Nature versus nurture: the battle that can’t be won

It was entertaining to hear Professor Anita Thapar and Oliver James almost coming to blows on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, but as ever it was an exchange that was more useful as a demonstration of a possible, ecologically sound, new heating system than it was an alternative to low energy bulbs. The cause of their heated but not especially enlightening contretemps was the former’s recently published work on an alleged link between Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (thankfully usually referred to as the less mouth-filling ADHD) and genetic variation.

Their dispute raises a myriad of important issues about health, responsibility, the public understanding of science, and research funding to name merely the most obvious. When we get to the human frailties of scientists – hubris, defence of reputation, wishful thinking, political allegiances and the like – the merely hard to discern tips over into the impenetrably murky.

At root this is the familiar “nature versus nurture” debate. It seems to me to be an ultimately sterile one. There is no choice between these two causations except in the most trivial of human attributes. Yes, I have brown eyes (rather beautiful ones as it happens, or so I’ve been told by women with an axe to grind) and my son has the most stunning, virtually pitch black ones. I doubt very much that had he or I been nurtured differently I would have had his objectively wonderful eyes, and he’d have had to put up with the more subjective charms of mine. But once we get past these simple physical attributes, there is no line between nature and nurture that we can trace reliably. Rather there is a complex inter-twining that is beyond the reach of almost any conceivably ethical experimentation. And without an adequate experimental framework the best we can do is to try and make inferences, and that is always fraught with the risks that boiled over in the irate exchange this morning.

The risks I’ve described are unavoidable because we cannot subject human beings to the experimental controls that might truly elucidate the interface between nature and nurture. But added to this inescapable theoretical level of risk are all the other pitfalls of human weakness. In the case of ADHD, parents are desperate to be told that their children have an objective biological condition that allows them to evade the notion that it is their parenting that is at fault. The drug companies that manufacture Ritalin have a clear vested interest in a medicalising model of the disorder. Scientists such as Professor Thapar do not come to these problems with the neutrality that they claim. They are investigating particular theories and their research budgets and scientific reputations depend on, in this case, proving a genetic link rather than disproving such a link. And of course there is the hoary old issue of statistical significance. On further scrutiny of Professor Thapar’s paper it emerges that only 10% of the children they studied with diagnosed ADHD had the particular genetic variant that they were investigating. So is this weak proof of a link, or are the 90% that didn’t have this variant proof, as Oliver James very stridently claimed, that such a link is fantasy?

When we subject human beings to the reductive modelling of scientific investigation, we tread a perilous path indeed. The history of science is littered with outrageous fallacies from phrenology to the discredited links between intelligence and race. Humans and their societies are so complex, the webs of cause and effect so diffuse, and the feedback mechanisms so impenetrable and long-delayed that it is near impossible to arrive at any kind of resolution to the nature versus nurture debate that isn’t bounded by qualification after qualification.

What can we say with certainty? That anyone who claims that this one piece of evidence proves that nature has been definitively crowned the winner in the battle is either simply wrong, or possibly wrong and lying to boot. This is not to suggest that we should not be investigating this infinitely fascinating and intriguing relationship: merely that scepticism is always, and without exception, the safest response to the inevitably provisional results.

A politician’s lot is not a happy one…

Why on earth would anyone seek the leadership of a political party in Britain? Today, Ed Miliband made his maiden speech as the new Labour leader (though not, of course, as the New Labour leader) having just emerged from sibling rivalry on a grand scale. Immediately he is beset by aggravation from all sides, from the fatuous (Red Ed, well dealt with in his speech, I thought) to the serious (his green credentials already under forensic scrutiny from Caroline Lucas.)

The policy questions exemplified by the latter are of course proper and important. If a politician doesn’t want to become embroiled in policy debate, then what could possibly be the point of him or her? No, it’s not the policy aspect of Ed Miliband’s speech that interests me today. There are others more willing, and doubtless much more qualified, than me who will happily point out the inconsistencies, the blind spots, the impossibilities, and the horse-trading that a textual analysis will most certainly reveal. Rather, it’s the other stuff that I want to concentrate on: the jokes, the personal revelations, the stall chock-full of values, and all the other paraphernalia that operates as a sort of meta-physics of political discourse. These are universally unpleasant it seems to me, and serve more than almost anything else to corrode the proper relationship between the electorate and the political class. The expenses scandal was of course a defining moment in the headlong fall from grace of that entire class, but I doubt that alone accounts for the public opprobrium that politicians now have to struggle against.

