Thursday, 27 October 2011

Coming To A Gullible Public Near You Soon

Just when you thought the country - and indeed the world - had gone insane by conducting their lives to the beat of rent-seekers belching bent soundbites and clutching manipulated statistics, along comes a show which might open a few scale-encrusted eyes.

As mentioned, I pitched up on Tuesday night at Imperial College London to see the Battle of Ideas presentation of The Maths of Death, a show which promised to "help you laugh in the face of your own mortality".

It really is right up the street of those who read here, dealing as it does with risk, especially in relation to lifestyle choices.

Now, it wasn't as snappy and professional as I'd imagined, but that's not in itself a bad thing, it seemed to me to be firmly in the theatre-workshop-made-good genre. To its great charm is the humorous way it approaches what most find a pretty dull subject. Not dull in that they don't care about health concerns or death, but that most people would rather believe garish health headlines than do research - as we like to here - and notice that someone, somewhere, is being a bit dishonest. Did I say a bit? I meant a lot, obviously.

The show consists of writer Timandra Harkness, backed up by Guardian mathematics columnist Matt Parker, giving a lesson in hysterical health scares and why you should mostly ignore them.

Terrified of flying? There's a far greater risk of dying while riding a bike. Think Ecstasy is a lethal drug? Not exactly, you've got just as much chance of carking it by canoeing for six minutes. Worried about falling off a ladder? Well, statistically, death is more likely from falling out of a bed (a ban on anything but futons was the jokingly suggested antidote ... which I thought irresponsible to be spoken too audibly knowing the public health community's ridiculous nature).

Teaching the audience about how they are regularly conned by the use of relative risk instead of absolute risk was a joy to watch, even though I was playing the part of a choirboy being preached to. But if a few more souls left the building knowing that a 20% increase in risk - for a condition which affects just about no-one - simply isn't worth investing energy in worrying about, perhaps the ranged masses of state-paid public health herd-botherers might be thinned out in time due to public apathy towards their efforts.

Harkness, for example, drew a graph detailing harm from alcohol consumption complete with higher risk for teetotallers, and put forward the blindingly obvious suggestion - to those who read here anyway - that certain medical 'experts' are hiding the bottom part of the J-curve and continually suggesting that it's a plain causative link between units consumed and harm. Also that the public at large seem to block out facts like alcohol use declining in favour of righteous scaremongery. Some around me seemed genuinely surprised to hear the truth put to them in this way.

Headlines from the usual suspects were held up to show how scares are installed, before Parker calmly debunked one of them for jolly. And, most importantly, in a manner that highlighted in layman's terms why it was less dangerous to one's health than remaining unmarried - a threat which would meet with universal hilarity if a health quango suggested it in a similarly funereal tone.

The problem, Parker nailed quite rightly, is that organisations which promote these scares are paid only to fight the fight they are paid for. Anything which conflicts with that goal is discarded. No analysis of cost versus benefits is undertaken, they deal only with one side of the equation.

Just as ASH ignore the credit side of tobacco; Alcohol Concern casually gloss over the health or financial benefits to alcohol consumption; and the general movement just sees company profits, while ignoring the value to the individual for whom each purchase is a personal economic judgement which - by its very nature - dictates that just by buying the product, they have decided that the value of their enjoyment of it will be equal to, or in excess of, the price.

After a short interval, where we die-hards who chose to stay for discussion popped down two floors to the student bar for refreshment (now safe in the knowledge we were aiding our chances of a longer life*), the promised discussion began with a panel which included resident health statistician Deborah Ashby. As you can imagine, I was very interested in how she would react to a gentle stage dismemberment of the work of her colleagues.

Her visible front row enjoyment of the show was promising, and her pouring a glass of complementary Battle of Ideas wine even better. But then, despite her very genial smile, I feared the worst as she regurgitated the healthist line that stats on teetotallers ignored the fact that they might be ill when the study was conducted.

D'oh! Here we go, I thought, another who just can't countenance that such counter-intuitive (for health personnel anyway) evidence is actually incontrovertible, and has repeatedly been proven to be so.

