Principles of Natural Philosophy

There are many people out there who will call me a bit of a geek, and I am one of them. Without getting too introspective, I like to think of myself as a competent geek. Not competent at any particular skill within the pantheon of geekdom, but conversant in the noble arts enough to get by.

In recent times, the once humble and overlooked geek has been raised within the public consciousness to a newly-built pedestal. I claim no part of that – it is almost certainly due to the perennial shifting of admirations from the global media – but the world now gazes on those who can use a scientific calculator with a more equitable split betwteen admiration and pity. I wish I could say it were ever thus.

One symptom of this new dynamic is that where science and the pursuit of knowledge were once overshadowed by the commercialism and avarice of the 1980s, they have now been dragged out in to the light of day. Scientists stand blinking in the floodlights of attention, doing the same fine job they have been doing for decades and yet – suddenly – with the approbation of the masses. And I wonder why.

I am no scientist, but I am an admirer of scientists. I cannot hope to win that most coveted of academic awards – the Nobel Prize – in any field, but what I can hope to do is assist with the understanding of something which I hold very dear. The scientific principle.

From the birth of my political self, one thing I have been aware of is that for some reason, the length of time one has held a belief for is somehow a market of how ‘right’ one is. Within politics, it is seen as being ‘unwavering’ or stalwart, as if a refusal to change ones opinion due to new information is somehow a good thing. And that changing ones belief to suit new evidence is somehow weak. I would argue that it is the opposite.

Many people think of science – or perhaps I shoud capitalise it – Science – as a doctrine, or dogmatic religion. Once again, I am no expert – but I see science as the opposite of this. It is a process and structure. Science is also – I believe wrongly – seen as the enemy of Religion. Here there may be some truth. Science is, at the most basic level, based on observation and replicable experiment, whereas religion is based on hearsay and faith, so it is possible that they are in opposition. I am making no claims to the contrary.

But science is, at its heart, the pursuit of knowledge, and the questioning of what we claim is reality. The willingness to learn new truths, and to overturn long-held beliefs are important tenets for the honest scientist. The works of Newton and Einstein, Darwin, Mendel, Faraday, Hooke and Boyle – perhaps some of the most famous names in Science – are constantly being tried, tested and questioned. No one is beyond such reproach. In future years, behind their backs and without the right to reply, today’s heroes of science – Feynman, Hawking, Dawkins et al will be both revered and condemned by the work they are doing now. And I would hope they will welcome it. As our knowledge increases, so does our ignorance.

The knowledge on which our current understanding of the universe – and everything in it – is based is being added to daily. Every small step forward adds to the sum of wisdom available to it. We can – being ensconced in a fairly liberal society – choose to accept it, learn from it and move on, or we can choose to ignore it, condemn it as false, and stay put. But increasingly, the world chooses to call on Science as our saviour, to repair the damage inflicted by previous generations of both the enlightened and the ignorant. Moving on is the imperative, which rubs some people up the wrong way.

Our ancestors made strides forward in the development and industrialisation of the world, so that today we have every right to expect nearly every baby born to western society to live well in to middle age. But this was at a cost. Medicines brought about larger populations, which required the cultivation of large areas of land. The furnaces of the industrial revolution – essential for improving the quality of life for the average human – brought the scourge of the 19th and 20th centuries – pollution. And the descendants of those who developed the poisons in which we now immerse ourselves every day on our commute in an air conditioned car to an air conditioned office are now the ones saving us from them.

I hope that we will continue to invest in those people who choose science as a career. It is often underpaid, and almost always thankless, but these people are not only the ones who will be responsible for the cleaning of our skies and seas; they are also the only ones capable of delivering those things we will desperately need in the near future. Energy, food, medicine and clean water, air to breathe and perhaps even space in which to consume all of the above.

For my part, I am extremely happy that somewhere out there is a person who is questioning every fact laid before them, subjecting newspaper headlines to the scrutiny which so many of us fail to impart. The balance has shifted, and now those willing to consider a change in their opinion may – at last – be seen as reasonable, honest and worthy of support.

Perhaps the biggest benefit we can expect from the acceptance of the nerds, the reverence of science and worship of the truth is that at last, the geek shall inherit the earth.

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The non-existant gaps in life.

Having grown up during the 80s and 90s, there have been many changes to the world which have been regretted, and many too which have been a source of celebration. Many loved ones have gone the way of us all, including the last in species both major and minor, but on the positive side we have seen advances in technology, education and social awareness which are surely steps forward rather than backwards.

Over the last few weeks, another chapter has been added to the story of equality in my own country, mirroring political and social upheavals around the world and in stark contrast to a few backward nations.

On Saturday the 29th of March, a new choice became available for all inhabitants of the British Isles. The choice, should one wish, to legally marry a person with the same gender – generally known in the public and private vernacular as Gay Marriage.

This is, no doubt, a great thing. For the first time everyone, including myself, can choose to marry the person I love, regardless of their assigned gender. And that is a sentence which requires some explanation.

We tend to think of gender in terms of black and white. On or off. But, unlike a lightswitch, that’s not how our bodies work. For a minority of people, genuinely small but important number that is, the assignment at birth of the label Male or Female is both unimportant and damaging. There are those who can medically be categorised as somewhere in between – neither totally male nor female. There are also those who are born genetically male, who associate with being female and vice versa. Whether this is a ‘choice’ – and I’ll come on to that pernicious word later – or because this is forced on them by their subconscious is neither here nor there.

