2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

It’s been a quiet year for me on here. I can safely say it’s been the most difficult year of my adult life so far – despite having to write up and be examined on my PhD the year before. That wasn’t actually too bad, all things considered.

I didn’t know whether it would be good to write something personal and share some of that, but I’ll try it and see, readers.

I am not fishing for sympathy. Despite all of the difficulties I am sharing here (and it certainly isn’t a complete or very detailed account), I am very lucky to have amazing, supportive friends and I go to them when I need to. And I know so many people have dealt with similar and worse, and there are many people in this world who cope with what is unimaginable for us every day. I hope I will be able to write more this year.

A year ago I was in Finland celebrating the beginning of 2013 with a truly amazing holiday; snow, love, new friends, and trying not too worry 100% of the time because my father was in hospital.

2013-12-31 17.13.01

Dad in his favourite place, 2009-ish

He almost died just before Christmas 2012 and it turned out he had a lot of cancer in a lot of places. Anyone who knows me well knows I have a strong dislike for smoking (to put it mildly) – this is but one reason. I grew up with his chain smoking and I saw what it did to him in the end. I know you “know how bad it is” for you, but trust me, there is no way you deserve an end like that. Just stop, please – for your loved ones if not for yourself.

Treatment wasn’t really an option so I spent the next 6 months going home to my parents periodically, trying to be helpful (and often failing), watching him slowly and painfully waste away. He turned 64 in March. My last memories of him are unpleasant, but actually many of my memories of him are, so it’s been a strange and difficult thing to deal with, for all of us.

I declined to travel as much as I had been planning to because I felt it was right for me to stay here and be available – travel also makes me anxious and really I didn’t need more of that at the time. I was also unemployed and looking for work, luckily I found some but the emotional toll of things at home made it very hard to concentrate. Thankfully I have also been lucky in having wonderful, understanding employers, which is priceless.

Unfortunately all of this, culminating in my father’s death in June 2013, put a lot of pressure on (what I thought was) an important relationship (but it wasn’t), already under the strain of maintenance over a distance and at a time we were both making big life decisions. I had been looking forward to a summer together, but events conspired and in the end my trust was betrayed – so that’s over, too – and an already horrible situation was made many times worse. I was crushed and am still processing everything.

My Kizzy cat: 1995-2013

My Kizzy cat: 1995-2013

Then my cat died, which might seem like a small thing but after 18 years knowing her, I miss her too. It’s very hard as a rational person to reconcile strong emotions and the facts of situations sometimes.

Again, fortunately, I have had a lot of people to talk to, help me understand and get through it (thank you, you know who you are).

At times I had to withdraw from everything to keep myself safe and I hope the worst has now passed. I have questioned myself, I have pleaded for the world to be more fair, I have snapped at people I care about, I’ve lost friends and I’ve wondered where I’m going.

For now I am glad to be where I am, doing a job tailor-made for me that I enjoy, with my friends and colleagues, with my mum, sister and brother, and getting to know myself again – it is not the same me going into 2014 and I am hopeful that this year will be nowhere near as bad as the last. Maybe even good?

So, apologies for the radio silence and I hope to get back into sharing my thoughts with you this year, such as they are. Thank you for reading, and happy new year.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 37,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 14 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Science is Vital 2013

Screen shot 2012-09-14 at 10.43.55Last week was the second Science is Vital AGM!

What’s been happening?

It’s been a strange year for many of us, including the SiV team, but without getting all personal, we hope to be more active in the coming year, trying to address the threatened cuts to the science budget.

Dr Jenny Rohn (chair) began the meeting with a re-cap of the last year.

Some action points from last year could be picked up, including trying to get some local MPs to visit labs. But it has also been a good year; in the 2012 meeting the decision was made to focus on science funding and trying to influence decisions.

There were face-to-face meetings with MPs; media coverage (SiV are now approached regularly for quotes on science funding to go in the news!); a reaction to the spending review in June 2013 in which the cuts were threatened by BIS; and a call for the budget’s ring-fence not to be broken in November.

Also in March, prior to the spending review, SiV made a call for at least 0.8% GDP investment in the science budget, long-term. This was backed by a letter published in the Daily Telegraph which was signed by 53 high profile scientists including 7 Nobel Laureates and some famous types.

The petition for this budget commitment now has over 6400 signatures, including 18 scientific organisations and charities.

