Next regular posting scheduled 16-8-2018
The Editor writes Many years ago when I was teaching at the University of Toronto a nice young woman came into my office and remarked that she was prepared to do anything to get an ‘A’ on the course I was teaching as this would help her to get enrolled in medical school. Fortunately, I think, for all concerned (including perhaps future patients) no plan of action linked to her remark ever emerged. But this was merely an atypical example of experiences which on the whole left me with a quite genuine respect for the thoroughness and determination with which the inhabitants of that particular academic community pursue their goals and enquiries. Another reached me not long ago. All too often teams that get their university or institute into the news media (winning a free ‘Community Outreach’ mug – normally sold in the campus shop at €5-90 – from their V-C) get their reports placed on inside pages headed ‘Science’ or ‘Technology’ and giving in 100 obscure words such sharply chiselled facts as ‘Link between hair loss and number of friends among men over 60’ or ‘Cats prefer Beethoven’. The recently arrived report summarised the outcome for operations performed during a period of eight years by more than three thousand surgeons, with conditions of operation scrupulously matched, all performed at the same hospital. The death rate for patients following surgery was low, but interestingly 12% lower when performed by a female surgeon than with a male doctor operating. (With current standards of literacy and political spinning being what they are ‘spokespeople’ for ministries of health are requested not to put this as ‘after a woman has operated the patient may be 12% less dead.’) Some have taken this as proof that women are better surgeons than men. The Toronto team went on, as proper investigators should and as far too few do, to speculate on why this might be. Here, though, if the report as filtered through popular journalism was exact (which is highly questionable – journalism is journalism after all) the team took the higher female excellence level as a given premiss. This may be justified but, starting from a situation where the surgeons are exactly equally competent, male surgeons (almost certainly on average more senior) may try to insist on taking more prestigious cases, or in some instances – see again the first sentence of this piece – may actively try to give more straightforward cases to female colleagues. (Factors like that may also weigh when acknowledging that women doctors are less often struck off.) It is quite reasonable to accept women’s superiority in surgery; there is plenty of evidence for instance that women are better at observation of small details; but for the sake of future patients, there should be full investigation with no more risk of influence from assumptions based on gender and occupation and unchecked tradition than there is in recruitment to coalmining or plinths in Trafalgar Square (or the presidency of the United States?) For goodness’ sake doesn’t modern technology bring us at last to a better prospect of taking individual people as they individually are, not as representatives of a group – or a quota.
We are reviving a series we used to run, solving problems of society free of charge
Easy solution (1) Received from a reader: ‘A report I have seen says that the polls show about 84%of the population, who have no ready-made way to fill in the gaps when they are not using social media (for example pauses between dreams when asleep) are asking for more sport on television. But about the same proportion find that sport on television interferes with their surfing on the billows of social media, and so they are asking for a ban on sport on television, if possible supported by a detox programme for addicts. How can this be, and who is right?’
When questions like this are thrown in our direction we feel (‘we’ includes Simon at present as his computer has developed stress symptoms surpassing his own and even those on my foul object, and he’s been round here most evenings blubbing about not seeing Louise) we feel, as I was saying, irritation verging on fury, principally because of the disgusting lack of clarity in the formulation of the issue, and the absence of any indication about the kind of response expected. ‘How can this be?’ you ask. Unaided by any clarification on your part, Max D, I neither can, nor wish to, come to any conclusion about what you may be trying ask. I do fear, though, that with the flabby naiveté typical of so many in your country you thought that the results of an opinion poll exploring support for contradictory views should add up to 100%. Great heavens man (or boy, or whatever you are), this was a poll of social attitudes and therefore has no obligation to produce results that make any sense in any way at all, and equally little likelihood of doing so. Normal intelligent adults consider in any case that the notion of exploring social attitudes by making enquiries of unsophisticated members of the public is itself a senseless enterprise. Enough said! As for your ‘Who is right?’ I must point out that an answer would depend on many things, evidently far more than you realise, but in particular on a clear notion of what counts as ‘sport’. Until a decade or so ago, most of us here at the time naturally assumed that ‘sport’ meant ‘sport’, for instance, fencing, riding to hounds, amateur boxing, rowing, polo and all the rest of the familiar gallimaufry. Increasing amounts of evidence arrive, however, suggesting that there has been a mysterious change in the population’s attitudes, with many now attaching ludicrous proportions of interest to such activities as football and ‘golf’. The former was indeed once a sport but has bizarrely metamorphosed into a strange ugly twin of what nowadays is called the ‘entertainment industry’. Following a suggestion of Simon’s I went to a local bar to view what was said to be a programme with ‘all the news about sport’[sic] . It consisted of, first, interviews with middle-aged men sitting behind desks uttering a puzzling mixture of platitudes, meaningless slogans, implausible predictions and comments about various financial matters, with occasional 2-second-long glimpses of men leaping around on a grass field. There followed a series of ‘clips’ of men dressed in ordinary clothes strolling through some unnaturally smooth countryside, and playing with little white balls as they went, evidently trying to knock them into holes in the grass, while crowds of apparently normal people watched and applauded. Of this I could and can make no sense, but in your own case, Max, given your weak grasp on how to attempt enquiries aimed at greater understanding, I recommend that you abandon the attempt and maintain your subscription to the Daily Telegraph.
