Sunday, 8 November 2015

Are You Smarter Than A Chimp?

Yet more articles have appeared about how animals perform compared with humans; this time it’s chimps.

Experimenters at Kyoto University have found that one chimp can be trained to do a numerical short-term memory test faster than the average human can do it. The media love stories like this. There has been repeated coverage of the fact that crows are better at solving certain problems than children younger than seven – without being trained at all. There are also media favourites Alex the parrot and Koko the gorilla or the orang utans who have learnt to imitate human behaviour, for example hammering nails into wood or starting a fire.

Does this mean they are as smart as us or that they are natural imitators and problem-solvers, evolved cognitive skills that equips them to survive in their ecological niche? Hammering in nails is not a life skill that orangs need and demanding a nut is not one that Alex would need if he wasn’t kept in a lab.

Corvids in general and New Caledonian crows in particular are different from chimps in that they use innate abilities to problem-solve rather than being trained. But comparisons with humans are still false. The average corvid lifespan is around 20 years and they begin to reproduce from around three years old. They don’t have the luxury of a long childhood to acquire skills, they have to hit the ground running or they don’t survive.

Humans have solved the evolutionary problem of head size versus pelvis size by having young that are born in a relatively undeveloped state. Human lifespan and a long protected infancy mean that we have time to learn and develop before being set loose on the world. So comparing a crow with a child tells us nothing about either in terms of how ‘smart’ both species are.

There is a tendency to equate intelligence with consciousness and self-awareness. Humans have the ability to recognise ourselves in a mirror, an indicator of self-awareness. A few other animals have also shown this ability, as opposed to thinking the reflection is another animal, which indicates that they too have a degree of self-awareness. Again, the temptation is to add ‘just like us’. But these are all social animals. In social groups, the ability to tell the difference between yourself and another is a lot more useful than it is for solitary species. So this ability is an indicator of what is needed to survive in social groups, not of ‘elevated’ consciousness or intelligence.

One of the most successful species on earth is grass. It can live pretty much anywhere except the poles. All kinds of parasites have solved evolutionary problems in cunning ways, for example the lancet liver fluke Dicrocoelium dendriticum. These are most definitely not conscious species and yet they thrive. So is intelligence over-rated? Is it something we value only because, by our own definition, we have it? Who are we trying to impress?

There have been attempts to teach other animals to communicate with humans for a very long time. Some primates, for example, can learn to make signs or point to symbols to communicate with us. Alex the parrot could construct basic sentences. The fact that they can’t communicate in a complex human way doesn’t mean they are less ‘smart’, it means they don’t need to. Our more complex vocal communications are necessary in our more complex societies. The intricacy and (to us) the beauty of bird song has been summed up as ‘Fuck me or fuck off’ (attracting mates or warning off rivals). That’s all it needs to do.

If chimps needed human-type language, they would have evolved it. In evolutionary terms, cross-species communication is pointless. There are some monkeys that have learnt to recognise the alarm calls of other monkey species that share the same habitat and will respond appropriately to, for example, a snake alarm or a raptor alarm. But they are not communicating with each other. Apes only communicate with humans because they have been trained to do it for rewards in an artificial environment. This shows that they can adapt their innate skills to new tasks. It says nothing about their relative intelligence.

Most of the response to human-like abilities in other animals comes, not surprisingly, from headlines or TV programmes. But some academics don’t help. Researcher Tetsuro Matsuzawa, Director of the Kyoto Primate Research Institute says "Some humans are uncomfortable with the idea that beasts are cleverer than us, because we are supposed to be their intellectual superiors."

But the research doesn’t show that they are cleverer than us. It shows that they can use their innate abilities to learn tasks that have significance only to humans in return for rewards. You could say that chimps really like fruit and will do anything to get it.

It’s true that many of us still like to see ourselves as the superior species, which is mostly a Judeo-Christian hang-over from the Creation myth where God gives humans dominion over the animals. Some people don’t like it when other animals display skills we see as solely human (and therefore superior), maybe because it hurts our egos, maybe because the more ‘like us’ they appear, the harder it is to justify treating them in unethical ways (very inconvenient).