Another focus for 2013 was canvassing members’ opinions and gathering human stories of how the budget cuts are affecting us. The legacy of the 2010 budget freeze (a cut in real terms) is really impacting everyone working in science in the UK; more than 800 views of researchers were collected.

Young people were also asked about their views of science as a career, and together all these responses clearly showed that people are feeling the cuts.

SiV produced a Legacy of the 2010 Science Budget Cash Freeze report and delivered it to the Science Minister David Willetts (who was apparently “not too happy” about it, so perhaps the tone was just right!). Overall the meeting, also with Dr Graham Reid (BIS Head of Research Funding), was a “good experience”.

The freeze was therefore maintained, and we avoided cuts, but no increase was promised. The 2013 response to BIS rumours of an imminent break of the ring-fence came next and was met with an open letter to Vince Cable at the end of November.

While the cut is not confirmed, more “items” could be included in the science budget without increasing the amount of funding, leading to an effective 2-3% cut. The suspicion is that the bad news could be buried over the holiday period; what should we do if the ring-fence is breached?

The CaSE election round table on December 9th was attended by several organisations including Universities UK and the Wellcome Trust, and included discussion of how science could be kept on the agenda for all parties in the run-up to the next election (including local groups lobbying MPs), as well as other issues that affect UK science such as immigration.

So the short-term focus for SiV would be maintaining the budget ring-fence, while the long-term goal could be securing investment in the budget.

We can’t react until we know what the threat really is but Science is Vital is a grassroots organisation, so we can get angry about it!

The meeting

Shane McCracken began with the treasurer’s report. This was followed by the sad news that Dr Julie Ghosh, who was membership secretary, had passed away in March 2013. Details can be requested privately from Dr Richard P. Grant (secretary).

Matthew P. Martin was nominated for membership secretary and approved. Exec. committee elections then took place and we moved on to other plans.

Some points raised:

- How can we equip people with the knowledge and confidence to meet their MPs and what are the best methods?

- The University assessment system (Research Excellent Framework or REF) is not well-loved, but it does at least provide case studies from the last decade of the impact of UK science. It’s a useful resource we can “throw back”.

- The REF information complements our stories of problems arising from lack of funds.

- What would our potential reaction to the cuts be?

- For the next general election, what might be the most effective ways to influence manifestos? Perhaps a demonstration would be ineffective.

- London might have a 6 week STEM expo for young people (sorry I don’t have any more info on this in my notes!)

- Can SiV have “seeds” in every major city? Perhaps via Universities?
1) Need to find people who are motivated and willing to participate
2) Give people “ammo” and resources they need; both national and local data
–> An A4 info sheet/presentation (see the Scienceogram)
–> Meeting with MPs: local case studies

- The original 35,000 SiV petition signatures cover most/all major locations? (Some can no longer be contacted due to the itinerant nature of scientists and e-mail addresses no longer being valid).

- I scribbled “SiV nodes!” in my notepad and mentioned it, so we ended up calling these potential contacts nodes for the rest of the evening. Sorry about that (but we didn’t like “reps” and came up with nothing better!)

- The mailing list will be revised to identify people who want to be involved.

- Communication strategies: including Twitter, Facebook – a page on the SiV website to refer back to with clearly set-out plans/goals and tasks.

- “Node” Roles: national involvement. Using Change.org to start with, using a system like the one used by Skeptics in the Pub.

- Identifying key MPs involved in writing manifestos?

- Running local Hustings events

- Finding out who participated in sending copies of The Geek Manifesto to MPs?

- Andrew could do a Scienceogram talk at London skeptics in January!

- Can we join forces with other groups around the country who love science?
Café Scientifique, Science Showoff and Bright Club, Voice of Young Science..? Do you have any ideas/want to help out? Let us know in the comments and tweet @scienceisvital!

- Can we have a London Hustings with manifesto writers? Organise with CaSE, find a good hosting venue (Royal Society?)

Do get in touch with the SiV team if you have any ideas, can offer any help, or want to volunteer as a node(!) – we’ll make 2014 a great year for science!

Finally, many happy returns to Prof Stephen Curry who celebrated his birthday on Friday. Look at the fantastic Science Cake!!

StephenCurrybdaycakeMore angles here – it’s even got a copy of On The Origin Of Species!! Truly amazing.

Sexist “brand advice”? No thank you

Today’s rageblog is brought to you by sexism and racism in the worst analogy I’ve seen in a long time.

