A Nutty Report

The BBC gave huge publicity today to a study in the Lancet that supposedly compared the harm done inflicted by various ‘drugs’. As it was co-authored by Professor David Nutt and his ‘Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs’ it will be no surprise to anyone that alcohol is the worst drug by a long way.

It seems the BBC will jump in ecstasy to report any supposed scientific ‘facts’ about alcohol but most reasonable and scientifically literate observers should now realise that these neo-prohibitionists are overstating their case so much they’re now discrediting themselves.

How is it that they can  possibly equate the harm of alcohol usage with that of heroin and crack cocaine when the vast majority of the population of the UK use alcohol without inflicting any harm whatsoever on the rest of society? Because for the simple reason that more people use alcohol in aggregate.  What kind of scientific logic is this? When interviewed on Radio 2 today Nutt readily accepted the equivalent argument, based on his premise, that knives cause far more harm to society than guns — their ready availability might mean they are implicated in more crimes overall than guns but is that an argument for removing them from everyone’s kitchen?

There are valid points to be made about alcohol abuse and (proper) binge drinking but this study is such a lightweight piece of self-re-inforcing prejudice that it’s surprising that it ever got published in The Lancet. If I understand the BBC report correctly then it’s just a weighted model of the subjective opinions of a group of self-selected experts.

I wouldn’t like to live in a society where the numbers of people using crack cocaine and alcohol were reversed. It seems the last home secretary was right to dismiss Professor Nutt as he’s clearly a man with his own agenda. As a Daily Telegraph report from last year showed he is not without his own person interest in this debate — they report he’s working on a commercial alcohol substitute.

Of course, we wouldn’t expect the government to protest too much at shoddy statistical prejudice declaiming the evils of drink — they stand to cut a substantial amount of deficit by taxing our sin. It’s a shame that the actions of the likes of Nutt, by providing a supposed justification for higher duty, might cause responsible alcohol consumption in pubs to be endangered in favour of supermarket tinnies of wifebeater — but that’s what perhaps they’d like to see more of?

Is It All A Big Lie?

The controversy surrounding the allegations of match-fixing (well, not actually match fixing, more like no-ball fixing) in the test match between England and Pakistan strikes me as potentially more hypocritical and deceitful towards the sports spectating public than the alleged offences themselves.

The partisan nature of sport makes it ripe for corruption. Supporters are so desperate to will on their teams that they will celebrate the most unlikely and implausible of circumstances as elements of drama — the missed penalties, the ‘inexplicable’ refereeing decisions (which are very explicable if looked at from a more cynical perspective), peculiar substitutions and so on.

Commentators and pundits almost make their living by walking the line between applying the language and analysis of fiction to events and emphasising that these events are opposite of fiction — where you must NOT suspend your disbelief. For watching sport to make any sense you must believe it is true. How often do they say ‘That’s unbelievable’ or ‘I can’t believe he did that’ or ‘miraculous recovery’.

This is why the indignant self-righteousness of the sporting establishment towards any suspicion of lack of integrity in sport — match fixing, positive drugs tests and so on — is so nauseating in that it primarily serves to protect the sporting establishment’s self-interest. As I wrote in a piece after a diabolical refereeing display in the last world cup: ‘almost all football journalists [could be viewed as] part of a self-preserving conspiracy to maintain the illusion at all costs of results being determined solely by honest endeavour on the pitch.’

Their reaction is hysterically two-fold: firstly demand the most draconian treatment for those suddenly-discovered rotten apples who besmirch the reputation of the great game; secondly, deny that the corruption goes any deeper than the individuals whose misdeeds the newspapers are confident enough to report publicly. Basically it’s a case of hang those out to dry who got caught and pretend nothing else has happened.

A scenario that suggested that certain sports were riddled with corruption and cheating would not be welcomed by anyone who makes their living from sport and their reactions to such allegations need to be judged in this context.

