Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Innocent victims

A dangerous word, "innocent". It can reveal a lot about the underlying psychological motivations of those who use it. Innocent people are blameless, after all, while non-innocent people are guilty. They deserve everything they get.

When the Peter Sutcliffe was murdering women in Yorkshire thirty years ago, the crimes seemed to many in the press and even the police to escalate when he switched his attention from the prostitutes who were his first victims to "innocent" women. One senior officer, Assistant Chief Constable Jim Hobson, appealed to the Ripper on the basis of their shared hatred for sex workers. "The Ripper is now killing innocent girls. This indicates your mental state and that you are in urgent need of medical attention. You have made your point. Now give yourself up before another innocent woman dies."

When the AIDS epidemic struck in the 1980s, a similar distinction was widely drawn in the media between "innocent" victims - such as haemophiliacs or people who had been infected with HIV via a blood transfusion - and implicitly guilty homosexuals and drug addicts who presumably deserved to die a nasty, lingering death.

Now look at this Mail headline from today: Innocent couple died "after wrong house was fire-bombed in bungled honour killing".

The story concerns a trial of four men from Blackburn for the deaths of a couple killed in their home in a case of mistaken identity. Three were responsible for starting the fire; the fourth, Hisamuddin Ibrahim, allegedly instructed them to carry out the crime - but his target was someone else entirely, a man who had "dishonoured" Ibrahim by sleeping with his sister.

Here's how the report begins (my italics):

An innocent couple died in a house fire at the hands of assailants who got the wrong address in a botched honour killing, a court heard today.

Abdullah Mohammed, 41, and his wife, Aysha Mohammed, 39, were overcome by smoke and fumes after an accelerant was poured through their letterbox and set alight.

Their killers were ordered by another man to avenge his family's honour but instead of firebombing 135 London Road in Blackburn, Lancashire, they started the blaze at 175 London Road, the court heard.

It is, of course, no crime to engage in a consensual sexual relationship, even one of which your brother disapproves. It would have been an equal tragedy, and as serious a crime, if the "right" people had died. Anyone dying in such circumstances is "innocent". To judge by the tone of the Mail's report, however, the only outrage was that the hired arsonists got the wrong house.

At some level, whoever wrote that headline appears to believe that the crime is worse because the "wrong" people were killed. It's a subconscious bias, no doubt, but no less telling for all that, and reflects the Mail's wider "Islam-envy". However much they have to deplore the barbarity involved in "honour killing", after all, many of the factors that lie behind it, such as traditional community standards, the perceived importance of marriage and old-fashioned sexual morality, are four square with core Mail values. Ditto Sharia punishments or the desire to dictate what women ought to wear. Sure, the more radical, easily caricaturable Islamists hate the British way of life and believe the country has descended into a pit of moral degradation and filth. But then so do most columnists on the Mail.
Read the rest of this article

How to reduce the prison population

When you know your budget's going to be cut by between a quarter and a third in a few months time, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.

Much as it would be nice to think that Ken Clarke's announcement of an end to two decades of ever-increasing incarceration was inspired by questions of logic, principle and justice, the truth is, of course, that is being driven by money. The massive expansion in the prison population has been ruinously expensive and of dubious efficacy. Yes, crime has fallen since Michael Howard stood up at a Tory conference and claimed "prison works". But it has fallen by as much or more in those countries that have not been building prisons or directing judges to impose increasingly savage and in some cases utterly disproportionate sentences. That scarcely matters, however: once it has become established political practice that the way to demonstrate toughness and responsiveness to public opinion is to lock people up, both government and opposition become locked in a cycle of crackdowns, prison expansions and intensifying rhetoric.

It takes more than political vision or a consideration of criminological evidence to break the cycle. It takes a financial crisis. The budget cuts announced and in the pipeline will have many bad consequences for individuals and for society as a whole, but there will be benefits too, because some items of government expenditure are not merely wasteful but positively harmful. The lavishing of billions on punitive, crowd-pleasing justice is perhaps the prime example of misspent national wealth.

Unfortunately, cutting prison numbers is more easily said than done. It requires a transformation of attitudes at all levels of the criminal justice system. It is not just a case of not building more prisons or reviewing sentencing guidelines to encourage more community punishments. For they too cost money to implement and are not always effective in reducing reoffending rates. The truth is that the excessive prison population is not only wrong in itself but is symptomatic of a justice system that has become both too bureaucratic and too punitive.

The most effective single means of reducing the prison population, in fact, would be to tackle the numbers coming into the system in the first place. Fewer offenders should be brought before court. This means more use of cautions, but it also means fewer arrests. It means, to put it bluntly, more minor offences being ignored entirely.

So here are some humble suggestions to help the Justice Secretary achieve his laudable aim:

1) Abolishing as many as possible of the 4,000 new criminal offences invented under Labour.

2) Narrowing those offences that are too widely drawn. For example, the recent conviction of councillor Shirley Brown under the Public Order Act for calling a fellow councillor a "coconut" was an absurd waste of time and money. Such trivial matters should never be a matter for the police or the courts.

3) Reducing the number and application of ASBOs.

4) Re-writing the guidelines under which the Crown Prosecution Service operates, with special attention to the rule that a prosecution is in the public interest. At present, there is an assumption that any case where there is a good chance of conviction is in the public interest - this has led to such absurdities as a man in North Wales facing a full crown court trial over a six-second video-clip sent to him by a friend as a joke, but which the CPS decided amounted to "extreme pornography". In future, the public interest test ought to take into account the cost of court action in all but the most serious cases. In other words, there should in most cases be a presumption against pursuing a case to court.

5) Abolishing police arrest targets. Police forces should receive no benefit, either in financial or prestige terms, for making an arrest. Instead, inidividual officers deemed to have made unnecessary arrests should be punished with the loss of performance bonuses. The same should apply to those making excessive use of stop-and-search powers to, for example, harass photographers.

6) A cap on prisoner numbers, to be achieved by progressive use of early release and a "one in, one out" policy. With the exception of the most serious crimes (violence, rape and other serious sex offences, armed robbery etc) courts should be given an incarceration limit. Once reached, it would be impossible to send anyone convicted of a lesser crime to prison except in "exceptional circumstances" and with the approval of the Lord Chief Jusitce. The medium-term aim (to be achieved by the time of the next general election) should be a total prison population of 50,000.

7) A reduction in the number of magistrates (paid and unpaid) and courts, with a proportional reduction in the number of crown courts. This will limit the number of cases that it is possible to hear, thus forcing the police and CPS to prioritise the most serious offences. If a case cannot be heard in a reasonable amount of time, and it does not come into the category of the most serious offences, then it will be dealt with in another way or dropped entirely.

In short: fewer crimes; fewer arrests; fewer prosecutions; fewer police; fewer crown prosecutors; fewer magistrates and magistrates' courts - with those courts having fewer powers of imprisonment and punishment; fewer crown courts, too, and fewer judges. Fewer everything. These cutbacks will save money directly and lead, ultimately, to a smaller prison population. Of course, my suggestions would lead inevitably to more crimes being unpunished and more criminals going free. When compared with the vast expense of today's criminal justice system, however, that would be a small price to pay.
Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Beyond the Circle

I've been sent a little booklet published by that enterprising pressure group the Consenting Adults Action Network (proof that you don't need to be a taxpayer-funded fake charity to run effective campaigns, though presumably it helps) about the continuing and indeed worsening discrimination face by various sexual minorities in officially tolerant, liberal Britain. Entitled Beyond the Circle (and obtainable from CAAN here, for £6.50) it's written by the former John Ozimek, regular contributor to The Register, who now goes under the name Jane Fae.

The circle in question is the "charmed circle" of officially and socially sanctioned sexual identity. Originally limited to heterosexual marriage, this has been extended to embrace cohabiting relationships and gay partnerships, an advance still lamented by religious conservatives and conversely held up as proof that we live in a liberal and tolerant society. For those outside this charmed circle, however, the reality can be very different. Moral and religious objections to, for example, sadomasochism or various forms of consensual sex-work may have dwindled: in their place has come feminist ideology (couched as opposition to "objectifying" women) and, most of all, a progressive-sounding concern with protecting the vulnerable - see, for example, the previous government's legislation against possessing "extreme" porn.

Perfectly harmless people find themselves demonised, even criminalised. Worse, society now views any "crime" (or even rumour) bearing the label "sexual" far more seriously than it used to, and is far less willing to forgive. As Ozimek writes, "the growing insistence on vetting on vetting, combined with a view that an individual's all-round conduct and belief systems are relevant to work conduct, could be about to create a situation whereby once someone is outside the system, they can never come back in."

