One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Lies, distortions and half-truths

...but not necessarily in that order. This is a catch-up post. There's three things I want to talk about.

A fatal miscarriage of justice.

The recent death of Sally Clark was more than tragic. The sudden deaths of two children would be hard enough for a parent to overcome, without the disgraceful ordeal of being wrongly convicted for their murders and the subsequent villification from the media and fellow prison inmates. Although she was eventually after her conviction was overturned, it appears that, in common with similar cases, she was given absolutely zero government support to help her to readjust. And it can't have helped that her renmaining child remained in care after her release (although, granted, there may have been legitimate reasons to reintroduce the child gradually).

Her lack of support is especially disgraceful given the outrageous circumstances of her conviction, which relied heavily on the 'expert testimony' of the now discredited Prof. Roy Meadow. I'm not sure that he should take all the blame, though. At the time, I remember being askance at the statistical fallacy he was putting forward. It was telling that the defence counsel, judge, jurors and the population in general seem to lack the basic numeracy to have spotted the glaring error.

To recap...Meadow stated that the likelihood of two babies having died of natural causes was 1:73,000,000 against. This was based on multiplying the population incidence for a single death.
Let's put it this way:

  • Someone buys a lottery ticket. The probability of winning is (near as
    dammit) 14 million : 1.
  • Someone wins the lottery and invests £1 of their winnings in
    another lottery ticket. The odds of winning with that ticket are...guess
    what?...14 million : 1. Oddly enough, the laws of chance are not determined by
    the player's past history. Similarly, if the chances of cot death for one
    baby are 8,500 : 1, then the chances for a baby who already has a dead sibling
    are 8,500 : 1.
  • But...imagine you have some kind of inside knowledge that lets you skew the
    winning lottery numbers towards your own. Then your chances of winning are
    somewhat more than 14 million : 1 - and this is true every week.
    Similarly, if you are the carrier of a condition that makes your children prone
    to cot death...

But, hey, whole idea of the lottery is based on ignorance of statistical probability*.

* Actually, that's not quite fair. Possibly most players know full well that they're unlikely to win but feel they can afford the low stakes for the pleasure of fantasising.

Credit where it's true

With the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of (direct British involvement in) slavery, the focus is on William Wilberforce. And, indeed, he's worth celebrating. But it shouldn't be forgotten that the slave trade ended for strictly economic reasons, and the abolitionists** only made inroads when it became increasingly unviable. A leading reason for this was direct action by slaves***. They were too expensive to control. Other notable fallacies:

  • The Vietnam War was ended by US protests. Methinks the Vietcong had something to do with it.

  • The British Colonial Legacy. We left them with a sound infrastructure of democracy, law and education, didn't we? Nnnn...except the normal time between Britain declaring an intention to grant independence and then clearing out was one month!!! Hardly an orderly transition; we didn't even bother to clear up on the way out. Even the Mountbatten Viceregency was a mere 60 days.

  • (Heard on the radio last week) "If it wasn't for intervention by international governments, Apartheid would never have ended in South Africa." And what intervention was that? Any participation in sanctions - economic or cultural - was down to individuals and independent organisations...and let's be honest, that was pissing in the wind.**** Nope, South Africa was liberated by South Africans.

Oh...and while I'm at it...

  • "Slavery was a long time ago. Can't we move on and stop blaming it for all of black people's problems?" Except that we haven't moved on, have we? We've hardly begun to acknowledge that our economic advantage was founded on slavery. We've nowhere near begun to address the continuing, structural legacy of disadvantage.

** Including black activists such as Olaudah Equiano - who I see is payed by Youssou N'Dour in the current Wilberforce biopic whose name escapes me.

*** For a classic account of rebellion, see 'The Black Jacobins' by the great CLR James, chiefly an account of the Haitian, Toussaint L'Ouverture.

**** I speak as a former leading member of 'Trolleys Against Apartheid'. The deal was to stack a supermarket trolley with SA produce and leave it in the aisle. Bet that had the Boers quaking in their boots.

Say 'Nope!' to dope.

The moral/legal position on the Blessed Lamb's Bread Beloved of Jah Ras Tafar-I seems to have swung 360° in recent years. Rosie Boycott as editor of The Independent on Sunday championed a campaign for legalisation, and under the (normally illiberal) David Blunkett***** it was re-classified to a Class B - later C, alongside the likes of Haliborange or PG Tips.

But now The IoS has vigorously retracted its position citing, amongst othet things, the alleged increasing potency of the skunk varieties now available and the possible links between intensive cannabis use and schizophrenia. On the potency argument: this article rather puts the kibosh on it. On the mental health aspects...well, the scientific evidence remains mixed. We have to consider:

  • If there's a correlation between cannabis and psychiatric disorders, is this because the drug causes illness?...or do the mentally ill have a propensity towards self medication? Note that many mentally ill people also havy users of alcohol and tobacco.

  • Does the drug interact with other factors, eg genetic tendencies?

Probably the best source of guidance is The Royal College of Psychatrists. Their advice on the topic is here. There's enough there to suggest that I personally am wisest to refrain on medical grounds******...but it doesn't seem to me that they are giving an unequivocal warning to the population as a whole.

So why the volte face by the IoS? It seems to me that this is part of a political trend. The government are also becoming twitchy. Legalasiation is increasingly off the agenda. Perhaps a clue comes in the IoS's follow-up article: UN warns of cannabis dangers as it backs 'IoS' drugs 'apology'. Why would the UN be concerned top comment on a domestic issue? (note that most of the UK's cannabis is now home-grown). I'm speculating that there are some machinations afoot. One powerful nation is so caught up in 'The War Against Drugs' that it refuses even to licence diamorphine as a painkiller (and this is also partly why it is bogged down in Afghanistan by its inability to provide economic alternatives to opium farming). And then, of course, there's the domestic political culture which is increasingly socially macho. "Tough on Crime, Tough on the causes of crime". It seems that - in the light of New Labour's inability to address social conditions - we are to understand that crime is caused by druggy schizos with no respect.

There may be sound medical arguments for and against legalisation - but I fear they're being swamped by domestic and international politics.

***** Who hardly has to worry about glaucoma, surely?

****** bugger.

Giving 'Poddage to:

Regina Spektor. Obssessively.


Polonius said...

Your comments on the Sally Clark case are rather more considered than my own immediate and rather intemperate reaction. You're quite right to draw attention to one of the flaws in Meadow's evidence. And I agree with you that the defence should have noticed it. Incidentally, it's not quite true that nobody argued against it - the judge did (See Para. 122 of the appeal judgement.)

Another flaw in Meadow's evidence is that, even if his statistical nonsense was correct, natural deaths of two children would occur in one in 73 million families with two children, and a very much higher proportion of families with more than two. In a country with the population of the UK, even if he was right, this coincidence would happen every few years.

But Meadow was not the only (or even, IMHO, the most) guilty expert witness in this case. The same pathologist, Alan Williams, conducted the post-mortems on both children. His conclusion at the time of the first post-mortem was one of death by natural causes, specifically "lower respiratory tract infection". He changed his mind only after the second post-mortem. Yet, at the trial, he deliberately concealed his initial diagnosis, which any rational jury would surely have considered a source of reasonable doubt. I really would urge anyone with an interest in this case to read the appeal judgement.

Edward the Bonobo said...

Indeed, I was oversimplifying. My reaction has always been based on the initial reporting of the trial. The 1:73m (which the appeal judges disingenuously said wasn't a factor for the jurors) was widely reported at the time. But it's such obvious bollocks. And, yes, the population inference is similar to the old trick of betting that two people in the room will have the same birthday. The odds are counter-intuitive.

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