The claims that many human behaviours are unique has slowly been eroded. Tool use, warfare, problem-solving, social skills like empathy and even farming have been observed in many species (ants farm aphids and fungus). There is pretty much nothing we do that animals don’t, except possibly art. It’s a continuum, with humans displaying more complex forms of certain behaviours than other animals. But only because we need to in order to survive. It could be said that evolving our skills is a price we’ve had to pay to survive, not a crowning achievement.

Put a two year old human in the jungle and it wouldn’t last long. Most adult humans wouldn’t either but they are more than capable of crossing a busy road. Two year olds are rubbish at pretty much everything. But they do have the ability to make adults look after them. We have the skills and the ‘smarts’ that we need.

There are TV shows with titles like ‘Are you as smart as a seven year old?’ These should really be called ‘Can you remember the stuff you were taught 40 years ago that you haven’t needed to know since then?’ It’s the same mentality shown by articles comparing humans and other animals and the same basic error of not comparing like with like. Animals in the wild don’t learn skills that serve no purpose. Not learning how to hammer in nails but focussing on how to build a good tree nest is a better use of mental resources and smarter in terms of survival. It takes a lot of energy to run a brain and it makes no sense to waste energy on unnecessary behaviours.

The chimp at Kyoto outperforms other chimps in the same research programme, which tells us that some animals within the same species are better at certain things than others, not that this chimp is ‘smarter’ than us. The point is that every species is as ‘smart’ as it needs to be. That’s how evolution works. Other animals are experts at surviving in their niches just as we are. When their environment changes or new challenges present themselves, they adapt or die out. So do we.

Intelligence is a human concept, a trait we have defined in narrow terms to suit – and flatter - ourselves. But it’s not a competition. Chimps and crows don’t give a toss how many A Levels you have.

The answer to the question is – you’re asking the wrong question.

Friday, 17 July 2015

A sweet solution?

The British Medical Association is calling for a 20% tax on drinks with added sugar in an attempt to stem the increase in obesity, Type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.

Obesity costs the NHS more than £5 billion every year and treating Type 2 diabetes costs £8.8 billion a year, almost 9% of its budget (smoking-related disease costs around £2.7bn)

However, the BMA proposal may not be the simple fix it appears to be.

The BMA cites evidence from other countries that increasing the cost of these drinks leads to a reduction in obesity in the population. A meta-analysis of the link between a sugary drink tax and obesity levels finds that there is some correlation in America, France, Mexico and Brazil where an increase in price was associated with a decrease in the demand for what the analysis calls sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs).

The BMA cites Mexico as an example of a country where a tax has worked in reducing obesity but doesn’t consider if other measures were taking place at the same time – for example, health awareness campaigns and reduction of sugar in other products. In other words, as we so often find, correlation does not equal causation.

In some countries, people drink SSBs because they have little or no access to clean drinking water – in some parts of Mexico and Brazil, for example. This may have influenced the amount of SSBs people were drinking and their choice of alternatives – which makes them less convincing as arguments for a tax on SSBs in the UK. In other words, the BMA is not comparing like with like.

The meta-analysis found that, rather than choosing diet versions of SSBs, people switched to juice and milk. One study found that the impact of a tax may be minimal because of this and that the fats and calories in these drinks could reduce the effect of SSB price increases. There are vitamins and calcium in these alternatives but if weight loss is the aim, this is not a good argument.

There are also culture-specific factors that need to be considered in the UK.

Focussing on sugar sidelines the problem of fat consumption. Saturated fats are still a major health problem in the UK even if the current fashion is to demonise sugar and blame it for all our ills. Sat fats often come as part of the sugary package – for example in biscuits and chocolate. The UK is the third largest consumer of chocolate in the world and the second biggest biscuit eater.

According to the NHS, sweet drinks are not the biggest contributor to adult sugar intake. Up to 27% of it comes from table sugar, jams, chocolate and sweets and 20% from cakes, pastries and biscuits. Only 25% of added sugar comes from soft drinks and fruit juice. Note that this includes supposedly healthy fruit juice.

