Kalou, thou dost protest too much

Salomon Kalou was clearly fouled just short of Inter-Milan’s goal last night, and should have been awarded a penalty. And of course, had the penalty been awarded, then Walter Samuel would also have been sent off. He wasn’t, and I suspect it was because after Kalou was genuinely fouled the player flung himself to the ground along with extravagant waving of the arms. The referee, Mejuto Gonzalez, had earlier booked a Milan player (Milito I think) for diving in the Chelsea penalty area, and Gonzalez was clearly signalling that he wasn’t going to tolerate any Oscar-worthy attempts to extract an unfair penalty. So it was ironic to say the least that it was probably Kalou’s unnecessary theatricality that denied Chelsea a much safer result than the 2-1 defeat, notwithstanding the away goal, may prove to be at Stamford Bridge on 16th March.

Whilst this may be merely symptomatic of a general tendency to over-egg puddings that are perfectly rich enough already, it’s fundamentally an attempt to cheat. As a Chelsea supporter I’m obviously disappointed by the outcome, but in truth it seems to me that it’s well-deserved. Cheating has become so endemic in sport that we hardly even notice it any more. In fact, cheating of the Kalou type is pretty much accepted as normal and to be expected. It’s only when more Gothic cheating, such as the infamous fake blood rugby episode, hits the headlines that we sit up and take notice. There seems to be no sport that is immune. Whether it’s drug abuse in cycling, deliberate crashing in motor-racing, or ball-tampering in cricket, everyone seems to be joining in. It’s easy to make the connection between money and this kind of behaviour. I don’t doubt that when more money’s at stake, the greater the temptation becomes. And yet I can’t help also wondering about the intrinsic tendency towards unfairness that comes simply from the nature of competition. I’ve witnessed enough underhand dealings in kids’ football teams to know that money doesn’t have to be in the equation when it comes to cheating.

One thing that certainly doesn’t help is the routine undermining of match officials or other kinds of referee. For professional sport, maybe this is one place where money does make a difference. When players earn more for their 3 minute runabout as a substitute than the referee does for a month of whole matches, it’s time to redress the balance. Whether we like it or not, authority is usually symbolised by money. There are few businesses in which managers earn less than those they manage, certainly not vastly less. Thus in football, perhaps referees should be paid £1 more than the most highly paid player on the pitch, the fee to be split between the clubs. Football managers might also be less inclined to undermine someone for whose services they’re having to shell out so much!

On faith and belief

In several of my recent posts I’ve skirted around issues of faith but not really dealt with the matter head-on. It’s ironic that the great majority of the Twitfriends who most loyally re-tweet my “new blogpost” pimps are serious, big-time atheists who were probably a tad disconcerted when they discovered that I’d come out as someone with an active faith. To their credit none of them has so far un-followed me in disgust, although I suppose they might now that I’ve decided to go on about it again.

It might be ironic, but the fact that I’ve naturally associated with sceptics and atheists doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. For a start, I’m at least as often embarrassed by my fellow faith-travellers as I am enthused by them. Rather more often, actually. Every time there’s yet another public statement of homophobic bollocks, or thinly disguised misogyny, or happy-clappy fantasy, I cringe inwardly and protest outwardly. But in fact it’s not these matters that most connect me with those atheist comrades, since homophobia and misogyny are not the exclusive preserve of the religious: there are plenty of unpleasant ideologies spilling from the mouths of unbelievers as well. No, it’s that most of the critical arrows shot from the archers of atheism leave me untouched since I don’t believe in half the stuff they think I must believe in anyway.

