The British Medical Association, the Physicians’ trade union, has called for a ban on smoking in private cars, to add to the 2007 restriction on smoking in enclosed ‘public’ places. Their reason is that such a ban is a small price to pay to reduce the exposure of minors carried as passengers. Apparently, the level of toxins detectable in a smoker’s car is 23 times that found in pre-2007 smoky pubs. The Evening Standard published a piece supporting the proposed ban, deciding that “Demanding that people stop driving in a self-generated cloud of poisonous gas doesn’t seem a big ask.”
But it does seem a ‘big ask’.
For objections to this illiberal proposal, the first has to be the good word of the BMA itself, which campaigned heavily before the 2007 ban. It’s representatives sent out to TV and radio stations laughed pompously at the objectors warnings of the slippery slope such a ban would put the UK on: it was only to protect innocent pub-goers, they said, who had no choice in what they breathed in when exerxising their alcohol imbibing rights. Don’t they deserve to be protected?
That alcohol was by far the most hazardous part of a Friday night seemed to have been considered unimportant when smoking was coming to be seen as antisocial and presented an easy target of opportunity.
The law banning smoking in public places also overlooked that most of the affected locations were, in fact, privately owned, and no person was obliged to visit a smoking pub or restaurant.
For the Children
It turns out that the ridiculed ‘slippery slope’ argiment was spot on, and campaigners are now openly pushing towards an outdoor ban and wispering about the move into homes. Of course, it will be phrased as if a ban was ‘for the children’, but you can be sure it will be a blanket ban that is demanded, as is the case for the current BMA proposal, for ease of enforcement.
Or just because smoker-persocutors are the new witch-finders and are bolstered by the political momentum to go for the criminalisation of tobacco, openly and without embarrassment.
Although I am, a lifelong non-smoker who has benefitted from smoke-free pubs and offices, I have fundamental objections to the BMA’s demand:
First is the liberty one. It is no business of doctors, in my mind, to stop me doing risky things if the risk to others is small. I am not prevented from climbing mountains, paragliding, skating on icy lakes, driving a car at high speeds (with passengers), and drinking alcohol. The BMA has not yet suggested banning these activities, but since they have a habit of sliding down the slippery slope, I am willing to draw the line at banning smoking.
The second objection is the ’23 times more toxic than the smoky pub’ figure that is being quoted withoud attribution. The Today program speaker explained that this was the case even when no smoking was actually happening since the ‘toxins’ soaked the inside of the car. Is this serious? Just what was measured? And did it really equate to 23 times more hazardous than a pub atmosphere? It seems remarkably suspicious, and the BMA today withdrew its claim (See the Factcheck site for a debunking of this media myth, with sources.)
The argument for a wholesale ban on in-car smoking is a practical one: that it will be easier to enforce ‘for the children’ if everyone was banned. This will include people without children, and people who will never carry children in their cars. In a spirit of tolerance, only dangerous activities should be prohibited – anything else is just illiberal. Why ban people from smoking in their own car just to make enforcement easier? (Foreign laws against smoking in cars only forbid smoking with a child in the car.) It will clearly result in the bulk of prosecutions being of drivers of cars with no children, since they are the ones who will most disagree with such a law.
The final criticism is made with the slippery-slope argument. Usually a poor excuse for logic, the current debate has used the existing ban on smoking in work vehicles and public spaces as justification. One can easily imagine a future when the argument move on to be that the only place a child can breathe smoke is in the home, so that it is a dangerous loophole that should be closed.
Intolerance breeds intolerance by emboldening the nannys that build on victory after victory, incrementally moving us from the traditional character of the country, where a free person can partake of anything not specifically banned, to the continental tradition where you can only do what is specifically prescribed, with everything else forbidden.
UCAS, the body which handles applications for university places, has released 2011 figures. The headline, reported throughout the press, is that applications this year are down by over 12% on last year. The increase in fees, payable after graduation by a form of additional income tax, is being blamed for the drop.
Shadow Education Minister Angela Burns has weighed in, saying that the preliminary data should act as a “harsh wake-up call”.