The British also eat more crisps than the rest of Europe put together and a third of UK children eat crisps every day. In addition to the fat content, there is all the salt, too.

So while cutting back on SSBs may help, the fact that a tax may have worked in other countries doesn’t mean it will necessarily work here. The BMA needs stronger evidence tailored to British eating habits and culture to make a convincing argument.

Another objection is that a tax would hit the poorest the hardest. The counter-argument is that lower-income groups have seen the greatest rise in obesity. Several US states introduced a tax on SSBs to raise revenue but are now claiming this is part of their anti-obesity policy, so any comparison of the UK with the US should factor in political capital to be gained from any tax as well as financial interests – and political cowardice.

The sugar lobby in America is very powerful, influencing governments and being highly duplicitous about the effects of sugar and the situation in the UK is not much better.

It is very much easier for governments to penalise the public than the producer.

If the tax raised is spent on providing subsidies for healthier drinks and foods or health awareness campaigns, there could be some justification for it; so far there is no indication that this would be done. But this too would let the sugar producers off the hook.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition is releasing a report this week that says sugar should take up no more than 5% of daily intake, down from 10%.

Figures from the national diet and nutrition survey, referenced in the SACN report, found sugary drinks to be the highest contributor of sugars to the diet of 4 to 10 year olds. While reducing children’s sugar intake is undeniably a good idea to prevent disease in the future, it doesn’t tackle current problems and, again, ignores fat intake. Current adult saturated fat intake, at 13.3% of food energy, far exceeds the 11% maximum recommended intakes and this 2.3% is enough to have a significant health impact.

The Government has delayed the release of a detailed assessment by Public Health England of the likely success of a range of measures to reduce our addiction to sugar. If it ever is released, it will make interesting reading.

It’s clear that something has to be done to curb our sweet tooth but it’s a much more complicated issue that the BMA appears to think it is. There needs to be a different approach for adults and children. Other sources of sugar need to be tackled alongside drinks for there to be any hope of success. Political and financial considerations need to be factored in. Fats must be targeted as much as sugars.

It could be argued that the BMA’s proposal is a step in the right direction. But it’s a false step based on insufficient evidence and a failure to address the bigger picture. It’s like putting a sticking plaster on a gaping wound.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Sisters are doing it for themselves

When I started going to the gym in the late eighties, weightlifting for women was fashionable. It fell out of fashion in favour of aerobics, spin classes and countless other fads. Now increasing numbers of younger women are lifting weights again and not just little tone-up weights. Serious heavy weights.

The gym I go to is mostly used by students and, in the last year or two, I've seen many more young women lifting a lot of weight. This is good to see. They're strong, fit, dedicated and smart. They don't use steroids or pose in competitions in bikinis. They're just naturally strong (naturally meaning they've worked bloody hard for it).

But, perhaps inevitably, the media has picked up on this and sees it slightly differently. There are countless articles ostensibly praising women who lift, some even trying (failing) to be inspirational. But many of them carry the message that Strong Is Sexy. These are just a few examples I found in about ten minutes. There are many, many more.

This video features powerful women. They have clearly worked very hard for a long time. Does the title respect their hard work, laud their achievements and encourage them? Does it hell. The title is Strong Is Sexy. The captions says 'What happens to women when they lift big weights? They get sexy as hell! The long-awaited 3rd female-only California Strength weightlifting video, the weights keep getting bigger, the action is more intense, and the girls are hotter than ever!'

They're not girls, they're women. Sexist, patronising and infantilising women - that's the hat trick, well done you. This is a girl lifting weights (bless her). See the difference?

There's no mention of how much they're lifting, as there would be with male lifters.

There is another 'inspirational' video here, called 'Strong is the new sexy'. No. Strong is the new strong.

The Huffington Post had an article called Bodybuilding Women Prove That Fit Is Sexy with photo captions like Those Shoulders Would Definitely Look Hot In A Strapless Dress. Or under a comfy warm jumper in the winter.

In December the Daily Mail ran the article 'Women who lift weights now seen as 'attractive' by men'. According to them, 63% of men would rather date a girl that weightlifts and 74% say watching a girl use the bench is their favourite spectator exercise.

