Monday, 25 May 2020

The 5G witchhunt and the dangers of tickbox science

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

When my Tickbox book came out, the only vaguely negative review I received on Amazon was from someone who decided that, because I wanted to move the argument forward a little, that I was somehow ‘anti-science’.

I have to say that I’ve been itching to write about tickbox science ever since. Though I fear I may confirm my critic in his prejudices by doing so.

I should say at the outset that, although I have no scientific training, I do have a degree in philosophy and I have always been fascinated by the various interpretations of scientific method.

I understand how science moves forward by demolishing its own arguments, paradigm and theory by paradigm and theory. It therefore makes no sense at all – as the doyens of evidence-based policy suggest – that science is somehow fixed and final. I take tickbox science to mean precisely this:  – that every idea or theory or brainwave needs to be measured against the sum total of published evidence.

This is absurd, especially as published evidence requires that somebody must have taken the decision to fund the original research, and - with the advocates of tickbox science wandering the internet, seeking who they would devour - that can be a dangerous business.

As you may have realised by now, I am tiptoeing worryingly into the 5G controversy.

I am not defending everyone who says that 5G has somehow caused the covid-19 outbreak. It is hard to discern how this could possibly be the case. But I am aware of research which suggests that 5G – because it is pulsed – might compromise people’s immune systems.

Most of those scientists who are nervous about 5G tend to be experts in the medical implications of electro-magnetic fields. It reminds me of the 1970s, when the establishment went after experts in low-level radiation, after evidence that it might be more damaging than high-level radiation over long periods.

This 5G claim is hardly proven, but – after the witchhunt against everyone who steps out of the narrow lines of tickbox science – I can’t see anyone daring to apply for grant funding to prove it one way or the other.

There is the real danger of tickbox science, or tickbox anything, in fact – it closes minds. It makes ideas impossible to express. And that is the very opposite of scientific.

Do I have a bias here? Well, yes I do. I have chronic eczema and I know that 5G is said to affect, not just insects, but human skin. Nor so I see why my skin should suffer just so that my neighbours an get faster downloads of ‘Call of Duty’ or other murderous online abominations.

I admit it. So go on, ban me from Twitter, why don’t you? There are already a range of things you are not allowed to say about 5G on Twitter or Facebook. And there is a Tory MP trying to make it against the law.

So how, without ridicule, should we stop people burning down 5G installations as they appear on our streets?

There really is only one way: we have to restore some trust in official spokespeople (starting perhaps when a prime minister next goes into hospital).

The problem is that, as the most stupid vandal knows, there are some technological developments that are so profitable that nobody is going to dare to say they are unsafe.

That is why it took 50 years from the 1962 Smoking and Health report to ban second-hand smoke. It took a similar time for governments to act on asbestos, though the evidence had been understood since the 1920s.

In those circumtances, there is a complication because nobody dares to do the research, and scientists who apply for the money to do so put their careers on the line.

I remember meeting researchers who dared to suggest that mad cow disease might be dangerous to human beings and they were threatened by the security services. There are big stakes.

But in those days, it was just the establishment versus the truth. There was none of what we have now: a group of self-appointed puritans committed to tickbox science, who want to seek and ridicule anyone who thinks differently. The lineal successors of those who tormented Galileo and Copernicus.
That is about as far from the genuine spirit of science as it is possible to get.

Now, when you get handed your licence to write these blogs (figuratively speaking), they do impress on you the need for policy solutions. How do we restore some trust in the certainties and uncertainties of science? How do we stop both sides from undermining the whole thing?

I would suggest a lay committee, comprising scientists, wonks, philosophers and members of the public, appointed independently of the government to advise on risks. Note the word 'advise', because as Philip Collins put it in The Times last week (£), there is a great deal too much "bogus certainty in the air" - and in the end, these are political decisions.

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Friday, 10 April 2020

Introducing my play, The Party Leader

I have written four plays before - they range from a full-length play about the Three Day Week in 1973/4 to an invocation to devolution so that my home town of Steyning declares itself independent of the UK - this one performed in the cricket club during the Steyning Festival two summers ago.

I find it hard to write without an element of humour, as my tongue wanders into my cheek. So when the Radix thinktank asked me to write the play The Party Leader, it was obvous it would have a few laughs.