I can’t even begin to disentangle cause and effect, so I won’t try. But our politics have descended into a doleful equilibrium between, on the one hand, politicians forever obsessing about how they appear to the public, how they can avoid the catastrophic PR gaffe, how they can manipulate the electorate into seeing them as this kind of person or that regardless of the kind of person they actually are; whilst on the other, the electorate are ever-willing to apply tests of consistency and morality that not one in a thousand of them could pass themselves. Whilst it’s fashionable to blame the collective media for this parlous state of affairs, that is at best a simplification: but it’s true that the media is certainly not providing any kind of cure and rather acts as the Unholy Ghost of this malign trinity.

To give but two examples. Possibly the most distasteful and abhorrent political happening of recent times was Gordon Brown’s tearful interview with Piers Morgan, when he talked about the loss of his baby daughter. Not the tears themselves – entirely natural and evidently sincere, but the appalling notion that somehow this show of emotion was necessary for political success. What are we doing to our politicians when we require this kind of gladiatorial combat? Why should anyone have to submit to it? Gordon Brown, whatever one’s views about his tenure as Prime Minister, never deserved this humiliation. It’s not that crying is in itself humiliating: but being obliged to cry on someone else’s orders and for some tangential gain is.

The second example, the infamous bigot-gate during the general election campaign, is in a way the mirror image. Tears for his dead daughter were supposed to show Gordon Brown as human, touchy-feely, but all it did was embarrass us and him. We all knew that he was not naturally touchy-feely. By contrast, bigot-gate showed him as naturally irascible and frustrated, and made me for one warm to him as never before. Such irony: the unreal Gordon was fêted whilst the real Gordon was vilified.

And now Ed Miliband finds himself on this same conveyor belt. He cannot be himself. He must be the generous brother, full of sentimental attachment for the sibling he has just defeated. He must be the grateful child of Nazi-scarred parents. He must be the haughty dis-owner of the unions, whose members have supported him, for fear of that ridiculous Red Ed tag. He must be all manner of fabricated, nuanced things that he is not. Or that he may be. The problem with this politics is that we simply no longer know what to believe.

It’s certainly a joke…

As Paul Chambers appeals against his ludicrous conviction in May for sending a joke on Twitter, deemed to constitute a “menacing electronic communication”, it’s perhaps opportune to reflect on just how daft we’ve become.

Of course, Mr Chambers’ legal team have to make arguments on their client’s behalf that address the finer points of a not very fine law, and inevitably in so doing they end up dignifying its manifold stupidities. The rest of us can range wider and freer. And we can start with some fundamentals.

If the actions of a free citizen are to be constrained by the law, then it must surely be on the basis that not so constraining them will result in some demonstrable harm. Citizens should indeed not be free to conspire to blow up airports, nor to threaten to do so. Does tweeting, “Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week… otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!” constitute a credible conspiracy or threat? What would make it credible? Take the threat bit first. Well, to count as being credible as a threat, having some access to the means to blow it up might be one useful thing. And so would some history of planning terrorist outrages. What about the conspiracy side of things? I imagine having a few co-conspirators would surely be the minimum requirement, and I’m not at all sure that merely having 600 followers on Twitter really cuts the mustard.

It was a joke. But there might be circumstances in which even a joke might be dangerous. What sort of circumstances? Well, perhaps if the joke was misinterpreted by, I don’t know, the security forces, and they rushed over to the airport in question firing at random. Or if many hundreds of passengers had been put to serious inconvenience short of being massacred in a military over-reaction. But the whole point of this joke was that the airport was closed anyway, and thus it’s hard to argue that any further inconvenience was caused.

It was a joke. It was self-evidently a joke, and it was delivered via a mechanism that I should have thought would be unlikely to figure as the terrorist’s first option when contemplating a channel of communication. It even ended with an exclamation mark, for God’s sake, and surely a self-respecting terrorist takes their work more seriously than that? If Paul Chambers was a terrorist, he should have been prosecuted for incompetence. And if terrorists operate like Paul Chambers, then I suspect we’re over-spending a bit on the MI6 wages bill. Just pay a few unemployed tweeters to keep an eagle eye out for menacing tweets, and distract their attention away from #oneofmyfavoritemovies and #iwannaknowwhy. They’ll probably be grateful.

It was a joke. But not as good a joke as the one about wasting thousands of pounds of public money to prosecute someone for joking on Twitter. Nor as much of a joke as this country’s prosecuting authorities. Yes, the law is indeed an ass.