Toni Pearce, of the National Union of Students, blames the government:
“The confusion caused by the government’s botched reforms is causing young people to at the very least hesitate before applying to university.”
The Guardian misrepresents the data to suggest class differences:
Monday’s figures are just too stark to ignore. When the number of applicants from outside the UK is included, the fall is 9% — greater than it has been for at least six years. The figures show this decline in applicants comes from the pool of students most likely to be badly-off.
Everyone, it seems, thinks that university numbers should be on a one-way escalator to steadily greater proportions of our youngsters studying for degrees and that any drop is, by definition, a bad thing.
Everyone, it seems then, is wrong.
The figures, of course, do not indicate a collapse in student confidence. Although 12% seems a large drop, it should be understood in the context of dramatic rises in recent years, not least last year when many students put off a gap year to apply early. This artificially inflated 2010 figures by taking from what would have been this year’s applicants. Even with the fall, we are still only just below the 2009 rate, with a smaller pool of applicantants. (There has been a 6% drop in 17-year-olds over the last four years of increasing applications and two more years of falls — expect the same stories next year!)
The Real Issue
What the headline writers have failed to address is whether a growing number of graduates is really a good idea. The advantages are supposed to be that the UK needs more graduates for all the new graduate jobs that are being produced in the economy, and that there will be fewer jobs for lower skilled people.
Does the economy need more highly skilled workers? Yes, naturally. Highly skilled people have always been in demand throughout history. But there is a sleight of hand going on here. The problem is that the term graduate is not now synonymous with skilled, and graduate jobs do not often require high levels of skills. Twenty years ago, if you were an employer looking for a reasonably bright, trainable youngster, you advertised for someone with A-levels or good O-levels. Now that anyone who can hold a pen through sixth-form college is encouraged to start a degree, not having a degree is a serious hindrance.
Not because of the skills you did not pick up, but because employers will wonder why you weren’t up to a degree when all and sundry can graduate now.
Reaching Their Limits
When we have students maxing out at GCSE grade C going on to be awarded A-levels and then degrees, you might just wonder what it is they are learning at university. If the top three GCSE grades were beyond them, just what level was the intellectual challenge of the degree? Before you start to panic about the quality of our engineers, doctors and scientists, you can’t get on one of the technical degrees without very good grades: C’s won’t cut the mustard. But having a degree, by itself, is no guarantee of superior skill levels, with many course instructors unable to lift the academic standard to a suitable level without having most of their students failing and dropping out.
For many people, GCSE or A-level is their academic limit. Unfortunately, many of these teenagers are being mislead into thinking that by investing in an expensive three-year course their careers will be appropriately enhanced.
The evidence is against them though, as some school-leavers are starting to realise.
The country does need more skilled workers, but not more low-skilled workers with degree certificates and unrealistic expectations. The solution is not more accessible (read ‘easier’) degrees, but investment in Primary and Secondary education, with higher technical graduate salaries to persuade those bright enough to tackle the harder subjects,
or else encourage talented people from overseas to boost our ailing manufacturing economy.
This brouhaha will blow over soon, regardless. The hugely increased fees charged by middling universities will not last long, as students will expect value for money. Fees will fall to match the desirability or career benefit of the course and student numbers will drop, returning hard working students to the productive economy where they are needed.
There is no usable blogging client that works across Linux distributions, leaving me to use the Vim editor and the GoogleCL command line interface.
I have been using the Blogger.com web interface to write posts for several years now and I have found it usable, but limiting. The interface works OK, and it has three different views showing the html code, the html as it might be seen on the web and a hybrid composing view. I switched between the html and web views and found it worked reasonably well as long as the internet connection remained.
But since most of the free time I have available to write posts involved a note-book computer without internet I started to look for an offline blogging client. All it had to do was let me edit the text and upload it to the Blogger web-site along with a title. I am not big on images or embedded videos, so I didn’t think I was asking much.
First up was Gnome Blog. Presented as a bare bones client, it was just that. It functioned well though for simple blog entries, with the ability to format text and include images. But it was unable to access Blogger with the Atom 2.0 interface, so it dropped to Atom 1.0. This was a deal breaker, as Atom 1.0 does not seem to support post titles. So, out with Gnome Blog, and ‘aptitude install drivel’.
