Building confidence in public health

The NHS informs concerned parents about vaccines:

The 4-in-1 pre-school booster is very safe. Before it was granted a licence, the safety, quality and effectiveness of the pre-school vaccine, like all vaccines, was thoroughly tested. It does not contain thiosermal (mercury).

A lot of parents are (probably unnecessarily) worried about thiomersal in vaccines. The reassurance from NHS would probably be more persuasive if they knew how to spell it. (Thiomersal is, confusingly, called “thimerosal” in the US, but not “thiosermal”.)

“The important thing is to get the money in”

That’s what Lin Homer, head of HM Revenues and Customs (the UK tax authority) said in 2012 about agreements not to prosecute wealthy Britons who had been concealing their money in Swiss bank accounts, and so also protect them from having their identities publicly revealed, in exchange for them kindly consenting to pay the taxes that they were legally obliged to pay. We wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone! And then I recall this woman (a mother with two children) who was sentenced to prison for five months for receiving an item of clothing from a friend who had stolen it.* As Bob Dylan sang, “Steal a little and they throw you in jail/Steal a lot and they make you king.”

Shocked by the criminal activity at HSBC in Geneva, which was revealed to the French tax authorities by an enterprising tech support guy, the Swiss police have been unusually active in seeking to ensure that such lawlessness is stopped — by seeking to extradite and prosecute the guy who revealed the information. Informed of HSBC’s crimes in 2010, the UK government sought ingeniously to decapitate the bank, by appointing its CEO Stephen Green to the House of Lords and making him Minister of State for Trade.

In order to further ensure that appropriate standards of legal and ethical behaviour were put into effect at HSBC, the head of tax at HMRC, Dave Hartnett, started working for HSBC as a consultant two years later.

* This sentence was later overturned on appeal. But she certainly wasn’t allowed anonymity, and no one said “The important thing is to get the trousers back”.

What does an anti-vaccine activist want?

With the swelling of interest in the anti-vaccine movement, inspired by the recent California measles outbreak, I’ve seen a number of opinions published similar to this one from Ian Steadman in the New Statesman

Then there’s also this to think about: if somebody’s distrust of scientific and/or political authority is so great, for whatever reason – maybe they’ve been scared by sensationalist stories in the media, or maybe they sincerely believe the government has no moral right to dictate health choices to citizens – that they’re willing to significantly increase their child’s risk of catching a (possibly fatal) illness, then calling them names and telling them scientists and politicians disagree with them is probably futile. Arguing that “the science is settled” with someone whose stance is predicated on the belief that the standards of proof used by scientists are flawed is definitely futile.

The article is excellent, but I don’t entirely agree with this sentiment. Living in Berkeley and Oxford, I have encountered some vaccine refuseniks, and it’s not clear to me that they have anything as definable as a belief about “the standards of proof used by scientists”. Rather, I think that they have a desperate need to feel special, protected not by mass vaccination — and definitely not by anything as infra dig as “herd immunity” — but by their special virtue, which may be Christian purity or organic health-food purity. Continue reading “What does an anti-vaccine activist want?”

Kids’ Kindness Krusade

So, there’s this president in America, and his job description definitely does not include “Defender of the Faith” or anything like that, and he’s getting bashed for having suggested that the Crusades — hundreds of years of Europeans hoisting aloft the banner of Christ and marching off to slaughter infidels and expropriate their lands, in case you’ve forgotten — might have raised some misapprehensions that Christianity is not 100% a religion of peace. He also made the (clearly revisionist) assertion, with no footnotes to back it up, that churches in the American South weren’t doing everything they possibly could to end slavery and later discrimination against Black Americans. Political and historical opponents aren’t taking these slurs lying down!
Maybe it’s because my ancestors were the first victims of lazy crusaders who thought they might as well start by killing the infidels closer to home (Rhineland Jews), but I’ve always found the Anglo-American use of “crusade” to mean an ardent struggle for a good cause — possibly hopeless, but usually a good thing (for example, the “crusade against rape culture” or against the REF), or even against equine colic). (I don’t know how it is used elsewhere. I can’t think that I’ve observed the corresponding German word used in a generic sense.
This dissonance particularly stood out for me when I saw, in an elementary school in Cambridge MA where I was doing some volunteer teaching, a poster announcing the “Kids’ Kindness Crusade”. Even without knowing the story of the Children’s Crusade (which may or may not have been a real historical event) it seems bizarre to me that people would think a “kids’ crusade” sounds like a positive thing. It seems as weird to me as promoting a “Parents’ Patience Pogrom”, or “Genocide against Germs”. Or, for that matter, “war on illiteracy and unnumeracy“.

14th Century NIMBYism

In Juliet Barker’s book on the Great Revolt of 1381 I was struck by this comment on the spread of local grammar schools in England in the second half of the 14th century:

Where there was no dedicated room or building available, classes were held in the local church. In 1373 the Bishop of Norwich prohibited this practice in the schools of King’s Lynn, on the grounds that the cries of beaten children interrupted services and distracted worshippers.

Nowadays the bishop and the local residents would have cited the shortage of parking… Continue reading “14th Century NIMBYism”

War gilt

It has often been remarked that, whereas the English word “debt” has a long history as primarily a financial term, with only optional moralistic overtones, in German “debt” and “guilt” and “sin” are represented by the single word “Schuld”, deriving from the Indo-European root skel, meaning “crime”. This surely reflects the exceptional German inclination — conspicuous in the current tussle over Greek loans — to view indebtedness as a moral failing, and moral failings need to be chastised, lest the sinner slide back into his old ways. At least, that’s the principle for other people’s indebtedness.

Their own debts are more nuanced. Particularly war debts, as this article from Spiegel makes clear. In 1942 Greece’s national bank cancelled Germany’s debt of 476 million Reichsmarks, out of pure gratitude for Germany’s contributions toward a unified Europe, into which Greece had just been integrated. In retrospect this deal — the debt would be worth something between 8 billion and 80 billion Euros today — seemed overly generous to some, given complaints about the quality of the services provided to the Greek public by the Wehrmacht. The 1953 London Agreement on German External Debt provided for the resolution of these customer-service complaints to be postponed until after a formal WWII peace treaty which, I was surprised to learn, has never been concluded.

But obviously the Germans don’t believe that a people should be forced to suffer economic devastation because of financial obligations undertaken by an irresponsible government that the people have since repudiated.

The next war

The BBC reports that education secretary Nicky Morgan “wants England to be in the top five in the world for English and maths by 2020. It is currently 23rd.” They quote her:

Returning us to our rightful place will be a symbol of our success. To achieve this, we will launch a war on illiteracy and innumeracy.

So, I’m thinking about wars that Britain has prosecuted over the past half century or so, often with the goal of “returning us to our rightful place”. Suez. Falkland Islands. Bosnia. Iraq. Yemen. Cyprus. Kenya. Afghanistan. Northern Ireland. Not all disasters, but not an unbroken record of glory either. Not really a set of memories you want to activate if you want your audience to think “overwhelming success” rather than, say “useless drain on national resources”, “antiquated racist ideology”, or “undermining democracy and human rights”.

Putting aside the absurd-sounding ambition for England to be among the top 5 for English, (I’ll just guess this wording reflects the slightly vague British awareness that foreigners tend to speak Foreignish, and so might have literacy skills to be tested that aren’t literally “English”) the battle plan for maths all comes down to tables:
Continue reading “The next war”