We had recently become the first thinktank to publish a novel, now called Dead Idol by Nick Tyrone. So we felt it made sense - if we were going to use all the different cultural options to make a case for a politics of the radical centre - to commission a radio play.

There was one other moment of ignition: when I was told, in the days when most people of sense appeared to be in the process of launching new centre parties (some more radical than than others), then perhaps they should get the party platform agreed first - and then find a leader, preferably one untainted by the existing political system.

We briedly discussed round the world yachtspeople and actors and actresses and then left the subject - but it stayed with me. What happens, I wondered, if you elected someone so untainted with party politics that you hadn't actually asked them first - and the bones of our play began to become clear in my mind.

In a perfect world, untainted by covid-9, I imagine that we would launch our first radio play sometime in the autumn. But our world may by then be pretty unrecognisable, so it probably made sense to release it now.

Immediately before the lockdown, a group of us - from Steyning again - got together in the home of Malcolm Duke (to whom thanks so much) and recorded it. So thank you also hugely to Deborah Sparkes, and Sue and Geoff Goble, who acted in it - with Malcolm playing a theatrical agent. Then in the last few weeks, Zyg Coombes has pulled it all together brilliantly.

So I present to you: the very first thinktank radio play. It is only 40 minutes long and quite fun, so I thoroughly recommend it... You can hear it here (click on the picture in the post).

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Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Ask not what your NHS can do for you - ask what you can do for your NHS

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

The late, great Tony Gibson, the pioneer of UK community development, who I knew a little, used to talk about the origins of his vision in Stepney in 1940 – abandoned by the government during the Blitz, their town hall bombed out, when local people managed to organise basic services for themselves to help cope with almost infinite need.

His autobiography Streetwide Worldwide describes how, at the age of 21, in charge of a ten-strong Pacifist Service Unit there – with one steel helmet between them – he managed to find a tie and his father’s briefcase to walk past the queues at the People’s Palace theatre in Commercial Road in to talk to the town clerk .

The overwhelmed council officials had gone there when their office and filing systems had been bombed. Tony found the town clerk desperate to talk to someone and armed him with some of the resources he needed.

This is how I described it in my recent Counterweight pamphlet for the Local Trust:

“One of those who were there, who broke into the locked and shuttered council offices in Stepney borough, and who witnessed the way that the neighbourhood regrouped and organised makeshift police and social services for themselves out of the chaos, was a young Quaker ambulance driver called Tony Gibson. It was his memory of this, and the right people have – when they feel abandoned by those who administer them – to take matters into their own hands, which led to the launch of the ground-breaking unit at Nottingham University, Education for Neighbourhood Change, his influential 1978 Pelican book People Power, and other projects which led to community development, community technical aid, and all the rest…”

I still feel a sense of inspiration from that. Not that I am claiming that people have been abandoned to their fates during the current crisis. But governments have to remember that not only do people have the right to intervene as volunteers, but that – if the need is obvious – they will do.

They also need to know that this community response is absolutely critical to tackling any kind of disaster – as it was when floods overwhelmed the east of England, during a storm in January 1953, which also claimed the British Rail ferry Princess Victoria and over 300 lives.

In fact, the demise of the old voluntary sector since then – often informal and church-based – has in some ways been echoed in recent years by the austerity-driven demise of its successor, formal and lottery-funded.

What we have seen in the last few weeks is not just the recreation of a neighbourhood support structure – including the Lib Dems which have put their local government campaign at the disposal of local communities, chaired by former NCVO director Stuart Etherington – but the building of a new infrastructure which will be there with a bit of luck ready for the next crisis too.

It is also a reminder of the political roots of the radical centre. If the business owners tend to be represented by conservatives, and their workforces by socialists, then the radical centre aspires to represent this other, neglected and forgotten group – the self-employed, sole operators of small businesses and the volunteers.

In fact, it may have been that the Lib Dems never grasped this and went off on a quite different search for a ‘core vote’ that sealed their fate.

But let’s leave that on one side for a moment. By the end of this virus, with a bit of luck, we should have a cadre of volunteers that are integrated into the warp and weft of services, yet out of reach of their hopeless, dysfunctional tickbox systems.

We might then be a little closer to the classic statement of the radical centre that John Kennedy never quite said: “Ask not what your NHS can do for you; ask what you can do for the NHS.”

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

But still not enough to support the self-employed...