So to claim, because a baby happens to be born with certain defining genitals that they are to be dressed in a blue romper suit, or have flowers braided in to their hair is nothing more than an attempt by their parents, and more damagingly by society in general, to define something which is entirely out of their control.

So why do I – a man who identifies as such and who is attracted to women – celebrate the rights of others to publicly announce their love for and attachment to another person – a stance traditionally referred to as homosexuality?

Well, it’s to do with another imaginary gap. Just like there is no binary selection between male and female, I do not believe there is such a thing for sexuality either. To have to define oneself by the people, or sub-set of people one finds attractive is limiting ones ability to love. It may sound perverse, but my first experience of this – philosophically speaking – was while watching the 1992 film “The Crying Game” – the first film I saw which challenged the traditional gender roles in a way with which I could associate. (For those who have not seen it, I would recommend it wholeheartedly. Both Stephen Rea and Forrest Whittaker are fantastic in it…)

That was the first time I actually thought of what it must be like firstly to challenge one’s own approach to sexuality, but then to discover that because one person was bound up in a gender classification that did not fit them, any love which existed between them would be not only taboo, but potentially illegal.

Is it a choice? I have heard people say that gays CHOOSE to be so, as if it is a wilfull and contrary middle finger to society, and yet I refuse to believe that homosexuality is a choice any more than one can choose to be white, or tall. Would people have chosen to be gay, and also chosen to have taken their own lives to avoid the shame of it? Is what we are attracted to something we have any say in at all?

Imagine for a second taking the one thing you love to eat most. That may be a favourite cheese, your perfect pizza, a milkshake from your childhood diner, or anything in the world. Now imagine being told, that because of an arbitrary decision it is now illegal. And now imagine that the people telling you this, don’t actually eat in the same diner. They’ve never had a pizza, or hamburger, or they can’t drink milk. How stupid would that be? And how aggrieved would you feel? But, they will say, it’s only your choice to like it.

Now transfer that feeling on to someone you love. Someone is telling you that because the person you love has the ‘wrong’ genitals, you are not allowed to share the same standards of life with them as someone who has the “right” parts. And this, largely, is decided by people who are ‘secure’ in their gender because they happen to agree with the status quo. This, I posit, is the most ludicrous and pernicious example of confirmation bias I have heard. Because it’s what I do, it is right to do so, and nothing you can say will change my mind…

And so now I celebrate. I celebrate that people from every part of the gender continuum can choose to declare their love for whomsoever they choose. I celebrate because we are one step closer to a society which does not care whether someone is male or female or somewhere in between, which draws no conclusion from a person’s professed sexuality and instead chooses to say that anyone capable of love should be allowed – indeed encouraged – to celebrate it.

One step closer. We are not there yet, but eventually I hope we will be. We will – one day – live in a world where so-called homosexuality is no longer considered a paraphilia, but is upheld as the demonstration of a compassion which we should all strive towards. And in the years which follow, it becomes so normal, that no one who follows his or her heart will be sneered at and put down by a society professing to have the best interests of a callous nation at heart.

Teach the kids. Tell them about the vast spectrum of love, because to fail to do so will trap their own small minds – the future of our country – in the despair which members of our own generations have struggled to overcome. Tell them there is nothing traditional about heterosexuality – only that those who strayed outside the callous lines drawn by despots and villains were once punished for doing so. But no longer.

Right now, all the child wants is a hug and your love. To deny her either will be like a slap to the face. Next year, she will need the freedom to express her love, and to deny her that would be to end her life.

Look up, Hannah, look up.

Breastfeeding and the Awkward Male

A couple of weeks ago – there is no point keeping things as up to date as all that – there was a micro-furore on popular social media sites regarding the rights of women to breastfeed in public.  It was well justified, in my opinion, following the public humiliation of one new mother at the calloused (and callous) hands of a bigotted and opinionated member of the public.

Naturally the outcry of the general public was immediate and harsh, and within a few weeks we saw the largely under publicized and fairly insular campaign to raise awareness of the right to feed one’s child in every circumstance.  Insular because in the vast majority of cases, they were preaching to the choir, and the point of this publicity was to aise awareness outside of the breast feeding community.  So what is my interest in this?

Well, as a man there are usually some things which are off limits.  As soon as I was weaned off the breast myself, before my first birthday, breasts became a thing of enveloped mystery.  My mother was never prudish about such things, and there were many occasions on which I saw her naked, but other breasts were a huge secret.  They existed, obviously, but on another – almost ethereal – plane.

When I reached puberty, the concept of breasts changed again.  Now they became (partly as a result of the rarity of seeing them outside of the popular press – the Sun and Sport being considered unsuitable reading material for young schoolboys – and surely as a result of millennia of evolutionary pressure to find them attractive) a sought after vision.  And they were kept from me by clothing, bathing suits, and the stern disapproval of the surrounding adults.

I know in other cultures breasts are allowed to wander the countryside free and uncovered, but in 1990s Britain they were generally reserved for magazines, nervously avoided nudist beaches and festival teenagers.  I watched Glastonbury reports with interest.