We have a lot of words and concepts in this area that we tend to use somewhat uncritically as if they all mean the same thing. In particular “faith” and “belief” are often used virtually interchangeably. That’s by no means all, and I’ll return specifically to this in a moment. There are also the relationships between the literal and the metaphoric; between the symbol and the thing symbolised; between myth and history; between the poetic and the narrative; and much more besides. All of these dialectic oppositions are the ways in which we try to make sense of the world and our place in it, to ascribe meaning to ourselves and others, to deal with our identity and our mortality. These activities are universal: they’re not some special thing that only religious people do. It’s not my intention here to make the case for my particular ways of understanding these imponderables, and the only claim I’d make is that I have thought long and hard about them and tried to bring my tentative conclusions to explicit consciousness. There are both atheists and religious believers who appear to have done nothing of the kind. Easy and thoughtless acceptance either of religious dogma or of cultural (rather than examined) scepticism seem to me to be fundamentally identical approaches. I feel much greater commonality with atheists who’ve wrestled with constructing meaning from their belief system than I do either with my religious colleagues who’ve simply swallowed the whole faith pill without chewing it, or with some atheists who show no evidence of having thought about anything beyond shopping.

So back to faith and belief. In a nutshell, I take the view that belief is not something about which one can choose freely. Belief is about evidence. To believe something in the face of contradictory evidence is at best bizarre, and at worst ridiculous. And by extension, to believe in something for which there is no evidence one way or the other is presumptuous to say the least. Where there is no evidence, agnosticism is the only valid response. Faith is a different category altogether. Sometimes faith and belief do indeed go together, but they don’t have to. I believe in the reality of my car’s braking system, but I also have faith in it. I’m prepared to propel myself inside my metal box at speeds that will kill me on the basis that I put my trust in the braking system, and in those who have manufactured it. But it’s also possible, and perfectly legitimate, to put faith in things or ideas that are not literally true or real, or which can’t be known about or examined at all in the way that a braking system can be. I put enormous faith in my wife’s love for me, and act on the assumption that her love can bear the weight of my faith, often in the teeth of evidence to the contrary. Perhaps especially then. When we’re fighting, or when she doesn’t seem to care, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that the evidence is now on the side of divorce. It’s my faith, rather than my belief, that gets me, or perhaps more correctly, us, through.

My Christian faith keeps me optimistic about humanity despite the overwhelming evidence that humans are capable of the most appalling cruelty and destruction, and that too often these traits seem to be winning against those other traits of love, co-operation, heroism and the rest. It’s open to anyone to say that I’m deluding myself, and perhaps I am. I feel always vulnerable to the counter-position that life is absurd, and that meaning is illusory. My faith in metaphorical and symbolic categories such as the death and resurrection of Jesus does not mean I believe in magic any more than Wordsworth believed he was experiencing solitary levitation when he wandered lonely as a cloud.

Pied wagtail

Every now and again I’m sharing some of my photography on the blog.

This particular image was shot on the banks of the Thames last year. The bird had carried out numerous sorties to collect food for its chicks. Each time he or she returned to the bank with a fly, it flew out over the water again with remarkable agility, and added another insect to its collection. Only when it had four or five flies did it fly off to its chicks. Within a few minutes it would be back, flying over the water and back to the bank repeatedly until it had collected another literal mouthful.

For the technically minded, the shot was taken with a Nikon D300 and 55-200mm zoom at 200mm, with an exposure at f8 of 1/500th second.

The power of symbols

I consider myself to be a pretty rational person. I’m a “person of faith” (almost as ghastly an expression as “person of colour”) but I’m not remotely fundamentalist and I’ll bet I’m more sceptical than Mr or Mrs Average. My faith does not require me to “believe 20 impossible things before breakfast” and it is exactly as an aid to rationalisation, to making sense of things, that I have faith at all. Faith worth having is always symbolic.

So perhaps I should not have been all that surprised by how affected I was by a relatively trivial event that occurred during the recent snowy weather. After the proper snow, in Manchester at least, we had a couple of encores with quite heavy snow showers, but ones that did not produce more than a fleeting covering of a centimetre or so. After one of these I went down to my car late in the evening to go home from the office. The snow on the ground had gone, but my car was covered in a layer of wet crystals also well on the way to melting. As I opened the car door, a load of them fell onto the driver’s seat. I was not best pleased. It was late, a very cold wind was blowing, and the last thing I wanted was a wet, cold bum. So with some considerable irritation I swept the melting snow vigorously from the seat.