Phil Baty,  Times Higher Education and World University Rankings editor, picked up on this piece* on the THE news pages today. Having alerted the Everyday Sexism project, he rightly said that underneath the rubbish in this article lies a perfectly valid point about universities being encouraged to play to their strengths, whatever they happen to be, even if they are commonly overlooked in exercises like league table ranking. However, the analogy used is truly abysmal.

From the title: “Brand advice to rankings also-rans: find your own line of beauty” and sub-headline: “Universities told not to mope like teenage brunettes with blonde ambitions” we see that this is going to be about comparing Higher Education institution performance to expectations of female appearance. Sounds like a great idea! Apparently teenage girls with dark hair tend to “mope” because they wish they were blonde. OK then. I’m not even sure where that comes from, it barely makes sense. Ambitions to have a different hair colour are often easily rectified with some cheap, convenient chemical concoctions. That aside, there’s the assumption that this happens, and that if it does, it’s just what girls do – nothing to do with a sexist backdrop to our culture that consistently tells girls, from day 1, that their being beautiful is the main thing (and dictating what that “beauty” is).

THEsexismBrandAdvice

The picture accompanying the piece is also, um, striking. Underneath it says “Back to their roots: universities should make the most of their unique assets” – really running with the hair thing. Girl plays (we assume) mournfully with her impossibly-shaped blonde Barbie doll. Bless her and those unattainable goals of emulating this caricature of femininity. Why won’t she wake up and see that she is kinda pretty, anyway?

Brand advice, you say. We’re sure to find a PR firm involved, then – it’s Frank, Bright & Abel who (according to their website) “specialise in brand identity, brand and marketing communications, and internal engagement“. I’m not sure you’ve been particularly bright in this communication.

Going to Twitter, their HE-focused account has promoted the post. I did correct them to point out that it’s less “brand advice” and more ridiculous sexism, but no response so far.

More from the article:

Universities that are not top of the league tables are marketing themselves like a teenage girl who “spends all her time wearing a wardrobe that doesn’t suit her body shape”, a branding consultant has said.”

That branding consultant is FBA’s Rebecca Price (I haven’t had any response from her yet, either). She seems perfectly content here to run with the ridiculous “body shape” idea (promoted by the likes of Gok Wan and every body-shaming women’s mag you can wave a hot wax-covered stick at), that women should closely inspect all their limbs and pointy bits and inny bits so that they can buy some clothes that fit them just-so, because we’re all out there to model clothes and look pretty for everyone, right?

As if teenagers, and specifically teenage girls, aren’t already bombarded with enough prescriptive image “advice”. Girls grow up in a world where women’s bodies are used to sell entirely unrelated products; are constantly scrutinised by the media, peers and adults everywhere; are appropriated by political movements (it can be a shock realise that actually you can do what you like with your own fertility if you so choose, but quite a lot of people vocally oppose that choice) and used to measure women’s worth. Girls do not need more people pointing out that what they look like is what matters – particularly in the context of higher education!

It’s a bit like…the teenage girl who’s got black hair and brown eyes who longs to be blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and spends all her time wearing a wardrobe that doesn’t suit her body shape,” she explained.

“Universities…like that teenage girl need to get to the point where they realise: ‘Look love, you may not be blonde-haired and blue-eyed, but you’re lovely, and this is how you’ll make the best of it’.

I’m sorry, what? This reads to me like a shockingly racist, as well as sexist, line of thinking. Perhaps Ms Price draws on her own experience, doesn’t have blonde hair and wanted it when she was little, OK, but it’s truly dense not to stop and think about what you’re going to say here and realise how it will come across. I can’t avoid Godwin’s law, but holding up the blonde/blue-eyed (not that there’s anything wrong with them) as the ideal girls are aiming for in your professional communications (or indeed any conversation), really?

Look love…“? Is this how people speak to Ms Price? I’m sorry if that’s the case.  “Make the best of it“? As if anything else is sub par and you’ll have to scrape around to find something, anything, to be proud of when it comes to your looks and as a human being?

I know what the point is, I get it. But as Mr Baty said and, I assume, David Matthews (the THE journalist who published the comments) thought – even if it is a valid point on University rankings and how those who don’t always get noticed could attract more customers students, this was surely one of the worst ways of communicating it.