And then I reached the age where myself and my peer group were enjoying personal relationships with ladies.  The breast became a goal, one even the most nervous and fumbling teenage boy could hope to one day achieve.  A beautiful, sensitive and pert bag of cells and tissue which could bring a smile to many a young face.  It was, without a doubt, a sexual mile stone on the march to the full monty – it was even referred to as Second Base – as if one’s first Home Run was only a matter of getting the right swing and timing.

A few years later, friends are getting married.  The ladies are enjoying the attention at weddings, and naturally one thing leads to another, often many times in one night.  And where does that, eventually, lead us?  Back to the top please…

Babies.  Many , many babies.  Little bundles of joy, and other collections of various emotions, many of which include frustration and tiredness, and all of which I am assured is ‘worth it’.  And all of a sudden, there is a change in the air.

Years ago, I traveled for many hours to meet a school friend and his wife, with their new baby girl.  Within a few hours, I had been asked in to the nursery to say goodnight to the little cherub, only to be introduced, for the first time, to her mother’s breast.  And it was natural, and beautiful, to see a woman breastfeeding for the first time since a brief glimpse of a friend of my mother’s in the early 90s.

The woman in question, a devout catholic and fantastic mother, suffered no embarrassment at all being before me, with a nursing blanked modestly draped over her shoulder and the child feeding gently at her bosom.  Since then, my sister-in-law has done the same, and again there was not an ounce of embarrassment for her.

So why do I feel embarrassed?  Well, in all honesty, I think my history with breasts has been an engaging factor.  At first they were kept from me, then they were made available on a reward basis, usually in exchange for cinema tickets, drinks or other attentions.  They became, purely in my mind, simply a beautiful sexual object, related to the fertility and maturity of women and linked – perhaps by tendrils of evolutionary excitement – to the attractiveness of the holder.  And so now, I am confused.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  When I see a woman breastfeeding, I am aware that it is an act of love, nourishment, bonding and care between mother and child.  There is nothing sexual in the act.  I find it engaging, in the same way as learning about a foreign culture, and beautiful in a very innocent way.  But naturally, being in the environs of a lady so disposed, I also feel I have been caught out.  I am in the presence of a women who is – according to most cultural references – disporting her sexual attributes.  Except she isn’t.

So I am embarrassed.  For me, it’s a natural thing.  If a breast becomes visually available without the expectation of sexual activity, I am subconsciously confused, and this confusion manifests as nervous activity, a reddening of the face and furtive, not-knowing-where-to-look, dry-mouthed variation on the theme of horror.

Is this right?  Probably not.  But is it natural?  For me, it is as natural as feeding from the breast is for those ladies who do so, and if the tales of strident perseverance on the part of nursing mothers are to be believed, more natural than many.

So what do I do about it?  Well, if the reactions of those fathers among my friends is any indication, when I have children of my own it will be different.  They seem to have no issues with breastfeeding (and again, by issues I mean my OWN issues, not a disagreement) and can continue to speak naturally with a nursing mother with a – for me – unattainable level of calm and serenity.  Me, I simply sit in an embarrassed silence.

There are many out there, however, who take a different approach.  Because they personally find it embarrassing, they feel breastfeeding is an activity which should be carried out in private.  As if the sparing of their impotent blushes is more important than the nutrition of a new-born child.  They seem to believe that this act – the most natural in the world – may be responsible for the fall of civilisation – after all it is only one stem from breastfeeding to walking naked down Watford high street at two thirty on a Saturday morning…

Rubbish.  Whether the majority of women choose to cover themselves to keep warm or to preserve modesty, their bodies are their own.  No one has the right to tell them to cover up, or to show more flesh than they feel comfortable doing.  So when a woman chooses, in an asexual or any other way, to feed her child in public, you can either agree that she has every right to do so, or remove yourself from the environment to preserve your own sensibilities.  You have the right to leave.

Or you can do what I have every intention of doing, which is remain quietly in a corner, going rather pink by degrees, and stammering a little.

And please, don’t think of taking this exhibition as a form of derision or criticism.  It is not.  You have every right to feed your child in public, and in that I will support you.  In the meanwhile, I have every right to be embarrassed.  I hope you will be equally supportive.

To Hope for the Death of Charity

Charity is a wonderful thing.

Originally the word related to a personal feeling of goodwill towards, and activity to help, those in reduced or less fortunate circumstances.  It still means the same thing, but these days what people generally refer to with the word, is an organisation set up to do this for us.

It used to be that every person (and especially every lady) of a certain class – usually the staunch british Middle Classes – would be involved in a charity.  It was seen as the way to “do one’s bit” to repay the kindness the lord had showered on you, whether by the accident of your birth or the circumstances of your marriage.

As the 20th century progressed, however, charities became more like organised and well-run businesses.  Which is to say, they became professional in the manner of both their fundraising and the manner in which they apply said funds.  After all, a streamlined and efficient charity ensures the largest proportion of the monies raised is used to support their beneficiaries.

Within a few decades, the Charity community (note the use of the capital) became a huge industry, employing many thousands of people who – because of their talents and the freedom from poverty that paid employment affords – were able to efficiently and effectively run their organisations in such a way as to maximise their impact at the coal-face of despair.