The problem facing people with alternative sexualities is connected with the piecemeal way in which discrimination law has developed over the years. Instead of recognising the basic principle that unfair and irrelevant discrimination is wrong, the state has sought to define particular categories of person who are protected. It is based on the notions of group rights and victimhood, and leads to the perverse conclusion that people deserve protection on the basis of who they are rather than what has happened to them. It is not enough to be discriminated against - you must be discriminated against for an officially disapproved reason, and you also have to possess what the Equality Act calls a "protected characteristic". Legally, some people are now more equal than others. Sexual orientation towards members of the same gender will bring you protection; orientation towards a certain manner of expressing one's sexuality will not. This is anomalous and wrong.

Ozimek also blames the strange and "sniggering" British view of sex. Certainly, stories of "deviant" practices are still guaranteed to get national newspapers hot under the collar, as two stories from the past week (a tragedy and a farce) demonstrate. In one, a woman was prosecuted for assault after an incident in a hotel room involving what was described as "a medieval instrument of torture". The judge was notably sympathetic, the papers merely agog (perhaps it helped that the man she was with could be described as a "top lawyer"). The other was the death of a motor-racing boss Robin Mortimer in a Belgian dungeon following a session with two leading S&M mistresses. Details remain unclear - he may turn out to have died of purely natural causes, or there may have been an accident involving nitrous oxide - but the tale instantly and inevitably became one of "Europe's most sadistic dominatrix" and a client killed by his dangerous obsession with the dark side of sex. That the newspapers were able to print fetish photographs taken without credit from Mistress Lucrezia's website was, of course, only a bonus.

In such an atmosphere, it's not surprising that many kinky or otherwise sexually unconventional people now live in fear of their perfectly legal private lives coming to the attention of the media, or even of their employer. More than mere embarrassment awaits those who are "outed". The booklet collects together some startling instances of prejudice and discrimination masquerading as concern to maintain professional standards or protect vulnerable groups. For example, there's the would-be social worker (previously featured on Heresy Corner) who lost her chosen career after it was revealed to her university tutors that she had a "submissive" lifestyle. Even more startling, perhaps, is the probation officer who made the fatal mistake of performing his fire-eating routine in a fetish club. He wasn't even involved in the "scene", yet his employers managed to fire him for bringing the profession into disrepute.

The paradox, of course, is that alternative sexualities have never been more openly discussed nor more widely accepted. It is no longer a cause for political embarrassment, for example, that one of David Cameron's leading speechwriters once made money organising sex parties, while Heresy Corner favourite Max Mosley famously faced down the News of the World's moralistic prurience and emerged something of a popular hero. He, of course, was rich enough and self-confident enough not to care what the world thought of him. A teacher or social worker, or a parent caught up in a custody dispute, is in a much more vulnerable position. It need hardly be said that today's culture of openness brings its own dangers, as many people who have posted something incriminating on Facebook for their friends have discovered to their cost.

What is to be done? Getting rid of the Labour government was undeniably a start. We've yet to see much evidence of the promised Great Repeal Bill, but the dangerous vetting-and-barring apparatus created by the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act has been suspended and may be largely ditched. But while the new government has not shown any interest in adding to Labour's pile of sex legislation, neither does it appear in a hurry to dump it. It has other priorities, after all - and, like all governments, lives in fear of the Daily Mail. Ultimately, only greater public knowledge about, and indeed enjoyment of, unconventional sexual practices will bring about change. That may mean more brave people being prepared to come out and fight for their right to be kinky. It worked for the gay community. I can't help thinking, though, that there's something inherently wrong about needing to campaign publicly for the right to enjoy what is, after all, a very private and personal thing.
Read the rest of this article

The 30 year war in Afghanistan

By George Friedman. Cross-posted from Stratfor with permission.

The Afghan War is the longest war in U.S. history. It began in 1980 and continues to rage. It began under Democrats but has been fought under both Republican and Democratic administrations, making it truly a bipartisan war. The conflict is an odd obsession of U.S. foreign policy, one that never goes away and never seems to end. As the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal reminds us, the Afghan War is now in its fourth phase.

The Afghan War’s First Three Phases

The first phase of the Afghan War began with the Soviet invasion in December 1979, when the United States, along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, organized and sustained Afghan resistance to the Soviets. This resistance was built around mujahideen, fighters motivated by Islam. Washington’s purpose had little to do with Afghanistan and everything to do with U.S.-Soviet competition. The United States wanted to block the Soviets from using Afghanistan as a base for further expansion and wanted to bog the Soviets down in a debilitating guerrilla war. The United States did not so much fight the war as facilitate it. The strategy worked. The Soviets were blocked and bogged down. This phase lasted until 1989, when Soviet troops were withdrawn.

The second phase lasted from 1989 until 2001. The forces the United States and its allies had trained and armed now fought each other in complex coalitions for control of Afghanistan. Though the United States did not take part in this war directly, it did not lose all interest in Afghanistan. Rather, it was prepared to exert its influence through allies, particularly Pakistan. Most important, it was prepared to accept that the Islamic fighters it had organized against the Soviets would govern Afghanistan. There were many factions, but with Pakistani support, a coalition called the Taliban took power in 1996. The Taliban in turn provided sanctuary for a group of international jihadists called al Qaeda, and this led to increased tensions with the Taliban following jihadist attacks on U.S. facilities abroad by al Qaeda.

The third phase began on Sept. 11, 2001, when al Qaeda launched attacks on the mainland United States. Given al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan, the United States launched operations designed to destroy or disrupt al Qaeda and dislodge the Taliban. The United States commenced operations barely 30 days after Sept. 11, which was not enough time to mount an invasion using U.S. troops as the primary instrument. Rather, the United States made arrangements with factions that were opposed to the Taliban (and defeated in the Afghan civil war). This included organizations such as the Northern Alliance, which had remained close to the Russians; Shiite groups in the west that were close to the Iranians and India; and other groups or subgroups in other regions. These groups supported the United States out of hostility to the Taliban and/or due to substantial bribes paid by the United States.

The overwhelming majority of ground forces opposing the Taliban in 2001 were Afghan. The United States did, however, insert special operations forces teams to work with these groups and to identify targets for U.S. airpower, the primary American contribution to the war. The use of U.S. B-52s against Taliban forces massed around cities in the north caused the Taliban to abandon any thought of resisting the Northern Alliance and others, even though the Taliban had defeated them in the civil war.

Unable to hold fixed positions against airstrikes, the Taliban withdrew from the cities and dispersed. The Taliban were not defeated, however; they merely declined to fight on U.S. terms. Instead, they redefined the war, preserving their forces and regrouping. The Taliban understood that the cities were not the key to Afghanistan. Instead, the countryside would ultimately provide control of the cities. From the Taliban point of view, the battle would be waged in the countryside, while the cities increasingly would be isolated.

The United States simply did not have sufficient force to identify, engage and destroy the Taliban as a whole. The United States did succeed in damaging and dislodging al Qaeda, with the jihadist group’s command cell becoming isolated in northwestern Pakistan. But as with the Taliban, the United States did not defeat al Qaeda because the United States lacked significant forces on the ground. Even so, al Qaeda prime, the original command cell, was no longer in a position to mount 9/11-style attacks.

During the Bush administration, U.S. goals for Afghanistan were modest. First, the Americans intended to keep al Qaeda bottled up and to impose as much damage as possible on the group. Second, they intended to establish an Afghan government, regardless of how ineffective it might be, to serve as a symbolic core. Third, they planned very limited operations against the Taliban, which had regrouped and increasingly controlled the countryside. The Bush administration was basically in a holding operation in Afghanistan. It accepted that U.S. forces were neither going to be able to impose a political solution on Afghanistan nor create a coalition large enough control the country. U.S. strategy was extremely modest under Bush: to harass al Qaeda from bases in Afghanistan, maintain control of cities and logistics routes, and accept the limits of U.S. interests and power.

The three phases of American involvement in Afghanistan had a common point: All three were heavily dependent on non-U.S. forces to do the heavy lifting. In the first phase, the mujahideen performed this task. In the second phase, the United States relied on Pakistan to manage Afghanistan’s civil war. In the third phase, especially in the beginning, the United States depended on Afghan forces to fight the Taliban. Later, when greater numbers of American and allied forces arrived, the United States had limited objectives beyond preserving the Afghan government and engaging al Qaeda wherever it might be found (and in any event, by 2003, Iraq had taken priority over Afghanistan). In no case did the Americans use their main force to achieve their goals.

The Fourth Phase of the Afghan War

The fourth phase of the war began in 2009, when U.S. President Barack Obama decided to pursue a more aggressive strategy in Afghanistan. Though the Bush administration had toyed with this idea, it was Obama who implemented it fully. During the 2008 election campaign, Obama asserted that he would pay greater attention to Afghanistan. The Obama administration began with the premise that while the Iraq War was a mistake, the Afghan War had to be prosecuted. It reasoned that unlike Iraq, which had a tenuous connection to al Qaeda at best, Afghanistan was the group’s original base. He argued that Afghanistan therefore should be the focus of U.S. military operations. In doing so, he shifted a strategy that had been in place for 30 years by making U.S. forces the main combatants in the war.