Drivel looks good and has more features than Gnome Blog, but was more buggy and less stable. And it, too, could not supply post titles to Blogger, or retrieve posts to edit. It seems to work well with other blog hosting sites, so it seems to be a problem with Blogger, but I am not keen on transferring this blog to another host just yet, so onwards.
Blogilo (previously called Bilbo, but it attracted legal problems) was the most promising, being rated highly in a Linux Format magazine review. It was the most feature complete and polished, with all the bells and whistles you could want.
But it turned out to be a heavily integrated with the KDE desktop. This meant that, since I wasn’t running KDE, it pulled in a number of KDE dependencies. This is not normally a problem, since I had plenty of RAM and the extra libraries could be loaded without slowing the system. It required the use of KDEwallet, which is an encryption keyring. I had no need for another keyring, so I disabled that, but then I discovered that KDE had started taking over my system! The fonts, window decorations and icons, file browser and a bunch of defaults were all KDE’d.
I started to de-KDEify one problem at a time, but ended by removing the whole KDE Desktop invading hoard. All the problems went at once, along with Blogilo.
The most reliable way of uploading pre-written posts to Blogger turned out to be the command line GoogleCL. This is a set of tools for the Google Data API, which includes the Google run Blogger.com, so there is no Atom 1.0 / 2.0 shenanigans. I just type in a terminal:
google blogger post –tags “taglist” –title “title” blogpost.html
GoogleCL is aimed, really, at developers who want to integrate Google services with their software, but it is easy to use at the command line. And, seeing that none of the clients I tried correctly handled uploading or paragraph html tags or titles reliably, GoogleCL is a good stopgap until something better turns up. I am using Vim as an editor, so an added bonus, if you can call it that, is that I am forced to learn the simpler HTML tags.
One Thing Well
The Linux philosophy for software is for each program to do one thing well and to link them together to do more complex tasks. You would think that a dedicated blogging client would be able to do that one thing well, but you’d be wrong. But Vim will always be a good HTML editor and GoogleCL will always be able to upload to Blogger. Who needs a blogging client anyway?
The government should be brave and make breaking DRM legal, even if the distribution of copied media remains controlled.
Would YOU steal?
My movie viewing last weekend was interrupted by the antisocial behaviour of the DVD I was trying to watch. I arranged the sofa and TV, poured the wine and sorted some nibbles. The DVD started, but the film didn’t.
I had to sit through a series of trailers for films I’d never watch. I pressed fast forward, I pressed skip-on and my player told me that the actions were forbidden. Forbidden! My own player, playing a DVD I had paid for! And the DVD would not let me control the playback. I tried the disk menu button, hoping to get straight to the play options, but the disk skipped back to the start, so I had to watch the trailers again.
Eventually, we got to the main feature. Or would have done if there wasn’t a compulsory viewing of the copyright notice. And a jarring and jumpy clip showing a ne’er-do-well breaking into a car and stealing from it, ending with a statement equating copying a DVD to theft. You wouldn’t steal, would you? So don’t copy stuff it said.
Now, I could be pursuaded that Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a good thing that protects the income of poot artists, but after muttering my way through a long series of video clips in my own home that I didn’t want to watch and could not avoid, I was rather less sympathetic. Bypassing DRM and copying media is illegal. But it has it’s benefits. Say I buy a DVD, but don’t want to watch the same trailers and warnings every time I watch the film. Let’s say that I bypass the DRM and copy the film to my PC and strip everything except for the main feature, so that I can watch the film the way I want to watch it. That is illegal.
But can it be equated to stealing? Who on Earth has lost in the process? Stealing is a strictly zero-sum game: one person’s gain is another’s loss. In this case no-one has lost anything, but I gain plenty. DRM which prevents uncontrolled copying is arguably, maybe, a reasonable thing, but it will never work. Copying and free distribution is rampant, and DRM will never prevent that. It will never be more difficult to copy data bits which are being decoded in my player or PC CDROM drive. But DRM does stop me format shifting, cutting out adverts or making backup copies if I wish to comply with the law.