Yes, this is the Mail and they don't even say who ran the survey the stats came from. But the message clearly reflects common currency that women should get strong for men's pleasure. Gyms have mirrors so that you can check your technique and posture but when women look in them, it's the male gaze they see reflected back according to the media. And why have they put 'attractive' in quote marks? Do they disagree?

Of course we all want to be attractive to whoever we find attractive but this is about more than that. It's about reframing women's strength in a way that's acceptable to men. We can't just be strong. We have to be sexy too. And wear cute little gym outfits. Our strength is for men to perve over. Otherwise the poor little things might be threatened by us, emasculated by our biceps, quads and general awesomeness.

Building muscle is bloody hard work. For women, building upper body muscle is harder than for men. It takes a long time. You don't just have to go to the gym many times a week, every week, you have to eat right, sleep plenty, give up other things, learn about how to do it properly. There's a lot of sweating, grunting, swearing (just me?) and farting. Yes, when you squat, everything inside gets compressed and something's gotta give. Better out than in.

Most of the men at my gym who are serious lifters are great, very supportive of the women. But then, they know exactly what it takes to get strong. They're not scared of a woman who knows how to deadlift. How many of the Mail's 74% who want to wank over women bench pressing ever been anywhere near a gym themselves?

Health and fitness are something everyone should invest in if they can but for women, an extra layer is added, the pressure to be sexy and feminine. This is more likely to put women off than encourage them.

There are also lots of articles on line addressing women's alleged concerns that lifting weights will make them too big and 'masculine', explaining how to keep your muscles small and feminine.

Mixed messages. Big is sexy, but not too big, but here are some really big strong women who are sexy. Huh? Make your minds up.

To be clear: women don't have enough testosterone to get bulky and 'masculine' naturally. That takes serious steroid abuse. Here's a more detailed explanation.

Yes, this is just yet another example of sexism, of men trying to control women's bodies. But sometimes you just have to heave a sigh and call it like it is rather than letting it go.

Women work hard to get strong, they shouldn't have to hand that strength over to men, they should be able to own it.

For my gym buddy, the mighty Syasi, and powerhouse Carmen - you rock!

26 February: I just found this brilliant video about a woman bodybuilder in her seventies. That's what I want to be like when I grow up.

12 July: After winning Wimbledon for the sixth time, and her 21st Grand Slam, Serena Williams is accused of looking like a man. She has that rare combination of good genes, talent and hard work that make a champion but she still needs to be put in her place by men. This is what she looked like when she left Wimbledon. Not like a man, like a heroine to many girls and young women.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Mother’s Little Helper

How Boots is trying to turn us all into Stepford Wives

Boots is selling a product called Kira Low Mood Relief which, it says, ‘helps relieve the symptoms of slightly low mood and mild anxiety’. The product is targeted at women – the advert says it is ‘inspired by women and their lives’ (more specifically, middle class, first world women).

It is part of the Kira range of lady products and costs £15.99 for 30 day’s supply. There is no male equivalent of the Kira range. It is presumably not named after Major Kira in Deep Space Nine.

What’s in Kira Low Mood Relief?
The active ingredient is St John’s Wort. There is some evidence that this is effective for mild depression although, as the NHS site points out, it has ‘potentially serious interactions that can occur with other commonly used medications’, for example the contraceptive pill, HRT, all depression medicines, blood thinning treatments, epilepsy treatments, HIV treatments and immunosuppressants. The active amount contained varies from product to product so research findings may not be relevant to any particular one.

There’s nothing strictly illegal here, Boots isn’t selling empty promises as it is with its collagen products (also for women) – as I wrote here.
But the contents are beside the point.

What is Low Mood?
The NHS web site describes low mood as including ‘sadness, an anxious feeling, worry, tiredness, low self-esteem, frustration and anger’. But Kira Low Mood Relief is aimed at slightly low mood. In other words feeling a little bit glum, grumpy or not quite as perky as you did when you were twenty.

In the olden days, it would have been described as a touch of anomie, ennui, melancholia, black bile, feeling lugubrious or phlegmatic.