But this blogger couldn't help but warm to her when Chairman David Bowden referenced the excellent Nigel Hawkes's statistical monstering of Alcohol Concern propaganda, to which Ashby replied "of course, there are those who use statistics like a drunk uses a lamp post".

Glorious! A simile involving irresponsible over-indulgence in alcohol being utilised to describe Alcohol Concern's loose and anti-social relationship with reality. Worth the journey and entry fee alone!

She went on to explain why health advocates tend to play statistics to their own advantage. "Keep it simple", she declared was the goal in quoting the 'five a day' mantra. Yes, it's true that all people are different, but that there is only a certain amount of time at their disposal and they have to reach the majority with information. It struck me that if this is the general policy, then such a scatter gun approach would be giving detrimental advice along with potentially good stuff, but again, we kinda knew that.

Nice to hear it admitted in frank terms though, instead of the usual certainty of a one size fits all homogeneity of outcome we are fed through a pliant media.

And the show landed blows heavily on the media too. Their goal of instant gratification, as against the greater good of building up an evidence base prior to publishing attention grabbing headlines, was perpetuating the abominable behaviour of vested interest stats twisters. Yes, we all know this, especially here, but to see a show which brazenly puts such heresy on display for a largely ignorant and hoodwinked public to contemplate, was a joy.

The last - and probably most important - pleasure was seeing an overwhelmingly university student audience in the Q&A venting cynical voices in reaction to what they correctly see as persistently transparent health lobby propaganda. I didn't expect that, so perhaps there is hope that the young haven't been unanimously brainwashed by professional fussbuckets just yet, and that there is intelligent resistance studiously acquainting itself with a lifetime of tackling the hideous bansturbators of our future.

All in all, Harkness and Parker should be congratulated for getting these ideas out there and explaining why there really is more to life than tailoring your weekly shop to fit in with a few (mostly) state-funded doomsayers.

And although this show - which, at times, was laugh out loud funny - has only been shown to three audiences to my knowledge so far, Parker announced that they will soon be taking it on tour. That's a statistically significant number of gullible people local to all of us that they could reach if my calculations are correct.

Now, wouldn't that be handy?

* I include this frivolous comment solely to joyously commemorate the (pfft!) sad departure of Don Shenker from Alcohol Concern. May every future obstacle he faces be electrified and encrusted with broken glass.


Sue said...

This is the sort of stuff we need on the TV. Humorous outlooks on life. We might actually be able to "un-condition" some people.

Timandra said...

Thanks! In fact, we've done over 30 shows, played to over 2,000 people. But we will be on tour next year, yes.

Dick Puddlecote said...

My apologies Timandra, glad I added the 'to my knowledge' disclaimer now ;).

I look forward to recommending the tour when dates are arranged.

Dick Puddlecote said...

Sue: Agreed. A tour of a production like this is a promising development for now, though. :)

Anonymous said...

"The scattergun approach" Hmmmm Yes!

Anonymous said...


You coming to Wigan? ... Please?

Mad Morgan

Dick Puddlecote said...

Morgan: Tweeted that, and she says she'll try. :)

selsey.steve said...

Just read the 'Alcohol Concern' web-page announcing the departure of Don Shenker. To me, at least, it hints very strongly that Shenker got the boot. Most indicative is the last sentence:-
"Eric Appleby who was Chief Executive for fourteen years with Alcohol Concern is returning for a year to act as Interim Chief Executive."
Shenker has been sussed as a 'merchant banker'!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but this is the kicker:

"restructuring of its senior management following the loss of core funding"

Which I take to mean the bastards are getting less of our money handed to them.

Clarissa said...

Knew you'd enjoy it. :-)

Glad to hear that they are taking it on road. Depending on where they show up I'll go and see it again.

banned said...

I was in the company of an undergraduate when this came over the Radio 2 5 O'clock news yesterday "...campaigners have claimed that moves to change the M.O.T. from one to two years could result in up to 230 lives lost per year"
They fitted in estimated somewhere too but I can't remember where, we both laughed anyway.