Monday, 2 November 2009

Etta's Week 1

Stormy Weather all over again. Something more up tempo tomorrow


Reconsidering the scientific adviser versus minister affair, surely the best, most proper defence of the government position is to argue that alcohol and tobacco are indeed likely to have worse effects - and sooner - than cannabis or Ecstasy, but that is no reason to let two more potentially harmful, potentially addictive drugs on the market, however minor. Just because we've got rats it doesn't mean we want mice too. The unstated defence that 'the press will skin us alive if we sound soft on drugs' is not good enough. Nor is it good enough for Channel 4 TV News to bring on the mother of a girl who died from drug abuse to tell us that cannabis is definitely more dangerous than alcohol or tobacco when it is clearly not. Certainly not on the day after a man who tried to take back his girl friend's witch's hat from the drunk group who stole it was murdered by them.

The general device of bringing on weeping mothers tends to conclude any case on TV. See? There is a weeping mother. Case dismissed. You must be wrong. Feel that emotion. What more proof do you need?

On the other hand the professor's comparison of the dangers of cannabis as opposed to the dangers of horse riding is equally nonsense. The most dangerous place for accidents is, apparently, the home. Would scientists therefore advise us to spend our lives outside trotting on horses along some country lane because that is safer than sitting in a chair from which we might possibly rise, trip and break our necks?


In the meantime, back in Márai...

Here in Rome there are all these wonderful statues and paintings and grand tapestries, like the cast-offs of a lost world, the kind we get in junk shops back home. But maybe all the masterworks of Rome offer just one view of culture. It might be that culture is also what happens when people cook for themselves in their own kitchens exactly the way they cooked for the rich, with butter or oil, with complicated recipes prescribed by the doctor – as if it were not only their teeth and guts that required nourishment but they had to have a special soup for the liver, a different cut of meat for the heart, a particular blend of salads for the gall bladder, and a rare form of pastry with raisins for the pancreas. And having eaten all this they withdraw into solitude so that their mysterious organs of digestion can get on with digesting… That was culture too! I understood it all, full-heartedly approved of it, admired it. It was just their way with nightshirts and pyjamas I failed to understand. I could never reconcile myself to it. Damn the God that invented such things!...

Have patience, I’m about to tell you. After making the bed I had to lay the nightshirt on top of it face down, folding the bottom end of it back and over, spreading the sleeves… See what I mean?... Looked at this way the nightshirt or pyjamas looked faintly Arabic, like some Eastern pilgrim at prayer, stomach to the ground, his arms spread over the sand… Why did they insist on this? I have no idea. Maybe because it’s more convenient that way, because it involves one movement less, because you just need to pull it on from the back and there you are, ready for bed, without having to struggle into it and tire yourself out before going to sleep. But I hated this kind of strategic thinking, absolutely loathed it. I simply couldn’t tolerate this affectation of theirs. My whole nervous system rebelled against it. My hands shook with fury whenever I made their beds, folding and adjusting their nightgowns, pyjama jackets and trousers the way the manservant taught me. Why?...

People are peculiar, you see. They are born that way even when they are not rich. Everyone is annoyed or driven mad by something. Even the poor who tolerate everything for a while, who resign themselves to everything and support the weight of the world with a certain awe and helplessness, accepting whatever comes their way… but there comes a moment, one that came for me each evening when I was making the bed and putting out their nightwear in the required manner. That was the moment I understood that there would come a day when people were no longer willing to put up with the world as it was… I mean individuals as well as nations… someone would scream out loud that they had had enough, that things had to change. And that when this happened people would take to the streets and go on the rampage, smashing and braking things… Though that’s only a form of circus. Revolution, I mean real revolution, is that which has already happened inside people. Don’t stare at me like an idiot, gorgeous.

I might be talking rubbish but not everything runs according to the laws of logic, not everything people say or do has to make sense. Do you think it is rational or logical that I should be lying with you in this bed? Don’t you get it, sweetheart?... Never mind. Just keep your mouth shut and carry on loving me. Our logic makes no sense but here we are.

So that’s the nightshirt business. I loathed this habit of theirs. But eventually I resigned myself to that too. They were so much stronger after all. It is possible to hate superior forms of life just as it is possible to admire them, but you cannot deny them. I grew to hate them. I hated them to the extent that I joined them and became rich myself, wore their clothes, lay down in their beds, started to watch my figure and, eventually, got to taking laxatives before I went to bed, just like the rich. I didn’t hate them because they were rich and I was poor, no, please don’t misunderstand me. It would be nice if someone finally understood the true state of affairs.

