Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Curious Story of Emily's Coat

There once was a young lady. We shall call her Emily.

Emily was young, looking to enjoy herself. Some might describe ber as being rather "easily led". She enjoyed being a bit rebellious, as do most young ladies, but not to any great extent. Just sometimes she would do things that she knew were wrong, and she enjoyed the slight squirm of excitement she got whenever she tried one of these things. She enjoyed being "one of the gang" too, so when her friends discovered something new and a bit rebellious, Emily wanted to try it too.

One day, Emily ran into one of her friends, who was wearing a mink coat. Emily looked at the mink, and could see that it was made from the skins of dead animals. But then she looked into her friends eyes, and she saw that her friend knew it too, and that was why she was wearing it. Her friend knew it was wrong, but she was so busy enjoying that squirmy feeling that she didnt stop to think about the mink that suffered and died to make her coat. It felt so good, she just didnt care.

Emily ran her fingers across the mink, and her eyes lit up as she felt how soft it was, how warm it was, how naughty it was. Her friend let her try it on, and Emily happily strutted up and down, enjoying her reflection in the shop windows, wearing her friends lovely soft, warm, fur coat.

The next week Emily bought her own fur coat, and she and her friend would walk down the street wearing them, feeling the eyes of the shoppers on them, knowing that they disapproved but enjoying not caring. They were rebels, and this was their statement to the world. Fur was cool, and they were cool wearing it.

After a few weeks, the fur started getting dirty. The eyes of the shoppers were still on her, but now Emily could hear what they were saying more clearly. "Cruel" said one. "Murderer" said another. Emily looked down at her fur coat, which wasnt quite so soft or quite so warm as she had first thought, and the words of the shoppers rang in her ears.

This didnt stop Emily however. By now, Emily would only wear her fur coat, and the shoppers around her were no longer just whispering behind her back. Now they would stand in her way as she walked, and call her names straight to her face. "Cruel" they'd say. "Killer". "Murderer". Emily's head dropped, and she started trying to hide her fur coat, scurrying quickly between shops rather than proudly strutting for the whole world to see. She wasnt proud of her coat any more. The taunts of the shoppers were louder, and Emily was starting to feel ashamed.

One day, as she was scurrying along, trying to avoid the accusation in the eyes of the shoppers, she happened to glance into the window of a shop. There, in the window, was a glorious coat of silver fur, shiny and sleek, and everything that her coat had ever been. Emily looked with interest, but knew it was wrong. But there was something different about this coat. Around the shoulder of the coat was a sash, bearing the words "100% Man Made" and "Fake Fur".

Emily stopped in her tracks.

Slowly, she turned, and looked through the window. Could it be real? This was a beautiful silver fur coat. It was sleek and soft and warm, and everything that Emily's coat had been originally... but it wasnt real fur?

She looked down at her own coat, and could see how matted and dirty the fur was, could smell how damp and musty it was, and could feel the angry eyes of the shoppers on her back as she wore it. She realised she wasnt enjoying wearing her coat any more, and that the shoppers were right - it was cruel, it was murder. And suddenly Emily didnt want her fur coat any more. She wanted the one in the shop window. She wanted one that gave her all the things that she had ever enjoyed about fur coats, but without the guilt, without the accusatory glances of the shoppers, without the knowledge of what it really meant to wear a fur coat.

So Emily bought the silver fur coat, and dropped her old, musty fur on the floor of the shop. She pulled it on, and brushed her face against the collar, relishing the softness, the sleekness, the warmth. It really was everything she had hoped. It was just like the real thing, but without the burden of knowledge. She could wear this coat in public. She could enjoy this coat. She could go wherever she wanted with this coat, and the shoppers couldnt accuse her any more, as its 100% Man Made, its fake fur!

So Emily strutted again. She looked at herself happily in the shop windows, and whenever a shopper stopped her she would happily explain that it was not a fur coat, that it was man made, that it was fake fur, and that nothing had suffered and nothing had died to make it. Most of the public were satisfied, and left her to enjoy her new fake fur coat. Some muttered behind her back, but this was nothing to Emily who was so happy at having left her old fur coat behind that she didnt care what they said. They were wrong, she wasnt harming anyone, so she was happy.

For many months, Emily happily wore her new, beautiful, warm, silver fake fur coat. It brought her happiness, and she knew that it was a guilt free happiness. A lot of the shoppers also knew that it wasnt a real fur coat now, and waved happily to Emily as she passed, beaming, on her way.

Then one day, someone stopped Emily. Emily halted in her tracks, and looked at the person who had stopped her. What could they want? They couldnt accuse her of cruelty, as this wasnt a real fur coat. This was a fake fur coat. 100% Man Made.

"Thats disgusting." the person said. "You shouldnt be allowed to wear that."

