They’re coming to stick pins in your children…

You might think that political gains for an actually fascist party would make polemicists ease up on the jackboot rhetoric, however much they dislike social workers and family law. But Peter Hitchens is a special case – someone so committed in his dislike of any state intervention in family life, he managed to turn the Baby P case into the occasion for a column on how social workers are too intrusive (well, too intrusive into the lives of married couples with children earning 30K and above).

You can't hear the jackboots

Peter Hitchens is, basically, incredible: a writer so febrile and deluded that you can legitimately describe Christopher as the “least worst Hitchens” (which is a bit like choosing your favourite boil, but there you are). He’s also admirably shameless about his methods: everything he tells us, he writes, is intended to “scare us”.

This weekend, he instills fear by declaring that the UK is practically a totalitarian state. There are three ingredients to your triumphalist face-stamping government, apparently. Firstly, a proposal (not legislation, just a proposal) to make school attendance dependant on receiving a full programme of vaccinations. Secondly, increased monitoring of home-schoolers. Thirdly, the provison of nursery care. It’s a terrifying vision of a dystopian nightmare brought to life around us.

Oh no, wait – it’s just some policy to be discussed, with trade-offs to be made between the individual and the group. Your precious freedoms are currently intact, including the freedom to make your child vulnerable to preventable diseases and expose other people to illness too. But Hitchens obviously isn’t interested in discussing what’s necessary or effective: “I have no idea if the MMR is safe or not”, he writes. (Somewhere in Mail central, there’s a portrait of a once-competent editor which grows a little more decrepit each time a sentence like that goes to press, when it ought to have been sent back directly with the message, “Really? Then find out.”) You can never be too ignorant or too sloppy when you’re telling people that the state is coming for their children.

It’s not the BBC, it’s you

Are you interested in newsprint, the survival of print journalism and the impact of online communities on news distribution? Don’t bother with Nick Cohen’s column in the Observer this weekend, then. It’s not just Nick who comes over as clueless: the same issue features Barbara Ellen sniping on Twitter as a pointless tool of “uber-narcissists”, and a full-page feature of recipe-tweets (ah, not so pointless when you’ve got some ink to spill). But if the Observer is still reeling from the shock of the tweet, surely they’ve had time to reconcile themselves to the idea of blogging?

Oh no, not Nick. Starting with a metaphor that makes no sense and skittering on to a conclusion that has no depth, Nick’s column reads like a howl from the bowels of ignorance:

Professional journalists in the age of the internet look as doomed as blacksmiths in the age the combustion engine. Local newspapers are disappearing. National newspapers and commercial TV stations are seeing the web take their advertisers.

Even the gloomiest forecasters expect there will still be a few reporters around in 2025, but as with blacksmiths, we will be curiosities.

Leaving aside Nick’s self-identification as a reporter (you’re a columnist, Nick: say it with me, own what you are), let’s sharpen our teeth on that opening analogy. Journalist = blacksmith, internet = internal combustion engine. Blacksmiths made a product that was essential for the use of horse-drawn transport but unnecessary with motorised vehicles; journalists make a product which can be transmitted through newspapers and broadcasting, and which can also be transmitted via the internet. So a more appropriate version of Nick’s figure of speech would be something like, “Professional journalists in the age of the internet look as doomed as grain merchants in the age the combustion engine.” Sure, it lacks that alarmist edge, but at least it’s tending to accuracy.

Nick’s really worried, though (this week, anyway). Here’s why:

The best reason for wanting my colleagues to survive is that serious reporters and broadcasters offer a guarantee that what they say is true. If they stray, their editors impose journalistic standards and insist on objectivity. They may not have the best or fullest story or the most vivid account, but readers should be able to assume their work is reliable, while a blogger’s commitment to objectivity can never be assumed.

I know. Here’s Nick Cohen, scribbling away for the newspaper that sold the MMR and WMD scares with the ferocity of a blind bear with a bee up its arse, telling everyone else about the very serious journalistic standards that stop him and every other hack from telling outright untruths. Astonishing. It’s possible that it’s not the internet so much as the incompetance that’s been herding consumers away from newspapers. But Nick, with another badly thought-out non-story to trample through, is too busy kicking the BBC to take a self-reflexive look at the journalistic failings of his own medium.

Paperhouse reads: Freakonomics


There’s loads of surprising stuff contained in Freakonomics, Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner’s romp through the application of economic principles to sociological data.  The thesis that legalised abortion leads directly to lowered crime rates – that’s pretty shocking, even if you’re someone (like me) who thinks that abortion should be legal and that one of the strongest arguments for its legality is the unhappy circumstance of unwanted children. Or the analysis of cheating by sumo, which cleverly presses the data from sumo wrestlers’ championship bouts to discover the circumstances under which a wrestler seems to be willing to hand the win to his opponent. The data are structured to account for variables, interrogated for controls, analysed – and the outcomes are often revelatory, not so much for the conclusions, but for the implicit argument that something as seemingly ineffable as human behaviour can be measured in this way.

There’s an argument, pushed by Meghan Falvey for n+1 magazine, that the book is too tightly focussed on a cost-benefit analysis and incapable of accommodating outcomes which fall outside of the financial, but I don’t think that’s a fair representation of Levitt and Dubner’s work. As a commentary on their method, it’s roughly acceptable: analysis requires that an approximate value can be set on the input and output of a transaction, and some things (money, lifespan, crime per capita) are easier to quantify than others (happiness, love, the dappling of sunshine on treetops). But Falvey’s ethical objection – that Freakonomics espouses a narrow view of human behaviour as reward-driven and rational, and so falls into the service of stakeholder-society welfare restriction – seems simply wrong.