As the NHS points out ‘Most people experience ups and downs in their life, and can feel unhappy, depressed, stressed or anxious during difficult times. This is a normal part of life. However, a low mood will tend to improve after a short time’.

Some people are naturally more Pollyanna than others. What’s more, sometimes the only sane response to adult life is to howl at the moon.

The Pursuit of Happiness
This is the crux of the matter. No one feels happy all the time. No one wakes up every day feeling like Julie Andrews singing The Hills Are Alive.

Boots is trying to medicalise being alive, being human. Or more specifically, being female. It’s telling you it’s your right and duty to feel happy as Larry all the time. If you don’t there’s something wrong with you and, for £15.99 a month, the magic pills can fix you.

The marketing makes Kira Low Mood Relief sound like soma, the State-produced comfort drug in Brave New World. Kira LMR is the pill for every ill that doesn’t really exist. It’s Boots’ way of trying to turn women into Stepford Wives, smiling vacantly as they buy their polenta. Because it really is for middle class women who want something that sounds ‘natural’. Thank god for Boots giving a name to that vague feeling that life should be better that I get now and then. It’s not just me, it’s a real thing with science words and I can take a pill for it. It’s not an existential crisis after all.

There is no automatic right to be happy all the time. Dis-ease is not a disease.

There’s even some evidence that feeling low sometimes can be useful.

Marketing works on creating discontentment or fear and providing the solution. This is just one product but there is an increasingly pervasive sense that it is our duty to ourselves to be happy, productive little workers, parents, lovers and shoppers. Unrealistic expectations lead to disappointment. If that disappointment can be given a name and a product to fix it, the shareholders are happy.

I really am feeling glum, what can I do?
Get over yourself. The NHS is more humane than me and offers some sensible solutions that include exercise, healthy diet, sleep, less alcohol and talking through problems.

In other words, do all the boring, sensible things you know you should be doing. And, if the symptoms are more serious or persistent, see the doctor. But there’s no money to be made in common sense advice. A cup of tea and a chat with your mates might help, so might a glass of wine, but Boots doesn’t have tea shops or a license to sell booze. Major Kira would most definitely not approve.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Mirage Men

A film by Mark Pilkington, Roland Denning, John Lundberg & Kypros Kyprianou
Based on the book by Mark Pilkington
85’ plus extras.
£10 (available here)

I’m not much interested in conspiracy theories or UFOs. Government cover-ups and alien sightings are not my kind of weird. But people who believe the unbelievable definitely are.

In the early fifties, as the Cold War gained momentum, the CIA began to monitor and influence the huge growth in public interest in UFOs.

In the 1980s scientist Paul Bennewitz thought there was a government conspiracy to cover up alien crashes and close encounters. He spied on Kirtland Air Force Base and filmed what he ‘knew’ was UFO activity. He thought he was saving the earth from an alien invasion. What he was actually filming were secret military activities.

It was Richard Doty’s job to mislead the UFO community for the government. He describes himself as a professional liar, so how much what he says in the film can be trusted is open to debate.

Doty was sent in to convince Benn he really did have evidence of aliens, with help from the NSA who went as far as making SFX to convince him. The plan was to discredit him so no one took him seriously and thereby protect what the government was really up to. The targeting of Benn coincided with the development of stealth plane technology.

Doty says he eventually tried to stop Benn who became increasingly paranoid and deluded – not surprisingly. Doty even told Benn (some of) the truth but Benn refused to believe him. Tell a believer the truth and they think it’s a double bluff.

One of Doty’s tactics was to make the believer think they were one of the ‘chosen few’ given access to secret information. William Moore, who was well-respected in the UFO community, thought Benn was being given disinformation but he was getting the truth. The 1947 Roswell crash had been pretty much forgotten by the public until Moore wrote about it, under Doty’s influence.

The disinformation campaign was designed to appeal to prejudices and beliefs. As Doty says, he mixed truth with disinformation to make it more plausible, more appealing. According to Pilkington, belief in aliens and cover-ups is now self-sustaining with little need for government input.