It used to be the case that after many years spent in employment, we could rely on the taxes we had paid to support us in our dotage.  Or that, should injury or illness befall us, we could reach out for the support of our healthcare system, welfare state or once again the government to assist us.  In both cases then, we would have no need for the angels who work at the call of Charities. 

When I think of charities I know well, in the UK, I tend to put them in to a mental apartment block in order to distinguish between them.  There are the Big Boys – on the third floor.  These guys and gals – like Medicines Sans Frontiers, Amnesty International, Greenpeace etc, are all operating on a governmental level.  They use the funds we send to assist their beneficiaries, but they also use them to lobby and demonstrate – on behalf of their benefactors (shareholders, in a perverse way) for governmental intervention.  They argue against wrongs at the highest level, calling for changes in international laws, local regulations, or even national identities in order to achieve their aims.

On the second floor, I see the large research groups.  Many are medical – Cancer Research – and others are scientific.  These fellows use the monies we send in order to make the difference we are hoping for, but without effecting change in the lives of the individuals.  Of course, 50% of those on clinical trials may benefit individually, but that is not their aim.

Below them, on the first floor but in a larger flat, I place the next group.  This consists in the slightly smaller, yet just as active bunch, including Water Aid, Oxfam, Macmillan and Marie Curie nursing and support organisations, British Legions, Make A Wish, Help for Heroes and other very famous and hard-working groups.  These guys are applying hundreds of millions of pounds to effect changes not on a global level, but to make a difference for individuals or groups of people.  We may all at some time be touched by the cold finger of cancer, but we are not all subject to it constantly. 

At the ground floor, working locally for much smaller sums, are the individuals.  These fantastically motivated people are working very locally for the smaller causes.  Almost everything they do is for an individual or group, and little can be used to change the wider world.  I can think of many such organisations – from church tower funds to a charity set up by the parents of a boy to buy him artificial limbs, as the government will only do so every two years. (He needs them every 6-12 months, at a cost of thousands of pounds a time, as he is a growing faster than the government want him to.)

Now, all of these charities are doing fantastic jobs.  They work together on occasion, but more often apart, to change lives either locally or nationally, even internationally.  They stop people going without human contact (Help the Aged) and they support the ecologies required for Orangutans to survive the 21st century (WWF), they give our service men and women the support they need when returning from war (RBL & Help for Heroes) and help to pick up the pieces in the coutries they have left (OXFAM). 

And we, as people of compassion, rightfully dig in to our pockets to support them.  We throw coins in buckets at supermarket checkouts, we sponsor a friend to run the Marathon, and we rally our employers to match our funding with huge cheques. 

Meanwhile, there are people who we are also paying to care.  These people live far less frugally than Dave or Marion who shake a tin outside the town hall.  They are paid far more than the Chuggers we have learned to avoid.  They have many houses, and claim far more than in many cases they spend.

We employ a vast army of Civil Servants, Council workers, carers and other professionals to ensure that our elderly and infirm are cared for.  We pay taxes in order that we can believe that those who have done us a great service will be rewarded for it.  Our soldiers return with broken hearts at the loss of their closest friends, only to be betrayed and left to sleep on cold streets, washed only by rain and fed by the kindness of strangers.
 
Our universities hold some of the best resources, and are home to the finest minds in the world.  We look to them for the groundbreaking research that will lead to the curing of all disease, the technology to end our dependance on fossil fuels, the next breakthrough in space travel to enable us to fly to the stars.  And yet, without the government reducing our tax burden, suddenly we have to charge our poorest – the youngest students – thousands of pounds to be there.

In short, our government has outsourced its need to care.  If someone needs food, then they can rely on a food bank.  If they need medicines, and the drugs they require to return to a healthy and (importantly) economically useful life are not approved, they should start their own charity.

And all this while our taxes have increased.

I don’t blame one party or another.  They have all taken over running this country from their opponents over the last 30 years, and while transitions are difficult, none of the governments I have lived through – survived through perhaps – have reduced the tax burden they so volubly condemned in opposition.  

So yes, I long for the day when Charities will no longer be needed.  I hope they do too. 

When we fight the last war, and bury our last hero, the Legion will be needed to fold the banners, hold them, and salute.  But no longer will they be feeding a starving ex-soldier in his dark, unheated slum. 

When the cure is found, Carcer Research will wash and pack away their Petrie dishes and clap themselves on the back for a job well done.  Redundancy would be a cheap price to pay for many of them for a life free from the fear of painfull, drawn out death.

When we finally find an equality we can share, Stonewall can fold its rainbow banners and retire in peace. 

When our government start serving us in the way we require, by providing those things we have already paid for, we can thank Charity profusely for its efforts, and smiling and waving close the door as it leaves.

I wish Peace and Heath to you all.

Coding for Failure: HSCIC & You.

There have been many recent announcements which could easily be cause for concern. Russia is standing fast on the borders of the Ukraine. Uganda have published the names of leading homosexuals in an effort to clamp down on something which is now, unbelievably, illegal. An ex-actor from The Only Way is Essex* ALMOST stepped in a puddle. Oh, alright, forget that last one. But, somewhat hidden in the daily mire of speculation, opinions and well-dressed adverts for the latest phone or makeup was little announcement regarding our medical records.