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

It is the best of times; it is the worst of times. It is a time of excitement and of fear, of enthusiasm and exhaustion, generosity and selfishness. It is a moment for breaking rules; it is an epoch of clinging to tickbox processes.

If I was Charles Dickens, I would probably go on. The key point is that it is an age of paradoxes, and especially when you start to think about the longterm results of this virus shutdown.

In 1939, when we last declared war in this kind of all-embracing way, you might go into shops or any organisation and be told - if you dared to complain about anything - "Don't you know there's a war on?"

I haven't yet been told "Don't you know there's a virus on". But as I try to negotiate my way through Santander's tickbox facility, trying to negotiate myself a mortgage holiday - where the phone directs you to the website and the website directs you back to the phone - I half expect that classic response of the second rate and hidebound.

This is what I mean, and amidst all the bravery and new thinking too. Here are some other long-term trends we might expect:
  1. The return of the boffin. Experts have had a bad press recently, but now there they are flanking the prime minister at his press announcements. It is economists that still require forgiveness.
  2. More local heroes and heroines. And yet the people we will be most grateful to by the end won't be experts at all - they will be engineers hacking ventilators and our neighbours setting up outreach systems or local bookshops heroically staying open, at least by delivering books by bike.
  3. The roaring twenties. Well, that's what happened last time economies were unleashed again.
  4. The return of inflation. And yet - despite the threat of deflation - it seems unlikely that the government will be able to balance the work going on in the economy with the circulation of cash.
  5. A spike in divorces. We have all heard the phrase: "If I'm going to be stuck here with you for the next three months, then you're going to have to..." Christmas leads to divorces and this is like an endless Christmas.
  6. The return of the baby boom. And yet, when people are reunited, we also know what happens. And it will be widely understood, except by the government officials who plan ahead for school places. So expect trouble around 2026.
Perhaps the most interesting question is around which of these economic changes are likely to be permanent - especially given how close to the edge so many companies have become.

I'm not sure anyone will miss the airlines and airports (except the British, of course, who fly more than any nation on earth). The future of food looks set to be local with short supply lines after all. But if the economy was in such a dire situation before, then it may be that some government support for salaries will have to be semi-permanent.

At the moment, these arrangements suffer from two major problems - they are are much too complex to get the money out quickly. Santander isn't the only organisation to keep their tickbox systems in place - and directing the self-employed towards a dodgy and overwhelmed universal benefit system seems doomed. Then there are huge problems with quantitative easing, which we know means even more inequality. It is as if Rishi Sunak didn't mean it when he said that would set aside ideology - except, apparently, the ludicrous pretence that governments don't create money.

It pains me to say it, but Trump was probably right that the way to preserve the economy is to provide what the Japanese call helicopter money for everyone, to fend for themselves and pay basic bills over the next few months. I would suggest that the Bank of England creates about £1,000 per adult per month.

The main question is whether this will put further pressure on the pound. This seems unlikely if the Americans are doing it too. There may be inflationary pressures as a result - given how little work is actually happening in the economy - but those may also counteract the deflationary pressures that are also going on.

If it goes just to self-employed people and sole traders who employ themselves (I have to declare an interest here), it would mean an injection of £10-£20 billion a month, probably directly via the tax system. Speed counts - nobody has time for tickbox any more.

It may be that they need to increase income tax temporarily by 1p in the pound to take it out of the economy again.

Alternatively, we have to innovate along similar lines, using a parallel digital currency along the lines of the recent scotpound proposals by the New Economics Foundation.

They great advanatge for these is that they are simpler to administer and very much faster to get into people's hands that the tickbox ways the government is proposing.

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Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Enochophobia in the time of cholera, and the new Shell Crisis

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

In the time of cholera, which - despite Gabriel Garcia Marquez - I take to be the 1830s, there were riots in the back streets of London among the poor who believed the government's intention was to let them die so they could turn their bodies into what they called 'nattomy soup' - to feed the others.

By the 1840s, there was Ebenezer Scrooge worrying about the so-called surplus population. There was the government allowing the Irish potato famine to take its course.

There has always been a strand of British government that treated the governed with some disdian and fear. It is a fear of the mob, a problem known as enochophobia.

So when we believed the government's plan for treating the corona virus was 'herd resilience' - and it meant that 70 per cent of the population needed to be infected, it would mean that, at only on one per cent rates of mortality, losing half a million dead in a few months. To put that in context, that is twice as many as died in UK cities during five years of blitz in the second world war.