And when DRM is used to make watch adverts in my own home when I am watching a bought DVD on my own equipment, I has gone beyond a joke.
The government is considering making legal the copying of audio CDs for the purposes of format shifting, backing up and giving to relatives. CDs do not have DRM, so these tasks are technically very simple for end users. They should extend their plan to allow DRM breaking for these purposes. Hollywood shouldn’t have special protections not available to recording artists.
Much as I enjoy smoke free pubs and restaurants, I always took the view that I had a free choice of where to go of an evening if I wanted to avoid cigarette smoke. Admittedly, there were few locations that banned smoking, but that was a commercial decision of the proprietors.
Key for those who see the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces as a small start towards banning smoking anywhere is any evidence that smoking in private homes and cars impinges on the rights of powerless third parties. So the news that passive smoking increases the risk of still-births by a whopping 13% and that of birth malformations by 23% was reported widely.
The BBC news site quoted the press release freely:
“Fathers-to-be should stop smoking to protect their unborn child from the risk of stillbirth or birth defects, scientists say. They looked at 19 previous studies from around the world.
A UK expert said it was ‘vital’ women knew the risks of second-hand smoke.”
Vital that women knew the risks? So what are the risks? The paper (abstract) was not primary research, but combined data from multiple studies, which sounds good. But most of the studies were either of poor quality or did not address the desired health outcomes. In the end, it came down to 19 studies with four separate outcome measures. Two of them, the risk of miscarriage and the risk of perinatal or neonatal death, came out negative: no increased risk. The other two came out with the 13% (4 studies) and 23% (7 studies) increased risk.
So, the news reports could have started with headlines of “Passive Smoking Does Not Cause Miscarriage” or “New Study Produces Contradictory Results”, or even “We’re Trying Really Hard But We Still Can’t Prove Passive Smoking is Particularly Dangerous”. Although I can’t imagine researchers from the UK Tobacco Control research Network policy advocacy group pushing that last one!
When researchers attribute risks to particular behaviours, they calculate not only the best estimate of the increased risk (eg an odds ratio of 1.13, or an increase of 13%), but also the high and low limits within which they are confident that the ‘true’ risk lies. Any measurement will have uncertainties, and to be confident that a risk is real it must be repeatable: that is, doing the whole study again will produce the same result.
Obviously, you can’t wait until the next study before you publish, so you use the mathematics of chance to see the results might have been if thing had gone slightly differently during the study. The outcome, then, is not a ‘best’ figure, but a ‘confidence interval’ which the ‘true’ result would be within 95% of the time. (or outside the range 5% of the time).
The study found that two of the outcomes had confidence intervals that started below an odds ratio of 1. That is, there is a real chance that there was no risk at all, even though the ‘best’ figure was higher. So the results are dismissed as not significant.
What of the other two? Stillbirth came out as 1.01 – 1.26 (middle value 1.13), with malformations as 1.09 – 1.38 (middle value 1.23). So, even without a further look, stillbirths could be increased by perhaps 1%, or as much as 26%. We can’t tell which, but we can tell that presenting 13% as the figure is misleading.
But it is worse that that. The researchers looked at many outcomes and picked out to publicise the ones which had the wanted results, which makes it far more likely that you will find significance in your results. As an example, let’s say that you roll four dice. The chance that any one of them will come up a six is 1/6 (or 17%), but the chance that at least one of the four will come up a six much greater at 48%.
For the researchers to be confident that their overall result of, say, ‘passive smoking causes harm to unborm babies’, an allowance must be made (eg the Bonferroni correction) for each of these multiple comparisons to get the overall confidence back up to 95%. For four tests as here, the intervals should be increased by the factor of around 1.27, so they become:
Still birth relative risk: 0.98 – 1.30
Congnital malformation relative risk: 0.91 – 1.40
Note that both now include the relative risk (ie no risk) in the range. On this test, none of the outcomes is significant.