I don’t know about you, but my fingers seem particularly liable to change diameter with differing temperature. With the second or third extravagant sweep of my hand, fuelled by my annoyance at my own stupidity in not opening the door with more care, I heard a metallic tinkle and saw for a micro second a sparkle as my wedding ring flew off my hand, bounced off the open car door, and landed somewhere on the wet tarmac of the office car park. It was one of those moments where the realisation of something’s significance lags momentarily behind one’s perception of the event itself. But only a moment, and that tiny delay seems to serve to amplify the realisation when it finally comes.

I was distraught. The car park spotlights reflected off the wet concrete with a thousand mocking false hopes. I was torn between frantic looking and despairing passivity. I tried to think logically, but I could feel only my mounting panic. The tarmac was deliberately cambered to assist with drainage, and it seemed to me that if the ring had landed on its edge, it could have rolled for yards. Where to start?

Miraculously, I’d only been looking for a matter of seconds – long enough for several imagined and doleful interviews with my wife to flicker across my consciousness; “How could you be so careless? Don’t you remember how much that cost me?” – when I spotted the ring not more than 6 feet from where I was standing. My relief was as cathartic as my panic had been terrifying.

And yet I was not as pleased as I should have been. Once I’d moved on from my relief, I was at liberty to muse on the fact that, found though it was, my ring had nevertheless been off my finger. I’ve been married a mere 5 years, but that ring had been put on my finger by my wife, and I had vowed that I would die with it still in situ. During boring meetings – and there’ve been a few – I would often play with it, drawing it over the first knuckle, but never, ever as far as the second. There have been times when I nearly let it fall off by mistake, and ended up in a cold sweat. Not that my wife shares any of this sentimental jewellery attachment. Her wedding and engagement rings come off daily to make way for hand cream applications, finger-nail painting, and a myriad of other beautifying or domestic routines.

Now that the ring’s been off I feel genuinely cheated in some way. I try to comfort myself with the thought that it’s never been off voluntarily, but it doesn’t really help. It was the absoluteness that really mattered, that the ring had never been put on my finger by me, but only by my wife. Now it seems that it’s there by false pretences. I know that this is foolish sentimentality, that my marriage is not strengthened or weakened by the ring, or by how it got on my finger. But that rationality is dispersed like mist by the power of the symbolism. And who, perhaps, is really to say that the one is real, and the other imaginary?

Redressing the balance

So Commander Dizaei goes to prison after a glittering career spent being investigated on the one hand, and calling down the wrath of the Gods of equality upon the Met Police on the other. It’s not for me to set myself up as judge and jury since we’ve had plenty of both already, and for the purposes of this post I’m going to assume not only that Dizaei has been found guilty as charged, but also that he is guilty as charged. Most of the commentary on the case seems to have concluded that Dizaei was able to evade his comeuppance for so long because the post-Stephen Lawrence Met Police was paralysed in pursuing him by its paranoia about Macpherson’s accusation of “institutionalised racism”. I know from my own experience in the ILEA in the 1980’s that it was at times difficult to criticise black colleagues honestly without being suspected at least of unworthy and prejudicial motives. And there is indeed a particular kind of white person that seems to thrive on a diet of guilt and self-disgust that does neither them nor their black colleagues any good.

But I think we should be cautious in jumping to the tabloid conclusion that the Dizaei case is some kind of further proof of “political correctness gone mad”. The determination of organisations to attack inequalities of race, gender, sexuality and the rest has had overwhelmingly positive results both for those at the receiving end of these inequities and for those who’ve been obliged by the process to examine their own motives and behaviour. The problem that now confronts us is how to deal with the manifest inequalities that remain, rather than to put the brakes on a process that’s somehow “gone too far”.