The film interviews people on both sides. There are people who genuinely believe that human evolution has been manipulated by aliens, that the Vatican knows the truth and that cattle mutilations in Dulce, New Mexico in the seventies were done by aliens. Some of them believe the US media has long been used to make the public believe that aliens are purely fictional.

On the other side, there are ex-government agency men who talk about the disinformation campaign – apparently no one in America has to sign any kind of official secrets act.

The psychology of UFO believers and conspiracy theorists is fascinating. These are not stupid people. They are however all male with the exception of Linda Howe, a journalist targeted by Doty. This may be bias in the film-making but footage from conferences does appear to confirm a definite male bias in this particular delusion.

One question the film doesn’t address is why so many people think aliens are targeting the USA. There’s no mention of similar conspiracy theories in other countries for comparison.

The film raises some interesting questions. Was the US government cruel and possibly criminal to manipulate people, sometimes to the verge of a breakdown or were they just protecting national security? Governments have long used propaganda, especially in war time; is feeding belief in aliens any worse than other examples of lying to the public? Are we all entitled to the truth all the time no matter the consequences?

Is it a case of caveat emptor and do gullible people deserve to be taken in? If a government agent offers you ‘secret’ information, would you trust them? Some of the tactics used by Doty and others are pretty funny and, with the exception of Benn, is anyone really harmed?

The film illustrates well how people can become willing accomplices in their own deception. That applies to us all if the right buttons are pushed. We are all only selectively suspicious. Once someone starts believing in something and invests time and energy in it, that belief becomes emotionally weighted and part of identity. This makes it very hard to let go. It’s like admitting a relationship is failing or giving up belief in a god.

Mirage Men is high quality, the interviews with believers, ‘secret’ agents and debunkers are balanced and unbiased. Or is it yet another piece of US government-funded propaganda to misdirect our attention? The truth is out there but once you start to question, be prepared to end up at a conference with a lot of very badly dressed and probably single men. As one conference attendee says: “It must be true – they don’t have conferences about leprechauns”.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Carry On, Regardless

Dr Peter Saunders, the Chief Exec of the Christian Medical Fellowship** has written a pamphlet called Live and Let Live, opposing assisted dying.

Dr Saunders has chosen his moment because Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill will receive its Second Reading in the House of Lords on 18 July. Lord Falconer’s proposals would apply only to terminally ill, mentally competent patients with strict legal safeguards.

These are some of the arguments Dr Saunders uses against changing the law. He makes no distinction between euthanasia, assisted suicide and assisted dying - legally, medically or morally. There is no detail on what assisted dying would involve, just fear-mongering and moralising. This is a complex issue but for the CMF it’s just wrong, full stop, no debate.

Murder is against the ten commandments. Our lives belong to God not to ourselves so euthanasia, suicide and assisted suicide are wrong.

Patient autonomy, informed choice and doing what is in the patient’s best interest are tenets of medical ethics. The pamphlet should really be called Live and Force to Live. The sanctity of life argument is concerned only with quantity, not quality.

There are plenty of Biblical examples of killing that is not wrong. There are plenty of wars and massacres sanctioned by God, who even got hands-on and slaughtered the first born of the Egyptians himself. Many religious people support capital punishment, particularly in the US. But then, it’s easy to be selective with which bits of the Bible suit your argument.

Death is not the end. For non-believers, assisted suicide may be ‘propelling them towards a judgment for which they are unprepared. This may be the worst thing we could ever do for them’.

By ‘non-believers’ he means non-Christians, so not just atheists but people who sincerely believe in other religions. There’s always the chance of a deathbed conversion. We’re all lost little lambs who can’t be trusted to make our own decisions. This goes against ethical principles of patient autonomy and informed consent, which they’re happy to apply in other areas of medicine, as long as they have the CMF stamp of approval.

The CMF and Dr Saunders cannot claim to represent all believers. The 2010 British Social Attitude Survey found that 71% of religious people agreed that a doctor should probably or definitely be allowed to end the life of a patient with a painful incurable disease at the patient’s request.