THE’s Twitter account have half-fairly pointed out: “We are reporting the comments, not making them” and the writer David Matthews has echoed that he is “reporting, not endorsing“. I think Mr Matthews could have made an effort to show some disapproval, shock, question or something about the comments, though perhaps that’s not within his remit in this case. [Edit: he suggests it is up to readers alone to interpret]. I usually enjoy reading THE pieces, they are often refreshingly not devoid of personality – I would prefer to see people picking up on this sort of unnecessary, damaging commentary (as later tweets have done), rather than just re-posting it without criticism. So this blurb is my criticism to attempt to redress the balance.

It’s almost funny that this has come from a supposed “communication specialist” – THE happily confirmed that FBA did not make any payments to have their firm mentioned, nor did any competitor do so (given Ms Price’s comments, it might be surprising if more institutions decided to take brand advice from them).

We are surrounded by sexism, Higher Education is certainly no exception and indeed people are very much trying to address it. Not regurgitating awful marketing “advice” would be a simple a good start. Not having the comments made at all would be even better, but sadly we’re not there yet. Only by questioning and critiquing this tired nonsense can we begin to see it as the odd mistake rather than the standard background noise.

*Available on Freezepage.

Edit: I have been somewhat told off for criticising the writer because he’s just doing news-style reportage. I had a rant about that as well but haven’t added it in because it’s a fair point in a sense. If anyone has something to add on the subject, please continue below in the comments.

What next? Gendered Science Toys.

fizzpopscienceToday’s Twitter rage* is brought to you by some people who think it’s necessary to market science toys at girls and boys separately. Sigh.

Here’s Fizz Pop Science – apparently it is:

a Community Interest Company that is run by David Reed (aka Rocket), an experienced and friendly individual with many years of experience in organising science parties and scientific shows.

Fair enough. While the 0845 contact number, lack of a twitter account and other personable elements makes me raise an eyebrow, the rest of the site seems to be OK (although comic sans critics might disagree with that).

sciencetoysforgirlsandboys

What’s this?

Until, that is, you have a look at the Science Toys section. Overall quite a good idea, to collate some Amazon links to sciencey toys that children might find appealing, inspiring, fun and so on. I’m all for parents who want to encourage kids to explore science from an early age – it can lead to them sticking with STEM topics at school, going on to university, choosing a science career – all of those positive things, if you (and, more importantly, they) like that.

However, On the right are menu items I like a lot less.

Why does this list of toys have to be repackaged for girls, and for boys? And how are they deciding this? Pretty arbitrarily, it turns out. A click on the for Girls link takes us to a pink-background list, titled “Girls Science ideas for gifts or sleepover suprises” – because that’s what girls all do, apparently. The boys, on the other hand, get “Boys Science Toys and Gadgets“. Slumber parties for girls and gadgets for boys! Not the best way to encourage more girls and women into tech.

girlstoysMost of the toys from the original list are not gendered at all – things like microscopes, chemistry sets, some of the boxes even have pictures featuring both boys and girls. The boys‘ section has all sorts, including dinosaurs, sports-themed things, rockets, robots – all the cool stuff, basically. And there’s more than 10 pages of items. The girls’, on the other hand, has only TWO PAGES, which are dominated by make-up and toiletries-based kits. Pathetic.

So I’ve written them a short complaint to go with the tweets they are unlikely even to see:

Dear Fizz Pop Science,

You might find yourselves the object of some Twitter rage today (try searching “gendered #science toys”). I hope you can see through the volume of ire and take on board some measured complaints.

The part of the site in question is on the toys page, under the “…for girls” and “…for boys” menus on the right.

That the girls’ page has been pinkwashed and the boys’ page is generic, the girls’ toys fills 2 pages where as the boys’ has over 10 – what is going on here?

I know you have tried to be diplomatic with “Although I do not particularly like the idea of Girls Science as a stereotyped style of toy” – but then, why have this section at all?

Why feed into these stereotypes? This kind of site has the power to influence parents and children alike, and with gender inequality still visibly affecting academia and science as a broader field, there is no need.

You could feed both links into a page that says “anyone can do science!” and similar – showing no field within science is restricted or biased towards any gender (or at least, should not be).

I hope you will consider redesigning this small area of your otherwise appealing sciencey website, to fit more in line with your About Us page’s commendable goal of making “…fun and inspiring science affordable and accessible to everyone”.

Thank you.

Dr Baker

Do join me if you would like to encourage them to fix this poorly thought out section of their website, and do a little bit for gender equality in science, and indeed generally. They’re not the first, and probably won’t be the last, sadly.

* Thanks to James O’Malley for the tip-off. And to Dean Burnett who has also written most eloquently about gender and science. I’ve also written about the wider problem.