Let’s keep broadcasting sexism

We like to think that the cruder forms of sexism have been overcome in serious broadcasting. There may be few fat or misshapen women at the more tabloid end of the spectrum, presenting Big Brother or those now ubiquitous shopping channels, but that’s to be expected. In the big, grown-up world of current affairs, things are different, aren’t they?

Er, no, it would seem not. The BBC, so often accused of being a bastion of all things politically correct, fearless employer of continuity announcers with Jamaican accents, and general conscience of the nation, would surely never allow decisions on employing female reporters to be influenced by what a woman looks like? Would it?

Well, of course not. So I’m instead revealing the most extraordinary statistical correlation between good looks and journalistic attainment. And, blow me down, would you believe it, this correlation applies only to women. If you’re over-weight, unprepossessing, balding, out of condition and generally giving the impression that you’re most at home in a bar, and least at a Chippendales convention, you needn’t think this will interfere with your BBC career if you’re a bloke. But if you’re a woman, any of these attributes will stymie your advancement from day 1. In political reporting, you need to look like Laura Kuenssberg or Reeta Chakrabarti if you’ve got tits, but you can look like Gary O’Donoghue if you haven’t (except I think he might have.)

And another extraordinary thing. Women’s ability to report on things goes steeply downhill once they reach 40 years old. I suppose it must have something to do with the approaching menopause. Whilst men’s ability seems to go on rising, well, until they die. This must be true because the BBC continues to employ blokes even when they’re silver haired and distinguished, like John Simpson. But they put older women out to grass, like Kate Adie, as soon as the first microscopic wrinkle shows up on the TV monitor. The BBC would never do this unless they had to, obviously.

If you think I’m perhaps making all this up, I suggest you peruse the links on this page which show most of the BBC’s current reporters. And if you thought that only ever appearing on the radio would open the door to fat or elderly women, just take a look at Radio 4 Today’s Sarah Montague.

Let’s just keep pumping out the same old messages, eh? Broadcasting sexism – part of the BBC’s charter.

The sound and fury of leaking

We were promised a bonfire of the quangos, and now someone’s leaked a list of the 180 faggots (any US visitors will need a good dictionary of British English if you’re not to go off wildly in the wrong direction here) that will be providing the fuel. Cue lots of hand-wringing from the Cabinet Office, along with much moral indignation about irresponsibility.

Irresponsibility, my arse. The Cabinet Office is talking about its embarrassment that one of its documents has been leaked, not about the moral decadence of leaking as an activity. Because leaking is like terrorism: it depends on whose side you’re on. Just as one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, so one woman’s leak is another’s confidential briefing. Listening to politicians working themselves into a lather of indignation over a leaked this, that, or the other is to witness an object lesson in hypocrisy. When it suits their purposes they’ll be busy ensuring advance copies of speeches or carefully constructed pellets of poison are distributed exactly where they think they’ll be most useful.

I never thought I’d ever write these words. I admired Eric Pickles on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. No, that’s far too broad brush. I thought in general that he was, as usual, an insufferable, smug, and disingenuous bastard. But on the subject of the leaked document I did admire his relaxed, “couldn’t give a fuck” attitude. He didn’t go on about the immorality of the leaker. He simply said that the document was out of date. A masterly dismissal.

Of course, it helped that his macho megalomania was well served by the impression the leak gave of a government willing to lay waste to quangos left, right and centre, and not sparing the horses in doing so. For all that, other politicians could usefully learn from his technique of carefree ridicule when it’s their turn to be drawing the sting from embarrassing revelations.

Aspiring to the private sector’s standards

I work in housing within the public sector. This is of course the same public sector that is staffed by pampered layabouts who are cosseted with armour-plated pensions, and where unchallenged inefficiency and over-manning (I will not write “over-personning”, so don’t even start) are leaching the taxes of hard-working families. I’m pretty sure I pay tax as well, but perhaps I’m mistaken.

Anyway, us parasitic public sector bureaucrats are constantly being enjoined to look to the private sector to see how things should be done much better and at a fraction of the cost. Those so chivvying us to greater and more wonderful things might be interested to compare and contrast, as all A-level students are encouraged to do, using the following example.