(*for readers in the US, think Jersey Shore without the class.)

I was first made aware of the potential problem through Facebook. Not, you might think, the first place a potentially life-changing bit of information would be posted, but rather insidiously it would appear that making a big song and dance about this subject was hardly high on the agenda for our healthcare leaders.

The essence of the scheme is simple. In order to ‘provide the best level of care’ and to enable developers of new techniques and medicines to work more effectively, our medical records will soon be shared with third parties. These interested groups would not, I have been assured, have access to the full details, but would see something called ‘Pseudonymised’ information – something I am not 100% sure can actually exist. As far as I can tell, this is to be organised by a group called HSCIC – Health and Social Care Information Centre.

So far, so good. If this works properly then I would remain unidentified and healthcare professionals throughout the UK would gain access to very important, extremely valuable data. Ah – valuable. Is that perhaps the point?

So, a few concerns perhaps.

The first one was triggered by the information that I was able to Opt Out of the system of data sharing by sending a brief letter in to my doctor, asking for my information to be withheld. Now, with information held on a centralised computer – the better to enable emergency care to be provided to me when eventually my luck cycling on British roads runs out – this withholding CANNOT take place at a local level. All this Opt Out will do is tick a little flag on the database, so that my information will not be included in the data sent to the interested third parties. As far as data security goes – and we all know how brilliant the people in this field are expected to be – there is nothing there to calm my rasping nerves.

Secondly, this system is supposed to be implemented in order to save lives. It is our healthcare bosses that are bringing this in, is it not? So you would think they take the saving of lives seriously. Well, I would. But the system is an opt-OUT choice. It is INCLUSIVE rather than the very EXCLUSIVE (opt-IN) Organ Donation system. It seems that the government finds the donation of data a far more important goal than, say, the hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys, corneas and other hugely ‘valuable’ body parts that go to waste every day, because someone failed to opt in to the donation scheme. (I also find it disgusting that even when people HAVE opted in to the Organ Donor system, their family can override their wishes, but that is a rant for another time). Could it be, perhaps, that the harvesting and selling of organs is too squeamish a subject for our NHS ministers and leaders? The VALUABLE data they are getting, on the other hand, is perfectly saleable. If these people are serious about the importance of this information, and about saving lives, the very least they can do is make BOTH scemes either opt-in or opt-out. Stop the hipocrisy.

My next immediate concern was where the information could possibly go. Once you have a huge amount of data, it becomes a commodity. And with healthcare data, one direct and immediate customer is our beloved insurance industry.

(I’m going to have an aside here to mention what happened a few years ago, when the time came for me to renew my insurance. As usual, my premium had nearly doubled due to my insurance company once again taking advantage of the average person’s unwillingness to look elsewhere, so I did the usual thing of calling them to have a laugh, and get them to reduce it to a reasonable level. The phone jockey informed me that this was not possible, because of data from crash (sorry – incident) reporting they had received. I asked what he meant. It boiled down to this – in the past 12 months, the (rather rare and imported) model of car that I had chosen to drive had been involved in a higher number of accidents. Note – this was nothing to do with accidents involving MY car, just cars of this MODEL countrywide. This – in their eyes – increased the risk inherent in covering me to continue to drive my, undamaged, machine, and they had adjusted the figures accordingly. It was only when I pointed out that, due to the evidence of this data and the fact that I had NOT been involved in any collissions, I was by definition a SAFER driver than the rest that he shut up. I eventually found insurance cheaper elsewhere, which possibly showed that it was not industry statistics they were working on, but a small sub set – prehaps their own information?)

Anyhow – the point is this: The data has a value to our healthcare services because it can be used to target services, develop medicines and potentially reduce the long term burden on the NHS. I’m sure (spot the sarcasm) that it will also be responsible for reducing waiting times for vital operations, and will be of huge benefit to the nation as a whole. But who else will benefit? The other group who have an interest in the sharing of this data are those insurance companies. ‘Pseudonymised’ or not, by definition we remain identifiable – otherwise the data would have been called anonymous instead. And if we are identifiable, the insurers can adjust our individual premium accordingly. And here was I thinking insurance should be there to protect us. Soon, insurance will simply be unavailable to anyone who needs to buy it.

Then there is the issue of who will be maintaining and storing the electronic information – therefore who is also going to be doing the ‘pseudonymising’ of the raw data. So far, and based on past form, I do not trust any government department to be able to do this either efficiently or effectively. (NB – I did hear that ATOS would be in line for the contract but had to dismiss this out of hand. Quite apart from the competency gap – canyon perhaps – there would also be the massive conflict of interest with their Benefits screwing department to think of…)

So where is the optimism here then? Well, for one this I hope it will bring enough interest to bear on the conflict between saving actual lives and saving potential lives. This will allow the Organ Donor scheme to become Opt-Out, with the objections of families overruled in order to allow us to save lives and qualities of life immediately. And do it soon.

Secondly, we can now rally for a ban on sale of our raw, identifiable information to ‘Interested’ but unqualified third parties. If they can show a need for access, they should be able to provide the search terms to the data-holder, who can then provide them with the report they need, with all personal and identifiable information properly scrubbed.

Third, it will be a great opportunity for competent and properly safe data management companies to enter government service. You can’t be any worse than the people currently in charge, surely.