Edit: David, the owner of the site, has picked up on this (see below) and will be redesigning the pages – watch this space!

Ask for Evidence – Miracle Cures

Sense About Science have  been running a campaign called Ask for Evidence, which has gained plenty of support since its launch.Ask for Evidence

The idea is that by encouraging people to challenge claims made about products, services, lifestyle choices and policies:
- the public could feel empowered to question claims they see in future
- people and companies should expect to be asked to back up their claims
and, ultimately:
- we should start to see fewer false/dangerous/baseless claims.

Examples of what exactly people have asked for evidence of can be found here.

However, this week I am particularly interested in sharing a new part of the campaign with you:

Ask for Evidence of Miracle Cures

SAS have introduced a new focus: claims to cure what medicine cannot – the campaign is now asking people to ask for the evidence behind cancer cure claims; including drugs, diets, and other proposed treatments.

The I’ve got nothing to lose by trying it guide has been updated and doesn’t just cover claims of cancer cures, but also other chronic and incurable conditions such as diabetes and autism spectrum disorders. A lot of people are affected by these moneymaking scams, in a variety of awful ways.

Sense About Science have gathered some patient stories to show what such claims can do to people, and my friend Laura also wrote for me about how annoying it is when often well-meaning people misunderstand her condition and suggest unproven treatments.

What’s the harm?

First, it denies what we know, in terms of medical science, about the condition. If there’s no cure, there’s no cure. There might never be, or perhaps we just don’t have the understand and/or technology to achieve it now. That’s not only damaging in terms of fostering mistrust of medicine, but also it could hinder research that might yield a cure. If people think there already is one and The Man is just hiding it, that could potentially impact available research resources like tissue donations and volunteers for clinical trials.

Second, it can pile guilt on parents, guardians and carers. Rumours spread that some cure exists – why haven’t you tried it?! Don’t you love your child? Don’t you want to try everything under the sun? That in turn puts pressure on the individuals with the conditions, who are told they should be getting better with x treatment, don’t, and might think it’s their fault.

Third, it can be dangerous – if not directly, then by encouraging people to give up effective treatments (in the case of alternative, rather than complementary, medicines).

Fourth, these things are often expensive. People can spend their life savings and raise huge amounts through charity donations to fund “miracle” treatments, especially if international travel is involved. This money could be far better spent, and it’s basically conning every person who donates, too – though that is not the desperate family’s fault of course.

Fifth and last in this list that springs to mind just now – it also costs people precious time, particularly in the cases of terminal illness (cancer especially). Chasing promises of cures around the globe can severely strain someone who is already suffering. It is sad that people will go to so much stressful effort when they could be spending their time and money doing things that celebrate their lives and the present, rather than trying in vain to alter the inevitable future when they will have no time left together at all.

What’s sadder is that people exist who value money and their sham business over the wellbeing of people suffering these problems in their lives, and that they will exploit those people – who seek hope and relief – for their own personal gain.

Bleachgate and Burzynski

Long-term readers will of course be aware that there are a couple of scammy cancer cures close to my heart: “Miracle/Master Mineral Solution” (MMS) and the Burzynski clinic in the USA.

yeah we used to have a podcast *cough*

yeah we used to have a podcast *cough*

MMS is essentially a bleach and was dreamt up as a panacea by a strange man called Jim Humble. Rhys Morgan and I tried to work out exactly what kind of person he might be by reading his “book”, and some friends even interviewed him – although he’s hiding out in the Dominican Republic, last I heard.

Unfortunately we never managed to come to a conclusion about Jim’s motives – Humble is an example of someone who could well have been entirely taken in by his own deception, believing himself to be some kind of medical messiah (he’s even set up his own church), with followers who will defend him with startling vehemence.

For some general background on Dr Stanislaw Burzynski, click away. Burzynski offers terminal cancer sufferers his own particular brand of miracle cure, mainly antineoplastons - chemicals synthesised by his clinic, based on some shaky research suggesting the urine of cancer patients was somehow lacking certain components.

I actually stopped being actively involved in the “anti-Burzynski” campaign because of some people’s inability to see who the real enemy was (the fraudulent cure-peddlers, rather than the swindled patients). Some friends have continued and made valuable contributions to the investigation, however.

For example, you might have heard of him on an episode of Panorama titled Cancer: Hope For Sale. For this programme, a number of skeptics and otherwise interested parties contributed information, which took a great deal of time and effort to compile.