Though Obama’s goals were not altogether clear, they might be stated as follows:

1. Deny al Qaeda a base in Afghanistan.
2. Create an exit strategy from Afghanistan similar to the one in Iraq by creating the conditions for negotiating with the Taliban; make denying al Qaeda a base a condition for the resulting ruling coalition.
3. Begin withdrawal by 2011.

To do this, there would be three steps:

1. Increase the number and aggressiveness of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
2. Create Afghan security forces under the current government to take over from the Americans.
3. Increase pressure on the Taliban by driving a wedge between them and the population and creating intra-insurgent rifts via effective counterinsurgency tactics.

In analyzing this strategy, there is an obvious issue: While al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan in 2001, Afghanistan is no longer its primary base of operations. The group has shifted to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other countries. As al Qaeda is thus not dependent on any one country for its operational base, denying it bases in Afghanistan does not address the reality of its dispersion. Securing Afghanistan, in other words, is no longer the solution to al Qaeda.

Obviously, Obama’s planners fully understood this. Therefore, sanctuary denial for al Qaeda had to be, at best, a secondary strategic goal. The primary strategic goal was to create an exit strategy for the United States based on a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and a resulting coalition government. The al Qaeda issue depended on this settlement, but could never be guaranteed. In fact, neither the long-term survival of a coalition government nor the Taliban policing al Qaeda could be guaranteed.

The exit of U.S. forces represents a bid to reinstate the American strategy of the past 30 years, namely, having Afghan forces reassume the primary burden of fighting. The creation of an Afghan military is not the key to this strategy. Afghans fight for their clans and ethnic groups. The United States is trying to invent a national army where no nation exists, a task that assumes the primary loyalty of Afghans will shift from their clans to a national government, an unlikely proposition.

The Real U.S. Strategy

Rather than trying to strengthen the Karzai government, the real strategy is to return to the historical principles of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan: alliance with indigenous forces. These indigenous forces would pursue strategies in the American interest for their own reasons, or because they are paid, and would be strong enough to stand up to the Taliban in a coalition. As CIA Director Leon Panetta put it this weekend, however, this is proving harder to do than expected.

The American strategy is, therefore, to maintain a sufficient force to shape the political evolution on the ground, and to use that force to motivate and intimidate while also using economic incentives to draw together a coalition in the countryside. Operations like those in Helmand province — where even Washington acknowledges that progress has been elusive and slower than anticipated — clearly are designed to try to draw regional forces into regional coalitions that eventually can enter a coalition with the Taliban without immediately being overwhelmed. If this strategy proceeds, the Taliban in theory will be spurred to negotiate out of concern that this process eventually could leave it marginalized.

There is an anomaly in this strategy, however. Where the United States previously had devolved operational responsibility to allied groups, or simply hunkered down, this strategy tries to return to devolved responsibilities by first surging U.S. operations. The fourth phase actually increases U.S. operational responsibility in order to reduce it.

From the grand strategic point of view, the United States needs to withdraw from Afghanistan, a landlocked country where U.S. forces are dependent on tortuous supply lines. Whatever Afghanistan’s vast mineral riches, mining them in the midst of war is not going to happen. More important, the United States is overcommitted in the region and lacks a strategic reserve of ground forces. Afghanistan ultimately is not strategically essential, and this is why the United States has not historically used its own forces there.

Obama’s attempt to return to that track after first increasing U.S. forces to set the stage for the political settlement that will allow a U.S. withdrawal is hampered by the need to begin terminating the operation by 2011 (although there is no fixed termination date). It will be difficult to draw coalition partners into local structures when the foundation — U.S. protection — is withdrawing. Strengthening local forces by 2011 will be difficult. Moreover, the Taliban’s motivation to enter into talks is limited by the early withdrawal. At the same time, with no ground combat strategic reserve, the United States is vulnerable elsewhere in the world, and the longer the Afghan drawdown takes, the more vulnerable it becomes (hence the 2011 deadline in Obama’s war plan).

In sum, this is the quandary inherent in the strategy: It is necessary to withdraw as early as possible, but early withdrawal undermines both coalition building and negotiations. The recruitment and use of indigenous Afghan forces must move extremely rapidly to hit the deadline (though officially on track quantitatively, there are serious questions about qualitative measures) — hence, the aggressive operations that have been mounted over recent months. But the correlation of forces is such that the United States probably will not be able to impose an acceptable political reality in the time frame available. Thus, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is said to be opening channels directly to the Taliban, while the Pakistanis are increasing their presence. Where a vacuum is created, regardless of how much activity there is, someone will fill it.

Therefore, the problem is to define how important Afghanistan is to American global strategy, bearing in mind that the forces absorbed in Iraq and Afghanistan have left the United States vulnerable elsewhere in the world. The current strategy defines the Islamic world as the focus of all U.S. military attention. But the world has rarely been so considerate as to wait until the United States is finished with one war before starting another. Though unknowns remain unknowable, a principle of warfare is to never commit all of your reserves in a battle — one should always maintain a reserve for the unexpected. Strategically, it is imperative that the United States begin to free up forces and re-establish its ground reserves.

Given the time frame the Obama administration’s grand strategy imposes, and given the capabilities of the Taliban, it is difficult to see how it will all work out. But the ultimate question is about the American obsession with Afghanistan. For 30 years, the United States has been involved in a country that is virtually inaccessible for the United States. Washington has allied itself with radical Islamists, fought against radical Islamists or tried to negotiate with radical Islamists. What the United States has never tried to do is impose a political solution through the direct application of American force. This is a new and radically different phase of America’s Afghan obsession. The questions are whether it will work and whether it is even worth it.
Read the rest of this article

Monday, 28 June 2010

The trouble with science

This is a guest post by Simon Jenkins. Not.

It has been rather hot this weekend, as you may have noticed. The sun shone, thermometers soared, cats sought the sanctuary of whatever trees had survived the local council's recent health-and-safety-inspired cull, while festival-goers at Glastonbury were, I am reliably informed, thrown into confusion by the absence of the habitual mud. Even Wimbledon has been dry. For most people, this will have been a welcome respite from the aestival disappointments of recent years. Not for our preening scientific elite, however.

I can already hear the demented cries of "told you so" coming from the scientific lobby, ever desirous of more government cash, a group whose antics over the Climategate emails would have embarrassed most leading bankers. I've never been a climate sceptic, let's be quite clear about that: even the arrogance, paranoia and absurd sense of entitlement displayed by the custodians of our new national religion cannot prove the non-existence of global warming, and I for one am tempted to give the consensus view the benefit of the doubt, for the time being at least.

The earth may be heating up, to some small degree. Yet that probability, if such it still is even after the debacle of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, cannot justify the misanthropy and, to be frank, triumphalism with which scientists celebrate our impending doom, nor their increasingly shrill demands that we change our entire lifestyles to fit in with their agenda, nor the plague of ugly and inefficient wind-turbines spreading across rural England. Only money - the vast tranches of money, public and private, that is handed over unquestioningly to the unaccountable scientific establishment - can explain it.

Science presents itself to the public as an impartial and objective search for knowledge. Propagandists like Richard Dawkins or this year's uninspiring Reith lecturer Martin Rees talk as though homo scientificus were a wholly new kind of being, preserved by a special aura of sanctity from contamination by the grubbiness that the rest of us have to deal with. Aura of sanctimony, more like: as everyone who has enquired into the matter soon becomes aware, science is as corrupt as the government of Afghanistan, in hock to the commercial interests of large corporations. Its claim to objectivity is so much cant.

In reality, scientists will discover whatever their paymasters want them to - and then turn round and accuse anyone who raises reasoned objections of being in the pay of oil companies or of Rupert Murdoch. Yet did not BP itself remodel itself a few years ago as the champion of low-carbon economy - and win plaudits from scientists (and even, heaven help us, from Greenpeace) for doing so? You'd think the sight of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico would shame BP's pet environmentalists into contrition. But no. Turning as usual on a sixpence, they now use the company's difficulties to redouble their tendentious argument against the carbon economy.

It truly beggars belief. But then you remember it was also scientists who demanded the world stockpile supplies of flu vaccine against an imaginary pandemic, grounded half the world's aeroplanes out of superstitious fear of volcanic ash, and continue to promote such vanity projects as the Large Hadron Collider (which is far more likely to destroy civilisation than global warming, I am reliably informed, by creating a Black Hole near Geneva) and you despair. Well, I do.

What they forget, in their godlike certainty, is that life in unpredictable. Even the most powerful supercomputer can't predict what will happen on Friday. Yet you or I or anyone else needs only to wait a few days and find out. Logically, then, your future self four day's hence knows more than all the world's expert prognosticators put together. In their heart of hearts, the more sensible scientists must realise this - but their funding depends on the pretended ex cathedra infallibility of their pronouncements. Thus the facade is maintained - and the public continue to be taken for fools.