And failing that, we all need to opt out until such time as we can be confident that the corporations benefitting from our own information are the ones we want to succeed. Even actuaries should be in favour of this – after all it is their lucrative positions in the job market that are at risk.

We are, I think, at an important juncture. To continue regardless of the risk is greasing an already slippery slope to the full commercialisation of our health and wellbeing – all for our government to benefit from the lucrative ‘back end’ of data sales. To cancel the whole plan would impact the fantastic potential of our future healthcare services.

A more sensitive route is needed, and one which needs consideration. A message to those making the desisions should be clear. It is the same one my teachers used to write when I handed in badly considered homework, and should be delivered in the same patronising tone – “Not good enough – try again.”

The Egalitarian Principle.

There is a big problem I have with Feminism.  It’s the aim of feminism.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all in favour of equality. In fact, I genuinely believe that if equality was the aim, then feminism would be laudable.  Unfortunately, in many many ways, feminism is the antithesis of equality.

Historically society has been rather (or completely) misogynistic.  I think it is fair to call that statement a truism.  In many parts of the word this is still the case, with women being unable to hold positions of authority, driving licenses and even bank accounts.  A situation which most rational people will abhor.  However, arguing that in order to redress this historical inequality, we now should be condemning men for the roles their (and women’s) male ancestors played in the subjugation of females is surely as wrong as the historical paradigm.

I hate to be the one to point this out, but women’s rights have come a long way.  I’m not suggesting that we are in a position where women are treated equally, but I am suggesting that from now on, feminism should be discarded in favour of something far less discriminatory.  We need, instead of arguing for women’s rights, to be arguing for true equality.

There is a difference inherent in this distinction.  Feminists argue to increase the representation of women, while egalitarians argue for the best possible person to provide this voice.  In case the effect of this is not clear, consider the following:

We decide, in sport, to separate the male and female athletes.  In the final of the 100m Olympic races, we have 8 men competing against each other, and 8 women doing the same in in a separate race.  Why do we do this?

Well, if we look at the times for the two races, we would see that the last female winner – Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce was a very speedy (and well won) 10.75 seconds, which beats my best ever time by at least 6 seconds.  This would, however, have been far slower than the time required to progress from the heats stages into the men’s competition.  (She would have beaten the slowest man on the track, by over a second, due to a groin injury).

So, in athletics it makes sense to distinguish – that is to discriminate – between the sexes.  Failure to do so would result in many, if not all female athletes failing to qualify for the games in the first place, and would make a travesty of the culture of inclusion which the modern games have become.

But what would be the effect of requiring the final to be made up of 4 men and 4 women?  The answer should be obvious.  On average – certainly at the top level – we would see four men cross the line, followed by four women.

Translate this to everyday life, where we are not reliant on purely physical ability (and the mental stamina which I these athletes possess) and the effect is less dramatic, but just as obvious.  Let’s say we have a committee of 8 people, like the final of the 100 metres.  The committee is meeting to discuss the future investment in space exploration/genetics/renewable energy.  You get the idea, something potentially very important.

Now, in order to demonstrate our equality, we insist that half of those sitting on the committee are female.  What effect will this have on the ability of the committee to function effectively?

Let’s suggest that, of the applicants to join the Space committee, we are offered 30 senior NATOSAT scientists.  NATOSAT is a wholly made-up but faintly believable company, and the vast majority of their senior staff are male.  They are in their 50s and 60s, and joined the company in the 1970-80s at a time when few women were interested, or able to begin, a career in the aeronautics industry.  They put forward 26 men, and four women.  This is pure conjecture, but go with me.  We also have a number of applicants from a progressive company – make one up if you like – but it is far less male dominated than our fake NATOSAT.  They put forward a group of 15 men and 15 women.  We have a base group of 60 applicants for the 8 positions.

We hire a panel of judges, who screen the applicants for us.  We set them the task of identifying the best 8 people to make the decisions about the future of space exploration, and they do so purely on the basis of qualification, experience and the results of an examination.  They are completely unaware of the applicants’ genders.  They choose a panel of 8, six of whom are male and two are female.  This hypothetical result is based on a basic average weighting.

Now we introduce the rules of the committee – 50% of the panel members must be female.  Now we need 4 men and 4 women.  So, the two least suitable men – although better than at least all but 2 of the women – are told to pack their bags, and the two female runners up are called back to fill their places.

Many people may not see this as a problem, but I do.  You see, of the 60 applicants, only 19 were female.  Now we have a situation where – because of discrimination – two of the panellists can reasonably be expected to be a lower grade of applicant, and yet are working on the committee purely as a result of their gender.  I do not see this as a positive effect – in fact I see all discrimination as a negative.  If we rely on no discrimination at all, then the committee will be more effective, which has to be a positive thing, surely?

And another point.  Recently, the BBC made a statement that in future there would be no more all-male panels on comedy (and other) quiz shows.  I agree that in the past, they have often been testosterone heavy, and these comedy panel quiz events – from the aggressive and sometimes shocking (and great, by the way) Mock the Week and 8 out of 10 Cats, through interest-based gems (Buzzcocks et al) through to the rather more cerebral QI – have lacked a certain feminine touch.