I rent in the glorious private sector. Last week the shower in my luxurious apartment started to join the Daily Mail’s latest efforts to stir me from my complacency by refusing to produce water at a temperature greater than a most miserly tepid. A few cool showers might be considered invigorating, but a series of ever-cooler ones is simply depressing, I assure you. So last Wednesday I phoned the managing agents to report the fault. The relevant person was not answering their phone, so I left a message. I heard nothing. I called back the next day, and was advised to speak to a different person, who proved equally reluctant to answer their phone (and if this is starting to sound rather familiar, you may be having a flash-back to a previous exposé of this agency’s sparkling efficiency. I certainly was.) I heard nothing. I called back the next day and left a further message, since the recipient seemed to have got no further in the bit of their training that tells them how to answer their phone. I followed this third message with an email.

That was last Friday and still no-one has even contacted me, never mind sorted out my cold shower problem. I rang back today, and have still got no further than voice mail, although the relevant person’s out-of-office message in response to my repeated email has now informed me that he will not be back until October 1st. I am left as I write with nothing resolved and with no option but to threaten to withhold my rent. I await dire warnings about my contractual obligations.

Back in my bit of the flatulent and useless public sector I can report that last quarter, 93.9% of inbound calls were answered by a human being, and the average time taken to answer calls was 20 seconds. Further than that, 98.7% of all repairs were completed within target (3hrs to 6 days depending on the urgency of the issue.) Of the total number of repairs, 99.05% of those categorised as emergency (target – 3 hrs. Yes, 3 hours) were done on time, with 98.24% of urgent category repairs (target – 24hrs) being completed on time. 80% of our tenants were satisfied with this service. 20% evidently have very high standards. Perhaps they should try renting in the much more wonderful private sector.

Now, have you all had time to do that comparing and contrasting thing? Happy for me now to encourage my staff to strive ever harder after private sector excellence? But then why let trivial things like facts get in the way of a good kicking for the public sector?

It’s about time Mr Shapps (who’s busy at the National Housing Federation’s conference today wittering on about the housing association sector and its need to “get its house in order”) and his coalition colleagues started looking at the real world, and stopped their ideological fantasies from blinding their sight.

Secularism, faith, and the public square

The Pope has raised almost as many hackles with his fulminations against “aggressive secularism” as he has with his alleged covering up of the paedophile activities of some of his priests. We have here an almost perfect example of how the same objective reality can be seen totally differently when surveyed from opposite perspectives. The secularists claim that religious faith has a privileged position in the public square that it doesn’t deserve. Christian groups (since by religion secularists almost always mean the Christian religion when they talk about Britain – unless they are thinking about arranged marriages or burkas) on the other hand talk about discrimination against them and the use of the state to enforce the secularist agenda. So how can these diametrically opposed conclusions be drawn from the same data?

I think the answer is simpler than we might imagine. Is is merely a consequence of the direction of travel between two hegemonies. The hegemony of religion (and in the West, exclusively of Christianity for the past 1,700 years or so) was so absolute for so long, that its retreat in the modern world has been precipitate even though it’s taken the best part of 300 years. Now, although the hegemony of science-based secularism is firmly established, it still suffers from the nervousness and anxiety that characterises movements that are not entirely confident of their victory. So secularists are hypersensitive to any flicker of life from the ancien régime. Conversely, the bastions of Christian tradition (and no bastion is more bastion-like than the papacy) look with horror on how quickly their grip on their erstwhile hegemony has been prised from their grasp. So they, in turn, are ever-ready to snarl and snap at the forces that they feel have robbed them of their birth-right.

But, inevitably, neither of these jaundiced positions does justice to reality. And neither of them is based on a proper submission to the evidence. Secularism cannot properly sustain its contention that only secularists can reason, whilst the religious cannot use the idea of revelation to dismiss secularism. We will get nowhere if both sides view the tensions between them as some gigantic game of whist in which their own side has the ace of trumps. Religion’s least valuable gift to society was the idea that, ultimately, their sense of receiving divine revelation is unarguable. Secularism will repeat that mistake if they try to argue that “any grown-up and reasonable person” would reject religious faith, and that those who haven’t are therefore both childish and stupid.

What we need is a public square which is less concerned with domination, and more concerned with adding to the sum of human wisdom. Whatever secularists may claim, faith has brought with it important notions of the absolute worth of human beings, and pointed out the dangers of secularism’s more utilitarian tendencies. Equally, faith has also brought with it terrifying reminders of other kinds of absolutism. If the public square can be a genuine arena for exchange, challenge, and respectful debate, then neither secularism nor faith need fear each other’s contributions. On the other hand, we all share a responsibility for ensuring that the public square does not degenerate into a bear pit. Both Pope Benedict and Richard Dawkins might ask themselves whether they are helping or hindering the discharge of that responsibility.