Religious views, unlike the ten commandments, are not set in stone. They evolve constantly. In the past, the Church disapproved of inoculation, vaccination, quinine as an anti-malarial and the use of chloroform in childbirth. Just because a minority of believers currently oppose assisted dying does not mean that they always will. At some point, they will move on to some other area of medicine or scientific break-through and condemn that. They’re fickle like that.

The CMF is also well out of step with society as a whole (not that this has ever bothered them). The 2010 British Social Attitude Survey found that 82% of the general public believe that a doctor should probably or definitely be allowed to end the life of a patient with a painful incurable disease at the patient’s request.

A change in the law would put pressure on the vulnerable

This is the slippery slope argument; it is fear-based, not evidence-based. The way to stop something sliding down a slope is to build a wall across it. That’s what a new law would do. It would also make it easier to identify and prosecute suspicious deaths.

People may feel obliged to die to relieve their families of a burden, especially in tough financial times, they claim. The new law is very specific about who can apply for assisted death; it would not be a free-for-all for anyone who wants to die or feels they should and would involve only a very small number of people. A 2013 report from Oregon shows that only 0.2% of deaths in that state were by assisted dying and this figure has been stable for six years.

The evidence (as opposed to the fear-mongering) shows that an assisted dying law has worked in Oregon for over 16 years. There have been no cases of abuse and no calls to extend the law beyond terminally ill, mentally competent adults. In addition, in Holland in the 1990s, doctors rejected around two thirds of patients who requested death.

Members of the medical profession and disability advocates oppose it because it is dangerous

The CMF pamphlet doesn’t discuss the various and complex reasons why doctors and disability activists are opposed to assisted dying. They don’t want a debate, they want to lay down the law.

As with abortion, doctors would not be forced to do it, there would be conscience opt-outs. For those medical professionals who see assisted dying as the final part of patient care, a new law would give them clear guidance so that they could be compassionate and humane without risking prosecution.

The 2007 British Social Attitudes survey found that 75% of people with a disability believed that a person with a terminal and painful illness from which they will die should be allowed an assisted death. There are genuine concerns among disability activists that need to be addressed sensitively through debate and careful legislation but the CMF don’t say why it would be dangerous. They get out the pitchforks and flaming torches and whip the villagers into a frenzy of fear for their lives about a non-specific monster hiding in the barn. That’s their MO.

The principle of double effect

This is treatment that may shorten life, for example large doses of morphine for pain relief that are also fatal. This apparently is not considered assisted dying because the effect is foreseen but not intended. You may have trouble getting your head round the difference because it’s nonsense. But currently it’s nonsense that keeps doctors on the right side of the law. It’s not enough for patients and it’s not fair on doctors.

Hospice and palliative care are better alternatives
The 2013 Oregon report found that 90% of people who requested assisted dying were already in hospice care. It’s not an alternative to this care, it’s part of it. For some people, hospice care is enough but others should have the choice of the time and the way their lives end so that they can die with dignity – not just for themselves but for their families too so that they can make the most of the time that remains.

At the moment, there is the option of going to Switzerland but this is expensive and thus excludes many people. It also means that people may die sooner than they want to for fear of not being able to get there when they really need to.

The CMF’s position is not humane and it’s not compassionate. Nor is it well-informed. CMF members, like anyone else, are entitled to their beliefs but in trying to foist them onto the whole population, its members want their own moral purity enforced at the expense of the suffering of others. As usual.

For more information:
The Dignity in Dying web site.
Classic Cases in Medical Ethics by Gregory E Pence (I used the 4th edition, 2004)
Easeful Death by Mary Warnock & Elisabeth Macdonald (2008)
Medical Ethics by Tony Hope 2004
Lord Falconer’s Bill

**The CMF claims to represent over 4,000 UK doctors and around 800 UK medical students. I’ve written several pieces about them over the past few years. These are some of them:
CMF on gender reassignment surgery
CMF on mental illness
CMF on abortion

Thursday, 13 February 2014

You’ve Never Had It So Good

Are people now softer than they used to be? Was the older generation a bunch of toughies who quietly got on with whatever life threw at them? Humans are resilient and adaptable. We wouldn't still be here if we weren't. No generation has all the Moral Fibre.

