Thursday, 17 March 2011

Vatican Causes Cancer? Part 2: The Verdict

The Vatican has been ordered by Italy's Supreme Court to pay compensation to the town of Cesano near Rome after a long court battle over whether or not Vatican Radio's 60 masts have caused cancer in local children.

The court has found the evidence 'coherent and significant' that children in the area are six times more likely to develop leukemia.

I covered this story last year and all is not what it appears to be.

To sum up what I wrote before:

1. The Italian Navy also has masts in the area

2. The data submitted to the court is highly flawed.

3. There is no good evidence that masts cause cancer or of how cells are damaged by radio waves (see my original article for links to Quackwatch).

4. Italy has one of the highest rates of childhood cancer (leukemia and lymphoma) in the world.

5. There is insufficient data on the Cesano region to compare with Italy as a whole to tell if the rates really are higher.

The consumer association backing the residents' claim has said that 'Finally justice is done'. Vatican Radio has said that it is 'disappointed' by the ruling.

Parents with sick children can't be blamed for looking for someone or something to blame, some way of making sense of what has happened to them to restore a sense of order in the world. Compensation may make them feel they have more control over the situation and are not so much victims. But blaming the wrong cause means that the real cause goes unexplored.

While there may be a certain irony in the Vatican being called to account for something it didn't do while (so far) getting away with something it did do (sanction the abuse of thousands of children), irony's gain is science's loss.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Fear and Loathing in Sex Education: 2

The Christian Institute is trying to whip up publicity and alarm parents again with more lies about sex education in their latest report, Too Much, Too Young.

Their widely quoted press release says that 'Explicit sex education materials are being pushed by public bodies for use in schools with children as young as five. One of the controversial resources encourages children aged five and over to learn about anal intercourse, oral sex and prostitution'.

However, their report is not about what is happening but about what may happen if sex education (SRE) is made compulsory and if some of the currently recommended materials are used more widely.

Enter the world of fear-mongering fantasy.

The report includes extracts from some of these resources. Some of the worst offenders are the BBC and the award-winning book by Babette Cole, Mummy Laid An Egg. It also names local authorities currently recommending them.

Particular culprits campaigning for mandatory sex education are the Sex Education Forum, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and the Labour Party (even though Ed Balls seriously watered down the Children, Schools and Families Bill, as I wrote about at the time.)

Far from promoting hot sex for five year olds, the Sex Education Forum's website has a fact-based approach to sex education in which primary school children learn about relationships with family and friends, body changes, feelings, emotions, keeping safe, life cycles, gender and other entirely age-appropriate information.

One of the CI's main fears is that control of sex education will be taken away from schools and handed to Government. This would particularly affect faith schools who can currently teach sex ed 'according to their ethos' which can mean anything from excellent fact-based information to morally biased, factually inaccurate religious propaganda. A unified approach to sex ed would seem like a good thing to most people, ensuring that all children are taught to the same standard, adequately prepared for adult life and that all teachers are well-trained and resourced. But the CI would rather treat children like mushrooms ; keep them in the dark and throw bullshit at them.

Not surprisingly, some of the offending extracts from current resources featured in the report talk about homosexuality in a morally neutral way and the CI will be having none of that.

The report also has action tips for parents about how to find out what is being taught in their child's school and how to complain if they need to. And the implication is that they will need to because 'It is important for parents to recognise that today's sex education is quite unlike anything they may have seen during their own school days'.

For most of us, this would be a good thing. But not for the CI. Take up arms: your child too could have this forced on them. No child is safe!

Mike Judge, head of communications at the CI said that: 'the current approach to sex education has comprehensively failed to reduce teenage pregnancy and abortion rates'. Checking statistics is apparently not his strong point; the rates are still some of the highest in Europe but the under-18 conception rate fell in 2009 to its lowest since the early 80s.

Jumping on the bandwagon is the Campaign For Real Education. That's 'real' as in archaic and fundamentalist. Nick Seaton of CRE commented that 'Some of this stuff could destroy someone's childhood if it upset them too much'. The website has such gems as 'SRE is little more than education in birth control' and 'Politicians required teachers to promote National Socialism in pre-war Nazi Germany and International Socialism in the former Soviet Union. Would a true democrat use schools for similar purposes here? Surely, if we were living in a genuine democracy, the law would allow parents the right to withdraw their child from all areas of PSHE/C, not just SRE'.