Trump and captivity (Regrettably this is not a report on the appalling treatment of children and their mothers and fathers at the American frontier, on the orders of the American president. We do not have enough detailed information to give it even half the treatment it deserves.) Trump declared Germany a captive of Russia, on the grounds that the country was buying 50% of its energy needs from Russia. Three points: (1) what matters is not how much a country depends on foreign sources for its needs, but how far it depends on sources that are not easily replaceable. (2) The figure is wrong; gas from Russia represents about one fifth of German energy needs. (3) By Trump’s own metric there appears a considerable possibility that he is himself captive, in respect of political resources, on the tiny layer of ultra-wealthy Ameican business. (Fn) Is it not still true that unlike previous American presidents he has not allowed public view of his tax returns?
Easy solution (2) (This solution provided by Berthold via electronic messaging.) The problem is global warming, now accepted as real by more than 40% even among those with a Trump quotient of 8 or more on the ЯFN4U scale. Some have realised that it brings a serious threat to the life prospects of large numbers already born as well as to the viability of coastal cities all round the world. The most important factor in the whole business (after political inertia and rampant short-termism of human administrations of course) is methane. Curiously carbon dioxide seems to have grabbed the lion’s share of the headlines (having cut a special deal with Murdoch perhaps?) but methane is much the more deadly menace for two reasons. Volume for volume it is not just more effective at producing the warming; it is thirty times more effective. The second factor is that in the northern parts of the planet there are vast areas where gigantic deposits of methane lie in the soil. Until recently they were largely ignored and regarded as locked out of geophysical calculations, being frozen hard. However, as climatic warming proceeds it will release the southern fringes of the methane deposits which will then join all the other factors contributing to global warming, which will therefore proceed at a slightly faster rate, thus releasing more of the methane from the southern margins of the deposits, thereby accelerating… and so on. For quite a long time it was claimed that kangaroos could rescue the planet. It was said that emissions from the tooth-free end of animals (not excluding human beings) contributed somewhere between 14% and 18% to the effect of climatic warming, but that the contributions of different species were extraordinarily different by factors as large as 1 to 180, and, promisingly, a kangaroo’s annual production of the stuff was 1/600th of what emerged from a milch cow. So all could be more or less hunky-dory. All the human race needed to do to slow global warming down dramatically was to farm kangaroos instead of cows? Actually that last figure of 1/600th turned out to be nonsense. However the middle part was in fact soundly based – (11 relatively harmless pigs) x methane = approx. (1 atmospherically devastating cow) x methane . And the first part is agreed to be in the right range. (Australian annual air pollution via animals’ digestive tracts slightly exceeeds pollution via backsides of vehicles.) So on condition we abolish the cow, a surly animal whatever animal ethologists would have you believe (and anyway homo sapiens has shown itself easily capable of wiping out species, in some cases without even noticing) there ought to be some hope that oncoming catastrophe (‘D Day’ for ‘Disaster Day’?) will hold off for a few decades. Or more exactly there would be some hope of respite (Editor: make damned sure any millennials reading pronounce it right – [réss pit not ri-spite]) – if, of course, the planet was inhabited by an intelligent species.