This is not to say that there haven’t also been perverse and unhelpful results along the way. Too often there’s been a focus on language rather than on process or outcomes. Learning not to say this word or that does not guarantee fairer consequences, and dealing with structural matters requires more than an avoidance of offence. I know that sometimes appointments or promotions have been made that had more to do with avoiding embarrassment, or meeting targets, than concern for effective work. And yes, sometimes bad behaviour by staff belonging to this or that minority was not challenged as it should have been, although in truth that was more often as a result of weak and ineffective managers who would have used another excuse if the “political correctness” one had not been at hand.

It may seem either to be stating the obvious or simply to be counsel of perfection to say that the problems have arisen largely because ideology has been allowed to usurp justice. Too much “equalities” training has concentrated on rules of behaviour to be blindly followed on pain of disapprobation rather than on a genuine commitment to understanding what justice demands, and finding innovative and effective ways to deliver it. And one key attribute of justice is immediacy. Justice does not consist in using the present moment to teach the past a lesson. Whenever we feel tempted to commit an injustice now in the interests of evening the scores of the past, we should pause long and think hard. This creates some acute dilemmas. Are all-women short-lists a justifiable accelerator for change, or an affront to the justice of the present moment? Is the promotion of a weaker ethnic minority candidate a justifiable symbol of change and the creation of a role model of hope, or a denial of justice for the other candidates? Whatever else the Dizaei case may be, it is surely a vindication of having the courage to pursue justice wherever it leads, no matter who or what is inconvenienced.

Dealing with the end – a risk management approach?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about my elderly mother’s Alzheimer’s. Then last week, in the discussion threads following my post on “secular zealotry”, the issue of euthanasia and its moral dilemmas was raised. And now this week Terry Pratchett has weighed in to the debate on assisted suicide and mercy killings, topics which were themselves brought again to public attention through some well-publicised and possibly contradictory decisions in the courts. This week’s Moral Maze on Radio 4 also debated and dissected the complex and difficult issues which these matters bring into sharp relief. So it feels as if my internal world and the external world are both conspiring to make me think through these painful problems a little more explicitly.

In the face of these juggernauts of seemingly absolute moral positions, the notion of bringing the techniques of risk management to bear might seem akin to digging a grave with a teaspoon. What can bureaucracy bring to a debate in which the main protagonists are slugging it out using weapons of mass ideological destruction; the one camp bellowing that life is a sacred gift from God, whilst the other retorts that one group’s intellectually bankrupt and scientifically ridiculous imaginings should not be permitted to condemn the more enlightened to suffering and infantilism? When you’ve finished reading this post you might well feel that the answer is, “Nothing!”, but undaunted I’m going to give it a shot.

For those lucky enough to have avoided risk management thus far, the briefest of explanatory notes. In matters such as financial planning, health and safety, human resources and the like, it is usual practice to set out the risks associated with a range of possible scenarios. Each risk is then given a score to indicate how serious or damaging it would be for an organisation were that risk to “crystallise” in risk-speak jargon – for you or me, that means that the bad thing actually happens. Then the risk is given another score, indicating the probability of the risk crystallising. The two scores are multiplied together to give a total. The person responsible for managing that particular risk then sets out what defences they intend to put in place both to reduce the severity of the risk should it crystallise, and also t0 reduce the likelihood of it actually occurring. The risk is then scored again for severity and probability, and another total calculated. This is the score of the “mitigated risk”, which will hopefully be substantially lower than the unmitigated one. An example before I return to the real substance of this post. Take the risk of a fire in an organisation’s head office. Such a fire could effectively destroy the company and kill many of its employees. Hard to think of a more serious risk, so for severity this would score 10 out 0f 10. What about the chances of it happening? Let’s assume for the moment that no mitigating defences have yet been put in place. A fire is not inevitable, but without action it’s hardly inconceivable. So let’s score it 7 out of 10 for probability. Overall unmitigated risk score would thus be 70, which means that it’s pretty bad. The mitigating actions might be to ensure that fire drills are regularly carried out, that escape routes are clear and safe, that all important company information is copied and kept also at another location. These would all mitigate the seriousness of the consequences, which might now score 7 out of 10 (a fire is always going to be serious). If additional actions, such as installing sprinkler systems and other fire fighting equipment, removal of inflammable materials, etc are undertaken, these will also reduce the likelihood that a fire will either occur, or take serious hold. So the probability score might now be 3 out of 10. The mitigated risk now scores 21, a marked improvement on the original 70.