Should you want to find out more about Burzynski, Josephine Jones’ blog has all the links. Edit: she also came up with an impromptu list of miracle cures that she’s encountered.

These are by no means the only miracle cures out there, but they have made their way into my life in the last few years. Unfortunately they also make their way into the lives of people who are extremely vulnerable and that can be devastating.

Hopefully, equipping people with the kinds of questions they should be asking of anyone who starts claiming to be able to help them medically, without any legitimate qualification or scientific backing, will make some difference and prevent some suffering.

Links

Josephine Jones has written about reporting illegal cancer cure claims.

Kat Arney at Cancer Research UK has written a guest post about the impacts of the “miracle cure” phenomenon.

Ben Quinn has written about the I’ve got nothing to lose by trying it guide for the Guardian.

The BMJ also have a piece on the guide (£).

Edit: For World Cancer Day 2014, the excellent Vicky – researcher and cancer survivor – reminds of some top-notch cancer cure take-downs. Do re-post if you ever come across people touting these:

The NCI (US National Cancer Institute) has a good, concise summary of some common cancer myths, including miracle cure claims.

If you have questions about a claim or an evidence hunting experience to share, get in touch: e-mail askforevidence@senseaboutscience.org, and/or tweet @senseaboutsci with #askforevidence!

Poverty Perceptions

I wrote a tweet that pissed some people off, so I better expand upon it, as I knew at the time the fact that I couldn’t fit in “more often than not” would push buttons. But I was in that kind of mood.

It’s because of the latest round of Jamie Oliver bashing, which happens whenever he resurfaces to promote his new book/show/whatever – which is what celebrities do. It’s their job. It’s how they earn a living. Yes, he’s worth millions now but not everyone wants to just sit back once they’ve achieved that, so I don’t really see a problem simply with being a self-publicist.

I’ve defended him before because even though he’s obviously got his flaws – latest comments being no exception – at least he’s tried to do something to help children eat better in the UK. And that is no small thing.

What I’d like to say, though, isn’t really about him, but about some people who have a go at him, and others, when they talk about UK poverty (<60% median income). It’s a complicated topic, and it’s easy to end up with your foot in your mouth, but I do think this is one of those cases where a lot of people throwing stones may also be living in glass houses.

Perceptions

There are, as with most social issues, many angles from which to look at low-income families. It might be that your family is – in which case this post isn’t really aimed at you at all, but equally such families may not even have access to the internet, which is probably a genuine sign of poverty at present, and won’t be reading anyway. Or your family struggled when you grew up some years ago – again my rant isn’t really about you, and I hope you can relate to some of my points – feel free to comment.

As I have tried to articulate before, it is much easier to analyse other people’s lives when you’re very far removed from them. The left suffers from this in a similar manner to the right, often, but with different consequences. The broad solution posited by the left is generally one of support and aid to solve underlying problems (a more sensible view, I feel) while the right would advocate punishment for the inevitable negative outcomes of inequality, all the while increasing that causal inequality – a system that benefits only those blessed with a good start in life.

While people of certain political persuasions no doubt come from many different walks of life, it is natural that the right harbors more well-off individuals and families, while the left appears more of a mixture, but (I would guess) is mostly populated by the middle class* and politically-active others. 

I say both the left and right suffer from distance-based judgments because, if you have the luxury of time to think about and means to research political issues, you’re probably not falling within the poverty brackets. If you are, you’ll likely have bigger things to worry about – like putting food on the table.

Irreconcilable observations

Oliver commented that he found it hard to reconcile seeing people eating very badly, while also apparently having personal wealth in the form of new technology. Now, there may well be simple explanations and reasons to dismiss this as a crass and unthinking statement on his part – TVs aren’t that expensive now; television is an information-rich medium; people who don’t particularly like or care about their kids may find it a worthwhile investment to distract and/or educate them; TV is now an essential item for social reasons; how people spend what money they do have is no one else’s business, etc.

However, I’d advocate for a bit of understanding here. Oliver’s parents run a pub in an Essex village, he’s grammar school educated (like me) and might be fairly sheltered – but he has at least made an effort to understand and help people less fortunate than himself. I’m not saying his comments aren’t worthy of analysis and correction at all but I think he has a point, it just didn’t come out well.