The good news is that the health secretary has denied that is the policy and it is now clear that ministers have changed their minds. It would have been a traditional mixture of Tory disdain and radical utilitarianism if it had been - but what is the policy? And why does there remain some confusion about it?

My worries about this derives from the road-building programme in last week's budget - which represents an exhumation of the old Lloyd George Roosevelt New Deal policy of road-building to boost the economy. They cannot possibly believe, as they claim, that it will do anything to rebalance the regional economies. Quite the reverse: more roads means there will be a subtle sucking noise as economic activity sucks down to London - are ministers really so old-fashioned that they have never thought these things through?

That is the kind of boneheading thinking we feared from this government. Luckily, they do seem to be getting to grips with things a little. So in case you thought the government's approach to corona was enochophobia dressed as science, then here are a few bits of better news...
  1. There has now been some recognition that they need to organise the emergency manufacure of respirators and ventilators, with the same kind of urgency that the government sought out exocet missiles on the black market during the Falklands War. They may not succeed, but if you know of a capable manufacturer, please pass on this spec.
  2. There does seem to be a home testing kit on the way, even if ministers have not yet grasped that they need to have some alternative to official testing, If they don't know when they've had it, then people will find it impossible to stop self-isolating when they are actually well - and can help.
  3. Once those are in people's hands, it can't be long before they launch a website which will allow people to upload their experiences of the virus and to give researchers some idea of its spread. Like this one on open source equipment.
  4. Ministers must by now have grasped that they can have people self-isolating OR looking after older relatives, but not both. There are now community groups that are gearing up to keep people safe and to help those who are sick. See the article by my colleagues Lindsay Mackie and Andrew Simms on genuinely civil contingensies.
  5. There is no doubt that the Chancellor's statement yesterday is an important step forward, but probably the only way of preserving the economy is to organise a new form of money creation on the Japanese model of helicopter money - I would suggest an off-balance sheet payment of £1,000 a month to every adult (more on this later).
Politically, I have a feeling that the potential game chnager is the looming ventilator scandal. It reminds me of the shell scandal of 1915 - which led to the replacement of one old-fashioned premier (Asquith) by a more ruthless though less principled one (Lloyd George).

It may be that the lack of ventilators will lead to the replacement of slow-moving, lovelorn Boris Johnson with celtic determination in the shape of Michael Gove.

One final hopeful thought: the sound of community singing in Sienna in locked down Italy, through open windows. There is the authentic noise of the human spirit.

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Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Why Back to the Land is about to roar back (come along on 19 March?)

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

I have an unproven and probably unprovable theory about new movements - political or otherwise - which is that they usually involve reaching back into the past, borrowing an idea and reshaping in a modern way.

That would, for example, explain slow food, a movement that emerged from Italy in the 1990s - reaching into the past is how we give radical ideas a sense of authenticity. Without that historic edge, it can appear too glitzy; without the modern edge, it is liable to collapse into a morose and deeply conservative melancholy or fundamentalism.

That is for example when the original Populist Party in the 1880s, the people who inspired The Wizard of Oz, became white supremacists. Or when the social credit movement of the 1920s and 30s collapsed into anti-semitism.

One thing that follows from this theory is that one way to seek out future mvements is paradoxically to look to the past. Which is one reason I believe the Back to the Land movement is about to beome politically important again.
Back to the Land is one of south east England's contirbutions to the world - a reaction against the first great industrial city (London). It grew up in the early 19th century, and included inspiration from William Cobbett (a radical), Samuel Palmer (a Tory), William Morris and Richard Jefferies (socialists), John Ruskin (a high Tory, or so he said), Peter Kropotkin (a communist), Mahatma Gandhi (an Indian nationalist), G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc (both Liberals and then Distributists), Henry Williamson (a fascist), and Fritz Schumacher (Green?) and so on.

All of these influenced each other in a tradition that stretches through to today, and these may not have been the political labels they would have chosen to describe themselves. Most (though not all) of them also have high Anglican or Roman Catholic links, even if was just an obsession with gothic architecture.

Their big problem was that the conservaive part of their nature tended to struggle with the radical parts over the issue of gender equality.

One of the reasons I think that Back to the Land will become an important political factor here - apart from its obvious relevance to the climate crisis and the issues around local regeneration and how to achieve it - is that women are now the driving forces.