Newspapers and parliaments are constantly on about this now. Even the movies are full of it, or so I understood watching the newsreel the other day. Everyone is talking about it. I wonder what has got into people?...I can’t imagine it’s good for people to be talking so broadly, so generally, so much, about rich and poor, about Russians and Americans. I don’t understand that. They even say there is bound to be a great revolution and the Russians will come out on top, as well as the poor, by and large. But a very refined man once told me in a bar – a South American I think, a drug dealer, went the whisper, whose very false teeth contained a stash of heroin – that that was not how it was, that it would be the Americans who win out in the end because they had more money.

I thought a good deal about this. The saxophonist said the same thing. He said the Americans would drill a great hole in the ground and pack it with atom bombs, and then this little guy in glasses, the man who was currently the president over the ocean, would get down on his hands and knees carrying a burning match, crawl over to the hole, light the fuse of the atom bomb and then whoosh, the whole caboodle goes up. It seems a load of nonsense at first. But I can’t bring myself to laugh any more at such nonsense. I have seen a great deal that seemed just as ridiculous but soon became reality. Yes, my experience is that, generally, the more stupid the idea the surer you can be that one day it will be realized.

I’ll never forget the gossip in Budapest at the latter end of the war… One day, for example, the Germans ranged cannon along the embankment on the Buda side of the city… Enormous cannons they were, properly dug in by bridgeheads. They broke up the pavements and placed machine gun nests all the way along the lovely chestnut-lined shore. People looked at them anxiously but there were a few wise guys who declared there would not be a siege of Budapest because all those terrifying weapons, the heavy artillery by the bridges, the bundles of explosives on the bridges themselves, were all a confidence trick. It was a trick to pull the wool over the Russians’ eyes. They didn’t really want a battle… that’s what they were saying. But it was no trick, at least it did not fool the Russians. The Russians arrived at the river one day and shot everything to pieces, including the cannons. That’s why I don’t know whether what the South American said will come true, but I have a certain feeling that in the end it will be exactly as he said if only because it sounded so ridiculous at first hearing.

I also thought a lot about what the very refined man said about how the Americans would take the decisive step because they were rich. The rich – now there is something I do understand. My experience was that you had to be very careful with the rich because they are extraordinarily crafty. They possess enormous resilience… though heaven alone knows where the resilience comes from. One thing is certain – they are subtle and it is never easy dealing with them. What I said about their nightshirts is evidence of that. People you prepare nightshirts for the way I was told to prepare them are not ordinary people. Such people know exactly what they want, day and night, and it is as well for a poor man to cross himself when coming into their presence. I can’t emphasize enough that I mean only the genuinely rich, not those who just happen to have money. Those are less dangerous. They flash their money around the way a child blows bubbles. And it all ends as it does with soap bubbles: the money just pops in their hands.


Diane said...

George, Hello. Here are some notes from "inside" the issue of evidence based practice (re: the Nutt case -- poor man should change his name).

Government policy for the past "almost decade" has moved to a commitment that says good policy should have a research evidence grounding. Thus, both social scientists and "pure science" colleagues are contracted by gov depts to discover and report what "the research" tells us about, for example, dangers to life. In the 'cannabis case', the advisory committee reported that there is no research to substantiate current assessments of danger levels to a degree that warrants the current hierarchy of "danger" classifications.

Most of the people in the world in which I work are entirely accustomed to our reports of "no danger" or "a waste of time and money" to be selectively ignored by government policy makers from time to time. We learn a certain cynicism because we know that a % of our contracted reports about the research evidence will simply be ignored. (It's called a gov 'pick & choose penny candy' approach and it's an all-party practice.)

However this time, Nutt has challenged the government on its selective use of "research evidence" about various substance dangers.

That's about it. But Nutt's courage (or exasperation) now is triggering rumblings of revolt amongst those of us who have turned a cynical eye on this practice in the past. A colleague and I have this week 'backed off' from just such a confrontation about the obesity policy in this country -- i.e., the unvalidated use of mass meaurement and weighing of children. (That is a waste of money as well as a practice that has No research evidence at all to support its use -- to the contrary -- it can be damaging to children who are "told" they are "fat" via mass measurements at school.)

The Plump said...

Stormy weather - not a patch on this version

Marai - wow!

And Diane's comment is enlightening.

George S said...

True, Plump, but Billie is another thing altogether (and a damn complex thing). Maybe a post on her sometime just to sort out what I actually do think about her.

And Diane, hearty thanks for that. I do understand that governments are under pressure from the press-and-public opinion machine which is often little more than opportunism, panic and mindless stampede with the occasional genuine article thrown in, such as the Harold Evans thalidomide campaign so many years back.

I understand that but I can't help thinking Johnson reacted like a fool and has done the world of politics still more harm in his behaviour, and that world can't take much more harm. He could have done as I sort of suggest, by accepting the report then claiming other factors outweighed it for the time being.