Now, whether or not you agree with my diatribe above, you can at least see that there is an edge of discrimination in the BBC’s statement.  By dictating that one panel member must be of a certain gender, we are not only impacting the potential effectiveness but also tainting those people who are of that gender due to association with discrimination.

(In fact, and as an aside, Dara Ó Briain (host of Mock the Week and panellist on many of the other shows) was terribly misquoted within the last week, when he opined that the issuing of a statement was unnecessary and demeaning, possibly in the way I mention above.  Of course, in order to make a decent headline, this needed to be changed around a bit, and the Times thereby accused Dara of arguing against women appearing on panel shows.  I’m pretty sure that’s not what he was saying at all, but never let the truth get in the way etc…

I’m sure he had fun explaining that in 140 characters or less.)

So, how about trying to find a way forward?

First of all, I think we should do away with all discrimination.  Positive and negative.  Instead of a Minster for Women, why not have a Minister for Equality?  He or she could deal with all aspects of discrimination, whether it be due to gender, race, age or sexuality, and may actually be useful.

Look at how the gay-rights movement has worked.  Within the last few decades, perhaps since the 60s, the campaigners for equality of sexuality have really turned things around.  We are getting closer to a society in which I would like to live, where people are treated with compassion without reference to their preferences or their gender association.  We may not be there yet, but in 50 years, homosexuality has ceased to be illegal.  We now associate with a (fabulous?! (sorry)) section of society openly and without shame.  Gay men and women are serving useful roles in every aspect of our daily lives, and soon will be able to marry with the full rights that this brings.  How was this achieved?  Not by campaigning and demonstrating on a ‘Gay-is-Better’ or ‘Gay is more Natural’ platform, but one which instead included the straight world.  Equality was and is a goal, and I would like to think we get closer to achieving it every single day.

What next?  Oh, yeah.  Put men in to feminist politics.  Not all the way, not by stealth or legislation, but allow men to have an opinion on feminist issues.  Without doing so, you are alienating 50% of the population – something which the feminist movement has been arguing against for centuries.  Again, how far has feminism come in the same time as the LGBT communities?  It continues to be marginalised and ignored because it fails to engage with those people who believe in actual equality, very many of whom are men.

Moving on:  We should throw out the notion that women are reliant on men for their ideas of what femininity is.  The fashion and beauty industries are led and controlled in the main by straight women and gay men.  Beautiful ladies, let me say this to you: Straight men, on the whole, have less of an interest in the shade of eye-shadow you are wearing or the designer of your clutch, and frankly if you show an interest in us and are confident, we will not only accept you for who you are but we will also love you for it.  We love beauty, and it comes in many forms.  It’s the fashion media which is teaching you to hate your bodies and doubt your abilities.  Throw off these hurtful and damaging teachings and think for yourself.  No more reading tales of how all men are disgusting, all they are after is your body, and here’s how to make him want you even more.

Discard hypocrisy, and engage with everyone.  When someone asks if you are a feminist, say “No.  I am a egalitarian, and proud of it.”

The Entitlement of Opinion.

Right, here I am stating my opinion.  In a post about opinions, and how they are really not all that great a thing after all.  More than a little hypocritical, I will agree.

I do want to make a general point here about the validity of opinions, but before I do I think I should set out my stall a little more neatly than usual.  We are all entitled to our opinions.  There, I’ve said it.  We are all not only permitted, but within the context of education and society we are actively encouraged to hold opinions on everything from which football team is better to the inherent dangers of vaccination.

Unfortunately I think we go too far in pursuit of freedom of speech however.  We seem to have reached the very strange situation where not only is an opinion permissible, but the validity of each and every opinion is perceived to hold equal weight.  It has led, among other things, to the BBC offering “Half an hour of news and comment” instead of a proper news programme.  The Vox-Pop has suddenly the same impact as the professional opinions of the learned and qualified.  And I think that is dangerous.

While your freedom to speak your mind – whether banal and uncomplicated or offensive – is important to me, what you are actually saying (in many cases) is not.  If I want to hear opinions on the evolution of mankind, I will search out the missives of those who have studied it in depth, those who can quote not only the sound-bite and infamous generalities, but truly understand the impact they have.  Which is why, when I wanted to know more about genetics, I started reading Richard Dawkins.

OK, here’s where some readers will undoubtedly leave me, or at least cease to stand alongside me.  This man – largely but not universally upheld as a great scientist – causes a rift in opinion largely because his name is also synonymous with the great debate concerning religion.  As an advocate – sometimes very outspoken – of secular life in general and atheism in particular, he naturally is seen as the enemy of Christianity and organised religion.  And I couldn’t be more happy about that.  He was largely responsible for my own personal enlightenment, but I’ll gloss over that for the moment.

His works, in particular The Ancestor’s Tale and The Selfish Gene are not, specifically, a gospel for godlessness, but they do lead the reader to the natural conclusion that there need not be a god in order for life to exist.  In fact, in contrast to his assumed personality on Twitter and in situations where he is actively debating organised religion, he is positively welcoming the churchgoer.

So, here we have a credible vision of how the human race could have evolved.  An on the other hand, we have a performing monkey.  Sorry, that’s ridiculous.  Instead, we’ll have dictated creationism – the belief that the world came about EXACTLY as described in the bible.  Not much better than the monkey, possibly.  Now, I have studied the bible.  Well, I have read it and thought about the stories it contained, which is possibly more than most.  And from the earliest age I can remember, reading a children’s bible, complete with brilliant illustrations, I was unable to take it at face value.