Perhaps this began with the American Distributist Dorothy Day, editor of the Catholic Worker, who marked a shift of energy in the Back to the Land movement from predominantly male to predominantly female. After her death in 1980, those who came after her – from Pam Warhurst in Todmorden to Wangari Maathai in Nairobi, from the pioneers of the local food movement in Dorset to the Chipko women of Uttar Pradesh – have tended to be women.

It was the Distributists who had led the way battling against eugenics, agricultural cruelty and pesticides. But while Ruskin wrote and Palmer painted, and did it very well, the women acted. Gandhi’s programme of agrarian devolution plus nation-rebuilding – in some ways an offshoot of the same English tradition – is so often led by women.

Perhaps the most obvious symptom of this shift is the change in the status of allotments in the UK. By the 1970s, this tended to be a dwindling retirement activity for men of a certain age, like pigeon-fancying. Now the 100,000 people waiting for allotments in London alone, and those who are growing things on the extraordinary multi-ethnic informal landscapes that allotment sites have become, are overwhelmingly women.

These issues will be important in our new world of changing weather and far less foreign travel - even if it is to avoid whatever infection that follows the corona virus, and visited upon us by our globalised middle classes.

That is anyway going to be part of my message on March 19 when I'm giving a talk on 'Could Distributism still change the world?' at the Ditchling Museum in Sussex. If you can be in Sussex then (near Hassocks Station), it would be lovely to see you...

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Sunday, 16 February 2020

How might we go about enacting a no #tickbox policy?

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

Here are the three most egregious versions of tickbox that I have run across in the last few days…

First, the government’s proposals to reform the early years foundation stage, which the Early Years Alliance warns is risking turning it into “a series of bullet points … a narrow tickbox approach.”

Second, the unmissable NHS blogger Roy Lilley used a similar word to attack the CQC, the doyennes of tickbox in the health sector:

“The Confed, Providers, NAPC, the Shalfords, the Mulberries, unions, the think-tanks should find the guts to say what the dogs in the streets know…

…it is time for a narrative that says; when we started to look for quality improvements all we had was a clip-board and a box to tick. Now, we have data, algorithms and machine learning. We are able to spot problems in the making, warn leaders and support them to sidestep disaster. Keep us safe...

When there are viable, sensible alternatives, to carry on with clapped-out inspection wins no applause from the people failed by quality…”

Third, the so-called uberization of mental health in an important article by Dr Elizabeth Cotton who writes the blog Surviving Work. The article followed the conference last year called the ‘industrialistion of care’.

This refers to the way the government’s favoured IAPT approach to mental health is “based on a series of patient assessments that use tightly-scripted questionnaires allowing only minimal freedom of discussion between therapist and patient.”

This is the model that is increasingly being delivered online, often by staff unqualified as psychologists.

Complaining about people’s lack of qualifications is the layman’s version of tickbox, but there is no doubt that people’s special mental health needs requires this excessive simplification. More on the mental health aspects of tickbox in my book.

I suppose I would probably add the government’s consultation on green regulations for new homes, now closed. Stupidly in my view, they want to prevent local authorities from experimenting with setting their own higher environmental standards for new build – on the grounds that you can save money if everyone has the same regulations.

Thus is a classic tickbox mistake, because economists tend to measure economies of scale but ignore the diseconomies of scale.

So whether it is bowlderisation, stupidiification or uberization – or McDonaldisation (the title of a 1993 book by Georg Ritzer) – we know tickbox now for what it is, an insidious and creeping problem that is suffocating our ability to act on the world.

I proposed in my last blog a self-denying ordinance, a pledge signed by professionals, promising to ignore the tickboxes imposed on them and do what is necessary for who ever stands before them.

That seems to me to be one approach, appealing to the humanity and pride of the professions and challenging them to show they have not been completely hollowed out.

Could we also legislate for large organisations so that, when they use a tickbox system, they must also provide an obvious and easy access to a human being if people want one? But then, what such legislation would actually be trying to tackle would be the way that some organisations, public and private have such overwheening confidence in their own systems (the Immigration Service and myHermes spring to mind) that there is no way to register a complaint which has any chance of reaching a human being.

What else do we need for a fully-fledged No Tickbox policy that might be enacted? Please let me know…

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