He could have cited the occasions when one piece of scientific research has contradicted an earlier one. I remember, for example, the question as to whether pregnant women shoud or should not eat potatoes. But that, as far as I recall, was not an advisory panel set up by government.

I see the obesity figures in children have undergone a dramatic change today. All these tend to enforce a sense of scepticism in a volatile public.

What actually is the margin of error that would lead an advisory panel to issue specific advice? Presumably there always is a margin of error. And is the body mass index a reliable guide. For what ages and conditions? For all?

Mark Granier said...

Johnson is worse than a fool, he's a purveyor of contemptible hypocrisy. Sure, Nutt's horse-riding analogy is silly, but I'll give you a better example: taking a short cut through a dark alley in a strange city, you see a group of young men approach, high on something or other. If you had to choose, would you rather they were dope-heads or drunks? Definitely the former for me, though my own hard drug of choice was always alcohol. We have no off-street parking outside my house and I've had about 2000 euros damage done to my car over the years (smashed windscreen, 'keyed' paintwork, dented roof...), all of it, almost certainly, from the drunk kids I can hear most weekends bellowing on their way back from the pubs in Blackrock.

The nonsensical stance British (and Irish and American) politicians take on 'drugs' drives me nut(T)s. All part of that pea-brained tabloid mentality ('weeping mother syndrome') that they pander to. Up till quite recently, that same mindset gleefully ranted against gays and the 'permissive society' and howled for the death penalty to be restored.

Yes, of course all substance abuse is lamentable, whether alcohol, ecstasy, cannabis, heroin, etc. However, quite apart from the 'war on drugs' being a gross euphemism and misnomer (alcohol is clearly among the most dangerous drugs), that war has failed, miserably. Gangsters get rich on it while kids looking to score enough for a couple of joints risk getting a jail sentence (as if the prisons weren't crowded enough). Such a situation, in the 21st Century, is ludicrous. The Volstead Act was dropped when its effects (contempt for the law and growth of organized crime) were eventually acknowledged in 1933. Over seventy years later, you'd think first world governments might have copped on (as Canada is, finally): current drug laws are both hypocritical and illogical. They encourage young people to be even more distrustful of the government, not to mention the poor old bobbies who have to take the brunt, as always.

Diane said...

This is a test, George. I sent you, Mark, and The Plum a long-ish comment in return to yours of yesterday but it seems to have evaporated into the ether???

George S said...

I haven't received it, Diane. Occasionally Blogger fails to deliver something that turns up later (sometimes much later) Did it appear, however briefly in the Comments? Normally I get an email from Blogger to say a Comment has been made but I haven't had one about your lost one.

I expect you are very busy but if you do at all have the time I'd love to read what you had said.

My apologies on behalf of Blogger.

Mark Granier said...

Yes Diane, I'd like to read it too. If you can't get blogger to work feel free to email me at

George S said...

Yes, that's one way to do it, Diane. And here:

It's the email address on the front of the website.

I will of course understand if you don't want your own email address involved in this.

Diane said...

Dear George, Mark, and the Plump,

Here is another "try" with the cyber electrons! Am afraid this subject might be a bit dead now.

But just to say that Alan Johnson must indeed be regretting his foolish spot of temper (the sacking of Prof Nutt). What is the phrase about acting in haste and repenting at leisure? Johnson looks rather like an ass now.........and without Tatania's recourse to it all having happened in a dream.

The scholarly community is generally urbane about the "pick and mix" approach Ministers often use when making policy and claiming they have based policy on secure research findings. But this time Johnson has made a rather serious error.

And an error about practice that is 3/4 decades out of date -- i.e., the drug classification system.

What began as an arrogant fit of temper on Johnson's part has unleashed a fairly robust reaction from the scholarly community. The likely outcome will be demands that policy documents from government departments should/must include, in future, the evidence base (the research that informed the policy) from now on..........a very welcome change that would be.

But none of this is new. Galileo triggered 300 years + of similar governing reaction when he pointed to evidence that the earth circles the sun rather than vice versa. And of course we can go back to the Greeks....on this subject of civic dispute.

In my earlier comment, I referred to a very similar case I'm involved in with a gov dept and the decision we made last weekend(after Nutt) not to use the press to call attention to the dismissal of evidence, in this case about childhood obesity.

Mark, with regard to the horse-riding analogy, Nutt used that as an example of risk analysis in a lecture last July. (Profs don't usually expect their podium notes to end up in the headlines.) Yes, it looks completely silly out of context.