So I shall be enjoying this unseasonably seasonal weather while it lasts. I shall let neither fear of global catastrophe, nor equally daft scares about skin cancer or sunstroke - also peddled by the scientific community's alliance of grim puritanism - keep me from sitting in my garden. Indeed I am sitting in my garden right now enjoying a pleasant glass of white wine. No doubt that is going to kill me next Tuesday as well - that, after all, is what government-funded scientists never cease to inform me. Well, let them skulk in their laboratories, uttering their turgid imprecations, demanding taxpayers sacrifice ever more money for the privilege of being sneered at by the men (and they are nearly all men) in white coats. I, for one, will continue to ignore them.
Read the rest of this article

Prayers before politics

In a guest post, Julian Mann asks: What use is the House of Commons Chaplain?

The row embroiling House of Commons Speaker John Bercow over the appointment of a chaplain raises a question in the mind of this Anglican Evangelical at least: what use is a House of Commons chaplain given the current condition of the established Church?

That question presupposes no judgement whatsoever on the merits of the Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, a black female, over Canon Andrew Tremlett, a white male. Allegations of political correctness have been made by Canon Tremlett's supporters for the appointment.

Mr Bercow is unquestionably a champion of what he perceives as the 'modernisation' of Parliament, vigorously if chaotically pursued by the previous Labour government whose MPs strongly supported his appointment. The Church of England is manifestly a fringe interest group in modern British society, so why is he not pushing for the abolition of the role altogether and/or its replacement with a more generalised 'spirituality' adviser?

The answer comes back: it's to do with the British constitution and the residual involvement of the Monarch, who is the head of the Church by law established, in the affairs of Parliament.

If that legal argument is to be applied, then a chaplain should be appointed who proactively upholds the historic doctrine of the Church of England as expressed in its 39 Articles of Religion. The 39 Articles remain legally and canonically the official doctrine of the state Church.

Let Heresy Corner readers judge for themselves whether we are ever likely to hear the following doctrines publicly proclaimed by any Chaplain to the House of Commons:

'As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also it is to be believed, that he went down into Hell' (Article III, Of the going down of Christ into Hell).

'The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testaments everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man' (From Article VII, Of the Old Testament).

'Man is very far gone from his original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit: and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation' (from Article IX, Of Original or Birth-sin).

'Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby we must be saved' (from Article XVIII, Of obtaining eternal salvation only by the Name of Christ).

'The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual' (From Article XXXI, Of the one Oblation of Christ finished upon the Cross).

'It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars' (From Article XXXVII - Of the Civil Magistrates).

These from the lips of an establishment cleric in the House of Commons? Don't hold your breath. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 25 June 2010

Explaining the psychic octopus

Story of the day - obviously, it's Paul the psychic octopus, who makes a speciality of predicting world cup results. Allegedly, he has an 80% success rate - not bad for a marine invertebrate with a brain not much larger than that of an average England goalkeeper. The bad news is that Paul fancies Germany to beat England on Sunday, a prediction signalled by his preference for a mussell from a box marked with a German flag. Tanja Munzig, from the German aquarium where the octopus resides, described the decisive way in which he picked out the winner as "phenomenal" and "just absolutely crazy."

Crazy about sums it up.

As PZ Myers points out, cephalopods are noted for their intelligence, so an 80% success rate may simply reflect his deep knowledge of the sport. After all, German victories over Serbia and Ghana can scarcely be regarded as unexpected. Ditto a victory over England, alas. It certainly isn't evidence of psychic powers. It would seem that the use of such animal oracles - perhaps traceable to the Roman practice of predicting the outcome of battles by reference to the eating habits of sacred chickens, perhaps not - is popular in Germany, despite a generally low sucess-rate. The report notes that a 19 year old hippo named Petty falsely predicted last week that Germany would defeat Serbia (she selected the wrong pile of hay) and a monkey was equally wrong, choosing a raisin that indicated a Ghanaian victory.

Is there any plausible explanation for Paul's superior track record? It could well be chance, obviously. With several oracular creatures to choose from, it's not surprising to find one with an apparently impressive predictive ability. The number of trials is far too small to discount random variation. But there might be something else at work.

To make his prediction Paul had to detect the presence of food inside a sealed, see-through container, remove the lid and climb inside, which is quite an impressive feat of ingenuity it itself. The "experiment" offered him the choice of two containers, distinguished by their being marked out with a national flag. If, as seems likely from the report, the crowd-pleasing stunt has been carried out before each of Germany's previous games, the German flag will have been a constant feature. Octopuses are very visual creatures, with excellent eyesight: it's probable, then, that Paul will have learned to associate the German colours with food. So he would have made a bee-line for the "correct" jar as soon as he saw it.

In other words, Paul is a molluscan version of a loyal fan. He will always cheer for the home team - as long as there's a tasty snack in it, that is. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Showing who's boss

Here's an extraordinary comment from the Telegraph's Con Coughlin, one of the Afghanistan campaign's few remaining cheerleaders:

My confident prediction yesterday that President Barack Obama would fire him was drawn from my personal knowledge of the deep-seated tensions that currently exist between the military professionals who are charged with trying to achieve success in Afghanistan, and their political masters who – in London, as well as Washington – are looking for any excuse to pull the plug and withdraw their troops at the earliest opportunity.

(The tensions are no secret, of course. Many of them were explored in the Rolling Stone article. One interesting tidbit -

Only Hillary Clinton receives good reviews from McChrystal's inner circle. "Hillary had Stan's back during the strategic review," says an adviser. "She said, 'If Stan wants it, give him what he needs.' "

Does McChrystal's removal demonstrate Joe Biden's ascendency over Hills, I wonder.)

If the war were going even remotely according to plan, it's unlikely that politicians would be "looking for any excuse to pull the plug." Coughlin's contemptuous attitude towards non-military priorities was certainly shared by those around the dismissed general, which is why he had to go. This isn't just about strategy, either: it's about constitutionality. President Obama laid great stress in his announcement yesterday on the importance of civilian control of the aremed forces to the US system. In so doing he showed himself the heir not only of Lincoln but of Thomas Jefferson, who first saw the danger that the military establishment can pose to a republic. (Not that it was difficult to spot at the time: its name was Napoleon. Or Caesar.)

The American defence budget is so enormous that any president has to be careful to ensure that the Pentagon's priorities do not by default become the US's priorities. Indeed, it was to a great extent George W Bush's (and our own Mr Tony's) unchecked enthusiasm for uniforms that got us all into this mess.

Coughlin argues that McChrystal's departure will "leave an enormous hole in the Afghan war effort, not least because a few home truths have been spoken about the incompetence with which this U.S. administration is prosecuting a war that is deemed vital to the security of Western interests." Note the passive mood. Not everyone deems it vital. On the other hand, the continued bone-headed insistence in some quarters that it is vital is now a major obstacle in the way of bringing the whole sorry adventure to an end. Whatever incompetence there has been among the political leadership, moreover, is as nothing compared to the delusional thinking among the war's military planners. Rolling Stone again:

Even those closest to McChrystal know that the rising anti-war sentiment at home doesn't begin to reflect how deeply fucked up things are in Afghanistan. "If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular," a senior adviser to McChrystal says. Such realism, however, doesn't prevent advocates of counterinsurgency from dreaming big: Instead of beginning to withdraw troops next year, as Obama promised, the military hopes to ramp up its counterinsurgency campaign even further.

Coughlin writes that his "concern now is that all those – including the British government – that had invested heavily in the McChrystal doctrine will now use his demise as an excuse to find their own reasons for pulling out." It's my hope. But I suspect this fiasco has a few more years to go yet. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Harsh but Fair

Rolling Stone's now notorious interview with General Stanley McChrystal contains the following blunt summation of the state of play:

It's a Thursday night in mid-April, and the commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan is sitting in a four-star suite at the Hôtel Westminster in Paris. He's in France to sell his new war strategy to our NATO allies – to keep up the fiction, in essence, that we actually have allies. Since McChrystal took over a year ago, the Afghan war has become the exclusive property of the United States. Opposition to the war has already toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany's president and sparked both Canada and the Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops. McChrystal is in Paris to keep the French, who have lost more than 40 soldiers in Afghanistan, from going all wobbly on him.

What about the ten thousand British troops, 300 of whom have paid with their lives for the UK's stalwart support of this mission - a vital national interest, we keep being told?" Not a word. Truly outrageous", thinks David Hughes, who worries that the oversight might reflect the thinking of Gen. McChrystal rather than of Michael Hastings, who wrote the piece. Certainly, it is a thoughtlessly tactless sentiment. But it's not an inaccurate one.

