Daily Hate

Yesterday’s self-improvement wasn’t all about the cycling – there was also a great public lecture by Professor Helen Roberts of UCL at the University of Bristol, entitled: “Carry on but don’t keep calm: Feminist reflections on health inequalities and public health in an age of austerity“.

Things I learned:

  • The first female doctor in the UK became such (in 1865) via a loophole which was then promptly closed by the (male) medical establishment so that it was many years before there was a second one.
  • One should “respond in annoyingly charming ways to old buffoons” as this pisses them off (whereas righteous anger has no positive effect on them). This was exemplified by Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock only commenting that Sir Patrick Moore was a much loved national treasure (or words to that effect) when asked for her reaction to her Sky at Night predecessor’s public rantings about women having taken over and ruined television.
  • The word ‘sociography’.
  • The lethalness of social injustice is so well documented, even the likes of David Cameron don’t even try to deny it.
  • There is a lot of poor research, poorly reported, and many mother-blaming narratives – for example a study of the importance of cuddling to child development, which did not account for the gap between how questions were understood and answered and the reality of affection shown (eg working class mothers may not have the time or see any point in counting how many times a day they hug their child), was reported essentially as “working class mothers are damagingly cold“.
  • Children die more due to being in unsafe places (accidental injuries) than at the hands of bad parents, yet the focus of public health policy and campaigns is the other way round.

I was also reminded that:

  • Dr Barnardo pioneered the use of imagery for fundraising, staging photographs to pull at heartstrings (in a way that can be argued to reveal a truth beyond the immediate, as he would for instance get single mothers who had arrived in their best clothes to change into rags). This fascinates the communicator and photography enthusiast in me so I may investigate Professor Roberts’ report that the archive has been digitized and is available for educational purposes via JISC. This, incidentally, is also the case for the British Cartoon archive, which she informed us of when sharing a particular gem from it with us to illustrate the fact that most of us have to pay for our mistakes while a few don’t.
  • Governments want quick fixes that will make them look good and are not interested in long term solutions that will come to fruition on someone else’s watch; the tabloids help with this by promoting ideas with “strong face validity”. An example of this backfiring was the Parisian scheme to allow cars with odd and even license plates into the city on alternate days, which actually led to more, not less traffic. Those who could afford it got a second car so as to have one with either type of license plate; others replaced their old ride with a hybrid to take advantage of incentives to do so as part of the scheme, flooding the market with cheap second-hand cars for people who couldn’t previously afford one to buy.
  • Uncertainty is an integral part of good science, which doesn’t sit well with policy-makers; it is not easy to strike a balance between clear messages and research integrity. Apparently NICE communications have an immediate effect on financial markets; not so much on policy.

Professor Roberts was engaging and funny, and it seems has made it her mission in life to bring down the Daily Mail – not only did she pepper her talk with pointy digs at them and their negative effect on social justice and public health, she ended the presentation with Dan & Dan’s wonderful song on the subject – to much delight in the audience, even those like me already familiar with the work.

While this was advertised as a public lecture, the speaker explicitly addressed and solicited questions from academics and health professionals only – who were probably the vast majority of people there of course, though I know I wasn’t the only lay attendee. The questions that were posed were very interesting however, such as a complement to the Chomsky quote Professor Roberts mentioned on academics’ duty to speak truth to power and dispel lies by someone pointing out that academics in fact must often refrain from speaking the truth in order to progress their careers, are strongly encourage to prioritise truths that will make someone money fast, and are often subject, directly or via funders, to other, intense pressure from powerful commercial interest groups whose first duty is to their shareholders. Blogging and advocacy can be a way around this, we were told.

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