Your question about BMI, George. No, it's a crude measure and not sufficiently accurate. It's not used at all in Europe. The most accurate measure of overweight (i.e., sufficient to endanger health) in adults is to use calipers to measure the abdomen while lying flat on a board. In other words, it's the belly that says whether or not we are 'unhealthily' overweight (fat man's belly, heh). So.... offering your shapely ankle for inspection will not prove you aren't fat!

With regard to children, the mass weighing and measuring practice now in place is hugely expensive, ineffective, and the reason for using it is to gather data for epidemiologists. Overweight children and their families already know they are under a microscope so they very sensibly don't go to school on the day of measurement. In addition, excessive weight is changed via environmental factors (nutrition, pleasurable sport, etc) and not via measurements of children at school.

I do think this episode about the drug classification system may be a blessing in disguise. I was in London yesterday and there is a slight shift in the emotional weather forecast (Tom Waits). We, i.e., us scholars, may become a little more forceful about how our research is used and abused!

I just wish Prof Nutt had had his name changed when he was young.

Diane said...

And thank you very much for your kind encouragement while I was composing email is welcome to all

George S said...

Many thanks, Diane. The subject is not at all dead thanks to you.

There is, as you point out, a history of science versus the combined forces of habit, preconception, short term pragmatism, opportunistic government and vested interest. It is not a noble tradition.

What makes it worse is that the Pope didn't invite Galileo to head an advisory panel in the first place.

The government did ask Prof Nutt.

A proper hard Nutt then.

Nicole S said...

Can I stick in another belated oar? George you say: 'He could have done as I sort of suggest, by accepting the report then claiming other factors outweighed it for the time being.' Isn't that exactly what Alan Johnson did? Policy does not have to be based on scientific research, even if that is extremely frustrating for those doing the research. Science and prohibition are two very different things anyway. As I understand it, Nutt was fired for objecting to policy, which he was not paid to do, even if he was right. Me, I like Johnson for doing the logical but unpopular thing and sticking to his guns. No ditherer he. More of a hard nut that Nutt, in fact.

George S said...

I don't think that's what he did. I think he sacked David Nutt. Where did Johnson say that the scientific advice was correct but that it wasn't in line with policy? Nutt didn't express an opinion on what the government should do, he simply said what invited scientific opinion was. He said it too loudly with a shaky paranoid government already on edge, listening in, as they always do, as they listen to every other whisper they can't control.

I disagree with you here. I do agree that policy doesn't have to be based on scientific research, but it does make a difference if you commissioned the research in the first place then tried to dismiss or ignore it.

In any case, it is not so much my opinion that matters. It will be that of scientists asked to serve with no pay on advisory boards, and it will also be the public, who may agree with Johnson on emotional grounds, but who know a panic when they see one.

Whatever you or I think the price will be paid.

And as you know I vote for this party. Unfortunately, my loathing of them as people has grown steadily over the years and has much accelerated in the last eighteen months or so.I loathe their managerialism, I loathe their bragging, I loathe their corruption. I have to keep reminding myself it is not a bunch of people I vote for but for an idea. Hard work sometimes.

Diane said...

Hello Nicole and George,

I hope my earlier comment wasn't too flippant. Yes, George is right. Johnson sacked David Nutt as Chair of the Advisory Committee on drug classification. Nutt was not trying to change government policy...........he was simply reporting the findings of the evidence base (i.e., the collective view of a v large body of research that comes to the conclusions that the Committee was reporting to Johnson via their Chair [Nutt]). My guess is that Johnson took a gamble that he might tap into populist feeling in the tabloids by publicly firing Nutt. Instead, it backfired on him.

It's interesting because Johnson has been a strong contender to replace Brown if Labour loses the spring election.

Just a word about the phrase "evidence base". By this we mean rigorous assessment of all the peer reviewed and published work on a particular subject -- that is what David Nutt is reporting, not simply his own work. The term "research" is this context it means rigorous analysis of all the research that has been accepted by the scholarly community as of value.

And I am pretty sure Nutt is not paid for his role as Chair to the advisory committee. It is the kind of work that senior scholars do "gratis" as part of their engagement with intellectual questions and with their colleagues.

Also, I use the word "scholar" these days because the word "academic" has become thoroughly debased in this country. Indeed, as has the term "intellectual" (cf., France).

Lastly, I am also a Labour supporter. Indeed I'm an activist -- simply because I saw the consequences in the United States of the Left removing itself from the bloody battles of mainstream politics and, for that, we endured not only Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr but also the unbelievable corruption of George W. So I prefer to get my hands dirty and work with Labour than either split the potentially electable Labour Party by voting Green (as happened with the Nader vote in the USA) or by opting out of the whole business altogether.

Having said that, I believe Johnson has undermined his own integrity with this one.