Two Bites at the Cherry
The upshot is this. If you use statistical arguments to judge outcomes, you should know that the more measurements you make the more likely you are to come up with spurious results, so you should make allowances for it.
The headline should have been, at best, “Our Research Was Too Underpowered to be Sure of Anything, but it is Worth Asking for More Funding“.
Unlikely to be reported in the papers, but honest.
I normally avoid leaving comments on online newspaper articles as I don’t enjoy the anonymous behaviour of participants: rudeness, ignorance and unwillingness to engage in proper debate. But I did get stuck in to one of James Delingpole’s Telegraph Blog entries. (My spell-checker wants to replace ‘Delingpole‘ with ‘Delinquent‘. I’m tempted.)
Delingpole seriously embarrassed himself in the BBC’s Horizon programme Science Under Attack when he debated climate change with Nurse, a Nobel Prize winning scientist. Specifically, Delingpole described his climate change ‘journalism’ as interpreting interpretation: he didn’t read scientific papers, not even the abstracts.
More specifically, he has found a few people who share his biases and then uses their writings as evidence for his own opinions, as they use his to buttress theirs. ‘Science’ is a word used often, but the scientific method seems to be unknown to them as they resort to rhetoric instead. It seems that winning an ill-natured argument is far more important to them than actually being right. (They fervently believe they are right, of course, though they make no effort to develop secure lines of reasoning, relying on the whole list of pseudo-science techniques described here.)
The comments on the blog entries are even less nuanced, as they don’t even try to use rhetorical tricks and deceptions. If you have ever had so little going on in your life that you feel able to interact with the low-lifes that inhabit these sites, then you may skip to the end.
But this is the nature of argument from those that worship the self-important journalists such as Delingpole. Insults are the order of the day: anonymous posters are just rude. If you come up with a good argument, data that disproves a statement or even just try to act as a moderating influence, then expect to get flamed.
Ignore reasoned arguments
Tell the poster that their sort of person makes you sick and you can’t believe how much they wriggle and squirm in a proper debate. Tell them how thin skinned they are. If you are lucky, they will be distracted by your bilge and not notice that you had no answer to their line of argument.
Consensus Plays No Part in Science
If anyone has the front to point out that the specialists in the field are virtually unanimous in their judgements, so you are likely to be mistaken, bang on about the ‘fact’ that consensus plays no part in science. This is a great move, since you can act as an expert in your own right at the same time as denying real experts know anything about the reality of the science. It is, of course, nonsense. Science does not have authorities that pass judgement on theories when there is disagreement. The only way for tentative theories to enter the canon of accepted principles is for them to be debated back and forth along with the data in journals and at conferences, until everyone has had their objections answered and consensus is reached. Far from ‘consensus plays no part in science’, a lack of consensus is fatal to the progression of a scientific theory. Consensus is the only way in science.
Apply Different Standards of Evidence to Opponents
Appear to carefully pick apart statistical inferences with which you disagree, then slip in a non-sequitur based on an absence of evidence. For instance, challenge the last fifty years of warming by selecting your data from one of the regularly occurring decades where the warming slows or stops for a few years, say that there is no statistically significant warming. If there is warming, pick a new start year that is especially warm and try again to fit a negative gradient. Ignore the fact that the correlation is very weak (r=0.1) and insignificant. Try the line that since warming is not proven, so cooling must be happening. And add an insult as a diversion so no-one notices the sleight of hand.
Libel the Experts
Repeatedly point out that some of the experts are actually computer modellers, chemists or physicists, not ‘climate experts’, and make claims that they are in the pay of large governmental and NGO conspiracies. Refer to your own sources as ‘renowned climate experts’, even if they are retired engineers or computer modellers. (‘Renowned’ is the give-away term, as no reputable scientists refer to anyone as renowned.)
Quote Your Own Consensus
Quote a big, long list of scientists who signed up to an online statement supporting your view, but don’t worry if none of them are actually working in a related field of study. As long as they give academic titles and put PhD after their name, they are scientists, right? And don’t call it a consensus, as you have already claimed that consensus is not part of science.
