Disease of the mind?
7th July 2009
In his review of Richard Bentall’s new book (July), Alexander Linklater writes: “If psychiatric disorders are diseases at all, they are diseases of the mind rather than of the brain.” Whatever the flaws in Bentall’s analysis of psychiatry, I’m not sure that a critic who still believes in the Cartesian separation of mind and body is best equipped to tackle them. Linklater should be prescribed a course of Daniel Dennett before being permitted to attempt the territory again.
Test cricket is here to stay
27th June 2009
As long as novels are read, Shakespeare is performed, Hindi cinema is watched and we don’t become so fat that we can’t throw a ball 22 yards with either spin or pace, Test cricket will survive—despite what Mike Brearley (July) might fear. It is not Test but one-day cricket that is out of tune. It’s neither here nor there. That said, if Brearley is half as good a psychoanalyst as he is author of The Art of Captaincy, his sessions must be a delight.
Aniruddha G Kulkarni
Via the Prospect blog
Vote no to referendums
5th July 2009
Peter Kellner’s excellent argument against referendums (July) need not look as far as California to support its case. Ireland furnishes equally telling examples. Here, constitutional changes must be approved by referendum—the most recent in June 2008 resulting in a “no” vote to the Lisbon treaty.
But what was the referendum actually about? The largest element of the “no” vote, it seems, was derived from people who did not understand the proposition before them—thanks to the failure of an idle and incompetent political class to explain the issue, as well as the serial mendacities, exaggerations and scaremongering of the “no” campaign. There were “no” votes to protect our military neutrality, to prevent bug-eyed Euro-monsters foisting abortion on our sainted isle and similar nonsense that had nothing to do with the Lisbon treaty. Whatever people were voting on, it was not the issue at hand.
Yet one constituency was strangely at odds with the prevailing trend. Laois-Offaly is right in the centre of the country and borders six other constituencies, four of which were staunchly “no” and one of which could only manage a “yes” majority of four votes. Yet Laois-Offaly produced a whopping 56 per cent “yes” vote—by far the largest majority outside the Greater Dublin area. What was the difference? Simple. Laois-Offaly is the bailiwick of Brian Cowan, the newly-installed taoiseach. They were giving a thumbs-up to their down home boyo. Even the “yes” voters were not always voting yes to Lisbon.
Referendums have been the preferred manipulative tool of every tinpot demagogue and dictator in European history. They are a boon to populist ranters, one-issue fanatics and the politically demented. Britain has, for the most part, been wise in eschewing them. It should continue to do so.
A literary suite
24th June 2009
The July essay on literary hotels by Monica Ali was well-observed and nicely tied in to her new novel without overly publicising it. One hotel and author not mentioned is, of course, JK Rowling, who in February 2007 completed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in Room 552 of the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh. It’s subsequently been named “the JK Rowling suite” and guests can pay a whacking £965 per night for the privilege of staying there. As the Telegraph reports: “The room contains a marble bust of the Greek God Hermes that Rowling signed after she finished the final book. The 180-square-foot suite also includes the desk and bed she used during her stay.” And the icing on the cake: a brass plaque is now on the front door and the door knocker has been replaced by a brass owl.
Via the Prospect blog
Many children left behind
22nd June 2009
Donald Hirsch’s survey of British schools’ exam standards (June) makes a credible case for shifting our attention away from grades to the question of what exactly our schoolchildren are learning. However, I was surprised that he did not allude to the story that two of his charts tell, when viewed together. Even if the rise in percentage of pupils achieving 5 or more grades A* to C at GCSE has risen by some 20 percentage points over the last decade, in the same period the percentage of 19-year-olds without at least 5 GCSEs has barely deviated from 26 per cent.
This tells us that, far from a rising tide allowing all boats to bob higher, fully one quarter of all our children are still just not being reached. This is where education policy needs to focus: on getting this abandoned segment qualifications and a productive stake in society.
Don’t ditch America
25th June 2009
Anatol Lieven (June) calls for a divorce from the alliance between Britain and the US that was fashioned during the second world war. It should, he says, be replaced by a closer military arrangement with other European nations, especially, France. Yet Lieven barely mentions Nato, a military arrangement between European countries and the US that defended Europe against Soviet-era threats for 45 years, and which France left in 1966, only very recently deigning to rejoin. France also withdrew from both the Eurofighter and the Type 45 destroyer projects when the other countries involved—not just Britain—would not cede design and industrial leadership to France. France therefore (rather admirably in my view) pursues her own interests come what may. Ditching one’s friends may suit the French, but it sits less well with the British.
Lieven also writes that “Britain has been befuddled by the belief that the future of democracy will be determined in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.” Yet defeating the London Tube bombers trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan required an international response. And we joined the Iraq war, according to him, merely out of “blind attachment to the US alliance.” Does it count for nothing that a dangerous dictator, a proven threat to the region, was deposed and that there have subsequently been two elections in which 70 per cent of Iraqis voted for a government of all sections of society, for the first time in decades?
Lieven wants to have his cake and eat it; he envisages the occasional dash overseas to west Africa where “we” will always be successful. How do we achieve this? Ditch our more onerous international obligations and look the other way in places like DRC, Zimbabwe and Darfur? To which list Lieven would apparently add Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is a strange price to pay for a United States of Europe—and one not paid by Europeans.
1st July 2009
According to Vivienne Parry’s logic (June), it seems we are allowed to question only one side of the factory farming debate: how does it impact me right now?
Yet how can we address this issue without even a passing reference to the following problems: the overuse of antibiotics to control disease among stressed and unhealthy creatures; pollution (manure, urea, carcasses, dirty water, methane); deforestation and desertification caused by the demands of the high-yield cattle industry; and finally, the animal welfare angle. There are significant and growing numbers of people who do vote with their wallets, buying either meat from an animal which has not suffered in the intensive farming system or indeed abstaining from eating meat entirely. Yet many people are remain unaware of the hidden horror that is sanctioned on their behalf. Footage of industrial slaughter and transportation of animals is not shown on television because it is are deemed too upsetting. If we are not able, as a society, to face up to this reality, then we should not allow it to exist. And if you have not taken the time to read about or watch where your food comes from, you should not reject the opinions of those who have.
5th July 2009
As a former mathematician, I am all in favour of Mark Hannam’s promotion—albeit a qualified one—of the discipline (June). But he seems to conflate maths, science and risk management, and reduce all three to numeracy. Maths is about far more than numeracy, and is useful not least in fostering clear and accurate thinking. Even so, it may not solve the problems of risk management, where the examples Hannam cites from the recent economic crisis—politicians turning a blind eye to the problem or Fred Goodwin’s statement about sub-prime exposure at RBS—have more to do with vested interests or poor management than a lack of mathematical skill. Ideology played a role too; leading to the misguided belief of many (mathematicians too as it happens) that econometric models could convincingly capture a much more complex, human-influenced reality.
In “Cameron’s big moment” (Prospect, July) Ed Howker wrote that shadow education spokesman Michael Gove “spent £7,000 of public money on a London property before selling it.” In fact, he has not sold his London property. We would like to apologise to Michael Gove. The online version of the article has been amended.