With all the reporting about the floods and bad weather, some people have been saying that we’ve become a bunch of Walter the Softies, we should suck it up and get on with it, Spirit of the Blitz and all that. It’s a recurring theme, this is just the latest incarnation of it.

There is no way to make a meaningful comparison between the generations. Old people did without central heating, washing machines and other conveniences that make our lives easier. They got through the twentieth century wars. We have never had to cope with these conditions so there is no way of knowing how we'd respond.

What's more, they never knew any different. If you forced their living conditions on us we would not have their experience since birth so could not be able to cope instantly. A bit like if you put an urbanite down in the jungle and expected them to survive.

TV programmes where people have to live for a month like Victorians or whatever are rubbish because Victorians learnt from birth how to keep food with no fridge and entertain themselves in the evenings (hey everyone, let’s gather round the piano and have a séance while coughing our lungs up from consumption).

A lot of people in ye olden days died young from disease, poverty, poor sanitation, failed harvests, childbirth etc etc so they weren't exactly made of iron. Do the ones who survived really want us to go back to those conditions to see who would be tough enough to make it? Or do they think that we should all shut up and be grateful that food isn’t rationed? Check out the number of food banks and stop moaning that you have to wait longer for your pensioners bus pass and hitch a lift on a horse and cart like they did when you were a kiddie then, granddad.

When I was little we had no central heating, no phone and a beast of a washing machine that must have been a nightmare for my mum. People with more money probably had better stuff and easier living but does that make me tougher than them? I hate being cold. I’d have the central heating up high from October to April if I could afford it and didn’t care about global warming. Was my mum softer than her mum because she didn’t have to wash everything by hand and put it through the mangle?

The last time there were major floods, and during the war, there were only radio and newspapers. There may have been sensationalism to sell papers but there was a lot less of it and it was far from immediate. There were major floods in 1928, 1952 and 1953. In the last one, over 300 people drowned. In the Bristol Channel Floods of 1607 at least 2000 people died. At these times, most people had no idea if others were whinging or getting on with it.

There were no TV crews sticking a camera in someone's face in 1928 asking them how they felt and encouraging them to be devastated or angry to liven up the programme with some 'human interest' bollocks. During the war, it was all stiff upper lip, plucky little Brits and other propaganda to maintain morale. There are always whingers and copers but with social media, 24 hour TV news and so on, we are force-fed tragedy and adversity as entertainment. There’s a lot less news in someone just getting on with it than in some old lady whose cat has been drowned and whose photos of her wedding to her recently dead husband have been destroyed. Or: ‘So tell me, how do you feel about your drowned baby?’

Although there are many advantages to having more information, there is also the downside that we are being selectively fed factoids and told how to feel about them. For some reason, the floods in Northern Ireland have not made it onto mainstream news, for example. There is political capital to be made out of domestic disasters for all parts of the political spectrum, too.

As a sidenote, some are saying that if you’re dumb enough or rich enough to live in a flood plain, what do you expect? This is ignorance based on the smugness of people living somewhere not flooded and the assumption that if they were flooded, they would cope just fine. It’s the same mindset as the generational sneering.

I’m getting to the age where I could look at young people and say ‘you’ve got it easy’ and go into a Four Yorkshiremen routine. Are young people soft and lazy, do they have a sense of entitlement and need to be taught to have ‘character’ at school as some MPs are now saying?

Maybe. There is no metric to tell us. Perhaps all teens and twenty somethings are a bunch of jessies and I’m not as tough as my gran was with her outside loo and no hot running water and she was not as tough as my great gran with her twelve kids (who would probably have welcomed easily accessible contraception). If younger people are feeble, whose fault is that? Who brought them up that way?

The first half of the twentieth century was apparently some Golden Age of Character and Resilience, the yardstick against which we are all now being measured. But no doubt the ancestors of our grand and great grandparents would look at them and say ‘You think you had it hard? Try coping with the Black Death or living through 1816, you feeble poltroons’.

If the Tories get their way, we will all soon be living in the world of our great grandparents with no functioning NHS or welfare state. Let’s see who whines and who copes then. And by coping, I don’t mean ‘be rich enough not to care’.