For my part**, I can completely see how hard it is to fit together the ideas that people are poor and disadvantaged with them having a lot of things. Before I managed to get to a good school, I attended my local primary on a council estate. I spent a lot of time with people less privileged than me – mainly because their parents left education early and in many cases had personal problems ranging from drug addiction to abusive partners, leading to general neglect of said peers. From a distance, it’s easy to have sympathy for these people and their situations, to see the big pictures and underlying social problems that should be addressed if people know how.

Gardens often become dumping grounds in deprived neighbourhoods – and a health hazard

But in proximity? Not so much. When people suffer first-hand the social effects of local poverty it can be nearly impossible to be understanding and to reconcile these conflicting images of apparent material wealth (or at least a seemingly reasonable standard of living) and being seriously disadvantaged. Troubled childhoods create bullies and class troublemakers, which are not fun to be around, to put it mildly. Un-cared-for children exhibit antisocial behaviour and make neighbourhoods unpleasant to be in: visually, physically, in many ways.

Out of sight, out of mind

If someone has never actually heard someone say “If I have a baby I’ll get a flat” then of course they’re unlikely to believe it ever happens. Of course it’s very rare in the grand scheme, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a real phenomenon. It’s genuinely difficult to see your own family work hard for what little you have and others, who (in your immediate view) cause problems, receive things like furniture and TV or a place to live that you cannot afford, despite your best efforts.  So I can completely see why it’s perplexing to know that families are feeding their children badly and expensively (although there’s evidence that eating well is too expensive for many, so those kinds of comments may well be ill-advised) while seemingly affording other things.

People who have never lived in such a community, or had such problems in their family, generally won’t understand. They’ll see a right-wing commenter make a sweeping statement about benefit frauds and say “it doesn’t happen!” and “they’re so prejudiced”. Of course it’s rare, but if you’ve seen it, you’re more likely to be angered or at least confused by it. They might talk about all the big issues like teenage pregnancy and domestic violence but they won’t have experienced the results, first or second hand.

I’m not in any way trying to imply that living around people with problems is worse than actually having them yourself, that would be ridiculous***. But I’m trying to point out that commenters on either side – whether it’s misunderstanding the effects of poverty or complaining about that misunderstanding – probably don’t have a particularly deep grasp of any of it.

Again, of course some people will have grown up with just those tough decisions; whether you can afford to eat a meal or if you have to give all of the allowance to the kids’ budget, whether you have to get a loan to fix something that’s broken in the house and then can’t afford the repayments. Whether you can afford to stay in your house at all. But there’s also a spectrum to consider here; with the poverty line starting at 60% income, those at that margin are likely to have less difficult decisions to make than those further down the scale, who have every right to dismiss criticism aimed at them. We can’t choose what we’re born into.

But for my part, most of the criticisms I see come from people who have never had to deal with these problems first or second-hand, but instead criticise everyone but themselves without thinking where such views might come from, and perhaps whether their criticism could be better placed.

Yes it’s a bit hypocritical of Oliver to point at people’s spending on food when his restaurants are pricey and his products aren’t exactly budget. The criticism is not undeserved. But there is a problem to address – people don’t know where to buy food, how to cook, or what a balanced diet is like. That’s both a problem with education and access (physically and financially) so I’ll direct most of my anger there, I think.

There’s a McDonald’s at the ground floor of Guy’s Hospital. Happy Meals are still a thing. There are people who give their children money for takeaways at lunch times. More children are having to undergo treatment for obesity-related health problems. Children and families are also suffering with malnutrition.

These are problems the government must address, however many inches of television can be found in each household, but the people with the power to change things are generally even less likely to have first-hand experience. Would it help if they did?

Disclaimers

*I have very little idea about the class system, it’s never been particularly relevant to my life. I suppose the idea of social mobility is, since my generation is the first in my family (immediate family… that we know of – we’re not particularly close) to have people go to university, or indeed get two degrees.

**Given both my parents had manual jobs and my late father could have gone to university, I find the definitions very fuzzy and have never really identified with any particular class. The fact that they worked hard suggested to me working class would be a suitable label if one had to choose.

***I didn’t get the option of designer brands, we didn’t have a satellite subscription. We couldn’t afford it. So yes it was unpleasant to have to put up with bullying because my clothes weren’t good enough or I was too clever, but in the end my parents loved me and supported me, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of the people I grew up with, who were put down by parents who didn’t have much opportunity before them anyway.

I’ve refrained from anecdotes that are too specific because I don’t think it would be fair to the subjects of the stories. I’ve no doubt others have far worse to tell, anyway, but the severity isn’t really my point. It’s that we are all sheltered to some extent… and that’s about it.