Yes, Britain does have twice as many troops in Afghanistan as any other NATO member. Proportionately, our casualty rate has been higher than any other country, including the US itself. The fighting has been intense, sapping, draining of resources. It has an increasingly high public profile, contributing to a sense that this is a nation at war, and that our involvement is vital both to the UK and to Afghanistan. The brutal fact, however, is that like Iraq the campaign in Afghanistan is an American show. It is indeed the exclusive property of Uncle Sam. It has been at least since the Americans had to rescue us in Helmand earlier this year. However brave, our over-stretched, under-resourced, technologically deficient soldiers are incapable even of bearing a limited share in the fighting without American help. We are there entirely on their sufferance.

Hasting's apparent rudeness (which probably isn't McChrystal's, but which certainly does represent feeling on Main Street) ought to serve as a useful reality check. The sooner we fully realised our peripheral status in this conflict, the sooner we can free ourselves of the delusions the Afghan campaign has fostered, pre-eminent among which are the delusion that Britain still matters militarily and the delusion that our participation in Afghanistan is vital to our national security. We are America's allies in that we're fighting alongside (or, rather, under) them. We are not America's allies in the sense that our participation makes a blind bit of difference. If British troops left tomorrow the Pentagon would scarcely notice the extra cost of replacing them. If American troops left tomorrow British troops would be on the same flight.

This isn't about gratitude, it's about military reality, and it's frankly pathetic to expect American gratitude for our help. Worse, it implies that desire for American thanks is a large part of our reason for being in Afghanistan. Perhaps it is: it makes more sense than the bizarre, oft-repeated claim that we're there to keep Britain's streets safe from Al Qaeda. But in that case, is the geo-political gain of being seen as a "good ally" really worth the billions of pounds and hundreds of lives it is costing? If US goodwill if what we want, it could be obtained more efficiently by spending the money helping to clean up the mess in the Gulf of Mexico. That's something the White House might even notice. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

NICE work if you can get it

NICE wants us to go on a diet. According to its press release, widely promoted this morning before the budget swamped everything else on the airwaves, its new guidelines on cardio-vascular disease prevention, if implemented, would save billions of pounds and tens of thousands lives each year. They want a complete ban on trans-fats, greater restrictions on advertising, changes to the Common Agricultural Policy paying farmers to cultivate "healthy" food (as opposed to Big Macs and cream buns, presumably, which we all know grow on trees), changes to planning rules to force people to walk more, more advertising campaigns, and much much else besides. They're not lacking in ambition.

There has been much predictable criticism of NICE's apparent desire to micromanage people's lives, its technocratic attachment to behaviour modification - as though we were lab rats rather than citizens - and its empire building. I'm more interested in the extraordinary mismatch between the figures presented in the press release (and, thus, recycled on newspaper websites and by the BBC) and the details of the report on which they're supposedly based.

According to the press release, CVD costs the economy £30 bn a year and 40,000 "eminently preventable" deaths. Presumably, then, implementing the proposals would save that money and those lives. Not so. For one thing, the costing analysis (pdf) states explicitly that the guidance "does not cover individuals who are diagnosed as being at high risk" - the very people, in fact, who are most likely to die or, failing that, need intensive hospital care. Rather, the guidance is focused entirely on intervention "at the population level" - modifying the food intake and behaviour of the majority who are at low-to-medium risk, who might possibly die early from CVD but who will probably live to a ripe old age with or without it. It is, thus, aimed at entirely the wrong target - or would be, if preventing the largest number of deaths were truly NICE's priority.

NICE deliberately omits the targeting of measures not just at high-risk individuals but also at high risk groups. The report acknowledges, for example, that "death rates from CVD are approximately 50% greater than average among south asian groups". This, however, is considered a "fixed factor" that cannot be reduced by lifestyle interventions or other public health programmes - a clearly absurd proposition. In fact, if the sums of money contemplated in the report were targeted exclusively at south asian men rather than at the population as a whole, the savings in terms of lives (and presumably NHS budget) might well be greater, and would certainly represent better value for money.

The detailed figures are fascinating.

According to the costing analysis, in an area of high CVD incidence the cost burden on the health service amounts, over a five year period, to £75.1 million per 200,000 people aged 40 and over. If NICE's proposals are implemented in full, however, this would be lower - not £75 million lower but just £420,000 lower. At the same time, the cost of implementing the scheme over a five year period would be £236,000. So we're talking of a total saving of £184,000 from a total of £75 million. Obviously a saving is still a saving - but once you factor in the increase cost of pensions and social care of those people who aren't dying prematurely it will disappear. I tried to find out what assumptions had been made about the increased costs of longer life expecancy. Amazingly, the figures were not there. That dimension has been overlooked entirely.

The savings in terms of lives are equally small - not the 40,000 annually proclaimed in the press release, but somewhere between 800 and 1500. In a PCT area experiencing 14,000 CVD "events" per 200,000 over a five year period, the analysis expects that there would be just 75 fewer "events". The divergence between the press release and the full report is easily explained: the former assumes a perfect world in which NICE's wishes are translated into reality, no-one eats any fatty food and everyone does whatever quantity of daily exercise the quango deems optimum. In the press release, any death that can be prevented, is prevented. No-one dies - at least not from a heart condition, at least not before the age of 79 (NICE's definition of "premature").

The detailed costing analysis, more realistically, suggests a 3% "compliance rate" for their various "interventions" over a five year period. But then the report, unlike the press release, isn't really intended for public consumption. It is aimed at "government, the NHS, local authorities, industry and all those whose actions influence the population’s cardiovascular health (that is, can help keep people’s hearts healthy and prevent strokes). This includes commissioners, managers and practitioners working in local authorities and the wider public, private, voluntary and community sectors."

The press release, by contrast, is no more than a propaganda exercise. Its main aim isn't to induce a docile population to eat their greens, however. Rather, it is to raise the profile of NICE. Its guidance is scarcely revolutionary or even surprising - we've heard most of it many times before - yet the statement boasts that "there is an urgent need for this guidance" which is "wide-ranging" and will produce "enormous health benefits". The quango is trying to make the case, not just for the measures it recommends, but for its own role in recommending them. NICE, after all, has competition.

This is made unintentionally plain in the following section, which I recommend to the attention of Treasury bean-counters looking for cuts:

Government policy in many areas influences CVD. The Choosing Health white paper (DH 2004) set priorities for action on nutrition, physical activity, obesity and tobacco control. It was supported by delivery plans on food, physical activity and tobacco control, including the provision of NHS Stop Smoking Services.

Since that time, a wide variety of policy documents have been published including:

- Active travel strategy (Department for Transport 2010)
- A smokefree future: a comprehensive tobacco control strategy for England (DH 2010)
- Be active be healthy. A plan for getting the nation moving (DH 2009a)
- Commissioning framework for health and well-being (DH 2007a)
- Delivering choosing health: making healthier choices easier (DH 2005a)
- Food 2030 (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2010)
- Health challenge England – next steps for choosing health (DH 2006a)
- Health inequalities: progress and next steps (DH 2008b)
- Healthy weight, healthy lives: a cross-government strategy for England (DH 2008c)
- National stroke strategy (DH 2007b)
- NHS 2010 – 2015: from good to great. Preventative, people-centred, productive (DH 2009b)
- Our health, our care, our say (DH 2006b)
- Putting prevention first – vascular checks: risk assessment and management (DH 2008d)
- Tackling health inequalities – a programme for action (DH 2003)
- Tackling health inequalities: what works (DH 2005b)
- Tackling health inequalities: 2007 status report on the programme foraction (DH 2008a)
- The NHS in England: the operating framework for 2006/7 (DH 2006c)
- The NHS in England: the operating framework for 2008/9 (DH 2007c)
- Wanless report: securing good health for the whole population (Wanless 2004).

A long list, but probably not an exhaustive one.

Time for NICE to go on a diet, I think.
Read the rest of this article

Monday, 21 June 2010

Tragic milestone

On the day that the death of the 300th British soldier in Afghanistan is announced (total coalition casualties now top 1,800) can we please stop pretending that this war is 1) winnable 2) meritorious 3) about keeping Britain/the US/Europe/the world safe from terrorism 4) based on logic 5) sustainable 6) affordable 7) necessary 8) desirable 9) anything other than a tragic, futile loss of lives and money?

Yes, Mr Cameron, that means you. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Some useful advice on fathers' day

This fathers' day, I thought I would share with readers some thoughts on the raising of boys from that bastion of traditional religious values, Bishop Richard "I believe there were no gas chambers" Williamson.

As woman has gifts of heart to look after home and children, so man has gifts of reason to lead them and provide for them by, ever since original sin, "the sweat of his brow" (Gen. III, 19). Therefore while a girl's formation must centre around what will serve husband and children inside the home, a boy's formation should train him for (1) work and (2) responsibility outside the home, which will usually mean, in the big bad world. There he is going to need (3) judgment, (4) self-discipline and (5) manliness. We already have quite a programme !