Firstly, citing the Nazis loses you any argument and secondly, parents can legally withdraw children as even the CI report notes. Maybe the CRE didn't get the memo. According to Ofsted figures, only 0.04% of parents currently do take their children out of sex ed lessons.(Ofsted 2002, Sex and Relationships HMI 433). This is not nearly enough as the CRE would prefer all parents to use the withdrawal method.

Not far behind the CRE is the Family Education Trust. I've already written about their lovely booklet, What is Love?. (In a nutshell, love is just saying no to the ugly sex until you are safely up the aisle. Or terrible, terrible things will fall upon you). I've also covered their report Too Much, Too Soon, which has such pearls of wisdom as 'there are some sexual practices that it may be better not to know anything about at all, at any age'. Sharp-eyed readers may notice the similarity in the title of this report and the current Christian Institute one. Copycats.

This time, the FET's Norman Wells said: 'Introducing sex education at an early age runs the risk of breaking down children's natural sense of reserve.

'Far from being a hindrance, children's natural inhibitions provide a necessary safeguard against sexual abuse and casual attitudes towards sexual intimacy later on'.

This seems to mean that if children are taught the facts, they are more likely to be abused. Both the logic and moral implications of this statement are loathsome.

These organisations do not represent the majority of parents, or even the majority of religious parents but they are loud, relentless and unashamed of using emotive, manipulative, evidence-free methods.

Finally, five year olds are not now and never will be encouraged to learn about anal sex.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Am I Not A Man? No I'm Bloody Well Not.

I get mistaken for a man on a fairly regular basis. A lot of tall women suffer from this: Miranda Hart used the idea in an episode of her sitcom Miranda and Tamsin Greig mentioned it in a recent interview in the Radio Times. Are we some sort of reverse lady boys?

I've been mistaken for a man in India, North and South America, mainland Europe and Africa as well as here in the UK. Tall + blonde = American while tall + brunette = man, it seems. In France, a small child once pointed at me and said "Maman, un travelo!" (mummy - a tranny!). In Mombasa, a gang of kids trailed after me and my male travelling companion shouting 'Homosexuals!', thinking we were both men.

The problem is that people see what they expect to see, they don't look properly and fill in the gaps from scanty evidence because it's easier than closely inspecting everything and everyone they see. That would take too much time and effort for the brain. Unlike failing to discriminate between a rustle in the bushes and a tiger, there is little cost to getting gender wrong so no incentive to be more careful. Apart from getting a hard look from me. It used to upset me a lot as a teenager but now I'm used to it and can't (usually) be bothered to reply.

It's an example of confirmation bias.

In my case, they see something tall looming over them. If they're a shop assistant and sitting down, they look at where a head would be on an average size woman, don't see one and assume: man.

With confirmation bias, any further evidence that might disconfirm the initial hypothesis is ignored - hair, hips, make-up, breast size, voice. Information that confirms preconceptions or prejudices is favoured. Tall = Man. Tall = Man. Tall = Man.

There is a conscious or unconscious assumption still that women are petite, delicate things. A lady looks like Audrey Hepburn or Angelina Jolie not Miranda Hart - or me. I've had a charming gentleman lean out of his white van and inform me that I'm 'too tall for a girl'.

Sometimes they have the grace to apologise but very often after calling me Sir, they just carry on regardless even though they have recognised their mistake as I can tell from their expression.

Another response is a long conversation about how tall I am, whether my parents are tall, have I always been tall (yes, I was born this height), if I have trouble getting clothes/shoes/a boyfriend and can I please reach the jam down from the top shelf for them. It's like being public property in a way; people assume they can comment on my appearance (often coming up to me in public solely to do just that) in a way that they never would if I were black, for example (ooh, you're black, you're very black, are your parents black, do you like being black? etc etc etc).

Then there are the assumptions about my sexuality. And let's not even go into the fun I've had with short straight men over the years. No, I am not your personal Everest.

Ranting aside, the brain uses short cuts or heuristics in information processing. Heuristics are basic rules used to make decisions and judgements that work well in most cases (or we wouldn't have evolved the tendency to use them) but sometimes lead to errors. If height distribution is a bell curve with most women in the central bulge, then the height/gender heuristic works well. But for those of us at the lanky tail end of the curve, it fails.

In other words, it's not their fault for making a cognitive error, it's my fault for being freakishly tall (six foot and a tiny bit, if you've never met me).

So expecting people to open their eyes and look properly at me is not a realistic expectation: they have evolved to be fuckwits. Sorry, that's not very ladylike, is it?