"Why?" asked Emily. "Its not a real fur coat".

"Yes..." said the stranger. "BUT IT LOOKS LIKE ONE."

Emily was confused. What does it matter if it looks like a real one, if its not? Its a fake fur. Nothing suffered. Nothing died. No harm was done.

"If you keep wearing that, other people will think its okay to wear real fur. So take it off. Now. And never wear it again. We havent spent all this time telling the other shoppers to hate you for you to just bypass all our hard work and wear a fake fur!"

Emily thought that was a stupid argument. "But if its so wrong, why dont you stop people buying real fur, instead of stopping me wearing my fake fur that has hurt nothing?"

"No, no, cant do that. But we can stop you!" and with that the stranger ripped the beautiful sleek, warm, silver fake fur coat from Emily's back and threw it into the gutter.

Time passed.

Emily was cold without a coat. She missed her warm fake fur coat, but by now there were signs up in all the shops saying "No fake fur allowed". So she did the only thing she could do. She went back to the shop. She picked up her old, matted, musty fur coat and put it on again, feeling ashamed of herself.

And Emily cried all the way home.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Standing on the shoulders of drowning men.

There was a time of political checks and balances. There was a time when whatever Labour did when in power, Tories undid when they took office, and Labour duly returned the favour in their turn. There was a time when the Government stood firm, and little changed one way or another without a damned good reason for it to happen. The NHS was a product of such times.

And then came New Labour, and the wholesale shift to the right of British politics. Tony Blair, the promised one, the man who could make a difference. And what a difference he made.

When Labour took power under Blair, this was a new kind of politics. It was progressive. Its MPs were younger, prettier, less battle scarred and more idealistic. Its policies were new, brave, fresh (and mostly stolen).

The whole position changed. New Labour took over the traditional political position of the Tories after their inevitable implosion and slow resurrection in the even-further-right. Lib Dems did what Lib Dems do - they wallowed around without any clear idea of what they were trying to achieve, but did it somewhere between the right and the even-further-right of the other two parties.

Except now, all three parties were trying to out-progressive the other two, because thats what the public want to see, right? Progressive politics worked for Blair, so we need to be doing some of that, got it? Good. And how do you out-progressive the other two? By basing your policies on even less reliable information, and even more marginal, progressive science.

The upshot of all this new-fangled politicking and progressiveness was that they had to develop new policies (when policies werent conveniently placed to steal), and that meant new sources of information and accepting more marginal viewpoints than the mainstream scientific views you would expect from a Government responsible for the welfare of 60 million people.

It led to the rise of the Health and Safety Man, the public health "expert". You know the type. In school they were the ones who couldn't play football, had a hard time making friends, but weren't smart enough or talented enough to be nerds. Nowadays you will most likely find them bathed in the light of important looking databases, surrounded by important looking box files, and sporting engagingly colourful ties. And they still have no friends. Its their purpose to tell you to tie your shoe laces, to not run with scissors, and that breathing a few particles of second hand smoke will permanently damage your child.

These "experts" in public health base their opinions on a rigid, evidence based, scientific approach. No, stop laughing, they do. The quality of the science involved is however open to question. When each successive government, whether national or local, is pressing you for more progressive ideas to safeguard our nations kiddiwinks, you may find yourself... ahh... blue sky thinking*. You need to keep coming up with new ideas and new approaches based on the latest science.

Now, sure, fine, if that science is real and accurate then there's not going to be a problem - whatever policy you put in place, if its grounded in a solid basis of evidence, is likely to be successful and any consequences will be foreseen and mitigated. But as Charles Fort** said:
I conceive of nothing, in religion, science, or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while.
Science changes. Thats the basis, and the strength, of the entire scientific establishment. Knowledge isnt finite, at least not yet. We build upon a reliable footing of evidence to take the next logical, rational step, and that becomes the new status quo. What happens then when your evidential basis is shaky? Where does that leave you, when those policies are enacted? As Charles Fort also said:
The outrageous is the reasonable, if introduced politely.
You take a marginal viewpoint, without either solid evidence or scientific consensus, and add to that a pathological need to be progressive, to come up with new issues that simply must be addressed, and new braver ways of dealing with old issues. You base your policies upon the views of the people who can most successfully and reliably give you these things. And you keep going. You want newer, braver, ways of impacting the new issues-that-were-never-issues-before, of making more headway against whatever drivel the red top press is having palpitations about this week. The new feeds upon the old. Science is driven forward at disproportionate rates without stopping to properly evaluate the effects of the previous steps. The feedback loop is broken, and like a microphone in front of an amplifier you feed output directly to input until...

Well, until all you can hear is an incoherent scream.

* Less charitable authors than myself may class this as "making shit up".
** Not that Charles Fort should be held up as a paragon of scientific virtue - far from it - but he does provide good quotes.