Hide Contrary Views
To force recent posts that challenged your statements off the bottom of the first page, find a contrarian web site and cut and paste large chunks of it into your posts. This has the bonus of not requiring any thought whatsoever on your part. When the offending posts have disappeared, you can repeat what you wrote before, secure in the knowledge that new readers will not see that there are good reasons not to trust what you say.
This was the first time I tried to sustain interest in a blog comments section for a couple of days, and there were over a thousand posts in that time (some commenters seemed to post continually day and night – didn’t their mothers tell them to come up out of the basement and go to bed?)
I tried to direct arguments towards a discussion of evidence, towards an understanding of the statistical limits of certainty, towards the problematical bias of picking an opinion and searching out individuals who support that idea instead of dispassionately assessing opinions and evidence in the round. But it was for naught.
Delingpole told Paul Nurse in the Horizon programme that he didn’t read proper research papers, because peer-to-peer review (clever, huh!) was an improvement on peer-review because it allowed journalists and anyone with an interest to get stuck in.
And he said it with a straight face!
Headteachers are demeaning themselves in their rush to criticise the new English Baccalaureat figures included for the first time in this year’s league tables, and thereby excuse their own schools’ poor rankings.
The English Bac, or EBac, is awarded if a student gains GCSE grade C or above in each of English, Maths, Double Science, a humanities subject and a language.
Complaints have grouped into three main lines:
1. No time to properly game the system.
The main complaint is that the figures are retrospective, with the rules of the game only published after the exam results were out. ‘How can we be expected to do well without the time to change our curriculum policies?’ chant the headteachers.
This exposes the key moral weakness of modern schools, which is that directly manipulating the key indicators to make the school look good is preferred to actually improving the pupils’ education.
Gaming the system, then, is the main occupation of school managers.
2. The EBacc is a return to Academic Snobbery.
Why not allow vocational courses as well?
Schools have a choice to make. Enter children on to the course with the best educational aims (say, French or Science GCSEs) when many will achieve grades D to G passes and so not count in the laegue tables. Or, enter them for vocational courses such as the Btec, that guarantee the ‘equivalent’ of four GCSE grade Cs to any pupil still conscious at the end of the course.
The choice is really this stark, and sadly most schools go for option B with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Those under the cosh from Ofsted especially realise this is the only way out of ‘special measures’. Look at the tables and you can spot such schools: they will have improved their 5 A to C figures at improbably fast rates, have high CVA (value added) scores from the additional ‘equivalent’ courses and LOW EBacc rates.
The ‘most improved’ school in the country, Perry Beaches in Birmingham, has moved its 5 A to C figures from 21% to 74% in four years. CVA is also high, but only 3% got the EBacc. Since it takes four or five years to progress through the school as a pupil, the changes must have been instantaneous to have fed through this quickly.
Certificates of GCSE equivalent passes shouldn’t count if everyone passes them. It misleads prospective parents into thinking the school is academic and improving, when it is only the figures that are going up. The quality of the education may actually be declining in these schools as they move from GCSE to Btec and other similar courses.
3. Independent schools are unfairly penalised.
Independent schools are not restricted to only offer courses approved by the politically directed Qualification Curriculum Authority which only approved courses with sufficient levels of coursework in their assessment schemes.
Independent schools don’t approve of coursework, so many offer alternative courses, such as Classical Civilisation, which don’t count towards the EBacc, damaging their figures.
Now, this is a fair complaint. But Independent schools are not compelled to enter the League Tables manipulation game, or even publish figures at all. They are free to create their own tables if they wish so they can compete on their own manicured level playing fields with their own rules.
Unfair, perhaps, but they can take their ball and play elsewhere if they don’t like it.
Less Gaming, Please.
The arrival of the EBacc has embarrassed lots of schools. They complain of the pressures of league tables and the focus on A to C grade passes which excludes the varying efforts of anyone not near the grade boundaries. But they should welcome anything that makes gaming harder and so less attractive. Less gaming should herald a move back towards professional judgements in schools instead of political ones, where the children come first.
I won’t be holding my breath though. Heads have been manipulating their table positions for a long time, and will be looking for ways to continue the game. It is all many of them know.