OK, so what on earth has this to say about assisted suicide, or mercy killing? Simply this. The problem about the entrenched and absolute positions taken in this debate is that it seems you have to pay your money, and take your choice. Black or white. Sacred or “don’t talk bollocks”. The problem with this is that it assumes one of these positions can somehow be proven to be correct, and that once that’s been done, all the losers have to accept defeat. It also assumes that the “correct” position will be free of difficulty, once the choice has been made. But that is ridiculous. If you take the life is sacred position, you have to concede that without mitigation, you will condemn many people to appalling suffering. If you take the utilitarian position  you have to accept that there is a risk that decisions to kill others, or to assist their suicide, might be wrong. So yes, it’s about risk. And all risks can be managed and mitigated, even if they can’t be removed. I’m not going to go through all the many potential risks implicit in these difficult issues and how they might be mitigated, but rather, by taking a couple of examples, to show how the approach might take the sting out of the seemingly intractable arguments that swirl around this problem.

It will come as no surprise to those who read my “Secular zealotry?” post that I am broadly sympathetic to the position which flows from the concept of life being sacred. But I know that this starting point brings serious risks with it (not counting the risk that it might be a load of old crap.) I’ve mentioned one already: that individuals might be condemned to appalling suffering. There are others, of course. Most notable is the risk that someone’s autonomy will be denied. Imposing the will of one person over another in such a situation hardly seems to me to be the best way of respecting the sacredness of the victim’s life. Let me try and submit just these two examples to the risk management technique. The seriousness of these risks would both seem to me to be high. To have to suffer intolerably is not a trivial thing. To have one’s wishes denied or overruled is likewise a serious affront. So let’s score them 10 and 8 respectively. How might their seriousness be mitigated? In the former case, presumably by some kind of pain-relief therapy. Many experts say that no-one any longer needs to suffer, at least in terms of physical pain, if adequate analgesia is provided. Pain is not the only form of suffering – there’s also loss of dignity, for example. But for many people it is the fear of uncontrolled pain that frightens most. So perhaps a mitigated score might be 6. In the latter case, it’s probably not possible to mitigate it much, if at all. Either one’s wishes are denied, or they’re not. So perhaps its score stays at 8. What of the probabilities? Since there are lots of ways to die that do not involve prolonged suffering, and not everyone will have their wishes ignored, let’s score the probabilities at 7 and 4 respectively. A lot of the suffering that people fear at the ends of their lives is the result of excessive medical intervention. By thinking about this in advance, individuals can set out the limits of intervention that they are prepared to consent to, even if when it comes to it they are no longer able to express that removal of consent. So this might mitigate the probabilities of both suffering occurring, and of autonomy being denied. For the purposes of this example, let’s assume these mitigations of probability reduce the scores to 5 and 3. The unmitigated risk scores were 70 and 32, but after the actions to limit these risks, the mitigated scores are 30 and 24. In this rough and ready way we can say that suffering is a greater risk than loss of autonomy, but that we can do more to mitigate the former than the latter.