Please bear in mind I was probably around seven or eight at the time.  At an age where distinguishing between allegory and truth – certainly that truth delivered by my parents or other notables who may have passed such a book on to me – was probably a tricky issue.  To me, it was a good story, presented in the same manner as Grimms Fairy Tales, or the works of Robert Louis Stevenson – bound and bedecked with beautiful pictures of animals, men (usually with beards) and women (usually without) frolicking in wild gardens and being unequivocally caucasian.

OK, so the issue of the first couple’s race didn’t bother me then, and nor does it now.  It’s a story.  That’s all it ever was to me, a great tale of people being thrown out of a garden, almost drowning, floating down river in a basket and parting seas which were actually red, rather than only being named as such.  As a child, I tried to assimilate the teachings it contained, and I don’t think my religious education did me any harm.

Right, on to the problem.  There are people out there, who call themselves Christians, who seem to take these writings as a literal truth.  What is written actually happened, just over six thousand years ago.  Now, we could look at their evidence in favour of this proclamation.  It’s written in a book, which indeed is based on some very old texts, some of which still actually exist.  We can choose to ignore the evidence presented which refute it – usually very effectively.  Any such written evidence is drawn from other, just as ancient texts, or from accounts of the meetings of the Councils of Nicaea etc, which ‘prove’ just as eloquently as the bible itself that the text we have now is in effect an “approved” text.  Some would think that were enough.

But no, they want more.  So we use something much newer to the majority of us than these parchments.  We use a combination of logic, reasoning, testing and review which lead the best thinkers of the ages to create ideas of how the world works.  They call these ideas Theories.  Which is probably where the scientists go wrong.

To the layman, including of course creationists, a theory is an idea.  The science community have a different word for this type of idea – they call it a hypothesis.  Once they have designed (all right, thought up) a hypothesis, they test it.  And the way they test it is not only to attempt to show it is correct, but also try (a lot harder in many cases) to show it is wrong.  Once they have tried it, and shown it is as right as they can make it, they give it to their mates.  Now, sometimes their mates are friendly, and other times they are more like the “frenemies” of modern parlance.  Either way, they try to mangle this hypothesis too.  Genuinely, they try as hard as possible to destroy the (often times life’s-) work of their muckers.  And if they fail, then the hypothesis becomes gradually more and more accepted.

Sometimes, indeed you could say often – it takes years for a hypothesis to become accepted.  Once it is, it is generally given the title of a Theory.  It’s still open for debate, and as methods of testing become more and more accurate, they can be shown to be wrong.  When they are, a new theory may arise to take its place.  It is, and always will be, the best possible answer.

Which leads me back to my main point.  Opinions.  When we want to attempt to see within a problem, or discuss a topic which may be controversial, it seems fairly reasonable to call on the most educated (and sometimes eloquent) among the multitude of opinions available to present the case for a particular theory.  And we listen in amazement as our world is – suddenly – more beautiful.

Then we go wrong.  It seems fair, in any debate, to call for a voice of dissent – an opposing view to counter the argument.  This happens even when the argument is as simple as “the sea is wet” but never mind.  My main problem is, the majority of opinions which are counter to the well thought out, and extremely well tested theories of evolutionary biology, and certainly the most vocal ones, are from the creationist church.  People with no genuine scientific interest in testing their ideas, or even discussing them at all.  And yet, because opinions are all believed to be valid, we have to accept every counter-point as a valid one, and even give credence and (tellingly) air-time to these people.

So, I feel slightly sorry for Dawkins and his troupe of well meaning and enlightened colleagues.  While he may have studied for decades to reach the peak of his field, and be considered a renowned expert by those whose opinion I’m sure he values, the general public’s opinion of him reflect what he is possibly best known for:  Arguing against god.

And because their opinions matter just as much, that will be the truth for years to come.

Now, he may be happy with that, and I would agree with many others that religion is the cause of so much suffering and pain worldwide, and that there is no evidence for the existence of anything supernatural (note that I did not say this is evidence against god…) but I do think his work on gene-based evolution is one of the most beautiful works in modern scientific history.  And it has been overshadowed.

I don’t know Prof Dawkins, although I would like to meet him one day, I do have a couple of questions regarding speciation he may be able to answer.  I do however hope this man, who introduced us to the word meme and laid out probably the most credible explanation of our own origins, can eventually come to mean more than that to us all.  He is just one example of the way in which, because even uninformed, biassed and divisive opinion is now considered the most important trinket out there, our minds become clouded by disinformation and rhetoric rather than true learning.

I am, though, hopeful.  Science is enjoying yet another renaissance.  The age of the geek is upon us, and with modern society ever more reliant on those technologies which would not be possible without the science I love, I think the future may be one where opinions are weighted, more credible when they come from a reputable source.  Perhaps this is our opportunity to demand so.

So turn off the vox-pops.  Disregard the ‘balanced view’.  Listen to those who have shown they are trustworthy, and – above all – give yourselves and your children the tools to combat propaganda, hate, and fear of the unknown:  Education, patience and understanding.

Viva la Evolution.