Edit: some more links

Oh dear, I appear to agree (for the most part) with Grace Dent. Not that he’s “earned” the right to say those things, necessarily, but yes, the impoverished resent each other as much as anything else, because it’s what is closer to home. It’s what the news rags marketed to them promote.

Opt-Out Organs

I’ve never really felt the need to write about organ donation as an issue because what the right thing to do seems very obvious to me; make the system opt-out so that, by default, organs fit for donation are harvested and distributed to patients on waiting lists.

Unless you don’t want that to happen; if, for some reason, you actually care what happens to your body after you die. I don’t really get this POV – when you’re dead, you have no consciousness, no future, no considerations – you are no longer. You are an ex-person.

What’s the problem?

Some people do seem to have objections. Often religious ones; apparently it’s important when you transition to a non-corporeal afterlife that your corpus (for some reason) remains intact, such as it is. Embalming, coffins, all of that – try to preserve your physical form, even though you no longer need it. Very strange, really. But people do it.Organ transplant box

Perhaps you care what your family thinks after you’ve gone. Maybe you want to spare them the apparent trauma of doctors distributing your parts to others who could make use of them. Again I don’t really understand that – what better gift to give in your death than that of more life for others? Life for parents, for children, for friends and family and lovers. Why would you want to withhold that?

People are selfish, that’s why. You and yours matter more than anyone else and theirs. There’s reason to that, to an extent, but I think the world might be a nicer place if people were more concerned about others in both life and death, managing to lay aside what we want for ourselves when others could potentially benefit, at little or no cost to us.

Until research and technology allow us to grow whole, fully-functional organs in the lab, unfortunately we are reliant on organs people have grown in their own bodies for transplants. I also wonder what people who have objections to donation would do if they found themselves or one of their loved ones on a waiting list for an organ? Well, given that aforementioned selfishness, presumably hope that other families are more selfless.

It seems a similar kind of thinking pattern to that of anti-vaccination. We don’t want to take the (tiny) risks, I’ll do what I want despite the evidence, I’ll reap the benefits of a society that doesn’t share my views and shelters me and mine from my stupidity. Too harsh?

Another perspective

I posted about this recently when the opt-out plans enacted in Wales were in the news and someone made a point I had never considered before.

People have funny ideas about death; it’s one of those largely incomprehensible, stressful, emotional yet utterly everyday concepts we really struggle with as human beings. As a result, we sometimes do odd things in life.

One of those odd things is to be superstitious. Avoiding certain things lest we tempt fate and upset the supernatural forces that may or may not govern our destinies. That superstition could well include completely avoiding the idea that we may die unexpectedly, and thinking about what would happen after that event.

So, if someone is squeamish about the idea of death, and their own in particular, maybe they don’t really want to carry around a card that tells the world they’re happy for other people to make use of their organs after that collision with a bus/overzealous motorbike excursion/tragic fall/accidental overdose.

Some people might feel that signing those forms and receiving that card makes that death-reality come closer. They might be as rational as you like and know how ridiculous it is, but just that feeling, that discomfort, could deter them from participating in the opt-in system. They’d have no problem if it were all up to the people dealing with them after their death – they wouldn’t ever have to actively think about it.

I wonder, how many potential donors have we lost because of this emotional quirk? How many could we gain with the opt-out system?

Opt out if you have to

If you care so very much what happens to your no-longer-living flesh, surely at some point in your life you can find the time to sign the form that tells everyone else about it. The change would be publicised, the population educated.

Lives will be saved by that simple action; even if you don’t want to actively participate in donation, you minimise the impact your non-participation has by agreeing to the system change. Maybe that can satisfy you.

If it doesn’t, what exactly is the problem?

I really don’t understand. Religious beliefs are allowed, but surely where there are negative consequences, you should seek to contain those. Personal objections are also allowed, but again, if you care so much, what’s so hard about making sure you tell people?

Is it that it’s embarrassing? Perhaps, then, time to re-examine the position.

Like so many things, it seems to be a problem with failing to empathise, failing to seriously consider the future. A lot of people are really bad at that.

But, thankfully, I do think the majority want to help others when they can, and would welcome the change. It is of course a lot more complicated than the above, but those are my current thoughts.

For now, don’t forget to join the register if you haven’t already – it’s really easy. And I’m proud to have that card in my wallet.

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