Please don’t get obsessed with the numbers since they’re only for illustration. The point I’m making is simply that with careful analysis, and honest thought, we can start to get a handle on the relative degrees of risk, and the extent to which we can reduce them by taking action of one kind or another. Remember that these are the risks that pertain to a particular starting point. In this case it was the starting point that life is sacred and ought not to be actively taken. If the starting point is that life has no absolute status, but can be taken when some tipping point is reached, then there would be a different set of risks and mitigations. Both positions have many risks, and all the risks pose grave problems in scoring both their seriousness and their likelihood. The mitigations will likewise be challenging to think about and to score. However, if a given risk that flows from my starting point becomes intolerable, then I have to accept either a mitigation, or perhaps even an exception to my starting principles. But the same applies to those who deny the sacredness of life. So I think that if we are prepared to descend from the heights of our respective moral absolutism to embrace this more pragmatic and perhaps even bureaucratic territory in the valley, we might find both that we have more to agree about than we thought, and that there is value in both starting points even if we cannot personally endorse one or other of them.

Knowing who and what to believe in medicine and health

So Dr Andrew Wakefield and his two professor colleagues now seem to have been totally discredited, not just on the basis of their research’s conclusions, but also in terms of their ethical approach to their study’s child patients. In a final symbolic act the Lancet has today formally withdrawn its publication of the research. That may seem to draw a line under the whole affair, but a glance at the JABS website will disabuse you of any such conclusion.

It’s not my intention here to venture into any debate about the substantive scientific issues surrounding MMR vaccines and autism and bowel disease, but rather to reflect on what this and the many other instances of intra-medical warfare mean for the average punter in the street. How are we lay people to pick the bones out of these long-running and frequently bitter disputes between different camps? You’d think we’d at least have had plenty of practice. Off the top of my head I could mention: the debate about serum cholesterol, heart disease and statins; the efficacy of the prostate specific antigen test; the dangers or otherwise of dental amalgam; the disputes about water fluoridation; the controversy over aspartame. I could go on, but probably don’t need to. Added to these “running sores” of disagreement and confusion are the flashes of controversy sparked by articles in the press, the kind of stories that scream out that the risk of this, that, or the other has just been shown to have doubled or trebled. And which usually turn out to mean that the infinitesimally unlikely has graduated into the extraordinarily improbable.

This last thought makes me wonder if perhaps the best we can do is to develop a kind of defensive toolkit that might protect us from at least the grosser kinds of gullibility. Many ordinary citizens are woefully incapable of understanding probability or percentages, but can easily grasp concepts like doubling. Discovering that I’m now twice as likely to get run over as I was last night would almost certainly prompt me to take more care this evening; but if my chances were last night 1 in 1,000,000 perhaps I shouldn’t be all that concerned that they’re now 1 in 500,000. So I’d suggest the following few rules of engagement.

  • Make it your business to be confident in interpreting probabilities and percentages, and apply that understanding to all statistics you encounter.
  • Understand the difference between what can be said about populations and what can be said about a given individual such as you. Just because doing something can be shown to benefit an overall population doesn’t mean it will benefit you, and vice versa for something that might be harmful.
  • On the other hand, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Knowing one person who smokes 80 a day and is 90 years old without even so much as bronchitis does not of itself invalidate 40 years of research.
  • Be aware of conflicts of interest: a drugs company is unlikely to take the view that you’ll be better off without its products.
  • Be careful when tempted to act either on fear or out of hope; eat blueberries if you like them, but not because you’re scared of cancer and someone’s said that they’re a wonder food with miraculous anti-cancer properties.
  • Remember that your body is a complex system in which there are an almost infinite number of interactions, and that single-purpose magic bullets with only one effect do not exist: everything has side effects.
  • Remember also that medical orthodoxy changes over time, and not infrequently contradicts itself. It is not always the case that the medical theory in the ascendancy is the one that’s correct. An old friend of mine was told by her doctor in the 50’s to start smoking for the good of her health!

None of this will tell you what to believe, or what to do, in the face of medical dispute. But taken together they might help you to resist being pushed from pillar to post by every pronouncement, be it from the medical establishment or from the medical mavericks.