WORK outside in nature is the best. Let a boy swing an axe, cut down a tree, plant a garden, ride a horse, build a shed. Sport at best is manly recreation, but it is not meant to be any more than recreation. A genuine need of the family best teaches RESPONSIBILITY, also taught by a boy's suffering from the consequences of his own mistakes, instead of being protected from them. JUDGMENT he will learn by being encouraged to use his mind, by discussions at the family table, by the company and instruction of his father whom he naturally hero-worships and follows, but who must take time to listen to his boy and counsel him, especially in adolescence. DISCIPLINE he will learn by getting up early in the morning, by a daily routine to which he sticks, by getting early to bed, and by not dating until, more or less, he is looking to marry. The less he gives to girls he will not marry, the more he will have to give to the girl he will marry. MANLINESS will be the reward for following out such a programme.

Finally, parents, notice how electronics as a rule make a boy 1 idle, 2 irresponsible, 3 silly, 4 soft and 5 frustrated.

Cast out of the home electronics' spell,
If your boys are not to drop into Hell !
Read the rest of this article

Friday, 18 June 2010

Perverted Paediatrics?

A decade ago, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, a Wales-based paediatrician came home to find that someone had sprayed the word "paedo" on her front door. At the time, the country was caught up in one of its periodic moral panics about child abuse, encouraged by a name-and-shame campaign in the News of the World. Since no-one was ever arrested, it cannot be known whether (as was widely assumed) the defacing of Dr Yvette Cloete's house was the result of some idiot's inability to tell the difference between a child-doctor and a child-abuser. Nevertheless, the incident soon came to be seen as emblematic of a spreading witch-hunt mentality. Every time paedo-panic reappears, the story is retold, not always accurately. Many versions have a howling mob turning up at the paediatrician's door to shout abuse or even hurling stones, and the unfortunate doctor left in fear of her, or his, life.

Might we, ten years later, be seeing this urban myth coming to life, fuelled this time not by illiteracy but by misinterpretation of a real, if controversial, medical procedure, and with the howling mob spontaneously forming itself among the educated, young and liberal denizens of blogs and facebook groups?

Yesterday, on Twitter, I came across claims that a leading American doctor had been sexually stimulating the genitals of small girls, under the guise of medical research, after first performing invasive and unnecessary surgical procedures to reduce the size of their clitoris. Like most who read it (initially in this version) I was horrified. It sounded - and still does - scarcely credible. So it's not surprising that the reaction has been extreme. The doctor and the institution that employs him have been bombarded with angry emails. A facebook group set up to "End Female Genital Mutilation at Cornell University" now has around 1500 members. Elsewhere I've seen calls for the doctor to be struck off, locked up, even castrated. Many of the comments are plainly libellous. Someone on Jezebel described him as "nothing more than a child molester practicing under the guise of doctor." To others, he was "a sick fuckazoid", "a QUACK", "that perv". Melissa McEwan of Shakespeare's sister, only marginally more restrained, described his work as a "human rights violation".

Is any of this justified?

Dr Dix Poppas is by all accounts (and despite a somewhat unfortunate name) a surgeon with an exemplary reputation, Professor of Pediatric Urology and of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Weill Medical College - attached to New York's prestigious Cornell University - as well as being head of the Institute for Pediatric Urology at the Komansky Center for Children's Health. He is the winner of numerous awards and professional distinctions and has featured in lists of America's top doctors. He also has an impressive research pedigree, with 88 academic papers to his name, and is a pioneer of minimally-invasive surgical techniques. I've tracked down patient reviews offering high praise for his manner as well as for his expertise.

Among his specialisms, however, is the treatment of intersex conditions by surgery, for example reducing the "abnormal" enlarged clitoris in girls born with genetic or hormonal conditions. While it has long been regular medical practice to resolve the ambiguities sometimes thrown up by nature, the field has become increasingly contested in recent years. Intersex activists accuse doctors of interfering with nature, of making arbitrary judgements based on aesthetics or to fit cultural norms, of calling it wrong (in some cases, surgically-corrected "girls" grow up to identify as male, or vice versa) and of indulging in practices equivalent to the genital mutilation widely condemned when performed for religious or tribal reasons. Supporters of these procedures respond by pointing out that the stigma of abnormality can cause deep psychological scars, and that every child has a right to be normal.

It's a fraught area, but Professor Poppas is unlikely to have anticipated the storm that has broken over his head when an intersex campaigner and professor of bioethics, Dr Alice Dreger, unearthed a research paper Poppas has co-authored in 2007 (pdf). In it, Poppas described how using various techniques, including a device characterised by Dreger as a "vibrator", to ascertain the success of his "nerve-sparing" surgery on patients as young as six. Basically, he was trying to find out if what was left of the child's clitoris after he had finished chopping it up retained sufficient sensitivity to enable it, in due time, to do its job. The experiments - if that is what they were - were carried out in the presence of the children's parents. Nevertheless, Dreger and her colleague Ellen Feder were concerned both at the ethics of the procedure and of its likely long-term psychological impact. They write:

In the course of our inquiries, made in preparation for this publication, nearly all clinicians to whom we described Poppas’s “clitoral sensory testing and vibratory sensory testing” practices thought them so outrageous that they told us we must have the facts wrong. When we showed them the 2007 article, their disbelief ceased, but they then seemed to become as agitated as we were. At an international conference two weeks ago, when Dreger told Ken Zucker, a psychologist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and member of the clinical establishment, about this, Zucker said that we could quote him as saying this: "Applying a vibrator to a six-year-old girl’s surgically feminized clitoris is developmentally inappropriate." We couldn’t find a clinician who disagreed with Zucker.

Dreger and Feder compare Poppas' post-operative tests to the notorious Tuskegee Syphilis Project, in which black patients were deprived of life-saving treatment so that doctors could watch them die. Here, they write, was another example of "how the dehumanizing, scientized language of modern medicine 'can obscure and de-emphasize any ethical, non-scientific perspective'." In a follow-up post, Dreger describes one of his tests - using a cotton-bud - as "creepy". She doesn't explicitly accuse him of child-abuse, or of being a pervert. Then again, she doesn't need to. The implication is enough.

So far, there has been no response either from Cornell university or from Dix Poppas himself*. The latter would appear to be in hiding. Now, clearly, there are are important questions raised both by the operations and by Poppas' follow-up tests. I can't help suspecting, though, that the facts have been somewhat distorted even in Dreger's original account of them.

For one thing, she is somewhat vague about the conditions Poppas was treating, leaving the casual reader to infer that the operations were cosmetic, based on little more than his subjective opinion that some girls' genitals were "too big". On the question of whether or not the tests required ethical approval, for example, there seems to be some confusion. The 2007 paper received approval from the appropriate review board - but, as Dreger points out, the 2007 study was a statistical analysis of Poppas' results stretching over a number of years. He had had no ethical approval for "experimenting" on the patients as part of a study into the effectiveness of his surgical technique. Dreger writes:

This may sound like a technicality. It isn't. If he had sought IRB approval for the "sensory testing," the ethics staff might have sat up and asked him what the heck he thought he was doing to these girls, and they would have tried to make sure the parents were informed about the unknowns and risks, and the girls could have refused to participate.

Perhaps. But was Poppas was engaged in an experiment at all? What he was doing was ascertaining the success of each particular procedure and writing up the results. "It isn’t clear to us" write Dreger and Feder, "how this kind of genital touching post-operatively is in individual patients' best interests. If the testing shows a girl has lost sensation through the surgery, her lost clitoral tissue cannot be put back." Indeed not. But - leaving aside the question of genital reconstruction surgery, which is a much larger topic - the tests would have been beneficial for Poppas' professional development, and thus for all his future patients.

His main aim, plainly, was to see if his technique really did preserve nerve-endings that traditional procedures destroyed. This was in no sense a scientific trial - if it had been, the follow-up tests would have been carried out by a different doctor to discount bias. There would also have been control groups - one of girls who had been operated on without Poppas' revolutionary "nerve-sparing", and another of girls who had not been operated on at all. I cannot imagine ethical approval being given to any such project. The 2007 paper acknowledges the limitations of the study. It does, indeed, envisage comparison with "an age matched normal cohort" after the patients have achieved sexual maturity.

None of this means that Poppas' precise technique was socially appropriate, especially in today's heightened and sexually self-conscious climate. Even the dry, technical language of the 2007 paper is more than a little disturbing:

Patients older than 5 years were considered candidates for CST. CST was performed using a cotton tip applicator. Using a scale of 0—no sensation to 5—maximum sensation, the patient was asked to report the degree of sensation at various points of the inner thigh and genitalia (labia majora, labia minora, vaginal introitus and clitoris). Inner thigh stimulation was set at level 3 for each patient and used as a baseline to compare other areas tested. In addition, these patients also had vibratory sensory testing performed using a biothesiometer designed to quantify the ability of patients to detect vibratory stimuli... The device generates a vibratory stimulus of varying amplitudes that can be gradually increased until the sensation is perceived by patients.