In this case, it’s quite curious that it was the News of the World that broke the Pakistan cricketing story — as Sky Sports have paid a lot of money to broadcast the test that the NOTW brought into question. In a world where people cast aside their bigoted prejudices and self-interests one might expect journalists from the BBC or Guardian to be praising this piece of investigative journalism. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

World Cup Predictions

Two and a half months after the end of the most forgettable football World Cup — only memorable points for me were really the Dutch violence in the final and Lampard’s goal-that-wasn’t — I looked up Charlie’s prediction for the draw against the final results.

I think I did as well as most pundits. I got Spain as finalists and I got five of the eight quarter finalists — and two exact matches. Bear in mind this was probably the most unusual World Cup to predict with not only England playing calamitously but also France and Italy and the performances of Uraguay, Germany and Paraguay also were unexpected.

I expected both Brazil are Argentina to progress to the semis (but not the finals) so I think that gives me one over on many of the pundits who, Spain apart, always bowed to the big two Latin American sides. So that explains why I had Holland and Germany falling at the quarters.

I still think that had the Lampard goal gone in then England would have won that game and the Argentinian side were poor (even with the much over-hyped Messi) so I think England would have gone out at the semis against Spain. So one adjust for my hopeful bias towards an England win then I effectively picked the winners. I reckon I did as well as most of the ex-pros and anticipated more of the shock results than they did.

The Day Today Comes to Haiti

I’ve found watching the news coverage of the Haiti earthquake and its aftermath to be quite unsettling. George Alagiah and company stand at the airport anchoring the whole news programme repeatedly telling us how food, fuel and water are in terribly short supply and that people are dying because of the shortages. Would that be the sort of food, fuel and water that news anchors and their attendant crews are consuming? And would space on the flights out to Haiti be better filled with aid than with the size of TV crew required to present the whole bulletin remotely.

By all means send reporters out to show the scale of the problem but it seems completely unnecessary for the news to be presented from the disaster area — morally dubious in its prurience.

This co-incided with the first episode of Charlie Brooker’s new series of Newswipe  on BBC4. I’m generally a great fan of Brooker, though I occasionally find his rants too grating when he drops the self-deprecation and gets too high on his moral horse. In this episode he exposed the irrational faddishness of the editorial decisions made on television news and the pack mentality that seems to have infected news decision making since the advent of 24 hour news channels. There really isn’t much logic in the importance placed on stories — if it fits a particular narrative it gets coverage. It’s not much different from superstition in the middle ages.

Truth often ends up imitating fiction and our news media seems to resemble the ludicrous parodies that Chris Morris produced in the 90s — ‘The Day Today’ and ‘Brass Eye’ (the special of which I have on DVD as it’s not very likely to be repeated).

Let’s Get Back to Normal

The Financial Services Authority has come up with a novel idea — banks should make sure that people who take out loans and mortgages should be able to pay them back! We have to hope that sanity breaks out and these proposals are rejected as it would mean turning off the principal means of growth in the economy for the past several years — people being able to borrow money they can’t pay back all based on an unsustainable inflationary rise in house prices that is purely speculative.

Some idiot estate agent type was on the radio bemoaning the FSA’s extinguishing the green shoots in the housing market by these proposals as he’d been cautiously optimistic that things were returning to normal. Doesn’t he realise that ‘normal’ got us (or, more precisely, people who haven’t received massive bonuses underwritten by Gordon Brown this year) into this mess in the first place.

Why is it that every idiot journalist who presents a radio or TV story on house prices starts from the presumption that rising house prices are an indisputably good thing? Don’t they realise that people buy as well as sell houses and that, strangely enough, people who sell their houses tend to need to buy another to move into. Rapidly rising prices make things more expensive in absolute terms for anyone who isn’t downsizing into a smaller property — as well as destroying the market as a whole by barring new entrants. The only people who gain unreservedly are people who stand to inherit some massive house in an expensive area  — and who can’t wait for the occupants to die. Funnily enough, this sounds like the sort of demographic group (ageing spoiled rich brats) who tend to write these ‘good news, house price inflation is rampant’ stories in the media so maybe they’re acting in their best interests after all?