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Close reading: Cohen on MMR

Nick CohenA couple of years ago, I was at a graduate conference on English literature, attending a panel on research approaches. One of the speakers said that she simply didn’t understand the designation of “close reading” as a critical technique – surely, she said, everyone reads closely, whatever their outlook. Actually, I’m fairly sure that almost nobody pays more than cursory attention to the things they read, otherwise the perpetual deluge of illogic and solecism which rushes from the national press would have have been long ago stopped up by embarrassment. Really, if Nick Cohen thought anyone was going to read this attentively, do you think he would have submitted it? Let’s practise our close reading skills, oh Paperhouse visitors, and find out what secret inanities are buried in the big inanity of this column:

Ever since Andrew Wakefield published his Lancet paper in 1998, parents have been in a dreadful position. Even those of us who guessed that a large section of the supposedly adult population of the country was in the grip of a raving panic, couldn’t help asking: what if Wakefield is right?On the remote chance that he was, we paid for courses of single jabs – at £140-a-go in my case. Now it turns out the Department of Health was telling the truth all along, I’m wondering who I can sue to get my money back.


Perhaps Wakefield, the Lancet, the Mail, the Eye and Channel 5 should be more worried about the people who took the mania so seriously they didn’t give their children any vaccines, single of multiple. In my experience, they were determined, if scientifically illiterate, middle-class mothers with easy access to lawyers.

If there should be a measles epidemic…

So class! What have we noticed? Let’s start with Cohen’s opening shuffle of responsibility: “Even those of us who guessed that a large section of the supposedly adult population of the country was in the grip of a raving panic, couldn’t help asking: what if Wakefield is right?” Clever Nick is one of the ones who “guessed”, of course, and so by implication are you. Isn’t it nice to be embraced in his little circle of intelligence? Don’t you feel validated and warm and distinct from all those raving hysterics? But before we get too cosy, let’s give some attention to the word “guessed”. Cohen “guessed” that the panic was just a panic. Of course, if he’d read some of the studies in question and wrapped his head around a small portion of the science of epidemiology, he wouldn’t have needed to guess – he could have made a rational assessment of the evidence and got to the right answer that way. But he didn’t, so poor Nick had to suffer that niggling “what if”.

Nick wasn’t alone in this, of course. I had my first child in 2002, so I was right in the thick of the scare: one mother talked to me earnestly about her fear of vaccinating, saying that she knew “three children who got autism from the jab”. People were genuinely alarmed – although it’s fair to say that very few of the fearful parents took their concerns from the original paper in the Lancet, which doesn’t feature quite as regularly on middle-class coffee-tables as the Mail or the Observer. Cohen doesn’t mention the Observer as one of the organs he might sue for his £140 quid. Maybe he missed some of the great moments in science journalism featured in his own paper: “The only complete vaccination I have given my three-year-old daughter is tetanus and, after attending a lecture on MMR by the homeopath Trevor Gunn, I wish I had not” , said sub-editor Kate Edgley, presumably applying the full force of her proof-reading skills to the interpretation of medical data. (The Observer started out with a fairly rational line of reporting, but after the Blairs refused to give up their baby son’s medical history for public consumption, began recklessly issuing opinion pieces from the frontline of doubt.)

Reckoning With RiskIt’s the job of a medical journal to publish medical research so it can be debated. In publishing Wakefield’s research, the Lancet was doing what it is supposed to do. Ideally, the national press would have made a responsible assessment of the paper in question and reported on it proportionately. What they actually did was produce reports on unsubstantiated fears which then became the cause for more and more widespread fears. I feel confident in saying that I and my partner are one up on Cohen, because we took our own case of “what if” as the occassion for doing more research: we confirmed that the single jab was without doubt the best option, and afterwards watched my son for fever and rashes a little more closely than we would have done normally. That is all.

Then again, I’m not one of the “determined, if scientifically illiterate, middle-class mothers with easy access to lawyers”. But hang on! Nor is Nick – he might be scientifically illiterate, bar the odd happy guess, but he is absolutely, definitely a father. So that “large section of the supposedly adult population” from whom Cohen distinguishes himself, even though he partook of their terrors? That would be the women. Cohen might have had doubts, but it’s the mothers who were in a “raving panic”. Covert misogyny alert!

Of course, “if there should be a measles epidemic”, we’re all liable to suffer, whether we’re vaccinated or not. The MMR isn’t 100% effective, but it’s effective enough to foster herd immunity. When take-up rates dip low enough for measles, mumps or rubella to spread in a community, even the immunised are at risk. So even if you did the right and responsible thing, your children could contract a sometimes-deadly, often-debilitating disease. Although on the plus side, you could then sign up with Cohen for a class action – if he suffered some loss that was not self-inflicted (the ill-health of a child caused by other people’s failure to vaccinate, say) then maybe he could sue someone. Until then, he had better look on that £140 quid as a loss incurred in the course of being an irrationalist, conspiracy-hungry idiot.

Bad Science talks, rightly, about the importance of giving people (journalists particularly) a proper grounding in the understanding of statistics. People need to know how to interpret numbers to make decisions using them. And people (journalists particularly) should learn the basics of making an argument as well – how to distinguish a genuine case from a self-serving blob of commentary. Smarter readers would demand smarter writers. But brash, sloppy editorial is easy to churn out, and easy to position as “debate” on “controversial issues” when it isn’t going to be read closely.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009