Yes. I can see why this has set alarm bells ringing. But without being present in the consultation room one can't really judge it. At the very least it's a big assumption that the procedure would have been perceived as in any sense sexual by pre-pubescent patients, or that it is likely to have a long-term impact on their psychological development. I think we may be dealing with the all-too-common phenomenon in our society of sexualisation - imposing adult concepts of sex onto children, reading sexual motivations where they do not exist, imagining that anything that could be about sex, is about sex. I wouldn't want to prejudge any inquiry, but it seems to me unlikely that there was anything improper about the atmosphere in Dr Poppas' consulting room. There certainly isn't any evidence that there was.

There remains the interesting question of Alice Dreger's involvement in the story. There was a Tweet yesterday from Dr Petra Boynton that "the last time Dreger got involved in something like this (on trans issues) it got very messy". A quick Google reveals the existence of websites dedicated to discrediting her, mainly run by intersex activists who object to her previous championing of the term "disorders of sex development" to describe intersex conditions. Another accuses her of being "part of a long history of transsexual imperialists, cissexual persons who have appropriated trans identity to control the flow of discourses that determine our lives." It gets a bit complicated. Suffice it to say she seems to be someone of strong opinions who is always up for a fight.

Her objection to the surgical correction of ambiguous genitalia is deeply felt. It seems to me that she would not be above misconstruing Dr Poppas' patient examinations in order to discredit his and others' surgical work. She writes: "We're glad Poppas cares about function. But if he really cared about maximizing these girls' function, he would not be doing surgery on their healthy clitorises." By contrast, many members of the public may sympathise with the view that Poppas' surgery is concerned with correcting congenital abnormalities and enabling children to fit into a society that still has a binary view of gender. The case for intersex identity and rights has not yet entered mainstream discourse. But anyone can get angry about a doctor apparently touching up little girls.

Paedophile. Paediatrician. What's the difference?

*UPDATE: a response from Cornell University posted on the facebook group:

While it is too early to provide a meaningful response to your comments, please be assured that we take your concerns seriously and are looking into the matter thoroughly.
Cornell University and its Weill Cornell Medical College are committed to providing the highest quality education, research and clinical care.

Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Discriminatory regimes continue to push anti-discrimination agenda at UN

I see the Organisation of Islamic Conference are up to their usual tricks again, abusing the UN Council on Human Rights to push the pernicious notion that "defamation of religion" - in other words, anything remotely critical of either Islam or their own countries' dubious human rights records - should be an international crime on a par with genocide.

Earlier this week, a delegate from Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the organisation, told the UNCHR meeting in Geneva that "defamation of religions" (by which he meant Islam) was "the latest manifestation of discrimination, intolerance and xenophobia" and had "increased substantively in the past few years". Lest there be any doubt what he was referring to, he complained that anti-religious statements were "being defended under the garb of freedom of expression." He further claimed that

The simple-minded equation of Islam and the entire Muslim community with terrorism was illogical, ethically reprehensible, and intellectually dishonest since it led to ignoring the political basis of terrorism, and to de-legitimise the political content of their programme. The international community must address the root causes of terrorism, such as the situations of grave injustices and repression affecting Muslims, and conditions of poverty and lack of opportunity, which bred extremism and terrorism.

In other words, on the one hand it's wrong to claim that Islam and terrorism had anything to do with one another; and on the other hand, terrorism was the result of justified political grievances, especially "grave injustices and repression affecting Muslims". Some contradiction there, I fear.

Meanwhile, an Egyptian delegate was

...dismayed at instances of religious and cultural prejudices, intolerance and discrimination on the basis of religions or beliefs or different systems. Egypt expressed its concern at the negative stereotyping of religions, insults to and defamation of religious personalities, holy books, scriptures and symbols. It deplored all acts of ideological and physical violence and assaults against persons on the basis of their religions or beliefs.

Does that deploration stretch to the bouts of violence and increasingly routine persecution to which Egypt's Coptic Christians have been subjected in recent years? For that matter, did the Pakistani delegate feel any sense of shame at his country's treatment of religious minorities, not just Christians but also Ahmadis - who call themselves Muslims yet who are regarded by Pakistani law as second-class citizens, an attitude that legitimizes murderous acts such as the recent bombing of an Ahmadi mosque? As so often, the hypocrisy of such people is simply breathtaking. They are, however, sure of the support of the majority of UN member states, who will happily vote for any resolution that looks anti-Western.

Of course, it's a dangerous thing to associate Islam with acts of terrorism. But the link only exists because of people who persist in appealing to their religion while blowing things up or shooting people, who record "martyrdom videos", who form themselves into angry groups (constantly renamed to circumvent government bans) to celebrate acts of terror abroad or heckle returning British troops. But then what was the Pakistani delegate doing when he told the UN meeting that terrorist acts were caused by the repression of "Muslims", if not associating Islam with terrorism? He was not wrong when he said that Muslims were repressed in many countries, or that violent unrest was often a response to repressive government. But in no country are Muslims repressed simply for being Muslims.

Religiously-motivated repression of that kind exists only in Muslim countries, and its victims are either members of other faiths, non-believers (Roy Brown of the International Humanist and Ethical Union told the meeting that "at least three Member States of the Council had laws in place that prescribed the death penalty for those who declared themselves to be non-believers") or, in the case of the Ahmadis, deviant Muslims. By and large, though, Muslim victims of repression share their religion with those who are repressing them - their own corrupt, undemocratic and hypocritical governments. I'm thinking especially of Egypt and Pakistan, naturally, but one could add to them Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan... The countries, in fact, who make most noise about the alleged problem of "defamation of religion". It's a classic diversionary tactic.
Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Revealed: who stole Winston's cigar?

GIF animations generator gifup.comWith its usual gift for affected indignation, the Daily Mail is seething about the anti-smoking zealots who, allegedly, censored Winston Churchill's cigar from a poster. "It seems the man who steered Britain through the most dangerous period of its recent history may have fallen victim to the modern curse of political correctness," says the report. Many frothing comments followed from readers.

The poster featured in a display at a London museum, the Britain at War Experience, near London Bridge. Oddly enough, the story goes on to describe the disappearance of the Churchillian havana as "something of a mystery". A spokesman for the visitor attraction is professedly "astonished" that such a thing could have happened. However, the spokesman "intriguingly" declined to name the person responsible. The museum denies that they have been contacted by any anti-smoking lobby group - indeed, we're are told that the display features "all sorts of images" of the great man, many with his trademark cigar.

Indeed, the spokesman claims that the museum was quite unaware of the airbrushing until a visitor, named as David McAdam, drew it to their attention. He sounded quite worked up:

I pointed out this crude alteration to a museum steward who said she hadn't noticed the change before, nor had anyone else pointed it out. Viewing the now disfigured image reveals just how unhinged the vociferous anti-smoking lobby has become. So much for the notion that only communist tyrants airbrushed history.

There's no further information about Mr McAdam, whose turn of phrase appears to owe more than a little to Richard Littlejohn. Is this how people talk nowadays? Perhaps it's just in press releases. In situations like this I'm usually tempted to think there might be something else going on, like, I don't know, an attempt to attract publicity to the Britain at War Experience, perhaps. Cynical of me, I know.

Nevertheless, I think I've identified the source of the airbrushed image. It comes from an online picture gallery, Fanpix, which is one of the first links that come up when you type "Winston Churchill Images" into Google. It looks to me as though it was probably culled automatically from an internet trawl and then selected by a webmaster as a suitable image. Fanpix certainly isn't responsible for removing the cigar. Presumably someone creating the War Experience display went on to the internet in search of suitable Churchill pictures and, not knowing that it was digitally altered, selected this one.

As far as I can tell, the ultimate source of the doctored picture is an animated GIF created in 2006 by a blogger going by the name of South Puget Sound Libertarian to illustrate a story about, yes you've guessed it, politically-correct anti-smoking fanatics censoring old pictures. In this case, the story concerned Hanna Barbera, who were apparently removing smoking scenes from Tom and Jerry cartoons after a British viewer complained to Ofcom that the scenes were "glamorizing" the filthy habit. As far as I remember, what usually happened was that Jerry handed Tom the cigar and then lit it, whereupon it blow up in his face. Not very glamorous. SPSL references a Washington Post blogpost which comments wryly:

Hopefully, this move will save a generation of young humanoids from trying to woo cats with tobacco. Unfortunately, those same children are still in danger of dropping anvils on one another’s heads, putting each other’s tails in electrical sockets, cutting each other in half, poisoning one another, exploding each other with dynamite and other sundry weapons available from the diabolical Acme corporation. Oh, and cross dressing.

