great gilt flowers had their subtle fascination for him. As he passed out, he used to look with wonder at the black confessionals and long to sit in the dim shadow of one of them and listen to men and women whispering through the worn grating the true story of their lives.

But he never fell into the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system, or of mistaking, for a house in which to live, an inn that is but suitable for the sojourn of a night, or for a few hours of a night in which there are no stars and the moon is in travail.

We can take it, I think, that he wouldn't have thought much of the liturgical changes that followed the second Vatican Council. On the other hand, as an aesthete and natty dresser the present pope might well have met with his approval.

Following up the story on CIF yesterday, Martin Prendergast suggested that Wilde may have be taken by "the camp ultramontanism of 18th and 19th century liturgy and music". Well obviously. But perhaps we have it the wrong way around. Why is it that such all that lace and incense seems so camp in the first place? Largely, I suspect, because it was the sort of thing that appealed to Oscar Wilde. Earlier generations would not have made the same assumption. The fops of the eighteenth century tended to be enthusiastically heterosexual, although they dressed like pantomime dames. Wilde himself was married for much of his life, and Ellman claims that as an undergraduate he contracted syphilis from a (female) prostitute [though the evidence for this is circumstantial at best]. His intense aestheticism only seems suspicious with the benefit of hindsight. Likewise the mysterious beauties of the Tridentine liturgy.

Despite his doubts (what kept him from admitting his atheism, I think, was his conviction that materialism was dull) Wilde had a lifelong fascination with the figure of Jesus Christ - or at least with his own idiosyncratic version of Jesus, who was a lot like Oscar. On occasion he indulged his creativity by inventing new heresies and re-writing gospel stories to suit his fancy. Wilde's Christ, as portrayed in two of his major prose works, The Soul of Man Under Socialism and De Profundis, is a prototype of the romantic Artist, a paradoxical moralist who lives out Wildean aphorisms - but also, in retrospect, a proto-hippy, "the first person who ever said to people that they should live flower-like lives". In The Soul of Man, Christ sounds strangely like a self-help book:

He said to man: "You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself. Don't imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your affection is inside of you... Personal property hinders Individualism at every step".

But by the time of De Profundis, written in Reading gaol, Jesus seems to be turning Japanese:

He preached the enormous importance of living completely for the moment. All that Christ says to us by the way of a little warning is that every moment should be beautiful, that the soul should always be ready for the coming of the bridegroom, always waiting for the voice of the lover...

Wilde's Jesus has little in common with either the Jesus of theology or (I assume) the Jesus of history. There's something Hellenic about him, his life the acting out of a Greek tragedy more perfect than any by Euripides. "The absolute purity of the protagonist raises the entire scheme to a height of romantic art from which the sufferings of Thebes and Pelops' line are by their very horror excluded, and shows how wrong Aristotle was when he said in his treatise on the drama that it would be impossible to bear the spectacle of one blameless in pain". It pleases Wilde to imagine that Jesus spoke Greek rather than Aramaic, and even asserts that the responses of the Catholic mass represent the "ultimate survival" of the tragedic chorus. Wilde's Christ is more like a literary character of his own invention than an actual human being. But then, of course, the same was true of Oscar himself. He intended, had he lived, to write a full-length account of his thoughts on the subject. Perhaps we should be glad he didn't.

Would he have stayed the course as a Catholic? It's difficult to imagine, and not simply because of his unorthodox ideas, or his "sinful" conduct. Gulisano describes Wilde as "a lover of the ephemeral"; but the Roman Catholic church of his day was rigid both in doctrine and ritual. Wilde would soon have become bored by the endless repetitions. "All repetition is anti-spiritual", he claimed in De Profundis - unconvincingly, it has to be said. He was enthralled by the drama of sin and redemption: Jesus, he contended, "seems to have always loved the sinner as being the nearest possible approach to the perfection of man". He wanted constant excitement. Could he really have got through a full set of Hail Marys without altering the words?
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