Indeed. But - here's the Churchill connection - a comment on the WP blog suggested that "they’d have to go back and edit all the old pictures of Winston Churchill to remove his cigar". The Puget Sound Libertarian was duly inspired. And so a humorous image mocked up to poke fun at the excesses of Political Correctness ended up, four years later, as proof that Political Correctness had, once again, Gone Mad. Isn't circularity wonderful?
Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 13 June 2010

News of the World warns of new Euro-threat to British bedroom fun

A resolution by a little-known (if important) committee of the European Parliament to enquire into the environmental impact of certain materials often found in electronic equipment, with a view to possibly phasing them out over the next five years, doesn't sound like the sexiest or most enticing story to distract from the misery of England's failure to beat our new international foe, but the News of the World has found an angle. "Brussels killjoys" we learn "are plotting to take the buzz out of the bedroom - by banning sex toys."

The report quotes UKIP's Paul Nuttall who complained that the move would "cost the bedrooms of Britain a lot of fun", as well as TV sexpert Tracey Cox who predicted it would result in "a lot of disappointed women". They would be reduced to satisfying themselves with Belgian chocolate, she feared. (That's women for you - constantly stuffing themselves in one end or another; otherwise how could they possibly function?) Singled out in the report was the Rampant Rabbit, "made famous by Sex and the City". In a blog post, the Screws' Jamie Lyons claims that the "massive Rabbit cull" was all the fault of "EU bores".

But what is really going on? Could those joyless continentals - without whom we probably wouldn't even have heard of sex-toys, incidentally - actually be training their overzealous regulatory sights on Britain's orgasms? Probably not. Even the News of the World admits that the proposals, which remain at a very early stage in development, are designed to deal with the mountains of waste generated by the electronics industry, specifically the use of PVC in mobile phones and white goods. None of the documents or press releases I've managed to track down so much as mentions dildoes or Rampant Rabbits. The origin of the News of the World's particular angle on the story is somewhat mysterious, then, though I doubt the paper's journalists came up with it unaided. That's not how these things work.

So what is really going on? The European Parliament's environment committee has been looking at proposed amendments to the 2002 Hazardous Substances directive (RoHS), specifically whether flame-retardant chemicals and PVC should be added to the list of banned substances, on the grounds that their disposal causes avoidable environmental damage. In the case of PVC, the alleged problem is caused by phthalates (used as softening agents) which have been linked to health problems, although their actual toxicity is disputed.

Last week's decision was actually a compromise, calling for further research on the appropriateness of a ban. An impact assessment report (pdf) in March had shown stronger reason for and less objection to a ban on flame-retardant plastic than to one on PVC components. In the latter case, while drawing attention to environmental and health benefits of the proposal the report suggested that such benefits were outweighed by the costs - not just of substituting materials but also and especially the cost of extensive product redesign. It called for more detailed work, a proposal that seems to have been accepted.

An interesting point arises here, in that large phone and computer manufacturers including Hewlett-Packard and Sony Ericsson have been lobbying hard for a ban. They have been phasing out these chemical products for some time now, presumably because it is in their commercial interests to do so. Meanwhile, the plastics industry has been resisting the move. Plastics Europe called it "a proposal that has no basis in sound scientific evidence or care for appropriate methodology" and "just another example of scaremongering which would have a significant and unjustified negative impact on the European economy, potentially to the tune of €1bn per year." They claim that other EU studies have shown no serious environmental or health risks.

In other words, rather than a Brussels plot to ruin people's sexual pleasure we're really looking at a typical and convoluted story of competing corporate interests trying to exploit the opaque and little-publicised processes of EU legislation to maximise their profits. There may well be a valid story here, but not one that fits into the News of the World's familiar template of bossy, interfering bureaucrats introducing "barmy" regulations for the sheer hell of it.

As it happens, phthalate-containing PVC has been banned in children's toys since 2006, the fear being that children could absorb the phalates by chewing or sucking on plastic toys. At the time, Greenpeace argued that the ruling should also apply to intimate adult products - vibrators, "Rampant Rabbits" and the like - given that these products were used in ways that could lead to phthalates being directly absorbed into the body.

Whether or not PVC sex-toys pose an actual risk is debatable - and, indeed, has been little researched. There's some evidence from animal experiments that in high doses phthalates can impact on the internal organs, while Cory Silverberg notes that "preliminary studies on humans have suggested a relationship between phthalates and poor semen quality and a relationship between phthalates and genital development." One Danish study suggested that, with moderate use (no more than fifteen minutes a week) any danger is negligible, and even spending an hour a day pleasuring oneself is probably safe unless you're pregnant. It did however recommend that anyone worried about phthalate-poisoning wrap the device in a condom for extra protection. (Here's Silverberg's excellent and balanced article on the pros and cons of PVC sex-toys.) Logically, what applies to children's toys ought to apply to the adult variety, I think.

According to Lyons, "official documents from the European Parliament admit there are problems with finding alternative materials for some products." He quotes the impact assessment as saying that "some of these alternative materials proved unsuitable because of certain properties such as lacking flexibility or bad odour." Clearly a drawback when it comes to sex-toys. However, the sentence in question refers not to sex toys but to the initial efforts of mobile-phone manufacturer Nokia to develop PVC-free products. It continues, "these issues were rectified and since the beginning of 2006, all new Nokia models are PVC-free." On the other hand, Cory Silverberg noted,

I've been told by some manufacturers that you can tell if a toy has phthalates by the strong chemical smell many jelly rubber sex toys have out of the package, and that the stronger the smell, the more phthalates are likely in your toy.

Indeed, it's not hard to see how today's story could be presented in a very different light. Under a headline such as "Dying for an orgasm", the report would have warned readers that

Killer chemicals banned in kids' toys are STILL being used in popular sex-gadgets despite evidence of damage to the liver, kidneys, lungs and other organs. Not to mention the havoc they cause to the environment when they're disposed of in landfill sites. Products such as the Rampant Rabbit, made famous in Sex and the City, may give pleasure to millions of British women - but that pleasure may come at a high price, experts say.

Yet out-of-touch EU lawmakers, under pressure from plastics multinationals, are REFUSING to heed widespread calls for an immediate ban. Instead, there will be a meaningless consultation. News of the World sex columnist Tracey Cox urged do-nothing bureaucrats to speed up the introduction of risk-free vibrators. In the meantime, she added, "Be environmentally-friendly and get rid of them. Treat yourself to some Belgian chocolates instead."

Either way, it's all Brussels' fault.
Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Cherie Blair wins misconduct claim. No reasons given.

In a terse statement released today, the Office for Judicial Complaints dismissed a complaint brought by the National Secular Society against Cherie Booth, QC. Mrs Blair, you may recall, told a convicted assailant - a supposedly devout Muslim - that she was giving him a non-custodial sentence "based on the fact you are a religious person". "You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour."

It's Miss Booth's misfortune that anything she does is news. But that doesn't excuse bad judgement. On the face of it, it looked like faith-based favouritism - and so it was reported. It's easy to understand the NSS's position. At the very least, it suggested a prejudice on Ms Booth's part that being religious was evidence of good character. Why else would she have said it? Many observers, including myself, assumed that the assailant's religious convictions had been raised in mitigation by his lawyers. But, as top legal blogger David Allen Green discovered, that doesn't seem to have been the case. She made the link all by herself.

That's strange. Especially when you consider that she's married to Tony Blair, who managed to involve the country in an unnecessary, disastrous and probably illegal war. As a religious man himself, surely he realised that this was not acceptable behaviour - as both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury pointed out at the time.

The suspended sentence imposed on Shamso Miah, the "devout Muslim", who had been convicted of fracturing a man's jaw during an altercation in a bank queue, was not unduly lenient. It was, "indeed perhaps at the harsher end of the applicable scale" thinks the blogger otherwise known as Jack of Kent. Presumably this was why the OJC decided she had no case to answer. Unfortunately the statement doesn't give any explanation, however. It simply says that the "investigation has concluded and found that Recorder Booth's observations did not constitute judicial misconduct."

Not exactly a triumph for transparency. As the NSS complains, "how can we decide when the whole thing is kept behind closed doors and away from scrutiny?" It's not even clear whether Cherie's words were accurately reported. I suspect they probably were, though, if only because at no point did Cherie Booth or the Justice Ministry deny it.

The mystery remains. And, despite what OJC has concluded, so does the taint of misconduct. For - if she did indeed make those remarks - Ms Blair/Booth must have lied in court. She quite explicitly said that "the fact that you are a religious person" was the "basis" for her decision not to impose a custodial sentence on Mr Miah. Whereas in fact she was merely following the guidelines. Why make such a misleading comment? To convince the defendant that he was lucky not to find himself behind bars? Or to convince the press that she was no soft touch, but would only show leniency to someone if there was a Very Good Reason. Like being religious, for example.

JoK has probably the best explanation - "many judges make trite admonishments when handing down sentence; anyone is free to go into a Crown Court or Magistrates’s Court and cringe at hearing them." That may be true. It's hardly a ringing endorsement of the modern judiciary, though. Read the rest of this article